Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Dog Tired

It was a cold night here in normally warm central Florida - in fact in most of the continental USA. Our Canadian friends sent down a lot of their excess freezing weather and the jet stream did the rest. Thanks a lot, people !

Being the weather freak that I am ( by that I mean I religiously monitor the 3, yes 3, temperature display units in this 5th wheel which show indoor and outdoor temps and I've more weather sites in my favs than just about any other subject - except sport of course), I was expecting it to be cold, but not THAT cold.

I'd bought an electric blanket on our way down here from snowy Michigan at the end of October but that was mainly for the overnight stops twixt there and here. I did NOT expect to have to ever use it once we arrived and so it was packed away in the far recesses of some cupboard.

So last night at midnight or thereabouts, I blew up my inflatable doll....sorry, mattress, threw down the sleeping bag, covered the lot with one of those lovely soft throw blankets and climbed in for the night. I moved one of the little temperature display units so it was in my eyeline as I had a feeling I might be looking at it sometime in the wee small hours - and how right I was.

About 2:45am I woke and my immediate thoughts were........oh heck, I'm cold ! My thoughts are VERY polite and well mannered at 2:45am.

I reached an arm out of the 'not so warm anymore' sleeping bag, grabbed my little keychain torch and flashed the beam on the temperature unit. It was 41F outside and not much warmer inside at 52F. I lay there trying to decide if I could be bothered getting up, finding the electric blanket, introducing it to my sleeping bag and settling back to try and sleep all without totally waking myself up.

I let lazyness win and just curled up inside the sleeping bag and eventually drifted off to sleep - dreaming of being inside a tent near the Pole and some idiot opening the flap and muttering something about having to pee and how he might be some time.

At 8am, Pixie decided to leave the relative comfort of the other end of the 5th wheel as she felt we'd all slept long enough and it was time we were all up and about. And she'd start with me. So she bounced up on top of the soft throw, which she loves, moved slowly up and down my body and finally nestled down on my back, pushing me deeper into the blow up mattress. I didn't move. She then moved onto phase 2 and padded up to my half buried head and started sniffing the back of it. She knows not to lick me and this is the best she can do and it's almost as annoying as I just know her wet tongue is centimeters from my skin and the stress and tension of wondering if she'll brave my anger by taking a sly lick is much worse than if she actually did the deed.

I gave in and got up. I packed up my bedding, deflated the mattress and put it all away. It was still way too cold so I fired up the furnace and left it running for almost an hour until the temp rose to a more comfortable 65F. The sky was blue and the sun was doing it's best but it was still only 50F outside. I fixed coffee and had cereal and decided to go for a walk to try and undo some of the Christmas eating excesses.

I left at 10:45am and as this wasn't a time I'd normally be out and about here, I saw all sorts of new sights for me. I was immediately struck by how busy it was on the park roads. Cars, golf carts, bikers and walkers were all over the place and cheery greetings filled the slightly chilly air. Being the brave (and stupid) Brit I am, I was out in a polo shirt and shorts whilst everyone I paased had on full arctic gear with wooly thermals underneath. You could hear the cracking of joints from afar and asthmatic wheezings mixed with bird songs to create a sort of geriatric dawn chorus.

I strode along with purpose and old fashioned British pride. Longjohns, pah ! Sweat pants, pah. Fleece lined jacket and matching trousers, double pah ! The dew on my thin polo shirt glistened in the morning sun and the soft hairs on my bare legs rapidly congealed with the early signs of ice buildup. Ok, I exaggerate but it was uncomfortably cold for the start of the walk although as I heated up, so did the weather and after 20 minutes or so, I was warm, in full trot mode and enjoying myself.

I went down past the bocce ball courts and as I approached the lake, I came across a gaggle of golf carts (what IS the collective term anyway ??) seemingly being pulled by tiny dogs. Was this some sort of practice for a little known Florida version of the Alaskan Iditarod ? No, it was simply what passes for walking your dog here in Buttonwood Bay. The owners would drive along in their golf carts with little Flossy or Mitzy running behind, alongside or in most cases, ahead. From a distance it looked like the dogs were indeed pulling the golf carts - although given the size of most of the pets here in the park, this would be a feat of strength beyond anything found in the Guinness Book of Records. It was a joy to behold.

I went along the edge of the lake, along several of the park roads and ended up back at the bocce courts and finally at the Cafe On The Lake - which I discovered was closed due to the cold weather ! Wimps. The sign on the side of the unit has a few reasons for the cafe being closed and the staff can cover over the ones which do not apply. The main ones are cold and rain but I noted with some amusement that 'crappy' was there as well. I doubt if that would be enough of a reason on it's own and I think it would always be used in conjunction with one of the other reasons. Like today......the sign said......closed due to cold crappy weather. I'd have thought that a nice warming cup of soup and a 1/2 pound bacon cheeseburger would've been just the thing on a day like today but I guess they know their customers well enough by now and when the temps are under 60F, no one here wants to sit out and eat food and risk hyperthermia. Maybe oxygen tanks freeze up at such 'low' temperatures or walkers ice over or something. I donno. In any case the cafe was closed and I walked back to the 5th wheel to relax after my 90 minute walk.

And to think I would've missed it all if Pixie hadn't decided to use me as her personal treadmill !
God bless her little hairy paws. Same time tomorrow, eh ???

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Merry Christmas To One And All

My first blog on a Christmas Day. Actually it's 11pm here in darkest Florida but back home in Blighty it's Christmas Day so there.

Speaking of darkness, I can't believe how quickly the evenings seem to be lengthening down here near the Equator. I know we're nowhere near the Equator but it sounded good in my head.
Yes a few days ago the sun was setting just after 5pm and by 5:30pm you'd need a torch to see the oldies out walking their dogs.........or sometimes the other way around ! But tonight I happened to glance outside at 5:45pm and it was bright ! I mean bright enough to be teeing up on the 17th hole with some confidence that you'd be in the bar before dark. That bright. And it wasn't even a blue sky day today either....pretty nasty with clouds and heavy rain. So at this rate it should be light till 10pm by the end of next week. I wish.

As a slight aside, a friend here gave us a little gizmo to put on Pixie's collar to help when she goes walkies at night. It's a glass sphere slightly smaller than a golf ball and when activated, it flashes red and certainly catches the eye. It wouldn't be out of place in a disco or even outside a window in certain parts of Amsterdam. That's hearsay of course !!

Anyway we dutifully strapped it onto Pixie's collar and right away we saw it wouldn't do....oh no, wouldn't do at all. Being a long haired miniature dachshund, she's slung so low to the ground that the ball was dragging along as she walked. This may have been partly due to her not liking it and so dropping her head even more than nature intended.

She does not like wearing ANYTHING and previous attempts to get her into so called 'cute' doggie attire have failed miserably. She'd stand still, look up pathetically at us and refuse to budge until the offending article was removed. She'd never get on in Hollywood.

This is a photo from 2000 and her first winter. We thought she'd appreciate a little jacket to keep her warm outside - but as you can see, the phrase 'hangdog expression' was seemingly created just for her.
The sensible warm jacket was returned and world order was restored.

So when we had to remove the flashing ball, she felt she'd won again. The ball was removed and she was a happy pooch. We saw it as a draw really as we never take her walking at night anyway but the flashing ball was just so darn cute that we wished it had worked out.

Back to Christmas Eve here in the park and it was Sunday business as usual with 1pm Bocce Ball. My days of hard practicing simply showed that practice means nothing in this game and I ended up by playing 2 and losing 2. It was still good fun and I'm going to miss Bocce when I go home. I may just pop along to Roundhay Park and try and get a game of Crown Green Bowls and really cement my position as a senior citizen.

We agreed we'd have a much scaled down Christmas this year as far as pressie giving goes. I don't think any of us listened though as there are plenty of gaily wrapped boxes around the little table tree and our 3 large knitted stockings are bulding with goodies. I'm not too bothered if Santa can't cope with trailers as we're all set here without him coming and anyway, I'm not all that sure that he even exists. I know. I know. It's a shocking admission but I feel so much better for getting it off my chest.

Well my laptop decided to power off again and it's taken me a while to retype all my ramblings and so it's now Christmas Day here too. Woooohooooo.

I'm glad in a way as now I can really say "Happy Christmas" to each and every one of you who read these posts (I still wish you'd leave comments now and then) and I hope you continue to drop in for a read during 2007.

Gotta go as I can't be awake when Santa comes calling. Yes I know what I said before but it's like being an atheist on his deathbed. I mean, can I take the risk HE might exist ?? Better to believe just in case !!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Young At Heart

I've used the expression "only in America" a lot on this trip and since coming here to our park in central Florida, I've even had to adapt it to "only in Buttonwood Bay"

Age is no barrier to having fun and taking part in fun activities and this was brought home last night with the annual Christmas Golf Cart Parade followed by a cookie fest and entertainment in the rec hall. Just about everyone either took part or turned up for the festivities and a grand evening was had by one and all. Well actually I'd better not claim that as who knows......some may have fallen asleep or not liked parts of the evening and come on, we WERE up after 8pm by the end of it all.

The parade started at 5:30pm at the far end of the park and as it was due to snake along most of the internal streets/roads before ending at the large rec building, we couldn't be sure when it would get to where we'd decided to watch it.

In the end we drove OUR sadly undecorated cart down the hill and just stayed with some friends along the edge of the road which led to the building. We soon had lots more residents eagerly joining us and by 6pm it was almost like we were awaiting the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in NYC. Almost !

Several 'non parade' carts went by from to time containing people heading for the rec building to be there for the food and entertainment and each one got ironic applause from the gathered watchers and this elicited cheery waves from the occupants. Some seemed to be suggesting they were the No.1 cart that wasn't in the parade but of course I may have interpreted the raised middle finger the wrong way. Well it was dark after all !!!

After wating for over an hour (just how big IS this park ??!!!) the cry went up that the carts were coming and we all perked up. I'd taken a few test shots of the non parade carts to try and get the right camera settings, but in the end I decided to just leave it on 'auto' and keep my fingers crossed. There would definitely be no time for altering settings as carts went by.

As with any decent Christmas parade, Santy Claus and his missus led from the front and as their cart was also in the competition, we immediately knew that there were 22 more carts to come. No getting past us, y'know.

Thankfully there were few visiting kids around as after this parade leading Santa went by, another one and his wife came along. Very confusing for the young and probably just as confusing for a lot of the oldies.
Remember that in here, confusion comes as standard.

The second manifestation of the festive duo was actually more impressive than the first - mainly due to their cart having got an extension. This was obviously the 'well-to-do' Santa who had invested well over the years and together with a good pension and stock market portfolio, was the Santa version of Bill Gates.

We watchers applauded and gasped in a suitable fashion.

One of my favourite carts came soon after as it was made up to look like a

sled. I found this very impressive and it was obvious that a lot of time and effort had gone into it's design.

In the darkness it was actually easy to forget it was, in fact, a golf cart at all. It was the only one that was like this and although some others may have been more impressively decorated, you STILL knew they were just that - decorated golf carts.

I think my vote would've gone to this one for this deception alone.

There had been a buzz around the park for days that someone had removed the top of their cart and added a full sized (and lit) Christmas tree on a platform on the back.

Suddenly it came along and what a sight it was ! Sadly my camera thought it was just too bright for it's liking and took a pathetic shot of it.

Take my word for it (and after all that's all you CAN take - darn my photographic inadequacies), it was awesome.

There was also a cart which reminded us of home - or my my case, my adopted home. Along came a Michigan cart which won a hearty cheer and much whistling from my friends.

I love the irony that a similar cart in a parade in Michigan right now would be stuck in several feet of snow.

Have I mentioned recently how much I'm loving winter in Florida ??!!

I'm loving winter in Florida.

I kept expecting to hear "It's A Small World" or some such Disney type music blaring out as this parade was certainly worthy of being held there.

Once all the carts had passed us by, they parked at the side of the rec building so everyone who wanted to vote for their favourites could have closer inspections. This was definitely needed as much of the detailed work on the carts wasn't obvious at the speed at which they passed us in the parade. I was anxious to examine the 'Bocce' cart which had been decorated by our team mates - who had been fortified by copious amounts of beer and pizza by all accounts.

It brought a tear to my eye. Such craftsmanship, such attention to detail, such expert planning, such a waste of beer !!!

I'll just include one more photo of the carts as any more and I may lose my readers !

This one impressed me as the design and materials used really made it look like it was snow covered.

I'd have given it an award for sure.

It was a prime example of a cart that needed close inspection and again I think the organisers did a great job by having all the carts parked up like this. We were able to walk among them and see what hard work and effort had gone into their creation.

Of course most of the residents had dived inside to get seated at the tables. A lot of park dwellers had gone back to their home states to be with loved ones at Christmas but the rec building was still packed to it's rafters and the air was blue with good natured swearing and cussing as walking frames, oxygen tanks, sticks and other appliances tried to be located next to their owners.

I'm joking......but it was noisy. There are 940 units of one shape or size in this park and I think we may have had squatters or something as it seemed like thousands had turned up for the cookies on offer.

While we all got settled or mingled before getting settled, you could pay $1 for charity and have your pic taken with Mr. & Mrs. Claus and even sit on their knees if you felt so inclined. I assume they were residents too and so would've had relatively aged knees so I felt for them when robust, if not quite portly, residents would go the whole nine yards and plonk themselves down on them.

To my knowledge, no one went crashing in an undignified heap so it was all good fun and hopefully lots of money was raised.

I do wonder at the photographs which will be winging their way via email to the families of these people.

Little Britney and Clint will be looking online and asking their folks.....hey mom/dad, just what medication is nana and gramps on down there ???

Similarly confused and bewildered parents will be replying.....shushhhhh kids. They're happy and medicare is paying for it all !!!

And so the evening wore on and it was cookie time. We all lined up by table and went along the kitchen serving area and picked what we wanted from an incredible assortment of colourful freshly baked goodies.

I mentally asked my cardiologist to look the other way and snapped up about half a dozen of the little artery cloggers and took them back to my seat.

Soon the only sounds in the room were of teeth (real and false) clicking and clacking as half a ton of sweet sweet items were devoured. While not exactly a feeding frenzy, it reminded me of a documentary I'd watched years ago of a pride of lions, or maybe jackels, pulling apart some unfortunate, but thankfully dead, wildebeest. Withered but amazingly stong forearms were a blur and crumbs went flying everywhere and by the time the announcer went to the stage to bring a start to the next phase of the evening, the tables were as bare as the special offers section of WalMart at 5:05am on Black Friday.

We were fed and ready to be entertained.

It turned out that to start with, we had to be the ones to entertain ourselves as communal carol singing was first up.

Led by an enthusiastic little group of singers on stage, we were asked to pick up the carol lyric sheets on each table and basically let it rip. No, not rip the sheets, silly, but sing along with verve and gusto.

Didn't these people notice the oxygen cylinders for goodness sake ?? Many of the assembled audience probably couldn't remember the last time they'd done ANYTHING with much gusto. Ok get your thoughts out of the gutter !!

At this point we did have a potentially nasty moment as some bright spark (maybe not the most apt choice of words) decided to lay down some sort of festive atmosphere by dimming the lights so much that all you could see was the odd twinkling glass eye and a plethera of pearly white dentures. There were low mutterings which soon swelled to loud complaints that no one could now see the carol sheets. If it's one thing I've learned from my time here it's that oldies do NOT put up quietly with things that upset, annoy or generally tick them off.

And quite right too.

So if the sight of hundreds of residents sarcastically raising their carol sheets high above their heads as if to read by moonlight wasn't enough to get the point across, then the din of many more hundreds of geriatric voices wailing their disapproval did the trick - as the lights came back on again and the singing got going.

After that, those who were still able to breathe unaided settled down to listen to the pros. I use the word in a VERY general sence. Some sort of comedy sketch began and we just knew it wasn't going to be up to much as the announcer and chief sketchee warned us there had been no rehearsal and basically she'd no idea what was coming herself.

Lets just say it truely lived down to her expectations and draw a veil over it all. We were all stuffed with cookies and it was close to 8pm so what did we care ?

We did get 3 songs from some 3rd placed 'winner' of a local version of American Idol and although she struggled with some of the notes of Robbie Williams' "Angel", she found her feet with a more upbeat and easier to sing Christmas carol and ended with a song so memorable that I've totally forgotten what it was.

She looked good and was young enough to be my daughter - oh ok my granddaughter - and so was very pleasing on the eye if not the ear.

Finally we had the awards for the winners of the best decorated carts and houses in various categories and suddenly the event was over and the stampede to get home was on. With the benefit of having lived through a similar situation at Thanksgiving, we stayed back a few minutes to let the hoards get out ahead of us as the last thing you need a week before Christmas Day is to have a toe crushed by a speeding oxygen tank or worse still, find yourself in a walking frame sandwich. These people can be vicious when bedtime comes a-callin' and they are not at home.

Once the sounds of squeeling tyres and the smell of burning rubber had gone, we ventured out into the balmy night air and went home ourselves. As we drove along the road and looked at the wonderfully decorated houses with their blaze of Christmas lights merrily twinkling and sending out festive cheer, I decided that these aging residents, who could so easily have sat back and done little or nothing for Christmas, had put to shame many of lesser years who simply shop themselves into debt and call it 'a good Christmas'.

These people gave us all a very prized commodity- their time. As with all things here in Buttonwood Bay, it was given without any wish for payment but just thanks and gratitude and I for one wish to give both in adundance.

Happy Christmas, Buttonwood Bay.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Tis The Season

Well we finally gave in to our own pressure yesterday and bought a Christmas tree.

It's all of 3 feet tall and is sitting proudly on the dining table. Well we ARE in a 5th wheel after all so couldn't go mad with some 7 ft monstrosity that Pixie would probably pull down anyway.

Dennis hasn't seen it yet but as I type this, there is movement in the bedroom - which of course translates to movement all over the trailer ! We hope he'll be delighted with the surprise although the effect won't be as great as it's 9am and although it's a dull start to the day, it's quite bright in here. Deb and I put up the tree late last night after he had gone to bed and we've never erected and decorated a tree in such a short time either.

I'm all in favour of 3 ft trees as you might guess.

The speed of the decorating was improved greatly by the fact that it's a tree with built in fibre optic lights. Awesome. We helped it's looks a lot by getting a strip of 100 extra lights so now when it's switched on, we need to don our sunglasses and slap on factor 25 at least. It's a beast.
I bet the electric meter disc is flying around like a demented buzz saw now.

Sadly the tree has no fairy on top. Hard to get a fairy small enough to perch atop a 3ft tree - so we made do with a nice star shaped bow of the type you see on a well wrapped pressie. It works for me.

I goofed with the tree instructions last night as I was carried along with the over confidence that comes with putting together something with really only 2 parts. You have your tree and you have it's base. Sorted. Well actually, no.

Being a fibre optic tree, the base was quite a technological masterpiece with bits and pieces worthy of the inner workings of the space shuttle. In my haste to see it all up and working, I looked at what I thought was the first page of the instructions as it had 4 little diagrams and I'm really into diagrams when putting things together. Diagrams CAN help to overcome any issues with hilarious but confusing pidgeon English text. You know the sort.

Fasten item 1 with 2 using dropdown of it can be done with flat head driver of screws.

It's always a source of wonder to me that ANY flat pack furniture gets put together at all. I have to assume people just throw the instructions away and muddle through it all with a mix of hope and prayer. I'm sure many a folding chair came in a box labelled dining table and that people are sleeping uneasily on a bed which was really meant to be a bedroom closet.

Anyhoo, back to the tree instructions. I couldn't fault them. They were plain and simple. Me ? Lots of fault as I'm also plain and simple I guess. I somehow missed the first page and, swayed by the diagrams, went straight to page 3. I told Deb, who was hanging on my every word, to get a Philips screwdriver, turn over the base, remove the 4 screws and unscrew the bulb casing. I stopped reading while she did this. Once the screws were on the table and she was trying to stop bits and pieces newly released from the base from joining the screws, I read on.

Remove the old bulb and replace with the new one.

WHAT ? Old bulb ? Replace with what now ? Why would we have to...........oh crap !

I looked at the top of the page and sure enough, there in bold print, were the dreaded words - Instructions for Bulb Replacement. D'oh.

So after Deb had smiled and said, oh never mind, and my arm had stopped throbbing from her blow, the base was reconstructed with the perfectly good existing bulb back in place. The tree (part one) was lowered into the base (part 2) and the deed was done.

I think I muttered that I'd still have liked a diagram !

We added a lot of dangly type ornaments and in the time it takes to say "you are an idiot and I'm a bigger idiot for listening to you", the tree was up and running and worthy to be seen in Trafalgar Square or the Rockefeller Centre or wherever. I'm sure the box packers in some downtown Shanghai industrial complex were clapping (or bowing or doing Tai Chi) in appreciation of our efforts.

And it was all worth it as Dennis stood just now on the top of the 3 little stairs leading from the bedroom and looked in awe at the twinkling masterpiece before him.

"Wow. Wow. That's AWESOME" he finally managed to get out. "Is coffee ready" ?

He's not easily impressed.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

You Know You're In Trouble When...............

There was a report on the local tv news here in central Florida last week that made us all laugh out loud. That in itself was fairly unusual as we don't expect to laugh at much on the news these days.

It was also unusual because the news item was not meant to be funny at all and no one on the show even seemed to notice that a part of the otherwise tragic story would crack us up so much.

The news item in question was about a guy who was out walking near some expanse of water when he heard cries for help coming from somewhere nearby. He couldn't track down the exact location and so he rang 911 (which for those of my readers in the UK, is the US version of our 999) and told the operator that he was hearing someone in trouble but hadn't located them yet.

As all 911 calls are recorded, the tv news show then played the tape with the text appearing on screen and this is how it went..............don't quote me on it but it's how I remember it.

GUY : I'm hearing his screams.....he's somewhere close.
911 : Can he hear you ? What help does he need ?
GUY : Heyyyyy.........what's the matter ? Where are you ?
(distant distressed voice) : I'm over here in the water.........gator has my arm. Helppppppppp !!!
GUY : He says a gator has his arm. He needs help.
911 : Oh crap !
GUY : What do I do ??

And so it went on for a while but by then we were on the floor in hysterics. Yes I know it was a serious and potentially tragic story but come on - when do you ever hear an emergency operator say 'oh crap' ??? You KNOW you're in trouble when that happens.

As a follow up to the news report, which remember never DID comment on the 'oh crap' statement, the gator wasn't harmed in any way. So everyone was happy.

The guy with his arm down it's throat ? Oh hell I donno. Never did find out what happened to him !!!

Oh Crap.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Down Mexico Way

I'm just back from spending a long weekend with friends in Mexico.......oh no Gainesville, Georgia. It's a mistake that's easy to make as there seem to be more Mexicans living there than, well non Mexicans I'd better say.

Last Thursday I rented a car from Enterprise in Sebring and the nice people there gave me an upgrade from an Economy to a Full Size and so I got some sort of Nissan with a 2.5l engine which was a lot of oomph for me. So we left our winter home here in Florida because I took Deb across to Tampa as she was flying back to Michigan to be with her daughter-in-law who was having her graduation on Fri/Sat. That was 105 miles for a start. I then drove on up to Gainesville which is about 55 miles north east of Atlanta and that was another 530 miles.

It was a pretty uneventful drive but I was glad I'd my MP3 player with me as there wasn't much to listen to on the radio. I got gas just as I started on I-75 (not me personally, but the car) and when I did the maths to work out that first miles per gallon figure, it came to a woeful 19. I was shocked. Then I noticed something for the first time. When setting off from the Enterprise location, I'd just moved the automatic gear lever down through the normal 'gears' as in Park, Reverse and Neutral. The next gear is usually Drive and this should be where you stay for 99% of the time unless driving around Colorado !!

Before leaving the gas station I looked more closely at the settings and saw that the position directly under Neutral on this car was.......Third ! Opps. That explained the 19 miles to the gallon. On this car you needed to move the lever ACROSS to engage Drive. I did so and the next time I gassed up and did the maths, it returned 29 miles to the gallon. Much better ! Phew.

Anyhoo as I approached Gainesville I noticed a sign claiming it to be the 'chicken capital of the world'. Now America has a thing about assuming that if it's got the biggest, fastest, tallest (you get the message here) person or event or whatever, then it must be the same in the whole universe. Don't get me started on the World Series I beg you !! But in this case, Gainesville's claim seems to have some validity. I used Google and if it agrees, then who am I to argue. It's interesting to note that Buffalo, NY, claims to be the chicken wing capital of the world and Barberton, OH, claims the same title for fried chicken (something which is also claimed by Pittsburg, KS, so fight it out guys) . I'm not sure how these things are measured - is it by amount produced or amount eaten or even amount pooped !!??!!

Sorry, got a bit gross there.

This Google search diverted me for a while and I found a highly amusing, although slightly bizarre, site giving a list of various world locations and their claims to be world capitals of xxxxxx where xxxxxx ranged from fire hydrants to cow chips. I noted that most of these titles were claimed by US towns and cities so read into that what you will. All I know is that if I pass anywhere downwind of Russell Springs (no mention if it's the one in KY or KS), I'll be keeping my car windows firmly closed as it has the dubious honour of being the cow chip capital of the world. Now why on earth would the good citizens of this town make such a claim ? I'd suggest they go off and buy a load of fire hydrants and take over from Albertville, AL, in that particular catagory. The air will be sweeter for their efforts.

But again I've digressed. In 1989 Gainesville was a typical southern town with it's Po' Folks restaurant and fried chicken on sale everywhere. The locals had that s-l-o-w drawl that made me want to finish their sentences for them so that life could go on. I needed an interpreter on my first few visits as it wasn't just a case of individual words being so different but entire paragraphs ! In all my life I'd never mashed a button. I'd mashed potatoes and that was it. Here was someone telling me to mash a button. I think I had a tv remote control in my hand at the time but the statement still made no sence to me. But after a few visits I became (almost) fluent in Southernese and could mash buttons with the best of them. Seems I was a natural.

But that was a lifetime ago and things are very different now. What you hear around Gainesville is much faster speech. If that was all there was to it, then I'd be pleased with the change. Sadly not only has the speaking speeded up but it's also switched from a southern version of English to a langauge from further south again..........Spanish.

The reason is simple : Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, swarm into Gainesville to work at the huge poultry processing plants doing the jobs that no one else wants to do - namely dealing with the process of transforming live birds into boneless chicken flesh. A dozen years ago, Fieldale Farms, the largest of these plants, employed fewer than 100 Hispanics. Today, Hispanics total 3,000 in a 4,700-person workforce. The pay starts at $10 an hour which is a glittering prize for an unemployed Mexican back home.

As a result, Gainesville has changed out of all recognition even since I first visited in 1989. Since 1990, the official population has nearly doubled to 32,000 and the number of Hispanics has quadrupled to compose nearly half the registered population -- and far more when illegal immigrants are considered. City schools are now 55 percent Hispanic. More children arrive each day with their undocumented parents, often directly from Mexico. The Yellow Pages include 41 pages in Spanish. St. Michael Catholic church, which once drew 25 people to a monthly Spanish Mass, now has 6,000 Hispanic families on its parish registry.

I saw the influence of all this first hand at the weekend as my friends daughter, locked in my memory as my little 3 year old princess in 1989, had become a lovely 20 year old with a Mexican husband, a 17 month old baby boy and another on the way. I liked the husband, and the baby was a little cutie and they all made up a sweet and loving family and bring obvious joy and pleasure to my friends who now, by the way, go by the names of Nana and Papa. I felt SO old !

So we had a lot of catching up to do and we talked and ate all weekend. There was even time for a visit from my friends gay cousin (who happens to be a grandfather so I'm still working that one out) who I knew from previous visits but hadn't seen for many years. He said I hadn't changed and if anything, looked better now than I did in 1989.

Bless his heart.

Oh I did make one purchase while there that blows my mind. We were in the local WalMart and I saw a pallet of video boxes that caught my eye. For a few months now Deb has been talking about wanting a dvd/vcr recorder combo and the prices HAVE been as low as $158 I think. Now this combo is a dvd recorder as well as a video tape recorder so you can easily record from video to dvd and vice versa. Well on this pallet were boxes of the very unit for.........drum roll please...............$75. Yes folks, $75 or approx £40 in real money. I couldn't believe it. I asked a very helpful and smiling WalMart employee (ok so I know I'm joking) what the scoop was and he said they got them in after Black Friday and they weren't selling so they kept reducing the price. Once they were gone, they'd not be getting anymore and not many stores had them to start with.

I immediately rang Deb in Michigan and as I suspected, she screamed BUY, BUY, BUY. Of course later on, after indeed buying one of the units, I was hit with the realisation that she might have been busy at the graduation ceremony and was in fact screaming BYE, BYE, BYE at me !


I keep thinking of my Philips dvd recorder at home which I bought several years ago when they were new on the market and I think I paid almost £450 for it ($900) and now look - you can pick them up for little more than a fill up at the gas station.

Another example of changing times.

And so after this brief visit, I headed back to the welcome heat of Tampa where I picked up Deb and we set off for Sebring. In total I drove close to 1400 miles and listened to about 500 music tracks of MY choice. Apart from a traffic jam in Tampa, I loved every mile. Next time I might have to take my passport and a Spanish phrase book though !

Cost of the car rental - $202.
Cost of the gas - $122.
Cost of seeing my friends again - priceless.

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