Thursday, 26 January 2012

Once again, back in the USA!
Buffalo NY Jan 2012
Every visit to the USA only seems to confirm my already prejudicial viewpoint. I promised myself that I would never fly long distances again, and certainly not to the USA. But Siski’s impending birth gave me little choice; she needed help in the immediate post-parturition phase, at least. Although the plane across ‘The Pond’ was not full, and I could bag a couple of seats to myself, the flight seemed interminably long and tedious.
Arriving at JFK in New York, I had to join the long queue through immigration and customs. The notices informed passengers that the officials who vetted them would be their first experience of the US, and they would be friendly and courteous. Well, the latter maybe, but with the former they must be expressing a sense of irony after all: the officials seem bored out of their minds and singularly lack any vestige of humour; try cracking a joke at your peril.
After an hour, I was through unscathed, but still faced a four-hour wait for my connection to Buffalo. Although this is the most prestigious US airport, it had the distinct feel of a rather outdated post war building; not exactly scruffy, but slightly shabby at the edges. The shops and cafes all seem to have been transported from one of those small town urban shopping malls, with the attractiveness of aged prostitutes. I forewent the culinary joys on offer and stilled my hunger with a stale roll I’d brought off the plane. There was nowhere I could sit and be out of earshot of the ubiquitous ceiling mounted TV screens or the regular announcements warning everyone not to take items from strangers into our luggage etc. Nevertheless, I tried to doze. The time approached for my flight, but we were then told that it had been delayed – oh the joys of flying! Eventually, I arrived at around 11.00pm local time, 3.00am home time.

Siski and Jose live on the outskirts of Buffalo. Not an unpleasant place, but like almost any other ‘middle class’ suburb in the USA: long streets of large, clapboard houses in ‘colonial style’, with largish gardens (actually just grassed areas) with no fences or hedges, and each house plonked alongside the next, as if on an open stage with no privacy from each other.
Although their little street is quiet, the nearby main street, with all the shops, is a six-lane highway with continual traffic and with no central reservation – a nightmare to cross. Apart from the odd jogger or dog-walker, you see no one out and about; only cars. No wonder there is so much obesity. Apart from the numerous pizza outlets and other fast food joints to cheaply satisfy your hunger, there are drive-in pharmacies and drive-in banks, so why bother getting out of your car at all?
They have so much land in the USA, that towns just spread out, which means not just acres of monotonous suburbia, but shopping streets that go on for ever as well. It’s impossible from Siski’s place to simply walk around the corner and do most of your shopping; the main street goes on for miles and miles.
The local supermarket is just that – super sized – like an enormous factory warehouse with so much choice that you are mesmerized by the superfluity. There are even British and German sections where you can buy specialist products. However, they sell beer but no wines or spirits. And even to buy a couple of bottles of beer you ‘may be asked to provide and ID’ to show you are an adult, but rather than be selective, everyone is challenged, so Jose and I, both with greying hair, are asked to show that we are over 18!
Walking past the bakery department in the store, I saw all the staff doing synchronised group exercises on the spot – felt for a moment I might be in North Korea.
As I’ve said previously the US is a land of incredible contradictions. The house on the corner near Siski’s has Ron Paul posters in their garden – he’s the right-wing libertarian Republican presidential hopeful. People might be right wing politically, but can be as friendly as apple pie on a personal level. One neighbour offered to lend Siski their car and offered to take Lili while Siski was in hospital; the couple across the road just popped in to ask if it would be Ok for them to cook a meal and bring it across tomorrow, so that Siski wouldn’t need to cook. That would be rare in Britain, I suspect. The same family has their own personal, petrol-driven snow blower to clear their small drive! Almost everyone greets you and even tried to strike up conversation – great if you want contact, but can be annoying when you just want your own peace and quiet.
Williamsville, the Buffalo suburb where Siski lives, prides itself on being ‘a village’ and relishes the connotation, displayed on every shop and sign, although it is really only a suburban corridor between Buffalo proper and elsewhere.
Lili loves her new little sister and spends long periods just gazing at her and holding her hand or stroking her. I have now become demoted to second-best friend. She trots off to bed obediently for her nap every midday even though she is not at all tired, and can spend half an hour or more ‘reading’ aloud to herself. Constanza sleeps most of the day and night and only seems to be discomfited if her nappy is full. You would hardly know she is here most of the time; she just sleeps quietly in her cot in the living room, oblivious of the daily noises around her.
Weather here now seems like in Britain – after heavy snowfall the other day and very cold temp., today is drizzly and very mild and the snow is melting rapidly. Despite rain, went for a short walk. Despite tis being built-up suburbia, only five minutes from Siski is a ‘creek’ i.e. small but fast-flowing river, and some rough woodland. This morning had lovely views of three large deer at the edge of the wood – they stood for a few moments just watching me – then excellent views of blue jays, cardinals, song sparrows and black-capped chickadees; also mourning doves, an American robin and excellent views of a lovely belted kingfisher. There were plenty of woodpeckers about: northern yellow-shafted flicker and hairy woodpeckers. Lots of grey squirrels, of course, and rabbits. So no shortage of wildlife, despite it being part of a big city.
Today the belted kingfisher was on a small pond in the park and flew back and forth with annoyance once we approached. We got excellent views. A number of American goldfinches with song sparrows and chickadees in the park. It’s trying to snow again and the temperature has dropped. Lili and I went for a short walk but couldn’t walk along the river because it is now in full flood after the melt and has flooded the path. Lili is good company and sings songs along the way and makes no complaints.
Yesterday afternoon Becky, Siski’s friend (her son used to go to the same nursery as Lili) popped in. She immediately offered to clear the snow from our driveway, while her daughter played with Lili. She then came inside for a drink and chatted, or should I say kept up a fast flow of chatter, almost a monologue. Why do so many US-Americans talk so much, and in such loud voices and at such a speed that you have a headache afterwards? Siski reckons they talk so much and so loud because they are mostly full of self confidence, engendered in school from an early age by being encouraged to talk to the class. Even Lili does it in nursery – every child has to bring something in each week and talk about it.
Then the neighbour popped in and brought us our evening meal, plus presents for Lili and the baby! They’d cooked us chicken pie with broccoli and brownies as a desert. It’s surprising what they spend on presents, too, 40-100 dollars is not excessive; very generous.
Friday 20 Jan. Had a good fall of snow once again yesterday evening. Today bright and sunny so Siski let Lili miss school and we both went tobogganing. We had the little park and slope all to ourselves and had great fun sledding up and down. Lili even ventured down by herself. Tomorrow I will have the dubious pleasure of accompanying Lili to a friend’s birthday party at ‘Rolly Polly’s.
Rolly Pollys turns out to be a great place for children, founded by an entrepreneurial couple (one a former teacher) who found that children didn’t know what to do when they had break-time at school and had become so sedentary, so they came up with this idea of making a business out of giving children exercise. It is a spacious children’s gym with bouncy castle, trampolines, pits full of foam rubber, ladders and swings etc, so the children spend an hour really expending physical energy, then have a piece of birthday cake and watch the birthday girl opening her presents before going home. The birthday cake looked like something out of a science fiction book – a large slab of dark, gooey cake covered in the most vile multi-coloured icing. The children all get given a bag to take home with a sugar lolly and bits and pieces! No wonder they all grow up to be obese. The birthday girl got given numerous presents – Barbie dolls, dressing up clothes and other assorted ‘cheap’ toys. She was totally overwhelmed by it all.
The bottle recycling point at the supermarket is called the ‘Beverage container redemption centre’. Sound like a place on a Biblical college campus!
Today, Sunday, we all drove out to the Iroqois wildlife reserve, but apart from a far-off view of a bald eagle and a few more Am. Goldfinches and Am tree sparrows, nothing to be seen or heard!
Lili is fascinated by the song that Siski maintains my mother sang to her and Gali at bath time (can’t imagine it!). It’s an amusing Cockney music hall song, called, ‘Your baby has gone down the plughole’ or as it is really sung (and Lili does a great imitation to the amusement of all): Yer baeby ‘as gorn daan the plug’ole!
Monday 23rd, the day before my return to London, and my toothe ache was getting worse, so decided to visit Siski’s dentist. It was about a mile away, the weather was dry and mild, so I walked not that I had much option, as Jose was at work and there is no public transport on this route). I didn’t see another walker all the way. The dentist was very friendly, wanted to know where I was from and then spoke about Dickens. He did three x rays and located a rotting wisdom tooth which he recommended extracting, so I decided to wait till I got home. He said he could email the x-rays to my dentist if they wished and then gave me a photo copy of the x ray and refused to take any payment!
On my way home, again no one else about, I heard a police siren and the cop car slid alongside me and the bullet-headed cop got out. I thought I was going to be questioned again simply because I was walking – an odd thing to do in this country – but he wanted to know if I’d been ringing on someone’s door bell. I said, ‘no’ but I did see two dubious-looking characters who were ringing a door bell, a block down the road. He replied that they weren’t there when he drove by. Not my problem, I thought, but didn’t say so, as his face had a distinctly unhumorous mien. He demanded my ID and where I lived, then to back in his car and drove off, without so much as a thank you. The contrast of the USA once again: generosity and friendliness vs. stony-faced officialdom.
At the check-in desk at the airport in Buffalo I asked if I could check my bags through to London. The lady said OK but could I tell her where London is!

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