Thursday, January 31, 2008

28-30 December 2008: Sussex, UK

For the next couple of days we had a lay-over at my parents place. It was spent a little bit in a daze, not due to the aforementioned alcohol, but mainly due to still being on Dallas time. But in all it was very, very pleasant to be there, especially as I hadn't been back since possibly last Christmas. We walked the dog; dug into piles of presents and said ciao to my brother's girlfriend's cousins from Italy. We even had a second Christmas dinner, with an even bigger turkey, game pie and a choice of vegetarian and carnivore stuffings.

It was a quick visit, and over before our jetlagged brains could register it. We soon found ourselves being x-rayed, looked up and down and our excess liquids thrown away, all in the hope we'd think something was being done about security.

Bah, Humbug! One and all!

27 December 2008, Thursday: Dallas, Texas, US

As it says in the Bible, all good things come to an end and today it was time to get on the road and drive back to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. It was a chance to squeeze in a few choice sights of the Dallas-Fort Worth area; the stadium where the famous Dallas Cowboys play their sport (which is either American Football, Baseball or Monster Truck Driving, I'm not sure what); several mega-churches with car parks the size required for a stadium; endless car showrooms; and mall after mall after mall.

In the airport, to go through the security checkout, you first have to pass through a giant wishbone. I think it's to bring luck, although it felt a little like walking under a ladder.

On the flight back, I wasn't able to sleep and the in-flight entertainment system wasn't prepared to let me watch any film all the way through. My book did very well out of the deal and one day I hope to thank Amy Tan personally.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

26 December 2008, Boxing Day: Dallas, Texas

Cards for priests and nunsOne thing the US is not short of is TV Judges. There is a positive spree of these shows where small-claims cases are taken over by TV and broadcast, judged by a quick-witted and often bitchy judge. They tend to be somewhat Jerry Springeresque but without the violence. Typical scenario is Lynsette-Mae Hallibasta is suing her ex- boyfriend Joe Schmuck for the money she claims she leant him to buy a car and he spent on booze. He claims said money was a gift. It's often hard to care or not feel the urge to shake the woman and say, "did you really give your alcoholic boyfriend money and expect to see it again?"

As we were in that part of the world, it made sense to go out for some good, honest Cajun eatin'. One of the best providers of such cuisine is seafood restaurant Pappadeaux, a reportedly Greek-run chain. We over-stuffed ourselves on the huge portions of, in my case, Gumbo and Crawfish Etouffee, and even took a large amount of it home.

On the way there we passed a car with the number place "TRU GOD." Had it been a sports car, I would have assumed it referred to the driver's opinion of himself, but it was a much more modest vehicle and no doubt proclaimed the deep faith of the driver, albeit somewhat ostentatiously.

Cards for hairstylistCards have been an essential part of The Christmas experience since Quanthor the Generous gave the first Yule Tablet in 460 BC. Original cards were just blank stone tablets onto which pictures and messages were chiselled by the sender or hired craftsmen. The first true Christmas card was sent in 0 AD/BC (also a popular band of the time). It read, "Announcing the birth of our first born son, Jesus."

In time the cards became cardboard, and were pre-printed with Yule and later Christmas designs and messages. And then even the bit where you put who its to (father, sister, uncle, etc) was pre-printed. In America, ever keen to take things too far, they have cards for every possible relationship you could have. Not just cards for "Father and his new bride" but also for your priest, nuns and even hairstylist. I kid ye not.

There was even a separate section for cards from the pet. In fact the card I got for Catherine was from the "from your dog" section, because actually it had the message most like what I wanted to say unlike the mush that filled a lot of the other cards. It has no reflection whatsoever, I should stress, with my relationship with Catherine. Anyway, I must stop now, it's time for my walk.

25 December 2008, Christmas Day: Dallas, Texas

My family goes nuts at Christmas. There is a feeling that it the person doesn't get their own height in presents the day has been a failure. Cath's family is far more restrained.

Not only that, but Christmas in my parents house is spent with a light alcohol buzz culminating with a unified falling asleep during the evening's compulsory Bond movie. The day starts there of late with a glass of champagne around breakfast time, I guess to wet the baby Jesus' head. And that's just the start. Even the Christmas pudding has an impressive percentage proof.

Festive TableThe traditional turkey and entourage is not too much different on both sides of the pond. The Americans love their cranberry sauce and the vegetables may well include a squash. I only recently discovered that there was such a thing as a squash. For those of you who live in the ignorance I used to live in, it is somewhat related to the pumpkin, but they tend to have the shape of other vegetables such as turnips. It seems an odd name, until you realise it's a contraction of the original Rhode Island-area word, asquutasquash. The word means "uncooked" or "that which is eaten raw" which is interesting compared to pumpkin which originally meant "ripe." Tamale on the other hand means "heart attack." (Only kidding.)

Among the American Christmas dinner institutions which will never make it to the UK is the "salad." "Salad" in this context is not like anything you would ever picture when someone says the word "salad" to you. It's some nuts and candied fruit in a sweet, green blancmange-like jelly. It tastes like the deserts we used to have at school. Tasty in an artificial and nostalgic sort of way, but too sweet for me to have with my main course.

'salad' - The sort of thing I mean, but not the sameOne other turkey-related tradition that exists on both sides of the pond is the pulling of the wishbone. My experience is that whoever finds it gets to pull it with someone and the one who gets the larger part will be blessed with luck until the next year's year's turkey is served. It's similar in the US, although you don't have to pull it immediately, and you are allowed to let it dry and get hard. Tricks such as soaking it in things to make it rubbery and unbreakable are also allowed.

After a great meal, the universal yuletide tradition is of vegeing in front of a roaring, open television. This year one channel was constantly showing an American Christmas classic, "A Christmas Story." It's a great look at Christmas and family from the point of view of scheming, somewhat nerdy kid who's only goal in life is to own an air rifle. I even managed this year to see a fair bit of "It's A Wonderful Life," a film I'd managed to miss despite the many Christmases I'd spend on this planet. It's a film which is ALL set up. The meat of the film is only 20 minutes after an hour of setting up. Syd Field must hate it.

Most TV ads seem to be for cars the size of small houses and medicines. The medicines may possibly help you, but the list of disclaimers and recorded possible side-effects mean that you would have to be suffering pretty bad to even think about mentioning it to your doctor as they always tell you to do. There is no disclaimer for potential emotional distress when your doctor laughs at you when you mention the drug.

One last common TV Christmas tradition is the heart-warming season-related news story. This years was about a man who was released a little early from prison (after 17 years) for having smoked dope whilst on parole for stealing 2 dollars. "You in Texas now, boy."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

24 December 2008, Christmas Eve: Dallas, Texas

Enchristmasated house including the American flagAmerica is often ahead of the rest of the world in the products they have on the market. It could also be seen that America is the testing ground for the rest of us. Or that American law bends easier to the requests of big companies. They also believe in variety. No product would dream of having just one tried and tested formula, they have to have dozens of variants. Popcorn comes in a variety of subtle differences, and it's often hard to discover what the difference is between Unsalted Movie-Formula and Low-Salt Salted Popcorn. Orange juice also isn't just orange juice. It can be low-acid pulp-free or low-cal extra-pulp or vitamin-enriched low-Atkins. The choice is yours. I just want orange juice. You know the stuff that comes out of oranges. I'm convinced there are also a hundred variants of vanilla.

It even happens to toothpaste. And they all have different oral gimmicks. One I liked is antigingivitus, which seems to prevent gingerness. Ethnic cleansing in a tube.

TamalesEvery country has its traditional Christmas food. In Britain it's turkey; in the US, turkey; and in Mexico it's... tamales. Tamales are spicy meat caked and cooked in what is effectively lard. They're tasty and probably about as good for you as strychnine, but isn't that the way of the world? We picked them up from what is reported to be one of the best Tamale places in the area. It does nothing but make wholesale tamales. It's not in the best part of town, but it's very, very handy for greasy auto repair shops and a very successful bail bonds office.

Christmas decorations on American house 1
Christmas decorations on American house 2

Monday, January 28, 2008

23 December 2008, Sunday: Dallas, Texas

Inflatable worldI must admit I used to have a similar reaction to the young Damian (from The Omen) with regards to going to church. Loud choral music in my head as I approach causing fits of screaming. These days I enjoy the anthropological experience especially when it is clearly going to be a different church experience to the one I was brought up with.

To me, church means an ancient, unheated building designed to make you feel that God is much bigger than you and that you are no better than a scurrying vole in the cold dimness of life.

When I heard I was to be going to a church in America, two stereotypes presented themselves and filled me with anticipation. Mega-churches and Gospel churches. Ideally it would be a Mega Gospel Church.

The vision of my head which was a combination of the frenzied gospel scene from The Blues Brothers and the Superbowl (the world's biggest bowls spectacular). Of course, this was incorrect, and the vast majority of faithful Americans don't go to churches like these. In fact in the States, religions are like sandwiches. Everyone has their own favourite, each with its distinct choice of fillings and they go to the church that makes the one exactly how they like it. In Europe, the choice is usually simple. If you're Christian, you are either Catholic or one of the local protestant churches (of which there is only a limited denominations in any one area). In the States, every church seems to have its own brand, and you can be a Preternatural Pentecostal or a Presbyterian Episcopalian, or even a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Feel his noodly appendage).

Cuddly FishThe church we went to is very informal and gives a feeling more like that of one big family than the traditional "we church, you masses" relationship. It was a lot about sharing and it was even acceptable to call out things to the under-pastors. (Calling out to the full preacher is not done, but apart from that people seem free to almost heckle those who speak before the headline preacher makes his appearance.) The service seemed to take lots of bits it liked from other churches which made it feel all the more human. There was even a karaoke screen on which the words of hymns appeared. The older hymns I knew, but there were quite a few 'modern' hymns (those written after 1900). These tend to be dull and repetitive. One was apparently arranged by Beck, and I was expecting something funky and offbeat. It however did not appear to be the same Beck as I was thinking of.

The Beck I was thinking ofDuring the middle, one of the under-pastors came and told a story to all the children. It was a typically cute tale about some flower that blooms in Mexico at Christmas. After it the children were lead off to "Children's Church" which from the description sounded more like a playpen. I was too tall.

Preachers in the land and age of TV have to be more like entertainers than ever. And ours was quite compelling, putting his point across with skill, good examples and a firm observance of the laws of story telling. He perhaps overplayed the examples for my taste, but in land and age of TV, subtlety is not your best weapon.

22 December 2008, Saturday: Dallas, Texas

Remarkably oppressive Communist-Russian-style giant animated workers in a mall remind us that the main difference between the USA and the USSR was that the USA was much better at indoctrinating its people.Yet more shopping. But we ended the day by heading over to Fort Worth to watch some improv comedy. Four Day Weekend are a bunch of guys who from what I can see seem to be the best group in the area. They certainly put on a great, tight show. The opening was low-key, but effective. Made to be a sort of therapy session, where a light picked out people from the audience who were declared to be alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc.

They do many of the usual games, but also they throw in free scenes. They even have a few twists all of their own, like a game which is a take-off of one of those ride-in-the-car reality cop shows. In this, two actors play two very Texan cops cruising around and talking to the camera guy in the back seat. What makes this game is that there really is a camera guy with a camcorder behind them and the footage is relayed on a big screen. The effect is especially good when they give chase to the (celebrity) perpetrator. They all run on the spot, but with the shaky camera 'following' them, it looks exactly like the chase sequences from these shows. It all ended with a Day in the Life style musical, and they were lucky to pick a teacher whose hobby was roping cattle. He was dressed as one would expect with jeans, huge belt buckle and bandanna. Possibly the most Texan person I have encountered so far.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

21 December 2008, Friday: Dallas Texas

Arty thing in mall. I think it’s a heavily armed duck or the contents of a pre-school kids stomachThe day is approaching and I realise this could be the soberest Christmas I've had since I was 11. Cath's parents live in a county which until recently was dry – i.e. sold no alcohol. You can now get wine or beer, but none of the hard stuff. You have to go a couple of miles further down the road for that. I am not complaining. In fact it's nice to be away from the social compulsion to drink.

As a rule, Americans aren't really such big drinkers. A clue to this is the proliferation of Budweiser. Budweiser is the beer equivalent of those little cheesy triangles. It's not in any way real, tasty, quality or deserving of a place of a place on the planet.

For lunch we ate unexpectedly acceptable sushi from a food court stall. Reminding us that America can do some terrible things to its food, but food is important there and there are places were they do things right for the people who don’t just want sugared meat in sugared buns. However we did allow ourselves another of Mrs Fields Fascist Cookies.

The streets are filled with large SUVs (Superfluous Ugly Vans or Sports Utility Vehicles). Most impressive of all are Hummers. Hummers are very recognisable because that's what the US army drives. Most of the time you see one outside of the US it is being attacked on some Iraqi roadside or it's sitting burned out next to a crater. Driving an armoured personnel wagon helps confirm to Americans they are living in a war zone and that their fears are utterly justified.

This is getting silly

20 December 2007, Thursday: Dallas, Texas.

A road in Dallas!I have noted before that around the world, different areas have different walks. I noted that a lot of young Israeli men seemed to have a kind of swagger, probably due to having a rifle at home. I saw a couple of Texans who all had a particular walk. It was a kind of an awkward, staggering waddle and was entirely due to their waist being about ¾ of their height.

That being said, it is notable that this is far from the norm. People have a particular idea about Americans and obesity, partly born out by statistics. And they say everything is bigger in Texas. But actually, I was surprised how regular sized most people are. Not skinny, of course, but less obese than I remember. It is still impossible for Lady Catherine to find anything in her size, unless she goes to the kids department, but there the stock of sexually attractive clothing is scandalously nonexistent. Somewhere there must be a small emporium called something like Jailbait and stocking cute little numbers from the Lolita house. Proprietor: one Pete O'Phile.

More roads, DallasAs with previous days we spent a chunk of it in the mall. We'd been so busy in the build-up to leaving the Netherlands, we had done zero Christmas shopping. And if there is one thing you cannot avoid at this time of year, it's shopping.

There is a conception that the US is a kind of United States of Generica where every mall looks the same and contains the same stores selling the same stuff. And to a degree this is true. However, different areas can have different franchises, although they all spread out and repeat themselves within that area. So there are some chains in the Dallas area that you don't see elsewhere. It's not quite variety, but it's a marketable alternative.

One national chain I was introduced to was Mrs Fields Cookies. Mrs Fields does very nice cookies, despite the fact she seems to be some sort of right-wing monster, by all accounts. But they do say that fascists have the best cookies. You should have tasted Mussolini's Brownies. Mm mmm. And you may think Hitler was the evilest fiend who ever lived, but you never had one his fudge-nut butter biscuits.

Deliberate artistic shot entitled Dallas Shakedown

Saturday, January 26, 2008

19 December 2007, Wednesday: Dallas, Texas

Scene from small pickup truckThe first port of call of the day was a supermarket. Although obviously in the UK it wouldn't be called a supermarket, rather a small town. With European supermarkets carrying more and more American-influenced or American-produced products, it's easy to think you've seen everything, but of course, like Jaffa Cakes and stroopwafels, America too holds back one or two goodies for themselves. Nestled amongst the fruit were little boxed of pre-sliced apples. Not new in itself as I've seen the same in Albert Heijn, but these came with a caramel dip. It reminded me that NOTHING comes in America without extra sugar. Even spare tires probably come with a free sachet of sugared honey dip. In the health-food section, was the usual array of nut bars. In the Netherlands, they throw in at least one variant with chocolate on for people who can't quite go all the way. In the States there is not a single "health bar" that is not smothered in chocolate or something that attempts to simulate it.

On the way back, we drove past many identical, yet somehow differently-branded burger bars. A popular one in the Dallas area is Waterburger (or Whataburger). It looks like the sort of place people go when they don't want to go somewhere so up-market as McDonalds.

Approaching traffic lightsOne thing I got to witness at first hand was people getting annoyed at the expression, "Happy Holidays." The expression "Happy Holidays" is used so as not to offend people who do not in theory celebrate Christmas (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc, etc), some of whom happen to also have holidays at that sort of time. However, the attempt to appease those not celebrating Christmas has upset some who do celebrate it. For me, I don't see the problem because Christmas is no longer merely a Christian celebration; the date and paraphernalia have been taken over by the more powerful religion of consumerism just as Christianity took the date and the paraphernalia from the pagan festival of Yule. Everyone celebrates Christmas, or at least realises that ALL shops do. It's no longer about some Jewish kid born in a barn in September who went on to become Messiah. (Although he didn't do the one thing Messiahs are supposed to do and deliver Israel up to God, but hey.) Christmas or Xmas or Salesmas is now the time of year enjoyed globally by retailers. A time of TV movie premiers and extra long episodes; a time of compulsory shopping and irritating music; a time of unnecessary familiarity at work and for being told you are a bad person if you don't get swept up in the ridiculousness of some of the rituals.

So, I don't mind what people say and don't mind admitting I think too much fuss is made of a holiday mostly celebrated by shopping establishments. A holiday that a lot of people who do celebrate it don't do so for any religious reasons. It's now part of global culture and no longer a purely religious thing. As Christians adopted these things from pagans, so global society has borrowed things from Christianity and a Dutch homage to a Turkish bishop to create a celebration of buying stuff.

It'll be nice to have an expression that nobody is offended by, but that is impossible. So the next best thing, equality-wise, is to have an expression that pretty-much everybody objects to. So that's why I say, "Bah Humbug, one and all."

Dallas at night. Possibly during an earthquake

Friday, January 25, 2008

18 December 2007, Tuesday: London Gatwick

As I have stated many times before, the fun of air travel isn't really there any more. It's not entirely due to the increased appearance of security but as much to do with the cheap flight revolution that turned us into battery hens.

Even though we were just changing flights at London, we had to pass through extra security because we were now heading to the United States of Severe Restrictions. A guy who had recently been retrained, perhaps from the role of postman or park attendant, went through a checklist of security questions. Because the receipt for my baggage had been attached to the stub of my girlfriend's boarding pass, it caused a slight departure from the list and the guy had to tell me, "I forgot where I was." I was tempted to say, "That was the last question," figuring the force wasn't strong in this one, but then the supervisor might have had to come over and the supervisor looked like he knew something about security. I told the retrainee where he was and he continued. The questions are still somewhere below El Al standards, but they are getting there. They skip around and avoid asking exact questions such as, "have you spoken to anyone with a beard recently?" but you suspect that's what they want to ask.

After you have been asked by someone with an evening class in psychology questions set by a civil servant and your shoes have been x-rayed, you can hurry along to area where you get squashed in together before boarding the plane. I think this area is there to get you acclimatised to breathing other people's exhaled air for 20 minutes before you have to do it in a metal brick that only flies because of the magical qualities of jet engines.

(Science bit: The magical qualities of jet engines are that you fly faster than gravity. Just as gravity is about to pull you down, the plane has moved on and the next bit of gravity tries to get you. And so you continue until you slow down to land and then gravity gets a hold.)

Whilst waiting in the pre-air-sharing room, a succession of names were called out. It seemed to be comedy name day with Herbert Vile, Sarah Hooker and all manner of perfect names for comic novels.

The Cup says 'Healing One Soul At A Time'On the plane, as ever, you are required to walk through first and business class to see how much extra space you get there before you go back and climb into your pen. At the back of business an older couple sat with face masks on, presumably to protect them from other people's germs. Putting them on as soon as they were in the plane meant every single pleb on the plane saw them and at the very least gave them a second look. Whilst the lower orders were filing past one way, a stewardess offered them and the other privileged few pre-flight orange juices. They took automatically them before they realised they would have to take their masks off. Now if they'd only kept their masks off until the doors were shut then a) they could have drunk their orange juice and b) they would not have been sniggered at by every one of the lower-class passengers. Once everyone was strapped in, they could put them on and nobody would have known except stewardesses who, quite frankly, have seen it all before.

On the ground Americans do service very, very well. In the air, the Asians are way ahead. We were flying with United where long-haul flights are more about allowing senior cabin staff to go to exotic places than easing your journey with helpful young things poured into award winning uniforms. Fortunately the in-flight entertainment was partially working for my seat, which was better than some had. In my experience, in-flight entertainment provide a distraction only for the first 30 minutes when you try to get it to work, after that you might as we have a egg whisk stuck on the seat in front of you. "Great, an egg whisk. Stewardess, do you have any eggs?" "No."

We arrived later in the same day at Dallas Fort-Worth International Airport and where Catherine and I had to split up to follow different paths. I had the path taken by aliens where I had to be photographed and finger-printed, but at least by a jovial chap. Cath got to join the fast-moving queue where she only had to answer one question, "Have you spoken to anyone with a beard recently?"

Christmas 2007: US, UK

Christmas is supposedly about many things, but for me it is ultimately a celebration of family. After all, even Jesus spent that first Christmas with his family. Not that he had much choice being only just born. This year it was the turn of Cath's folks in Texas to put up with us. Over the next few days, we'll see how it all went.