Monthly Archives: September 2008

Problems with the trouble and strife*

They say that men and women talk different languages, but in the case of The Special One and I, that’s pretty much true. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been forced to deconstruct a sentence in order to get to the heart of what I’ve actually been trying to communicate. And that’s just when I’m saying goodbye as I leave for work.

For more complex sentences, we generally play a high-speed version of charades. Sure, that can be embarrassing when all she’s doing is asking me whether I want whipped cream on top of my Starbucks coffee, but needs must. (Incidentally for charade aficionados out there, in this case I generally opt for a mime something along the lines of ‘one word, sounds like *performs passable impression of Steve Redgrave winning Olympic gold with oar in hand in the coxless four*’)

It’s true that I use peculiarly British phrases from time to time, such as those times I’m “gagging for a beer” or “losing my rag”. On those occasions, The Special One generally just raises her eyebrows and inwardly rues the day that she ever met me. Sometimes she’ll choose to mimic my voice instead. Sadly the quality of her British impression is such that even the mighty Dick van Dyke would give her a rueful look and advise her not to give up the dayjob.

The linguistic divide between us entered a new realm yesterday when I told The Young Ones to get their stuff together and head “up the apples and pears”. The expression cast in my direction by all three of them suggested I had just asked them to kill a litter of puppies.

And so began an hour long conversation with The Special One about cockney rhyming slang, and its importance to the vocabulary of even non-Londoners.

BOOW: “What do you think frog and toad is?”

TSO: “It’s a series of children’s books that are very highly regarded. I used to read them to The Eldest all the time when he was a kid. I didn’t really use them with The Youngest though as she was more into mer…”

BOOW: “It’s cockney rhyming slang for a road. What about pork pies”

TSO: “Are they those nasty things with the jelly in?”

BOOW: “It means lies. Septic tank is Yank, Ruby Murray is curry, and dog and bone is phone.”

At that point, The Special One tutted loudly, proclaimed that the whole thing was a load of rubbish, and muttered something under her breath about the Boston Tea Party. If she owned stars and stripes pyjamas, she’d probably have put them on too.

“Besides,” she joked, “most Americans don’t even know where Cockney is.”

At least, I think she was joking…

* ‘Trouble and strife’ = wife. After this post, mine may well be slapping me in my boat race…

Raining on my parade

After revelling in the glory of a long hot summer, this weekend saw all my gloating catch up with me. Having inadvertently – and inadvisedly – grounded The Young Ones for numerous indiscretions over the course of the previous week, The Special One and I found ourselves trapped inside by fierce rain and wind, with two children doing passable impressions of captive polar bears stuck in an all-too-small public enclosure.

After the 13th teenage tantrum of the day, a trip to the supermarketgrocery store suddenly seems like a tempting option. Sure, it means getting soaked to the skin within three paces of stepping outside the house (regardless of the availability of an umbrella), but that’s a small price to pay to avoid getting into a prolonged discussion about whose turn it is to feed the cats.

Unusually for a murky day in Brooklyn, the streets seemed busier than usual as I walked out into the persistent rain. Then I remembered the street parade due to head down our closest avenue that afternoon, and the advertising posters proudly proclaiming that the event would take place come rain or shine.

Stopping briefly for a moment to take in the parade, I watched as a group of cheerleaders marionetted their way past me, their hairstyles now welded firmly to their heads by their ten block march through the torrential downpour. The stick wielding Jessica Simpson wannabes were followed by a vaguely menacing troop of what may have been army cadets. The rain had forced them to don their matching dark green trench coats, causing them to resemble a maverick group of Eastern Bloc renegades hellbent on taking Brooklyn by force. If it wasn’t for the fact that not one of them was taller than 5ft 3, and that they couldn’t march in time to save their lives, I might have been mildly concerned.

The final group I watched before sense returned to my rain-soaked brain was a marching band, resplendent in white uniforms which would almost certainly have been transparent had I been unfortunate enough to be watching a few blocks further down the parade route. Nevertheless, the ensemble oompah-ed with glorious abandon, bringing to mind the brass bands of the annual street parade that Little Sis and I used to watch when we were kids. To be fair, those bands of old were never blasting out Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” while marching past a branch of Starbucks, but I think you know what I mean.

Thinking about it, I believe that this was actually the first time I’ve seen a proper street parade since the days of watching the Buckley Jubilee back in the 1980s. Saturday’s event may have been on the streets of Brooklyn, but with spectators and participants alike grimly gritting their teeth and getting on with the task in hand despite the driving rain, I’ve never felt more at home.

Just one dollar can save a New Yorker

When you’re in the midst of turmoil, it’s difficult to understand what the rest of the world thinks about it. When I was sitting at my desk in London in July 2005 trying to catch up with the terrorist attacks on the capital’s transport system, it was hard to get a sense of how the rest of the world was reacting. Did they see it as a continuation of the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, or were they thought of as isolated incidents with no real connection to the world at large?

On a wholly different level, when I first realised that there was a vague possibility that my hairline was imperceptibly moving backwards, it was a dark day in the Brit Out Of Water household. Tears were shed, and innocence was lost. Admittedly, this might just have been me, but it felt like a big thing at the time. Clearly, when you’re in the middle of something, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Talking to She Who Was Born To Worry over the weekend, I casually mentioned that the weather was awful, with driving wind and rain.

“I know, it looks pretty nasty,” she commented.

“What do you mean? Have you secretly been popping over here for a bit of shopping?”

“No no, I’ve just been watching the news about America’s financial collapse. New York’s on its knees begging for mercy, you know.”

Sure enough, with the recent travails of Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley et al, New York has been the focus of the world over the last few weeks. While I’ve been complaining about chocolate brownie munching commuters or waiters washing their hands, the Big Apple has been crumbling around me.

Indeed, as far as She Who Was Born To Worry is concerned, New York is currently in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations are airdropping bagels and coffee into the outer reaches of Brooklyn, while desperate queueslines are forming outside pizza places across the city, out of fear that mozzarella rationing is about to be instituted.

I tell you, if SWWBTW is right, Sir Bob Geldof is on the verge of getting on a plane over here to put on a fundraising concert with Phil Collins and the remnants of Queen.

Bono’s apparently up for it, but only if organisers will guarantee the availability of pancakes and maple syrup. The way things are going in New York, nothing’s certain.

Getting a little too comfortable

I’ve made two horrific discoveries today*. Discoveries that make me question my very existence, and look at myself in a new, and not wholly palatable, light.

1. I read a blog today which mentioned a visit to Home Depot, shortly after I’d taken delivery of an order of stationery from Office Depot. On both occasions, I internally pronounced the word to myself as “dee-po” rather than “depp-oh”. I had to wash my mouth out with soap and water for ten minutes shortly afterwards, obviously.

2. After more than a year of ignorance, I picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated today, and pretty much understood the basic implications of every story within its pages. And it wasn’t even the swimsuit edition. College sport was happily still beyond me, but other than that I almost felt like a natural. You’ll be pleased to know that I have forced myself to watch scoreless draws between Grimsby and Shrewsbury on repeat ever since, and now feel fully reacclimatised.

* Certainly, far more horrific than discovering that David Blaine is a big ol’ cheat.

All is not what it seems

As you’ll see from the counter over on the right, I’ve now been a Brit Out Of Water for 400 days. During that time, I’ve penned a little under 250 posts. Which means, inevitably, that there have been just over 150 days when I haven’t posted at all. Now, on most of those days I was probably, you know, having a life. But on some of the others, if I was being truly honest, I probably just couldn’t think of something to blog about.

The problem is, of course, that the more you’re away from your home, the more you get used to your adopted city. Fortunately, New York is still strange enough to keep me in stories for at least another 400 days, but I do have to pay even closer attention these days just to make sure that I don’t miss any of the ridiculousness of it all.

Caring as dearly as I do about you, my loyal reader, I now find myself walking around the city with my eyes darting everywhere just in case I can see the start of a potential blog posting kicking off in my vicinity. Sometimes I’ve changed my route to work, having witnessed something unusual going on in the distance. Sure, it generally turns out to be a New Yorker walking more than six blocks without using a form of motorised transport, but at least I’m trying.

Tonight while heading home from work, I was standing on the N train back into the murky depths of Brooklyn, standing all the way from Union Square. While I clung on to a metal pole for grim death as the train attempted to throw me around like a pathetic rag doll, an elfin young lady sat down serenely on the chair next to me.

Serene, that is, but for the fact that she spent the next few stops consuming a chocolate brownie with the eagerness and grim determination of someone who hadn’t seen food for, say, three weeks.

It took her so long to eat the aforementioned brownie simply because it appeared to have fallen apart in the paper wrapper in which it was encased. Duly, Miss Elfin dipped her fingers into the bag with metronomic regularity, scooping up crumbs and plunging them into her ever chomping mouth. After about ten minutes, she extracted the paper wrapper from the bag in which it was contained, turned into a makeshift chute, and shovelled the last remaining crumbs down her gullet. And with that complete, she did the same with the outer paper bag, just in case there were a few molecules that she’d missed.

Throughout the whole thing, I could feel myself getting progressively – and inexplicably – more irate about the whole thing. Maybe it was the fact that she was an astonishingly noisy eater, or maybe it was because it was taking her forever to eat something that would have lasted perhaps 3.72 seconds in my custody. But as my anger rose, I was at least calmed by the fact that I would be able to pen a blog about eating on the tube, turning this anonymous character into an example of all that is bad about self-involved commuters.

Next thing I know, the man sat a few seats down from her quietly reading his John Grisham novel falls asleep (to be fair, his books can be a bit samey) and his bookmark drops to the floor. Miss Elfin, her chocolate brownie now firmly a thing of the past, quickly steps up, bends down, picks up the fallen bookmark, and quietly places it back into the book without even waking the man from his slumbers.

Hardly the actions of a superhero, but a happy ending nonetheless, and a good example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its flour-and-chocolate based confection eating cover. But I was gutted. After all, there was my bitter posting ripped from my grasp. Much more of this good citizenry, and I won’t have a blog to speak of.

Come on New York, pull your act together. Enough of this ‘being nice’ – you’ve got a reputation to keep up, you know.

Absolute filth

Just before I went to university, and was living at home with She Who Was Born To Worry and Little Sis, I managed to get a job as a barman working in a new pub in a renovated warehouse in Chester. To be fair, I wasn’t strictly honest when it came to the interview process. I may accidentally have suggested that I was pretty confident that I had completely messed upflunked my exams, and was going to need to take a year off. After all, no one was likely to take someone on with no experience of bar work, train them up, and watch them leave three months later.

Of course, my cover was well and truly blown a few months later when a picture of me and some classmates celebrating our exam success was printed in the local newspaper. But by then I’d found out plenty enough about the bar trade to get a job in any pub if ever I was to fall on hard times.

I’d like to say that all the lessons I learned were positive, but that would be a lie. Let’s just say that the management of the bar weren’t exactly scrupulous when it came to matters of consumer hygiene. Especially if it meant saving a bit of cash. If the wrong drink was ever poured, nobody was allowed to throw it away. Instead, it just waited on the side until somebody really did want that drink, and then it would surreptitiously be brought up from underneath the counter and proudly placed on the bar. And I always tried to steer clear of the kitchen if humanly possible. I went in a couple of times, and suffice to say that I never ate there even once afterwards.

The practice that horrified me most involved the barrels of beer that lay in the cellar beneath the pub. Every night, the landlord would collect up the slops that had collected underneath the beer pumps, take them downstairs, and empty them into the barrel of his choice. The fact that the collected drippings contained beers of all kinds, and probably every liquid from orange juice to gin, was neither here nor there to him. Let’s just say that the pub’s food wasn’t the only thing I didn’t consume.

Of course, it’s not just management that are guilty of unhygienic acts in bars and restaurants. From the chef who provides some of his – erm – ‘special sauce’ in the dish of a customer who has spent back his food one too many times, to the waiter who accidentally-on-purpose spills some water in the difficult diner’s lap, staff aren’t exactly innocent bystanders in the lack of cleanliness game.

That said, is it really necessary to make every American restaurant display a sign in their toiletrestroom proudly proclaiming that ‘all employees must wash their hands before returning to work’? I mean, if I’m in a restaurant, enjoying a foam of this or a ceviche of that, the last thing I need to think about is a collection of people who would be walking around with filthy toilet-soiled fingers if it wasn’t for a little notice on the wall. And to be honest, if you’re the kind of person who needs a sign to remind you to wash your hands, you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to take notice of a sign urging you to wash your hands.

Maybe this is the first step in a series of restaurant and bar signs that do nothing more than state the obvious? Next time you’re in a swanky Michelin-starred eaterie, watch out for notices reading ‘employees must not scratch their arses when walking past a customer’s table’ or ‘please remember not to help yourself to a customer’s wine’.

As for a certain bar in Chester, the management have moved on and the name of the place has changed. But I still wouldn’t drink the beer, just in case…

The true cost of avoiding homesickness

The Special One is more British than she cares to let on. Sure, she might externally appear to be an ‘h’ dropping, zucchini munching, country invading, milkshake swilling gas guzzler, but cut just under the surface and she bleeds HP Sauce.

Now, part of that is that My Esteemed Mother-in-Law’s mother was English, and resolutely maintained her British citizenship through years of living in the deep south. But really The Special One’s Britishness comes from her love of condiments. Whether it’s Branston Pickle, Maldon Sea Salt or mint sauce, she can’t get enough of the things that the British add to their food in a desperate attempt to make it taste of something edible.

Slowly though, I’m introducing her to more and more British products. PG Tips – as mentioned recently – was an easy one, and Ribena wasn’t exactly tough. I expected mushy peas to be more of a struggle than they actually proved to be, while Cornish pasties were the unexpected hit of the winter of 2006. Black pudding is still a bridge too far though, and the less said about tripe the better. Cold cow’s stomach in vinegar doesn’t appear to do the trick for The Special One, for some reason.

One thing that she’s particularly partial to is English sausage. Quieten down at the back, and stop sniggering. Proper meaty British bangers are a world apart from the fat laden patties that she occasionally had with gravy and ‘biscuits’ (or ‘tasteless sugar free scones’, as I generally call them) in her youth. And having been a vegan for some considerable time, there’s now nothing she likes more than minced pig sinew in a crispy shell.

Close to my office is Myers of Keswick, a British ‘corner shop’ serving the rather large expat community (and Anglophiles) in New York City. I can’t actually let The Special One go there anymore. Partly because she insists on pronouncing it “Myers of Kezwick,” but mostly because she would come back with a lifetime’s supply of Mr Kipling’s Bakewell Tarts if given half a chance.

So today I ventured there alone to stock up with essential items. ‘Essential’ if your idea of essential is Curly Wurly’s and three pounds of Cumberland sausages, obviously. And a bumper box of PG Tips, some HP and Branston, a chicken and mushroom pie and a bag of Twiglets. What more could a man ask for? Apart from maybe a spicy curry Pot Noodle and a bag of pork scratchings.

I reckon if I’d bought that shopping in the UK, it’d probably have cost me about 15 quid or so, depending on the quality of the sausages. Head 3458 miles west, and the price suddenly escalates to 64 dollars. Clearly the dollar is worth next-to-nothing, but that’s one hell of a price to pay for some creature comforts. As a great philosopher once wrote, “Man cannot live on Branston alone.” But after that shopping trip, we’ll probably have to give it a go.

A distaste for the good life

Maybe it’s because I’m British and we’re quick to put down anybody who is popular and successful, or perhaps it’s because I’m becoming insufferably crotchety in my old age. Whatever it is, I’m here to hold my hands up, look vaguely sheepish, and tell you that I just can’t stand The Do-Gooder.

Now clearly I don’t have an innate distrust of anybody who does good in the world. Bob Geldof may have lank hair and dubious taste in women, but you can’t fault his humanitarian efforts. Although, to be fair Bob, none of us like Mondays so it’s probably time to stop going on about it. Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King et al don’t bother me one iota, despite having the temerity to put the well-being of others above their own. And I’ve even been known to do my own bit for charidee on occasion, although the less said the better about the sponsored wheelbarrow race I organised back at school.

But The Do-Gooder is a different beast altogether. The Do-Gooder can’t help but make sure that every last person knows that they’re doing some ‘selfless’ work, and is guaranteed to make my hackles rise, even if the good deed they’re performing is pretty damn good indeed. Actually, the better the deed is, the more irritated I get with The Do-Gooder. You should see how I tear into those cancer research specialists…

The thing is, every community has its own Do-Gooder. Most people tend to ignore them, work around them or – more usually – give them the fancy sounding title that nobody else really wants. If you get introduced to your local community’s Executive Vice Chair of Waste Management Issues, run a mile.

Of course, there wasn’t a single Do-Gooder in sight when The Special One and I attended the first PTA meeting of the year for The Young Ones’ school. Ahem. All I can say was that I was the only man wearing jeans, and that if ever you hear me ask a question about voting procedures in any meeting anywhere in the world, you have my permission to shoot me.

What was particularly interesting about the meeting was actually the number of people who managed to prove themselves the absolute antithesis of the Do-Gooder. Bear in mind that this is a great school with results that outstrip those of better funded schools across the city. There was the goth looking mummom who played her Nintendo DS throughout the meeting. And the ice-crunching older mother who managed to scoff her way through an entire giant plastic cup of ice in ten minutes, and would probably have eaten the cup as well if she’d been given half a chance. And the family of four who may well have inadvertently wandered into the cafeteria, but still decided to eat their dinner there anyway as the meeting carried on around them.

Add in numerous Blackberry-viewing, diary-filling middle-aged folk, and it seemed at times that The Special One and I were pretty much the only ones actually listening to the headmasterprincipal’s (pretty inspiring) words.

Oh no. You know what this means, don’t you? I’m one step away from being a Do-Gooder. Quick, somebody get the rifle.

No tea please, I’m British

You know, getting up at 7.30am on a Saturday is no fun. Especially when you’re only doing it to watch an ultimately fruitless match. And even more particularly when you know that your good friends are cooped up at a nice London pub with a nice cold beer to keep them company through the pain. All I had to comfort me in my misery was a steaming hot mug of tea.

Don’t get me wrong though, I love a good cup of char or Rosie Lee. Ever since I first sipped tentatively at a cup of murky brown liquid belonging to She Who Was Born To Worry or Brit Out Of Water Sr, I’ve been hooked on tea and its uniquely restorative powers. When I failed my driving test first time round, it was with a cup of tea that I was comforted. At university, Dr Gentle, Mrs Millmore, Towcester’s Finest and I put the world to rights over enough tea to flood the East Anglian plains. And when The Special One’s a little stressed (and who wouldn’t be, being married to me?), it’s a mug of tea that brings her back down to earth.

The problem with moving to America is that the tea is – and let’s be frank here – a bit rubbish. Actually, a lot rubbish. Standard teabags bought in US supermarkets have all the power of, say, Jennifer Aniston performing one of Ibsen’s darkest plays. In Norwegian.

Recent chemical analysis suggests that the tea content within each bag could theoretically have been derived simply from once being in the same room as some tea leaves. As a result, it takes at least three Lipton (or equivalent) bags to get a brew that tastes anywhere near the kind of thing you’d get in your average greasy spoon back in the UK.

Indeed, your average diners here in New York are categorically among the worst makers of tea in the world. Ask for a cup of tea with your eggs Benedict, and you’ll likely get a cup of vaguely warm water, with a tea bag and a piece of lemon alongside it. Oh, and if there’s not a little pot of six day old cream already on the table, you’ll have to beg for the milk. You’d have as much luck making a good cup of char by bringing along a dustpan and brush to the diner with you, sweeping up the debris under your table, depositing it into the lukewarm water and giving it a quick stir.

The relief is that if you know where to go (or if you can use Amazon) you can get hold of some decent tea bags like PG Tips or Yorkshire Tea, even in a tea desert like America. The resultant brew doesn’t quite taste like it does at home, but even I have to draw the line at importing British water just for the odd cup of tea.

Thankfully, the sun is past the yardarm, and I don’t have to worry about this any further today. Now, where did I put those cans of Boddingtons?

Return to sender

It’s amazing how the passage of time changes what you love and hate. When I was a twelve year old, I used to hate cauliflower cheese, butter and coffee, claiming that even being in the same room as any of these products would cause me to throw up. And to be fair, the first three times I drank coffee, I was true to my word. The dinner ladies at Buckley County Primary School didn’t care too much for my pleas of “I told you so” but it was some small comfort to me as I bent double, I can tell you.

Of course, I loved Whizzer & Chips comic book, potato waffles, getting anything in the post and playing heavily pixellated games on the ZX Spectrum. Above all, I loved Glynis Barber. Dempsey & Makepeace probably doesn’t mean much to most Americans on here, but it played a small formative role in my upbringing, and at least allowed me to get over the devastation caused by the realisation that I was never going to spend the rest of my life with Agnetha from Abba.

Everything changes. I now consume more butter than the entirety of Venezuela, and you shouldn’t even bother to talk to me before I’ve put some coffee into my bloodstream. I don’t read Whizzer & Chips, admittedly, although that has more to do with the fact that the title closed down in 1990 than a loss of faith with Shiner and Mustapha Million.

One thing that hasn’t changed is my love of getting stuff in the post. I’m supposed to say it’s the mail these days, but there’s more chance of me saying aloo-minn-umm than denying my love of the postie and her sack of many delights. Perhaps most people think of the deliverer of their letters as a man, but ours was a nice woman who used to give me and Little Sis a 50p coin each every so often. Inevitably, we used to look forward to the arrival of the daily delivery.

Even in recent years my childish excitement with the familiar sound of envelopes hitting the floor under the door (don’t give me any of that mailbox rubbish, please) hasn’t lessened. Sure, there were plenty of bills, but there was always the chance that a package would arrive with untold treasures inside. In reality, it was usually the offer of a new credit card with free balance transfers from HSBC, but you just never knew.

Until I came to America, that is. Despite not having built up 30 or so years of inadvisedly signing up to mailing lists, I get more junk here than I ever got in the UK. As well as credit card offers, I’ve had catalogues, loan opportunities, and even the chance to get a special rate subscription to Playboy. That went down well with The Special One, I can tell you.

But I don’t mind the junk so much. What really upsets me is the constant barrage of medical bills I seem to get.

Now, there are two things you need to know here. Firstly, I’ve got good medical insurance through work. Secondly, I’ve been to the doctors twice in the last twelve months. I’ve spent no more than 40 collective minutes in the building. So why do I get a barrage of bills, receipts and inexplicable letters from companies I’ve never heard of, claiming that I owe them for a whole series of acronyms like a GGT, LD or an HFP? I think they must charge by the letter, given that an INTRPT seems to cost a hell of a lot more than a ‘routine’ BCBS.

Whatever happened to the happy days of walking into an NHS clinic and walking out with nothing more than a prescription and a slight limp?

Next time I go to the doctors, I’m going to demand a glossary of terms. And I won’t even think about going to the bathroom, for fear that I’ll get an invoice from Toilet Diagnostics of New York® six weeks later.

I’d probably leave The Special One to explain that one to the insurance company, to be honest…