Friday, August 31, 2012

Rural Crime Part 3: The Usual Suspects

   We fight a never-ending and ultimately unwinnable struggle against nature here, much more so, I suspect, than in Britain, which has long been tamed. “We’re the animals in the zoo, not the reverse,”  hubby once remarked, when we looked out to find the house surrounded by whitetail deer.    
   Another day, after we'd returned from a trip,  I went out onto the front porch, only to see a large American rodent, a woodchuck,  waddling around as though he owned the place. Oblivious in his wanderings, he came right up to my feet, then looked up, did a shocked double-take and waddled off as fast as his legs could carry him. Except he was so fat that it wasn't very fast. Woodchucks, at this time of year, are very fat indeed.
  There is a word around here for nuisance animals:  varmints.  And a woodchuck is your typical varmint, eating crops and plants and digging networks of sizeable holes. A whole section of our garden is an intricate cave network we've dubbed, "Woodchuck City".  A friend 's barn nearly fell down after a woodchuck burrowed under the foundations. Farmers and gardeners loathe them.  But I have to confess I have a soft spot for them. They are always either running away from something or lying squashed in the road.  And they apparently perform a useful purpose as the navvies of the animal kingdom, the holes they've dug making useful shelters for such as can't dig for themselves. They deserve a break. I might add that woodchucks are also known as groundhogs and have their moment of glory in February - on which more at a later date. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Election Latest: Battle of the Signs


  Aha! So you thought this was an election free zone?  Well, you were wrong.
  As a foreigner,  I intend to report on political developments in Cattaraugus County in this election year with scrupulous neutrality.
  I can't tell you much as yet, except that the race is on. I know this because signs have started appearing in various bits of empty land around people's houses, commonly known around here as "yards".   A new, red sign at the junction at the bottom of our lane proclaims the cause of Mr Dan French. I thought at first that it would be a shoe-in for Mr French but then a rival, white  sign appeared, further down the road, supporting Mr Donald Yehl. At the moment, Mr French is still leading, with nine signs to four for Mr Yehl. And suddenly, there's a new kid on the block, Mr John Moshier. Well actually, he's the incumbent. His signs are white, with touches of blue and red and so far, there are three.  (I am confining myself, for the sake of accurate comparison, to the route from our house to the village Post Office, a round trip of some ten miles.)
   I should add that Messrs French and Yehl, not to mention Mr Moshier, are vying for the job of Highway Superintendent.  (America votes for everyone, even, famously, in some places, the town dog-catcher.)  Who would think this post would be so coveted but of course highways are a challenge around here, what with snow and ice in winter and the resultant potholes in summer. There may be all sorts of other perks to the job of which I am unaware.
  The only other signs that have appeared so far are those which read "2012 America vs Obama". These were designed by the Cattaraugus County Tea Party and sold in the hardware store. So far, I have counted seven on my route, against none for Mr Obama himself.   But it's still early days. In the interests of scupulous neutrality, I will keep you updated.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

New Orleans

 Spare a thought for them and let's hope they don't get a double whammy. A friend's daughter lives down there and is putting a brave face on things - she says they've parked their car on the top floor of a multistorey car park in case of flooding.
Western New Yorkers are far away but they have big hearts. Students from our local university, St Bonaventure, have been going down every summer to help rebuild after Katrina.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Language Barrier Part 3: Of Mums and Moms

  When I first saw the sign, "Mums for Sale, 5 dollars",  I did an alarmeddouble-take. Well, all right, just for a fleeting couple of seconds. After all, in a strange country, you're never quite sure what to expect. Thankfully, all was not as it seemed. Since the sign was outside the garden centre, my head finally got around the fact that these Mums were actually Chrysanthemums. Americans, perhaps finding the word a mite difficult, call them Mums.  I still, stubbornly, make a point of saying Chrysanthemums.
  But whatever you call them, I have mixed feelings about them. Number one, garden centres, such as there are around here, are full of them and nothing but them. Rows and rows of them. Big ones, small ones, some as big as yer 'ead.   They're OK as they go - but thousands of them could be deemed an exaggeration.   Number two, they send a chill through my veins. They are harbingers of autumn and seeing their serried ranks appear with monotonous regularity in August makes me think of nothing but the sound of snowploughs tuning up.  True, I have bought a few to brighten up the garden, the annuals having mostly succumbed to the drought-and-thunderstorm summer but I can only look at them with foreboding.

    But if Americans call Chrysanthemums Mums, why do they call Mums Moms? They don't even pronounce the word as "Mom". It's more like "Maaaaaaarm" .  Is it for the same reason that they call "Road Works" "Road Work" ? Just to be perversely different from the Brits? It's one of the small, niggling puzzles of living here and I'd be glad of an answer.

Monday, August 27, 2012

American Wonderings:The Storied Cape

     My American adventure does sometimes include exploring other parts of the country - about which you might get a post or two. As a small tribute to Neil Armstrong, here's a column I wrote back in April this year. 

  It’s that time of year again. Sister-in-law and I have been on a road trip, driving her car from sunny Florida along with legions of other “snowbirds” heading back up north for the summer.   This time, our first stop was going to be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy.  No, it wasn’t Disney World but a vast swathe of  empty land on the eastern coast of Florida which, to someone growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century had just about the most exciting place name on earth: Cape Canaveral. Technically,  the Cape is a small offshore headland though it’s name is popularly used for all the land around it, including the fabled Air Force Base and Kennedy Space Center.   It’s here, of course,  where the first American astronauts went up in their Mercury and Gemini rockets,  where the Apollo moon missions blasted off,  where, more recently, the space shuttles started and ended their voyages.  Now even the shuttles have had their day.  The last one was pensioned off a few weeks ago, doing a triumphant circuit of Washington riding piggyback on a plane before going into honourable retirement in a museum.

  At Cape Canaveral, what was once the future is now history.  The nostalgia fix starts in the car park, with each section named for some half-remembered astronaut.  Ours was Wally Schirra, who flew three missions including Apollo 7 in 1968.  Models of spacewalking astronauts flank the entrance, along with posters advertising “lunch with a veteran astronaut”  for 24 dollars.

  A bus took us to a viewing platform where we gazed from afar at the launch pads.  We drove past the “largest tracked vehicle in the world”, that transported shuttles and rockets at a steady one mile-per-hour crawl.  The marks of its monster tracks in the sand were as spine-chilling as dinosaur footprints.

  We saw grainy film of President John F Kennedy proclaiming, “We choose to go to the moon”.  We sat through a presentation on the launch of Apollo 8, our seats shaking with the simulated vibrations from a distant lift-off.  The presentation was in the actual control room for the Apollo missions – those rows of desks and primitive screens,  each chair draped with a white lab coat with a logo saying “IBM” or “McDonnell Douglas”, each desk littered with bulky headphones,  old-fashioned specs and the sort of big, clumsy ring binders I used for my school notes.  What once seemed so high tech is now as dated as the  first horseless carriage – or the blown-up 1960s photos of hairy hippies and the Monkees records that entertained us while we waited.  .

      Cape Canaveral isn’t defunct.  The era of space exploration still goes on in different ways.  Yet perhaps, these days,  there’s as much of a tourist market in nostalgia for the grownups  as in thrills for the kids.  It’s the nostalgia for the passing of an age – an age when  a supremely confident America took on the Soviets to get to the moon first, when humbled pioneer astronauts marvelled at the wonders of the universe  by quoting Scripture, when families sat through the night glued to their TVs, watching momentous events – the first moon landing, the rescue of Apollo 13 - which modern children probably take for granted.

   Times have changed and not just because Americans and Russians now work together in space. On our bus  they showed us stirring videos about shuttles and rockets but also about the 21st century’s big idea - nature conservation.  Empty of houses and closed off from hikers and hunters, Cape Canaveral is one huge nature reserve.  A small alligator basked on a bank, reminding us that he and his kind had been around long before space travel and intended to be there long after.  Road signs said, “Wildlife Crossing, Give ‘em a Brake”.  Our bus driver pointed out a gopher tortoise, “Looks like a World War Two helmet with legs,” and an inlet where some endangered manatees, or sea cows,  were allegedly frolicking,  though I must have missed them.   An excited  little girl grabbed her mom’s arm, “I do hope I see one!”  Who needs the moon when you’ve got manatees.



Sunday, August 26, 2012

A WNY Sailor's LIfe: Sun and a South Wind


   Today found us making the most of one of the last hot summer weekends, sailing our little boat on  Lake Erie. An hour and a half's drive northwards to Buffalo and the marina isn't that far by American standards, I've found. It's positively around the corner.
  The vastness of Erie - one of the Great Lakes - is like nothing I could ever have imagined in Britain. (Nor for that matter would I ever have imagined that, thanks to hubby, I'd become a sailor.) It's a sea, really, with waves and white caps - beaches too, if you want them. Here the British and Americans fought to the death in the war of 1812 - a story for another day
  We had a rare and beautiful south wind which had come bowling over land and had only just got up speed, so the waves were still low - conditions our small craft loves. So we fairly galloped along westwards on a perfect beam reach, past the woods and beach houses on the Canadian shore to starboard, behind us the Peace Bridge that connects us with Canada - and beyond that the Niagara River flowing down to the Falls.  Keep that up non-stop and we'd get to Toledo, Ohio at the other end of the lake, in a couple of days. We thought for a split second we'd even overtake the big catamaran that takes out joyriders, sponsored by the local TV station in Buffalo. Until we realised she was coming towards us. But no matter. Sailing isn't all fierce rivalry.
    Unless you're talking about powerboats.
   A boat called "Stress Knot" roared past us. (Why do boaters like these dreadful puns? We've got "Sea's the Moment" and "Aqua Maureen" among others in our marina) I yelled, "Speak for yourself!" as he sent us rocking and rolling in his wake, blissfully oblivious. Sailing etiquette here demands that sailors don't wave to powerboaters. I thought that shocking at first but I'm beginning to understand.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Western New York Idyll Part 2: A Little Scene Setting

   We live on a country lane, the sort that, in these hilly parts of Western New York, is called a “hollow”. From a wide, flat valley, it rises upwards through forests of oaks and poplars and sugar maples, then downwards again into the next valley.  It’s named after an early settler who was the first to build a house here. You can still see it on the old maps.

   The lane leads up past increasingly isolated houses , past the end of someone’s drive embellished by a joky, rustic, wooden deer statue that  wears a swimsuit or a muffler and ski hat, depending on the season, past  the “hunting camps”, cabins used in November for deer-hunting  and past a forest-fringed lake. Here, the road gets rougher. It used not to be paved at all and it’s still an adventure to go over the hill through the winter snow and the spring potholes.
    It’s not all paradise;  higher up are rusty trailers surrounded by old cars and junk  – rural poverty is never very far away here.   And recently they've put up "40MPH" signs. Since they paved the road, it's been discovered. Dogs can no longer lie sunbathing in the lane and get away with it.

  Our lane makes for a good workout  and I puff up it and run down, drinking in nature in all its glory.  I’ve had deer cantering across the road in front of me and chipmunks rushing about their business; the strange sounds of kissing in the bushes are their warning signals. Once, I spied a large, fat porcupine heaving himself up the bank.
   On some mornings, it's almost painfully beautiful.  At this time of year, when the sun starts to pierce through the early morning fog, clouds of mist roll over the lake and through it. one day, I saw a group of ducks paddling, spotlighted in a shaft of sunlight, like ballerinas mincing through dry ice.
   Running for the bus in London was never like this.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The WNY Gourmet: Corn-on-the-Hob

   Sad to think the corn season will soon be over.  And our favourite farm market will be closing at the end of the month. How will we cope?
   No scene could be more rural Western New York at this time of year than the cornfields with their tall, bristling rows of the iconic plants, fat, succulent ears all ready to picked.
      It's been a dodgy year for corn, what with the drought and then the thunderstorms. We're lucky here, though. It's not nearly as bad as it's been for the mid-west.
     Of  course,  I mean corn in the American sense, the “on-the-cob” variety, introduced to the early settlers around here by the Iroquois Indians.  It’s one of  the major local crops, growing well in rocky soil and uncertain weather.
  There’s the sort they call “Indian corn” which is brightly coloured but not much use except for those twee autumn wreaths I can now tell you are called “ Ready-to-Hang Fall D├ęcor”. There’s the sort which gets ground up and fed to the cows. Then there’s sweetcorn,  the kind you eat.  And believe me,  if your previous corn experience has meant, like mine in London, getting it shrink-wrapped from the supermarket, or lurking in a bought tuna sandwich, you just haven’t lived.
      Hubby, the corn connoisseur, claims the only right way to cook corn so it’s supremely fresh, sweet and juicy is to start boiling the water and only THEN leg it to the field to pick it.  But since we don’t have a farm and don’t want to start yet another feeding station for the local wildlife, we get our corn elsewhere. Every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to have a roadside stall but the stuff at the farm market is the very  best (don't tell - they bring it in a from a place further north which has fancy irrigation.).
    At the farm market, you can spot those in the know by the intellectual conversation: “Jackpot’s good this year”  “Any Bread and Butter yet?”  “How’s the Tuxedo coming along?” “What, Silver King already?” These are all varieties of local corn, some yellow, some bi-coloured, some white, and everyone has their favourite. 
    There’s also corn etiquette.  Do you brave the stallholder’s beady eye and, before buying,  peel off the layers of papery leaves and fiddly, silky fibres to make sure one of God’s smaller creatures hasn’t got there first? If you’re interested  (and if not, please look away now) you can spot such quaintly named blighters as corn earworms, fall armyworms, European corn borers (ok so it’s all our fault then), and plain old slugs.  I’m usually too much of a coward.
     But if your corn is unsullied, prepare to be delighted.  Cook it, smother it in butter and eat away. Simple, really. Well actually it’s not that simple. To get the full experience, you're apparently supposed to get the kernels off the cob with your teeth without actually biting them, choosing either the “typewriter” method - one row at a time, working left to right, or the “search and destroy" method – spot the choicest kernels and just go for them.
    The one drawback with corn is that it sticks in your teeth something awful. Which probably explains why Americans are so keen on dental floss.  Meanwhile, we're besieging the farm market to get the last of their supplies, stuffing ourselves with corn, corn and more corn, trying to hang on to the experience.  The season is so short and it's worth it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Language Barrier Part 2: The Garden is Not What it Seems

 As far as I'm concerned, I've got a garden.  Most of it might be a jungle of wild roses, brambles and goldenrod, impassible until our friend Joe came with his brush hog and mowed some paths - trails, as they call them here - but it's still a garden. And the part near the house really is starting to look a bit like one - aiming, as I am for the English country cottage look, which includes weeds, so long as they've got blooms on them somewhere.
  But this is a situation ripe for misunderstanding. To my American neighbours, a "garden" is a vegetable patch - or, occasionally, a flower bed. People here, where acreage is plentiful and cheap, tend to have vast expanses of unfenced lawn around their houses, which they spend hours noisily mowing, with, perhaps, if they're so inclined, a clump of flowers strategically placed somewhere.  All that land around the house - well, that's a "yard". Which to me smacks of dinge, old tin cans and prisons.  I just can't bring myself to say the word.
  This was all brought home to me when we had some little nephews come to visit.   "Why don't you go and play in the garden?"  I suggested. They gaped at me with the sort of incredulity  that our old tom cat once exhibited when a bird fell down the chimney right into his basket. Stunned with the sheer joy of anticipation - of trampling and footballing unpunished through the blackeyed Susans -  their eyes swivelled towards their mother. That was fortunate because she had the chance to interpret, "NO!! - she means the yard!"

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

UPDATE: Rural Crime Part 2: The Last Blueberry

UPDATE: There turned out to be  two  last blueberries  - one had been lurking under some leaves - so we didn't have to fight over them. We had them last night. The Mad Men themselves couldn't do justice to describing the sheer succulence, sweetness and heartbreaking deliciousness of those blueberries, suffused as they were with thoughts of what might have been. Chippy watched from outside the window, up on his little haunches, beady eyes glinting and chomping on something hard. Butter, probably. Next year, things will be different.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fun at the Fair 2: Trottin' Swine

......A closer look revealed the van it to be decorated with cartoon pigs and the logos “Swifty Swine”  and "Go Hog Wild".  Crikey! Racing pigs! I just had to see this.

I sat myself in the mini-grandstand as a loudspeaker blared out, “These superswine are faster than a speeding sandwich!”. There followed some country and western music, “God is Great, Beer is Good”, and then Zach, the self-styled Swine Master from Texas, revved up the crowd. Were we ready for the “powered porkers, their tails in turbo and their snouts a-blazing” ? Yes we were! These swine, he boasted, were not running for the money but for a simple Oreo cookie! (Note to my British readers: Oreos are a sort of black-and-white biscuit.)

Then Zach yelled at us to cheer and cheer we did and all of a sudden, a bevy of piglets burst into view, scooting down the van ramp as fast as their little trotters could carry them. They had celebrity names like Brad Pig and Lindsey Loham and sported miniature numbered blankets. Each segment of the audience got assigned a number and had to cheer their piglet. A bugle sounded, just like in the Kentucky Derby and they were off, pounding the track and seemingly loving every minute of it. Our piglet came in last but hey, I hadn’t laughed so much in ages, though I did feel a bit guilty about the pulled pork. Move over, Usain Bolt.

(nb Sorry there are no photos of the piglets. I was too excited. Unless you want one of my thumb.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fun At the Fair: What's in the White Van?

 The sign on the giant white van said, “America’s Best Kept Racing Secret”. I looked closer. No, it couldn't be?  Or could it....?  Good grief! Well this IS America.  But nothing doing as yet. I’d have to be patient and check  it out later.
Who needs the Olympics when you’ve got the  Cattaraugus County Fair?   I was volunterring at the  “Ag Discovery”  stall. “Ag” as in “agriculture, I guessed. I don’t know much about farming and even less about American farming, apart from commiserating about the drought and how much luckier we are here than the poor mid-west.   

  “That’s OK”, said my friend, “All you need do is give everyone a sticker”.  I had two rolls of large, round stickers, one saying, “Refuel on Chocolate Milk” and the other “Aaah the Power of Cheese”. The idea was to nab anyone who glanced at our stall and plant a sticker on them – that way the sponsors would know we’d had loads of visitors.   I had to get rid of those stickers and fast.  Now,  if I was strolling around the Fair minding my own business and some crazed stallholder chased after me with a sticker, I would run a mile but Americans are more amenable. Most people just loved the attention. 

  I spent quite a lot of time arranging and rearranging the leaflets,  useful information on Points of the American Quarter Horse and How to Choose Your Bull – and putting up some sparkling electric blue bunting,  which would make our stall stand out from all the others.  We had to persuade Law Enforcement, who had their pitch opposite us,  not to park their car marked “Sheriff” in front of our display and scare people off.

    We also had an incubator containing eggs,  a placard saying, “Guess when the Chicks Will Hatch and Win a Prize”  and a tub full of dry corn kernels for children to dig into for plastic miniature cows.

    I heard that, later in the week, crashing thunderstorms swept through and all my carefully arranged leaflets  flew into the next county. But today the sun shone.  It was a Monday and business wasn’t all that brisk, so  I managed to skip off to Smokey Joe’s Barbecue and snag a pulled pork sandwich. Pulled pork, tender, flaky, juicy meat, is one of the things that make living in America worthwhile, especially when it’s soused in sticky barbecue sauce.

  The County Fair is a big deal here. What with fairground rides and quilt exhibits and tractor pulls and pens of fancy goats and sheep shampooing stations and serious-looking  farm children showing stubborn Jersey calves,  it’s Western New York meets the Archers.

   I wandered over to one of the rings to watch a western riding class, with girls in those fringed suede leggings called chaps,  glittery shirts and rather incongruously,  velvet riding caps, presumably a sop to Health and Safety.

   But back to the big white van.

to be continued............

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Weather Update: Water and Brimstone

At least, here, we’re through with the heatwave. For now.
  Phew, what a scorcher!  It wasn’t as bad as some parts of the US but we had weeks of heat -  dripping, suffocating,  perspiring heat. I have a theory that Britons are better at tolerating heat than northern Americans.  Look how they ruled India in pith helmets and crinolines and how they head to  Spain and Greece for their summer holidays in temperatures that would send my American neighbours climbing the walls.  
    Americans just cannot live without their air-conditioning and there were tales of people riding round and round on the New York subway all day, where they could be cool at least. (It wouldn’t work on the London Tube).

  The Friday when it was at its worst and with a houseful of guests, our freezer seized up.  The job-lot of bison burgers we’d just got from the buffalo ranch was rapidly thawing, with the prospect of eating  nothing but bison burgers for the foreseeable future.  If I never see another bison burger again, it’ll be too soon.

  That, however, was nothing to what happened on Saturday.

  The heat had reached such a pitch that even I was gasping and rolling my eyes. Then the thunderstorm broke. It was only a thirty-minute thunderstorm but it managed to pack more into that thirty minutes than the Fourth of July fireworks across the length and breadth of America all going off at once. We watched from the porch as three, four, five lightning bolts shot down from the sky simultaneously, followed by a crash that nearly blew our ears off. Then another. And another. The house shook, the garden path turned into a lake and  the gutters into Niagara Falls. Trees bent almost double and the rain blew horizontally, drenching us to the skin.
   As suddenly as it had come, the storm was gone, speeding towards  town. Then the power went out.

  We get power cuts here, in this neglected part of the world’s superpower, where electricity still travels on a Heath Robinson arrangement of flimsy poles and low overhead wires – and we have got a generator.  The catch was,  we couldn’t start it.  

    “Pray!” I urged hubby, heading to the shops to get some supplies to supplement the bisonburgers - something we could at least cook on the barbecue.   Town was a scene of devastation. Flashing police cars surrounded powerless traffic lights,  sweating policemen directing the traffic.  Roads were closed. Whole trees had come crashing down.  I called hubby and miraculously, he’d managed to start the  generator.   So we ended up trying to cook all the rest of the food in the already defunct freezer on a combination of the microwave and an old gas camp stove,  unearthed from the basement, which hubby  started up with boy-scoutish glee,  while everyone else cowered back in terror.  
  Such is hardship in modern America.

   Meanwhile, Father Ed at St John's gained some celebrity by preaching, arguably, the shortest, snappiest sermon ever (certainly the shortest in America). With no power and even the ceiling fans dead, the  church for the Saturday Vigil Mass was like the Black Hole of Calcutta.  “I expect you’ll all be wanting to get home,” said Father, “So I’ll be quick”. And he was:
     “This morning, when we got up, it was hot. At lunchtime it was hotter. This afternoon it’s even hotter. There’s only one place hotter than this. STAY OUT OF IT!”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rural Crime Part 2: The Last Blueberry

  I have some blueberry bushes.     Not that we can’t buy the things –  but there’s something very satisfying about picking berries off your own bush.  Or it would be satisfying if I ever managed to do it.  The birds have always swiped the berries as soon as they’re  ripe and the deer, of course, eat anything that comes their way.  One of my efforts to improve the odds involved buying more  blueberry bushes. This method could be called the triumph of hope over experience.  A second  was to copy a neighbour and drape the bushes with a sort of veil to hide them from the birds. I tried this one summer, but,as you may have read ,that was the Summer of the Turkeys. 

  This year started off promisingly.  In spring, the bushes were covered in pinky-white flowers, which augured well for the harvest.   The deer hadn’t been around much and the turkey family had moved on.  Every day, I went to check on the little green berries.  But start to get complacent and you’ve had it. Slowly it dawned on me that the berries were getting fewer.  Then one evening, hubby, ever vigilant, called out in alarm, “What’s that at the blueberries?”  Then he relaxed, “It’s OK, it’s only a chipmunk.”

   When I first came here, I started a love affair with chipmunks. I thought them the sweetest things in all creation,  like exquisite, miniature  squirrels in striped pyjamas.  One, Chippy, had a network of tunnels outside the dining room. We’d laugh to see him pop down one hole and up from another.  I’d put out peanuts and sometimes he’d eat them, sometimes stuff them into his cheeks and scamper off with them to his winter larder.  Many is the time I saved his bacon when the neighbours’ cat had him in her sights. I thought he was my friend.

   So hubby’s observation didn’t worry me unduly.  Until I inspected the bushes.  All but one had been stripped bare.

   At first I put a brave face on my betrayal.  Perhaps it wasn’t Chippy but some interloper from across the creek.  Then blind rage took over and with an insane desire not to let this little furry fiend get the better of me, I spent  hours wrestling with netting, stakes and heavy rocks to build a Fort Knox around the one remaining bush.  Grimly, I threw down the gauntlet, “Get past that if you can!”

   The next day, the blueberries were down to four.  Perplexed, I took to the internet. I should have gone there first.  Just do a search for  “chipmunks and blueberries”.   The tales of woe from hapless, outwitted  gardeners will keep you going for weeks. 

    As I write, there’s one blueberry left and I’m watching it like a hawk.  Let’s see who’s going to win this final battle.   I have an uneasy feeling that I already know.

Friday, August 17, 2012

WNY Nightlife: Trombones at Sunset

   It was a balmy evening with just a hint of thunder in the air, as hubby and I dusted off a couple of deckchairs and headed for a patch of grass outside the building grandly called the “Recreation Center”.   We joined mums and dads, grandpas in shorts and baseball caps,  unfolding their nylon chairs with the cupholders in the armrests, or spreading rugs on the ground, accompanied by kids, dogs and insect repellent –  I mean bug spray.  

  We were all there to hear the Allegany High School Alumni  And Friends Band, currently unpacking its tubas and trombones and settling itself, if not exactly on a stage, on a piece of grass near the building so we could all rush inside if it rained.

  The Alumni and Friends Band started off as a bunch of old classmates.  These days, their hair is  sparser and their girths wider than they were back in the day,  probably longer ago than most of them care to remember,   when they graced the classrooms and sports fields of our local high school.  They started the brass band as a sort of hobby and  a way of keeping in touch. But they’ve got far more than nostalgia value.   Take it from me, they are seriously good. They play every couple of weeks  on summer evenings for anyone who wants to listen, just for the fun of it, the music laced with a bit of friendly  banter.  They love what they do and they don’t charge a penny for it. 

    The evening kicked off with the National Anthem, which is always slightly awkward for me, as Americans  not only stand up but put their hands on their hearts in a rather touching way and being foreign, I can’t really do that.  I worry that people who don’t know me might think I’m making some sort of silent protest.  No American in this part of Western New York wouldn’t put  hand on heart.  It would be unthinkable.

  Then the performance proper was up and running with a blood-racing Sousa march, followed by the “Carnival of Venice” , including a trumpet solo.  The conductor announced Jason, the soloist,   “One of the finest trumpeters I’ve ever known – er, what was your name again?”  And everyone groaned and  chuckled.

  Next was a special from the trombone section,  “Directed by my accountant – and he charges too much!  Dennis, do you want the microphone?”

  “You bet  I want the microphone,” barked Dennis the Accountant,  “ I want to introduce our first tune. Well our first tune needs no introduction….”

   Of course not, since it was  “Amazing Grace”  and the audience closed its eyes and smiled wistfully and some birds in the trees couldn’t help but join in.  We could have been round the bandstand at some old, genteel  British seaside town – except there wasn’t a bandstand.

  Then there was  a slow, languid, jazzy number and then, inevitably,  “America the Beautiful” and finally it was time for the last tune, “I think you know what the last tune is – we’ve only done it for the past  twelve years”.

 And off they went with “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and everyone tapped their feet and clapped along and then it was time to go home – with a reminder  that  St John’s Church was laying on hot dogs and free ice cream.

   Hardly an evening to make history but it’s  nice to think that there is a kinder, simpler, gentler America and we’re lucky here that we don’t have to look too far to find it.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Foggy Mornings: Attack of the Kamikaze Deer


Foggy mornings now and the valleys packed with cloud like cotton wool in a giftbox.   And full of surprises too.  Drivers in Cattaraugus County drive in fog with no lights. Or at least every grey car does. They think, if they can see, it's OK. Turning out of the bottom of our lane becomes an exercise in winding down the window and listening hard for somebody coming.  I composed letters to the local press in my head until I saw a State Police car doing it too.  It must be another American custom, so I'm powerless.
  It was on just such a morning, a couple of weeks after I'd first come to live in America, that I was following hubby's car into town.  Suddenly, I saw that he’d stopped by the side of the road.  Puzzled, I pulled in behind him and a split second later, CRASH, something hurtled out of the cornfield and  hit my car. I stumbled out and saw hubby sadly eyeing his beloved Volvo, like mine, buckled beyond repair. Incredibly we had both almost simultaneously fallen victim to Western New York’s variation on the kamikaze,  which here comes with four legs apiece and waving white tail.  We were in good company: in a recent survey of local drivers, 55.7 per cent said they’d had a collision with a deer. Deer-hitting stories abound like fishing tales –  but double whammies like ours are unusual and did wonders for my reputation.  Of course it's one I'd rather not have. I still have the townie's attitude to animals and probably always will.  I was left wondering what sort of country I'd landed in. Safe in the urban jungle of London, I would never have predicted this.
  But what to do? Old-timers lament the demise of hunting as a father-and-son bonding sport.   Random warning signs with a pictured leaping deer decorate the roads but are futile - although  I heard of one old lady who argued with the workmen putting one up by her garden. “You take that down! I don’t want any deer coming here!”   

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Language Barrier: Thirsty Work

  Since I’ve been living in America,  people back home are always asking me how I’m getting on. When I’ve gone through the litany of loving Western New York’s quieter pace of life, the wild flowers, the scenery, the abundant animals gorging on my garden and my wonderful American friends, my usual answer is, “Fine – apart from the language barrier.”  This raises a few laughs -  “two nations divided by a common language” and all that. The thing is, though, it’s true.

  And the longer I live in America, the more I see how true it is.

      The subtle differences between British and American go far beyond “pavement” and “sidewalk”, “handbag” and “purse”, “biscuit” and “cookie”, “angry” and “mad” and so on.

Take the simple matter of pronunciation. They’re just not used to hearing English spoken around here – since the only British tourists in this neck of the woods are likely to be staying with us. So they expect everyone to be American – and speak American.

Virtually every time I’m in a local restaurant and I ask for “water” I get blank looks from the waitress – sorry, from the server.

The same thing happened on an internal Jet Blue flight. You'd think the flight attendant would have heard English at some time in her life but no. I was gasping for a drink of water but every time I said "Water", louder and with increasing desperation,  her expression got more puzzled. "Water!!!!" I pleaded, thinking this was all some kind of Kafka-esque joke.  Eventually she turned to hubby and giving me a suspicious look, hissed conspiratorially,  “What did she say?” Hubby interpreted. “Ah” came the realisation,“Wahhdurrr!”

   It’s a steep learning curve – but there is something I can do.  I don’t know why I never thought about it before. I’ve studied some foreign languages in my life. Well, I just need to learn American.  I’ve already found myself saying “garbage” and “sKedule” when I just have to be understood.  But I still can’t seem to get my tongue around  “Wahdurr.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rural Crime: Don't Leave Your Sunlounger Unattended

You might be wondering about the turkeys. Here's the tale....... 

We got back from our holiday to find we had squatters. There’s always a risk leaving your house unattended and the squatters, a family of eight, were obviously clever enough to work out that we weren't there. Fortunately, the gang hadn’t  found a way into the house, though they had made themselves comfortable on the patio. I spotted them there the evening we arrived back, nonchalantly enjoying their picnic. The large, fat mother had attitude. She eyed me up brazenly and nailed me down as a soft touch. Then she took her time rounding up the children and heading off to the stream behind our house, where, presumably, they were camping out.
  I thought they wouldn’t dare return, knowing we were back but I was wrong. Two mornings later, there they were again and this time they weren’t just enjoying our patio, they were using our garden furniture, the seven, yes, seven, kids dozing and sunbathing on the sunlounger without so much as a by-your-leave, climbing all over my yellow cushions, joshing with each other, then playing an extreme sports game where they jumped off it one by one and crash-landed on the bricks. While a couple of them came to the back door and stared rudely in, obviously casing the joint, the others sauntered off to play hide-and-seek among the rhododendrons. 
 . This went on for a couple of weeks. Then things went too far. One fateful day, deciding they wanted dessert, the mother suddenly marched them all off in the direction of my few, puny blueberry bushes. Their heads shot out like Medusa's snakes and in a few dreadful seconds, every last blueberry had gone.

  Our felons were wild turkeys. Huge, stately, glossy brown birds, nothing like their pasty farmyard counterparts, they are supposed to be very shy. They have remarkable hearing and even more remarkable eyesight, which makes them tricky to hunt, should you be so inclined. They don’t like to hang out with humans. But, it appears, even the turkeys have no respect for us. “When turkeys start using the lawn furniture”, a friend observed,  “You just know you’re not master in your own domain.” 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Western New York Idyll - about as good as it gets


 There are some days,  here in Western New York, when it’s really wonderful to be alive. One such day was back in June ....

It had been a long time since I went riding up in in the hills, with my friend who owns a few horses. She’d put her back out and was gradually getting back into things, so the horses hadn’t had saddles on for a while. They were a little perplexed as to what we had in store for them.

   Ellie May, the big paint mare (in Britain we would call her a skewbald) rolled her eyes,  wondering if she was about to be taken to the knackers.  Star, the aged quarter horse, built to race at speed over a quarter mile, though those days are long behind her,   was more of an old pro but even she looked  worried.

  “C’mon gals” we said, “It’s a beautiful day - you’ll love a little workout!”

  As the sun moved in and out of plump little clouds dancing across an early summer sky, straight from Winnie-the-Pooh, we ambled out and up the lane. It was so like an English country lane,  though,  in the American way,  straight as a Roman road. We made a detour to avoid a well-drilling lorry in case Ellie May threw a fit on seeing it. My friend’s son  is building himself a house.  In these parts, digging your own well goes with that;  you can forget about mains water and anyway, well water, like ours, is pure and delicious. We sometimes think we ought to market it.

    We turned into a meadow, riding waist deep, just like the early settlers, in the days when they said you couldn’t see the horses’ ears above the waving grasses.  My friend’s two dogs,  a chestnut-coloured, curly-coated Chesapeake Bay Retriever and a feisty pug- Jack Russell cross,  dashed through grassy tunnels, with only the waving surface betraying their passage.

   Around us were views that can’t have changed much in a few hundred years. Forested hills receded into the distance, dotted here and there with the occasional red barn. Tiny sprouts of green corn were coming up in the fields. By late summer,  they’d be a forest. Tall metal silos were the only evidence of modernity.

  We rode through narrow trails, overgrown since we were there last, having fun dodging the prickers, the rampant multiflora roses that run wild over the countryside – and my garden . Only at this time of year,  when they’re full of delicately-scented white blooms, you can forgive them.  We rode between vast banks of a wildflower called Dame’s Rocket, pink, purple and white, more prolific this year than I’d ever seen them.

  We hacked our way through undergrowth,  plunging down a bank into a mountain stream that trickled over stones and rocks and wading through the deeper pools. Fallen trees barred our way but the horses  stepped and scrambled over them,  gradually accepting that they were back to their  old, familiar working lives.

   We rode through a cool forest, dressed in its early summer vivid green. Baby maple tree shoots carpeted the ground and a rough cabin stood empty, patiently waiting for deer-hunting season.

   Then on past a grand wooden house owned by some rich Canadians who come over the border from the flatlands around Toronto,  to ski in the winter. It has a large bronze statue of a howling wolf in front,  which always makes me jump. The horses always seem to ignore it though.  They’re not stupid.

   In the past,  we’ve often startled white tail deer in the undergrowth, even, once,  a nesting wild turkey that famously flew straight up under the horses’ noses and sent them hell for leather into the next county. But on this idyllic day all was quiet, except the sound of a couple of wild geese honking overhead as we burst out into the meadow again.

 Then  it was back to the barn and the horses,  kitted out with high tech nylon fly hoods  (lucky them - in the old days they had to make do with manes and tails), turned out to pasture, kicking up their heels  and cantering off, tails flying. They seemed glad to be alive too.