Monthly Archives: December 2007

Party time

The Christmas parties have begun, and it’s interesting to watch the behavioural differences between Britons and Americans when they start to let their hair down. To be fair, it’s really only the Brits that let their hair down. New Yorkers have their metaphorical hair in a short bob, and I shudder to think about the consequences if even one hair from their fringebangs gets out of place.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s work Christmas party last night. I say ‘Christmas’, but I have to call it a ‘holiday party’ here for fear of being deemed politically incorrect otherwise. Coincidentally, even when I use the word ‘holiday’, I get it wrong. Who knew that a simple question such as ‘where are you going on holiday this year?’ could lead to such strange looks. Apparently I should be calling it a vacation, even though the only thing being vacated is my will to live when it’s pointed out that I’ve used the American language wrongly yet again.

The party was due to start at 7pm, which in Britain would mean the majority of people turning up around 9pm for fear of looking as if they had nothing else to do that evening. Yet incredibly, by 6.45pm (yes, fifteen minutes before the party was even due to begin) there was a lengthy queue at the cloakroomcoatcheck. And there was me thinking that it was Brits who would go to great lengths whenever there was free booze on offer.

By 7.30pm, the place was heaving, with organiszers worrying that the venue wouldn’t let any more guests in. In Britain, there would have been one person from IT, and about seven people from finance, all dancing with a style and complexity that would have suggested that their dance mentor was Debbie Gibson.

Yet by 11pm, the American party was over, and people obediently queuedlined up to pick up their coat and head off into the night. Sure, there were a couple of drunken souls, but even they were able to put themselves in a taxi to head home. Put simply, there’s more gossip at a nun’s coffee morning than at an American ‘holiday party’.

Back at the start of my career, I worked for a well-known music television channel, in the UK. The first Christmas work party I attended was at a restaurant around the corner from the studios, and everybody ended up back at the studios in the wee small hours of the morning. The following morning, two colleagues were fired for taking the channel off air, and my closest colleague (*waves at Disco Dave From SF*) was given a warning for stripping naked and cycling a BMX through the office.

Now that was a Christmas party.

All for one

It looks as if the MTA are going to manage to force through their proposed rises in the price of subway tickets, with the protests raining in from all directions (including the New York Post with their forceful and to the point headline “Higher fare – but same lousy service”). Personally I still think the system is as cheap as chips, even if – on occasions – it would be quicker to walk home in a driving blizzard, blindfolded, and on one leg. With an incontinent labrador on your back.

One thing that has always faintly impressed me about the New York system is that wherever possible, the authorities have attempted to make train changes as easy as possible, and you often only have to walk across a platform to get to your next train. Maybe it’s just that Americans generally require a car in order to travel distances greater than twenty yards, but it’s certainly in stark contrast with the London Underground, where changing trains can require a sherpa and a St Bernard dog with a small barrel of brandy around its neck.

The only problem with cross-platform changes is that moment when you get two trains pulling into the station at exactly the same time.

As your train pulls into the platform, the passengers around you gently limber up with a few stretches as they see their opportunity to make a quick change. And inevitably, the straphangers on the train opposite are eyeing your train with the same athletic zeal. As soon as the doors on both trains open, it’s as if some weird vacuum has been created, sucking passengers across the platform at high speed and with no regard for the commuters being sucked in the opposite direction. Within five seconds, the platform resembles the final scenes from Zulu. Although faced with such all out attack, even Michael Caine would have been forced to say “Look chaps, the place is yours, we’re off.”

Actually, what it most reminds me of is a game that we used to play in the school playground, called British Bulldogs. Kids would line up on one side of the yard, run hell-for-leather towards the other side, with other kids attempting to take them out as they ran. With tripping, headlong tackling and kneecapping all allowed (OK, maybe that last one was an exaggeration), it was like legitimized lynching for under 16s. Such were the injuries that came with it that most schools banned it.

Still. I can get to play it every morning these days. Now, where did I put my machete?

When two become one

When you’re part of a transatlantic family, it’s inevitable that – from time to time – your conversations over dinner or a glass of wine (or two) will turn to the differences between your respective countries. The Special One may, for instance, point out that the UK is practically prehistoric for having most of its shops close for the day at 6pm. This Brit Out Of Water might counter by invoking the barbarity of the death penalty – a comparable issue to the store opening hours issue, as I am sure you will all agree.

As it happens, our discussions can go both ways. In my opinion, America is a much more relaxed place in which to travel than the UK (particularly by air), but The Special One points to the gloriously civilised nature of the British train system. Clearly she’s never been stuck on Crewe station for three hours awaiting the arrival of a train to Euston.

Every so often though, we find ourselves in complete agreement, which is mildly reassuring given that we tied the knot just over two months ago. And ironically, one of the things that we agreed about most has been the attitude of our respective nations towards teamwork. Particularly when it comes to music.

I find it difficult to believe that I hadn’t thought about this before. But when it comes down to it, the greatest and/or most popular solo singers of all time are generally American. Whether it’s the founding fathers of rock’n’roll including Chuck Berry, Bill Haley or Elvis Presley, 60s and 70s icons such as Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor or Jimi Hendrix, 80s legends Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson or (like her or not) Whitney Houston, through to modern day mega-selling stars such as Norah Jones or Jay-Z, the biggest solo acts all hail from the US. Sure, Britain has the Rod Stewart’s, Tom Jones’s or Amy Winehouse’s of this world, but they’re still small-fry compared to their American equivalents.

Yet at the same time, if you think about the greatest bands of all time – the bands that could fill stadiums the world over – they are as a general rule British. There’s the Beatles, obviously, but add on top of that the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode, U2 (Oirish, but close enough for the purposes of this argument) or even Coldplay. Of course, there’s the Beach Boys, Metallica or even Aerosmith (and Australia has AC/DC), but nonetheless it remains true that when British musical acts perform well on the world stage, they tend to be bands.

All of this leads to the question of whether Britons simply work better in teams, and Americans tend to be better off on their own. Perhaps Brits just don’t have the confidence to go out on their own and conquer the world? Maybe Americans can’t bear to share the limelight with anyone else, and have to plough their own furrow if they’re to be truly fulfilled?

Given that I’ve just got married to an American though, it’s probably not a question I should probe too deeply on. After a solo career that lasted more than thirty years, this Brit Out Of Water is more than happy to be part of a combo at last.

Keeping it sweet

A powerful American force is on the verge of invading Britain – and the country is welcoming it with open arms. According to a recent report, sales of the sweet potato have apparently risen by 50% over the last two years. Admittedly, that could just be that the number sold has risen from four to six, but it still seems to be enough for Marks & Spencer to announce that they’re going to sell the first mass-produced British sweet potato in response to consumer demand.

This Brit Out Of Water has never quite understood sweet potatoes. I mean, I know they’re probably a superfood and packed full of the kind of nutrients you can only otherwise get by eating your own body weight in squirrel droppings. And to be honest, they’re not altogether unpleasant in taste. But when it comes down to it, when you’ve got a choice between a potato that’s sweet and a potato that’s, well, ‘a potato’, there can surely be only one choice? Can anything really beat the taste of a proper spud? Not in my book.

While Americans have a ‘healthy’ commitment to the potato, their passion really begins and ends at the French fry and a regular dollop of mash (sausages optional, for some reason). Since moving to New York, I’ve been forced to engage in a prolonged re-education programme with the Brit Out Of Water household, to encourage ever greater use of the potato. The campaign is slowly showing signs of success, with the willing adoption of the baked potato topped with baked beans and cheese being a particular triumph.

But I’m still holding out against the sweet potato. Sure, I’ll eat one occasionally, but I don’t think I could ever have the same passion for it that Americans clearly have. And don’t even get me started on a sweet potato topped with marshmallows. Clearly that has no place on any dinner table, defying culinary best practice rules passed down from generation to generation. As my sister – a vegetable hater of some repute – said yesterday when told of the sweet potato/marshmallow combination, “why don’t they just go the whole hog and melt Opal Fruits* on them instead?”

The chocolate covered parsnip can only be a matter of years away.

* That’s Starburst, dear American reader. The British have been forced to use the Starburst name since 1998, when Opal Fruits were renamed “to standardisze the product in a globaliszed marketplace”. Thankfully most Brits refuse to give in gently to such corporate changes…

Cab chaos

There are some things about New York that I will never get, no matter how hard I try. I won’t be able to understand why police cars regularly block one lane of the Brooklyn Bridge, turning the main route into Manhattan into a car parklot. I struggle to comprehend why there’s a frozen yoghurt store every seventy three yards, and why some New Yorkers seem as obsessed by ice cream when the temperature’s well below freezing as they do when it’s hot and blistering. And if there’s some explanation as to why every New York sports team is about as useful as a one-legged man in an arseass kicking party, then I’d love to hear it.

But if there’s one thing above all others that I just don’t understand, it’s why all New York cabs go off duty between 4pm and 5pm.

Don’t get me wrong, I realise that cabs need to get back to the garage so that they can switch drivers and end shifts. But for the love of all that is good and righteous, why does every last cab have to do it at the same time?

Standing on the corner of 9th Avenue and 23rd St today in order to get a taxi to JFK, I waited for about 45 minutes for a cab that didn’t have its ‘off duty’ sign lit proudly on its roof. An occasional taxi returning home or to base would ask if I was going in his direction, but otherwise the streets didn’t have a single cab available to take passengers. And all at 4.30pm on a Friday night, a time when it could be argued there’s more than a few people around with a desire to get somewhere fast.

Did I mention it was snowing?

If Mayor Bloomberg has any pretensions of being President, and wants to show that he’s a common sense man-of-the-people, here’s one idea to get every New Yorker on side: stagger the times at which cabs go off-duty. It’s not a Nobel Prize winning-idea – it’s just common sense. Then there’s plenty enough cabs to go round for everybody, and I won’t be stuck on street corners wondering if I’m ever going to get to Old Trafford by 3pm on Saturday.

Who said that Brits don’t know how to tip?

Hello hello hello

One of the things that I constantly get asked by people back in the UK is how long it’s going to take for me to lose my British accent, or get some kind of mid-Atlantic twang. Frankly, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, and if I ever start talking about a-loo-min-um foil, or begin to refer to my ‘mom’ then something is rotten in the state of Brooklyn.

And don’t get me started on words like ‘Peter’ and ‘water’ – somehow the t’s appear to go missing in action in this country, only to be magically replaced by d’s. If you ever hear me asking ‘Peeder’ if he wants a glass of ‘warder’, then you have my absolute permission to shoot me.

Of course, it’s the natural instinct of man to adapt to his surroundings. When The Matchmakers used to come to visit me in the UK, Mr Matchmaker was an incredibly adaptable accent chameleon. By the end of a week long stay, he could conceivably find gainful employment as a butler in the most old-fashioned of country piles.

For me though, there’s one reason above all others why I could never give in to accent slip. It’s the fact that I could never manage to say ‘what’s up’ with a straight face.

For the vast majority of Americans, the word ‘hello’ has been replaced by ‘what’s up’. Walking out of the office to get a sandwich yesterday, I was ‘what’s upped’ by no less than four people in a thirty second period. Including two people who simultaneously what’s upped me as I left the liftelevator. And another who slapped me on the shoulder.

To most Brits, ‘what’s up’ is used as a phrase to denote concern or worry. It is not a greeting, and it is certainly not a rhetorical question. Only now am I slowly realiszing that I do not need to respond. For the last three months, my casual greetings have gone something like this:

Vague acquaintance: “Hey, what’s up?”

BOOW: “Well, I’ve been struggling recently with a bit of a sore leg. I think it all started when I went to the gym and got tangled up in that elliptical thing that really hurts your back if you’re on it for too long. You know, the one with the ski handles? Anyway, then The Special One made me carry sixty three boxes up the stairs to the apartment, and I think I might have done some permanent damage, as I’m really having difficulty sleeping. Anyway, just as I finally managed to sit down, the phone rang and then I got caught up in a thirty-five minute conversation with a call centre in Mumbai about why I should take car insurance. I wouldn’t mind but we don’t even have a car. Apart from tha…”

Vague acquaintance: “Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got to go gnaw my own arm off.”

I have no idea why ‘hello’ won’t suffice, to be honest. Or even a simple ‘how are you?’ At least I know that’s a question that demands an answer, even if the person who asked it isn’t remotely interested in the answer. It just allows me to respond to with a jaunty ‘I’m fine’, and be on my way. As it is, I now just laugh like a halfwit when anybody gives me a ‘what’s up’, in a manner that’s designed to say ‘Things are crazy around here’ but which probably just sounds like ‘I’m a nervous socially inadequate Brit – please don’t hurt me.’

Incidentally, I quickly Google searched ‘what’s up’ to see if I could shed any light on its origin. I didn’t get very far before being bogged down in 4 Non Blondes videos, but I did find a fascinating entry on Wikipedia. The short article claimed that ‘what’s up’ is now being abbreviated in many forms for the SMS and IM era, notably “sup”, “waz up”, “wts up”, “wts new” and “waz happenin”. My personal favourite though is “waz crackalackin”. And you wonder why I’m confident that I’m not going to find myself Americaniszed?

Anybody who can provide documentary and verified evidence that they managed to use the phrase ‘crackalackin’ at least once in a work context, by the way, gets a gold star and the freedom of the Brit Out Of Water kingdom.

One for the road

I haven’t been to many bars since I’ve been in New York – understandably, a new job, The Special One and the Young Ones have taken up most of my time. Admittedly, I whipped up a minor storm in the run-up to my wedding, but I’m sure that’s excusable after thirty-three years of singledom.

Tonight though, I made a rare excursion through the alcoholic side of New York nightlife, when The Tat Collector turned up for a post-work drink. The two of us managed to put the world to rights as we discussed all manner of American peculiarities over a beer or four.

Nothing unusual about that – after all, I’ve built a career on getting to know people over a few drinks, and it’s far from a hardship. But it’s still difficult getting used to a new environment where you’re constantly worrying about how much to tip or what to order when you haven’t heard of any of the sixty-three different beers available on tap.

What continues to surprise me is the fact that in certain drinking establishments, every few rounds or so the bartender will offer you a drink on the house. Whether I’ve been tipping well or not, I still find it difficult to accept that the house might ever want to buy me a drink. Put it like this, back in London, nobody at the Elephant’s Head or Railway Arms is ever going to get me a gin and tonic, however many drinks I knock back in a four hour period.

As it was, The Tat Collector and I rewarded the bar’s largesse simply by leaving more money as a tip, such was our guilt at her benevolence. Maybe that was her plan all along. After all, neither of us had an American accent, so maybe she just couldn’t trust us to tip her properly and this was the only means she had at her disposal to make sure we did the right thing.

Obviously, free gins and tonic didn’t help me when I got home to The Special One. I’d imagine I’ll be doing the washing-up for some time to come. But at least I didn’t have to pay for the privilege.

Jostling for room

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the smallest blokeguy in the world. I’m no John Goodman, but nor am I a devout exponent of heroin chic. And most days, I’m happy with that. Especially in America, where as I’ve said before, I’m sometimes able to feel like a particularly skinny catwalk model.

But when it’s cold – and bloody hell is it cold right now – and everybody is bulked up with coats, jumperssweaters, scarves, liberal coatings of whale blubber etc, there’s just a whole lot less room in this already-packed city.

And nowhere is that more true than on the subway. Where in summer each carriage holds numbers in excess of the population of a medium-sized African nation, the heightened physical bulk of all travellers in winter means that you’d struggle to squeeze in the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha. There’s enough wool on show to have sheep across the world cowering in their pens, and the array of ridiculous hats is truly a sight to behold.

The problem with the New York subway is that, for the most part, there are no defined seats. Where in London you generally have an armrest on either side of you, clearly delineating your seat area (and conveniently giving you something to fight over with both of the people sitting next to you), here you just plonk yourself down and stake a claim to as much of the seat as you want to. And with some of the, erm, ‘larger posteriors’ in this city, that can sometimes be as much as an entire zipcode.

When everybody is protecting themselves from the kind of cold that would have made Roald Amundsen think “Bugger this, I’m off home to sit infront of the fire”, it takes even fewer people to fill the limited seat space available. Put one padded jacket-wearing student, a girl from Texas and a shopaholic with an expense account at J Crew into the same carriage, and you may as well give up and wait for the next train.

Perversely, there is an upside to this, which is that it can actually be easier to get a seat. On the F train, there are plenty of sets of three seats, which are generally occupied by one heavily coated person at one end, and a thoroughly be-scarved person at the other. All the people who’ve got on the train before me must look at the space and decide that they can’t fit in it. Hell, I think the same thing. Of course, the difference is that I don’t care whether there’s enough space or not – if I can see a seat, I’m sitting in it. Of course, you have to spend the rest of the journey ignoring the dagger stares of your new neighbours as you jostle for elbow room, but that’s a small price to pay.

And if anybody ever did complain, I’ll just look innocent and play the British card. After all, I’m saying sorry most of the time anyway – at least this way I can make my apologies while I’m sitting down.

New York smells

Hard though it may be to believe, there are certain smells from the UK that I miss more than I can begin to tell you. The smell of the trees shortly after it has rained in the sleepy South-West London outpost that I used to call home, for instance. Or the unmistakable odour when you walk past a curry house, as the kormas, bhunas and dupiazas being slowly cooked inside. And having moaned about it for many years, there’s a born-romantic part of me that even misses the sickly sweet smell of hops being malted at the many breweries I lived around during my time in the capital.

But all of a sudden, I find myself with a new olfactory desire. My nose has a new mistress, a higher love that can know no bounds. So wondrous is the odour that I have to limit my exposure to it to once a week at most, for fear that greater contact may lead to me being forced to leave home in a reckless pursuit of its beauty.

Admittedly, the fact that spending too much time enjoying the aroma (and baked goods) of Mazzola’s Bakery will lead to me looking like the back of a bus may also be a contributing factor to my reluctance to go there all that often. But dietary concerns aside, there can be no greater smell on earth than Mazzola’s.

A tiny shop, a block or so away from our apartment, Mazzola’s has some of the best bread and pastries I’ve ever tasted. Their garlic infused loaf is so good that when I returned yesterday from a shopping mission to find The Special One out, I proceeded to eat two thirds of it without pausing for breath. What can I say, I was saving her from herself, OK?

But the taste is almost a secondary consideration to the smell. As soon as you open the door, you’re hit with a blast of scent babylon. First you get a waft of the French vanilla coffee brewing gently behind the counter. Then it’s the cinnamon-y goodness of the various twists and rolls that sit in the display case. And finally it’s the plethora of different breads, all freshly baked and sitting on the shelf studded with olives, onions, sesame seeds, cheese or, yes, garlic, awaiting a customer to pluck them from their temporary home to fulfil their greater purpose.

It’s sensory overload at its most pervasive. The women serving behind the counter are forced by law to serve you within ninety seconds of you walking in through the door, for fear that you might be overcome by the sheer joyousness of it all. But for those ninety seconds, you just know that everything’s going to be alright. Surely the greatest odour ever smelled.

That said, I’m off to Manchester on Friday night, which means a trip to Lou Macari’s Fish & Chip Shop for the statutory serving of pie, chips and gravy. Maybe deep fat fryers and vats of lumpy gravy can’t quite compete with Mazzola’s aromatic heaven, but for a few minutes on Saturday, it’ll definitely run it a close second.

Lessons learned part 3

So November is at an end, and the start of the new month sees a liberal coating of snow on the streets of Brooklyn. It could be a sign of things to come, given that the temperatures are set to drop lower and lower over the next week as snow becomes a part of our everyday existence.

With another month as a Brit Out Of Water completed, it’s time to take a look at some of the salutory lessons I’ve learned over the last thirty days in the country ranked 29th in children’s science education according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development*:

• Every grocery store in the United States has at least fifty different gratedshredded cheeses to choose from. This compares to possibly two (and even then only in the most advanced supermarkets) in the UK. I’m not sure whether this is because American have more everyday uses for grated cheese, or because they hate grating it themselves with a barely describable passion. It’s just a shame they don’t spend as much time on making their good cheeses as they do on their grated stuff. Thankfully I can get Cheshire cheese at Stinky’s in Brooklyn so, when it comes down to it, who cares?

• Americans have invented a new word for getting off a plane. Forget disembarking and its fancy four syllable ways. Instead, say hello to ‘deplaning’. Short, sweet, and to the point. Not really English, but that’s beside the point.

• This country must be the only place on earth where primetime television on a major TV network on a Sunday night contains (at least) two hours of back-to-back cartoons. Admittedly it’s Fox, and the shows are The Simpsons, King Of The Hill, Family Guy and American Dad, but come on people, have you not heard of Lovejoy, Last Of The Summer Wine and Songs Of Praise??

• My least favourite phrase in the world right now might well be “I’ll just get you a waiter”. Please, can’t you just take my order?

• Every pay packet seems to have seven hundred different taxes removed before it reaches me. If they add any more, I will be paying the US government to work within a year or so.

• People want a first-class public transport system, but they’re not prepared to pay for it. I may well be the only person in New York who thinks that a rise in subway prices is acceptable. I mean, two dollars for a journey anywhere in the system sounds like a bargain to me. New Yorkers – if you’re complaining now, just you wait until they bring in a London-style congestion charge for driving into Manhattan…

I’ve now had well over 4,500 hits on the site (thanks again, Mum and Dad!), and it’s good to see more and more people leaving comments. And thank you to those of you who’ve passed on details of Brit Out Of Water to their friends – it’s really appreciated. Finally, before this turns into a Gwyneth Paltrow-style Oscar speech, thanks to Fuel My Blog, who gave me their Blog Of The Day award today. Given that the only other thing I’ve ever won was a bubble gum pen for coming third in a competition in Whizzer & Chips, I’m very honoured.

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*Britain only came 14th in the same table, so I’m in no position to crow. Well, a better position than Americans, but you know what I mean.