Monthly Archives: May 2008

Keeping your distance

Back in my rock’n’roll days (now such a distant memory that they appear to be in black and white with no sound), I spent far too much time at aftershow parties for bands I didn’t like, with my good friend Mr MacBottom (don’t ask). One exception though was a post-gig party for Mansun, the band from my hometown of Chester who could only be described as “prog-rock”. I say could only be described as prog-rock, but to be honest some people might have called them “the poor man’s Pink Floyd”, “pop genius all too often punctuated by rambling guitar solos” or “tiresome indie rock”. But not me. I loved them.

I think the band were, in reality, vainglorious arts students who liked the sound of their own music a little bit too much, but that didn’t stop me going to their aftershow upstairs at London’s Kilburn National. After all, where there was free booze, you’d find this still-impoverished recent student. To be fair, nothing much has changed.

Excessive quantities of cheap cooking lager later, and this Brit Then In Water had to make the first of several pitstops at the toilet. Or ‘the facilities’, as I believe I have to call it here. I’ve spent all my life thinking that a facility is an ability to do something, or maybe a hospital. Move three and a half thousand miles and you suddenly discover that it’s something you take a leak in.

As is standard procedure in an empty toilet, I made for the urinal furthest from the door, and began the laborious Heineken-removal process. Within ten seconds, another man entered and – again following the textbook to the absolute letter – he positioned himself at the urinal furthest away from me. Eventually we both looked over at each other at the exact same point, grunted an ‘alright?’ in mutual recognition of the fact that thirteen gallons of beer takes a long time to get rid of, and then carried on as normal.

The fact that the other bloke was Andrew Lincoln (Mark from ‘Love Actually’ to my American readership, but inextricably Egg from ‘This Life’ to most Brits) is neither here nor there. The fact is that in Britain there are very clear unwritten guidelines on personal space that are carefully adhered to by most members of the population. Nobody gets too close to anyone else, a principle which probably explains the stiff upper lip if it’s applied equally to emotions.

I’d always thought that it was all different in the US, with everybody in each other’s face given even half a chance. But recently on the subway, I’ve seen that the same social norms apply even here.

I get on the L train in Manhattan at the end of the line, meaning the train is often empty when I board. This allows me to sit wedged up at the end of one of the rows of sets that run the length of my section of the carriage. Largely without fail, the next person to enter my section will sit on the opposite side of the carriage, and at the opposite end of the row of seats, so that we are diagonally separated by the greatest possible distance. Passenger 3 will sit on the same side as me but at the other end. And Passenger 4 will sit immediately opposite me. All four of us are perfectly spaced. If this had happened just once, I’d put it down to coincidence. But it’s happened so often, I’m starting to believe that I’ve missed a compulsory class on subway seat positioning. The author of ‘Urinal Etiquette: A Textbook Explanation’ couldn’t have organiszed it any better himself.

Ironically, most New York subway trains smell of urine. Maybe people are taking the philosophy a little too literally?

New York in three words

If you’re of a particularly nervous disposition, New York is one of those cities that can chew you up and spit you out. It’s a city that takes no prisoners, and you just have to dive in and hope for the best (or grab some armbandswater wings and get yourself into the shallow end). I’ve had to learn to develop a thick skin, not take things too seriously, and always be ready for every eventuality. And that’s just in my dealings with The Special One.

To be fair, when I first moved to London, I hated it with a level of passion that I had only previously managed to demonstrate when eating egg and beetroot salad. The fact that I lived with a curly haired freak who played the saxophone at all hours of the day, and that I was duly forced to retreat to my bedroom the size of a malnourished cloakroom to escape, didn’t help. Nor did working for a company that let me cut my teeth in journalism but at the same time managed to provide me with a healthy understanding of the standard of human rights for employees in, say, North Korea.

It took a year, and a change of employer, before I finally managed to feel like I belonged in the big smoke. And I’ve certainly settled into New York much more quickly than that. But having an insider guide me through the nuances and vagaries of New York life has certainly helped immeasurably.

Of course, not everybody is so fortunate. Particularly when English isn’t your first language. Not that English is necessarily the first language of New Yorkers either. I have it on good authority that the 2000 census found that the primary language of the city was Anger, with Impatiencism being the most-followed religion.

On the subway into work yesterday, a young Russian woman sat next to me, eagerly reading language flash cards in a bid to improve her vocabulary. Each card had one English word on the front, while the back featured the pronunciation and an explanation of the meaning of the word. In the short time I was sitting next to the woman, I saw her examine three individual words – three words that took her one (or three) steps closer to feeling like she truly belongs here.

So what were the words that flash card manufacturers decided were vital to include in their tools for people learning English for use in New York? ‘Cab’, ‘tip’ and ‘pizza’ perhaps? Or maybe ‘bagel’, ‘coffee’ and ‘liberty’?

Nope.

‘Vicious’, ‘unyielding’ and ‘wily’.

She may not be able to order breakfast, but if she ever fancies buying a used car in the city then she’s got everything she needs to know.

On top of the world

It’s an oft-shared observation that Americans aren’t ones to hide their light under a collective bushel. Indeed, while there are plenty of people willing to hold their light high for all to see, it’s arguable that there’s long been some kind of national bushel shortage in America (almost certainly prompted by the Truman government’s decision to raise bushel taxes to punitive levels in 1952). Put simply, if an American is good at something, they won’t be afraid to tell you (as well as the 73 people standing within a 400 metre radius).

America loves winning, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It just takes a little getting used to when you come from a country that revels in the exploits of renowned losers such as Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, and regularly turns on its most successful sons and daughters as soon as they achieve long-sought-after success. Let the world know about your victories in America and you’re a hero; tell a Brit that you won a competition in Whizzer & Chips, and you’re arrogant or full of yourself. American immigration officials should seriously consider issuing all UK citizens with their own trumpet to blow, for use immediately upon entry to the United States.

Of course, if you’re going to say that you’re the greatest at anything, then you’ve really got to live up to the tag. And to be fair, many Americans are more than capable of doing exactly that – Muhammad Ali being a particularly fine example. The flipside is that if you start boasting that you’re going to whip somebody’s arseass and fail to do so, you have to be prepared to endure a certain amount of schadenfreude. Yes Mary Decker Slaney, I’m thinking of you and your unfortunate meeting with Zola Budd’s foot in Los Angeles in 1984…

Fortunately, as I’m not the greatest at anything in particular, I’ve got precious little to live up to myself. Although I did once win a wheelbarrow race on school sports day. My ‘barrowing partner was Phil Collins. Genesis must have had a break in their touring schedule that day.

But it seems that I can now achieve greatness by association, as – according to a few references that I’ve seen over the last few days – I apparently live in The Greatest City On Earth.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love New York City. I’ve been coming here for fourteen years, and after London and Chester, it’s probably the city I’ve spent most time in during my life. But clearly I missed The Greatest City On Earth competition when all the nations of the world gathered round for a democratic vote and declared my adopted home the premier location on the planet. The good folks of Basildon must have been gutted to have narrowly missed out.

A Google search on “the greatest city on Earth” throws up Paris, Buenos Aires, Detroit, Chicago, and indeed New York, as possible locations for the greatest city on Earth, so clearly the title’s still under dispute. Whether or not New York really is the greatest isn’t particularly important. But you can’t help but admire the sheer cohones of city residents for seizing the tagline as their own, rather than waiting for anyone to bestow it upon them.

I’m going to start calling this site The Greatest Blog About US-UK Cultural Differences Written By A 6ft 2in Bloke From Chester. It may actually only be in the top five in this admittedly narrow category, but if I say it enough, it might even stick.

Taking control

Possibly because this is supposed to be the land of opportunity, most people living in America take some kind of ‘you only live once’ approach to life in general. Working on the principle that if you don’t ask you don’t get, the population of New York (and in my experience, most other places in America) makes sure that it always asks. And generally ends up more than a little upset if it doesn’t get.

As a result, most people in this country tend to speak their mind. Given that I come from a country where the majority of people say what is expected of them (and then silently seethe for at least fourteen years afterwards), that comes as a bit of a shock to the system to say the least.

For instance, when asked by a waiter how a (particularly poor) meal was, most Britons would inevitably say “it was great thanks”, “wonderful” or “really good”. In America, such a question might result in a five minute diatribe invoking at least two of the constitutional amendments, and a suggestion that the parentage of the waiter might be in doubt.

Nothing wrong with speaking your mind and not swallowing your pride, though. Such forthrightness and willingness to stand up for what you believe in is why there’s a Stars & Stripes flying over Florida today rather than a Union Jack, after all.

But being deprived of your social norms is difficult to come to terms with, to say the least.

Today I wandered the streets of Brooklyn in search of orange oil. I’ve no idea what orange oil is either (although if pushed I might guess that it was oil derived from an orange). But our new cleaner insists it’s the only thing she will use to clean our floors, so I had little choice in the matter. Only in America can you get bossed around by your cleaner.

But that’s just a disconcerting aside. The fact is that I went into about twelve shops in search of this elusive orange oil, only to be denied every time. Eventually I walked into what looked like an alternative health foods/products store, only to find that it was actually a swanky organic cosmetics and potions place.

Now, placed in the same circumstances, most Americans would turn on their heels and walk out. But given that I was born in Britain, I had to head all the way into the store, pretend to have a look round, and then frame my features in such a way as to say “you know, this is exactly the kind of thing that I was looking for, but I’ve just remembered that an electrician is coming to my house in five minutes, so I’d better hurry back in case I miss him.”

As tends to be the case in these circumstances, the woman behind the counter asked if I needed any help. And, giving a textbook answer, I responded with “No thank you, I’m just looking.”

Now, in any other country, such a response would lead to a polite smile from the assistant, or maybe even a “Well if you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Not in New York. Barely had the words left my mouth before she countered with “Well you shouldn’t walk so fast if you’re looking, should you?”

Obviously I shot her a look of disgust, told her in no uncertain terms that I would never frequent her store again, and marched out with my head held high.

Oh who am I kidding? I slowed down, started picking things up and reading the ingredients, and almost ended up buying some ridiculously over-expensive white tea.

That showed her who was boss, I can tell you.

Manners maketh man

They – whoever they may be – say that if you want to find a gentleman, you should head to England. With his impeccable deportment, chivalrous commitment and polite manners, the Englishman is apparently the ultimate charming and debonair male.

In truth, of course, for every Cary Grant (try to claim him if you want my American friends, but we Brits all know him as Archie Leach from Bristol), there’s an ASBO-toting Joey Barton-esque knuckle-grazing idiot for whom being charming means offering his girlfriend a sip of his pint of Stella.

The reality is that – in New York at least – whether it’s holding doors open, offering up seats on the bus or pulling out chairs, most American men seem to have an unerring commitment to etiquette. Of course, I’ve not been introduced to the more lairy members of Alpha Tau Omega (and I’m not planning on inviting them round for a – erm – ‘kegger’ just yet), but it seems to me that Americans are just as polite as their English counterparts.

I just wish that I could say as much for most American women.

Whenever I attempt to get off a subway train and am impeded by an impatient commuter desperate to grab an empty seat, it’s never a bloke who nearly knocks me off my feet rather than waiting for passengers to get off first. When somebody has a heavy steel door held open for them, but fails to look back to make sure that they’re not slamming the door in my (now slightly flattened) face, it tends not to be a guy. And invariably when I’ve been waiting ten minutes to hail a cab in the rain, and have the only vacant taxi in Manhattan stolen from me by somebody who only turned up thirty seconds previously, it’s not a man who sneers as he jumps into the car and speeds off. With the cab powering through an adjacent puddle as it disappears into the distance.

Maybe I’ve just been unlucky? Maybe New York women are taking revenge for years of unacceptable behaviour from Wall Street oafs? Or maybe the females of the city are on a collective mission to send me scuttling back to the UK with the tail between my legs?

Thankfully The Special One hasn’t succumbed to this dastardly plot yet. Although if I put my shoes on the newly-made bed one more time, my luck might start to run out.

Anyway, what do I know about etiquette? After all, I’m the man who seized upon an empty seat on the packed train last night, beating a slowly approaching man to the restful prize. Clearly, the fact that he had dark glasses and a white stick didn’t help him get there any quicker.

Despite immediately and apologetically leaping to my feet to offer him the seat, the man refused to sit down and instead stood for fifteen minutes until another seat became available. While all the rest of the carriage stared at me with the look of contempt specifically reserved for people who would deny a partially-sighted men the seat he so richly deserves.

Perhaps I’m just embracing my (New York) feminine side?

The love of the game

If I was still living in the UK, I’d be squashed up in the back of a cab right now with The Best Man, The Beancounter and Sickly Child on the way to Luton to catch a flight to Moscow. A flight containing two hundred already drunk slightly overweight men gently sweating nicotine and harassing flight attendants. On arrival, I’d be questioned at length about my right to be in the country before being herded onto a poky Russian bus. I’d then be forced into a segregated compound for hours on end, denied the right to drink even a watery beer, and have to spend an age queuing for the right to relieve myself in a excrement smeared portaloo. After around three hours of bowel-clenchingly unbearable tension, I’d be manhandled back onto a bus, back to the airport, and onto a plane with two hundred practically feral men. Part way through the four hour flight, I’d celebrate my 36th hour without sleep by removing the beer belly of a slobbering electrician from Billericay from my arm rest. Once back at Luton, I’d have to endure a three hour journey across London in rush hour traffic just for the right to fall back into my bed.

Oh, and I’d have paid £750 for the whole privilege.

Strangely, I’d pay twice that much to be in the back of that cab now.

Football – it’s a funny old game.

So sue me

No word sums up America quite as well as ‘litigious’. So conscious am I of the propensity of my fellow citizens to engage the services of a lawyer that I can barely bring myself to go to the toilet at work, for fear that the sound of me relieving myself will cause untold emotional trauma to some unwitting bystander who subsequently sues for $25m.

Of course, most Americans go through their lives without even knowing the name of a good attorney, let alone leafing through the pages of Money Grabbing Bastard Monthly in order to find one to employ. But there’s definitely a group of people who are prepared to sue at the drop of a hat. Especially if the hat is dropped on their big toe, bringing a tragically early end to their once promising tap-dancing career.

Now a New York resident Gokhan Mutlu is suing JetBlue Airways for $2m after being forced to sit in a toilet for three hours on a flight to California. Apparently he was turfed out of his seat by a flight attendant who originally agreed to sit in the jumpseat so that Mutlu could board, but then actually found it too uncomfortable for the flight.

Being honest, it’s difficult to find much sympathy for any of the parties involved.

Certainly there’s no sympathy for the pilot, who allegedly told the passenger that “he was the pilot, that this was his plane, under his command that (Mutlu) should be grateful for being on board.” I mean, I will barely say a rude word to the world’s worst waiter in New York in case they decide to sue for discrimination against serving staff, so it’s difficult to understand why the pilot thought that he could get away with attacking a passenger.

Nor for the flight attendant, whose poor little bottom got a bit more uncomfortable than she thought it would to get in the jump seat, and so had to persuade the pilot to make the nasty passenger sit in the toilet so that she could give her derriere the cushioned home it so richly deserved.

And don’t even get me started on the passenger. Sure, it’s possibly dangerous to sit with no safety belts in the bathroom. And it’s probably pretty humiliating too. But how humiliating does something have to be before you deserve $2m for your troubles? Frankly if I was paraded naked infront of a crowd of people that included my mother, all my ex-girlfriends and the entirety of The Special One’s extended family, maybe I’d think that I’d deserve a million or so.

But sitting on a toilet and missing the chance to pay two dollars to get the chance to watch yet another movie featuring Jennifer Aniston, doth not a couple of million dollars make.

Frankly, if it meant avoiding the sorry excuse for food that most American airlines serve, he should have shaken the pilot by the hand and thanked him for the best flight he’d ever had.

On song

You get a better class of crazy in this city, you know. Walking along a side street a few blocks from Times Square last night, I saw (and indeed heard) a dawdling dishevelled old man, singing at the absolute top of his voice. I’m guessing, but he looked like he was about 70 years old and almost certainly homeless, given his ragtag collection of battered plastic bags.

Nothing particularly odd in any of that – sometimes it feels like you’re part of a vast travelling choir in New York, such is the number of people who think that it’s perfectly acceptable to share their tone-deaf warblings with the rest of the world.

But how many 70 year old down-and-out guys in London would have Rihanna’s “Umbrella” as their song of choice, particularly given that it was about 75 degrees and blue skies at the time?

Actually, he didn’t have a bad voice when it came down to it. If Prince ever needs a slightly older frayed-around-the edges replacement, can I suggest he starts the search in the homeless shelters of Hell’s Kitchen?

Speed bumps

Everything goes so fast in New York. An official city decree in 1967 removed three seconds from every New York minute, meaning that the pace of life is actually 5% quicker than anywhere else in the world (and around 500% quicker than Newark Airport in New Jersey, where every minute spent feels like an eternity). Whether you’re ordering food or having a chat in the corridor, everything seems to be done at breakneck speed. Either that or everybody’s desperate to be in my presence for as little time as possible.

It’s not as if everything in London is slow either. Compared to my upbringing in sleepy Chester (and even sleepier North Wales), London was a veritable Formula OneNASCAR race. After all, even the lunchtime sandwiches are pre-packaged that morning to ensure that you don’t even have to wait for your cheese and pickle sarnie to be made. But nothing can really prepare you for the look of contempt you get from someone in New York if you dare to dawdle over an important life choice. Such as whether to have brown rice or white rice, for instance.

The pace of life in New York means that impatience is an overriding characteristic of a large number of residents of the city. The car horn must be more utiliszed in this city than most places on earth, with a quick blast being all it takes to ensure that drivers get to their eventual destination approximately 0.5 seconds before they would otherwise have done. Such impatience even affects The Special One, who could walk into an empty Starbucks and still be annoyed that the ‘barista’ had the audacity to blink before taking her order.

The need for speed translates onto the subway, as well. Don’t get me wrong, waiting for a train can be more painful than having your wisdom teeth extracted with only a non-alcoholic beer for anaesthetic. But once you’re on an express train, you get the distinct impression that the driver has just remembered that he’s left the iron on at home, and his favourite TV show is about to start. In particular, the run from Union Square to Canal Street on the N train is vaguely reminiscent of Marty McFly’s De Lorean-powered race against time on the streets of Hill Valley. Certainly, I’ve never been at the back of the train, but I assume that fire tracks are left in our wake.

Of course, the problem when you’re a 6ft 2 bloke with about as much balance as a gin-soaked flamingo, standing on a train that’s racing around the bumps and bends of the transport system can be dangerous. Not so much for myself, but for those standing in the immediate vicinity of my size elevens.

Sadly, there’s a dainty open-toe shoe-wearing young lady in the New York metropolitan area who’s almost certainly walking with a pronounced limp this morning.

‘Sorry’ may seem to be the hardest word, but it’s definitely never felt quite so inadequate.