Monthly Archives: December 2012

Welcome to America

A house with no wheels
A house with no wheels

Back to the beginning and the start of homelessness. We packed our four-bedroomed English country cottage into storage and traveled through Europe in a trailer.

We sold the trailer after two years, packed up what was left of our belongings and flew from London to America via Copenhagen. A 10 hour transatlantic flight was endured with two Danish cats across the aisle yowling and peeing all the way.

Empty-headed from last-minute preparations, jet lag and sleep deprivation as well as sad at having given up my previous life in Europe, I mustered enough brainpower to be sanctimoniously pleased at not being the one faced with A Green Card Interrogation. This wouldn’t be the last time I could relax in the relative safety of being an American passport holder on native soil while my other half runs the gamut of being the alien.

I tried to keep up the pretense of being supportive as Jimmy had only recently sprung free of the concentration camp of working life. Forty-two years of long, high stress days had taken their toll on his health. Living in America was his reward. However. The Immigration Officer was going to be his problem.

We were ominously singled out from the long snaking queue of disheveled travelers channeling through the immigration hall in Seattle. Indian saris and African native dresses brightened up the drab, wrinkled mass of humanity. Rich spicy smells and exotic perfumes let me know I wasn’t in line quite yet for Would you like fries with that?

The taciturn immigration official who’d beckoned us to his desk greeted us with “Sit down!” Jimmy’s green card application papers were requested with a glare and a gesture and he poured through them with fierce determination. After a nerve-wracking five minutes and without a word he waved Jimmy back up to the desk. I languished in my chair until he pointed a knobbly finger at me and grumbled, “Her too.”

Here it comes. The inquisition. A marriage of convenience with the spouse as sponsor? He’s going to ask me what color toothbrush Jimmy uses, his mother’s maiden name and the name of his first pet. Did he even have a pet? Unsure of much less obscure facts in my present state – What is your name? Where have you flown from? Are you here for business or pleasure? all tricky questions, I’ve found, when jet-lagged – I got up and stood meekly by, avoiding eye contact with the man who had so far spoken only four words.

He continued to shuffle Jimmy’s papers as though looking for some incriminating information he’d spotted earlier but then said to Jimmy, “I’m gonna take your fingerprints,” and suddenly grabbed Jimmy’s right index finger in a vice-like grip. He inked the digit, hovered it over a form and commanded, “Now relax and le’me do it.” He aimed the finger at the box on the page then backed off and accused Jimmy, “You’re pushin’.”

This was the last step in the immigration process for Jimmy that had so far taken two years, hours of pouring through contradictory forms, hundreds of pounds sterling spent, prodding by expensive London doctors, several visits to the U.S. Embassy in London and unnecessary chest x-rays carted thousands of miles.

Mr. Congeniality waggled Jimmy’s hand, shaking his whole arm like a dog with a bone, aimed again, and fumed, “You’re still pushin’.” Keeping my eyes down, I stared at the blank form. Involuntary pictures – hallucinations? – formed in my head. The gnarly immigration officer began to resemble Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, but without the hair and the beard and the staff and the long dress.

After ten bouts of finger wrestling and with Jimmy’s whole upper body relaxed by the imposed mini Mexican waves, the fingerprints were eventually smeared on the page and the form filling was quickly completed. I never spoke. Jimmy never spoke. We were dismissed with a “You’re outta here.” What a sweetie.

Christmas Eve is Sold Out?

We queued outside the church as though we were waiting to see the latest Harry Potter premier. Eventually allowed in we had feared the Sold Out sign would be put up just as we got to the doorway.

The church was packed with just two seats left in the very last row but we risked walking through a capacity crowd to find my brother’s family. By the time we joined him and his wife the short pew was nearly full. “I’m saving this for the rest of them,” he said, indicating a space.

“The rest of them?”

Five more people in eighteen inches of pew. It was show time and people were still pouring in. “I can’t keep this seat any longer,” he said suffering under the glares of standing parishioners and about to give up precious space to strangers as his daughter and family appeared. Somehow nine of us wedged into a space, shoulders overlapping, which would comfortably seat four and a half.

Folding chairs then appeared and all available gaps of floor space were filled with seating, probably not in accordance with fire regulations, but the Reverend looked exceedingly pleased with his full house as he picked his way up the aisle around chairs, loiterers, baby buggies, already restless tots and wheelchairs.

Timorous teenaged soloists entertained us with carols as the church continued to fill to the brim and I prayed for each one of the budding musicians to get to the end of their piece. The trumpeter was so nervous he couldn’t seem to get enough spit going to get a note out of his horn. When he did it erupted with a deafening blast. He managed to put a few notes of Oh Come All Ye Faithful in the right order and then made a hasty blushing retreat. A chubby cellist stubbornly held on to several flat notes of Silent Night, oblivious as he slowly drew his bow across the protesting strings. Even the talented pianist who was trying to accompany him couldn’t cover the wailing. The clarinettist’s few minor mistakes in Away in a Manger then paled into insignificance.

A family of five were shoe-horned into temporary seating in front of us and whenever father stood up for the frequent readings and hymns, the lights appeared to go out in our row as he towered directly over us at 6’8”.

A booming amateur opera singer standing behind us took each of the hymns and carols into a lyrical baritone harmony dislodging my tenuous hold on the melody line.

The children’s choir dressed in robes of midnight blue solemnly arranged themselves on the steps of the chancel. They sang Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella in harmonious French, finished in unison as the choir leader pinched her fingers together and turned as one when she swivelled her hands to march back to the choir stalls. As the last few choristers strode in step to their seats, they kicked up the backs of their flowing robes to reveal . . . white trainers . . . . so incongruous, yet somehow fitting, a teenaged wardrobe touch.

There were 275 people in the tiny church, 100 of them children ranging in age from one month to late teens. Communion had still to be served and as the first hour ticked past, the volume and level of activity from the congregation raised. Children became fractious. Parents looked strained. Jimmy and I remained tranquil as they were other people’s children.

The two smallest members of our extended family unit had had enough of sitting still. The baby squirmed on the floor then danced on her father’s lap. She threw herself about with such vigour that concussion on the pew was narrowly avoided. Her big brother took the opportunity whenever we stood, which we were forced to do in unison as all our hips were wedged together, to shed some energy by swimming up and down the slippery pew, well polished as it was by many bottoms over the years. It was quite difficult to concentrate on the readings when his head would suddenly appear between sets of legs.

Thankfully after communion and the blessing of the little darlings, their parents escaped with them to the nursery in the church hall.
Afterwards we sat back down with relief and a bit more space and meditated as the parishioners came and went, came and went, to take communion and return to their pews. The vicar and his mates must have been aware of the state of unrest as they fairly hurtled through the Eucharist but the devout continued to stream up to the altar and race away. I had knelt at the altar for a moment too long and was asked to leave as though in a busy restaurant. Do this in remembrance of me but be quick about it.

Twenty minutes of bread and wine had already been dished out and still the procession continued. Perhaps the next door church had run out of wine and had sent their sinners to us.

“They must be bussing them in from out of state. I’m sure there weren’t that many people here,” my brother whispered. A goodly turnout had been anticipated as six hymns were lined up on the programme to pass the time, but the organist still had to give several encores to cover the sound of pounding feet. Row upon row stood and jogged to the altar to try to keep up with the cracking pace set by the vicar. The taking of bread and wine took half an hour with an average serving time worthy of the Communion Olympics. As far as we could see no one was turned away, the doors remained open and every sinner in the metropolitan area of Tacoma received communion.

We truly felt the spirit of Christmas and as a bonus the ticket price was nil for a wonderful evening’s entertainment.

Who needs a zoo when you live out west?

Before we began our tour of the national parks and all the terrifying, man-eating animals they have to offer the unsuspecting public, we had seen more wildlife in the wild, outside our door, underfoot and often surprisingly beside the road in the last year than either of us had seen in a lifetime.
I was the wildlife spotter as himself, the driver, was usually watching the road, although sometimes I had to do that as well.
“LOOK OU . . . oooff!” and the rest of the air was slammed out of my lungs as the brakes were applied with some force and the seatbelt snapped ‘round my chest. “You did see that car, didn’t you?”
“Of course!” he replied hotly. I think not.
The creatures we had seen, on and off the road, so far:
• Two tarantulas, one in the middle of the road, so large that he defied traffic. The other one was encountered in the desert and came within an inch of his life as himself was about to step on him. Picture us in freeze frame. Do we back up slowly? Keep still? RUN!?

Honestly, he was big enough to cause a traffic jam!
Honestly, he was big enough to cause a traffic jam!

• Two caterpillars, rather handsome in their black and tan furry coats
• One snake, black with yellow racing stripes
• Chipmunks, everywhere if you stand still long enough
• Deer, thrilling at first, then the sightings were so numerous we could hardly utter an “Oh look.”
• Bald eagles, previously seen only on the backs of bills, mainly dollar bills
• Red-tailed hawk, sitting on the goal post at great niece’s soccer game refereeing the game and watching for off side
• Assorted birds we’ve named LBCs (little brown chaps)
• Cormorants, herons, egrets and numerous ducky-type water fowl all unidentified except:
• 100’s of Buffleheads. Examining the bird identification chart and lacking the ability to distinguish the difference between dozens of ducks I said, “Let’s just call it a Bufflehead. It’s a cute name. No one will know if it isn’t.” In fact, they were Buffleheads, as we read further; they were common in Oregon at that time of year. They are dear little black and white ducks with big, big heads – so named because they looked like buffalo heads.
• Grazing elk and fighting elk. Clack, clack, clack. Just like in the wildlife films.
• Starfish and blue, green and pink anemone clinging to the rocks at low tide, displayed for us Jaws-phobic beach combers who would never see them otherwise.

• Ronald Raccoon and his wife. You see there is a benefit to drinking wine. Don’t listen to those government warnings. You’ll never know what you’d miss. Walking to the bottle bank after dark through towering Douglas firs in order to dispose of the evidence and navigating by flashlight, two pairs of golden eyes appeared ahead on the path. We peered into the beam of light and could just make out their little bandit-mask faces and zebra-striped tails. We’d never have had that brush with nature if we drank water or iced tea. You may be poo-pooing our fascination with nature at this point as I understand Brooklyn and many other urban and suburban areas are overrun with pesky raccoons but they are only native to North America, we’d never seen one and they are cute.
• And lastly, on the flashlight walk, “Carol look! A skunk!” And so it was – dressed in a luxurious black coat with his bold white stripe illuminated and pointing his stinky bits at us.
“Have you ever seen a skunk before?” I whispered, alarmed, lest I incite him to spray us.
“Well how did you know it was a skunk?”

“Pépé Le Pew, the cartoon character!” he murmured. Oh of course. What a couple of city slickers we are. We knew enough to stay out of range though. Pew!!!

Pain and Pleasure is a Matter of Opinion

Disregarding difficulties with hitching up, puzzling over the microwave, burning my hand on the oven, setting off the gas alarm, fighting with the fitted sheets, draining the batteries, differences of opinion between the navigator and pilot, tolerating the roar of our blast-furnace central heating and getting the fridge to freeze, our first junket in the new trailer was a great success.

Unsure of my adaptability in a new kitchen, I took a tin of beef stew as a reserve meal. It had the look and smell of dog food when it erupted from the tin and plopped into the saucepan. Jimmy was gracious and soldiered through the meal without comment. But we had a great time. We really did.

Imagine our surprise and consternation every time we drove past a sign saying “Leaving tsunami hazard zone” not realizing we had entered it.

A scrap of paper taped to a shop door informed us it was “Closed till the 14th. On vacation. Gone elk hunting.” Lying on a tropical beach is a vacation. Can anyone really relax and unwind while elk hunting?

A sign to Dismal Nitch couldn’t be ignored. It was named by Lewis and Clark who were trapped there for several days in the winter of 1805 by ferocious Pacific storms after the arduous east to west leg of their exploration of the unknown wilderness west of the Mississippi River. The name seemed apt even without the storm so we hastened back to Cape Disappointment, so named by John Meares in 1788, an English fur trader. He was disappointed not to find the Columbia River. Can’t think why. It’s right there. Perhaps the scene was blurred if he arrived in the rainy season – which is most of the time.

We may have endured some pain, suffered some surprises and eaten dog food for dinner but we began to appreciate the luxury in which we were travelling.

Only beautiful when you have a cozy trailer to live in.
Only beautiful when you have a cozy trailer to eat and sleep in after a long day’s drive in a warm, dry car.

Who Loves Trader Joe’s?


Sign at our favourite organic, slightly wacky grocery store, Trader Joe’s:

“High quality products,

Ridiculously low prices,

But talk is cheap,

Shop and compare.”

Message on their environmentally friendly brown paper bags:

“Join the shopping adventure and save with abandon!”

Each week TJ’s promote a different coffee and food product by giving out free samples. Always in the same corner of the store, it is of course my first stop before I shop.  This week it was delicious German spice cookies, pfeffernusse, little mountains of delight – soft spiced cake on the inside, crisp on the outside and slathered with icing sugar – stocked only at Christmastime.  Each bite into the cookie resulted in an eruption of sugar all over my face so that by the time I got to the till, Jimmy was giving me one of his looks.  “You’re like a little kid,” he said shaking his head like a long-suffering parent and tapping his mouth where I needed to wipe.  Moving to the till to pay and anxious to free up one hand of cookie or coffee, I stuffed the last of the cookie in and the checkout girl looked at me and tapped her chin, so I quickly wiped that.

‘Did I get it all?’ I asked her, and she shook her head no.  Looking down I had an avalanche of icing sugar all down the front of my black coat.

“I can’t take you anywhere,” himself hissed. Exasperation oozed from him. In all my years I’ve never caused such despair.

Still, he loves Trader Joe’s too so we will go back. Separate carts next time? Or would different days be better?