Friday, August 31, 2007

Wii

For anyone who likes video games, Andrew has an amazingly cool job. For people like us, unversed and uninvested in the world of gaming, his job is interesting from a business perspective but that’s about it. What would be extreme perks to others are simply amusing diversions for us. For example, last night Andrew brought home a Wii. We played a game of tennis, then bowled, our movements unrestricted by furniture. Andrew played a little golf and baseball. It was fun, but after about an hour, we were done with the Wii. This is what people have been paying so much money for, waiting on waitlists for? I’m missing something, apparently. Perhaps I’ll understand it a little more when Andrew brings home a Mario Brothers game, which I always liked playing on our old Nintendo system many years ago. Wii shall see.

Chitchat

Californians are friendly. In grocery stores, the cashiers strike up conversations, smiling and scanning my food. It’s off-putting; I’m not used to small-talk, not least because usually I’ve just spent an ungodly period of time alone in our studio apartment, out of reach of human interaction. The conversation is usually prompted when I show my driver’s license, required whenever we buy beer or wine. “You’re a long way from home,” a Trader Joe’s cashier observed recently. Or, the more common comment: “What brings you out here?” They ask how long we’ve been here, if we like it, how it’s different from back home. These questions are sometimes complicated, especially if Andrew presents his FL license. Sometimes we talk about FL as though it’s a home we’ve just left, remarking on the difference in humidity and other such chitchat.

A couple of weeks ago, the cashier at the large grocery store Raley’s studied and studied my license, getting a handle on my name, which she used throughout the rest of the conversation. All this attention to my license is fine, I suppose, but it’s also unfortunate that what they see on my license is the Lobotomy Picture. I’d waited outside the DMV on 125th street for over two hours the day the picture was taken; it was a time of desperation, of fruitless DMV trips, attempting to replace my PA license (stolen, along with my purse) with a NY one. Terrible. It had been a freezing-cold morning, and a strand of windswept hair had positioned itself at a jagged angle across my forehead. In the picture, the hair, along with my crazed eyes and forced smile, suggest—no, assert—lobotomy patient.

Our car has generated a bit of friendly CA-style small talk as well. This week, Andrew and I went to the mall and were accosted in the parking lot by an aggressively friendly older couple who wanted to know how we liked our Volvo. We were skillfully swept into an extremely lengthy conversation—the husband pulled Andrew over to one side, while the wife chattered over the car to me. “What’s your name?” I heard the man ask Andrew. And then the woman, to me, moments later: “What’s your name?” It seemed eerily choreographed. The conversation resulted, for Andrew, in an exchange of business cards and the suggestion that there might be a job available at the man’s consulting firm. Though Andrew does indeed have the admirable gift of being able to inspire genuine affection and good will instantaneously, this was not, I’m quite sure, one of those fortuitous encounters where careers are magically propelled ahead. On the contrary, we speculated on the way home whether we’d been targeted as possible converts to some sort of religion, and our suspicions were deepened when a Google search turned up no mention of either the man or his company.

Perhaps we’re just cynical New Yorkers; perhaps my under-stimulated imagination is just desperate for a little drama here in bland-as-oatmeal suburbia; or perhaps this won’t be the end to this story at all.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Weekend in Suburbia

We did it: we survived our first weekend together in suburbia. This is actually the third weekend I've spent here--once when Andrew went to a bachelor party and once when he was on a business trip--but those weekend I filled with on-my-own things, extra work and writing and renting DVDs. We faced this weekend with a kind of puzzlement. What, exactly, were we going to do all day? We'd already gone to see a movie this week--Superbad (our high expectations were disappointed); there are no museums or parks to go to; and there's nowhere to go strolling or exploring. We waited to see what would happen.

Somehow, the time passed, and we managed to actually have a nice, if fully suburban, two days. Friday night, after we bought the car, we celebrated at a nice Vietnamese restaurant. Saturday, we went out for breakfast then drove into Sacramento to--finally!--return our rental car. This involved my first solo drive on the freeway, and though there was a very close call with a lane change and complicated exit (I almost crashed into Andrew), I survived. We then went to Target and Barnes and Noble. We grilled hamburgers for dinner, read, watched TV. Saturday.

Today, Andrew made breakfast, then we headed to Roseville to check out what Andrew had heard from co-workers was a good flea market and farmer's market. We heard Deborah Garrison read two poems on NPR before we parked the car in the huge lot, which was a nice way to end the drive. The flea market itself was a mish mash of cheap new junk and dusty old junk, though we did find a couple of books. We looked at a big cooking pot, and Andrew pulled his hand back in pain--the sun had heated the metal to a ridiculous degree. We began backing away warily when the seller launched into an explanation of why the sun makes metal hot--something about electromagetism and the sun not actually heating the metal but the air around it....There's always a whole lot of crazy at a flea market.

The farmer's market, however, surpassed all expectations and I can say honestly that it is the best market I've ever been to besides the Boqueria in Barcelona. Stand after stand of vegetables and fruits that must have come straight from nearby farms, all being sold at ridiculously cheap prices--four pounds of peaches for a dollar, for example. There were many things we'd never heard of before, or, at least, had no idea how to cook--wide cactus leaves, prickly cactus fruits, jicama, pacilla peppers, tomatillos; and bins and bins of chile peppers of all sizes and colors. Absolutely everyone was speaking Spanish. We loaded ourselves down with fruits and tomatoes, thrilled to have finally found the quintessential CA market that we knew had to exist somewhere.

We rounded off the day with stops at Target (yes, again) and Trader Joe's, and now we're here for the evening, with the Times to while away the remaining hours. Not a bad weekend, this. It's no Spanish beach or Central Park or walk down Passeig de Gracia, but we made the most of what suburbia had to offer.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

THE "CHRISTIAN RIGHT" IS NEITHER

We are officially car owners. It’s crazy. Yesterday we paid, in full, in cash, for a used ’98 Volvo in excellent condition that Andrew had found listed on Craig’s List. We’ve been searching for a car for weeks now, intent on getting rid of our money-sucking rental, but nothing has been quite right: too expensive, too sketchy, an armrest that looks as though it had been chewed on regularly. We found an Audi we liked but decided against it out of fear for expensive repair work. We met a Passat seller, convinced we were going to buy it instantly, but were disappointed to see that it was definitely the worse for wear, and that the seller works at the local prison. The Volvo felt right immediately, and the sellers, a middle-aged couple who’d just bought a brand-new Lexus, had lived in both Pittsburgh and near Cornish in New Hampshire, and had a fat file folder full of painstakingly compiled information on the car’s history, inspired trust. I actually felt more wary of carrying around all that cash than I did about handing it over.

This is the first car either of us has ever owned, and we felt quite happy and proud driving around last night. We also felt aggressive and belligerent because our car sports a bumper sticker reading THE “CHRISTIAN RIGHT” IS NEITHER. Though we of course like the sentiment, we’re going to try to remove it or cover it up; we already feel a little conspicuous about being New York transplants here in the suburbs, and I don’t think there’s any need to flaunt our liberal views. This is neither the time nor the place.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Monterey

Seals, whales, otters—the promise of dramatic sea life was one of the things that drew us to Monterey, and our weekend did not disappoint. Saturday afternoon, when we arrived, we headed to the Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch and spotted seals sunning themselves on rocks around the harbor. We sat outside to eat—fish and chips for Andrew, clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl for me—and even saw seals swimming in the water just beneath our terrace.

There were more seals, as well as large pelicans and many other birds, in view as we made the 17 Mile Drive along the coastline. The wildlife, cypresses, and dramatic sea were almost overshadowed, however, by the extravagant mansions lining much of the drive and the overwhelming abundance of ridiculously expensive cars. There is a lot of money in Monterey, and even as we ate breakfast on Sunday morning at a little café in town, we saw Lamborghinis and Porches and Ferraris drive idly by. Even a few of the cars in the parking lot of our lovely overnight abode, the EconoLodge, were carefully covered up for the night in heavy car blankets.

We did a little writer’s-ghost-hunting this weekend, walking around Cannery Row, the setting for several Steinbeck novels. Andrew had bought a few used Steinbecks as a little getaway preparation on Friday, and now I can read Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row with their settings (well, versions of them) clear in my mind.

As we left Monterey behind on Sunday, en route to Santa Cruz, we drove through Castroville, the self-proclaimed Artichoke Capital of the World. Fields of artichoke plants surrounded the town, and we were disappointed that we’d already eaten and missed out on the Giant Artichoke restaurant, whose door was flanked by, yes, an enormous artichoke. We walked around town just a bit, clear outsiders among the Spanish-speaking crowds. So close to Monterery, this town was a different world, almost a different country. When we got on our way, the farmland continued, field after field of cauliflower and strawberries and squash.

Our final stop was Santa Cruz, where we were found ourselves on a true beach boardwalk. Roller-coasters soared over our heads; large spinning saucers raised screaming riders high above the sand. The water, sadly, was too cold for swimming, so we walked along the pier and did some seal-watching.

And then we were homeward bound, away from the Lamborghinis and back to our slightly less moneyed neighbor, the Sunrise Mall.

Return to the MDPOE

This weekend, Andrew and I found ourselves once again fighting panic and existential despair at the MDPOE. A friend had flown in from Pittsburgh this weekend, preparing to relocate with his family in a few weeks, and I helped him house-hunt Friday. It’s very nice to see the occasional friend from the East Coast (more or less), but strange, too; our life here feels somehow more real when someone familiar enters it. In any case, he had booked a room at the MDPOE for Friday night, not realizing that it is a place of hellish misery; and Andrew and I, intent on cutting down our travel time for our weekend trip to Monterey, were committed to the MDPOE as well thanks to Priceline. This time, our room had 5 forks. Nate’s had 2. He also reported that his room had what appeared to be a blood stain under the window. I don’t know what it is about these places—this was actually a different branch of the MDPOE—but they are simply awful. Almost determinedly awful. Nonetheless, everyone survived the night.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Rocky Road to Romance

Over the past week, Andrew and I have managed to acquire the following:

---TV
---DVD player
---Futon
---Daily delivery of the New York Times
---Printer
---A copy of The Rocky Road to Romance by Janet Evanovich

One would think we were—at last—getting settled. And indeed, it would appear that way. The last time I had cable TV was—never. I have never subscribed to cable in all my years of living as an independent adult. In Spain, we had cable for approximately one month; but Spanish cable boxes and the television sets that accompany them are complicated to a degree unknown to the rest of humankind, and I never learned how to turn the TV on once everything was installed. This is not an exaggeration. We moved to a new apartment shortly thereafter and didn’t bother signing up again. I can’t lie: it’s nice, very nice, to have TV. I can watch Everybody Loves Raymond as I clean up dinner and watch Iron Chef America before going to sleep. On weekends like this one, when Andrew is away for work, I’m especially happy to have it.

And it’s fabulous to have the Times. And its attendant subscription to Times Select. And the ability to print things without emailing them to Andrew’s office.

But some distance remains until we’re as settled as we can be without any of our things here with us. For example, one would think we’d be happy to no longer be sleeping on an air mattress on the floor. Yet we’ve somehow succeeded in upgrading our sleeping arrangements to something even more uncomfortable. The futon mattress sags in the middle, and until we shore it up with strategically placed pillows, it will continue to kill us. We got it from a nice couple from Craig’s List, mainly because it met our main criteria: it was cheap enough that we won’t feel compelled to move it back East whenever the time comes, and the seller agreed to deliver.

I thought we were being given a sign of something on Thursday, in the midst of all this settling in, when Andrew opened up his package from a Half.com seller. He expected to see a Chicago guidebook he’d ordered for his business trip, and instead pulled out a romance novel. The swirly, heart-festooned cover of The Rocky Road to Romance was a surprise. “What did you order?” I smirked, as Andrew went on about it being a “shipping error.” Whatever. I felt sure that some greater meaning awaited us in this chirpy, oh-so-domestic piece of supermarket fluff, that a clue lurked within the pages of this book where, according to the “Dear Reader” section from Janet Evanovich at the front, “[t]hey all fall in love, they outsmart some bad guys, and they eat a lot of dessert.” I was hooked. Alas, about a half-page in, more satisfying reading (the cereal box, the cable bill, a Pizza Hut flier) beckoned, and the mystic sign, if there is one, will, I fear, remain undiscovered.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Lake Tahoe

It’s funny how our experience of living in CA is being sullied by the fact that we live in a suburban void. What our weekend trips have shown us over the past few weeks is that this is an incredibly beautiful state—and we are, oddly, perfectly situated to visit some of the most stunning parts of it with minimal effort and time.

This weekend, we drove a mere hour and a half and found ourselves at Lake Tahoe. The largest alpine lake in North America, Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide; the water, in some places, is 1,645 feet deep. There are 71 miles of dramatic, pine-lush shoreline. The lake is in a basin within the Sierra Nevadas, and the high altitude was palpable—walking across a parking lot was enough to make me short of breath. And the color—Lake Tahoe is an otherworldly blue, deep and rich. Set as it is against the pine forests and mountain ranges, it is a breathtaking sight.

Thanks to Priceline and a strategic upgrade, we stayed the night at the luxurious Resort at Squaw Creek; we had a suite with a mountain view, with a fireplace in the living room. Indescribably cozy. When we arrived on Saturday, we reluctantly left our bags and set out to explore. We drove north from Squaw Valley, along the lake, stopping now and then to admire the views, walk out on a pier, sit on the sand. Dogs played in the water. A breeze rustled through the pines. The sun was warm, but there was a coolness in the breeze. The sky was a clear blue. It was truly a mountain paradise. We stopped once along the way and walked along a road high above the lake, collecting pinecones—large cones from Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines; there were so many along the road and in the woods that we could have scooped them up with a shovel.

We’d gotten tickets for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival’s performance of Romeo and Juliet that night, so we set out for Incline Village. The performances take place at an amphitheatre that has Lake Tahoe as its backdrop. We sat in the “upper gallery,” on a sandy hill; everyone rents low beach chairs to sit on. People who bring their own, too-high chairs stand and call “Shovel! Shovel!”, and a theatre worker comes over to dig a trench in which to nestle their chair. We brought a picnic and a bottle of wine; and as the play—which was very well done—went on, and the sun set over the lake, we drank the wine and listened to the rustling pines and, during scene changes, looked up at thousands of stars in the clear sky.

The man sitting next to us, also a former New Yorker, said he was sure we’d realize that we’d arrived in a place far superior to Brooklyn and everything else we’d left behind. Sitting there, overlooking the lake, we couldn’t agree with him, of course, but it was easy to see why his conviction was so ardent. Perhaps we’d feel the same if we, too, owned a home in Tahoe.

There was a long line of traffic leaving the parking lot after the play, so we turned on the headlights and scavenged in the woods for more pinecones while we waited out the rush.

Sunday, we sadly left our alpine retreat and headed south, ready to round out our Tahoe experience by going to a casino. We soon crossed the state line into Nevada and were confronted by two mammoth ones—Harrah’s and Harvey’s—that are connected by an underground tunnel. We spent a few dollars on the penny slot machines; Andrew played a couple of hands of electronic poker. He decided against joining a table in the poker room—he wasn’t feeling it, he said—and we left more or left unscathed, secure in the knowledge that neither of us have a gambling addiction.

We stopped at a state park on the way home to collect more pinecones (bags of pinecones now fill the outdoor storage closet off our deck). Gathering pinecones from a woodsy trail is just good for the soul.

And so our Lake Tahoe weekend came to an end. It was a wonderful trip, definitely a place the warrants a repeat visit—perhaps when the snow comes, if we’re still here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Foraging

The bad news: we’re not moving back East anytime soon, so here we are in CA, which will now be our home at least through the next few months. We’re staying. Time to get a car and a bed. Time to get a TV and put the suitcases permanently away.

The good news is that earlier this week was trash day in our neighborhood, so Andrew and I went foraging for furniture. We got a haul: a bookcase, a squat leather armchair, a bar cabinet complete with lock and key, and two plastic chairs for the terrace. Our apartment looks marginally more homey with our finds; once we get a bed it might actually be cozy.

Yet frustrating setbacks persist. Wednesday night we tried to grill what we thought would be a delicious meal: chicken legs, eggplant, zucchini, and red peppers. It was a disaster. The vegetables either shriveled to the consistency of cardboard without, somehow, ever cooking completely through (eggplant) or barely cooked at all (zucchini). The chicken, which burnt to a crisp on the outside, was, to our horror, raw when we cut into it on our plates. We threw the entire meal in the trash and went foraging for dinner by calling Pizza Hut. Not sure what happened with this grilling disaster; we’re apparently missing some vital information, despite our previous grilling successes. Even Andrew, master griller, who can whip up a tasty marinade from even the sparsest refrigerator contents, was humbled by these stubborn vegetables and icky meat.