Wednesday, 30 November 2011
Oddly, I'm not as excited as I thought be. Not even as relieved - though doubtless that will happen tomorrow when I realise I can spend train time reading and free time inanely clicking on refresh on twitter, just like before. Maybe I should have planned some kind of momentous event or at least champagne drinking to celebrate with friends. Well, there's still time, so let me know.
I'm sure I'll be musing about NaNoWriMo a fair bit in the next few weeks: why I did it (to prove to myself that I still had it in me to be self-disciplined!), whether I'd do it again (the jury is still out at this point),why I hand write, and what I learned. But for now I wanted to proudly display my winner's badge:
I even got a winner's cerificate that I could customise and print, but since I haven't decided what to call myself or what to name the novel, I won't add it here just here. It's pretty fab though - those nice people at NaNoWriMo really have thought of everything. Almost everything. If someone could please design an app to count hand written words (so that you basically just point an iPad at a page), that would be wonderful.
Saturday, 26 November 2011
Maybe she's a Christian, and keeps using the Bible to make her arguments. Or maybe he's a West Wing fan, and borrows Aaron Sorkin's words frequently. (I resisted that particular temptation this time - in fact, it took me till page 133 to mention the West Wing at all, and that's because I wanted my character to wear a suit and backpack, and didn't feel like I could do that without a nod at Josh Lyman.)
If he says, "no", that's one word. If "he shakes his head no", that's five. If he "explains", that's one word. Have him "say by way of explanation" instead, and get yourself some extra.
Wednesday, 16 November 2011
In no particular order
Being complimented on my glasses
Walking where Bradley Whitford has walked
Being thought of as charming, because of the accent
Being asked if I am over 21
Flying over beautiful scenery
People on the Obama campaign loving me and giving me lots of attention because I've come all the way from Europe to help them out (and not at all for a holiday, oh no)
The convenience of everything
The speed of the internet on my mobile
The constant exciting prospect of perhaps bumping into someone famous (shame that I don't recognise anyone who a) wasn't on the West Wing and b) wasn't a pop star circa 1988-1992)
Getting to randomly speak and hear Spanish
Being asked if I am Spanish
The cheapness of electronics
A church where you get free muffins and bagels and you can buy almond-flavoured lattes
Churches with amazing music and depth of preaching
Starbucks - and especially their ubiquity
Being in the right time zone for reacting in real time to political news
Hanging out with other politically minded people
Getting to ask my political questions and not being thought of as stupid, since I'm British and it's therefore natural that I don't know
Being a novelty
People knowing what I'm talking about when I mention the West Wing
The friendliness of people when you meet them
Discovering new places
Wifi on trains
The gorgeous red of the sugar maples
Being offered tap water at every restaurant - sometimes having it brought to you without even having to ask
Having to repeat everything I say because no one understands me the first time round
Having to get most people to repeat what they say because I usually don't understand them the first time round
Toilets (sorry, restrooms) in public places like restaurants and airports: why don't they build cubicles whose walls reach from floor to ceiling? What is with those huge gaps - and the one between the door and its frame?
Never being quite sure if people know where Belgium is, but not wanting to assume and patronise by explaining, and feeling awkward about that every time someone asks me where I'm from
And, erm, that's it.
What I learned
Pasadena really is a lovely place. I could live there. You know, if I really had to for any reason.
Where I ate
Breakfast was yet another blackberry "scone" from Starbucks - I am a convert to those - and a grande latte.
Lunch was at the California Pizza Company close to All Saints Church in Pasadena. My waitress, Maria, was super friendly and nice, and the view was beautiful, and the barbecued chicken pizza was scrumptious - I loved the addition of coriander, it added a certain je ne sais quoi, as did the applewood smoked bacon. (I've noticed that bacon in America often seems to be applewood smoked, and while I don't really know what that is, the bacon in American often seems to be delicious, so I'd say they're onto a winner there.)
Dinner at Du Bar's in Studio City (not Studio 60, haha, I get that joke now) was purely functional and a little mediocre - kind of what I had assumed American food was usually like - a cheese and bacon burger that bore no ressemblance to the similar sounding but infinitely superior meal I had yesterday
Where I wrote
Determined to make my word count today (and I think I did), and being done with all the rushing around, I spent an hour in Vroman's scribbling away, and then after lunch another hour in Sabor 2, which is a very cool and trendy place to hang out but where the water tasted of very weak lemon squash and the caffe con leche was nothing like the ones from Spain.
Vroman's, though, did not disappoint. It's an enormous and very cool independent bookshop that also sells things like bags and shoes (?), and has a posh stationery shop attached to it. What with it being the last day I bought a couple of cheesy souvenirs and caved in to buying a novel, "Helen of Pasadena", which is probably not the kind of thing I normally read, but hey, how many other novels do you know that are set there? (Yes, yes, gap in the market - maybe my next book will be about a Brit who moves there in desperate hopes of meeting her favourite actor.)
American experience of the day
I spent the evening at a political book club, where they loved me, particularly when I told them (truthfully) that I'd scheduled my flight home so that I could be there. (Thankfully, it wasn't drizzling, so it didn't get cancelled.) It was fascinating. We were discussing a book called "The Whites of their Eyes" (which I'd read a decent chunk of, and enjoyed) and the discussion was well structured and I was able to ask questions. I learned a lot and it was a great environment for me. I loved being surrounded by other politically minded people and the buzz as they were planning trips to neighbouring states to help register voters. "Shame none of us speak Spanish," one of them said, and I said that I did, and that I'd like to come and help on the campaign, at which point I was offered a spare room in Woodland Hills. The aptness of this will not be lost on you if you know who else is from Woodland Hills - if you don't, never mind.
LA experience of the day
I always find it a bit nerve-wracking using public transport for the first time in a new city, and never quite knowing how safe it is. But although I was a bit nervous on the way home (until I got back on the gold line to Pasadena, because only nice people live there, apparently) I'm very glad I did it - I feel like I had a truly Californian experience, from the man who was "moved by the Spirit" to sing to us, to the young men practising transcendental meditation and then engaging a quantum physicist in debate about which was the most appropriate belief system.
Sunday, 13 November 2011
What I learned:
- It does, in fact, sometimes rain in Southern California. Sometimes the sky is grey and you shiver your way through the Hollywood tour bus experience and try to picture how beautiful it would all look against the backdrop of the blue sky you have been promised.
- I am incredibly rubbish at making decisions. I had a whole day scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday), but once Brianna asked me if I wanted to go home with her instead and spend the day in Riverside, it threw me into complete confusion and disarray.
Where I ate:
Breakfast was partly hotel, partly Starbucks. Lunch was at the Cheesecake Factory in Pasadena - their white chicken curry was yum, but unfortunately a little too fillling so that even between us we couldn't finish a piece of cookie dough cheesecake. But wow - what a menu!
In the evening, we stopped off on the way to Riverside at an In and Out drive-thru. As fast food goes, it was really quite okay - at any rate miles ahead of anything we have in Belgium!
Tourist experiences of the day:
Yes, yes, go ahead and judge me - I did the Hollywod bus tour. It was interesting, and our guide was fun, but he did repeat himself a bit and it would have been better in the daytime. (Also, when I asked him if he'd ever met Bradley Whitford, he said, "who?", which never bodes well.) Better still would have been the option to hop on and off which is falsely advertised - having been told there was a bus every half hour, we turned up in good time for the 4 o'clock, only to be told there were only two more buses - at 4.30 and 5.30 - which severely reduced hopping potential. Also, the rate advertised online is $20, but they opened the bidding at $45 and tried to make out they were giving us an amazing deal at the original price.
Beverley Hills was amazing, though, and if I ever come back, I know where to go for star spotting. And I enjoyed feeling cool and trendy sipping a cocktail at the Hard Rock Cafe.
Standing where George Clooney has stood was also quite fun, as was spotting the various stars' names on the Walk of Fame. (Kermit the Frog being my personal favourite).
More exciting than standing where George Clooney has stood, though, was standing where Bradley Whitford has stood - and will stand in a few months' time. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't wait till January to come, so I could see him in ART at the Pasadena Playhouse. I think it had something to do with wanting to network in DC in time to come back to volunteer early in the campaign. I think it was the right decision. But what with my rubbishness at decisions, who knows?
Friday, 11 November 2011
I've known about Staging Hope for some time: it's a documentary made by Melissa Fitzgerald (aka Carol from the West Wing, for those who are wondering) about a drama project in Northern Uganda. I thought it was going to be full of the kind of thing that's hard to hear and even harder to watch, the kind of thing that makes me flick channels when it's on the news because it hurts to be confronted with just how evil people can be and with my own inertia in the face of that same evil.
And there was some of that, of course. That, after all, is the reason d'être of the Voices of Uganda project and of the film which sprang from it.
But Staging Hope is warm and funny, too. It's the story of an unlikely friendship between a group of Ugandan teenagers - who have known nothing except war and poverty and the kind of suffering we would happily plug our ears with cotton wool not to have to hear about - and a group of American actors whose lives, like all of ours, are incredibly privileged by any reasonable standard.
It's the story, too, of the power of drama to connect people, to instil confidence, to help people tell about the things that they need to tell and that others need to hear. And if you're sceptical - if that sounds like Hollywood mumbo jumbo to you - then I defy you to watch this film and not change your mind.
Staging Hope is also something else, something that touched me deeply as someone who hopes one day to be recognised for her art. It's the story of one woman who used her relative fame and connections not for her own gain but for advocacy on behalf of others: to raise awareness of an issue, the war in Northern Uganda, which has been called the greatest forgotten humanitarian crisis of all time.
The children in the film repeatedly asked the Americans not to forget them; Melissa and her team have not. They are in regular contact with them, and are resourcing them to keep telling their stories and teach others to do the same. They've also been instrumental in bringing about a piece of legislation that has enjoyed unparalleled bipartisan support and that hopefully will contribute to ending the war and alleviating the suffering of the kids in the movie and thousands like them.
An issue like that one can feel dry and distant - bills debated on in Washington DC to help people we don't know in a country most of us couldn't place on a map. Staging Hope restores the human angle to the debate - more than that, it places it centre stage, no pun intended - and, rather than making me want to channel flick, it made me want to do something.
What I learned:
Californians are wimpy!
Let me explain. Right when I started planning my trip, I logged onto the barackobama.com site to see what political activities I could take part in while I'm here. I found the perfect one in Pasadena: voter registration on the farmer's market. I can do that, I thought. It's not as scary as phoning people, and there's always the chance Bradley Whitford might walk past and congratulate us on our hard work. Heck, he might even join in. It's the kind of thing he does, which is one of the reasons I love him. Anyway, I digress.
Today, I got an email. The event is cancelled, because it's going to rain. Oh, I thought, it's probably a tornado or something. Nope. Reading further in the email it turns out that drizzle is what's expected. Drizzle! Imagine if the rest of the world stopped doing things because it was drizzling!
Where I ate:
Breakfast was back at the Breadline, where I had so enjoyed my bacon and egg sandwich earlier in the week. I knew it almost certainly wouldn't be as good this time round, and it wasn't, but I was famished by the time I made it there, plus they were doing me a special favour - breakfast, they claimed, normally ends at 11, and it was well after that time - so I didn't mind too much.
Lunch was at the Newseum, and purely functional - I dived into the food court minutes before it closed (well, technically after it had already closed) so there wasn't much left. I had a small pepperoni pizza which was nothing to write home about but a little on the pricey side. Still, again, I didn't mind, or at least not too much, because it meant I only had to stop for about 15 minutes, and there was so very much to see.
Still, this left me with a quandary for dinner, because I had thought that in the absence of any blinding flashes of inspiration I might go back to We, The Pizza - partly because it's on that little stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue very close to the Capitol where I've found myself a few times this week - where the Hawk and Dove used to be and close to the Starbucks where I needed to be for the write in later on.
But leaving the Newseum and looking for a metro stop on the right line, then being distracted by some white tents on 8th Street, I came by a place called America Eats, which seemed like a fitting place for my last meal in DC. It had lots of traditional American food - including things like Clinton's gazpacho and some other president's stew. After much deliberation, I chose to have Southern Chicken alongside a waldorf salad. Now, if you think you've had Southern chicken because you've been to KFC, then let me assure you, you have not. It was delicious (though the third piece I had was a little dodgy and could perhaps have done with a minute or two more of cooking), and served alongside ketchup which is not like any ketchup I've ever tasted: blackberry rather than tomato based, with hints of Christmassy spices like nutmeg and cloves. Yum. The salad was excellent too, and I can't believe I almost didn't have the dessert: a delicious pecan pie served wtih ice cream and something called bourbon air. The combination of flavours was something else.
Where I wrote:
After my final latte at Peregrine, I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue, past We, The Pizza to the Starbucks on the corner of 3rd street (where I had popped in for a "scone" and a latte the morning I went canvassing). The upstairs was not remotely Starbucks like - it has enormous pipes on the ceiling, and a roaring fire (fake, but still) in the fireplace, and it was so very quiet as people sat and read or wrote. They kicked us out of that room at 8.30, which broke my flow a little (they are open till 9, and I moved downstairs, but it was very much not the same) and meant I had to finish off my six-page quota back in my hotel room. I may or may not have broken through the 10,000 word mark - I wish someone would invent an app where you can feed in handwritten pages and get a word count. Or maybe they have and I just don't know about it yet? Anyone?
Thursday, 10 November 2011
Georgetown is not as far as I thought it was (and it's still gorgeous). My overwhelming memory of it last year was of sore feet, but this was chiefly because of the Sketchers Tone Ups I'd bought in New York. Bad, bad idea.
Also, if you are eating alone in a restaurant, and you want to take in the atmosphere and eavesdop on conversations for later inclusion in novels, you need to ask to be seated appropriately.
Where I ate:
Breakfast was a cupcake in Baked and Wired, a trendy, well, cupcake place on the same street as the soon-to-be-closed (sniff) Barnes and Noble. I've come to the conclusion that I'm not much of an American cupcake person - they're too, well, too something for me - too sweet seems odd to say, but maybe that's it. Or maybe it's the sheer amount of icing. After much deliberation, I opted for the Tessita - vanilla with dulce de leche filling and "satin hazelnut" icing. Exhausted from that decision, I found myself with another one to make - which coffee? So many options - even for a basic cappuccino. The problem with choices, I've realised this week, is that I invariably feel I made the wrong one. The coffee wasn't quite what I needed. But it was a nice experience nonetheless; they write your name in pink pen on the mug (cue new profile pic on Facebook) and I can tick Baked and Wired off in my guide book now. Ultimately, it's a little too trendy for me - and I like my seats to have backs - but I can certainly see the appeal, and I love the idea of having a whole wall covered with messages and drawings from previous customers, many of them on serviettes.
I splashed out on food today, all in all. Both lunch and dinner were in posh places, and oddly at both I chose some kind of fish with some kind of fennel. The first was Cafe Milano - where Anthony Wiener was spotted just the other day. The food was delicious but I made an error of judgement by asking for a table outside (the weather was gorgeous): I ended up alone on the patio like some kind of naughty schoolchild wanting to be let in to play with the grown-ups and it all got a bit awkward when I asked to move then change my mind and I'm sure the waitress rolled her eyes.
In the evening, I went to the Monocle, a classic DC establishment and worth it just for the picture of a very young and handsome Bill Clinton on the wall - along with dozens of other frames, signed pictures of important politicos past and present (most of whom, sadly, I did not recognise). Also, there were some great quotes on the wall - "if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog" and my waiter was super-friendly and very helpful with suggestions about DC sights (a little late, since tomorrow is my last day). But I had a similar experience where they put me in a corner by myself - though some of the conversations were loud enough that I could hear them anyway. They also topped up my wine glass on the house - twice - after checking I was over 21, which made my day.
Where I wrote:
I scribbled a few words down before my lunch in Cafe Milano arrived, but the bulk of today's writing was done in the Starbucks at Barnes and Noble in Georgetown. It was actually a perfect spot - I had a nice view, a comfortable chair (with a back!) and a wide surface. And of course coffee.
One of the best things about NaNoWriMo (although not in Belgium, unless you're Dutch-speaking) is the idea of write-ins: you basically let people know through the website: "I'll be in such and such a place writing, feel free to join me". It's good for moral support and also for meeting people. I've been to a couple of these now, and I went to my third in Panera Bread on Dupont Circle (where the barista and I had considerable trouble understanding each other). I got my word quota down, but I found it hard to concentrate - the people at the write-in were very chatty, and just behind us was a Spanish tutor teaching a group the basics of numbers and days of the week - always interesting to listen to. As a result, the whole Aaron/Louisa "I can't go out with you because you're not a Christian" conversation did not go well. In fact, she put it off till another day. He is very good-looking though, so I understand that.
DC experiences of the day:
Shopping for books in the Lantern in Georgetown - a second-hand bookshop that seems to be run by three elderly but very friendly ladies. I hadn't meant to buy anything (okay, I can hear you all laughing) but on the first bookshelf as you walk in they clevely put "latest books" - and they included two that I wanted to read: "Game Change" (yes, another political one) and "The Ninth Wife", which I'd looked at longingly in Politics and Prose the other day because it's set in DC, although possibly a little chick litty for me.
Attending a cultural event at the Sixth and I synagogue. Umberto Eco was speaking about his new book, and I had no idea he was so funny. More on that at some stage. I didn't buy, and, let's face it, probably won't read, "The Prague Cemetary", but I might well pick up "The Name of the Rose". A few minutes after I had this thought, he said that sales of his first book always go up when a new one comes out - presumably, he thought, because people realised "oh, but I haven't read the first one yet, and that one is cheaper". Ahem.
Tuesday, 8 November 2011
1. Another day, another perfect coffee: filtro con latte seems to be what I have been waiting for all my life.
2. The cutest Obama supporter I've ever met joins us for the phone banking event: she's fifteen months and wearing a 2012 tshirt, and has the sweetest cheeky smile.
3. The Senator I canvassed for on Sunday - getting up at seven am and stepping in dog poo in the process - gets re-elected. It feels good to have played a tiny part in that.
DC is currently undergoing major renovation. There's netting on the ceiling of Union Station, for example, which is likely related to the recent earthquake. I'd planned my entire day around a walk by the Reflecting Pool - the favourite place of Senator Kate Leemans in my novel, and one of mine, too - and it is being totally dug up as we speak. However, once you get there, there really isn't much option other than to keep walking. Still, it was a gorgeous day, and now I have yet more photos of me by the Lincoln Memorial, in case last year's and the year before's weren't quite enough.
Where I ate:
At lunchtime, I paused my walk along the mall and jumped on the metro to the Oval Room. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but I had my mind set on it and I know me: once I get an idea in my head, the quicker I give into it the better. Anyway, it was a great decision. For a start, it's one of those quintessential DC places that I don't think they ever mention in the West Wing but they really should. It wasn't as big as I imagined, but it was funky (the good British funky, not the bad American funky) and classy all at once. The waiter was super nice and super friendly and made me feel welcome and not at all like a loser for eating alone.
And the food was good - I went for the chicken salad, which sounds dull, but once you add in avocado, and interesting dressing involving ginger it turns into something interesting. The chicken pieces were substantial, too - it wasn't one of those pathetic girlie salads consisting mostly of wilted lettuce leaves. (Though, aesthetically, I thought it could have done with a bit more green.) The desserts sounded a little fussy and complex for me - give me a brownie with ice cream and I'm a happy girl - but I was too full anyway. My one regret was that I didn't get to eavesdrop on any high-powered conversations.
Later on, I went back to We, The Pizza (there are a lot of cheesily named restaurants in DC, but I have to say that I really like this name) and discovered that - surprise, surprise - ordering pizza in a pizza place is a much better idea than ordering salad. I had the Mexian Spicy Pie (or something) - more chicken - and it was yummy. It cost $4.44 (my salad yesterday was $9.99, they seem to like those kind of numbers, which I don't think are a commentary on Herman Cane's silly tax plans) and for around $2.50 you can also get a refillable "soda".
Where I wrote:
In the morning, on my way back from Democratic Gain (where they failed to instantly offer me a job, tsk tsk), I more or less randomly found myself walking into a coffeshop simply called "caffe". It had lured me with its bright red Illy sign, and it turned out to be attached to a posh hotel, so you could sip your coffee - mine a filtro con latte, which seems to be a new thing, and is exactly what I have been looking for all these years - in an impressive lobby which is perfect for writing (or would have been if it has not been for the noisy conference guests). I wrote the first half of Aaron and Louisa's work dinner which later turns into a date.
The turning into a date part I wrote at Peregrine later that afternoon (yes, I am a creature of habit). I only meant to write a page or two, but I was putting off a decision about whether to go to a church community group or a political phone banking event, and I was in the flow, so I kept going. I've written about six pages today, which is more or less what I need to make my 1,667 daily words for NaNoWriMo. (I'm handwriting, so I have to estimate.)
DC experience of the day:
If you know me, you'll know that I hate phones with every fibre of my being, but politics is what brought me here, and I thought phone banking might be a good way to meet people. Which it was. I returned to the DNC offices for the fourth time in five days (Josh Lyman would be proud) and was directed to a room full of enthusiastic, friendly, welcoming Obama supporters, who were very patient with my stupid questions and explained to me that I was to call this list of people and ask them if they were "in for 2012". I was also meant to invite them to a few specific events, but since one of them never happens on the West Wing I was completely confused about it so I was pretty glad that I didn't get that far with anyone - I made around 30 calls, and most of those people were out. Oddly, the good-looking guy in the room seemed to get a lot of his calls answered, almost as if they knew. Go figure, as they say over here.
Monday, 7 November 2011
1. A delicious breakfast, the best I've had in a long, long time: crispy bacon and perfectly scrambled eggs on beautiful, beautiful bread.
2. Lovely coffee and fun, friendly banter in Peregrine, one of my favourite places to hang out.
3. For the first time this November, I make and exceed my NaNoWriMo word count. I am carried along by the story; I am getting to know my characters.
1. At the Obama For America day of action, a young black guy speaks briefly and movingly about how the President's election showed him he too could do or be anything.
2. I walk from Union Station down First Street to Capitol South. The sun is setting; the light is almost magical; and I love DC.
2. My iPod battery runs out just as one of my favourite songs is finishing. I walk into church, and that is the song we start with.
Saturday, 5 November 2011
1. The Washington Post is waiting for me outside my door this morning. I'm not sued to luxuries such as this one, and this is not just any paper. This is my favourite city's paper, and here I am right in the centre of that city,
2. They are cutting the grass in Washington Circle, and it smells like summer again.
3. I find somewhere that does café au lait just the way I like it. Ths is no mean achievement: I am not easy to please.