Monday, November 30, 2009

No sign of Hannah...

There was one sightseeing trip that none of us could resist, although I think it was Julian’s idea to begin with. How could I not have noticed that we were within an hour’s drive of the Kennedy Space Centre? A grand day out. You pay to get in these days (I understand it used to be free) but being used to the cost of London tourist destinations, I reckon you get a lot for your money. A bus takes you about from place to place, there are movies, exhibitions, explanations, dramatised reconstructions, a bit of moon rock to fondle; but mostly there is the sheer brain-numbing scale of everything. The entire Saturn 5, a pukka shuttle. Oh and brilliantly whimsical gifts. Whoever put the place together has a sense of humour, there is even a Moon Rock Cafe. Ben now has a pair of astronaut’s oven mitts. I have a nightshirt advising that I Need My Space. And a NASA insulated travel cup that opens in slow-mo. I have a tendency to be sniffy about the US, but if there’s one place that reminds you what these people do do well, this is it. Go if you ever get the chance.

Suddenly it was time to head back and we had the maps out again. The plan was to take a little longer on the return trip, smell the roses a bit, nose about some other bits of the US and generally get home less exhausted. Randy had seen a film set in Savannah, Georgia and wanted to see if it was as lovely a town as it looked. I had spotted a ‘Skyline Drive’ along the Blue Ridge Mountains and wanted to check it out, so we planned our stops accordingly. Night one in Savannah, then if we arrived early enough we’d have the evening and the following morning for sightseeing there. Night two, back in Richmond, Virginia, which we knew was half-way home. It was also close enough to the mountains for a daylight drive along the ridge the following morning. Night three, somewhere in Pennsylvania, which was just about half-way from Richmond to home and we had the journey covered in four days. Easy. We made a pact that if Randy was prepared to drive the Florida bit, I’d do West Virginia, then packed a mass of souvenirs, waved regretful goodbyes and headed north.

Hugging and waving and promising to return, we left Cherry and Ron amid many gags about lost Swedes, and speculations about being back within half an hour when we got lost in Kissimee. Then we were actually back in their drive within five minutes, having discovered that Randy had left All The Maps on their kitchen counter.

Leaving for the second time we headed, relatively uneventfully out of Florida and into Georgia, arriving in Savannah as the sun was going down. The weather was glorious. Warm but not hot, less humid than Florida. We collected up a pile of brochures from the hotel lobby, walked along the river and found a brilliant pub in which to sample the local fare and make plans for the morning. Fried green tomatoes and locally caught fish, boats of all sizes, real cobbled streets and pukka elderly buildings. Arts and crafts shops that have things made by local artists and craftspeople, and which are open until late at night; handicrafts are the local rock and roll. I could live in Savannah.

We reckoned that the quickest way to see it all sufficiently well to decide if a return visit was required would be the ‘hop on and off’ trolley tour. Touristy, yes, but practical in the circumstances, ie, got to leave by lunchtime. The lady who drove our first trolley (we only hopped once) was a hoot. She clearly relished her role, loved her home town and wanted us to love it too. Savannah is laid out around a series of leafy squares, each dedicated to someone. They all have a statue or a fountain or monument of some sort in the middle and are landscaped to perfection. We trolleyed from square to square, hearing about the people, the history, and the movies that had been made in various buildings. Yes, I know all cities have such tours, I’ve been on several in various parts of the world. Perhaps it depends what mood you’re in, or maybe you need to like the city anyway, but I was charmed and delighted by everything. Even the accent of the second trolley driver, who tried manfully to continue the folklore and whimsical tales, but was as comprehensible as Stanley Unwin on a bad day. ‘I think he’s from Alabama’ whispered Randy, as though that explained it all. ‘I’m only getting about one word in twenty’ I whispered back. People around us nodded and grinned. The trolley full of bemused half-smiles continued its way, from the squares district back to the river front. Fortunately I had read the tale of how the streets became cobbled the previous evening somewhere, and my head gradually switched in to the strange speech patterns once I knew what he was trying to tell us. He became more like Stanley Unwin than ever. Ballast, from the ships from England, by the way. They chucked it out onto the streets when loading with goods to take back, so the locals paved with it.

I bought a book. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. You sort of have to, it is Savannah’s claim to fame, the title is a mantra that you hear everywhere; the book is the first thing you see in every shop. It is where the movie came from that Randy had seen once, although I now know, from the trolley lady, that many, many movies are set in its enthusiastically manicured squares and imposingly reproachful houses. I was overcome with a need to read it, to see the movie and to return. I might even finally get to bother with Gone With The Wind. Two bits of days in a part of the US I never knew existed and I am hooked. We will definitely be back. Savannah needs several days, and a side trip up the coast to Charleston for another aspect of the Old South. But it was lunchtime and we had to hit the road if we were going to be in Richmond by late evening and on the mountains the following day.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Florida and chocolate

Arriving at Cherry’s house late and exhausted we started to become transfixed by the whole issue of the random and inexplicable Swedes. Two or three silent people nodded gravely at us as we fell in through the door bearing mountains of cake-related impedimenta.
‘Who are they?’
‘They must be the Swedes.’
‘What Swedes?’
‘Cherry said she had Swedes.’
‘Are they here for the wedding?’
‘No, they’re going home tomorrow.’
‘Well, why are they here?’
‘I don’t know.’
Tired as we were, it was perplexing and we wanted to know about the Swedes. We couldn’t ask of course, not until the following day... it would have been rude. ‘What’s with these Swedes already?’ became the number one topic of conversation, eclipsing both the trip and the cake. They were silently there in the morning, the inscrutable Swedes. One of them spoke to me briefly while I was hunting for coffee. ‘It is finished. We forget more.’ Fortunately I had brought an emergency supply of Blend 37 in my huge box of emergency supplies, so was marginally less irritated by the silent, coffee drinking Swedes than I might have been otherwise.

As soon as they left to go home, we burst with ‘what’s with the Swedes?’ and Cherry began the tale. Old friends who were lovely people but rather demanding houseguests, they had arrived to stay in the magnificent new house almost as soon as Cherry and Ron had bought it. They had seemed oblivious to the fact that visiting during the alarmingly short gap between moving in and getting married might be sort of inconvenient, due to there being a lot to do. The tale was a little disjointed as the phone kept ringing...lost Swedes, driving around in Downtown Kissimmee trying to find the road to the airport. (I am now of the opinion that Kissimmee, like Guelph, Ontario, is a vehicular black hole. You can drive in but are doomed never to leave.) Randy and I resolved to be independent houseguests, looking after ourselves and trying very hard not to be in the way, underfoot or in any other way difficult .

The rest of the week passed in a flurry of people arriving and leaving, the gathering of more houseguests, the popping in and out of friendly local people and the charmingly understanding way in which all and sundry left me to my own devices in Cherry’s kitchen to garrotte cakes, blend raspberries and cream, stir ganache and generally do what I do. An occasional person would stick a finger in a bowl and declare the contents good. I overheard phone conversations with regard to the cakiness of the kitchen and the promise of good things to come. But mainly, I was in the zone and everyone left me there. It was considerate, helpful and kind and contributed greatly to my sanity while faffing about in an unfamiliar kitchen. I only lost it once, and that was with poor Ron. Who thinks 82F is cool. I was struggling personfully at the time with red moulding chocolate, attempting to roll it out and make things with it. I was covered in oily red gloop and near to tears when Ron said that people got used to the Florida heat and humidity eventually.  I felt obliged to point out, a spot more tersely than is appropriate for a guest, that people might but chocolate wouldn’t. We compromised, for the sake of the chocolate.

Suddenly the finished cakes were all back in the freezer and it was the big day. Somehow, while my perception had been elsewhere, it had all been organised. There were chairs and tables in the extension, flowers and drinks in the lanai, everything looked gorgeous. Ladies appeared to take charge of the food, chaps appeared to go and fetch last minute items, there were dresses and hair and family, and, surprisingly enough, there was a tolerably decent wedding cake. My cunning plan was to take each tier out of the freezer in turn, timing the thawing depending on size, and finishing the whole edifice off in situ an hour before the wedding. It would have been a stroke of genius without the Florida humidity. Every 20 minutes, for the hours each tier took to thaw, the damned thing had to have its brow mopped; as condensation developed, leeched the red chocolate of its colour and dripped onto the tier below. I hid a roll of kitchen paper under the table and dabbed fretfully at it whenever nobody was looking. But nobody was looking anyway of course, Cherry was far too gorgeous for anyone to look elsewhere.

  It was, as all weddings are, over in the blink of an eye and the eating and drinking and music took over. Ron’s band are terrific by the way, if you go and visit, make sure to hear them play. The cake tasted fine, it fed enough people with tiers to spare. The truffles were so good, and survived their transportation so well, that I am minded to go into business sending hand-made truffles round the world through a website. There was time to dream at last because as soon as the knife went into the cake, I was really and properly on holiday.

We made loads of plans to do things; head down to Miami and drive the Keys, get an airboat in ‘gator country and have pictures taken doing Horatio impressions with sunglasses. But, tiredness took hold and everyone was so friendly that most of the time was spent visiting with nice people, catching up with conversations that hadn’t had a chance to happen at the wedding. We had a taste of old-fashioned Southern hospitality and declared it good. Next time we will fly to Miami, hire a car and do the touristy stuff, but pop up to Kissimee to see old and new friends. To think that way about people in a week is to feel good about life. Ron’s parents are utterly charming, Cherry’s pal Ivette has to be met to be believed and Jo-Marie seems quite happy to assist with the Florida marketing of my burgeoning chocolate empire. The band must be heard again, and for a little longer next time. It seemed a bit mean to expect Ron to play all night at his own wedding but I for one was left wanting more.

We did do a little gentle shopping though. Randy, Julian and I. We all wanted different things but a trip to Target seemed to encompass all our requirements; so we set off on a bit of a local adventure to find the shops while Cherry and Ron were otherwise tied up with errands. We found the plaza easily enough and bought our bits and bobs, then feeling a bit lunchish, we began to search for somewhere to eat. There had been much fried chicken and many burgers over the last few days and we fancied something a bit less All-American, so when we spotted a British Pub on the way home it seemed the obvious choice. Now, the US and Canada are full of ‘British Pubs’ which have nothing in common with the real thing at all, except for a couple of decent draft beers. And of course ‘Irish Pubs’ which have a couple of decent draft beers and Guinness. Sometimes there is fish’nchips, or bangers’nmash. The authenticity generally ends there, since there will be table service, decent food, polite, smiley people who like serving you and a generally squeaky clean feel. As soon as we walked in to this one though, we realised we had found that rarest of things, a real British Pub in the middle of Florida. It smelt nasty. That tang of old beer, old smoke, old carpet and old people that you just don’t get anywhere else. There were two customers, scowling at opposite end of the bar. The barmaid scowled too. This in itself was odd. Americans smile, they show off their dentition, Florida just isn’t a scowly sort of place.

We did get table service though. Randy and I ordered some sort of chicken wrap that looked as though it might have some greenery in. Julian plumped for the BLT. We were just giggling about how very British a pub it was when the unsmiling barmaid came back looking a little sheepish. Guess what? No bacon! We dissolved on the spot. Not only dark, smelly, a bit dirty and a bit unfriendly but Bacon Was Orff. Julian told her that ham would be fine and she melted a little at our evident happiness. By the time we left she was actually sort of smiley. Maybe thinking that other people are bonkers cheers her up of a day shift.

Giggling all the way back to Cherry’s house we arrived in high spirits at our adventures to discover that our errands had taken less time to complete than Cherry and Ron’s. And that the house was locked. We wandered about a bit looking for an open back gate or door or something and found our way into the back garden, and thence into the lanai, which is a sort of screened-in outdoorsy bit with a splash pool in. This was fine, we could sit by the pool for a while. We took off shoes and popped our feet in the water. It was a lovely day, we could splash to our heart’s content and chat about British pubs. I found a plastic duck to play with. Time passed and we started to get a bit in need of comforts such as bathrooms and cold drinks, so the conversation turned to maybe calling Cherry or Ron to see how much longer they might be out. I discovered that I had their cellphone numbers in my phone, from the hapless ‘getting lost in Kissimee’ drama on our way down, so I was detailed to make the call. I tried Cherry’s number first, and we all grinned wistfully as we heard the ringing from the kitchen counter on the inside of the house. Then I tried Ron’s phone and he answered. Here began a telephone call that encapsulates, as no other experience I have had on this side of the Pond, the difference between English communication and the rest of the world.

We Brits never do quite say what we mean, do we? I didn’t want to emulate the Swedes and be a nuisance if he was busy, so I began to beat about the bush with ‘oh hi, we’re back, just wondered where you had got to...’ and he told me they were at the Realtor’s and would be home soon. As I ended the call I realised that I had been talking to an American and it might have been wise to state unambiguously ‘we’re locked out’, but I didn’t. And it was too late now. I couldn’t ring back, way too Swedish.

As Ron put his phone away he wondered why I had called. It seemed a bit odd. Cherry asked who it was and he told her. Now Cherry is English, she knew there was a subtext but not what it was. Maybe we were getting hungry, she thought, and wondered if they were coming home for lunch but were too polite to say so. She decided it would be best to stop off for some groceries on the way back just in case. We variously got hotter, thirstier and more in need of bathroom facilities as the time wore on. We discussed calling again, maybe one of the chaps would be able to actually say what they meant better than me. As the only non-Brit, we were about to charge Randy with the ticklish task when Ron and Cherry finally appeared, with the lunch we didn’t need and found us, a bit bedraggled, in the lanai. Ron looked at me.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were locked out?’
‘I’m English.’
Cherry got it in one and collapsed in a heap of giggles.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Nine states in two days

New York State, Pennsylvania, Maryland. We stopped to peruse the maps and make a routing decision. Heading directly for Interstate 95, which would take us directly into Florida, would entail driving round Baltimore and Washington DC during the evening rush hour. This looked like it might be an unpleasant delay. There was a detour through West Virginia and Virginia which would bring us onto the I95 south of the major conurbations; it looked a little longer but much less built up. Clearly a good idea. I had driven the first six hours, it was Randy’s turn to take the wheel and I settled happily into the passenger seat to start enjoying the view and note down some of the truly bizarre road signs we’d been marvelling at.

Pennsylvania definitely wins on both daftness and impossible grammar grounds. ‘Beware aggressive drivers’ for a start. Who is doing the bewaring? Does one beware of aggressive drivers? And if so how? One could look in one's mirrors a lot and keep a decent distance from other people, but that’s um, just, driving. Is it the aggressive drivers who should beware? And if so, what of? Each other? Then there was the peerless ‘Aggressive driver high accident zone’. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Aggressive drivers cause more accidents here than in other places? Why? Is it something to do with the road layout? Does it make people aggressive? If so, is a sign really the answer? There were cute ones too, I rather warmed to ‘Buckle up next million miles’; but ‘Be alert heavy truck traffic’ oh don’t get me started.

The rain began somewhere in West Virginia. The further we drove the harder it rained. It was becoming quite hard to see the road at all. A famous attempt to pull into a MacDonalds for a wee and a coffee (oddly enough, despite the general crappiness of all things MacDonalds, they do make remarkably good coffee, truckers learn this sort of stuff) was totally snookered by an inability to see where the pavement ended and the entrance to the car park began. We ended up trying to reverse across three lanes of traffic out of the exit we’d tried to enter, Randy took it personally and won’t drive in West Virginia any more. We crossed into Virginia (‘Buckle up Virginia’, now that’s quite friendly and to the point) as dusk fell. Then it got foggy. It got foggier. And foggier. There were permanent signs now saying ‘Heavy fog’ but we knew that. There were huge orange cats’ eyes lining both sides of the road like a runway so that, despite the fog, we could still sort of see where the edges were. ‘Goodness’ we said to each other, ‘it must get foggy here like this quite a lot, they are well equipped for it.’ We were going more and more slowly. It took ages. We began to think that maybe Baltimore and Washington in the rush hour might have been a better bet. But then, all of a sudden the fog began to lift, we seemed to be going down, although we hadn’t really noticed going up, and the fog and the runway lights ended both together. There was a road sign. ‘Guess what?’ I chirruped, ‘that was the Misty Mountain. It’ll be funny by tomorrow.’ I looked at the map. ‘This is Virginia isn’t it? I think we’ve just driven over the Blue Ridge Mountains.’ Guess we both need new reading glasses.

Things got less interesting after that. We found our overnight stop in Richmond, arriving in a bedraggled heap moaning about having driven for 12 hours, just as though we weren't used to insane truckers' hours. Revived by a pleasant dinner and tolerable breakfast we found the I95 just the other side of Richmond and commenced much driving in a straight line. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Wees, coffees, snacks. The weather got warmer. We saw a palm tree somewhere in Georgia and cheered, it felt like 'nearly Florida' even if it wasn't. Mostly, day two of the grand road trip was a bit of a blur. Then, as dusk fell again we crossed into Florida with a slightly more enthusiastic cheer and started to rustle about for the Googlemap directions to Cherry’s house in Kissmmee.

The first clue that Florida roads might be a little more aggressive than the rest of the US came with the inevitable road signs. ‘Buckle up. Just do it’. How fierce, no whimsy at all. Deary me. It was my turn to drive the final leg and all of a sudden we were tailgated, undertaken, people swerved to and fro in front of us, deciding to take exits from the outside lane a nanosecond before the ramp disappeared, trucks merged an inch from our exhaust pipe. What was going on? People retire to Florida, it’s hardly New York City. I took it personally.

The Googlemap directions took us in and out of Orlando, on and off a toll road and out to Kissimmee itself. The toll road worried us somewhat. We had organised for the car an electronic transponder back in New York State, which had got us uneventfully through all the tollbooths and turnpikes in the North Eastern US, but the deal stopped at Virginia. Florida had their own system apparently. There were signs everywhere warning of the dire consequences of toll defaults, and of photo surveillance. We were running a bit low on cash, and it all looked a bit daunting. ‘I hope they take credit cards’ I fretted. ‘You’d better dig my card out of my bag, I can have it ready then’, as I scanned the tollbooths for one that said it was non-electronic, or that it took cards, or whatever passed for helpful in Florida. In the dark, they all looked the same. With a sinking feeling that the dire consequences of knowing-the-system-default would soon become apparent, I stopped at a toll booth. A smiling lady asked for a dollar. ‘A dollar?’ I queried. ‘Yes Ma'am.’ Randy found her a dollar and put the credit card away. I beamed at her, stupidly delighted. ‘Thank you very much.’ And we left a bemused tollboothperson behind us, to giggle our way onwards and debate among ourselves how much it must cost to implement photographic surveillance to retrieve the occasional dollar.

I had neglected to print off an actual map view of Cherry’s house and the instructions got a bit garbled. Every road in Florida seemed to have three or four names and numbers. None of the names and numbers on our instructions seemed to match with any real live road signs. It was eleven thirty at night, we’d been on the road for thirty-six hours, a full twenty-four of which had been spent driving. And of course, it finally happened; after 2400 kms with nary a hiccup we got lost in Downtown Kissimmee. We parked up to look at the instructions again, neglecting to notice that we had come to rest by a fire hydrant. Two police cars appeared from nowhere, flipped their lights on to attract my attention and pointed. We were supposed to park round the corner. Did they amble over to help the lost tourists with Ontario plates? Of course not. But I was thankful just not to be arrested. We swallowed our pride and gave in, I called Cherry from my cellphone. She and Ron turned out in the dark to come and find us and lead us the rest of the way. Lovely people.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cars get around too

Not a trucking exploit but a travelling one all the same. I have just driven to Florida and back, to make a wedding cake. Yes, I know, potty, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and the resultant road trip kicked off my writing reflex. Going somewhere always does. If you have followed this tale on the Mensa list, there are a few additions and changes and photos but it is largely the same yarn. If you are reading for the first time, I should introduce you to a small array of characters first.

It all begins with Cherry, an old pal from England, who remembers when I used to make everybody’s wedding and birthday cakes. Cherry is moving to Florida and marrying Ron, a charming Floridian gent. Would I make their wedding cake? Of course I would. I would probably have to make it at home and drive it down there, rather than fly down and make it there; but I felt sure that with enough planning it could be done. The aforementioned planning took about six months. Cherry would like a chocolate cake, filled with raspberries and cream, coated with ganache and decorated with chocolate truffles. She does like chocolate does our Cherry. What else? She left it to me, but something that represented both of them would be nice. I had grand plans for a Cherry Blossom cake, which I thought would be most dramatic against the chocolate background but that plan bit the dust on a humid day in Ontario, when the flower paste I am used to using in the UK fell to bits. Recalling that Florida is humid too I cast about for a new theme and plumped for lots of marzipan cherries, and chocolate guitars for Ron. Longsuffering family, neighbours and friends ate a lot of chocolate cake, raspberry fillings, and chocolate truffles over the months as I perfected and destruction tested each recipe for heat, cold, humidity and longevity. Don’t tell anyone but it was actually a slightly more challenging project than I had bargained for.

Suddenly it was time to go and I should therefore introduce you to Randy. We’d been dating a while, it seemed to be going ok and, on a whim, I asked him if he felt like driving to Florida. I did have an ulterior motive in that Randy is another ex-trucker, two long-haul drivers might be better than one, given that the cakes would be thawing on the way down.
Julian appears in the story too. Another pal from the UK who headed to Florida for the wedding and then hit the road north to drive to Ontario via a different route. But mostly that is his story and not mine.
I’d like to say it was bright and early when we set off for the marathon road trip but it wasn’t. Randy had to collect a renewed passport at nine in the morning from the branch office in downtown Hamilton, fortunately only an hour from the border, so it wasn’t going to be a crack of dawn crossing. With just two days to get to Cherry’s place and then just two days to finish off the cake I had all manner of apprehensions about delays and jobsworths and non-existent passports. I displaced my anxiety in the traditional manner by repacking the car for the umpteenth time. The cakes were still frozen, packed in their respective cake tins for protection on the way. The truffles, chocolate guitars, marzipan cherries, chocolate bows and big bags of couverture chips were carefully boxed with bubblewrap in the travel cooler loaned to me by Theresa for the occasion. With a box of bowls, mixers and tins, a box of random ingredients and two toolboxes full of sugarcraft implements, my sturdy little SUV was packed to the gunwales before we tried to get a couple of little suitcases in, a small cooler for drinks and a heap of maps. I had to photograph the car boot version of Tetris that resulted.

To my utter amazement, and with a cheer for Canadian authorities, the passport was there on the dot of nine and we were on the road shortly after. Without too much of a border delay we had 10 hours driving ahead of us to the half-way point in Richmond, Virginia. With minimal stops for wees, coffees, food, and swapping the driving around we hoped to be there by 9 o’clock that evening. No longer apprehensive about passport woes we began to fret a bit about the border. Neither of us had crossed by road as tourists before, but we’d both been on the rough end of things taking freight across and had no idea how the personality bypass brigade would view a car full of cake and tins and bowls and boxes full of sharp, pointy implements. I suppose you could smuggle lots of drugs inside three bloody big chocolate cakes. Does one offer a truffle by way of proof that the chocolate is real? Would that constitute a bribe? If they poked about enough, things could get ruined and I was on a tight schedule at the other end. What is it about these people that makes you sweat like a criminal anyway when you have nothing to hide?
We joined the queue that turned out to be moving the slowest. Not a good sign, clearly a jobsworth.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Kissimee, Florida.’
‘How long will you be away?’
‘Two weeks.’
‘Why are you going?’
‘To a wedding.’
‘Why does it take two weeks to go to a wedding?’
‘We’re taking the wedding cake and it’s going to take some time to put together and ...’
‘You have a cake in the back there?’
‘Yes, look...’
Randy began to wave aloft each cake in turn while I launched into a little explanation of the finer points of the civil engineering involved in wedding cake construction. He surveyed our faces and seemed to twig that we would be able to lecture on the intricacies for some time, I hadn’t got anywhere near the truffles yet and Randy hadn’t waved the third cake...
‘You’re good!’ in a tone that meant ‘bugger off’ and we were through and in the US and really, properly on our way.