Friday, October 26, 2007

Out of print

Of the many little things I miss about life in the UK, one of the most difficult to come to terms with has been newspapers. Not that I expect to find the Sunday Post on sale at my corner store (the fact I've found a pub willing to show Scottish football matches is miracle enough), but it would be nice, on occasion, to get my hands on a daily with a horizon broader than the one I can see with my own eyes.

Unfortunately, the only newspaper for sale in almost every small store near my house is the local San Francisco Chronicle. Why is it that in a country with around 1,500 different daily newspapers, I am so often offered a choice of just one?

The answer is that the US newspaper market is very localised. The best-selling USA Today is the only truly national title, and its daily circulation of 2.5 million is around 500,000 copies less than that of Britain's biggest tabloid, The Sun.

Indeed, just four US newspapers manage an average circulation of over a million (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times being the others), which is just one more than the UK's total (the aforementioned Sun, the similarly downmarket Daily Mirror, and the beneath-contempt Daily Mail). This is despite the fact that Britain has a population about a fifth of the size of the States. However, if you lower the circulation threshold to the 200,000-copy mark, US titles outnumber those in the UK by 64 to 12, which is a ratio more in line with what you might expect. (My circulation figures came from here and the Audit Bureau of Circulations.)

But this still doesn't explain why most shops here in San Francisco sell just one or, occasionally, two titles (the Chronicle's most common companion on the shelves being, oddly, the New York Times, which hails from a city 2,500 miles away). The store pictured above, which offers a choice of three, is a treasured find indeed. But where are the Bay Area's San Jose Mercury News and Oakland Tribune? Or the LA Times, Washington Post or even USA Today?

All this has been a rude culture shock for me after luxuriating in London's daily deluge of newsprint for many years. Corner shops there typically stock more than 10 national titles, in addition to a few local rags (such as the London-wide Evening Standard) and some ethnically focused journals (the Voice or Jewish Chronicle). Also, they almost always throw in a few papers from Ireland, Scotland or non-English speaking countries, perhaps just to show off.

Thankfully, it turns out that there is a very good newsagent just a few blocks from my new house. It's tiny, but has the widest selection of newsprint I've seen since arriving in the US over six months ago. It even has copies of the UK Guardian for sale, albeit a day or two late, and for a rather higher price than I'm used to paying.

Sigh. If only the publishers could invent some electronic version of their newspapers I could read for free via the internet. Eh? Oh...

Friday, October 19, 2007


Like Hoover in the UK, U-Haul has become a byword for the service it offers. But, as a Brit, my only previous contact with this removal behemoth was in American films and TV shows, where characters who move house never seem to want any generic rental truck: it is always a U-Haul.

The reality, of course, is far less glamorous than such starry introductions led me to expect. Our recent house move was split over two separate days, and the two trucks we hired had over a third of a million miles on the clock between them - and it showed.

They were both Arizona-registered GMC trucks of a characteristically American build: longer, wider and several tons heavier than they needed to be. The exaggerated proportions make you feel like a little kid in comparison. This feeling is magnified when get into the cab and instantly sink deep into the enormous, pillow-soft bench seat. This also causes the far end of the bonnet (and pretty much anything within 50 feet of it) to disappear behind the towering dashboard.

The wheezing engine of the first truck I hired managed to polish off an impressive six gallons of petrol in the space of just 40 miles, all driven at a necessarily pedestrian pace. Meanwhile, the slushy suspension of both trucks caused them to tilt drunkenly into corners, quickly displacing any less-than-perfectly packed cargo in the back. (U-Haul tries to turn this last peculiarity into a selling point, by writing the words “gentle-ride” on the side of the vans in big letters.)

At least the brakes worked, a miracle considering our ridiculously steep street. Or at least they did once I discovered where they were. It turns out that what we call the “hand” brake in Britain is sometimes located on the far left of the foot well here, like an extra foot brake (which probably explains why it’s called the “emergency” brake in America). However, this is not the sort of thing you really want to have to work out while sitting in a fully loaded 3.5-ton truck on a one-in-four gradient.

When I dropped off the first truck in Oakland, I asked one of the workers when (or if) the trucks are ever retired. “Oh, they just go on forever,” she breezed, before insisting that important parts are normally replaced prior to them falling off or failing completely. And these beasts certainly had been worked on: neither of them had a body part that hadn’t been dented or scraped at some point. Major damage is patched and repaired, but minor injuries are left like scars.

Unfortunately, the staff at my second U-Haul location, this time in San Francisco, were rather less friendly. They refused to rent me a truck on account of my weird foreign driving licence, blithely ignoring the fact that I had successfully rented a truck from the same company a few days earlier.

Anyone labouring under the delusion that the States is some utopia of flawless customer service has obviously never suffered the contemptuous indifference of a U-Haul employee doing their very best to be as unhelpful as they possibly can. After our initial “U-Haul requires a US driving licence” / “you didn’t last week” exchanges proved fruitless, the woman serving me offered to consult a higher authority. Confident that right would be done, I agreed, not suspecting for a second that she would begin her telephone call upstairs with a line as brilliantly unhelpful as: “We can’t hire trucks to foreigners, can we?”

So I located a friend with a Californian licence, he hired the truck for me and our stuff was moved. But, just as I began to feel an entirely unexpected wave of fuzzy nostalgia for all the crappy Transit-type vans I hired to shift my belongings around London, I remembered that none of them were ever called upon to drive several thousand miles across the continental United States. Nor, it should be noted, would they be as useful in a game of chicken.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

How many Comcast people does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

The answer is quite a lot, and forgive me if you've heard the joke before. Change the company name and nearly everyone has a few tales to tell of unbelievable corporate fuckwittery. You know the story: all I wanted them to do was blah blah blah, but any number of phone calls and missed appointments and emails and incompetent employees and automated call centres and Kafkaesque/surreal/stupid situations later, all I've got is this half-way amusing anecdote and a stomach ulcer.

My most recent epic saga started on 13 August, when I called Comcast to set up an internet connection and TV service for the house my wife and I were moving into in San Francisco. Sure, they said, no problem. Of course, I should have realised then that they were trouble. The woman I spoke to admitted that the only way I could find out which channels I was going to get with my selected package would be when they connected me. But back then I found the idea of this mystery TV service amusing.

But unfortunately a problem arose when our first cable guy arrived: since the last time the house had been connected up, the service on our street had switched from overhead wires to underground. Someone else would have to come out to run a new cable from the street to our house, the bloke explained.

In the three weeks since that visit, despite numerous phone calls, many visits and yadda yadda yadda, skip to the end... we're still differently cabled. Someone was supposed to come today to do the final hook up but, lo and behold, nobody appeared. And when we called to find out what the problem was, what's that? Oh yes, of course: they had no record of any appointment.

What is frustrating about all this - and it is very frustrating - is that we have little or no real choice over which company we use. There is only one cable company, and Comcast is it. Even if we decided to opt for DSL for our internet, which is much more important for us than the telly, not only would we have to get a slower connection, we'd also have to pay for a phone line we don't need or want and, more than likely, have to go through more of this same crap with someone else to get connected.

Neither do we have any recourse - and there isn't even anyone to take our anger out on. Every technician who has turned up has been perfectly competent, it's just that the problems they've encountered weren't their's to fix. And every one of the many, many people we have talked to on the phone have been perfectly pleasant, but are all wrestling with an octopus of a system too complicated for anyone to understand let alone make work as soon as the slightest glitch comes along.

So, what to do? Well, for one, be thankful that there are still people out there who haven't worked out what an open wireless network is (I wish I could warn whomever it is I'm exploiting right now from the one corner of the living room where I can get good enough reception, but a network name like "netgear" doesn't give too many clues away). Two, realise that I can't do without the internet anymore, and it would really help if I could back up my connection in some way - like the way you have fire insurance or spare batteries for other essentials. And three, know that the revolution can't come soon enough.

I keep thinking of the renegade heating engineer played by Robert De Niro in the film Brazil. Maybe while I wait for my US work permit to come through, I could start doing some underground cable hook-ups. One thing's for sure - I couldn't be any worse at it than Comcast are.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Coincidental rendition

How unfortunate: on the same day that new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the States to pay lip service to the benefits of the US and UK working together, comes this excellent report in The Register on the perils of our secret services doing just that.

In short, it says that when British spooks tell their American counterparts about people doing vaguely suspicious things (such as being a bit Asian), said suspects have a tendency to disappear to the darkest corners of the earth, courtesy of the CIA's enforced holiday programme - even when this is specifically requested not to happen. So, MI6 ends up with the choice of either becoming complicit in illegal acts, or keeping shtum about people it suspects may be involved with terrorism.

Insert generic "special relationship" joke here: ___________ .

Friday, July 20, 2007

'What the fuck was that?'

The answer to my question, asked just before five o'clock this morning, was a "light" earthquake of magnitude 4.2 on the Richter scale. Not a big one, and certainly not the big one, but it was the first I have ever felt and large enough to wake me with a violent jolt - like a brute kicking my bed so hard it shook the entire house.

Every earthquake feels different I'm told, and this one seemed more severe as it happened very close by. The epicentre was just a mile away from where I was trying to sleep in Oakland and, when the real focal point of the action (the hypocentre) is about four miles underground, that short distance on the surface doesn't mean much at all.

(The best comparison I can make is the difference between hearing the low rumble of thunder at a distance of a few miles, and the sound of lightning ripping the air apart just a couple of hundred feet away from you.)

This wasn't a good time to leap out of bed and realise that my dressing gown was still out of action due to an earlier biohazard incident (the dog's fault, not mine). Just a reminder then that I'm living here in unstable times, or at the very least on shaky ground, and that I really need to sort out a disaster kit.

Of course, what's truly terrifying is that the recent 6.8 earthquake in Japan was more than a hundred times stronger than the one I felt this morning. The comforting fact is even that one didn't cause a major disaster.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Losing the war on cliché

Before I left Britain for the US, I was given a lot of stick* about how I would come back with a mid-Atlantic drawl (which is perhaps understandable given the strong Cockney inflection I developed during the decade I spent in London, innit).

The linguistic teasing of my friends may be less comprehensible to American ears. While Brits are fascinated with accent - especially as it pertains to and signifies class - and frown upon anyone who changes the way they speak as being somehow phony or pretentious, things are different here. The US wouldn't have developed any kind of unified sense of culture or identity without its multinational population adopting a de facto common language - so in a country where many people have changed their mother tongue to assimilate, or are descended from people who have done so, merely changing accent as one moves from state to state or between social classes must seem like small beer in comparison.

(Of course, this explains why so few people here seem overly concerned about how George "Dubya" Bush ended up with a Texan drawl more suited to a ranch hand than to a man born to a very wealthy family in New Haven, Connecticut and taught in exclusive New England educational establishments - first at the Phillips Academy finishing school in Massachusetts, then at the Ivy League universities Yale and Harvard. Mind you, questioning minds can be forgiven for being more exercised about how on earth he was allowed to become president in the first place.)

While I'm doing my best to preserve my Edinburgh brogue, adopting a certain amount of local vocabulary is unavoidable if I want to be understood: I'm much more likely to find somewhere to pee in a restaurant by asking a waitperson where the "restrooms" are, for example, rather than asking after the toilet, loo or bog. Similarly, in The Amateur Emigrant, Robert Louis Stevenson recounts his own experience of being misunderstood in a hotel on the banks of the Missouri River in 1879, noting that:

"... although two nations use the same words and read the same books, intercourse is not conducted by the dictionary. The business of life is not carried on by words, but in set phrases, each with a special and almost a slang signification."

To give a modern example of what he means, a gas station attendant (a breed now extinct in Britain but still found in some US states) will always ask some close variant of the question "shall I fill her up?" rather than something such as "how much petrol would you like?" We simplify our everyday interactions by sticking to these set phrases, but we have little reason to notice them until they change.

The problem for me is that certain words just sound ridiculous coming out of my mouth. I feel awkward talking about quarters, nickels and dimes (especially as I have trouble remembering which of the latter two is worth five or 10 cents), and downright silly referring to a car's hood or trunk instead of its bonnet or boot - particularly as it's hard to say either without using the verb pop in place of "open" (ie, "can you pop the trunk?"). Ditto sidewalk, sneakers and the dreaded pants (instead of pavement, trainers and trousers, respectively)

But, having thought about it, I've realised the words that cause me the most consternation are also those most likely to crop up in American films and TV shows. Thus for me to ask for a drink "straight up" or "on the rocks" (as opposed to one with or without ice) sounds sillier than asking the barman for "chips" rather than crisps - people in films, after all, rarely bother with bar snacks. Likewise, American vegetable names (zucchini, eggplant, cilantro, etc) don't seem to sound too daft coming out of my mouth - at least on the odd occasions I remember not to use the British versions courgette, aubergine or coriander - but the names of foods that are more likely to pop out of (or indeed into) the mouths of actors, such as candy, fries or soda (sweets, chips and juice), tend to stick in my throat.

Thankfully, for every idiom I falter over, I am discovering many more bons mots to delight me. I have adopted the local custom of referring to spirits such as whisky and vodka collectively as hard liquor (which carries with it more than a whiff of "hardened alcoholism", not to mention the implication that somewhere there is also soft liquor to be found), pluck or courage has been transformed into moxie (a word which even more wonderfully comes from the name of an actual soft drink, which seems to be like a Maine equivalent of Irn Bru) and buildings standing diagonally opposite at a crossroads are now catty corner from one another (which is one of those great phrases that, when you hear it for the first time, you wonder how you ever did without it for so long).

So I guess the way I speak ain't gonna stay exactly the way it yoosta...

* Translations: perhaps in an unconscious attempt to demonstrate how little my accent has changed, I seem to have used quite a few words and phrases peculiar to Britain in this post. For the benefit of American readers, here are explanations for some of the things I couldn't find in my copy of Webster's but, for further reading, I recommend Jeremy Smith's excellent British-American dictionary Bum Bags and Fanny Packs, which my gorgeous girlfriend helpfully bought for me.

  • "given a lot of stick" = been the subject of verbal abuse
  • "innit" = a Cockney contraction of "isn't it", commonly used at the end of every phrase or sentence, innit
  • "class" = one of the few things bigger in the UK than it is in the US
  • "small beer" = a person or thing of little importance
  • "juice" = a word used by the Scottish to denote any soft drink but which has no direct equivalent in England (the English claim, if pushed, to use the phrase "fizzy pop" but in reality never say anything of the kind)
  • "Irn Bru" = a soda made in Scotland, from girders.

Divine inspiration

Whiling away a few idle moments online the other day, I came upon this little gem courtesy of Daniel Pemberton. I first met Daniel when we both worked for Esquire many moons ago, and he was also a regular at my local pub in Bermondsey - but he is better known to the outside world as a composer for TV and film.

Anyway, he recently worked on a documentary for Windfall Films called Monster Moves about those people in the States who take the concept of moving house more literally than most by shifting actual buildings rather than just their contents. And, in a moment of inspired genius, they decided to film the 12-mile journey of Trinity Lutheran Church in Iowa in the style of a song and dance number.

The end result (which you can see at the bottom of this page on Daniel's website) is a wonderful piece of film that somehow manages to make small-town America seem both more friendly and more frightening at the same time.

Footnote: You can see more pictures and get a little background on the church move from this local enthusiast's website, and also read about how it was filmed by Windfall. And, if you like Daniel's music, you might be interested to know that he has just released a CD called TVPOPMUSIK - all the details can be found on his MySpace page.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The air-attack warning sounds like...

No matter how much you think you know about a place before you arrive, there are always going to be some things you only discover after being there for a while. Like, for example, the way that in Edinburgh some fool fires a 105mm howitzer in the centre of town every lunchtime. Or, as I've just discovered, San Francisco conducts a weekly air-raid siren test.

I'm not sure what was most scary about discovering the Tuesday Noon Siren: what I thought might be about to happen when I first heard it; what might be happening for real the next time I hear it; or the fact that I've only heard the damn thing once in the eight weeks I've been here.

Actually, thanks to the internet, you can rest assured of finding something even scarier online when researching whatever it was that scared you in the first place: in this case the fact that someone has seen fit to create the Siren Archive - an "online museum of outdoor warning devices from around the world". Enjoy.

Monday, June 04, 2007


When I recently visited the town of Monterey, which lies just over 100 miles south of San Francisco, the town was filled with strange signs saying either "Yes on A" or "No on A". Disappointingly, this wasn't a surrealist campaign concerning that pushy, me-first letter of the alphabet (and, in a town whose name manages to include an "a" sound without need for the letter itself, such militant feelings would perhaps be understandable). Instead, it referred to Proposition A, a local political initiative being put before the voters there today (5 June 2007).

I was quite tickled by these cryptic posters which seemed like a send up of the meaningless slogans politicians love to trot out these days (the Labour and Conservative party website front pages, for example, currently feature the headlines "Join the winning team" and "The future for Britain" - it doesn't really matter which is which). But a bit of asking around and a visit to the Monterey County Elections website revealed that Proposition A - along with its excitingly named siblings B and C - concern the county's Orwellian-sounding General Plan, a set of policies that define the area's long-term planning and land-use policy.

More specifically, Prop A is a vote on whether or not to amend the county's 1982 plan. Prop B, meanwhile, seeks to repeal a new, 2006 plan - the existence of which one would think makes the 1982 version rather redundant, with or without amendment. And Prop C, seemingly ignorant of Prop B's plans, perversely wants to enact the 2006 version. Keeping up at the back? No wonder the posters didn't go into specifics.

It turns out that this confusing tangle is a common occurrence here, thanks to the fact that California - like many US states - lets its citizens create, change or repeal laws without waiting for their legislators to do it for them. The only restriction is that you need to submit a suitably large petition in support of your plan to get it on to ballot papers. At the local county level where I am in San Francisco city, you need just over 10,000 names, while a California state initiative requires 434,000 signatures (the latter may sound like a lot, but it is only about 1.3 per cent of the state's 34 million-strong population - also, bear in mind that a recent petition on the Downing Street website attacking the Government's road pricing plans attracted 1.8 million signatures despite the fact that it had no power to change anything at all).

The relative simplicity of this process means voters here can end up with a bewildering array of choices on election day. In the November 2004 general election, voters in San Francisco not only had to pick candidates for the White House, Senate, House of Representatives and a whole bunch of local offices, but also had to decide whether they supported or opposed no less than 32 separate state-wide and county-level initiatives.

To add to the confusion, many propositions and measures are - like those in Monterey - overlapping or contradictory. For example, one may seek to increase funding to schools by 2.5 per cent, the next may want to increase funding by an additional percentage point or two but make the whole thing performance-related, and a third may seek to increase funding on a sliding scale of 3.25 to 9.5 per cent, with the exact amount to be decided by how far a randomly picked group of parents can throw their children on a TV show created specifically for this purpose ("Do you really want little Jimmy to learn? Then let's see him fly!").

And then an electorate desperate to secure any improved funding for schools might vote in favour of them all - it seems the paradox of choice isn't restricted to supermarkets here.

Incidentally, anyone interested in finding out what happens to the A in Monterey (as well as the B and C, presumably), should be able to find the results via either the local Monterey Herald newspaper, or the official Monterey County website.

Footnote: The townspeople of Monterey also seem to have a peculiar Brit-fetish. The town centre is home to no less than five "British" pubs (the London Bridge, Britannia Arms, Mucky Duck, Crown & Anchor and Bulldog) and one strange little shop selling British goods.Despite doing extensive research (okay, so I looked up Wikipedia) I can't find any good reason for this: Monterey was the California state capital under first Spanish and then Mexican rule, and only became part of the wider United States after the war of independence. In fact, the only vaguely British connections I can find are that Robert Louis Stevenson stayed there for a couple of months in 1879 (hardly notable when John Steinbeck was a Monterey resident for many years) and Francis Drake sailed past the then-townless bay in 1579. Any pointers on the missing transatlantic link gratefully received.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Shop local

Wandering home the other day, I decided to take a closer look at one of the small shops just round the corner from my new flat: High Bridge Arms Inc. Actually, I only intended to have a nosey peek in from the outside but, as I cupped my hand to the glass to try to see what lay behind the rather dusty camouflage netting in the window, the door buzzed to let me in. At that point it seemed rude to stay standing outside - and it's probably best to be as polite as you can be with your neighbourhood arms dealer.

Of course, not every street corner in SF has a gun shop - far from it. A quick search of the local Yellow Pages lists only one other gunsmith in the city, and slightly confusingly that one appears to also sell cosmetics and fragrances. (Now there's a great retail combination: "Come on down to Betty's Bullets'n'Beauty Supplies - everything you need to knock him dead or take him out".)

Inside High Bridge, glass cabinets display rows of square-edged handguns lying on top of the kind of plastic cases that - in my experience, at least - usually hold power tools. There are also all sorts of bullets, knives, handcuffs and T-shaped batons on offer, while a rack behind the counter holds a selection of shotguns with a uniformly urban rather than country gent aesthetic - all utilitarian plastic in place of the polished walnut I'm more used to seeing on the one type of firearm still legal in the UK. In fact, almost everything for sale here seems to be matt black.

It was a surprise to see guns being sold without reference - no matter how spurious - to sport, in the shape of either hunting animals or target shooting. But, as the "law enforcement supplies" sign outside implies, these guns aren't being sold for fun. The posters and catalogues for gun manufacturers such as SigArms and Glock remain pointedly neutral, while others for the likes of BlackHawk tactical nylons (a company which disappointingly doesn't supply tights to the special forces) use images of black-clad figures in ski masks waving their laser sights through smoke-filled rooms to full effect.

I suppose at least there is an honesty to this, but not one that is particularly comforting.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Seek and ye shall find

One activity I've enjoyed a lot since arriving here in San Francisco is shopping. Suddenly, the experience of going to the corner shop for a pint of milk has been transformed thanks to all the unfamiliar brands, weird products and surprising... er, surprises I find there. I used to buy semi-skimmed milk in the UK, for example, but here I have to work out if I want skim, 1% fat, 2% fat or even "half & half" (which it turns out is actually half cream, half milk and therefore nothing like semi-skimmed at all).

And all this is before you hit the big chain stores. I went to a branch of the general-purpose chain Target the other day. Alongside the normal escalators in the middle of the shop it had extra ones designed to carry your shopping trolley up and down between floors for you. Escalators! For trolleys! You just can't buy entertainment like that.

Added to these mundane thrills, the Bay Area is home to a whole heap of genuinely quirky and downright weird shops. There's one just round the corner on 17th Street that sells only door knobs. And then there's the McSweeney's-related pirate supplies store over on Valencia Street. In fact, Valencia seems to be almost exclusively filled with intriguing shops touting quirky second-hand books, furniture, curios and clothes.

There are also some incredible bargains to be had (especially for me, thanks to the exchange rate). But here I have run into a problem. I recently bought a pack of riculously cheap blank CDs (100 TDK 80-minute CD-Rs at Circuit City for $10.99 - get 'em while they're hot). So what's the problem? Well, although I am now the proud owner of a towering pack of very budget discs, I need to find some sort of cases for them, and I just can't bring myself to pay more for a thin plastic sleeve than I did for the CD it's supposed to be protecting.

So yesterday I spent the day touring SF's electronics and stationery shops in search of these elusive cheap prophylactics for my unprotected shiny discs. And, as I toured shops such as CompUSA, Best Buy, and OfficeMax, I was struck by two things.

The first was that they all had lots of aisles filled with single products. I've noticed this phenomenon in the UK too, particularly at similar barn-like branches of chains such as Currys. My local one in London had an entire row stocked with just one type of scart cable. They were all exactly the same price, colour, size, price and brand, row upon row of identical blister-packs. What is the point in having thousands of the same product on offer? Why not offer a variety of brands, some cheaper, some gold-plated and expensive? Y'know, choice?

Yesterday, besides browsing for CD sleeves, it was USB extension leads I kept finding displayed like this (I know, I know - the glamour! the excitement! the geek!). Every store was selling exactly the same $20 Belkin cables, and each had hundreds in stock, but no alternatives. So I went home and bought an unbranded one from eBay for four dollars instead.

The second, and slightly less nerdy, thing that struck me was that my browsing was essentially pointless. I had been to all these shops before, and pretty much knew they didn't have what I wanted. So why did I go back? Because there was something weirdly comforting about the experience. Sure, they stock some different products, but in the end barn-like shops here are essentially the same as barn-like shops at home - and now these were shops I was revisiting, so they felt like they were mine somehow, they were part of my territory here in San Francisco. And even the strange products are becoming comforting and, well, familiar.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fresh off the boat

Things I have learnt during my first fortnight in America...

San Francisco isn't as warm as you think

You know when you're told about something over and over again, but it never quite sinks in until you experience it for myself? Well, welcome to the Bay Area's weather. Granted, it has been almost constantly sunny since I got here - beautiful, clear-blue-sky, smiley face sunny. But as soon as the sun disappears - and sometimes before - it can get pretty cold, with sea breezes giving the chill an extra bite. I kind of like it, perhaps because it reminds me of the weather in Edinburgh. In July. During a heatwave.

Not everything in American is bigger or better
Tissues, for example, are tiny. You'd think the idea of large "man-sized" Kleenex would go down a bomb here, but I'm yet to find any. (Note to self: Possible business opportunity? Aim for porn industry endorsement, work from there.) And, for a country so in thrall to the over-consumption of energy, the electrics here really could do with some work. Lights dim when the fridge turns on, plugs spark when you connect them, there are electric sockets in the bathroom - all of which is doubly disturbing when you notice the absence of an earth pin on most appliances.

Some surprising things are both bigger and better
Coming back into town from Oakland yesterday evening, we were stuck in a big traffic jam approaching the Bay Bridge. With the low sun shining in my eyes, and the hazy white light reflecting off the sea and the polished bodywork of all the enormous SUVs and cars, I realised it was probably the coolest traffic jam I'd ever seen. Kim just thought it was a bitch though.

Brick turns to dust in an earthquake
Apparently wood or reinforced concrete are much better in the event of shaky-ground moments, as traditional red bricks just crumble. There is a garage round the corner from where I'm staying that has a sign stuck to its brick outer wall saying that it may be unsafe in the event of an earthquake. I'm not sure who this sign helps, however, other than the weirdly prescient.

US cuisine isn't all McDonald's and Taco Bell
Well, actually I knew this already. But, having been impressed by lots of the terrific food last time I was in California (particularly the cheeses and beers), this time it's the turn of ice cream. The Bi-Rite Creamery round the corner is home to some killer vanilla (surely the yardstick by which to measure any ice cream maker), but it also offers such unique delights as roasted banana, chai spiced milk chocolate and salted caramel.

Service culture is great - but not all of the time
People who work in shops here are astonishingly helpful. They just can't help you enough. Sometimes they are helpful as if their lives depended on it. All of which is very handy indeed for the casually clueless shopper (me, for example). But not if I am hungover; turns out then that all those questions and all that chatter is just plain annoying. Same goes for mornings.

I'm famous
After years of patiently spelling out my name to people in England who thought my surname was "Laidlow", "Leadlaw", or - on one memorable occasion - "Ladylord", I have travelled halfway round the world to find that everyone here can spell my name no problem. Why? Because a company called Laidlaw is (by its own estimation) "the largest private contractor of student transportation services in North America", and therefore has its name written on the side of most of the yellow school buses here. Fame at last!

Ameoba Records is amazing
I think this warehouse-sized music store on Haight Street may soon become my favourite record shop in the world. And probably the only reason it isn't my favourite already is that I'm slightly scared to visit again too soon, lest I run out of money in my first month here.