It’s a scone!

Today I walked a different way to work. I had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get some extra data “inputted” into my file so I could qualify for a local ID card. (‘Sir, I’ve just inputted that’ – apparently a real word over here … mind you, the Americans persist in using apostrophes where they don’t belong (ie 1990’s), so I am not so sure). There is a story in that for another time. I digress.

So on my alternative route to work I did a double take as I walked by a cafe. I saw a scone. A real scone. The type of scone you find at home – or in Britain. I bought it and it was delicious. It was like eating a little bit of home.

So the point of this blog post is to alert you that real scones are hard to find in the US, and there is a whole confusing etymology to baked goods. I am going to do my best to explain it.

Of course you probably know, as we knew before we arrived here, that what we call biscuits are in the US cookies.

What I ate today was a scone but was described as a biscuit. Biscuits in the US are typically flatter and more crumbly than scones. They look a little like scones but they may as well be called ‘disappointments’ for that is the experience they provide. This was a rarity.

Just to add to the confusion you can buy something called a scone in the US, though. However they are more like little tea cakes or rock cakes. They are flatter and more dense than the real thing and covered in sugar. Best to steer clear of them lest you want dry throat or diabetes.


The Air We Breathe and Outsourcing to Manila

We are in the epicentre of equal marriage rights here in San Francisco. There is barely a proposition 8 defender to be found, and there continues to be much celebration at the court rulings that have found that proposition to be unconstitutional. SFMoMA has also just closed an exhibition advancing equal marriage rights. While we are away from Canberra the issue is very much surrounding us too.

One of my favourite SFMoMA exhibits was a poem: Behold the Bride/Groom by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, which made me smile and laugh. Here’s some of it here:

Straight people who refer to their spouses as ‘partners’. The first time I heard this was when Tom Hanks won the Oscar for ‘Philadelphia’, when he thanked his ‘partner’ (second wife Rita Wilson), as if the gayness of his movie role was bleeding into his life.

I hear this partner business is rampant among academics, some of whom are careful to not reveal the gender of their mates, because it doesn’t matter, because it ‘doesn’t matter’. Doesn’t matter to whom?

Recently I’m hearing lesbians referring to their partners as their wives. Both of them are wives. I’m also hearing gay male couples referring to one another as husband.

I’m wondering if there’s a linguistic migration going on and in the future husband and wife will be solely queer terms, with partner reserved for straight marriages (similar to the way happy people, many straight, used to be gay).

San Francisco is also the hub of all things IT wowy. Like Xoom, a web-based money transfer alternative. It was born out of Californian ingenuity, but it quickly outsourced its customer service to the Philippines, where its presumably rather liberal founders have a diminished influence over its 24/7 (presumably Catholic) work-force. So a recent effort of Paul’s to transfer some money from the US to my account in Australia was thwarted. Unpoetically, and rather discriminatorily, it went a little like this (admittedly I was less polite than the transcript suggests):

Manila: Sir, you say this money is for your partner. Unfortunately Xoom does not allow transfers to business partners.

SF: Brad is not my business partner, just my partner.

Manila: I don’t understand. You will have to explain to me the nature of your partnership.

SF: Well we are two men who are life partners.

Manila: As I explained it is Xoom policy not to allow transfers between business partners.

SF: No, no, we are like husbands. [I then rant in the background about discriminatory policies and likely litigation].

Manila: I don’t understand. I am sorry. I just need to ask you about the nature of your relationship …

The linguistic migration is certainly not complete or cross-cultural. We hung up the phone and Paul tried again. This time he transferred the money to his ‘friend’ in Australia.

New York regrets – we have just two

We are just back from lively New York. We had a blast. We packed so much in around my conference, with highlights aplenty captured in photos here.

Such is human nature, though, that the things we will remember will include a couple of very dubious and regretful eating decisions. We don’t mean the dodgy 86 cent sliders from White Castle, the burger chain started in the 1920s and featured in Taxi Driver and Threesome. We expected them to be as awful as they were.

Rather, it was the pretzel from the street cart, those carts that we were assured are a NY icon and provider of high quality foodstuffs. Not only did our pretzels make us thirsty, they were cold and doused in that fire starter chemical, a smell we we couldn’t remove from our hands and a taste that all the high fructose corn syrup candy in the city could not displace from our mouths.

It was also our New York pizza experience. Starving from posing for photos in the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, Paul wanted pizza and didn’t want to trek through the rain to find a place. We spotted a neon sign, saw a bargain deal that proved to have undisclosed restrictions (consumer protection laws, pfff), and settled in for a serviceable but not at all special pizza. Then on the way out I saw posted inconspicuously in the corner of the window what I could not see on the way in – a ‘C’ grade health inspection grade: the lowest grade available, representing food and health violations – a warning not to eat here. We spent the next 24 hours waiting for the onset of food poisoning, and I will forever feel the shame of letting my A-grade only guard down just for that moment.

Here is the establishment in rosier times with an ‘A’ grade. The ‘C’ was posted in the far bottom left corner of the window.



On American roads

I have seen the TV show Cops (late at night flicking through channels). I’d seen footage of Californian drivers in fits of rage on the news at home. Soon after I arrived here I saw this Elmo T-shirt Guy broadcast on the local TV news (at 6.30pm despite the obscenity and offensiveness of the footage). I was worried about being on the roads in my share car and on my rickety bike in case some of that anger came my way.

I need not have been worried. I will return home an ambassador for American city drivers. I have never encountered such calm and politeness on the streets as I have in Berkeley and Oakland. Walkers get priority (note 1, below), folk wave through cyclists, and drivers (especially those in suped-up and shiny ‘wheels’) cruise along the streets at slow (and watchable) pace. It is all so civil. No one seems to be in a rush.

Mind you, this is helped greatly by the 4-way stops that litter the streets, where no-one seems to know the rule as to who goes first. So people stop (unless you are Paul on a bike, in which case you sail though), and then wait for someone to move to trigger action again on the streets. I am constantly waving thanks to drivers. They must sense my great unease on the wrong side of the road, because I am usually the one who is allowed to go first.

Note 1: The City has just installed a pedestrian crossing on a road nearby. You push the button, which sets off warning lights to drivers, and a mechanical voice speaks: ‘Cross road with caution, vehicles may not stop’.

Tipping and burning

Slowly we are getting used to the tipping game here. While the Aussie dollar is on parity with the US dollar, we’ve thought it fair to be more generous than stingy. This likely shocks many of you (be assured, though, I won’t tip when I do all the work – order at the till, wait for my food, take it to the table, and then clear up after myself – even if others persist on stuffing dollar bills into the tip jar)! I tested J’s view on the haircut tip thing and was informed by the barber that, yep, he expects an extra 20% as a service provider. Which is strange because all the money goes straight into his wallet anyway.

We had our first pub outing last night before heading to see the Trey McIntrye Project onstage at Cal. This was going to test me – the whole tipping for each drink and then the food. In the end we didn’t have the time to work it out. We spent too long drinking our $12 bottle of wine. So on the way out we handed $40 to our waiter and let her keep the $11 change (about 40%) as a tip. She shook Paul’s hand (I think it was an Obama double-hander). This was surely a sign that we had tipped too much. Paul reckoned though that there would be rewards; that one can’t tip too much to a person serving alcohol. Next time we are there, he told me, our Margaritas would be super special.

On the way home we passed the pub. It was burning down. I think we tipped too much afterall.

I’ll eat here. My name is Felix.

So I have got the eating in or taking away business down pat. You can either have it here, or to go. It is said a little like ‘hereortogo’? To be honest I still cannot quite decipher the words spoken, but I know and now expect that this catchphrase comes as I hand over my money to the cashier at the food shop. It is more important that I decipher my name, though, so I know when my food is ready. As a general rule the Americans sing your name – often in tune. It goes a little like ‘Bradyourmeal … ‘s-ready’. But the first bit gets all squashed, so when a meal is ready for Dan, or Ben, or any one with a one syllable name I just look at Paul quizzically and hope that he is better at this game than me. He is not. So my strategy has been to adopt a different name. I am now Felix. It worked tonight. I reckon I will only possibly get confused if there is an Alex ahead of me in the line.

Oh, no I did not eat all four tacos. And yes, the Corona was just $4.

What is with the eggs?

Life in California is not that different from back home. Already, just a couple of weeks in, I have lost the sense of being out of place. I was reminded of this yesterday. Paul and I were walking through Fort Mason, which is close to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Even though the landscape is relatively new to us, the trees were a mix of bottle brushes and gums. I could have been back home. In fact San Francisco is full of Australian natives and easy to recognise grasses from home. They have the effect of making feel like I am some place familiar. For me vegetation and fauna (like those squirrels) distinguish places. Added to this, cities, of course, have that way of comforting the urban dweller. There is so much common across the urbanised world.

I have also become immune the the difference in language, people and traffic, all of which I immediately found peculiar. This made me ask myself, when so far have I felt like I am in a foreign place? The incidences are generally obscure or minor but they also reinforce what we simply accept as being the norm.

In Calgary it was the weather – being so cold made me feel out of place. It also took people off the streets, which felt odd in a post-apocalyptic way (everyone else was in elevated, covered, and heated walkways – which I could not navigate). So too did the absence of number plates on the front of cars. In San Francisco, the dazzle, noise and advertising ambush of the sporting event was very unfamiliar (and really distracting), and then there are the eggs.

Eggs are supposed to have golden, almost orangey yolks (and served on toast!), aren’t they? Yet here (even the organic and free range ones) the yolks are a pale, grassy yellow colour. I look at those yolks and feel that something is not right. They will be my reminder that home is somewhere else.

Hmmm … something familiar