Tuesday, September 20, 2005

This is seriously flat country. Fields of experimental genetically modified crops shimmer off into the distance. It is one of the ironies of coming to this small northern Californian university town of Davis. UC Davis owns most of the land around, and conducts experiments in Frankenstein foods. Which is yet another irony, since with a student population of 28,000 - more than a third of the total number of residents - the town of Davis has a reputation for being seriously "liberal", as the Americans like to describe what we in Europe would call the "left".

The People's Republic of Davis, I have heard this town called. And, oddly enough, I feel right at home - except for the experimental crops.

Sharon Williams, who raised her family here, takes us on a tour of the town. We pass the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Performing Arts Center, and she proudly tells us that the Green Room in the centre is named after her husband, Hibbard, who right now is home preparing dinner for us. "It's not that he's remotely musical," she says. "But he does know about wine."

Why wine? Well, because Robert Mondavi is like the godfather of Californian wine producers, and Hibbard has something of a reputation around here for his knowledge of wine. He even makes his own - bringing grapes back from the "crush" (in France we would call in the "vendange"), and making a few gallons of it each year in his garage.

As we head back to the house after a successful book event at the Avid Reader, owned and run by the curiously named Alzada Knickerbocker, the sun is setting across the agricultural plains, turning the Coastal Range of hills in the west a deep purple. Somewhere beyond them lies the Pacific Ocean.

And Hibbard awaits with his home-made crusty pizza, and baked prawns in herb butter. And I remember just how much I owe this man. Former Dean of the UC Davis Medical School, it was he who connected me with Dr. Steve Campman, who has advised me on the forensics and pathology for all six books in the China series.

We toast his health and generosity with Ambullneo wines from Susie's Californian vineyard, and feast marvellously under star-spangled skies, before heading back to Sacramento, tired and gently tipsy.

La Patronne and I stagger off to bed and leave Susie and Steve sharing a nightcap downstairs. It is then that Susie somehow manages to segue into a Doris Day farce.

It is midnight and Steve must leave on the long drive home to Reno. Susie sees him to his car. When she returns to the inner courtyard of her house, she forgets that the high gate is faulty and once shut cannot be re-opened from the inside. She has forgotten, too, that all the doors into the house from the courtyard are locked. She is trapped there in the dark, stumbling about, and narrowly missing a tumble into the pool.

She hammers desperately on the door, screaming into the night for La Patronne et moi to waken from our slumbers and let her in. But fatigue has dragged us under, too deeply to hear her calls of distress, and we slumber on, impervious to her predicament.

Finally, in desperation, she throws plastic seats from the garden over the high brick wall which bounds the courtyard, scrambles up it and drops down on them to break her fall. Success! No broken limbs. Now she can punch in the code which opens the garage door, and get back into the house that way.

As she pads, exhausted, upstairs to bed, she hears us snoring behind our firmly closed bedroom door and curses us roundly.

Quelle aventure!

With Betty Wilson at the Avid Reader

With Daniel from China at the Launch Party

Susie and her sister, Kathy (left)

La Patronne et moi wiith Hibbard and Sharon

Susie at the "Scene of the Crime"

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