Friday, 8 April 2011

April 2011

I'm absolutely cream-crackered but sweetly content.  Gardeners out there will recognise the feeling.  I've just spent most of the day in the garden beginning the clearing up after six months abandonment.  It is always a cross between the Secret Garden and Miss Haversham's when we get back but at least when you do it there is a huge payback. It was so hot today - actually summer temperatures (around 18C) so absolutely no excuse not to get on with it.

Had we not had six breaks in our cold water pipes and a broken boiler thanks to the -17C experienced in Bury (the repairs were finished the day we were flying home!), I would have thought you lot were telling porky pies.  Clearing the veggie beds today I dug up proper radishes; only the slug damage prevented them from going on our salad.  There were half a dozen potatoes all sprouting into life and showing above the soil and the land cress that I’d left to rot down over the winter to improve the soil was eighteen inches high and in flower.  We have rhubarb almost ready to pull and so far I have only one dead plant to report.  This is an incredible result following the winter the UK had again this year.

Sitting down to do this at last I realise I am missing three months - nothing new there then.  Having had a slightly discontented time in Naples (just me, not Ken) it actually feels more like I have actually lost six months.  

Just looking at my collection of disconnected reminder-words on scraps of paper not a lot springs to mind:  I suspect that won’t stop me.

... so back to January........

On the 7th we took off for Daytona Beach for an overnighter to do a Dollhouse Fair in Port Orange the following day.  Note the American/English difference – dollhouse in America, doll’s house in the UK.

The journey from Naples to Daytona along the back roads was really interesting as we got to see the true heart of Florida which seems to be hidden by the beaches, Disney and general tourist life of the State.  

The heartland was actually populated first, mostly by ranchers and quite a lot of those beginnings remain.  I wonder if, like me, you hear ranch and think ‘big farm’.  It is difficult to imagine the size of some of these properties.  One of the ones to recently sell out in various ways was The Babcock Ranch. This was 100,000 acres and valued in 2004 at $460,000,000.  Yes, that's millions; I didn't make a mistake with the zeros.

As always with this sort of thing the owners might be as rich as Croesus but the workers were always dirt-poor and seemingly still are. The shacks and shanties which you see along the route take some believing in this day and age.  Think ‘Winter’s Bone’ – a movie which if you haven’t seen you must try to get on DVD.  I suspect many of the original crackers* have given way to a new immigrant population.  This is visible as you drive through the very small towns.  Almost all of them are Spanish in language and content. Many ranches now, of course, have become orange groves. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The sort of endemic poverty is underlined by the huge billboard advertising along the route such as one declaring 'medical - no insurance? no problem' and one that we did find astounding 'Don't abandon your baby'.

I seemed to have made a note of loads of signs that simply made me smile such as the Yacht Club - hundreds of miles inland in Arcadia - that proudly stated its name as - The Red Neck Yacht Club.

A ranch carried a sign under its name – just in case you didn't know what a ranch was - 'Commercial cattle'.  This was a double whammy - what other kind of cattle are there?  Pets?  

Then there was the demolition company called Balls Wreckers, and the Baitesville Casket Company had me a tad worried as clearly Norman is alive and well and running exactly the right business in Florida.

I warn you this will be a long list as it was a long journey and Americans seem to have a knack for 'naming' and, no, I don't think they are deliberately ironic.

Stetson University - where presumably they all done Stetson's for graduation.  A bar actually named - A Wild Western Irish Bar, which doesn't bear thinking about on a Saturday night.  Goat’s milk fudge and ice cream - mmm yummy, if a little smelly and a zillion corny altered spellings such as Rest-a-Whyle Restaurant (why?).

Ken, of course managed to find a selection of fifteen hand-dipped ice creams en route, way out in the back of beyond at a glorified truck stop with a couple of huge smokers for ribs.  We managed to get to that place three times!

Our motel in Daytona was all of $59 and we had a $50 coupon so $9 for overnight and breakfast for two can't be bad. For this we were right on the strip on the beach and pretty much in the centre, not to mention a swimming pool and hot tub.

We did the obligatory drive along Daytona Beach which is a great experience especially when you get it pretty much to yourself as we did.  It was very windy but not especially freezing.

On Saturday (the next day) we went to the Dollhouse Fair.  It was a small but interesting group of mostly fairly amateur makers of stuff.  I got a few bits and bobs but it didn't take very long to get round so we set off to find lunch.  We ended up at a place called Booths Brewery.  This was the equivalent of a British pub with meals. I had green fried tomatoes for a starter; I think you have the feel of the place now.  I was amused to see a newspaper hanging on the stall door in the ladies (to read?).  There was Listerine mouthwash and plastic cups by the washbasin - presumably so you don't go home reeking of booze?

Back to Naples and the chores such as an oil change on the car - would you believe $9.95 plus tax for the following?
  • 5 qt oil
  • new filter
  • 25 point inspection
  • 4 tyre rotation
  • check brake pads

We do miss our Naples bargains.

On the 13th along with Carole and Ted and following fish and chips at the British Pub (Mercato) we got to see the raved about movie for this year - The King's Speech.  I totally agree it was a beautifully delineated piece but I thought it made a TV drama-documentary rather than a movie.  It felt very insubstantial to me.

Phil and Sue arrived 15th January for their stay with us until 17th February.  They had already had a week in Orlando.  We filled our time with the usual pool, beach, bikes, restaurants, movies, shops, concerts in the park and the occasional library offerings.  I did get a strange glimpse of the future at one of these soirées.  ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ delivered a very talented (ex pro) dancer/singer twirling her way through a very wide repertoire.  The weird thing was I swear she was probably 70 plus.  Beautifully surgically adjusted but ‘old' never-the-less.  I had this panic moment of feeling I was in an old people's home watching the Friday entertainment being done by someone older than me. Déjà future!

The chaps got in a visit to the Swamp Buggy races trial which they thoroughly enjoyed - little boys, home made vehicles, competition and ..... mud - could it get any better?

We all also pootled off to the Everglades Sea Food Festival which I've seen on TV every year and have never been.  For a foodie it all looked splendid..... on TV ...............  but in real life not an experience to repeat.  It was like going to Blackpool Pleasure Beach on a Bank Holiday Monday, but with retro American bikers.  Still, as they say, we’ve done it.  Tick the box.

By the 11th March we had all decamped to Orlando for a week.  The next day I got to do a morning at a fair sized Miniatures show at the Radisson while the others entertained themselves elsewhere and collected me for lunch.  We got all kinds of coupons and offers for attending a time share presentation amongst which were tickets for a dinner-show - Arabian Nights.  The horses were beautiful; after that - least said soonest mended. The show was OK but the food was literally inedible, not to mention unidentifiable.  Had we paid good money for that we'd have been a bit cross.  I'm not an Orlando fan - the Disney thing isn't my cup of tea at all not because I'm an old fogey or perhaps it is because I've always been an old fogey.  

Phil and Sue flew home on the 17th and we left Orlando the next day having decided to go home via Tarpon Springs.  This was a bit of a detour but so worth it.  Before that Ken took me to the best miniatures shop in the world – I am sure it really is.  Ron’s!  A sweet, smallish sort of add on to what I assume is his home (check out the photos).  Ken sat on the porch in the sun with his book and I lost the morning in there.  Thousands of tiny perfect things – all of which I wanted, few of which I could afford.

Tarpon Springs itself turned out to be charming:

The Sponge Industry helped build a Greek Community that is now famous not only for the worlds finest sponges, but for some of the finest Greek Restaurants, Markets, and Bakeries in the Country. What you will find at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks: Greek Restaurants, Bakeries, Natural Sponges, Sponge Diving, Tours, Sightseeing Cruises, Unique Greek and Florida Souvenirs, lots of Shopping, Jewelry, Art galleries, Aquarium, and Live Entertainment

For once the travel blurb is totally accurate.  It is still an interesting little town even though it is touristy because it is still a working town too.  It had the really odd feeling of actually being in Greece.  All the men sat around smoking and nattering and the women were presumably hidden away in the kitchens.  Best of all though here I had, without doubt or exaggeration, the best restaurant meal ever – any time, in any country.  Wonderful restaurant called Hella’s.  The building itself was the crazy mix of gods, and seashells and blue and white tile and gold trims that only the Greeks can do.  Ken and I shared a $22 taster plate (not a meze) of about six main course items – each one as good as the other.  Even the stuffed vine leaves were the very best I’ve ever eaten by a mile.  I have just made Pasticcio today and, believe me, they would have tossed mine in the bin and laughed in Greek.

Doll house miniatures also took us to Boca Raton for a day trip.  It clearly wasn’t stand-out in any way as I really can’t recall the place, a meal or anything else!

Returning from an extended trawl of the shops on the 19th March we caught sight of the Super moon.  It was actually sort of unnerving being so huge and red.  It looked exactly like a Naples setting sun but in a black (!) sky.  Apparently it was the closest to the earth on that day for 18 years.  I don’t suppose I got to witness the 1993 one in quite the same way in Bury.

On the 28th our farewell meal wasn’t exactly pushing the boat out as we both decided we needed to do a farewell to our favourite baby back ribs at our local Mel’s Diner before returning to the UK.

29th and winging our way home.  We had a superb trip back; Ted gave us a lift to the airport, no flight delays and just twenty minutes to change flights in Atlanta, so no hanging around the airport.  We ultimately arrived back in a Manchester that wasn’t too cold and Phil and Sue collected us.  ‘Home’ was sort of wet and grey but Oh – the daffodils, magnolias and cherry blossom made up for it.

So we’ve been back a little over a week and the charm hasn’t worn off yet for me despite the usual can’t find anything, cleaning and gardening.  We’ve managed two meals out with chums, a garden centre, a bit-of-a-do, bought a new fridge and recording gizmo for the television, sorted the insurance claim and booked me on a flight to Calgary in May, so we seem to be all systems go.

I’ll try and post some photos tomorrow.

Footnote the next day:  

Nice/nasty surprise today - I climbed into every pair of long trousers I possess in turn as it was raining and I needed to go to Tesco.  I discovered that seven pairs no longer fit (by a mile) and so are on their way to the charity shop. I seem to have lost two sizes in weight since being here last.  I promise you it isn't an actual diet; I just decided I would cut out all snacky rubbish food and only eat my proper meals.  I am 21 lbs lighter and as I said smaller than when we left for Naples.  The downside is that not a many of my clothes fit me.  I now only own three pairs of long trousers.  I hope I have some crops that will do; I haven't tried those yet.  Indeed two of the pairs being chucked away are actually brand new because I bought them in Naples when we first arrived to bring back here so they never even made it to being worn.

So, those of you who actually see me this summer please ignore the fact I seem to be always wearing the same clothes because I will be!  I am still dropping two pounds a month (a very slow business) but until that stops and I settle into the weight I am eating for I'm not inclined to go and buy more stuff.

In addition to this I've had my hair chopped very short - maybe that accounts for the weight loss?

*The rugged pioneers that settled the area were called "Florida Crackers." It is believed that they got this nickname because of the cracking sound their whips made as they herded cattle.