Category: California

What It’s Like to Feel Homesick in your 40’s

Decorating the house for Halloween stirred up a lot of emotions this year

Last night I broke down. I spilled many tears and sobbed uncontrollably like a young child. The culprit? Homesickness.

It’s been barely 10 months since we moved from Toronto to San Jose, California and I’m exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of homesickness. I didn’t know what that felt like until it happened. I have felt an overwhelming sadness or malaise that can strike at any moment. Yesterday it hit me when I was unpacking our Halloween decorations. I remembered where each spider, skeleton, ghost and ghoul was placed on the porch and in the garden of our home. Now I find myself trying to find a new perch for the scary rat, or a new post to hang the drooping ghost. Are there hooks and nails for the other decorations? Am I allowed to put new nails into the house I am renting? Those questions seem trivial, but they triggered feelings of anxiety and loneliness beyond words.

I looked up articles online (something everyone knows they shouldn’t do but do it anyway) about homesickness and the first results I got were aimed at students who had left home for college or university; kids who didn’t know how to buy groceries, cook a square meal or find their way to a doctor’s office. Those are things I have mastered, not only for myself but also for my kids and husband. The practical aspects of living somewhere new have come easily to me. Finding doctors and dentists, sussing out the grocery stores for all the different foods we like, getting a driver’s licence, navigating the highways and roads, and opening a bank account. Even though I ran into some bureaucratic red tape along the way, everything went smoothly for the most part (Department of Motor Vehicles excluded, but that’s another story!).

What is much more difficult to master are social circles for adults–the very things that aren’t readily available to you, like they are for my kids with school and their sports teams. Breaking into a new community is far from easy. There are neighbours, school parents and hockey parents, but other than sharing a zip code and the same drop off at school or drive to the rink, nobody feels compelled to befriend me. And why should they? The effort must come entirely from me to reach out, make connections and take risks. This can be incredibly intimidating and uncomfortable depending on your personality.

I consider myself an extrovert so I don’t have trouble approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. I credit my time as a radio and television producer for giving me the confidence to ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. But that doesn’t mean the effort I’ve put in has reaped overnight friendships, or people I can call upon to help out when I find myself needing someone to watch the kids when I’m in a pinch.

Most days are spent in solitude doing chores around the house or running errands. I talk to the dog a lot, but he’s not much of a conversationalist.

That makes it easy to fall into bad habits like comparing everything to back home–the food, the public transit (or lack thereof), the weather, the healthcare system, the schools, the homes, the neighbourhoods, the stores. It is very easy to critique and criticize what is different and somehow inadequate or disappointing in comparison. What is more challenging is finding the good in a new home and capitalizing on it.

For me that is hiking in the hills nearby and spotting deer and wild turkeys, or weekend trips to the coast for a day at the beach with a picnic lunch. It’s about having the time–and the luxury–to ride my bike to school every day with my son for drop off and pick up; or the time to try new recipes and cook with fresh produce that’s grown within an hour of where I live. Every place has something different to offer and it’s up to me to explore, discover and enjoy those amazing things.

Not being allowed to work has contributed, in some part, to my homesickness. This is the first time in my adult life that I have not earned a pay cheque, which is very disconcerting. I’m used to being self sufficient. But it’s not only the money that matters. Going into an office every day, feeling that you have a skill that adds value, and interacting with like-minded people are very powerful motivators that make you feel part of a community. In the absence of that, it is easy to feel alone and isolated when you aren’t part of “the hive.”

So I am volunteering at my youngest son’s school with the garden club and at my middle son’s school snack bar twice a month. Both keep me close to my kids, but I can’t say I have formed lifelong friends through these activities. I do go hiking with a fellow Canadian who has become my closest friend since moving here. She and I are kindred spirits, and I am so grateful for her friendship. I’m not sure how I would be making it through this year emotionally without her support. Unfortunately I already know that she is moving back to Canada after this school year, which means our time together is fleeting and as my husband says, I should really try and make more friends.

Back to that article I found online about homesickness–it appears everything that I am feeling is normal for someone feeling homesick and while there is no formal psychological diagnosis for the condition, there are plenty of things the article suggests you can do to combat the feelings of loneliness and longing, many of which I am attempting to do.

I think the biggest challenge for me to overcome is my attitude, which can be a huge barrier to happiness. If I believe I’m going to be unhappy and uncomfortable here, then I probably will be. If I decide I’m going to meet people, make new friends and try new things, then moving here could be a positive experience I can look back on with fond memories.

Yes, there will be moments when I can’t help but feel sad and miss the people I love who are back home, but I also know home can be in more than one place–that’s something I’ve told my kids. So it’s time to ditch the hypocrisy and embrace the new.

 

 

 

I am NOT a Stay-at-Home Mom

I am NOT a Stay-at-Home Mom. Don’t get me wrong—I love my kids, but they don’t wholly define me. I had a life before kids came along, and I have had a life outside the family home since they came along. Yes, I admit, they are a big part of my life and in my current situation, I would say 30% of my time is devoted to being their Uber driver (curse you, hockey!!!!), 30% of my time is devoted to meal planning, grocery shopping, and preparation, and 20% of my time is devoted to cleaning, laundry and other household maintenance. So that leaves 20% of my time to pursue other ventures.

But I think I’ve done a pretty stellar job *training* these boys to be independent. They make their own school lunches, get themselves to school on their own (minus the six-year-old, although he insists he can get there and back on his own and I do believe him), bathe and shower when they *know* they need it, put their laundry away (okay, I nag them to do this), tidy up, and take the initiative to do their schoolwork.

This was happening while I was working full-time in Toronto. Then we moved to California and I was out of a paying job. You cannot imagine how this crushed me. Most women would think, “Oh my! I’ve hit the jackpot! I don’t *have* to work! I can be that lady of leisure I always dreamed about! I don’t have to race from drop-off in the morning, to an eight-hour day, and then race to pick-up and figure out what I’m making for dinner.” True, I’ve got the luxury of time, so-to-speak, to figure out what I’m serving for dinner, but don’t think for one second I’m anymore inspired to meal plan than I was when I was working full-time.

Yes, I enjoy being able to drop off my youngest at the schoolyard in the morning and pick him up from his classroom when the bell goes. I am happy that I have time to volunteer in his classroom and at my other son’s middle school. I don’t have the unnerving stress of making it home from work in time to gather up the boys and their hockey paraphernalia and shuttle them to the rink in time for practices. The absence of those pressures are certainly welcomed. However, I gave up a lot professionally to gain that sliver of time management. It is still a time crunch to get them home from school, fed and piled into the car with their gear.

What I miss is looking forward to that intellectual stimulation and adult interaction that challenged me and forced me to think HARD. Going to work and concentrating on subject matter that I might not have been familiar with kept the synapses firing. Taking the initiative to seek out this kind of stimulation while in solitary confinement is not something I’m good at. Yet.

I know, I know. There’s Coursera. There’s Khan Academy. There’s +Acumen. But sitting in front of my computer attempting to learn about something new is not nearly as inspiring as learning it from a real, live human being.

NO! I don’t want to go back to school. I did my time, thank you very much. And if there’s one thing I know about me, (yes, I am highly self-aware and emotionally intelligent) I know I learn better with real people, not from reading a text book or online modules. Let me interact with people and I will gladly contribute.

So right now I’m learning how to be out of a job, because I have no choice. I go for hikes with friends. I attempt recipes I otherwise wouldn’t have the time to make. I work up a sweat vacuuming, scrubbing and washing floors, toilets, sinks and counters. I do *far* too much grocery shopping. I drive my kids to hockey more than I ever imagined I would in a lifetime. And I write, because I know that’s what I’m good at.

But I am not a Stay-at-Home Mom.

Blogging about California

I turned my back on this blog many months ago. I didn’t feel like spilling my guts on to the proverbial page and leaving an indelible digital footprint, only to be discovered or stumbled upon by some poor schlub at some later date. Life was is in flux. My thoughts were are driven by emotion. I needed to give my head a break. And yet here I am, typing out my thoughts. Why, you ask? No good reason, really. It’s just time to start writing again.

Maybe I’m doing it to flex the writing muscles that have atrophied over the last several months; to remind myself that I am still capable of stringing together coherent sentences. Maybe it’s simply an outlet for my personal thoughts and ideas, and as I’ve been known to say (especially to my children), “better out than in!”

The truth is I was having a rough day the other day. It happened to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The holiest of holy days in the Jewish year, occurring ten days after the New Year. I have a rather superficial relationship with my deity. It’s more of a means to an end, the end being Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, family gatherings at certain holidays. Food, food and more food. You get the picture. But this year things are different. We are in California without the extended family to have a meal with or sit with in synagogue and count the number of pages left in the prayer book before the service is over. I’ve struggled a lot with our move to the west coast, primarily because I miss our family and friends. When the holidays roll around those feelings are exacerbated.

People think, “California! That’s amazing! Great weather, mountains, ocean and Silicon Valley!” Those things are all true, and I have enjoyed those things. However, moving away from home is hard, regardless of the location you are moving to.

Writing about my experiences was my husband’s idea. While not in synagogue, we had a heavy conversation reflecting on the move, what it’s meant for our relationship and our family. What it’s meant for both of our careers–his moving forward, mine on hold. We also talked about our fears, which are very real. We don’t agree on everything, and in the past that has really shaken my confidence in our relationship. But during that heavy conversation we agreed that we were in this together. All for one and one for all. And that has bolstered my confidence.

I also think my identity is bound up in my country and my career. Absent those two things I am struggling to discover who I am and what I enjoy doing. So this hasn’t only been a literal journey, but a figurative one too.

I’ve decided to write down some early observations about our home away from home that have made me feel homesick. I now realize how much I romanticize the home I have left behind, and as a good friend said, I haven’t been able to “commit” to making a home here. I’m sure there was plenty to complain about back home, but I have a selective memory and have consciously and subconsciously chosen to only remember the good stuff. So I’m going to try hard to remember the good and the bad:

1. I am a slave to my car

Other than the pathetic little plaza out by the main street in my neighbourhood with a pharmacy, a mediocre pizza joint, a dentist, a suspicious looking gym, and an overpriced market, I have a 10-minute 8-kilometre drive up the expressway to the nearest collection of big box stores and decent shops a la Trader Joe’s. I wish my neighbourhood was more walkable from a retail shopping and public gathering place perspective. The upshot is we live close to many trails in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, which means I can easily go for nature hikes without much effort. So there’s definitely lots of SPACE in the area.

The hockey rink where my kids practice and play is a 20-minute 16-kilometre drive from home. The drive is mind-numbing, but it could be worse. There are people who drive upwards of 50 kilometres in EACH DIRECTION to get their kids to practice three times a week! I also remember those drives to north Etobicoke and down to the bottom of the lakeshore to get the kids to games on weekends, or practices downtown at 5 in the afternoon on a weekday. That was no picnic. So any way you slice it, driving kids to hockey sucks. I am a glorified Uber driver, except I don’t get paid one red cent.

Some advice for the City of Sprawl San Jose and its planning department: it’s time to invest in mass rapid transit. The suburbs need trains. Big time. HOV lanes for Uber and Lyft drivers, electric vehicles and carpools during rush hour don’t cut it. If this city and State made it easier, cheaper and more enjoyable for people to commute to work by taking public transit, they might just solve their gridlock problem and improve the quality of life out here. Hey wait: am I talking about San Jose or Toronto????

Oh yeah–and fix those on and off ramps on your highways–they’re backwards!!!

2. The sky is blue. All. The. Time.

I wake up, the sky is blue. I go to bed, the sky is blue. Well, it’s black when I go to bed, but it was blue. All. Day. Long. There is rarely a wisp of cloud in the sky. It is dry. It is a desert. It is dusty. My house is dusty. The hills are like a crispy, brown tinderbox with a few green trees scattered about. It’s been like this since April. I know there are worse problems to have in this world, but the constant threat of drought and forest fires proves that climate change is real. When it rains here I rejoice. I heave a sigh of relief that the parched earth can take a deep drink and replenish its fluids. I am astonished that homeowners are allowed to water their perfectly manicured, deep-green lawns. Why do they have grass??? I feel like a hypocrite because our rental home has a lush, green front lawn with a sprinkler system that waters it every night.

I miss the seasons. I miss a rip-roaring thunderstorm. I miss the Monet-like shades of Autumn in the trees. I miss the smell of the leaves rotting in raked piles on the lawn. I miss that bite of cold air when summer has departed and Fall has arrived. I miss the first snowfall and seeing a puff of my breath in the air. I miss the glare of the sun off the blanket of pure white snow. A snow storm! I miss the thaw and the promise of something new shooting up through the ground. I miss a rainy day–and the smell of rain–curled up under a blanket with a book and mug of tea. I miss the humidity of summer and the refreshing dunk in the lake to cool off. I miss warm nights. I’ll say it again: I miss the seasons.

But let’s not kid ourselves; five months of winterish weather is not fun. You wake up and it’s grey outside. You go to bed and it’s grey outside. Correction: it’s pitch black at 4:30 in the afternoon after we change the clocks in November. I don’t miss gripping my toes inside my boots and bracing myself as I gingerly walk down the icy sidewalk for fear I will wipe out and break something in my body. I don’t miss feeling the hairs in my nose freeze as I inhale or tensing my shoulders, which lock up around my ears as I steel myself against the windchill. That gets old quickly. I recall piling on layers of clothing and the same boots, jackets, hats, gloves and scarves every single day for weeks and months on end. And that’s just winter! Summer humidity is killer. Without question you need air conditioning to survive. It’s just too damn hot and there is no relief.And the bugs! Don’t get me started on those noxious creatures. I don’t want to complain too much about summer in Ontario, because it’s so short-lived. Oh yeah, that’s the other drawback: it’s so short-lived.

3. What is with the food?!

Food is a tough one because it can provide comfort and make you feel at home if you’ve got access to the food you are used to eating. So visiting grocery stores here is a bit like being an explorer going on an expedition.

Food is also a bit of a double-edged sword because the area of California we live in is so abundant in some of the most amazing produce–on any given day you can source fruit, vegetables, meat, and any kind of dairy from within about a 100 kilometre radius. In that regard I feel spoiled. But I have to say, it ain’t cheap. Good food costs money here. On the other hand, bad food is easy to come by cheaply. Just visit any grocery store here. The cookies, crackers, chips and “soda” drinks are abundant. I have not indulged in such convenience foods, but they too, are overly abundant. I wouldn’t even call some of it food–maybe consumables, because you wouldn’t die (at least not immediately) if you ate it. Your body would just be full of sugar and salt.

The grocery stores carry enough variety that I can usually find what I want–I say “stores” because I have to go to three on average to find all the things I need. I definitely miss certain brands and products, like President’s Choice, Nestle nut-free chocolates, Shreddies and Vector cereal, and Ace bakery breads to name a few. I’ve tried to replicate some of them through other products on the store shelves here without much success.

And what is up with the absence of veal? I have looked high and low for veal cutlets but apparently eating baby cow is gauche here. I was jones-ing for an Italian veal sandwich several months back and every time I asked a butcher if they carried veal, they looked at me like I was a murderer. My quest continues, although I fear I may fail. (update: Whole Foods said they carry veal, but they are currently out of stock) I also haven’t been able to find Montmorency sour cherries (best for making sour cherry pie) or Cortland apples (for making sauce), but I am bound and determined to find them.

As for restaurants, I don’t bother eating out much here. The bar is pretty low when it comes to fine dining. It’s either fast food (I’ll take a hard pass, thanks), or mediocre chain restaurants. The best restos are up in San Francisco.I can’t even find a decent Chinese food joint in the area. There are lots of good Vietnamese places that serve Bahn Mi and Pho. Oh! And if you like Mexican food–burritos, tacos, etc.–you can find a decent taqueria on every other corner. Unfortunately Mexican is not my favourite. So I’m expanding my home cooking repetoire. I’ve got a board in the kitchen where I write down meal ideas and the list is growing. Let’s just hope the kids appreciate my culinary adventures.

I can’t really complain about the food back home. It’s good. (what I’d give for an Ace Bakery baguette right now!) But like I said, the fresh produce only lasts from late May to October. Then we are back to importing berries from Watsonville, which is an hour away from where I live now! And who am I kidding? We rarely got out to a good restaurant (although, when we did it was Amazeballs!), because kids, you know?

4. Americans are paranoid

Obvi! That’s why they carry guns! And have home alarm systems! And cameras to spy on their neighbours! And apps called Nextdoor where people can post about suspicious cars and people driving and walking through the neighbourhood! Maybe it’s only endemic to this particular corner of the universe, but my observations have led me to conclude that people are afraid of other people and it has bred a strange sort of alertness and vigilante-ism. And this is California–one of thee most liberal States!!!! The majority of kids don’t walk or bike to school–parents drive them to school (although, to be fair, many of those parents head off to work after school drop-off). Neighbours will post messages if they see someone they don’t recognize lurking about. That never happened back home. Oh wait! I’m wrong–there is now a neighbourhood watch and several people in the neighbourhood who wish to keep it clean and pristine (apparently there is a sex doll shop on the outskirts of the neighbourhood they are trying to get rid of) and free of any nefarious elements. So if I stop and really think about it, there are outspoken actors willing to step up and step in in both of our neighbourhoods.

Maybe I’m too trusting, maybe I’m oblivious or maybe I just don’t care. This one really stumps me and I have decided to study this cultural difference further as the weeks and months go on. I find it both fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

So those are my early observations. I’m sure others will develop over time. I plan on taking notes and posting about this again (I think I could write an entire post about the horrendous traffic in this region–and I’m not talking about gridlock this time, I’m talking about the horrible drivers). It shouldn’t take long for me to amass more topics (my head is FULL of them). I look forward to sharing with you in the future.

In the meantime my search for comfort food continues as does my dream for a rainy pyjama day.

 

Supreme Jam Sesh at Summer Kitchen

Today I got to put on a shirt and apron at a restaurant and make jam. Doesn’t sound all that thrilling, but for a wannabe it was SO. THRILLING. As my sister’s friend Jeff would say, I looked very profesh.

Looking like a professional

Here’s the back story: my husband has a cousin who lives in Oakland and runs a lovely little restaurant in the heart of Berkeley. She is a trained pastry chef and worked at the famed Chez Panisse. Her husband was an executive chef at restaurants in downtown San Francisco. Together they started Summer Kitchen and Bake Shop. The food is locally sourced and prepared fresh daily. Soups, salads, pizzas, sandwiches–all delicious.

We were visiting a couple of weeks ago and I was talking about how great it is to live so close to where the produce is grown all year round; especially fruit! I told them I had made a batch of strawberry jam, which I love to give as gifts to good friends and the kids’ teachers. They said they would love to be able to sell jam to their customers so I pounced at the chance to make some for them. The issue, of course, is that I don’t have a commercial kitchen, nor a cottage industry license (which you can get here) and I also can’t work, being a resident alien. My cousin said I was welcome to come up to the restaurant any time and make some jam with her. So I did!

I brought two kinds of berries: the traditional strawberry, which is a crowd favourite, and the olallieberry. “The olalliewhat?” you say? The olallieberry is a cross between a Logan berry and a Young berry. They look similar to blackberries, but they aren’t as big and they are slightly sweeter, closer to that of a raspberry. The hybrid was officially named and released in 1950. They have a short season and are only available for a couple of weeks in June. I got an early batch from Gizdich Ranch down in Watsonville. If you ever wondered where your berries come from in the dead of winter (hello, Canada, I’m talking to YOU), then wonder no more: they come from Watsonville, California where fields of berries stretch beyond what the eye can see.

Olallieberries

I made one batch of jam with Quickset, my favourite sugar/pectin mix from Redpath, but it was the only bag I still had from Canada. So we made our own version coming up with a good ratio of fruit to sugar and pectin for the remaining batches and I think the jam set quite nicely…I’m testing out a jar of olallieberry jam tomorrow morning (okay, maybe tonight) to see how the sugar/pectin mix worked with the fruit. If it works then I have a new formula and recipe for my jam since the old formula involved shipping the sugar/pectin mix from Canada, which is not exactly cost effective.

Sugar and berry mixture

I’m going to think of other combinations to mix with the fruit since it seems to be quite trendy (balsamic this, and pepper that). I’m a fairly simple girl when it comes to jam. I like to slather the jam on a slice of fresh baked bread or crunchy toast. Either way, the jam makes it taste that much better.

I’ve become one of those purveyors of “small batch, locally sourced, homemade [fill-in-the-blank-here]” but I don’t mind. In fact, I quite like it! Who knows? Maybe this could be the start of something really sweet.

Jars and jars of strawberry and ollalieberry jam

Ignoring my blog

I’ve been ignoring my blog. Not really on purpose, but moreso because I don’t want to keep feeding it. I’ve been feeding Instagram and Facebook a lot in the last four months and I must say, social media has an insatiable appetite! I kind of did it to myself–a little over a month ago I took up a year-long challenge to post a photo a day. There have been days when I’ve struggled to think of a decent picture to post (just see the one of my messy kitchen) and it’s only been a month! What am I to do for the next 11 months?!

But I also felt like there wasn’t much I wanted to write about that was related to homemaking, baking, cooking, decor, fitness, etcetera, etcetera. I’m actually waiting for a Duncan Hines cake to come out of the oven right now, so I figured I’d kill some time writing an entry. The cake is for the kids’ graduation. All three are graduating from a milestone year at school. Next year they will all be at different schools and as much as we all commiserate about the demands of parenthood, schlepping them hither and yon to school, daycare, hockey, swimming, blah, blah, blah, I know it will pass in the proverbial blink of an eye.

We are also days away from heading back east for the summer, which means now seems like a good time to reflect on our relocation to Northern California. It’s been almost five months to the day since the Big Move. I won’t lie to you–it’s been difficult for all of us in different ways. I think the biggest challenge for me has been the separation from our family and close friends, which won’t come as a surprise to many of you. I’ve also been really uncomfortable with unemployment. I managed to work remotely for the first three months, which helped immensely with the transition. Had it not been for a good friendship that I have struck up with a fellow Canadian (from Ottawa), I’m not sure I’d be in as good a place as I am now. We are in constant contact without being needy (at least, I hope I’m not!). We go on long walks and hikes regularly and our 11-year-olds have become good buddies.

I also joined the schools Gardening Club and purchased a summer “plot” even though I won’t be here to tend to it. I have made friends with some of the moms at the school who are fellow Garden Clubbers, which has also been a great comfort.

Those amazing Canadian Moms In Silicon Valley have also been my saviours. We are a mixed bunch at various stages of expat-ness, but we have our motherhood and national pride in common and that is a tie that binds us. A big shout out to Kathryn for being my life ring in the choppy seas of relocating.

Finding my “tribe” has kept me afloat on this crazy adventure. So, too, has my husband. I remind myself regularly that I’m not the only one who has had to make adjustments. And yet I feel a great sense of responsibility to each member of the family to make sure they are good, physically, mentally and socially.

Highlights of the Big Move: 

Hiking the Quicksilver Foothills (literally in our neighbourhood backyard)

One of the nearby trails I have hiked a few times

Gardening Club at the elementary school

All ready for a fun garden activity with the kids

Exploring the region (oceans and mountains)

Postcard-worthy shot of the Carmel-to-Big Sur coastline along Highway 1

Time…to cook and bake

A one dish dinner that was better than anything we could have got at a restaurant
The finished product

Writing letters home to my friends

I don’t have a photo for this one, because, who really needs to see the envelopes and stamps? But what I DO love is finding the perfect card for the right person. I think many of them would be copyrighted so I’m not about to photograph them and post them on my blog (although who are we kidding? is anyone of any import really going to read this and report me??). I have found solace in putting pen to paper and writing whatever pops into my head and sending it off for my friends to receive in the mail. Maybe I will singlehandedly revive the lost art of letter writing, or maybe not. I just know I’ll keep doing it because it makes me feel good.

Now I’m thinking about my next “move” (no, we aren’t moving to another city) when we return from our summer vacation. I will look for more volunteer opportunities, possibly putting my communications and writing skills to use. I am also considering some self improvement through online courses; maybe I can still learn something as I grow long in the tooth. And of course I need to keep up with my fitness; I still can’t seem to accept the mushy middle that is my mummy tummy, but I’m not willing to give up chocolate and chips, not gonna happen. So I’m going to have to devise another plan to feel good about my body. I think that’s plenty for me to contemplate over the summer.

Okay, the cake is done and it’s late so that’s the end of this post. Besides, I have to wake up at the crack of dawn and drive up to Berkeley to make a big batch of jam….more on that later!!!

My First Container Garden

I love to grow vegetables. I’m not necessarily good at it, but I get a lot of satisfaction from planning, preparing and planting the seeds and seedlings at the start of the growing season and then watching them grow over the summer. Back home, that whole exercise lasted approximately five to six months, tops. Here in Northern California the growing season never starts and stops. In fact, they have a saying here that there are only two seasons here: brown and green.

Fresh produce can be found in farmers’ fields, farmers’ markets and grocery stores year-round. There are certain times that are better than others to grow what might be referred to as “cold weather” crops and “hot weather” crops. Consider that in Toronto, Zone 5, cold weather crops constitute planting and harvesting lettuce, peas and radishes in early summer and warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are harvested during and after the heat of the summer, followed by root vegetables and squash as we move into Fall.

I think the same is true for Northern California, except the calendar starts a lot earlier–like, 2 months earlier–and you don’t ever stop planting–you can keep planting and growing vegetables, you just have to know what grows when in this zone, which happens to be Zone 10.

According to plantmaps.com, the first frost shows up around the beginning of December and the last frost is around the end of February. That’s a full 10 MONTHS of growing!!!

Many people here have fruit and even nut trees in their gardens–orange, lemon, lime, cherry, apricot, prune, grape vines, walnuts, even pomegranates. In fact, before this valley was turned into a bedroom community and tech hub it was covered in acres and acres of fruit orchards.

Photo of orchard in the Santa Clara Valley

I did the stereotypical thing and bought an orange tree within weeks of moving here. Even the woman at the nursery knew it–she said the firs thing people do when they first move here from a cold climate is buy a fruit tree. I guess I’m that predictable. It’s a dwarf navel orange variety, which means I can keep it in a giant planter.

Next I took out some books from the library on gardening in California and planting a container garden. They were good inspiration and helped me reel in my romantic images of a garden straight out of a Nancy Meyers movie set.

I decided to buy a bunch of light-weight containers, some cheap plastic ones, and a few more expensive resin ones. What’s the difference, other than the price point, you ask? They are both plastic, but true plastic is fairly flimsy and cracks easily, as I learned when one of them fell out of my car right after I bought it. The resin ones I got are a moulded plastic, equally light weight, but they seem to be a little more durable and sturdy. I made sure all of the pots had drainage holes in the bottom.

I also bought a few large bags of raised garden bed and planter mix, but it didn’t appear to have much if any soil in it. So I went back to the garden centre and asked. I was on the right track but needed to amend the mix with potting soil.

The helpful garden centre guy also recommended using some vegetable fertilizer. Boy did it stink something fierce! I added a small amount to the soil and mix combo before putting the plants in. I left the bag outside by my tools only to discover that some animal (possibly the four-legged one that lives in our house) got into it, and spilled its contents on the ground. It is so ferociously malodorous, I can’t imagine anyone or anything, enjoying something that smelly.

I know I might have gotten too ambitious with my plants, but since I don’t really have a garden to call my own here, I figured I could handle about a dozen pots.

Here’s what I got:

San Marzano tomatoes

Grape tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Shishito peppers

Strawberries

Chives

And here are the seeds I planted:

Italian flat leaf parsley

Sweet basil

Golden beets

Nantes carrots

Giant sunflowers

Heavenly Blue morning glory

Nasturtium

Oh! And lil guy picked out a gerbera daisy, so we got one of those too.

I still have three pots laying fallow waiting to see which kind of vegetable they will host. I wish I could grow sugar snap peas, but I fear I might be a little late starting them now because soon it will get hot and there will definitely be no rain. Lil guy also picked out sugar baby watermelon seeds, but there really is no garden to speak of with lots of sunshine where a vine like that could grow. The entire backyard, while large is mostly hardscaped or covered in ivy and tall trees that throw a lot of shade.

I’ve got my eye on one spot on the north side of the house that seems to get continuous sun throughout the day. It would make a good spot for a raised bed, but it’s super close to the house, which is probably not a good thing–someone told me there are things called fruit rats here and I don’t want to have any close encounters with those.

So here are some photos of my work-in-progress container garden (and one little bed). It looks a little sad right now, but once the foliage fills out, I think it will look pretty darn good, and those veggies are going to taste delicious!

My little container garden collection–and orange tree.
Seeds by the little garden bed where they were planted

 

 

Friday Fitness

The sun was shining this morning so there was no excuse to keep me from exercising. So I pulled on the spandex and quick-dry, laced up the runners and headed out with my fellow Canuck for a looooooooong walk along a path that follows a river to Almaden “Lake” (by “lake” I mean a man-made reservoir that collects all the rain water that flows down from the foothills in the surrounding area).

Once we got there, here was the view looking back towards where we came from:

Almaden “Lake” on a sunny day in March

All told, we walked about 10 kilometres there and back, but I kept a running tally going for the day until I sat down for dinner and started typing this. When I checked my pedometer I was pleasantly surprised to see this:

Giving Forest Gump a run for his money

I would LOVE to burn over 500 calories a day EVERY day! Can you imagine??? All I have to do is walk or run ten kilometres! That should be a cinch! (not)

I admit, my puppies were barking a bit after that walk. My arthritic foot with the bunion, especially. But as they say, “no pain, no gain.” Or in this case, “no weight loss.

The only problem with that is, as I have said before, I am my own worst enemy. I got in the car and this is what I proceeded to do:

Damn you, chocolate!

So there go 200 of those 500 calories.

But I persevered. I had healthy snacks today on my walk and I had a glass of red wine with the most amazing dinner. E.V.E.R.

Best. Meal. Ever.

That’s spaghetti with white truffle oil, roasted garlic, fresh campari tomatoes, wilted baby spinach, fresh arugula and shaved parmesan cheese. I think I could eat this meal every day if I had to. It’s the white truffle oil and roasted garlic that does it for me. I think I am part Italian or it’s somewhere buried deep in my genetic code.

Tomorrow’s project: container gardening. It might not help me burn 500 calories, but I’ll definitely get something out of it for all the effort I put in. We got all the planters, soil, fertilizer, seeds and plants. Now we just have to put it all together and we have an instant vegetable garden! I’ll post pictures soon…

Not your average walk in the park

One of the advantages of living in California is the weather. On average, San Jose has 300 days of sunshine in a year. That is astonishing to someone like me who is a weather-obsessed Canadian, used to grey, rainy, snowy days for about five months of the year.

Yesterday was a prime example of that sunny weather. It was perfectly clear–blue skies, a soft, warm breeze and temperatures hovering in the mid-twenties (it was 76 fahrenheit, but I have no idea how to convert from fahrenheit to celsius–yet!). This kind of weather makes it possible to spend a lot of time outdoors. For some that means lounging on a patio sipping a cold drink and reading a good book. For me, it means communing with nature (to a point). I met up with a friend and we decided to go for a walk. Until yesterday that meant wandering through the neighbourhood critiquing the houses and landscaping, but we decided to change things up and find a trail. Our neighbourhood backs on to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. These foothills are covered in hiking trails. On any given day we have seen deer, quail and wild turkeys. If you’re lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view), you might also see coyotes, rattlesnakes, bobcats and wild pigs. We picked a trailhead that took us to the top of our neighbourhood and gave us a great view of our surroundings.

View of San Jose from Webb Canyon Trail

I thought it would be a quick up and down, and then we’d head back home. Alas, no, we decided to take another trail. I have no complaints. The fields and forests are all picture postcard worthy. We even saw a gaggle of wild turkeys! We didn’t actually stray that far from our neighbourhood, but the foothills can be deceiving–the ups, downs, twists and turns can take you to all sorts of hidden corners and get you so turned around you can lose your internal compass. (that’s when the sun really comes in handy!)

A bucolic view of the trail and surrounding wilderness

Our morning jaunt through the neighbourhood turned into a two and a half hour, 12 kilometre hike through the hills.

Lessons learned for next time: bring water, bring snacks and bring some pocket money–although there were no stores in the immediate vicinity! And definitely remember sunscreen and a hat, which I did.

I also think my kids would have loved this hike, even if they do complain about hiking when we have taken them. Just remember: bring food and water if you are planning on bringing kids.

I think this will become my new favourite recreational activity–it’s not too intense, it’s social, it’s great exercise and the vistas are absolutely stunning.

Yes, it snows in California!

This morning I woke up to the site of snow in the not-too-distant foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, and on the east side of the Bay, MORE snow on the Santa Teresa foothills, which are part of the Sierra Nevada. At first I thought I was hallucinating, that I was having some sort of Freudian episode, pining for my land of snow and ice (which, ironically, is having a bit of a warm spell right now). But it was real. Unfortunately it was too far away for me to snap a photo, but the newspapers and television stations covered it aplenty!

Here’s a photo of the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, which is about an hour northeast of where we live.

Lick Observatory Mt. Hamilton
Photo Credit: Gary Reyes/East Bay News Group

Contrary to popular belief, it gets quite cool in Northern California during the “winter” months. I still haven’t mastered the conversion from celsius to fahrenheit (and I may never), but I can tell you it dips down to nearly zero celsius overnight and warms up somewhere between the low to mid teens by the afternoon. I have no complaints about the sunshine–there seems to be an abundance of it. But sometimes I like the variation in weather and don’t mind a rainy day or the sight of clouds hanging low in the foothills. Wet weather here lulls people into a false sense of security, because the truth is there is never enough water. I drive past reservoirs and they all look desperately low. I see trucks from the Santa Clara Valley Water Authority driving about with workers checking on the sluices of the creeks that run through residential neighbourhoods, but there isn’t much to check. The creeks are barely a trickle most of the time.

At this time of the year the hills and trees are a vibrant green, drinking up every drop of water that falls. The birdsong is a beautiful sound to wake up to in the morning. I am particularly fond of listening to the hummingbirds banter with each other. We also have many birds of prey and some of them like to perch high atop the tall pines that adorn our backyard. Their distinctive piercing cry drives the dog crazy and he runs back and forth across the yard growling and barking from his land-bound posting.

The vegetation is varied and interesting and I hope to snap some more photos to share with you. I have no idea how to garden in this climate, but I’m going to try. So far I’ve purchased a dwarf navel orange tree. The woman at the nursery told me EVERYONE who moves here does that, so I guess I’m not that original. I’ve planted it in a giant planter so that we can take it with us should we decide to move. I’ve also planted a tomato plant, some basil and chives. I’d love to grow more vegetables, but it’s early days. Spring doesn’t really start until March here, so I’ve got some time to do the research, plan and prepare a kick ass container garden.

With that I can now fade off to sleep dreaming about Meyer lemons, fresh figs and rosemary bushes that never die!!!

If you’ve got any advice on what vegetables I should try to grow here, I’m open to suggestions!

 

54 Days….(but who’s counting???)

It’s late on a Sunday night. We just got home after a day spent driving up to Sonoma County to watch our eldest play a hockey game. We drove to Santa Rosa where I had visions of a scorched-earth landscape after last Fall’s devastating fires. But there was no apocalyptic scenery, just bucolic rolling hills with homes tucked into their sides and grazing cattle dotting the landscape. I guess we didn’t drive far enough into the countryside. We did, however, see plenty of signs in storefronts thanking First Responders for their help.

We made a day of it, packing a lunch and spending the afternoon at the Charles M Schulz Museum. We read all about how Charlie Brown and Snoopy came to be. We found out what “Sparky” (Schulz’s nickname) would eat every morning, what his office looked like and even how prominent hockey figured in his life. Snoopy’s Home Ice is right beside the museum, so we didn’t have very far to travel to the hockey game!

On the drive up, I saw signs for many of the dairy and produce companies whose products I see in the supermarkets here. I must say, it’s nice to know your milk, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables come from nearby. I guess that’s the advantage of living in a climate where you can produce food all year round. The biggest worry right now is the lack of rain. California has always struggled with water shortages and droughts. But as far as I can tell, the farmers still manage to get fruit and vegetables to market. It remains to be seen if the dry spell we’ve been having will result in a crisis.

My latest crisis of conscience is about where we decided to live–this is the first time I have moved in nearly 17 years. In the last week I have vacillated about where we have chosen to live–in the suburbs. Did we pick the right neighbourhood? Is it too far from amenities? Is it too quiet? Is it too great a commute for my husband? Should we have stuck with the big city instead of the suburbs? Will our kids fit in at the schools? The good news is we are renting, which means if we feel this isn’t the right fit for us, there is nothing preventing us from relocating again. The bad news is if it doesn’t work out, it means uprooting the kids yet again and having to resettle ourselves yet again. I am not much for a nomadic life. I like my creature comforts, I like to decorate and garden and make my home cozy and inviting. That’s hard to do when you feel like you are a visitor staying in someone else’s home. But this line of thinking is all a bit premature; after all we have only been here for 54 days. But who’s counting?