Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Long-lost cousin

It's not a widely known fact that Daniel is one-quarter American. It's not something he mentions freely.

His mom, Barbara, was born to an American mother and British father, dividing her childhood between the two countries. Strangely enough, she spent her high school years in Bronxville, New York, about ten minutes from Pelham, where I grew up.

So that means she has relatives in the US. One, Sandra Chelnov, has been in touch to say she's following the blog and that we should visit her if we ever find ourselves in Buffalo.

Another, Connie Bruce, is living just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley. Daniel's aunt Janet gave us her contact details just as we were driving down from Napa Valley to San Francisco - impeccable timing.

Connie told us stories of her youth, Barbara as a baby (Barbara's mother was her favorite aunt), the legend of a couple many generations ago who traveled to Syria as missionaries, also filling us in on her own adult life and family.

Interestingly, most people in the family have a strong connection to art and artists.

She showed us all around her apartment complex, introduced us to her cat Buttercup and then treated us to a yummy lunch in Sausalito.

Hopefully, Barbara and Connie will be able to reunite when Barbara joins us in the US at the beginning of the year.

Camping, camping in the street

Over the summer, my childhood friend Dave McRobie found me on Facebook. Once we connected, he said to look him up if we were ever in northern California.

Which of course we would be.

Dave lives with his wife Jaime and their two-year old twins Hazel and Avery in Sebastopol, which is in Sonoma County, 56 miles north of San Francisco. Both East Coast transplants, Dave and Jaime have no plans of ever going back.

The only complaint, registered by Dave, is that the weather is TOO good. "This is going to sound weird," he confided in us, "but having sun every day of the year can be a bit much". We felt really bad for him.

Extremely generously, they said we were welcome to park up outside their house on Sunset Avenue (How cool is that to live on Sunset Avenue!) underneath a redwood tree. So we did.

It was great. We hung out in their house with them and then retired to the Airstream at bedtime. Neighbors stopped by at all hours to say how much they liked our rig (everyone in California seems to call trailers 'rigs') and have a look inside. A couple asked how much we had paid, most said it had always been their dream to own an Airstream.

It turns out that sleeping in a trailer on the street is illegal. A policeman stopped to tell us so one morning. "Great rig," he said. "I won't tell anyone you're here, but one of the guys could stop you, and if it's overnight you'd have to get out. Just wanted to warn you." He paused to have a look inside. "Wow, how much did you pay for that?".

Luckily, no one kicked us out.

Sebastopol is great. Ten miles from the coast, close to all sorts of agriculture and wine country, it's ideally located. Everything is organic, and everyone is green. It seems like the perfect place to raise kids, and it's not pretentious. It's hard not to be healthy there.

Hitchhikee's guide

Oregon and northern California are filled with hitchhikers. Young ones and old, some with dreadlocks and some without, with luggage running from backpacks to suitcases to (seriously!) a pack tied onto a stick. Everyone seems to do it, along local roads and highways, in the city and out in the middle of nowhere.

Occasionally, a half-hearted sign warns drivers not to pick them up.

After seeing such spectacles for several hundred miles, we had to get in on the action.

Right on the outskirts of beautiful, slightly hippy-dippy Mendocino, California (dubbed Spendocino, apparently, so we tried not to stay too long), we saw the perfect hitchhiker for us.

"Stop, Daniel, it's a pregnant girl with a cat!!", I shouted, waking up Lulu.

"Oh my God, we've got to pick her up!", he responded, looking vainly for an appropriate turnaround.

We drove all the way back into the town, before performing a rather elaborate U-turn.

A hundred yards before we could collect her, a small red car covered in left-wing bumper stickers cut us off, scooping up the girl and her cat before she could even see us.

Spirits broken, we were now determined to have a Hitchhiker Experience ("Claire is brutal, she only wanted it for the blog", Daniel would later tell a friend).

So we picked up the next guy. Dreadlocked, bearded and patchouli scented, he was a pretty good bet.

I moved to the back seat between the girls, so he could sit with Daniel up front.

We grilled him.

He told us of his upbringing near Sacramento, his travels around Hawaii, Central America and Asia and of the party he had been to the night before to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a hippy commune. "All talk and no action", he said of the hippies.

Eight miles later, he said we had reached his drop-off point.

The End.

Beachfront property

At Westport, California, we paid our record campground fee: $48. Considering the lack of Wi-Fi, showers timed to last four minutes and the fact that there's no valet service, that's pretty steep (but not as steep as the entrance down into the park!). The most we had ever paid before was $31.

Complaining aside, there was one major plus: the campground is right on the beach, right on it. We spent the night listening to the mighty Pacific crash up against the shore.

And then the next morning, which was gloriously sunny, we spilled out of the trailer and joined another family in walking down the perfectly formed beach, selecting shells and fishing.

Princesses unite!

Slow off the mark in leaving the majestic redwoods of Jedediah Smith, we had to stop earlier than expected - in Trinidad, California, instead of further south.

As winter sets in, night falls in minutes. This is no good when you've got a trailer, as it becomes much harder to read signs, navigate steep gradients and dirt roads, or make judgements on how suitable/scary a campground is.

Frightened off by the completely empty Patricks Point State Park (which cost $35 with no hook-ups...which is standard for California state parks), we opted for the first private place, Azalea Glen RV Park and Campground.

And boy, did it work out. As soon as we arrived, we met up with a very well traveled lady, Danika, and her super daughters, Freya and Solveig, ages 7 and almost 4. Within minutes, Sophia had run off with them to their trailer. She ended up staying for a snack, game of dress-up (princesses, of course), TV and dinner.

Daniel and I hoped she wouldn't mind coming back to our family later on.

Come back she did, together with her new friends. Bringing a bottle of wine, they stayed for drinks and more dress-up.

We were so sad to leave. They gave Sophia a souvenir of an awesome necklace made of huge purple beads. Sophia had so much fun she gave them a pair of her beloved princess shoes.

Redwood Forest

Northern California greeted us with two days of torrential rain, forcing us to spend one afternoon trawling around Crescent City for things to do. So we petted sharks, held starfish, watched a sea lion perform tricks and sucked on sea anemone (well, another lady did do that) at the charming but rather kitschy Ocean World. And then attempted to see 'Where the Wild Things Are' - we had to leave and ask for a refund since they left the lights on DURING the movie.

Finally, we got to see the Redwoods, at Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. To say these trees are giant is no understatement, since they regularly measure over 300 feet tall and 20 feet around.

The sun burnt through the heavy mist, allowing the very occasional beam of light to reach the forest floor. We all craned our necks out the window to catch a glimpse of the treetops and smell the fresh, wet scent of the forest, as the car bumped along the park's dirt road. Taking photos of the redwoods is really difficult - one, because getting the whole tree into the frame is a major challenge, and two, because without a car or person in the photo, there's no perspective.

Here are our attempts.

California Complaint Commission

To whom it may concern:
We are a family of four traveling for six months across America in an Airstream trailer. We had been anxiously awaiting our arrival to the California coast, but have found the camping facilities to be sub-par, and very expensive.

The cheapest camping we've found was outside the fence of a trailer park in Santa Cruz - the park itself was full, but the owner offered us an ad hoc spot outside the fence, together with an extension cord, for $25.
That's about the most we had paid for any camping before reaching California.
The bathroom looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a month, but the WiFi did work.

Which is an improvement upon the WiFi access advertised by many campgrounds we've encountered. "Oh, the signal must not reach your site." "Oh, our WiFi is really low-tech". "Oh, most people just sit outside the office to get a signal [in the cold, dark night, sitting on the ground?]".

Here, people want a lot of money - we're talking $40 at the minimum - to stay in parking lots with nary a tree, inches from other RVs. In some of these, RVers are expected to have extra-long sewer pipes, electrical cords, water hoses, etc, since to save money, the amenities are located on the wrong side for trailers.

In one place, we had to ask neighboring campers to plug us into their rig, since our standard issue cord couldn't reach our own slot's outlet.

Children are not allowed to ride bikes in these parking lots -- something about more expensive insurance policies, apparently.

Bathrooms have been grotty as a rule, with some places (costing $45, $48) even demanding that guests PAY for showers (only 25 cents or a dollar, but still!).

And what are we supposed to do with dirty water at campgrounds that have neither sewers nor dump stations, where washing dishes is banned in bathrooms and no separate sinks are provided? Are guests supposed to pollute the rivers?

We understand that the California economy, something like the world's eighth largest, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, but these examples were all private campgrounds.

We wish that coastal campgrounds could follow the lead of the best campground we've seen so far on our trip - one located inland, below Mount Shasta in northern California. Mountain Gate RV Park had the cleanest, most sparkling bathrooms, a welcoming staff that practically broke out into song, a playground, its own trails, a rec room stuffed with TV, sofa, movies and games...AND...get this, a complimentary continental breakfast (coffee, pastries, toast, cereal, juice, etc).
Not to mention special events like pumpkin carving for Halloween and a Thanksgiving dinner.

And guess what? Guests are so blown away by the thoughtfulness of the owners that they do their very best to treat the campground as if it were their own home.

All for under $30.


Complaints off our chests, we must congratulate you on having the most breathtaking coastline we've ever seen, offering hundreds of miles of eyepoppingly beautiful beaches, towering redwoods, dramatic craggy rockiness, mountains surely carved by God himself and the most azure water anyone could hope for. Thanks also for maintaining Highway 1, that road is nuts!

Kind regards,
Claire, Daniel, Sophia and Lulu

Call for Thanksgiving recipes!

Hi, and sorry we've been out of touch for a while. California's too amazing to look at, and too skimpy on Wi-Fi, so we're way behind.

We promise to have a number of posts - and pictures by Daniel - up in the next couple of days.

For now, though, we're looking for Thanksgiving recipes. Thursday's the day, and our friend Laura will be joining us with her dog Claude for a couple of days.

Here are the parameters: all recipes need to be non-meat and prepared on the stovetop, since our oven doesn't work.

All ideas appreciated!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Lulu's half-birthday

Lulu is now six months old.
So we had to have a party.
As soon as we arrived at the KOA in Crescent City, California, we all dressed for dinner: Sophia in her favorite dress (a gift from Cesar), Lulu in a dress given to her by Shelly, Daniel in his black velvet dinner jacket and me in my orange sequin-stripe tunic. And all of us adorned with jewelry and hairclips.
Accompanied by BBC Radio 2 on the computer, we sang and danced, ate penne with broccoli, parmesan and pinenuts, salad with avocado, tomato, albacore tuna, sweet onion and butterbeans, and drank delicious California syrah (lemonade for Sophia).
Lulu had stage 2 organic summer vegetable babyfood from Safeway.
It was fun.

Manifest Destiny

Well, we've finally made it to the Pacific. Despite having arrived on the West Coast some three weeks ago, we hadn't seen the sea.
Our first glimpse came at Florence, Oregon.
Long overshadowed by its neighbor to the south, Oregonians are understated people who are quietly proud of where they live.
That way, the state's citizens - who we were told number fewer than the inhabitants of Brooklyn - get the whole place to themselves.
We drove the length of the state twice - one and a half times on Interstate 5, and then the final half down US Highway 101 along the coast.
The latter is by far the superior option, allowing drivers to gasp at the spectacular seashore.
And at the adjoining sparkling freshwater lakes, towering primordial forests, Sahara like dunes and rivers teaming with life.
Plus, the food and drink are fantastic! Nice cheddar (yey, finally!), good microbrews, amazing coffee, plentiful seafood and tons of orchard fruit.
We loved it, despite the daily - and nightly - torrential downpours. We would have stayed, but we were worried about ourselves and the Airstream becoming waterlogged.
We all need more Gore-tex.

Beauty parlor, for men

Our car is moody, and that's at the best of times. Its favorite trick is not to start when you turn the ignition. But now we know that you have to try three or four times, sometimes hitting the accelerator instead of the brake to get things going. We think it objects to wet weather and also nighttime, maybe.

That said, it's gotten us across the country and up and down half of the West Coast.

We get it looked at every couple of thousand miles, to check that everything's working all right and to see whether anyone can figure out the ignition thing.

No one can.

Not even Oil Can Henry's, the best car-fixing place ever.

An Oregon-based business, Oil Can Henry's is staffed by men in bow ties who look like butlers and call you 'sir'. All that's missing is a fake British accent.

We had no idea.

When we pulled up to the company's Florence, Oregon branch, a rather rotund butler greeted us, handing us a newspaper ("for your enjoyment, sir") and a menu of treatments, including some combo deals.

"It's like a nail salon, for men!", exclaimed Daniel.

When it was our turn, we pulled into an immaculate garage and parked next to a video screen split in four showing a commercial for Oil Can Henry's (there seems to be a company academy, where butlers take classes and then graduate, all standing in a row!), the company logo, the chief butler next to our car and the junior butler working underneath our car - from a sort of basement level.

I read the paper, while Daniel looked over the menu, helpfully guided by our businesslike butler. They went through the list of oils - from basic to premium - performed tests on various fluids, the results of which were reflected in color marks indicating how badly they needed replacements, opened up everything that can be opened up on cars and tested the lights. We were offered two kinds of new windscreen wipers.

Meanwhile, the butlers sang observations and orders to each other, all communicating from their different levels, behind and in front of the car, and next to computers.

I asked Daniel if he thought they would break into a chorus and dance when it came time for us to leave. "Oh no, it's too masculine for that", he responded.

It was a dizzying experience. We all felt more beautiful afterwards.

We spent $240. We are kicking ourselves for not taking a photo. Because then it would have been 100% worth it. Even though the car's still not starting that well.

Coffee, tattoos and computers

We spent an evening and part of the next day in Seattle, so we didn’t see that much of the city.
We met two locals: my friend Laura’s mom Roberta, who lives in neighboring Kirkland, met us for coffee; and a really nice waitress at the fun, 24-hour Hurricane Café. She gave us the lowdown on Seattle: its music heyday is over, but the city is still thriving – and Belltown, the neighborhood where we were staying: the main going-out area, and also lots of prostitutes.
It seems like a really clean, outdoorsy city that enjoys views of water, islands and mountains. Kind of like Vancouver.
The people look city-ish, like they’re rushing around and doing important things. Well, compared to us, everyone is generally doing important things, like work.
Lots of girls have tattoos, everyone is really into coffee (in one place, I was refused a plain drip coffee: “we don’t serve dirt”) and Bill Gates sponsors stuff.
Like the amphitheatre at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, which is basically a free, landscaped outdoor museum overlooking stunning Puget Sound and centering around a huge, ship-like Richard Serra piece called 'Wake'.
Here's a link showing all the pieces.

Best Western, movin’ on up

With our Airstream still in Eugene, Oregon, we still had about 400 miles to enjoy a couple of guilt-free motel nights. Seattle was en route, so we thought it would be fun to try out a mini-break, downtown instead of in the outskirts.

I remembered my parents mentioning www.hotwire.com as a cheap way of finding hotels – the rates are advertised, but not the hotel names. This way, hotels can offer cheaper rates on the sly.
Stopping at the public library in the first town over the US border in Washington state, we went on to the site and selected the cheapest option - $57 plus tax for a two star hotel in downtown Seattle.

Once we booked, we found out that we’d be staying at the Best Western Loyal Inn on Eighth Avenue.

We were really excited, and sped down to Seattle as fast as we could.
Feeling like royalty, we glided into the hotel, took the lift (a lift, not stairs!) up to the second floor and admired room 212. Big beds! Fancy sheets! Bolsters! An armchair! A bathtub!
We sat down across the two beds, turned on the TV and decided to make coffee. Only the coffee machine didn’t work.

An hour later, thanks to the efforts of both receptionists, the repair guy and a housekeeper, we had a new coffee machine. The housekeeper, Amina, who had delivered and unveiled the machine, then stayed for another half hour or so, playing with Sophia and Lulu. She left only to bring us a baby cot, complete with a selection of clean, ironed blankets. And then refused a tip.

We later wished we had asked her to babysit.


When we arrived at the Canadian border, Daniel explained candidly to the guard that we were spending the weekend in Vancouver so that he could get his US holiday visa stamped for another six months.
She didn’t really like that, and explained that this was because both the US and Canada frown upon “flagpole-ing”, the practice of visiting one country for a short time to regain access to the other one.
The reason she was worried, she said, was that Canada didn’t want to have to look after Daniel in the event that the US refused him re-entry.

But she let us in anyway.

And we kind of worried about it all weekend. Well, not that much: if you are forced to emigrate, Vancouver’s probably as good as it gets: family friendly, best climate in Canada, a market mostly unaffected by the global economic crisis, good food, yummy local beers, etc.

To facilitate a possible return to the US, we printed out as many things as we could to demonstrate that we were indeed going back to London at the start of April: a letter from my father, correspondence with our tenants, a letter from my company confirming that I was due back at work on April 23 and a copy of our travel insurance documents.

When we arrived back at the border on a rainy Monday morning, the officer in the window thought getting a stamp would be all right, as long as we paid $6. He sent us into the office with a pink slip of paper, telling us to park the car next to a guard.
Inside, another official told us that according to the law, a visa holder must take a “meaningful” trip out of the country in order to renew his or her six months. A weekend in Canada was not meaningful, but a trip to the UK was, he stated (helpfully?).

I could see Daniel spinning sums in his head: one round-trip plane ticket to London, room and board somewhere in the northwest Pacific for the girls and me, a brand new travel insurance policy (ours terminates if we go back to the UK).

We pointed out that Daniel had applied for a nine-month holiday visa – this had been approved at the US embassy in London - but was sent a ten-year visa that we later found out was valid in six-month increments.
After letting us sweat a teensy bit more, the official stamped Daniel’s passport and sent us on our way.



Staying in Vancouver, we achieved a new personal best for imposing ourselves on a host.
Four of us rocked up at the swish condo in the sky of Harald, a cousin of Daniel on his father’s side. A cousin he hadn’t seen in twenty years – they live 6,000 miles apart, after all.
We outnumbered our host by a lot, four of us to one of him. We have been welcomed by whole families, and couples, but never just one person. What’s more, Harald had just said goodbye to his in-laws, who had been in town for ten days before flying back to Japan with his wife and two-year old son the day before we arrived.
Harald met us outside the building, directed us into the guest parking spot he had reserved and then took us up in the elevator to his well appointed, two-bedroom apartment on the 24th floor.
Once we were safely installed with the few bags we needed for the weekend, Harald suggested we take our valuables out of the car, just in case. Hearing that we already had brought the laptop, he mentioned that his car had been broken into – twice, the second time to steal his son’s car seat.
So Daniel went down to the parking lot with him. After about ten round-trips, the two men had brought the entire contents of our car up to the apartment. I tried as best I could to store all the items as unobtrusively as possible.
Remember, we are on a six-month road trip. Across innumerable climates and three seasons. With two kids. Who are both constantly outgrowing clothes. Who need lots of toys to stay occupied as we drive hundreds of miles at a time.
It was kind of embarrassing to have someone I’ve just met see our whole life in all of its messy detail.
Harald said he didn’t mind, he knows what it’s like to have kids.
And it was true, he didn’t mind. He was an extremely gracious host who genuinely enjoyed having his life and home overrun by a gypsy family. He showed us all of Vancouver, a city that consistently wins polls on best places to live, happiest populations, etc. And with good reason, too: it’s a clean, pretty place, surrounded by water and overlooked by mountains, enjoying a temperate climate and healthy economy, and attracting outdoors-loving, intelligent people from across Canada and many other countries as well.
Pictured here are Horseshoe Bay and the path towards Stanley Park.
Good stuff, eh?

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Halloween in Vancouver

One of Harald’s coups was arranging a Halloween Experience for Sophia (and Lulu). Sophia loves dressing-up nearly as much as her mother does, and had been excited about Halloween for at least a month. Americans get way more excited about Halloween than people of other nations, so we had to take advantage on this trip.
It turns out Canadians are pro-Halloween as well.
When Daniel enquired about Halloween activities by phone the week before we arrived, Harald said there was a place in town where shops offered trick-or-treating for kids.
So down to Yaletown we went, the afternoon of the 31st. It’s a pretty trendy neighborhood, which must have one of the highest hair salons per capita in the world.
The kids were out in droves, accompanied by their parents and even some grandparents. The best costume we saw was a young Michael Jackson, complete with jheri-curl, single white glove and boom-box.
Sophia went as a friendly witch (costume hasily bought from a supermarket in Washington state the day before, I’m ashamed to say. Lulu was a very unscary dragon, in an outfit given to us by Daniel’s sister Emma a few years ago.
Daniel and I, pathetically, went only as enthusiastic parents. Harald, amazingly again, was just as into it – even though his own son was away – and took Sophia into several of the participating stores.
It was a huge success. Sophia collected unimaginable amounts of candy, and best of all, she was allowed to eat it. Well, some of it.