Monthly Archives: August 2008

I come from a land down under

Having tired of the geographical incorrectness of calling me a shandy drinking southerner, She Who Was Born To Worry has now taken to calling me her ‘Yank son’. Not that she actually has another son and needs to differentiate us as a result. Although there has been talk of an elusive half-brother called Eric (the forklift truck driver from Belgium) now that I come to think about it…

Actually, I think she just imagines that I’ll pick up the phone to her one day and start talking with the mid-Atlantic twang much beloved of the likes of Joan Collins and Shirley Bassey. As it happens, I’m taking active measures to ensure that never happens, including listening to plenty of podcasts from British radio, and a compulsory three hours of BBC America every week. I’ve even persuaded The Special One to watch the first series of Spooks with me, having picked the DVD up on a whim at Heathrow Airport. She’s not so keen on the presence of Keeley Hawes, but as I’ve presented it as a means to maintain my British identity, I think I’m going to get away with it.

The strange thing is that while She Who Was Born To Worry thinks I might be in danger of turning into an American, America is pretty convinced that I’m not even British in the first place.

When accent identification skills were being handed out, America was obviously eating a burger and fries, and reading Entertainment Weekly. In what is rapidly becoming the linguistic equivalent of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, I’ve lost count of the number of people who, on hearing my pretty robustly English voice, have firmly identified me as an Australian. I’m not alone in the problem either – as far as most Americans are concerned, Brits must be walking around with metaphorical corks dangling from metaphorical hats, throwing virtual shrimps on the barbie. The grill, that is, not the faintly pneumatic Mattel creation.

The strange thing is that Australia has a population three times smaller than the UK’s, and most Americans will never even have met an Australian, let alone correctly identified one. In contrast, the relatively close relationship between Britain and the USA (and the fact that it only takes seven hours to get between the two, rather than more than twenty) means that Britain and the British are a much more familiar concept than Australia and Australians. Of course, with many Americans still struggling to understand the need for a passport, it’s likely that Lilliput and Lilliputians are more familiar than the two combined, but that’s a side issue.

Incidentally, I’ve been also been identified as Irish, German and Scandinavian as well since arriving in the States. It’s a source of undeniable pleasure that nobody’s accused me of beingcalled me an American yet. It’s only a matter of time.

As I cooked dinner tonight, The Special One and The Young Ones sat down to watch the X Men movie. Having seen an interview with the cast half way through, The Youngest excitedly bound into the kitchen to say that she had no idea that Wolverine was British. Ironically, Hugh Jackman’s actually an Australian. The three of them have been living me for a year now, so their ‘all foreigners must be Australians’ radar will have to go in for a 10,000 mile service.

The Great American Conversational Disaster

My ability to waste away hours upon end talking non-stop about very little is the stuff of legend. If Inane Chat was an Olympic sport, I’d have played an integral role in the triumphant Team GB homecoming from Beijing at Heathrow earlier today. Arguably the title of Sir Brit Out Of Water would have been a little excessive for one whose major talent is to be able to blather on about next-to-nothing, but I would have accepted the knighthood with the quiet dignity and grace that it so richly deserved.

The problem with being a Brit Out Of Water is that it’s kind of like undergoing the surgical removal of your small talk. The delicate seven hour operation, which conveniently takes place at high altitude as you fly across the Atlantic, extracts all of the cultural and conversational touchpoints that you’ve held so dear for upwards of thirty years, and leaves you almost 100% chat free for at least the next year. Sure, you can talk about events that have happened directly to you, the news, or universal feelings of love and loathing. But if an expat even thinks about straying into an extended discussion about anything else with a local, you may as well pull out a sudoku puzzle and settle down in a corner on your own for twenty minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great conversations with people I’ve met since I’ve been here, and I’ve met some fascinating folk. But having spent the last twenty years or so talking about football and the joy of Spangles, suddenly my capacity to connect with people on a sporting or nostalgic level has disappeared. While my ability to name every FA Cup winning side since 1968 may have made me a must-have on the London party circuit, my distinct lack of knowledge regarding the preferred starting line-up of the New York Knicks makes me a social pariah in some city circles. And while my witty bon-mots regarding Roland Rat or Multi-Coloured Swap Shop were the talk of the town, my vacant expression at the very mention of Three’s Company or Alice marks me out as a sad and lonely televisual outcast.

I’ve recently started paying a bit more attention to the Yankees (much to the dismay of The Special One) in the hope that I might be able to ferret away a few choice facts about Johnny Damon’s RBI or Derek Jeter’s OBP for use in a future conversation. The fact that I don’t know what an RBI or OBP is (and wouldn’t be able to pick Johnny Damon out of a police line-up) is neither here nor there. And I’ve decided that all future TV nostalgia chats will be veered towards Chips or Cagney & Lacey, given that I have more than a working knowledge of each. Admittedly it may get boring for my new friends to have to talk about Frank Poncherello or Sharon Gless week-in week-out, but some sacrifices simply have to be made.

In the meantime, any conversational cheat sheets from US readers would be extremely welcome. Packets of Chewits and cans of Irn Bru to anybody who helps me pass my forthcoming PhD in Trivial American Conversational Nuggets.

365 days out of water

I’ve finally made it to a whole year out of water. That’s 365* days of living with The Special One, 365 days of working in the United States, and 365 days of thinking “blimey, what just happened to me?!”

So, other than 365 days, what other 365s has the last year held for me?

365 times that I’ve wanted to have an everything bagel for breakfast. I have only given in on 207 of those occasions.

365 pushes and shoves against me on the subway. That’s approximately 1.83 shoves per journey.

365 times when I’ve been forced to ponder why the UK doesn’t have an all-encompassing commitment to the hot dog too.

365 inadvertent steps into dubious standing water.

365 wrong turns by taxi drivers with only a passing knowledge of the streets of the city.

365 sightings of the Empire State Building which have prompted an internal response of “crikey, that’s the Empire State Building.”

365 times I’ve been grateful for a summer that lasts more than 365 minutes.

365 passers-by who have stared at me for not wearing a coat in March.

365 occasions on which I’ve cursed the fact that you have to pay a fee to use an ATM that’s not one of your own bank’s. As well as a fee to your own bank for the privilege.

365 minutes in total sat listening to assorted weirdoes espouse their sanctimonious claptrap on the subway.

365 times I’ve struggled to remember which one’s a nickel and which one’s a dime.

365 times I’ve emerged from a subway station and stood on the street corner for ten minutes trying to work out whether I’m facing north or south.

365 people who’ve attempted to imitate my English accent with a passable impression of Dick van Dyke.

365 occasions on which I’ve used a swear word in the workplace (and 364 on which I’ve been rebuked for it).

365 moments when I’ve thought “I’m sure I’ve seen this in a movie.”

365 times that I’ve had to apologisze for alleged anti-American sentiments.

Thanks for keeping me company over the last year, and to all those who have tipped off friends, colleagues and readers about the blog. I’m 365 times more grateful than I can ever tell you.

* If anybody even thinks about saying it’s a leap year and that I’ve been out of water for 366 days, there’s going to be trouble.

The campaign for the abolition of taxi talking starts here

Getting into a cab in New York is generally like entering a little yellow bubble. Sure, there might be a slightly musky smell from the previous passenger, or the driver’s lunchtime burger/kebab/sag paneer, but on the whole drivers keep themselves to themselves. Most drivers are too engrossed in impenetrable conversations with various family members, and don’t bother giving you a second glance after they’ve found out where you’re going. There might be a small exchange between the two of you when you realise that they’ve taken you to Central Park West rather than Brooklyn, but other than that you can largely enjoy your journey in relative peace.

The same can’t be said about a black cab journey in London, or indeed most places in the UK. Clearly there are some drivers who keep quiet, only speaking to ask their passengers questions such as “is that bloke going to throw up?” But there’s a sizeable proportion for whom the period of time between passengers is a temporary break in an otherwise non-stop all-day conversation. I say “conversation”, but really what I mean is a “bitter and marginally aggressive diatribe against anything and everything that moves”.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to listen as a driver railed against governments, immigrants, teachers, parents, young people, Asians, the disabled, upper class prats and the police.

A faked phone call will get you out of listening to some of it. But eventually you just have to submit to the drivel, and hope that you don’t hit heavy traffic.

Taking a cab with The Best Man, The Beancounter and Sickly Child this weekend, we encountered the chattiest can driver in the world. Within a matter of minutes, he’d told us that his daughter was a top model (and showed us a picture), that he had accused his now son-in-law of being gay, and that he and his sons were all handy with their fists and would batter anybody who crossed them (or his daughter). That was shortly before he tried to marry off Sickly Child to one of his punch-happy boys, obviously. Oh, and that during the 60s he had been George Best’s driver who had once failed to persuade a drunken George to get out of bed to go and play for Manchester United.

We were only in the taxi for fifteen minutes, but by the time we got out of the car we were exhausted.

It’s enough to make you pine for the dubious odours of a yellow cab.

It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay

I’ve been a music fan for as long as I can remember. From listening to the Muppets album at my grandmother’s house as a five year old, through to playing a cassette of the soundtrack from Electric Dreams, and on to my first live gig (Heart, if you must know – credibility was a distant prospect at that point in my life), music was a central part of being a kid. Much to the dismay of She Who Was Born To Worry and Little Sis, who were forced to endure me listen to Kajagoogoo’s ‘White Feathers’ album more than was ever necessary.

Now I’m watching The Young Ones (the kids, that is, rather than Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer and co) grow up with an equal love of music, manifesting itself in hours wired up to their iPods or locked in their rooms listening to The Clash and the Arctic Monkeys (The Eldest) or Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry (The Youngest). To be honest, I don’t care what they like – I’m just happy to see them care about such an important art form. Although if I have to hear the Cheetah Girls again, I won’t be held responsible for my actions. No court in the land would convict me…

Tonight as I put The Youngest to bed, we ended up in a conversation about the relative merits of being an adult or a child. Delivering her killer blow, she triumphantly cried: “Children are the future!” All this succeeded in doing was making me sing a song with the opening lines “I believe the children are our future/teach them well and let them lead the way.” After a brief flirtation with believing that the song was USA For Africa’s “We Are The World”, I finally and proudly managed to work out that it was “The Greatest Love Of All.”

“Who’s that by?” questioned The Youngest.

“Whitney Houston, of course,” I replied.

“Whitney Houston? Who’s he?”

Welcome, my friends, to the all too fickle world of showbiz.

Is this a man I see before me?

Back in the day, I used to be a man about (London) town. Snake Hips Allen and myself used to go to the opening of the envelope as long as there was the vague promise of a free beer and a couple of lukewarm canapes. And even if there wasn’t, we could generally be persuaded to pitch up anyway. Admittedly his then-girlfriend would generally turn up half way through proceedings and drag him back home with his tail between his legs, but that just meant more canapes for me.

After a few years, the sheer effort of socialising got to us both, and we independently hung up our party boots. Sure, I’ve had the occasional lapse since then, and Snake Hips has now resumed his antics with a move to San Francisco. But long before my move to the US, I’d happily settled for a quiet life of good food, fine wine and the company of friends.

That said, I’ve never been the most practical of people. I’ve stripped down and restored the odd piece of furniture, and put up the occasional shelf or two, but on the whole it’s fair to say that if friends have needed a bit of manual work done then I’ve not generally been their first port of call.

Getting married to The Special One has changed all that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pretty dreadful at the whole DIY malarkey, but I now I enter into it with the enthusiasm of a child that’s been given a hammer and told to batter the hell out of anything that moves. I walk into hardware stores with the supreme confidence of a man who knows what he’s doing. The effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that I have to beg for help about three minutes later, but for those three minutes I feel pretty damn good I can tell you.

My new found, ahem, ‘ruggedness’ reached its apotheosis this weekend, when I found myself on top of a barn in upstate New York, helping to construct a new roof. With a drill in hand and an electric saw by my side, I barely recognised myself. Even the fact that I got bitten by a mosquito on the middle of my forehead, and now resemble a latter-day unicorn, couldn’t ruin my sense of achievement.

Please don’t be suprised if I take up with the Amish over the coming years.

I’d like to apologise unreservedly

It’s wryly amusing seeing that the Evening Standard has been forced to apologise to Prince Philip for wrongly claiming that he was fighting prostate cancer. Not because of the nature of the illness that the Queen’s husband absolutely and categorically does not have, but just because it’s rare to hear a story that’s not about Philip himself having to say sorry for something he’s said.

Let’s face it, Philip only ever opens his mouth to insert his foot in it. From asking a Scottish driving instructor how he managed to keep locals off the booze long enough to get them to pass their test, to asking a Cayman Islander whether they were all descended from pirates, Prince Philip is the king of the inappropriate comment. After all, who can forget his 1986 comment on a state trip to China, when he told a group of British students that “if you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty eyed.” Or congratulating a native from Papua New Guinea on managing to not get eaten?

He’s an embarrassment to his country. Fortunately his country is Greece, but the British are all guilty by association.

The terrible irony, of course, is that the American equivalent of Prince Philip is the president of the entire country. Given that George Bush is in Beijing at the moment for the opening of the 2008 Olympics, here’s hoping the American embassy has got its crisis management team on 24 hour standby.

The great New York breakfast robbery

After about fifteen years of not eating breakfast (unless consuming my own body weight in sausage and bacon on the morning after the night before), I’ve recently taken up cereal. It’s hardly a lifestyle choice, more a doctor-enforced measure to counteract years of eating Iceland’s CJD Burgers, but actually it’s been nowhere near as painful as I’d imagined.

To be honest, even when I ate breakfast, I was never much of a fan of cereal. When we were kids, Little Sis and I used to get excited about the occasional appearance of a variety pack of cereals, but I think that was largely due to our fascination with the tiny boxes that looked exactly like scaled down versions of the real thing. We probably used to fight over who had the Sugar Puffs, although I must admit that my preoccupation was always with ensuring that I never had to eat the Coco Pops. I never did understand why ‘turning the milk brown’ was given as a unique selling point of that stuff. I don’t like milk at the best of times, but at least let it be white if I’ve got to drink it.

The cereal section of most grocery stores in America seems to be bigger than most supermarkets back home. As in ‘bigger than the supermarkets themselves’. It can take a good twenty minutes just to take in all the choices. But after your first visit to the cereal aisle, you quickly realise that the choice is illusory. Because when it comes down to it, all you have to decide is whether you want your cereal to taste of sugar or cardboard. Whether it’s made by familiar names like Kelloggs or Nestle, or the slightly more exotic Kashi or Peace Valley, there’s simply a straight selection between sickly sweet cinnamony frosted weird-coloured honey glazed crunchy stuff, or recycled cereal boxes that have ironically been turned into cereal themselves. With occasinal raisins thrown in to break up the paper-based monotony.

Once you’ve realised that, it’s just a matter of choosing between the two styles, and then picking the box with the nicest design on it.

I’ve taken to buying my cereal from a corner deli across the road from where I work, but I’ve finally decided that this has to stop. In part it’s because I don’t like the designs on their slightly more limited range cardboard cereals, and partly because their cereals are about $2 more expensive than the same thing in a normal grocery store.

But mainly it’s because they keep stealing a penny from me.

My personal cardboard selection costs $4.99 at this store. Every single time I go there, they tell me that the cereal costs $4.99 and I hand over a $5 note. And then I wait for the change. The change never comes. They just look at me blankly, and then call on the next customer to step forward.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need the single cent, and I’m not trying to be some kind of latter day Scrooge. I’ve never even asked that they hand it over. But there’s a principle at stake – why don’t they just label the box with a $5 price tag, instead of making me feel like I’ve been duped every time?

Or maybe it’s just that the dollar is so worthless these days that they think the penny has no use to anyone?

Especially to a namby pamby cardboard cereal muncher like me.

Style pot calls fashion kettle black

When it comes to fashion, I can hardly say that I am a thought leader. I try to keep it classic, but my look is very much ‘vaguely preppy 34 year old who wishes that he was still 25’ rather than ‘edgy style icon’. Recently, I’ve even found myself enjoying wearing suits for the first time in my life, even though – much to She Who Was Born To Worry’s dismay – I’ve never been employed in a job that has required me to wear one. Put simply, the chances of me appearing on a list of the world’s leading fashion figures is marginally more negligible than the likelihood of Mariah Carey receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature.

That said, I still think I have every right to rail against what seems to be a distinctly American male habit of wearing plaid shorts in public. Every day I get on the subway and see people who seem to be perfectly normal but for the fact that they are wearing shorts that resemble pyjamas. I know that this is the country that invented the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich and that ‘taste’ is therefore in limited supply, but surely everybody has to draw the line somewhere?

Next thing you know, it’ll be the mullet making a comeback.

Take me to the river

One thing that I really do miss about being in the UK in the summer is the ability to sit having one-for-the-road in a riverside drinking establishment. Obviously this Brit Out Of Water is a complete tee-totaller (ahem), but the opportunity to drink a nice pint of, erm, ginger ale in a pub garden overlooking rowers and marine life as the sun gently sets is one that should never be turned down.

Britain’s river banks are littered with boozers, and the river has played a key part in my social upbringing as a result. My earliest days of boozing with The Beancounter et al saw us frequent places like The Boathouse in Chester, although we were admittedly in part attracted by their flexible approach to the legal requirement that you be 18 years old to get a drink. At university, lost afternoons might be spent at The Mill or The Anchor watching punts sail by as we collectively and conveniently overlooked the fact that we should probably be sat in the library. And then to London, where I never looked back after a first job that saw the nearest boozer located next to the water. Sadly it’s been demolished now. Rumours that its revenues never recovered after I moved on have yet to be confirmed.

I’ve already talked at length about the great difficulty in drinking outside in the US. But the fact is that it’s difficult getting a meal or a drink even in sight of the river(s) in New York. Sure, there is the occasional exception to prove the rule, but it’s almost as if the health and safety police have decided that anybody drinking (heavily or otherwise) near a river will automatically feel duty bound to leap into the water at the end of the evening. And just to make sure, New York has put some its major roadways next to the water, in the shape of the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, making sure that anyone tempted to build a temple to hedonism anywhere near the Hudson or the East River is put off by the fumes and incessant car horns.

Desperate for some waterside relaxation this Friday, The Special One and I made our way down to South Street Seaport at the base of Manhattan, and one of the few areas of the city to combine the words ‘river’ and ‘food and drink’. I had images of the gentle breeze coming in off the water as we quaffed a deliciously dry Pouilly Fume and ate mountains of impossibly fresh seafood. I was, quite literally, in my element.

When we got there, it was like a cross between Covent Garden and Blackpool, with thousands of tourists combining with local office workers to create an atmosphere more redolent of an overcrowded amusement park than a peaceful riverside paradise. We walked straight past the chain restaurants, had a lukewarm glass of chardonnay in a plastic glass as we looked at the New York waterfalls, and quickly hightailed it out of there.

Next time I get the urge for waterside drinking, I’m buying a paddling pool and putting it in the back yard.