Trust the bride to choose a groom from a family who live in the most perfect New England town ever. Essex, on the deep estuary of the Connecticut River, is picturesque most of the year, but comes into its own during the snow-covered days of winter.
With cold weather taking hold a few weeks earlier than normal, the Connecticut River towns are knee-deep in perfect snow as we make our way to Centerbrook to decorate the wedding hall. Helen and Mike are getting married on Friday 13 December in a beautiful old meetinghouse, originally built in 1722 and recently renovated by two private benefactors.
In the run-up to Christmas, the townspeople of Essex and its near neighbours take pride in the decoration of their homes. Venerable weatherboard houses of respectable dimensions light up at dusk with fairy-lit door wreaths, identical candles in every window, perfectly measured spruce garlands on picket fences. There is not a cheesy inflatable Santa or electric penguin in sight.
There is no hint of grey slush here: all is pure white. The gazebo on the village green is decorated with garlands and a Christmas tree, all festooned with white fairy lights sparkling through the darkness of a December afternoon. One family has carved out a skating rink on the village pond. I stroll down the main drag as a few flurries of snow fall, and can’t decide which home is the most flawlessly decorated. I am simply enthralled by the Christmassiness of it all.
We meet up with Mike’s two moms (Real Mom Peggy and Step-Mom Sue) at Peggy’s sprawling New England home on the water’s edge in Essex itself. Like the rest of the village, the house and garden are picture-perfect under at least a foot of snow. The charming but often out of place American Christmas decorations I have seen in many European houses seem perfect in this home: a huge tree in the living room is the centrepiece and every wall and table surface has a wreath or a ribbon attached. The kitchen is well stocked with every sandwich filling known to man (handy for those of us who are feeling a little worse for wear after the school reunion of the night before), and Peggy does a good line in chilled non-alcoholic drinks to help with rehydration. Needless to say, every plate, cup and glass is Christmas-themed without being vulgar. The red-and-green “Christmas in Essex” napkins seem appealing in this house, whilst I know at home they would just look ironic. I still want some, and Sue quietly tells me the name of the shop in town where I can stock up.
Down at the Meeting House, we join forces with the (thin-lipped and grim-faced) wedding planner and her (much friendlier) associate to deck the halls for the wedding feast. The reception room looks bare with just a few wooden trestle tables strewn about, but a few hours’ hard work from willing workers transform the space into a green, silver and white spectacle replete with Christmas baubles, acres of tulle, fancy folded linen napkins, polished silverware and more Christmas cheer than you can shake a stick at.
The bride takes a few minutes to regroup in the picture-perfect chapel area while the rest of us try to even out the number of votive candles per table of twelve. All must be perfect for the big day.
A last-minute visit to Ikea (more votive candles are required) and before long we are back at home base, avoiding the mere mention of alcohol and inhaling vast quantities of vegetables from the Chinese takeaway in the vain hope that our culinary choices will negate the over-indulgence of the night before. It’s going to be a big couple of days and we need our wits about us.
The Hyundai Elantra is a decent car, but nobody ever called it exciting. We stand in the Hertz office by New Haven train station, and Orlando looks longingly at pictures of other, sexier, cars.
“I don’t suppose you have anything available in your Adrenalin range?”, he asks hopefully. We’d already tried and failed to book a muscle car online, but New Haven Amtrak Hertz didn’t appear to do anything but nice sedans. The young man shakes his head. “Sorry sir.” Then, “Wait, I think we might have a Mustang. Would that do?” Orlando looks hopefully at me. I nodded.
Ten minutes later we drive away in a dark grey Mustang convertible, Orlando at the wheel, me trying my best to look cool despite my sensible attire. Driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time in maybe ten years, Orlando handles the car like a pro as we head towards the freeway sans satnav. How hard can navigating be on decent roads with signs in English?
The I-95 is the main east coast highway, running all the way from Florida to the Canadian border. The Mustang purrs along, eastwards across the great Connecticut River and past the signs for Rocky Neck State Park. An hour later another river, this time the Thames River (as opposed to the River Thames) that flows, predictably, through New London.
Mystic is a pretty old seaport with a huge maritime museum and a pizza place made famous by the 1988 movie, Mystic Pizza. The museum precinct is full of beautiful old houses and military buildings, manicured lawns, centuries-old cannons and more flags than you can shake a stick at. Despite the drizzle, the Christmas lights and decorations and pretty shops make Mystic a welcoming little town. We park the Mighty Mustang (all the while hoping somebody might see us and be impressed by our choice of vehicle) and take a mini-tour of the main drag. Bookstores stand cheek by jowl alongside expensive clothes shops, navy surplus places and surprisingly few eateries.
Near the top of the high street stands Mystic Pizza, the restaurant that inspired the 1980s teenage movie of the same name. Given my obsession with food and specifically pizza, my craving for Christmas-themed spiced milky drinks accompanied by cookies shaped like Christmas trees fly out the window and we walk inside.
The booths are named for famous roads: Pacific Highway, New Orleans’ French Quarter, even London’s Abbey Road. The blurb on the menu reminisces about hordes of fans lining the streets during the heyday of the movie, but on a cold, raining Monday lunchtime we are almost the only diners. Two mugs of tea are served at less than scalding temperatures, but I suppose we are in America, the Land of the Lukewarm Beverage. I am momentarily distracted by the thought of a nice bowl of New England clam chowder, but let’s face it: in a week’s time will I look back and be happy with this menu choice in this particular restaurant? We order a large Meatza Pizza to share, extra jalapeños, well cooked.
Back outside in the freezing cold, we take another turn along the high street before retreating to the Mustang for the drive back. I take the wheel this time, heading westwards for a few miles along Route 1, through the pretty villages of Poquonock Bridge and Groton.
Back onto the huge iron bridge across the Thames River, Orlando falls asleep while I put my foot down and get a feel for the Mustang. I turn up the radio. Mariah Carey sings All I Want For Christmas Is You, the first Christmas tune I’ve heard on the trip so far. I sing along as the highway junctions fly past, surprisingly not waking up the sleeping beauty beside me. This is turning into a pretty decent holiday.
There is something delicious about that last-minute seat upgrade, right at the departures gate. We’d started our long-distance journey with champagne in the Qantas first class lounge, courtesy of Orlando’s platinum frequent-flyer status. A dismal fifteen hours of cramped coach conditions looks less and less inviting with every sip. Then a flashing red light at the gate as they swipe our boarding passes. The Qantas lady smiles and says “There you are – some nice seats for you.”
We inadvertently do a victory lap of the A380 before finding our new home on the top deck in Premium Economy. It’s not the rarefied atmosphere of Business Class, but we stretch our legs and congratulate ourselves on our last-minute salvation.
We are good travelling companions, Orlando and I: on long-haul flights we rarely speak, communicating silently with the ease of those who have spent many hours in the air together. I always save the chocolate on my meal tray for him, and he knows the only place I drink apple juice is at 35,000 feet. I sleep a lot and later I can recall little of any entertainment I choose; he sits through a movie marathon and remembers every line.
This trip I am so tired I sleep through a good half of the Melbourne to LA leg, waking with just enough time for breakfast and a change of clothes before we land. Before long the LA skyline emerges from the clouds. I wave excitedly at the window. “Hi America! We’re back!”. Orlando shakes his head at my exuberance, but I see the smile in his eyes. He appreciates every milestone of our journey too.
The magic of the International Date Line means we arrive at LAX a good twenty minutes before we left the house in Melbourne. I love time travel. The ground crew hand us a big orange EXPRESS card as we disembark and we are whisked through immigration and customs in less than half an hour. The immigration guy is serious but courteous, and his smile seems genuine as he welcomes me to the USA and wishes me an enjoyable vacation. Seems the US Immigration Service has left behind their aggressive, suspicious and downright rude approach that used to mar every visit to the US in years gone by.
Before long we are sitting by our departure gate waiting for our last leg to JFK, mesmerised by the enormous high-resolution screens in the centre of the duty free mall, displaying a slow-mo wall of water one moment, then transforming into a beautiful clock full of synchronised dancing girls at the top of the hour. I am reminded of times when I was a child and my parents would exclaim at the sight of anything new: “It’s like America at home!”. Orlando, himself not known for his displays of wonder and excitement, nods approvingly. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Three hours later we share a taxi shuttle with three other weary travellers. As we emerge heading east from a spaghetti junction of freeways, the Manhattan skyline appears like a mirage in the distance. I can make out the green and red of the Empire State Building.
Through the country roads around Greenwich, Connecticut, the weatherboard houses look like something from a Christmas movie with their beautiful door wreaths, white garland lights and perfect outdoor Christmas trees. I chat to a fellow traveller, on a flying visit home to family from Tonbridge Wells in Kent. He points out his childhood haunts as we meander towards his home town of Milford, and swap food stories. I feel confident now about finding decent pizza in New Haven.
After what feels like forever we finally park outside our final destination. We are greeted by two small alarmed dogs, a wildly excited Englishwoman and an incredibly gentlemanly American man who hauls my impossibly heavy suitcase up four floors of stairs to a warm and welcoming flat.
The talk doesn’t stop for the next four hours, and neither does the rum or the red wine. Neither of us feel that we have just travelled for 28 hours flat. Until I finally give up and head to bed, that is. I sleep for ten hours straight, my body and mind finally relaxing after a marathon day and a strenuous five months.
Let the holiday commence.
Americans aren’t rude: it just seems that way to the uninitiated. They can be polite but very direct, as are the Customs Hall officials at LAX where I land like a stunned bird after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight. “Ma’am, move up the line please. Aisles fifteen and sixteen for US citizens only. Have your passports ready.” Their tone is peremptory at times, but their smiles are genuine and there is no attitude served up with the instructions.
I “stand in line” (rather than queue) for just under an hour before my passport is stamped and my fingerprints taken by a solemn young man. Finally, I am in. Just enough time to navigate the baggage hall, a quick walk to Terminal 4 and a rigorous airport security checkpoint before my next plane takes off. The airline staff at the gate invite serving US military personnel to board alongside their premium frequent flyers. From faraway countries it’s easy to forget that the USA is a country at war.
The culture shock continues: wifi available on board the aircraft. How lovely. I am served a decent cup of tea and settle down to watch the view. Desert comes first, then mountains. Icing-sugar-coated ridges give way in time to meandering textbook-perfect rivers lined with perfectly oblong green fields.
Four hours later we descend slowly through the whiteness, the horizon disappearing only to re-emerge as a thin blue line framing a more prosaic brown landscape. Lower down, white clouds spill over into a shallow valley and I can make out individual farm buildings, horse-training circuits and patches of woodland. Soon, the outer suburbs take over, the Potomac River comes into view and the golf courses proliferate. It all looks like a game of Sim City. We must be near the capital.
The shuttle bus drops me off at my hotel and Manny the porter sweeps me and my luggage to my room. In my effort to get the tipping right, I fear I over-do it, but over the course of my stay Manny proves to be a good ally. Maybe I didn’t get it wrong after all. I drop everything and head back out, anxious to get some fresh air and see my new neighbourhood. The air is fresh, alright: within minutes I know I will need a much thicker coat and a hat that covers my ears properly. I stroll the streets of the George Washington University precinct, locate a convenience store, the Metro station, the closest bar, the Red Cross offices. The monuments and memorials of the National Mall are nearby but the cold is too much. I retreat to my hotel and the anonymity of the basement restaurant.
Next day after a couple of meetings I take the train to Pentagon City. A businessman stops to chat with me as we wait on the platform. He’s spent some time in Ireland and speaks fondly of West Cork. We pass the time pleasantly enough until the train appears, then he excuses himself, saying he never travels in the last carriage. It’s my first experience of the phenomenon of the Random Friendly American. But I’m left wondering mostly if there’s something about the last carriage I should know about.
Some say that the enormous Pentagon building is just a hologram, but the nearby shopping mall is real alright. Searching for food, I make a circuit of the food court twice before realising there is little choice beyond deep-fried everything. Then in the corner, I spy a quiet salad bar. I order the smallest, simplest chicken salad my jetlagged brain can describe and prop myself at a plastic table. The salad is enormous. I plough my way through about a quarter of it, then pick out as much of the chicken as I can before giving up.
Full, I make a beeline to Macy’s where a nice young man helps me choose a padded overcoat to keep the DC winter at bay. Later that evening I take a stroll down to the White House just a few blocks from the hotel, my new purchase keeping me warm while I navigate the other tourists along the railings of the South Lawn. Past the impressive Treasury Building, I make my way to the Circulator bus stop and pay my one dollar for the ride to historical Georgetown.
It’s not quite as busy as I expect, perhaps due to the bitter winds coming in ahead of the snowstorm they have forecast for the north-east states. I peer through the windows of the M Street shops, taking notes for later. The side streets remind me a little of parts of Dublin with their higgledy-piggledy houses and colourful front doors. I take a table at the Peacock Cafe and partake of a doorstop of meatloaf and decent glass or two of Argentinean Malbec.
Back at the hotel, culture shock of a slightly more alarming nature reveals itself. I have a kitchen attached to my room, but no kettle to be found. There is a coffee percolator and I try that, but it simply doesn’t heat the water to boiling point. How does one make a cup of tea in this town?
The plane descended over the Pacific. I could see mountains ahead: or were they distant cloud banks? Soon the coast became more discernible, and the southern suburbs of LA floated beneath us through creamy-silver smog. We did a fly-by past a bank of skyscrapers which must have been downtown LA, but we could not see the Hollywood sign anywhere on that backdrop of hills.
We touched down at LAX at 6.29am on Tuesday morning, exactly the same time as our taxi had picked us up in Melbourne… on Tuesday morning. We’d been on the road for sixteen hours but the International Date Line had made sure we hadn’t aged a minute.
LAX was not the nightmare we had feared, nor did it particularly feel like a huge international hub. We queued patiently for forty-five minutes to get fingerprinted and scrutinised by a surprisingly pleasant Department of Homeland Security official. Within the hour we were through security with our bags and breathing for the first time in more than a decade the fresh air of Obama’s America. As we passed through, the Customs guy smiled at us and said “Enjoy your honeymoon!”.
A few hundred yards along, and back into the domestic terminal for the Miami leg. This part of LAX looked a little the worse for wear than the International terminal. Another queue – gasp! – for security. Shocking. Surely Orlando’s frequent flyer status immunised us from all queuing everywhere in the world? Perhaps not.
For the first time in a while I baulked at removing my shoes. The floor wasn’t dirty; it was just, well, shabby. We both got to stand for just long enough beside the poster showing exactly how much of our anatomy these new x-ray machines actually reveal, before Orlando had to walk through… and still got patted down afterwards. I somehow escaped with the old-fashioned scanner walk-through device only, so my junk remained unseen to fight another day.
At the Admiral’s Club the lunchtime cheese platter looked good, but the tempting-looking hunks of yellow-orange cheddar turned out, predictably, to be that tasteless plastic stuff the Americans call cheese. Gruesome. Orlando found some delicious-tasting jalapeno crisps: delicious, that is, until I read the nutritional information:
Did that mean the crisps were no more than 65% potato? I put the packet down and stepped away before I burst a blood vessel.
Things Americans do well #1: courtesy and respect.
Each person we interacted with at both LAX and Miami was genuinely courteous and pleasant. Each “You’re welcome” I got after every thank-you was unforced and amiably delivered. We were addressed formally by surname when it was known, and as “sir” or “ma’am” otherwise.
At the Miami Hilton we settled in for our brief overnight stay ahead of our early-morning flight to Barbados next morning. Our hotel room was about half as big as our house. No balcony, sadly, but a huge king-sized bed and a generous living area we would never get to use.
Exhausted as we were, the taxi ride to Miami Beach for a cocktail and a promenade was just beyond us. We headed straight down to the lobby for a drink and a bite to eat. What’s a more American way of spending our only night on US soil than watching the game in a bar with a plate of buffalo wings? Probably doing all of that with a beer in hand, I suppose. We would make do with cocktails.
It was game four of the NBA play-offs, Miami Heat vs Dallas Mavericks. The barstools at the small horseshoe bar was fully occupied at first so we settled in near the TV and ordered. Miami were leading two games to one at this point. I sensed Dallas would win, even though we were only in the second quarter, but I felt compelled to cheer for the Heat as we were on their turf.
Our waiter, Manny, was a short man in his late fifties, Cuban, as attentive and brisk as a favourite uncle when you come to visit. He got us two seats at the bar when our food came and we perched between a handful of other drinkers. They appeared to know each other a little, but I could not make out whether it was a fleeting one-night-in-a-hotel-bar thing or a longer acquaintance. I sensed they were all at the same convention or meeting, but hadn’t seen any signs in the lobby.
We snacked on smoked turkey and white bean chilli (try it), chicken wings and chicken sliders, which appeared to be tiny chicken schnitzels in a tiny bun with spicy sauce. My blue cocktail was strong and sweet. Orlando’s Long Beach Iced Tea didn’t need to be explained twice to be served perfectly.
A woman of a certain age sat alongside Orlando sipping red wine, not her first. She chatted familiarly in Spanish to Manny as he wandered back and forth.
Another guy on the opposite side of the bar spent his time establishing his Cuban credentials to Manny’s colleague, also Cuban. Manny and the other bartender joked that every Cuban in the US says they are from Havana, but Havana is not big enough for that to be true.
A man who’d had one too many was helped out of the lobby by Manny before he threw up. We heard from the bartender and the rest of our drinking companions about a girl who’d become so drunk the night before, that she’d been removed from the bar in a wheelchair. That was only the second time in the twenty years he’d worked at the Hilton that somebody had left in that state, the bartender said.
The game eked out its final minute with time-out after time-out. We paid our bill and headed to bed. In six hours we’d be up again, and on the last leg of our epic trip. Next stop, Barbados.