Posted in Life, Los Angeles

Where is home?

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’.

Bournemouth - never gets old
Bournemouth – never gets old

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.

Mmmm cherry goodnesss.
Mmmm cherry goodness.
Brisbane circa 2006 - my favourite place in Australia
Brisbane circa 2006 – my favourite place in Australia

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.

Can't go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.
Pasadena: I don’t think you can go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.

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.

The obvious place to go for dinner...
The obvious place to go for dinner…

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?

Posted in Life, Los Angeles

Delivering Christmas: what I learned as a driver helper

To protect the innocent, this post is written without mentioning which company or any names or specific locations. I hope you understand.

I want to tell you about the time I really learned something. Who here has ever thought twice about the guy (or girl) who drives their delivery truck? No? Me either. However, after two weeks working as a seasonal driver helper, let me show you how it looked from the inside.

My day usually starts at 2pm, half way through his day. “How was your morning?” I ask, as he picks me up from the shopping center. The reply varies, and is always dependent on how the truck has been loaded. Some days it’s loaded well, all the business deliveries have been done, and he can already see we’ll be finished early (7pm in the weeks leading up to Christmas). Other days the truck is a mess and he hasn’t been able to find packages – which means we have to retrace some of the morning’s steps. These days are the most frustrating for him, and with every stop, with every unfound package, the frustration grows.

We set off loudly from the shopping center, gears grinding. We hit the road to one of his last business stops for the day. “These two are for office 207, you remember where it is?” I do, having delivered there almost every day the past week. “Get a signature”.

As I’m heading up the stairs at a brisk pace, I see one of the packages is actually for a different office in the same building. Since I don’t know how to work The Board (an electronic device which tells the driver what goes where, and is also what you sign on delivery), I deliver just one to 207. Soon enough, I hear him hurrying up the stairs behind me – he’s delivering to another office – I explain the problem and get a “good catch” from him. Much bleeping from The Board later, packages have been delivered and signatures obtained.

Next stop is a bank, and this is a pick up. “Wait here”. I wait, some customers see me hanging about, one comments that it’s nice to see a female in my role (she mistakes me for the driver). The driver comes back with a couple of chocolates – a perk of the job.

Schools are next. They always seem to have heavy packages so it’s time to get out the hand truck (a trolley). I failed miserably the first time I used this tool: there’s nothing quite like dropping 20 packages in the middle of a shopping center parking lot on your first day. Anyway, I’m getting the hang of it now, and the driver is infinitely patient. After loading it, I struggle up to the school, back in through the door and carefully deposit the boxes (a technique I also had to learn the hard way).

The next stop is at a ridiculously complicated apartment building. The instructions I get are detailed but I still have to do several laps before I find the right apartments. ‘Wasting’ time by being inefficient is an anathema to this company and the driver. I try not to take too long, but I’m assured it’s better to deliver the package to the right place, than to take it back to the truck, or worse, deliver it to the wrong place.

With businesses and apartments done, we’re off to residential and we’re soon in a rhythm. I deliver, he finds the next package. He always parks right in front of the most direct route to the front door. During daylight it’s easier – you can see steps, sprinkler holes, and Christmas lights wires. The routine is simple: drop, knock and run.

By the end of the day my legs ache and I’m filthy and sweaty, but I’ve had a really good workout.

The driver knows the neighborhood exceptionally well, and many of the people in it. He knows at which doors not to ring the bell (baby sleeping), which dogs are friendly (thanks to a doggie treat), where clients prefer their packages to be left. He cares about his customers, and they appreciate it. Many people wave, and some even stop him in the street.

He also has an amazing array of stories. One time when it was raining he recognized a wet and miserable dog several miles from home. The dog also recognized the truck and was very happy to be taken back to its owner. Another time he came across a couple of kids preparing to skateboard down a hill in front of him. One of the kids braved it, fell off his skateboard and broke his arm, badly. As the kid tried to get up and realized his arm was broken, the driver called 911 and stayed until the ambulance arrived. And once, he tells me, a lady in hysterics asked (nay, demanded) him to get rid of a snake in her yard. Seeing it was a harmless variety he pulled his best Steve Irwin impression and duly released it away from the house.

My last day, Christmas Eve, was spectacular. I came in early, and all day we got gifts from customers, people let us out in traffic, and thanked us. In addition, the postie (mail carrier) bought us lunch, I only dropped one box, there were no misloaded packages, my feet didn’t hurt too much, we saw a fabulous sunset, and, best of all, the truck was empty and we had our earliest ever finish at 6pm. And, the driver did all of this after twisting his ankle first thing in the morning.

And so, what I learned from this experience is this: your delivery driver is (a) a person and (b) very important. If you are lucky enough to have such an excellent neighborhood ambassador as my driver, I ask you to say thank you to him or her when you see them, because you never know when you might need a Steve Irwin stand-in to lend you a hand.

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Question: What’s the name of your delivery driver?

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Posted in Life

Making a Christmas Cake in the US

“What’s a Christmas Cake?”, ask my American friends.  Aside from the obvious (a cake eaten at Christmas), this British cake is made primarily of fruit, and brandy.  In the 10+ years I lived in Australia, and the nearly 3 years I’ve lived in the US, I’ve found that finding the ingredients to make a ‘proper’ Christmas cake can be difficult.  I still have not found anywhere I can buy a cake ‘frill’ – i.e. wrap, decoration (something like this).

The recipe I use comes from the book pictured below, and of course, it makes the best cake ever.

Best Christmas Cake recipe inside!
Best Christmas Cake recipe inside!

To help those Brit expats in the US looking for ingredients/substitutions I present here my version of this recipe – an ‘expat-proof’ US Christmas cake.  Photos are at the end of the post.

Ingredients for cake

  • 8 oz butter
  • 8 oz soft brown sugar (to soften rock hard sugar, put it in a bowl with a moist paper towel for a few hours/overnight)
  • 6 small eggs (no such thing in the US, use big eggs)
  • 9 oz self raising flour
  • 5 oz plain flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of mixed spice (no such thing in the US, use Pumpkin Pie Spice from Trader Joe’s – it’s basically the same thing)
  • 2 oz blanched almonds, chopped
  • 2 lb mixed fruit: sultanas, raisins, currants (of course, sultanas don’t appear to exist here, so just raisins and currants)
    • including 2 oz mixed peel if desired (not sure if it exists in the US – based on my other experiences, I’m going to say it doesn’t).
  • 8.5 fl oz brandy (cheap). Soak the fruit in the brandy for at least 24 hours before making the cake.
  • 4 oz glacé cherries (maraschino cherries)
  • lemon – 1/2 juice, all rind
  • 2 tablespoons black treacle (doesn’t exist, use molasses)

So the recipe is essentially as follows: cream butter and sugar, add eggs one at a time with a little sifted flour, add rest of dry ingredients, add rest of wet ingredients, add everything else.  Allow everyone in the house to stir the mixture and make a wish (very important).

Put the batter in a 9″ round or 8″ square tin. Bake in oven at 140C/285F for about 3 hours.

Ingredients for Icing

  • 1 lb marzipan (something else I couldn’t find in California – but did find in Massachusetts – so I got some from the internet which arrived JUST in time).
  • Apricot jam/preserve
  • 6 cups of icing sugar (confectioners/powdered sugar).

A few days before Christmas, smear the cake with the jam, roll out marzipan about 1/4 in thick and cover the cake, then add the first layer of icing.  The next day (at least), when the icing has hardened, add another layer.  Decorate if you can.

Voila! Merry Christmas!

Christmas Cake!
Christmas Cake!

Here are the ingredients and the recipe: