Monthly Archives: January 2008

Any given Sunday

It’s the Super Bowl this Sunday, arguably the biggest sporting day of the American year. Around 92 million people tune in to watch the event, which this year will be played between the New England Patriots and, incredibly, the New York Giants.

New York had a terrible start to the season, but somehow seemed to keep their head while all around them were losing theirs in order to make it to the big show. Sadly for them, they’re up against the New England Patriots, who have won all eighteen of their games this season (“eighteen-and-oh” in US parlance). They’ve won the Super Bowl three times in the last six seasons, and in quarterback Tom Brady they’ve got the David Beckham of the NFL. In sporting fame terms that is, rather than him being a text-maniac adulterer married to a woman who’s about as ‘Posh’ as haemorrhoid cream.

On the other hand, the last time that the New York Giants won the Super Bowl, I hadn’t even had my first kiss. Indeed, their quarterback Eli Manning probably barely knew what a kiss was, given that he was only ten at the time. It’s like Manchester United coming up against Accrington Stanley in the FA Cup Final, except maybe slightly more one-sided. And if that kiss-of-death doesn’t allow the Giants to win, I don’t know what will.

My point is not that I don’t understand the rules of (American) football, because I do. But what I have no idea about is the Super Bowl grid that I was somehow persuaded to write my name inside today, in return for parting company with a fresh ten dollar bill.

When I was a kid, we always used to have a Grand National sweepstake. For those who don’t know, the Grand National is the UK’s biggest horse race – like a Kentucky Derby except with stonking great fences all the way around the course. Essentially, we’d all put 10p into the kitty, and in return we’d pull out the name of a horse out of a bag – and the person who ended up with the race winner would take everything.

Super Bowl boxes appear to be a super-fuelled version of this, invented by somebody with a mild mental disorder and a refusal to do anything the easy way. I can’t really begin to explain it fully – all I can say is that there are 100 boxes, each worth $10, and the numbers 1 to 10 are placed randomly along both sides of the grid. My box appears to be in the Giants 1, Patriots 3 box. That doesn’t need to be the final score in order for me to win, but it does mean that I need the last digit of the score to have those figures. In other words, if the Patriots win 43-11, I’m a winner.

Anybody still reading? Me neither.

Suffice to say that while I will almost certainly be watching my first Super Bowl as an American resident, I won’t be paying too close attention to the mathematics of the score.

That doesn’t mean numbers won’t be important on Sunday though. Far from it. I’ll be attempting to set a new record for number of organic burgers eaten in one four hour period.

Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to see something very special.

Hands across America

As I’ve said before, some people think that this blog is deliberately designed to be anti-American. In reality though, A Brit Out Of Water is supposed be an affectionate love note to my adopted home, gently teasing America in the same way that most kids used to pull the hair of the classmate they thought was prettiest at school. Admittedly America is generally the unlovable bully in the playgroundschoolyard, but I think you get the point.

Anyway, the truth is that this blog is read by many more American residents than dwellers from any other country – at least according to Google Analytics, which I was pondering at length tonight. Infact, well over 50% of readers have come from this side of the pond, in the six months that I’ve now been writing.

That said, some states just stubbornly refuse to look at the blog. Fourteen of the blasted things, if you must know. And frankly, I’ve had enough of it. Sure, I’m happy that New Yorkers, Californians and Texans indulge my egoread my writing on a regular basis, but I see no reason why Dakotans or, erm, Wyominginians shouldn’t be similarly blightedblessed.

So, this is a rallying cry to readers – help me complete my full set of American states, by sending a Brit Out Of Water link to anyall friends that you have in the states below, persuading them to click onto the site. I can’t offer muchany reward – I might finally get around to completing the ‘About’ page, although I wouldn’t bank on it – but you will have the self-satisfaction of knowing that you helped a Brit Out Of Water in need.

The missing states:

Alaska
Delaware
Hawaii
Idaho
Louisiana
North Dakota
Maine
Mississippi
Nebraska
Oregon
Rhode Island
South Dakota
West Virginia
Wyoming

And while we’re about it, Utah, Nevada, Oklahoma and New Hampshire have only managed one hit each (almost certainly a rogue Googler looking for information on Viapren strips), so maybe reach out to them too?

At a time when America needs unity more than ever, this could be the rallying cry that the country so desperately requires – a cause to get behind, in order to bring greatness again to this proud nation. It is certainly not a thinly veiled attempt to get a full set of US states on a blog traffic report for no apparent reason. Perish the thought.

America, your country needs you. Don’t let it down.

PS If you’re arriving at this post from one of the above mentioned states, do leave a comment with your own blog address on…I’d love to see what I’ve been missing these last six months.

A bit of a beef

I love the French. Well, to clarify, I wasn’t really that bothered by Madame Vergnaud who used to teach us French at school. I never did understand why some of my schoolmates found her pointy nose and breathy accent so irresistable. I didn’t particularly care either way for Madame Flitcroft either, although to be fair, she was about sixty and probably hailed from Poplar rather than Paris.

But I still love the French. I love them for their ability to dress with an attitude that screams, “I know I look good – it’s just a shame I have to walk past peasants like you.” I love them for their croissants and their great wine. I love them for their incredible countryside, and for the fact that their English is exactly 87.3 times better than my French. I even love them for their casual disregard for the rest of the human race – you can’t help but be impressed by such spirited arrogance.

There is one thing though that I really can’t abide about the French. I know it’s petty, and I know I should get over myself, but I just can’t help it.

Don’t get me wrong – when it comes to food, I doff my cap to the French. I’ve eaten so much great food over the last few days. But do they really have to insist that just because I’m British, I won’t be happy until they have personally incinerated every piece of beef that I have ever laid my eyes on?

It all started at a restaurant in Paris a few years ago. The Best Man, Sickly Child and I had just seen Manchester United being beaten at the Stade de France, and wanted to drown our sorrows in steak frites and an industrial size bucket of red wine at a city centre brasserie. As soon as the word ‘steak’ had ventured out of my mouth, the waiter pursed his lips, smirked, and drawled, “You want it black?” In other words, having ascertained that we were British, he naturally assumed that I wanted the chef to take my steak, cook it at a high heat for seven hours, and only bring it to the table once it bore a striking resemblance to corrugated cardboard. Maybe the waiter should have concentrated on ensuring that there were no mice running through his restaurant before making assumptions about the ‘rosbifs’?

You see, I like my steak blue – seared nicely on the outside, and pretty damn raw on the inside. With good meat, it’s just the best way to experience the flavour, in my opinion. Sadly, my fellow countrymen (and I include both my mum and dad in this) do have a strange aversion to blood, and a desire to guarantee that their steak isn’t part of a living and breathing animal by the time it comes to their table. And for this, the rest of us have to suffer at the hands of the merciless French.

Twice over the last three days, I’ve ordered red meat (lamb one night, and beef the night after) and both times my request for it to be cooked rare – blue in the case of the steak – has been met with incredulity. In the second place, I almost thought the waiter was going to make an announcement to the entire room, such was the visible level of shock when I countered his suggestion that I would probably like it ‘a point’ (medium). The woman I ordered lamb from just gave me a quizzical look, questioned whether I didn’t really want it ‘a point’, and then gave me a Gallic shrug which, roughly translated, meant ‘the British, I’ll never understand them’.

I know that we’re the country that gave the world deep fried Mars bars, mushy peas and piccalilli, but it’d be nice if we could be treated like at least second class culinary citizens for a change. Either that or we insist on serving only black pudding sandwiches on the Eurostar in protest.

Flying back to the US this afternoon, Delta ensured that I was fully acclimatised to US life again by serving a cheeseburger as the snack an hour or so before landing. Crap cheese, worse mustard, and bread with more sugar in it than flour – strangely it tasted OK, but who knows whether my internal organs will ever recover.

Ah, it’s good to be back.

What’s for lunch

I’m currently in the south of France, basking in the glorious sunshine in the odd moment or two when I’m not working. The few days I’m here are an opportunity to catch up with the latest developments and debates in the industry in which I work, as well as to spend time with colleagues and acquaintances that I haven’t seen for a while. And inevitably, that means ‘doing lunch’.

Meeting people and spending time getting to know them is a pretty essential part of my job, and as a result, I’ve had more than my fair share of business lunches. Sadly they can’t all be like today’s lunch, which involved seafood, good company and plenty of chatting – all in a swanky restaurant on the beach with the sun gleaming majestically off the sea a few yards away. There are worse ways to earn a living, I can tell you.

What struck me today is that eating out at lunchtime is different wherever you are in the world. When I first started out in my career back in the UK, I had a number of lunches that could potentially have had books or plays written about them, such was the bacchanalian excess that ensued on more than one occasion. All in the name of (professional) relationship building, obviously. Drinking at lunchtime in Britain is a commonly accepted part of doing business, and although not everybody does it, it’s certainly not frowned upon in most companies. Unless your business is ‘driving trains’, of course.

In the United States, business lunches are much more transactional and, well, professional. There is a more firmly established agenda, and conversation is much less likely to deviate from work matters. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s actually a more open and transparent way of doing business that admits that two people can have a professional relationship without first having to talk about the recent downturn in temperature, or whether the other person’s dog is properly house-trained.

Certainly, the very prospect of alcohol with lunch generally seems to be frowned upon in America, unless you know that person very well. Even at lunches with friends, the ordering of a beer tends to lead to your companion sighing wistfully before not-so-subtly mentioning the magazine feature they’ve recently read on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Here in France of course, not ordering at least a bottle of wine with lunch as my colleague and I did today can lead to near instant deportation. But to be fair, the stillflat water that we opted for instead meant that we could concentrate far better on the glorious food placed infront of us. While the British focus on the booze, and Americans on the business, the French just make sure that they get the food right. Which to my mind shows they’ve got their priorities in exactly the right place. And probably explains why they’re perfectly happy to sit there for two hours enjoying the experience.

Now if you don’t mind, it’s almost time for dinner. After the meals I’ve had over the last few days, I should probably phone the airline to see if I can get an extra wide seat.

A new kind of justice

It’s remarkable how being ‘out of water’ makes you much more sensitive to people’s attitudes and behaviours, regardless of where you are in the world. When I’m in the UK, for example, I’m intensely aware of the sullen questioning of waiters or waitresses who are not so wholly dependent on tips to ensure that they can eat at the end of the week. I’m currently in the south of France, and even though there’s a ban on smoking in public places as there is in Britain or New York, it’s noticeable how much more committed people still are to their ‘death sticks’.

Thankfully, the world is an endlessly diverse place, and we should be eternally grateful for that.

But sometimes – just sometimes – I wish that there were universally held social mores that people adhered to regardless or country of origin, class, race, sexuality or religion.

Travelling back to New York from London this week, The Special One and I had a glass of wine in Terminal 4 (OK, I had a glass of wine, and she had a glass of English lemonade, which she appears to be endlessly enamoured with) before making our weary way to the gate to be prodded and poked into our seats like the rest of the onboard cattle. Even though the flight was relatively empty, most of the seats around the gate were full of sombre passengers preparing themselves for the eight hours of sitting in three-and-a-half inches of legroom eating rapidly chilled-then-furnace blasted food.

Having already flown down to London from Manchester, and laden down with heavy bags, neither of us were particularly in the mood for sitting on the floor or – worse still – standing. Fortunately there were two spare seats next to a pleasant-enough looking couple, with nothing more than an Arran jumpersweater and a bag or two occupying the seats. A man was sat adjacent to the vacant seats, studiously working on his laptop.

Seeing the chance to take the weight off my legs, I approached the man and asked to sit down, and he cordially removed the sweater from one of the chairs. When I apologetically made it clear that there were two of us and that we needed both seats, things started to go downhill rapidly.

The man, who appeared to be German but seemed to talk with a New York accent, simply refused to move his things, firmly stating “I’m not putting my stuff on the floor”, smirking casually as he said it. He even repeated it after my ears refused to believe what they had heard.

At that point, the British and New York sides to my personality were immediately put into intense conflict. The British part of me instantly apologised for the inconvenience of the man being asked to lift up his inanimate and non-precious possessions to place them on the carpeted floor. But within milliseconds, my inner indignated New Yorker reasserted control and insisted that he clear the chair so that The Special One and I could sit down.

Again he refused. This time with more vigour.

By this point I was irate (though utterly calm), and the presence of 150 or so other travellers wasn’t going to prevent me from making myself heard. Clearly nothing I could say was going to make him give up the spare seat, but that didn’t mean that I was going to let him get away with such behaviour without a mild-but-obvious rebuke.

In the ensuing diatribe, it is possible that I made it clear – to him, and to the watching audience – that he was an obnoxious man with little or no moral fibreer. And asked him how he managed to be so self-involved that a couple of bags were more important than a couple of living breathing human beings.

Again he smirked, held his ground, and we walked off to two more seats that had been vacated a few yards away. As I turned to give him my deadliest death stare (a stare that has been known to cause the onset of rigor mortis in perfectly healthy adults), he laughed to his humiliated partner.

This was too much for even my inner eccentric English gentleman, and I heard myself call him out for his manners again, telling him to stop laughing as his attitude was simply pathetic. Still no response though, and the man buried himself in both his laptop and his over-arching sense of self-congratulation as The Special One and I sat down and vented privately.

What goes around comes around though. Our bags were pretty much the last ones to arrive off the luggage carousel as the JFK terminal shut down for the night. And the last sight we saw, as we wandered off to get a taxi back to Brooklyn, was Mr Obnoxious and his wife consulting with British Airways staff on what to do about their suitcases which tragically appeared to have gone missing in transit.

And that, my friends, is karma.

Cross crossing

This Brit Out Of Water almost became Brit Out Of Water (Deceased) at lunchtime, on an abortive trip to find a new washbag. It would hardly have been the most rock’n’roll way to go out, let’s face it. Some people die in a blazing gun battle, others perish saving the life of others – my family would have been forced to admit that I lost my life in the reckless pursuit of a new holder for my shampoo and shaving gel. Jimmy Dean, I ain’t.

Fortunately, I live to fight another day. That’s despite the efforts of one 4×4 driver as I crossed 8th Avenue. With the white pedestrian sign firmly lit, I marched purposefully across the road, confident in my right to do so. I could see a golden 4×4 approaching, but knew that it would slow down to give way to the striding man ahead of him. But no, instead the arseholedriver put his foot to the metal and raced infront of me, forcing me to jump back rapidly to avoid becoming one of the three pedestrians who are killed on the streets of New York City every week.

It all happened so quickly, I almost didn’t have the chance to angrily mouth “you f**kwit” at him. Almost.

However, to be honest, it wasn’t so much the near-miss that annoyed me.

Whenever I do something wrong, I have the good grace to be a bit sheepish about it. When I didn’t replace the seal in the dishwasher, and the kitchen flooded as a result, I was red-faced and regretful. When I mistakenly pushed in the queueline for a bagel last week, I bowed and scraped with the best of them. Remorse is an admirable quality, one demonstrated by rueful troublemakers the world over.

Not by this particular New York troublemaker, though.

You’d imagine the driver would offer a silent ‘sorry’ as he looked me square in the eye. Maybe a hand in the air to express regret? Perhaps even winding down the window to apologise in person?

But no. Instead all he managed was a steady gaze directly at me, an obnoxious wink, and a smile before speeding off into the distance.

It’s hard to imagine that somebody could be so self-involved to think that causing a pedestrian to jump out of the way is not only something he doesn’t need to have any regret about, but actually something to laugh about and maybe chat to his fratboy mates about over a beer a few hours later. But you learn something every day in New York, it would seem.

Perhaps I’ve misjudged the whole thing, and the wink was actually his attempt to indicate that he wanted more than just a passing lunatic-victim relationship. Who said chivalry was dead?

A tale of two vending machines

The Special One and I spent the holiday weekend back in the UK, engaging in a whirlwind tour of friends and family. I think most of them are starting to ask questions about whether I’ve actually left the country given how much I seem to be back there. Maybe I should change the name of the blog to “Brit Mostly Out Of Water”?

A weekend spent 3458 miles away from New York inevitably necessitates spending a fair amount of time in airports, particularly following the British Airways crash landing in London – not to mention apparent 150mph headwinds awaiting us on the way back.

Time in airports these days seems less about interminable waiting and more about interminable shopping. And if ever you needed a powerful demonstration of the difference between New York and London, maybe these two pictures of airport vending machines could provide it. Firstly, a machine found at London’s Heathrow:

Heathrow Airport

These machines first started appearing a year or so ago, offering travellers the chance to buy a book to occupy their minds when there’s only The Bourne Ultimatum on the inflight movie channels. Admittedly Russell Brand’s ‘My Booky Wook’ isn’t necessarily Shakespeare, but it’s got to be better than seven hours of sudoku.

Now the vending machine at JFK:

JFK Airport

When I was a kid, vending machines had bubble gum in them and you put 2p in to get something out. Now it seems that you use them to part with $250 in order to pick up cutting edge music players. Have we reached the point where iPods are considered spur-of-the-moment impulse purchases, to rank alongside a Coke, a packet of Doritos or a Mars bar?

Obviously, you’re not actually going to be able to use the iPod on your flight unless you’ve brought a computer and your music collection with you, and you’re able to find somewhere to charge the battery.

Of course, if you really can’t find a power source to charge your brand new device, you can just unplug the iPod vending machine and use that outlet instead. Other travellers will just have to content themselves with that book after all.

Short not sweet

As I’ve said before, sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I’m in America. Aside from the fact that I moved here from London and one city is generally pretty much like another, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that wherever you are in the world, you slowly get used to things. As another UK-to-US migrant Fish Without A Bicycle recently said in the comments on this blog, she’s found herself abandoning her knife in favour of just using a fork despite her better efforts. I imagine that the crumbling of the British Empire many years ago began in a similarly (seemingly innocuous) fashion.

One thing that has definitely lessened in my consciousness is the US accent. Unless I hear a particularly extreme accent, the days when I quietly used to think to myself “for some reason I appear to be surrounded by Americans” seem to have long gone.

But every so often, somebody will say something – or more often, I’ll read it – and I will be brought kicking and screaming to the reality that I am in a country that speaks a language that is sometimes as foreign to me as, say, Cantonese.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that English is a fluid living language that continuously evolves. And the UK can hardly be considered innocent of all crimes against language. It’s not easy to be proud of a country whose kids have invented the word ‘gopping’ for ‘disgusting’, after all.

But in New York it seems that every existing word needs to be shortened in a bid to use as few characters as possible. It’s almost as if some people believe they are taxed for every letter they use in conversation. Or maybe it’s just an attempt to limit any movement of the mouth that’s not for stuffing popcorn in?

I guess I don’t mind some of the more comic-book shortenings such as ‘shrooms’ for mushrooms, or even ‘toon’ for cartoon. But is there really any need for ‘gator’ or ‘roach’? Does it really save you that much time?

My current bete-noire is the replacement of neighbourhood with ‘nabe’. Every time I see it, I cringe with embarrassment and shame. Even news organiszations are using it now, such as the New York Post sub-headline here. In reaction, I might just have to start lengthening all my words, becoming some overly-verbose English buffoon who takes ten minutes just to ask where the nearest bank is.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to ask the superintendent of the condominium in which I am currently residing to give me directions as to where I might catch an omnibus. I’ll be back for some more weblogging soon.

Taxing times

With January 31st rapidly approaching, it’s probably about time that I completed my UK tax return if I’m to avoid a £100 fine. Thankfully I only have to do the short one, although no doubt that will change next year when I attempt to claim back a heapload of overpaid British tax.

After more than ten years of doing tax returns, I can pretty much complete the form in twenty minutes or so these days. True, pulling my home apart in an attempt to find the all-important P60 certificate or even the form itself takes around eighteen hours. And yes, I always get the figures wrong and end up paying a little too much or a bit too little to the Inland Revenue. But apart from those minor issues, I’ve got this thing down to a fine art.

Sadly, the American system is completely different. And by ‘completely different’, I mean ‘absolutely unfathomable’. Approximately 83 different organiszations team up to extract money from my paychequeck, ranging from the federal government to Domino’s Pizza (the mozzarella tax seems a little excessive if you ask me, but I’m sure there’s a good reason for it). And with The Special One constantly talking about ‘deducting this’ and ‘deducting that’ at the end of the year, I’m not sure whether I need to be saving up my cents for a gigantic tax bill, or planning the trip of a lifetime on my rebate.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that America and the UK probably have in common, it’s the existence of taxation bodies that are phenomenally happy when they’re collecting cash, but a little bit grumpy when they have to give it back. Looks like that round-the-world voyage might just have to wait for another year.

It’s the freakiest show

When you own an iPod (NB: other MP3 players are available), any time spent plugged into it can make you feel like a music advisor on “Life: The Movie”. On the occasions when you catch a glimpse of the cityscape, some piece of incredible architecture or just a strange interlude on the streets, music simply has the incredible power to be the soundtrack to your life.

Take my journey to work today, for instance. At Broadway-Nassau station, a man dragged a tired looking suitcase onto the train, looking for all the world like a dodgy perfume seller or fake Prada bag vendor. Until he opened his mouth that is, at which point it became apparent that he had to use the bag to carry all his bigotry with him. Having spouted off in no particular direction about AIDS, homosexuality and hatred, he then locked his eyes one by one on fellow passengers with a faintly maniacal stare.

And the song that’s playing during this episode? With its attack on the madness of the US (“it’s on America’s tortured brow, Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”) and its more pertinent suggestion that life is “the freakiest show”, David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” couldn’t really have hit the nail any more firmly on the head.

From ethereal chillout to contrast the madness of the rush hour rat race, to The Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as the rain pours down, I sometimes think that my iPod has some kind of mood sensor attached. Although why “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats was playing as I entered the office, I have no idea. Thinking about it, a better question might be why it’s even on my iPod in the first place…

Still, at least listening to my own music collection is better than the torture that The Special One and I are having inflicted on us night after night by a neighbour in an adjacent building. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as much as the next man (even when the next man is wearing a neon pink t-shirt saying “I love ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ by The Beatles”), but I don’t need to hear it played on repeat for half an hour or so as I’m trying to get to sleep.

One explanation could be that the perpetrator of such JohnPaulGeorgeandRingo-ular torture has recently been involved in a bitter love split, and is drowning her sorrows in music. Sadly, if that is the case, her partner has recently been round to collect his or her CDs, as last night the original version was replaced by her own far-from-delicate cover version. The lesson for me obviously being that after a week of wanting the hell to end, I should be careful what I wish for.

If it happens again tonight, I’m putting on my iPod. Sweet dreams are, indeed, made of this.