Monthly Archives: September 2007

Hooked

Soon To Be Wife is an addict. She can’t function without it, and if ever she forgets to get a supply in from her dealer, she gets crotchety and shaky. Like all good addicts, she says she doesn’t depend on it, but all around her know that any such suggestion is just a sham. And the worst thing about it is that I think she’s now starting to take me down with her.

Thankfully, there are worse drugs in the world than coffee.

I’ve always been a tea man, myself. That is to say, a man who likes tea, rather than a bloke who pushes a trolley around the office offering up steaming cups of Tetley’s while chainsmoking Woodbines. Give me a cup of PG Tips any day – always in a mug rather than your best china, and preferably so lip-scaldingly hot that you can’t taste anything for three days after you’ve drunk it. And brewed strong enough that even your average builder would look upon it in horror and apologetically ask for a bit more milk.

The problem is, of course, that most Americans wouldn’t know good tea if somebody came and poured a cupful of it in their laps. Most offices come equipped with Lipton teabags, although with no kettle to boil water. In any case, describing the liquid that comes from Lipton bags as ‘tea’ is somewhat akin to comparing cans of Shandy Bass with a frothy pint of London Pride. ‘Weak’ doesn’t cover it. ‘Tasting like urine’ gets you closer, admittedly.

In a diner, it’s not unusual to get a cup of essentially lukewarm water, with a (Lipton) teabag on the side. If ever I am to have a Travis Bickle moment, it’ll be caused by a waitress nonchalantly walking over to me and plonking lukewarm water and Lipton infront of me.

In the apartment, I’ve got PG Tips in abundance. But in the face of such war crimes against tea everywhere else, I’ve taken to drinking much more coffee. So much so that I think I might be drinking more coffee than I ever used to drink tea (and I drank a lot of tea). Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s available on every street corner everywhere in the city? Or maybe it just smells better here than anywhere else (even though I’m damn sure it doesn’t taste any better)? But whatever it is, I fear I may be turning into a junkie.

Each day I walk into the office kitchen, and rather than grabbing two teabags and hoping for the best, I turn to the trusty Breakfast Blend of coffee. All the time looking over my shoulder to make sure that no-one can see me betraying my British roots. It’s not that I even enjoy the flavour, but somehow I just can’t help myself.

Next thing I know, I’ll be snaffling money from Soon To Be Wife’s purse to buy espresso, all the while trying to pretend that coffee addiction is something that happens to someone else.

It might be too late for me, but let this be a salutory warning to you all. Just say no.

Is this what it means to be a New Yorker?

I had a moment today when I finally realised what it must be like to be a New Yorker. As I left the office, the sun was shining but a gentle breeze took any edge off any lingering humidity. A man left the florists at the entrance to the building with three red roses for his girlfriend, and a couple kissed the kiss of two people who hadn’t seen each other for weeks, as I crossed the road. Walking the block or so to the subway station, I passed a nurse from the nearby hospital talking animatedly with a friend, maybe about her adventures from the weekend or a forthcoming date. A little kid smiled at me from a pushchairstroller as he was wheeled through the sights and sounds of the city.

All in all, a picture of urban bliss.

And then I walked down the few steps to the gate into the subway station, and got caught behind two people who decided to only look for their metro cards at the very moment they were blocking the single entrance into the station. As a growing crowd gathered behind me, the happiness and contentment I’d felt only seconds earlier vanished to be replaced by a powerful blast of steam rising from deep within. Only once the train came a few minutes later did the joy return to overcome the moment of madness.

It was New York doing this to me, I thought. This city was making me tense and uptight, changing my mood in a matter of seconds from happy-go-lucky soul to grumpy commuter. But then it dawned on me. The cities may be different, but my reactions will always be the same. You can take the Brit out of water, but it’ll take a hell of a lot more to take the grumpy old man out of the Brit.

All apologies

I’ve never had a problem with the word ‘sorry’. I said sorry when I smashed a wine glass at Dave & Alex’s house one New Year’s Eve, sending tiny shards across the living room (as well as the glass’s copious red contents). I said sorry when I forgot both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the same year, although the emotional scars of guilt still remain. And I said sorry on a flight to Manchester once, when I accidentally poured a tomato juice over the beige chinos of the bloke sitting next to me.

Sorry never was the hardest word.

But sorry suddenly seems to be the word that I use more than any other. Given that I’m still not exactly sure about the precise vagaries of day-to-day life in this country, I find myself constantly making mistakes. When I go to push myself through the subway entrance, I push the wrong way, blocking the person behind me. When I write a press release, I use the word ‘honour’ rather than ‘honor’ to the confusion of all around me. And if I order a lunch delivery, I never know which slip to sign or which to retain, and have to look forlornly for someone around me to take pity on the foreigner.

Each time I make a mistake, a quick ‘sorry’ seems to get me out of trouble. But from the way I shrug my shoulders and pull a Wallace & Gromit-esque look with my mouth, I think it’s pretty clear when I say sorry that I am actually saying something along the lines of “I’m so sorry that you have been forced to come into contact with a bumbling British fool who still doesn’t know his dimes from his nickels, and leaves his trolley in the wrong place in the supermarket.”

The more I say sorry, the more I feel like some kind of Hugh Grant figure, foppishly apologising for anything and everything just in case it’s my fault. The woman who accidentally barged into me as I walked out of a shop earlier today had barely had time to register what had happened before I had said sorry for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Ministry of Defence had a sorryness alert system, I would currently be on red – a defcon one of apologeticism, if you will. I might even say sorry for using the word ‘apologeticism’ in a blog entry, if you’re lucky.

If ever I didn’t say sorry to you for something terrible that I did, now is the time to seek closure from me. Whether it was my fault or not, an apology is yours for the taking. All you have to do is ask.

Tipping point

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With most waiters and waitresses in the United States earning significantly less than the minimum wage, tipping in restaurants is not just a nice way of saying thanks for good service – it’s a whole way of life. When it comes down to it, service has got to be pretty damn atrocious for you not to tip. I mean, I’d probably not tip a waiter or maître d’ who looked me square in the eye as he or she spat into my soup, but even then I’d feel guilty as I skulked out of the restaurant.

It’s not difficult to tip properly in a restaurant over here. You simply calculate 20% of the total bill, and either leave it in dollar bills, or add it on to your credit card. Of course, the amount you leave is discretionary, but 20% seems to be the figure that is both expected and deserved. I was once told that to calculate the tip, you should just double the sales tax (which is 8.625% in New York). But after being effectively chased out of a restaurant by an irate waitress demanding to know what had been wrong with the service she had given us, I never made that mistake again.

The problem is not tipping properly, it’s just knowing where to draw the line at who to tip. Tipping is so engrained into American culture that it sometimes seems that you need to tip anyone who gives you any kind of service whatsoever. For a Brit out of water, the temptation is always to tip heavily so that you don’t seem like a tightwad cheapskate who has still got a chip on his shoulder about our defeat in the American Revolution. Which causes all manner of dilemmas when you go into the dry cleaners to pick up some clothes. I mean, the guy in Armando’s is after all providing me with a service when he presses my shirts. So does that mean I should tip him, or does the payment I make for the service cover him off? I veer towards the latter, but then the look he gives me when I try to talk Italian football with him makes me think that he’s about to put out a contract on one of our cats.

The issue reached crisis point today with two tipping predicaments. As I was putting up shelves this afternoon, the buzzer for the door rang out to indicate that a FedEx delivery man was bringing up some packages. Now, he’s climbing three flights of stairs to get up to our apartment, presumably with heavy boxes. My heart starts to pound as I realise that I have no idea whether I should tip him or not. My soon-to-be-wife is in the shower so I can’t turn to her for hardened American advice, and I don’t even have any dollar bills in my pockets to proffer in case of emergency.

So what do I do? I use the old fashioned British technique, and decide that if he looks at me in the same way he would if I had just broken wind at his grandmother’s funeral, I would race off to find some cash. As it was, he barely batted an eyelid, and I let him meander cashlessly back down the stairs. Although I have no doubt that as he walked his weary way down, he was emailing all his delivery colleagues to say that all future deliveries to 4B should be considered for defecation initiatives.

Then tonight at a party on Staten Island (sounds glamorous, but is more Isle of Dogs than the Seychelles), I availed myself of a glass of Pinot Grigio from a barmaidtender hired by the party host to serve their guests. No payment exchanges hands, as all the alcohol is free. So if the booze costs nothing, and the host is paying the bartender, does that mean that I still have to tip? I naturally assume not. But the daggers I receive from Soon To Be Wife when I happily regale the tale a few minutes later, suggest that I got it horribly wrong.

Tipping is a scarring experience, and when it comes down to it, I’m going to adopt the principle of “if in doubt, tip.” I’m back in the UK next weekend, to see friends, family, and eleven men in red shirts and white shorts. I can only imagine the face of the girl serving me in Lou Macari’s chip shop, when I give her a fiver for steak and kidney pie, chips and gravy, and tell her she can keep the change.

PS If you want to read a great blog about the experiences of waiters in New York, look no further than Waiter Rant. A genuinely nice guy and great writer – but never leave him less than 20%, OK?

Sporting chance

Apparently the BBC have just signed a deal to televise the next two Super Bowls on free-to-air television. Channel 4 and Channel 5 (or ‘five’, as I seem to remember we’re told to call it) have both televised the Super Bowl before, but could this be a sign that Brits are about to take America’s national game to its collective bosom. Or grant it a quick roll in the hay, at the very least?

Last weekend saw the start of the new season of gridiron (I’m sure it’s only the British who use this tag, as some kind of bitter revenge for the American obsession with calling our national game ‘soccer’), and New York Giants and Jets fans are already pretty much writing off their teams’ chances after opening weekend defeats.

It’s a shame that the Giants (or any of the New York sports teams) aren’t looking like being a force this year. Not just because it would have been good to bask in the happy glow that victorious (American) football, baseball, ice hockey or basketball teams bring to their home cities. But also because this season the Giants will be travelling to the UK for the first ever regular season NFL game outside America, when they take on the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium.

North London actually seems like a pretty good place for the Giants to be playing, given that they’re the NFL’s equivalent of Tottenham Hotspur – a side that has had success in the past, and always threatens to do pretty well, but in the end proves to be little more than a bitter disappointment.

Anyway, New York can’t exactly be said to be a hotbed of sporting success at the moment. The Rangers haven’t won ice hockey’s Stanley Cup since 1994, with the night they won it weirdly coinciding with my first night ever in the United States. The Yankees may be responsible for more baseball caps than Disney, but they still haven’t held the ‘World’ Series since 2000. Although admittedly they did beat the New York Mets to win it.

As for basketball, well the Knicks last won the NBA Finals in 1973, and haven’t even made the finals for eight seasons. I wasn’t even born when the Knicks last won their championship. Even New Jersey have been in the finals more recently than the Knicks. Twice.

With the Giants, you have to go back to 1991 to find their last win in the Super Bowl. That’s a long time for a city the size of New York to have to wait for the prize they desire the most.

Still, however long the wait goes on to win the ultimate title, it’s always comforting to know that Liverpool have waited longer, eh?

You are (w)here?

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When I first moved to London, I was completely out of my depth. I’d spent the last four years in a pretty provincial university town, and I’d been brought up my whole life in a tiny town in North Wales. Sure, I’d been to the capital for the occasional holiday or day out. But when it came down to it, I could have felt more comfortable having an evening swim in Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool than I did when I got to the big smoke.

Moving to New York is obviously easier. I’m twelve or thirteen years older for a start, and these days one big city is pretty much like any other. But there’s still one thing that confuses the bejeesus out of me – the subway system.

One of the most memorable arguments of my life was a two hour strop-fest about whether or not the map of the Paris Metro system is topographical or not. In New York, the map of the subway is clearly laid on top of a map of the city, but regardless, it’s still just a mass of coloured lines to me.

Four weeks into living here, and I’m still walking three long city blocks between stations rather than working out what the ideal change is, and I don’t know where I need to stand on a train if I want to give myself the quickest possible exit from the station. Hell, I can’t even work out which trains are local and which ones are express.

And don’t even think about suggesting that I get on a bus. I get nervous enough working out how to pay, let alone attempting to guess whether the sodding thing goes anywhere near where I’m heading.

Admittedly, I’ve never been the most geographically astute bloke in the world. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told taxis to turn right when I wanted them to turn left. These days I just get out rather than admit that I’ve made a mistake. As for my map reading, well that’s caused more than a couple of heated debates in hire cars over the last eighteen months, although that could well be something to do with my refusal to give more than three seconds notice of the need to exit the motorfreeway.

All things come with experience though, and soon enough I guess I’ll be drunkenly falling asleep on the last subway train home and waking up somewhere in Far Rockaway. Only then will I truly feel I’ve arrived in the Big Apple.

Big hair big hair big hair

As we all know, everything is big in America. Sandwiches are the size of kitchen sinks, office buildings rise miles into the sky, and dubious detention camps take up huge tracts of land on islands that don’t even belong to them.

But if there’s one thing that stands out in the United States for its all round size – something that really exemplifies everything that the word ‘big’ stands for – it’s got to be hair.

It’s amazing how different hair can be from one country to another. Admittedly New York is probably the one city in the world that can claim to be even more of a melting pot than London. A study in 2005 showed that 36% of the population of the city is foreign-born, with 170 languages spoken. That’s a pretty diverse place, given that I would struggle to name more than twenty languages (and yes, by “twenty languages”, I actually mean ten).

But even with such eclecticism, it’s hard to explain why hair achieves such, erm, heady heights as it does in this country. Never in the field of human coiffure has so much been permed by so many, as Churchill might have put it. Although to be honest, he couldn’t exactly be considered a hair expert, it has to be said.

It is actually illegal in this city to get onto a subway train that does not contain one woman who has spent thirty minutes backcombing her hair that morning. Similarly, an old wives tale claims that if the number of perms in any given square mile in the whole of Manhattan drops below 300, the city will be engulfed by water and sink back from whence it came.

On the subway home tonight, I sat opposite a woman who managed to pull off an incredible backcombing/perm combo. She could only have been 23, wore heavy make-up, and seemed more than happy with her look. I had to rub my eyes and look at the calendar on my iPhone just to check that it wasn’t actually 1987.

It’s difficult to imagine, but I can only assume that this city is the final place on Earth that still regards Cher as a fashion icon.

Salad days

Food takes a bit of getting used to in this country, and not because it’s not good. There are some incredible high-end restaurants in New York, and plenty of local places that have really great food.

No, the problem isn’t eating, or even that other presumed bane of American existence, eating too much. The difficulty is actually how to order the damn stuff in the first place.

As anybody who has ever seen the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld will be able to tell you, there’s an amazing amount of ritual involved in ordering food in New York. And no more so than when you want to lay your hands on a sandwich or salad at lunchtime.

For a start, there’s so many sodding choices. Want a salad? Would that be mesclun, romaine or spinach, sir? And what would you like with that? Carrots, onions, toe-may-toes, broccoli, green peas, garbanzo beans(what’s wrong with the humble chick pea, huh?), asparagus, corn, alfalfa, cauliflower (in a salad??), chicken, turkey, bacon, tuna (or too-na, as they call it here) – the list is endless. And that’s before you get to the dressings – vinaigrette, honey mustard, blue cheese, raspberry, sesame, lime chipotle, wasabi ginger etc etc…as well as reduced-fat and fat-free versions of everything.

All of that would be fine, if it wasn’t for the requirement that your entire order has to be barked at the server in less than 2.5 seconds. Anything ordered after the deadline will be ignored, or more likely, assumed to be tofu.

Every time you need to make a decision about your order, the request is communicated to you in a purely non-verbal form. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the fact that each time I stop to take a breath, I look up to find the server staring at me as if I have a third ear in the centre of my head. Presumably I am supposed to have understood that the almost imperceptible raising of her left eyebrow was intended to prompt me to tell her whether I wanted croutons.

As for sandwiches, it’s all rye, seven grain, pumpernickel, sourdough, wholewheat etc etc. I’ve barely comprehended the spitting out of the word ‘rye’ by the time most people have a fully constructed sandwich and are walking out of the deli. Whatever happened to the glorious days of asking for a cheese sandwich, and being happy with what you were given? Even if what you were given happened to be a chicken and mushroom pie.

American for beginners

They say that you’re only truly fluent in a second language when you can think in the foreign tongue, without mentally translating into your own language. If that is truly the case, then I’m a long way from being fluent in American, I can tell you.

I used to think I could spell. Well, to be fair, I was able to spell. Then I came to work in New York, and found that every single email I write, and every document I produce, is littered with spelling errors. Where once I realised that I was a spelling genius, I now realize that I know next to nothing. Where once I manoeuvred my way through sentences with relative ease, now I maneuver with the awkward clumsiness of Oliver Reed after a big night out. And having been honoured to do so well in my profession, I am now bringing dishonor to my good family name.

If that wasn’t enough, I’ve got Microsoft Word underlining all my little errors, like some know-it-all swot of a thirteen year old standing over me telling me that I clearly couldn’t spell my way out of a paper bag.

I’m slowly getting the hang of it, and can even write ‘organize’ now with only a momentary pause before I magic up the necessary ‘zee’. But it comes as naturally to me as successful comebacks come to Britney Spears, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. My spelling, that is. And Britney comebacks, to be honest.

As for toe-may-toes and bay-zill, they’ll always be toe-mah-toes and ba-sill to me. And don’t even get me started on oregano and aluminium.