Monthly Archives: April 2008

Washed up

I’ve always had a fascination with staying in hotel rooms, from the swankiest luxury pad to the seediest travel motel. I’ve stayed in more than my fair share over the last few years, and I’ve inexplicably never really managed to get over a childish fascination with everything from the little packets of coffee to the embroidered dressing gown that can apparently be purchased as long as you’re prepared to hand over an arm, and indeed, a leg.

I’ve had some pretty memorable hotel experiences too. A hotel in Memphis offered rooms that were larger than most of the places I’ve ever lived in my life (as well as ducks that made regular processions from the lobby to the roof, under the supervision of a duck master). A place in Majorca practically came with its own butler, while the memory of an in-room heated pool/jacuzzi in Santorini will stay with me for many years to come. If only because I was forced to get up at three in the morning to ask the hotel staff to get it to stop gurgling, while my new bride slept soundly through the whole experience.

When it comes to service though, top notch American hotels know exactly what they’re doing – and they probably do it better than anyone else, in my experience at least. Staff couldn’t be more attentive to any requests that you might have, and the facilities seem purpose designed to make sure that you have as good a time as it’s possible to have. Admittedly you pay through the nose for the experience. The hotel I’m in at the moment charges a compulsory $9 per day facility fee to charge for the gym and the delivery of a 35 cent newspaper. A facility fee? I assumed that the extortionate room rate was my fee payment for the use of the facilities, but clearly not.

What’s interesting though is that when it comes to ensuring that customers feel that they are being provided with a luxury experience, Americans always turn to the British. Show me a four or five star hotel in the US, and I will show you a place that uses British toiletry products in its bathrooms. It’s as if the British are the only people who know how to keep clean (which, if you’ve ever been to Flint in North Wales, you’ll know is far from the truth). My current hotel home has Gilchrist & Soames shampoos and body washes on offer, while recent stays have featured Molton Brown, Cowshed and Jo Malone. And that’s before you even consider the boutique offerings put together with rose petals and water by an odd bloke in his bathroom in Nottingham.

Seems that American hotels have decided that if you want to get that extra star, there’s no choice but to go English in the bathroom. Dial, Herbal Essences or American Crew just won’t cut it if you’re looking to get into the Luxury Hotels of the World book, it would seem.

Ironically, the ultimate olde Englishe bathroom brand Crabtree & Evelyn was actually launched in Cambridge in Boston. Even Molton Brown is owned by the Japanese. Seems that luxury might be going abroad if we’re not careful.

That said, it’s difficult to be too upset when you’re sitting in 85 degree heat with a cold drink on your mind.

Now, where did I put the key to the minibar?

Reality bites

I’ve been an avid follower of CSI: Miami for about three years now. However bad an actor David Caruso is, I practically live for the moments when Horatio Caine takes off his glasses and tells Frank that it’s murder.

I’ve now been in Miami for three days, and not once have I been shot at. There’s been no attempted murder, and I’ve not even been in the vicinity of a drive-by. I admittedly saw a Miami-Dade police car, but I think that had more to do with a John McCain fundraiser in my hotel, than any Emily Procter-led investigation.

Miami is known for two things – crime scene investigations, and dolphins. I’ve seen neither since I’ve been here. I’m thinking of suing under the trade descriptions act.

When the moon hits your eye

If there’s one thing that New Yorkers are particularly proud of, it’s their pizza. Now, given the staunch support of the British for their curries, I’m in no position to draw attention to the irony of the city having an Italian product as the foodstuff that most sums up their cuisine. Like the UK with its relatively large Indian population, New York has a high density of Italians, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there seems to be at least one pizza place for every ten heads of population in Manhattan.

Now, despite my love of the curry (and my upset about the inability to get a good curry in America) I am reluctantly prepared to accept that there are places in the world that make a better Indian curry than Britain. Like India, to pick a random example. But as far as a New Yorker is concerned, nobody makes pizza as well as this city. In fact, as soon as most New Yorkers get about ten miles outside the city limits, they start breaking out in a mozzarella sweat, for fear that they’re never going to eat good pizza again. As Joe Brown writes in this month’s Wired magazine, “it costs $482.79 to get a decent pizza in San Francisco – $17 for the pie, $85 for cab fare, and $378.80 for the flight to New York. Throw in $1.99 for tinfoil.”

I’m still getting used to the conventions around pizza purchase in the city. Firstly, it seems that plain cheese and tomato pizza is the only real choice of the genuine New Yorker. Sure, there may be the option of pepperoni or vegetarian, but I’m pretty sure that they’re for decorative purposes only, and that ordering one will lead to a trapdoor opening to plunge you directly into a wood-fired pizza oven. Secondly, cheese and tomato pizza is ‘plain’, and never margarita. That’s reserved for pizzas that have a bit of basil on them apparently. In this city, such flagrant flamboyance in pizza is to be discouraged. Finally, never ever ask for a cheese and tomato pizza, or even a piece of pizza. It’s a slice. And only a slice. Asking for anything else may well result in your snack having a third, less edible, topping…

In Britain, of course, having a slice of pizza from a takeaway place is pretty much the last resort of the desperately drunk (and even then only when they can’t find a doner kebab or a KFC). When I worked for a TV company in Camden, a place on the corner of the street on which we used to work sold slices of pizza that looked like they had been festering there since the early 60s. The fact that the establishment called itself “Tasty Corner” was in itself not a good sign. But after a few pints, you’d still see people taking their life into their own hands, eating pizza topped with meat so dubious that even those involved in the high pressure jet mechanical recovery of meat from animal bones would have turned their noses up at it.

Now, given my desire to blend in effortlessly with the locals, I’ve sampled New York pizza from a number of different places, and you can’t deny that it’s pretty damn good. Plenty of stringy cheese, good tomato sauce and a nice chewy base – what’s not to like?

No, the problem’s not with the taste. It’s the fact that almost without exception, these pizzas are hotter than molten lava on triangular slabs of furnace-blasted cast iron. One bite of pizza can be enough to remove most of the skin from the inside of your mouth. Having molten mozzarella clinging to your gums produces an excruciating pain that mimics what I’d imagine it’s like to have liquid candle wax splashed on your testicles. After one such nuclear pizza experience last night, my taste receptors went on immediate strike and are refusing to return unless I pay them danger money.

Interestingly, the guy who served me the aforementioned slice asked me if I wanted him to heat the pizza up, or whether I was happy with it the way it was.

The first person to invent a Hot Pizza Tongue Guard would make a fortune in this city, I swear.

Gardening leave

Back in the days when I was merely a fledgling Brit Out Of Water barely out of short trousers, I always knew it was summer when I was sitting at a wooden table in a pub garden holding a bottle of Coke with a straw in it. One or other of my parents was always with me, before you start to panic. If they hadn’t been there, obviously I’d have had a vodka in it too.

For some it might be the flowering of blossom or the smell of meat being gently yet irretrievably incinerated on a rusty barbecue, but for me the summer just didn’t get going until I could feel that heady mix of carbonated water, caramel, sugarhigh fructose corn syrup, phosphoric acid and caffeine rushing through my veins. Preferably with a packet of ready salted crisps to chase it down.

Since those days, pub gardens have formed an essential part of my summer experience. I’ve spent memorable nights lapping up the late evening sun in pubs the length and breadth of Britain. I once lost the ability to walk after an afternoon on the grassland outside The Mill in Cambridge (although that was less to do with muscular injury and more the result of the debilitating effects of scrumpy on a person’s physical coordination). And is there really anybody who isn’t capable of enjoying him or herself in a riverside pub garden along the banks of the Thames as the sun slowly sets? If there is, I don’t want to meet him.

For The Special One, the whole pub garden concept has come as a bit of a shock to the system. Most Americans believe that the world will implode if a single alcoholic drink is exposed to light or the outside world. As such, the idea of having an area outside a bar where adults can have a casual drink (and where kids can run around or play on climbing framesjungle jims) is about as socially acceptable as casually plucking hairs from warts on your great-aunt’s chin in public.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, such as the Gowanus Yacht Club in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. But given that the GYC is not on the Gowanus River, does not enable yacht mooring, is not a club, and is actually just a back yard selling beer and wine in plastic cups, it can’t actually be held to be a prime example of outdoor quaffing at its best.

New York’s in the grip of an early summer at the moment, with temperatures in the high 70s. You know something unusual Is happening when you see New Yorkers walking around with smiles on their faces. Shorts are becoming de rigeur, while women are shedding clothes in a manner that suggests they’re heading for a girl’s night out in the North of England. It’s like Britain for those ten days in July when everybody’s happy. And it’s only April.

If only there was a pub garden I could go sit in with The Special One, for a quick post-work drink, all would be well with the world.

A bottle of beer furtively wrapped in a brown paper bag just doesn’t have the same cachet, let’s face it.

Warning: this entry may cause mild tedium

I’ve always been a keen follower of TV advertscommercials from my earliest days of watching television. Admittedly, we spent most of our TV viewing time watching the BBC, where the only commercials were for that week’s editions of the Radio Times. But on the occasions we switched over for Coronation Street or It’ll Be Alright On The Night 4, I couldn’t wait for the end of the show so that the ads could begin.

Particular favourites included the footballsoccer related spot for Birdseye Steakhouse Grills (“we hope it’s chips, it’s chips, we ho-o-ope it’s chips, it’s chips”), the old-fashioned ad for Cadbury’s Fudge (“a finger of Fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat”) and who could argue with the Tango ads – even if they did kickstart the whole happy slapping “craze”.

Even when I was a kid, I had a bit of a thing for beer commercials. Sure, Melanie Sykes and her “do you want a Flake with that, love?” Manc drawl for Boddingtons may have had something to do with that. But who didn’t love the Carling Black Label “Dambusters” ad, or the succession of lager commercials from Down Under which claimed that Australians couldn’t give a Castlemaine XXXX for anything else?

But the series of ads I always loved most was for Carlsberg, with their claim that the fizzy watery concoction was “probably the best lager in the world”. It wasn’t so much that the adverts were amusing, although they generally were. But what I really loved was the tagline, chosen so that they didn’t get sued by rival manufacturers for making claims that they couldn’t actually substantiate. It’s like calling Brit Out Of Water “probably the best expat blog in New York” just so that Fish Without A Bicycle or Big Apple Little Britainer don’t get on my case.

Now on the rare occasions I get to watch TV, I’m forced to watch commercials that have about as much subtlety as a six year old with a new drumkit. Actually there are some occasional highlights such as the ads for ETrade, but generally they’re just thirty second shoutathons imploring us to buy something we don’t really need.

But like the Carling ads not wanting to overclaim, I can’t help but love the commercials for various pharmaceutical solutions, with their seemingly endless list of caveats and warnings about why their drugs might not work or why they may kill you if you use them. Most of the “spoken small print” is longer than the commercial itself, and depending on the drug involved, can cover paralysis, fits or blindness. And that’s if you’re lucky. It must kill these drugs companies to have mention every single possible side effect. Which explains why most of them employ the world’s fastest speaking man to deliver the message.

Now there’s an anti-coagulant drug called Plavix which has taken a whole new approach to the small print, employing an actor to pose as a doctor, gently informing his patient of the possible downside of using the drug. Frankly the actor isn’t going to win an Emmy for his performance – I’ve seen more convincing conspiracy theories about the death of a princess – but you’ve got to give respect to the drug company and ad agency for giving it a go.

Personally, I think I’d prefer a simple “look, we think this might work, but we saw a couple of dodgy results with the lab rats, and to be honest it could go either way. Take a chance on it if you like, but just don’t blame us if it all goes a bit haywire, OK?”.

Honesty in advertising? It’ll never catch on.

Grunt work

You’d probably have to speak to my mum about this, but it’s a fair bet to assume that when I was an insolent teen, barely a two syllable word crossed my lips. After all, why use a complicated phrase when a perfunctory grunt will suffice? Insufferable teen boys bear more resemblance to mountain gorillas than the insufferable grown men they will eventually become. Although gorillas at least tidy up after themselves, and don’t throw a strop when they’re told that they can’t watch Grange Hill and need to set the table instead.

Of course, the tried-and-tested stock phrase of the teen – male or female – is ‘uh-huh’. ‘Uh-huh’ is the gift that just keeps on giving. Trying to get an overbearing grandparent off the phone? Just ‘uh-huh’ in response to every single question (especially when the question is ‘are you capable of saying anything other than ‘uh-huh’?). Want peas with that? ‘Uh-huh’ to your heart’s content (even if the thought of peas makes your stomach turn – then at least you can throw a tantrum when they’re eventually put on your plate).

But, as I believe Paul said when he hastily typed one of his lengthy emails to the Corinthians, when we become men, we put away childish things. Or at least hide them in the corner and hope that nobody will notice. ‘Uh-huh’ was banished to the outer-reaches of our consciousness, and only called upon on occasions of national importance. Such as when The Special One asks me if I want another beer while United are on the attack in a vital season-altering game.

So ‘uh-huh’ was abandoned at about age 17, and never heard from again. Until I came to the United States, that is. Here, ‘uh-huh’ falls into the facile platitude category, and I swear that I hear it on a near daily basis. It’s essentially substituting for ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘it was nothing’. Or even ‘you’re bloody lucky that I’m such a nice guy and have demeaned myself by helping you out’.

It’s weirdly off-putting though to thank somebody profusely for their contribution to a project (even if that project is ‘ensuring that my caffeine level doesn’t dip below a five cup minimum’) and have them respond with a phrase more suited to a sweetcandy stealing youth with oozing spots and a penchant for mutilation, than to a smartly-dressed professional.

I’ve decided that the only way to counter this verbal drift is by turning the tables. Next time somebody asks me ‘what’s up’, I’m going to launch into a prolonged discussion of Japanese economics, and the effects of optimum taxation on the common man.

It’s the only language these people understand.

‘Z’ for ‘zero respect’

I’m more than 34 weeks into my American adventure, not that I’m counting. And for all the times I put my foot in it, get on a train heading in completely the wrong direction, or get looked at as if I’m a founding member of the National Association for the Protection of Cockroaches, I don’t think that I’m fitting in all that badly.

I’ve managed to give directions successfully, and can offer helpful advice to tourists stranded in the city. I barely notice that the cars drive on the wrong side of the road, and I even manage to say the word ‘jeez’ in every other sentence. OK, that last bit is a lie. All readers should feel free to shoot on sight if ever you hear me say ‘jeez’, ‘neat’ or ‘dweeb’. Tough on linguistic assimilation, tough on the causes of linguistic assimilation – it’s the only way.

Where I’m most proud is that – unlike Hillary Clinton – I seem to have developed the ability to pick the right word at the right time to suit my audience. There’ll be no misspeaking on my watch, I can tell you. My line of work is all about words, and I constantly have to make sure that I’m spelling the same word in different ways depending on who I’m writing to. And despite some initial expletive-causing errors (thankfully I can shout ‘bollocks’ at the top of my voice here, and people couldn’t care less), I’ve managed to provide color or colour, caliber or calibre, or theater or theatre in the right place at the right time in pretty much all circumstances.

In fact, so good has my ability been to become a language chameleon that I was even worried that maybe I was becoming a little too accomplished at this ‘being American’ lark. I’m possibly a little over-sensitive to any accusation of becoming more US than UK, given that a sizeable proportion of my friends regularly threaten to bring down all manner of violence on me if they ever hear even the slightest indication of a mid-Atlantic twang. Frankly, the fact that I’ve barely mastered English should be enough to convince them that I’ve got no chance of speaking American, but still they carry out precise scientific tests every time I land in Britain, just to make sure that my accent hasn’t shifted by even an nth of a degree.

Sadly, I fear that my Americanization may already be under way. Yesterday I drafted up some copy for a colleague, and correctly managed to use ‘center’, ‘licensing’ and ‘honor’ among many other words. I avoided every possible vocabulary trap with considerable aplomb, and sent it off for approval with a smile on my face.

And indeed, everything proved to be perfect. Except for one spelling mistake.

I’d spelled ‘merchandising’ with a ‘z’. Merchandizing. Every other word in the American language appears to have a ‘z’ rather than an ‘s’ before ‘ing’, so I just naturally assumed that merchandising followed suit. Incredibly, I’d managed to over-translate. I had to be taught how to use the English language by somebody whose country can’t say herb without dropping the ‘h’.

I’m more American than an American, it would seem.

Sure you can tell me that some people do spell it ‘merchandizing’ but that’s no comfort to me now. I am but a short step from eating pumpkin pie and putting my hand on my heart for the Star Spangled Banner. The end is nigh.

Wheels of steel

Am just back from a long long weekend in the UK to attend a wedding in the heart of the rather gorgeous Peak District. When you mix a lovely old stately home-type hotel, a healthy smattering of some of your best mates in the world, a seemingly limitless supply of red and white wine, and the marriage of very close pals, it’s not difficult to enjoy yourself it has to be said.

Even when you’re doing some of the DJing yourself.

I’ve always loved wedding discos. For a start, whether the first dance is by Rick Astley or Luther Vandross, it’s always intriguing to find out which track means the most to the happy couple, although statistics do prove that people who choose Def Leppard tend to be divorced shortly before the honeymoon photos have arrived. And of course, it’s always great to see Auntie Ethel and the bride’s mother’s best friend getting their groove on to the likes of Duran Duran, Wham! and Adam & The Ants.

So when you get asked to DJ at the wedding of one of your best friends, there’s only one answer. And it isn’t no.

The problem though is how to assess your crowd, and make sure that you play the right thing to get as many people dancing as possible. The last few weddings I’ve been to have been largely all-American affairs, where the music of choice is far removed from that which you’d expect at a British event. I mean, is there really a place for Menudo at a wedding?

It works the other way, as well. The look of abject horror on The Special One’s face at a wedding in the UK last year, when a stampede of people trampled her underfoot to get to the dancefloor for Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff’s “Dizzy” will live with me for a long time to come.

Of course the fact that, thanks to a small inter-marital communication breakdown, all my music had been left in a bag in our living room in Brooklyn didn’t exactly help my cause. I bet that never happens to Paul Oakenfold. With my guaranteed floor fillers left, well, on the floor, I had to rely on the leftover tunes of my fellow DJs to keep the party going. Fortunately, a couple of glasses of wine removes much of your inhibitions and doubts when it comes to playing tracks by Belinda Carlisle, as it turns out.

I even got asked to play ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ by Tiffany. I wasn’t that drunk, though, I’m pleased to report.

FFS

I’m not sure if it’s really possible to be a fan of acronyms, but I’ve always had a bit of a weird fascination with abbreviations and shortenings. I had an odd moment of satisfaction when I discovered that the TVR sports car company reflected the name of its owner and founder, Trevor. Despite years of accidentally catching advertscommercials for Bank Holiday sales at MFI, I had no idea until a few weeks ago that the abbreviation stood for Mullard Furniture Industries. And I’d love to meet Mr Block and Mr Quayle, whose orange-tastic stores that sell power tools and fertiliser still bear the B&Q name. Personally, I’m still recovering from the fact that no American would considering using the acronym DIY. Although not spending interminable weekends doing DIY is a concept that I’m much more able to understand.

But when it comes to shortening sentences and phrases into handy-to-text abbreviations, I adopt more of a zero tolerance approach. I’m tough on ridiculous acronyms, tough on the causes of ridiculous acronyms. I appreciate that it’s an attitude that makes me come across like an octogenarian whose cardigans smell of cat pee and Benson & Hedges, but I’ve just got no time for turning everyday phrases or sentences into tiny collections of nonsensical letters.

Until today, I thought it was just British youngsters that engaged in Wanton Acts Of Illicit Shortening. After all, no teen text is complete without a ROFL or TTFN. I’d rather have knives plunged into my intestines than see ‘4eva’, while ‘2moz’ makes me break out in hives. Or break into hives, and sit there until the succession of ever-more-deathly bee stings slowly take away the pain.

But then in a serious business meeting today, I had to remain resolutely unmoved when a visitor used the phrase “I know, I know! TMI, TMI!” It’s bad enough that anybody might decide that it’s appropriate to tell a story that involves ‘too much information’ when in a business setting, but do you really have to speak like you’re a ten year old with language issues? Next I’ll have people be so impressed by my gags that they’ll be LMAO (unlikely I appreciate), or saying TTFN as we say goodbye in the foyer.

The United States has come late to the SMS party, so there’s still hope that it can turn back from adopting this text language before it’s too late. After all, nobody wants the American language even more FUBAR’ed than it already is.

Lost and found

When I first came to America in 1994, my mum insisted that I should try to stand behind tall people at every opportunity. Not so that I wouldn’t be able to see the sights of cities such as New York or Boston, but actually so that I would reduce my chances of being shot. Given that I’m 6ft 2in tall, and I don’t have many NBA stars in my address book, I’ve had to take my chances over the years. Just don’t tell my mum, OK?

The fact is that there are plenty of people in the world who think that America is a land of crime and misdemeanour. After all, US law and forensics shows suggest that murder is a central part of day-to-day existence, and even Scooby Doo has a plethora of amusement park owners who would have got away with everything if it wasn’t for some pesky kids. Sometimes though, something happens that just restores your faith in American humankind.

Moving house last week, The Special One and I rented a Zipcar to move our valuables safely from one place to the other. At least that was the theory. In reality what happened was that I got distracted by the fact that we were blocking the entire pavementsidewalk as we unloaded the car, and may have unwittingly left my work bag and expensive camera behind the passenger seat by accident.

(Of course, it could conceivably be argued that The Special One might have considered checking the car when she dropped it back at the car parklot, but when I began considering formulating this admittedly flimsy line of defence, The Special One activated her ‘Don’t Even Think About It’ forcefield, and I dropped the idea with immediate effect.)

With Brit Out Of Water Senior in New York this weekend, and the Zipcar in question seemingly booked out on a near permanent basis since we returned it, I’d kind of given up on ever seeing the bag or camera again. After all, the whole point of this service is that you just rent it for an hour or so at a time, so a dozen or so people could have been in the car since we left it.

As a result, it was a bit of a surprise this morning to find that somebody had been through my bag, found my business card, and left a message for me at work letting me know that she had found my stuff in the car, and had put it in the boottrunk for safety. The car had even been taken for a service by Zipcar all day today, and the items had still remained firmly untouched.

The tragic thing is that the only British experience I have to compare this to is a recent trip to the UK for work. Despite flying British Airways business class, and being the last passenger to leave the weird little upstairs cabin, there was strangely no sign of my brand new iPod when the cleaning staff came to clear the plane shortly afterwards. British Airways didn’t bother responding to my email of complaint, and their lost property agents Excess Baggage denied all responsibility in a terse twenty-word email. Customer service – you can’t beat it.

And yes, I should probably be more careful with my valuable in future. If I have to be on the receiving end of one of The Special One’s unique ’equal measures of disappointment and disbelief’ looks again in the next few months, I might be back in (deep) water before I know it.