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A week of work, wine and cheese in California awaits – and my old friend tropophobia rears his head

I am well aware that I am being pathetic.

By Nicholas Lezard

And so I am off tomorrow to California. As is usually the case with me, the time just before travelling abroad for any great distance is spent in tearful regret that I ever agreed to go in the first place. Yes: it’s my old friend, tropophobia, the fear of change, and although I am going to an anglophone country of which I also happen to be a citizen, I count an 11-hour flight as something that leads to, or counts as, change.

Never has bed felt so comfortable, never the staff at Majestic seemed so welcoming. I have today broken my record, by some margin, for the number of times I have used the “snooze” option on my phone’s alarm clock. Not even Frodo Baggins, trudging off to Mordor on his birthday, felt such reluctance. I only force myself out of bed when I realise that if I don’t empty the washing machine now, I will have no clean, dry shirts or undercrackers to take with me to America.

I am well aware that I am being pathetic. I also know that if I have even a smidgen of a nice time I will be strangely reluctant to return. But then I will be working, holed up in a mountain retreat somewhere, being passed morsels of cheese and the occasional glass of wine through a catflap. I’m not sure about Californian wine. I once had some Turning Leaf Pinot Noir and decided that any wine-producing region that was happy to let the makers of this sort of stuff put its name on their label had let standards grow unpardonably slack. California’s winemakers should have gone to Messrs Turning Leaf and told them, “Say you’re from Oregon, buddy, or we burn your laboratories down.” Since then, all Californian wines have, for me, been tainted by association.

But really, at my age, I shouldn’t be feeling like this. I should be a devil-may-care international jet-setter. In the past seven years I’ve only managed to get as far south as Paris, which is so familiar that it’s practically home, and only as far north, and indeed east, as Gothenburg, which in a weird way doesn’t feel like abroad at all (until you buy a round). This was not how I saw myself turning out.

It has all been put into sharp relief by meeting the daughter’s boyfriend last weekend. This is an encounter rarely contemplated with pleasurable anticipation by any of the parties involved. Razors told me that when he met his daughter’s first boyfriend, he –
ie, Razors – shook him firmly by the hand, smiled broadly, looked him in the eye, and said, “Hi. I’m your worst nightmare.” I liked the sound of this but I don’t like pinching other people’s ideas; you can always spot when something’s second-hand. My daughter’s boyfriend’s first name is Old Testament, so even though he’s not actually Jewish, I toyed with the idea of pretending he was, for my own amusement, like a father in an Evelyn Waugh novel, and ostentatiously not serving him bacon at breakfast and asking him if he’d be going to shul on Saturday. The idea is to keep them on their toes, you see, and make them wonder where the theoretical and practical limits to the father’s insanity lie.

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I mention the young man in this context because, funnily enough, he’s from California, and he has been bombing around the world since he was, unless I misheard, 14. For him, it is no inconvenience to have a job in Edinburgh one moment and then Berlin the next. He’s cosmopolitan to a fault. He is also – and if I’m honest I must admit to a tiny but perverse pang of opportunities missed – a very nice young man, softly but intelligently spoken, who had the good sense to present the father of the woman he is courting with a bottle of extremely good whisky. He and she stayed the weekend and not only did he cook, but he washed up, too. The daughter can cook but she tends to skip the washing-up part, unless goaded by her father with imprecations and strong oaths.

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Anyway, they have gone; and when any of my children leaves the Hovel, I usually feel emotionally labile. I suspect this accounts, in part, for my current mood, the one that makes me want to stay under the duvet. And to think that when I was a boy my dearest wish was to go into service with Star Fleet, whose treks across the cosmos make the journey to California look like a trip to the shop across the road for some Frazzles.

Then again, I look around this country and see the unholy mess everyone is making of it, every day some new outrage, and I think now is as good a time as any to get the hell out of Dodge.

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires