Saturday 27 September 2014

Letters from America: USA diary 2014

I spent 9 days on holiday in San Francisco, Berkeley and Lake Tahoe in northern California, USA, visiting friends, eating the American way and watching sports. You can view the best of my photos from the trip in an annotated album on Facebook. You don't have to be logged in to see them.

Thursday 11 September 2014: Travel day
Early start at 03:30 to catch the 05:30 bus to Heathrow. Flight was delayed. Thought I might miss my connecting flight in Charlotte but it was OK in the end. Watched Draft Day and The Lego Movie on the transatlantic flight from Heathrow to Charlotte. Slept quite a bit. Pav was there in San Francisco to meet me. My bag didn't arrive. Probably due to the late arrival in Charlotte. We drove home in a Zipcar. Went out for dinner (burger, chips and Dr Pepper) at Garaje with Jay and Ninian, two of his colleagues. Had a really good sleep. I was exhausted.

Friday 12 September 2014: Day 1
Went for a grilled cheese breakfast with Pav at The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen. Walked to Blue Bottle Coffee for coffee and lemonade. Walked up some of the hills. Saw the street cable cars. Had lunch (chicken caesar salad and a shared cheesecake) at Cafe Divine near Washington Square Park. Walked through China Town. Had soft-serve vanilla ice-cream with gummy bears on top at the Ferry Building. Got an Uber back to Pav's place. Met Lucia, his wife, who was a bit grumpy at first because we kept her waiting. Went for dinner at a Thai restaurant called Basil (chicken satay skewers followed by beef stir-fry with rice).

Went to the LA Dodgers at San Francisco Giants baseball game at AT&T Park. Giants won 9-0. We missed a home run in the bottom of the 7th when we were going for hot cocoa. D'oh! It turned out none of us actually wanted to leave but we all did because we thought the other person wanted to.

Saturday 13 September 2014: Day 2
Walked to Pav's place. Lucia didn't join us for brunch at Stacks in Hayes Valley. Had macadamia nut and coconut pancakes with salted butter, maple syrup, bacon, orange juice and a smoothie. Such pancake. So bacon. Ate too much. Walked to the Caltrain station for the train to Stanford. Watched Army at Stanford. Stanford won 35-0. It was a lovely atmosphere - particularly all the tailgating and families. Lots of thoroughly decent people.

Had dinner at the Palo Alto Creamery Downtown (chicken and cheese enchilada and Dublin Dr Pepper - which is basically Dr Pepper but in a huge bottle - followed by a shared coconut milkshake). Felt bad about my greasy face and bad skin. Ate too much again. Bleugh. But started to feel a bit better after the milkshake, which really wasn't necessary. Walked around Palo Alto again then caught the slow train home. Spent the rest of the evening at the office.

Sunday 14 September 2014: Day 3
Walked to Pav's. Had breakfast at Arlequin. Had granola and juice because I feel bad about my food choices. Felt awkward and was quiet today. Walked around and saw the Painted Ladies (pastel-coloured Victorian houses that survived the fires and earthquakes), the hippy neighbourhood in Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park.

Got a good view from up in the observation tower at the de Young art museum. Got an Uber to the train station. Went to Bears at 49ers alone at the new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. Long journey via Mountain View (home of Google). Great atmosphere in the first half. Stood in between fans who screamed while the Bears' offense was on the field. Nothing like the weak-ass atmosphere for the International Series games at Wembley. Niners were up 17-0 but lost 28-20 after 4 Kaepernick turnovers and 16 penalties. Even longer journey home.

Feel low in self-esteem but have figured out why: made to feel self-conscious about my bald patch when Pav mentioned it was red from the sun (have been wearing my Lake Erie Crushers baseball cap since); don't like having my picture taken when I feel disgusting from what I've been eating and with greasy, acned skin; I feel like a gooseberry; I feel like I've taken advantage of Pav's friendship for free accommodation; 4 sporting events is probably taking it too far; I don't feel I've got anything interesting to say when I feel like this. Been processing all this today with my time alone.

Monday 15 September 2014: Day 4
Breakfast alone at Café Centro (croissant, tea and a free cookie for checking in on Yelp). Borrowed Pav's fixie bike (really a single-speed) and cycled to and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Really enjoyed the exercise and it made me feel better.

Got the BART to Berkeley to spend a few days with Chad and his wife, Selena. Went for dinner at a Mexican place called La Mission on University Avenue. Chad gave me a tour of the UC Berkeley campus at dusk. I now realize that "Cal" and "Berkeley" are one and the same institution. Selena was home when we arrived. Spent the evening talking.

Tuesday 16 September 2014: Day 5
Got up quite early. Had breakfast in a cafe in Berkeley (savoury brioche bun and orange juice). Hired a car from Avis. Chad refused the SUV we were offered for a smaller Toyota. Chad drove Selena and me to Muir Woods where we walked amongst the giant redwoods and hiked up to the top of the canopy. I left my iPhone in the car accidentally and therefore didn't take any photographs, but I don't mind because I was able to experience it more with my own eyes instead of the viewfinder. Besides, Chad and Selena were taking pictures that I might see someday. Then went for a swim at Muir Beach. My first swim in the Pacific Ocean. Got overwhelmed by a surprisingly big wave that temporarily drowned me. My experience in Rio helped me here: I didn't panic but kept paddling and held my breath until the wave had passed and I could swim and find my feet.

Ended the day with dinner at Napa Valley Burger Co and a Lappert's coconut ice-cream in Sausalito. Pretty tired when we got back. In bed now at 21:22.

Wednesday 17 September 2014: Day 6
Lazy morning lying in bed listening to NFL podcasts. Left the house alone at midday. Walked to Saul's deli for pastrami on rye - recommended by Chad - a New York Jewish classic. Walked up to see the Cal football stadium then on up to the Botanical Garden.

Got dinner on the way home at Cheese Board Pizza, a workers' co-operative that only makes once kind of pizza per day. I got a whole pizza (with two free slices) so that I could share it with Chad and Selena. Met Chad at his house then went to the Coliseum to see the Texas Rangers at the Oakland A's. Oakland pitched 8 scoreless innings and were 1 up before giving up 6 runs in the 9th. We had great seats. Enjoyed the game.

Thursday 18 September 2014: Day 7
Met Megan Furman for breakfast. Had a waffle at the Guerilla Café. Then she gave me a tour of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology where she studies. Tried to help her with her broken laptop. She looked lovely.
Met Pav and Lucia for lunch. Ate at the Crepevine. Drove to Lake Tahoe. There's a forest fire (called the King Fire) 50 miles away. The area is covered in smoke, which may spoil the views tomorrow.

Stocked up on pro-things at a local convenience store, then had chicken wings, a meaty pizza and lemonade for dinner at Basecamp Pizza in Heavenly Village. Annoying loud music from some guy playing guitar along to his backing track. I wish he'd stayed in his bedroom and left us in peace.

Friday 19 September 2014: Day 8
Went to Emerald Bay at the south end of Lake Tahoe. Hiked along to the north-west edge of the bay and back. Had a swim from the beach at Vikingsholm.

Went for late lunch / dinner at the Blue Angel Café. Watched the sunset at Zephyr Cove, where I had another swim and was in the water when the sun went down.

Bought more pro-things from Safeway. Had hot chocolate, Pop Tarts and cookies back at the cabin. Planning to watch the sunrise with Pav tomorrow morning.

Saturday 20 September 2014: Day 9
Woke up at 05:30 to watch the sunrise at Meeks Bay with Pav. It was lovely. Had a swim shortly after the sun was up. Blissful.

Went in the hot tub back at the cabin. Had breakfast in the cabin and packed up.
Went up the gondola at Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort. Nice views and it was interesting to see a ski resort in summer without any snow.

Had lunch at an American diner called Red Hut Cafe. Not the healthiest meal but tasty (rösti made from hashbrowns, bacon and cheese and a bottomless Dr Pepper). The soda containers were huge - just like some of the customers.
Drove back from Lake Tahoe via Berkeley to drop off Chad's keys that I forgot to give him back. Got some cookies and tea at the Teacake Bake Shop (which doesn't actually sell English-style teacakes). Dropped Lucia back at their apartment then Pav took me back to the office. Said goodbye with - I think - 4 hugs.
Did some laundry and packed my bags, ready for an early start and a full day of travel home tomorrow.

Sunday 21 September 2014: Travel day
Left the office at about 08:10 and walked to Montgomery BART station on 2nd and Market. Got the train to the airport. Had my second breakfast (chicken caesar sandwich, fries and juice) in the departure lounge. Left on time. Read The Book Thief and slept on the flight to Philly. Caught the end of the Denver at Seattle game in the departure lounge: Seattle field goal; Denver touchdown drive and 2-point conversion from a drive that started with 0:59 remaining and no timeouts (vintage Peyton Manning); Seattle touchdown drive in overtime to win it. Had dinner (sad fried chicken strips and fries with dip and a lemonade) in an unfriendly Irish bar in the departure called Jack Duggan's Pub and watched the beginning of Sunday Night Football (Pittsburgh at Carolina). Flight to London. Finished The Book Thief (a remnant from my last holiday in Rio: it was recommended by Emma Reading) and watched a bad movie called Neighbors. Had the whole middle row to myself so stretched out and slept.

Monday 22 September 2014: Travel day

Arrived at Heathrow and got an earlier bus home at 10:10. Walked home from Gloucester Green bus station. Unpacked soon after getting home (unusual for me). Backed up my iPhone 4S and updated to iOS 8. Late lunch. Watched Jacksonville at Washington and fell asleep on my bed after 16:00 with my black cat Milly on my chest. Woke around 20:00. Had dinner. Now in bed at 01:30. Back to work tomorrow.

Friday 26 September 2014

My 2013 10Q answers

I've been doing this exercise in personal reflection every September since 2010 (see also my 2011 and 2012 answers).

Day 1:

Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

My answer:

I went to Brazil for carnival in Olinda and Recife. I was really looking forward to it. I saw and heard some beautiful things when I was there but I also had depression. I found it stressful being there: lack of Portuguese made it hard to communicate with people; it was 35 degrees every day - a constant struggle to stay cool and hydrated; it's still a third-world country: they don't do pavements and getting into Recife by bus was so slow; I also spoilt it somewhat by developing a crush on the girl I was sharing a room with and then never having the guts to do anything about it until she got tired of me hanging around her.

I'm still glad I went, but my memories are slightly tainted. By the end of my three weeks there I couldn't handle it anymore and stayed inside reading for the last 2-3 days after carnival. It was then that I came to terms with what I'd experienced and realized I had depression.

I did have another spiritual experience, though: hearing what sounded like angels' voices during the Night of the Silent Drums in Olinda.

I wonder how often my bouts of depression are related to girl trouble.

Day 2:

Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you're especially proud of from this past year?

My answer:

I wish I'd made more of an effort to learn Portuguese before going to Brazil. I had some CDs that I listened to in the car on the way to rugby sometimes and I went to Monday conversation meet-ups for a few weeks, but I soon realized that what I was learning was way too formal and only a tiny, tiny bit of vocabulary.

What am I proud of? I quite like where my life is right now. I have lots of stuff to keep me busy and entertained, to keep the black dog away. I open myself up to experiences.

I was quite chuffed to pass my yo-yo fitness test last week. I feel a bit chubby and I've got a weakness for snacks and treats too often but I reached the level that was expected of me - but nothing more.

My mum makes me proud when we discuss what's going on in my life and she expresses admiration for the way I live my life, sucking up culture and experiences.

I'm quite proud of the way I handled buying a new car. I figured out it was time to change after two years in a row of expensive repair bills after servicing. Instead of rushing into it, feeling pressured by Toyota's sales tactics, I took my time, saved up and ended up with a car I love with all the bells and whistles I could have wanted. I used the bank of mum and dad so I didn't even need a loan or a finance deal.

I'm proud of the way I can talk myself out of spending money unnecessarily instead of buying things on impulse. If you don't buy straight away and just leave it for a few days, you realize you didn't really want or need the thing in the first place.

Day 3:

Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?

My answer:

My parents are turning 60. We organized a get-together for the immediate family and cooked a barbecue. I don't think it has affected me much at all. Boring answer today, I know.

Day 4:

Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?

My answer:

I don't think events in the world affect me that much.

The civil war in Syria is increasing a demand for Syria-related keywords in Islamic Relief UK's Google Grants account. I don't feel 100% comfortable about exploiting that. That's the side of marketing I'm less keen about.

Day 5:

Have you had any particularly spiritual experiences this past year? How has this experience affected you? "Spiritual" can be broadly defined to include secular spiritual experiences: artistic, cultural, and so forth.

My answer:

I was moved during the Night of the Silent Drums in Olinda, Brazil in the week before carnival in February. I just remember being moved almost to tears by how beautiful the singing was floating above the thunder of the drums. Maracatu has this amazing ability to get you "there". I was also feeling a bit shitty emotionally (girl trouble), so I was probably more vulnerable than usual, more prone to being moved by something like this.

Day 6:

Describe one thing you'd like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?

My answer:

I want to be promoted to the South-West Division as a referee by Christmas. That's my goal and it has been for the last three years or so. It's important to me because I think I'm ready for the challenge and I want to prove that I'm capable of refereeing at a higher level. I don't want to stagnate and I'm not sure what I'd do with my refereeing if I was turned down yet again.

Day 7:

How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Is there a piece of advice or counsel you received in the past year that could guide you?

My answer:

My life is pretty good right now. If I added stuff, I feel like I'd have to take other stuff away, or cut down to make time for it.

I'm thinking about the usual stuff like getting more sleep; improving my diet; hardening up by body to look and feel better about myself; getting a girlfriend (I'm working on it).

I would like to learn a bit more Portuguese before going to Brazil next year, but I'm not prepared to sacrifice any of my time currently spent watching and reading and listening about the NFL.

Trying to remember the best piece of advice I've received. It would probably not be personal to me but something I read in the daily Moodscope emails.

I may come back to this...

Day 8:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2014?

My answer:

I want to get to know Katie Nicholas a bit better. I like her, but I'm unsure if we're right for each other.

I should probably spend some time getting to know Aiysha from Sol Samba. She said a few weeks ago she wanted to talk to me. Maybe she can see my issues. (She's a psychologist.)

I need to choose a charity to give a regular donation to. I wanted to donate 0.7% or more of my gross personal product to charity: the UN target for GDP that countries are supposed to give in aid.

Day 9:

What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?

My answer:

I'm still afraid of rejection, although I'm much better at acting on my feelings towards other people than I have been in the past.

I don't have any big plans, but I'm going to try to be more spontaneous when I'm with other people that I like: to make a move when I have the thought about making a move.

Day 10:

When September 2014 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you'll feel? What do you think/hope might be different about your life and where you're at as a result of thinking about and answering these questions?

My answer:

I doubt much will change between now and September 2014. I know who I am and I'm comfortable with it. I accept it. I don't know if any of the things I'm aiming for right now will make me feel any better, any happier. If anything, they will just add to the fullness of my life; make it harder to fit everything in.

I may be slightly embarrassed about what I've written. I may not be surprised that I haven't changed that much; that I still think about the same things.

Day 11:

What are your predictions for 2014?

My answer:

War. Change of personal patterns. Group.


Record your own answers this year at