“Am I hallucinating,” Rich asked, “or is that man vacuuming his lawn?” I looked over and, yes, there was a guy standing on the live grass using a shop vacuum, the kind Rich keeps by his workbench to clean up wood shavings and such. Later, an online search revealed you can now buy dozens of machines specifically designed to suck up unwanted debris from your grass.
“Lawn vacuums are a thing now.” I sighed, shaking my head. “I am so out of touch.”
I say this a lot whenever I return to America after a long absence. During the last six months in Spain, it was easy enough to keep up with the big stuff online, but it’s the little changes — the ones everybody else takes for granted — that I keep tripping over. Like robots lined up on the sidewalk in Silicon Valley, ready to deliver groceries.
These little guys are amazing. Each can hold 20 pounds (about three bags full) inside its boxy cargo area. After you order with your app, the robot is filled at the store then trundles along the sidewalk, crossing streets and mounting curbs to find you. So far the robots aren’t able to climb stairs, use elevators, or flag down a passing driverless car, but clearly it’s only a matter of time. According to the inventors at Starship Technology, these robots “have been embraced by the local community.” And who wouldn’t be delighted to have R2D2 bringing you a quart of milk when you run low?
Speaking of beverages, I was much struck by an ad in our local paper with the headline, “Relax and Un-Wine.” It seems Napa vintners and cannabis cultivators put their heads together and created “alcohol-removed, cannabis-infused wines.” You get the civilized sensation of sipping a good chardonnay or pinot noir while buzzing like a stoner at a rock concert.
“What do you think?” I asked Rich. “A match made in heaven or Frankenstein’s monster? Should we try it? You know, as a service for my readers? It costs — yikes, forty-five dollars a bottle.” Rich just rolled his eyes.
Even without cannabis-infused chardonnay, I find California rather dizzying these days. The kaleidoscopic shifts in technology are only the beginning. I’m still re-adjusting to a world where people refer to the pandemic in the past tense and socialize as if it were 2019. “I feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon,” a friend remarked recently, and I know what she means. After two years of hunkering down, scrupulously observing safety protocols and minimizing human contact, I am now flung headlong into the hurly burly of a society ready to party.
Last year, social scientists predicted recovering from Covid — medically, economically, and socially —would take until 2024, and then we’d see another period of excess like the one that followed the 1918 flu pandemic. Looks like the New Roaring Twenties have arrived ahead of schedule.
“It’s a chaotic world out there,” Rich said over Sunday lunch in our garden. We’d been talking gloomily about the latest mass shooting, which had taken place only that morning in our state capital, leaving six dead, twelve wounded, and three gunmen on the run. (They've now been caught.) So far this year America has witnessed 119 such shooting sprees — more than one a day. More than we can bear.
“How do we live with this?” I asked.
“By creating a sanctuary, here at home,” Rich replied. “If the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that we can’t choose the world we live in, but we can choose how we cope with it.”
Some of the ways Rich and I cope include strictly limiting the amount of news we watch, getting plenty of exercise, and adopting European eating habits. This means five meals a day, each modest in size but allowing us to rise from the table satisfied, yet already thinking with pleased anticipation of the next culinary delights. In a chaotic world, sometimes the only thing that makes sense is comfort food.
As my long-time readers will recall, in 2019 Rich and I spent five months on the road sampling Mediterranean comfort food in ten countries, and I was about three-quarters of the way through writing a book about the trip when the pandemic struck. With travel no longer possible, the book no longer felt relevant; worse, it seemed a painful reminder of what we were all missing. Many of you wrote to ask if I was ever planning to revive the project, and I’m pleased to report that I am now back at work on it. And it's been a tremendous hoot; I’d actually forgotten a lot of the zany stuff we did and weird dishes we tried.
Of course, I’ll still be blogging, too. California never fails to provide gobs of material, what with all the hair-raising natural disasters, kookie cultural happenings, and great food. In the past I’ve sought out diners and dive bars, and this summer I’m thinking of exploring old-fashioned road houses.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a road house is a small eatery on or near a main road in a sparsely populated area, a place to pause and regroup en route to somewhere else. Roadside diners are similar in providing meals, but a road house is a bit more like an old coaching inn, a place where back in the day you could water your horses, slake your own thirst, enjoy a meal, and overnight in an upstairs room. Nowadays fewer of them still offer lodgings, but the tradition of hospitality remains. “Road houses,” notes Wikipedia, “have a slightly disreputable image, similar to honkey tonks.” I like the sound of that.
Adding to the fun, I’ve learned that many road houses cater cheerfully — almost excessively — for the traveling dog. For instance, 7 Mile House not only offers a complete canine menu (angus beef, grilled chicken, pig ears) but gives Fido a free peanut butter biscuit during Yappy Hour, and sells Doggie Cigars (don’t worry, they’re tobacco-free beef jerky) and Bowser Beer (it’s actually broth). You’re invited to bring your dog down for a Pawty to celebrate beneath the banner that reads, “It’s my birthday, bitches!” And they of course mean that literally. Celebrations finish up with Ben and Jerry’s Doggie Ice Cream.
Rich has selflessly volunteered to help with taste-testing all road house food, but only from the human part of the menu. Although he seemed rather intrigued by the canine Ben and Jerry’s.
Whenever I return to California, I brace myself for the unexpected. My first week back, I’ve stumbled upon lawn vacuums, delivery robots, and cannabis wine, and no doubt this is just the warm-up for stranger things. I keep thinking of that scene in All About Eve when up-to-no-good Bette Davis downs a martini in a single gulp and announces, “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.” I don’t know what form this summer’s turbulence will take; my home state is prone to earth-shaking, bone-rattling seismic shifts — geological, social, cultural, and culinary. But at least it’s not dull, and I will never run out of stuff to write about.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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