Saturday, August 7, 2010

Eight things I loved about July

Since the eight things post is actually retrospective, looking back on that which has happened rather than looking ahead to things that will happen, I've decided to change the wording of the post's title. I am sure you really, really care a lot. I read recently that far too many Americans think themselves to be important, which was taken as indicative of some other bad thing about the Yanqui character. Though I don't remember what that bad thing was. Perhaps it is that we don't pay proper attention to newspaper articles that fail to mention us by name. But no doubt my worrying about verb tense in blog titles is a sign of thinking I'm too important. As is having a blog.

Anyway, here, in no particular order, are eight things that made me happy last month. Caution, this post may contain patriotism:

The taste of freedom~8~ Visiting the United States of America: Going home occupied pretty much the whole of July for me. Use of that word, "home," is always a troublesome one: the majority of my life seems to be defined by search for belonging. I can remember questioning what "home" meant even when I was a boy. I'm no more sure now what it means than I was then. Home may just be where I lay my head, because my heart is in too many places.
In July, Minnesota and Texas were where I could be found. And I felt at home -- that sense of belonging -- in at least a dozen spots in and in between those two states. Sometimes I was amid friends, sometimes I was on my own.
More often than not, I was happy to be there. I'm not yet sure whether that means it's time to move back, but I've come to realise I can't live without it. I don't know where home is -- or if it is possible for me to even have a home -- but I know I can't be away too long from the country where I was born.

~8~ Old friends: There are all manner of geographical wonders in the United States. I have no doubt, however, much can be rivalled if not surpassed by other things in other places. What actually pulls me back are the people. But it's difficult to talk about one's friends without falling into the sentimentality traps usually reserved for talks at church and Welsh societies. So, I find myself remembering scenery over the actual thing:
- On the 4th of July, Eric, his cousin-in-law Jimmy, and I stood chest-deep in Clear Lake, where his in-laws have a cabin, skipping a Frisbee across the water at each other. Talking about football and nothing in particular, we developed a game of keeping the Frisbee away from their dogs: Labrador retrievers teaching a lesson in patience and faith by constantly swimming after a little green disc being deliberately kept from them. The lake took on the calm of early evening. Jimmy and one of the dogs got bored. I found myself standing there with the man who has been my best friend for 22 years as the sky went dark orange and red, the light purple of night creeping in on the periphery. The light reflected off the water and into our skin.
Old friends- There is a restaurant in Austin called Shady Grove, where tall, old live oak trees keep out the cutting dry heat of Texas Hill Country. Big oscillating fans mounted on the trees helped to push heat away as Dani and I sat eating lunch on a mid-July afternoon. We sipped from sweating bottles of Shiner and oversized glasses of ice tea for several hours, watching a patch of glowing bright sunlight crawl across our table.
- In Forest Lake, Minnesota, about a mile down a dirt road and in the middle of nowhere, Anthony, Maggie, Dan, Johanna and I sat around a fire pit behind Dan and Johanna's house. They moved in almost a year ago but still haven't really managed to unpack. It is the sort of property that pulls you outside, out into the Minnesota -- the state's weather being unique enough that it is its own thing. The day had been sweltering hot -- a choking, jungle heat -- but as night set in, a soft breeze had cleared it all away. We made s'mores of marshmallows, Reese's peanut butter cups and freshly picked raspberries, washing it down with Old Milwaukee and Miller High Life.
"I wish we didn't have to work tomorrow," Dan said. "Then we could spend all night out here. We could sleep under the stars."
"We live here. We can do that on a weekend," Johanna said.
"Yeah. But Chris won't be here then."

~8~ Family: My grandfather celebrated his 86th birthday in June. If he were a building in Europe he wouldn't really be old enough to consider preserving, but in people terms I suppose he is a Georgian home. Practical, sturdy and with a fair bit of character. Breezy -- so named because of quickness in his football days -- suffered a stroke about a year ago, so I was expecting to meet a different person to the one I grew up with. He was a bit thinner, and his right hand not so strong, but the strength of a vicelike handshake is there in his left. He still whistles wandering tunes without melody. He can still remember every game of golf he's ever played. He can still somehow recount that day's Astros game despite having slept through at least four innings. He's had setbacks since his stroke but looks forward to one day picking up his wheelchair and throwing it in a ditch.
My grandmother, meanwhile, does not age; she may not be physically capable of such a thing. We went for a walk along the jetty at Quintana in the sweltering Gulf Coast heat and she walked at a pace faster than my usual stride. Under my shirt I could feel sweat running down my rib cage, my mouth went dry in need of water. But my grandmother was completely unfazed, calmly telling me a story of how there had once been a large contingent of English people in the area with fancy hotels and posh homes -- all of it washed away by the hurricane of 1900.
While in the United States I also got a chance to see my uncle Steve, aunt Elaine and cousin Mollie, as well as my dad, mom and brother. I think one of the highlights was getting to spend some time with my mom. I have said before that I get my sense of humour from my mother, whereas I get my desire to display that sense of humour from my father. Mom is the sort of person you have to listen to in order to catch her witticisms. She won't set them out with pauses or emphasis. There is no "here comes the punchline" delivery. If you're not paying attention, brilliant things are lost amid talk of science projects, the practicality of chocolate and the importance of doing absolutely nothing until after you've had a good sleep.

Lady in the lake~8~ Introducing the pride of Hirwaun to the Land of 10,000 Lakes: Put two beers in me and inevitably I will start telling you how awesome Texas and Minnesota are. Especially if it is a typically rainy and cold day in Wales. Somehow this braggadocio turned into an invitation, and so Lisa ended up spending 10 days being introduced to some of the people, places and things that make L'Étoile du Nord so incredibly wonderful. Highlights include canoeing Lake of the Isles, taking pictures of Lisa with Eric's shotgun, sitting in Coffee News Cafe and chatting, Lisa declaring Grand Ole Creamery ice cream so good that she would never eat any other, and Kristin's father deciding Lisa was pretty much his favourite person ever (Duane's never given me a pat on the head). But I think my favourite day was the one we spent in Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior.
We ate fresh fish at Angry Trout Cafe, then spent most of the afternoon sitting on the beach. The water was serenely calm and eventually the pride of Hirwaun decided to go for a swim, having been brilliant enough to wear her swimsuit underneath her dress. She swam with her head above water, still wearing her sunglasses, her hair styled up and staying dry. She looked otherwordly swimming out. Lake Superior is so big it is not like a lake at all; Grand Marais looks and feels as if it is by the sea. This sensory experience matched with the geographic reality of it being smack dab in the middle of a continent, hundreds of miles from the nearest sea, causes a sort of confusion. The whole thing disconnects in your mind.
"It doesn't really feel like America," Lisa had said.
Look in any direction -- at the countless American flags, the big American cars carrying big Americans to restaurants serving heavy rich food -- and it is quintessentially Americana, but she's right. Grand Marais on a beautiful summer day feels like somewhere else, yet not like anywhere else.
She swam out to the middle of Grand Marais' little harbour. When she turned back to shore I saw she was wearing a huge grin.

~8~ Barbecue: For our friends in the Soggy Nations, you may not be aware that barbecue is: a) a style of food; b) a way of cooking food, and; c) an event. For example, Eric and Kristin had the pride of Hirwaun and me over for a barbecue one evening, in which Eric made barbecue ribs on his barbecue grill. We cook meat with fire. This is what America is all about. It is why we win wars (assuming the wars are against Germans). In Texas, however, barbecue has a fourth definition: it is a way of life.
There is absolutely no reason for anyone in their right mind to visit Clute, Texas. But if fate, in its mysterious and sometimes sadistic manner lands you there some day, you have to eat at Bryan's Bar-B-Q. It is a simple building, the least-rundown in a string of weather-beaten structures leading out to the endless metal tubes and lights and concrete of the myriad chemical plants that are the area's reason for being. Inside, the wall is plastered with local memorabilia, my personal favourite being a large poster of the Clute Police Department featuring its one SWAT van and three tactical officers, a K-9, two patrol officers stepping out of their cars with shotguns and Chief Mark Whicker emerging from a cloud of smoke. Most likely taken in the early 90s, it is one of the most hilarious police promotion posters you'll ever see, especially when you realise that it's not meant to be ironic.
It goes without saying that country music is piped into Bryan's. There are countless local stations to choose from, but Bryan's seems to be hooked into an internet or satellite feed that broadcasts particularly ridiculous pro-Americana country pop: it was there I heard Darryl Worley's "Keep the Change" for the first and hopefully last time. Behind the counter, high schoolers break from their flirting just long enough to throw your food on a paper plate, hand you a large plastic cup and point at the ice tea dispenser. You don't go to barbecue restaurants for atmosphere or customer service; the food is all that matters.
Barbecue (aka Bar-B-Q, or BBQ) is often looped in with soul food, a cuisine that doesn't really exist in the Soggy Nations. Perhaps if Britain had food that good it wouldn't have lost the empire. No one is totally sure where the term "soul" originated in defining the cuisine. I like to think it is because the food is good for your soul, if not necessarily your heart or waist-line. When you sit down to a plate of brisket and smoked sausage, some little voice inside you says: "OK, I'm willing to live another day."

~8~ American breakfasts: And when you wake up the next day, the best way to ensure willingness to trudge forward is with a proper American breakfast. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the breakfasts found in the Soggy Nations, each nation having its own variation on the theme. An English breakfast is fried egg ("sunny side up" for those of you playing along at home), two sausage, two rashers of bacon, baked beans, half a fried tomato and sometimes fried mushrooms and/or fried bread; an Irish breakfast is the same thing but generally without the beans and with black and white pudding (sausages made of animal blood, for those of you playing along at home); a Welsh breakfast appears to be an English breakfast with more meat, and sometimes laverbread (seaweed) if served in the west. All good and wonderful stuff, happily washed down with steaming sugary mugs of tea. But in abundance and flavour an American breakfast is hard to beat.
DinerAdditionally it is hard to define. What exactly is an American breakfast? For me it is scrambled eggs, sausage patties (sausage in the U.S. has considerably more flavour than its European counterparts), bacon ("streaky bacon" for our friends in the Soggy Nations) and an enormous helping of hash browns. Hash browns are the key. They are not those strange fried potato cakes of the same name that you get at McDonald's, they are not the tater-tot-like cubes of potato like those of the same name served in cafeterias. Hashbrowns are potatoes that have been grated in a cheese grater and then fried crisp in a pan. It is the crispy, starchy, salty taste of freedom.

~8~ "Free" by the Zac Brown Band: One of the challenges of my visit to the United States was an exhausting 1,276-mile drive from Minnesota to Texas, followed by the same drive in reverse less than a week later. This meant spending roughly 48 hours in a car by myself. Had I properly thought things out, I could have borrowed my brother's Rosetta Stone Spanish CDs and would now be looking for a place to live in Madrid. But, as it happened, I only had the radio to keep me company.
For our friends in the Soggy Nations, the United States has no broadcasting service similar to the BBC or RTÉ. There is state-funded radio but it exists on a sort of loose network of stations, which syndicate a handful of NPR programmes and fill the rest of the broadcasting day with a hodgepodge of stuff from other public stations (usually those in Boston or Minnesota) or programming from BBC World. If I were driving from Cardiff to Edinburgh, I could listen to Radio 1 the whole way. No such thing is possible in the United States, so you find yourself searching the dial every 40-60 miles for something new to listen to.
Through some terrible, inexplicable misfortune, the radio stations in the United States with the most powerful signals tend to be those broadcasting either classic rock or country music. In driving the country's length, then, you are for the most part left to choose between Bob Seger or Brad Paisley, Rolling Stones or Rascal Flatts, the Eagles or the Eagles.
The thing about classic rock is that it doesn't change. If you've been alive more than a year, you have heard it all -- nothing new is going to come out. It's George Thorogood today, it's George Thorogood tomorrow, it's George Thorogood until the revolution comes. So, I generally chose to listen to the country stations simply because they were playing things I had not heard before.
Concrete jumbleBut, as I say, there is no one station that broadcasts across the whole country. As you move you get different playlists and inevitably you will hear the same songs several times over. The one featuring the lyrics, "Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey. Whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky." seemed to be particularly popular at the time. There was also an amusing song in which the singer says that he will pray for his ex-girlfriend: "I pray your brakes go out running down a hill. I pray a flower pot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I'd like to. I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls. I pray you're flying high and your engine stalls. I pray all your dreams never come true."
I remember those lyrics from memory, such was the frequency of my hearing them.
But there were actually one or two songs I genuinely liked, songs I have since downloaded, songs I have paid actual money for. Chief among them was "Free" by the Zac Brown Band. It's a song about living in a van, something that has been appealing to me more and more of late.

~8~ Pomplamoose: In Austin, Dani gave me a handful of CDs to pass along to the pride of Hirwaun because the two of them have similar tastes in music. Keen to break up the musical monopoly held in my car by hot new country, I decided to listen to the CDs myself. I liked Beuhlah , but hated the Mountain Goats. The dude in Mountain Goats has all these songs about getting beat up by his dad when he was younger; dude's voice is so annoying I found myself wishing the dad had hit harder. But such is the risk when listening to new music: sometimes you find things you really don't like.
And sometimes you find things you really do. Like Pomplamoose. From the same musical circle that brought you Julia Nunes, Lauren O'Connell and Molly Lewis comes the duo of Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn that is Pomplamoose. Admittedly there is something about their style that makes you think it is music made for the purpose of being used in quirky adverts for hip economy cars, but I really like it. My favourite song from them is: "If You Think You Need Some Lovin'." It reminds me in some way of Kirsty MacColl's "In These Shoes," which may or may not be a compliment.


The runner-up for my favourite country song: "Lover, Lover" by Jerrod Nieman.


Kris Pierson said...

Great post. You make me miss home...and I live here! I guess it is time for me to refocus on that. Don't know if you are a state fair fan - and please understand this is not a prelude to a debate over whether TX or MN has the better state fair; we can suffice it to say that no other fair holds a candle to either. But, to me, the fair always reminds me the essence of being an American. Hope you are back to your roots again soon!...Kris

Bethgun said...

I don't comment much, but I always love to hear your musings on how your perception of home changes the longer you live abroad - you made it longer than I did, and it makes me wonder how it would have impacted me if I had stayed abroad longer.

Oh, and I'm also relieved to hear you made it from MN to TX and back without any wrong turns off the one road. You're grown now, son.

Word verification: bleerch

Von Linus said...

I do like the term 'The Soggy Nations'.

Anonymous said...

Im on holiday in Spain with the family,warmest greetings from Mallorca ( and boy it is hot here.....)

Huw a teulu from Dinas Powys

Professor Batty said...

Mickey´s Dining Car never looked so inviting.