Thursday, January 31, 2008

30 January 2008: Wildfire

As I mentioned yesterday, there's not a lot of rain here in rural north Texas. And that can cause problems.

Incidentally, for those of you with maps, you might like to know where we are: if you find the USA and go to the big state right in the middle at the bottom, that's Texas. Houston is at the bottom-right, but we're closer to Dallas, which is kind of near the top and central as you look. Just to the left of Dallas you'll see Fort Worth (the airport here is called 'Dallas-Fort Worth' and sits between the two cities) and if you have a detailed map, you might be able to spot the names of a few towns to the north and north-west of Fort Worth. Denton is the big city just north of the DFW area. Directly west of that is Decatur, and a little further west along that road is the town of Bridgeport, where I sit as I write this blog. Slightly south-east of Bridgeport is the 'city' where we were married, named Paradise. (A city, it seems, is not determined by the existence of a cathedral or by appointment by the Queen, but upon the existence of a municipal water system. Paradise is therefore a city, despite having a censused population of only 459.)

Yesterday, however, the population of Paradise dropped a little, albeit only temporarily. The lack of rain and the incoming Siberian cold front pushing towards us from Colorado meant there were very dry conditions, very low humidity, very high sunshine figures and very high winds (sustained winds around 40mph for a while, gusts touching 60mph). This means if somebody throws a cigarette stub out of a car window without making sure it's extinguished first, there is going to be trouble.

Three major wildfires (and several minor ones) raged through the day yesterday in the area north-west of Fort Worth. Two were in more rural areas, but the most destructive in terms of personal loss was in Paradise. We had no idea that fire had broken out until Gloria's great-uncle called at 3pm to check if we were ok as he had heard there were wildfires in our county. We were, we said, and flicking on the TV we found that it was Paradise rather than Bridgeport that was being consumed, where the fire had been going since around 11am.

Now, although we don't live in Paradise, we have a connection there beyond just being married at the little church in the centre of town. We have a lot of stuff - two garages full - in a storage facility on the south side of town, by the school. Although there's no way we'd be able to get it all out into our little Toyota-with-orange-indicator-lights, we thought we should go and try to rescue some irreplaceable things such as photos and Tunnock's caramel bars. So off we went, down the five miles of Highway 114 towards Paradise, spotting a few odd things like the occasional uprooted tree (that wind was strong) and, off to the west, a huge smoke cloud coming from another of the wildfires. Then there was a line of traffic, a flashing light at the front end and a policeman walking from car to car, talking to drivers. We slowed, and crawled forward as one by one the cars were released to go onward. As we did, several drivers decided to cut up the inside, driving on the shoulder of the highway in a perfectly illegal manner, presumably unaware there was a policeman waiting for them up ahead.

"Where are y'all headed?" drawled the cop.
The storages by the school in Paradise.
"OK," he replied, "turn right by the Pecan orchard and go round the back way."

We didn't. We went the regular way, through the centre of town. Another police car at the main intersection in town, blocking Highway 114. We turned right towards the school, past our little wedding church, out to the school and, briefly, on past the school, back on the road towards the closed Highway 114. Over the crest of the hill and all we could see were people standing round, no shortage of vehicles with flashing lights, and clouds of smoke rising in the near-distance. We U-turned and went back to the storages, took out the valuables and noted that the strong wind direction was blowing the fire away from the main part of the town (indeed, the school was still in, they hadn't evacuated the pupils). Feeling more confident about the security of our own stuff, we headed back on 114 towards Bridgeport, past the policeman and his now-lengthy queue.

As we approached, however, we saw him turn and race towards his car, just as we drove past. He spun it around, lights flashing, heading in our direction, back towards Bridgeport. Along the queue of cars, we quickly saw why the policeman was heading this way. Yet another fool had tried to cut up the inside and by-pass the queue, but rather clumsily had run their car into the back of a massive articulated lorry. We crawled past the wreckage and back towards Bridgeport, commenting on how it was the strangest trip to Paradise that either of us have ever had.

Turning on the TV on our return, we watched as the local news began to relay the details from the scene. 15 homes destroyed, about 30 buildings in total, all just to the south of the main part of Paradise. No fatalities or even any reported injuries. Gloria didn't know any of the residents interviewed on TV but certainly knew a few people who live around that area. One man on the TV said it was the third time his home had been burned down, and he'd only just moved back in to his house back in October. You might say that perhaps nature was telling him to move somewhere else, or at least build his house out of something other than wood, but he seemed to be a good ol' local boy who wasn't going to let a little fire stop him living in his home town.

The winds dropped overnight and the fires were contained. The wind picked up a little today, but a cold front came through and there is even a small chance of a little rain tomorrow, so that should solve the issue - for now. But it's another of those differences between living in Southampton and living in rural north-central Texas - here the weather forecast and the smoking laws are more than just a matter of community moaning, they can combine to mean life and death in a matter of hours.

Paradise lost? No, just slightly damaged this time.

29 January 2008: Syrup

So here we are.

They have the internet in the USA, it appears, so I will be able to continue with the occasional blog. In fact, since arriving here a couple of weeks ago, it's been a curious journey to find what they do and don't have over here compared with the UK.

For example, they have immigration and border controls that make you want to shake your fists at the sky and cry "why me?". Arriving at DFW airport with a visa in my passport that we fought a hard seven-and-a-half-month battle for. For the uninitiated, a visa is a good thing to have when you want to enter another country: it means the country you are trying to enter has already granted you entry clearance. Previously when entering the USA for a visit, I'd had to fill out a green form entitled 'I-94 Visa Waiver' which means I'm telling the immigration officer that I'd like to visit the USA for a period of less than three months and I have proof that I'll be leaving (usually in the form of a return or onward plane ticket). The officer then asks some questions of varying degrees of severity and eventually decides to let me in. But when you have a visa it's different: it means the US embassy have already done the questioning and have decided that you are to be let in. Visa means "entry clearance". In the UK it really does mean that: armed with visa in passport, Gloria was never questioned about anything when coming into the UK.

The US, however, decided that it's not enough to have entry clearance. I had to not only show a whole bunch of supporting documentation (remember the brown envelope from my previous blog?) but also, instead of the guy saying "welcome to the USA", I had to be taken to an extra area for additional questioning and form-filling-in. Why was this not done at the US embassy in London? I have no idea, but it took us a full two hours before they eventually allowed us through (admittedly, this was partly due to there being 32 immigration desks, of which 29 were closed, so there was a good solid bit of waiting for everyone). However, they did let us through, so I now have full permanent immigrant status, a Green Card on the way and a Social Security number so I can pay taxes. Yay!

As a quick aside, you might wonder what happened about the chest X-ray we were told to take on the plane with us and show to the immigration officer. I pulled it out and offered it to him, pointing to the bit on the letter where it says "you must show this to the immigration officer". Unsurprisingly, he said "I don't know anything about X-rays" and informed us that the real purpose of it is to give it to a local doctor when I register. Which does, kind of, make sense, although why we had to take it on the plane with us remains a mystery.

So we made it through and have spent the days since arrival generally travelling around saying "hello" to as many people as possible, including visits to Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana as well as Texas. In addition to this there's been the question of what we can and can't get at the supermarkets, an investigation that I have begun at quite a thorough level for fear of running out of essentials such as malt vinegar and PG Tips. And overall, I've been very pleasantly surprised.

It's quite amazing to me how much America has changed since I first visited back in 1991. Back then the cars were all huge saloon models with flashing brake lights that doubled as indicators (orange indicator lights were few and far between). There was no way to find out the cricket scores short of very expensive phone calls back to the UK. There was certainly no Indian food and the height of international excitement was finding a small branch of Harry Ramsden's in the Atlanta Underground food court. Now it's different: it's not just the internet and cheaper international phone cards, it also the invasion of cars from the Far East with their orange blinkers and hatch-backs and, most interestingly, the foods that are slowly becoming available at the supermarkets, or, at a slightly higher price, the 'World Market' shops which are now in all the cities. (For reference: the day I write this blog, 1 UK pound is equal to $1.98).

To run through the check list:
- Twining's Tea (all brands) available at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, Winn-Dixie, all the main ones. PG still requires a trip to the World Market or other import store, but frankly we have enough to last me a good six months yet, by which time we hope to receive some from the UK.
- Malt Vinegar is now available as one of Heinz' "Gourmet Foods" products, alongside the Balsamic and White Wine vinegars, and every bit as expensive ($1.74 for one of those normal 250ml vinegar bottles).
- Cadbury's: bit of a false dawn on this one - Cadbury's brand chocolate (Dairy Milk etc) has been available over here for at least six years but it's not actually Cadbury's: look on the back of the wrapper and it says "Made in the USA under licence by Hershey Inc." If you know Hershey's chocolate you'll know that it's not going to be the same. If you can't get anything else, this fake Cadbury is the best available (and it's at all the Wal-Marts, no trouble to find it), but for the real stuff you need to go to an import shop such as World Market and pay the import prices.
- Patak's curry paste: Mr and Mrs Patak, bless 'em, have now set up a small US distribution operation. This is encouraging, and I hope the shops that carry the product will expand. World Market carries a couple of the pastes ("Mild Curry Paste" and "Hot Curry Paste" rather than anything interesting like Madras) along with a tandoori grilling sauce, and the prices aren't too bad ($3.99 compared with about £1.50 at Sainsbury's, so a 52p or so markup). We also were very pleased to find it at a small college supermarket in Tennessee which specialised in organic and health food. (Curry as a health food? I like that idea.) Further investigation, we hope, will lead to further finds.
- Naan bread: got some from the World Market in Birmingham, Alabama, but despite being imported from a company in Leicester, it was a little dry and disappointing. We have a couple of recipes for naan, so I suspect we'll be making it rather than buying it in future.
- Poppadoms: yet to see any in our two weeks so far, but we do know of an Indian/Pakistani shop in San Antonio which sells the Crazy-Eyed Rabbit brand. However, we also have yet to see lime pickle on sale anywhere, so it may be that this combination is something that will require a trip to the internet import shop.
- Maltesers: like other "real" English sweeties, we found this one so far only at the World Market but we did find it at a ridiculous price - the 'Christmas Edition' tube of Maltesers was on clearance (75% off: in the US they do understand what a clearance sale should be, M&S please take note) and so they were selling a nice 80g tube for 99c each. That's about 51p. That's cheaper than Asda. We bought four and later regretted we didn't just buy their entire stock.
- Fruit Gums/Fruit Pastilles: I know, a Nestle product these days, but we have to keep the economy of York turning over somehow. Unlike the UK chocolate products on ridiculous markup ($1.75 for a Crunchie bar: no thanks) these were at the World Market for 99c each, normal price. Again, that's 51p. I've become accustomed to seeing a little sticker saying "42p" on these in the UK. I can cope with a 9p markup.
- Dandelion & Burdock: not required as they have Root Beer here. Early experimentation has shown that Stewart's and IBC are the best root beers, with Sioux City not far behind, but the research continues.
- Golden Syrup: this is an important one as it's a key ingredient in Mars Bar Cake, not to mention my late grandmother's legendary "chocolate cake with no eggs in it because it's wartime". It's hard to find a substitute for this as Tate & Lyle famously use only pure cane sugar for their syrup, whereas over here the culture is geared towards corn syrup. We brought a big tin of the stuff with us, and will use it sparingly, but we have found a few potential substitutes at the supermarkets and, at just one World Market, we did find it on import with a hefty mark-up. So it does exist over here, it's just a little work trying to find it.
- Lamb: this is more a Texas issue than a USA/UK issue: the only place you'll get lamb here is if you go to the Mall and find a 'Wraps' take-away in the food court which features 'Gyros' (= Donner Kebab). This is surprisingly common, a pleasant discovery. Beyond that, however, Texas is a lamb-free state. We are lead to believe that the Fort Worth Central Market will carry it, but certainly none of the normal supermarkets do. We had no problem finding a reasonable selection of lamb (imported from Australia, of all places) in both Tennessee and Alabama, and indeed even found Paxo stuffing at the World Market to go with it, so perhaps we just need to move east a little.
- Sausages: Again to my surprise, "link sausages" (or 'sausages' to you and me) are available here at Wal-Mart. Not much choice, just regular slightly-seasoned pork, and they're not going to be threatening Upton's of Bassett for the sausage-of-the-year award, but hey, they're available. It's tempting to get a few recipes for Lincolnshire or Cumberland sausages and make then up by hand. Certainly regular sausage-meat is freely available.

And on the down-side, a few things we've not found and aren't hopeful of finding:
- Kebabs: on the kebab front, there's a reasonable number of 'Kabob' restaurants and take-aways, along with the 'Gyros' at the Malls, but frankly nothing that matches up to the Charcoal Grill on Portswood Road and certainly nothing like Big George's tandoori chicken donner kebab. Having said that, I've never had anything as good as that anywhere else in the UK either, even in London.
- Fish and chips: Harry Ramsden doesn't seem to have made it big out here yet, although I'm not much of a fan anyway. There's nowhere I can see offering chips like you'd get from a traditional British chippy: thick-cut and greasy-hot, just begging for vinegar. (Aside: ever tried putting vinegar on McDonald's 'French Fries'? Everyone should try it once.)
- Back bacon: or middle cut, or collar cut (which, frankly, is hard enough to find in the UK these days) - these are just not around. Oscar Meyer do produce 'Canadian Bacon' which looks a little bit like the round bit from back bacon but is suspiciously exactly circular, and doesn't really taste like that fine thick-cut dry-cure stuff that Uptons sell.
- Clotted cream: don't even think about it. I understand there is a firm in North Carolina which makes it and will overnight-air-freight it for a truly ridiculous price.
- Rain. It doesn't rain here very much at all.

So we're settling in, slowly but surely, still job-hunting and heading to the pharmacy every time we need to look on the internet. It's a little different, but as I said before, nothing like as different as it was when I first came some seventeen years ago. Maybe it's globalisation, maybe it's progress, maybe it's just me getting old, but it really doesn't feel as foreign as I expected it to.

And so, here we stay.