Archive for the ‘Living in America’ Category

Muscle Shoals

Listen kids.  Back in the old days we used to buy our music in the form of LP records.  I agree it’s much better now; you can discover almost anything immediately and it doesn’t cost as much.  But there were a few things that were better then, and one of these was the album cover.  When you first bought a record, you used to pore over every single word and picture on that album cover and sleeve.  You could learn who played each instrument or sound; what each lyric was; and where it was recorded.  The dedications were usually a bit unfathomable, but the art work was usually cool.  Album covers were great and it all started to go downhill when CDs replaced them.

When I was an adolescent I remember noticing that quite a few of the records I liked were recorded in a place called Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  I’d never heard of the place and there was no internet to help correct my ignorance.  I recall looking in an atlas to find where it was, but I couldn’t find it either because it was such a small town or because I erroneously thought it must be on the coast.  My parents didn’t have the type of reference material that might include Muscle Shoals. If it had been a wild flower of Britain or a Greek myth or legend, I would have been fine but rock music just wasn’t my parents’ thing.  

Anyway today we were passing near so we visited.  I wanted to see where The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and others all recorded music.

Muscle Shoals is a very ordinary town of 14,000 people near the Tennessee River.  The main drag has multiple strip malls on both sides and the usual array of franchised fast food joints.  There are two studios in town.  Fame Studios was the original, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio the offshoot formed when the house band, The Swampers, left Fame Studios.  You’ve probably heard of The Swampers from the lyrics of Sweet Home Alabama:

“Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers.

And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.

Lord, they get me off so much,

They pick me up when I’m feelin’ blue”

Fame Studios is sandwiched between a CVS and a Walgreens (English translation Boots The Chemist and Superdrug).  As you can see, it’s a very ordinary building and it needs some updating.  The cars in the parking lot were 10-30 year old Toyotas and Chevrolets, not a Ferrari in sight.

I got talking to a man eating his salad lunch outside the building.  He was a London-based music producer.  I asked him why he had come all this way to record music.  He said the sound here was unique.  The musicians who lived in this part of Alabama just played differently from those elsewhere. The relative integration of the whites with their music traditions and the blacks with their different influences had created a richer sound here than elsewhere.  They also played more traditional versions of their instruments and the walls of the studio held the music better than studios elsewhere.  The result of these three factors meant that the sound created here was unique.  These musicians didn’t travel so if you wanted the sound you had to come here.  

We weren’t allowed to go into the studio.  Someone called Arkansas Dave was recording a song.  He will do well to beat the average of the songs produced here.


The opposite of a bucket list

People regularly compile lists of 50 or 100 things you should do before you die – places to visit; films to see; books you really should read; and experiences you should have. The topic of this blog is 7 things I never want to do again in my life.

1. Go Whale Watching. I’ve done this at least twice in my life: once off the coastline of Maine; the second time off the coast of California. Now, undoubtedly, these are better places to see whales than in, say, Oklahoma…..but only just.

It seems to me that whale watching consists of getting in a fairly small boat for several hours. After a short period of time, about half of your party goes green with sickness and retreat inside the boat. They can’t wait for the experience to end. The other half isn’t so lucky. They get to point at objects on the far horizon. While it is quite fun to point at a random point in an excited way to see how many people also see the non-existent whale, you do eventually end up glimpsing a whale tail. At the end of the experience, you are left with very many photographs of the sea where allegedly there was once a whale. Whale watching is a waste of time; go and see Shamu instead.

2. Read The Bible. I’ve also done this twice. Now the Old Testament is pretty interesting in parts, but there is far too much begatting for my liking. The New Testament is just made up, and Paul is a bigot who would be too extreme even for Fox News.

3. Go to Disneyland. I have been to all the Disney properties around the globe; California twice; Florida too many times to remember; and Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong once each. That’s it. I don’t need to do it again (sorry kids). I get that it’s magic; it’s definitely clever, but has anyone ever done the math(s) on how expensive it is? It cost about $400 for my family of four for one day at Magic Kingdom. At most times of the year when you get to take a vacation, the park is really crowded. Almost all of the lines quickly extend to over an hour in length. Maybe you will get to do 8 rides or features that are worth paying for. That’s $50 per feature.

4. Eat a Hershey’s chocolate bar. I’m sorry to break this to everyone, but they taste of vomit.

5. Eat at a Taco Bell. I only attempted to do this once. What a profoundly depressing experience that was. Utilitarian, dirty, ingredients seemingly sourced on the basis only of price. A friend of mine recently told me that he had once gone to Taco Bell but that they weren’t able to serve anyone. Apparently, their meat hose was blocked. Yeuch. Go to Willies or Chipotle instead.

6. Watch a Director’s cut movie or indeed any movie over 3 hours in length. Directors – You should be able to tell your story in 90 to 100 minutes (2 hours max). Producers – Fewer people go to very long films. Cut the film and see your revenues rise. I won’t be seeing Wolf of Wall Street.

7. Go to Las Vegas. Where to start? Let’s start with the positive elements. I like the brash nature of the shows, especially the magic ones. I like that the airport is near to the Strip.

Now, let’s move on to the debit column:
i) Incessant noise everywhere and at all times of day and night. The first two occasions that we went there, we checked out and left the city early. Seeing Las Vegas in my rear view mirror were my favourite memories.
ii) What is the point of a slot machine? It’s just a mechanism designed for you to waste your time. You will eventually lose all of your money. I just can’t see the joy in holding a large cup of grubby quarters and putting them into a machine, or of playing long enough for someone to come up to you to offer you a comp (lementary drink)….Especially, when you are obliged to pay a tip greater than the value of the drink.
iii) The length of the buffet lines at any time you typically would eat. The only more depressing experience is the quality of food from most of these buffets, above that of Taco Bell but only just.
iv) There are some seriously long walks either inside the hotel or between hotels. It doesn’t look too far because of perspective; the length of your walk just looks short compared to the huge size of your hotel destination. Also, I don’t much appreciate all of the fliers for girls thrust in your hand or strewn on the sidewalk.

Besides, I was married there.

I am now preparing myself for all of the responses from Shamu-lovers, Vegas residents, bible-bashers, Micky fans, aficionados of long films, smore gourmands and, of course, my wife. The only fans who won’t object are Taco-Bell lovers (because they can’t read).

9 rules for swimming off (almost) every beach in St Thomas in a day (or die trying)

Rule 1 – Get up early
If you roll out of bed at midday, you are not going to see many beaches. Wake your children and wife early and wake them often. Remove all sheets and duvets. Use threats to make them move, eg If you don’t get out of bed now, we will have to eat Subway for lunch rather than a fish restaurant with exceptional views across a bay. NB This threat works better on one’s wife rather than one’s children. Also, another threat that doesn’t work is to tell your younger daughter that if she doesn’t get into the bathroom before her sister, she will have to wait a long time.

Rule 2 – Rent a car
You can take taxis, but it will cost you more and take longer. There are so many cruise ships that dock at St Thomas, you have to book a rental (hire) car months before. We used Avis. There appears to be no correlation between your booking of an Avis rental car and its availability. In Dominica, we learnt that a reservation of a rental car did not necessarily mean that a car was reserved (?). We got to the Avis office as it opened. The lady looked shocked to see us. She immediately was on the phone to her boss. “I have 9 reservations and no cars. What do you recommend?” We were fortunate that a car (double upgrade) was returned as we waited. All the other families that hadn’t followed rule 1 were probably less fortunate.

Rule 3 – Travel around the island in some logical order
We went anti-clockwise or (counter-clockwise as I now must call it). You can criss-cross the island, but the roads are narrow and the traffic jams can be significant.

Rule 4 – Enjoy the beaches but move on quickly if something isn’t right.
Our first beach, Morning Star, was only a couple of miles from Charlotte Amalie. It’s also known as Frenchman’s Bay Beach and is surrounded by Marriott properties. We thought the beach was too narrow and the backdrop too built up and moved on quickly. Vessup Bay suffered a similar fate later.

Rule 5 – Be very picky about the characteristics of a great beach
Our second beach, Bolongo Bay, had lots of great things. Lots of water toys, great view out to sea. Also, any beach with iguanas is a very good beach in my view. However, there was only a single iguana on the beach….and in St Croix (Manchenil beach), a pair of iguanas walked two feet away from where we were sunbathing. Also, the water was a bit too cloudy for snorkelling. We did like the free wifi for Nancy to play with her new iPhone and another iguana who was drinking from the swimming pool.


Rule 6 – Some beaches are hard to find
Secret cove is well named.

Rule 7 – Children doing something for the first time will delay you
After years of resisting snorkelling, Nancy decided to give it a try. Who can blame her? Coki Point is excellent for snorkelling. The water is incredibly clear and you swim amongst thousands of fish. They also sell dog biscuits on the beach to entice the fish to you. You will soon have a hundred or more fish nibbling off your dog biscuit. Coki Point is not a perfect beach; for two things, it’s very difficult to park and there are too many people on the sand and in the water. There are lots of independent vendors on and around the beach. Nancy had her hair braided on this beach a few years ago and I can still remember the screams.



Rule 8 – You will end up eating in Subway anyway
We couldn’t get Nancy out of the water and we were running out of time.

Rule 9 – Make sure your last beach is the best beach
Magens Bay was meant to be the penultimate beach. We love Magens Bay (see pictures below) and it regularly appears in the top beaches around the world. There is an extreme difficulty in getting the family to move from this beach. You have to pay an admission charge ($4 per adult, but free for children if you pretend they are younger than they are), but this keeps the crowds manageable. The water at Magen’s Bay was crystal clear; the sand white and fine; the temperature in December ideal; and the wildlife magnificent. Tilly and Nancy were playing an aquatic version of American Football in the water (which seemed to be mainly an excuse for jumping on boys). The upshot of all of this was that we never made our final beach, Brewer’s Bay.


Flying to Culebra

We decided to fly from San Juan, Puerto Rico to the beautiful island of Culebra on Vieques Air Link (VAL).

Weight seemed to be extremely important for the check in process. Every bag was measured very carefully and we were all asked for our own weight. Lorna severely underestimated her own weight, no doubt the result of the cruise we had recently been on. It was somewhat unseemly to have to step onto the machine that weighed one’s luggage.

Security was less rigorous than we were used from TSA at Atlanta airport. There was no taking off of shoes, removal of iPads, disposal of liquids, or indeed screening of luggage. It was however very friendly. The announcer called passengers by Christian name.

Nancy was extremely keen to have a window seat, something that was easy to accommodate in the 8 person, 4 row plane.


Seat assignments were by weight with Lorna and I on opposite sides of the plane. One lucky passenger was chosen for the co-pilot seat. I’m not entirely sure about her level of training for the role. As the pilot on this airline was only qualified to fly during daylight hours, I’m sure she wasn’t too under qualified. A two step ladder was placed on the ground to help us embark.

I read the emergency briefing details carefully (printed in Benbridge, Isle of Wight, England). I noted the first instruction: “Locate the emergency exit”. It was by my right knee and labeled by Dymo-label “emergency exit”. As it was the only door, it was pretty easy to find. Furthermore, if I moved my right knee I could move the door from locked to closed and then to open.


We were soon flying above San Juan and then the ocean. As you can see, the views from 115 metres up (I could see the altimeter) were compelling. The breeze from the propellers was refreshing and it was only a matter of time before Lorna volunteered to do a spot of wing walking.


The landing was smooth. One week in to our holiday (vacation), I felt our trip was beginning.

Subdivision – local life in an Atlantan suburb

In the part of the US where we live, most homes are organised into sub-divisions. These are communities of houses that share facilities like floodlit tennis courts, Swimming Pool, Clubhouses, playgrounds, basketball courts, BBQ areas, lakes etc.


The main purpose of the sub-division is to maintain the value of the houses in that area. Under US tax code – while land may appreciate in value – the actual houses themselves are assumed to depreciate (probably because there is such a high premium on new build properties). To keep values as high as possible, communities offer both attractive facilities and also enforce strict rules on residents to protect collective value. The better the facilities are, the more likely it is that people want to live in your area and hence the higher your property value. Our pool has a large water slide (which sets it apart from its rivals). Other sub-divisions are gated and have security on hand to enable or prohibit access.

In the Land of the Free, there are many community-imposed rules. If you want to do anything to the outside of your property (eg, cut a tree down), you have to seek permission from the sub-division. There is genuinely a list of approved shades of paint that can be used. As a male, I thought there were only about 9 possible colours (black, white, red, blue, yellow, green, brown, orange and pink). This being America, there are far more choices available but you are restricted to painting your house using one of the approved hues. It is expected that you have high standards of garden/yard maintenance and most houses seem to outsource this to groups of people of Mexican-descent who descend on a property and tidy it up on weekly basis. There are also standards of behaviour that should be adhered to (eg, cars should be housed in garages at all times). As our goal is to integrate, we accept these rules and get on with life. The individualistic me however instinctively rails against the imposition of many of these standards. The little islander bit of me appreciates that everything is neat and tidy.

Every household pays a subscription each year for the services. It’s noteworthy that – in a country that typically fights against any tax increase (despite huge budget deficits) – people essentially volunteer to pay this tax (they could opt to live outside a sub-division). I think this may be because they can see the evident benefit they get for their money and know and trust the leaders elected to oversee the community.

The sub-division also creates a community, second perhaps only to that found at your church. As all those in the subdivision typically attend the same public schools, children build their initial friendship groups in these sub-divisions. Tennis teams for adults are formed around each sub-division. Children compete in regular swim-meets.


The sub-division funds a life-guard for the community pool, so parents can send their children off to the pool without worry for their safety. We had imagined that the ice cream van was a peculiarly British icon, but as you can see from below they have them here too (and they really are vans here)


A few years ago, I learnt that there was a TV channel called Adult Swim. I turned to it – incidentally, with great interest – and was disappointed to find that it was just an Atlanta-based cartoon network. Only since living in Atlanta have I realised that “Adult Swim” is what the lifeguard says when s/he goes for a break. Adult Swim has become synonymous with kids taking a break.

We are often told that USA is a classless-society where upward mobility from the bottom is a cornerstone of the American Dream. In recent years, you see fewer examples of this being true. For those who like data, you might want to view the Great Gatsby curve that plots intergenerational earnings elasticity against inequality here. One symptom of this can be seen in the subdivision, which classifies your wealth in an obvious way. Homes in sub-divisions are widely advertised as, for example, “From the 600s”, meaning that each home is valued from at least $600,000.

Most sub-divisions also provide meeting rooms and party venues. If you want to carry on your business from very near your home, it’s made very easy for you. You can rent an office or meeting room in your community. There are fairly regular sub-division events: garage sales for the whole subdivision; women’s clubs; and lots of pool parties. The sub-division also celebrates events, such as 4th July or High School Graduations (see picture below)


Balboa Island

Usually on the second stop of a holiday, Lorna lowers the pace of the holiday and we stop at a beach or a lake. This time, she has chosen an island off Newport Beach called Balboa Island.


Balboa Island is a high density, low rise community of cute houses. The harbour is crammed full of boats and the streets full of cake shops and ice cream/frozen banana parlours. It’s extremely kid-friendly, with hundreds of kids riding bikes and attending Junior Lifeguard camp dressed in a uniform of yellow tops and red shorts.

Lorna wants to retire here. From what, I don’t know. In any case, I’m not sure she has yet appreciated the price of houses here (just a shade below those of Lower Manhattan). The truth is that we would need a big lottery win to afford anything.

So what have we done? Tilly has spent beach time with two different friends from camp. The beaches here are as good as elsewhere on the California coast. We went surfing yesterday, but the surf was strong and broke too close to the shore. Instead we watched five big guys play in the surf and soon developed the game of human ten pin bowling to see how many would be left standing after the wave hit them. It was usually none. Often, the wave would knock them all over, they would stand up and then the undertow would knock them over again on the way back.

The island has a ferry over to the beach-fringed Balboa peninsula. $2 per car and $1 per human or bicycle.


We also went sailing in the harbour area with Tilly mainly at helm yesterday. Again there were shoals of summer camp children in pico sailing boats darting in and out of much larger (and more expensive) vessels

Every night the kids cycle to the town centre and we have an ice cream at one of the many ice cream and frozen banana parlours (NB Arrested Development is set on the island). The lines are long but the customers happy


Southern California

LA is often depicted as the home to movies, celebrities and beaches. I apologise in advance, but you won’t get a different viewpoint from this blog.


It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that we have been to plenty of movies since we’ve arrived in California. We now only have the very long Man of Steel unseen, and it will have to be a very wet day before this happens.

Every region of the world “goes to the movies” in a slightly different way. In Hong Kong, the main attraction starts exactly on time; therefore, unlike the UK, you shouldn’t stroll in 30 minutes after the advertised time expecting to catch the beginning … unless it’s a Michael Bay film (when it won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of the narrative). They sell very different food in HK too (puff balls, marinated meat on sticks). In North Africa, there is a kind of audience participation with the silver screen and food sellers patrol the aisles. Not the place to watch a sensitive exploration of Alzheimer’s, but would likely improve a Christopher Columbus film. In the UK, there are often many advertisements for nearby Indian restaurants. And somewhere else that I can no longer remember, they always had a break in the movie to allow people to buy food. This break happened at a predetermined time which could be in the middle of an action scene, emotional piece of dialogue or even joke.

The main difference in LA is that the movie audience stays for the credits at the end and they leap into applause or exultation when the name of someone they know appears on screen. With 125,000 people employed directly in the cinema and TV business at any one time and hundreds of thousands of others aspiring to work in the business, I guess it’s not surprising that you want to see exactly who was Best Boy Grip or Second Assistant Director.

We also took a Warner Brothers VIP studio tour. There wasn’t much VIP about the tour as they seemed to let you attend provided that you paid them the requisite amount of money. Almost all movies are now filmed on location, but it was great to see the backdrops for so many of my favourite films. The studio lot is now used predominantly for TV shows, and the sound stages were set up for all sorts of current TV programmes. We saw Ellen, Suburgatory and Big Bang Theory. Typically, there are 3 main sets and a number of side sets that they bring in for occasional use. So, for Big Bang Theory, the three main sets are Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, the Elevator space and Penny’s apartment and these are set up in line with each other. As the show has become more established, they have brought in side sets for Walowitz’s house, Cheesecake Factory and University. Comedies are invariably filmed in front of a live audience to improve the performance of the actors, and jokes that don’t work are hastily rewritten until they do.



We did a very half-hearted self-drive tour of Stars’ houses in LA. We had bought a map from a vending machine that showed who lives/lived where and we drove through some of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills. It’s quite a good way of seeing different neighbourhoods, but your chance of seeing a star is extremely low as all the houses with stars in them have very high walls and gates. Large numbers of buses tour the area and an even larger number of passengers eagerly take pictures of Stars’ gates. When they get home and are showing slides of their recent trip to friends and neighbours, I very much doubt whether they will be able to distinguish Michael Jackson’s gate from Aaron Spelling’s.

It is said that you are more likely to see a celebrity in a movie line or at a restaurant. This may be true, but my ability to recognise stars out of context is about on a par with, say, Lorna’s ability to spot an error in a single particle, non-relativistic Schrödinger equation.


My favourite part of LA and environs are the beaches. As Tilly pointed out (and Mr Wilson and Mr Love before her), the girls here are different from elsewhere on the planet. Long sun-bleached hair on stick like brown as berry bodies. We couldn’t go to all of the beaches, but here is a summary of those beaches we did visit:

Paradise Cove, Malibu. Best reason to come here was the restaurant on the beach (excellent). Nancy and I jumped the waves for a couple of hours while Lorna and Tilly perfected their tans. For older readers, Paradise Cove is where Rockford Files was filmed. Also filmed here were Lethal Weapon 4, American Pie 2, Charlie’s Angels, Indecent Proposal, Baywatch, Happy Days and thousands of other productions.


I strongly suggest that you watch the parking charges. It costs $40 for four hours’ parking unless you eat at the restaurant (which you need to book beforehand).

Manhattan Beach. Home to business men and athletes, lots here are almost twice the price of Bel Air (half an acre of land on the Strand will set you back about $35m). It’s a very long and deep beach with a factory at either end. It has a great pier and has outstanding surfing and beach volleyball. We all went boogie boarding in the fairly strong surf. Manhattan Beach has featured in 2012, Against All Odds, CSI, Hannah Montana, Jerry Maguire, The O.C, Point Break and 90210.


Venice beach. This was Nancy’s favourite. A cooler crowd hang out here: skateboarders, tattooists, in-line skaters, cyclists, politically activists, body builders, yoga enthusiasts, and macro-biotic vegetarians. Beach is very deep and perfect. There’s also homelessness and strong signs of drug culture. But if you are homeless, why would you live in a crappy area of town? Films set here include Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Double Indemnity, Falling Down, Fletch, Grease, The Net, Sea Biscuit amongst hundreds of others.

Santa Monica. We walked along Venice beach to Santa Monica pier. While the kids did the roller coasters, Lorna and I went on the big wheel and surveyed the whole area from up high. Movies filmed here include: Heathers, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, 17 Again, Species, Get Shorty, Ocean’s Eleven, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Sting, Ruthless People, Beverly Hills Cop III, Forrest Gump, Iron Man and Speed.

In case you want culture, the Getty Centre and Getty Villa are relatively nearby. Both free, except for $15 parking fee.