Friday, November 30, 2018

Road Trip: Home Across the Sunshine Skyway

We stayed overnight in Gainesville - an attractive university town and again the only place we could get a hotel room - and sampled a Japanese restaurant with a weird ordering system, which was surely not a successful tactic because that's all I can remember about the restaurant, except that I had softshell crab that was more soft than shell.  
  We drove though the strange little village of Micanopy, sleepy and shrouded in Spanish moss, not much there but antique shops and we always seem to pass through first thing in the morning when nothing's open. 

I was sure there used to be a good second hand bookshop there but if there had been one, it had gone. There was an armour shop though.

As hubby would say, how about that! There's a slightly overgrown, middle-of-the-jungle look about Micanopy, which, no doubt, it cultivates to the fullest extent of its Old Florida credentials..

This is the land of oak canopies, the Spanish moss trailing like Miss Havisham's rags.

 But pretty soon we were into posh equine territory.

 I always wonder at the horse farms of Ocala, the place where racehorses from up north spend the winter. There are miles of them. Each with identical fences, each field home to a few dainty thoroughbreds. Each entrance grander than the last

And the last

Some Irish connections here maybe?

This time we did see something different - an interesting cross-country course, all fashioned from wood.

 "Pull over!" I kept urging sister-in-law, always trying to capture that Stubbs-perfect horse scene. In a moving car with a cheap mobile phone this isn't always easy. We kept overshooting the best ones. Then finally I saw this. I think you get the picture.

 Then south and west and over Tampa Bay on the Sunshine Skyway bridge. This is always a heart-lurching moment - not far to go now!

 Then the obligatory stop to take a pic of the bridge. I must have umpteen of these.

An old man sat selling baseball caps in aid of old soldiers. We are indeed in one of the few places where youth doesn't reign supreme and quite right too.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Road Trip: The Wrath of Michael

A happy belated Thanksgiving to all my American friends and family. We are certainly thankful that Hurricane Michael avoided our little house in Golden Beach. But our hearts went out to people who were hit, in the Florida panhandle but also in Georgia. 
  So back to the road trip and sis-in-law and I were about to get a taste of just how bad it had been.  We drove south past peaceful cotton fields

And bucolic pastures

    Michael, unlike Irma last year, had ploughed a narrow path.  But as we neared its trajectory, our first clue came.  We couldn't get a hotel room. Normally it's not hard finding accommodation and we don't do much booking in advance, waiting to see how far we're going to get on the day. This time we realised we'd made a bad miscalculation. Everything we tried was full - with people who'd lost their homes, with electricity workers and builders, with insurance agents and all the accompaniers of the aftermath of a major disaster. We were intruders in someone else's troubles but we had to find somewhere to sleep. Eventually we located the last remaining room in a place called Cordel,  Georgia, much further than we'd intended to go. Along the road, we started to see ripped up billboards, trailing rags and tatters of what had been signs. The hotel in Cordel proved to be in one of those conglomerations of hotels and fast food places that grow up around highway intersections.  Our room smelt of damp and mildew. We went out to find something, to eat, walking past past uprooted lamp-posts and debris. In one nearby hotel, ranks of utility trucks, come to help from all over the country, stood, weirdly illuminated, in the car park.

We did find somewhere decent for supper, where they had the excellent Widow Jane whisky on the drinks menu. Evidently it wasn't popular in Georgia. The barmaid was so happy that someone had ordered it that she came out personally to thank us.
  On the road the next morning we passed ranks of uprooted trees.

Virtually every second house had the tell-tale blue tarpaulin on its roof, covering damage.  One had a tree right through its roof and there were more shredded billboards. This house, in a tranquil forest setting that must have seemed such a good idea at the time, was possibly one of the luckiest in the state.

We counted some half-a-dozen uprooted trees in the front garden but the house appeared untouched.

Further along, two weeks after the hurricane, utility workers were gallantly still fixing downed cables.

It was all a reminder of how relentless and capricious nature can be. Soon afterwards, we were out of it and life was normal again. For us, that is.

To be continued

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Road Trip: From Ville to Ville

From Nashville to Hunstville, Alabama, driving a little way along the Nashville-Natchez Trace, a scenic highway whose natural beauties began to pale after a while.  We got off at a place called Columbia, in search, as always of a decent latte. The coffee shop was closed as it was Sunday but the owner was there doing some maintenance and directed us to Hattie Jane's Ice Cream opposite, where, I presume, they were a little less strictly observant. The coffee was fiendishly good, though the friendly server had never made a latte and I had to explain, having taken a sip, that she really needed to put hot milk into it, not cold. Continuing the fiendish theme, the burnt caramel pecan ice cream, if not quite good enough to sell your soul for, was fairly delicious.
    At Huntsville , we had some difficulty finding our hotel. We kept coming up against ominous-looking security barriers and had to make frequent rapid U-turns, discretion being the better part of valour. It turned out that large parts  of the outskirts of Huntsville  were taken over by military bases of various sorts, some involving rocket science, which we would have needed a bit of to get ourselves out of the maze.   
  Early next morning, sunny but chilly, we hit the Botanical Gardens

Set around a gracious-looking southern mansion. Maintenance crews of eager volunteers ("he's a retired professor, likes to help out") were out and about setting up Christmas displays.  That sort of thing is probably more important than the flowers these days. (Remember the Florida Reindeer last Christmas?)  Currently we were in full Halloween mode, with displays like the dragon you've already met below, made of tiny pumpkins 

And a series called "Creatures of Myth", where we met unicorns, mermaids and another dragon

Cleverly the signs described each myth as if it were real. Latin name, habitat, distribution, lifespan ("more than 400 years"), character, ("Sleepy  and treasure-hoarding. Easily enraged.") etc.

What would we do without Walmart?
There were flowers too, including these fellas, which were rampant. I wish I'd scribbled down the name.

Among the attractions is a Biblical Garden, appropriate for the Bible Belt and a herb garden with medicinal plants - apparently Daniel Boone used the stuff in the foreground for tummy ache.

And there was a charming Trading Post Tree House

All in all, it was very elegant

And everything looked good enough to eat

(Those chrysanthemums could have come straight out of Hattie Jane's.)

And autumn colourful

There was the requisite souvenir shops run by enthusiastically welcoming southern ladies with wonderful accents. A delightful experience, if only it hadn't been so cold.  We needed to get further south.

To be continued.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Road Trip: French Toast and Fast Horses

 First of all, a big thank you to the chef at our Nashville hotel breakfast who was making omelettes and such to order. I said that sadly I wouldn't have the French toast because I didn't eat cinnamon and it was bound to have cinnamon, wasn't it? "Yes", he admitted,  "But I can make you some without!"  It made my day. I was never so phobic about cinnamon till I came to America and realised they put it - and far too much of it - into everything.
  We were headed for Belle Meade, a stately home on the southern outskirts of Nashville. These days it's surrounded by large, expensive houses - a little like some parts of Surrey,  though at one time it had huge expanses of land and was, in the 19th century, a renowned Thoroughbred stud farm.

Just a couple of horses in a field left now for the tourists to look at but the house didn't disappoint. A costumed guide in bustle and bonnet launched into an elaborate history of the family and led us around the dark Victorian interior...

...the walls hung with equine paintings, the rooms full of delicious Victorian knick-knacks such as elaborate china "parlor vases", ordered from Paris no less, bedecked with  turtle doves and flowers and fruit and coiling snakes, one symbolising weddings, the other funerals.   A room in which a son of the family had expired of some Victorian disease was especially poignant, with gloomy drapes and dark greens, vintage sports team pennants on the walls and riding boots still standing in a corner.
  Interesting to hear that American Thoroughbreds in the 19th century were sent to race in Britain. Most were far too seasick after four weeks on a ship to perform but one, called Iroquois, actually won the 1881 Derby and St Leger and came second in the Guineas. 

  They had trained him on an English-style grass track and presumably coddled him carefully through the 19th century equivalent of jet lag.  The owner of Belle Meade was so taken with him that he spent thousands of dollars to buy him, which eventually bankrupted the family and cleared the path for the Surrey-style suburb and the mansion's eventual takeover by the state of Tennessee, which seems to be looking after it very lovingly.
  Our guide, a proud Tennessee-an, claimed that Kentucky pulled a fast one on them by relaxing its drinking and gambling laws just when Tennessee was tightening its own and thus enticing the lucrative horse-racing industry over the border. Where American horse racing and breeding is concerned, Kentucky now reigns supreme. My Florida neighbour, who is from Kentucky, vehemently denied any skulduggery.

To be continued.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Road Trip: Nashville, Tennessee, Home of .....Guess What?

Ha! Bet you thought I was going to say 'country music". Well OK, it is the capital of country music but there's so much more to Nashville. For one thing it has the spectacular Lane motor museum.

Specialising in the European quirky..

Right up my street then. Well actually the above, the 1950 Martin Stationette, was manufactured in New York City but it's too sweet to leave out. In fact there were several microcars.

I looked in vain for a Goggomobil, like the one my parents had when I was a toddler.  (This isn't it but it's similar).

I remember falling asleep and rolling off the back seat (no kiddie seats to spoil things in those days) on the fabled day we drove to The Airport to see off my aunt and grandmother who were flying to Canada. Half the neighbours in the street came with us with their children, so they could brag to their friends that they'd been to The Airport. In those days you could get right up to the planes - I remember, in a fleeting wisp of memory which will always stay with me, being held up against the fence and watching the giant propellers spinning round.
  I told the man at the museum that I'd been looking for our Goggo. They did have one - he found it on his computer - but sadly it was in storage. (I mentioned that our Goggo was not the most reliable of cars. It ran on delicately balanced lawnmower fuel and was always breaking down, usually in an awkward place. My dad used to bemoan the fact that, uncannily, every time he broke down, his neighbour, whose wheels were considerably more expensive, would unfailingly drive past and crow,  "Need help?")
  But there were other things to feast the eye.

Like this push-me-pull-you, which wasn't a joke. It was actually designed for the French fire brigade, for when they needed to reverse in a hurry.

Even more fantastical was this 1932 Helicron, the one and only propeller-driven car.

In the French equivalent of a lot of good old American yarns, it was found in 2000 in a barn, into which it had been driven in the late 1930s. It is apparently approved for driving on French roads, which says something about French roads.

We ended our day in Nashville taking in the lovely Cathedral for the Saturday vigil Mass - and wow what a delight. A perfectly normal Mass with no "Good Morning Everyone!" (All right, it was afternoon), no "Now all visitors stand up and introduce yourselves!", no "Now turn to your neighbour and give them a hug!" I could have been back in London. Bliss. Thank you Nashville.
  We rounded up the day at a fun bar called The Stillery, where we got an enormous plateful of deep fried pickles. They were delicious on the night. They were not delicious the next day after we'd made the mistake of asking,  in time-houred American style, for a box to take home the leftovers.  Deep fried pickles don't keep well.

To be continued.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Elections Upon Us

A typical scene on a road trip in October in election year. 

Personally I think the forests of signs at every street corner for all kinds of different positions and causes make it more, not less confusing. Well long live democracy. I'm not sure how accurate a pointer they are - though memorably, in 2016, we managed to drive down right to Florida without seeing a single Hillary Clinton sign (except one in a field, saying simply "Lock Her Up". ) It gave me a better tip on how that election was going to go than anything else. 
  This year, in our little enclave in south-west Florida,  I've seen more Governor signs for the Democrat, Andrew Gillum, than I have for the Republican, Ron de Santis, but that's neither here nor there.
  As a foreigner I don't think I should get involved in the fray - unlike a British guy mentioned in the Wall Street Journal busy drumming up support for his favoured candidate on dating apps. Apparently that's the way millennials do their electioneering these days. He should mind his own business.
   The press is getting fearfully excited, speaking of turmoil, high anxiety, a frantic last day and so on. Well of course the more turmoil the better for a good story. Here in south-west Florida I don't see much evidence of turmoil. "I'll just be pleased when it's all over", said my neighbour, wearily. 

Friday, November 2, 2018

Road Trip: Kentucky Fair and Foul

Sister-in-law and I were bowling through Kentucky, revelling in some gorgeous hilly scenery. As always, we looked for a coffee place, preferably serving food as well. The Masterpiece Cafe had the former but not the latter but there was an interesting gift shop selling T-shirts.

We were to see similar T-shirts again, further along the road, saying "A Little Coffee and a Whole Latte Jesus", which is a bit cleverer, I suppose.
We passed a very vain car...

 And my hopes were raised by the following...

  Wow - complete coverage of UK football! Well no. The phrase contained two misunderstandings. UK wasn't UK but the University of Kentucky. And football, of course, wasn't football. Oh well.
  The biggest disappointment of the day, however, was lunch. We ended up in possibly the worst restaurant I've ever been to and believe me I've been to a few bad restaurants.   As soon as we went through the door we knew we'd made a mistake but the owner, a sprightly elderly lady, was onto us like a guided missile. The place was tiny. We couldn't escape without seeming rude. The room was cluttered with junk and toys but eventually we spotted the buffet from which we tried to salvage something palatable. An indefinable green vegetable cooked in what tasted like dishwater. Fishcakes worse than any school dinner nightmare. The thing about fishcakes is that they usually taste better than they look. This one didn't. It tasted of very old fish.  Worst of all, the owner's four-year-old grandson rampaged around our table, wielding a big stick and periodically clouting a sweet dispenser on the wall right behind our ears, "I've fixed it Nana!" He then changed weapons and grabbed a toy - or possibly real- telephone,monotonously shouting, "Call me Nanaaaaa!  Call me! CALL ME!!"  ratchetting it up until she dropped everything and did so and every so often emitting an ear-piercing shriek worthy of a Hitchcock film. She shrugged her shoulders,  "He's got, whadya call it, ADHD."
  "They called that something else in my day", muttered sister-in-law, looking around for a wooden spoon.
  We were the only customers. I forced down what I could, thinking of the time I enjoyed the hospitality of some Mongolian nomads and couldn't refuse the meal for fear of giving offence. The horse meat on offer was Michelin starred compared with that fishcake.  We stumbled out into the fresh air, cursing the Tripadvisor reviewers who'd extolled the "home cooking."  (I did subsequently read the fine print of the reviews and several had seen through the benevolent granny set up and queried why the place hadn't been shut down long ago.  One simply said, "Gross!")  Incidentally one of the best restaurants I ever went to was in Lexington, Kentucky, so I can't blame the state.