Friday, December 4, 2015

Thanksgiving takes place every year on the fourth Thursday of November, and is a huge celebration in the US - noticeably more so even than Christmas.  This year, we were very lucky again to be invited to share Thanksgiving with some friends, and loved experiencing the Big Meal with good company! 

Historically, Thanksgiving is based around family and friends gathering for a meal that commemorates the first Pilgrims, having fled the tyranny of the Church of England, finally making it through their first winter at Plymouth Rock.  However, the first "official" Thanksgiving celebration was proclaimed nationally by George Washington in 1789.  These days it marks the end of Fall and the beginning of the "Holiday Season" in the US.

With a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is obviously the star of the show.  Baked, roasted, deep fried (you can buy designated turkey fryers here), or grilled on the barbecue, there are inevitably thousands of recipes on how to cook the perfect turkey (much like the UK at Christmas).

However, the accompaniments are where the real calories start to build up...
- stuffing - very different to the traditional stuffing we know and usually love in the UK, this stuffing is meat-free and often made from cornbread and herbs ('erbs), onions and broth.
- mashed potatoes - blended to a soft puree with lashings of butter (no lumps here)
- gravy (similar but somehow different to UK gravy)
- sweet potatoes or candied yams (yum)

- cranberry sauce (lovely with fresh cranberries and orange peel)
- sweet corn - often served as a creamed corn "casserole"
- green bean casserole (a late 20th century additional which has become a favourite)

- and biscuits (repetitive question: is it a bread roll? is it a scone?)

Desserts are plentiful and generally come in pie form - Pumpkin, Sweet Potato, Pecan - you name it, it will of course be served large with lots of cream!

Allegedly, all these foods were either native to the Americas or were introduced as a new food to the European pilgrims when they arrived.  There is so much delicious food available for the meal that it is unsurprising that Americans supposedly eat more food on Thanksgiving Day than any other all year!  And leftovers are obviously de rigeur.

Other traditions on the day include:
1) The televised Macys Thanksgiving Parade - full of marching bands and parade floats based on themes (and advertising opportunities), with large character balloons and TV and music celebrities.   And Father Christmas arrives at the end of the parade.

2) The all important Ball Game - virtually every level of (American) football, from high school to college to professional games are held on Thanksgiving Day or the following Friday, Saturday or Sunday, a tradition upheld since the 1890s.

And once Thanksgiving itself is over, several other phenomenon automatically occur:

- Almost like the flick of a switch, Christmas seems to "happen" overnight - (AKA Holiday Season) - trees go up (yes, at the end of November, where they will often stay well into February - no 6th January curfew here), houses are decorated inside and out, and Christmas music is played on the radio.

- Shopping Madness - Black Friday stampedes start from at 6pm on Thanksgiving Thursday throughout the night and into Friday, followed by Small Business Saturday and then Cyber Monday - all adding up to shopping nightmares and a sensible decision to avoid malls and town centres at all costs and instead hibernate with Thanksgiving leftovers.

- Hunting Season starts, or more specifically, Deer Rifle Hunting Season - a whole other phenomenon!

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Day We Were Just Missed by a (very small) Tornado

It looks like we narrowly escaped a (mini) tornado this week!
The local "Storm Team" (has to be said in a loud, dramatic, American accent) predicted that we would have stormy weather, and it was pretty rainy and windy when we went to bed.  We woke up to a loud thump in the middle of the night, but with the power out it was difficult to see anything in the darkness outside, so we went back to sleep.

On waking the next morning, the source of the "thump" became apparent - several rather large boughs had detached themselves from the tree under which both our cars were parked, and bounced off the bonnets, leaving several small (and large) dents...  Hmmm, not good.


It was only as the day went on and we were out and about that the extent of the damage nearby became clearer.  Our main road into Lancaster was closed - because a rather large hole had been ripped into the side of a nearby warehouse, and insulation and twisted metal sidings were now strewn across the the dual carriageway and main road, and wrapped around the trees and bushes.  A nearby farmhouse, with a distinctive tree-lined avenue leading to it, was no longer surrounded by trees but by piles of ragged trunks and snapped branches.  


The woods a short walk from our house on the edge of our estate, now had a noticeable path of woodland wreckage through them.  And a cornfield at the bottom of the hill had a very evident path of snapped corn stalks running through it.

The local news that evening confirmed it - due to the "twisting" evident in some of the tree trunk wreckage, it had definitely been a tornado.  Luckily, no one had been hurt, just some nasty property damage and wreckage to clear up.  They rated it just an EF1 - "moderate damage".


And to think we nearly slept through it all!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Niagara on the Lake

All too soon, it was time to leave Niagara and head to our next destination, Toronto.  But we took a slight detour on the way.

We headed through the state park, following a popular bike route along Niagara River that leads to the small but perfectly formed Niagara wine region.  It reminded us a lot of our trip to Margaret River in South East Australia several years ago.  We stopped briefly at the Whirlpool Rapids and the Devils Hole Rapids, then drove on through lots of lovely vineyards and towards the town of Niagara on the Lake.

This was a gem of a place - a little town surrounded by lovely little boutique wineries (vineyards), with random names like Frogpond Farm, Coyote's Run and Stonechurch.  We discovered the sweet delights of ice-wine (harvested during the winter months when the grapes are still frozen and giving a sweeter and more intense flavour to the wine). Obviously it would have been rude not to have stopped at a couple of the vineyards on our way through and sampled (and purchased) their fare...

The town itself was very pretty - flower-filled streets and lots of boutique shops and cafes / restaurants lining the main street.  Also, possibly the prettiest and most under-stated Starbucks I've seen in a while.  I can imagine it would be a blissful place to retire to...

Then, after a spot of home-cooked lunch in one of the vineyards, we were back on the Expressway and headed for Toronto.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Room with a View

This was the view that greeted us from our hotel room at Niagara.  Pretty amazing, huh? That's obviously the Horseshoe Falls on the right, and (unknown to me), the American Falls and the Bridal Falls in the background on the left (US side), all three of which collectively make up "Niagara Falls".

We took a late afternoon stroll along the waterfront, taking advantage of the light and lack of crowds to get some photos.

The sheer power of the Horseshoe Falls, and the volume of water continuously pouring off the edge was awe-inspiring.  We got our first glimpse of the famous "Maid of the Mist"" (US side) and "Hornblower" (Canadian side) boats which perfectly synchronised their alternating tours to and from the falls every 15 minutes.  We also got our first taste of "Niagara Rain" - perfectly dry pavements at the Falls themselves, and then 250m down the road it "rained" - from a fine spray to a full-on down-pour, as the "mist" from the Falls fell to earth!

The following day we did the full tourist thing.  First was a "Walk Beneath the Falls" - a tour through the tunnels beneath the Horseshoe Falls, looking out onto the full force of the ever-tumbling water, and also a glimpse into the brave Victorians who dug the original tunnels. The tour ended with a balcony walk at the bottom of the Falls.  Very wet - hence the lovely yellow ponchos!

Who knew that Niagara had a tackier side?  We found it when we walked further round to Clifton Hill and fell upon a tourist trap filled with amusement arcades, chain fast food restaurants, about a dozen haunted houses (why?), an upside down house (again, why?) and the "Niagara Sky Wheel".  We didn't linger long...   But we did have a lovely meal at the Wein Keller restaurant / craft winery round the corner.  On the walk back to the hotel we could see the ghostly plume of Niagara mist rising into the sky.

We couldn't go all the way to Niagara without experiencing the boat tour, so we donned the compulsory ponchos once again.  From the boat we got a much better view of the American Falls, and then right up to the Horseshoe Falls themselves, and a proper soaking from the roaring waters.  Impossible to keep anything dry, including a camera lens, even with the ponchos!  

Finally, to get some proper high rise views, we went to the top of the Skylon Tower for a 360 viewpoint and some good panorama opportunities:

Friday, September 4, 2015

Road Trip!

In pursuit of our ongoing goal to explore as much of the USA as possible during our stay, Hubby planned us a road trip at the end of August (hence the radio silence for the last couple of weeks).  The initial wisdom of this was debatable, given that me+hubby+driving *anywhere* generally doesn't reveal the best of our personalities.  However, game for a challenge, and with some amazing sights promised and a bag full of snacks for the journey, we were off.

Driving any distance in the USA isn't really like driving in the UK (even apart from the whole wrong-side-of-the-road thing).  Speed limits are really slow compared to what we're used to in the UK - 55mph being the average speed limit on most of the roads we travelled.  Hence, it seems to take ages to get anywhere, and often the roads are single lane too (if you avoid the even more boring expressways).  Our journey was only about 350 miles, but was set to take us about 6 1/2 hours...

It was a murky misty morning when we set off, and the rain seemed set to follow us all the way, which made the views and the driving a little bit boring at times.  There were also a lot of lorries on the road (probably 80% of the traffic we encountered), although to be fair, most of the roads appeared completely empty - a little disconcerting to start with!

We quickly left behind the flat farms and barns and cornfields with looming black clouds overhead, and headed north towards the state border with New York.  The landscape became more wooded, and we gained height to about 2,250 feet. Slightly concerning, we passed road signs warning about bears (didn't see any :-().  We passed through small towns with recognisable names like Grimsby and Bradford (a little surreal), and also slightly odder names like Burning Well, Brandy Camp and Kill Buck.

We passed through what looked like a charming little town (in a brief break of sunshine) called Ellicottville - obviously a ski destination in the winter, with lots of winter lodges and snow mobile signs, and you could just about see the chair lifts through the woods above us.  (Not sure I fancy the drive there in the winter, though!).

Eventually, we reached Buffalo, close to the US / Canada border and things became much more industrial looking.  We crossed Peace Bridge, and with it the Canadian border, into Ontario and passport control. Magically, as we crossed the bridge, the sun made a welcome appearance, and pretty much stayed with us through the rest of our travels!

From there, it was a relatively short drive via the Queen Elizabeth Expressway (Canada feels more familiar already!) to our fab hotel, overlooking Niagara Falls.  More adventures to follow!

Friday, August 14, 2015

One Whole Year

So our (specifically my) first year anniversary of living in the USA is here.  I can't believe it was a whole year ago that me and the cats boarded the plane at Heathrow and flew into Philly (hubby had already been here 4 weeks by then).  It seems to have gone by so quickly.  And yet, when I look back, we've seen and done so much in that time.

On the adventurous side (for us, at least) we've travelled near and far, exploring some of local Lancaster and also going further afield to see the sights of Boston, Baltimore, Washington DC and Florida.  We've made like tourists and visited local places of interest, and enjoyed glimpses into the lives of the local Amish people.

On the practical side, we've navigated the challenges of paperwork and processes and queues in order to get IDs, social security numbers and work visas.  We've re-taken our driving tests after twenty years.  We've found doctors and vets and dentists, learnt new insurance language, missed having a credit history, and appreciated even more the benefits and simplicity of the NHS compared to insurance providers.

We have got used to driving on the right (wrong) side of the road.  We collect our post from the mailbox down the street.  We order appetisers and entrĂ©es and think nothing of tipping 20%.  Walking the cats every evening has become part of our regular routine.  We listen to the noisy ciccadas and watch the magical fireflies on balmy summer evenings.

We notice (and sometimes look forward to) the not-so-subtle changes of the seasons (compared to the regular grey rain, mist and occasional drizzle we're used to).  From the ice and snow and sub-zero temperatures of winter, to the green lushness and fertile landscapes of the local farms in spring, to the humidity and sunshine and fierce heat and freezing air-conditioning of summer, to the cooler climes and autumn colours and endless (endless!) leaves of "fall".

Do we miss our family and friends back home?  Of course we do, but email and skype and visits and good 'ol snail mail help to make the transition easier.  Do I still want to return home at some stage?  Yes, I do, eventually, but for the time-being we're enjoying the benefits of a different lifestyle here in the US, and life is pretty good...