What's this blog about then...

I am an Englishman living in California, specifically in Los Angeles. My move here was recent enough that everything still seems exciting and new, but long enough ago that I know my SoCal from my NorCal, who Kobe Bryant is, and what to do in an earthquake.

So this blog will be a stream of anecdotes, stories and observations on life in California - through the eyes of an Englishman. Why CalEnglishman? Just because there seems to be a belief here, particularly within government, that putting "Cal" in front of any project or department identifies it with California in a zippy way.

We have 'CalFresh' 'CalBar', 'CalCPA', 'CalGrant', Cal this, Cal that. You may not know that, before California appended its omnipresent prefix, you got fat if you ate too many "ories" and the chemical element "cium" gave you strong bones. So while those facts are not true, I felt that there was only one thing I could call myself in the face of this state-wide consensus.

I am the CalEnglishman. Good to meet you. I hope you will read on.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A dance floor

Not so long ago, I was having dinner at a restaurant with a large outdoor seating area - large enough to have a wedding reception going on to one side without disturbing the rest of us. The dance floor was in my direct line of sight so I found myself watching it closely, interested to observe this aspect of American life.

I saw the bride and groom work through a highly choreographed first dance, with looks of deep concentration. They were joined by the two sets of parents, then a bridesmaid dragged her reluctant boyfriend onto the floor, followed by another couple, and another until, before long, most of the guests seemed to be up and dancing, with varying degrees of confidence and rhythm.

On the edge of the dance floor, a woman got to her feet and gestured at her husband. He gazed intently at his phone, pretending not to see her, so she gave up and burst onto the dance floor by herself. Generously proportioned, strapped into a tight dress, she proceeded to unleash the frustrations of the week into her dancing - occasionally throwing a look of near-loathing towards her husband, as if he embodied everything in the world that was irritating and unsexy.

Eventually the man seemed to reach a decision - a few minutes of dance floor torture was probably better than the argument that would be waiting for him at home if he continued to hold out. He rose mournfully to his feet, put the phone in a special holster clipped to his belt, and made his way over to his wife. In a manner of speaking he danced, if making slight shifts of weight from one foot to the other counted as such, and all the while he just looked off into the distance, seeming to place his thoughts on some far off golf course or coffee shop, away from the noise and his gyrating wife.

Looking at this couple and the whole spectacle of the dance floor, the whooping bridesmaids, the young men with bow ties hanging undone around their necks, the overall awkwardness of white people expressing themselves through physical movement....I felt I could have just as easily been in London as Los Angeles. Turning back to my meal, I felt this is one aspect of American life that is comfortingly familiar.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

An embarrassing situation

For a group of people so often regarded as loud and brash, Americans are oddly coy when referring to anything to do with bodily functions. Maybe my memory is deceiving me, but in the UK I don't recall it being a bad thing to ask, in most restaurants or public places, if someone could point you in the direction of the "toilets". After all, that is what you wish to use and, therefore, that is what you ask for.

But here, everyone does their best to come up with a different label. It could be a washroom, a bathroom, a restroom - really any type of room, as long it doesn't mention what you are actually going there to do. Personally I have settled on calling it a 'restroom', because it is accent-neutral and therefore most likely not to be met with a blank look. But not once have I gone there to have a rest.

During a recent meal out, I had visited the room in question, and was the only one in there. Then the door swung open, and in walked a gentleman - silver-haired, mustachioed, with an air of being generally pleased at how his life was panning out. He walked up to the urinal next to mine, making me suddenly conscious of the fact that there were only two of them, and took up position.

There we stood, solemn, elbow to elbow. I'd like to say we struck up conversation, realized we got on famously, exchanged business cards, and went on our way with laughter and backslaps. Actually, we just stood there, with only the dripping tap and distant music from the restaurant to break the silence.

Until, that is, the silence was broken by something altogether more horrifying - the unmistakable sound of the man, um, passing wind. "Oh, excuse me" he said, in a surprised way. What is the correct response to that, I thought? I searched back through a lifetime of social experiences and could not find the right answer. "Bless you" - as if it's a sneeze? "No problem"?

I really was not sure, so I opted for the mature response - namely to wash my hands as fast as I could, race back into the restaurant, and create a wall of menus around my table to ensure that I avoided eye contact with the man for the rest of the evening. Perhaps I have just led a sheltered life, I thought. After that experience, now I understand the level of embarrassment that lies behind all these misleading room names.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A CostCo experience

Entering my local CostCo recently, a family of four was going in ahead of me. There was nothing unusual about them, except that once we were inside the store, I happened to cross paths with them rather a lot – and so was able to observe their CostCo experience close at hand.

As they get inside, the body language changes noticeably. The woman becomes alert and business-like, the man’s shoulders slump in resignation, and the children’s heads turn up in wonderment at the scale of the place. I’ll call the parents Mary and Bob, and the children Billy and Lizzie.

Mary strides off in the direction of the food section. Bob wanders from aisle to aisle, resignation turning to sheer dejection – CostCo is clearly not his thing. He shows a flicker of interest in the laptops, prods at some Calvin Klein boxer shorts and a 7-pack of socks, but then just meanders on hopelessly.

Lizzie finds a demonstration table, where a young man is showing off a high-tech blender that apparently “all the restaurants use”.  Lizzie, who looks about 5, is transfixed by the buzzing and whirring of the blender. It could be hers TODAY for just $349.99, but her pink Barbie wallet stays firmly in her hand.

Billy (8 or so) passes a reflective time in the books section, leafing through a Guinness Book of Records. But then he has a change of mood when he spots a human-sized teddy bear. He finds his father and fervently begs to have the bear. Bob even seems to consider this ridiculous request, like a man who will try anything if it will get him home sooner.

Sense returns in the form of Mary – pushing a cart containing a mountain of food. You can see the work she has put in, balancing her children’s appetites and the capacity of her freezer against CostCo’s bulk quantities. And a little later it is time for them to go – Lizzie emerges from her reverie about the blender, Billy has forgotten about the teddy bear, and Bob rushes out into the sunlight, a boy again.

For my part, I enjoyed my CostCo experience – emerging with huge packs of kitchen towel, toilet roll and other non-perishable items. The vastness of CostCo pack sizes means that I have enough supplies to see me through until about 2015 – so I have a wait until my next visit unfortunately. I can almost hear Bob thinking “If only…”.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The end of summer

We have reached the Labor Day weekend here, which traditionally marks the end of summer just as the Memorial Day weekend started it off. I imagine rueful scenes all over the country, as barbecues, snorkels and tennis rackets are stowed away, warmer clothing is dug out from the back of the closet, and thoughts turn vaguely towards the distant prospect of Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping.

In between of course, we had the July 4th holiday - a day for extra merriment at the expense of us Brits living here. I walked around looking spurned, and attempted to reason with revelers at a local fireworks display - why did they think being part of a kindly constitutional monarchy was so inferior to their current system? They said something about the fireworks going off. Or at least I think that's what they said, but it was hard to hear above the noise - it certainly began with "f" and ended in "off".

Less than three weeks after this celebration of independence from the British monarchy, the country was captivated by the build-up and eventual arrival of the new royal prince. That he would be a future King George - a name synonymous with greed and tyranny for any American schoolchild - was a source of further amusement for some.

People seemed to expect the royal birth to have a special significance for me. Like I might go misty-eyed and break into a rendition of "God Save the Queen" at any moment, or confide that I was wearing my Union Jack underpants to mark the occasion. I was certainly happy for William and Kate, who seem like a nice young couple, and pleased by the bright, more accessible future that appears to lie ahead for the royal family. 

But my interest could not match that of the American public in the whole affair. I can't really explain the reason for this fascination with the British royalty. In a country where people scrap their way to the top - from Washington to Hollywood, Silicon Valley to Wall Street - maybe opinion warms to the idea of a family whose status is bestowed by history rather than its own undignified struggle.

In any event, September is almost upon us, on we go into the "fall".

Monday, July 1, 2013

A first ticket

Not one but two police cars were gliding ominously behind me as I drove home the other evening. I was not worried - my brake lights were working, my speed was a shade under the limit, and, to top it all, I had plugged headphones into my phone so that incoming calls could not distract my hands from their rightful position on the steering wheel.

I was so pleased with my hands-free solution that I think I turned my head side-to-side slightly, so that the menacing convoy behind me could see the ear pieces and appreciate what a responsible motorist I was. And then a strange thing happened. The police car directly behind me turned on its lights and siren, and its driver gestured for me to pull over.

How odd, I thought. Maybe he wants to give me a gold star, or enter me into the LAPD's 'best driver of the year' competition. "Good evening, officer, what can I do for you?" I said to the face that appeared at my window. The expression lacked warmth, sending my voice an octave or two higher than I would have liked.

"Do you know why I pulled you over, sir?" I honestly could not imagine. For a chat? To see if I had any spare donuts? 

"You are not allowed to drive wearing earphones in both ears, sir. Only in one ear. License and registration, please." I think I countered with something forceful like: "I....I....I...diddennothat...officer...s..s...sorry", and flapped about in the glove compartment.

The officer retreated to his car to write the ticket. I stared glumly at the passing traffic. It does seem to perk up people's commute, seeing police lights and a hapless miscreant brought to justice. Eyes widen a little bit, some with amusement, others with pity. I could not complain, since I have a good old look whenever I drive by such a scene.

Eventually I was allowed to go on my way, ticket in hand, an earphone in ONE ear, and a slight sense that I got what I deserved for being a goody-two-shoes. My first traffic ticket - I suppose it's another  step in the journey to feeling like a local.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Ordering lunch

Standing at the counter of a local sandwich shop recently, I was struggling to decide what I fancied for my lunch. The young man behind the counter, whose badge indicated his name to be 'Chad', was losing patience, and an elderly couple were waiting behind me. I decided to step aside and let the couple go first, ushering them forward with an encouraging smile and a courtly bow.

"So, what looks good here, Betsy..." said the man, scanning the blackboard on the wall behind the counter.  Betsy apparently could not read the blackboard because it was so far away. And the printed menu seemed to be too close, even though she held it as far away as her arms would allow.

"Tom, I can't see a darn thing on this menu. What are we gonna have?" Tom made a couple of suggestions, the merits of which were carefully debated. One was too heavy for lunch, another not heavy enough. Another possibility was discounted because it apparently made Betsy gassy.

"What would you recommend, Chad?" Tom asked. Chad was a heavily overweight chap, sporting a neatly-trimmed goatee. Due to the size of his face, the goatee seemed to hover somewhere in the middle of it rather than at the bottom, giving his aspect a slightly, how can I put it, gynecological quality.

With Chad's help, Tom and Betsy finally made a decision and shuffled off, and I made my order.  But I was left to reflect on a quality that I have seen time and again in this country. It is the uninhibited way in which Americans will tend to their own needs, and then think of those around them - whereas we self-conscious English often find ourselves doing things the other way around.

I don't think one way or the other is necessarily better. But each nationality would do well to be aware of the difference, otherwise Americans may continue to be seen abroad as obnoxious, and the English in America as quaint.

Next time I am at the lunch counter, I won't be giving way to the people behind me, even if it is Tom and Betsy. Actually, especially if it is Tom and Betsy.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


The baseball season is well underway here and I have been trying to get into it. It is a fairly simple game but curious too - shrouded in odd language and habits, as if to ward off casual observers not prepared to spend the time to understand it properly.

The game is ruled by statistics. Every aspect of a player's performance is earnestly recorded, averaged, and rated, in minute detail. Such relish is given to this data analysis, that you wonder if the actual playing of the game is a tiresome prelude to the real fun.

Complicated hand signals pass between players and coaches, wads of gum are furiously chewed, excess saliva is spat out all over the playing area. The game proceeds at a stately pace, its duration dictated by the action rather than the clock, and rarely concludes before the three hour mark. 

As with cricket, there is a nudging suspicion that baseball is a game from another era, not naturally equipped to fit into the fast pace of the modern world. The solution to this seems to be to play more baseball. 

A major league team plays six days a week from the beginning of April to the end of September, reaching more than 160 games in just the regular season. There is a distinct lack of self-confidence about this overloaded schedule, as if the American public might find something better to do if they were to be allowed out of a baseball-watching stupor.

The players may be paid $20 million a season, but 20 million also happens to feel like the number of hours that they are on our TV screens in a summer. I almost sympathize with these very wealthy people, strangers to their families, endlessly having to perform for an insatiable, hot dog wielding audience.

I'd better be going. The next game is about to start and I haven't even checked the stats about which of the teams has won more regularly at this stadium, playing on a Sunday, when the weather is over 80 degrees and both pitchers' names begin with a C.