Monday, August 28, 2006

Out of Many,One

On Friday, Dad’s luggage has arrived while we slept. We are up bright and early to get tickets for the downtown tour with Grayline. My friend H, who has recently joined us on the blog and has been to NY a few times now and loves the city, recommended Grayline as one of the best ways to get around the city (other than walking, of course). We buy our tickets and jump on a bus guided by the slightly intimidating Vee, who repeats an identical refrain every time someone new got on the bus. She has an interesting habit of accentuating every other word or so when she speaks.

"Purleese, do not speak during the tour. It will disturb your neighbour from hearing the information that I have to give you."

She means it too, because if you dare to speak to your neighbour, then Vee is on you like a guided missile, shouting at you in front of everyone to stop talking. It always works.People actually look ashamed.

So, while we are all sitting in silence listening to Vee’s commentary about the buildings we are passing, I drift off for a moment and think about New York so far. New York is a very different Beast to California in every sense. It’s metropolitan, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s hydromatic, why it’s – oh no, that’s Greased Lightning, sorry. New York is drier, cooler almost, and I don’t mean the weather. Where California is relaxed, almost - but never quite - to the point of tranquilised, New York is abrupt, take-it-as-you-find-it, uncompromising. Everyone is busy, everyone is going somewhere, but don’t let that fool you, because everyone is also happy to talk to you, and usually happy to help, especially when they hear an accent they don’t recognise. I especially like that the New Yorkers we have met so far have not been inclined to bullshit us either, even when it means telling us something we don’t like. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, if they’re wrong, it’s a bonus. People seem to make their own rules here, and as a result, no one gives a toss what you do. I like that.

Today, we are headed to the Statue of Liberty, which I suppose is compulsory, and Ellis Island, which I am looking forward to much more. Well, everyone's seen the Statue of Liberty. It was in one of the Superman movies and everything. As we head past Macy's, Vee tells us that they stopped the clock there at the exact time that the Titanic sunk. She also points out the Museum of Sex on Fifth Avenue (I'm serious! Check it out at - there's a virtual exhibition about the objectification of the American male nude). Dad won't let us go, although I am dying to see the Dildo Exhibition (ok, I made that up, but they do have a special exhibition on Sex Machines, so I'm close, as t'were). I don't see why we can't go, if he's worried about Amy, she'll learn more in there than she will from school, her peers or her parents, if my experiences were anything to go by. We need one of these in Portsmouth - I'll add it to my campaign list.

The architecture here is aah-sum and so eclectic, for example, chapels and churches nestle alongside skyscrapers all over the city. I love the cast iron facades of the buildings all over the city, which can be replaced with new ones, amazing. We pass the Tiles for America site, showing tiles sent from all over the US and the world to remember those who died in 9/11. We also see the Salvation Army's world HQ, which was responsible for bringing in over 20,000 volunteers to help in the aftermath of the disaster, Vee tells us. We go through Greenwich Village, known for its bohemian history and nature, and Vee tells us that this is where some of the left wing radicals in their field took root in the past, including Bob Dylan and Bill Hicks' forefather, Lenny Bruce. We also see a Picasso statue, Bust of Sylvette, which is visually stunning, especially if you are a fan.

It's been easier on us all here in New York, with real walls and no driving or navigating or booking campsites to worry about. This has taken the strain of the cabin fever off the group, but there is still the dailiness of family life to contend with. Does anyone reading know a family that doesn't bicker and fight over the dumbest stuff ever? I'm not pointing fingers here, because I am just as guilty of it as anyone else, but if it's normal behaviour, why do we always get so angry about it?! And why is it always over the tiniest thing? Let me give you an example, over dinner last night:

Dad: You didn't sleep with your air-con on, did you?
Amy: Aaah, no Dad (tone of pained patience), it's too loud. Duh.
Dad: Well, I found it hard to sleep because the sound from the street is so loud, all the cars and sirens and voices. I like silence when I sleep.
Amy: No way (looks at Dad like he is turning into a cockroach before her eyes). I like noise, silence is scary.
Sarah: Me too, I find silence more disarming.
Dad: (laughing like I'm the funniest non-ginger this side of Brooklyn) I think what you mean is disconcerting, because disarming means -
Sarah: (instantly furious at being corrected, and knowing he's right only makes it worse) Don't tell me what I mean.
Dad: (Looking offended) I'm just saying it's not the right word. You meant disconcerting.
Sarah: (Raising voice) Don't tell me what -
Amy: Would you two please shut up? God. You're so embarrassing.

A resentful silence resumes. It's all the shared history isn't it? Every action referring to a million events that preceded them. Amy, Dad and I are one extreme to another, like the little girl with the little curl (right in the middle of her forehead).

I conclude that NY is like London, but bigger and taller and easier to navigate. Most of the time it's cheaper, too. It even has its own Soho, to make the analogy. Although New York is biggger, it feels like it's more compact than it actually is, because there is so much going on everywhere. The Grayline Tours are good for this reason, because if you're new to the city, they give you time and context to get acclimatised. We leave Vee at Battery Park at Seaport and head to the ferry terminal. We decide not to get off at Liberty Island because the queues to reboard the ferry are so huge. The statue itself is very beautiful, and that girl has a healthy figure, if you ask me, she was not afraid of the odd cream cake and I'm glad of it. But she is smaller than I thought she would be, is that a common reaction, or does the TV just add height?!

Ellis Island is a real learning curve. The exhibition encourages visitors to reflect not only on the unique history that is presented here, but also on the diversity of the American nation, in terms of what American identity really means, as well as the more obvious issues of race and ethnicity. The information is beautifully presented too, and I take my hat off to anyone who can make statistics as interesting as they are here. the interpretation is fabulous. Ellis Island charts the history of American immigration, through the history of this unique island building, which was the first Federal immigration station in the country. It has been estimated that nearly half of all Americans today can trace their family history to at least one person who passed through here, so it was a must on our list. We search for any Chevertons that may have passed through here and find about 14 of them, including a Tasmanian, George Cheverton, who sailed here from England in 1903. Go to the website and have a look for your family members at:

There are some great exhibitions here, and we spend most of the day on the Island. There are some beautiful portraits of the many immigrants who came here scattered throughout and their reasons for leaving were as diverse as those of the immigrants travelling the world today, looking for a better future or just fleeing for survival. It is a hard task to judge who is worthy of admission to a country and Ellis Island also makes you think, quite explicitly, about the impact our cultural understandings of different races, or even contemporary world events such as wars or revolutions can have on our perceptions of entire nations and the inidividuals who originate from them. For example, there is a section on the treatment of the Chinese in the US, which also features Angel Island heavily, where the Chinese were detained and often deported from San Francisco when they had fulfilled their purpose building the Railway.

Immigrants underwent medical tests, literacy tests, psychological and intelligence tests as part of the criteria for acceptance, often separated from their families for long periods, sometimes of many months in duration if one family member was sick. Compassionate treatment was not high on the list of priorities and the architecture of the island does not let you forget you are in an institution. If you failed one of the tests, you were given a chalk mark on your person to mark you as requiring more testing or to be detained pending return to the port you sailed from. There are also heart-rending stories of families being split up and some members returned home, or of family members falling sick and dying before they ever got a chance to see their new homeland.

Upstairs, there is an amazing exhibition about the out-buildings of the Island, the accomodations, hospitals and so on, which are not accessible to the public. These photos were taken when these buildings had not been touched and they have the air of urban exploration about them, with original artefacts scattered around and entire rooms left exactly as they were when the immmigration station closed. I would love to get into these buildings, they look amazing and re-kindle my interest in urban exploration, which I would love to get into when I get back home. (If you're new to urban exploration see for more info).

After more hours than I can remember, we catch the ferry back and walk through Battery Park towards the site of the Twin Towers, Grand Zero. At the outskirts of Battery Park, a huge battered metal sculpture called 'The Sphere' by Fritz Koenig stands as a memorial to the events of 9/11 and a constant flame burns before it. This once stood at the WTC as a symbol of world peace and was re-located here on March of the year after the attack. We walk further towards Ground Zero and the site knocks the air from my lungs as I take in just the physical destruction at first, of what happened here, and the huge void that remains as a result. As we get closer to the site and as I look at the photos that are hanging here in tribute to the events of that day, one image - of people staring upwards towards the towers, out of shot, the expression on their faces, and the dawning realisation of the meaning of what they are seeing - steals my breath and I start to cry. It is hard to describe the effect that this site has on you, seeing the panels containing the list of names of the people that died here that day. The wind that now runs freely through this empty space and the absence reflected in the glass of the surrounding skyscrapers convey a horror that is beyond words and my mind runs still and silent with it. I believe that places such as these hold the terrible events that happened within them somehow, and I think the city is right not to attempt to rebuild the towers, but rather to make this site a lasting memorial.

This place is filled for me with the memory of the events that happened here, an atmosphere filled with grief and waste, the sheer, empty, hopeless futility of man's inhumanity to man. And this is only one example, in one place, in one country in the world. Every country has a site or many sites like this one and the reaction to such places, to such events should always be the same: pure horror, pure sorrow, pure determination for such violence, and the many forces and events that inspire and underlie it to cease. The ending has to start somewhere. This starts with us, as individuals, long before it gets to the actions of a nation state. It starts with me not losing my temper when the computer fires up too slowly and bashing it one, it starts with me being more patient, more compassionate, more tolerant, more understanding and above all, more involved in the human race. Maybe the question I would start with is, what is that we are racing for? And where are we racing to?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Maybe bad luck comes in fours...or maybe not.

Wednesday and we're up later than usual at about 10am for breakfast. The staff in the hotel restaurant, Zana's, are exceptionally friendly and my faith in New York starts to rise. A man came this morning and fixed the toilet for us, though I stand staring at it for ages each time I flush it now just in case. Dad rings the luggage office first thing and they tell him that one of our cases is on its way to the hotel and will arrive by 2pm at the latest, and the other case is still in San Francisco. They have no idea which is which - what a hilarious, fun mini-lottery we've got going on here.

We decide to head out for a walk to get our bearings. We walk no more than 5 minutes before we see the Empire State Building rising like a sentinel from the taxi-hooting, siren-blaring, people everywhere chaos and we decide unanimously that this is where we need to go first. This turns out to be the best decision we ever made because you can see the whole of Manhattan from the Empire State Building (well you can see much further, but that's a good place to start looking if your hotel is in midtown Manhattan), and that first visit has helped to guide us in all our travels ever since. Walking round New York is the best thing, you forget how far you've walked because there is so much happening all around you and it's the best way to raise your confidence in navigating the city (not that this is too hard). Once we've seen the city from the top of the Empire State building (with the help of Tony the Taxi Driver, our audio tour guide), whenever we're not sure about a destination or our whereabouts in the future, one of us invariably remembers, "Oh, I know, you remember when we were on the Empire State building, and the Chrysler Building was over there, and that means that we're here and so we have to go this way now!" And, oddly, it always seems to work! Walking in New York is far easier than navigating the RV in LA anyway. But so is saying the Chinese alphabet while drinking a glass of water backwards, standing on your head. Singing the national anthem. In Greek. With a German accent. Ok, I'll stop.

We only queue for about half an hour, which apparently is quite good as we speak to a woman later who queued for two hours. Sod that, I'd climb the bloody thing, it would take less time (don't even think of comparing me to King Kong, it's not funny). We take two elevator rides to reach the 86th floor (you can go as high as the 106th, but 86th seems pretty high to me, the acrophobic), wade through the unsurprisingly tacky gift shop and emerge, slightly battered through a glass door. Where I see the most amazing landscape I've ever seen in my life. Ever. If San Simeon was nature's symphony on this trip, the view from the Empire State Building is the human opera. Everywhere my eye moved there was so much to look at, a thousand questions (Well, actually one question, over and over - what's that? What's that? No, not that, that one over there! Although, now you mention it, what is that, too?) about what I can see. I forgot to be afraid of the distance to the ground, I just forgot. I fell in love with this oddly ordered architectural chaos, I fell in love with the tiny, crazy, indifferent people crawling the streets like ants, the little yellow toy taxi cabs, the endless spires and the rivers I still can't tell the difference between, the bridges and the names falling over themselves into my ears, of the various districts: Soho, Little Italy, Brooklyn, Queens, Hell's Kitchen, Upper East Side, Chinatown, Staten Island, New Jersey.

Amy and Dad disappeared, we all trailed round and round and round, looking again and again, out from each direction, walking past each other without noticing, or meeting up and excitedly asking, "Did you see this? Have you noticed that? Do you know what this is?"

I could rave on and on like this to you all for ages about it, but the pictures I took can tell you more than I can and they can't tell you all of it. I loved it. Amy has wanted to live in New York for a long time, she told me on the plane and dreams of moving there when she's older. I can think of nothing better than one sister in California and the other in NY! Eventually, we climb down from the Empire State, not literally, we got the elevator, and on the ground floor, I realise that it is actually a fully functioning building, an office space in its own right. There are 80,000 people who now work in the ES Building, but when it was first built, no one wanted to move in and local papers nicknamed it the Empty State Building (see what they did there?).

Now, here's something to make residents of Portsmouth think - drum roll please, and strap yourselves in -: theEmpire State Building only took one year and 45 days to build. Yes, folks, that's right. I just told you that THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, that's the 1,453 FEET HIGH skyscraper, took just over one year to build. I know what two words are running through your head right now: Spinnaker Tower. Well, what happened there? You know how high the Spinnaker is? About 558 feet. Almost a third as high, ten years from development to completion - what did we do wrong? They didn't have to shaft an entire city to build the Empire State Building, either. Go figure.

After the Empire State Building, it is late in the afternoon and we head for the shops. Five minutes from the Empire State building we are heading into Macy's (we knew how to get there because we notice it from the top of the ESB), which is huge!! Eleven storeys of shopping joy, we spend an hour and a half there and we don't get past the second floor! International visitors get a special discount card that entitles them to 11% off, which is great and before long, Amy has bought herself a bag by Guess which is her pride and joy now. Dad and I are gobsmacked - it's the first thing she's carried for the whole holiday. We'd both assumed that she was physically unable to use her hands and walk at the same time. I buy a cheaper bag to carry my presents to others and myself back home in (my luggage is so full that one of the sections has split open), it's a Macy's branded canvas bag, with red detail, and it's my pride and joy. It's huge and fits more books than my spine can handle. Result.

Next, we wander into H&M on 7th Avenue and again, we all split up to wander round at our leisure. I don't enjoy clothes shopping, as you know, but there's a sale on and that changes everything. I have two tops, an underwear set in magically bright purple and two more hats (hats are the new bags in my life) when I bump into Amy who is starry eyed and heading to the changing room with a pair of brown tailored crinkled shorts in her hand.

"Only $30," she sighs blissfully and heads inside.

I find Dad and we wait for a long, long, long time. So long, in fact that Dad has bought all his stuff, but I am waiting for Ames as she has our Amex Travellers' Cheque Card. We're waiting and waiting and waiting. I put my bag on the floor, which is growing into the tendons in my shoulder at this point. Dad moves over to the escalator in case Amy has left the changing rooms and is looking for us and I get tired and walk into the changing rooms to look for her, but there's no sign and I don't want to go to every one of the 20 cubicles calling her name because I have to share a room with her for the next four days and I can't face the trauma. I return and we wait for another ten minutes or so. I lose my temper and my last words to Dad are, "If she's touching up her bloody make-up in there, I'm going to cuff her til she's sick." At this point, she emerges from the changing room and she and I head for the checkout.

As we get to the escalator, I reach for my purse and can't find it. I can't find it because my bag isn't on my shoulder. I left it on the floor ten minutes ago before I walked off to find Amy. It's gone. I run back to where we were. It's gone. I walk to a million parts of the store I never even looked in. It's gone. My bag is gone. It has my passport, my purse, and my journal, my personal travel journal. And it's gone. We walk around and around the store. I ask every member of staff I can see, including the manager, they look for it with me. But it's gone. A guy called Carlos is finally assigned to my case and he clearly thinks I'm as green as I am cabbage-looking.

"You shouldn't have put it down," he says, with 20:20 hindsight and an observation I hadn't yet considered," It's not safe to leave stuff here."

We pass my Dad who has a face like thunder but is searching for the bag nonetheless.

"It's been stolen," he says, "Someone has stolen it."

"I know," I reply, miserably, and he softens and pats my shoulder. Amy suggests they go and ask downstairs and check with the staff, in case someone handed it in down there.

"Don't leave me!" I wail at my sister, and she runs back to my side. "Dad'll go, " she says and slips her arm round me. My eyes are wide and glazed with tears threatening to fall.

Carlos returns with another man (even in my panic a part of my brain recognises that he is good-looking - isn't it funny what you think of) and explains that he has to go downstairs and would this man, Dennis, help me?

"Of course. What's the problem, ma'am?"

I explain that I've lost my bag, where I left it and that it has my passport in it and a purse that contains nothing but $5. He goes off to put an alert out on the radio and I start to cry in my sister's arms, wailing, "My journal, Amy, my journal!" I think I'm more worried about this than I am about how the hell I will get back home without a passport.

Dennis returns, smiling. "I think I've found your bag. One of our staff picked it up."

He introduces me to a lovely, wonderful, intelligent and highly sensitive woman called Caroline, who explained that she had seen my bag, probably minutes after I left it and we walk downstairs together and she hands me my bag. My beautiful little green bag, with journal, purse and passport fully intact. I was very bloody lucky and I know it. I also cannot thank Dennis and Caroline enough, and swear my undying love for both of them. I'm not kidding. I offered to have Dennis' children. I can still hear them both laughing as we finally get to the checkout with our goods. In fact I can still hear them both laughing ten minutes later when we leave the store.

Dad and Amy never stop mentioning the bag saga, and I don't even care because I deserve it, because I'm lucky and because I've got a new underwear set in bright purple lace for under a tenner. And because I'm all in love with New York again.

By this time, we're ready for dinner. We eat at an Italian place and fall into our beds shortly after, exhausted.

They say these things happen in three's

Finally, I get to tell you about New York! We headed off to drop off the RV and of course, had to get lost in it one last time for posterity, say goodbye to the Beast in style, as t'were. We had planned to get a taxi to SF airport to catch our flight to NY, but the attendant at the El Monte RV depot (lovely Bulgarian man who didn't tell us his name but won my respect when he let me help him put the luggage into the bus - do you know how few men will accept this kind of help from a woman? Bulgaria's on my to do list) told us that it would be quicker and cheaper to get a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) train from a nearby station to the airport, it went straight there. Well, he was right about it being cheaper, at least.

It just wasn't quicker. In fact, it was much longer than we had anticipated. In fact, this journey took so long that we missed our plane. Can anyone picture my poor father at this point? He kept it together quite well, I thought, the only things he smashed up belonged to us and the train carriage was empty so no one called 911 from their cell phone. Result. We arrive only 20 minutes late for our plane but it's gone, so that was late enough. Fortunately, this sort of thing must happen all the time, as they just put us on another flight to NY only one hour later than we had planned to fly anyway. Now that's magic. Amy had her hairspray and her clinique (in bold because apparently this is a really big deal) foundation confiscated because you can't carry aerosols or liquids in your hand luggage. They thoroughly searched her bag and I stayed with her while they rummaged away. I remembered the terror and embarrassment I felt when I was stopped by customs on a trip to France when I was about her age, though she seemed much better about it than I was, she just kept snarling at the guard after he took away her make up.

The flight was brilliant. I'd been very nervous about it because I had a bad experience on an internal flight from Chicago to Toronto once (Glenn, you know what I'm talking about) and I'm afraid of flying anyway (it's part of the whole fear of heights thing). But I was fine, even though there was turbulence, I felt positively chipper and I even looked out of the window during daylight take off and night-time landing (cool to watch the sun go down as you fly across a timezone) - I know, impressive for an acrophobic! I felt upbeat and cheerful by the time we landed and was really looking forward to my first glimpse of New York from the ground. We went to the luggage carousel and waited for our cases to spin their way round to us. First came Amy's, then...well, lots of other cases...some more cases that were not ours....and then the carousel stopped. And I started to panic.

Inside my head was a curious mantra, rotating like an empty luggage collection carousel, getting louder and louder with each repetition - My luggage isn't here. Where's my luggage? - until I felt like the living embodiment of Edvard Munch's The Scream, but with sound effects. I marched with my Dad to the United Airlines office with the grim determination of a public executioner having a very bad day. The man in the office knew what we were there for because a lovely German couple had the same problem and they had got there before us. I explained as calmly as I could that our luggage was gone, running my hands repeatedly over my face (this is a very bad body language cue in my family, my brother, for example, always does this just before he punches someone in the face and for the first time, I could understand exactly how he felt - if you don't do something with your hands then you can guarantee one of them is going to fly out of your control into someone's jaw).

"Yeah," he said without making eye contact (very, very, very bad service practice, that, particularly when you're dealing with someone who has underlying anger issues), "I think the same's thing's happened to your's as to their's." He nodded toward the bewildered looking elderly Germans.

"Really." I replied, with a tone so icy that a penguin leapt onto the counter and tried waving at the man frantically to warn him of my wrath. "Well, I've only just got here and I don't know what you've told these people, so perhaps you could enlighten me." I put a .50 caliber magnum on the counter, the penguin put his wings over his eyes and tossed the attendant a fish as a last farewell.

He looked at me (the attendant, not the penguin), possibly thinking for the first time, ooh, she could be a bit of a pain in the ass, this one.

"Er, well, it's been caught in a chute jam when the luggage was loaded on the plane. It's still in San Francisco. We'll put it on the next flight and deliver it to your hotel tomorrow. Have you got the address of your hotel?"

"WHAT??????????" Was my exceptionally calm reply, "My luggage is still in fu-" My sense of humour and the penguin melted into a nuclear pool of radioactive wrath.

Dad, next to me, said, "Well, I suppose it's all part of the rich tapestry of life, isn't it?" He started rummaging around in his bag for the hotel details.

I am stunned. In fact, I'm almost stupified. My father, who berates us if our cutlery isn't at right angles to the table, who got into some of the worst arguments with us, his children, over getting lost in California, is telling this complete stranger that the fact his luggage is in ANOTHER F*&CKING STATE, that this is all part of the RICH TAPESTRY OF LIFE??? My anger switches instantly to him and I stalk outside, unable to trust myself near humans while my right eye and left cheek are still twitching violently. The thing is, I know that I'm being unreasonable, I know this for certain, in my intellectual self, but my emotional self is having the biggest tantrum since my cousin Jo shaved the head of my Peaches and Cream Barbie when I refused to give her the little glass slippers that went with Barbie's Cinderella outfit, and all rationality is fighting hard to be heard. I try and think myself back into therapy to find my quiet place of safety until Dad and Amy emerge, a little tentatively, from the luggage office.

"Are you ok? They said it will be there first thing in the morning," Dad reassures me.

"Ok," I squeak and do something with my face that is meant to be a smile but smashes three of the mirrored panes lining the walls as we walk past. We all drift in silence, Dad's and Amy's nervous, mine born of hard concentration, to the exit doors. I can see the bright yellow cabs outside that I have seen in a million films and even make myself smile as I imagine getting into one and demanding "Take me to my luggage, and step on it!" in my best New York bravado voice.

I am belly-flopped out of this daydream as two men yell, "No, miss!!! Miss!" at me, and I am pulled back into the lobby.

"Where are you going? We're cabbies. I'll take you," says one of them and marches us outside.

"What are wrong with those cabs?" I demand, eyeing the line of yellow taxis.

"Oh, they don't go everywhere, I'll take you." He says and he's actually herding us now towards a dark car park.

Now I'm normally the one in a group least likely to complain and I'm always guilty of that British aversion to making a fuss, but my experience with the luggage had me on my last nerve. I stop dead next to the line of yellow taxis.

"No." I say, "I don't see why we can't use these."

"I'll take you in a limo?" the guy offers.

"No way," We all chime in unison, marching away.

"They only go to Manhattan!!" he shouts, which all of us ignore. We're going to Manhattan.

"It's the same price as them!!" he screams out behind us as we climb into a cab and give the driver the address.

Twenty minutes later we arrive at the Hotel Thirty Thirty, so named because of its address, 30, Thirtieth Street (about five minutes walk from the Empire State Building). The receptionist checks us in with an air of indifference that is so entire, I forget to be offended by it and study her with fascination. Dad tells her about our luggage.

"Yeah, they always say that it will turn up the next day, but usually it doesn't." She reports this tonelessly, without malice, and, I'm not sure why, but I burst out laughing. I have fallen down the far side of the pinnacle of despair and have landed in the valley of hysteria. Finally, she looks at us, well, at me, actually.

"It's better to tell the truth, I think," she explains.

"Absolutely!" I snort, between giggles, "It's better to know!" I squawk, finally.

Amy takes me by the arm and moves me from the desk until we head for the lift. Our room is petite but friendly and has the novelty of a safe in the wardrobe. We're impressed.

We've gained some time in the flight from SF to NY, I think about 3 hours so Amy and I aren't tired, and I'm still rushing on adrenaline and hysteria. We're still awake at three and I pop to the ensuite loo. I flush the toilet and start examining my reflection in the mirror over the sink when I hear a funny noise coming from the toilet. I turn to see water cascading prettily all over the bathroom floor. My heart jumps higher than my throat, out of my mouth, turns a somersault and slides back down my throat and I scream "AMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMYYYYYYYY!!"

My sister rushes in and screams with me. We do this for a bit and then we're ankle deep in water and it occurs to me to rip off the cistern top and yank at a series of parts I don't understand until the water stops. We look at each other, all wide-eyes and round mouths (see picture at top). Then we start laughing. I let go of the pipe I've been holding to go and call reception and water immediately starts flowing out of the toilet bowl again. I raise the pipe. The water stops. I lower the pipe. The water flows. I'm no plumber, but I know neither one of us can stay holding this all night even if we do it in shifts.

I call reception. It's 3.15 am. A mumbling man answers, barely audible.

"Hnnnnh. Front desk. Hnnnh."

My words tumble out like water from a broken toilet, "Hallo, room 920 here and the toilet's broken, I mean there's water everywhere. It won't stop. My sister's holding the pipe. There's water everywhere. It's broken. It wouldn't stop. It's broken. The toilet......" I trail off.

He sighs the longest and weariest and possibly most resentful sound I've ever heard. "Turn off the faucet next to the basin."

"What? Sorry? What?"

"The. Faucet. Next. To. The. Basin. Turn. It. Off. Hnnnnh."

"Oh, right. The faucet. What about the water?"

"Use towels."

I thank him - I actually thank him for this! I'm so working class English sometimes it hurts me to remember. That interaction could only have been perfected if he'd said, "Welcome to New York," before hanging up.

I turn off the faucet, the water stops. Amy and I stay awake until 5.30 am laughing and chatting until sleep comes to claim us like a tourist reclaiming her lost luggage. I wonder as I fall asleep if I will ever be able to forgive New York for this introduction to her charms. I'll have to wait and see.

Blog The Edited Version - dedicated to Stephen Baily, aka The Chief

I've had a request for an edited blog, as my boss has the attention span of a warthog and the temerity of a diva. For my regular readers, you know I'm not an edited version kind of girl, in every sense I'm all or nothing, it comes with being a purist, don't you know. But here goes.

Got to LA, got lost there, found ourselves, saw some stuff to do with films. Got scared. Left with the saccharin taste of Hollywood on my lips.

Went to San Diego, saw animals at the zoo. Liked the orangutans best, reminded me of life at the council: everyone sits around staring and you get peanuts for your labour. Saw a few big fish. Left worrying about big fish exploitation.
Went to Santa Barbara. Saw a lot of art, didn't know much about it but knew what I liked. Saw a lizard. Left without seeing Jimmy Cagney once, later found out this was because he's dead.

Went to San Simeon, saw the stars, re-discovered my spiritual centre and still small voice of calm. Saw a meglomaniac's castle. Left with a rosebud between my teeth.

Drove the Pacific Highway. Got scared of the cliffs. Left quickly with eyes shut but good memories of the view and the sense of freedom.

Arrived San Francisco. Loved it. Discovered a dream to work for a paper there where I could work for someone who wants to read everything I write. Imagine that. Saw a big prison on a big piece of stone. Left with a flower in my hair.

Arrived in NY. Luggage lost. Luggage found. Went to the top of a big tower, saw a few bridges, ate a lot of food. Still there, waiting for a big gorilla with a passion for blondes.

Lovely Sally and Steve, if you're still reading, sorry about the lack of pictures of good looking men. I'm into geeky weirdos when I'm not off men entirely (which is most of the time, to be fair, but to give you an idea, past crushes include Inspector Morse, Cracker and William H. Macy) so not willing to subject you to that, though did fall in love with the sweetest little medical nerd at an exhibition of polymerised (no, it's not a real word, I just made it up) cadavers. He had these sweet little glasses and everything. Here's a picture of Matthew McConaughey to make up for it.


Friday, August 25, 2006

From the Unbelievable to the Inescapable

Hey! Firstly, the gorgeous Bridget sent me a link inspired by yesterday's post on the Muir Woods, illustrations from a book of Nordic Tales called East of the Sun and West of the Moon, if you didn't see the link in the comments yesterday, check it out here - the picture Bridget guided me to was the fifth one down: Many thanks Bridget and I'm so glad you're still enjoying the blog. Also a very,very big hello to the gorgeous H, who has finally found my blog after some problems with her email, can't wait to see you when I get home and we can celebrate your birthday all over again! Ongoing thanks and so much love I can't bore you all with it to the usual suspects xx

So, Tuesday was our last day in San Francisco and we thought we would take in two utterly different experiences. On the way over to the States, I told Amy about a series of exhibitions across the UK called Ripley's Believe it or Not, which my friend at Portsea Library, Becky, had told me about following her trip to Florida. When we found out that there was a Ripley's in San Francisco, we had to go. So we did. It meant that I didn't get to do my tour of the Beatnik writer's sites all round SF, because our afternoon was booked up to spend at Alcatraz, but as I plan to come back, and as this was more my interest than Dad's or Amy's, I thought it was a fair trade.

We thought we would take the scenic trip to the city this time, so we drove the hire car into Sausalito and caught the ferry across the water. This was a wonderful way to cross the bay and we were lucky that the weather was good so that you could actually see something other than fog (there's something in the fog........oh, you probably got enough of this yesterday in the woods, ok I'll give it a rest. But there could be). Later, one of the Alcatraz Guides will tell us that we are very lucky in the middle of summer to have the amazing views that we do from The Rock, as in summer, all you can normally see is fog! And all you can hear is the shuffling of spirit feet as you realise with an ever-growing horror that you have wandered too far from the crowd and there is something in.....Alright, I know, I know.

We arrive at the ferry terminal a bit early and have an hour to kill before the ferry arrives. At the terminal, I pick up a copy of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and I read it over breakfast. This is when I learn that it is possible to fall in love with a newspaper, and this is the moment when a new dream surfaces. I am going to come back to San Francisco to live for at least a year and I am going to write for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I want this very much, although I've only just thought of it and the feeling is so powerful, even two days later as I write this, that I think I have to give it a shot. It is the first time in ages that I have daydreamed so much about something in each and every moment of downtime that comes up, surely this means something?! Just a few pages in, there is an editorial demanding that Junior Bush be impeached on the grounds of his various crimes against America, not least of which is leading the nation into a war on false grounds (sound familiar? Still got those placards?). Listen to this:

"That's why we're happy that citizens in both San Francisco and Berkeley will get a chance to vote this November on the question of whether Congress should initiate impeachment proceedings against President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for their many high crimes: fraudulently leading the United States into war, illegally spying on Americans, torturing enemies, claiming unconstitutional executive power, violating binding treaties, and engaging in war crimes and profiteering, among others"

Isn't that beautiful? I love these people. There's a shared future for us (wistful sigh, stares into middle distance for best part of six hours). Oh, hi. What was I doing again? The blog? Oh, the blog. Sorry. Yes, so, we have a lovely breakfast, well actually I'm not hungry so I have some toast and a latte but the others have breakfast omelettes (I thought it might be a good idea to avoid a meal before a ferry ride, I remember what Tom said about those currents, I'm not chancing a ferry-vomiting session) and then we set off on the ferry. It was a great crossing, it only takes about 20-25 minutes to get across the water to the bay and we sail very close to Alcatraz so we get a good look at The Rock, which is looking rather ominous and imposing in the morning light.

When we arrive at Pier 1, Fisherman's Wharf, we catch a cable car (how I love the cable cars) up to pier 39 and walk to Ripley's. Along the waterfront, a variety of performers are panhandling for cash: a white marble living statue who fools passers-by into thinking he's inanimate (you just don't pay attention to him because he's utterly still) but when they get close he suddenly moves and scares the living crap out of them. Great to watch, glad I noticed him before we got to him, or I'd have been back on the ferry for a fresh set of underwear. There are other guys, dressed entirely in silver and gold outfits, with painted silver and gold skin (respectively, each individual is not silver and gold, that would be amazing, but it's not what happened) who are doing bizarre robotic dances to hip hop beats. There are also the more desperate homeless dudes, who make no pretense of performance, they just sit there, some of them with handmade signs written on cardboard boxes, asking for money or staring into space with a tin or a tub in front of them.

Ripleys were originally called Odditoriums, but these odditoriums were actually based on Ripley's original cartoons. He was a unique individual, a cartoonist anthropologist with an amazing passion for travel and an eye for the unusual, but when he would return from his travels with his cartoon tales of amazing objects or sights, people would often accuse him of lying. In response, Ripley not only catalogued his travels through his cartoons, but took photographs, shot films, brought objects and artefacts back to the USA, and occasionally even brought back the people themselves! His cartoons were printed in the New York Globe and these and the other items form the basis for the Ripley's Believe It or Not exhibitions found in several states of the USA. In his lifetime, Ripley travelled to 201 countries in 30 years, making at least one trip a year and his favourite destination was China, but the exhibition in SF contains artefacts from China, Africa, and even Tibet and features people with strange talents or abilities from all over the USA and Europe, as well as features like the earthquake exhibition, which are unique to San Francisco.

Overall Ripley's Believe It or Not exhibition is, I feel, a commercial bastardisation of Ripley's work during his lifetime and I wonder if he would approve if he could visit them now. Some of the displays include: a vampire killing kit (with real holy water, stake and garlic), the interpretation for which included the 'fact' that there are 550 vampires in the USA; model people made of recycled coke cans, dinosaurs made of car bumpers, a cable-car made of matchsticks and even pictures made of laundry fluff. Who has the time to do these things, and why aren't they in a secure unit with access only to macrame and blunt tools?

My favourite parts of the exhibitions were by far the parts about Ripley's travels around the world, particularly the large amount of ceremonial artefacts he brought back from his visits in Tibet. I also really enjoyed the sections where you saw footage shot by Ripley and those working with him during his travels, for example, the tribal dancing he shot in Africa, Ripley walking the Great Wall of China and him gaining access to the Forbidden City. There were also some fascinating facts in there, too, for example, the story of Alypius, who was a 17 inch high dwarf from Alexandria, Egypt, who was imprisoned for treason in a parrot's cage (although my brief bit of research yielded nothing but confirmation that this man existed, nothing about the treason or the cage). But by far, the most amazing story came from England and was one that I have never heard about before. It concerns Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and social reformer, who died in 1832. Bentham was long associated with the University of London, UCL, and in his will he requested that his body be preserved in a cabinet that he called the Auto-Icon, although it now has a wax head because, I kid you not - about any of this, I mean where would I start? - it was stolen by students too many times as part of their jolly japes and hasn't preserved quite as well as the rest of him. It gets more unbelievable than this, too; the Auto-Icon is still brought out for meetings of the Board of Trustees where he is listed on the minutes as 'present but not voting.' True story. Look it up!

We all had a good time at Ripley's, though I found the man more interesting than the static odditorium show overall, I think. A lot of the exhibitions were fun, although Amy and I were our usual chicken cowardly selves about the more scary exhibits like the graveyard (Amy was afraid of the leprechaun in there because it looked like he crawled out of a vase, but it turned out to be all smoke and mirrors - we hoped), the earthquake, the dark red light tunnel and the human kaleidoscope. So we pulled our usual trick of getting Dad to go and check these things out first. The man is fearless, I tell you, fearless!

After lunch at a bakery/pizzeria on fisherman's wharf whose name I have forgotten (though I remember quite clearly that I had the chicken pesto pizza, which was sheer heaven - I'm becoming addicted to mozzerella), we jumped on another ferry and headed across to The Rock to tour Alcatraz. This place was astounding. Even on the ferry, as we headed towards it, I was torn between excitement and nervousness because Alcatraz Island or the Rock as it is also known, is so imposing and awe-inspiring. The island site was originally a fort, then a military prison, before being used as the infamous state penitentiary that you can now tour and which housed Al Capone, the Birdman of Alcatraz Robert Stroud (although he never actually had his birds at Alcatraz, that is a movie-based myth) and George 'Machine Gun' Kelly, amongst others.

The external buildings are in a generally bad state of repair, but have that enticing draw that abandoned buildings exert - is that just me or is everyone fascinated by abandoned historic sites? Is it the possibility of ghosts, or is it that these places often have an air of unfinished business about them? Either way, I would have loved to get into some of these outbuildings, such as the workshops, the chapel and the staff quarters but they are all off-limits to the public. I had no time to be disappointed, however, because the main building, the actual prison building was more than enough to make up for it. We chose to take the audio tour around with us, and this I would highly recommend as it steers you around the prison, gives you a sense of the daily working of the building and contains excerpts from interviews with real prisoners who served time there.

The actual prison was never filled to its capacity and the main reason why prisoners would be sent there would be if there were severe issues with their behaviour at other jails. The men spent most of their time in their cells, and their main forms of escape from these tiny chambers consisted of: the library, the recreation yard, the mess hall or the workshops to carry out their duties. When Amy and I went into one of the cells, we were shocked at how small it was and how desolate they feel. But this was nothing compared to the isolation cells which were bigger, but which had solid metal doors rather than bars, and, although it was against the rules, it was common practice to lock prisoners in isolation in these cells without any light.

What came across to me the most, not only because of the austerity of the conditions, but also the location of the prison - inmates could see across the bay from any window in the prison, as one former inmate described it, "we could see exactly what we were missing" - was the desperate hopelessness that many of them felt during their time there. Alcatraz was not a cushy number, and there were several famous and lesser known escape attempts before the prison finally closed in 1963 (I shan't bore you with them, but you can find a full description of them here:

The visit made me think again about the concept of prisons and of the nature of 'punishment' in contempory societies, and bear in mind I'm writing from a country that still has the death penalty in 38 states, and about what we hope such punishments will achieve. Alcatraz is a great example of the effectiveness of such punishments, the rescue attempts that took place were, in some cases, incredibly desperate occurences. Is punishment enough though, for a 'civilised' society to aim for in response to crime, or should we be aiming for rehabilitation. One former inmate on the audio tour explained his sheer panic and terror when he was released after many years in Alcatraz, a world which had changed for him beyond measure and in which he had no sense of comfort or support. The chances of such individuals re-offending is incredibly high, as you can imagine, because many of the longer term prisoners will literally have no idea what is expected from them in the 'outside world'.

As Billy Bragg once sagely sang, "You don't turn criminals into citizens by treating them this way."

Tomorrow, I'm going to write about our first day in New York. Don't miss it, though in many ways I wish I had! It should be an interesting read.........

Of Retail and Redwoods

Did I tell you that I bought a hat in San Francisco?

On Monday, we hire a car ( it is better to drive a car around SF than to take the Beast a-roaming here) and head out to Petaluma Retail Park for some shopping therapy. Amy is desperate to get herself into American shops to buy as many clothes as she can fit into her suitcase. She is already talking about buying another suitcase if they won't all fit! I am not in the mood today: back home I have to psyche myself up for days before attempting clothes shopping (body image problems), but I bought a couple of tops from Gap and one from Vans, so I called it a day and headed for the bookshop while they did the rest! Now, this was my idea of heaven, an hour, uninterrupted, surrounded by books. My suitcase is already weighted down with several tomes I couldn't resist in Santa Barbara and San Diego, so I know I have to limit myself, but the time spent wandering around also gives me some precious breathing space.

The last days in the RV have been testing the mettle of all three of us. Two weeks in what is essentially one vaguely partitioned room on wheels is really quite long enough and we are all at the stage where the sound of the others' breathing seems like a personally tailored provocation. There's been a lot of bickering and squabbling in the time when we're in the RV, but we've been making the most of our days out, when we're all at our best! The morning at the retail park is ideal because we can all get a chance to go off and do our own thing. I buy one book, called The Broke Diaries, which chronicles the adventures of a student in the US trying to make it on a limited budget. Her writing is amazing, and exceptionally good karma, as the writer, Angie Nissel started off just writing her low-income nightmares on a blog and this became so popular, it eventually earned her a book deal! You can check her out at and you should.

When I meet up with Dad and Amy again, I am in a much better mood, and much amused to learn that Amy had spent about 20 minutes in the same bookstore and I was so immersed in my browsing I hadn't even noticed! She had bought the latest Sarra Manning (Lisa, she bought the three volumes of Diary of A Crush in Santa Barbara, devoured the first two in two days and then bought another one of her's called Pretty Things a day later - she loves her! I'm trying to encourage Ames to send a note via Sarra's website but at the moment she's shy and doesn't believe me when I tell her that writers love nothing better than to hear from readers how much they appreciate their work!). We grab some coffee at an Italian Eatery and Amy and I share a delicious freshly-baked pizza before we head off to Muir Woods, a few miles north of San Francisco. I am getting far too addicted to latte - they're full fat and everything, seriously, I'm wild.

Muir Woods is an ancient redwood forest that we were all keen to visit as we didn't have time to visit our preferred option, Yosemite (it's on the 'next time' list). Redwood forests used to cover much of the surrounding Marin County area but the rapid expansion of residential and urban areas have threatened these ancient habitats for many years and many areas are now protected by the national parks. Muir Woods is one such conservation site, and paths through the woods are carefully marked out so that humans can no longer even step on the same soil as the redwoods for fear of the damage that we can do to their habitat. Thousands and thousands of people come to these woods every day and if they were all allowed to walk around as they wished, the damage to the redwoods could be extensive and permanent. The redwoods have no central 'taproot' (I'm not sure what a taproot is, but it sounds impressive, doesn't it?) but embed themselves in the soil by a series of shallowly grounded roots that intertwine with those of neighbouring trees. This is how these beautiful and amazingly fragrant trees manage to grow to such amazing heights - I find this inspirational, that without the support of the neighbouring trees, they'd probably all be bonsai (ok, I'm exaggerating), says a lot about the power of community.

Dad walked ahead (we found out later that Amy and I simply chatter too much for him to bear, especially in such a beautiful space - I hadn't even noticed, but I suppose we were quite spirited!) and Amy and I took the pathway slowly. We had a guide from the park's office that told us all about the forest and we saw loads of chipmunks in the woods while we were there, so we can't have been that loud! The chipmunks are tiny and move really fast, in rapid, jerky little movements, like a bird. They are hilarious to watch and Amy came up with the best description of the way they move when she said that it was like watching them under a strobe light, they move so quickly that you seem to lose moments. Their tiny bodies are in one place one second and then reappear in another space without seeming to move.

The woods are a fascinating insight into the way that nature's chaos seems to reside alongside its beauty. The redwood trees are often hit by lightning because they are so tall and this leads to fire, but the trees have evolved to need these fires as they provide the vital nutrients necessary to their survival and now the park rangers light intermittent controlled fires for this reason. There are many trees that show the evidence of these fires inside them, there are openings in the outside of the tree, often large enough for people to fit inside, as you can see. These openings are charred with fire damage on the inside, but the trees just keep growing - there's a lesson there, too, we need to get burned in order to keep growing, geddit? Gosh amighty, I'm feeling poetic tonight!

The smell of the trees is beautiful, though there is often something eerie about the woods for me, or maybe something that just has the quality of other-ness to it. I really felt this when Amy and Dad went ahead to the gift shop and I took a few minutes to stop in the silence of the trees. The woods are a fairly sparse environment for most forms of life and many of the creatures that do live here are nocturnal, like the owls and bats. I could understand in these moments alone in the woods why Stephen King and many other American writers have written of the woods with a haunting reverence; they are a great setting for ghost stories or stories that explore our distance from nature with a backdrop of the supernatural. The book I have just finished reading, that I bought in San Diego and mentioned in a previous post (about the sea and mythical creatures and spirits that rise from it, which I made the mistake of reading by the Pacific) is called 'The Town That Forgot How To Breathe' and it's by Kenneth J Harvey, but don't rush out to buy it because I'll lend you my copy as soon as Bean has finished with it (Lisa, your Burt might like this one). This book explores exactly these kind of undercurrents of our distance from nature as the woods made me think about, but it is set in Newfoundland, and rather than the woods being the site of the action, a sleepy fishing town, Bareneed, is the focus.

Congrats to Lisa 'where's the plug socket' Clark for roughing it in a teepee, I'm seriously impressed, but I double triple dare you to do it in Muir 'Blair Witch Project' Woods for a night!

It is interesting to me that although the native americans in this area, the Miwoks, lived in the coastal areas of Marin county, it is thought that they did not live within the woods themselves, and it is only hypothesised that they would have passed through them (see the website if you're interested). Maybe there are some parts of the planet that humans just do not belong, maybe parts where nature simply does not want them to be. I got a strange sense sometimes in the woods, not of hostility to my presence, but something more chilling, like indifference, as though if the woods have a spirit, it is not averse to letting you pass peacefully through, but it would also not be averse to consuming your soul entire and absorbing you into the bark of individual trees, where your spirit would live sentiently for all eternity. Wait, have I gone too far again? Sometimes I say too much.

As we left the woods, Amy and I noticed a sign on the rangers' hut that said 'Mountain Lion alert' and beneath it another that said 'Coyote alert' (I kid you not). These signs contained several pieces of advice, namely: If you see a mountain lion or coyote, pick up your small children, do not make eye contact with the animal, make loud noises and throw things at the animals, and my personal favourite, if attacked, fight back aggressively. I am not kidding about this, I swear. Fight back aggressively? Against a mountain lion or a coyote? Sure, I can see it now:

"Put 'em up, buster, you messin' with the wrong writer here, I'm tougher than I look bitch! Bring it on!"

The beast growls, bares its teeth and leaps forward, aiming for my jugular. There follow sounds of scuffling from within a big cartoon-like ball of dust, from which, after a time, the mountain lion or coyote stumbles out whining and looking slightly dazed before limping feebly and shame-facedly away to the hooting derision of its mountain homies. Sure thing.

Further along, as we got closer to the car park, I see an intriguing sign that says the woods are a 'First Amendment Area' and I could not get my head around what this might mean. As I was the only one among us remotely interested in it, I made a mental note and moved on, but later I look it up and it turns out that these were introduced under Bill Clinton's adminisitration but have been most commonly used under the imperial reign of Junior Bush. These blew my mind. Basically, these areas are used as a means to (as Hicks would say at this point, "Now, strap yourself in,") keep protestors away from media coverage and the subject of their protest. Erm, I don't mean to be obtuse, but isn't the point of protests kind of that the subject of your protest knows you disagree and that you raise awareness and ideally support for your opinions and ideas? And, moreover, the First Amendment guarantees free speech under the US Constitution, doesn't it, so wouldn't that sort of imply that the whole of the USA is a First Amendment Area???????????

I mean, for goodness' sake, to coin the words of countless overheard Americans since we arrived, Are you frickin' serious? (Is it just me or does the word frickin' sound much ruder than actually swearing to you?). Find out more about these First Amendment Areas at, which, funnily enough has a picture of the sign that you can see at Muir Woods. Then maybe just spend some time being seriously scared at how far up America's arse the UK government is right now. Then go out and stage your own protest in your garden. Grab a couple of friends and make some nice placards. Take some photos and email them to me and I'll post them here. Well, go on then!!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I'm a Retro-Beatnik!

To start off, the rather gorgeous Shonagh Dillon, manager of the Early Intervention Project in Portsmouth, which works infamously hard to support survivors of domestic violence, has posted a link to a petition organised by the Lilith Project, Eaves. This petition is attempting to stop a sitcom about prostitution (I kid you not) to be shown on Channel 5 and I would urge people to sign it as this really is a vile concept:

There's also an interesting article in the Guardian, with some even more interesting comments underneath (be prepared to get pissed off by some of these though!) at,,1851754,00.html
Thank you Shon for letting me know about it.

So, our first day in San Francisco, Sunday 20th (see how behind I am - damn these long days of sight-seeing, my journal is suffering too!). We ummed and we ahh-ed for quite some time about the thorny problem of the RV and going into SF. With it's exceptionally busy streets, trams, and, most significantly, hills (you would not believe the angle on some of those, seriously), taking the RV back into SF to sightsee was not an option. The KOA site we're resting the Beast at though, suggested that we take one of their all day tours, which would acquaint us with the city and take the pressure off us to find our way around. The added bonus was that the bus is a tiny one that only carries about ten people and the guide drops you off at loads of different places and then takes you to the next one. Our guide was the lovely Tom Ovens (great name), who has been a resident of Petaluma for years and knows SF like the back of his tanned hand. Really kind, friendly and funny with a warm, kind of orange energy to him.

We drive from the camp and after a while are heading back across the Golden Gate Bridge (which is actually red, I was glad that Tom said he was disappointed that it wasn't gold, because I thought the same thing when we crossed it the first time - though I instantly forgot about it because we were trying to cram the RV through a tiny lane). Tom tells us that the bridge can sway up to 28 feet in each direction. I'm glad I only have to take his word for that, a jaunt on the incredible swaying golden gate bridge is definitely not what I signed up for. The stop there gives Amy and I a chance to wander down onto the bridge on foot, which I would definitely recommend for a sense of the scope of the thing - it's huge. This picture is of Amy on the GG Bridge and in the background, very faintly through the fog is Alcatraz. Apparently, no one wanted to build the bridge for years because they didn't think that any structure erected here could stand the force of the currents. San Francisco Bay holds 400 square miles of water and the currents are pretty strong, but the Bridge and its built-in flexibility prove all these fears wrong.

Tom tells us that although the Spanish arrived on the California Coast in the 1500's, San Francisco was missed until 1776 - anyone guess why? I bet Lisa Clark will know! Spookily, the reason is, as James Herbert may have speculated, The Fog (see what I did there?). When they did finally find it, it was apparently by accident (they were looking for Germany, just kidding). This fog is the reason why Lisa C also warned me to bring lots of layers of clothes to SF, as until the fog burns off later in the day, it can actually be quite cold, especially when it's breezy, too. It is also the reason why Mark Twain is said to have written of San Francisco, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." The city has changed a lot since then, though, there are more people here, for one thing. The Europeans soon saw off the Native San Franciscans, the Ohlone people, with a combination of their own diseases and by undermining their communities and social structures by geographical displacement. Same old, same old, I suppose, we came, we saw, we took over and screwed it up for someone else.

Now, San Francisco is a seriously popular place to live, with over three-quarters of a million people living in a space of approximately 49 square miles. Property prices are high here, the median (i.e. if you put all the house prices in a list, this would be smack in the middle of it) house price is $700,000, while in nearby Sausalito, the median is $1 million. I may try to share when I live here. Land is tight, too. Most houses are terraced (although by law they have to have one inch between the houses for fire safety) and when they wanted a golf course in the 1800's, they dug up one of their cemetaries and converted it. Poltergeist, much!

Our first stop is Golden Gate Park and Tom takes us to the visitor centre to show us a 3D model of the park so that we can get our bearings. Inside though, I am more interested in the mural that covers every wall, painted by an artist called Lucien Labaudt, and depicting Parklife (see what I did there) during the Depression. Tom told us that this is why no one in the pictures is smiling. All the people he painted were real San Franciscans, including himself (Tom said the artist depicted himself as the cameraman) and the creator of the GG park itself, Scots gardener, John McLaren. Then we drove further into the Park and Dad, Amy and I popped to the Japanese Tea Garden, before heading over to the De Young Museum to ride up to the observation tower where we saw the Park and the city from a bird's eye perspective. From here we really got a sense of how densely populated the city really is, and a great view of the infamous block system - the Romans would be so proud. Outside, we took in some of the amazing sculptures in the grounds, Amy and I were particularly freaked out by this androgynous sphinxy thing!

Next we went through Haight Ashbury, the neighbourhood famous for its association with the Beatniks (the pre-cursor to the Hippy movement), who inherited it when the price of the Victorian buildings there plummeted in the 1950's. Soon, the area was renowned for its association with drugs, parties, free love and communal living, with often dozens of people living in one building. The Haight's best times only lasted a couple of years, however, before 'free love' became synonymous with a wide variety of drugs, organised crime sky-rocketed and the police moved in to 'clean up' the neighbourhood. Now, the Haight maintains some of its old integrity by maintaining predominantly independent shops and traders, and as we passed by some of these, Amy and I swooned over the fashion shops particularly. I especially loved the vintage shops there, with their fifties dresses -Lisa Clark, I am bringing you back here! In fact, I may try to re-create my very own Beatnik/Hippie household and gradually ship in everyone I know and love into one of those glorious old houses. We can all live off my writing earnings and exist under a collective ethos, man (by that I mean someone else will always be responsible for the cooking and cleaning). The Victorian houses are beautiful and there are more across the city, although most were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

They say that there are little earthquakes all the time here, and none of us are quite sure if we felt any or not, so there were definitely no major ones, but I often had a feeling of slight movement, similar to standing on a docked boat, though it might just be the start of an inner ear infection. The city has definitely seen worse, the 1906 earthquake is known as the Great Earthquake and lasted 48 seconds, was 8.5 on the Richter Scale and caused fires throughout the area. It also damaged the water pipes so severely that the fires couldn't be put out and parts of the city burned for three days, making over 250,000 people homeless. The fires are out now, but the homeless still remain and are exceptionally visible throughout the streets. I read in the San Francisco Guardian (the most amazing left-wing free paper in America, I'm certain of it) that many of the county's homeless are military veterans, unable to find work following their departure from the forces. We saw a large group of homeless guys sleeping outside the San Francisco Public Library (see how important this service is to such a wide diversity of people - reaching the parts of the nation that other services don't quite make it to), which is in sight of City Hall, the roof of which is covered in over $400,000 of gold gilding - from one extreme to another, huh?

Our next stop was Chinatown, this is exactly what it says on the tin, and one of the most densely populated sections of the city (and of the entire USA, would you believe), and one of the poorest. The Chinese were originally encouraged to come to the US to build California's Transcontinental Railroad and they were never well-treated by the existing American population, but when the railroad was finished, they were made exceptionally unwelcome. In fact, the chinese population were the first ethnic group to have a law excluding them from immigration to the USA in 1882, and even when they did get in, many were detained on Angel Island for long periods of time. The chinese had no rights, they could not own property outside of Chinatown (which they only inherited because no one wanted to live near a Chinese household), could not vote and could not prosecute if crimes were committed against them. If Chinese residents wanted to go home and visit their loved ones in China, they only got a one-way ticket and were not allowed back into the country.

Today Chinatown houses 80,000 people in just 24 square blocks, and whilst obviously a materially poor area, it is culturally rich, with elderly men playing Mah Jong in Portsmouth (I know!) Square, stalls selling fresh vegetables and food on the street, and as many shops for all things China as the brain can conceive of. The housing in this part of the city is predominantly made up of small flats, and looking up from street level to the fire escapes above the many alleys of Chinatown, we could see a huge amount of clothes hanging out to dry, draped over every conceivable space. Tom told us that recently, a proposed hotel development required a derelict building to be knocked down, which was being used to house many homeless Chinese who refused to leave. The police were called in and were literally dragging the occupants out until the Chinese community got involved. The development was cancelled and instead, the building has been turned into low-income housing for 2000 Chinese. There was so much demand that places had to be allocated by a lottery.

It's true what they say about the hills in San Francisco, and I can see why the cable cars have been preserved as a National Historic Landmark. Obviously, we had to ride on one, and we took the Powell-Mason line, which runs up and over Nob Hill (thought you'd like that one) down to Fisherman's Wharf. I was content to sit and watch the world go by, but Amy was a total pro and hung off the outside for the whole ride! I had no idea how the cable car worked, or what relationship the constant bell ringing has to the operation (though the bell-ringing was my favourite bit), but I got a better idea of how to drive the cable car by driving my own virtual car on - check it out and see how you do! We stopped at the Wharf for lunch on the infamous Pier 39 and I had the most heavenly peanut satay known to man. True story. This also gave us an opportunity to check out the famous sealions that have chosen to make their home here - they are very handsome, loud, hilarious to watch and exceptionally smelly! We did some shopping on Pier 39 and checked out the view of Alcatraz from there in anticipation of our visit on Tuesday. Then we were back in the bus and on to the next stop!

We went to Presidio Park next, 1480 acres of a former military site owned first by the Spanish military settlers and later by the US military. It is now a national park, much of it waiting for a purpose, as many of the original buildings remain unused since the departure of the military. Some parts of the park are currently in development as housing (don't get me started on how I would love to live here when it's done, but the prices will be vulgar) whilst others have been rented out to businesses. The most famous resident business is the empire of none other than George Lucas, of Star Wars fame, who has decided to move his Industrial Light and Magic and his Lucas Arts there - but even cooler than this is the statue of Yoda in a water fountain that guards the outside. Oh, jealous, I am! Presidio Park also houses the graves of 450 Buffalo soldiers, which was the colloquial name given to the African-American soldiers that spent time housed at Presidio in the 19th and early 20th centuries on their way to various wars and actions.

When we leave Presidio, we head back towards the camp, and though it was barely five in the afternoon, we were all exhausted (well, we were up at 6.45am - I know, ouch!) and are glad to roll back into the Beast an hour or so later. I am so tired, that I cannot even summon the energy to write, and this is the start of my fatal slipping behind that I am only now starting to catch up with. Sorry to be so behind, but I promise I'll keep you posted and I'm determined to play catch up tonight and take advantage of some of the hours that have slipped between in our flight across to New York(yes, I'm here, we arrived today, but that's a whole other show, which, if I was filming it, I would call - Dude, where the f?*k is my luggage? Stay posted and I'll tell all). I've got another 2 days in San Francisco to fill you in on before NY. Can you bear the anticipation?

Monday, August 21, 2006

"Imagination is the voice of daring." Henry Miller

I know I've said it before, but the comments you all leave on the blog pages are so valuable to me, and not just because you all say such nice things about the site, either! I cannot emphasise enough how much I miss everyone - it's the only downside to travelling. The homesickness comes in waves and makes me more aware than ever of the amazing relationships I have with everyone back home. God, I miss my Mum, I don't care how sappish it sounds, you're my best friend and I swear you know me better than I do. I miss talking to you about everything I see, hear, think and do. I love Dad and Amy, obviously, but life on the road together in such a tiny space is hard on all of us, and we're very different people in our own ways. We've discovered a lot about each other, not all of it good, not all of it bad either, but I think we're all starting to suffer from cabin fever and from not having the people we normally turn to to bounce our thoughts and feelings off. I miss my Bean, because of the poetry in everything he says and the way he understands the brain in me and the heart of me, and the relationship between the two. I miss my brother, because he knows what it's like to be a child in this family and how to make me laugh when all I want to do is cry and/or become homicidal/suicidal. I miss Kate and Shonagh for their ability to understand so much that I don't say, and the feelings that lie between the words that come from my mouth. I miss Lisa Clark for her ability to make me feel that there is always something good that comes out of the darkest moments. I miss Stephen Baily because he inspires me and makes me work harder and better than I think I can. I miss all the women in the office where I work, especially lovely Norma, Miss Sally, pretty Miss Louise, and the late night worker Miss Dru. I miss home. Just writing this makes my throat ache and little knives of tears appear in my eyes.

But enough of such things. You want to hear about the road trip!

We left San Simeon bright and early, with no little regret after the fantastic evening the night before. We're heading up the Pacific Highway (route 101) heading for San Francisco with plans to stop along the Big Sur coastline. This stretch of the highway, between San Simeon and Monterey, is amazing, the road stretches right along the coast and is all up and down the cliffs, twisting and turning in and out. I am in the Navigator's chair today, but there's no navigating to do, we're on this straight stretch of road until San Francisco now, which we are all looking forward to. We have the radio onto a station called Pirate Radio, which plays a bizarre mixture of eighties hits and twanging American rock, but the less said of the latter the better, I think.

Because we have started in the morning, once the Beast starts climbing, we are at eye level with the mists, which haunt this coastline like the remnants of campers' dreams until noon. Thank God we are driving on the right hand side heading north, or we'd be driving on the cliff edge, and for large stretches of the journey I mean that literally. In a car this would be pretty intimidating, but in the RV it's downright terrifying. How people are driving them going south is a miracle to me, but once you're on this stretch of road, there's pretty much no getting off until you climb down again, so if they didn't know what they were letting themselves in for, they have my sympathy! What I love most about this route though is that the lay of the land rules and has necessitated that the road be built around it.

The cliffs are hard on the eye at first, unyielding, then the bare rocks give way to ferns and sparse little yellow flowers, then, as the eye travels inland further, thick copses abound - sometimes with trees growing almost horizontally, rising as they can towards the sky. Signs by the roadside every so often warn of rock slides from the unforgiving cliffs above. Sometimes parts of these cliffs are copper green, other times a deep, imposing grey, interspersed with streaks of bright yellow in vertical lines, where inland freshwater streams run down to meet the sea.

When we round a corner, we can see parts of the coast road entire as it stretches to the next peninsula. As the (unnecessary) navigator, it is comforting to see that we cannot get lost! This section of the highway sits within the Los Padres National Park (I think it means the fathers, or the parents) and all the signs with Los Padres carry the byline, "Land of Many Uses," which for some reason really tickles me. We see a lot of work that has been carried out recently, or that is still in the process of being carried out, to clear the roadside of falling rocks. On the worst parts of road, where rocks must fall quite often, there are long, strange-looking, thin stretches of netting that seem to hold the smaller debris back and to prevent it reaching the road itself. Later, huge nets are erected vertically to 'catch' the rocks that fall more frequently. I find this quite humbling. We're strangers in the coastal ghetto where mother Nature is the number one gangsta (it's all that time in LA, it's like, completely changed my lingo, dudes).

Farther along, the predominantly rocky landscape becomes verdant forest on either side as we approach Big Sur, although I note that all the flowers we see are either white or yellow, which really puzzles me. After about an hour, I see some elephant grass on the verges alongside us, like the stuff you see back home, but it's pink! Nature has a way of proving your careful observations entirely wrong if you give it long enough, and this sudden burst of colour reminds me of Lisa Clark and the pink world she has built all around her (if I give you any more plugs Miss C, you're going to have to think about giving me a percentage!). Gradually, colour seeps gently back into the landscape: tiny red flowers, purplish plants that look a bit like heather, and these small round pink flowers, like large pink cotton buds on green stems. I even see what looks like a solitary red hot poker!

As we come into Big Sur, we pass the Henry Miller Library (he lived in Big Sur), advertising books, music and short-film screenings (on Thursdays). Check out their website on because any library that has a fire dancer on their homepage is cool beans as far as I'm concerned! There are also a lot of art galleries along this stretch, we pass at least three or four. I would love to live along this stretch of highway for a few months, but would settle for a sneak around some of the houses of those that do, they are eclectic in style, with people building where they can. We pass one town, Harmony, that has a population of only 18! In my imagination, living along the Pacific Highway would be a rustic, back-to-nature experience, but in reality you are miles from anything a city kid like me would recognise as civilisation and I might not survive a winter. This route is also a big draw for tourists, which can be a real mixed blessing.

Speaking of tourists, we stop at Big Sur for something to eat and to give Amy a breath of fresh air as the twisty turniness has made her a bit unwell. She is an absolute heroine about it though, not at all like my drama queen self when I'm sick! Breakfast at the Big Sur River Inn is fantastic and the service is inspiring, the cute little waiter is courteous and attentive, characteristics that I should also think of looking for in my next boyfriend. Shonagh, for information, I had the Ben's Breakfast, which consists of eggs, bacon, lettuce and some particularly heavenly cheese served in a large English muffin, with a huge latte. Dad and Amy had the Captain Cooper's Omelette, which is a three-egg omelette with fresh vegetables, served with hash browns, which are utterly different to the ones they serve in England. We have a long discussion over breakfast as to how American hash browns are made, and conclude that they parboil the potatoes, grate them and either grill or fry them until the top is crisp and the underside soft.

After Big Sur, Amy and I swap places so that her tummy can have a little rest (we don't want her spewing hash browns, Americano or otherwise, across the back of the RV interior) and I sit right up back at the table, listening to music on my MP3 player. Because the RV engine is so loud, I can sing along at the top of my voice to my tunes without disturbing anyone and this makes for one of the most stress free journeys for me so far. I felt so happy gazing out of the window and singing as the landscape flew by. We get to San Francisco in what seems like the blink of an eye and before we know it we are heading for the Golden Gate Bridge!

Unfortunately, we accidentally get in the wrong lane and find ourselves in the narrow toll lane that only fits cars. For a terrible moment, I think that we will be too wide for it and that a toll attendant will have to come and close the lane to allow us to reverse back out, but we lean out and fold the mirrors in, everyone takes a deep breath and we just manage to squeeze through. A bit stressful at the time, but a story that I will dine out on for quite some time, I suspect, particularly if my Dad is present. After the Golden Gate bridge (which is immensely huge!), we fall into an absolute bastard of a traffic jam which manages to stretch the last 30 miles of the trip into about an hour and a half, but before we know it, we have found our little campsite at Petaluma (about 30 miles north of San Francisco), and are all hooked up enjoying a nice dinner of southern fried chicken and tasty rice. This is our last stop before New York and the place that we will say goodbye to the RV, with some sorrow and some joy - especially in light of the fact that in New York we can stay in a hotel, and that the flight home from NY is only 6 hours long. I can almost taste the bad plane food now.

The next day, Saturday, we spend settling into the campsite and winding down after a long couple of weeks drive. We spend a lot of time sleeping - I don't think we had realised that the journeying had taken such a toll on us (worse for me in some ways because I will insist on writing my blog until one in the morning when everyone else is asleep!). I'm running a day behind on the blog now, so I'll tell you all about our first tour of San Francisco, which we took today, tomorrow (are you with me? If not, blame it on the time differences, I do!).

Did I mention already how much I miss you all?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

"Is this real? Or is this just a ride?" Bill Hicks

Hey! I'm back! Sorry for the delay, it's been a crazy old couple of days, but with Swiss Family Dysfunctional on the road, what's new!? So, what have you missed? Oh, yes, Hearst Castle. Well you really missed something there, I haven't been quite that jealous in a long time, it really tested my Buddhist principles, and then some! The night before, when we were still in Santa Barbara, we got back to the trailer to find it beset with ants that had followed the water hose up from the ground outside into the RV interior. Seriously gross. Fortunately, they hadn't got as far as the cupboards and Dad ran up to the shop to buy some ant killer. In the meantime, I forgot my Buddhist 'no harm to yourself or others' principle and Amy and I stamped on every ant in sight. I came very close to knowing how Lisa Clark felt when her house was beset with mice!

We get up early to drive up the coast from Santa Barbara (how I loved Santa Barbara, so laid back, so luxurious, such a huge homeless population, such a massive divide between the rich and poor.....oops, talked myself clean out of that one, didn't I?) to San Simeon, where Hearst Castle is found.

All we have to do before we leave is book the campsite for that night and we're off. Everyone is up on time, Amy does her make-up in a record-breaking 6 hours (kidding, it was only five and a half, she decided she just wouldn't sleep so we could leave on schedule) and Dad whips out the mobile to give the site a ring, located at Laguna Seca, Monterey County. This was when we hit upon our first snag.

"No, sorry there's a big rally here, and we're fully booked."

Well, that's no panic, we've got Google up and there are loads of RV parks up that way. Hundreds! Thousands! One of them has to be free, with room at the inn for our teeny tiny RV. Doesn't it?

Well, actually, no. None of them are. Which means that we're driving up the coast on a three and a half hour drive to Hearst Castle (which, being clever little cub scouts we've booked in advance on a one o'clock tour), which lasts two hours in itself and then we have nowhere to stay. DANGER! DANGER! I repeat, Houston, we have nowhere to stay. But that's ok, because I'm not panicking. No one's panicking. Who said anything about panicking? Everything is fine. Eventually we get through to a site that says they might have a site (at which point, I am minded to reply, "What do you mean, might, don't you know? Go out there and take a f*$?ing look, you mindless moron!" but realise that they might change their minds about having us at all) and we're to phone back at 11 o'clock. Everyone breathes a sigh of collective relief well strictly speaking, Dad and I do, Amy hasn't even realised that anything is wrong. She's been curling her hair with tongs the whole time, part of the daily 'getting ready' ritual (how I wish I was kidding!), and can neither receive nor impart information prior to midday. Well she does grunt occasionally, but no one is ever quite sure what she is trying to convey - we just smile and nod uncertainly until she shouts "GOD!!!" and stamps back into the bathroom.

So we get on the road to the Castle. At eleven, we ring the campsite and, yes, you've guessed it dear reader, they haven't got anywhere for us to stay. By this time, though, we're really close to the castle and we genuinely don't mind. My Dad (it will be those of you who know him that will know what a big deal this next statement is) says, "Oh well, I'm sure something will turn up." I was so surprised I lost consciousness for a moment. True story.

When we arrive at the Castle, we take a bus trip up to the Castle site itself. This is a pretty terrifying experience for me (and as it turned out, Amy too) because the Castle is set high up on a hilltop (Hearst liked the view) and the 5 mile, 15 minute coach ride takes you on a single lane route, higher and higher, with bare hillside and steep drops to the side for most of the trip. Whilst I did not doubt the exceptional skills of the bus driver to get us up and down this road, at times the drop to the right was terrifying and I could not bear to look.

The Castle itself was amazing. William Randolph Hearst was one of the famous Hearst family (now the family is most remembered for his grand-daughter, Patty Hearst, the kidnap victim turned bank robber), a newspaper magnate, who - reading between the lines of the exhibition all about him - was also a bit of an amoral shit. The Orson Welles film, Citizen Kane, was based on Hearst's life story. Hearst called the castle, 'the ranch', but it is set in a 240,000 acre estate and it is the result of a 28 year collaboration between Hearst and architect Julia Morgan, who was the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture from the French Ecole Nationale et Speciale des Beaux Arts. The amount of time it took paid off, as the castle has numerous guest houses included in the estate and two swimming pools, one inside (the Roman pool) and one outside (the Neptune Pool). The Castle and Hearst entertained many famous guests, including Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill and Clark Gable, as well as a slew of famous authors, including HG Wells, Somerset Maugham, F Scott Fitzgerald and George Bernard Shaw, who is reputed to have commented about the Castle, "This is what God would have built, if he had had the money."

Visitors are taken around the site by guides, and ours was a tall, middle-aged man called Bob. Maybe every visitor says this about their guide, but ours was definitely the best one. He had an exceptionally dry sense of humour and a gently teasing manner that warmed me to him immediately. He also knew everything there was to know about the Castle and Hearst, the man, or The Chief, as his staff called him. The house is beyond opulent. We started out at the Neptune Pool, which is huge, warm, and very blue. Great views across the rest of the estate, too. Hearst was really into animals and had his own zoo on site, including bears, african deer, lions, a cheetah and herds of zebra. The bears, lion and cheetah are long gone, though the bear cages remain in situ, but descendants of the deer and zebra still roam the hills of the remaining estate. I kid you not. We saw the zebra when we were driving up Highway 101 to get to the castle - they really freaked us out as we could not, for the life of us, figure out what they were doing there, grazing calmly alongside the cows!

Then we went into the house and toured the upper floors, including more guest bedrooms than I can remember - my favourite was the one with two paintings in the ceiling of Luna, goddess of the moon and Apollo, god of the sun; this was on two levels, the bedroom up above with Luna above the bed and Apollo looking down on the sitting room area - the Library (so many books, a writer's heaven, especially as there were a lot of books on writing, including one called Women Writers), the Gothic Suite and the Kitchens.

Amy said that she hates going round these sorts of houses because she likes them so much, and I see her logic here. She says that it just makes her feel jealous and I know what she means, because I would love to live there. To stay there for just a few months would be wonderful, it's a house designed for writers, imho, as there is so much to inspire, both inside and out, and the place is so big that one need never hanker for privacy. You just wander off and no one would be able to find you for about a year! The only part that did make me a little bit uncomfortable was the amount of religious imagery, which was everywhere but in Hearst's bedroom. At first I thought this was strange as Bob told us Hearst was not a religious man and rarely went to Church, but the guide explained that Hearst's wife was a strongly devout Catholic. This satisfied me for a while until later Bob told us that Millicent Hearst, his wife, spent very little time there.

"But what about all the religious icons?" someone asked.

"Oh, well, his mistress, Marian Davies, was a strong Catholic, too," replied Bob, deadpan. Contradiction, much! I'm knobbing someone else's husband (for most of their marriage, too) but I should keep in touch with my faith.

We brave the coach trip back down Death Mountain (OK, I made up the name), and back at the RV face the thorny issue of where our homeless little Beast will rest her weary engine for the night. We finally decide to head back down Highway 101 the way we have come to a park site(no hookup for water or electric and definitely no WiFi, but I'm not even bothered as long as we don't end up sleeping on the freeway) called San Simeon State Park. This turns out to be the best decision we ever made, not only because San Simeon is beautiful with a capital Byoo, but because we will only realise the next day how far away Laguna Seca is, and that the route is not the long straight road that we have become accustomed to (more of this in my next post). There is plenty of room at San Simeon when we arrive and the State Ranger who lets us through is absolutely lovely.

There are no mod cons at the park, just basic toilets and showers, but the park is a nature reserve that you can camp in basically, like the New Forest, but in America. There is a lot of wildlife roaming around, and we see two lizards, a bright blue bird, lots of circling hawks, a tiny rabbit, and best of all, the strangest rodents that have the bodies of rats, but the heads of squirrels, with long rat's tails that are all bushy like a squirrel's but long and straight like a rat's. Amy and I christen them with the highly original name, Squirrel Rats. They might sound horrible, but somehow the combi works and they are kind of cute, but nervous and easily frightened. Amy and I discovered this the first time we saw a group of them, howled with laughter because they looked so funny and they all ran away at a little under the speed of light.

Once we have settled in at the park, we take the short walk down to the beach (San Simeon is right on the coast) and I paddle in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life. It was bloody freezing. We all take off our shoes and wander companionably along the shore. Amy and I take it in turns to walk in each other's footprints (touches of To Kill A Mockingbird there) and when we follow Dad's, we notice that one of his feet turns outward quite noticeably, perhaps a legacy of the ankle he broke years ago when he made his first parachute jump. I climb onto some rocks and read (a horror story set in a seaside town - not entirely appropriate, I kept shooting nervous glances at the Ocean) while Dad and Amy splash about in the surf until Amy's jeans and Dad's cut-off's are soaked through. We head back up the shore a while later to avoid the incoming tide and sit further up on the beach awhile (where my pashmina - thank you Kate- which I had been using as a shawl doubles up nicely as a beach blanket), watching cormorants swoop and nose-dive into the ocean for fish. They look like little pterodactyls, I can tell you with some authority because I saw one in the San Diego Museum of Natural History. After a little while, we notice something black and shiny dipping in and out of the water, not far from shore. We all stare for a bit longer and we realise that it is a seal!

Back at the RV, we have no electrical hookup and are only allowed to run the generator until nine o'clock, so entertainment is limited. I read while Amy and Dad play Uno, arguing occasionally about the rules and asking me to referee, which I refuse to do, knowing better than to get in between such quarrels. It is a peaceful and companionable evening. Just before we turn in to bed, Dad and I head outside for a fag, switching on the porch light and then almost immediately switching it off again when we see the stars. I have never seen anything like that in my life. Miles from the cityscapes, the sky is a patchwork made of sparkling points of light that takes our breath away. Amy comes out for a moment but is made nervous by the density of the darkness that surounds us (and the rustling from the bushes that I think is a lizard), but I think I would face down a grizzly bear and eight of his pals to stay under that sky awhile longer and Dad and I last the cold (me huddled under a blanket) for about half an hour or more. In the distance we can hear the roaring lullaby of the Pacific as it caresses the shore of San Simeon's beach, and I finally learn what a perfect moment with nature feels like when I see a total of three shooting stars crash and burn their way into the Earth's atmosphere.

The panic of the morning and all its insecurities, the everyday bickering of up close and personal family life, the ticking awareness that there is a hell of a big workload waiting for me back in England, and beyond all my crap, to the endless wars that signify man's inhumanity to man, all disappear in this moment, under the stars, beside the Ocean. If you could bring every world leader to this place, at this time, surely they would see that there are more important things than money, that the Universe is bigger than us, and, as Hicks said, we should "Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet." It's still true, Bill, I can't even call that experience priceless without the readers all thinking of Mastercard.

After a time of silent staring at the sky (waiting for an intelligent life form to finally show up - they didn't), we say goodnight to the stars and the distant ocean and slide back into the belly of the Beast to sleep.