..[Los Angeles without a car, work permit or superpowers]
.............

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don/Ron McLean

In honour of American Mother's Day (which we are not celebrating, since British Mothering Sunday was April 3rd and Interflora has already taken its cut):

 Five Shameless Lies My Mother Told Me When I Was a Child

- If I brushed my hair more often, I'd look like Winnie from 'The Wonder Years'.
(More realistic advice might have been: if I went outside more often, I'd look less like Wednesday Addams.)

- If I wasn't so greedy, I'd realize that plain yoghurt was a perfectly lavish dessert.
(Excellent child psychology. Now I eat snickerdoodle cookies for breakfast.)

- If I listened quietly to the car stereo on long journeys, I'd be able to distinguish between the famous singing brothers Don and Ron McLean. 
(To this day, I hear 'American Pie' and think 'Ah, Ron'; not entirely wrong, I suppose.)

- If my sister and I watched 'Grease 2' again we'd end up living on a park bench.
('Grease 2' was on cable the other day. It's not quite the masterpiece I remember.)

- If I didn't always ask for what I wanted, I'd stand a better chance of getting it
(Come on, mum. I know we lived in the countryside, but this was the 1980s.)

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The Old Man and the Sea

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mary Poppins and Other Suspicious Foreign Drifters

The majority of this week has been spent on my CV, hopelessly shuffling and rejigging its items, like some pathetic greengrocer trying to hide rotten apples behind mouldy tomatoes. Huh. Having moved approximately one bajillion times in the last eight years (typing that, I begin counting on my fingers the actual number of moves, which for some reason greatly amuses Dr Strangename; it's ten times, and therefore we cannot move anywhere ever again because I just can't bear to start on toes) my work history is as long as each job is short. Since the ten moves have spanned four countries, anyone examining my full CV can come to no logical conclusion other than that I am a) on the run from the law, b) irretrievably feckless, or c) Mary Poppins.

Midway through trying to fit all of this onto one side of A4 (utilizing the same size font they use to write your name on a grain of rice down at the pier) I have a wonderful revelation: this isn't a research paper or a court transcript or my letter to Santa. It doesn't have to include everything. So I start the CV again, editing my messy life history into a Lifetime movie -- easy to grasp, nice-looking and with a compelling but not too alarming plot. I have cut most jobs that didn't involve Microsoft Office -- because, really, if you weren't logged onto a PC, what productive POWER VERBS could you possibly be using? -- and especially highlighted positions where I spent much of the day staring into the middle distance, because these usually have the safest-sounding titles (Information Assistant, Billing Clerk). The story ends with me skipping along the shores of California, waving my work permit and trilling I'm Jolly Glad to be Seeking a New and Challenging Position in the American Workforce. Fade to credits, commercial break.

Yippee.

The only thing that's really getting me down now (I mean, apart from: the job for which I spent two days drafting the perfect covering letter, only to notice that its posted date was several weeks ago, and then they didn't even deign to answer my email asking if the position was still available. Or the morning I spent trying to input my inconveniently foreign qualifications and work history into a recruitment agency's website, which was not designed to countenance anything existing outside the borders of America and thus awarded me a GPA of 0.0 and a list of jobs in LOCATION NOT FOUND. Or the number of job ads which specify I must have a car, except I can't afford a car until I get a job. Or that I have degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge and am applying to 'clerical/administrative' positions where the main duties are making coffee, making sure we never run low on paperclips, and being shouted at by everyone else,)... the only thing that's really getting me down now is that American CVs all seem to have a little tagline or motto or what-have-you underneath your name. Like,

Ped Xing

Twenty-five years' dynamic experience in sales, with PROVEN RECORD of TRIPLING TURNOVER by 800%, implementing DYNAMIC SERVICE-IMPLEMENTATION, and REDUCING COMPETITION TO ASHES AND SOWING THOSE ASHES WITH SALT. 

or simply

Ped Xing  

LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR

Naturally, as a British Citizen, I might occasionally hint that I am a rather wonderful and accomplished person (did you see the bit above, where I mentioned Oxford and Cambridge? Weren't you impressed? I'll be very self-deprecating about it from now on, as per Michael Milton: 'Once he knew that you knew he had gone to Yale, he tended to play that down.') but I don't like having to spell it out, especially in sentence fragments all dressed up in italics. But I try.

Foreign Socialist seeks Westside position in order to buy a car. Moderately proficient in photocopying and answering the phone (no complex switchboards; will not wear a headset). Types with two or more fingers. Enjoys tea-breaks and passive aggression. Work permit expires 2012.

Cinderella-complex waif seeks Evil Stepmother boss. Will do crappy job for low pay and silently resent you for it. Don’t you know she’s a special little princess?

Mary Poppins type with ten addresses in four countries over the last decade requires employment in Los Angeles. Intrigued? Send letter via chimney. No childcare, please.
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Friday, April 1, 2011

The Königsallee in Winter

Lack of Snow

Reason #1021 why I will never be cool in Los Angeles: I have bus-stop sunburn. It’s ninety degrees today, and I am as pink and porcine as an English rose should be.

It’s only ever this hot on the four-bus days, when I have to spend two hours getting from West Nowhere (WeNo) to West Hollywood (WeHo) for a thirty-minute volunteer job. My first blue bus is crowded with perspiring UCLA students, and I sit in the middle of the back seat, wedged between a man wearing a scooter helmet and a Japanese girl in lollipop brights. The bus smells like squashed, overripe fruit, and we are all dozily subdued.

CAD -- PLOTTING

MOUNTING
    ON DEMAND

says an printing shop, an enigmatic semi-haiku of menace, and in Little Persia the billboards wish me a

HAPPY NOWROOZ

and sell legal counsel.

As usual, transferring to the Metro at Westwood ramps up the lunacy level, and I get on board alongside a man dressed as an vagabond magician -- top hat, black trousers, white puffy shirt, and a hot-pink lint-roller holstered onto his belt. The bus driver honks at a gardener’s truck full of lilies. Beverly Hills is coming to an orchestrated bloom amidst a symphony of palm trees, with bougainvillea playing every other note on the scale of pink: cerise, sakura, baby, fuchsia. The bus is very hot and I think I might be sick.

Why won’t it snow
Like they said it would
What is it that they know
That I really should


whines my iPod, and I think about snow. Snow in Japan, snow at our wedding, Königsallee snow, snow lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns and then

The rooms was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

[...]*


*Louis MacNeice, 'Snow' (1935?)
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A View from the Front Seat

Return of the Blue Busrider

The Blue Busrider had English visitors.

That's not a euphemism -- there were two visitors, and they rented a car.

[pause for reverent silence]

Yes, a car. I've been cruising around LA in a car, betraying the very ideals that founded this blog. We went to Venice and Malibu and Westwood -- on the same day. We drove out to Pasadena. We got lost on the freeway, confusing east with west and the 101 with the 110 and the 10. It was splendid.

It was also like being on holiday in another city. Our local area -- of which I know every pavement crack, fig tree and psychic readings sign -- suddenly shrank to nothing more than a convenient junction. Left or right? We're already gone. Instead of viewing the LA metropolis as a tangled, fraying circuit-board of bus lines, it was long straight roads and freeways and parking lots. 

I didn't hoard dollar bills for busfare, although I was expected to remember that we were parked in level p4, area B, space 313. Certain things faded from vision, somehow filtered by our windscreen -- homeless people, crazy people, anyone waiting on a street corner in the rain. The bus itself was no longer a glorious steamship, bearing down and rescuing us from the desert island bus stops; it was more like a dangerously decrepit old supertanker, edging up the road in a tide of traffic, foundering over to the sidewalk every block to disgorge sloppy passengers. We drove past, thought no more about it.

On Saturday, our visitors returned to England, and our Honda to Alamo. They are all greatly missed.

- We really have to get a car,

remarks Dr Strangename, a sage observation we have only made a couple of thousand times in the last six months. I nod. But not too emphatically -- we're on dangerous ground. 

Contrary to the tagline on this blog, I am now in possession of a work permit. Oh, yes. It says DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY on it, and it's very useful when I'm being IDed buying liquor. Since the cashier at Vons often has doubts about the validity of my namby pink EU driving license, and I don't want to carry around my passport, I feel that this function of the work permit is very nearly worth the $400 application fee. Dr Strangename has more traditional views, i.e. that it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a legal alien in possession of a work permit must be in want of a job.

Frequency of blog posts will increase in direct proportion to the amount of time I should be spending on my CV, which needs to be translated into American. Power verbs! Superlatives! Give me a job so I can buy a car!
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Thursday, March 17, 2011

LACMA, Afternoon

Avocado Thieves

On the corner of Military Avenue, a bald man is kneeling on someone's lime-green lawn. He's holding a flower.

- Hello,

I say, on my way to the Westside Pavilion. He nods. His feet are tucked very neatly under him; for a moment I wonder if he's meditating, but there's a shopping trolley full of old Fanta bottles nearby. Beyond, a sign on someone's wall tells us that

AVOCADO THEFT IS A CRIME

which only makes me look at the tree above -- avocados. I steal none. At Barnes and Noble, I buy 'The Hollywood Economist'.

- Your accent makes me homesick. I was born in Britain.

says the girl at the till. I ask her where, because she sounds entirely American; I don't tell her that, though, because these things are complicated.

- London, she says. And I went to school in Marylebone.

I smile because I can't think of anything to say. I can't even spell Marylebone, and, like most other London names, it only reminds me of the Monopoly board. I grew up four or five hours away from the city, in the rural south west of England.

London? We went there a couple of times, usually on the coach, for West End shows (with the entire PTA: group discount, safety in numbers) and important birthdays. Always an expedition. 

Tableau of country mice in the city: my mother is holding her handbag with an iron grip , muttering prayers to Our Lady of Moral Order (Maggie Thatcher) and pretending not to notice tramps; my father is studying the Underground map; I am crying because it's my eighth birthday and I was promised a knickerbocker glory ice cream sundae. They make them in the village, but I want a London knickerbocker glory, and god damn it if we can find one. Then a punk spits chewing gum in my hair -- 1988, final years of the punk reich -- and that shuts me right up. Happy days.

Back here on the Westside, I walk around the shopping mall trying to find a bikini, but am disheartened when all the price tags indicate high and arbitrary numbers: $93.42 for the top, $88.57 for the bottom. I exit through the car park, the design of which does not cater for pedestrians and so obliges me to weave around dumpsters and climb over some bushes. I notice someone's convertible, with the bumper sticker

SAW IT. WANTED IT. THREW A FIT. GOT IT.

and yet successfully resist the urge to vandalize. 

(People from small villages rarely become vandals, or punks, no matter where they end up.)

I walk back to our apartment. It's that crushingly gorgeous late afternoon LA light: pouring from a cerulean sky, bleaching whites whiter than white, softening the long palm tree shadows, the pastel bungalows, the pile of rotting blankets and scattered trash by the 405 underpass. Ridiculous beauty and squalor all together. 

At the apartment building, they're watering the flowerbeds, and the fine vapour and smell of warm earth make it feel like a rainforest. Or some other exotic foreign clime. Now I want to go back to Barnes and Noble and tell the cashier she's made me homesick, too -- but, of course, it's nothing that simple.
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Monday, March 14, 2011

Paper Cranes, Hiroshima

Earthquakes

On Thursday night we learn that a massive earthquake has struck off the coast of Miyagi prefecture. The NHK helicopters transmit images: endless rushing swells of sea-water, choked with trees and roofs and cars and soil, are bearing down on cities, houses. The tide is barely recognizable as water, except by its motion -- so dirty and clumsy, just debris and force, a terrible dun colour dispassionately sweeping over everything.

We watch it from an aerial view, as distant as osmosis observed through a microscope. Then the camera pans in, and we see tiny people on the buildings, tiny cars racing.

The newscasters announce facts and figures, but they're clearly not facts and figures yet -- guesses and estimates, no more. Is it an 8.8, a 9? That's a train station, submerged. No, it's an airport. We're getting, we're getting reports --

You imagine tsunamis as a clean vast crest of blue wave, curling down over palm trees. Not this unmajestic, relentless squalor, moving and moving and moving up the country like extinguished lava.

In California, people are watching the shores. Experts tell us that it'll take ten hours for the ocean disturbance to reach the west coast of America. It sounds mythological -- these giant, terrible waves riding across the Pacific, the deepest waters, travelling for hours and hours -- gaining strength? losing momentum? -- before reaching California. As mundane as a letter, as immense as gods.

At nine o'clock on Friday morning, all our local news teams are poised at the harbour and beach. For a while, nothing happens. Then, at nine fifteen, the sea shades to sand and algae, water pulling out and out, and the reporters become excitable. Temporarily, they forget to pretend that natural disasters are bad things, and chatter over their shoulder to the camera: for a while there it looked like nothing was going to-, but here it is, here it is, can you see-? They smile.

The water bears back down on the beach, in long lines of white surf. But nothing here is destroyed or washed away. In the marina, some boats break loose, wedging themselves under bridges or slowly arcing into other boats.

- That’s gonna make some people very unhappy,

says the news anchor, but we know it's not a disaster. We know it's not like Japan, where you see cars crushed against walls, window-high in muddy frothing water, one lone windscreen wiper batting back and forth. Buildings silently collapsing. Unhappy boat owners don’t compare.

***

On Friday evening I hear that a friend's friend has died. Toshiko was studying English in New Zealand. It was lunchtime at her language school when the 6.3 Christchurch earthquake struck and the building collapsed. This was on February 22nd. On March 3rd the search for survivors officially ended.

- I will say a prayer at Todaiji temple, 

says one person.

- I'm going to the Kasuga shrine.

- I hope she's not lonely.

Of the one hundred and twenty-five staff and pupils at Toshiko's school, sixty are missing and presumed dead. 

***

I only noticed one earthquake while I lived in Japan. It was moderate, but we were on the fifteenth floor and could distinctly feel the building rocking back and forth on its heels, as if about to swoon. The blinds gently tapped at the window, clicking like teeth. It made us all nauseous, but when we cranked open the slats and looked down at the city, nothing had changed. No smoking ruins. Maybe there were calligraphic cracks here and there, widened faultlines, a few smashed cups. Unimaginable miles below us, beneath the skyscrapers, asphalt, foundations, packed dirt, fossils, and rock, one tectonic plate had inched blindly against another. For a moment we realized they were there, but pretty soon we forgot.

Kia Kaha, New Zealand and Japan.
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Alarm"

Recent days have followed a strict schedule.

Drink coffee until nauseous.
Write until cross-eyed.
Become agitated: twenty minutes to sunset, and I haven't left the house.
Go for an aimless stroll (aka the Pensioner's Shuffle).

I should have another forty years in which to perfect my Pensioner's Shuffle, but the Escalade of Doom will surely get me before retirement does. Oh, people of Los Angeles -- won't you please check for Ped Xing when you turn right on a red? 

Taking the lift downstairs in our apartment building, I'm reassured to see they've removed the sign saying

PLEASE DO NOT DEFECATE, URINATE OR REGURGITATE IN THE ELEVATOR

and I'm almost reassured by the permanent plaque that tells me

Should the elevator stop,
Or become otherwise unresponsive
Do Not become Alarmed.
Press the button marked "Alarm"
And wait for assistance.  
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Pacific, February

Monday, February 28, 2011

Wake Me Up

I make some guacamole, buy a radioactive flagon of mojitos, and we sit down to watch the 83rd Academy Awards. 

- What's wrong with James Franco's face?

asks my husband, thirty minutes in.

I don't know. 

I thought Franco was behaving oddly during the pre-show interviews, but assumed -- he's a clever sort -- that it was some sort of hilarious bit that I was just too slow to understand.

Perhaps I am slow, because Franco's performance throughout the whole show is similarly enigmatic. His expression defies description. A statistical analysis:

80% nonplussed Keanu Reeves 
15% the peevish face my cat pulls when you put something too close to his nose
5% the half-smirk Rhett Butler makes during Scarlett O'Hara's violent tempers

It really is the Mona Lisa of awards show performances. Anne Hathaway isn't too bad, albeit very GO TEAM GO perky-shrieky-yay in a way that sees me topping up my drink frequently.

Google 'James Franco Oscars' now, and the second most popular option is 'James Franco Oscars High'. Or is it a case of Occam's Razor -- simple nerves, an over-tight truss? 

Monday is dull enough as it is. I give you five drug-free explanations for the James Franco Oscars Face:

- hacked teleprompter screen full of obscenities so vile they make a Mel Gibson rant look like a Charlie Sheen rant, and a Charlie Sheen rant look like a Julie Andrews song  

- sentient hologram of Bob Hope wandering backstage harvesting souls

- contractually-obliged colonic irrigation immediately prior to show (Franco told it was 'standard beauty treatment, kind of like a facial')

- at the dress rehearsal, Anne Hathaway baked a metaphorical cake of rainbows and smiles, sprinkled it with ground-up cheerleaders, Wolverine's nail-clippings and Zoloft, and stuffed the entire thing, whole, into her enormous maw. Nauseated and traumatised by this, Franco decides to go the other way, method-acting a mouthful of lye-flavoured sourpatch candy

- is that... is that Kim Basinger in the wings? She's not presenting, is she? Oh dear god, no -- this is still a dream within a dream within Alec Baldwin's dream, and it's about to get stabby. WAKE ME UP!
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Trying to Get Inside James Franco's Mind

Sunday, February 27, 2011

You're Invited!™ (No, Not You)

You're Invited!™

say the 2011 Academy Award billboards; we're not, but we go anyway. At least, we go to the Kodak Theater, twenty-four hours before the event, for a little light gawping.

We could do with the exercise. On Friday, I didn't leave the house at all; first there was a hangover -- grade 'nuclear winter' -- and then there was a migraine. I lay on the sofa for several hours, unable to find the remote or otherwise escape 'Maid in Manhattan'. The cat clambered over me, dribbling. Eventually I went back to bed; Dr Strangename came home, at the end of his working day, to find me in exactly the same position as when he'd left that morning. He can be very sarcastic.

Today I'm up by ten-thirty and we manage to leave the house before two. There's just no stopping us. We get the 12 to Westwood and, in undeserved good bus karma, transfer quickly to the 302.

It's always a relief when the bus behaves itself, as, approximately once a fortnight, Dr Strangename puts his foot down, shakes his fist, and says we'll never go on the Metro again. But this Saturday it's swift and uncrowded, and Dr Strangename laughs at the potholes on Sunset that threaten to disengage your cranium from your spine and roll your head down the bus like a bowling-ball.

We pass though Beverly Hills, with its ice-cream stripes of strawberry, vanilla and mint -- bougainvillea, white-washed walls, lemon-trees and lush hedges, almost pretty enough to distract you from its purpose (keep your dirty little bus-rider eyes off my lawn).

In West Hollywood we pass everyone's favourite artificially-enhanced-sex superstore:

JOIN THE HUSTLER FAMILY!

says a poster in its window, next to the shamrock-themed erotic outfits. I imagine the Hustler family: mom showing plenty of underboob in a sawn-off t-shirt, bending cheerfully over the (unlit, but no one notices) BBQ; dad doing some suggestive business with a foot-long; daughter eighteen yet still obliged to wear an undersized Catholic schoolgirl uniform.

Prohibition Is Over

appears in white on a sober black billboard across the road. No, thank you; after Thursday night, prohibition is back, and this time it's personal.

(I was drinking these lovely, faux-Japanese martinis, made from elderflower and lychee and gin, and they were as light and meadow-fresh as a fabric softener commercial. Friday morning, they may as well have been Clorox.)

Just as bus sickness and residual hangover are about to cause disaster, we reach Hollywood. Apart from Downtown -- where a woman directed a canary-coloured rain of junkie vomit at me -- Hollywood is the least glamorous district of LA we've seen so far. It's a particularly unappealing combination of genuine grot, tourist tat and anodyne chainstores. But everyone who visits us wants to go there, and, god, here we are again, of our own volition. You feel guilty for patronising it, as if encouraging some morally-dubious commerce that lowers us all, like a nice young man who keeps finding himself in Thai brothels.

But this weekend Hollywood is brisk and professional, full of tents and trailers and people with clipboards. Hollywood Boulevard is closed to traffic for several blocks, and we skirt alongside a screened area that is the Oscars red carpet. We can't see it, but we know it's there.

After being diverted through some battleship-grey service corridors -- it's no more than we deserve -- we find ourselves in the Kodak Theater. An Italian correspondent in a backless evening dress and a lot of panstick is making a broadcast. I take a photo of a sign saying NO ACCESS, and am reprimanded. There's more red carpet, a cinematic sweep of stairs, and some shrouded Oscar statuettes. Although the carpet is covered in polythene, we aren't allowed to step on it. I take several more photos. Even Dr Strangename is awed.

Eventually, we get to the top of the Hollywood and Highland mall, where you can look down fifty feet onto the transparent tent and red carpet walkway below. I see the public audience bleachers; I applied for a seat, but it's something like a 0.035 chance and I didn't win. Can't catch a break. This aerial shot is the closest we'll get.

We briefly consider throwing ourselves off the mall terrace onto the plastic roof, where we'd bob, waving at celebrities, for a short while, before being shot down like a couple of rogue parade balloons. But the celebrities aren't here until tomorrow, and we can't be bothered to take the bus again.    

They told me to come to Hollywood,
that it was the third biggest industry in the world.
Number one was safety razors.
Number two was sticking plasters.
Hollywood was number three. So I came.

-- Cowboy Actor

This is written on the mall's floor, along with lots of other dubious stories relating to The Road To Hollywood. Outside, we're filmed by someone getting establishing shots for The Lead-Up To The Oscars -- do look for us on Belgium TV -- and I linger outside a production van for Channel WowWowWow Japan, hoping to be discovered as a new Gaijin Tarento.

In the end, we walk south back to Sunset and wait for the Metro home. Our companions here are a guy with a guitar and gas mask, and another man who looks exactly like the reprobate who shot Sam in 'Ghost'. But on the way back through West Hollywood, I see a sign saying

Pierced People Pray Too

and resolve to be less superficial.
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Hermetically Sealed Hollywood

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bloody Foreigners

Ten Things That Happen When You Live Overseas
(especially, but not exclusively, in non-English-speaking countries)

- You spend a week thinking you have a terminal illness, and then you realize you've bought decaffeinated coffee. You also think that supermarkets should put alcohol-free beer in a separate aisle.

- When you visit your hometown, and people ask "How's [new country]?" your answer is either incomprehensibly specific: 

"...well, my Steuerberater just told me that the Finanzamt have declared our 2000 Euro freelance tax exemption invalid because I was working on a Lohnsteuerkarte for the first half of 2009; that's bloody Germany for you"

     or merely witless:

"...s'nice thank you".

- You get annoyed when: Germans claim that Japanese people eat cats; Japanese worry that Britain is overrun with football hooligans; Brits say they met an American once and he was a right prick; Americans ask if Germany still has a Nazi Party.

 - You become so accustomed to no one understanding quick, idiomatic comments that you will remark, loudly, on a busy Newcastle street, that "it's always the heifers that wear tube tops, isn't it?" 

- You are fluent in zero languages, but able to mime 'our broadband connection is running very slowly today, please tell me if there's a local problem'. You can also order a meal via interpretive dance: "uh, boss? There's a foreigner out here prancing like a chicken and waggling her fingers to indicate noodles. Should we give her the poisonous blowfish?".

- Your voluminous correspondence with the Student Loans Council rivals that of the Mitford sisters.

- You're glad you wear the largest shoe-size for women, because you don't have to bother remembering that you're a British 8, a European 41 and an American 10. You just follow the trannies to the right part of the shop.

(In Japan your footwear choices will be restricted to a mistakenly-imported pair of white Birkenstocks or the men's department.)

- You prefer moving west, because you're several hours younger there.

- You understand that bitching about the NHS is like complaining that the hem is down on your inherited mink coat.

- You only know you're British because all your underwear says 'Marks and Spencer'.
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Duck Soup, Düsseldorf

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Exposition Boulevard

I forgot to wash any clothes this weekend; really, my housewifing standards are getting very lax. Sometimes Dr Strangename is reduced to quark-wrangling in yesterday's socks. On Presidents' Day I leave the house dressed, for lack of any other choices, in United Nations blue: blue blazer from California, blue t-shirt from Germany, blue jeans from England and blue plaid scarf from Japan. In my handbag I have a blue beret in case it starts raining again, but the storms are over; our building's swimming pool is a bright aquamarine, rippling to koi-gold in the sun.

On the streets of Los Angeles, in the Westside, the walking wounded are out again. A tall, thin man in an old-school business suit -- pinstriped with matching waistcoat, and I'm sure there's a watch in those pockets -- comes along very slowly, more slowly than anyone with business. His face says nothing. Another middle-aged man pootles past on a mobility scooter, exercising a cheerful dog that is raw and pink with a skin condition. 

Sepulveda Boulevard, as I walk northbound, gets dirtier and dustier.

Bungalows offering Psychic Readings and Garage Sales turn into construction warehouses and lumberyards, with a handful of South American laborours lingering outside. They're there every day, wearing trucker caps and thick jackets, leaning against the fence, not talking; I assume this is a bad day, as it's already mid-morning and work would have presented itself by now. Cornerstone Mantels has eight Stars-and-Stripes fluttering from its roof, and a FOR LEASE sign. Nearby, The Best Little Doorhouse in Town is doing brisk business.

At my destination, I wait in an empty, high-up, doctor's office. Its inland-facing picture windows show a city panorama -- more tall mirrored buildings, SunAmerica and MGM and the Die Hard tower, and glittering lines of traffic, and usually the snowy mountains beyond. Today, even though the sky is a clean arctic blue, the horizon fades into a white blur and the mountains are invisible.

(Last week, at my volunteer job in West Hollywood, I was enjoying a similar view from a picnic table in the playground while I waited for my student. A small boy came up, stood in the herb garden and -- kicking wildly at some lavender -- remarked

- I need someone to keep me SAFE I ate too much SUGAR and now I think of SCARY THINGS.

Then he ran off shouting

- BLEEEEEEUUUUUUU.)

After ten minutes with a laptop-tapping doctor, I'm walking back down Sepulveda. I have to pass under the freeway to get home; two freeways, actually, the north-south 405 and east-west 10 that meet here in a compass-pointed rose, forming one of those looping cloverleaf patterns so beloved of LA aerial views.

But, underneath the intersection, nothing is clear, and all you know is a terrible moaning cathedral of concrete joists, shade and strange detritus: a pair of trousers snagged on a tree, a water-bottle of piss, fluttering reams of toilet paper. Abandoned vehicles are parked at the curb, with cars full of stacked trash, and a duct-taped RV covered in hand-written signs.

YOU ARE UNDER SURVEILLANCE

says one, and I hurry past before the fat man sleeping at the wheel wakes up.

The only cheerful point around here is Exposition Boulevard, regarding which I've prepared a laboured witticism: I would take Exposition, but it's long, pretty dull, and I'm not sure if it leads anywhere particular.

(Except I do know, at least, that it passes the astonishingly shabby local Postal Depot -- but why let this ruin a bon mot?)
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The Westside: 101.28 square miles

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Conversations With My Mother

It's the fortnightly transatlantic phone-call to Mother Dearest. I'm updated on the latest news from Little Village Primary School, England, where my mother has taught for the past twenty-two years. The updates are less compelling now that nearly all the teachers I remember from my time as a pupil there have either died, retired or inexplicably retrained as carpenters.

Mother Dearest is mainly concerned with Younger Sister's upcoming wedding. 'Upcoming' is relative; it's still seventeen months away.

A little bit of backdrop: the glorious nuptials of Dr Strangename and myself were not that traditional. We got married in our college chapel (variously built and rebuilt according to taste in the 1300s, 1500s and 1800s), but without bridesmaids, hymns, or sugared almonds. It was winter, and the bride wore a red Armani-knockoff dress; 'marry in red, you'll wish yourself dead', they say, although they probably don't look like a corpse bride in white.

I somehow always assumed Younger Sister would go the other way; veil copied from a magazine picture of Maria Shriver's wedding, that sort of thing.

But Younger Sister is going the other other way, making mine look like the average Republican-Senator's-Daughter-Crabcakes-Yachts-and-Lilies bash. She's having a non-legally-binding open-air Humanist ceremony at our family's farm, with a hog-roast and teepees and bunting. She's already started on the bunting. She plans to wear a floaty white dress and flipflops and carry sunflowers.

- What does the Mother-of-the-Bride wear to an open-air wedding ceremony?

wonders my mother, who wore a shift from Whistles and a large black hat to our day.

I'm greatly enjoying discussing the technicalities of wedding planning when a) it's not mine, b) I'm 6000 miles away and can't be asked to make bunting, and c) it's not mine.

Did I mention that the field chosen for the ceremony is also an ancient, pre-Druidic (possibly Neolithic) burial site? The barrows were opened in the 1700s, and the human remains moved to the British Museum. Wade and Wade (1929) describe it as:

a remarkably fine tumulus of masonry, said to have been one of the finest in Britain, in the chambers of which skeletons have been discovered. A few vestiges of it now only remain, the rest has been used as a lime-kiln.

Well, perhaps as my ancestors have been using it to make quicklime for several hundred years, a wedding in the vicinity won't be too disrespectful. Still. The date's set for July 2012, and anyone who's ever spent a summer in England knows that actual sun is a privilege, not a right. Younger Sister is hazy about what we'll do should it rain.

- Everyone can go into the teepees,

she says, sketching floral wreathes for her five bridesmaids. The teepees have no windows. Nearly 150 people have been invited. If I were pitching this wedding as a concept, I would say: Age of Aquarius meets Tess of the D'Urbervilles at the Battle of the Somme, with a touch of The Shining and just a hint of Dancing With Wolves.

I can't wait.
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Summer of '89, Great Britain

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sixteen Degrees (°C) of Separation

In the absence of beach weather, I'm surfing the 'Next Blog' button.

Video-game-playing guys, girls who wear vintage without looking like an unmade bed, Christian mothers, cowboys, and anyone double my age -- I'm reading, because you're not at all like me. Our only common ground is small, varied, and sometimes tenuous. Perhaps you:

- hold firm opinions about Valentine's Day.
- live in LA.
- live in Wisconsin (I hear it's the American answer to Somerset).
- are involved in academia, or grad-school, or are frequently described as 'pallid'.
- make a finely-tuned argument for atheism (I'm a weaselly agnostic, myself).
- make short, sincere lists of things for which you're Thanking The Lord today.*
- make long lists of everything that's gone wrong today.
- write haiku about TV shows, or poems entitled 'Go Fuck Yourself'.*
- know that Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity are not a set of Victorian triplets.
- draw portraits of celebrities that bring to mind the description 'teeth like baseballs... eyes like jellied fire'. (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).*
- have occasional difficulty explaining yourselves to cashiers.
- walk a high wire through difficult times without ever grasping self pity or happyclappiness.*

(*Well, I don't do these, but I admire them. And, especially, I acknowledge that 'being obliged to take the bus in LA' doesn't count as 'difficult times', even when old men do shout at you to GO BACK TO CHINA.**)

(** I'm not from China, so this is just confusing.)

Criteria used to exclude blogs:

- overusing the words Blessing, Mommy, Trendy, Hipster, Hubby, Steampunk or Faggot (unless the latter is referring to a bundle of twigs or an unappetising British meatball).
- having an icon saying 'The Cutest Little Blog On The Block'.
- removing the 'Next Blog' button, forcing me to backtrack and waste precious time.
- any pouting to the webcam.
- too many photos of food (makes me hungry) or shoes (makes me covetous) or family (makes me feel like I've got horribly drunk and then woken up, inexplicably, on the sofa in your living room, possibly having puked on your Sears rug, and am now staring at your graduation/wedding/school photos in the hope that something will give me a clue as to my location*). 

(*Please don't worry; I've only ever done this in my own living room.)

On the last note: if your blog is not intended for the eyes of strangers -- perhaps you forgot to set it as private -- and you feel odd that I've linked to you, please tell me to remove it, or adjust your settings. I didn't search for any of these blogs, and was referred to them by nothing more than the wisdom of the Next Blog button.
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Even Triffids Got Wheels

Friday, February 18, 2011

Rain is General All Over LA

It's been raining for five hours in Los Angeles. Our bedroom window is leaking. The building's carpeted corridors squelch. Our local intersection is a lake, and Escalades joyeously hypraplane over it like fat Canada geese.

This evening I spend thirty-five minutes standing in the dark, outside a gas station near Sony Studios, waiting for the 12. My umbrella is rusted and crippled from inactivity, and looks like an old bicycle that's collided with a derelict's tent. Due to the weather, I'm wearing an extremely laughable beret, purchased in Germany, and have tucked my jeans into my boots; I look like I've wandered in from a European pantomime. An elderly Korean lady waits under the garage's forecourt, periodically darting out to look up the long line of red and white lights that is Palms Boulevard.

- You waiting for this bus?

she asks me. I say yes.

- SEVEN BUSES GO: OTHER DIRECTION,

she tells me.

- I COUNTED. SEVEN.

I counted too, so I agree with her.

- It's crazy time god damn it,

she says, retreating to cover. My umbrella blows up into a tangle again, and a man my age, filling up a silver car, gives me what seems to be a sympathetic look. More of a pitying look. Or maybe he's a serial killer. Then someone backs their Camry into a bollard, and the Korean lady rolls her eyes at me in a way that clearly states: why does this fool have a car and we're still waiting for the god damn bus?

The rain doesn't stop. The bus comes. Unfortunately, the Big Blue Bus was not built for this weather, and it's leaking worse than our apartment; I sit on a boggy seat and fail to dodge drops.

Arriving at the supermarket near my house, I feel that some wine is in order. As I'm choosing, a man in a black tracksuit approaches me.

- Hello,

he says, and I tentatively remove an iPod headphone.

- Hello,

I say, noticing that 'Guard' is embroidered on his pocket; I fear that I'm about to be evicted from the alcohol aisle under suspicion of being underage or foreign or both.

- How arya?

- I'm sorry?

- Oh I'm sorry, see, I only just asked howrya doing?

- I'm fine, thank you. And you?

(This is truly how I speak with strangers -- somewhere between Princess Anne at a fete and the Japanese kids I've taught to chant 'Howuryoamfinethanyoseeyoladeralligader'.)

- It sure is raining,

he remarks. I smile and nod, edging closer to the imported wine. He is youngish and well-scrubbed, but there's an inauspicious air of missionary zeal.

- I'm Jerry, by the way.

- Oh. I'm Ped Xing,

I say -- I'm not really Ped Xing, of course -- and he suddenly becomes anxious, flustered and blushing, as if we're in a job interview.

- I'm sorry -- Zed Ping?

- Ped Xing.

He shakes my hand vigorously, eyes bright. I begin to realize he's not a security guard.

- I think you're pretty,

he says, which is generally a sure sign of derangement.

- Oh. Thank you.

- I wanted to talk to you,

- I -- have to go. But it was nice to meet you,

I say, still nodding and smiling like a foreign grandmother, whilst grabbing a cheap bottle of Pinot off the shelf. I feel bad, but later on, in the cheese section -- nothing like pairing a discount wine with some violently orange Monterey Jack -- I see him shaking some other girl's hand. I give him a sympathetic look. More of a pitying one. Or maybe he's a serial killer.
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Malibu in Grey/Gray

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Facts for Visitors

GOD IS STILL SPEAKING

says a sign on Westwood Boulevard. It sounds testy, or ominous, or plaintive, depending on your mood.

Today on the Westside it's Golden State sunny but cold in the shade, and by the BluWave Carwash a man is wearing a sack over his ragged clothes for warmth. He's cut holes for his head and arms, and secured it round the midriff with twine, making it look like a Medieval tunic.

This is at Santa Monica and Westwood. Last month, in the LA Times, I read that there was a particularly nasty accident two blocks down from here; a northbound car crossed early, an eastbound car crossed late, and their collision killed a pedestrian waiting at the lights. Both drivers survived. The Escalades shall inherit the earth.
   
When the Blue Bus gets to Westwood proper, I switch to the Metro. While I'm waiting -- leaning against the wall of a Burger King that accepts food stamps -- I watch students, doctors and nurses at the busy six-way crosswalk. The UCLA medical buildings on the other side are monoliths; plaster-cast white, darkly mirrored or sonar-screen blue. My friend Rodeo Girl, TX, told me the other day that she overheard a hospital administrator on her campus shuttlebus say she loves the sound of ambulances sirens: it sounds like business. Rodeo Girl wants to get the hell out of TX .

After a while, a tourist asks me the way to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and whether this is the right bus stop because the schedule says there should have been a bus by now but there hasn't  been so he's just wondering if there will be. I reassure him that it'll arrive eventually. Which it does.

When I get on, the guy in front of me has trouble swiping his bus pass.

- It don't work,

says the driver.

- It should work.

- But it don't,

he restates, and then lets him on anyway. I feed my dollar fifty to the fare machine. The only other people onboard today are two middle-aged ladies chatting in Spanish. One pleasant thing about taking the bus is, I suppose, the knowledge that, should we recreate the film 'Speed' right here and now, I will be a shoe-in for the Sandra Bullock character. That's just demographic fact. The 302 rattles up onto Sunset Boulevard, and its ads feature the same poem that always haunts me on this route, ending.

Some men will make a grave out of anything.
Anything.
Times when a body could dig through the night.*

Then I get off the bus near the Hustler store, and am nearly run over by a hippy on a Segway.



*Srikanth Reddy, 'Sonnet', from Facts for Visitors (LA/Berkeley: University of CA Press, 2004)
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

American Cinematheque

On California

5 Things You Will Learn About California, or Maybe Just LA

- that there are tarantulas in the wild here. Have I seen them? Sure. Seen 'em on the internet. That's the only reason I'm not on the slow boat back to England right now.

- that if you take the 8 to Westwood and the 302 to Hollywood and push your way to the front of a crowd of people at a star-unveiling ceremony, you may 'accidentally' run into Colin Firth. He will be wearing more make-up than you. What are the odds?

- that eventually, and much to everyone's relief, you will be able to say 'Santa Monica Boulevard' without taking 10 seconds to sing '...Until the su-un co-omes up over San-na-Mon-ica Boulevard'. Ditto for omitting 'Straight Outta' when referring to 'Compton', saying 'LAPD' without the urge to shout 'FREEZE' afterwards, and not appending 'Inglewood' with 'In da hood, up to no good': all verbal tics likely to get a white British girl punched off the bus.

- that you should never put your zipcode into the LA Times Homicide Report. 

(Back in Europe, you are strangely comfortable with a farmhouse where multiple generations of your family have breathed their first and last, a college room adjacent to the site of historic burnings-at-the-stake, and a German residence which was possibly bombed by your own grandfather...

...Here, you will become hysterical upon learning that someone was stabbed to death in your apartment building several years ago. In the early hours, you will imagine his ghost wandering the communal corridors, as translucent blue as the night-lit swimming pool.)

- that people will compliment you on your charming accent and then be unable to understand anything you say; also, that bringing back your Somerset accent will improve comprehensibility 90%:

"Oh waitress, may I have a glahs of wahtuh?"
"What?"
"I mean, oilav a glasss'o'waderr, moy love."
"Sure."
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Japanese Night Light

You Wake Up At LAX

Tyler Durden gave insomnia a bad name. It's really not that terrible if you don't have a job in the morning, or any father-issue-related latent aggressive tendencies which eventually lead you to develop an alter-ego who destroys your IKEA furniture.

(And Tyler 'your condominium is holding you back' Durden would get short shrift in this household, where any savings we might theoretically possess are eternally locked up in rental deposits. Sizeable rental deposits, because we didn't have Social Security numbers when we moved in, and had to put up extra cash to reassure everyone that we were real people. I bet even Tyler Durden had a Social Security number.)

Dr Strangename has retired to bed with all the moral righteousness of the recent convert -- he was notably nocturnal throughout his PhD, which was convenient, given that he was in England and I was in Japan. Now he's a functional adult who starts work at 9am,  but he still has guilty little lapses at the weekend; staying up until 4am reading football blogs and dispatching lines of code to supercomputers, then concealing it the next morning like another sorry addict.

Insomnia in California beats insomnia in Germany, hands down, because we have cable TV. I feel perfectly entitled to watch as much TV as I like, since I own many leather-bound books and several college degrees. With my magical remote,  I can study Organizing With Ease, Painless Hair Removal, or Summer Sexy Abs. I could be Discovering the Bible or Exploring Society or watching Southland whilst reading the LA Times Homicide Report online and having a panic attack.

Actually, I may just put on Entourage and feel mildly depressed that that LA, the sleazy/glamourous one, is still a different country, even if I do volunteer at a school that's convenient for the Viper Room. Speaking of which, Johnny Depp was in Westwood for a premiere last night, and owes many people an apology for causing utter gridlock throughout the area. Certain non-resident legal aliens were forty-five minutes late for their Valentine's dinners, which would have caused husbands to become apoplectic had they not consumed large bottles of Asahi whilst waiting. When I finally arrived, the waiter was rather short with us, but that's ok; we're European and still forget that tipping isn't optional.

(In Germany, one of my visiting friends mistook a 0 for a 6 on our restaurant bill and inadvertently left a huge tip, which led to the young waitress giving us a stern lecture on Teutonic gratuity etiquette and essentially making my friend feel as if he'd handed her an obscene proposal on a napkin).

Is traffic any more glamorous because Johnny Depp is causing it? No. Especially not when you're on the bus.

Insomnia in California doesn't beat insomnia in Japan, though. If you want to stay up all night in Japan you'll at least have a vending machine within slipper-walking distance, and the opportunity to make ridiculous amounts of money, without compromising too many morals, doing night-shift English classes. Teaching eight lessons, from eleven pm to seven am, you pass through interesting strata of Japanese society:

Before midnight your clients are overworked or drunk or both.
From midnight till two your clients are insane.
From two till four your clients are rice farmers.
From four till six your clients are retirees who like to get in at least ten self-improving activities before breakfast.
From six till seven your clients are school children who really wish you would drop dead.

At seven you walk home though all the daytime commuters, your tiredness simply a mirror-image of theirs.

Oh god. Another trailer for Battle: LA is on the television. I don't need to see dramatizations of local landmarks being reduced to rubble, thank you very much. I have a husband here tinkering with the fabric of the universe, and did I mention my security deposit?
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Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day Massacre

Valentine's Day; the couple upstairs are jumping up and down and screaming at each other in Chinese, and my Facebook newsfeed is registering 33% lamentation, 33% smuggery, and 34% propositions we all 'jus get bollok drunk LOLz'.   

In the spirit of this fine occasion:

Top 5 Least Appropriate and Yet Gratifyingly Memorable Gifts From My Husband

- a 30AA bra.
(a birthday; sadly, not my 14th. Still, doesn't every woman long to re-enact the classic romcom direction: girlfriend hesitantly unwraps present, holds up improbably slight item of lingerie: Uh... what is this?)

- a box of chocolates in a brown envelope, accompanied by an aggressive note that can be best summarized 'will this fucking do?'.
(a Valentine's Day which fell during a difficult period in our relationship)

- before we married, a ring-oh-not-that-kind-of-ring. Nervous laughter; awkward silence.
(a Valentine's Day which precipitated a difficult period in our relationship)

- a Richard Dawkins text, or any novel with 'death' in the title.
(various impromptu moments when my mind has seemed in need of improvement)

- a burgundy fedora that Huggy Bear would consider a tad too pimpish.
(a Christmas; now kindly donated to a men's shelter in Dusseldorf)


Top 5 Gifts Received By Prima Ballerina Margot Fonteyn; 
Look, I Know I've Never Danced Swan Lake, But I'm Just Saying

- a pure white kitten lying on a velvet cushion, in a basket of white orchids.
(from Roland Petit, Paris)

- a little packet containing a beautifully simple diamond bracelet.
(from Tito Arias, New York)

- a silver spoon that once belonged to Taglioni.
(from Tamara Platonovna Karsavina, London)

- a cuff of rubies, diamonds, pearls and emeralds, in a green velvet box.
(from, oh dear, Imelda Marcos, Manila)

- an otter.
(from her mother, Penang)
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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pestilent Beasts

Recently, the cats have been interrupting their standard position (reclining manatee) to scratch vigorously. Fleas. Aside from this being disgusting, it’s really disgusting because both cats are indoors-only. This means either Dr Strangename or I brought in the pestilence. How horrible -- I blame Dr Strangename, of course, due to his recent predilection for hanging around Parisian flophouses and the Haight-Ashbury.

I go to Petco in search of pharmaceuticals: drops, sprays, tablets, flame-throwers.  There is the usual Germany/USA retail culture shock. Here comes the national stereotyping.

In Germany, whenever you wish to purchase anything, there will invariably be two options*: the expensive one that costs a year's salary but can be bequeathed to your grandchildren, or the cheap one that is already broken. Both options will be hideous, and served to you with unconcealed disdain by a shop clerk who is operating secure in the knowledge that little, short of murder-suicide, can get you fired in the Socialist Republic. You must to hurry up and making your choose, schnell, because the shop is closing in half an hour and won’t reopen until Monday; the clerk is already deciding whether to spend his undeserved Sunday off Nordic walking, strolling around the city centre in a fur coat looking in the windows of closed department stores, or drinking Killepitsch in the local Schloss Schänke. Oh, and I suppose you want a bag for that, too? Prut. 

(*The only exceptions to the two-options rule are a) preserved meats and b) beers, because in Germany you cannot possibly have enough varietals of preserved meats and beers.)

In America, of course, it’s well documented that too much is never enough. I like this philosophy, despite its potential for ruining the character and waistline. But I cannot choose between forty brands/forms of flea zapper. Trying to pick a mid-price black mascara from thirty different types of mid-price black mascara makes me tearful, and I know something about mascara.

And, dear god, there’s all the other stuff, too. This Petco is bigger than our local supermarket in Germany. There’s kitten shampoo and dander-reducing serum, and I don’t know what a dander is. Maybe we do have too much. In the toy section they’re selling a thing in a bag called a Thing In A Bag©. I chance upon the Booda Dome Clean Step Litterbox©, reduced to $32.99: ‘Scoop Up The Savings!’ (not to mention the cat shit). Then there’s the Littermaid Elite©, an automatically self-cleaning tray, advertised at $60 as The World’s Greatest Litterbox©. But what about The Universe's Greatest Litterbox? Is it here? Is it in development? Can I get a discount coupon?

Eventually I come over all European, buy a $2 flea comb, and walk back down Westwood Boulevard. Because some of Dr Strangename’s European travel expenses have been reimbursed -- don’t get me started on the pyramid scheme that is academic travel, necessitating us to shell out for international flights and hotels then eat beans for months while we dream of the big payback -- I atone for the fifty hours a week I spend reading in Barnes and Noble, and actually stop in to buy two books. One is even full price. On the way out I’m discomforted to see that the ‘For Mom’ selection of the week is apparently ‘Surviving a Shark Attack (On Land)’, a self-help book about betrayal (including some pleasing intimations that adulterers, having broken the covenant of marriage, can be trusted with no further public duties and should presumably just be pushed out to sea on an ice-float). Recommended ‘For Dad’ is ‘It’s Not Really About The Hair’, the memoir of an gay Australian beautician turned American reality show star.

Maybe when my work permit arrives I’ll apply for a job at Barnes and Noble.
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