Monthly Archives: December 2008

In the right place at the right time

I always used to think that I was in the habit of being in the right place at the right time. After all, I managed to meet The Special One despite the logistical difficulties posed by the fact that I was living and working in the UK while she was blissfully unaware of my existence on the other side of the Atlantic in New York. I’ve met some of my best friends through complete randomness, including Scottish Sally who merely called to book an advert when I happened to be staying late on the newspaper I was working on, and has been a lifelong friend ever since. And some of the best jobs I’ve ever had have been the result of conversations that might never have happened if circumstances had been even slightly different.

Of course, I was less lucky when having my lights punched out in Cambridge ten years ago, but on the whole I can’t really complain.

However, since moving to the United States, it seems that I am actually always in the wrong place at the right time, permanently destined to miss every big moment that the United States has to offer. When America celebrated its independence on July 4, for instance, I was flying out to Europe for a summer holidayvacation, missing the fireworks and festivities. When Barack Obama won the presidential election, I was sitting on a sofa in South London. And when he heads to Washington for the inauguration next month, I’ll be sitting in Heathrow Airport waiting for the next leg of a flight home from the South of France.

It’s a similar story with this blog. I wrote my 200th post on a flight away from the US for work. For the year anniversary of starting the blog, and the year anniversary of moving to New York, I was in the UK. And today’s my 500th day out of water, so sure enough I’m 3458 miles from my adopted home city, and will be celebrating the dawn of 2009 five hours sooner than East Coast residents.

Rather than britoutofwater.com, maybe I should see if occasionalresidentofnewyork.com is available instead?

Happy New Year, everyone.

Slow train to nowhere

Until moving to New York, my experience of the American inter-city rail network was pretty much restricted to repeated viewings of Silver Streak with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. And memories of a few scenes from Trading Places, on the occasions when I wasn’t wearing down our VHS copy in a bid to pause on the three frames where Jamie Lee Curtis was topless. Obviously.

Despite having now been here for almost 500 days, my knowledge hadn’t moved on at all since becoming a Brit Out Of Water. OK, so I was at least pretty sure that being pursued by a murderous art dealer or all night parties accompanied by men in gorilla suits weren’t part of the usual transportation mix. But other than that, I had no idea what to expect when I booked an Amtrak ticket for a relatively short (two hour) trip upstate.

“Amtrak is just like your Virgin Trains only nicer,” The Special One informed me. “The toilets are much worse than British trains, but otherwise it’s pretty much like a slightly scaled-up version of your system.”

In the end, my train left an hour and a half late having developed mechanical problems on the way from the train yard. Thousands of people thronged the station concourse getting more and more frustrated as trains became progressively more delayed. Once on the train, every single seat was filled with people laden down with Christmas luggage. Having eventually found a seat by a window, the heat from the radiator at my feet made the temperature vaguely reminiscent of Dubai in mid-summer. And then the train proceeded to travel at a snail’s pace most of the way, to ensure that I got to my destination a good two hours late.

I had to check my geography occasionally just to make sure that I wasn’t in the UK after all. Like The Special One said, the US train system has everything that Britain’s does, only more of it…

E-coli all ye faithful

I’d like to think that I’m not all that particular about my food. I’m pretty adventurous in my eating habits, and will happily (if sometimes squeamishly) tuck into strange parts of strange animals if they’re proferred in my general direction. Blood, guts and entrails are all happily welcomed on the Brit Out Of Water menu, even if I do draw the line at tripe. Put simply, I’m not a picky eater – invite me to your house and I’ll eat whatever is put infront of me.

As it happens, the few things that I don’t particularly like to eat are central to the American way of life. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t generally eat eggs. This means that on the average breakfast menu in a diner, the only item that I can sometimes bring myself to eat is the menu itself. It’s fine if you put steak sauce all over it, to be honest, although I’ve had to give up laminated menus because of high blood pressure.

I don’t eat beetroot. I don’t desperately enjoy (although will still eat) bitter greens like broccoli rabe. And while not unique to the United States, I’d rather put pureed head lice on my burger than ketchup. Apart from that though, I’m the most laid back eater you’ll ever find.

Where my culinary openness ends though is with an American tradition that shakes me to my core, and causes me to shudder at the mere thought. It’s only in season for a short period each year thankfully, but during that time you can find yourself in food hell at least once a week. Turning it down isn’t an option, unless you want to adopt an air of anti-festivity that would make Bernard Madoff look like the people’s champion by comparison.

There’s no place for potluck dinners in this day and age, if you ask me.

For the uninitiated, the potluck dinner sees all attendees bring a dish of their choosing to the event, for everybody to share and enjoy. It’s an impressive display of community which generally happens around the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons, although the seriously unhinged have been known to try it at other points during the year. And to be fair, the principle is good, allowing the party host to engage in festive frivolities without the stress and strain of making food for dozens of people.

But the problem isn’t in the principle, it’s in the execution.

For a start, unless the potluck is organised to within an inch of its life, it can lead to some unholy combinations. I mean, pumpkin curry has its place, but it’s not on the same plate as roast chicken. Of course, there’s always somebody who brings their old family recipe for stuffing, made largely from dust and toenail clippings. And who needs eighteen different types of pumpkin pie, given that even one plate of the noxious substance would be enough to keep me dry retching for at least a week?

More to the point though, it’s the lack of clarity on the food hygiene standards of eighty three different people that sets me on edge. Let’s face it, these events are only called ‘potluck’ as it’s anyone’s guess whether you’ll get away without a serious dose of food poisoning. I mean, I know that I cook in clean pans and don’t use carrots that have been dropped on the floor to be licked by the cats, but that’s not to say that everybody is so fastidious. As I stare into the gloop of a lukewarm turkey gravy cooked by Andy Onymous, I’m not thinking “mmm, look at that glorious deep and flavourful stock” but “I wonder if he had a cold when he cooked this?”

I spend most of my time at potluck parties standing around the thing that I’ve cooked, or that’s been catered by the host. I know caterers are more than capable of their own crimes against domestic health, but at least I haven’t sat watching them pick their nose on eight separate occasions in the three days leading up to the event.

Still, the potlucks are all over for another year, and it’s home cooking all the way from here on in. I hope The In-Laws are looking forward to black pudding, that’s all I can say.

There’s no place like home

For somebody who isn’t remotely patriotic, has no celebratory mugs bearing images of the Queen or Prince Edward, and wouldn’t be able to tell you which way up a Union Jack flag is meant to be even if you paid him, I have to say that ‘being British’ is something I enjoy and am proud of. OK, so I’m not willing to defend our violent colonial past, our role in the Iraq conflict or our responsibility for the meteoric rise of the Cheeky Girls, but on the whole I have to agree with Grand Lake Ink and her assertion that “I think I won the lottery of life being born British.”

Britain has many faults, regardless of who has political power at any given moment. And any country which has more votes cast for a pop talent show than for a general election should always consider a long hard look in the mirror. But it’s also an incredibly beautiful place, with (as one American friend once put it) “Roman shit and old stuff everywhere”. And there’s at least an attempt at a duty of care towards its people, which you can’t say about many countries.

Of course, being away from your homeland only heightens those feelings of affection. It’s not out of any lack of love for New York either – if any city can put you in a Christmas mood, it’s this one. But emigration kits come equipped with rose-tinted spectacles. If I was in the UK right now, I’d be moaning about the weather and bleating about the failures of the economic system. Instead, I sit on the subway dreaming wistfully of low-lying moisture laden clouds and fog, and an interest rate that’s at least above zero (for the moment, admittedly).

The strangest thing about not being in Britain is that it makes you pine for things you never bothered much with when you were there in the first place.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a biscuit as much as the next man. And the man next to me right now is called Mr McVitie. But back home I’d probably go six months without eating one, and certainly wouldn’t buy them in a supermarketgrocery store. Now I have vivid dreams involving custard creams and bourbon biscuits, and I’d kill for a Garibaldi.

Similarly, the Christmas spirit has me longing to go to a pantomime. I haven’t been to a pantomime since about 1987, when Angie from Eastenders played a thigh-slapping Aladdin alongside Derek Griffiths from Play School and Play Away at the Pavillion Theatre in Bournemouth. But right now, I’d be more than happy with a slapstick cry of “he’s behind you” and the last five minutes of fame for a Big Brother star from three years ago.

Earlier this week, the pangs reached a new low when I found myself in the kitchen making Cornish pasties from scratch. Without a recipe. I have never made Cornish pasties in my life. Love them though I do, they’re a convenience food that you pick up when you’re hungry. Making them yourself is much less convenient, let me tell you. Back home, there would be more chance of me eating pencil sharpeners than there would be of making my own Cornish pasties, but here it just seems like a perfectly natural thing to do.

Anyway, enough of this. I’m going to see Oasis tonight, and I’ve got no idea where I’ve put the tickets.

The way we were

When I left home to live in London (to discover that the streets were not actually paved with gold, but actually covered in discarded chewing gum), returning home to North Wales or Chester was always an eye-opener. Not because I was now some big city kid who laughed at the little people and their provincial ways. I’ll still be a black pudding munching Northerner who reads the Chester Chronicle online when I pop my clogs. But whenever I went through my home town, even after eight weeks away, it always seemed that another city landmark had closed down, to be replaced by luxury apartments or a new restaurant.

As far as I’m concerned, time has stood still in Chester since 1992. So, when She Who Was Born To Worry tells me that the shop I need is two doors down from the Liverpool FC club shop, I have no idea what she’s talking about. Of course, if she’d told me it was near the old Athena store or Our Price, I’d have had no problem. Similarly, if I’m told that we’re going for a beer in the Slug & Lettuce, there’s not a chance in hell that I’ll be there before closing time. Tell me we’re having a drink in the old Owen-Owen’s on the other hand, and mine will be a pint thank you very much.

In New York, I’ve got none of the same historical touchpoints. I have no idea whether the current home of the Apple Store is an old hospital or a former squirrel warehouse, and I can’t join in the conversation when it turns to the eight restaurants that have been on the site of the latest here-today-gone-tomorrow hotspot. In any case, most restaurants stay open for less time than it takes to me get around to writing a new blog post. My memory is good, but I’ve got no chance of remembering that place that was open from May to September 2003, even if their French onion soup was to die for.

Of course being away from a whole country rather than just a small part of it makes the whole “what the f***?” moments all-the-more frequent. Except now it’s more like losing whole chunks of my heritage, rather than little fragments of it.

For instance, there’s not a single person under 40 who has not bought pick’n’mix sweets in Woolworths, and yet now it’s on the verge of going under. You now can’t say that you’re going to Virgin Megastores to pick up a CD or DVD, but have to resort to confessing that you’re making a trip to the patently ridiculous Zavvi. And the way things are going with the credit meltdown, it won’t be long before you have no need to say whether you’re a customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds or the NatWest – we’ll just all be patrons of The Bank.

But today I’ve just been pushed over the edge. I turn my back for five minutes and suddenly Carol Vorderman’s gone from Countdown. America, imagine losing (*quickly surfs to Wikipedia*) Alex Trebek from Jeopardy, and you’ll still have no idea of the country’s loss right now.

It’s time for Britain to start getting its act together, and look after the things that are important to us. Otherwise, next thing you’ll be telling me that Princess Di is dead.

City transport in “not very good” shock

If there’s one thing that unites Londoners and New Yorkers more than anything else, it’s their enthusiasm for (and indeed, full-blown devotion to) complaining about their respective subterranean rail systems. In the transportational equivalent of the playgroundschoolyard mantra of “my dad could beat up your dad”, the inhabitants of each city is convinced that their mass transit network is worse than anyone else’s, and will bitch and moan about it to anyone who will listen. As well as a good few who won’t.

In London, the legends of the Northern Line and its problems are more fantastical than anything that JK Rowling or Terry Pratchett could come up with. With trains that were apparently manufactured by contemporaries of Pliny The Elder, and a commitment to cancellation that suggests scheduling is done by an untrained monkey working flexi-time, the Northern Line is officially Far From Perfect.

Here in New York, trains run with the regularity of, say. Halley’s Comet or a Knicks NBA championship. If you ran trains with such huge gaps between them in the UK, they’d issue a timetable so that everybody could turn up at the allotted moment rather than making everyone peer into the gloom of the tunnel (more in hope than belief). It’s not just the timings either. I’m writing this from a packed train which is near-pitch black due to dodgy electrics. And if you ever see a peculiarly empty carriage car around rush hour, be aware that somebody has almost certainly thrown up in it, and only those who lost their sense of smell in an abortive ammonia-related chemistry experiment at school will be able to sit in it without retching every five seconds.

To be fair, being away from either system makes you pine for the other one. When I’m in New York, I long for the London Underground, and the knowledge that unless something’s gone badly wrong, you’re never going to have to wait more than five minutes for a train. Unless you’re on the Northern Line, obviously. And while in London, I yearn to be back in the capacious subway cars that can fit more than thirteen people without requiring you to occuipy the armpit of a burly man from Epping.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (almost as popular as Michael Phelps at a meeting of the Mark Spitz Appreciation Society at the moment, due to proposed fare hikes) actively seeks insultsfeedback with a laughably named Rider Report Card. The card asks you to rate your train according to 22 different criteria, including delays, station announcements, security, cleanliness, lack of graffiti and even “lack of scratchitti”. Sadly there’s no place to grade them on “ability to make up/perpetuate words such as scratchitti”.

While giving everyone the chance to have their say, the surveys don’t go down well with everyone. The woman opposite me on the R train into work this morning took a thick-tipped Sharpie to the report and scrawled on it in massive type “Stop giving me millions of surveys and start giving me more trains instead”. From her writing and evident over-the-top anger, I can only assume that she had left her multi-coloured crayons at home by mistake.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to fill out my report card today. I’m thinking “C+. Must try harder.”

Excuses excuses excuses

It may not have escaped your notice that America is a pretty large country. You could probably fit the UK inside New York state (if you borrowed a bit of New Jersey, perhaps?), and I’ve seen bigger aubergineseggplants than Wales. And like any large territory whose population has migrated for work and family over the years, America has developed an extensive, environmentally friendly and efficient public transport system.

OK, that last bit’s a lie. The occasional subway system and local bus network aside, most Americans’ idea of public transport is giving a neighbour an occasional liftride in their car to Walmart. The train network is woefully underdeveloped, serving only a relatively few cities. British readers will sympathise when I say that the trains here are enough to make you pine for Network South East or the West Coast Main Line.

All of that leaves the wishful traveller with predominantly two options when he or she wants to travel long distances: take the car (and experience the dubious sheet-stained delights of the American motel system), or take a plane. Not surprisingly, when faced with such a choice, most Americans put their latent environmental concerns (stop laughing at the back, please) behind them, and fly.

Domestic flights are like buses in many ways. Largely because there’ll be no planes for three hours, and suddenly four flights to Charlotte will come along at once. Delays are pretty inevitable, and the sky above La Guardia (New York’s ‘domestic’ airport) generally look like the M25Long Island Expressway on a bad day. Except with more wings.

With so many flights and connections, the logistics involved in the checked luggage system must be pretty involved. And given the (often speedy) turnaround between connecting flights, it’s amazing that suitcases and rucksacks don’t go missing more often.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less annoying when your bag is one of exceptions. Especially if your flight has already been delayed by two hours, and you’re standing in a deserted airport with two exhausted children. Still, United Airlines promised to get it to me by 1pm the next day, so it couldn’t exactly be described as a great hardship.

At 4pm, three hours after the deadline, I took my life into my own hands and called the United helpline. After a few abortive attempts at getting through the voice recognition system (see the comments on my last post for more insight), I finally got through to the dreaded call centreer.

The man I spoke to could not have been more friendly, and at absolute pains to insist that he was sorry for my inconvenience and woud be doing everything to resolve the situation. Given that he was in India, he’d even been given phrases to ensure that he connected with me on a more colloquial level. Admittedly I didn’t necessarily need to visualisze him ‘bending over backwards’ to help me, but it was a nice try.

Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is quite another. I was put on hold while he called the delivery company who would be bringing my bag back, and after a short while he returned to say that he had been unable to reach them, and that – as a result – I would just have to sit and wait for a little while longer, and hope that my bag turned up.

After a little pressing on my part, and ‘polite’ enquiries into why I couldn’t get more information, I was finally given what I believe to be the greatest excuse ever given by a call center operative. Ever.

“I’m sorry sir. I really wanted to help you with this, but the delivery company is really busy and so I was placed on hold. But the hold music was so irritating that I couldn’t wait any more.”

And with that he was gone.

Interestingly, my bag turned up an hour or so later with this tag on it. I believe the phrase is “you couldn’t make it up”.

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

What does a man have to do to get a beer around here?

Ordering alcohol is never easy for me when I’m in the southern United States. I’m asked for ID on a regular basis, despite the fact that I turned 21 many moons ago, and showing any barman or waiter my British passport generally produces a look of bafflement and wonder. I guess it might be Tennessee’s way of attempting to stop me from drinking in the first place, given that the state still has a number of dry counties. Or no-go zones, as I prefer to call them.

But sometimes all it takes to get a drink is abject humiliation.

On a flight from Washington DC to Knoxville on Wednesday evening, the flight attendant and her trolley made their way down the aisle of the tiny plane offering free fizzy popsoda, or alcoholic drinks for $6. No tiny bags of free snacks, sadly – one man who asked for some pretzels received a slightly embarrassed reply of “Sorry, United got rid of them a while ago.”

A couple of people had opted for a late night beer by the time the trolley got to me, and after five hours of hanging around airports, I decided to get the Thanksgiving party started in a similar way (safe in the knowledge that my passport was in my back pocket, in case any age-related concerns were brought up). Putting aside my annoyance at paying six dollars for something available for less than a dollar in a supermarket, I waited for my turn.

Attendant: “Can I get you a drink from the trolley?”

Brit Out Of Water: “That would be great. Can I have a beer, please?”

Attendant: “Pardon?”

Brit Out Of Water: “A beer please.”

Attendant: “Sorry?”

Brit Out Of Water (face reddening as people start to listen in): “A beer.”

Attendant: “What is it you would like sir?”

Brit Out Of Water (desperation setting in as fellow passengers start to laugh): “A beer. You know, a beer. A beer.”

Attendant: “Erm, I’m sorry sir, I don’t think we have…”

[Brit Out Of Water bends down, opens the bottom drawer of the trolley and gesticulates wildly at the cans within]

Attendant: “Oh, a beer! Why didn’t you say…”

Now, I admit that the British tend to pronounce the word that denotes “an alcoholic drink containing water, grain, hops and yeast” as ‘bee-err’ and Americans pronounce it more like ‘byurrrrgh’. But nonetheless, most flyers know that their drinks options are limited to a very few options, and so it wasn’t as if I was going to be asking for a glass of Château Pétrus (1929 preferably, although I hear that the 1961 is drinking very well at the moment). But that British accent just keeps getting in the way of day-to-day life, it would seem.

On the way back yesterday, a different attendant approached with the trolley on our delayed flight back to New York.

Attendant: “Would you like a drink sir?”

Brit Out Of Water: “I’ll have a Heineken, please.”