Monthly Archives: March 2008

In search of a slogan

Everyone loves a good slogan. Whether it’s a movie tagline like “Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water” or an advertising jingle such as “A Mars A Day Helps You Work, Rest & Play”, nothing sticks in the head like a catchy slogan. I can guarantee that absolutely every Brit reading this blog will have sung the Mars tagline to themselves in the last five seconds, such is the power of a pithily written motto.

Like every good chocolate bar or Hollywood blockbuster, some countries have managed to get in on the motto act with a short sentence that sums up their raison d’etre. Never ones to miss a chance to show off their all round liberalism, the French opted for “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (or ‘liberty, equality and brotherhood’, for the benefit of my Freedom Fry eating friends). Senegal weighs in with “Un peuple, un but, une foi” which sounds great in French, but when translated into its English meaning of ‘One people, one goal, one faith’ starts to sound uncannily like a Queen record. And who can argue with Guatemala’s “Libre Crezca Fecundo”? Or ‘Grow free and fertile’ to you and me.

Of course, America sticks with “In God We Trust”. Which seems a little rich given that they won’t even give me Good Friday off work. Maybe they should consider some kind of addendum such as “In God* We Trust (*Other gods are available)”? Their Latin motto of “E pluribus unum” (‘out of many, one’) is a little more melting-pot friendly perhaps, although rumours that the slogan refers to the number of accepted votes for Al Gore in Florida in the 2000 presidential election could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

The British were seemingly too busy with colonising the rest of the world to bother particularly with a motto, and by the time that they got around to it, all the good ones had already gone so they decided not to bother. Sure, the royals attempt to insist on “Dieu et mon droit” (or ‘God and my right’) but given that it makes precious little sense, I think most people would be just as happy with “Britain: Finger Lickin’ Good”.

Apparently Gordon Brown has launched some kind of task force to attempt to find a motto for the UK, having clearly decided that the issues of health, education and crime are nothing like as important as finding a catchphrase to put on our tourist literature. Given that he seems willing to put it to a popular vote, we’ll probably end up with something along the lines of “The UK is like well skill, LOL!! ROFL LMAO!!!”

After going to a sushi place today to grab some lunch, and finding that it has shut down about six weeks after it opened, I reckon that America should probably change its motto to “Nothing Lasts Forever”. I’ve had trips to the toilet that have lasted longer than some restaurants in this city.

How to get a red in advertising

There’s a health food store down at the end of the block from us, offering anything from frozen dinners to seaweed extract. To be honest, the ‘health food’ tag is a complete misnomer, given that the price of organic fruit and vegetables is enough to give anyone a cardiac arrest. Only Russian oil oligarchs are likely to walk out of there with any sense that they haven’t just been robbed blind.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for avoiding pesticides on my courgetteszucchini, but do I really need to seek out a sub-prime mortgage in an attempt to buy them? Given the relative strength of the pound, I could probably get a short city break in Amsterdam for the price of a Granny Smith or two.

Last week, The Special One called me as I made my way back to Brooklyn from the office, asking me to pick up a few tomatoes for a salsa she was making. A reluctance to deviate particularly far from my direct path home from the subway meant a trip to the health food store was the only option. And sure enough, when the woman at the counter weighed my chosen selection, I discovered I had to pay twenty five cents short of ten dollars for five medium sized tomatoes.

Biting my tongue to prevent an involuntary attack of Tourette’s Syndrome, I tromped home with my booty (for the avoidance of doubt, that’s a reference to the tomatoes, not my arseass). Once back in the apartment, I took the tomatoes from their plastic bag, and put them on the chopping board in order to cut them up.

And then I noticed it. A small black sticker on the outside of each of my tomatoes. Not your usual sticker giving the shop assistant the necessary code to type into the cash register, no sir. Sure, it had the code on it – 4664 actually, if you must know. But this was a fruit and veg sticker with a difference.

In this day and age, it would appear, nothing is sacred when it comes to advertising. At least, not if you work for Disney. Because there on the side of the tomato was a tiny oval advert for the DVD and Blu-Ray release of animated movie Ratatouille.

In America, billboards, TV commercials and print advertising are no longer enough in a bid to capture our dollars, it would appear. Now they’ve launched an all-out attack on our greengrocers too. I can just imagine the Pixar marketing meeting now:

“Right, how are we going to get people to buy this movie.”

“Well, I’ve had an idea. The film’s called Ratatouille, and one of the main ingredients of an actual ratatouille is a tomato. So why don’t we advertise on every tomato we can lay our hands on? It’s the ultimate call-to-action!”

“You’re a genius! Only over-priced organic ones though – this is a classy movie, after all.”

I thought I’d seen everything when it came to advertising, but clearly not. It’ll be potatoes shaped like Daniel Craig for the next Bond movie, I tell you.

School papers

I’ve blogged before about the impossibility of doing anything in this country without some form of ID, and rarely a day goes by without me thinking that I should muster the will to go get a driving license. Not so that I can drive, you understand, but just so that I can spend more than $75 on a credit card at Virgin Megastores without facing a full cavity search by over-zealous staff.

To be honest though, lack of ID can be a benefit as well as a burden on occasion. I’ve managed to use it as an excuse to get out of doing something I can’t quite summon up the energy to do. Go to the bar to get a drink, you say? Sorry, I don’t carry photo ID on me, and you know what they’re like in this place. You want me to pick up that package you ordered? Erk, no photo ID so I’ll probably just have to go home and watch Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef I’m afraid. Do the washing up, you say? I seem to need photo ID to get into the kitchen unfortunately.

In the UK, ID is something that you see as often as Heather Mills at a Justice For Fathers demo. There’s plenty of talk of introducing a national identity card, but at the moment people have to rely on their good looks and charm as their sole identifier. Is it just that the British are more trusting? Or perhaps it’s merely that we don’t insist on using a 220 year old document to justify carrying a sub-machine gun in our back pockets, so there’s less to worry about from a security perspective.

Whatever the case, it’s not just moaning newcomers who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous admin. The Special One took The Youngest to a middle school this morning, to be interrogatedinterviewed about her ability to give a good wedgieacademic record with a view to being given a place in the school later this year. Given that the interview was at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, The Special One just grabbed her phone and some cash, and then made her way to the subway. Having returned a few moments later after forgetting The Youngest, the two of them trekked into the city.

In retrospect, the sound of an SMS arriving early in the morning was never going to be a good sign, and I could feel the seething resentment from five miles away as I picked up the phone and read ‘we don’t have photo ID, they won’t let us in’. Early morning humour isn’t a key attribute for The Special One at the best of times, and if the poor unfortunate security guard on duty isn’t this evening looking for a new job where he has to take less abuse, I’ll eat my Manchester United bobble hat.

Don’t get me wrong, I know all about Columbine, Virginia Tech and Dunblane, and how utterly terrible those events were. I understand the need for security to protect people in large establishments. But to my knowledge, Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Thomas Hamilton didn’t turn up at school with a written appointment for an admission interview and with a ten year old child in tow. And with nothing other than a phone and a scowl in their possession.

I’m sure that the school prinicipal was delighted to be dragged down from his 5th floor ivory tower to pick up two (by now) irritable individuals. Fortunately the interview went well, but it didn’t exactly get The Youngest’s relationship with the school off to a flying start.

Come on people, just because we’ve got rules doesn’t mean that we leave good sense at home. Unlike our ID cards, that is.

Mixing isn’t matching

After successive posts about religion, politics and sex, I figured it was probably time to return to the usual rubbish. I don’t want you to think I’ve got all highbrow on you, after all.

When it comes to food, I’ve never been one for strange concoctions. I don’t put tomato ketchup on macaroni cheese, or eat curried chicken with pasta. I loathe putting sweet and savoury things together, and don’t even think about including fruit in anything that’s not a puddingdessert.

Given such an attitude, Britain was probably the perfect place to be brought up. After all, this is the land of the cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off that we’re talking about here. The food in the UK – as even The Special One will reluctantly attest – is far better than the typical stereotype, but Britain is still generally a place in which tradition plays a huge part in great food. That’s not to say that menus don’t have innovative dishes, but on the whole you shouldn’t expect to see squid in chocolate sauce.

In America, however, eating exactly what your heart desires is central to the country’s way of life. Unless you’re eating in a particularly high-end restaurant, the menu is merely a guide to what you can eat there. Substitutions are largely tolerated, and waiters barely bat an eyelid for even the weirdest suggestion. Fads are practically encouraged, while fly-by-night diets are happily catered for at the lowliest diner. Sure, some places take a Marco Pierre White-esque approach if restaurant guests ask for French fries, but apart from that, if a place has got an ingredient, they’ll probably cook it for you.

Sometimes though, eating establishments need to take a stand for all that is good and right in the world.

Chomping lunch in a relatively upscale diner today, the woman a couple of seats away from me ate her breakfast with merry abandon. As I’ve said before, I hate eggs, but even to me her eggs, bacon and toast looked pretty damn good. Even her willingness to put jamjelly on her toast (a crime punishable by life imprisonment in some countries) didn’t put me off.

The fact that she had a great big dollop of mash on the same plate as her eggs and bacon, though, was utterly inexplicable. She’d have been run out of town or burnt at the stake in the UK.

You can mess with our hearts or our minds, but don’t ever mess with our breakfasts, OK?

Scandalous

The story of the former governor of New York truly is the gift that keeps on giving. I imagine that things are pretty frosty over breakfast in the household of former attorney general Eliot Spitzer, after he slept with $1,000 per hour high-class hooker Alexandra Dupré. Once talked about as a future President of the United States, Spitzer is now resigned instead to spending his days getting more and more frustrated enquiring about the health of his octogenarian property tycoon father.

The tale of Spitzer & The Call Girl is the story that simply won’t die here in New York. The chat shows are still making fun of the former governor, and Dupré is allegedly a millionaire herself now thanks to all the publicity for her music career. Although even Dupré would admit it’s not her G sharps that people are largely interested in.

If this had taken place in Britain, this whole sorry tale would have been chip paper by now. The UK has possibly the most effective scandal-busting tabloid press in the world, having uncovered the David Mellor horror story (Tory MP gets ‘actress’ to suck his toes while wearing the football kit of his beloved Chelsea FC), the John Major affair (former Prime Minister gets low-down-and-dirty with frankly unlovable Edwina Currie) and the Cecil Parkinson debacle (Tory MP – it’s always Tories – has a lovechild with his secretary). Sure, the country obsessed with each story for a few days, but then everybody moves on to the next example of sexual profligacy at its most public.

What makes the whole Spitzer affair so amusing (although admittedly not for his wife or children) is the reaction of David Paterson, the man who replaced him as governor of New York. Having been installed as governor in a ceremony in Albany on Monday last week, Paterson – who is registered blind after complications following an ear infection as a child – immediately admitted that he and his wife had previously had a few rocky moments in their marriage, and had both had extra-marital affairs.

One week on, and Paterson has now admitted that he used both cocaine and marijuana when he was younger. Apparently he only used coke “a couple of times” when he was “22 or 23”, and hasn’t touched pot since the 1970s.

Having seen what happened to his predecessor, Paterson’s clearly determined not to be caught by the short-and-curlies by the rampaging tabloid press. After two successive Monday revelations, it looks like he probably goes through his closet every single weekend, and then admits to whatever skeleton he’s discovered as soon as he gets to work in the morning.

I can’t wait for next Monday already. Who would bet against Paterson admitting that he’s not even blind, and he actually just used it as an excuse to get out of doing his homework when he was a kid?

Good Friday. Or ‘Friday’, as I now call it.

I could never claim to be the most religious person on this planet. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s plenty to be said for the sense of community that churches, synagogues or mosques can provide. And I think if it works for you, then more power to you. But personally, I find it difficult enough to believe that a football team leading the league by five points with seven games to go is actually going to win the Premiership, so what chance do I have of believing in an omnipotent and omniscient presence?

That said, I’m more than happy to take advantage of the fringe benefits of religious belief. I’ve been in (more or less) gainful employment for the last thirteen years, and in all that time, I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to work on Good Friday. Admittedly I don’t go to take communion, or even walk within a few yards of a church. But it’s always nice to have a day off in the first few months of the year.

Yet all that’s over now, and my first Good Friday in the USA was spent sat at my desk, avoiding calls from anyone in the UK, and at the same time wondering why I hadn’t elected to take the day off like most other people in the office.

The strange thing is that the USA always strikes me as being a vastly more religious country than the UK. It certainly seems to have much more of a presence in people’s day-to-day lives, put it like that. My low-level blasphemy causes me all manner of problems with one particular inhabitant of my office, yet I seem practically incapable of preventing it. Having been tutted at for taking the Lord’s name in vain for the eighty-third time a few weeks ago, I actually responded by saying, “Oh Jesus, I’m really sorry.”

I think the real problem is that Americans are so religious, they have to recognise all religious days – and if they were to make every religious day a holiday then as Morrissey once sang, every day would indeed be like Sunday. Personally I’ve got no problem with that, but America’s gross domestic product is already heading down towards that of Vanuatu as it is, and doesn’t need any further discouragement.

I wouldn’t mind so much, but as I write this, all my friends and family in the UK are no doubt snuggled up in bed wondering what they’re going to do with their Easter Monday bankpublic holiday tomorrow. There’s just no justice.

July 4th seems a long way away right now.

Open brackets

I’ve been a footballsoccer fan for as long as I can remember. I’ve still got a picture of me resplendent in my first ever Manchester United kit, proudly sitting on Brit Out Of Water Senior’s lap one Christmas. And I was even humiliated at my wedding (sorry, who am I kidding, I mean at The Special One’s wedding) with a blown-up photograph of a bobble-hatted me aged six, standing infront of United’s ground. Rarely can dimples have looked more prominent.

On one of my first trips to Old Trafford, I can vividly recall sitting on a coachbus taking us to Manchester, and desperately trying to make sense of the ‘league ladders’ that had fallen out of my brand new copy of the bible (or Shoot! football magazine, as I believe it was actually known).

Essentially the Shoot! League Ladder was a piece of cardboard with a tiny piece of card on it for every club in the country. Each one was pushed out of the cardboard frame until you had 92 thumb-sized tabs that could be pushed into the perforated card to reflect where each club was in the league at that point in the season. Given that this was the 1980s, I never had to move Manchester United’s piece of card much above position 8, although I did take a relatively inexplicable interest in seeing the rise and fall of “Harry McNally’s Blue & White Army”. Or Chester, as most pundits seem to insist on calling them.

Statistics have always been at the heart of being a sports fan. Whether it’s the percentage of first serves achieved by Andy Murray or Roger Federer, or the lap times of a 10,000 metremeter runner, being a proper sports fan is something that requires a mind for numbers. You also need an extraordinary ability to retain the facts that Rain Man would struggle to remember. I only remember the date of Brit Out Of Water Senior’s wedding to The Wicked Stepmother because it coincided with Ryan Giggs’ first goal for Manchester United, in a 1-0 triumph over our light blue City rivals.

Of course, in America, sports stats are just as important. But to say that I know nothing would be to do a disservice to those who know nothing. I’d have a better chance of guessing the number of grains of rice in the world than I would have of telling you how many three pointers Nate Robinson has scored in the last three seasons.

Yesterday I was forcedpersuaded into taking part in my office’s NCAA brackets competition. I assume that NCAA stands for No Clue About Anything as that pretty sums up my knowledge of this sports prediction tradition. Essentially there appear to be about 32 teams (which I assume to be college teams, given that UCLA and Stanford were among them), and you have to choose who will beat who, all the way through to the eventual final. I guess that the person who gets most right wins the prize.

Suffice to say that it was only about half way through filling in the form that I realised that this was a basketball competition. I haven’t even heard of some of the places involved, let alone know whether they’re a good team or whether they’re capable of beating another team I’ve never heard of. I ended up with Tennessee winning, just because The Special One would never forgive me if I didn’t. It’s akin to picking Scunthorpe United to win the FA Cup because you like the colour of their kit.

Apparently they call it ‘March Madness’. The only madness is the fact that I’ve made another $20 donation to a fellow colleague’s pocket.

Chopbusters

In a bid to put a long working week behind us, The Special One and I have a regular Friday night date. We even take it in turns to pick a dinner venue, which is a little difficult for me on occasion given that my knowledge of New York restaurants extends from hot dogs at Papaya King, to “that place that we thought gave me food poisoning from the chicken, but then we realised it was probably the three bottles of Sancerre that I washed it down with”.

Last week’s venue of choice was Dennis Foy in Tribeca, a restaurant that I can (now) heartily recommend. Especially if you plump for the gnocchi with mushrooms and sage – I’m not a particular gnocchi fan (it always seems like a waste of a good spud to me), but these were almost enough to swear me off chips and gravy for life.

Of course, it wouldn’t be New York without a little bit of drama, and sure enough, half way through the main course, the head waiter flounced out of the restaurant with a flourish, quickly followed by another (clearly anxious) member of staff. You couldn’t help but hear the raised voices, no matter how deeply you buried yourself in your parsnip puree. Thankfully after a thorough talking-to, the flouncee returned with his smarm and uncanny over-familiarity firmly intact.

Content after a good meal, The Special One and I got up to leave. Well, she got up to leave, and I scurried off to the bathroom. I have to call it a bathroom these days, despite the fact that there’s no bath and not even a toothbrush in sight. Apparently I break Newton’s First Law of Politeness In Marriage when I refer to the ‘facilities’ as a toilet. Next she’ll be telling me that I should be calling the cat’s litter box a feline waste disposal unit.

By the time I returned to her side, she was talking to a man dressed in a white jacket. Presuming it was neither Simon Le Bon from the video for ‘Rio’ or indeed the local butcher, I rapidly (and correctly) surmised that it was Dennis Foy himself, checking on the happiness of his customers at the end of the evening. As well as helping himself to something refreshing from the bar, obviously.

Foy quickly settled into a standard pattern of behaviour for ‘Americans that are introduced to a Brit that they don’t know, by an American that they also don’t know’. It’s a small subset of the human race, I appreciate, but large enough that a pattern of behaviour can be established. And sure enough, within 2.35 seconds, Foy was doing what can only be described as ‘taking the piss out of the Englishman’.

To be fair to him, he was very funny and extremely charming. Although if I’ve heard once that my fellow countrymen would be singing ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ at the FA Cup Final if it wasn’t for America, I’ve heard it a thousand times. What made it all worthwhile though was Foy’s laughing insistence that he was just ‘busting my chops’.

I love the phrase ‘busting my chops’, largely because it’s as American as an economic recession. If a Brit ever uttered the phrase, he’d be carted off to the loony bin, but for an American it somehow seems strangely quaint. Better than popping a proverbial cap in my metaphorical ass, at least.

As it was, I wasn’t even vaguely aware that I had chops, let alone that a chef of some distinction would consider busting them. But after five minutes of banter, my chops were well and truly busted, and I beat a hasty retreat muttering something about him using less orange-flavoured olive oil on his fish in future.

Next Friday we’re going to Taco Bell, I can tell you.

Green with envy

Americans love a bit of excitement. Whether it’s revelling in the downfall of a governor who keeps his brains in his Calvin Kleins, or gathering in bars and homes to watch the ‘world championship’ of a game basically only played by their fellow countrymen, no fuss is too great for the ticker tape-toting people of the United States.

Indeed, such is their dedication to a-whooping and a-hollering that Americans appear to have taken to appropriating the celebrations of other countries in a bid to satisfy their partylust. And let’s face it, there’s nothing that certain Americans love more than appropriating things from other countries.

So today is St Patrick’s Day, and such is the level of green hysteria that seems to have seized New York City that you’d swear that Mayor Bloomberg had promised a free pint of Guinness to anyone sporting a green shirt, tie or giant foam finger. The food hall downstairs from my office was festooned with green and orange balloons, while the bakery attempted to palm off green bagels on me rather than my normal wholewheat everything favourite. In the office, everybody wished each other a happy “St. Paddy’s Day”, while the newspapers are full of shamrock-laden articles on green beer and ‘Oirish’ celebrations.

The strange thing is, I’ve got pretty immediate Irish blood in my family, have lived across the water from Ireland all my life, and have even spent a St Patrick’s Day in Dublin (admittedly one that was effectively cancelled after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle), and yet I’ve never seen people take the day as seriously as they do here.

I guess it’s not surprising, given that the last US census revealed that 34.9 million Americans claim Irish ancestry – that’s nine times as many people as actually live in Ireland itself. But the same census claimed that there are about 35.3 million people of Hispanic extraction in the US, and I don’t see much of a celebration for them. Even July 4th doesn’t exactly have the same unmitigated enthusiasm associated with it that most New Yorkers seem to have for March 17th.

Happy though they may be to steal Ireland’s national day, most Americans seem reluctant to purloin any national day from the United Kingdom. There’s no walking round with giant daffodils on March 1 for St David’s Day, and no tartan-clad buildings around St Andrew’s Day. And I’m sure some people get dressed up in traditional English costume (Hackett t-shirts and Burberry jackets) on St George’s Day, but where’s the re-enactment of Georgie’s slaying of the dragon when you need it?

Personally, I think it’s time to launch a new celebratory day. After all, if New York’s the melting pot that everybody says it is, there’s got to be a chance that “I’m Not An American But I Really Fancy A Pint Day” could take off.

I can almost hear Hallmark’s designers working on a new range of dedicated cards even as I write.

Fight the power

I’ve never been in trouble all my life. Well, that’s not strictly true. I was practically roasted alive when I was about five, when I ignored my mum’s declaration that I couldn’t buy a Screwball from the ice cream van while she and my sister were at the house of one of her friends. How she found out, I will never know. Although, in retrospect, it was possibly an error to buy one for my sister as well as myself, and take it around to the house she and I my mum were at.

Given that I had fallen at the first hurdle in my bid to be a criminal mastermind, my reluctance to clash with any kind of authority was possibly not surprising. I was never put into detention even once at school, something which my equally pious schoolfriends The Bean Counter and Broadsheet Benny can’t claim, to my knowledge. I’ve never had my driving license endorsed in the 17 years since I took my test, although admittedly that might have something to do with not having driven for the last twelve years or so. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been into a police station, let alone been under suspicion by one or more of its occupants.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no halo. I’ve had my fair share of questionable behaviour, and I’m not in line for the sainthood any time soon. But when it comes to officialdom, I firmly toe the line. When The Special One made a joke on my visa application, I made her write it out again. I get unnerved when she fills out a form in sentence case when it specifically asks for block capitals. And if the Inland Revenue ask for me to return a form by a certain date, you can be damn sure they’ll have at least three days before the deadline.

Given this goody-two-shoes approach to life, it’s hardly surprising that I still get a little bit nervous whenever I come into the US and have to go through immigration. Even though I’ve entered the country around 60 times in the last ten years, I guess I still figure they’re somehow inexplicably going to link me to a elite band of Welsh nationalist warriors attempting to inflict leeks and daffodils on a hirtherto unsuspecting American public.

Sadly though, it appears that my respect for the law and its officials isn’t matched by immigration officials themselves.

Last weekend, I nervously approached the immigration desk and meekly handed over my documentation. Immigration officers aren’t employed for their chat, but every fifteenth journey or so, you get someone who is determined to show that they’re not all humourless robots with masochistic tendencies.

And so it was with ‘Tony’. Having extracted from me that I’m a music fan, he proceeded to question me at length on my views on digital music, presumably to the annoyance of the 252 other passengers waiting behind me for one of the two immigration officials set aside for non-Americans.

Having said that I buy music from iTunes but still love the physical product, Tony told me that he only buys music digitally these days. He used to get all his music from Limewire and Kazaa, apparently, but stopped using them a couple of years ago.

“You realised that those sites were illegal?” I said.

His response? “Why would I care if they were illegal? I stopped because I got some viruses on my computer. I couldn’t care less that it’s illegal.”

The illusion is shattered. I may go out and rob a bank later.