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Back to Reality July 26, 2008

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It took two cars to transport my friends from England to LAX with all their plunder. They gave it their all trying to buoy the U.S. economy. Lesley spent valiantly until the very end. Down to her last $20, she fixated on a lawn ornament at Joanne’s, a metal stake that featured a pyramid of farm animals. She carried this Americana saber around for half an hour before finally admitting it wouldn’t fit in her suitcase.

Instead, Lesley bought some new fangled things, evidently unavailable in England, called paper napkins.These matched the stack of plastic picnic plates she’d purchased on sale. Hey, the dollar is worth only 50 percent of the English pound and all items were 60 percent off. If you do the math, the cashier was handing out cash.

Facing the 11-hour flight back to Heathrow, our friends were in no great hurry to leave until I told them the tonic had run out. That sent them packing. Now we’re left with a big bottle of gin, no tonic, and sadly, no houseguests.

Who could ever have imagined that I’d meet someone over the internet, jet off to spend New Year’s Eve with their family in England, and they’d be sitting out on my porch in sunny California sipping G&Ts six months later? When Richard left for the airport with Ian and Lucy, he said they both waved to our house and said, “Goodbye our American home!”

So, after hosting a two-week long party that made the Boston Tea Party look like a rather sedate and proper affair, it’s back to reality. Reality sucks.

Here’s the skinny on the cultural exchange between the Brits and the Americans. Let’s keep score. (If you’re a teacher, you might want to use a Venn diagram.)

The British learned:

People in LA are way nicer than people in snotty San Francisco.

People in the U.S. have pigs living inside and broom closets outside.

If you use the toilet at a restaurant, someone will take away your salad.

The sun may never set on the British Empire, but it’s always sunny in California

If you order a hamburger “without salad,” you have to also specify that you don’t want lettuce, tomato, or anything green.

The Dewey Decimal system is alive and well in America. (Lesley made a surprise spot check)

Americans eat these strange contraptions called artichokes. Then, after performing a bizarre cutting ritual, consume their hearts, which are actually quite tasty.

The Americans learned:

Brits call leftovers “bits and pieces.”

Brits take this shagging thing quite seriously and also engage in something referred to as snogging, which they say the Scots also do with sheep. We talked about joining them in Scotland to check our the veracity of this claim.

Brits refer to the lowly rhinestone as “diamonte” and covet it like raccoons.

People from Manchester, England are referred to as Manculians, which is just downright kinky.

I’d say it was an even exchange with the common currency being laughter. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard and so much in ages. What’s funny is that after all my obsessing about where to take my visitors, they seemed to be happiest when sitting out “in the garden.” That’s Brit-speak for a patio. They wallowed in the sun, as I believe it took them two full weeks just to dry out. After a few days they were casually stepping over the pig and throwing the mousetraps back on the couch, so the dogs wouldn’t sit on them. In short, they made themselves at home.

I can hardly wait to say, “Hello English home” again. Hugs across the pond to all my friends in the UK.

America – Daze 2/3/4 July 13, 2008

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All museums have been put on the back burner because I’m too busy showing my guests American culture. British tourists don’t need to come all the way to LA to see yet another painting entitled “Madonna and Child” by an artist whose name is heavy on vowels. Our first stop on our gallery walk was Target.

My husband likes to say that I belong to the church of Target. Well, I took Lesley and her daughter, Lucy, for a look-see and Lesley emerged shouting,”I’m a believer!” She had all her loot stashed in a red reusable Target bag that folds up so you can carry it as an evening clutch. It can also be opened like a large book and Lesley spent the rest of the day wandering about the house holding it like a hymnal and singing, “Amen!”

Our next stop was Venice Beach. We wandered into a lovely shop. The inventory consisted of hookahs, Made in China dream catchers, belly dancing coin belts, crotchless panties, and jewelry. Lesley saw a bracelet in the glass case and shreiked, “Look, that’s so me!”  I just remember it was very pink. Barbie bling. I think it was kept under glass so raccoons couldn’t make off with it.

One look at the man behind the counter and I doublechecked to make sure I still had my wallet. I’ve seen classier barkers at the carny. He took the bracelet out so Lesley could try it on and even attached the “safety clasp.”

But when Lesley asked if he could take it off, he said smiling, “No, I want you to keep it on and give me money for it.” Lesley cooed, “But you need to take it off so I can have a better look at it.”  Now, if this were a folktale, it would have been a toss-up as to who was the trickster, though I was rooting for Lesley.

The bracelet was pricey so the bargaining began. When Lesley asked what sort of metal it was made of, the man assured her it wasn’t metal, it was “silver.” She considered giving him a quick lesson in metallurgy, but decided not to hobble him with knowledge. The price of the bracelet had now fallen from $175 to $100. It was at this point, the salesman told Lesley he was “easy.”  She recoiled in horror. “You don’t go around telling someone you’re easy,” she said. “That’s like saying you’re slutty!”  Taken aback, the man said he hadn’t mean it THAT way, but the damage was done. We kept moving as the Venice boardwalk is heavy on galleries.

Lesley took one more swing by the place on our way back to the car. This time her daughter Lucy went into the shop to check out the bracelet. Lucy had her mum by the shoulders and escorted her out of the shop, saying, “Mummy, that’s the most horrid bracelet I’ve ever seen,” adding, “If you buy that, I’ll never speak to you again!”  Sulking, Lesley was escorted back to the car, blingless.

Thursday we took Lesley and Ian out for breakfast. When the waiter asked Lesley if she’d like toast or a tortilla, she asked, “What’s a tortilla?”  The restaurant was suddenly still. Convinced it was something “like that Indian bread,” she decided to go for it. We explained that the sour cream and salsa, which came in little containers, is put on the eggs and beans. I then introduced them to the friendly Tapatio man’s face. They declared it a fabulous breakfast. We sent them off on the Gold Line to Union Station and Olvera Street, so they could meet more Tapatio men.

They had such a wonderful time downtown, we were able to send them off there again the next day so we could recover from this non-stop cultural marathon. We had to rest up to see Chris Isaak at the Hollywood Bowl Saturday night. Our seats were in the nosebleed section, but it was a lovely night to sit out and watch the concert on the big screen TVs, since from where we were sitting, the performers were the size of ants. Lucy dozed off, but awoke for the fireworks finale. Then we shuffled down the mountain with all of the other art lovers, eager to secure a seat on the bus for the trip back to Pasadena.

So today we soldier on.  I’m not sure about the itinerary, but it doesn’t have the word “museum” in it. Eat your heart out J. Paul Getty.

America – Day One July 10, 2008

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I slept in so as not to wake the Brits.  I needn’t have bothered. By the time I wandered out into the kitchen at 8 a.m., Richard and Lesley were already returning from Home Depot with paint for the fence and pastries from the Union Bakery. Lesley was ecstatic. “I just saw my first two fatties!” she exclaimed. She and Richard debated how much the two people they saw weighed altogether, but when translating pounds to stones, they reached an impasse. As a compromise, it was agreed both people were about as big as a boulder.

Lesley dieted before for her trip here, all because she wanted to be able to say, “I want that supersized!” I had to break it to her gently that everything in America IS supersized.

On the way home from the airport the night before, I’d driven Lesley through my town’s historic district. “It looks like Australia,” she proclaimed. I didn’t take this as a compliment and went to great pains to point out the historical significance of the buildings we whizzed by. “Brisbane, Australia,” Lesley reiterated.

Today, Lucy’s all consuming goal was to go to Abercrombie & Fitch and once inside the inner sanctum, she began hyperventilating. She emerged an hour later with one, count it, one shirt. We then took a romp through H&M, The Gap, and another 135 stores. It’s so hard when you’re 15 and you look gorgeous in everything. At each store I got to hear, “I can’t believe how cheap this is!” Since my dollars convert to lowly dollars, I couldn’t make it a shopping menage a trois.

We took a break from all the frenzied spending to have lunch at Twin Palms where Lucy pulled out her new shirt from the Abercrombie & Fitch bag (and no, they’re not paying me for product placement) and buried her face in it. “It even smells like Abercrombie & Fitch,” she squealed. I was looking at the black and white photo of the very manly model on the bag, who evidently embodies the essence of A&F, armpit hair and all. Lucy’s mum, Lesley, suggested that the model had personally licked the new shirt to give it that unique smell. I think Lucy rather liked that idea.

We staggered back to the parking garage, came home and took a nap, which sounds a lot more exotic, if you call it a siesta.

This is what Lesley learned on Day 1:

Most of the streets in LA are quite straight and wide (supersized!)

Everyone in LA seems to drive a silver or black car (I’d noticed that myself recently)

Waiters don’t wait for everyone at the table to finish eating before removing your plate.

Here’s what I learned on Day 1:

A popsicle is actually an “ice lolly”

The school crossing guards who sit in lawn chairs and hold up the STOP sign so children can cross, are referred to in England as “lollipop ladies.”

The reason it’s incredibly rude for a waiter to take away your plate before everyone’s finished eating is because then everyone just stares at the person who’s still eating.

We then went out to Gus’s and ate hamburgers the size of the Isle of Wight and Lesley never even had to utter the “s” word. And the waiter took away my plate as soon as I’d finished, so I could then watch Lesley start packing on American-style pounds.

Welcome to Armageddon July 7, 2008

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If I were working for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, I’d have a hard time putting a positive spin on what’s happening in California. It would be like putting lipstick on a pig.

This is supposed to be “sunny” California, not “it feels like I’m living on the sun” California. But that’s what it feels like in my house where we’re boycotting the AC to save mucho dinero. My friends from England arrive Tuesday night, and I reluctantly took a peek at the Los Angeles Times today to check out the weather forecast for the upcoming week. Now, I know that predicting the weather is somewhere between watching the clouds float by and consulting a Magic 8-Ball, but it doesn’t look good. Temperatures are to hover near 100 degrees all week. Farenheit. I make this distinction because my friends from the UK are used to temperatures Celcius style, so they have to do a little math.

My friend Lesley called me today via SKYPE and said they planned to make the scenic drive up the coast to Big Sur and stay in San Francisco their second week here. I conveniently failed to mention that there’s currently a wildfire raging in Big Sur. I wanted to put Arnold on notice, so he can put a lid on it. As far as I’m concerned, he can take money directly from the schools and dump it on the fire. At least then, I’d know where the school funds are going.

Lesley also mentioned the one place her daughter, Lucy, wants to visit is Universal Studios. I’m allergic to all things theme park, but because I’m such a gracious host, I am available to drop them off and pick them up. Now my son, Ian, has informed me that three major attractions burned at Universal Studios last month. The fire evidently started on the “Backdraft” attraction and spread. Who would have thunk it?

What’s next – locusts? I’m not laughing.

A Sorry Safari for Lucy June 29, 2008

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Where on earth will Lucy sleep?  Our friends, Lesley and Ian, are coming from England with lovely Lucy, their vivacious 15-year-old daughter.  All Lucy has to do is say, “Mummy!” and I get goosebumps.   We planned to put her parents out in the room next to the garage, but that would leave Lucy couch surfing in the midst of the mayhem that passes for our life.  

Then I had the most brilliant idea.  We’d put Lucy out back in a tent.  No, I’m not talking about a tent like THAT!  More like a room with drapes.  I’ve seen outdoor rooms at Target that would fit the bill.  They’re swathed in mosquito netting with canvas sides that can be artfully tied back.  It’s an oasis, really, at a fraction of the cost.  

I proposed that we move the daybed out into the tent along with a chest of drawers.  Hang a portrait of Queen Victoria and Lucy could pretend she was on safari!  Richard suggested we paint a view of Lake Victoria on the side of the garage.  We even have a pig who can pass as a warthog. What luck!  And for a pittance, I’m sure my neighbors, Mark and Eunice,  would don tribal make-up to recreate that bush-like ambiance.

The wonderful thing about Southern California is there are no insects.  Oh, that’s Hawaii.  Okay, there are no insects that a sturdy fly swatter and a hammer can’t take out.  We could set the legs of the daybed in coffee cans filled with kerosene to discourage bugs or reptilian bedmates.  I know that works cause I’ve seen it in movies.

I emailed Lesley to see if she’d warm up to my inspired idea.  Her only suggestion was that we add a picture of Russell Crowe alongside the Queen’s.  I took that as an enthusiastic yes.

Unfortunately, like all visionaries, I’m subject to the stinging barbs of criticism from the commoners aka my family.  Alas, Lucy’s safari was nixed. Lesley and Ian will stay in our bedroom so Lucy can sleep – dare I say it? – on the couch in the den.  Doesn’t sound nearly as exotic, but at least she won’t have to fend off wildlife. And Lucy will also have access to a computer and a TV.  No “EastEnders” though, and that could be the biggest hardship of all.

Bienvenidos al Los Angeles June 22, 2008

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The British are coming! The British are coming! One by land, two by sea. Okay, make that three by air. My friend, Lesley, and her family are flying in from the UK on July 8th. This is their first visit to the states, or the colonies as I refer to them, and they’re eager to see Los Angeles.

There are so many things to see and do in LA that I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Future diplomatic relations between the UK and its petulant offspring, the US, could hinge on my choices. I don’t want to muck this up like George W. And the timing couldn’t be better, what with the price of a gallon of gas fast approaching that of a vial of Botox. Of course, for each kilometer they fly west, their wallets grow fatter. So America beckons like one giant factory outlet.

I met Lesley on the internet late last summer. After a flurry of emails, and several conversations via SKYPE, she invited my husband, Richard, and I to come to England to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Crazy? Absolutely! But we had such a fabulous time now they want to see how how those wacky Americans live.

Yes, there’s lots of history in Pasadena, but really! As Eddie Izzard said, “I come from Europe – you know, where history is from.” When we were in England we toured the local castle, where Mary Tudor aka Bloody Mary (not to be confused with the urban Bloody Mary who haunts the bathrooms of elementary schools) mustered her supporters in 1553, before being crowned Queen. We walked the streets of Framlingham, their incredibly quaint 17th century village and toured the local church,  which traces its origins to the 12th century. No,  I won’t be playing the history card.

When we were in the UK, we trapsed through castles, and along the cobblestoned streets of Cambridge.  We queued up for fish and chips in Aldeburgh on the North Sea. But what do I remember most? The people! For one thing, I’d never seen so many people who looked vaguely like me or so many redheads, including Lesley. But mostly, I remember how lovely the people were. Once we’d mentioned that we thought George W. was the village idiot, people embraced us like the long lost relatives that we probably are.

It helped that Lesley is the town librarian in a town of 2600 people. The library is located in a 300-year-old building that’s a gathering spot for local folk. Think of it as Starbucks, only the books are free. No espresso, but there was a pot of coffee brewing. So much for the stereotypical, “Would you like a cuppa…?” People popped in to pick up DVDs they ordered or for just the chance to chat up Lesley and her co-workers, Sally and Crawford.  It was a delight just to walk about the town with Lesley, who knew everyone!

So what should I show my friends? It’s made me think about what it is I find so unique about this place called Los Angeles, the most multicultural city in America. The place I call home.

I definitely want Lesley and her family to meet our friends and neighbors, a diverse lot indeed. While they’re here, my neighbors, Chuck and Chris, are having a block party to celebrate Chuck’s 50th birthday. They’re also celebrating 10 years of being partners and their house’s 100th year. I’ll count that as history in the making.

And then there’s the food. In Framlingham, we ordered out from the “curry house” one night for fabulous Indian food prepared by the local Pakistanis. Since Fram is an hour east of London, that’s about as diverse as it gets. I recently sent Lesley an email detailing some of the food options. Mexican food and margaritas, Cuban food at The Cuban Bistro in Alhambra, Spanish tapas at La Luna Negra, Thai food from Saladang, sushi, Chinese dim sum, and kick-ass bar-b-q from the new Gus’s in South Pasadena, and a late night stop at In-N-Out Burger. Maybe we’ll get lucky and my next door neighbor, Stella, will whip up one of her Greek specialties which she loves to share.

If my house guests get homesick, we can always take them out for Indian food. But at our local Indian restaurant, the cook is Latino. Only in America.

I couldn’t believe it when Lesley told me she’d never heard of Target. And I thought England had come out of the Dark Ages centuries ago! After a visit to Target, I’ll take her for a look-see at Costco. I don’t think she believed me when I told her you can only purchase soy sauce in a gallon-sized gasoline can.

Then there are the artichokes and the avocados to be enjoyed on the patio with pitchers of sangria. Trader Joe’s alone is worth a trip across the pond. Oh, and I can’t forget the parrots!  We live in their fly-over zone. Not only are they loud and colorful, they too are immigrants, which makes them the consummate Americans. Of course, we’ll have to spend a day at the beach and wallow in the craziness that is Venice.

Come to think of it, I know now exactly what I’m going to show them. I’m going to show them what the New World looks like. It’s called Los Angeles.