Monthly Archives: January 2008

A perfect setting

Some things just go together perfectly. Where would Elton John be without Bernie Taupin, for instance? A hot sunny day is nowhere near as perfect without a cold beer, condensation running down the outside of the glass. And what would Sunday morning be without a good old-fashioned lie-in?

Once upon a time, I would have added the knife and fork to that list of indisputable partnerships, but in the United States it seems that nothing is sacred.

When I was brought up, I was told that when you’re eating, you hold your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand. Then you use your knife to cut things, skewer them with your fork and plunge said stainless steel device and its captured foodstuff into the merry recesses of your mouth. With ‘unprongable’ stuff such as peas, we’d use our knife to scoop them up onto the fork. Eating anything other than a burger or hotdog simply wasn’t possible without both a knife and fork.

America disagrees though. My experience of eating at restaurants through to family dinners with The Special One, The Eldest and The Youngest is that the fork is king, and the knife is merely something you use to plunge into the back of your most bitter enemy. To be fair, my family haven’t yet taken to doing that, but it’s only a matter of time if I continue to sit watching football on TV on sunny Saturday afternoons.

The fork is a multi-use device in this country. You use it to scoop food into your mouth, spear big chunks of meat or vegetables, and to cut larger pieces into more manageable sizes using the outer prong (or tine, as I believe they’re called). For all I know, people may use it as a toothpick, a screwdriver and a solution to world poverty, such is the American commitment to this champion of the cutlery world.

Sure, you might pick up a knife if you’re eating something that simply can’t be cut by a fork (a thick steak, for instance) but otherwise there’s only a need for one utensil at the dining table. Discounting fingers, that is.

Like a marriage guidance counsellor of the eating utensil world, I’m maintaining my one man crusade to keep the knife and fork together. Call me an old-fashioned Englishman if you like, but isn’t it just better to cut things with a device specifically designed for that purpose? Restaurants don’t charge for cutlery usage by number, so why not use the full range of facilities? Or is it just that lifting two implements seems too much like hard work?

It’s only a matter of time before I get thrown out of a diner for trying to teach a complete stranger how to eat properly, I can tell you.

Where’s Sky Sports when you need it?

There’s something slightly strange about watching football on television in the United States. For a start, you have to tune into a station called the Fox Soccer Channel. I’ve no idea what this ‘soccer’ thing is, but if anybody has got any insight, do let me know. Nevertheless, if you’re separated from your beloved team by a matter of a few thousand miles, this is the place you have to turn.

I think it’s fair to say that the Fox Soccer Channel isn’t one of the most watched channels on American cable. On Time Warner Cable, it’s down at position 124. In other words, there are 123 channels considered more important than FSC – including the Speed Channel, which is currently showing a programme called ‘Unique Whips’. Mainstream stuff, I’m sure…

The relatively low viewership is particularly evident in the advertisingcommercials that appear around key games. Most of the adverts have been shot on a budget that wouldn’t even buy you a coffee in Starbucks, and I’ve seen better production values in kindergarten art classes. And that’s the good ones.

What’s most alarming though is the nature of the products being advertised. Tuning in yesterday to watch Manchester United’s second half demolition of Newcastle, it was like being forced to sit through the 3- 4am slot on one of QVC’s less successful competitors. Merely being marginally impressed by one of the products on offer would be enough for family members to have you committed. I daren’t even think about the consequences of actually making a purchase.

Among the items being sold were the Teeter Hang Up, a device that hangs you upside down by your ankles so that you’ve got gravity on your side when you’re doing your exercise. It looked ridiculous on the TV, but you’ve got to hand it to the website for their attempt to sell it:

“Used sensibly, inversion is extremely beneficial, and no more dangerous than many other popular and widely practiced fitness activities.”

No more dangerous than other widely practiced activities? Such as boxing blindfolded, presumably.

Also on offer was the Riddex digital pest repeller which apparently “eliminates rodents automatically”. Ignoring the sheer bravado of the product claim for a moment, I was particularly taken by the customer testimonial of one old lady (who was in no way an actress), who claimed:

“Riddex just makes me happy”

After all, who needs love or money when you’ve got a digital pest repeller?

My absolute favourite though was the Forearm Forklifts, a device to help you lift heavy furniture or equipment with the minimum of effort. I’d like to report that the Forearm Forklift is a small and highly mobile lifting device. It’s not. It’s a couple of plastic straps that you and a mate put on your arm to help lever your sofa into the air. They’re selling it for $20 if ever you’re seized by a desire to purchase something that cost 56 cents to manufacture.

Impressively, Fox Soccer Channel doesn’t interrupt the match to play commercials. Sadly that means that there’s no expert analysis at half time, just constant adverts for sleeping aids, home decorating aids and dodgy exercise devices. Clearly advertisers believe that the average football fan is a lazy couch potato whose general untidiness leads to armies of rats invading his (or her) messy pit.

It’s amazing how accurately consumers can be targeted these days, isn’t it?

A done deal

Finally I think the new site’s in order, and everything seems to be working. I have to confess that I didn’t design it myself though – it’s difficult enough for me to write the thing, let alone turn my hand to Adobe Creative Suite. So huge thanks are due to E Webscapes and in particular Leanne who put up with all my tweaks and changes with good humour.

I haven’t yet reinstituted the blogroll, so if your site was on the old site and you’d like to be on the new site – or if you’re a regular reader and you want to be in my links, then all you have to do is ask.

Signed, sealed, delivered

When I was growing up in North Wales, fish and chips on a Friday night used to be a big treat. I say ‘fish and chips’, but generally I preferred fishcake – the little fried cakepatty that has almost certainly never been in the same room as a fish, let alone been made of it. Anyway, it was always really about the chips – deep fried nuggets of golden potato, crisp in places but at the same time deliciously moist from their time steaming in their paper packaging. And plenty of salt and lashings of brown sauce, obviously. Never vinegar though – acid belongs in batteries, not on your chips.

Our fish and chips generally came from Ted’s, a short walk around the corner from our house. Although for a time we used to drive a few minutes up the road to get them from another chip shop near the shopping centre. To be honest, calling it a shopping centre is similar to describing a fishpond in your garden as one of the Great Lakes – about ten small shops and a library doth not a shopping centre make.

The point is that whenever we wanted fast food, we had to go to get it. Actually there was only Chinese, Indian or chips to choose from, but once the choice had been made, we had to get in the car to get it – it wasn’t going to come to us. It’s the same in most non-metropolitan areas of the US, as far as I can make out, although given the sheer scale of this country, I guess that can on occasion mean making a 100 mile round journey just for a portion of chicken wings.

Moving to London was a culture shock, given that many more places would deliver pizza, curry or Thai food direct to your door. Indeed, I’ve built up many a good relationship with Chinese takeawayout places over the years – after all, even this keen cook has to have a night off every so often.

But even in London, there’s still plenty of places that refuse to deliver food and which either don’t allow takeaway, or else make you visit them to pick it up.

Yet in New York, it seems that any place that refuses to deliver would go out of business within approximately six hours. There is simply nothing that cannot be delivered, and at pretty much any time of the day. From sushi to Ethiopian and falafel to fettucine, all you have to do is pick up the phone and call, and whatever food you desire will be with you in an indecently short amount of time. They say in London that you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. In New York, you’re never more than six minutes away from a General Tso’s chicken. Coincidentally, the chicken may well actually be rat, but that’s another story.

I’m not sure whether it’s sheer weight of numbers that enables food delivery on such an incredible scale, or whether it’s the “I’m just too busy to cook” mentality that has forced food places into it. Probably a combination of the two. Even some restaurants that are reckoned to be relatively high end will still happily deliver items from their menu direct to your home. I might try ringing Gordon Ramsay’s at Claridges to ask for them to bring round some crispy Suffolk pork belly and fondant potatoes next time I’m in London, just to hear the reaction.

Still, I’m pleased to report that I haven’t found anywhere that will deliver fish and chips just yet. You can actually get great fish and chips in Brooklyn, but you just need to go to get it. Some traditions are worth keeping, it would seem.

Mushy peas, anyone?

Holding the baby

The Special One and I went to a movie premiere last night. Admittedly there was no Tom Cruise or Keira Knightley to wow the crowds, but then, this was no ordinary movie premiere.

“The Business Of Being Born” is billed by some as a “The Inconvenient Truth” of American childbirth, providing a faintly chilling insight into obstetrics in the United States. While 70% of births in Europe are attended by midwives, here it is less than 8%, with most mothers handled by surgeons in hospitals who’ve rarely – if ever – seen a live birth before they handle their first.

Essentially the filmmakers (Abby Epstein and former talkshow host Ricki Lake) are proponents of natural birth and homebirth, and if the sheer and unrestrained joy on the faces of the mothers moments after giving birth naturally in the movie is anything to go by, it’s difficult to argue against it. Certainly, given that The Special One gave birth to both The Eldest and The Youngest at home, you’re not going to find any argument here.

Compelling though the documentary was, it also reminded me of how the United States has more of an island mentality than anything that Britain could ever conjure up.

Dr Michael Odent is a French OB/GYN who features at length in the movie, talking movingly about the connection between mother and child, and the importance of the chemicals released during birth in establishing a mother’s love for her newly born. He speaks in English, and very good English at that. But he speaks, inevitably, with a clear French accent. Nothing though that couldn’t be understood by anybody who can a) speak English and b) hear.

But that didn’t stop the filmmakers from feeling the need to subtitle every single word he said.

Essentially if anybody ‘speaks a bit foreign’ in movies or TV in America, they stick a subtitle on it. French or Mexican, Taiwanese or German, it doesn’t matter whether they’re speaking English or their native language. Forget a need to cater for the ‘hard of hearing’, this is a palpable concern for the ‘hard of intelligence’.

I can only assume that there’s a feisty union who threaten to go out on strike unless filmmakers keep subtitling levels above a certain point. Before long they’ll be sticking subtitles on 24 whenever Chloe speaks. And it’s best not to think about what would have happened if they’d ever brought Auf Wiedersehn Pet over here.

Anyway, if you get the chance to see “The Business Of Being Born”, you honestly should go. Frightening and heartwarming in equal measures, it leaves you with real food for thought.

And I never once needed to put my iPod on and go to sleep as colleagues had suggested might be necessary.

PS When I told The Youngest that we had seen Ricki Lake the previous night, her response was “who’s he?” That’s showbiz!

New Year, new look

Ten days into the New Year, and it’s a new look for A Brit Out Of Water. There’s still a few teething problems which will be ironed out over the next day or so, but have a look round and make yourselves at home. There’ll be a tea trolley coming round shortly – help yourself to Bourbon biscuits.

Two days until the Bloggies nominations close, I hear…

Taking it personally

I’ve never really understood the appeal of personaliszed car registrations, or vanity plates as I apparently have to call them over here. In the UK, for a start, the rules are so restrictive as to make most of the combinations ridiculously contorted. I can’t particularly understand why anybody would actually want to use their license plate to suggest the word ‘Glasgow’ for instance. But to then pay £1800$3600 for a plate reading ‘GL05 G0W’ seems to be vaguely akin to spending your life savings on a once-in-a-lifetime year-long cruise around the world, only to never get off the boat.

To be fair, I can just about understand getting a reg plate with your initials on it. At least it’s really personalised. But the DVLA – the British equivalent of the DMV – make a lot of cash from the kind of fool who is happy to drive around the city streets proudly displaying his BEL L1E. Personally I’d rather keep my BEL L1E firmly to myself, however difficult that can be sometimes – especially after the excesses of Christmas.

Here in the US, there aren’t quite the same rules about what you can and can’t have on your licence plate. Sure, you can’t have GOD on your plate in New York, while Wikipedia claims that the state of Florida prevents you from using ‘PIMPALA’ (no, I have literally no idea what it means either, so apologies if I’ve accidentally suggested that Floridians have a mass desire for carnal knowledge of shoals of koi carp). But give or take a few exceptions, you can basically do what you like.

But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

And yes, the driver of the silver Mini driving through Brooklyn this morning with the licence plate ‘LET ME’, I am talking to you. America ‘let you’ have your choice of plate, and that’s what you came up with? And more to the point, what is it that we should we let you do? Eat free ice cream on Fridays? Put the rubbishtrash out? Take a sickie when you know you’ve got an important presentation to make?

There was no need for a ‘zany’ licence plate, you know. All you had to do was ask.

PS Did I mention that you can still nominate blogs in the 2008 Bloggies? Just thought you’d like to know…

Reasons why New York is great (part 1 of a series)

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m slightly scared of the ‘revolving door’ turnstiles on the subway that envelop you completely as you push your way around into the real world once again. The exit I use at Carroll Gardens station gives me no option other than to enter the tiny swinging cage, unless I want to spend the night on the dingy platform that is. And each night as I give the bars a push, I feel the person behind me swing it faster than my not-so-little legs are expecting, threatening to twang me through 360 degrees into the unyielding metal gate on the other side.

But the fear is even greater when I’m entering the subway at 14th Street to make my way home. For a start there’s only one revolving turnstile, and everybody queueslines up ‘patiently’ to use it, tutting mercilessly as each person gets to the front to swipe their Metrocard, only to remember that their card is in their purse buried somewhere at the bottom of their 120 litre rucksack7322 cubic inches backpack.

And then of course, there’s the fact that once in a while the swipe device decides not to work for every fifth commuter or so, leaving you repeatedly swiping and swiping as the muttering behind you turns into a cacophony of grunts and pffft’s.

Tonight was one such night. You can always tell it by the long line of people trailing all the way back up the steps and onto the street above. And sure enough, when I finally got close enough to the gate, a succession of disgruntled wannabe passengers stood holding their non-working cards, resentfully watching on as other commuters merrily swipe their way through and wondered what all the fuss was about.

So why does this make New York great? Well, clearly it doesn’t. It just makes it another failing of a system that has more flaws than a plan to rob Fort Knox using sixteen small rubber bands and a half-chewed eraser. What makes New York great is the Hasidic Jew who, having watched one man move aside to allow others through after unsuccessfully attempting to swipe his card fifteen or so times, swiped his own card to give the unlucky man access to the subway while everybody else just looked after themselves.

I’d have probably looked after myself too, if I’d reached the front of the queue and the unfortunate commuter was still standing there. Hopefully this random act of kindness, in a city where people are all too ready to focus on number one, will encourage me to act differently next time.

With any luck, any karmic bonus might even manifest itself in my fellow travellers ceasing to push me through the revolving exits at breakneck speeds. I won’t be banking on it though.

I’ll never call them chips, OK?

For whatever reason, I’ve never been much of a chocolate fan. Sure, if I’m really hungry, from time to time I’ll wolf down a Snickers or a Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bar, but on the whole chocolate really doesn’t do it for me. It’s a good thing really, given that the vast majority of chocolate in this country tastes like brown wax.

So while all my friends were eagerly gobbling sweetscandy, it was always a savoury snack product that I craved. Because when it comes down to it, you just can’t beat crisps.

I’ve always loved crisps, and I probably always will. From plain ordinary ‘ready salted’ to my all-time favourite cheese’n’onion, nothing beats a bag of those thin slivers of deep fried potato to stave off the pangs of hunger. When I was a child, I used to beg my mummom to let me have a cheese’n’onion crisp sandwich – two slices of buttered and not-very-good-for-you white bread, with a whole bag of salty crisps crushed inbetween. Just the thought of it is making my mouth water, while at the same time causing my extensive readership of highly-qualified cholesterol experts to collapse in a stress-induced heap.

My love affair with crisps has been a constant in my life, from eating hedgehog flavour crisps in North Wales as a kid through to an oregano flavoured variety in Greece earlier this year. But now all that has come to a terrifying standstill, thanks to my move to the USA.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if there’s a dearth of deep fried snack products in this country. Far from it. And it’s not that I now have to learn to call them chips rather than crisps. The problem is just that America has literally no imagination when it comes to flavouring its crisps.

Back in the UK, Walkers – the leading brand of crisps in the country – offer crisps in varieties as varied as Smoky Bacon, Prawn Cocktail, Marmite, Lamb & Mint, Pickled Onion and Heinz Tomato Ketchup. When The Special One discovered that you can buy Steak & Onion crisps, I think it confirmed all her worst beliefs about British food which no amount of Michelin-starred meals or fish’n’chip suppers can dispel.

Here in the States, you’re basically looking at a choice between lightly salted, sour cream & onion or barbecue flavours. And that’s it. Sure, brands such as Kettle Chips are attempting to expand the flavour range, but you’ve got more chance of finding Lindsay Lohan sober than you have of locating a packet of them. Corn chips come in a few more flavours, but the corn chip has always been the poor man’s crisp, and no amount of chilli, lime and guacamole chips will ever convince me otherwise.

So for the first time in my life, I’m on a self-imposed snack products ban, which is probably no bad thing after the excesses of Christmas. Well, unless anybody’s got a bag of white cheddar flavour popcorn, that is? Who needs crisps when you can get your hands on that stuff.

Incidentally for anybody from the UK, Walkers are currently inviting suggestions for new crisp flavours. The current top five ideas are bacon & egg, blue cheese, escargot, pigeon & garlic, and tea & biscuits. Blue cheese sounds like a hit to me, but I’ve got to draw the line at tea and biscuits. Even if it is in a white bread sandwich.

Like water for friendship

Since I started writing here, I’ve become accustomed to the everyday spotting of differences between the UK and the US, and between London and New York. Whether I’m riding the subway, eating in a restaurant or buying something from a shopstore, there’s always a strange quirk that makes me realisze that I am truly a Brit Out Of Water.

But for all the oddities and peculiarities, there are times when I forget that I’m even in New York. Caught up in my own private world as I travel to work in the morning, I could be in any thriving metropolitan centre with its collection of Starbucks, McDonalds and weary commuters. Only the occasional sight of a skyscraper miles uptown as I cross an avenue reminds me that I’m actually in the city that never sleeps.

For all the differences, when it actually comes down to it, New York is just like London.

Except with less friends.

Having only been here four months, I’m yet to develop any meaningful friendships that haven’t been handed to me on a plate by The Special One. All the people at work are great and very friendly, but I’m not exactly hanging out at bars with them every week. And given that I’m British (with all the reserve and stiff upper lip that entails), I’m hardly going to make friendships with random people I meet on the streets.

To be honest, even if I met no new people, that’d be fine with me. The Special One has some incredible friends and family members, all of whom I love spending time with. And plenty of my UK friends including The Best Man, Sickly Child, The Tat Collector and the MacBottoms (don’t ask) have made trips to New York since the wedding. I’m not suffering from lack of attention, let’s face it.

Besides, after overhearing a conversation in Carroll Gardens this afternoon, I’m not sure I even want to make friends in New York.

As I waited in a queueline to buy a random collection of products from the store that sells everything, a young-ish man with a dog stood a few people behind me chatting animatedly (read: loudly) on his mobilecellphone to an acquaintance. And the prize line that came out of his mouth as he laughed?

“You know me, I like to recycle my friends like water.”

Now, a couple of things spring immediately to mind here. First, what kind of city is this where people think that they can just pass on their friends to other people when they’re tired of them? And more importantly, if you are the kind of person who talks of recycling their friends, what possesses you to boast about it to another ‘friend’? If that’s friendship, I’ll content myself with watching Fox Soccer Channel on my own, thanks very much.

More importantly, if you’re going to be an obnoxious dick, at least try to use language that – say – makes sense. Recycling friends like water? Maybe there’s a secret community of domestic New York water recyclers, swapping gallons of bath water and urine on a daily basis? Or perhaps he really does have a water butt on his roof, and every time he uses it to fill his sink, he has to pass on a friend to somebody else?

I’m all for doing my bit for the environment by recycling, but everybody’s got to draw the line somewhere. I think I’ll stick with the friends I’ve got, thanks very much.