Monthly Archives: February 2008

A very British sense of humo(u)r

Crime isn’t funny, I know. But a New York Police Department sign which I saw in a yellow cab on my way home this evening made me laugh out loud. The sign read:

“Reward up to $500.00 for the arrest and conviction of anyone who commits GRAFFITI VANDALISM”

And scrawled underneath that in neat ballpoint penned handwriting?

“Bite me, pigs.”

When the chips hit the fan

It’s always strange to find out how other people view your nation. For example, every single day, somebody talks to me in a faux British accent that suggests they’ve come straight off the set of Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. To the majority of Americans, the British are posh and haughty. Even the fourteen year old from the council estate who was knocked up by her drug dealer and now pushes around baby Britney in a pushchairstroller all day talks like the Queen as far as most residents of this fair land are concerned.

Why people feel duty bound to talk to me like I’m a Cockney is beyond me. I don’t go round talking to people in their particular accent or dialect, however tempting it might be sometimes. I tried it in a WalMart in Tennessee, and it almost led to the cashier refusing to sell me a cheese ball – a harsh punishment if ever there was one.

The slightly unsure attitude to Britain is particularly apparent in the world of entertainment, where the baddies are almost exclusively played by Arabs or the British (just watch 24 if you want confirmation).

And who cares about our history or beautiful countryside when you can obsess incessantly about Princess Diana? I still get asked about the ‘People’s Princess’ to this day, as if somehow we were close and my insight could prove useful to laying her ghost to rest. At that point in the conversation, it seems difficult to confess that Mr MacBottom and I didn’t even cancel a barbecue on the day of her death as, well, we’d already bought the meat and it wouldn’t keep for another day.

Of course, when it comes to food, everybody thinks Britain is a third world country. That is, until they go there and realise that some of the best cooking in the world now takes place in the UK.

Such high culinary arts caused a problem for the “Bizarre Foods” series on the Travel Channel. The basic concept of the show is that Andrew Zimmern (of whom it was famously once said “Who?”) travels the world eating strange and disgusting food. And when it comes down to it, the UK just doesn’t produce enough gruesome food.

Admittedly sheep intestines don’t look great when raw, but in haggis they seem pretty appetising. Eels aren’t my bag, it has to be said, but do they really require a dedicated segment in a bizarre foods show? And pigeon, cockles and hare just don’t seem to compare to deep fried rat if you ask me.

The show reached a new low on the bizarreness scale when the show turned its attention to Christmas pudding. I mean, dried fruit, nuts, peel, eggs, flour and sugar may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s hardly monkey brains is it?

Strangely there was no sign of black pudding, although given that even The Special One has tried that now, maybe it has begun to lose its bizarre charms? Thankfully, she’s a full convert to the Great British Banger, and didn’t even bat an eyelid when I ordered sausage, chips and beans for Sunday lunch in Bay Ridge.

Now that’s love.

Fast food nation

Last weekend we travelled down to East Tennessee en famille to see The Special One’s nearest and dearest. And a very pleasant time was had by all, celebrating the 90th birthday of GeeGeeBee. But after all the family excesses, The Special One and I gleefully seized with open arms the opportunity to spend an hour or two of solitude together. If that makes any sense.

Given that it was lunchtime, a nice meal on the town was clearly the order of the day. Having had pizza from The Best Pizza Joint Ever (my name, not theirs) the night before, we had to look further afield than normal for our sustenance. But when it comes down to it, once you get outside the (many) major cities of America – sweeping generalization alert! – your meal options decrease rapidly.

Looking for somewhere to spend a romantic stolen lunch together, The Special One and I were presented with a mile of back-to-back restaurants that lined up as follows: McDonalds, Taco Bell, Applebee’s, Krystal’s, Wendy’s and Sonic. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which an Applebee’s is considered an upmarket option, but you can’t argue with the greatness of boneless buffalo wings.

In the end, we opted for the sixth member of the Fast Food Mile, a chain called Long John Silver’s. Now, I’ve heard of Burger King and McDonalds, and I know Taco Bell, KFC, Domino’s and Pizza Hut. I’m cognisant of Wendy’s and Applebee’s, TGI Friday and even White Castle. But Long John Silver’s has completely passed me by.

Yet somehow there are 1200 of these outlets all around the world according to their website. I’m assuming that in this case we’re using the American meaning of “all around the world” which roughly translates as “all around America” but nevertheless it’s a big chain.

Long John Silver’s fame may increase exponentially if ever cars that run off used cooking oil go into mass production. This place could become the BP or Exxon of the new era, such is their commitment to deep frying. I didn’t go into the bathroom, but I assume that the taps were coated in breadcrumbs and that the paper towels were dipped in batter and plunged into scalding hot oil. It all tasted great (what’s not to like about deep fried prawnsshrimps, after all), but it’s one of the few places I’ve ever been where my arteries furred up before I’d even opened the door.

Ten days on, I’m still trying to get the smell out of my clothes. But you can rest assured that I’ll be straight back there next time I’m in Tennessee. Chicken planks and clams, here I come.

Best snack (in a supporting role)

Shortly after my sister’s first trip to New York, I sent her a text message asking her what she thought of my (then) soon-to-be-adopted-city. Her response? “The sandwiches are huge”.

Maybe it’s not the first thing that they put in the guidebooks, but it’s fair to say that excess is a central part of life in New York and America. And never more so than when you go to the flicks cinema theatre theater.

Yesterday, The Special One and I joined the Gourmet Godmother to catch an afternoon showing of (the Best Picture Oscar winning) No Country For Old Men. Now, when you’re going with two women to see a film with (the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning) Javier Bardem, it’s always best that you get snacks to take your mind off the dribbling that’s taking place in your immediate vicinity. The fact that he looked like a psychotic pageboy with serious anger management issues is apparently neither here nor there to the female population.

Aware of the scale of the problem, I made a beeline for the kioskconcession stand and opted for a large popcorn and a large Coca Cola. One mortgage later, and I was in possession of what appeared to be a industrial-sized keg of fizzy soft drink, and enough popcorn to cover all the small playgrounds of America in order to cushion accidental falls and wipe out knee grazes in an instant.

I swear that I ate popcorn near-constantly throughout the 122 minutes of the movie, and that by the end there was still more than three quarters of a bag left. This was despite being told by the employee who served me my food that I could return for a free refill of either popcorn or drink at any point. That’s like breaking the world record for most hot dogs eaten in a three-hour period, and being rewarded for your victory with double your own body weight in hot dogs.

As it was, I spent most of the evening going to a restaurant toiletbathroom attempting to rid my body of the entire lake of soft drink that I had inexplicably managed to consume. Given the number of visits that I made to the men’s room, I’d imagine that the vast majority of my fellow diners assumed I had a coke problem, rather than a problem with Coke™.

I’m only just coming down from the caffeine high now, more than twenty four hours later.

Incidentally, watching the Oscars this evening, The Special One asked if Marion Cotillard had won the Best Actress award for playing ‘Edith Pilaf’.

The movies and food can’t be separated in America, it would seem.

Not a morning person

Getting up has never been one of my strong points. My mum had to threaten to pour a glass of water over me on numerous occasions in an attempt to get me out of bed when I was a kid, and I’ve overslept on many an occasion. I think it’s fair to say that I’m ‘not a morning person’. Compared to The Special One though, I’m a positive bundle of joy. That’s not difficult admittedly – the occupants of America’s high-security prisons are more approachable than my beloved wife when she’s not got a coffee inside her first thing in the morning.

As you can imagine, neither one of us particularly likes getting up at 6.30am to wake The Eldest (himself ‘not a morning person’) and get him on his way to school. Thankfully this week, schoolkids have been off on holidayvacation, which means a blissful extra hour in bed. Or at least it should be blissful. The truth is that the disruption to my routine seems to have made me more dazed and confused than ever before.

This morning, I turned the apartment upside down in an ultimately fruitless search for my watch. I never even used to wear a watch, but have somehow managed to train myself into putting one on in the morning, and felt practically naked for the rest of the day without it. Yet when I returned home this evening, there it was in the place that I usually put it, even though I feel sure I must have looked there at least seventeen times this morning.

On Tuesday, I managed to leave the house without applying Fudge. Now, any of you that have had the misfortune to inadvertently catch a glance of me in my pre-hair product application phase in the morning will know that I’m not a pretty sight without Fudge in my hair. To be honest, I’m not much of a pretty sight when I have got Fudge in my hair, but at least I don’t make young children point and stare in disgusted wonderment as I do when I can’t be bothered to use the sticky Australian hair gunk. I look approximately twelve when I don’t put Fudge in my hair. Admittedly I only look fifteen when I’ve got it in, but that’s a side issue.

[Incidentally, I must have been asked for ID on about six separate occasions in Tennessee this weekend. Which is pretty embarrassing for somebody who’s actually 34. Although not as embarrassing as watching on as The Special One was forced to explain what a British passport was to staff at an off licenceliquor store.]

I only discovered my lack of Fudge when I looked in the window of the local gym, rueing the $70 a month that I spend on membership without actually going inside the door, before finally catching a glimpse of my flat-haired reflection. Strangely, the speed that I achieved as I legged it back to the apartment was far in excess of anything I ever achieved on the treadmill.

My early morning confusion reached its nadir on Wednesday. One of the few joys of being a commuter is being able to listen to Russell Brand’s Radio 2 podcast. Back in London, I could generally spot fellow listeners by the otherwise inexplicable guffaws during the early morning rush hour. Here, rather than my laughter marking me out as a potential Brand listener, I rather fear I’m singled out as a possible escaped mental patient. So when I received a tap on the shoulder from a fellow A train passenger, I wearily removed one earphone and awaited a diatribe against care in the community patients.

Of course, it turned out that I had done my shirt up wrongly so that all my buttons were out of sequence, with the left hand side of my collar up near my eyeballs and the right hand side somewhere near my navel. In retrospect, I regret being forced to draw attention to myself by asking my good Samaritan to repeat herself three times in an attempt to understand what she was saying, given that it produced an even larger audience to view me shamefacedly unbuttoning my shirt to get myself back into some semblance of order.

I’m having a lie-in this weekend, I can tell you. Getting out of bed just seems too risky these days.

The Carroll Gardens cleaning curse

As any readers from the UK will probably know, there’s something known as ‘The Curse of OK!’ under which a remarkably large number of celebrity couples that open their homes to the cameras of the glossy magazine OK! suddenly find their marriage falling apart. Personally I reckon it’s more due to the fact that most celebrities have the sticking power of a poster affixed to a bedroom wall with nothing more than spit, but nonetheless the theory of the curse perpetuates.

Now I fear that a new curse has emerged, which peculiarly fixates only on dry cleaners in the Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn. The Curse of A Brit Out Of Water, as we’ll arbitrarily call it, says that any laundry or dry cleaner that allows my shirts to pass over its threshhold will close down within a matter of weeks. First it happened to No 1 Dry Cleaners on Smith Street, and now Elegant Cleaners on Court Street will pull down its shutters for the final time at the end of the month after foolishly agreeing in a rash moment to clean my shirts.

Rumours that my shirts are so scruffy that most cleaners lose the will to stay in business are apparently wide of the mark. Both cleaners claim that their landlords doubled their rents and that they couldn’t afford to stay as a result, but whatever they say. they all know that it’s really down to the curse.

Now when I wander the streets of Carroll Gardens, I see laundry proprietors nervously watching me pass, silently willing me to keep walking past their store. Others begin frantically shuttering their properties as I approach, desperate to escape the eager clutches of the curse. There’s even a suggestion that they’re forming a community group to warn each other whenever they see me leave the apartment with a bunch of shirts in my clutches.

Sadly, I still haven’t managed to bring down Armando’s. But he can’t escape the curse for much longer, mark my words.

The real New York

I love Facebook. Admittedly I feel like a bit of a teenager for using it, and I think The Youngest and The Eldest are perpetually embarrassed that their stepdad can be found within its realms. But there’s just something intriguing in finding out what your friends and colleagues are up to when you’re not around, even if that means reading endless over-enthusiastic status updates telling you that “Joe Smith is glad it’s Friday!!!!!!!!!!”

But what I really love about Facebook is the strange information that it sometimes throws up. And none more so than the music chart that was presented to me in my news feed this morning, detailing the collective favourite music of the 800,000 or so members of the New York network. The full top five is as follows:

1. R&B
2. Rap
3. Hip-hop
4. Coldplay
5. Reggae

I know that Coldplay’s Chris Martin has been working with Kanye West, but I’d still love to see the Venn diagram that shows the intersection between the urban beats of R&B, rap, hip-hop and reggae, and the heartstring-pulling prep-rock of the biggest band to come out of Britain since, erm, the Spice Girls.

Perhaps this city’s collective attempt to be seen as street smart, hard nosed and cool is just a sham. Deep down, they’re as desperate to connect with their emotions through some angst-ridden guitar jangling as the rest of us.

Admit it New York, you’re just a big softie.

Racked with guilt

Sitting at my desk on Friday, a short grey-haired old man popped his head around the door. Now, I work in a relatively young office, and grey-haired old men are about as regular a sighting as Lindsay Lohan at a MENSA meeting. Needless to say, seeing the man’s shadowy figure at the door of my office made me pinch myself just to make sure that I hadn’t died suddenly and was being confronted by the ghost of long-dead neighbours whose flowers I’d accidentally kicked my football into when I was a kid.

Fortunately, living as I do in America, Mr and Mrs Lester haven’t yet been able to find me in order to haunt me, and my metaphorical petunias remain firmly intact. As it turned out, it was just Harry the shoe shine man asking me I wanted my footwear buffed up.

Having your shoes polished by a third party is still relatively uncommon in the UK, and I have to confess that the whole process slightly scares me. Although not because I don’t like having nice shiny shoes that you can see your face in. Let’s face it, I’m never going to have the ability (or indeed the inclination) to create the kind of shine that you get after fifteen years of service in the Royal Brigadiers.

It would seem that I have an emotional problem with paying to have relatively menial tasks done. It’s not that I’m cheap – it’s just that I always feel guilty whenever I outsource things that deep down I know I should probably take a few minutes to do myself. Every time I get my laundry done, have groceries delivered, or even (on very rare occasions) ask an assistant to get me a cup of coffee, I feel like a 19th century slavemaster asking one of his cruelly-treated subordinates to clip his toenails for him.

Perhaps my neurosis is caused by having lived all my life in Britain, where the opportunity to pay for menial tasks is much more limited than it is here. Sure, you can have your clothes cleaned, but nobody’s going to come to your house and pick them up for you. And if you want your shoes shined, it’s probably time that you dig out that seventeen year old dried-up tin of shoe polish and an old duster.

At the same time, I know that there’s a time-cost equation, and if having some of my little jobs done for me at low cost gives me more time to do the things that I really want to do, then I’ll reluctantly put aside my fears of being accused of encouraging servitude, and put my hands in my pockets to pay up.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to find two ways of assuaging my middle-class guilt. Firstly, I always tip well over the odds, in an attempt to prove to myself and my slaveservice provider that the job is central to the running of civiliszed society. Secondly, I attempt to frame my facial features in such a way as to convey a message that says “Normally I would do this for myself, but today I’m extremely busy because I’m restoring sight to dozens of third world children. I know I don’t look like a doctor and there are no kids around, but nevertheless by agreeing to clean my shoes, you have helped provide the gift of sight to a new generation.”

It may be hypocrisy, but at least it’s hypocrisy with shiny shoes.

Let there be (saintly) love

As regular readers will know, I’m not a particular fan of abbreviating words or finding shorter ways of saying things. I always prefer calling friends David rather than Dave, for example. Although only if they are actually called David. I tried calling my friend Liz ‘David’ once. Suffice to say that these days she’s less ‘my friend Liz’, and more ‘Liz’.

When it comes to Christmas, I absolutely point blank refuse to call it ‘Xmas’. Yes, I know that it’s derived from the Greek for ‘Christ’, but exactly how lazy do you have to be to say ‘ex-mass’ rather than ‘Christmas’. That millisecond that you save is hardly going to be the key factor that prevents you from achieving world peace and instead condemns man to a life of pestilence, war and famine, is it?

So today (he said, sounding progressively more like the grumpy old man that he fears he may well be becoming), I’m finding myself unwittingly engaged in a one man crusade to remind people that February 14th should be known as Saint Valentines Day, as opposed to Valentines Day. Nobody in this country uses the ‘St’ anymore, it would appear. It doesn’t appear in news coverage, it doesn’t appear in incessant adverts persuading me to buy chocolates, and it doesn’t even appear on the ‘Valentines’ cards themselves.

I wished The Special One a happy St Valentines Day this morning, and she looked at me as if I had wished her a Merry Little Smurfmas. Even the (very funny and apt) blogs I’ve read today from Brits and Americans alike have insisted on calling it Valentines Day.

Maybe I just missed a meeting when a group decision was taken to drop the saint? Or perhaps it’s for the same reason that I have to say ‘happy holidays’ rather than ‘happy Christmas’? Whatever the case, it’s frankly taking the pisssaint.

I know as much as the next man that Hallmark have hijacked this old fertility festival and turned it into an easy way of boosting sales at an otherwise difficult time of the year. But at least let’s try to stick to the – ahem – romance of the original inspiration. Let’s face it, it’s got to be better to feel you’re being persuaded into a outward demonstration of love to honour the memory of a dead bloke from Rome, rather than because of the difficult first quarter of American Greetings’ financial year?

Now, hands up all of you who think that this unmitigated rant is going to help me when The Special One discovers that I haven’t bought her roses?

Me neither.

Cushioning the blow

It’s days like this when you realise just how sodding big the United States is. This time yesterday, I was in Los Angeles soaking up the sun ahead of my long trip east back to The Special One and co. The temperature was in the 80s, and t-shirts and shorts were the only attire necessary.

Twenty four hours later, I’ve traveled two and a half thousand miles or so without leaving the country, and it’s suddenly colder than a PTA meeting that’s just received a surprise visit from Gary GlitterPee Wee Herman. It’s blowing a blizzard outside, and my nasal hair has been frozen rigid by a quick trip outside to postmail some letters.

Clear skies on the trip back from LA meant that I was able to take in the full extent of the American landscape from my window seat, from the glory of the Rockies and the Grand Canyon, through to the madness of Las Vegas and Manhattan. And if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that the cities of America – or even the built up areas – represent a tiny fraction of what is an astonishingly beautiful country. Admittedly, parts of the environment roughly resemble what I imagine the surface of the moon to be like, and are probably only ever going to be inhabitable by mountain goats with a penchant for eating gravel. But it’s still a damn impressive sight.

Thankfully my Delta flight proved to be uneventful. Not because I’m scared of flying – after all, I commuted back and forth between New York and London for an eternity (or eighteen months, if you prefer), and you can’t do that if you’ve got a head for heights like BA Baracus.

No, the problem I’ve got is actually with their safety procedures.

I generally don’t listen to the security briefing – I’ve heard it so many times, and despite everybody surviving the recent Heathrow crash, I’m largely of the opinion that if a plane goes down, it’s pretty much game over. But for some reason, I listened this time round. Amidst the “take off your high heels before leaving the plane via the emergency slide” and the “follow the lights at floor level until you reach your closest exit”, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the statement that “in the event of landing in water, most of our seat cushions can be used as flotation devices.”

Now, I think most of you will agree that if your plane has crash landed on water, things aren’t looking good. Especially if you’re – say – in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But if you’ve landed in a lake, river or a reservoir, that flotation device might just come in handy. So why in hell aren’t all of their seat cushions capable of being used as flotation devices?!

I can just imagine the scene now:

Plane crash survivor 1: We’re so lucky to have survived this horrific crash, aren’t we?
Plane crash survivor 2: We sure are. But will we ever get out of this water alive?
PCS1: Don’t worry, you can use the seat cushion that you so handily remembered to bring with you as a flotation device.
PCS2: We’re saved! We’re saved! OK, here goes…erm, why am I sinking…?

Maybe the airline had budgetary issues when they were having their planes made by Boeing, and had to make cutbacks? But I can tell you one thing – if my plane ever goes down, and I find myself in the water with a seat cushion that doesn’t float, I am going to raise hell on the phone with their customer services team…

We’re flying Delta to Tennessee this weekend, and I’m fully expecting the flight staff to come over the intercom and tell passengers that most of their pilots can fly planes.

That said, if it keeps snowing for a few days, we won’t be flying anywhere. We’ll have to save our game of seat cushion Russian roulette for another week.