Merchants in Houston - Final Chapter

"I can see clearly now the rain has gone..." as someone who surely must have lived in south east Texas once sang. The whole of June, usually one of the more reliable summer months in the UK, was a total washout over here. There were only four days during the whole month which were rain free and I'm talking inundation with thunder, lightning, the full Monty. Apparently rainfall was 17 inches above average - most unusual as everyone is keen to tell me. The worst thing was the lack of light which was most depressing and not being able to go in the pool although humidity was still very high. Actually this wasn't such a deprivation for the Merchant household as the filtration system decided to break down with the result that the pool vacuum blew more debris into the pool than it sucked out so no-one was tempted to risk electrocution during a thunderstorm although the persistent inclement weather meant that it took 3 weeks to sort the problem out. But that was then and since the beginning of July we have had an unbroken run of wonderful very hot sunny days with temps consistently in the high 90s (F) and the pool reaching an amazing 35C(apologies for the mixed thermometers) Evaporation is beginning to be a problem and so the other day, as we bobbed about companionably on our respective inflatables, I unthinkingly suggested to My Dear Husband that perhaps the pool could do with topping up (after 28 years of marriage as of last Saturday you'd think I'd have more sense) and so became a reluctant participant in the sort of mathematical calculation with which my late and possibly not very much lamented High School Headmistress, liked to torture callow first formers (and their parents) ie. the filling of bath tubs with no plug and the wallpapering of rooms with an unhelpful number of superfluous design features such as windows, doors and fireplaces. The conclusion of the resident mathematician and his apprentice was that in order to raise the level of the pool by only one inch no less than 40 cubic feet or 240 gallons of water would need to be introduced. Having already endured a lecture on the scandalous size of our electricity bill (air con) I now find myself in the anomalous position of praying for more rain!

Food continues to be a big bonus of Texan life. The quality both in supermarkets and restaurants is consistently extremely high (we are currently enjoying a glut of the most delicious fruit including perfectly ripe avocados, super-sized cherries, donut peaches and pluots - the delectable progeny of plums and apricots- but it is not cheap, even in Texas, a State with one of the lowest costs of living in the US. Shopping, especially for luxury goods, may be better and cheaper over here but day to day living is not and were we householders we would face some very heavy additional bills for school taxes, resident association fees, house repair and maintenance including the extermination of termites, cockroaches and other nasties. Petrol (or gas as we must call it) is not as cheap as it was (although still compares extremely favourably with the UK) and we use an awful lot of it as each trip Downtown is the equivalent of driving from Middletown to Birmingham, a journey I would never have dreamed of making on an almost daily basis. Talking of driving, I am pleased (and relieved) to announce that since my last communication I am now the proud holder of a Texas driving license. I was driven (ha ha) to this extreme by a cautionary tale from my Russian friend whose 23 year old nephew had been pulled over by a patrol man for some minor traffic infraction and promptly banned from getting back behind the wheel until said license was obtained. When the fear induced by the sight of the HPD in my rear view mirror (not to mention the threat of a $200 fine and the wrath of a liftless daughter) became too much to bear I spent the whole of one day and night sweating over the excruciatingly boring manual enlivened by the odd snort-provoking nonsense (see below) and the following morning managed to score 89% in the theory test and, despite failing to locate the headlight switch (they come on automatically), a "nice job, Ma'am" in the (10 minute) practical.

1) When a car approaches, pedestrians must step off the pavement immediately.

2) Cyclists must not ride on shoulders.

3) Whatever your reason for not wearing a seatbelt, it is not reasonable and therefore will not be accepted.

This last stricture refers to the seat belt law which has only recently been adopted in Texas along with the law forbidding you to drink while driving or was it drive while drinking? Thank goodness we didn't get here any sooner! There has been a lot of cinema and concert-going lately. Brian and I attempted to round off our anniversary evening with a viewing of Before Sunset, the sequel to one of my most favourite romantic movies but by the time we realised that my request of "two for Before Sunset" had been interpreted at the box office as "The Door in the Floor" (a quasi-erotic offering featuring Kim Basinger) and my viewing companion had been prised out of his seat and frog marched into the adjacent screen there were only 35 minutes of my chosen film remaining - a disappointment which 4 complimentary tickets did little to ameliorate as the cinema in question is not exactly mainstream and unlikely to be revisited in the near future. Of course we have also been to see Fahrenheit 9/11 which is on general release over here even in the Bush heartland and, on the night we were there at least, playing to a full house and awarded a round of applause. It was interesting and sometimes very amusing although hardly revelatory and far too subjective to merit the title "documentary". Some of the "evidence" had obviously been manipulated to underpin Moore's argument, the very crime he has worked so assiduously to lay at Bush's door. Nevertheless, as with Bowling for Columbine, the film raised some uncomfortable questions not only about the U S Government but also American society which were not inconsistent with some of our own recent experiences and observations. We fared much better with Simon and Garfunkel at the Toyota Centre on July 7th. To say they were superb is almost an understatement. It ranks as one of the greatest concerts I have ever been to, certainly on a par with (although very different from) the best of Clapton and was not spoiled even by the unsolicited information that my right hand neighbour (a very large, uncouth, unknown Texan) would be trampling over me and my regular diet coke on his way to the bathroom during their haunting rendition of Scarborough Fair. Getting right back up to date, we're off to John Mayer and Maroon 5 at the outdoor Cynthia Woods Pavilion on Saturday. What's the betting that will be the day the Gods have scheduled for topping up the pool?!

I am at something of a loss to account for how I have occupied my time since Chapter 10. ESL continues to go well; Tanya and Marta have now been joined by Alba from Argentina and tonight I sit on the other side of the desk for my first Spanish lesson from someone else's star ESL student, Oscar Perez. Actually most of my days, and sometimes nights (but only under duress) have been taken up with facilitating Daughter Number 3's pursuit of a) a social life and b) a music career, ambitions which appear to be inextricably linked. Since the (figurative) demise of the conversationally challenged Travis, Daughter No. 3 has been most regularly in the company of the interestingly named Cory Berg. If you ignore the Scandinavian ancestry, Cory is probably the nearest we have found to the All-American boy: local High School alumnus magna cum laude, Varsity football star, voted "most likely to succeed" Class of '97, Ivy League graduate, financial Whizz Kid and, as of last Friday, full time professional musician - you could probably hear his mother wailing and gnashing her teeth all the way back in Middletown! Despite the occasional tendency for this Texan Golden Boy to grow too big for his well worn Tony Lama's (top brand cowboy boots now also favoured by a certain Ruralshire transplant) there is no doubt that his patronage has helped smooth Daughter Number 3's passage into the Houston music inner circle where she has got to hang out with some pretty big names and even gig with some of them. In addition to the good old Mucky Duck where she now has quite a following, Daughter No. 3 has played, by invitation, at Ovations in Rice University Village, opening for local band Southrak, Songwriters' night at Dean's Credit Clothing on Main (made it to Downtown!) and the historic Anderson Fair in Montrose where Country luminaries Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams first started out. While not quite ready to become card-carrying members of the Dolly Parton fan club, we are fast becoming Country/Bluegrass converts and enjoy some very different sorts of music these days.

So the trusty Mountaineer has seen a lot of service in recent weeks and I have seen rather more than I would have liked of Houston's freeways by moonlight but it's all in a good cause (at least in the Gospel according to Number 3) and does have the odd perk. Most recently she and I have been enjoying the delights of Houston Heights, one of the oldest and therefore most picturesque residential areas in Houston which is also home to some quaint restaurants, very reasonable antique shops and the best stocked vintage clothing shop, also an "Are you being served?" department store called Kaplans Ben-Hur (founded 1908) - an amazing time-warp shopping experience. Having been largely ignored by the teenage girls of Memorial Northwest, "The English Girl" has collected a "crew" of very pleasant, articulate and fascinatingly diverse young men - diversity in all its aspects being one of the big attractions of Houston for all of us, not to mention the novelty of being considered a part of it all - who, of course, all have their own cars and don't seem to mind the trek out to the Northwest frontier although most are surprised by the distance ("I've just passed Beltway 8, have I missed your house?" "No, you're only half way there!") and, unlike the object of their perseverance, are often gratifyingly astounded by my courage and generosity in providing an on-call taxi service for England's answer to Sheryl Crow who is of course now far from keen to return to Blighty in pursuit of a career as a Primary teacher. Father, however, is more than keen that this should happen so the home visit for September is still on the calendar although no flights have yet been booked.

Unbelievably our first year in Texas is almost up and this will be the last mass communication. If you want to know more, then please enquire within or better still come out and see us some time while we're still the Merchants in Houston

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