Monthly Archives: March 2008

Counting on it

When I was at school, which is quite some time ago now, your school year related to the number of years that you’d been in that particular school. So, when I first turned up at West Lea Infants School, I was a 1st year. And when I left the 3rd year there, I went into the 1st year at Buckley CP. Admittedly my Not-So-Posh-As-It’d-Like-To-Think-It-Is secondary school in Chester had ‘Removes’ and ‘Shells’ rather than first and second years, but at least there was still a linear progression after that.

Then everything changed, with the introduction of such terms as “Year 6” and “Key Stage 92”, and I lost all track of where I was with the UK school system. Then again, I got confused when they changed the front cover of the British passport from black to maroon, so that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Needless to say that when I got to the United States, the grade system appeared about as penetrable as Fort Knox. Indeed, my attempt to explain the relative school years of The Youngest and The Eldest to a friend this weekend was only finally resolved with complex algebraic formulae, a road map and a small tube of Super Glue.

As a result, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” which I was regrettably forced to watch this evening, could have been Mastermind for all I knew. For those who haven’t had the ‘good fortune’ to see the show, it’s basically a quiz show where people pit their wits against (or alongside, really) ten year old American schoolkids. It’s a bit like Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire, with added humiliation.

Really it should be called “Are You As Stupid As These Americans We Found From Who Knows Where?” This evening’s show featured a woman who would have been knocked out had she not been able to rely on a ten year old to tell her how many centimetres there are in three-and-a-half metres.

Frankly, however much Americans rely on feet and inches, there’s no excuse for not knowing that there’s 350 centimetres in three and a half metres. And if you don’t know that kind of thing, please don’t go on national TV and let the world know that you don’t have a clue.

By the way, did I mention that she was an American high school teacher?

Pancake day

If there’s one foodstuff that Americans always have a tendency to ask me about, it’s black pudding. Few people can actually comprehend that the British eat it, for a start. As I’ve said before, The Special One hates the idea of the stuff although if you ask me, it’s difficult to understand what problem people could possibly have with a tasty product made out of oats, fat and congealed pig blood.

Chatting with friends this evening, I was asked whether I missed any other foods from the UK. To be honest, it’s hard to miss anything that much when there’s really very little from Britain that you can’t lay your hands on over here. Admittedly you have to be prepared to pay three times as much for it, but when your cravings for ‘spotted dick in a tin’ get to be too much, $6.95 seems to be a price that’s well worth paying.

There were five foods that I could identify as being particularly British, and that are particularly missed by me during my American adventure. Sure, I always long for fish’n’chips or a good curry, but there are five things that my day-to-day life just wouldn’t be the same without:

1. Baked beans. Heinz baked beans, to be accurate. And don’t fob me off with the Heinz vegetarian beans that you can get over here – they’re a sickly sweet alternative that just doesn’t taste the same slathered on toast, let me tell you. And don’t even think of putting them alongside your sausage and chips.
2. HP Sauce. Or brown sauce to its friends, of which I am a particularly close member. What’s not to like about a liquid made out of malt vinegar, molasses, tamarinds and dates?
3. Walker’s crisps. Yeah yeah, you can get Frito Lays, and the packaging looks broadly the same and the taste isn’t completely different. But you can’t get cheese and onion crisps in most shops, and if you’re looking for a crisp buttypotato chip sandwich, then you need to look no further.
4. PG Tips. Don’t bother with Lipton tea bags. You may as well drink dust suspended in water.
5. Branston pickle. These are the two words most used in more than 200 days of A Brit Out Of Water. Enough said.

The strange thing is though, the longer you’re away from the UK, the more you long for products that you never thought you would miss. I’ve been having cravings all day today for Findus Crispy Pancakes (minced beef and onion flavour, obviously), despite the fact that the last time I had them, Thatcher was in power and I was suffering from a brief but embarrassing crush on Carol Decker from T’Pau. I can only assume that it’s yesterday’s talk of Mad Cow Disease.

Pot Noodles, Fruit Salad chews and Vimto all fall under the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ category when it comes to British food. But if ever I become gripped by a latent desire to eat tripe, rest assured that you have my permission to shoot on sight.

I smell the blood of an EnglishWelshman

I’ve never liked having things stuck in my arm. When I was a kid at school, I once fainted after having the BCG (anti-tuberculosis) vaccination. To be fair to me, I didn’t faint straight away at the sight of the injection. Instead, I went back to my physics classroom, sat on my high stool and continued with the lesson. Until thirty minutes later that is, when I told Broadsheet Benny that I was feeling a bit hot. Apparently when I fell backwards off my stool and crashed onto the hard wooden floor, he demonstrated his unique British reserve by putting his hand in the air and saying, “Sir, I think somebody has fainted.”

I have to confess to a small amount of disappointment that I hadn’t actually fractured my skull as was suspected. Although a fractured thumb can be pretty painful too, you know.

Anyway, needless to say I’ve never had much of an appetite for injections since then. I winced in agony when I had multiple injections in both my big toes in order to have ingrowing toenails removed. I closed my eyes when I had acupuncture to cure some stomach problems. And I’ve steadfastly avoided tetanus shots with a commitment and devotion that would impress the most stubborn of trypanophobics. Or needle haters, to you and me.

So when I saw the American Red Cross’s mobile blood donation service outside my office today, my first thought was something nice and simple like “You know, I’d really love to be able to give blood and save the life of somebody less fortunate than me, but in this day and age, do they really have to stick a needle in my arm or can they just walk me past a small suction pump and then give me a nice comforting biscuit and cup of tea?”

Thankfully, before the guilt could truly descend, I remembered one vital fact – if you spent three months in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996, you’re not eligible to donate blood in the United States, for fear that you will introduce variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (the human form of Mad Cow Disease) into the blood supply. Given that practically the only time I spent out of the UK during that time was a week in Fuengirola, I’m guessing I’m out of luck when it comes to blood donation in this country.

Of course, of more relevance might be the fact that my mum used to regularly feed me and my sister with cheeseburgers from Iceland (the store, rather than the country), with the cheese contained within the burger like some kind of beefy Pop Tart. To say the meat was high quality would be like claiming that Eliot Spitzer hired prostitutes for the conversation. Ever since news of Mad Cow Disease emerged, I think all three of us have been waiting for one or the other of us to have our legs collapse from under us whenever we’ve entered a farmyard.

Irrational though it is, I actually find it slightly irritating that my blood isn’t welcome in this parish. It seems that I’m allowed to pay taxes until the (mad) cows come home, but if I want to vote or want to save lives, well I’d better think again. Even former malaria sufferers from South America are more welcome to give blood than me.

Fortunately I’ve got my own private blood donation policy going on at the moment, so I don’t need to worry about America’s disinterest in my supply. Admittedly, accidentally cutting my fingers to ribbons with surprisingly sharp kitchen knives isn’t exactly saving the world, but at least it provides a new destination for my red stuff, I guess.

Aroma therapy

Even though New York subway carriagescars are probably twice the size of their London equivalents, don’t be confused into thinking that there’s plenty more room for commuters to be carried home in comfort. Most trains are packed to the gills, and the rails are placed too far apart to avoid being thrown headlong down the length of the car whenever the train comes to a sudden halt.

A relatively empty carriage is rarer than a quiet night in with Britney Spears, and its arrival in a station can lead to a stampede worse than the opening of any department store sale. Just the dream of a seat to call your own for the rest of the journey home is enough to turn grown men into jibbering fools.

Sadly, there’s always a catch when it comes to the empty carriage. And today, that catch came in the form of urine.

Pretty much every thirteenth train you get on in New York smells of urine. Usually it’s just a passing homeless guy who has wandered into your nasal radius, allowing you to step out of harms way with relatively little effort. No such luck today though. I walked the entire length of the carriage in a bid to get away from a smell that I can only describe as two parts multi-storey car parkparking garage stairwell and one part abandoned alleyway behind a popular bar. The unique pungent aroma still lingers in my nostrils even now I’m sitting at home enjoying a glass of wine.

Even in ‘the carriage of pee’ though, there’s always a statutory minimum of six people who manage to sit through the olfactory terrorism as if nothing was wrong. Such is the strength of the odour that there’s only three possible explanations for their ability to withstand it. Maybe they’ve just got no sense of smell, like my old chemistry teacher Mr Mellor who lost his ability to detect aromas after accidentally sniffing too much ammonia during an experiment? Or perhaps they’re the cause of the urine smell in the first place, although it seems a little far-fetched to believe that six people could have conspired to produce the smell.

My favourite explanation is that all six people have got thirteen-year-old children in their lives. After all, if you can walk into a young teen’s bedroom and not drop dead instantly, anything else seems like a walk in a particularly nice smelling park.

The universal language of rudeness

I love a good sandwich, and no trip to the UK is complete without a visit to Pret-A-Manger to grab a BLT or posh cheese’n’pickle sarnie. Standing in the queueline to make my purchase earlier this week, I heard the woman two people ahead of me ask for a coffee and a croissant perfectly normally, before making a strange sound that I just couldn’t make out. Then the person immediately ahead of me asked for a cup of soup, and followed it up with a similar word that I struggled to understand.

Had a new terminology of café culture emerged in the time since I’d left the country to head to the USA? I hate it when that happens. It took me about three years to start using the phrase ‘skinny latte’ without being struck down with potentially paralysing embarrassment.

Thankfully, it turned out that they were just local people using the word ‘please’. It’s amazing how easily you forget when you’ve been living in New York for a few months.

But while ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are an everyday feature of life in the UK, there’s always one person around to let you know that rudeness truly is a universal phenomenon.

Taking a train after work on Friday, I found myself in a ‘quiet zone’ – essentially a carriage where you’re not supposed to use your phone or blast music out of your iPod at a volume that causes bleeding ears to anybody within the same postcodezipcode. The train was particularly busy, and just before we pulled out of London, a small boy sat down next to me, with his young mummom sitting in the seat across the aisle.

Now, I’m not one for listening in on other people’s conversations. Actually I am, and it quickly became clear that this woman had some serious personal problems, with a missing brother who had just been found and sectioned. And, given these problems, it’s perhaps understandable that she was using her phone to keep in touch with her family. All while trying to control her son, who was making repeated demands for a hot chocolate much to her obvious discomfort.

If you’re going through all this, what you need from your fellow man is a little bit of sympathy and understanding. What you don’t need is an obnoxiously arrogant fifty year old telling you that you have to get off the phone now as you’re in a quiet zone. Rolling his eyes at fellow passengers, he did his best to make the woman feel like she was two inches high, and forced her to leave her young child alone to make her necessary calls.

I felt like standing up and asking the man if, when he was a boy, he dreamed of being the kind of person who attempted to humiliate his fellow man in public. While most of his friends were imagining turning out for Manchester United or Arsenal, was he picturing making women cry in their moment of need?

Of course, I may have felt like saying all this, but unfortunately, I was seized by my own unique Britishness and so buried myself deeper into my book and just stuck virtual pins into my virtual voodoo doll instead.

No doubt he’ll do it again though, and the next time it happens, I hope he’s not so lucky. And no amount of please and thank you’s will help him then.

Are there dollars in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

When you’re a Brit exiled in America, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that the dollar has about as much value as the Zambian kwacha. For a start, whenever your friends come to visit, you have to endure the tales of how they spent sixteen straight hours shopping, and bought two pairs of jeans for the price of a bag of Maltesers. If I hear the cry of “of course, everything’s so cheap over here” one more time, I swear I will shove their over-active credit card where the sun doesn’t – and more importantly, wouldn’t want to – shine.

The flipside, of course, is that when you earn your salary in dollars and you spend any time in the UK (as I am doing for work at the moment), you find that buying a sandwich costs about as much as a Paul Smith suit. And don’t even think about having that bag of crispschips to go with it. It’s no wonder Americans don’t leave the country that often.

But the fact that the dollar is barely worth the paper it’s printed on isn’t my only problem with the US currency.

When I got to the UK earlier this week, I collected up all my dollar bills, carefully folded them up and placed them neatly in my wallet. OK, that’s a lie. I grabbed them all, scrunched them into a ball as I normally do, and stuffed them into my jeans. My pockets bulged in a frankly inappropriate fashion, such was the sheer amount of paper involved. Though I hadn’t counted it, I was fairly sure that the cash would be enough to get me a taxi home from the airport at the weekend, and still leave me change for a bagel.

Having changed jeans this morning, I totalled up the cash and found $13. It’s barely enough to get me out of the environs of JFK, let alone to buy me breakfast at the end of my journey.

It’s fair to say that the United States has an obsession with paper currency. If ever the country decides to get its arseass in gear about saving the environment, they could do worse than look at the amount of paper used to create their notes. And given that every TomBrad, DickDirk and HarryLarry in bars and restaurants gives you your change in dollar bills to ensure that you’ve got no possible excuse for not tipping, walking around after a night out can sometimes feel like going for a stroll with a ream of company letterhead in your back pocket.

Personally I’d love the US to abandon the dollar bill in favour of a coin, yet repeated attempts to introduce the dollar coin into general US circulation have failed. Probably because you’d need to be an Olympic standard clean-and-jerk weightlifting specialist to carry round all your change after an evening in a bar.

Sadly I think we’re stuck with one dollar notes for a considerable time for come. I’m seriously considering getting a large rucksackbackpack to carry around a week’s worth of change in.

Maybe when it’s full, I’ll be able to use the cash to buy a single round of drinks in Britain?

I can but dream.

London, England

Travelling to the airport on Monday, my taxi driver asked me whether I was from London. Distracted momentarily from a state of perpetual nausea caused by the constant stop-start motion of driving down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, I replied that although I was actually on my way to London, I actually originated from the North-West of England. The driver’s response? “Oh, so you’re from England, not London?”

I long ago accepted that the ‘Great’ has pretty much vanished from Britain, and that in many ways my home country is little more than a footnote in world history. Sure, we punch above our weight in certain things such as music, football and Branston Pickle production, but we’re not the force that we once were. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt that so many Americans have such a fundamental lack of geographical understanding of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as I believe it should be known.

When it comes down to it, many of the residents of my adopted country believe that the UK consists of two places – London and England. Wales is in England, “Ed-in-burrow” is in England, and the Cotswolds are probably somewhere between Big Ben and “that wheel thing”. Trying to explain where Chester is can be difficult enough when you’re talking to a Brit. But when you can’t even use Manchester and Liverpool (the UK’s third and seventh largest urban conurbations respectively) as reference points, you may as well as just give up and tell some Americans that you come from London.

I know that America is an immensely huge place, and that as a result it has cities far larger than anything that the UK can offer – other than London. Given that you can travel from one end of the UK to the other in about the same time it would take you to get from the bottom of New York State to the top, I guess it’s maybe like asking somebody from Colorado whether they’ve heard of Poughkeepsie. But even so, you’d struggle to find anybody in Britain who hadn’t heard of Seattle and Washington (the twenty-third and twenty-seventh largest cities in the US respectively).

Still, nothing’s as bad as Macy Gray proudly strutting on stage at the Glastonbury Festival a few years ago and shouting “Hello London” to a bemused crowd. After all, what’s 150 miles between friends?

Send us victorious

My attempts to immerse myself into American life continue apace. This week, I took The Eldest to his (and mine) first NBA game when we travelled to the ‘world famous’ Madison Square Garden to see the New York Knicks take on the Charlotte Bobcats. To say it was a clash of the titans would be a gross exaggeration. Both sides have lost twice as many games as they’ve won, and languish at the bottom of their respective sections of the leagueconference. It’s like Fulham playing Derby County, only with more armbands and less booting of the ball into row Z.

It’s kind of difficult to take the teams too seriously, given their respective names. The NBA contains Wizards, Timberwolves, SuperSonics, Raptors and Pistons. Call me old fashioned, but I like to see my sports teams with descriptors such as Town, City, United or Rovers. The Knicks’ full title is the New York Knickerbockers. Sure, maybe they trace their moniker back to Dutch settlers and their propensity to wear a specific type of pants, but that doesn’t mean I expect to be watching the Swindon Shell Suits or the Louisiana Legwarmers in years to come.

Actually the game itself was pretty enjoyable, especially given that the Knicks won by almost 25 points. But, like the ice hockey game I saw last year, it has to be said that the occasion was particularly without atmosphere – even a match between Chester and Mansfield, attended by 3000 people or less, can produce more chanting and singing than an NBA game it would seem.

Then again, that’s probably not surprising for a sporting occasion at which vendors walk around selling candy flosscotton candy.

Waiting for the start of the game, I was struck again by the determination of Americans to celebrate their national identity and patriotism. Sure, the person who was wheeled out to sing the national anthem was merely a local radio personality, but she belted it like there were 90 million people watching her at the Super Bowl, and had her fellow Americans whooping and hollering before she’d even got to “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

It’s a mighty contrast to the occasions on which Russell Watson or Hayley Westenra step up at Wembley or Twickenham to sing “God Save The Queen”, where the reaction varies from indifference to contempt. “The Star Spangled Banner” is a rip-roaring barnstormer of a tune in comparison – even an American Idol reject could sing it and get a standing ovation.

Fortunately, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has got a few ideas about how the British can up their game when it comes to the national anthem. “The Archers” may not mean much to Americans right now, but you’ll all be humming it by the time of London 2012.