I dunno. I go away for a week, and you lot go all quiet on me. Hellooooo! Anybody there??
Anyway, I’ve just bumped into Don Eduardo in town, and he has said that he is looking forward to reading my report of the week in California. I hate to disappoint, so here goes.
As some of you already know, the primary purpose of my trip was not pleasure, but business, and related to The Project, about which I still can not really say much (a situation that, hopefully, will change in the next week or two). As a result, the week was actually pretty hard work, and I’m pretty tired by it all (hence sleeping for 14½ hours). It was, however, incredibly productive and useful, and I’ve returned with reams of notes, plus lots of other literature to read, digest and file in a retrievable fashion.
But you lot want to know what happened. I guess it’s best to tackle it in a chronological order.
I flew out on Saturday 18th, leaving home at some godforsaken hour to get the earliest train to London Heathrow. My train was on time, and I managed to lug myself and my luggage from the rail platform to the tube platform at Victoria, on to Green Park and onto the Piccadilly line towards Heathrow. Inevitably, there wasn’t a seat, so I was wedged against a door, but this turned out to be fortuitous when the train terminated at Hatton Cross, one stop short of Heathrow, due to an “incident” on the line ahead (two trains had had a low speed collision, so I heard). Because I was by the door, I was first off the train, and therefore near the front of the queue for the 253 bus from Hatton Cross to Heathrow Central Bus Station (conveniently right outside Terminal 3). I’ve never seen so many people and luggage crammed onto one single deck bus, with at least six times as many people stood outside looking brassed off about not getting the bus. Top marks to the driver, who was good natured, helpful and jovial, and took a lot of heat out of a situation with a lot of bad-tempered travellers.
The queue at the American Airlines desk was extremely long, but because I’d allowed plenty of time for check-in, these delays didn’t worry me too much. Eventually, relieved of my case, but still clutching my jacket, day sack and the all-important box of plants, I was able to grab a coffee (Starbucks – ick) and amble to the gate. I was thoroughly checked over at the security desk, although the sealed box of plants was never opened – the inspectors took the plant health paperwork as evidence enough, and maybe I don’t fit their profile for a terrorist.
On the plane, I was relieved to find that I had the aisle seat I had requested, and an empty seat next to me, so room enough to stretch out. I much prefer Boeing 777s to 747s, as the facilities are better and the flight seems smoother, based on my limited experience. And American make a big thing out of having the longest seat pitch in economy of any transatlantic airline – it was just enough for me to stretch my (long) legs out straight under the seat in front. Marks deducted for making an extra charge for a glass of wine with the meal though – but, for me, legroom counts for more than the provision of free wine.
The flight itself was largely uneventful. I slept a little, ate the “food” that was presented, watched one of the movies that was offered (Blood Work) and listened to the on-board radio channels. Flying over Canada and the US, there were some stunning views, particularly as we crossed over the Rocky Mountains, Lakes Mead and Mohave and the scenery of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and southern California.
We arrived at Los Angeles ahead of schedule, only to lose that advantage by being held on the tarmac for twenty minutes or so. This was the only time at which the children in the family of ten sat in front of me (two brothers of south Asian origin, their wives, and six children) got a little testy. I must confess that my heart sank when I saw them get on board and sit down – I was worried that the kids would be whinging and complaining all the way, but instead they were fantastic – the parents took it in turns to take them to a window to look out. The model of good parenting, I’d say.
Once in the terminal, I went through immigration and, much to my relief, successfuly deposited the box of plants with the US Department of Agriculture people – all the paperwork was in order, and the process went smoothly. Then I walked through the terminal, went through more security checks and took the courtesy bus out to the American Eagle terminal for my flight to Santa Barbara. This was on a Saab 340, a small turboprop aircraft, and was really fun. We flew low, affording great views of LA and the Coastal Ranges, before spiralling down over the sea to make our landing slightly ahead of schedule (you get the impression that the pilots enjoy the spiralling over the sea rather more than they should!).
My hosts, Geoff and Maureen, met me at the airport. There isn’t much chance of losing someone at Santa Barbara airport. Even though the “gates” are numbered, they are actually just doors leading into one building that isn’t much bigger than your average English primary school. I picked up my bag, and we headed back to their home, just five minutes from the airport, and unpacked before enjoying a very large G&T before heading to the Brown Pelican seafood restaurant for dinner. I was too tired to eat properly, but we made the best of it and finished off with a walk along the beach, where I dabbled my digits in the warm waters of the Pacific.
Sunday was a good day. Geoff, Maureen and I talked shop for a while, before we headed to an al-American diner for brunch, followed by a trip to a garden promoting drought-tolerant plants sponsored by the local water company, and then into the centre of Santa Barbara to go to the splendid Arlington Theater to see the Santa Barbara Symphony‘s 50th anniversary concert. I’m not usually a big proponent of classical music (as radio grayblog listeners will be well aware), but the concert really was fantastic and very enjoyable.
After the concert, we walked a little in the city centre, and ended up in a wine bar for a glass and a snack, before heading back to base.
Monday was the first working day. It was also the first day for Geoff and Maureen’s new employee, Karen. I was able to help out with the work, bouncing ideas around, and also helping Karen out with some tasks. Sometimes you meet someone and instantly get along, and that was the case with me and Karen – she is exactly the sort of person I’d like to have working for me on The Project, but I’m just not in a position financially to be able to recruit just yet (especially not someone who lives so far away!). By the end of the day, we were all ready to head back to base and enjoy some of Maureen’s cooking and cocktails.
Tuesday began a broadly similar pattern. Lots more work in the office, including a detailed tour of their systems, database and networks. All of this has given me a much greater understanding of the American market, which will be intertwined with my own activities in the UK and EU, as well as an idea of the systems and structures that I will need to effectively run my own operation. (For those that haven’t worked it out, Geoff and Maureen run an operation that is similar to The Project, and have agreed to act as my mentors – something that I’m already finding to be invaluable).
Tuesday afternoon gave an opportunity for a break. Geoff dropped me in the centre of downtown Santa Barbara with Maureen’s cellphone so I could check in when I was ready to be picked up. I now had a few hours to explore, always my favourite activity in any new city. I started outside the courthouse, a rather lovely building (photos will follow, I promise), and walked through to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The SBMA is excellent, with a splendid collection of internationally important works, including an eye-opening selection of Latin American art. There was also an excellent exhibition entitled photoGENEsis: Opus 2, which was a series of specially commissioned photographic works reflecting the importance of the human genome project, as well as its implications. This was not only beautiful, but thought-provoking, and did not a little to contribute to a somewhat excited discussion on the theme of GM that evening after dinner. My one criticism of the SBMA was the lack of good literature reflecting the collection that could be purchased for future reference, or as a souvenir of a visit.
After that I walked along the main street in Santa Barbara, State Street, heading towards the sea. This gave me a chance to take in a couple of music stores, including a serious spending session in the excellent Morninglory Music where I was able to chat extensively on the comparisons to be made between Santa Barbara and UK music scenes. After that, my walk took me past Santa Barbara’s oldest building, as well as the City Hall, newspaper offices and on to an excellent farmer’s market, where I bought some huge strawberries and some iris blooms for Maureen. Santa Barbara has a strict plannng code that forces architects and developers to use a Spanish style of construction, and prohibits any building of more than two storeys. I can see advantages to this: it certainly creates a distinctive style and small-town atmosphere, but also clearly limits the place – I think a few more modern and contemporary buiildings would be a good thing, and would provide a striking counterpoint to the local style.
After the street market I headed into the mall, making the obligatory visit to Macy’s and also into a store called Structure where I purchased three Express long-sleeved tops for the ridiculously low price of US$22.50, which works out at $7.50 each – roughly £5 each. A slight problem regarding my credit card (I had no photo ID with me) was easily resolved by a trip to the ATM, which allowed me to be slightly smug to the assistant who had initially declined my purchase.
Once my shopping was complete, I headed to Ralph’s, an impressive Waitrose-esque store, to purchase the ingredients needed for my famous chicken in champagne and wild mushroom sauce. Maureen dropped by to pick me up, then we headed back to base for cocktails and cookery. Maureen and Geoff were very impressed by the dish, which incorporated woodear mushrooms, a type of mushroom that I had never encountered before and which certainly looked like a dark brown ear. Tasted good though.
On wednesday morning we hit the road and drove north up 101 towards San Francisco. along the way we dropped in on a couple of nurseries where we picked up Karen. At one nursery we didn’t have the opportunity to look around, as it was a trail nursery and therefore we were not permitted access, but used it as an opportunity to meet up with some people. At the second nursery, we were able to have a look around, and I found it to be very useful and enlightening to see how American wholesale nurseries work. Plant container sizes are generally larger than they are in the UK and Europe, but many other features were very familiar indeed.
After stopping by Pismo Beach for a short break and to drop Karen’s car off, we headed onwards to San Francisco, calling at King City for a rest break in another all-American diner. The scenery on the journey was spectacular, as 101 runs between the San Rafael Mountains and the sea, before crossing the high ground between the San Rafaels and the Santa Lucia Range and entering the Salinas Valley. The hills at this time of year are very green, recalling scenery in Ireland or the Peak district, only a lot bigger. Telegraph wires are dotted here and there by eagles and hawks, who do indeed know that they are cool. The Salinas Valley is completely filled, as far as the eye can see, with vineyards. These operations are huge, with lines of vines stretching literally miles into the distance. Maureen told me that much of the area under vines had been planted very recently, even though California is facing a crisis of overproduction of wine and grapes. I guess we can look forward to a lot of cheap Californian wine in the seasons to come.
We also passed a couple of military bases and also a fairly sizeable oil field, with dozens of “nodding donkey” type pumps working to lift the oil and deliver it to rows of tankers in railway sidings.
Eventually we arrived at our destination, San Mateo, and found our hotel easily. From there we went to another hotel for a meeting of the Perennial Plant Association, which I was able to sit in on. Apparently, several people were wondering what on earth I was doing there, and at least one person thought I’d been sent from the UK specifically to check them out, which I find intensely amusing. But I made two or three new contacts there that are likely to prove useful in the future, and was generally spurred to make a return trip for the PPA’s convention in July.
After the meeting, we headed north into the centre of San Francisco to meet up with Geoff and Maureen’s daughter, Lucy, at her home and headed out for dinner. We were going to take a streetcar, but there didn’t seem to be one running and we didn’t want to stand in the rain (although I had no complaints – it was the southern Californian contingent that didn’t like it!), so we took the car instead. The five of us enjoyed an excellent Italian meal, and then were treated to a splendid view of the financial area as we walked back to the car, including the striking TransAmerica pyramid. I was reminded of the opening scenes of BladeRunner, with the cars flying around the darkened buildings in the rain – it was exactly that atmosphere. It’s a shame I didn’t have an opportunity to explore San Francisco – I’ll have to add that to the list of things to do on my next trip.
After dropping Lucy off, we headed back to the hotel.
Next day (Thursday), we took breakfast at the hotel before going to the NorCal trade exhibition at the San Mateo Expo, a show for nurseries, growers’ suppliers and suppliers to garden centres. This was extremely interesting for all of us. Geoff, Maureen and Karen had not been to that show before, and so were all set for carrying out their own business there. I was able to do some business for myself too, mainly in a research mode, but also making a few new contacts too, aided by excellent introductions from Geoff and Maureen. The NorCal show is only a one day affair, and we all felt it would be better if it was two – although we arrived soon after it opened at 9am, and stayed until after it closed at 5pm, stopping only briefly for a working lunch and splitting up at times to try and cover more of the booths, we only just managed to see everything and were completely exhausted by the end of it all. I have a thick pile of brochures from the show, plus an extensive list of people to keep in my contacts file.
After the show, we met up with Lucy before driving all the way back to Santa Barbara, pausing for a break at the King City diner once again, and to drop Karen off at her home in Pismo Beach. By the time we got back to base, it was 1.30am and we were all utterly exhausted.
Friday morning saw us all surface blearily. Lucy had to go to her attorney’s office to make a deposition concerning a car accident she had been involved in some weeks before, whilst we headed into the office to begin analysis of the results of the trade show. At lunch time, I treated Geoff, Maureen, Karen and office manager Susan to lunch at Derf’s, just one block down from their office. After that, it was time for goodbyes. After being dropped back at the airport and checking in, I sat in front of the airport terminal building (makes it sound much more grand than it is), looking up to the San Rafael Mountains and reflecting on my stay as I soaked up the Californian sun. Honestly, I did not want to leave. It’s a great place, with friendly people and a good atmosphere. Geoff and Maureen have a hard-working but ultimately extremely enjoyable lifestyle – something that I will have to work hard at to recreate on this side of the Atlantic. But that is the goal, and to do that I had to come home. Let’s hope that Man From NatWest has some good news for me tomorrow.
The flight back was a reverse of the flight out – another Saab 340 to LAX, then another 777 to LHR. On the flight to LAX, I was one of only seven passengers on the plane, but the LAX leg was full. Thankfully, the guy sat next to me was one of the go-to-sleep types, which suited me fine, as that was my plan also.
I arrived at LHR yesterday afternoon, and after picking up bags, found my way to the RailAir bus to Woking, on which I was the only passenger. Annoyingly, trains between Woking and Guildford were suspended due to engineering, so I had to take another bus, but eventually I found my way back to Chichester. It’s good to be home. I really enjoyed my stay in California, and would go again at the drop of a hat, but it is here that my current opportunities lie, and it is up to me to grasp them and make the most of them.
And, so as to keep you fully up-to-date considering that I’ve shared some of the developments between us that have occured in the past few weeks, I had a visitor here last night. Joanna came over, and we talked for a while. It isn’t going to be easy for us, but we are going to work at things and see what happens. There is no guarantee that we’ll get back together, especially when you consider the external pressures that we are both under, but we’ll give it a go. It also is not going to happen overnight. But I’m keen to try things again, and have been chewing over it all during my stay in Santa Barbara – and my chewings brought me back to one consistent conclusion. I’m relieved that I’m going to get the opportunity to see if that conclusion was the correct one.
Right, after that typing marathon, I’m off to cook some dinner.