Monthly Archives: October 2007

Halloween be thy name

Halloween in Brooklyn

It’s Halloween, and I have to say that I am scared. Not by ghosts, vampires, ghouls and lost spirits, but by the scale of America’s commitment to the Halloween tradition.

Although I recently read a news story that said that UK spending on Halloween-related products has risen by more than 1000% to 120 million pounds in the last five years or so, I’ve got to say that the whole thing has always passed me by. Sure, you might see the occasional trick-or-treater out on the streets, or a carved pumpkin in the window of a home or two. And yes, greeting card shops and fancy dress stores often had displays of a largely orangey nature in the run-up to the ‘big’? night. But nothing can prepare you for the all-encompassing commitment to Halloween that engulfs America on October 31.

Imagine Oxford Street during the January sales (except with the vast majority of the shoppers being dressed like the cast of the video to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and you will have some idea of what Carroll Gardens was like this evening. Belligerent young masses roamed the streets, their long-suffering parents trailing a few yards behind, with all children grabbing sweetscandy from the huge number of families sitting out on their stoops waiting to receive the youthful trick-or-treaters.

It wasn’t just spooks and spookesses either, with Batgirl, Darth Vader and, erm, a giant spoon all among the participants. The little girl downstairs showed the Brit-friendly nature of Brooklyn, coming dressed as a number 2 London Routemaster bus. I didn’t quite have the heart to tell her that Red Ken has probably turned it into a bendy bus by now.

Kids wandering the streets I can kind of understand. But New York today was simply jampacked full of crazily costumed people or, as I prefer to call them, freaks.

Stepping into the liftelevator at the office today, I was joined by a cowboy with a facial gunshot wound, as well as a mad scientist complete with Einsteinesque hair and a frankly desultory clipboard. Cinderella (who, by the look of her, hadn’t been starved to the point of malnutrition by the Ugly Sisters) stood alongside me the queueline for lunch. And I’ve seen more sodding cheerleaders than Giants Stadium over the last few hours. Whatever happened to putting a white sheet on your head, ripping two holes out of it for eyes and hoping that your mum didn’t notice the rips over the coming months?

When it comes down to it, most of these people are old enough to know better. I mean, is there really any need to turn up for your office job dressed as Heidi the mountain goat herder’s daughter? I think not. Call it bah humbug-ism, call it just being a British killjoy, but let’s save Halloween for the kids. Even if they do squirt water at you and run off with your Jaw Breakers.

Stalled

If I was to be asked whether I thought that Americans or the British were the most prudish, it’d be a tough call but I’d probably plump for my new fellow countrymen. Don’t get me wrong, the British sense of reserve and alleged innate poshness is known the world over, and not without reason. After all, this is a country in which “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was banned until 1960 (thirty two years after it was first published) and in which the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” was banned by the BBC for promoting promiscuity.

But when it comes down to it, the American sense of reserve and propriety leaves the UK trailing in its wake. No doubt the power of the Midwest has something to do with it, but sometimes it seems that if anything could be deemed even slightly controversial or risqué then America clamps down on it. For example, you can’t buy any form of codeine over the counter in the United States, and gas-and-air for women giving birth is also ruled out – clearly over here, pain is something to be endured in order to make you stronger.

The Special One and I have been watching “Life On Mars” on DVD over the last few nights, given that the programme was never shown over here. One of the episodes saw Sam Tyler being slipped a Mickey Finn and, erm, ‘placed in a compromising situation’ by a lithe naked lapdancer employed by a local hoodlum. The Special One was visibly shocked that British TV could get away with nudity on a primetime show, with an extra undone button being the closest the American networks get to such fleshy frivolity.

So given that Americans believe in being prim and proper, why the hell is it that you can’t get any privacy in toilets? I’m not talking urinals here – in fact the USA is pretty good for putting one of those tiny little wall things inbetween each urinal to make sure that no man inadvertently catches sight of his neighbour’s meat and two veg. But toilet cubicles, or stalls as I believe we’re supposed to call them around here, well that’s a different thing.

When it comes down to it, there’s no privacy in American toilets. The door finishes about a foot from the floor, while the top of the door generally stops at about 5ft. There’s generally a fairly sizeable gap between the door and the frame, meaning that in the seconds before somebody realises the cubicle is being used, they get a momentary image of the occupant sat with their pants around their ankles. The lock, obviously, is flimsier than an OJ Simpson defence case, and many of them don’t even work anyway.

All in all, it’s enough to make a man’s inner workings seize up until the moment they get home. And even then there’s always the ever-present danger of marauding kids to deal with. If I can offer you any investment tips at this point, it would be to consider buying into laxative stocks*.

* That sound you hear is my entire American audience (OK, my wife and our two cats) closing the door behind them as they leave this website in disgust. See, I told you they were prim and proper.

Step back in time

Sunday proved to be a confusing day in the Brit Out Of Water household, given that the whole family was convinced that the clocks had gone back an hour. It wasn’t until about 4pm that we realised the error, and only then because somebody turned up for dinner at the “wrong” time and managed to put us straight. Having had the bliss of an extra hour in bed, it came as a bit of a shock to the system to lose an hour unexpectedly in the middle of the day.

In the United States, it would appear, clocks don’t go back until next weekend this year, thanks to the President Bush-endorsed Energy Policy Act of 2005. The bill decreed that daylight saving would begin three weeks earlier than normal and end a week later, in the hope of saving up to 100,000 extra barrels of oil every year. Not that any saving would make even a dent in America’s wasteful use of natural resources, but you’ve got to appreciate the gesture.

For a week, then, New York is only four hours behind the UK (a fact I won’t be revealing to my mum, who is still struggling to come to terms with what time it is in New York when she’s settling down with her Horlicks late at night). But whatever the time difference, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s noticeably darker for substantially longer periods here than it is back in Blighty.

Getting up this morning at 6.30am to make a school lunch of peanut butter sandwiches (wrong, I know), I stubbed my toe on the treacherous walk to the bathroom due to it being absolutely pitch black outside. Then looking out of the office windows at 5.30pm, it was pitch black again – the day having disappeared without me going outside once. And remember, this is before daylight saving time even kicks in.

Given New York and London’s relative geographical positions, maybe the difference in daylight is unsurprising – but that doesn’t make it any easier to come to terms with. It’s only October after all, and this is going to get worse before it gets better. By the time of the shortest day on December 22, I’m fully expecting dawn at around 1pm, with sunset about an hour and a half later. I’ll be coming to work in my pyjamas, just so you know.

Assault! Assault! Assault!

Loathe as I am to have two consecutive posts on the subject of umbrellas, particularly as I’m still recovering from the emotional trauma of walking around the city with an “I *heart* New York” billboard above my head, I couldn’t let something that happened to me this morning pass without comment.

Heading to work on the subway, I was forced to stand all the way into the city for the 67th consecutive morning running (a new record for the F train, and no doubt a proud achievement for Mayor Bloomberg). No real problem in standing though, especially given that I was with The Special One, chatting about some of the big issues that face the world today – such as whether to have chicken or burritos for dinner, or whose turn it would be to clear up the piles of cat vomit that would no doubt have materialized by the time we got home ten hours later.

As I stood hanging on to the metal pole for grim death as we hurtled through station after station, I felt a sharp whack to my arm. Looking to my right, I saw that a grumpy old man, who had been sitting in the window seat nearest to me, had decided to get up to get off the train, and had used his umbrella to thwack the underside of my arm out of his path as he made his way to the door.

Now, maybe I’m just a bit old-fashioned, but I always find that a simple ‘excuse me’ does the trick on occasions like this. Maybe a brief clearing of the throat, or even a slightly terse “do you mind moving your arm”, if you’ve got out of bed the wrong way that morning. But as a general rule, I don’t resort to minor physical violence in any attempt to get off a train, nor do I choose a weapon from about my person to launch a minor attack. (Admittedly I sometimes feel like administering a swift swing of my bag to the family jewels of people playing their iPod at mind-alteringly loud volumes, but we all have our bete-noires.)

I wouldn’t have minded so much if he was racing to get off the train, but a) he was at least 70 and his racing days were long since over, and b) he didn’t even get off the train at the stop in question, instead standing steadfastly ignoring the dagger stares I was giving him from twenty yards away.

Next time he tries it, I’m going to have numchukas at the ready. You might mess with the Brit Out Of Water once, but you don’t try it twice.

Rainy days

I probably brought it on myself. Having moaned self-piteously about the hot weather a couple of days ago, the heavens opened overnight to leave me with the prospect of a miserable walk to the subway.

Fortunately, The Special One kindly provided me with an umbrella, seeing that that all mine have either been left in taxis or failed to survive the perilous journey to the other side of the world. Although given that three spokes were broken when we opened it mid-downpour, and the whole thing was about as useful for avoiding rainfall as a half-chewed toothpick with a feather on top, The Special One may have accidentally left her special powers somewhere in the Greek Isles.

Still, always quick with a solution to the problem, she hurriedly rushed me inside a nearby pharmacy to pick up a new umbrella, and the two of us proudly walked out of the store $20 lighter, but with two brand new glistening umbrellas to keep us dry.

In retrospect, maybe we should have been paying more attention when we picked them out, but they just looked like perfectly normal black umbrellas to me. I mean, who could possibly have known that upon removing them from their plastic sheath, a giant “I *heart* NY” logo would be lurking beneath?

So now not only am I a Brit Out Of Water, struggling to come to terms with life in a foreign land, but I’m a Brit Out Of Water with a stonking great sign which I willingly carry above my head to point out to all and sundry that I am an outsider. I may as well affix a large pink neon sign to my back saying “I am a tourist, please spit at me and then rob me.”

Next week I’m going to buy a Statue of Liberty foam crown, and make my way to the city’s swankiest bars. It can’t make me any more conspicuous, after all.

Reasons why America is great (part 3 of a series)

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See, I hate tomato ketchup. I was always an HP Sauce kind of boy, with tomato sauce seeming too sickly sweet in comparison to the spicy molassesey goodness of its blue-labelled rival. Of course here in the United States, nobody’s really heard of brown sauce, although you can buy it in some specialist shops. A1 Steak Sauce is a passable (though more insipid) equivalent, but you’ll rarely see it in restaurants – and certainly not in your average diner.

Instead it’s tomato ketchup all the way – you could probably get it in your average Michelin-starred restaurant if you asked nicely enough. From incredible steaks to macaroni (&) cheese, there’s nothing that Americans won’t dollop a bit of the red stuff on.

But the prevalence of tomato ketchup – and even the lack of brown sauce – doesn’t bother me anymore. Because every diner in America seems to carry chili sauce on the table. Who needs ketchup on your grilled cheese sandwich when you can numb your mouth with a bit of tabasco? And why would you bother with red sauce on your eggs benedict when you can have fiery hot condiment to disguise the fact that you’re eating the most vile dish ever invented?

Given that most diners operate on a “never mind the quality, look how much we’ve piled on your plate” approach to cuisine, anything that reduces the ability of your tastebuds to function normally has got to be a good thing.

Sadly, even chili sauce can’t make the coleslaw that comes with every diner meal taste better. It’s good, but it ain’t that good.

Weather with me

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I don’t quite get it. It’s five days before my birthday, and yet I could still be going to work in a T-shirt. I got married at the start of the second week of October, and could barely go outside because of how uncomfortably sweltering it was in my wedding paraphernalia (that makes it sound like I was dressed in full military apparel, but sadly my Victoria Cross didn’t come through in time for the big day). Put simply, it’s late October in New York, so why the hell is it so hot?

Annual temperatures are expected to exceed the five year average in all areas of the United States (bar the Pacific Northwest). Apparently it’s all down to the La Nina phenomenon, with the cooling of ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean proving to be the the main contributing factor behind the expected warmth. And there was me thinking it was just all the hot air being generated by the prospective Republican candidates for next year’s presidential elections.

Even New Yorkers are surprised at this turn of events. I naturally assumed that it was like this every October, but colleagues today reassured me that October’s usually as miserable over here as it is back in the UK. They’ve been expecting the bitter temperature drop for a few weeks now, but instead it’s ice creams all round.

Interestingly, the unexpected sunny snap has shown me that it’s not just the British who moan about the weather – Americans can more than hold their own when it comes to complaining about the climate. Whether it’s uncertainty about what to wear in the morning, or the awkward sunlight in the meeting rooms, New Yorkers are more concerned with the unexpected heat than with any bumbling taxi strike.

When it comes down to it, October’s the month when you should be digging out your winter coat, not wondering where you left those frankly dubious Bermuda shorts after your trip to Marbella. Sure, the weather will help me keep the Greek islands tan currently giving me a healty golden glow. But sometimes you just long for the cold winter nights to close in so that you can light a fire and drink rich red wine to your heart’s content.

Of course, you can all feel free to remind me of this entry when I’m blogging about how freezing it is in a few months. In the meantime, I’m off to put the air conditioning on full blast.

MyPod

I was briefly a Brit Back In Water in the small hours of this morning, when our flight from Crete landed at Gatwick Airport at 2am, leaving myself and The Special One (that’s the wife, not Jose Mourinho, by the way) with a few hours to kill before flying back to New York.

Back in the old days (as I believe I’m now entitled to say, given that I am both married and 34 years old in less than a week) this scenario would have involved the two of us finding the comfiest bit of concrete floor or bench in the entire airport, curling up in the smallest ball possible, and hoping to get a couple of hours kip among the screaming Malaga-bound masses.

Thankfully Simon Woodroffe, the guy behind Yo! Sushi, has now come up with the Yotel, which crosses first class airline cabins with the pod hotels so favoured by the Japanese. Our cabin can have been no bigger than a ten foot square, with a tiny bathroom stowed away at the side. But with all amenities seemingly folded up into the walls, it had everything that you could possibly need to enable some much needed relaxation (including a flat screen TV and a built in plug so that you hook up your iPod to their in-cabin stereo system) before another long flight. Admittedly room service seemed to consist of plastic trays of microwaved lasagne, but who’s complaining given that the whole kit and caboodle cost 61 quid?

Ladies of the Gatwick night will no doubt be thrilled to know that the Yotel charges by the hour, by the way. No more visits to the murky depths of shadowy Norbiton for them, methinks.

Cat power

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As I’ve written before, there is intense speculation about what caused the downfall of the Minoan civiliszation. A trip to the palaces of Knossos or Malia in Crete will lead you to believe that war or an unprecedented earthquake caused the destruction of one of the earliest seats of European power. On the other hand, the people of plucky little Santorini are convinced that it was the eruption of their volcano that brought about the immense tidal waves and/or earthquakes which caused an early bath for the Minoans.

Personally, I don’t think it was any of these things that prompted the cataclysmic collapse of an entire civilisation. Forget about volcanoes, earthquakes or tsunamis – it was the cats that did it.

Anybody who has spent any time in any of the Greek islands will know that there are cats everywhere. Thousands of the things, of all varieties and colours, roaming the streets day and night. Nobody appears to own any of them, and as a result, every single one of them is always looking for food. Every restaurant you go into has been adopted by at least three cats, with the canny felines acting as a tag team to sniff out the table most likely to give them food.

Of course, they don’t leave anything to chance when it comes to getting fed. Each of the cats has passed the advanced certificate in Doe Eyed Gazes, allowing them to look every single customer directly in the eye with a pitiful glance guaranteed to make you feel like you’ve just stolen all the worldly possessions of a homeless orphan, if you refuse to give in to it.

I’ve slowly become convinced over the last two weeks that with such a heavy population, and the advanced tactics of a league of generals, the cats of the Greek islands were once a regimented force of trained military troops. Sure, they purred and meowed with the best of them when the Minoans were offering up food. But as soon as they turned their backs, the cats held mammoth rallies to pool their strategic resources, and plot the downfall of their so-called human superiors. And once the feline fighters were given the go ahead by their kitty leadership, the Minoans were powerless to resist as the cats sunk their claws into this incredibly advanced race. Suddenly the lustral basins were filled with milk, and tuna flowed through the hallowed portals of the palaces for as far as the eye could see.

Of course, with power comes corruption, and before long the leadership were saving the best mice for themselves, and chopping out lines of catnip on the hallowed altars of the temples. After a few hundred years of cat power, an uprising from within was inevitable – and when coupled with a series of natural disasters, the cats returned from whence they came. Human control was reasserted, and the Greek Islands you see today were slowly developed.

Having tasted power once, however, the cats of Crete and Santorini are slowly girding their loins for another attempt at an overthrow – a coup des cats, if you will. You can see it in their faces as they gather on every street corner, their dewy looks unwittingly dropped to be replaced by menacing stares that betray a determination to reassert the natural order. Their numbers are growing, and fuelled by a thousand dropped baklavas, they are becoming stronger. Their time is approaching once more.

Feel free to feed the kitties. Pat and stroke them, if you must. But don’t think your kind actions will mean that you won’t be first against the wall when the revolution comes. Mark my words.

Driven to distraction

Having lived in both London and New York, you’d think that there would be nothing that could ever scare me about taxis. After all, black cabs in London contain some of the most offensively opinionated people in the northern hemisphere, while the drivers of yellow cabs in New York have as much geographical knowledge as a three-year-old with vision problems.

But then I hadn’t really taken into account that I might one day end up in Greece.

Put simply, drivers in the Greek Islands take their lives – and the lives of anybody they accept into the back of their beaten-up jalopies – into their own hands every single time they step foot in their car.

Roads in Crete are generally of a better quality than those you might find in New York. And, to be fair, the cars aren’t in bad condition either. But these outward appearances count for nothing when you climb into the car and start on your journey.

When it comes down to it, Cretan drivers regard any taxi ride as a possibility to break the Greek land speed record. Whether you’re going five minutes down the road, or making an hour-long trip to the other side of the island, taxi drivers make it a point of pride to keep an average speed of in excess of 110 kilometres per hour. Given that Crete has high-altitude narrow winding roads that make the closing sequence from The Italian Job look like a quiet Sunday afternoon cruise, that inevitably means clinging on for dear life in every car you step into.

Tradition dictates that slower-moving cars place their right wheels in the hard shoulder to allow faster cars – or taxis, as we call them – to overtake. Sadly the hard shoulder can sometimes be just a dusty stone-laden track centimetres from a three hundred foot ravine – but who cares if Doris and Bert are edged off the road as long as the cab can set a new personal best, eh?!

I’d like to say that Santorini is better, but this tiny island makes Crete look like The Monastery of Saintly Driving in comparison. Most taxis don’t have seatbelts, and those that do generally don’t have anything to clip the belt into. The roads are steeper and more dangerous than anything you’ll find in Gran Turismo 4, and the youngest driver I’ve seen was probably a contemporary of Socrates at school.

Every time we go around a cliff top corner, Soon To Be Wife Who Is Now Actually My Wife (still no idea what to call her – please help) squeezes my hand so hard that I think one or two fingers may drop off. We now long for the occasions on which we get stuck behind hire cars, given that it’s easier to pass cars at the Monaco Grand Prix than it is in Santorini, and hire cars go at least 40kph slower than anything else on the road.

Still, the Greek island speed demons do have some benefits. Having been given far too little time by our hotel to get to Heraklion in Crete on Sunday, our taxi driver told us that it would be tight to get us to the hydrofoil to enable us to travel to Santorini. In the end, having touched 140kph at times and never dipped beneath 80kph, he put us at the port with fifteen minutes to spare. He may have driven safely enough to avoid physical damage, but the mental scars will take much longer to heal.