Thank God it's the holidays

24th July 1998 at 01:00
Monday Another summer, another house exchange. This time to Santa Cruz, California, where old hippies go to die. The town is an intriguing mixture of beautiful, 19th-century wooden houses, second-hand record and book shops and establishments reflecting a range of alternative lifestyles. A beautician's sign reads: "All types of nails".

I am dissuaded from asking for a pound of galvanised clouts. Many of the open-air restaurants have live music - often a house band with other musicians sitting in on a casual basis. There are also some fine surfing beaches - a big plus for my son, Tim, and his friends, Luke and Joe - and a boardwalk where there are free concerts. This week it's the Kingsmen (remember "Louie, Louie"?).

Tuesday We notice that our exchange car has a bumper sticker that reads, "Proud parent of an honor student". We see many others on a similar theme as we drive around, and speculate on whether or not this is part of a range that ends with: "Embarrassed parent of a high school dropout".

The local paper has a story about 14 students and their parents suing a North Carolina school district over its policy of automatically denying students promotion unless they pass state-wide reading and maths tests. Their argument is that the tests are only a measure of how well the school is teaching the state-mandated curriculum, not of individual performance.

Wednesday Napa Valley. It's fascinating to drive through places that previously existed only as labels on wine bottles. Rosa-leen's distant cousin, Tom, a brain surgeon in San Francisco, has a small vineyard near Calistoga, to which he is planning to retire. As Tom shows us around, the boys go off exploring with his son, Christopher. They see a small snake on the path and Luke starts prodding it with a stick. The manager's son runs to fetch his father, who blasts the snake with his shotgun. It is a young rattlesnake. Their bite is more likely to be fatal than that of the adult because they have not yet learned to judge the amount needed to incapacitate their prey and are prone to inject the entire contents of the poison sac. When we hear this, Rosaleen and I are chilled to think what might have happened.

Thursday My birthday. Tim indulges my weakness for vintage American instruments by navigating while I drive to all the music shops listed in the local Yellow pages. Most have nothing of interest and one is closed for fumigation. In the last on the list I find an old Fender jazz bass and strike a deal. Playing in a band probably justifies owning one or two basses, but six?

In the evening Rosaleen and I visit an excellent fish restaurant at the harbour in Capitola and the earth moves for us. Or, to be more accurate, the pier. The waiter says that if we think this is bad, we should come back in winter.

Friday To Yosemite. On the way we stop in Gilroy - "The Garlic Capital of America", the sign announces. I search in vain for a copy of Dracula. Gilroy is also a major factory outlet centre and the boys stock up on designer label clothing at bargain prices.

The scenery at Yosemite is spectacular and the boys and I climb up to the pool beneath one of the waterfalls. I experience one of those significant moments when Joe turns around and asks me if I am OK - the first suggestion that I may no longer be up to this sort of physical activity.

However, the poor old sod does make it but chickens out of swimming in the icy pool. I know my limitations.

David Meaden is an education adviser in an outer-London borough

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