Monthly Archives: April 2009

Time to meat your maker

After a five month period in which my wedding tackle has been stored somewhere near my pancreas to avoid the bitter cold, somebody finally got around to paying New York’s heating bill, and glorious warmth returned with a vengeance this weekend.

In the UK, the changes of the seasons are generally imperceptible, with spring sleepily emerging from the depths of winter, before lazily giving way to the occasional haziness of summer, Sure, there will be the odd hotspot or cold spell, but on the whole there’s a very steady linear approach to the way that climate moves on during the course of the year. In New York, it all seems a little different. While there will still be occasional rainy spells in summer, or unseasonably hot days in spring, there is much more of a sense of a switch being flicked when seasons begin and end.

One of the benefits of this is that there is a substantially longer period in which you can play the culinary equivalent of Russian roulette by throwing random pieces of meat onto hot metal. Whether you call it barbecuing, grilling, or (as in Britain) salmonella distribution, you can’t beat the smell of charring pieces of flesh and bone in your garden or back yard.

It’s the law here in New York that you have to start grilling alfresco within 24 hours of the sun emerging, unless you want to fall foul of the 1884 Charred Meats Act. Getting thrown out of the country by immigration officials for falling foul (fowl?) of the rules insisting that you throw a spatchcocked chicken on the grill would be a terrible way to go, and as a result, this weekend we indulged in two such events.

Frankly, if you ever needed reassurance that the experiences of life are universal, you could do worse than look at these two occasions.

Fiddling with hot coals on a roof
In the UK, the grilling of meat outdoors takes place pretty much exclusively over charcoal. Sure, some fancy dandys have gas powered grills, but for the majority of Brits, a barbecue (as we call it) means gathering around a pile of black briquettes that you bought at the local petrolgas station, telling each other that you see a flame. Usually with rain pouring down above you, as you attempt to set up a temporary canopy to prevent your pork chops from getting soaked through.

What is absolutely compulsory though is that at least four men gather round to tell each other that their friend’s method of creating fire is never going to work. Men may well form eternal friendships over sport, but all bets are off when it comes to making fire. This weekend, our first barbecue began with me taking over the stacking of coals, and screwing up bits of paper, after rejecting our host’s method of getting the flame going. Don’t get me wrong, his method of spraying lighter fluid from a safe distance of fifteen yards made me pine for the UK, but in the end it’s not going to help me get a ribeye steak when I need it.

Lazy like Sunday evening
It’s much better, of course, when you’re master of your own domain. And on Sunday afternoon, I decided to clean last year’s debris off the grill, and readied some pastured pork chops for their cremation. Cleaning six months of grime off stainless steel isn’t as easy as it sounds though, and I battled with a heavy steel brush and enough chemicals to sink a small nation if applied to their water supply, in order to get the bars in a fit state to carry bits of Miss Piggy’s less-alive family.

After around an hour of cleaning, I’d just got the grill to the point where it might be used for cooking, and we got a call reminding us that we were supposed to be at dinner an hour away, And that we were already fifteen minutes late. It was like getting the sausages out for a British barbecue, only for the heavens to open and for everybody be forced inside for a lukewarm glass of Pimms.

So, two barbecues, and precious little meat to speak of. Still, at least it means I will have managed to get as far as May without a mosquito bite.

It’s butterflied leg of lamb next weekend though, so let the itching begin.

You don’t have to be mad to live here

If your idea of fun is listening in to private conversations about Ethel’s ingrowing toenail operation, or the borderline sexual harrassment of Eric’s younger boss, New York is truly the city for you. As I’ve mentioned before, this city’s residents have faulty volume control (they really should have bought the extended warranty), and as a result, eavesdropping is less accidental and more an accidental necessity caused by commuting daily.

What makes the whole thing so profoundly satisfying though is the fact that you get a better class of crazy in New York. In London, overhearing a conversation means listening to sappy Sacha drivelling on endlessly to drippy Dorothea about how Tristan is being frightfully awful at the moment. In New York, you’re just as likely to hear about one man’s plot to dramatically shorten the lifespan of his neighbour’s pet chihuahua.

This morning as I walked to a subway, the middle aged woman walking immediately behind me was having a very dramatic phone conversation with a person who – from the sound of the story – was one of her daughters. She related how the person they were talking about – her other daughter, I suspected – was going for an emergency appointment, and that while nobody was happy with the situation, at least it would be resolved relatively quickly. The exchange went on in some considerable detail, with the conversation getting increasingly heated and personal.

It was only when I stopped to get my wallet out of my pocket that the woman walked past me, and I noticed that she didn’t have a phone in her hand.

Huh, I thought to myself, you don’t see many women of her age with hands free sets.

And then I saw both her ears, and realised she wasn’t even on the phone. And that we were now underground, safely shielded from mobilecellphone reception.

The conversation continued for a good twenty minutes while we were on the train though. I think her daughter hung up on her in the end. You can’t blame her, can you?

I’m a New Yorker, and your rules do not apply to me

One thing that you have to say about New Yorkers is that they don’t lack self-confidence. I have never met a phalanx of people that are so certain of their right to existence. Or indeed, so convinced that the city in which they live is the greatest on Earth. Suggest to a New Yorker that you might consider living somewhere else at some point in your life, and you’ll see them snort derisively before surreptitiously adding you to the list that they always carry with them entitled ‘People To Cross The Road Away From When You Spot Them On The Street’. (Newcomers to this site will be interested to know that New Yorkers aren’t legally allowed onto the streets of the city until they have at least 87 names on their personal list.)

There is not a single argument you could use with probably 90% of born-and-raised New Yorkers that will convince them that there could possibly be anywhere else that is more worth living than here. And plenty of the people who have made New York their adopted home would agree, their systems finally conquered by a city which steamrollers all before it.

Of course, one of the problems with such swaggering self-belief is that some New Yorkers can have an occasional tendency to take themselves too seriously. Beware the person who tries to make an (admittedly weak) joke at the expense of New York, or criticises anything from the weather to the transport system. Responses can vary from the blank look that says “I don’t like this, but for your sake I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is the legendary ‘British wit’ we hear so much about” to the thirty minute diatribe about exactly which of your orifices the offended person will use to ensure your opinions never see sunlight again.

The other issue is that there are some New Yorkers who seem to believe that rules or common courtesies do not apply to them, and that they are an optional part of life or merely apply to tourists/foreigners/anyone but them. Whether it’s parking in places they’re not supposed to or, you know, not saying thank you when somebody holds the door open for them, some New Yorkers simply don’t like doing what they’re told to or what’s expected of them.

Take, for instance, my Saturday afternoon. Heading towards Battery Park City, we walked through a walled-off pedestrian path created by a construction company to allow people to pass through their site unheeded. Repeated giant neon orange signs told cyclists that they could NOT ride their bikes through the path, and that they had to DISMOUNT. In the three minutes it took us to walk the length of the path, we must have been passed by at least eight cyclists who were firmly in the saddle. One of whom had the temerity to “beep beep” us out of the way.

Not with a horn or bell, I hasten to add. No no, he just used the words “beep beep”.

As the fifth cyclist went past, I’d had enough, and using my best passive-aggressive posture, pondered aloud to The Youngest about the inability of New Yorkers to read. The Special One rolled her eyes, I remembered that some Americans carry guns, and The Youngest rued the day her mum had ever met that strange man from Britain. 

Meanwhile the cyclist rode off into the sunset. I’d like to think he had a sheepish look on his face, but he’d probably just realiszed that he’d left the iron on when he left the house that morning.

PS If I don’t get a comment from a New Yorker saying “yeah, but why should you have to get off your bike in that situation” I am going to be sorely disappointed.

Bra(in) twisting in the 21st century

You’d have to speak to She Who Was Born To Worry to get confirmation, but I think I was probably a right little pain in the arseass when I was a kid. ‘What’s changed?’ I hear you cry in a kind of unison that’s both cruel and a little unnecessary. But as a child, I had an uncanny knack for being particularly irritating if I wasn’t making use of my grey matter in some other way.

With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising that I quickly got into puzzles. Let’s face it, it was either that or the safe knowledge that my mum would be currently nearing the end of a twenty five year stretch at her Majesty’s pleasurein the slammer.

I couldn’t get enough of puzzles though. I particularly loved logic problems, the weird grid of boxes that allowed you to discover (eventually, after torturous process of elimination) that Jack and Miles were best friends who used to play squash (not badminton) on Wednesdays. You don’t seem to be able to buy logic problem books in the US (you can take a look at one here), so I can only assume that Americans couldn’t care less about Jack and Miles, let alone their midweek workouts.

Then there was the Rubik’s Cube, the greatest money spinner ever created from a bit of plastic and thirty six coloured stickers. The stickers were very important to me, as no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t complete the cube by legitimate means and had to resort to removing and replacing the stickers surreptitiously in order to give the illusion of genius. And to be fair, replacing the stickers exactly straight so that nobody knew what you’d done required a certain level of extra-worldly ability.

The Rubik’s Magic was rubbish though. Having eagerly lapped up the pre-release hype, I was bitterly disappointed to have completed it in a matter of hours. It was probably a good thing though – there was no way I’d have been able to break into that bastard to switch around the panels without the use of a chisel and a pair of glass cutters.

Since those heady days, I’ve been a puzzle freak, lapping up the latest obsession from cryptic crosswords to sudoku or kakuro. I know that The Special One is particularly enamoured of my predilection for a quick game of solitaire on my phone just before turning the lights out at night. I think she’s just relieved that she doesn’t have to wheel out the ‘I’ve got a headache’ excuse, to be honest.

But today I am putting Hasbro, Mattel, Waddingtons (and any other games manufacturers from my youth whose names haven’t been obliterated from my memory by more than fifteen years of late night binge drinking) on notice that I have discovered a puzzle that will beat all others. A convoluted brain teaser that will make the Rubik’s Cube look like, well, a bit of plastic with thirty six coloured stickers on it. And the joy of it is that all you need is a wife (or live in girlfriend, if you prefer)!

Basically, all you do is take a large quantity of brassieres (beginners should start with no more than six, although I am now capable of anything up to thirteen), and stick them in the washing machine. Set the cycle to gentle (experts can opt for hot wash, but that does introduce an element of violence to the puzzle, when your partner realises what you’ve done to her expensive La Senza over the shoulder boulder holders), sit back and in twenty minutes you’ll have the toughest puzzle yet invented.

Marvel as you wonder how the bras can have become so intertwined! Gaze in awe at the creation of knots more effective than anything seen in The Big Book of Particularly Effective Knots For Sailors! And cry real tears of frustration as you realise that your early days of attempting to undo a bra without the user’s knowledge in no way prepared you for this unbelievable challenge of logic and physical dexterity!

Playing the game yesterday, there was such carnage that I believed the laws of physics and matter had somehow been broken during the course of their time in the washing machine. At one point I believed I was going to need to resort to snipping the straps to pull them apart, before sewing them back together; the Bra Puzzle equivalent of taking the stickers off the Rubik’s Cube. Sadly I’m useless with a needle and thread, so instead I spent half an hour painstakingly prising the puzzle apart, one bra at a time. The joy you feel at completing the puzzle – the moment the final two bras fall apart – is indescribable though.

Sadly women are not able to take part, given that one touch on the pile of aforementioned lingerie is seemingly enough to break the connective bonds and turn it into a useable collection once more. It’s enough to send this useless man back to the sudoku, I can tell you.

Homesickness (or 8 things I occasionally miss about Britain)

I get asked whether I feel homesick quite a lot, and I think people tend to be surprised when I say that on the whole I don’t. The fact is that – love the UK though I do – it’s my family and friends that I miss more than anything, and if they were all transported over here, I’d probably asking ‘where’s Britain?’ within a matter of months.

That said, it’s probably only natural that our thoughts gravitate to the place where we’re from. Whether it’s Elk River in Minnesota or Craiova in Romania, there’s an invisible thread that inextricably attaches our hearts to the places from which we hail. That’s admittedly unfortunate if you’re from Liverpool, but it simply can’t be helped.

As a result there are always times when expats feel a little more homesick than usual. And usually for the most inexplicable reasons. Realise that you’re doing any two of these things and you’re probably missing home a bit.

Find yourself doing all eight, and it’s time to switch on BBC America, crack open a can of London Pride and sit with a knotted Union Jack hanky on your head for an evening.

1. You spend thirty minutes in bed one night trying to explain the joys of curling to your nearest and dearest. And protest loudly when she says “that’s not a sport, that’s just a spoof that somebody has made up to make fun of the Scottish.”

2. You find yourself daydreaming about eating pork pies, and go as far as to look up local stockists via Google. You don’t even like pork pies.

3. You realise that you’ve been away from home so long that you don’t recognise any of the presenters of Blue Peter. Worse still, you can’t even remember the theme tune.

4. You hear somebody saying that something is “on the DL”, and you automatically assume that they’re talking about the District Line.

5. You spend the whole of Wednesday afternoon avoiding Twitter and Facebook, so that you can sit at home that evening watching the UK version of The Apprentice without knowing who Sirallun has fired.

6. You’re reminded of British summers, by heavy rain in April. And you smile as a result.

7. You see a New York subway map, and pine for an Underground map that makes no sense whatsoever if you’re walking above ground. After all, tourists are meant to get lost.

8. You use up an hour of your precious weekend surfing Amazon’s UK site to make sure that you’re not missing anything new. And end up buying three DVDs. Of American TV shows.

Still when I’m at my most homesick, Britain goes and starts making a fuss about someone like Susan Boyle, and I start to feel better. Yes, I know she’s got a great voice, but having the appearance of someone who has been dragged through a hedge backwards doth not 12 million hits on YouTube make. Now she’s on all the morning shows in America, and you can’t open a newspaper without reading about her.

Britain, you’ve got a lot to answer for.

A spoonful of sugar

Some of the traditions that America has are completely different than those in the UK. Like stopping an important sports game two thirds of the way through for the singing of the national anthem. Or, indeed, knowing all the words to the national anthem in the first place. Some things are exactly the same; ‘a willingness to invade countries without succumbing to a burden of proof’ springs immediately to mind. But then – and I say this with due deference to my adopted homeland, and from a true position of love – some things America does exactly like Britain, only a bit worse.

There’s bacon, obviously – a meat product in the UK, but a saturated fat transportation device in the United States. Then there’s the rail system, which for all its British faults, at least calls at practically all towns that contain more than two men and a dog. And of course there’s the language which England invented, and which some Americans continue to devalue on an almost daily basis.

Not to say that America doesn’t do plenty of things better than Britain. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a burger anywhere else on earth again, having tasted the kind of heaven-in-a-bun that even the most average restaurant churns out. American festivals and celebrations make Britain’s look like something that was put together with money found down the back of the sofa. I still shudder with fear whenever I think about the fact that London has to put on an opening ceremony for the Olympics in 2012. And of course, the United States does bank collapses like no other country on earth; everywhere’s given it a go, but America truly has it down to a fine art.

Most of the time, you come to live with the differences between one place and the other. But at other times, it’s almost more than you can bear.

Still smarting from the lack of a four day weekend, I decided to buy some hot cross buns to cheer myself up. After all, what could be better than a spicy hot toasted bun packed full of raisins, slathered with butter that oozes into every inch of its doughy goodness? My mouth is watering at the mere thought of it.

Sadly, thinking about it is all I can do. Because America has gone and arsed up one of the best things about Easter*. For a start, the bun has the consistency of a heavy pannetone, rather than the kind of weighty denseness necessary to guarantee that it sticks to the roof of your mouth. Rather than boasting a reassuring flatness, the American hot cross bun seems to be approximately four inches high, contains candied lemon peel rather than raisins, and has all the moisture of an overworn flip-flop. And to be honest, I’d probably rather eat the flip-flop.

Most importantly though, where the cross on top of the bun (the very thing that gives the baked good its theoretical religious significance) is made of pastry in the UK, it’s made of icing in the US. Thick sticky and sickly white icing that removes the enamel from your teeth, and which leaves you gasping for water. As if you’d eaten a flip-flop, to be honest. With icing on top.

The fact is that if Americans get a chance to add sugar to something, they’ll take it. Whether it’s cereal or hair product, they’ll find some way to get the stuff in there somehow. By 2019, the average 35 year old American body will be made of 63% sugar. Please note that any remarks about licking each other like lollipops will be expunged from the comments.

* The others are Creme Eggs, and ‘moaning about Brits having a four day weekend’.

Just making sure we’re all on the same page

I think we can all agree, o learned readers, that diversity is a good thing. The world would be a terrible place if we all looked the same or acted the same. The fact that each one of us likes different flavour crispschips, different football teams or different music is categorically ‘a good thing’. And much as I will defend my natural right to watch Flash Gordon at least twice a year, I have to admit that if the rest of the globe’s population revelled in the line “I love you Flash, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth” as much as I do, then life would be pretty dull.

But I’ve just remembered that you can take diversity too far. Sometimes we just need to be exactly the same as each other, the world over. Lay aside our individuality, and remind ourselves of all the good that can come when we all act the same way. Particularly when it appears that everybody else in the world has a long weekend, and I’ll just be having the normal, run-of-the-mill two dayer.

The problem with not having a proper long Easter weekend is not so much the fact that I don’t get four days off work. I think I got used to that last year. Instead, it’s that fact that this age of social media and instant communication means that I am constantly having it rubbed in my face that I’m still slaving away while everybody else is enjoying themselves. If over the next few days I’m forced to read that Person X is currently drinking beer by the river, or Person Y is still in bed at 3pm, I swear I will not be responsible for my actions.

To be fair, no one is quite as mean as She Who Was Born To Worry. Given that in a normal week she will call me at 2pm on a Friday in New York to let me know that her weekend has already begun, you can imagine her glee going into a four day weekend that her first born won’t be having.

Oh, and just for clarity, when it comes to July 4 or Thanksgiving, I’ll be all in favour of diversity again. Any Brit mocking me over the next four days should leave their phone number here and expect a call in late November.

It’s not exactly the Discovery Channel, is it?

It’s not unfair to say that as a kid who was brought up in a little town in North Wales, my early experience of wildlife was relatively limited. There was a vague suggestion that there were adders somewhere not that far from us, although the teachers who took us on school trips never seemed to bring along a bottle of antidote or a patented adder catching device thingy. There were those microscopic red spiders that we used to encourage onto our hands and then quickly squish in order to create a tiny red blotch on our skin. And there were a few dogs whose sole use seemed to be to make sure that you were terrified to jump any wall in an attempt to get your football back, for fear that you might lose a leg, an arm, or the ability to father children in the future.

Put simply, the bit of North Wales that I had the right to call home wasn’t a hotbed of activity for the natural kingdom. Although to be fair, the noise from next door’s budgies would have put off any self-respecting meerkat or jaguar from setting up home in our back garden.

The one thing we did have though was a hedgehog. As prickly as The Special One after one glass of pinot grigio too many, our hedgehog lived in the compost heap, and only wandered his way down to the back door when he was convinced that the pubs were closed and everybody was settling down for the night. Then he’d casually saunter down, and climb into any bintrash bags he could get hold of, in order to get some much needed food.

The problem was that the hedgehog was clearly blind, and when coupled with the three hundred or so sharp spikes on his back, his handicap didn’t exactly make him an Olympic-standard scavenger. Getting into the bags was a bit of a doddle – getting out never proved quite so easy…

Since moving to the States, I’m having to get used to a whole different range of animals. Not so much in Brooklyn, although some of the characters who hang around outside local bars smoking heavily look like they’d not be out of place in a local zoo (preferably not the petting section though, if you don’t mind?). But either a couple of hundred miles upstate, or out in Tennessee, there’s a whole new set of animals to witness for the first time.

There’s plenty of strange looking creepy-crawlies for a start, the likes of which have not been seen outside secretive genetic mutation labs in the UK. And then there’s the wild versions of many standard animals – particularly turkeys, who seem to be revelling in the post-Thanksgiving period by going out partying without their parents (and almost certainly engaging in a little too much procreative birdy business).

To be honest though, most of this strange breed of weird looking animals appear essentially to be giant hairy gerbils. There’s the slightly weedy gerbil (the gopher), the smelly gerbil crossed with a black and white squirrel (the skunk), and (as spotted this weekend in The Inlaws’ garden) the big fat gerbil who looks like he’s been on the meat and potato pies for at least three years, the groundhog.

The problem is, I can’t identify a single one of these sodding animals when they pop up in a garden. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the problem is that they’re alive. After all, the US is the roadkill capital of the world, and you can’t drive more than 100 yards on an interstate without somebody shouting “Look, a dead raccoon!” or “ewwww, did you see that possum?”. Show me a living breathing version and I haven’t got a hope in hell of picking a vole out of an identity parade. Spread its guts over a ten yard piece of road, and I could probably identify the animal, the name of its mother, and its favourite colour.

Next time there’s an animal in The Inlaws’ garden, I’m getting on their four wheel lawnmower and heading straight for it. I’ll be like a slightly gorier version of David Attenborough before you know it, mark my words.

Money money money (isn’t funny)

When I was a kid, opening my first bank account was pretty much one of the most exciting days of my (then) tender life. It wasn’t so much that I was saving money. After all, that just meant that I wasn’t going to be able to spend all my pocket money on cola bottles that week. No, the thrilling part was that I was opening an account with the Midland Bank, who had pioneered the concept of giving kids a whole lot of cheap tatsome special gifts to encourage them to become savers. Presumably on the basis that today’s young savers are tomorrow’s victims of an extortionate charge for going ten pencefourteen cents overdrawn.

As a Griffin Saver, I became the proud owner of a dictionary, a couple of folders, a pencil case (containing a protracter, a pair of compasses and one of those set square things that people only really used when they couldn’t find their ruler), a badge, and a tiny sports bag that you could fit one trainersneaker in. I didn’t care though – it was beyond exciting to get the goodies, and to be considered grown up enough to have a bank account.

As I grew older, I got a succession of stuff for opening various accounts in the UK, including CDs and a Young Person’s Railcard (for the Americans among you, this is a discount card for travel on this thing we have in Britain called “a useful network of railways”). Basically the message was that banks loved me, and would bend over backwards for my custom.

In the United States, I think it’s fair to say that things are a little different. I’d have been lucky to get a little vial of toe nail clippings from my bank when I opened my account. Infact, I couldn’t even open an account because I didn’t have a social security number at the time, so I had to have my name put on The Special One’s account and hope that she doesn’t decide to do a runner with my lifelong collection of 20p pieces. I can’t get a credit card because I’ve got no credit history, and like most people in the US, I get charged a small fortune if I even accidentally walk past another bank’s cashpointATM machine.

But the customer service is something else. Trying to make a small purchase yesterday, I found out that my Chase card (name and shame, I say) had been cancelled and so I called up the bank to question why. It turns out that a couple of months ago I had used my card at a place where they had subsequently had a fraud transaction, and so they cancelled my card as a precaution. Of course, they didn’t bother to tell me. I mean, why would they, it’s not like I needed to know.

To be fair to her, the woman speaking to me on the phone couldn’t have been less apologetic if she tried. She first shouted at me that they had written to me (they hadn’t), and then attempted to get me off the phone at all costs. I think it was all she could do not to yell “well, you should just count yourself lucky that we haven’t p**sed all your money up a wall on dodgy mortgages given to people who can barely sign their name.”

Obviously I slammed the phone down on her. I said ‘thank you’ first though. I’m British, not a barbarian.

A full and frank apology to the USA

I would like to issue a full and unreserved apology to the United States of America. In a previous post, I had revealed that an American foodstuff (albeit Italian-American) had made a personal attack on me, and left me with a cold sore-like legacy.

By relating such a story, I was suggesting that foods from America – and only foods from America – were highly volatile, dangerous and unpredictable, and should be trusted as much as, say, a former high-level Lehman Brothers executive with a shifty smile.

I now fully accept that my intimation was wrong, and that food products from any part of the world can cause pain and a herpes simplex-type look. That such a realisation can be caused by that great bastion of Britishness – the humble roast potato – is a cause of intense personal anguish to me.

I appreciate that there are some people who would try to maintain that I am using maverick comestibles as a scapegoat for a persistent cold sore problem. This is both unfair and actionable, and I will not hesitate to pursue those rumourmongerers to the full extent of the law.

Note that while the physical manifestations of these unprovoked attacks will fade in time, the emotion scars will live with me for a lifetime.

My family and I would appreciate your privacy and understanding during these difficult times.