Monthly Archives: December 2007

Tears of a town

Whenever I get on the subway these days, all I seem to see is crying women. From full on floods of tears to carefully disguised dabbing at the eyes, rarely does a week go by where I fail to witness a visibly upset commuter. And it can’t just be the grim realiszation that ticket prices are going up in the New Year.

It all began with the blonde with the coffee cup, crying quietly to herself as she stared mournfully out of the window on the F train into Manhattan. Then came the student-type who stood crying on Jay Street station for fifteen minutes one evening as we both waited for our long-delayed train. And more recently, one young Carroll Gardens resident was sobbing uncontrollably first thing in the morning as she made her way into work. Hopefully she used the waterproof mascara that morning, as that panda look is so 1987.

Clearly Brits aren’t exactly prone to major public displays of emotion. I’ve seen more open high-security prisons. But in all the years of commuting in London, I think I only saw a tearful traveller once or twice – and even then I can’t be 100% sure that it wasn’t a New Yorker on holiday.

So what makes this city’s residents so upset? It can’t just be the knowledge that I’ve settled down, after all. Maybe it’s the time of year, or – more likely – it’s the city itself with all the self-imposed stresses and strains that come with it. Relaxation isn’t exactly a New York way of life, let’s face it.

Whatever the case, I’m going to start carrying Kleenex with me wherever I go. I’ll always offer a shoulder to cry on, after all, but it’s nice to be able to clean up afterwards.

Egged on

The Special One hates black pudding. In all honesty, she’s never really eaten the stuff, so she actually just hates the idea of it. To be fair, I can understand that the idea of big chunks of fat suspended in congealed blood isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste. Personally I love the stuff, but there’s no accounting for taste.

The point is that all cultures have their own unique food traditions, many of which seem alien to outsiders. Koreans would probably look at me quizzically if I suggested that eating dog wasn’t necessarily in my top ten list of ‘things to do before I’m 40’. Equally, I’m not going to eat goat’s head in Mexico just because a native says that it’ll taste good.

All of which brings me, inevitably, to eggnog.

Eggnog, like affection for George W Bush, just isn’t something that you can find in the UK. Merely the sound of it is enough to put me off. It somehow brings to mind a cross between Advocaat liqueur and the raw egg ‘hair of the dog’. And that’s no good thing, in anybody’s book.

But I’d hate for anybody to say that I’m not assimilating. Well, I’d hate for them to continue to say that I’m not assimilating, at least. So trusting in my fellow country dweller, and taking my life into my own hands, I decided to take my first step into the brave new world by walking into Starbucks and requesting an eggnog latte.

Sure, I know it’s not actually eggnog, but everybody’s got to start somewhere. It’s kind of like building up to eating horse meat in France or Japan by having a quick snack of roasted donkey.

To be honest, the eggnog latte wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Yet it was kind of like kissing the ugliest girl in school – vaguely enjoyable at the time, but in the back of your mind you know there’s something not quite right about it.

The problem with the eggnog latte for me was that I just couldn’t identify a single ingredient. And for somebody who can definitely cook a bit, that’s faintly disconcerting. If somebody had told me that there was no coffee in there, I wouldn’t have been surprised. And while I’m sure there’s supposed to be some nutmeg, cinnamon or cloves contained within, it could equally have been toilet cleaner for all I know.

Still, I’m all for tradition, and if eggnog makes people think of Christmas, that’s fine by me. Just make sure there’s plenty of mulled wine to keep me occupied in the meantime.

A heated debate

One thing that we British can’t exactly say we’re experts at is expressing emotion. Anybody who saw me celebrating Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-minute winner for Manchester United against Fulham last season would probably beg to differ, but on the whole, we’re not a race that’s particularly comfortable with expressing ourselves in public.

The same can’t be said of New Yorkers. Walking out through a revolving door of a jewellery shop on Fifth Avenue today, an old man who had unwittingly wandered into the door’s radius exclaimed “Shit, you nearly gave me a heart attack then” as my swing of the door almost ripped his arm from its socket. If the tables had been turned, I would have apologised profusely to the door swinger, and possibly offered my first-born as recompense for the inconvenience.

New Yorkers have no compunction about arguing in public. In fact, it’s actually a way of life. Whether it’s casual bickering about slack service in a shop, or balls-out stand-up slanging matches in laundretteomats, New Yorkers love to air their grievances infront of anyone who cares to listen. And if nobody wants to listen, they’ll air ‘em anyway.

Walking out of the office yesterday, celebrating the start of the Christmasholiday break, I almost bumped into two blokesmen having what seemed like a lovers tiffquarrel. But unlike in Britain, where any heated discussion would still have been kept to a quiet (though passionate) whisper, these two were in a full on verbal battle:

Bald man with a sneer: “You’re a f***ing piece of shit, you know.”

Darked hair guy with bad skin: “Don’t you f***ing shout at me.”

BMWAS: “I have to shout at you because you never f***ing listen to me.”

DHGWBS: “F*** you.”

I ended up following them for a couple of blocks as I headed off to the subway, and the pair argued all the way. There was no embarrassment at their blazing row, and no awareness of anybody having noticed. And to be honest, nobody had noticed. Even though it would have been easier to miss a rhinoceros walking down 9th Avenue in a negligee.

Unsurprisingly, with our stiff upper lips and legendary sense of reserve, the British have been accused of having emotional constipation. On all the evidence I’ve seen so far, New Yorkers have been taking laxatives for years.

An Apple a day

In my first job out of university, I ran the office in which I worked with the aid of a Macintosh Classic. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine that such a tiny little computer would be capable of running a bath, let alone a small business that produced dozens of publications every year. It was my first experience of an Apple product, and despite its lack of power, I remember being vaguely entranced by the desktop and revelling in the fact that my use of a Mac automatically meant that I was a creative.

Almost thirteen years on, and I now own an iMac, numerous iPods and the MacBook on which I’m writing this entry. I covet a MacBook Pro for no good reason whatsoever, and the newly-arrived presence of an Apple Store only a block away from where I work will do nothing for my (our) bank balance.

But however much of an Apple fan I am, it has to be said that I am a mere casual Johnny-come-lately compared to tech-savvy New Yorkers.

Last Saturday, I had to take a trip to Tekserve in order to take in for repairs the Mac Mini used by the kids to do their homework. Admittedly the reason it needed to go back was nothing to do with maths, science or humanities. But in this day and age, when the CD burner refuses to work and new tracks can’??t be transferred to iPods as a result, young person frustration tends to abound.

Walking into the service area of Tekserve was like stepping into the First Church Of Steve Jobs, with devoted followers seeking healing from their saviour. People were quite happy to sit patiently waiting for an hour to have their poorly computers tended to, content just to be in the presence of other disciples of the Apple way of life. If somebody had walked through the store holding a PC, it’??s not inconceivable that they would have been ripped limb-from-limb by a rabid pack screaming “OSX, OSX, OSX.”?

But nothing beats the sight that greeted me today when I returned to the store to pick up the fully restored Mac Mini. Among the acolytes and worshippers stood one man committed enough to wear his devotion publicly and permanently. The symbol of his fervour? A fairly large Apple logo, tattooed forever on the back of his neck.

Only in America, ladies and gentlemen, only in America.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

As a general rule, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the British fear change. A poll in 1993 found that half the population feared that rabies would return to the country once the Channel Tunnel opened. The Daily Mail still hasn’t quite come to terms with the number of Poles now allowed into the country. And there was even outcry (from the elderly at least) when the UK finally embraced decimalisation in 1971. This despite an impossibly convoluted system that saw a pound made up of 240 pence, twelve pence in a shilling, a half crown worth two shillings and sixpence, and a farthing worth a quarter of a penny.

Americans on the other hand positively encourage change. They don’t let any President serve more than two terms, for a start – a principle that, if it had been in place in Britain, would have seen Thatcher frogmarched from office in 1987. Restaurants change names and cuisine every ten minutes, and marriage statistics suggest that people change partners as often as they change their oil.

But when it comes to weather, America just doesn’t do change. In Britain, it could be sunny in the morning, snowing at midday and pouring down with rain by the evening. Here in New York, if you wake up and the sun is shining, it’s a fair bet it’ll be sunny for most of the day. And if it’s raining cats and dogs when you ruefully manage to drag yourself out of bed, it’ll probably still be throwing it down when you finally tuck yourself back in later that night.

Sadly, the one constant that shows no sign of change at the moment is the cold. Each day I walk into work before 9 in the morning, and as the wind whistles in off the Hudson River, I swear that I would feel warmer if I had blocks of ice strapped directly to my testicles. The feeling in my toes has gone on holidayvacation, and isn’t expected to return to my body until sometime shortly before Independence Day.

The eagle-eyed loyal reader will remember that I once said that coats are for losers and that I would “battle against the need for a coat until I have no breath left in my body.” Sadly the cold has taken away all the breath in my body, and I’m now seriously considering wearing two coats at the same time. The time for fearing change has gone. Otherwise, the only change happening around here will be the loss of all my bodily extremities.

The all blacks

I went through many phases in my youth. There was the time of my life when I had an inexplicable devotion to T’Pau, joining their fanclub and listening to Heart & Soul more times in a row than was ever strictly necessary. There were the three years of sporting the dodgy floppy fringebangs look, which saw me attain a less impressive record with the ladies than, say, Liberace. And, of course, there was – as The Best Man so kindly pointed out at my wedding – my little-known lesbian phase. The less said about that, the better.

One thing I never was, however, was a Goth.

The strange thing is – more than twenty five years on from the time when my friends were listening to The Cure or Sisters Of Mercy while I sat happily listening to Together In Electric Dreams on my tinny tape recorder – New York seems to be one city where Goths never truly vanished. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for why everybody in this city insists on wearing black absolutely everywhere they go.

Getting on to the subway every day is like entering a casting room for extras on a comeback video for The Mission. Of the hundred or so people who crowd into every carriage, I’d say about 95% will be wearing predominantly black. With thick black puffer jackets (or down jackets, as The Special One informs me I should call them) coat, to black trousers and black baseball caps, all-black is the standard-issue New York uniform. Anybody wearing anything as colourful as – for instance – beige, suffers endless pointing and staring, before being presented with a large (black) sign simply stating ‘TOURIST’.

I’d thought that maybe I was just out of the habit of paying attention to commuters elsewhere, and that actually everybody wears all-black regardless of which city they’re travelling in. But on a recent trip back to the UK, my tube carriage was packed with reds, pinks, blues and greens amongst the black. Somehow the brighter colours put commuters into a better mood for the day ahead or the trip back home. Maybe it’s just the relief at knowing that nobody’s going to break out with a Siouxie & The Banshees classic at any moment?

I’ve decided to see how far I can push the New York colour boundaries over the next few weeks. I’m still going to wear my dark coat every day – after all, I don’t want to be labelled a freak. But today I tried a brown scarf, and tomorrow I might even introduce a bit of green or red to the proceedings if I’m feeling brave. This time next month I’ll be sporting Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat, you see if I don’t.

The Mad Old Lady Of Met Foods

Trips to do the grocery shopping are never dull in the USA. For a start, there’s the constant battle to make any sense of brand names, and the awe and wonder at the preponderance of items that you could never imagine anyone ever having a need for (pumpkin flavoured egg nog, anyone?). But more than that, the regular trip to the store gives you the strongest possible sense of the community in which you now exist.

For all the years that I lived in Wandsworth or Mortlake, the nearby Sainsbury’s or Waitrose only ever acted as a place to stock up on the essential items to get you through the week. I don’t think that I ever bumped into anybody I knew in a supermarket in twelve years of living in London. Yet here in Brooklyn, a visit to the grocery store is more like a coffee morning, with The Special One greeting all-comers while I furtively attempt to sneak jars of Coleman’s Mustard and HP Sauce into the trolley.

Inevitably when I make the trip alone, it’s back to my rightful role as Billy No Mates. Although even I now have a nodding acquaintance with the blokeguy who generally delivers our food after we’ve paid for it. But even though I don’t know the same number of people, it doesn’t mean I don’t from time-to-time get dragged into the soap opera that is Met Foods on Henry Street. And never more so than this weekend.

The shopping trip all started perfectly smoothly, as I carefully navigated through the potential assault course of 372 different types of milk before successfully picking up the organic lactose-free variety (don’t ask me, I was just doing what I was told). Then came canned goods such as soups and tuna, followed by hundreds of different organic cereals with names that I didn’t recognise but which left me with the distinct impression that they might taste of cardboard. Nevertheless, so far so good.

Until I reached the cleaning products section, that is. Having managed to secure toilet roll and what I refer to as ‘kitchen roll’ but am forced by law into calling ‘paper towels’ here, I started to move my trolley slowly across the aisle to get a bottle of laundry detergent.

And that’s when I came across the Mad Old Lady Of Met Foods. Now, bear in mind that when I started to shift my trolley across the aisle, Mad Old Lady was maybe ten yards behind me. Having seen her coming, I nonetheless stopped to let her go by. Which is why her response of “There are other people in the store, you know” as she slowly wheeled past me was possibly a little surprising and maybe a tad unnecessary.

Unwilling to let her get away with such public disdain, I shouted after her that “you may be old, but that doesn’t mean you have to be so rude.” And so started a five minute argument the length and breadth of the store, with her random attacks on my personality being followed by my retorts about her general rudeness, as I looked imploringly at fellow customers for sympathy. My particular favourite exchange was the following:

Mad Old Lady: (mutters under breath)

Brit Out Of Water: “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you said?”

Mad Old Lady: “I was calling you a dummy. Are you a dummy?”

Although it has to be said that the fifteen second interlude when she chased me down the beer aisle with her trolley, shouting “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me” was pretty damn memorable too.

Fortunately, some pretty sharp cornering at the crispspotato chips stand took me racing away from her, shouting a defiant “God bless America” as I departed. By the time I reached the checkout, she’d moved on to another unwitting victim. Thankfully it seems that this was not the Mad Old Lady Of Met Foods’ first outing in her adopted grocery store home. One man looked at me sympathetically and confided that she was “missing a thousand marbles” while another woman just smiled the half-smile of someone who has been there, and indeed, done that.

Shocked though I was at the whole experience, I’ll be back at Met Foods next weekend no doubt. Maybe I’ll be even more careful when I reach for the washing powder. But if the Mad Old Lady wants to square up for Round Two, this dummy will be lying in wait, mark my words…

For the love of cheese

A very good friend of mine – we’ll call him The Bean Counter, even though he doesn’t strictly speaking count beans anymore – loves cheese. Cheese is his life. From a nice crumbly Cheshire (the English county from which we both hail) to an oozing brie, The Bean Counter’s love of cheese knows no bounds. If The Bean Counter was deprived of cheese for more than a day, let there be no doubting that there would be wide and unmitigated bloodshed.

Given his love of cheese, The Bean Counter really should consider a move to this side of the pond. Not since the Italians discovered the tomato can one nation have been so obsessed with one particular foodstuff. Cheese is a central part of day-to-day life in the United States, so much so that I can probably count the number of times that it has not featured in any meal I’ve had since moving here on the fingers of one hand.

Essentially, like butter in the UK, if you order a sandwich in America it comes with cheese as standard. Cheese is scattered on top of all Italian meals, regardless of whether it already comes topped with cheese. And the supermarketsgrocery stores have endless rows of pre-packaged plastic cheese (on top of the hundreds of bags of gratedshredded cheese) that clutter shelves everywhere.

The irony is that artisanal cheese is very difficult to come by, with Americans – by and large – seeming to prefer the relatively tasteless blocks of mass-produced cheese that are only really fit for cheese on toast. And if you want to get your hands on the good stuff, prepare to pay through the nose.

The US obsession with cheese really struck home last week, when – nursing a hangover – I made my way down to the bakery beneath my office to get a bacon sandwich. This being New York, I was obviously prepared for the fact that the sandwich would actually be a bagel, and that it would contain streaky bacon rather than the more meaty back bacon I’m used to. But when it came to ordering it, I simply couldn’t make the person understand that I wanted neither eggs nor cheese on it as well. Having battled for what seemed like five minutes in an attempt to get just my bagel and bacon, I finally relented and accepted the addition of cheese. Cheese and bacon – together. On a sandwich. What kind of combination is that? Wrong on so many different levels, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Don’t tell anyone, but it tasted amazing. The Bean Counter would have been in his element. God bless America.

The big 100

I’ve just noticed that the last post was the 100th Brit Out Of Water entry. I’ve now spent 116 days out of water, and have already notched up a century of cultural differences between my original and adopted home.

Thank you to everybody for their kind comments so far, and feel free to leave your own comments – kind or otherwise. And as ever, please do pass on the link to the site to anyone you think might be strangely interested in the exploits of a man who today still had to ask for a tuna sandwich six times before he finally made the person behind the counter understand what he was talking about. Even then I ended up with a chicken salad baguette. Happy days.

On the telly

Having been a bit of an addict back at home, I’ve barely watched any TV since I moved to America. With Sky+ (that’s Tivo, to the Americans amongst you) now a distant memory, by the time I’ve navigated through what seems to be 1003 different channels, I’ve generally either fallen asleep or missed the one programme that was vaguely worth watching in the first place.

In fact, the only show* I seem to have managed to watch on any kind of regular basis is Kitchen Nightmares with our very own Gordon Ramsay. But forget Rococo in Norfolk, or Mamma Cherri’s Soul Food Shack in Brighton – this is Kitchen Nightmares, American-style – with all the glamour, tears and tantrums that American television demands.

They say that everything in America is bigger than its equivalent elsewhere, and they’re not just referring to national debt. Indeed, the level of US debt has undoubtedly been increased by the amount of money thrown at Kitchen Nightmares on this side of the pond by Fox TV. Where in the UK Gordon saves a restaurant by giving them his coveted fish pie or burger recipe, here the master chef gives them a complete restaurant makeover, with every glass, table, fork and plate replaced with sparkling new products.

To be honest, new plates are about as close as you get to food with the US version. Unsurprisingly for a country gripped by such a fervent desire for self-examination, the show is dominated by blazing arguments, personal breakdowns and meltdowns and confessional vox pops. It’s like the Jerry Springer Show meets Jamie Oliver. With more swearing.

Ah, the swearing. There’s one thing that doesn’t change about Kitchen Nightmares. There’s more ‘f****’ and ‘f***ings’ than a boat trip with Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Although every single one of them seems to be beeped out. After all, you can’t expect people watching TV at 9pm to be grown up enough to hear the odd swear word, can you?

For two shows with the same name, it’s difficult to imagine them being handled so differently. With one a food documentary, and the other a soap opera set in a restaurant, comparing them is like pitting Mike Tyson in the ring against Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes. Even so, you can’t help but admit that Kitchen Nightmares USA is entirely superficial but pretty damn enjoyable.

Sounds like a pretty good metaphor for life in America, if you ask me.

* When I say ‘the only show’, I obviously have to exclude CSI: Miami from that. But then, that’s less television and more a religion.