Wednesday, 30 June 2010

...Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair

If there were any place to trump the breathtaking beauty of Denver and its surrounding mountains, any place to prove as exhilarating as living in the freshest air I've breathed in so far this year, then, undoubtedly San Francisco is it. From the moment we reached Western shores, quite literally, as it appeared from my vantage point on the plane (boy himself asked me if we were landing in the sea this time, mama shook her head earnestly but secretly was asking herself the same question) it felt like we had entered another universe. Granted anyone who has heard about this city is going to come with some seriously hippy coloured glasses, but really there is no other way, in my mind, on first impression of the place than to describe it as seriously Groovy.

We arrived early, helped by some kindly winds that surfed us over clear blue skies permitting us to marvel at the Rockies and Salt lakes below. In we bundled into a Russian cabby's van and cruised into San Francisco which opened up to us beyond a valley with its rolling hills spreading out either side. To the left it's pale coloured homes nestled together up and into the hills. To the right the terraces cascading down towards the bay. The sun was shining, the afternoon breeze blew and the travellers were delighted to be arriving at their next home.

Granted, we had to wait some time on the front steps of our Edwardian terrace (thanks Mr Craig and your list) but I did not care one bit. What's the hurry when the early evening rays are on your face and your street is lined with bouganville draped homes to admire? Dad was getting a little restless - we were quite a sight the three of us orangutaning along the street with our cases in single file half way up it - when the smiley maintenance guy Alfredo shows up and takes us up one extremely Wide flight of stairs to our apartment. My first impression beyond the ceilings that make me feel like I am an extra from Gulliver's Travels was the light pouring in from the square bay and the original wooden sliding doors that would have separated the drawing room from the rear parlour. The two fireplaces weren't half bad either, or the fact that there were two bedrooms, a closet which Sam has decided is his playroom and a kitchen in which I can do some serious pirouettes without banging into a bed or a door. We are most definitely happy campers.

Whilst we waited for our landlord to come and go through a few things with us I looked at the names on the welcome sheet. Taking in the two male names and one woman's I joked to Cory that the three of them are probably in some kind of triangular French relationship, proof being the choice of colours and furnishings of the place being worthy of any Gallic flick, sparse and elegant as it is. In reality when one of the names materialised in his human form, answering to the name of Christopher, he was much more the budding Art Historian who visits Rome annually than the terse complicated poet I had envisaged. His glasses, all Scorsese cool and his crisp striped (multicoloured) shirt tucked carefully into his ironed jeans spelt Interior Designer and he cheerfully showed us about the place whilst making sure we were the type of people who would look after his property.

Later in the evening when we left to go explore we met the remaining partners of the triumverate, Lynn and Mark, the latter with short nearly dreadlocked hair and tatooed eyebrows and calves. They have a freash air feel about them. Like a couple of travellers just returned from a life changing year or two in New Zealand, least that's what his Maori tatooos made me think of. She, a breezy, friendly, metal worker and he, a mason (now all the metal based marble tables make sense) are often down in New Orleans creating stuff, so Christopher had told us earlier.

Similar creatives were to be spotted as we took a walk around our new neighbourhood. As we huffed and puffed our way to the top of our hill we came across a host of jaw dropping homes, each more dolls house than the previous and all painted with colours from a palette of pastels, ornate silver or gold trim to match. Turning left onto Buchanan street I suddenly stopped still, mongrel like, to sniff at the warm air. I was shot straight back to the summers of Sardinia when the unmistakable smell of wild fennel caught the breeze. Following my nose we came across an abandoned lot next to a huge Spanish monastery looking building with a whole patch of the stuff sprouting proudly out of the ground. Across the street a terrace of stone houses painted white with the terracotta tiled roofs that you would expect to come across in hot european villages. For me it was totally unexpected and filled me with a comforting feeling of familiarity. Seville meets Hollywood. On we trod towards Dolores Street passed rows and rows of houses most of which complete with iron gates opening onto granite geranium laden steps up to lace curtained front doors. Any one of which could have been my aunt's place. Downtown Ozieri. Brilliant.

On the more Victoian inspired homes the front steps often leading to palatial double doors, a couple of times I found myself averting my eyes when they would happen upon solubrious looking types draped upon them. I wondered if they had moved much since 68. There is an unmistakable air about the Mission District. It's an almost palpable sense of hip. At least that's what I observed people watching whilst we waited for a table at Delfina, a pizzeria which Christopher had promised us was worth the wait. In the half hour we mulled around I think the whole population of San Fran hipsters strutted by us united in their individualism, isometric haircuts and general laid-back-lets-talk-about-literature-and-the-new-local-aryuveda-guy sort of swagger. We were in good company. In comparison, my family and I probably looked like the white collar tourists coming Mission way to admire the artist types. Give me a few weeks.

The menu was small, simple with a few surprises, like fried pigs ear, which, I'm sorry to say Patricia for all your soap-boxing ringing in my ears I declined to try. I did, however order a glass one of my favourite Sardinian wines which I have only ever seen once outside of the country. The waitress, a cropped haired young lady flirting in equal measure with Cory and I, seemed almost interested in the fact. Boys and I feasted on Pecorino, worthy of my godfather's farm, which was piled delicately with sliced fresh figs (I'm in heaven) and a peppery olive oil. I could have stopped there, almost a perfect meal for me. When the broccoli rabe came, doused in garlic I found another corner to squeeze in more food, and when the finale, the house's famous pizzas arrived I outdid myself. And my top button. Fresh rocket sprinkled generously over the top of parma ham. Bing cherries with vanilla mascarpone for desert. Forgedddaaaboudit....

We sang our way home, past the crowds that had now formed to wait for a table (granted there is only space for about 40 people) with a quick pit stop into deli on the corner for morning supplies. If you didn't know it you could have been in any of the Turkish shops in Golders Green. Even Ferrero Rocher sold individually on the counter. Between the terracota and the Turks mama is already feeling like a local. Back at the palace boys and girls were soon asleep, with just a quick visit from boy who proceeded to wake up mid pee in the bed. Must be a first night mark your territory thing. We almost caught it in time, but in the end the bed was stripped and everything hung up whilst we all vacated and squeezed into bed number two. Why waste the night sleeping when you could be asking your Dad how long his cane is in the Putting on the Ritz number or whether it was day time yet mum?

With Dad on his second day off (the trucks needed more than 30 hours to get here by passing mountains from Denver) family followed an iphoned mum to Golden Gate Park where she had investigated a lead on day camps for a sociable little fella. Smallest one that is. We boarded the number 71 which climbed up hill to the hub of Haight street, famous for its commune feel back in the day. It did have a hearkening to Camden but on a much much longer, psychadelic, health food shop scale. We past countless freshly ground coffee places (committed to memory by the coffee snob moi), smoke shops, Tibetan clothing boutiques and many more precious gems, green eco friendly bookishness in between. Onwards it went, past the beginning of the park, and missing our stop, into the peripheries of Chinatown. Mum bagged a lychee green tea and some rice crackers and in we went to Golden Gate Park.

The first thing I noticed was the enormity of the space and the trees. Not on the scale of redwoods obviously, but these gigantic eucalyptus had had some serious biobaby feeding. The smell of the fauna was intoxicating, and again familiar. The mixture of the pines and the grasses and weeds sprouting along the sandy tracks harking back to the dusty lanes at the confines of Sardinian beaches. Onwards we went, Dad taking us off the path and upwards towards who knows where. Eventually, with a little prompting from kind rugged family we came across the meadow where a plethora of kids were bouncing around in between balls of every which game. By the time we had reached them they had been roundel up and were calmly feeding themselves their lunch. Towards the furthest end was the pre school group, and the teacher came over to talk with us. I shook her hand and turning to watch Cory introduce himself I mistakingly stepped on her foot, rather hard. She, unshaken, started describing the program when the owner came over to talk with us. He, a restless footballer by nature (I noticed his anibility to stand perfectly still and a natural sway from foot to foot as he talked) having thrown in the sales and accounting towel for coaching children, his own and others, tells us about his program. Sam happily finds his way to the group and, from the expressions I am clocking in my peripheral I can tell is beginning to spin yarns in his hybrid accent, which, thankfully is still appealing to young and old alike. We listen and watch for the best part of 45 minutes, trying to work out whether we will feel comfortable leaving the little tykey here to hike with new friends and play baseball ad nauseum. Eventually we settle on doing a try out session in which we will watch, from afar, like paranoid just in town parents and take it from there. On our trek back out the other side of the park afterwards, through a frisby golf course (heads up), pizza in hand, a present from the owner, which we used to lure the boy away from the balls it was clear that the tyke had felt somewhat cheated by being place at such close proximity to play things and not been allowed to let loose.

Jumping on the number five bus we found ourselves at a grocery store and performed a record breaking, television worthy supermarket sweep. It took longer for the taxi to arrive than to do a week's shopping. Turns out taxi is a kind of bad word in this city. Or at best a laxidasical one. In truth, why would you want to hop in a cab when you could be riding an original streetcar from the turn of last century or the chrome gilt thirties? Which boy and I did today for the record. We even waited on our return from purchasing some house supplies for a different colour one just for the fun of it. Up and down Market street they run in all their retro vari-coloured splendour. We had green-cream for outbound, black-vanilla for return. If that is not to your taste perhaps a cable car? Or a cable train wotsit (natives call it MUNI) that goes on rails above and below ground? I mean really? If none of that takes your fancy you can always hop on an electric bus? Or a zero emission hybrid variety. But car? Please. The taxi delay made it necessary for Dad to go grocery unloading and baseball ticket printing for the evenings ball game whilst boy and ma took the number 43 to Acrosports opposite Kezar stadium.

In we trod, boy literally gasping in delight when we steppd into the multicoloured uber padded gym that is the non profit organisation set up just over twenty years ago in what was then a pigeon soup shell of a building. Upstairs we headed to the main office, catching a glimpse of the huge gymnasium turned child's fantasy to pay for our lesson. At 4.30 Sam entered Sam-topia. Mum went upstairs to sit on the old viewing terrace from where parents, at least the ones not surfing their macs, could enjoy a clear panorama of the entire space. On the one side 8 and 9 year olds performed beautiful dive summersaults and the like whilst to their left a gaggle of three year olds were led on different courses that involved some serious trapezing swinging, diving, jumping and general cavorting in fairly orderly highly energised style. I barley said goodbye to the chap as the teacher asked if anyone could run backwards when I heard the little fella pip out a very loud "I can!" following it with a proud demonstration across the breadth of the sprung space. I particulalry enjoyed watching him bounce on the oversized trampoline that ran the entire width of the room. Half way through they stopped for water and then were led dowstairs to finish up on the monkey ring and other upside down ness. By the end of the hour our offspring was levitating in delight.

Not a family to sit back on the first day of a place (granted we have got used to short stays and so do many things in fast forward) dad had found tickets for us and the lovely Brad Oscar for the Giants vs Dodgers game. To those not fluent in baseball that means home town SF was playing their arch rivals from LA. With the iphone dead to the world, mum had to do that old fashioned thing of actually talking to people to get help. What a revelation. I didn't even have to wait for them to load either, kindly, modern, knowledgeable ladies that they were. Having arranged to find dad on the platform of VanNess, boy and I stood at the very discreet N train stop (pale yellow band painted on a street light) and boarded for the ride. Having found a seat I turned to the gentleman next to us to ask him where I ought to read to know which stop we were at. He apologises for not being able to tell me for he is completely blind. I hadn't noticed his stick, and his bike racing cap and sunglasses had not prompted me either. I apologise and ask him how he navigates his journey. He then tells me that they announce the stations once underground. How civilised. Board a tram outside your door and it turns into a subway just like that. Spotting the baseball symbol on the map Sam shows me which stop we are eventually headed for. On this train the announcements are only made in English, rather than Spanish and Cantonese as on the buses. On the platform at VAnNess a very well dressed lady tells me how "bonito" Sam is and a gentleman turns to Cory with a "What KNockers!" What do you expect if you wear the show T-Shirt in public? Cory is very proud of it. Its because t has the stage hand union's symbol on it and you don't usually get printed one of those if you ain't in the union kid. He managed to bag one for my dad too. I hope he know how rare they are.

Minutes later we were looking for the statue of Willie May. Not Millie May which I had been saying for the previous quarter of an hour to the embarrassment of husband. In fairness we were surrounded by baseball fans in their orange and black San Fran get out. The stadium was swarming with fans, and in the near distance, the billowing palms hid said statue. Turns out the rest of San Francisco had set this as their meeting point also. In the end we had to revert to the phone in order to track our friend. In we went, got ourselves settled with Hot Dogs the size of a small draught excluder, beers in the holder, boy on the lap, with glove and they were off! Man next to me, fiercely scribbling numbers into squares watching the field in a mixture of cool-collected and crazed scientist only to return time and time again to record all the scores and plays on his aged clip board. Others sported large headphones to listen to the live commentary simultaneously as the live game. I counted numerous loyals, their baseball caps almost toppling off their heads so heavy were they with memorabilia pins. Giants fans are real fans. No offence intended to the Houston Astros lot but I think something about the Texan heat, and, dare I say it, the quality of their team's playing made then appear positively wilted in comparison to the fiercely vocal Giants lot. They cheered, sang, did all that fan stuff your'e supposed to do, and, more importantly, unprompted! Not sure how I felt about the recurring chant which swept the stadium mexican wave styley. I don't mean to seem snobby or anything but "Beat LA! Beat LA!" seems somewhat simplistic, and well, painfully obvious, in comparison to the wordy somewhat convoluted derrogitory poetry chanted by English football fans. All the better for this novice though. At least I could learn the words.

A kind Juan infront of us, turns to us before the anthem to tell us we must take the boy to the kids baseball field over the opposite side. I tell him we may go there at half time. Dad gives me a look. I apologise, attributing my faux pas to my over indulgence in the World Cup. At the end of the 6th inning the four of us take a walk along the promenade that spans the top edge of the stadium and which backs onto the bay. Looking down we spot kayakers floating patiently waiting, in the ever dropping temperatures of the night air, for home run balls. On we trod past the freezing but happy fans in the bleacher seats, the barbecue stands and on to the mini field. In the boys ran, taking their places in line, whilst little people took turns to swing at a pitch thrown by stadium workers. They then proceeded to run, mostly in the right direction around a mini diamond whilst a host of other stray kids pretending to be outfielders and using their tiny gloves to "catch" the balls. Cory, as is his way, took it all very seriously, with a broad grin splat all over his mug, and anchored in out field. Legs, wide at the ready, whopping and cheering on every kid, especially his own. I know that wherever and whenever we let down anchor for a while, Cory is going to be the much loved Little League coach. Trouble is, as Brad also observed, he will be expecting nothing short of professionalism from his trainees. And, that, with his easy to love personality is what is going to make a great coach out of him yet. Who says actors rest between jobs?

It is no wonder then, that between hikes, trapezes, buses, streetcars and baseball games that our boy conked out in my arms at the table nothing short of 6 o clock tonight with a cheek full of bangers and mach which I literally had to scoop out of his mouth lest he choke on it. I will leave him to his beauty sleep, as I sit, on our brushed velvet sofa looking out onto the dusk falling upon the beautiful San Francisco. The next few days will see us unpack some more, clean up for the much anticipated visit of my cousin-sister Bruna and of course the don't-mention-the-tea celebrations on sunday. Somehow I struggle to expect San Fran to load out the star spangled patriotism of the rest of the country. On our first evening out I spotted one enormous flag at the top of a hill proudly waving rainbow coloured stripes instead of the regulation red and white. And did I mention the two fellas that came in to chin wag with another father at gym class? One turns and proudly and introduces his partner and their new addition. I myself turn and spy a tiny little new born being held protectively in his arms. He then moves on to introduce his eldest son. The two men with their two littler men then make their way out towards the San Francisco sunset. I am shocked at my own inability not to gawk a little. I also am overwhelmed by reams of questions for the new parents. Whose boobs do you use to feed? ( I had read of one couple who had used a boob bank to give their baby the best start) Where did you find a new born? How? Who? What? When? But I can't stop to interrogate, boy had a class to do. Questions for another day.

The sky is now turning dark purple and its time for me to stop staring at the kitch Catholic candles I have bought for $4 to adorn our marble fireplace and get on with some work.

Welcome to San Francisco people.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Mama Wants to Play Cowboy

My rucksack still smells of bonfire. That's because it came up the mountainside with us to a clearing where it sat and watched do-it-all Mike (but an hour earlier he had taken boy on his first horse ride around the arena) at work finishing off some succulent steaks on the fire in direct line with the billowing smoke. I don't think the memory of our weekend out on the ranch is going to leave me for some time. It took us a couple of weeks to trawl through the mess that is Google search to find a place that would have us, not so far from our Denver home and provide us with suitable adventures for the cowboy wannabes. Triple B ranch was the place.

We took our time getting there. Leaving the lofty skyscrapers of Denver framed by the distant snowy rockies behind us we headed south towards Colorado Springs. But a half hour into the journey the landscape became a breathtaking display of Mother Nature at her very best. Rocky crags against rolling green slopes and, in the ever approaching distance majestic mountain ranges, pine tree lined amazingness. Route 24 west took us through Happy Canyon, (we all were, most definitely) past a truck whose owner had proudly decided to paste on the back of the cab that it was "Running On Faith" and on towards Pike's National Forest. About 5 miles from the ranch the road took us uphill through the crags narrowly scraping by dramatic red rock jagging its way towards the tarmac. Around us Falling Rock signs. Snaking our way onwards we came upon Woodland Park. A town with a surprising little hub of activity and services, from an Aveda spa to a Bier restaurant and everything in between. In miniature. With green roofs and bricks the same colour as the rocks so as to almost camouflage them. Same went for the Walmart a few miles earlier though it stood ubiquitous regardless, as if it had been beamed in from outer space. We found a bakery and deli open and stocked up on delicious Reubens and salads (explorerers have calorific needs too you know) and did a quick about turn in City Market for morning essentials. I had never come across a strip mall with a grocery, liquor, hair and health food store squeezed up against an ammo stockist and chinese take out. No time to muse, a horse ride had our names on it and we were not going to be late. Once we had checked into our cabin room, boy overjoyed at the new found science of bunk-bedding. I stopped answering after the tenth time he asked me why they were built in this formation. Some time later he told me that he would wait to have a little sister before he slept on the top one. He may have to wait some time I fear.

We had just about enough time to slap on another ton of sun screen do a quick warm up on the mini basketball tarmac, breathe in the lusciously dry, clean mountain air, when Mike, came striding down the dirt path with Star on his arm, saddled and ready to take our boy on his first equine experience. As is usual with the Sam boy, any activity which induces a rush of adrenaline is usually met with verbal outpouring to over compensate. I don't think we heard a comma for that half hour. We were fine. I worried about long suffering Mike.
"You ready for your horse ride?"
"Yeah." said Sam with equal measures of nonchalance and enthusiasm, if you can picture it.
On he was popped, legs barely reaching any stirrups, instructed to hold on tight and that was that. All we could hear as they sidled into the distance was the ping pong tones of the boy punctuated by the short monosyllabic answers from Mike, when he could squeeze them in mind. They looked like a cartoon strip. After the second time around, Mike informed us that our son was "quite a talker." I think that was Coloradean for "does your kid ever shut up?!" or "you London lot need to shut up and breathe in this magical place." After the third time around, Dad suggested that Mum should do a pre trek warm up on the kindly Star. NOw, I had not prepared for this, and in all matters Horses I need several days of soul work before I can put my fear into check and saddle up as it were. Nevertheless, the suggestion ahd some wisdom behind it. I managed to get myself on just in time for Star to turn, look at me as if to say "you're an amateur woman and no 27 lbs boy at that" and we were off.
"Anything I need to remember while I am out on the ride tonight Mike?" I proffer, desperately grappling for any pro tips.
Looking out towards the mountains he simply tells me to go with the horse's rhythm, lean back downhill, forward uphill (hills? hills?!!! No one told me about hills!)and duck under branches. I don't remember booking us into the assault course horse trek. I was sure I had read steak dinner somewhere in the title, not dice with death. Which, by the by, I found out minutes before the ride, was my liability and mine alone. I disembark Star, who by the way tried ot bite Mike during our round about and storm to the cabin to make me some nerve calming coffee, down a few nuts, remember to breathe and generally psyche up my withering psyche. It was after all, my first ever ride.

Leaving it to the last minute, as usual, we arrive at the barn to find our fellow trekkies all be saddled and eager to go. Kelly, our guide comes over to me. She is strawberry blonde young cowgirl with a breezy bright smile and twinkly green eyes sporting a cowgirl hat and some fetching chaps that I quickly decide I would love to be wearing. She has strong wide shoulders that frame her lithe athletic build. She is sensitive to my nerves, which I whisper about to her, desperate not to expose these feelings to the Sam-man, who was so stoic on his little jaunt. She is calm and relaxed with me. Tells me how to steer my horse Ice, and, most importantly to me, how to ask her to stop. When we are all ready she tells the group it is usual to say a prayer before a ride. She takes off her hat and offers her words to the heavens. "Prayers?! Oh GOd." cries Debbie, a rider so nervous that she made me seem like a pro. A sort of Ghandi meets John Wayne kind of wrangler. I pet my horse and ask her nicely to work with me here. I hope we will be friends. And then, we were off. No-one holding on to me. No pony trek on the heath, this was proper riding. Ok walking, but still, high up, on a horse, on the summer solstice, clip clopping out into the rugged wilderness of Colorado.

It was just around 5ish as we left and the warm glow of the afternoon sun was basking the jaw dropping scenery in a picture perfect light. Apart from the occasional outburst from Debbie at the back, riding Star, there was a gorgeous quiet to the whole experience. I listened to Ice and she listened to me. Onward we treaded deeper and deeper into the pines. The trails got narrow and we brushed in and out of the trees. More than once the path would take us down a short but steep incline, at which point the words of Mike rung in my ears and it seemed that Ice welcomed my changing of positions. The steep descents would be followed by an ascent of similar grade at which point Ice would flex her muscles and edge towards a trot gallop. I didn't cling on for dear life though. I was overjoyed at my willingness to enjoy the relative change in speed. A few times she huffed and puffed a bit and I wondered if she was getting sick of me. Then I shut that little voice off in my head and decided to make my grip clearer and surrender to the animal. By the time we had reached the clearing, picnic tables laid for dinner, fire going, kitchen worthy of any plot holder worth their weight in compost I was positively shaking with exhilaration. From the beauty of it all, from the fact that I had conquered my fear and for the sheer gratefulness of being able to experience all of this. Sam and Cory looked just as flushed from their 4X4 journey up ahead of us (with Mike of course) that had wound up sharp corners and inclines on a dirt road which I found out about after dinner. The horses were tied up and the riders were invited to take a tin tray and load up. Sam could barely hold up his after it had been heaped with REAL cowboy beans, sweetcorn, homemade biscuits and baked potato. I had less trouble though I wondered how I would eat all of that plus a steak. Seems like it was an entire day of surpassing my expectations. All was capped off by strawberry shortcake and a few more minutes of chit chat with our fellow travellers including a very slim african american probably in his late thirties with his smaller stouter older, blonde German wife. In five minutes I came to find out that they had built their home in Virginia over 9 years, lived with her 80 year old mother, had weathered the storm of the economic crash and were now about to convince their daughter and grandson to move out to Colorado were the husband, I will call him Kojak (he had a lollypop in his mouth the whole time) had finally found a job. I didn't think he was doing too badly. Whilst talking to them I realised they had been the couple who had parked in front of our cabin an hour or so earlier in an open topped Ferrari. Just before it was time to return, boy announced it was time for a loo stop. Rather loudly. People were still eating.

I put my bag on my back, prepared for most eventualities, when the kindly Kelly directed me to the porta loo down the hill. The brown box had spiders and webs written all over it, but of course I strode down with boy with the gusto of a shopoholic on a mission. Once in, boy took a quick glance of the place and almost decided to give the whole thing a miss. I finally convinced him to sit down when he said, "Look at that big spider mum!" pointing just by the seat inside the pot. Stand up then I tell him. He does and job is done. Boy looks a little relieved. I ask him to balance whilst I fetch some wipes to clean him up when suddenly I spot a speedy spider making its way to my foot, I do the Sara spider jig and I think eventually step on him, for which I am not proud. The sudden movement spooks a resting moth who, texas sized, starts flitting about the tiny space. Boy freaks, confused by the brown butterfly with the body the size of a hornet and begins to wobble with his trousers down by his ankles. My attempts at re-inducing calm are thwarted by a second moth who starts to join his demented friend in a frenzied panic dance. The four of us are fluttering about the tardis. The smallest human is wailing like a banshee. The look of sheer terror on his little face was something I have rarely seen. I manage to wipe him and dress him in fast forward and once we are out in the bear infested air, we both quickly find calm. Once back at the table however, Debbie looks ashen. She had taken our screams to be that of two people meeting a rabied mountain lion or grizzly, which, by the way, Kelly and Mike nonchalantly tell us have been visiting the rubbish bins nightly.

It is common knowledge that bears frequent the area, and that they are hungry at this time of year. Suddenly my appetite fails me. Whilst Mike, Sam and I watch the riders leave I find myself looking through the trees for the shadow of black fur lurking around the delicious smelling camp fire. I notice I am planning escape routes and judging how quick I could scoop Sam up and get into the truck unharmed. Down then we wind, very slowly due to the vertical incline and catch the horses in the near distance, bumping their riders up and down, all anxious to get back to their stable dinners and competing to be first in line. I am glad I chose the first leg. In truth it was more so I wouldn't ruin my dinner worrying about riding home. This way I got to go on my mini expedition and enjoy the food as reward. Bear or no bears.

Family and I took another turn around the ranch, checking out the donkey, who he-hawed so loudly before he poo'd that all we could do was stay rooted to the spot listening. We watched the longest day come to its reluctant end and then washed off the happy dust from us and cosied into PJs. Hoodies up and over our heads, blankets on our knees we watched the moon rise and shine, the stars slowly twinkling into focus in the night sky. Stories were shared just about long enough till mum realised the rubbish bin where the ole bears like to rummage was a matter of feet away and the family was convinced to retire. Boy fell to sleep easily, buldozed by the mountain air and ma and pa were not long behind. Cory tried to convince me to sit with him another while to enjoy the night, but the whole bear thing had me with ants in my pants. I explained I had spent all my courage on the ride. He laughed at me. Then we shared a Boddingtons (?) and curled up in the cabin. In the morning, when I found boys foot in my mouth I remembered him calling out in the night to find his sheets and pyjamas sodden. It was a relatively late rise for all of us though, and after a breakfast facing the mountains, wake up coffee, a quick hoop or two and family were onto their next stop.

Manitou Cliff dwellings sit nestled into the red rock by Manitou Springs a matter of a few miles from where we had been staying. There, we found rock homes of the Anasazi tribe dating back to 1100AD. In truth they have been preserved to a state that some would find it difficult to believe their authenticity, nevertheless it was wonderful to trail through them, reminding me of the neolithic cave dwellings I had roamed around in Sardinia when I was a child with my relatives. We stayed soaking up the atmosphere just enough time to buy a scorpion encrusted lollypop (in memory of Patricia!) and make an exit in time for a spot of lunch down in the town, at Stagecoach Inn by the creek. After replenishing we headed on to Garden of the Gods.

Never a more apt name given. In we drove suddenly coming across astonishing rock formations jutting out of the landscape, beginnng with smaller mushroom sproutings and then progressing to ever larger shapes. We stopped at the first parking section and took in the views. Well, mum did, Dad and boy scaled the rock face up to an enormous red rock which perched upon a flatter slab looking like it would topple at any moment if it weren't for the tiny bit of red cement fixing it together and off of the tourists. People were clambering all over this section looking like busy ants as they dotted about the red-ness. The park sprawled out beyond us yearning to be explored. You could hike for days here, and many do. At least that's what I assume all the RV-ers do, even if they do have satellite dishes fixed to their roofs on the camps we passed.

Time for a reality check, dad is a working man after all, and we began our reluctant return to the city. I say return, I ought to use that word lightly. I don't think I will be "returning" from that weekend for a long long time. I'm already picturing the family and I galloping the shores of Santa Monica or loosing ourselves in Yosemite. One day at a time. For now, it is for us to soak up the gorgeousness of Denver while we can and keep the memory of the mountains as fresh in our minds as that wonderful air.


Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Joining the Mile HIgh City

If ever there were an antidote to the barely survivable heat of San Antonio then the mountainous Denver must surely be it. Breathtaking was the landing into the wide open green spaces surrounding the airport, as were the views of the snow capped mountains in the near distance, visible from many of the streets downtown. Fresh, fresh air. Sunshine. Not the kind to toast you, more of that spring, promise of summer, sun. Absolutely, resolutely what the doctor ordered.

I had mentioned a few posts ago that I had grown up in the gawdy shadow of Dynasty as a child, and I was more than delighted to be visiting the city I watched Blake Carrington work in week in week out. I arrived with a somewhat pre-disposition to falling in love with the place, but I did not anticipate just how at home I would feel. It's a bit what I imagine internet dating is like when it actually works. You match the stats, odds being high on compatibility, and when it actually does click it is quite exhilarating.

Let this not cast a downturn on our last few days in San Antonio, mind. Scott McClure, Cory's school band buddy did indeed stay with us, and the following morning, took our family in his truck (thumbs up from Sam) to a dusty corner near Fort Sam Houston's barracks, home of Johnnie's mexican restaurant. A proper Mexican greasy spoon. Tiled floors. Sombreros on the walls. Small menu. Speedy service. Huevos Rancheros all round por favor. Proper saturday morning. Back it was to the city whilst Dad did a matinee turn and then boy and ma joined the crew for another helping of smashing smashed avocados and margaritas. The latter with a swirl of prickly pear syrup. Lush. And very fuschia.

On our last day we were joined again by Scott who chuckled through the sunday matinee after which we were lead on a tour around the alleys of The Majestic. The house was quirky in its design. It was almost like Dali was commissioned to do a Disney set of Arabia. On each side, rambling "balconies" and box seats, one topped with a very large fake white peacock. Another "starlit" sky and moving clouds number. A hotch potch multicoloured ode to Arabia fantasy. Round the back of the narrow wings - a matter of feet from the stage door road entrance and the stage - was a surprise second auditorium. This one smaller and plainer, and its stage was home to the quick change area. Breeze block wall separated the two stages. Along the corridors by the dressing rooms each visiting company has painted their poster on the walls and casts have left their signatures on them. Cory found his from the Hello Dolly! tour back in the 90s. It hasn't been the first time memories have overlapped like this.

And yet, for all the beauty and heat of San Antonio it is just wonderful to be here in Denver. Admittedly we have only been here a couple of days, and our touristing has been sublimely relaxed to say the least. It has taken me only this long to fall in love with this city. It feels so liberal and driven in equal measures. Perhaps something left over from the prospectors that have made this place so historical. There is something about the sheer ruggedness and enormity of the countryside but a short drive away that lends a kind of outdoorsy abandon to the people I have met. Which, incidentally, have been some of the most handsome set I have seen here so far. The skin, the bright, curious, happy eyes. Full of sunshine and space. A fair share of men with long hair or thick curly locks, tanned happy skins, sense of humour. Women with bright eyes and wide smiles and legs that tell you they spend hours outside on their bikes, with tents on their backs, oftentimes sat around coffee shop tables thinking creatively with like minded folks sipping hibiscus brews. That sort of vibe to the place. It is hip, but on first impressions at least, not self conscious or snobby about it.

After setting down The Cases on arrival, we took a wander in search of food and strolled (the grown ups at least, boy was flipping in the air as usual) and came across a cluster of gorgeous restaurants down on old Larimer Street. We passed by several authentic but very chic Italian joints, most priding themselves on their wood fired oven and home cured meats, a french bistro, a tapas bar and a few Brazilian steak houses. We settled on the one that had the triple height ceilings and the windows open wide onto the sunsetting street. We ordered a "flight" of Malbecs to start us off. To you and me that is three 2oz glasses of different Argentinian reds. Delicious. Then we scoffed a cheese plate, served on a rounded piece of shale, complete with luscious pear slices and juicy grapes. Boyo then tucked into a four cheese pizza (they were right to boast about the oven) and Dad and I shared a petite filet cooked to perfection. The dinner was capped off with a chocolate fondue and an espresso. Mama was jiggling in her seat with sensory delight. Good trip here (met a three year old on the seat behind us on the flight which delighted the boy no end), luscious dinner, night off for Cory, boys in a jolly mood. Perfeck. Next was a stroll past Cory's theatre to take in the refreshing evening air and a chance meeting of another family doing much the same thing. We exchanged a few pleasantries and when their 4 year old Sam started to play with our three year old Sam we settled into a fun couple of hours with them as we picked their brains for local advice and followed the tykes around a neighbourhood playground until the sliver of the moon and a night chill sent us reluctantly back home. On the 16th mall bus. Free my friends, this uber civilised way of transporting the Denverites trawls up and down the pedestrianised main street makes it effortless to get from A to B. Downtown at least. The light rail tinging its bell in the distance, curtains closed, we settled into a deep slumber.

That's a repercussion of living so high up I'm supposing. We are now officially in the mile high club. I mean to say, we are living a mile above sea level, on dry dry land. Hence, the chapped lips and sawdusty throat, and occasional effort for breath. They even have oxygen either side of the stage, should any of the performers struggle during the more strenuous moments. As I practiced my Insanity the other night I attributed my lagging cardio expertise on this fact. I suspect it may have something more to do with being barked at to do myriad of push ups after 1,000 ski "jumps". Hey ho. The sleeping like a log, like you do after a day out in the mountains, for the whole night counteracts any of these minor qualms.

We have already nested on a grand scale. We have a small kitchen with a very Large fridge which I have stuffed with every kind of green thing you can imagine in an effort to counteract the marvellous acts of over eating I have been experimenting with during our hot city stay. Boy and I found the grocery store, thanks to a kindly Somali taxi driver who drilled Sammy with 20 questions. He told us that he had family in England, near O'Hare airport. "In Chicago you mean?" I asked gently. He answered with a laugh that he always gets the two muddle up, "Everytime I go to say Heathrow it comes out O'Hare." Made Cory laugh when I told him this morning. The taxi driver who brought us home, on the other hand, after having argued with me that I was indeed staying at the Mariott when I had told him in all which ways that we were at the Residence Inn, helped me with our bags and then looked at me:
"You live here?"
I nodded, trying not to crush the eggs.
"All time?"
I smiled.
"Why not you live in a house?" he huffed.
"Only two weeks here." I proffered.
He returned to his cab shaking his head unsatisfactorily.

The following day, we rode the free shuttle down past Wazzee stop. Off we hopped and as the boys went on to burn off some energy and find new friends at the playground (Brandon, 8 Grace, 6 and Brennan 2 from Tennessee to be precise) mum popped into The Tattered Cover. Our friends from the first evening had pointed the bookshop out to us but they did wax lyrical about how gorgeous it was inside as I am about to. On entry you are first greeted with the luscious smell of fresh coffee and, turning the counter you are greeted by a high celilinged three floored wooden warehouse of a book store. Wide, stripped floor boards. Antique sofas and chaise longues dotted around the space interspersed amongst the oversized wooden book shelves bursting with literary goodies many with hand written reviews poking out on coloured cards beneath them. The signs for different sections are written in health food shop Italics and people were cosying up with pages everywhere I looked. One upon an old school desk, another with her feet up on a powder pink armchair. What bookshops should be. Not a starbucks in sight. Just a good old fashioned, Colorado sized ma & daughter business. Only the knowledge that Cory and boy desperately needed the snacks and water that I had in the bag on my back tore me away from there. Back down I went across the river, past the cluster of old factories turned into uber trendy lofts, that over the past decade that have changed the face of Denver, and into the playground. Boy and pop red faced and wilting.

Taking overheating as a cue for our exit we retraced our steps back to our home. Barely making it to the reception when Pazano's table at the window had our name on it. It was Happy Hour and for $4 a plate we gorged on various deliciousnesses including papardelle in a meat sauce - cooked with the freshest ingredients I have tasted in a while and a mouth watering tray of deli goodies for ma and pa. Including fresh Buffalo mozzarella, Bresaola, proper Pecorino and 30 mini roasted garlic cloves of which I ate about 29. I did kind of regret it a little later on for reasons I shan't go into here. Lets just say I was glad for Cory that he was at work....

We stopped in again today with the troupe after wiling away most of the mid morning and early afternoon by the Sheraton's pool. It is a square of turquiose wateriness flanked by their piece de resistance - full size four poster sunbeds. What better way to literally lie around with your mates soaking up the somewhat cloudy but warm day. The polka dots were out, boy was splashed about by our friends and then mum and dad and the rest of us sprawled around one another on the beds, the red canvas curtains flapping on the rooftops winds. All we needed were a few servants to hand out the grapes and you would have been down Pompei way. I'm having a nice day.

Yes, the place has captured my attention in a big way, and its not just because a very handsome soldier in camos caught my sunglassed eye and wished me a "hello miss". Perhaps its because our first morning was spent at The Market sipping perfect lattes and home made baked goodies with classical music overhead flanked by mouth watering grocery delights and creative types in light hearted breakfast meetings. Or maybe because every time you cross the streets you catch a view of the snow capped mountains. Or that TJ Maxx is just around the corner. Or perhaps that there are psychadelically painted pianos down on 16th street dotted about under the shade of trees for any to play, whilst folk sit back on the yellow metal chairs and talk the day away or partake in a game of chess on the stone tables. Probably all of these, and more to come over the next few weeks in which I am delighted to call Denver our home.

Boy asked me for the first time the other day why we didn't live anywhere, why we were travelling? I tell him we are lucky because we can call so many places our home even if but for a short while. Especially when they start with a "D" for Denver.....

Friday, 11 June 2010

Mexicana Psychadelia

Nothing quite tingles the sensory buds like a stroll through the kaleidoscope that is Market Square, San Antonio. On first invitation I was a little weary of braving what was described to me as an area crammed with stalls and food. The thought of trawling through all of this with an alternately wilting and rambunctious three year old under an unforgiving afternoon sun was not my idea of fun. But then, the words covered and air conditioned reared their beautiful heads and I was on the red trolley line quicker than you could say pay-one-dollar- and-a-dime-please-signorita. Enter Cory's friend from home accompanied by her mother and another friend and the three ladies, experienced shoppers took it in turn to lead us around the market and occupy the young Sam. In fact, Tammi's mum, Pat, known to the young as Grandma Pat if you please, formed quite a bond with the young chap. She insisted on keeping him busy whilst I shopped and, after I had purchased a recycled Mayan shirt in its new incarnation as a Colourful bag I was greeted by a small guitar on legs. Sammy's head popped out of one side with a beaming smile to boot. Thank you Grandma Pat. He has not put the thing down since, though every effort on my part for a decent tuning has been aborted and so the tunes are all wonderfully a-tonal...I should give my mate Sting a bell.

My eyes really were popping out of my hard head. Between the day of the dead statues, the metal work mirrors, rows upon rows of Mexican shirts, skirts, hats, belts, Frieda Kalho shopping bags, tiles, ceramics, jewellery. It really was a shoppers playground, especially one with a penchant for bright colours. Along the stalls we also came upon a tiny accordian for all of around $20. It will suit my Sardinian lady's show perfectly. I can't play yet, but I had fun practicing whilst window shopping. Never a better way to detter pushy sales staff. One of whom, gave a lengthy description of why I ought to visit his shop. 'Cept it was in Spanish. It took both of us a second to realise that there was a language barrier. My skin is changing colour you see, chameleon like I am trying to blend in to the town, though in truth I still look more Iranian medical student than Mexican signorita. One colourful cloth bag ain't gonna cut it. Back we returned on the trolley once again, bumping up off our seats at the back. Sam-boy deep in a heart to heart with Grandma Pat on the whys and wherefores of Thomas the train and swimming pools.

Which is where we decompressed this afternoon. 2nd floor. Pool. Relief. I had had a successful shopping trip you see. I have finally found suitable swimming attire, and, though I am the first to say I look more like Esther William's chubby older sister than Gina in her full glory I will admit that feeling dressed up to go for a dip is much more fun than feeling half naked. Its a polka dot number, more of a little dress than a lycra wotsit. Suits my imaginary world just fine. I had had a few hours to myself whilst the boys ran themselves ragged at the children's museum and our guests trawled the antique emporiums. They had treated us to breakfast at the renowned Menger Hotel. Another beautiful relic, at its centre a two tiered atrium, be-colomned with the fading beauty of a Southern Belle. It had the ever so faint whiff of decay, and, inside the breakfast room, past the pictures of the same space in its black and white hey days, there was that familiar sense of the wrong end of old-fashioned so common in many sea side towns at home. It wasn't quite Fawlty Towers or anything. Certainly quite a few ghosts roaming around is all.

Apparently there are funny things going on in our hotel too. Tonight, for the shear sado-masochistic love of it all, Ry, who is playing the creature in the show, is staying in The Room, in hopes of meeting other creatures. On check-in, one of our company managers noticed that his clock was counting downwards and twice, his door swung open, even though he had shut it. Its the kind of door that needs a card swiped in order to open. On both occasions there was nobody visible, or audible in either direction of the corridor. Turns out the room opposite to his has had so many funny goings on that the staff no longer rent it out. When Ry requested it, they politely informed him that it is not usually for guests. He explained that he was fully aware of the situation. I will drill him tomorrow.

All this after I have taken our boy to The Match. Yes sirs, tomorrow will see England beat the USA "team" (sorry, I couldn't resist). After which, boy and I will strut down the San Antonio streets waving our flag, his face painted regulation shades and donning his prized England uniform. Trouble is, I really do think he utterly believes that he will actually be playing the match. On the TV. Live. He has told his grandma so, many, many times. I hope spectatorship will be just as exciting. If not, there's always potato chips. Crisps I mean. Oh no, it's happening, I'm loosing my roots....Not up top, they are definitely showing my age.

Luckily, whilst working on the show Hounded, first of 13 episodes aired today on CBBC, the kind hair designer fixed me up with more than a dozen wigs to suit the thirteen different characters I played, each belonging in parallel universes. Think of Saved by the Bell meets Dr Who and you are almost a quarter there. It was written by the comedy writers at the BBC and everyone has high hopes for it. I scrambled the internet to see what was being said about it, if anything, and was overjoyed to find a quick mention at the end of one article, informing readers that the "youngsters" Colin Ryan and Eva Alexander make appearances. Ego basking in the light of fairytale people. Youngsters. You gotta love it.

So here I am, about to spruce up our home for our guest this evening. Another friend from Cory's home town, who now lives an hour away form here that I had met some years back in New York City. Cool cat.

I type, briefly reminiscing about the crazy salon I stepped into for some facial maintenance, and the large transexual who brightly greeted me and the peroxide blonde voluptuous woman who performed the torture, I mean waxing, pressing her belly and bosoms into my clavical to reach over, all the while telling me about her boyfriend. It was the first time I had had my eyebrows brushed before being pruned. With a full size comb. Perhaps I shouldn't leave it so long next time. On the chair next to me, the original greeter washing a young guys hair was listening to him detail the demise of his relationship with his boyfriend because of new love found on the internet. Behind the heavy heavy foundation, but a hint of stubble poking through, the greeter made suitably sympathetic noises whilst carrying out the washing with the industrious speed of a locomotive. Now that's what I call a girlie afternoon folks.

Tomorrow there is the promise of a proper good ole Mexican fry-up for breakkers. We will be showing our friend the mugshots we took of ourselves dressed up as cowboys down at the arcade. Yes we succumbed. All for the purposes of the blog of course you understand. Hopefully he'll still stay the night and take us to his favourite haunt tomorrow. Oh geesh, that word again, and its almost the witching hour too....

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

East of Crockett, North on Alamo

Last night as I attempted to sort through the messy thoughts on my novel a thunder storm raged over head. At one point - at a vital narrative juncture in the story I might add - the lights flickered on and off, the television following suit, though I am positive I never had it switched on in the first place. I am surprised the boy did not even stir, it sounded like the roof was cracking in two. This morning, after boy and I watched a patch of the plaster about a foot in diameter crash to the ground in the living room (we were at the opposite end of the room at the time) we learnt from the maintenance man that the storm had severed power in various places downtown, including our hotel.

San Antonio is a world away from Houston in all senses. In the first few hours after we arrived we had driven past palm trees, sweltered in the balmy evening and been accompanied by the friendly Anna to our palatial suite. There are havana style shutters on the bathroom window. A large table big enough for a six people poker game. A sofa, two armchairs, sideboards. Space. We pinched ourselves several times. The air is hot, heavy and wet. Almost tropical. People swagger more than walk down the street. There is something lingering in the air of another time. I heard more Spanish being spoken in that first afternoon than English.

We broke up the journey from not so pretty Houston, with a stop in Schulenberg. I haven't tired of the delight I feel when I come across a town name so obviously north european placed in a part of the world whose climate is as far away from Germany or the Czech republic as you can get. And yet, as we turned into the crossroads that is downtown Schulenberg on each corner stood different shades of northern european descent. A sausage meat market run by a man with a Polish surname, a german bakery and a czech "emporium". In we stopped for a home made sausage and beef brisket drenched in barbecue sauce, which was quickly followed by a tour from Wayne, the butcher, who proudly lead us out back to his barbecue pits. It smelt smokey and familiar and was spotlessly clean. I remember a farm in Sardinia that smelt exactly the same, only difference they had been smoking ricotta not meat. As we ate, folk came in to trade over the old wooden marble topped counter. Most were quite obviously regulars. With deliciously salty barbecued goodies ensconced in bellies we nipped across the road for a slightly disappointing cream pie. I think nothing will ever match up to great-aunt Evelyn's version back in Wisconsin. A good pie maker needs at least 60 years of practice methinks. To facilitate digestion we peeked about the antique emporium next door, where a lady turned to us as we left with a "y'all come back and see y'hear?" Only if we intend to buy AR-15s from Wayne, I thought to myself, who had a paper stuck to his sausage chiller cabinet announcing they were in stock. On we drove passed Geronimo and Woman Hollering Creek. I did. She didn't. Must have been on lunch.

Arriving into San Antonio, with barely any petrol, we were immediately struck by how narrow the streets are downtown. A trolley bus passed us, much to the delight of boyo, and we quickly found the Gunther Hotel. Plaques abound the lobby, replete with memorabilia and photos of its hey day including a huge operator's telephone exchange, used until 1979. San Antonians seem a proud, culturally vibrant lot. We took to the river walk almost immediately to meet the troupe for a day off dinner. We sat outside, in the balmy night air, sipping margaritas and watching our waiter make fresh guacamole at our table. His expression just beyond caring, but the end product tasted good. The service really made you feel like you were in a hot country. It was unhurried to say the very least, and we didn't care a jot. Remember I have been trained in Sardinia, where, in the 80s as tourism was but a struggling seedling over there, you would literally be reprimanded by management (loudly with passionate gesticulation) if too many of you ordered fried calamari because it would short circuit the electrics. Then you would wait about an hour for it to get to your table. They probably were fishing it. That'll learn you for eating too much fat.

Sammy held court with his favourite actors who took it in turns to show him around, wash his hands, introduce him to the two latino ladies on the table next to us, aged 3 and 4. Usual thing. The next day Krista, for whom the boy has developed a serious attachment, offered to play with him poolside whilst Cory and I celebrated our anniversary. Tykey couldn't believe his luck. Krista all to himself! No sharing with mum and dad! Score! Meanwhile we tucked into an unhurried seafood feast on the river....

A block away from our pad are stone steps that take you down it. It is narrow, and quite shallow, looking more like a canal and protected by an advanced system of flood and drainage protection. Its banks are lined with restaurants and shops, the winding pavements taking you under picture perfect stone bridges and past an abundance of fresh fauna, succulents, palms and other tropical lushness. To our left we passed a beautiful hotel, looking like it had been shipped in from Seville, each room with a french windowed balcony and tall backed wooden chairs on them much like the sort my grandmother used to have. The man who designed the area back in the late 30s early 40s had intended to create a place that would be a mix of Venice and New Orleans. The desired outcome has been beautifully achieved. People saunter along the rivers edge and take rides on wide barges for a potted history of the city.

That's where we were today, under the post lunchtime sun, listening to our captain's humorous journey through San Antonio. Somewhat disconcerting were the barely audible mutterings amplified by his headset mic that he drifted into in between stories. Cory pulled a face. I hoped he was not recovering from a post traumatic disorder seeing as he was eager to tell us when we boarded that he had been stationed in Essex twice with the forces. Never underestimate the psychological repercussions of living in Essex my friends.

The thing that will stay with me the most from our sailing down the water, apart from the picturesque entry into La Villitta where on one side of the river is a small stage facing mini stone raked seating on the opposite, is the fact that the restoration of the river area was mostly to do with a group of women who formed a conservation group back in the 1920s and whose vision was the propelling force for what we can enjoy today. They are still an incredibly strong group and are solely responsible for making this city one which fiercely preserves its history and unique antiquity. When the Mariott wanted to build they insisted that the 1920s landmark on the ground which they sought to develop was protected. The developers moved the entire building to be closer to the river in order to carry out their modern project. For the developers of the Hyatt it was a similar story. Te conservationists refused to grant permission for their high rise, because, they said, it would cast a shadow over the Alamo at sunset eclipsing it's picturesque glory. What a marked contrast to the rampaging newness of Houston.

At the end of the tour there was indeed only one thing to do. Put our sweaty feet one in front of the other, turn onto East Crockett street and head for the Alamo. I think I have taken enough pictures of it to satisfy my father's obsession with all things cowboy. It really is a beautiful shrine. Within its walls, manicured gardens fresh with prickly pear fruiting cacti, flowering palms, enormous succulents and immaculate lawns. Fountains trickle, coin confetti sunk down on the watery stone. It has an eery stillness to the place despite the hustle bustle of the tourists, and there were plenty of them. What a world away from the America we have seen so far. Here, in the shade of the sand time worn stone I begin to comprehend the sheer rampaging history of the place. The breadth and depth of the diverse cultures, so very alive here, and proudly celebrated. What a treat to be able to stand amongst this. Soak it up.

I asked the maintenance man this morning, as Sam and I watched him peel off more of the plaster from the ceiling, why he loved his town so. He pin pointed the diversity of the place and the way in which each of its converging cultures has a voice, a place, a home. I asked him how he deals with the humidity (my clothes have not dried in three days hung up) and he gives a little shrug and a chuckle. He tells me that in winter the frigid cold that rolls in from the gulf and is trapped by the texan hills beyond the city is just as damp. I tell him this city will never be my home but that it is mighty pretty. He chuckles again. Then he tells me that the man who plasters is in Cancun till Friday. No matter. I'm liking the crumbling Havana in august sort of look to the place. I pretend I am a writer under house arrest secretly churning out stories to maintain her sanity. At least one part of that statement is close to the truth

Speaking of sanity, I received a package the other week. On it was stamped "INSANITY". Yes sirs, for the purposes of the blog you understand, I am now a graduate of P90X. To you and me this means, my jeans are moderately less tight, though my triceps are still barely visible, and therefore to maintain my experiment in American fitness I have thrown myself into, well Insanity. Never a truer word written. Picture a hip hop star with a group of lithe folk behind him doing moves like you have pressed fast forward and play button at the same time and you are half way there. I caught myself in the mirror the other day doing jumping jacks at their speed and had to pause the DVD for some serious belly laughter at that jiggly reflection huffing and puffing back at me. After almost two weeks of the regime the boys are getting used to me shakliy exiting the bedroom looking like a cross between half cooked lobster and a seal. Listen, you've got to counter act the tex mex grub somehow. There's only so much guacamole and margaritas a girl can consume before they start to consume her.

No storms tonight. Only me, our palace, the plastic yuccas and the humid night ahead of us. Clean up tomorrow for a visit from a childhood friend of Cory's now living here. There may be tea involved, and post show drinks and snacks back at the suite later. It really is a very very tough life. I will soldier on, displaying the courage and determination of those Alamo folk.

All the trinkets and t-shirts this afternoon kept reminding me to "never forget The Alamo". One thing is sure, I will never forget San Antonio.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Houston, Prepare for Take Off

I just don't know how the Texans function in this heat. Call me a moany old Brit who can't handle hot or cold, but really, who in their right minds decided that it would be good to plant sticks in a place with what feels like 100% humidity?! Ok, there's the oil, granted, plenty of space, a certain expertise with matters related to outer space and that's certainly where my sanity goes after 10 minutes outside. That said, it's quite a sight to watch the rain clouds roll in from the west from our fifteenth (air conditioned!!!) room, cover the surroundings in a thick blanket of wet fog, thrash the streets with their wet load and then roll on by to reveal the sunny skies once again. Then, at least, the temperatures are closer to 3o degrees rather than the regulation 35. I've drilled locals for their survival techniques. Air conditioning, they respond, oh, and tunnels. Yes downtown Houston is connected with a warren of underground walkways to protect the worker from the elements. Skyways in Minneapolis protect from the cold, here it is to stop you becoming toast in your lunch hour. You can tell we are tourists, we're the only ones who walk around the city in happy holiday clothes barely covering our bodies in an effort to stay cool. The workers, seemingly the only people who populate this town (aside from the 7500 city dwellers) in contrast are long sleeved and cool looking. For the past 10 days of our stay I am sure I am leaving a trail of sweat behind me like a slimey snail. Best not commit any crimes, they'll be sure to find me. I keep trying to remind myself that power walking is not an option here. To slooooooow down. Take in the view. Its so easy in theory and so very difficult in practice.

The past few days have seen us take in the local hotspots. First off, a ride on a tram that lead us right through the main street fountains. Who knew that water and electricity would get on so well together? It delighted old and new suffice it to say. On our return journey a lady befriended me, gave a plotted history of the last few years, shared grandaughter pics with me and left soon after. You gotta love a good yarn. We found our way to the Children's Museum where big and little boy rambled to their hearts content, learnt to do a Texan line dance, puzzled at puzzles, touched things, knobs, levers, pulleys, pretended, pretended some more and climbed up an elaborate climbing structure which I hear Cory and his belly squeezed themselves through. Mama in the meantime took herself off to Rice Village. Classic lost in translation moment for the somewhat overheated visitor. I thought I had done a little research. To me, the words Village and Shopping in close proximity conjured up images of little streets with quaint establishments in which to choose to or refrain from parting with one's cash. What I found was a very pretty, but in all intents and purposes an outdoor mall. I fried in the sun in between a little window shopping, struggled to find a watering hole and eventually made my way back to the boys, down University Boulevard passing huge 1930s tudor style homes flanked by uber modern concrete houses, bamboo gardens pristeen and in tact. Deflated but undeterred a few days later boyo and I tackled the Galleria. A mall so big, boy and ma were dwarfed into slow motion, so far did the shop seem that we had intended to find. Luckily I had the sneaky plan of investing in a chocolate covered strawberry that raised moral for all of five minutes. We ducked into the shop in question, purchased a gift card for the head soundie who is leaving for another tour and slipped into Macy's where mum did a comedy turn for the boy in her best music hall version of "Mama Tries on the Swimsuits". Sure fire hit. It is a familiar set of schtick - mum, in hurry (why the perpetual speed woman?!) tries on fifty different suits, is shocked to discover she does not look like Gina Lollobrigida in any of them. Pouts for a moment. And then leaves. Boy tried to convince me to buy the one with stripes and a polka dot halter neck strap a la 1950s - it was my favourite - he even told me it looked nice (unprompted) and yet, the truth is I am not quite ready to go parading around a pool with a cast of lithe dancers. No swim suit is going to magic me into a 5ft 2" lean mean swimming machine really now is it? Work on ego needed. Time to do it? Check.

The previous day had seen us take a group trip to the downtown aquarium. In we went wowed at the jellyfish, oooed and ahhhhhhhed at the lionfish and catfish. Goosebumped our way past the python (stay with me) and hurried past the blowfish so we could catch the white tiger show. Yes, turns out fish are not enough to keep the punters happy. In we crammed into a small room, and, through what I hoped was some seriously thick glass, we watched a young trainer make tigers sit and stand to her commands. During which we had the live narration from another young girl, who admitted to it being her first try, and nervously teased us for being so quiet. Something about having a 400 pound bit of tiger infront of you kinda has that effect. She told us about how they never reprimand the tigers for not showing requested behaviours - she had a long official title for this which I forgot as soon as I heard it, instead they praise when they do follow. With meat. Lots of it. Essentially, supernanny's guide to zoological exploits. When the second tiger came to do the same routine as his cousin, we left to see more of the fish. There weren't any. Feeling somewhat duped, and having been led through the gift shop to the exit we found ourselves under a sun baked fun fair. On we piled of course onto the diminuitive "steam" engine that took us under the many flyovers that zig zag downtown to a created sea world including a tunnel tank of shark. Boy, quivering on our friend's lap asked when we would be out of the tunnel. About ten times. In essence we were underwater in a train with killer fish about us. Poor thing clung to courage just long enough till we reached the light again. No sooner reaching calm than a giant metal white shark spouts water out from a tiny pool and half the train's passengers scream with fright. Grown ups mostly. On we weaved under more highways. After a carousel ride and a Guess Jester - where a lady tries to guess your weight or age or birthday (Cory is still jigging around because she guessed five years younger than what he is. His colleague on the other hand is reeling because she guessed 10 years older. Ooooops) it was time to cool off at the water sprays. Some children were rolling around in them like baby seals. Our boy was tip toeing round the edge until a couple of the performers (his favourites to be truthful) whisked him up and hugged him into the watery fray till both he and they were squealing in delight. It is such a great pleasure to watch your child truly have fun and create bonds with others. Today, when we dropped dad off at the theatre after dinner he ran to everyone in the cast that we passed and gave them a proper hug and kiss. I wonder if he will ever know how much joy that gives his mum and dad. Makes me forgive myself my lack of patience and bask in a moment of pride at having been sent such a loving little person into our lives.

That said, we have had a few rollercoaster rides on the turbulent times of a three year old for the past few days. I think I would like to attribute it to a delicate tummy but that is of no comfort when you are hiking down the Bayou trail towards the wrong end of 11 o clock and somebody, who usually can't wait to run free is lagging behind winging to be carried. The dreaded Whine. I refuse to cultivate a threshold for it. Would be best to swallow a double dose of humour at these times, but often that fails me also. To be fair we were all puddles of sweat having braved the trail from our hotel that took us winding down a murky river's side under what I counted to be about 8 loud overpasses with cars and huge trucks zig zagging overhead. It was a perfect clash of natural versus urban jungle. I tried to focus on the former but something about the juganauts racing above us made me uneasy to say the least. After we had carried on for about a mile or so, having moved towards open skies rather than concrete ones, we started towards another set of overpasses that lead to a dirt path flooded just at its entry. We stopped to choose our way, caught sight of a guy huddling over his stove looking like an extra out of Mad Max and decided to beat, a seemingly nonchalant retreat. In truth we sped up somewhat, argued over the iphone map and which way to go and eventually, in true urbanite fashion found our way back to a noisy road and settled by a swing set for a quick turn for the boy. Thunder clouds had been looming overhead for most of the morning and we returned home just in time to miss the lashing rain and rumblings, managing to fit in a quick look about the Historical village. This is an area just by the hotel in which historic homes dating pre 1800s and throughout the subsequent centuries have been uplifted and re-built. We peeked into a greek revival, huddled at the window of a cabin and wowed at the porch of a beautiful Victorian. They stand, closed but illuminated inside like oversized doll's houses set in the surreal surroundings of, yes, more highways and parkland. Back from our whistlestop tour of architecture, I got busy in the bathroom creating a pork loin grill and pesto pasta job whilst boys watched the weather and some such.

Today boy and I got into packing. Of late he has become very interested in "folding" clothes, and, as long as I take the time to watch him do it, he can stay busy at this for some time. Perhaps in another few years the garments may actually look like they have been folded, but the care with which he does it is a joy to watch. We had just enough time to fit in a slap up dinner at the theatre's restaurant. Now, in experience, these two words never sit too well together. At best, I expected a few cheese rolls and a packet of crisps. What we had was a luscious seafood dinner with whole flash fried crawfish stood to attention on taquitos, paella and a jumbo lump crab salad. When the taquitos arrived (Brits - that's a mini soft tortilla with stuff going on on top) I took a double take at the topping. "It's ok ," said the waiter, "you can eat the whole thing." "And the shell?" I asked. "No, no, they are peeled ma'm." He was right, but I did feel a little strange at gobbling up the little creatures boy and I had just wowed at at the Aquarium but a few days earlier. They were even stood up, looking alive even, as if they had been crawling over the bread and someone had ambushed them with a deep frier. Tasted good though. Remorse is apparently but fleeting. Actually we were lucky to be let in. The first lady who greeted us took one look, us - loaded with wiffle balls and rucksacks and casual clothes sweating profusely, she - suited and booted, unsmilingly informed us that the restaurant was fully booked. Oh, and we could not wear shorts. Just as we were leaving another lady came to our rescue and recognised Cory's voice from an earlier telephone call, knew he was in the show and found us a table. In a corner. Dark. Far far away from the hoy poly. We weren't wearing our hoy poly outfits that day, even though mama Loves to dress up. For, all of say.....15 minutes. The novelty soon wears off, especially in this heat when after five minutes all I want to do is lie down on a shady bit of pavement and go to sleep.

And so they we have it. Houston in a slightly over wordy nutshell. Its goodbye time again. Ready for the delights of San Antonio. Three hours away is our next home. Have strict instructions from my dad on photo evidence of the Alamo.

River walk here we come!

Minus the highways please.....

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Heat + Sun = Party!!!

Turns out the day after a fun packed fabulous party day leaves the family somewhat bleary eyed. Something however, about the incessant heat and sunshine brings out the partier in even the most weary traveller. Gone are the days when days off were spent huddled in the warmth cosied up as three musketeers against the elements. Out now come the sunshine coloured clothes, the happy sunkissed skin the twinkly eyes of summertime frolics for the troupe. With this new summery spring in people's step yesterday saw us bundling into a shuttle bus to.... The Game.

Now, although my father did a fantastic job of educating me on the details of world war two aircraft, tanks and general locomotives, he was never big on sport. Engineering yes. Ask me about a hinge and I can wax lyrical, but sport? Not so much. One conversation springs to mind as I write this of the time I told my parents I was about to become the cox of my university's rowing team. My father, huffing and puffing red steam down the pay phone told me in no uncertain terms that I had been given the chance to study theatre film and television and that I had not bloody waste it on cavorting with a bloody sports team. "Plays! Films! That's what you should be getting involved in!!!" Then he passed the phone over to mum, and, with a queue forming behind me in our echoey dorm hallway, she went on to somewhat more gently persuade me to stall a decision before I committed to a 6 day a week dawn training regimen. Life would have turned out quite differently if I had chosen to spend those three years crouched at the end of a little boat. So, you can appreciate the excitement of the unknown that pumped through me as I followed the crowd into Minute Maid stadium. As we entered I could make out the green expanse and I got that ancient-tingly-big-crowd-game-in-a-minute feeling that has been around for our species since the days at the colosseum and before. As well as the steam engine high up on the ridge of the stadium that peeped its whistle carrying a car of "oranges" behind it (Brits - Minute Maid makes juicy fruity drinks. Gettit?).

In we went with the sea of fans swelling out before us. I praised our lucky stars that the designers had been thoughtful enough to not only install a retractable roof but couple it with Texans' lifeline, commonly known as the air conditioner. Seats found, beer in hand, smoked turkey roll drenched in tangy barbecue sauce and we were a go. After a heart felt rendition of God Bless America sang whilst servicemen and women held open a giant American flag the game began. First pitch was thrown by a major in a figure hugging army uniform (later I spotted him sat with his wife and four kids a few rows in front of us). Course my thorough understanding of the game is still somewhat patchy (have to wait three years before applying for my american passport so that's ok) but I can follow the gist of it. Especially when there is so much food involved. The incessant calling out of vendors took me back to what life may have been like in Covent Garden circa 1750s. Only their products were somewhat more multicoloured. Luckily boy only had two sips of a psychadelic blue ice concoction leaving him bouyant but not totally drugged. I finished a large portion of it off. Made me talk even faster.

I took in the stadium and was most struck by the sweeping cross section of society attending. Admittedly I have only been to one football match at home but I don't remember many 60+ year old women in their sunday lipsticks sat watching. Or so many babies. Die hard football chanters yes, dads and their kids yes, but not like this. Young, old, rich, poor. Actors. Sport is a beautiful thing. Made all the more exciting by not one, but two, spectators who sprinted across the field, halted the action and subsequently dragged off by law enforcers. Each episode was followed by a thorough explanation from the troupe to Sammy, who was drilling them for the exact meaning of the action and its repercussions. Then followed a spat with the Houston team's pitcher against the umpire leading to his subsequent dismissal from the field. It was kinda all down hill from there for the Astros bless 'em. Probably didn't help that half their fan base left at the 7th inning because winning was seeming increasingly unlikely. Don't see that at a Man U match. I thought I had missed something important when several hundred people jumped out of their seats and ran for the exits like wilderbeasts pounding the African plains on their way to the river's edge.

And therein another puzzling element to the game; all the fans sit together in one democratic America free-for-all mosh. No chanting. No touting of the opposing team's fans across the other side of the stadium. No bottle throwing, geering. No songs. Except when told. At the 7th inning "stretch" (we all stood up) it was time for a jolly old sing song. Our side of the stadium offered up a beautifully harmonised version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, God Bless AMerica and The Yellow Rose of Texas (on of my father's personal favourites) following karaoke style the words on the huge screen. Then we all politely sat down again. Not so polite I thought was the word ERROR flashing on and off on the same screen a little while later when the opposing team fluffed up a simple double play. See, gettin the lingo. Or bluffing as the case may be.

At the end of the game, and with a summer afternoon spring in our step we went on to the poolside. Not ours exactly. The hotel next door (sssssshhhhhh its hush hush) has a roof top pool and some of the players have gotten friendly with some guests (not that kind of friendly you gossips) which means we get to essentially break in to dip-in. No harm done right? Right?! Hey ho, so there the troupe were, swimming and splashing and generally demonstrating water acrobatics to the boy whilst mama lost herself in her book and caught the setting sun's rays. It really is a tough life but someone simply must do it. A few hours later, boyo was wrapped up in a pile of towels, eating crackers like he hadn't seen food in two months and with both eyelids heavy with a happy day. Did we turn in for an early night? Settle boy into bed? Put our feet up? Nossir!

Fifteen minutes later, we were brushed up, washed down and ready to hit the tiles for a Mexican feast. Fourteen of us bundled into the shuttle bus once again (and once again reassuring Sammy that it was not the space kind - he seemed concerned about the fiery lift off) and sang (loudly) on our way to the joint. Food and drink was ordered, boy collapsed into sleep after two tortilla chips and slept his way through the rest of the evening on a collection of chairs at the head of the table. Mama and our friends sipped Margaritas and scoffed fajitas. The word small has officially been removed from the Texan dictionary. At least that's what it seemed like as I tried to lift all 30lbs of my drink. It was more of a chalice, no, vase than a glass. Needless to say I didn't get to the end of it! Biceps got a good work out though. Back we trundled into a bus, carrying a sleeping Sam into and out of it and back down onto a new, armchair bed in the hotel's lobby bar. Nightcaps all round and then a relatively early night for all.

Today then, was all about household chores. You know the kind of thing. Laundry. Groceries. A little matter of practical duties. Still, there is something about walking a baking street lined with palm trees and bursting with bouganville blooms even whilst dragging a two tonne bag of clothes that makes the task seem a little more exciting. Festive even. The smell of the dried pine needles along the sun parched sidewalks takes me back to Sardinia and makes the state feel like a whole different country. I love it. Course I couldn't possibly operate for longer than 15 minutes in these temperatures. Not without looking like I have just finished a second marathon.

When we arrived at the laundromat, a sullen fan girating on the ceiling to the rhythms of the soap dialogue form the television across from it, we were greeted by a couple of hispanic kids who Sam gravitated towards whilst Cory and I negotiated the task at hand. Washers, loaded, friends having left we went on the hunt for food. That is to say we crossed the street to find ourselves in a formica tiled white room with white plastic 1980s chairs and clear plastic vases on the table stuffed with brightly coloured (real) carnations. The walls, on the one side lined with enlarged photos of every type of novelty cake you could imagine and on the opposite signed photos of the owner with celebrities for whom she has baked amongst which Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor and George W. Bush to namedrop but a few. I guessed she was going for the hospital store room meets bakery kinda look. We ordered our lunches and helped ourselves to the iced tea with a capital Texan T (strong as a good ole British builder's tea). Neither Cory or I expected such fresh sandwiches or deliciously home made veggie soup. I was particularly interested in my pickled okra garnish. Never thought I would put those three little words in a sentence together. It's just fantastic when you try something for the very first time. After more oooing and aaaaahing over our food, the boys went to finish off the mundane stuff whilst I did what I love to do best. Shop. Bargain shop.

Yes, by the side of the washateria I stepped into my familiar world of the charity shop. Course being in Texas it was as big as a small warehouse, and instead of one or maybe two volunteers behind a slightly sad looking counter there was an army of veteran debutantes their white locks impeccably quoiffered with texan twangs to boot. The till rang out under the tip tap of manicured nails. Everything from dressers to children's shoes stocked the full shelves. I delved into rail upon rail of barely worn clothes and came out the other side with ten items amounting to just over $60, each more beaded and bejewelled than the first. I am all set to twinkle into more summer nights. Yes I know, I know, I promised myself to approach the travel with some relinquishing of the material world, and yet, a good bargain, that will be used and used and loved, is near impossible to pass up. Especially if it's under $10. If I was a true Zen shopper I would let go of 8 items I have with me. Not quite at that stage methinks.

And now, after a bimby'd (she is back!!!!) dinner from out of our bathroom, sorry kitchen, I have kissed my fella tarrah, kissed our boy goodnight, gazed at the pink ball of fire that was the sunset tonight and sent out a little prayer of thanks for a couple of very special days. A whiff of texan debutante perfume wafts up from the shrug I bought this afternoon. Not a world away from my late aunt's white rose scent. God only knows how she would have enjoyed a little spending spree this afternoon a la Texan.

Y'all enjoy the view from up there y'hear?