Monthly Archives: February 2008

The great pretender

I think it’s fair to say that West Hollywood is somewhat of a tourist trap, with hundreds of people of all nationalities taking in the sights from the Walk Of Fame to Grauman’s Chinese Theatreer. Everywhere you look there are people trying to hustle you into taking a bus ride around the homes of the rich and the famous. Well, a tour of the roads leading to the homes of the rich and the famous, I’d imagine. I somehow doubt that George Clooney is going to open the gates to his mansion to allow a minibus packed full of Japanese tourists to gain unfettered access to his pot-bellied pig.

Indeed, wherever there are tourists, there are people trying to make some money for themselves. Given that this is Hollywood, that generally means dressing up as a famous character from movie history, and attempting to cajole allcomers to part with a bit of cash in order to have their photo taken with you.

The problem is, of course, that where movies can employ cinematic sheen and a healthy dose of computer generated imagery, real-life lends no such luxuries. Thus while Brandon Routh may look very convincing as Superman on screen, Tony from Long Beach just looks like a bloke dressed in a poorly fitting Superman costume that was machined by his sister.

Being confronted by ‘Hollywood legends’ wherever you walk is a little disconcerting, especially when they momentarily drop out of character. As I passed Spiderman this morning, for instance, the ‘actor’ within spotted somebody he knew and called out to her in a thick Southern accent to ask whether she was going to ‘the party’ tonight. That the person he called out to turned out to be (the poor man’s) Supergirl is no excuse.

The whole sorry façade reached its lowest ebb when I made my way to Baja Fresh to grab a lunchtime burrito. As I sat eating, a weary out-of-shape man in his mid to late 40s with dark dyed wavy hair ordered himself a quesadilla. He looked like a member of Kiss without the makeup (and without the charisma or cash in the bank), and wore a dark black cape with some kind of faux electronic trickery attached to his belt.

It couldn’t be, could it?

Darth Vader

Sadly, it was. For the record, I’d like it to be known that he had left this on his table while he went to use the facilities. Who knew that the Dark Lord of the Sith ever had to attend to anything so mundane? It was like finally unmasking Batman and discovering that for all these years, it had been your mum underneath.

Ironically, the ‘actress’ playing Marilyn Monroe looked more like somebody’s dad in a blonde wig, so I guess what goes around comes around, huh?

At the drive-in

Eating on your own is always a strange experience. And never more so than when you’re in Hollywood on a Friday night. Thankfully, it’s the kind of occasion that diners were invented for. Having walked around for a while (which is Brit Out Of Water code for “made my way to the nearest record shop to buy CDs, plus box sets of TV shows I’ve missed”), I happened upon Mel’s Drive In.

Even though I’ve only been to LA once before, I’ve still managed to go to a Mel’s Drive In before – there’s a few of them around the West Coast, and the outpost on Sunset Boulevard proved useful after a boozy night out on my last trip here. Tonight’s meal showed the Jekyll and Hyde nature of diners in America, with possibly the worst chickenbuffalo wings I’ve ever had (supremely soggy chicken skin, anyone?) and a fantastic cheeseburger that actually tasted of meat.

But it was three other things that particularly drew my attention at Mel’s Drive In.

1. As far as I could make out, it wasn’t a Drive In. You could park your car right next to the restaurant, admittedly, but I guess “Mel’s Drive Up To” wasn’t as compelling a name.

2. Los Angeles may well be the one place on earth where people wear bluetooth headsets on a permanent basis, despite not being on the phone. That they manage to wear the headsets and yet not demonstrate any visible sign of embarrassment or self-awareness speaks volumes for the confidence of these people.

3. There is only one door at Mel’s Drive In, making it the only way that you can get into the restaurant. Inside, above the door, is a sign that reads “This door to remain unlocked during business hours”.

With business insight like that, it’s no wonder that America is the leader of the capitalist world.

Hearing is believing

As if I didn’t feel enough out of water in New York, I’m currently in Los Angeles on work, having only been here once about three years ago. Suffice to say that I walk around with a confused expression that perpetually says “what the hell is going on here?”

Actually, it’s probably the fact that I’m walking that causes half the problem – LA residents only seem to use their legs to hold their torsos up, so even telling my taxi driver that I didn’t mind walking the few yards to the front of the hotel caused furrowed brows.

I knew I was heading somewhere truly different within minutes of taking off from JFK. A Delta flight attendant came over the PA system to inform us that the inflight entertainment system had been turned on and, this being America, we could buy headphones for just $2.

Her unique selling point? That we could spend our hard-earned cash on these aforementioned listening devices, and then take them off the aircraft once we arrived in Los Angeles and use them free of charge.

America really is the land of untold generosity.

Le petit dejeuner

Whatever you think about the French, you can’t help but admire their collective desire to protect their language. The French tongue is, after all, one of the things that defines them most as a nation, and it is rightly their belief that any attempts to erode its significance – particularly by the gathered forces of the English speaking world – is something to be resisted.

Famously, France is the nation that placed quotas on the amount of French language music that legally has to be played on radio stations around the country. To this day, around 40% of all music played on French radio stations has to be sung in French, and companies that fail to comply can face fines of up to 5% of their annual revenues.

Given that French is one of the most beautiful languages on this planet, I’m all for any laws that help preserve its integrity. And to be honest, maybe the laws should be extended to the United States as well.

When it comes down to it, the Americans still haven’t forgiven the French for failing to stand by them when it came to invading Iraq. Obviously by far the biggest weapon of reprisal that America had at its disposal was renaming French fries as ‘freedom fries’. This is a vindictive slight that the French may never recover from. After all, how could a country with a reputation as being the greatest gastronomic nation on earth ever get over the fact that the United States would cease to use the French tag to describe deep-fried bits of potato?

Perhaps having realiszed the ridiculousness of their efforts, America has returned to adopting the British tactic of undermining the French by use of the powerful tool of deliberate mispronunciation.

Infact, America may be the one nation that makes even less effort to use proper French than the English do. In France last week, ‘merci’ (‘thank you’ in English) was bastardised by most Americans from its traditional ‘mare-sea’ to ‘mercy’, while it’s best not even to think about what they do with words like foie gras.

It’s all understandable of course – while British schoolkids were being forced to learn French, our American counterparts were reluctantly attempting to learn Spanish. But some words have become so engrained in the American vocabulary that their mispronunciation can only be part of a deliberate attempt to stick two fingers up atgive the finger to the French.

All of which brings me to the croissant. Yes, that curl of delicious pastry that is so irresistible to people of all nationalities. To everybody outside of America, it’s known as the cwa-ssan or cra-wa-ssan. Within the boundaries of the United States, it’s the cress-ont.

Sadly, I can’t quite bring myself to mispronounce it, which means that anytime I want a croissant, I generally either have to desperately point at my intended breakfast bread – or else shamefacedly translate into American, and hope that no European hears me. Still, if I can’t make people understand me when I’m speaking English, what chance have I got with French?

There’s only one solution to the problem. Yup, it’s back to having a bagel for breakfast.

X marks the spot

Today much of the US has gone to the polls to decide which of the candidates will represent the Democrats and the Republicans in the upcoming election. With more than twenty states holding their primaries today, it’s one of the most important days on the road to the 2008 presidential vote.

As a student of political history, and a keen follower of news from the campaign trail, it feels both strange and painful not to be able to play my own small part in the process. Despite being a federal and state tax payer, I remain one of the disenfranchised. Most of the USA knows today as Super Tuesday, but for me it could best be described as, well, Tuesday.

Of course, if there was an election in the UK in November, I would be free to vote despite the fact that I pay no taxes in the UK and the result would have no immediate impact on my day-to-day life.

Perhaps what expats like myself need is some kind of exchange programme for voting rights? There must be New Yorkers who’ve moved from the Big Apple to South West London, who – like me – aren’t allowed to have any say in any forthcoming election in the country in which they reside. Rather than use our postal/absentee ballots, maybe we should be able to swap votes and have a direct impact on the economic and political system around us?

It’ll be like a timeshare system, without the need for beach towels or factor 25 suncream.

That said, if somebody tries to use my electoral privilege to vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party, there’s going to be trouble.

Flipping out

When I got to work this morning that I found out that it was Shrove Tuesday, and excitedly texted The Special One about plans for the evening. It was only when she questioned whether I really needed to make a display of religious deference that I realiszed that the tradition of Pancake Day isn’t exactly one that travels well beyond the UK’s borders.

Back in my childhood days, Pancake Day was always the cause of much excitement in our house. My sister and I would reluctantly eat whatever food was placed infront of us, each trying to save as much room as possible for the pancakes that we knew were coming.

And then once the main course was over, suddenly the kitchen was turned into an industrial scale pancake conveyor belt, creating paper thin crepes to be slathered in lemon juice and sugar. Not real lemon juice obviously, but Jif lemon juice (with added sodium metabisulphite) from a plastic yellow lemon-shaped squeezy bottle. I think I’ve rarely tasted anything so bitter in all my life, but when liberally applied onto thin eggy pancakes with plenty of sugar, nothing ever tasted so good.

One pancake was never enough, of course. Nor was two. Or even three, quite often. By the time we left the table, both of us practically had to be rolled to our bedrooms.

Needless to say, my attempt to bring a little bit of Pancake Day to this corner of Carroll Gardens was met with confusion by The Special One, The Youngest and The Eldest. All of them looked on with a mixture of apprehension and, let’s face it, disgust, as I mixed the eggs, flour and milk into a loose batter. But when I finally began flipping the pancakes, covering them in lemon and sugar, and folding them up into a roll, I think I began to win them over. The Youngest even demanded a second.

Which is a relief, given that I’d made enough batter to provide pancakes for half of Brooklyn.

Lost in translation

On a day like today, when the Super Bowl is the predominant topic of conversation at the watercoolers of American offices, I may as well walk around the city with a giant pink neon sign above my head that reads “I’m British, please ignore me”.

It’s not that I don’t understand what, erm, wide receivers and tight ends are. It’s just that nobody believes that I know what they are – or indeed, that I care. To be fair, they may well have a point on that second issue, but that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to give it my best shot in the interests of community spirit.

Twice today I saw my fellow man’s excitement at the prospect of discussing “the greatest New York sporting triumph of the last twenty years” vanish into thin air when they suddenly realised that I’m not a natural-born fan of that game with the funny shaped balls.

Entering the office this morning, a few guys stood around reliving the final few moments of last night’s game. Back home, I would have quite happily barged my way into the conversation with talk of how Adebayor should have buried that last minute chance, or how Robinson had had a complete shocker with that cross from Mellberg. Here in New York, I simply received a sympathetic look that was almost certainly intended to convey something along the lines of “we’d love to talk to you about this historic sporting moment, but you were probably watching repeats of Fawlty Towers on BBC America while eating cucumber sandwiches”.

Later on in the day, I made my way downstairs in the liftelevator to grab a sandwich. The one man already in the elevator gave me a big smile, and said “What about those Giants, man?!” I was pretty sure my response was “Incredible, huh? Manning’s ability to avoid the Patriots blitz before passing to Tyree was a pivotal moment that changed the course of the game.” From his reaction to my British accent, I can only assume that I actually said “Who are the Giants?”.

Thankfully I’ve always been a fan of awkward silences.

Enough of this talk of gridiron though. If you want to talk to me about valiant against-the-odds sporting victories with an oval ball, talk to me about Wales defeating England in rugby’s Six Nations on Saturday.

Sadly, I’m not sure which one Americans are less likely to have heard of – rugby or Wales.

Champions

So the New York Giants are the Super Bowl champions…pretty incredible game, and not just because of the number of burgers I managed to stuff down my neck.

Watching the TV broadcast, a few things sprang to mind:

1. How can one sports game last four hours? That’s not a sport, that’s some kind of endurance hell.

2. Speaking after the game, one New York Giants player claimed that he was just happy to win the world championship. Erm, anybody want to let me know how many other countries were allowed to compete in the NFL this season?

3. Even though I started watching the game wanting the New England Patriots to complete an unbeaten season, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the excitement of the New York Giants coming back to win the game in the final minute. Maybe I’m actually a lucky omen for New York sports teams, given how awful they’ve been over the last few years?

4. Apparently Mayor Bloomberg has agreed that there will be a ticker tape parade in New York this week, to celebrate the Giants victory. Given that the Giants (and the Jets) play in New Jersey, it’s like Manchester United winning the FA Cup, and then having an open-top bus parade in Birmingham.

5. The winning catch was made by Plaxico Burress, who had last week confounded pundits by predicting a 23-17 victory for the Giants. I so wish I could have been a fly-on-the-wall when Mr & Mrs Burress were thinking about a name for their soon-to-be born son.

Mr Burress: I’m thinking that maybe we should call him Philip after my dad.
Mrs Burress: I prefer Thomas, after my great grandfather who was such an inspiration to me when I was young.
Mr B: I just don’t like the name Thomas? What about Mike?
Mrs B: Mike? I hate that name. What about Billy?
Mr B: Over my dead body
Mrs B: OK, we’re getting nowhere here. Look, this is going to seem a little bit out of leftfield, but what about Plaxico?
Mr B: Perfect!

The car horns are blasting out left, right and centre in Brooklyn right now. With any luck, there might even be smiling faces on the subway tomorrow morning.

This is New York though, so I wouldn’t count on it.

A small world

Waiting for The Special One in a bar on Friday night, I sat on a leather sofa reading the New York Times. Whatever people’s opinions of the NYT (and I meet a lot of people who don’t really like it), I kind of enjoy reading it. Don’t get me wrong I prefer The Guardian in the UK, but in the absence of a more progressive newspaper, the New York Times keeps me relatively interested.

USA Today aside, the Times is I guess the closest that the US has to a national newspaper. And as a result, you’d expect its coverage of world affairs to be thorough and comprehensive. But being honest, I think ‘Newsboard’ (the school newspaper that I helped to set up when I was about seven) had more in-depth coverage of foreign affairs.

In the ‘international’ section were 16 stories. Three of them concerned China, reflecting the concern of many Americans that China is going to become the big kid that bullies the USA in the schoolyard in a few more years. Six of the international stories mentioned the United States, as if nobody would be particularly interested in them unless the stories were linked to the US at some point.

Indeed three of the 16 foreign news stories mentioned the US in the headline. I know America’s a big place, but come on, surely there are other countries to write about??

I’m probably just bitter when it comes down to it. There was only article on the UK, and even that was written from Australia.

Hands across America – update

Seems that my ability to unite America under one happy banner is perhaps more limited than I initially thought. After my impassioned plea to current readers to implore friends and family in the fourteen states that have steadfastly refused to click onto A Brit Out Of Water, only two more states have fallen.

So thank you to the poor unsuspecting souls who stopped by from Nebraska and Hawaii, and to whoever pointed them in this direction. And just to remind you, the current refuseniks are:

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

Anybody want to place a bet on which will be the last state to take the plunge?