Like you, we are in lockdown. We are in Pasadena, California (part of LA County) and we feel especially lucky that we have a garden and that the weather is (finally) good.
For the last few days, I have been in the yard repairing our termite-ridden, falling-apart fence, and learning the process. I use the word ‘repair’ loosely as I realize that it is not a long-term solution to put fresh wood pickets against wood that is being chewed by termites. However, this is a patch job and the pickets are cheap.
In the photo below you can see the fence I was working on. There is one missing picket, and, on either side of the gap, there are two fairly rotten pickets. I originally planned to do all three, but in the end, I just did two. To make the job extra challenging, the fence is helpfully behind a fairly delicate Jade plant, which drops its leaves at the slightest touch. My goal was to repair the fence without destroying the plant.
Tools: After working on the fence for a few days, I’d got the tool situation down to the minimum. To get the fence pickets the right length I needed the tape measure, the triangle, the pencil, and the hand saw. To get the old picket and nails/screws etc out I needed the hammer and the flat head screwdriver. To fix the picket to the rail I needed the drill, the drill bit, the countersink bit, the drill bit with the phillips head on it, the phillips screwdriver and some screws. And gloves, of course.
The first job was to remove the old picket and the rusty nails that, once upon a time, were holding it on – without pulling down the whole fence or destroying the rail. Easier said than done especially when the whole fence has been chewed through by termites.
Because the pickets come in only approximate sizes, and because I was only repairing the fence, not building a whole new one, I made sure to check that the pickets were actually going to fit in the gap. I found that they often didn’t. Ideally one would take out both the old pickets to check the new ones both fitted… however, next door has a dog, and it would easily have got through the hole if I’d taken both out at once!
Then I cut my pickets to length.
Because I couldn’t take out both pickets at the same time (because of the dog), the next process took a little longer – on the other parts of the fence I was able to do multiple panels at each of the steps below.
The next step was to drill some holes for the screws. I got a drill bit that was slightly smaller than the screw, balanced the picket in its place, and drilled four holes – two at the top and two at the bottom, level with the nails/screws on the other panels. The drill went through the picket into the rail.
Then I switched to the countersink bit so that I could make a dent for the screw heads.
Then the final step was to get the picket screwed into place. I found that getting the screws started in the holes with the screwdriver was helpful.
Then it was time to look at the second picket (to the left of the one I just put up). I pulled it off and it pretty much disintegrated in a shower of termite droppings. Unfortunately, I then found the new picket I had selected was a hair too wide to fit in the gap. None of my remaining stash were any thinner, so there was nothing for it but to trim it longways. It was a little tedious to saw by hand but not impossible.
I repeated the procedure above, to get the finished result below. The next job (for another time) will be painting it.
I use the word “2017” in the title of this post, because I have a feeling we’ll be seeing another total solar eclipse one day. We had such a fantastic experience with this one, on August 21, 2017, that I think we may have become official eclipse-chasers.
Planning for this trip started earlier in the year with the thought that, of all the states on the path of the eclipse, Idaho was most likely to have clear weather. I spent a decent amount of time looking for accommodation in the path of the totality but found only a Super 8 for some many hundreds of dollars. Eventually I found a double suite at the Riverside Hotel in Boise, ID, which was about an hour’s drive from the center line of totality.
Thinking we were super clever, we found $50 flights to Salt Lake City, and figured we’d drive the 4 hours up to Boise and save ourselves $200 per head each way. Having booked that, time passed, and slowly the hysteria about the traffic started to build and we were panicked about whether we were going to be able to make that drive due to all the traffic. So we changed our flights to come in the day before and booked an airport hotel in Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile, I signed up for the Eclipse Megamovie project, and committed to taking photos of totality. I got myself a 70-300mm lens for my Nikon D3300 camera, and a paper solar filter, and started practicing. The hardest part turned out to be focusing on the sun, because you can’t look through the viewfinder (eclipse safety) and it’s really hard to see the screen on the back of the camera in daylight. The key turned out to be zooming in on the “live view” screen to see the edge of the sun. Later on, closer to the eclipse, some sunspots showed up, and focusing on them was a lot easier. If it hadn’t been for the Megamovie forums I’m not sure I would have figured this part out.
On the appointed Saturday, August 19th, we flew in the morning from Burbank to Salt Lake City, picked up a rental car and checked into the Courtyard Marriott at the airport. We had an early night, having decided that we needed to get up before sunset to beat the traffic.
On Sunday we had a 4:15am alarm, and drove to our traveling companions’ hotel at just after 5am to pick them up. Yes, our friends Vikram and Emma were crazy enough to join us on this eclipse adventure. We drove through the darkness, and just before sunrise saw the thin crescent moon rise – we knew the next morning the new moon would mean the eclipse!
We changed drivers at some random gas station, and for the rest of the drive Vikram decided to regale us with “interesting” “facts” about Idaho he had just found out from The Internet. “Did you know,” he would say, “that Idaho has the third largest seated statue of Lincoln?” (probably true), and, “Did you know that the Fosbury Flop (high jump technique) was invented in Idaho?” (not entirely accurate), and later, “Did you know that Idaho only has three dry-cleaners” (not true). Arguing about these nuggets certainly passed the miles.
We arrived in Boise early – around 10am – and of course, were too early to check in, so a quick google search revealed a “good” place for breakfast, walking distance from the hotel. We passed gas stations, empty lots and rental car lots, when we finally found the Capri Restaurant attached to a motel. We were not inspired by its looks but when we saw the line outside, we knew we’d come to the right place. It was absolutely packed but we got a seat in about 10 minutes, and had drinks and breakfast in front of us within 15 minutes. It was absolutely delicious, and just what we needed.
Breakfast at Capri Restaurant
None of us went hungry at the Capri Restaurant
Then we decided to walk into town to see what was what. We found our way to the State Capitol Building and went inside to find marble as far as the eye could see. We explored the empty senate chamber and the house chamber and admired the stars in the ceiling of the dome.
State Capitol Building
Inside the State Capitol
Suitably cultured we started back towards the hotel, stopping at a brewery tap room that had opened its doors for the first time just days before, and had some beer. Then it was back to the hotel to check in. I spent the rest of the afternoon checking camera settings, filling the car with fuel and generally running around.
After dinner we discussed our plan of action for the next day. We were going to head to the town of Weiser, ID, on the Oregon border which was completely prepared for an influx of eclipse viewers. As we talked I got worried about parking and emailed everyone on the helpful website parking list to see whether they had space. Two people replied 10 minutes after we went to bed.
The next morning, Monday, eclipse morning, our upstairs neighbor’s alarm went off at 4am. My husband was awake and so we woke Vikram and Emma. I paid someone in Weiser $50 by Paypal to secure our parking place, and we got on the road by 4:45am, panicked by the thoughts of traffic. We even forewent our planned McDonald’s breakfast stop.
It turned out we need not have panicked – the road was clear and we were parked by 6am. It also turned out there was acres of street parking and we didn’t need to pay. However, our parking host gave us some excellent local knowledge – firstly about a open coffee shop, and secondly about a great viewing spot. It turned out the local knowledge was worth the money on its own.
Once we parked, we found coffee and checked out Memorial Park which was full of vendors setting up booths. We partook of their $5 eclipse breakfast while the local news filmed, then wandered over to our chosen spot on the edge of town – the Park Intermediate School, arriving just in time to see the sun rise at 7am and hear a cockerel crow. We decided this was our spot, so returned to the car to collect my excessive amount of camera gear and supplies, and walked it all over (because it was $25 to park at the school).
Eclipse breakfast at Weiser, ID
Sunrise at our eclipse viewing location in Weiser, ID
I spent the next couple of hours taking practice shots of the sun, trying to perfect the focus point on the camera. A few more people joined us on the playing field, but it wasn’t very crowded. Then at 10:10am, the eclipse started. I had all the timings to hand thanks to my a handy app (Solar Eclipse Timer App). I started taking photos, and as the sun got further eclipsed we noticed some phenomena in the environment.
With 30 minutes to go, the app told us to pay attention to the temperature – it had indeed dropped – the sun didn’t feel scorching on our skin. Then we started to notice the shadows becoming sharper and the light becoming just plain weird. Vikram discovered he could see individual hairs in his shadow, prompting him to exclaim that he had “eclipse hair”. We made many pinholes to view the eclipse, and I kept taking photos.
Eclipse set up in the near empty field
Pinhole projection – courtesy Vikram
At around 11:20am, with a few minutes to go we noticed it getting considerably darker and cooler. The light was so strange that I started to feel a bit disoriented. Then my 5 minute alarm went off and I set up my little camera to record video. Then my two minute alarm went off and it was getting noticeably dark. A cockerel crowed nearby. In due course, Vikram spotted the shadow on the western horizon and the sun was just a sliver of gold on the back of the camera.
Then, at 11:25:19am, we reached totality.
Nothing could prepare me for the sight of the black hole in the sky where the sun used to be. People were yelling and pointing. The corona round the sun became visible, and was actually very bright. We noticed the horizon was a sunrise/sunset all around and the sky was definitely not black. The corona revealed itself to be at least two solar radii, with distinct features. I made sure to take all of this in before turning my attention to the camera.
With the solar filter off, I started on my prepared plan but I soon I realized I needed to work faster – stop the camera down more rapidly to get to the slower shutter speeds that would capture all the features of the corona, while remembering to pause to let the camera vibrations die down. I got about 3/4 through my range of shutter speeds before my app announced there were seconds to go before the end.
And then the light started to come back, people were yelling again, I kept clicking the shutter then we had to put the filters back on – the camera and our eyes! The light seemed to get brighter faster than it went dark, though of course it wasn’t, and my husband heard the confused cockerel crow again. After a few minutes people began to come over to each other to talk about their experience. One person wanted confirmation it was only 30 seconds long. It was 2 minutes 6 seconds.
Soon after, people began to disperse. I wanted to capture the whole eclipse so I put in a fresh memory card and kept taking semi-regular photos while trying to get content and photos to my work to post on our social media channels. At this point we noticed that things on our picnic blanket were damp with dew.
By 12:48pm the whole show was over. It was really hot again and so we packed up and lugged all the gear back across town, still high on the experience of totality.
Getting home was another challenge in itself, but that evening we celebrated a successful total solar eclipse and started thinking about the next one in Chile in 2019.
This time of year I am often asked “are you going home for Christmas?” and this brings up a good expat-worthy question – not about Christmas, but about “home”. Where is it?
Here’s the situation. I was born on the UK. I grew up mostly in the UK but as an adult I lived in Australia for more than a decade (I also spent 4 years as a child in Australia, so I’ve lived in the UK and Australia for nearly the same number of years). I am a British citizen but I’m also an Australian citizen. My husband is Australian. We got married there.
On the other hand we have lived in the US for nearly four years. We bought a house in Pasadena, CA, where we have lived and worked for nearly two years. You can see there is an array of options for ‘home’.
I’m not the first person to struggle with this question: expat articles are full of people asking the same thing. Here’s just one great example.
And it might be tempting to ask – does it matter? Well, clearly it does to me since I’m writing at 500 word post about it. It matters because, as an expat, it’s comforting to know where home is – were your base, your return point, is located. That’s the whole point of being ‘away’.
My natural reaction to “are you going home for Christmas?” is to think of Bournemouth, UK, as home – I would be going back to the house I grew up in, to my parents and extended family. This is the main contender for ‘home’.
After moving to Australia quite some years ago, I spent nearly five years getting over my homesickness for Bournemouth. But, for whatever reason (living in three different cities in twelve years, always being seen as British because of my accent), I never got deeply attached to Australia. Australia is not my home. Plus, Christmas when it’s 40C outside is just wrong.
That said, I would live in Australia over the UK any day of the week for so many reasons (not all of them having to do with the availability of Cherry Ripes). So, that’s confusing.
As it turns out, I have decided that Pasadena, right now, is home. It’s where my husband and I, as a family live. It’s strange but even though we have no plans to leave, I already miss living here. A lot.
And in some ways, treating this as home is strange – we are in immigration limbo right now, legal only for the length of the stamp in our passport (less than a year right now). And if everything went wrong with some disaster in LA, we’d be on the first plane out.
It’s also strange because by definition an expat shouldn’t really be living in the place they call home. But having thought about this regularly since we moved to the US, I have concluded that while I’m definitely still an expat (I’m not FROM here – and that’s a whole another blog post – because the answer to that question anyone’s guess), I have been away for so long that I don’t feel bound to any one place.
And this brings me to a conversation we recently had with the couple who saved us from going crazy when we first moved to the US. She is English, he is Canadian. We got to know them when we all lived in Cambridge, MA. Recently we went to their wedding in England and a few weeks ago we caught up with them in San Francisco as they passed through for a conference on the way back from their honeymoon in Argentina. (Are you following?) After contemplating the circumstances that brought us together for that weekend in San Francisco, we decided that the best way to describe expats like us is that we have “international lives” – the world is where we live and we intersect with our extended friends and family wherever we can.
With that in mind, we cannot predict when our international lives will take us to our next destination, so perhaps while we live almost exactly half way between Australia and Europe, a better question for next year might be, “are you coming to our home for Christmas?”
See you then?
Question – is home where you live? Are you going home for Christmas?
It’s our third Thanksgiving since moving to US and I think we hit the traditional high points this year: I ran a Turkey Trot in the morning, then we baked (made chestnut stuffing and made the Christmas Cake), and then we went round to a friend’s place for a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast.
I was up at 6am to get the train to Downtown LA for the Turkey Trot 5k. I met a colleague from work (who I’m sure wouldn’t want to be named) and we did the obligatory photos and had a walk about. It was cold COLD cold (for LA).
We set off at 8am from outside City Hall and were immediately faced with two significant hills. The second (which was actually part of the first hill, just further up) was almost one to walk, but since we’d only done about 0.5 miles I wasn’t going to give in. Luckily after about a mile it was downhill for a good amount of time. Then after the turnaround at 8th Street it was a long gentle (brutal) uphill to the finish line. It was especially discouraging to note my Garmin registered 3 miles we were still about 5 minutes from the finish line. Sure enough, according to me the course was an extra 0.3 miles long – which doesn’t sound like a lot, but after 3.1 miles it made a difference!
Having realized that it was the end of November and the Christmas Cake still hadn’t been made, I put it together when I got back from the run. Happily my mother-in-law is in town and was able to give it a stir (as per tradition), but the bad news is that I only soaked the fruit in brandy for 12 hours, instead of the usual 24, so I think the cake has come out a bit dry.
We also made chestnut stuffing (as per my grandfather’s mother’s recipe) to take to dinner. This dish calls for peeling a pound of hot chestnuts, but luckily my husband was on hand for this unpleasant task. The stuffing came out great.
Feast & Thanks
In the late afternoon we went to friend’s house for a Thanksgiving party/dinner. We had the opportunity to meet lots of new people, and catch up with others we had met at Christmas at the same house. We had an amazing meal, and the host gave an inspiring speech. She noted that the group of guests was diverse in many ways, and especially in national origin, and gave thanks for that and said, “let diversity define us, but also let it unite us.”
It was a fantastic day, and when we are recovered from all the food we are seriously contemplating tackling Black Friday shopping!
I started by emptying all the material out of the current bin. It looked largely identical to what I put in, just a little greyer. I found a nest of ants feeding off something, and a tiny patch of compost towards the middle back of the bin. I think that is the coolest spot and probably was dampest for longest. I found one worm. I think it was dead.
After using the aerator it was clear there was no compost!
Digging futher revealed a small patch of almost compost
Contents of the bin
The empty bin
The back of the box of compost starter, and other places on the internet, say to start the bottom layer with more woody materials to provide aeration. Luckily we are not short of twigs in the garden so I managed 6 inches of this quite easily. I repacked some of the old compost, and added some drier leaves I raked off the lawn the previous day.
Ready for the new bin
Woody material – I didn’t use the bigger branches
First layer of brown complete
Then I had to find some green material. Because the garden is so sparse I really had to look hard for places to prune. The first set was the gunnera leaves which were yellowing rapidly. The stalks were very ‘wet’ so they all went in too. Then I added a good handful of the compost starter. This variety is supposed to contain microbes or something.
Gunnera to the rescue
Add starter to green layer
Then it was a case of adding more brown (easy) and more green (harder). After each brown layer I added some water – not sure why, it just seemed like the thing to do.
Watering the brown material seemed like the thing to do
To obtain more green, I pruned around the bottom of the termite-eaten tree by the side of the house, and I pruned the privet bushes by the fence and I pruned the Chinese Elm growing along the side of the house. By the time I’d layered brown, green, and starter and used everything in the yard the bin was pretty respectably full. I finished with a layer of brown, and gave it a water…
Finding green was hard
The finished product
…then put the lid on.
I spent the rest of the day with my eyes streaming and nose running… luckily there doesn’t appear to have been any long term side-effects for me…
My goal is to add food scraps daily, covering them with handfuls of the old compost as I do, and to water when I remember. In a week or two I’ll stick the aerator thing in and see what’s going on.
Stay tuned for news of lovely brown compost!
Question: have you ever successfully made compost? Tell me how!