By The Editor
A letter received last June from an old school chum in America resulted with me spending Christmas and the New Year in America with another classmate I had not seen for 45 years.
San Francisco is almost 6,000 miles from Rye and for a chap who had never previously ventured across the pond, it seemed an awful long way from home. With more than a little trepidation I set out for London Airport with Jo’ Vincent and after rigorous checks, (the Twin Towers attack had only been a few weeks previous to the flight) we boarded Virgin Airways Flight VS 1014 bound non stop to San Francisco International Airport.
Virgin Airlines provide a good selection of in flight entertainment. Individual television screens fixed into the back of the seat in front allowed a personalised selection of seven films, six television programmes and six radio channels. Also available was a constantly updated screen showing the position of the aircraft, the air speed, ground speed, altitude, estimated time of arrival, nearest airfields, what the pilot had for dinner etc.
Red suited Virgin Air Hostesses brought round an endless stream of refreshments including complementary bottles of wine. Many (mostly lady) passengers, mindful no doubt of the recently published dangers of acquiring thrombosis during long flights in cramped seats, were exercising in the gangways and open spaces near the emergency exits. Watching their antics was another distraction as they carried out complicated yoga manoeuvres and bent their bodies into positions that made the mind boggle. If I had done some of the exercises performed on that aircraft I would have been in traction for months!
We flew over Iceland and Greenland then deep into the Arctic circle. Thirty-five thousand feet below there was a break in the clouds and great ice floes became visible, stretching as far as the eye could see. On into Canada, peering down at orderly snow covered fields, then Edmonton and shortly after, Alberta came into view, beyond were the Canadian Rockies.
The clouds closed in again and there were only very brief glimpses of the ground as we passed into America. Small homesteads in the Mountains of Oregon were probably my first actual sighting of the U.S.A. It seems strange that it has taken me sixty-three years to get here.
By now many passengers had struck up acquaintances with complete strangers and it was with mounting excitement among it’s payload of mainly English and Americans that the giant Jumbo Jet approached San Francisco. Suddenly there was the great city below and landmarks familiar with so many films and television programmes were there to be seen in real life. Soon the wheels were supporting the great sky liner along the runway. This was California – just ten hours after leaving Heathrow.
During that ten hour flight I discovered the secret of Richard Branson’s success. He gives the public what they want – The best value, the best staff and the best service. I spoke with many seasoned travellers on the flight – one man summed it up in a sentence “I tried the rest and found Virgin the best”
Now it was a dash for the baggage, interrupted by another check at the customs barrier where I saw my first American Policeman – Yes! They do carry guns on the hip.
The baggage carousel was a doddle, thanks to Jo’ who has done this trip many times before. She had stuck white box tape around our cases and they were easily visible amongst the multitude of baggage and parcels that paraded in front of us. Into the arrivals area and there we were greeted by Leonora and ‘Mountain Jim’ whom I had heard so much about but had never met before. Here I got my first real taste of genuine American warmth and friendship which became so much a part of my Californian visit. There can be no doubt that America is Britain’s strongest ally and friend. That friendship spreads from the U.S. Government through the people. It is a friendship that has stood the test of time and since the terrible day of September Eleven has grown even stronger. They respect the English Pound. They still call a gallon a gallon and a mile a mile. They are great people, the only fault I could find is that they all drive on the wrong side of the road. One American gentleman asked why Britain considered joining Europe? “Join us” he said “And we will change the name of Dollars to Pounds”. What about changing to left hand drive?” I quizzed. “I guess that would be too much to ask” was his reply “But you would be better driving on the right with us than with the Europeans” Thinking of all the times when Britain and America have stood together in the past and present times and of the genuine friendship most Americans feel towards us I wonder if it might be a better option!
‘Mountain Jim’ set off from the Airport. Not only do Americans drive on the left but they TURN RIGHT ON RED! I thought we were jumping the lights and just closed my eyes and waited for the bang. But no, all was well, that is how their system works. Driving on four lane highways is another eye opener. Cars overtake on both sides! There seems to be no slow lane. I was glad to be in the capable hands of Jim, he went with the flow with the practised ease of a man who has driven on roads in many different countries in his years of service with the U.S. Navy. He disclosed a fact to me that I had not realised before – Japan is a drive on the left country. His method of keeping everything in perspective is to get in ones mind that the steering wheel is always in the middle of the road. ‘Great’ I thought, but what about when you take your right hand drive British car and drive it on the continent?
My first impression of America as we took that one hour drive to Mountain View was of never ending roads set out in a grid iron style, somewhat on the lines of Winchelsea but magnified by about twenty on the width and with a traffic volume one thousand times greater. Each corner having traffic lights and every section of road having a different speed limit which you exceed at your peril as, unlike Rye, there are masses of police cars and policemen on foot everywhere one looks.
Some classes of motoring offences have a ‘get out clause’. A ‘FIX-IT TICKET’ is provided on request for failing to display a tax sticker. A trip to the police station or even just by providing evidence that your tax has been paid to any policeman will result in the fine being cancelled. Other remedy measures are offered. A speeding ticket will result in a fine but if the offender goes on an organised driving lesson the record will be wiped clean restoring a clean licence which will keep the insurance premium low.
Petrol is cheap – less than £1 a gallon. America is more than accommodating to the motor car. There are Drive-In Fast Food Outlets, Drive-In Cinemas, Drive-in Motels and even Drive-in shops. Drive through Car Washes are plentiful. Car parking is readily available and usually FREE. It seems that everything is geared to the car user – indeed for those that don’t own or have the use of a car – life must be almost impossible. The small community shops, in the Bay Area at least, are virtually extinct. It is all Shopping Centres and ‘Strip Malls’ with big name stores repeating themselves time after time. In fact the ‘Strip Malls’ are so similar in their content it is almost impossible for the outside user to distinguish one from another.
Surprisingly, food prices in the supermarkets seem higher than they are in Rye. Food tastes different too. There seems to be far more sugar in bread. Butter, cheese and milk all have a very different flavour. Service in the shops is much different. The customer is king and the assistants are ALWAYS helpful, cheerful and plentiful. It is a pleasure to part with one’s cash in face of such personal attention and the obligatory ‘Have a nice day’ has a genuine ring.
Mountain View is in the heart of Silicon Valley – ‘Dot.com.’ country, where the internet is king. Recent events have been a blow to this rich American money belt. The collapse of many Dot. Com Companies, due to over rapid growth fed by the too optimistic predictions of many entrepreneurs and the recent terror attack has put the whole of American business on the back foot. Many redundancies have been the result.
The Bay area of San Francisco has been hard hit but Americans are not the type of people to give up and already the signs of recovery are about. Record purchases on the internet are an early sign that the good times may soon return. Mountain View still has a small downtown shopping area where a young chap made a good job of repairing my shoes at a price slightly higher than I would have paid ‘Richard the Snob’ in Rye. He went on to sell me a dozen pairs of socks, quite an achievement as I did not need any and normally have quite a good sales resistance – the spirit of American enterprise lives on!
There are so many things that impress in America. One really good thing about the country is that it shares the common assets. School and University grounds and facilities are completely open at the weekends and holidays for everyone to enjoy and unlike in this country, almost ALL students are proud of their educational facilities and vandalism is virtually unknown. I saw no graphite or smashed windows, the streets and footpaths are devoid of litter (A sign that littering carried a $1000 fine may have something to do with this). Policemen are evident on foot and in vehicles everywhere. A Local Police Chief told me that he had 200 uniformed men operating at all times in his area and this number did not include F.B.I and other specialists units. A far cry from Rye’s one and a half Officers. California is cyclist’s heaven. Cycle Paths abound – ALL hard surfaced and separated from footpaths. There are also cycle lanes on most roads, divided from the traffic by thick white lines where the motorist encroaches at his peril. Cycling is encouraged and supported. The Mountain View Cycling Club has a very large membership. Road bikes are much more popular than mountain bikes, even for the casual rider, probably because of the long distances between shops, work places etc.
What about the scenery? Mountains, covered with enormous redwood trees, surround the Bay Area. The coastline is amazing, varying from long golden sands to vast areas of rugged rock which the Pacific rollers batter on a rough day. Facilities on the coast are amazing. Long coastal footpaths and cycleways, surfing, roller skating, hang gliding and water sports of all kinds.
San Francisco with it’s Golden Gate and Alcatraz is a mecca for tourists. This is the town where they say anything is obtainable. I did not try everything but I did go for the ice cream, it was more than delicious and the serving would have been enough for a year in English measures.
Monterey I had heard of from the Sinatra song. It was all that could have been imagined and Carmel with it’s famous Pebble Beach Golf Course was even better than expected.
There was always a reminder of home. I came across Cuschieri’s Auction Gallery in Redwood City. It was so much like Rye Auction Galleries in the way that things were set out and in the presentation of the Catalogue. The sale itself was an eye opener. A fast talking auctioneer ran through the lots at a rate of 120 an hour, the same at Rye.
Peter Cuschieri, a charming man who was very interested in an auctioneer from England and showed us his gallery with a great deal of pride, is just about to change the frequency of his auctions from three weekly to fortnightly, which matches up to the number of sales at Rye Auction Galleries.
There are organised courses for almost every type of interest. I attended a ‘Tribal Yoga Session’ run by Jo’ Vincent’s daughter Rebecca and her friend Marti. This was a big variation from a normal Yoga work out. It was accompanied by Tribal music performed by a group of professional musicians and part of the Yoga exercises were dance oriented, in fact, to the observer, the spectacular ‘Dance for the Musicians’ was the highlight of the event.
Walking is a very popular pastime, there are dozens of designated walking routes in every beauty spot. Forest walks, Cliff top walks, Beach walks and Shoreline walks – I did them all (Jo” is a very keen walker and knows ALL the routes!). I wished I had taken my bike along for the trip.
There were times when I became homesick. I came across “The Mermaid Hotel” in Menlo Park. It even had a coaching arch of sorts. And Jo’s house was full of David Sharp Pottery, even though she has been in America for forty years. It’s like I told her, anyone from this quaint old town will miss it when they move away. – Most who leave come back someday. For as a famous Ryer once said “The sound of the Quarter Boys will draw you further than gunpowder can blow you.”
I really enjoyed my three weeks in California. I loved the genuine hospitality of the people, and was especially touched by a party held in my honour. The scenery is spectacular. I look forward to making many visits in the future. Next to Rye, California must be the best place in the world.
From the February 2002 issue of Rye’s Own
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