Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallows' Eve

Here's part of one of the first columns I wrote when I came to America. Not much has changed.
 In Britain these days, Halloween has something of an image problem, seen by many as a dubious American import that’s turning innocent children into mini-racketeers and incipient satanists. But I’ve found American Halloween on its home ground rather different. Steeped as it is in fun, warmth and tradition, it’s close to the heart of every American family and absolutely non-negotiable. 

   My husband remembers with nostalgia his small self, in cowboy gear, terrorising his genteel suburban neighbourhood with his toy pistol, the streets milling with children in home made costumes, faces wet from apple-bobbing and cheerful and generous householders enjoying the spectacle and dishing out sweets. The main object of Halloween, he reflects hungrily, “Was to get as much candy as you possibly could…”
   The festivities start early - the first signs come in September with patches of coloured plastic sheeting appearing incongruously in people’s front yards.  Amazingly, the next day, they’ve metamorphosed into fat, inflated ghosts sitting on a giant pumpkin, laughing uproariously. (Incidentally, this is the start of  Inflatable Season – in November they’ll be replaced by blow-up turkeys and in December by Santa Claus). Then there’s the witch collided with a telegraph pole, still astride her broomstick, hat at a jaunty angle and the  white-sheeted fluorescent spectres fluttering on a line between the trees. Bushes are swathed in gauze cobwebs and houses glow with orange coloured fairy lights. 


Our local town's one posh confectionary shop sells white chocolate ghouls in miniature dark chocolate coffins. And – Come if You Dare - the Nightmare Hay Rides get into gear. Now I have to confess I have not yet been on a Nightmare Hayride – but I also have to confess that I’m tempted. This is a 25 minute night-time tractor ride in a local farm field (turn left at the Kwik Fill Gas Station)  and claims it’s the “scariest haunted attraction in western New York”. The most intriguing bit is the guarantee that “ you will end up sitting in the persons (sic) lap next to you.” Perhaps I can persuade my husband to accompany me. We can always recover in the cookshack, with its offering of “spooktacular food”.  Oh and under 3’s go free.

   Meanwhile, the local party shop is busy selling costumes – while I draw the line at dressing up as a Zombie Prom Queen,  the plug-and-socket ensemble for a couple sounds exciting and if you’re so inclined, you can buy a Darth Vader costume for your dog.   My favourite object in the shop is the self-inflate cling on gargoyle in a fetching shade of grey. I’m just wondering where I could perch it.  

    Amid the hundreds of Halloween recipes, magazines offer advice for the weight conscious: “Make sure you buy the sort of candy for the kids that you don’t like yourself.” Now hang on a minute….

   Inevitably of course, locals complain that things aint what they used to be. Some places now have curfews, with trick-or-treating only allowed between 6 and 8 pm. There are moves towards having organized parties rather than free-for-all house visiting, understandable perhaps, given the rumours of razor blades in the candy handed out in some of the murkier inner cities. There is a dark side to the fun, even here.

    But it’s the creeping – or rather galloping - commercialisation that gets the most grumbles. Friends with young children say there’s now far too much buying of flashy costumes, often TV inspired, rather than making your own.  One mother was reduced to tears because some website had run out of the ready-made ladybird outfit her toddler had set her heart on.   People used to enjoy making a hash of carving pumpkins into Jack o’Lanterns – the more lopsided the funnier – but now they can buy designer carving kits with stencils of elaborate moonlit scenes that somehow miss the point.
   But it still remains the biggest fun-fest in America after Christmas.

    And a postscript for 2012...

   Trouble is, we don't have trick-or-treaters here on our rural lane. I used to stock up with sweets and chocolates, put the light on in the porch, which is the done thing. Once even, a guest we had went to all the trouble of dressing up as the Grim Reaper to hand out the goodies. But not a singe child has beaten a path to our door. No, they get their parents to drive them into town, where the houses are closer together and pickings richer. Huh.




Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Weather Update: A Lucky Escape

  I suppose I could say that, for once, it's worth being 300 miles from Manhattan. Our bit of Western New York seems to have got off very lightly. Though schools were closed as a precaution, which many locals felt a little over the top and, for a time, our garden path once again looked like this,

    the worst thing we've experienced in the last 24 hours has been rain, rain and more rain. At the moment the wind has stilled and what remains of the foliage on the trees is hardly moving at all. We hadn't quite managed to clear the fallen leaf carpet from the ground and there's a soggy, rotting pile there, waiting to be shifted once the weather clears.
  We called relatives in Queens, New York City, alarmed by stories of flooded subways and burning buildings but they were fine. Didn't even get a power-cut. They did have friends from abroad staying though, come to sightsee in  New York. I expect they'll have a memorable time. Well, good luck to everyone in the Big Apple.                              

Monday, October 29, 2012

Back Home: Lovely Weather We're Having

To those kind friends and family in Britain, alarmed by BBC news reports about Mayor Bloomberg evacuating everyone from bits of New York City and who've sent concerned messages,  thanks. We are actually hoping we'll miss the full force of Hurricane Sandy, as we're some 300 miles away and far inland. But we're still getting dire predictions about the dregs of Sandy clashing with an incoming snowstorm, which is less good news. My neighbour this morning urged me to run the washing machine while we still had power. It doesn't take much for the power to go out here. The village convenience store seemed remarkably busy this afternoon and we'd better check the fuel in the generator - if we can get it started. At the moment, all we're having is murky skies and cold drizzle but the excitement is yet to come, possibly tonight.

 Meanwhile, I'm a little nostalgic for the Florida sun, the palm trees.....

.. the shopping emporia..


the sea food...

The sand.....
The sights...


 Though sometimes you can have too much of  a good thing......    
Like many shivering Western New Yorkers, longing for a bit of sun, I'll be back in Florida some time this winter. But for the most part,  I think I'd rather throw in my American lot with Cattaraugus County. So wish us luck and if you don't hear from me for a while, assume a power-cut.   

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Florida Flora and Fauna

Alas, a glitch in the system - this should have been published yesterday.

Sister-in-law and I, hoping for a little alligator-spotting, found a promising-looking swamp.

I wonder, is it necessary to have a law against feeding alligators? Would anyone in their right mind ... ? Oh well, this is America. People think differently. And I have heard that some of them like to chuck their Kentucky Fried Chicken leftovers off bridges and see what happens.
  The swamp really did look more and more promising - murky waters, green slime, the works..

To think that the whole of Florida, before the golf courses, the skyscrapers and the gated communities took over,  once looked looked like this.
We did see some interesting plants
But not a single alligator. For that, we had to go back into downtown Naples and the swanky shopping district of 5th Avenue.

                  Which also contained many glamorous boutiques, one of which was presided over by a cat with a "lion cut". This means he was shaved, apart from his head and a tuft at the tip of his tail. To be fair, it can be hot in Florida, or the bits that air-conditioning doesn't reach can be.  I wonder what he thinks of it.

In fact, dogs and cats have it rather good here.

                                            It took me a while to work this sign out.

                  Meanwhile, back at base,  a Muscovy duck and his friend were far from home. Perhaps I should introduce them to their billionaire compatriots, who can afford to live in a part of Naples called Park Royal, where, apparently, a boathouse will set you back a million dollars.

Some ibises were having a garden party.
                             A hopeful egret was busy fishing.

And this little chap was about his business.

I expect they're all just waiting for the nuisance humans to scarper and the swamp to come back again.                                                                

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Road Trip: A Blustery Beach

  2,000 miles of meandering and we've finally reached our destination, Naples,  (No, we didn't take a wrong turning - Naples is in Florida, along with Venice) of which more later and where I'm spending a couple of days.
  With Hurricane Sandy charging up the Atlantic Coast, we're relatively safe here, on the Gulf of Mexico side, though the wind's been ruffling the palm trees' hairdos something awful.

 We attempted a walk on the beach this morning and the sand blew against our legs like sharp pinpricks. The surf was quite definitely up but not much call for boats or deckchairs and sun umbrellas would have found it a considerable test of fortitude.

Not everyone minded, though.
Florida beaches are rather strict places.

                And at the best of times can be alarming for the faint-hearted.

                But this could be because there are a lot of lawyers with time on their hands.there. Many, I expect, living in the extremely expensive skyscrapers that flank the beach.  I'm happy to say, though,  we survived to tell the tale.  


Friday, October 26, 2012

Road Trip: The Joys of Florida Driving


...which is not at all like driving in West Virginia. The roads are straight. The roads are flat. You haven't seen flat until you've seen Florida. Though the cars are often prettier.

The roads have six, eight lanes and run through endless urban sprawl, fringed with billboards, car showrooms,  fast food outlets, the Country Estates Trailer Park, the Alpine Village (you couldn't think of a less appropriate name for Florida) Senior Community and suchlike - except for the bit where we went through the centre, east to west, from the Atlantic coast to the Gulf coast, leaving the incipient hurricane Sandy behind, though the skies were glowering and the wind blowing. Through the centre and over the top of the vast Lake Okeechobee, the roads were still flat and straight but bordered by orange plantations and endless cattle ranches. .

   But there were palm trees, as there are all over Florida (apparently a pain to have in your garden as they shed dry fronds that need clearing up on an industrial scale and sometimes rotting fruit that attracts flies...)

And there were live oaks, like so many Miss Havishams, veiled in ethereal Spanish moss, an odd, dry parasite that looks much more beautiful from afar than it does up close.
                And the roads had ditches running alongside them - prime alligator-spotting territory in this land that was once one huge swamp. Though they say that the best place to spot an alligator in Florida is on a golf course.                                                                                               

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Road Trip: Driving Across DeLand

   Forget* cowboys - Stetson is a university in northern Florida, in a town called DeLand, which surprised us with its lovely main street and many competing coffee shops.( Finding good coffee on a road trip being a challenge.) Most small towns we've driven through have a so-called historic district, often leaving a lot to the imagination but this was better than most.

  Best, though was the Stetson campus, which was quite lovely.

 And included the oldest building - old by American standards, having been built in 1884, called Deland Hall.

 * Not quite - the Stetson hat manufacturer was a benefactor, which explains the name. You learn something new every day.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Road Trip: Cotton Pickin' Georgia

  It was getting warmer as we drove through forested Georgia, along the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway  -  Jefferson Davis being the hapless president of the breakaway Confederate states - seeing our first cotton field, perhaps the most perfect cotton field ever.

     The fluffy white balls were at their peak and ripe for harvest. The first time I encountered a cotton field, I was determind to do a Scarlett O'Hara and pick some, just to say I'd done it but the stuff is not actually easy to pick. It looks soft but there's a hardness to it too and there must be a trick to prising it away from the bush. And when you've done it, you're never flippant about cotton picking again. I took some home but it's one of those souvenirs it's tricky to know what to do with.

                 The roads were crowded, especially the Interstates, or motorways, which we tried to avoid but sometimes had to surrender to. Seemingly, everyone was heading to Florida, giant RVs and caravans powered south, some hung with bicycles and towing small vehicles behind. Coming the other way was half a manufactured home, as they call prefabs here and shortly after, the other half.  Some people's housing needs, though, are more modest.

There were more little towns with railways running through them, impressive courthouses and pretty shopfronts.

And the usual collection of roadside eateries. Chicken seems incredibly popular in the South.

There's Kentucky Fried of course and Carters and Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits (not our biscuits, as I've observed before but scones on steroids) and countless others, one of the best known being Chick-Fil-A. You can only understand this name if you know that Americans pronounce "fillet" as "fillAY". We, however, stopped for lunch in a little town called Swainsboro, where I got my first "I love your accent!" of this particular trip.   The town was decorated with haybales for Halloween and a fountain with pink jets. I never did find out why. Incidentally, I always forget that tuna (or egg) "salad"  in America means tuna (or egg) mayonnaise and is smothered in the stuff.
                   And as always there were names that beckoned and enticed:  English Eddy, Ohoopee, Santa Claus and above all the great Okefenokee Swamp and Suwanee River (or Swanee River of Stephen Foster fame).  We passed the "Okefenokee Sportsman" selling Knives and Guns and Bait and Tackle.

  And finally, a little way along, there it was: