I went for a flu jab the other day, in a branch of a well known Newquay chemists as they offered a walk in facility, and the young man who came to administer said jab looked about fifteen. He asked my date of birth, checking against his paperwork, and I rattled off the answer. Okay, it was a while ago, but I still retain a few faculties.
‘That’s fine,’ he said, ‘would that be nineteen, forty six?’
I thought he was having a bit of a joke, but he was serious.
Good grief, do I really look as if I was born in 1846? 2046 is well into the future and 1846 would mean he was asking questions of a 171 year old man. Could he really imagine I’m a hundred and seventy one years old? Did he ever even think before asking that question? Is he really qualified to stick a needle in my arm?
Anyway, he jabbed away and before leaving told me to ‘sit in the waiting room for about five minutes in case you have a bad reaction and collapse.’
Where do they find these people?
While sitting for the mandatory five minutes, actually I left a minute early as an act of defiance, a woman sitting opposite said, ‘you look brown, been away, have you?’
‘Yes, just got back from a road trip to America.’
‘Ew, what you wanna go there for? You’re lucky to be alive, all them shootings and what not. What’s wrong with England anyway?’
The questions were delivered in such a truculent fashion I wondered whether travelling had been made illegal or immoral during our absence, but my inquisitor appeared genuinely baffled by us seeking out foreign climes to visit.
We appreciate our lifestyle wouldn’t suit everybody. We’re free spirits when it suits us, but can easily settle for quiet domesticity at times. Just, not all the time. We love experiencing different places, different cultures, meeting complete strangers whose life is so very different from our own and every trip is one less thing to be regretful about. We’ve talked about ‘doing’ a US road trip for several years and now we’ve done it. What’s more, we’ve loved (almost) every aspect of our trip.
Some thoughts on travelling. I found a few quotes by people who expressed my thoughts far better than I could.
‘Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.’
‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.’
‘Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going.’
‘Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.’
That Hemingway quotation is interesting. Helen Hayes, the ‘First Lady of American Theatre,’ held a very different point of view: ‘when travelling with someone, take large doses of patience and tolerance with your morning coffee’.
I love travelling, but without Marigold to share the experience, it wouldn’t be the same so I’m sticking with Hemingway.
‘Wish I could do what you pair do, just swan off whenever you feel like it, seeing different places. I’d love to do that,’ a friend said to us recently.
‘Why don’t you then?’ Marigold, straight to the point.
A shrug of the shoulders, ‘Oh, I will, one of these days.’
I’m not so sure she will. Our friend is far more of a noun, an abstract noun at that, not a verb, a doing word. Marigold and I, we’re verbs. We do things. Why harbour regrets for things you wish you’d done until your dying day? Why live your life in a conditional tense? ‘If only’ is a pretty awful mantra to live your life by.
Back home, we’re still talking about our Road Trip. So many diverse places: beaches, deserts, vast sprawling cities and towns that don’t appear to have noticed it isn’t the 19th century any more, we saw all this and more in just four and a half weeks. Our favourite places. well, the Pacific coastline, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon were highlights, but we also loved the quirky nature of Beatty and many other examples of small town America. Death Valley was somewhere we’d long wanted to see and met all expectations while Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks were perhaps best suited to immersion of a week or more to get full benefit from their sheer immensity.
Anywhere we didn’t like? No, not really, but Los Angeles and Salt Lake City stood out as being big, noisy and crowded and we weren’t sorry to leave either of them. San Francisco, which we expected to really like, had its moments, but has a real problem with homeless people and this wore us down after a few days.
The only place we’d not want to visit again was Las Vegas. We had a few laughs, met some lovely people, but its superficial glamour soon palled. That’s just our opinion, obviously, and we can both understand how so many people love going there. Just, not us.
A few years ago now, we drove throughout New Zealand in a camper van. We’ve owned homes in France, Spain and Morocco, spent significant time in several other countries, but New Zealand was the one place we both said ‘we could live here.’ We don’t say that very often. We could live, happily, in several of the places we’ve just visited. Malibu, perhaps? More sensibly, many of the coastal resorts along that California coastline have a good feel to them and even if we discount most of the arid desert regions as being less than perfect as a permanent home, a town like Moab has much to offer, but that ‘New Zealand’ vibe was hard to find.
We’re due to set off again any time soon. When we reach the stage of being able to say, ‘we could leave tomorrow,’ we’ll go. We’re not great ‘packers,’ but we’re pretty good at travelling light. October in England means the air gets a bit nippy and realisation dawns that what passed for summer this year was all we’re going to get. Time to move on then. There’s plenty of warm sunshine around, we just have to go and find it and that means heading south for the winter. Winters in Southern Spain, Portugal or North Africa are much like summers in England - a lot better than this year’s offering actually - so why not keep ourselves warm and dry over the long winter months rather than huddling next to the fire coughing and sneezing? We’ve done both and we know which we prefer.
We were in St Ives the other day. Lovely place, St. Ives. A big sign said, ‘try our delicious home baked biscuits.’ We both said, ‘with gravy’ at the same time. No American breakfast menu is complete without ‘biscuits with gravy.’ What they call ‘biscuits’ are more like scones, but one serving of biscuits with gravy was more than enough for me.
We had fish and chips overlooking the harbour. St Ives is a working port, lots of fishing boats, yet they served us up pre frozen fillets. Why? Is the price difference between fresh and frozen so great? St Ives is busy, all year round, tourists clamour for fish and chips by the harbour and yet they serve up a product no different from what those hordes of tourists can buy back home. Seemed a missed opportunity to me.
We parked next to a miniature version of a VW camper, with a big VW badge on the front along with another saying Kernow Campers, so self evidently the product of a Cornish company. We’ve spent many a night in a VW camper. They’re great fun, very quirky, people’s faces brighten up when they see one, but we’re also only too well aware of the inevitable compromises they force on their owner. Now imagine one only two thirds the size. Where I would put my feet when we went to bed wasn’t exactly apparent. Even so, we both liked it. Liked the retro colour scheme too.
We wanted to visit the Tate in St Ives, but for the third time we’ve been here, it was closed, being prepared for a future exhibition. Grrr. By the time we get to set foot in the place it’ll have been condemned as unsafe and recommended for demolition. Marigold decided she’d have a cup of tea instead. We found an almost empty café with décor aimed at the Pensioner’s Day Out trade even though we try very hard not to fit into that particular stereotype. Earl Grey tea was served in delicate, almost translucent, bone china cups set on a lace table cloth. The room was a microcosm of Middle England with antecedents dating right back to the Raj when the British Empire was the envy of the world. In this room, those days may be long gone, but are certainly not forgotten. Facing Marigold a (presumably genuine) Sheraton cabinet contained leather bound books that didn’t appear to have been opened since Disraeli was in Downing Street.
Our waitress, a vision in black and white, brought out Marigold’s tea and swept away again, gliding as if on unseen casters.
The only other people in the cafe were a couple of locals, strong Cornish accents, with loud voices talking about Theresa May’s cough. The man seemed to think she’d done it deliberately ‘to gain sympathy,’ but he ‘wasn’t buying it.’ He said it was an ‘egregious tactic dreamed up by Number Ten’ and much more in the same didactic, and very intrusive, manner. I couldn’t see the face of the person he was hectoring, but imagine it bore a long suffering expression.
‘Interesting,’ I said, quietly, to Marigold ‘to hear the word egregious in conversation. Sort of goes with the surroundings.’
Egregious is one of those words that have completely changed meaning over the years. Its Latin root means flock, as in a flock of birds and its usage was based on ‘standing out from the flock.’ Originally, ‘egregious’ meant standing out from the flock in a good way; being superb or outstanding but now invariably is used to denote something really, really bad. Like Theresa May’s carefully contrived and artificially induced coughing fit in the middle of a speech. Apparently.
A few days later we were in Looe. The weather wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t raining so we braved the narrow lanes of Cornwall. Half way there and we wished we’d taken Ruby for this trip as she takes up so little room in these very narrow roads. We wandered around Looe, both sides of the fast flowing estuary. A sign saying , ‘do not feed the locals; they’re vicious’ was slightly alarming until we saw the accompanying picture of a seagull. Every other shop sells pasties or ice cream. Not ‘ordinary’ pasties or ice cream, but ‘award winning’ pasties and ice cream. How many awards are there on offer? We didn’t buy any, but when we came across Catch, a fish and chip shop on the quay, we decided to follow up on a recommendation from a couple of our gourmet friends. Oh, and it’s an award winner too. This time, the award really means something as Catch were ‘UK Best Newcomers’ in the National Fish and Chip awards, which is the equivalent of a Michelin Star for fish and chip shops.
We had proper chips and line-caught fish from the Looe fishing fleet, fresh off the boat. Delicious plump, white fish and tasting absolutely fresh. St Ives, take note.
One of our last days out in England for a while, as we’ll be off on our travels again soon, but we’re still talking away to each other about that US Road Trip.
Thinking back, it’s odd how our expectations of this last trip were perhaps different from, say, our extended journey through Eastern Europe a couple of years ago. The fact that we share (a version of) the same language, allied to the familiarity of American life gained from daily exposure through TV, all felt very safe and familiar when contrasted with instantaneous exposure to the vast cultural differences between Eastern and Western Europe. And yet, and yet…
America is reassuringly familiar in so many ways and yet so very different in others. With our long experience of living in different European countries as background, we’re probably less ‘British’ than most visitors from the U.K. but we were constantly reminded we were spending time in a foreign land. We may share a common language with the US – and I’m not one of those people who regard the English language as ‘ours’ while other nations merely rent it – but the gulf in expression and perception between the two nations is enormous and at its most poignant in the small details.
While we were in the Napa Valley, we spent some time in an absolutely brilliant deli. We loved the wide range of fruit and veg, all organic too, but some of the other offerings brought home to us the differences between our respective cultures. Marigold did have to chastise me, not an unusual occurrence, for saying I liked the look of a Red Velvet cake. Well, it did look pretty scrummy, but I do realise that alarming shade of red does not remotely occur in nature and the cake must be absolutely stuffed with red dye to achieve that look.
We’re okay with different foods when we’re travelling. More than okay really as we’ve eaten and drunk some pretty alarming things over the years. Local colour, right? Even so, squirting cheese out from a can like shaving foam is not something I’d want to do regularly and why is almost every loaf of bread we saw on our trip packed with sugar? Bland, over sweet and tasteless, bread should taste like bread, shouldn’t it, even if most of it is intended to surround a burger or to be slavered in peanut butter and runny jam?
Still in that deli: an aubergine is called an eggplant, a courgette is zucchini, that over rated hybrid of lettuce and grass, rocket, is called aragula, a swede and/or turnip is a rutabaga and, I knew this one, courtesy of Hannibal Lector, fava beans are nothing more exotic than the humble broad bean while haricot beans are called navy beans. We expected different names for our root vegetables in Ukraine, but in the Napa Valley?
Marigold asked one of the assistants – who told us he was from Hawaii and was about as big as a bungalow – ‘what is this called here?’ pointing to a large display of broccoli, and he replied, ‘that’s garden fertiliser, not food. You don’t wanna be eating no green stuff, ‘less you’re a rabbit.’ Maybe working for an organic delicatessen wasn’t his ideal career choice.
What else is different? So many things to pick. Being told on checking in at hotels, ‘You’re on the second floor,’ invariably made us frown, but of course this being America, in reality we were only required to haul our luggage up one flight of stairs, not two. Second floor means first floor and even more confusing they call the ground floor – that’s street level, remember, on the ‘ground, terra firma - the first floor. There’s no logic to this.
One more: we were in Death Valley, no light pollution for twenty miles in every direction so the night skies were a feast of stars. I pointed out the distinctive Plough to Marigold only to find myself contradicted by a complete stranger standing nearby.
‘Think you’ll find that’s the Big Dipper,’ said Mister Star at Night Expert, wearing very tight shorts, knee length socks, heavy duty boots and a tee shirt that said ‘Guns R Good’ and a picture of a wolf with a machine gun.
After a period of amicable discussion – I wasn’t going to argue with a man wearing that tee shirt- we both realised we were talking about the same constellation.
‘My brain hurts,’ Marigold said as we left.