Monthly Archives: July 2008

A little bit of politics

I was accidentally included on an email exchange today between a few intelligent Americans talking about Barack Obama’s recent Berlin speech. The back-and-forth quickly turned into a discussion regarding America’s role in the post-World War II rehabilitation of Europe. The Marshall Plan was, after all, one of a series of important measures that helped rebuild the economies and cities of the battered continent. Sure, there may have been a little bit of self-interest, but nobody’s doubting that America stepped up to the plate when it needed to.

But every so often in any debate about foreign policy, someone will make a comment that forces you to question whether you actually read the email correctly. The kind of statement that makes you wonder why Americans are surprised to find out that some people regard them as pariahs in the international arena.

A statement that in this case reads “if it wasn’t for us, 90% of the world would be speaking Russian.”

The 43rd President of the United States is near-universally derided as the worst occupant of the Oval Office, but you’ve got to imagine that even he would have second thoughts about saying something like this.

By the way, I read that an AOL poll on who should be the next president has John McCain ahead on 64%. Will the last person to leave America please turn the lights out?

A lesson in money management

I still vividly remember the feeling I had when I first lost a substantial amount of money. I was probably about twelve years old, and my sister and I were visiting my grandmother’s house with She Who Was Born To Worry (aka my mum). My grandmother lived just outside Chester, and I often used to be allowed to take a short walk to the corner to get a newspaper or some sweetscandy. Walking back from one such mission – no doubt with a sherbert fountain or a quarter of chocolate limes in my hand – I reassuringly patted the back pocket of my jeans to check for my money, only to find it was no longer there.

Obviously, I retraced my steps in an attempt to find the little leather wallet, getting more and more frantic as I remembered the £10 note (a birthday gift from one relative or another) that had been neatly folded up within. But it was nowhere to be found. I tearfully walked back to my grandmother’s house, and dutifully received the ten minute lecture on looking after my money. All I could think about for the next five days was the lucky git who had picked up my wallet, and was now probably sitting smugly in their house surrounded by what felt like a lifetime’s supply of cola cubes or wine gums.

Of course, since that day I’ve lost plenty more money. Sometimes it’s fallen out of my pocket, and on others it’s been willfully extracted by The Best Man, The Beancounter or Sickly Child playing poker on a trip up North to see Manchester United. I’ve also found money, although wherever possible I’ve tried to hand it in just in case it belonged to another forlorn 12 year old with an inability to keep his cash safe. That’s not to say that I haven’t seen a twenty quid note floating on the breeze with no one else in sight, and deftly pocketed it. I mean, I’m an idealist but I’m not a fool.

As a result, maybe last night was karma wreaking its revenge.

Picking up a few items at the local supermarketgrocery store in order to feed a sickly Special One, I pulled a twenty dollar note out of my jeans pocket at the cash desk. Given that the dollar is like toy money, and you can pick up a notebook worth of dollar bills in any one day, I have a startlingly bad habit of stuffing all my bills into a pocket in one giant (but worthless) wad. Sadly that wad sometimes includes a few coins, and last night three or four quarters came flying out and scuttled across the floor.

More embarrassed at the noise than anything else, I quickly picked up the three coins that had fallen at my feet. Another had rolled no more than a couple of yards away, and a man in his fifties kindly bent down to pick it up for me. I smiled self-consciously at the shop assistant, paid for my shopping, then turned to the good samaritan for him to return the coin.

Except the man wasn’t there any more. He’d picked up my quarter and walked off with it.

Community spirit – you can’t beat it.

The war on New York’s streets

Back in the days when The Special One and I were dating, and I was still a Brit Very Much In Water, the two of us made a pilgrimage up to my home city Chester so that she could meet my mum for the first time. The day beforehand, The Special One had experienced one of the UK’s finest summer traditions at a lunch at The Best Man’s house, although it has to be said that ‘eating a barbecued sausage that is incinerated on the outside and practically raw inside’ won’t generally feature in Vanity Fair’s catch-all feature on the Things That You Simply Must Do In London. Still, it does mean that The Special One will always be able to say that the first gift her future mother-in-law gave her upon meeting was a package of pharmaceutical cures to address the, erm, ‘issues’ associated with food poisoning.

Thankfully, the symptoms quickly subsided, and the three of us were able to take a walk around the city to see some of the sights. For those of you who are not acquainted with Chester, it’s an entirely walled Roman city that was founded in the first century AD. Originally known as Deva, the city has been intensely developed over the years, but there are still Roman remains throughout the centre including an amphitheatre, ornamental gardens, and a shrine to Minerva. Hell, there’s even a shopping centre called The Forum, although that admittedly owes more to the great god of Greggs The Bakers than to the Romans.

Strolling around, The Special One was struck by just how much Roman ‘stuff’ (I think that’s the collective noun for a lot of Roman artifacts, but please do correct me if I’m wrong) there is scattered around. There are bits of pipe outside the library, an old strongroom near the Dublin Packet pub, and various columns all over the place. It’s pretty much impossible to walk for more than ten minutes without seeing a remain or two.

Of course, Americans are fascinated by old stuff. Not to say that the British aren’t, but I guess it’s always a bit more impressive to see Roman remains when in your own country a McDonalds wrapper from 1973 counts as ancient history. Sure, there are native Indian remains in various places, and the current Republican presidential candidate must surely have been around when the Liberty Bell was cast, but American cities aren’t exactly blessed with a wealth of history. That doesn’t make them bad places, I hasten to add – it just means that there’s a profound contrast for Americans when they see Roman remains in Europe.

None of this fascination, however, explains New York women’s current obsession with wearing sandals that make them look like gladiators going into war. The first time I saw somebody wearing a pair of these, I had to look around to see if I had missed a battle reconstruction that was going on down the block. Sadly the lack of 800 centurions in full costume led me to the reluctant conclusion that the woman was doing it of her own free will. Clearly however, I assumed that she was a one-off – a Russell Crowe fetishist with a talent for leatherwork and a high tolerance of people pointing and staring, maybe? But now I seem them every time I leave the office, in all manner of shapes and sizes. New York has quite literally gone gladiator sandal mad.

I reckon somebody in a shop somewhere in Manhattan is convincing gullible consumers that these things are genuine centurion’s footwear, excavated from just outside Salisbury, and polished up for the modern-day consumer market.

Thankfully, as with all fashions, it’s just another passing trend. Sadly, next week is probably due to witness the olde worlde doublets and breeches revival. There’s no accounting for taste.

New York’s 50mph strip show

I’m on a new diet, which I like to call the Subway Diet. No, I don’t mean that I’m eating nothing but dubious meats (all made from turkey, regardless of what they outwardly claim to be) on footlong bread rolls. It might have worked for Jared Fogle, but the idea of eating Subway sandwiches twice a day for a year is enough to send me galloping into the arms of the nearest deep fat fryer.

Instead, this diet involves no change to your eating patterns whatsoever. No counting of calories, no avoiding carbohydrates, and no high protein milkshakes. Infact, all you need is one New York subterranean transit system and an oppressively hot summer. Add in an extended delay on a platform as you wait for a train to arrive, and you’ll be losing pound after pound in sweat before you know it. Just watch that weight drip off!

By the end of their journey, most passengers – myself very much included – look like they’ve just spent two hours in the wave pool at Rhyl Sun CentreHurricane Harbor. Sure, the carriages themselves are relatively cool, but there’s an ancient New York City by-law which decrees that at least one of the ten or so carriages on every train has to have broken air-conditioning. You might get a seat, but travelling in the transportational equivalent of a Turkish bath wouldn’t make it onto anyone’s list of 50 Things To Do Before You Die.

The heat on the platforms, coupled with the fact that trains are as regular as Halley’s Comet, means that people have started taking extra clothes with them to change into once they’ve arrived at work. I say “once they get to work”, but in reality, most people seem to wait until just before they reach their final stop and then whip out that new shirt or blouse to replace their sodden travel kit.

Essentially, New York has turned its subway trains into high speed changing rooms. With clothes hanging from metal rails, and commuters laden down with outfits for every occasion, it’s only a matter of time before they start installing mirrors in every carriage or ask how many items you’re taking onto the train before you board.

Lord knows I can’t change

You might know me as the mild mannered janitor of this esteemed property, but I have a secret. A secret dark enough that it only speaks its name to a select few. A secret that I only shared with The Special One a few months before our wedding, for fear that she would call the whole thing to a grinding halt. It was touch-and-go for a while, it has to be said, and the secret still regularly brings her to the point of tears whenever it pops involuntarily into her head.

But now I don’t care who knows – I love “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners with a passion. Say it once, say it loud, I too-rye-aye and I’m proud.

I don’t know what it is about the song that I adore so much. Maybe it’s the feelgood intro, the “poor old Johnny Raaaaaaaay” lyrics, or the impossibly catchy piano line – but whatever it is, I can’t get it out of my head for about three weeks after I’ve heard it again. No wedding is complete in my mind without a bit of “Come On Eileen”, and the mere sight of dungarees (or overalls as I laughingly believe they’re called over here) can send me into a Dexy’s whirl.

Now clearly, not everyone is as comfortable as I am in their own musicality but I promise you that – deep down – half of Britain feels exactly the same as me. Admittely the other half would rather have rusty nails hammered into their skull, but that’s a side issue. The thing is that certain pop songs are irrevocably specific to one country and its people. Name a Brit who doesn’t know all the words to Robbie Williams’ “Angels” and I will show you a liar. As I mentioned here, the Special One is still recovering from the stampede to the dancefloor which occurred when “Dizzy” by Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff was played at a wedding we attended a couple of years ago. And it’s probably best not to talk about her reaction to the playing of the theme from “Minder”.

Obviously, America has its own selection of songs that do exactly the same thing – most of which mean absolutely nothing to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times The Special One and I have been in the car, and she’s suddenly turned the sound up on the radio to listen to a top tune, only for me to find out that it’s something along the lines of “Born To Break The Levee” by Harry Walton & The Tennessee Turncoats. I count myself as a man who knows a bit about music, but here it’s almost as if I’ve had all my cultural reference points removed in a botched surgical operation that was merely meant to take out my tonsils.

However, the one epochal American pop song that I’m all too familiar with is “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mention “Free Bird” to any American, and their eyes drift off mistily to college days and their time with long-haired Megan with the impossibly flexible limbs/the night with butch quarterback Howie (and his roommate Mitch). Mention the song to a Brit, and they’ll ask “is that the one that Will To Power combined with Peter Frampton’s ‘Baby I Love Your Way’?”

The fact is that “Free Bird” is effectively the American national anthem – a statement of the country’s unwillingness to play nicely with anyone else, and its insistence on independence at all costs. And despite its dubious intentions, it’s universally loved and remains one of the most played songs on American radio.

But why for the love of all that is good and virtuous does it have to be so sodding long? The song came on the radio when The Special One and I were leaving Rhode Island on Sunday afternoon, and I would swear it was still playing when we entered New York state three hours later. I’ve had shorter relationships than that song. If US forces ever need to employ noise warfare techniques again to force Central American drug barons into the open, they could do worse than to consider the “Free Bird” guitar solo.

Spot the difference

July 2007

A man walks into a doctor’s surgery in South West London, under extreme pressure from his wife-to-be, to get his allegedly high blood pressure looked at. The surgery smells like all doctors the length and breadth of the UK – a heady mix of two parts flatulent old lady, one part Brut aftershave, and one part child’s vomit (three day vintage). The scene is like something from a refugee camp in war-torn Uganda, with the sick of the area having wheezed, oozed and staggered their way into a waiting area so large that the end-of-season football playoffs could conceivably be played there.

Stepping over the wounded to get to the cinder block reception, the man stands for five minutes waiting for Doris to finish her conversation with Patricia about the size of Mr Harris’s piles. No, not Mr Harris from Watling Close – the one from Ridgemount Drive who was having the affair with the hairdresser from Belmont Hill. You know, the one with the hoop earrings who’s already on her third marriage?

Eventually Doris turns to the man and asks which of the seventeen doctors he’s here to see. Once he’s been redirected to the reception on the other side of the room, and endured a similar delay while he waits for Mabel to discuss last night’s episode of Heartbeat with Sandra, he eventually checks in and scans the room for somewhere to sit.

Our hero uses both hands to lift and move the beer gut occupying the last remaining space in the room, wiping off some unidentifiable residue from the orange plastic seat as he does so. Wedging himself into the seat alongside the aforementioned Beer Gut, he ducks quickly to avoid a flying red plastic Fisher Price brick which has ‘accidentally’ ‘slipped’ from the hand of the five year old convict-in-waiting to his left.

On the table ahead of him lay three magazines. Having rejected a copy of Hello magazine from 1994 (featuring Mandy Smith on the cover) and Weight Watchers’ 101 Low Fat Classics, he plumps for a relatively new (only four years old) copy of Top Gear magazine. Sadly, the cover is merely masking an issue of Coeliacs Monthly, the new publication for intestinal disease sufferers everywhere. He wearily puts it down and forces himself to read an informational pamphlet on the warning signs to look out for when you’re having a stroke.

Forty five minutes later, the man is convinced he has at least three symptoms, although the pain running up and down his left arm could conceivably be caused by the angle at which he’s having to hold himself to avoid resting his elbow on his neighbour’s man boobs.

Finally, an announcement over the loudspeaker informs him that it’s his turn to see the doctor, and gives him a lengthy set of directions to get to the relevant office. Given that the PA system is now 43 years old and replacement parts are no longer available, the muffled instructions (to head down the corridor, take the first right, and then the fourth door on the left) are unclear, and our hero spends the next ten minutes inadvertently interrupting old men having their prostates examined before finally managing to track down his GP.

July 2008

A man walks into a doctor’s surgery in New York’s SoHo, under extreme pressure from his long suffering wife to get his allegedly high blood pressure looked at. He takes the liftelevator to the second floor, and quietly remarks to himself that he wishes Americans would accept that it’s really the first floor. Stepping out of the elevator, he walks past a gentle waterfall that takes up an entire wall in the corridor that leads to the reception desk.

Eva Cassidy’s version of Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” plays gently across the loudspeaker as he approaches the desk. The receptionist looks up, smiles and asks how he is. By name. Having extracted a $20 fee (or “co-pay”, as she calls it) by credit card, she asks him to settle down in one of the chocolate brown leather sofas nearby. He is the only person in the waiting area.

Healthcare free at the point of entry vs extortionate health insurance. You pays your money (or not), you takes your choice.

I still had to wait forty five minutes with eight year old magazines as my sole entertainment, though.

Expect the unexpected

Like Drew Barrymore and her endless ability to score the lead roles in sappy rom-coms, A Brit Out Of Water would be nothing without a stereotype. Don’t get me wrong, I like to tell it as I see it, but sometimes you just have to fall back on good old-fashioned exaggeration to get your point across. I am, after all, a man.

For instance, where would all the fun be if I didn’t characterise the British as ever-so-slightly repressed stuck-in-the-muds with a predilection towards moral superiority and a penchant for inbreeding. And if I didn’t insist that that the sun never shines and that black pudding is compulsory by law on Tuesdays and Fridays, you’d probably not even believe that I was British in the first place.

Meanwhile all Americans have cameras with lenses longer than their arms, eat sandwiches filled with enough meat to feed a small army, and have a commitment to pronunciation that can at best be described as ‘perfunctory’. Obviously, most New Yorkers are brash, rude, and wouldn’t know the phrase ‘thank you’ if it came up to them and whacked them in the head with a bag full of bagels.

If stereotypes were to be believed, of course, the French are garlic eating surrender monkeys whose all-encompassing arrogance makes them the most self-involved nation outside, well, Britain. Certainly, legend would have it (and occasional experience has confirmed) that as a general rule they’re not particularly patient when it comes to dealing with foreigners who get in their way. So when The Special One had a small vehicular malfunction on our holidayvacation on a narrow and hilly road last week, and the traffic built up around us, I expected the honking horns to rise to a rousing crescendo within a matter of moments.

Not a bit of it. Everybody got out of their cars and gathered around us, offering advice and comfort as we sought to get a car with the power of a small lawnmower over the brow of a particularly steep hill. There was practically wild applause as we finally got going, the locals waving us on our way as they joyfully returned to their cars. Stereotypes count for nothing in this beautiful part of the world, I can tell you.

Unless you’re talking about back seat drivers, that is. Fourteen years without having sat behind the wheel, and I still managed to offer a barrage of misplaced advice and unhelpful tips. I’m just grateful that The Special One didn’t have a bag of bagels with her…

Help me if you can

I was back in the commuting saddle today, scuttling into the city with the rest of the ants. After a week in the sun, I don’t mind admitting that the experience was particularly painful. Almost as painful as a torturous opening sentence that mixes metaphors containing horses and insects, I’d imagine. I’ll get the hang of this blogging thing soon, I promise.

Heading home after a long day at the office, I was approached by a clearly nervous middle-aged American woman who managed to stutter out that she wanted to ask me a question. Embarrassingly, the New Yorker in me instantly became suspicious, and put my hand in my back pocket to check that she didn’t have an eight year old niece who was about to relieve me of the burdensome weight of my wallet and give it to a friendly Russian money launderer for safe keeping.

As it was, the woman was just a newcomer to the city who wanted to know which platform she had to use to get the L train from 8th Avenue to 3rd Avenue. I’d seen her from a distance as I entered the subway system, and she had clearly spent a short time attempting to make eye contact with someone in a bid to find out the information she needed. As anybody who has spent any length of time in New York will know, making eye contact was officially outlawed in 1961. I’d already watched her approach one young man, but I assume that she had misinterpreted his attempt to get a piece of subway grit out of his eye as a gesture of friendship and solidarity and was forced to come up to me instead.

It’s tragic that some ‘outsiders’ (of which I’m most definitely still one) feel unable to ask their fellow man for directions, for fear that they might get bad-mouthed or – worse still – ignored. And it’s even more tragic that I was suspicious enough of her motives to ponder what fate was going to befall me. New Yorkers may “want to be a part of it”, but that’s one characteristic I could well do without.

You will, however, be pleased to know that I successfully managed to direct her to the correct L train platform. Admittedly there are only two platforms, and all trains from both platforms went to her destination, but it’s the thought that counts.

Getting away from it all

I’ve been away for a week, sunning myself in the south of France and taking advantage of the lack of broadband to take an impromptu blog break. Fortunately, the presence of a The Special One, good friends, a big swimming pool, great food and plenty of the aforementioned sun, I seemed to get by…

The trip to the Cote D’Azur came via the wonders of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 last Friday, which may well be the quietest airport on earth – and all the more relaxing for it. Like most major construction projects in the UK, it took seventeen times as long to build as it should have done (and cost thirty four times its original budget) but it’s still a huge step forward in air travel as far as I’m concerned – especially as I’m well used to the limited facilities of New York’s JFK airport. As we slipped effortlessly away from the terminal in a taxi to stay with The Best Man and family, I felt proud to be British.

Then I saw a giant billboard for Nuts TV, proclaiming “every night, darts and fights.” I packed away the Union Jack, slipped the maroon passport back in my pocket, and pondered the day’s date, July 4. No wonder the Americans were so keen on independence.

Zut alors

When I was a mere glint in America’s eye, our French teacher told the likes of The Beancounter, Broadsheet Benny and I that we would only be fluent in the language when we thought in French. As it was, most of us couldn’t tell our derrieres from our coudes, let alone ponder the existential meaning of life in the tongue of our Gallic cousins. And besides, why would we think in French when it would leave less room for us to consider the important matters of the day, such as Ghostbusters, Panini stickers, the FA Cup draw, and how to snowball teachers and still get away with it?

Being no linguistic expert means that wherever I travel, I’m always translating from the local tongue into English, working out what I need to say, and then translating back into the relevant language. Such a laborious process can tragically turn into an internalised version of Chinese Whispers (or the markedly less impressive ‘Telephone’, as The Special One calls it), where a series of small mistranslations leads to me replying to a waiter asking if I want milk in my coffee with a suggestion that his wife did indeed look like an elephant.

But finally after nearly 35 years of trying, I think I’ve finally cracked it – I’ve mastered a foreign language to the point where I am now able to think and speak in the local tongue without translating into the English in between. Admittedly ‘American’ may be more of a dialect than a language, but you try living in a country that refuses to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’ and see if you still feel the same then.

Today in a phone conversation with an American colleague, I managed to suggest (without even missing a beat) a series of non-specific options by using the phrase “we’ll need to go back to them with ‘ex’, ‘why’ and ‘zee’”. I was part way through the next sentence by the time I realised what I’d done, and had to stop myself and drop a random ‘zed’ into the conversation just to reiterate my Britishness.

Then on the way home I saw a billboard for the Home Run Derby. I have no idea what one of those is, although I suspect it involves slightly overweight men playing big boys rounders. The point is that I looked at the sign and wondered idly to myself what a ‘home run durr-bee’ was. That’s despite almost half my family having been born and raised in the East Midlands town of Derby, with its British pronunciation of ‘darr-bee’.

I can’t work out whether I’m proud or disturbed.

Ironically, the comfort with language won’t last as I’m off to France next week for a week of relaxation in the sun, and I’ll suddenly be back to struggling in a foreign tongue. Here’s hoping I can get my fair share of coffee and croissants without inadvertently reminding the waiting staff of the grey large eared mammal-esque qualities of their spouse, eh?