Monthly Archives: November 2007

Chasing cars

Walking back from the subway station this evening, skipping merrily through the hay meadowtrudging down the rain-sodden road with a heavy bag in my hand, the glorious idyll was shattered by a cacophony of honking horns. The crime of the poor startled driver who had prompted the orchestra of vehicular outrage? He’d only managed to hit his accelerator 0.8 seconds after the traffic light had turned green, rather than the 0.05 seconds demanded under the unwritten Rules Of The Road 2007 (New York edition).

To say that New Yorkers are impatient would be an understatement. New Yorkers reading this blog entry are probably already getting hot under the collar that I haven’t got to the end of the post, such is their inability to wait anything more than ten seconds for the completion of any given task. In this city, for example, a bagel is toasted in less time than in takes to pay for it, simply because people won’t tolerate hanging around for their breakfast.

But nowhere is a New Yorker’s impatience more evident than at a set of traffic lights. It’s almost as if every single red light signals the start of the Indy 500, and the potential championship winner has suddenly found himself stuck behind Bert and Doris Lester out for a leisurely Sunday afternoon tour of knitting museums. The moment the light even thinks about turning green, eight people are instantly on their horns, leaving the hapless front runner to look at the crossing pedestrians ahead with an apologetic shrug that says, “I don’t want to run you over but the people behind me are in an awful hurry, so many apologies if this hurts a little bit.”

It seems like the only time a New Yorker is patient is in the lengthy line for the newly opened Abercrombie & Fitch flagship on Fifth Avenue. Patience may be a virtue after all, but only when there’s a retail opportunity at the end of the line.

Prancing on ice

Photo5_2

I spent last night at a big sporting event, supporting a team of red devils who came from two goals down to win 4-2 with a sparkling performance in the last thirty minutes of the game. Nothing odd in that – after all, I’ve been supporting Manchester United for years. But yesterday the green grassy carpet of the Theatre of Dreams was replaced by freezing glassy ice for the NHL clash between the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars.

Given that it was end-to-end stuff, and the match was only finally settled with sixteen seconds to go, I really couldn’t complain about my introduction to major league sport American-style. But I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the big American sporting showpieces with the less glitzy but still highly-charged British football occasions. Particular observations are as follows:

• The city of Newark pledged $210 million to get the Devils to move a few miles down the road to this purpose-built venue, in a bid to regenerate the area. Nevertheless, the 17,625-seater stadium couldn’t have been more than half full. Interestingly the official attendance was placed at well over 13,000, so the new stadium counting systems can’t quite be working yet. The city paid for the stadium, yet nobody goes. Ring any bells, Manchester City fans?

• With low crowds and little gathering of crowds in pubs and bars in the run-up to the game, singing and chanting a la English football is practically non-existent. The team rely on a Hammond-esque organ and organist to whip the crowd into anything above a whimper. The home supporters reserve their one catchy chant to bait local rivals the New York Rangers, with a witty (if close to the bone, for America) “Rangers suck, Devils swallow.”

• Half time or interval entertainment is universally derided the world over, clearly. Four contestants last night were asked to stand on the half way line and put a puck through a tiny hole in the goal. Every single one was booed off the rink for their abject failures.

• You can have periods during an ice hockey match when, due to penalties, one side will be playing with three outfield players to their opponents five. It’s the equivalent of United being forced to play a full strength Liverpool for a short time without John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, Louis Saha and Mickey Silvestre. Actually, come to think about it…

• As well as being able to drink at your seats, you can purchase all manner of paraphernalia on the squeaky-clean inner concourses of the stadium. I swear though that for as long as I follow competitive sport in stadiums around the world, I will never again be greeted with the retail opportunity that I witnessed last night. I mean, I have no problem with cigars, it’s just that I don’t know if seeing old men roll them on their legs and offer them for sale should necessarily be part of the big sporting occasion, that’s all.

• Everything is so clean. I know this is a new stadium, but my sense is that it’s the same in stadiums all over. For a start, every man seems to urinate in receptacles that were designed for, well, urinating in. That CAN’T be right, can it??

You can’t help but admire ice hockey and its players though. They play with a puck that flies at around 100mph, they get battered into the barriers on a regular basis, and they’re always seconds away from a serious injury. It may not quite match the intensity of a clash of the ‘soccer’ titans, but I’d definitely go back again. Just don’t make me take the half-time shot, OK?

Extreme noise terror

For quite some time now, London Underground have been piping classical music into the concourse areas of stations such as Brixton and Vauxhall in an attempt to discourage teenage gangs, beggars and general ne’er-do-wells from loitering there. I’ve no idea if it actually works, although it’s at least vaguely soothing for the hundreds of commuters who’ve spent the last twenty minutes silently seething with resentment after being stuck in a tunnel a few yards outside Pimlico station.

Last night at Secaucus station in New Jersey, I experienced the American equivalent. A sound to strike fear into the hearts of grown men, and drive crack dealers onto the streets. Music designed specifically to be uncomfortable and make you want to move out of the area as quickly as possible.

Hard to describe Badfinger as classical, admittedly, but it was certainly enough to get me hurtling out onto the freezing cold New Jersey streets with indecent haste. Rumours that their music appears on the forthcoming album “Noise Warfare: 20 Guantanamo Bay Classics” could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

Just brilliant

I’m slowly learning my newly adopted language, despite the galling lack of a rosetta stone (of either the granite or CD variety) in American English to help me along the way. Admittedly I’m still thinking in the English language and consciously translating into American, but we’ve all got to start somewhere, huh?

This lunchtime in the liftelevator, for example, I managed to correct myself just before telling somebody I’d spent ten minutes in the queue at Hale & Hearty, and reluctantly spluttered out the word ‘line’ instead. In a meeting this morning, I impressed even myself when I was able to say ‘process’ with a hard vowel sound rather than the more soothing soft ‘oh’ that we use in, well, English.

But there are plenty of Englishisms that I simply can’t – and when it comes down to it, won’t – remove from my vocabulary, however incongruous they sound when used on this side of the pond. I’m still on the pavement, for example. I won’t wear a sweater and pants, but I will wear a jumper and trousers. And most of all, I’m still completely brilliant.

‘Brilliant’ is one of those words that I’ve now used for approximately 30 years, to describe anything from Manchester United’s attackingoffensive play through to a great meal. I’ve used derivations such as ‘brill’ and ‘skilliant’ (and the closely associated ‘skill’), and I’m more than capable of saying it three or four times a day if I’m having a particularly pleasant time.

Sadly, of course, saying it in America suggests that I’m referring to whiter-than-white whites, or a remarkably striking blue sky. And I suppose technically they’re right, according to the dictionary:

adjective 1 (of light or colour) very bright or vivid. 2 exceptionally clever or talented. 3 Brit. informal excellent; marvellous. Derived French brillant, from briller ‘shine’, probably from Latin beryllus ‘beryl’.

While Americans will generally understand what I’m saying, they’ll give me one of those looks that says “you think you’re from a classic line of eccentric Englishman and that you can get away with it, but you’re actually just an idiot.”

I suppose I should start using ‘awesome’, brilliant’s lesser American cousin. But given that Americans appear to pronounce it ‘are-some’ (hello, there’s a ‘w’ in it, people!) it’ll be a cold day in hell before I fall into that habit. In any case, by switching to an alternative, I’d be losing one of my favourite words in the English language. And that would be far from brilliant.

A turning point

I felt incredibly proud today when somebody turned to me for directions, and I definitively knew the answer. Standing on the platform waiting for the A train at 14th Street, a couple of kids asked me where they had to go to get the L line. At last, I exclaimed internally, here was my chance to feel like a New Yorker, no longer a Brit Out Of Water. My heart swelled with joy as I directed them to the lower level.

Sadly, as it transpires, there is no platform at 14th Street lower than the one serving the A train. Only by going upstairs can you get to the L train.

My application to be a local has been denied, pending a full internal investigation.

Heading south

Photo4

Given that the majority of Americans get what seems to be about three and a half days of holidayvacation every year, most people try to take advantage of the bankpublic holidays by getting away for the weekend. And it was no different in the Brit Out Of Water household, with The Special One and I taking a trip down to East Tennessee to see my new extended family.

From the moment you leave the airport, it’s immediately clear that there’s just a much more relaxed and laid-back way of life down there. From the Hertz representative happy to laugh and joke, to the cars driving at about 40mph on the motorwayinterstate, it’s like the weight of the world has been lifted off people’s shoulders.

The fact is that the level of trust that people place in their fellow man increases in direct proportion with the number of miles away from New York you are. Having stopped off in the city centre to get some food, I engaged in the following conversation with The Special One, who lived in the area for the first thirteen years of her life and has been a regular visitor ever since:

Brit Out Of Water: “What should I do with my laptop?”

The Special One: “Erm, put it under the seat. I suppose I should lock the car.”

Brit Out Of Water (incredulous): “Would you not lock it otherwise?”

The Special One (puzzled): “Why would I lock the car around here?”

All this from a woman who generally double locks the door to our New York apartment before I’ve even had a chance to get inside.

Nothing however beats the (admittedly terrible quality) image you can see above. It’s one thing to be confident enough to leave your parked car unlocked, but maybe you only know you’re in a truly safe place when you’re able to leave your ignition key sitting on the dashboard? Add in the pleasant customer service and the fact that even passing strangers smile or say hello, and you know you’ve come across a wholly different way of life.

Of course, the idyll was shattered when we got back to the airport gate this morning to be greeted by a hundred or so coffee-swilling New Yorkers, but that’s probably a different story.

Giving thanks

After a day of incredible food with The Matchmakers and family, I’m completely stuffed and barely capable of lifting my fingers to the keyboard. To be fair, after giant helpings of turkey, mashed potato, roasted vegetables, stuffing, mashed purple cauliflower and green beans, I’ve probably only got myself to blame.

All in all, I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving. After all, it’s the reason I met The Special One in the first place. And who could ever complain about a holiday that allows a family to gather together, eat food, drink wine, watch football and chat for hours upon end?

The only complaint anybody could ever have is the absolute inability of anybody American to understand that Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated only by the people in this fair country. Given how intrinsically linked Thanksgiving is to American history, you’d think that maybe this country’s inhabitants would realise that it’s an incredibly US-centric event.

Yet for the last thirteen years of spending time in the US, I’ve long since lost count of the number of times that I’ve been asked by an American about my plans for Thanksgiving. When it comes down to it, nobody outside America even knows that it’s Thanksgiving. It’s difficult to describe the reaction when I’ve been forced to explain that the closest I’ve usually got to a Thanksgiving feast has been a turkey sandwich from Pret A Manger.

Strangely, however stuffed I feel right now, a turkey sandwich may well be on the cards again tonight. After all, it is a holiday.

Officially speaking

Bored of reading the side of a milk carton while waiting for my life-restoring coffee to be brewed earlier today, I turned my attention to the noticeboard that hangs from the wall in the kitchen. Among the charitable appeals and health and safety notices pinned to the board was an official New York notice, giving some statistics on the state including the capital, population, size and climate. Nothing strange in that – after all, it’s always good to get a bit of background on the state in which you live and work.

But nothing could really prepare me for the list that sat beneath it.

Don’t get me wrong, every state and every country has its official emblem. Wales, my home country, has the daffodil and (vaguely inexplicably) the leek, while England proudly displays the red rose. But one official symbol apparently isn’t enough for New York – not according to the lengthy list of official state emblems and products that the state has acquired over the last fifty years of so.

An official New York State flower I can understand, even if there is a certain lack of originality about the choice of the rose. But given that it was chosen in 1955, I’ll let it go. Apparently most states also have an official animal and fruit, although New York waited until 1975 to select the beaver…and then deliberated and cogitated for another year before picking out the humble apple.

But having covered the normal bases, New York obviously got into the swing of the things.

Now, I’m as much of a fan of fossils as the next man, but who knew that New York State really needed an official fossil in the form of the sea scorpion? It wasn’t selected until 1984, so maybe it was just an elaborate ploy to detract attention from Los Angeles which was hosting the Olympics that year? That doesn’t explain the selection of the bay scallop as the official New York State shell though, it has to be said.

The brook or speckled trout is obviously the official fish, although limited research shows a distinct lack of originality given that they share said aforementioned fish with Michigan, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Such widespread devotion must give the speckled trout quite an ego, although putting in an appearance at all the official state occasions presumably gets a little wearisome at times.

New York even has an official beverage, in the shape of milk. Milk wasn’t chosen until 1981, so I can only assume that Mountain Dew was usurped by the dairy giant in a bloodless (but creamy) coup.

Most astonishingly of all, New York State has an official muffin. Now, I’m sure that apple muffins are very pleasant, particularly when eaten alongside a glass of Official Milk. But I still wish that I could have been a fly-on-the-wall in 1987 when the state authorities decided that they needed an official baked goods product. Bagel and hamburger bun manufacturers must have been cursing that day, I can tell you.

As far as I can make out, New York hasn’t chosen an official emblem since 1989, when the ladybirdbug was selected as the official New York State insect (no, I don’t know why they need an official insect either). After 18 years of relative quiet, I think it’s time to crack open the statute books and add some new symbols of all that makes New York stand out. Any suggestions for Official Excuse For Mass Transportation Delays are more than welcome.

A ruby murray

Like night follows day (and like sardines follow the trawler, if you’re Eric Cantona), there’s an inevitability to certain things in life. And after a very pleasant evening spent in the pub putting the world to rights with The Best Man and Brit Out Of Water Sr, there was only going to be one way that the evening would finish. After all, the world always feels like a better place after you’ve had a curry.

Maybe it’s the heady mix of spices, or maybe it’s the carb-loading effects of a nan bread, but there’s just something about a curry that ensures you always feel in relatively tip-top shape the day after a night of committed drinking. Admittedly the people around me on the flight I’m taking back to New York in an hour or so may not be so pleased at last night’s choice of cuisine – but for this Brit Out Of Water, there are definitely times when only a curry will do.

The problem with living in New York isn’t that you can’t get good Indian food. After all, you can get good food of any type as long as you know where to look, and there’s certainly a number of gourmet Indian restaurants to choose from. But when it comes down to it, who wants gourmet from their late-night post-pub curry? Forget delicately spiced haute cuisine – what I want is a good old-fashioned lamb dhansak or a chicken madras, with an enormous nan bread that could conceivably cover the hole in the ozone layer. Preferably after some similarly large popadoms to kick proceedings off. I want to be smacked square in the face by the spice of the curry, and almost certainly be tasting the after-effects of the dish for a good three weeks afterwards.

When it comes down to it, America just doesn’t do your everyday curry particularly well. Takeaway curry in the US is about as spicy as Joan Rivers in a negligee, and marginally less appetizing. Once you’ve removed the spice from a curry, all you’re left with is dodgy chicken in gravy. And frankly I can get that at any number of places – all of which I’d rather avoid if humanly possible.

So after one night sampling curry nirvana, it’s back to my self-imposed balti ban until the next time I’m back in the UK. Thankfully the after-effects of last night will be with me for some time to come. Apologies in advance to British Airways passengers.

Down the tube

I took my first London Underground trip in about three months this morning, having become a Brit Back In Water for a couple of days. I was always a bit of a bus-catching man when I actually lived here, so rush hour on the tube still comes as a bit of a shock to the system. Despite all my moaning about the New York subway, any length of time spent on the tube makes you realise that the London system has just as many foibles and inadequacies. In particular:

• It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to make your way down a tube platform which contains more than, say, five people. Getting off the Victoria line and making your way to the District & Circle line is turned into an epic marathon that requires the packing of emergency rations such as Kendal Mint Cake, just in case you don’t make it before nightfall.

• The Subway Barger has a distant cousin in Tubethumper, the all-elbows woman who insists on forcing her way on to the train through a crowd of ten or so people all attempting to make their way off.

• A 6ft 2 person requires a qualification in advanced yoga to be able to stand wedged up against a tube train door, given the impossibly small nature of the carriages.

• Travelling on the Underground without an Oystercard requires a budget only marginally lower than NASA’s expenditure on the space shuttle programme. Particularly when the currency of your bank account has as much value in the external world as Monopoly money.

• You always need a ticket to get out of the tube, as well as to get in. Forgetting that crucial fact tends not to go down a treat with the five hundred or so people behind you desperately clamouring to get out of the station. It’s particularly galling given my rant about Oystercard Unreadiness Syndrome a few months ago.

Of course, the tube’s still got plenty of things going for it, notably the fact that there are maps everywhere you look, rather than one per carriage in New York (if you’re lucky). And there’s a train every minute or so in rush hour, rather than once in a blue moon on the subway.

Despite all its faults, you can’t help but love the tube (and marvel at the sheer engineering effort that its creation must have taken). I plumped for the subway when asked to pick between it and the tube in an interview that appeared in New York’s Metro yesterday. Now I’m feeling guilty that I’ve forsaken my former solid transport friend for my new more glamorous (but terminally impunctual) New York companion.

I’m sure the guilt will fade when I’ve had to sell a kidney in order to make a journey a couple of stops away this evening.