Friday, November 30, 2012

Weather Update: Scenes from a Half-Winter

Even though the snow's disappearing, except from the shaded places, the cold still bites in a way it rarely did in London. It's a raw cold from a relatively raw country. Our trails, green in summer, are rivers of white but the naked wild roses and feathery-dead heads of goldenrod still stand staunch and tall. 
The sun, where it shines, is bitterly bright and the heather spikes through the ice.

Tomorrow, they say, it will be warmer. They still do things in Fahrenheit here and the temperature will be going up to 48 degrees.Wow! Out with the croquet set again.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bird Feeder Cabaret: The Cardinal and his Mad Wife

  No I am not talking about the Borgias... Here he is:

   Cardinals were one of my American surprises. They look, for all the world, as though they should be living somewhere tropical but they are as North American as the next bird. They feature a lot on American Christmas Cards .. oops! Holiday Cards, where we would have robins on ours, (American robins being not very sweet and like the old British TV ad about everything in America being  Bigger! Bigger! BIGGER! ) 
  Sadly, I also get the impression that cardinals are extremely stupid. All looks and no brains. Ours sits forever on the edge of the feeder, seemingly contemplating his navel, supposing he had one, as if he's forgotten what he's there for and hogging the space, which annoys the other birds. 

 The cardinals' song, such as it is, is also extremely tedious, especially when they insist on perching right under our bedroom window. They are irritatingly early risers and more than once, I've woken up to hubby leaning out at 3.30 am yelling, "BUZZ OFF!"
       The cardinal's wife is a much duller colour, which is the avian way and given to dashing her head against  window panes over and over again. Last summer, she built a nest in the most inconvenient place possible, just above where I turn the garden hose on and off. Every time I tried to reach it, she would fly off in a frenzy of squawking. But instead of finding somewhere more suitable, she always came back again. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Return of the Abominable Snowman

  So we slip effortlessly from the Season of Thanksgiving to the Season of, Er, What are We Supposed to Call it Now?  Even the YMCA plays it safe with "T'is the Season". They don't say the season of what, exactly.
  But a few inflatable Nativity Scenes, Penguins, Snowmen and Santas are already out in people's front gardens in town (not ours) , some still at the planning stage.

   At Tops Supermarket, the Salvation Army fundraisers are out ringing their handbells with their collecting boxes. At least some of them wish you a Merry Christmas, even though it's, in my opinion, a little early for that.
   But the biggest sign of the Season has been the dreaded sound of "Frosty the Snowman", echoing around the store.  It has quite a merry little tune - the first time you hear it. The five-thousandth time, it is excruciating. I would like to take a flame thrower to that Snowman, or one of those blow torches hubby uses to incinerate the tent caterpillars that lurk in our trees.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Wild Western NY Shopping Experience

One Thanksgiving guest who's still here

It being Cyber Monday, the online equivalent of Black Friday, I offer an earlier musing on some WNY- style retail therapy...

  It’s amazing how, in America, you’re never too far from the old Wild West. We have an annual rodeo and an Indian reservation nearby, but I’m not just talking cowboys and Indians. The Dr Quack salesmen who once travelled around in their wagons, peddling miracle cures, are still out in force. Their methods may be modern but they haven’t forgotten the old PT Barnum line, “There’s a sucker born every minute”. So TV adverts offer wonder gadgets to vacuum your carpet, freshen your air, sweep your floors, send you to sleep, better than anything sold by any rival and no, folks, you can’t get them in the shops but only by calling right now and parting with your credit card details. 
      Even in the equivalent of the High Street, there’s no escape. I was in a certain well-known chain store, when a middle-aged, suntanned chap with tinted glasses and a selection of gold necklaces festooned round his neck drew near. “Ma’am “ he said, “Just letting you know about our raffle at the jewellery section in ten minutes’ time - and here’s a free ticket.” He gabbled on incomprehensibly but I had caught the word “free.” So after ten minutes, I regret that I furtively made my way to the jewellery section.
    A small crowd had gathered: several women, a couple of men, a small boy. None of them looked in the best of financial shape. Western New York is a long way from Manhattan.  Mr Suntan hopped up on his stand, “Thank you for coming folks and we sure need you to help us today with this promotion. Yes, folks, you’ll be helping us and yes, folks, I promise you there’ll be a raffle in just a few minutes but first I need to ask you folks to help us in some market research..”  He picked up a necklace. “Folks, this gold necklace over silver (I think we were meant to miss that last bit) is worth a hundred dollars – now how many people like this necklace?” Hands went up eagerly. “Now, how many of you men” – he fixed them with a glinting eye – “have an anniversary coming up?”  The men looked sheepish. He flourished a sparkling bracelet, “Well, ha ha, of course these aren’t REAL diamonds. If they were, they’d be two thousand dollars, but they’re much brighter - see.”
   Then he got to the best bit. “And now, how many people believe in Guardian Angels?” This being America, several hands shot up. “This”, he cried triumphantly, “is the perfect present for kids too young for cell phones……a GUARDIAN ANGEL WHISTLE!!!!! You just blow,”  – he tooted the whistle  “ and call your Guardian Angel for help!  And - you can have all these for SIXTY-FIVE dollars!!” 
   Then his voice dropped a perceptible note. “I have to do all this myself today. Usually my son helps, but he’s sick.”    It worked a treat. Mothers who’d come in with no intention of buying jewellery scrabbled in their purses.  There was a raffle eventually. The small boy, whose name was Caleb, picked a ticket – his dad’s. “Trained him well,” blushed Dad. The prize was, surprise, surprise, the cheapest thing on the stand.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Weather Update: The First Blast of Winter

 It started during the night and by the morning we heard the slow rumble of the snowplough going up the lane, spewing salt and grit like some monster risen from the deep.  In a few hours, our world was white.

                    On thursday, our Thanksgiving houseparty had been out playing croquet  in the sun. Today, we had to think of something different.

    Suggestions for a walk up the lane (not in the woods; it's still hunting season) meant a frantic search for snowboots and woolly hats.  The wind was blowing and froze the back of my head, the electric orange hat not being quite as woolly as I'd thought.  Here and there, we heard a distant shot.
          One of our guests, stepping out for a late night cigar, said he'd heard coyotes crying up in the hills.    
 Is that a sign of a hard winter to come? If it isn't it, should be.  In town, the cars were skidding - typical for early snow that quickly turns to slush.  I 'm starting to wish I was back in Florida.                                                                                                                            

Friday, November 23, 2012

Stop Press: Black Friday Headlines

(With thanks to the The Drudge Report)

Gang Fight at Black Friday Sale
Man Punched in Face Pulls Gun on Line-Cutting Shopper
Shots Fired Outside WalMart
Shoppers Smash Through Door at Urban Outfitters
Customers Run Over in Parking Lot
Woman Busted After Throwing Merchandise
Men Steal Boy's Shopping Bag Outside Bed Bath and Beyond

All I can say is, I'm glad I stayed at home.

Happy Black Friday

    Our Thanksgiving celebrations were a success, though the turkey went in rather tardily, due to us not wanting to wake the Stuffing Chef, who had arrived late the night before on a flight from Fort Lauderdale.

   It was, however, well worth waiting for, as was the stuffing, being an exquisite combination of sourdough croutons, Italian sausage, mushroom, celery, thyme, parsley, sage and I don't know what else. Our piece de resistance was flaming pecan pumpkin pie (I take back what I said previously about pumpkin pie) liberally doused in Jack Daniels....

     But after the homely, non-commercial Thanksgiving, today is a rude awakening. Black Friday. America's busiest shopping day. When the shops offer huge discounts and people kill to get their Christmas shopping done early and done cheap. Which in a way beats buying next year's presents on Boxing Day, as the cheapskates do in Britain.
   I remember a friend describing, a few years ago, how she scurried to Wal Mart at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds, only to find her way barred by a seething gridlock of trolleys - carts, they call them here, quite appropriate as that's the size they are. . Once she'd fought through the melee, she gaped in amazement as two deer hunters in full camouflage gear and orange vests - possibly sent on a mission by womenfolk exhausted from cooking - charged up and down the aisles, clutching shopping lists (and probably their guns as well) high-fiving each other every time they found an item.
    Local radio phone-ins have been full of Black Friday horror stories. One woman told how she'd got to Wal Mart early and joined the already long queue for a discounted flat screen TV. "I was number 50 in the line and they only had, like, 17 of them", she complained. However her brother-in-law had got the two laptops he was after.
   Some shops now open for the Black Friday Sale as early as 8 pm on Thanksgiving Day itself, which is sacrilege to the purists.
  That's probably why the date of Thanksgiving was fixed for the fourth Thursday in November - to give people just enough time to get into the Christmas Spirit. Except you have to call it Holiday Spirit here.
  As for me, I had a narrow escape. One of our Thanksgiving guests was mulling over whether to take the plunge and go into the Mall - a sad, dreary place most times, full of closed-down shops but on Black Friday probably resembling the Dance of Death. She had a voucher for a shop called The Bon Ton, which doesn't exist around her way. But in the end, common sense prevailed and we both stayed at home with a cup of coffee.

This year's was bigger than.....

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Language Barrier 5: Have a Good Holiday

 This one always catches me out. "Have a good holiday" in Britain mostly used to mean, "Have a good time in Clacton" (or Ibiza or Bhutan, or wherever), or possibly, "Have a good break from work". But this is America, where holidays are vacations and Have a good Holiday means Happy Thanksgiving.
....last year's
Or a few weeks later, have a Happy Christmas. There's a period in the American year, lasting from Hallowe'en to after New Year's Day, which comes under the generic heading of "The Holidays".  As in, the average American puts on 5 pounds in weight during The Holidays.
    I was terrified at the prospect of hostessing my first American Thanksgiving.  The culinary extravaganza that had to be done just right - turkey, stuffing (dressing, they call it) mashed potatoes (roast won't do) some kind of glazed yellow vegetable, which, presumably, was the Indians' revenge on the Pilgrim Fathers at the First Thanksgiving,  green bean casserole (forget it), creamed onions (I like those), cranberry sauce, and the dreaded cinnamon-laced pumpkin pie.
  But now I've realised one thing. Americans love to help. It took me a long time to accommodate that, being a nervous, "stay out of my kitchen" sort of cook but Americans are positively offended if you don't let them bring something to the feast. So this year I have it down to a fine art: someone bringing pies, someone else doing the stuffing, hubby wrangling the turkey and all that's left for me to do is whip up a few side dishes and dig out the little Pilgrim Father cheese knives, while quaffing a good Californian cabernet I discovered by some miracle gathering dust in our local liquor store. (Incidentally, my brother-in-law once deep fried the turkey. While the rest of us cowered behind the window, he plunged it, once safely out of doors, into a contraption full of hot oil. It made a noise like a bomb about to go off, took just 45 minutes to cook and was delicious. )
  Thanksgiving is an unusual sort of festival, since it revolves totally around food and getting together with family. You don't normally send cards or give presents.  So, even though a lot of buying food goes on, it's in a way refreshingly uncommercialised. (the same doesn't go for Black Friday,  the day after Thanksgiving, on which more later.) And the sentiments can be shared by anyone, no matter what their background or beliefs, with the possible exception of vegetarians.
  So in company with every self-respecting American institution, this blog is taking a Holiday for a couple of days. Now. where's the corkscrew?
  Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!


Monday, November 19, 2012

Two Hairy Drives

  5am on Saturday and we were driving to Buffalo Airport. It was a surreal experience, travelling before dawn on the first day of deer season.  You need two people;  one to drive, one to keep an eagle eye. It was dark and the deer were probably sensing danger in the air but not running yet. Dawn is when the shooting starts and dusk when it should end but the normally empty and dark lanes dazzled with endless oncoming headlights; pickup trucks, mostly, some with wire mesh trailers. On the motorway to the city the opposite lane, going south,  was like rush hour. Hunter convoys,  mad keen to get started,  getting to where they needed to be.
  Coming back on Sunday night, 11pm, the deer disturbed by two days of mayhem. Route 219 was sniper alley. A classic Western New York moment as a huge animal, pale in the headlights, bolted out from the blackness and ran across in front of the car, a slam of brakes, hand on the horn, some choice language from the driver.  A philosophical shrug. If we'd taken off a few seconds earlier, if the plane had landed at a gate a few steps closer, if the shuttle bus to the airport carpark hadn't waited for more passengers,  if the temperature had been a few degrees higher and the car windscreen hadn't needed de-icing, if we'd reached that point in the road a hair's-breadth sooner.....
   After a few more bends, another, smaller deer.   But we got through unscathed.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Heard the Other One About the Two Hunters?

 Fred and Bob went deer-hunting. Sadly, Bob got accidentally shot and fell in a crumpled heap. In a panic, Fred got out his phone and called the emergency services.  "My friend's been shot!", he yelled, " Looks like he's dead!"
  "Now don't panic," said the calm voice on the end of the line, "We're here to help you. But first of all, just make sure he really is dead."
  There was a loud bang. "OK", said Fred, "What do I do next?"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Heard the One About the Two Hunters?

 Harry and Bill went deer-hunting and, sadly, Harry got accidentally shot and fell in a crumpled heap. Bill staggered back to the hunting camp to get help.  It took him a long time because he was carrying the buck he'd just bagged on his back.
  Back at the camp, his friends were alarmed to hear what had happened and puzzled, asked,   "Hey Bill! Why dya bring the deer?"
Bill shrugged, "Well I figured no one'd wanna steal Harry." 

Friday, November 16, 2012

D-Day Minus One

 I shall be away  for D-Day, which is tomorrow.  So I can delay rooting around to find my electric orange woolly hat, which I'll have to wear when walking up our lane for the next couple of weeks. I have to wear it because deer don't normally wear electric orange woolly hats and I don't want to be mistaken for a deer.


  For Saturday is Deer Day, the start of the business end of deer-hunting season. The part when you can let loose on the creatures with shotguns and not just bows and arrows or muskets (euphemistically called "black powder").
  It's a day when cannonades re-echo around the hills and hunters in camouflage, doing a sweep for deer,  pop up by the side of the road.
  Apologies to squeamish readers and those of a politically correct disposition. But you really can't avoid the subject.  For many of my neighbours, deer-hunting season is just a normal part of the year's natural cycle.
  "Gear Up For Deer!" the sporting goods shops have been exhorting for weeks. The hunting camps - isolated wooden huts up in the wilds - start their chimneys smoking and convoys of rusty pick-up trucks converge and park outside. High wooden deer stands for hunters to perch dot the woods. Buffalo’s sports megastore carries everything a hunter would need, from camouflage suits festooned with realistic gauze leaves, to hair and body wash (“increase the success of your hunt by eliminating human odour”), to deer grunt callers to attract your quarry - and for the huntress who has everything, “Your camouflage make-up kit with built-in mirror”.
    I suppose, being a townie, my heart comes down firmly on the side of the deer.  I’ll never forget my first sight of a group of white-tails tiptoeing through the snow-frosted trees by the side of the road, looking at us inquisitively, flicking back a cheeky ear and then trotting nonchalantly across. A  magical sight.  And one Opening Day, a giant, stately buck took refuge in our back garden, as if he knew that shooting within a certain distance of a house is a no-no.
    But there are times, such as when I staggered out of my wrecked car after our fabled double deer collision , or went to check on the bushes I’d been nurturing all year and found them munched to the ground, when I've felt the beginnings of compassion fatigue.     Sadly, my head reminds me that there are just too many deer and too little food for them.
    Hunting around here is anything but a snob sport. Country parents have taken their kids hunting for generations. When a neighbour's son, who helps mow our lawn, turned fourteen, the first thing his dad did was march him down to the office to get his hunting licence. Last year he told me proudly, "I got a doe".
  And you get the feeling it's not just a sport. They talk of the almost mystical side to it, the communion between people who normally wouldn't agree, the bonding between father and son, the closeness to nature. And hunting is strictly controlled. You're normally only allowed to bag one deer each for your personal consumption. When I first came to America, I fell into  conversation with a local priest about the things that constitute traditional American values. I was surprised when he included gun rights among them.( I wouldn't be now).  “You know, there are lots of people in this county”, he pointed out, “who still sustain themselves by hunting and fishing– for those who can’t afford to buy much meat, it’s a valuable source of protein”. I thought of some of the rusty old trailers that pass for homes up in our hills. Yes we’re far from Manhattan here – in more ways than one.

Not quite a hunters' moon...


Thursday, November 15, 2012

D-Day Minus Two

 A certain type of rural Western New Yorker will know exactly what THAT means. More on this tomorrow.


 Meanwhile the sky is ice-blue and the sun beats in through the windows. Outside, the air is still and biting. Then, a whirring of wings and the Battle of Stalingrad begins, as a woodpecker the size of a chicken starts working on the dead silver birch.                                     

And as is the American way, other neighbours come calling.
Waidaminute. Whose front door is this anyway?
                            Watch the birdie!  On second thoughts, no! Please don't!    

Weather like this couldn't possibly last. We are off to take the Volvo 1800 to winter quarters.                             

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In Which I Discover Silent Auctions

   Young Travis,  swathed in a slightly too large apron, gave a little bow. “I’m your server for tonight. “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you”. 
     We were in the gym of Archbishop Walsh High School, which had been transformed; nicely set tables,  French flags and large helium balloons with a map of the world. That’s because the fundraising evening was called “Passport to Europe”.   Travis was just one of the school’s pupils roped in to be a waiter and a fine job they were doing too. Only a few precariously balanced bread rolls bit the dust en route to the table.
     Before we sat down,  we had to run the gauntlet of the “Silent Auction”.  An adjoining room had tables laden with goodies,  for which you had to bid by writing your number on a sheet, next to the amount you were prepared to pay. The trick with silent auctions is, if you really want the item, to know exactly when to join in –  when nobody else is going to gazump you.  If you join in too soon, you’ll either pay too much or get overtaken by the more generous.   If you really want it, you can tick the “Buy Now” box but it’s a gamble;  you might have got it for less if you’d  played the game.
      Having worked out the rules, I scrutinised the items.  Sadly all the therapeutic massage vouchers had been snapped up by someone in urgent need of stress relief. They'd already impatiently ticked the “Buy Now” box. The two caged budgies were a bit of a commitment,  the Ladies’ and Men’s golf basket with black and pink golf balls not quite my sort of thing and the 3-Tier Chocolate Fountain an occasion of sin.  I turned to the classily cellophane-wrapped hampers, reluctantly passing over  “God’s Girly Basket”, including  a CD of Christian hits and a “back-pack Bible” and although I quite fancied “Coffee for Two”,  containing “Two Stylish Mugs”,  this was vetoed by hubby, who claimed  the pattern on the Stylish Mugs gave him a headache. Then I spied something I really wanted (assuming, unlike last year, that we have a normal WNY winter this time around):  lift passes for the local ski resort.  

A taste of things to come?
     So I signed up to my first ever silent auction. 
     But that  wasn’t the half of it. The “Live” auction, for the really big prizes, started during dinner.  The  hardware store owner’s son, who had children at the school, got up on the podium and  hesitantly introduced himself.  But he was only bluffing.  In an instant, he was off into a sort of galloping yodel (my best approximation of how American auctioneers sound), straight out of the livestock market.   “Auctioneering is his hobby”,  explained my neighbour, as I gaped in awe.   
   That man worked miracles.  A basketball signed by the US Women’s Olympic team went for hundreds of dollars, so did a carved wooden eagle, the school mascot.  And by the time we left, they hadn’t even got to the star prize, a fortnight in Le Havre, which explains why it was called  “Passport to Europe”.
    Americans really are pretty good at fundraising. Even a small and hardly affluent town like ours has deep pockets of generosity.  The prizes were all donated locally and seemingly endless. Without such generosity,   I don’t think the school could survive.
    Judging by the turnout for  “Passport to Europe”,  though, people really want it to stay in business.     
    I never got my ski tickets but hey, someone paid more for a good cause.  Travis and his friends look like a great bunch of kids and if it helps them out, that’s fine by me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On Our Smaller Neighbours

 There must be something in the air and water in America that makes it a paradise for insects. It's home to swathes of the beasts:  bees that burrow in the ground, caterpillars that build tents, mosquitoes that spread West Nile Virus, ticks that spread Lyme disease,  Japanese beetles that chomp on flowers, carpenter ants that chomp on wood, termites that chomp on houses, blackflies that leave you dripping blood, deerflies, horseflies, yellowjackets, centipedes, cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers, chiggers, woolly bears...

even the posh B and B we stayed in once in Charleston, South Carolina had cockroach powder in the wardrobe. And bed bugs are apparently out of control in New York City.
  Even relatively benign insect life like ladybirds can suddenly multiply and fill the house as the whim takes them; this autumn there were small grasshoppers everywhere, inside and out; I've got nothing against them personally but they're not the most comely creatures to have staring you in the face when you go to the window first thing.
   So one is understandably sensitised to these things.  And may explain why, the other day, as I was walking along our relatively dim upstairs landing and saw something black scuttling at my feet, I panicked. I did not just panic, ladies and gents, I screamed. I did not just scream. I screamed blue murder. And hubby wasn't around. And the neighbours are far too far away to hear. So I started to run. And, guess what, the thing came after me. I ran in circles like a headless chicken and still it followed me, like some heat-seeking missile, all of three - all right, two inches long. I screamed again and kicked out. I turned and still it followed.  Then out of the swirling depths of hysteria, a tiny spark of reason took a hold.  I steeled myself to take a closer look. It was one of those cardboard reels of thread, one end of which was stuck to my leg.  At which point, the hysteria gave way to almighty  relief that neither hubby nor the neighbours had heard a thing.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Weather Update: Almost Florida Again


 Deluded Western New Yorkers have fallen for that most cruel of weather tricks, the late Indian summer.
 A few days of mist, gentle rain and even balmy sunshine and the shorts and t-shirts are out, as is hubby's beloved 1964 Volvo 1800 (remember "The Saint") complete with spanking red restored upholstery.  Its been temporarily reprieved from going to winter quarters. It was just too hard to resist a jaunt along the country lanes, tractors out harvesting the dried corn stalks, red barns standing out from the leafless trees, their old bones warmed by the sun.

 We had to go and pick it up from way beyond Cuba and no, this didn't involve swimming; there is a local town called Cuba as there are local towns called Wales, Sardinia, Holland and Yorkshire...
     But the salt peril still hangs over us and in my subconscious I can hear snowploughs revving up. The say that tomorrow we'll wake to an inch of snow.                                  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remembrance Sunday

 There is no real equivalent in the United States. November 11th, while recognised as Armistice Day,  is officially known as Veterans Day and is a bank holiday, which this time will be on the Monday. I still haven't quite got used to the expression "Veterans",  sometimes shortened to "Vets", which applies to all ex-servicemen, not just the very old ones and has nothing to do with animals.
 (Incidentally, I've noticed that, in America, people who see a soldier in uniform will frequently go up and say, "Thank you for your service", even if they're complete strangers. I think that's rather touching. )
  Veterans Day, November 11th, honours all former members of the armed services and not just those killed in action. So it doesn't have the poignancy of the British one. Memorial Day in May is more akin to our Remembrance Sunday but it has something cheerful and springlike about it and it's also considered the official beginning of the summer. There are parades and solemn ceremonies but not quite the sombre sadness of a November day of mourning.
  Plus there is the poppy problem. Here they sell poppies for Memorial Day, not Veterans' day and while they're certainly well-meant, they're rather a poor shadow of the British ones, being poppy buds, rather than flowers, not very red and not very noticeable. You don't fix them with a pin but wind them round a button. And it's hard to find them. They don't sell them everywhere by any means.  And I doubt that many people know what they're for. Still, we've saved a couple to wear on Sunday.
   On my first Remembrance Sunday in America, I had managed to hang on to a British poppy, so I wore it and hubby a Canadian one he'd got over the border in Toronto, which was a rich, deep red and made of some velvetty stuff - classy but a little stiff.  A girl who saw us remarked, "How romantic! You and your husband are both wearing red flowers!"

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rural Crime 5:The Great Cattaraugus County Pumpkin Heist

   America has a love affair with pumpkins. And currently, the orange globes with the slightly comical image are entering the last few days of their lifecycle. Turned into Jack o' Lanterns at Hallowe'en, and latte flavouring at  Starbucks' (so popular, apparently, that they ran out) they're about to start filling pies for Thanksgiving.  I have never really seen the point of pumpkin pie, though  I feel I have to whisper this because they are such a significant American icon, bound up with feasts and holidays and Pilgrim Fathers and so on.  I don't think pumpkin has any kind of flavour at all, so cooks over compensate with cinnamon - a far too freely used American obsession which, along with aggressive air-conditioning, is one of the few things I really dislike about this country. Actually I doubt, though I'm happy to be corrected, that many people use real pumpkin innards for pumpkin pies. The tinned stuff is so much easier. But for Thanksgiving, they pies are, unfortunately, a non-negotiable.
   Pumpkins are said to be extremely easy to cultivate, swelling and ripening at ground level and rather furtively under bunches of leaves until they suddenly burst into view in all their glory. I have never tried growing them, although iI've been told manyh times that any idiot can do it.  You can just leave them, apart from occaisonally turning them over so they don't get flat on one side.
    In October, you can see acres of pumpkins out for sale by the side of the road in all different sizes. I don't know what happens to the ones left behind; they must fill some huge landfill. I feel I'm honour bound to purchase a few to decorate the porch, where they sit, to put it candidly, gently rotting until they get thrown on the compost heap or, in the case of porches owned by the less public-spirited, hurled out on the street to be squashed and pulverised by cars, leaving a nasty mess.
   Around here, pumpkins have also developed a slightly louche image, having been associated with some criminal acts, such as there are in our peacable neck of the woods. The police apparently set up special patrols to catch people whose preferred autumn pastime is throwing pumpkins off road bridges and onto cars, to see if they bounce.
    And the most notorious pumpkin-related crime happened a couple of years ago: the Great Cattaraugus County Pumpkin Heist. A chap, wondering why pumpkins were disappearing at a considerable rate from his pumpkin patch, lay in wait and was rewarded by seeing his neighbour routinely pinching them. The police apprehended the culprit and in searching his property found thirteen-hundred dollars’ worth of pumpkins stashed away. With pumpkins retailing at about ten dollars locally, that was  an awful lot of pumpkins. Perhaps he was planning  to unload them in Buffalo, where, for all I know, they’re like gold dust.
  But he got a double whammy because,  diligently searching his property, law enforcement also happened on a patch of flourishing marijuana plants.  Not the brightest thief in the business. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Amazin' Daisy

 Not being an expert gardener - and gardening in the Western New York climate can be extremely dicey -  I am constantly flummoxed anew by the wonders of Nature.
  Last year, one of the daisies (among the few perennials that don't die around here) that adorn the front of our house, broke off. Shrugging my shoulders, I shoved the broken stem into a flowerbed and forgot about it. 
  In the spring I noticed a bunch of leaves appearing but they stayed rather static all summer. Now, with everything dead and dessicated and with a few hard frosts and a sprinkling of snow behind us, look what it just did.

I have to say, I'm impressed.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

You Couldn't Make it Up

 Heard this one on good authority.  But first you need to know that American polling stations, or polling places, as they call them, have signs a few yards away saying, "No electioneering beyond this point". I saw one stuck in the grass outside a redundant church hall in town.
  Apparently a lady showed up to vote at a polling place yesterday morning and was refused admittance. She protested, demanding her rights. "You can't come in", said the jobsworth at the door, "Can't you see the sign? No electioneering."
  "But I'm not electioneering!"
  "Yes you are!"
  She started to get angry,
 "No I am not!"
  "Yes you are - you've got a candidate's name on your sweatshirt!"
  "It's not a candidate's name!"
  "Oh yes it is", said the jobsworth triumphantly. You've got Romney's name on your shirt. M.I.T. - see?
  "Yes", she yelled at him, "M.I.T. That's MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY.

Election Update: Salon Snippets

  I repaired to the hairdressers', a small, friendly co-operative and my usual source of local gossip. On the way, I noticed the "America vs Obama" signs were still up, if coated in morning frost. On the radio, a woman who described herself as the one "lonely little Democrat in Tennessee", said she'd had to build a fence around her Vote Obama sign and it had still been vandalised.  That's the South for you. They're not like that in Western New York.
  My hairdresser is my barometer of political feeling, the Cattaraugus County equivalent of the man on the Clapham Omnibus. Today, she had something of a "plague on both your houses" attitude, lamenting that there was no chance of a consensus in Congress, that both sides were these days forced, in draconian fashion, to toe the party line. "You should see how our Parliament works," I remarked, "they're at each others' throats half the time. Well not literally of course - they're meant to stay a couple of swords' lengths apart..  (She got a kick out of that) Maybe you shouldn't be afraid of a few political differences."  
  My private theory is that Americans, as a nation, are too polite. A few political campaigners heckling or flinging out the odd snide remark and they faint in coils, paricularly if it's the other side making the remarks. (The new democracies in eastern Europe were a bit like that at first. And America is still young.) Another voice I heard in a radio discussion made an interesting point. You either constantly try to reach a consensus and hope something will emerge, or you accept that there are different visions of America's future and one of these is going to be voted in. 
  My hairdresser thought Romney had lost because he was just too vague. "He kept talking about a five point plan but what was it?  He never spelt it out for us."  Well she had a point there.
  Meanwhile I got an email from a devastated Romney-supporting friend in Ohio, the crucial swing state that narrowly sealed Mitt's fate.
  She was, she said, seriously thinking about emigrating, if she could think of where:   "I have been commiserating with the other 50 per cent all day - the 50 per cent of us who walk down the street knowing that every other person we see on the street directly opposes us and our principles of liberty - that the America they envision is not the same country in which I was born and is not the one where I want to die."  I suggested she could try North Korea. That made her laugh, at least.  

A Hard Frost and Four More Years


The Morning after the Night Before and many of my neighbours will probably be shrugging their shoulders philosophically and getting on with their lives.  Not that the election result was unexpected and as I've said before Cattaraugus County is not New York City, which usually decides which way New York votes.
 So far I haven't spoken to any locals, apart from the neighbours' cat who seemed remarkably cheerful. I had assumed she would not be giving the President her vote as he is a known dog owner but she is a dark horse.
  Oh and hubby tells me they don't have the one-armed bandit voting machines any more but slips of paper you scan into a computer, rather like a fax machine. They can't leave well alone, he laments.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Day: The View from Cattaraugus County

Stop Press: Seen in the doctors' surgery, stuck on a table in reception, a yellow post it note saying, "Defend Freedom. Defeat Obama. Vote November 6th".   Things are hotting up.    

 Last time there was a Presidential election,  I went with hubby to the American equivalent of the polling station, in our case, the village Firemen’s Hall,  just to see how it was done.  It was all rather friendly and casual and I, a “resident alien”,  felt I could almost have sneaked  into the booth and cast my vote,  except the smiling ladies sitting behind the table crossing off people’s names would have nabbed me in time. In a small community, everybody knows everybody. "And", hubby pointed out, "You'd be arrested".
   In the previous election,  our local citizenry voted  by means of old-fashioned clunky levers,  which had to be yanked like a one-armed bandit.   I don’t know if they'll still have them but hubby had a point when he remarked that at least they  worked.  There wasn’t much to go wrong, unlike using computers,  or those paper-punching gadgets that misfired and caused such confusion in 2000.
   I’m still no nearer to  predicting the victor.  Our rural backwater isn’t typical of New York state but  I've noticed precisely two (correction: one. The other one disappeared)  Vote Obama signs on my route to the Post Office.  And as I've noted  before, the "America vs Obama" signs have been proliferating.  And despite the rather un-American emphasis, in this election campaign, on "rich versus poor" , those putting them up aren’t billionaires. Far from it.  Many of them are among the poorest people in the state, living in dilapidated peeling-paint farmhouses and trailers.  It  could be because they still have some of the old pioneer spirit and are wary of too much government interference.  It could be because country people are more socially conservative. Whatever the reason,  anyone who labels Mitt Romney’s appeal as only for the rich would do well to take note.  And there were some resonances on my road trip down south. (In 2004, when George W. Bush won, many of my London friends, conditioned by chattering-class media ethos,  seemed flabbergasted. "How could this have happened?" Living here, I know exactly how it happened).
    More than ever, this election seems to be about differing visions of America.  The free-enterprise America of the pioneers, (remember the  "Liberty Bus" that went down rather well here) or an America with an increased role for government,  more on the European model.  Something that my conservative neighbours call  socialism and Obama supporters call  fairness.
  One hot potato around here is "Obamacare". Should the government order people to have medical insurance and provide it for their employees?  Many Americans just don't get the NHS. They're horrified at the idea of overnment involvement in such personal decisions.
      "Why should I go to jail for not paying for health insurance when I can't even afford it!" one neighbour  I talked to today fairly spat.  She said she could only afford to see the doctor for a check up twice a year but reckoned the Obama reforms were not going to help her. I asked her if she was voting, without exactly asking which way. "Well I'm not voting for Obama", she volunteered, "No way!"  A staunch churchgoer, she remarked that her minister's wife had speculated on the cost of Michelle Obama's  shoes, when the First Lady  went to visit some poor folk. "Probably cost at least 500 dollars!" Right or wrong, on such seemingly small things are decisions sometimes made.
  Catholics too (a quarter of the electorate), or at least the Catholic Bishops,  have been fighting Obamacare for their own reasons - the compulsory payment - directly or indirectly - for medical insurance which includes contraception and the morning-after pill.
  This is a country where religious and moral issues matter hugely in politics. More than someone from Britain could ever fathom. The other day, I was following a pickup trick. It had an array of bumper stickers saying, “I’m Catholic and I Vote”, “Repeal Obamacare” and “Mitt”. Fairly typical for our neck of the woods. But the Catholic Church in America is polarised. I suspect many will still vote for Obama.
     And I have American friends all over the country, of many religious persuasions and none, who are staunch Obama supporters.
   In the end, the way Cattaraugus County citizens vote will probably not affect the way New York state votes.  Over the country as a whole, they may be part of a vast, silent majority that hasn't spoken yet.  Or, on the other hand, they may not.

Weather Update: As Predicted......

This is how it starts. Days of rain, the odd bone-chilling gust of wind, greying skies, birds fluttering urgently around the feeder. Then the raindrops turn watery-white and soon a sugar coating frosts the fallen leaves on the lawn and the dying summer flowers.

At this time of year, the earth is still warm and the snow often melts almost as soon as it falls.

  The fear on the roads is not ice but the biggest scourge of the Western New York driver: salt. We cross our fingers that the over-eager snowplough drivers won't start revving up and pouring salt on the roads, the stuff that turns our cars into rust buckets in just a few years.

No one around here drives a fancy car, even if they can afford it, at least not in winter. Hubby is currently restoring his beloved  1960s Volvo 1800 sportscar. It's a few miles down the Interstate, having spanking new red leather upholstery put in. We have to move it to its winter quarters before the salting starts and we're gambling on tomorrow. Despite it being election day, the forecast is sunny. For now.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Bird Feeder Cabaret: The Fun Begins

  It's a big decision when to put the bird feeder up. It signals a resignation to the inconvenient truth that any kind of decent weather is over, that snow is probably on the way, that, henceforth and practically every day, depending on the guzzling rate, I'm going to be climbing precariously onto the woodpile, unhooking the feeder and re-filling it, all with freezing fingers. And just so I can spend the whole of the oncoming winter acting as skivvy to a bunch of noisy, feathered ne'er do-wells and their many and varied furry friends.

      Not to mention that the sort of bird-seed they like costs a fortune. The local supermarket knows full well that, although, we're not an affluent area, people would rather starve themselves than see the Chickadees and Cardinals and Juncos go hungry.  As winter approaches, they put up the bird-seed display with endless rows of different varieties - "Gourmet", naturally being the best and the most expensive. There are all kinds of styles of feeder. There are those blocks of suet - with nuts, with berries, with you-name-it, all embellished with the word "treat", just to make you feel guilty that you're not buying that extra little something. There are bells and blocks and bricks of seeds, there are socks for thistleseeds and plastic tubes.... And it's no good buying the cheap stuff. They just spit it out all over the porch..
   And  a bird-feeder in Western New York is not just for the birds. All kinds of scroungers come by, the most spectacular being the bear that showed up at a friend's feeder and lay nonchalantly on his back on her lawn, holding the feeder in all four paws and dispensing its contents down his gullet. When surprised, he made off with the feeder under one arm.
  There is also an ethical dilemma, since we have one neighbour with a particular interest in the feeder. She is small, adorable, affectionate and utterly ruthless.

   Still, the feeder does provide a cabaret, which is far more interesting than the US elections, or, for that matter, American television. I never saw much point in bird-watching until I came here. Now I've got to know the various avian foibles and rivalries and can happily spend a long time just letting them entertain me. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Election Update: Road Trip Thoughts

 As I've said, I'm simply a foreign observer and as sister-in-law and I drove through rural Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, we tried to observe. I didn't exactly tot up totals this time but for what it's worth, the overwhelming number of signs we saw were for local candidates, not necessarily for the Presidential contenders. I'm not sure whether that's usual, or whether it says something about the current Presidential contenders. And of those signs that were for the Presidential contenders, the overwhelming majority seemed to be for Mitt Romney. But then we were driving through rural (if not necessarily affluent) areas. (Incidentally, I do think the official Romney sign-writers could have done with some advice. Apart from some home-made ones...
    .. the signs were mostly a sort of insipid blue-on-a-white background and didn't exactly hit you between the eyes.)
   Things were slightly different once we got to Florida.    In DeLand , the university town, a bus turned up around morning coffee time, with a group of around a dozen Obama supporters, who seemed to be preparing to stage some sort of rally.  They were standing around rather aimlessly and there didn't seem to be a huge amount of interest but then it was early in the day.
   It was on the suburban streets of Venice Island - a place where a lot of "snowbirds" from the north like to spend the winter, that we saw quite a few more Obama signs.   

                    It's amusing to see the forests of signs for all kinds of candidates at every bend and junction and piece of empty ground

 I'm not sure if anyone actually still votes for the town dog-catcher, as the legend goes but Americans seem to vote for just about everyone else. Democracy at work, no doubt.  The Presidential election isn't the only one on 6th November. Harlan Krimble for Sheriff, Isaac Sponaugle for House of Delegates and Rayelynne Ketchum for Clerk of Court probably won't make the headlines in Britain but they're big news in their local towns.    I hope the voters won't find it all as confusing as I do.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Strange Year for Apples

  The great New York apples are now filling the supermarket shelves. After a summer of suffering through last year’s mushy remainders and bland imports from Chile, we can at last get our teeth into the sweet Cortlands, the McIntoshes, the Empires, the Paula Reds. They lie in trays, waxed and polished to within an inch of their lives. I'd rather have them in their natural state.

    Apples seem to have an iconic role in America. They’re a symbol of patriotism and prosperity, hence “American as apple pie”, or indeed “Motherhood and Apple Pie’, which was what American soldiers apparently fought for in World War Two. New York City is the “Big Apple” and then there is Johnny Appleseed, who looked a bit like Abraham Lincoln on a bad hair day and is said to have wandered around the old frontier, barefoot and dressed in rags, singing “The Lord is Good to Me” and planting apple trees. In some depictions, he wears a cooking pot on his head . (There actually was a historical Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, though he apparently established nurseries, rather than planting haphazardly). 
     For all I know, Johnny may have swung by our way because one of the wonders of our rural Western New York landscape is that there are apple trees everywhere. I’m not just talking commercial orchards but the many old, gnarled apple trees, appearing unexpectedly in the middle of the forest, left behind after the first homesteaders upped sticks and moved away to better farmland further west. You can spot them in the spring, with their blossoms like a white mist, peeking through the still-bare branches and even more so in the autumn, as the apples ripen red.
     One of my first memorable experiences in western New York was exploring the steep old stone tracks and logging trails up through the woods behind our house. It was a clear, sunny autumn day, asters and goldenrod were flowering and everywhere there was the “plop-plop” sound of apples falling.
      When I get the chance to ride up into the hills, we pass forgotten orchards, sometimes near the stone foundations of an abandoned farmhouse. In good times, the apples are there for the grabbing – small but with a pretty good flavour and the horses enjoy them too, as do the white tail deer , who find chomping on them a valuable source for their winter vitamins.
  Last year, fallen apples lay so thick on the ground, with their colours of red, green and gold,they looked like rich Byzantine mosaics – and you could pick up the pungent, cidery scent from a long way off. And although we're lazy about pruning the several trees that dot our jungle (many of which we only discovered after we cut down some of the jungle) , we had an extraordinary crop. 
So good, in fact, that I had no excuse not to make a proper American apple pie, a somewhat nerve-wracking exercise for a foreigner, though it seemed to work.
   But this year, something strange happened. It may have been the bizarrely warm winter, which sent the buds sprouting too early, only to get zapped by the April frosts. Perhaps the trees  had simply exhausted themselves. But we didn't get a single apple on our land. Though, evidently, others had better luck. And to think that last year, we couldn't even pick them all before the first snow came.