Category Archives: Customs

The luck of the Irish

Now, before I start, I need you to know something: I have nothing against a good celebration. I am, after all, the current holder of the South London All-Comers record for Most Wine Glasses Inadvertently Smashed On A Good Friend’s Floor In One Night, a record I’ve held since New Year’s Eve 2002. And I’ve forgotten more summer bank holidays than most of you have had hot dinners, thanks to a predilection for the occasional babycham and lemonade.

Put simply, give me a poor excuse to party, and I will rip your arm off and swing it around my head like a spring break reveller with an eighteen year old’s thong in his hand.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. And for me, that line stops right before St Patrick’s Day.

Clearly I’m getting more cantankerous as I grow older. Last year, St Patrick’s Day seemed remarkable, but not annoying. Twelve months on, and I’ve crossed to the dark side.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the Irish (or their close descendants) celebrating their patron saint’s day. But yesterday New York was jam packed to the gills with people wearing emerald green clothing, and buskers playing fiddle-dee-dee music on violins that were last tuned when Nixon was in power. If I heard one more person say something like “top o’ the morning to you” in a voice that makes Dick Van Dyke and Don Cheadle seem like accent experts, I may have been forced into using shamrocks for something that nature certainly never intended.

The fact is that most of the drunken party-goers heading back towards Bay Ridge at about 7 o’clock last night have probably never even met someone from Ireland, let alone have any Irish family background. And that’s despite the fact that 40 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry in the last census.

Let’s face it, those jester-hatted folk throwing up in the gutter probably don’t even know that St Patrick’s Day is a celebration of all things Irish, and the rest of them almost certainly couldn’t point out Ireland on a map of the world. That may be something to do with the amount of Guinness they’ve poured down their collective necks over the last twelve hours, admittedly, but that’s hardly the point.

The strange thing is that I was asked on numerous occasions why I wasn’t wearing green yesterday. I tried to explain that it’s because I’m not Irish, but I just got a slightly quizzical look that suggests the person can I hear that I’m speaking English but is incapable of understanding the words coming out of my mouth.

I’m thinking of finding out when Canada Day takes place, and then going out into the city dressed as a lumberjack and tutting in the general direction of anybody not dressed in red and white.

I’m not eating caribou though, and you can’t make me.

Baby you can park my car

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Americans are obsessed with their cars. Having recently flown cross-country to Los Angeles, it’s not hard to see why. Popping next door for a cup of sugar must be a whole different kettle of fish when your closest neighbour lives thirty miles away. Of course, abject fear of walking doesn’t help either. After all, most LA residents think that legs were made for making sure that your torso doesn’t drag on the floor.

When you admit in public that you haven’t driven for fourteen years, you get the kind of look reserved for hired cat assassins. And that’s just from The Special One, I can tell you. People who don’t know me attempt to get words out of their mouths but eventually just give up and walkdrive off.

The problem is that I was never the world’s greatest driver in the first place. As I’ve said before, I spectacularly failed my driving test first time out. What I neglected to mention was that even the second time I took it, I was lucky to get away with a pass. After all, a three foot skid on your emergency stop is never designed to impress the examiners.

Anyway, I’ve come to terms with being a social leper now. And to be fair, New York is probably the one city in the States where you can definitely get away without a car. It’s clearly disappointing that I’m excluded from the merry-go-round fun when everybody has to move their cars at certain points in the week to allow the roads to be cleaned (and to avoid getting fined in the process). But it’s a disappointment I’m prepared to endure for the sake of my own sanity, and for the security of drivers and pedestrians across the city.

Outside New York, dealing with drivers is a vital task for businesses that rely on a high turnover of customers, but which don’t have access to huge on-site car parksparking lots. In high traffic areas, certain places know that their patrons won’t bother turning up if they find it impossible to park. So they make the problem disappear by offering to park the car for them – for a small fee, of course.

Valet parking is an essential part of restaurant life, and most swanky hotels offer the service too. In Los Angeles, it seems that every second place offers you the chance to put your keys into the hands of somebody you’ve never met and watch them drive off with your pride and joy. In New York they call that process a mugging.

That said, the further away from Manhattan you get, the more likely you are to find valet parking an option. Here in Bay Ridge, plenty of restaurants will happily park your car for you, and I’ve even seen the option at babywear shops.

It’s all about competitive advantage I guess. And maybe with the current recession, we’ll see even more businesses begin to offer to park your car, if only to make their service stand out from the crowd. Infact, I think that process has already begun. Last night on my walk home, I saw a man step out of his car and hand his keys over to a smartly dressed young man who immediately took his place and drove the car around the corner to join another thirty or so crammed into a small space at the side of the premises. But what was the place, I wondered as I looked for a sign? A new restaurant, or a bed and breakfast inn maybe?

No, it was the local funeral parlour, welcoming friends and family to a viewing.

Next it’ll be drive-thru weddings, mark my words.

Will humankind ever learn?

I’ve always been a little bit superstitious, for some reason. To be fair, I’d like to think that I’m just easily suggestible, and that the people around me have lured me into their shadowy lair of hocus pocus claptrap done in the name of good luck. Nevertheless, my lack of backbone leads to me doing all manner of silly things in an attempt to ensure that good fortune shines on me.

When I was a kid, my grandmother always insisted that I say ‘white rabbits’ on the first day of the month, if I was to have good luck for the next four weeks. If ‘white rabbits’ wasn’t the first thing I said that day, then a quick chant of ‘white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits’ was apparently a manual override of the bad luck that would ensue. Good fortune’s version of being given lines at school, I guess.

Whenever I go to Manchester to see eleven men in red kick a football around, The Best Man always insists that we walk up the furthest staircase of four to our Old Trafford seats, for fear that United will lose if we don’t stick with tradition. I have seen them win, lose and draw when following this policy, yet despite knowing that it doesn’t work, I still stick to it even if The Best Man isn’t with me.

And I always put my left sock on before my right one, after meeting a wise old man in India who insisted that I would have a long and prosperous life if I maintained this early morning devotion. OK, that’s a lie – I’ve never even been to India, let alone developed a sock donning habit – but I reckon I’d be susceptible if anybody came up with even a half-compelling story about why I should do it.

The strange thing is, I don’t believe in much of the made-up nonsensestuff that many people avidly follow. I don’t read my horoscopes, I don’t think that tarot cards or tea leaves are a harbinger to my future, and I’m certainly not a church-goer. Hell, I don’t even believe in the stupid superstitions I have, but I still do them just in case my life turns to one giant pile of mush if for some reason I stop.

On this basis, I think I have discovered the root of America’s current economic woes. As every British child knows, it is absolutely imperative that all evidence of Christmas decorations be removed from your house by the evening of the 5th of January (or Twelfth Night, as it is more commonly known). I know it’s linked to Candlemas or Epiphany or some other such blah blah blah, but all I know is that if there’s a single trace of tinsel hanging up after the 5th, then a plague descends on your house, and all your worldly possessions turn into celery. Or beetroot. Definitely one or the other.

It’s a rule we stuck to rigidly when I was a kid, and my life has been pretty damn good so far. Indeed, such has my commitment been to the Twelfth Night principle, that in the last years of living alone, I didn’t even put decorations up for fear that I would somehow forget the 5th and I’d come home to find that my TV had been transformed into a root vegetable.

Here in the US, they don’t care. We’re now in early February, and most nights as I walk home I see a Christmas tree or two sitting forlornly in the gutter having finally had its two month stay in some household or other brutally terminated. Is it any wonder that the economy has gone to hell in a handcart given this slovenly approach to the fundamental traditions that make this world tick?

They can talk about subprime mortgages until they’re blue in the face, but herein lies the root of the financial crisis. If you walk past the old offices of Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual or Bear Stearns, I bet you’ll see a Christmas tree in their lobby. Sure, its lights may be blinking merrily, but that’s just the tree sending a message to the other trees around it.

“Sit tight lads,” it’s saying. “Seems like they’ve forgotten the Twelfth Night rule. We’ll be running this place before you know it.”

Public displays of affection

I can’t help but love the story of the British government flying the Union Jack the wrong way up at the signing of a trade agreement with China. It’s the kind of Basil Fawlty-esque commitment to getting things ever so slightly wrong that marks the UK out from the rest of the world.

Actually, it’s perhaps not surprising that nobody’s quite sure which way the flag should go, given that the last few years have seen the flag’s importance to the nation diminish slightly. With dubious right wing factions effectively purloining the Union Jack for their anti-immigration and – let’s face it – racist views, flying a British flag has become less and less common.

In contrast, if ‘loving flags’ was an Olympic sport, the United States would be the undisputed gold medallist every single time. If there’s a city block in New York that doesn’t have a single Stars & Stripes on it, I am yet to see it. From bumper stickers to billboard sized enormoflags, America loves to wave its charms in the air (and wave ’em like it just don’t care, I hasten to add).

But for some people, it seems, the Stars & Stripes just isn’t a great enough commitment to the holy principle of flag flying. Certain folk have obviously decided that they’re not truly making use of their fundamental right to pin their colours to the mast if they’re only flying the American flag.

At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for the fact that walking around my neighbourhood last night, I saw at least five banners on poles outside homes, proudly proclaiming “Happy Valentines Day”.

Now, last time I looked, St Valentines Day was a private thing between two people who love each other. Sure, you might make some grand public gesture (although the sight of one person proposing to another on a giant screen at a sports game is enough to cause me involuntary wretching), but essentially February 14th is a reminder to tell your nearest and dearest that you love them rather than giving your postmanmailman, pizza delivery person and general passers-by a virtual smooch. Obviously, you haven’t seen the guy who lives opposite us, but rest assured that the last thing I want him doing is getting the wrong idea.

Clearly Hallmark et al have tired of creating new holidays, and have decided to expand into flag creation. Next thing you know, people will be unfurling ‘Have a great funeral!’ flags, or ‘Happy Administrative Professional Day’ banners outside their homes.

Rumours that a special bong-shaped flag is being worked on for Michael Phelps’ London 2012 campaign could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

Out with the old, in with the new. Eventually.

I haven’t passed comment on the election since the historic events of November 4. After all, I don’t even have the vote, let alone an inside track on the political machinations that led to the Democrats winning Virginia, so sometimes it’s just best to keep quiet. All I can say is that I stayed up on a sofa in Brixton until 5.15am watching events unfold thousands of miles away, and went to bed happy in the knowledge that America had given itself a new start.

But after an interminably long election process that seemed to begin shortly after Bush robbeddemocratically defeated John Kerry in 2004, we’re now faced with two and a half months of sitting around waiting for the dawn to break. It’s like ordering a sofa for a brand new house, then having to sit on the floor for nine weeks while you wait for it to be delivered. Call me old fashioned, but since when were the supply chain problems of Sofa Workshop a good model for the democratic process?

In the meantime, The Squinty Little Man With The Former President For A Dad gets to experience a lame duck session as he goes through his cupboards to find all those weird scrappy bits of legislation he’d forgotten about over the last eight years. Any suggestions that lame ducks should be shot to put them out of their misery is not for this blog, thank you very much.

Of course, if the experience of the Clintons is anything to go by, he’ll have his beady eyes on some souvenirs from the Oval Office as he starts packing up his boxes. Although given that George Bush Jr (as he apparently hates to be called) has spent more time on holidayvacation than any other President in living memory, one of his aides will first probably have to point out where the Oval Office is.

The sadness is that by having this weird interregnum, America is denied one of the great delights of the British political system. Every time a Prime Minister loses an election, or is forced out of office by his own party, they’ve essentially got to get out of 10 Downing Street that day to make room for the new arrival. Nothing brings a politician back down to earth quicker than the arrival of a removals truck with a few hundred boxes to be filled full of tin sculptures (gifts from the Mongolian government) and framed pictures of the family standing with Bono and Richard Curtis.

Rumours that Gordon Brown was spotted picking up packing tape and bubble wrap at the weekend could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

Early to rise, early to grump

Four times this week, I’ve woken from my deep and blissful slumber at 6.30am. And not just because one of the cats is aggressively scratching the door in an attempt to persuade me that it should be fed.

Each time I have reluctantly emerged disheveled and groggy from under the duvet (which I believe for legal purposes I have to call a comforter in the United States, despite the fact that it makes it sound like some kind of security blanket), and reached for the closet to pluck out my dressing gown. Ten minutes later – having finally managed to find the armhole in the pitch blackness of the room, put it on, taken it off so that it wasn’t back to front like a straitjacket, put it on, taken it off again because it was inside out, put it on again, and finally grappled in the bottom of the closet to find the missing waist cord – I get my day started.

Now, this week was an unusual week, given that I had very early starts at work, but nonetheless there are always two or three days a week where I have to get up an hour earlier than strictly necessary. That’s sixty minutes of lost sleep, making me sixty times more likely to be grumpy by the end of the day (as I’m sure The Special One will happily confirm with a world weary roll of the eyes).

And the reason? Clearly it’s not a desire to go for an early morning jog along the Atlantic Ocean coast. Nor is it a willingness to skip merrily to a delightful little patisserie nearby, to pick up croissants and fresh baguettes. I mean, I would, but trudging through the cold to get a loaf of Home PrideWonder Bread just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

No, it’s because The Young Ones have to start school at 8.15am, and given that we live an hour or so subway ride from their educational establishment, one of us always has to get up at 6.30 to wake them and make them lunch.

I’m not complaining about making the kids lunch, obviously. Well, I am, but that’s a different matter. In the end, despite a certain amount of grumbling, I’m happy to accept the role. What I struggle to understand is why they have to be at school at 8.15am.

The strange thing is, they seem to be the lucky ones, with other kids having to be at school for 8. Of course, I understand that parents work, and so dropping them off before they head off to the office is a necessity for some people. But in New York, most kids at high school either live within walking distance of school or get the subway on their own. Classes finish at 2.30 or 3, but show me a kid who wouldn’t swap an hour of freedom in the afternoon for an hour of extra bed, and I will show you a 13 year old who probably has extra-curricular commitments as a shoplifter.

In the UK, school starts at 9, and finishes around 3.30. Much more civilised if you ask me. Maybe there are studies that show kids are more receptive to learning early in the morning, and I would kind of understand that, and should certainly respect it. All I can say is that there are studies that clearly show that I am substantially more tetchy having got up at ridiculous o’clock in the morning.

It’s time for change in more ways than one, I can tell you.

In search of a slogan

Everyone loves a good slogan. Whether it’s a movie tagline like “Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water” or an advertising jingle such as “A Mars A Day Helps You Work, Rest & Play”, nothing sticks in the head like a catchy slogan. I can guarantee that absolutely every Brit reading this blog will have sung the Mars tagline to themselves in the last five seconds, such is the power of a pithily written motto.

Like every good chocolate bar or Hollywood blockbuster, some countries have managed to get in on the motto act with a short sentence that sums up their raison d’etre. Never ones to miss a chance to show off their all round liberalism, the French opted for “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (or ‘liberty, equality and brotherhood’, for the benefit of my Freedom Fry eating friends). Senegal weighs in with “Un peuple, un but, une foi” which sounds great in French, but when translated into its English meaning of ‘One people, one goal, one faith’ starts to sound uncannily like a Queen record. And who can argue with Guatemala’s “Libre Crezca Fecundo”? Or ‘Grow free and fertile’ to you and me.

Of course, America sticks with “In God We Trust”. Which seems a little rich given that they won’t even give me Good Friday off work. Maybe they should consider some kind of addendum such as “In God* We Trust (*Other gods are available)”? Their Latin motto of “E pluribus unum” (‘out of many, one’) is a little more melting-pot friendly perhaps, although rumours that the slogan refers to the number of accepted votes for Al Gore in Florida in the 2000 presidential election could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

The British were seemingly too busy with colonising the rest of the world to bother particularly with a motto, and by the time that they got around to it, all the good ones had already gone so they decided not to bother. Sure, the royals attempt to insist on “Dieu et mon droit” (or ‘God and my right’) but given that it makes precious little sense, I think most people would be just as happy with “Britain: Finger Lickin’ Good”.

Apparently Gordon Brown has launched some kind of task force to attempt to find a motto for the UK, having clearly decided that the issues of health, education and crime are nothing like as important as finding a catchphrase to put on our tourist literature. Given that he seems willing to put it to a popular vote, we’ll probably end up with something along the lines of “The UK is like well skill, LOL!! ROFL LMAO!!!”

After going to a sushi place today to grab some lunch, and finding that it has shut down about six weeks after it opened, I reckon that America should probably change its motto to “Nothing Lasts Forever”. I’ve had trips to the toilet that have lasted longer than some restaurants in this city.

Good Friday. Or ‘Friday’, as I now call it.

I could never claim to be the most religious person on this planet. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s plenty to be said for the sense of community that churches, synagogues or mosques can provide. And I think if it works for you, then more power to you. But personally, I find it difficult enough to believe that a football team leading the league by five points with seven games to go is actually going to win the Premiership, so what chance do I have of believing in an omnipotent and omniscient presence?

That said, I’m more than happy to take advantage of the fringe benefits of religious belief. I’ve been in (more or less) gainful employment for the last thirteen years, and in all that time, I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to work on Good Friday. Admittedly I don’t go to take communion, or even walk within a few yards of a church. But it’s always nice to have a day off in the first few months of the year.

Yet all that’s over now, and my first Good Friday in the USA was spent sat at my desk, avoiding calls from anyone in the UK, and at the same time wondering why I hadn’t elected to take the day off like most other people in the office.

The strange thing is that the USA always strikes me as being a vastly more religious country than the UK. It certainly seems to have much more of a presence in people’s day-to-day lives, put it like that. My low-level blasphemy causes me all manner of problems with one particular inhabitant of my office, yet I seem practically incapable of preventing it. Having been tutted at for taking the Lord’s name in vain for the eighty-third time a few weeks ago, I actually responded by saying, “Oh Jesus, I’m really sorry.”

I think the real problem is that Americans are so religious, they have to recognise all religious days – and if they were to make every religious day a holiday then as Morrissey once sang, every day would indeed be like Sunday. Personally I’ve got no problem with that, but America’s gross domestic product is already heading down towards that of Vanuatu as it is, and doesn’t need any further discouragement.

I wouldn’t mind so much, but as I write this, all my friends and family in the UK are no doubt snuggled up in bed wondering what they’re going to do with their Easter Monday bankpublic holiday tomorrow. There’s just no justice.

July 4th seems a long way away right now.

Open brackets

I’ve been a footballsoccer fan for as long as I can remember. I’ve still got a picture of me resplendent in my first ever Manchester United kit, proudly sitting on Brit Out Of Water Senior’s lap one Christmas. And I was even humiliated at my wedding (sorry, who am I kidding, I mean at The Special One’s wedding) with a blown-up photograph of a bobble-hatted me aged six, standing infront of United’s ground. Rarely can dimples have looked more prominent.

On one of my first trips to Old Trafford, I can vividly recall sitting on a coachbus taking us to Manchester, and desperately trying to make sense of the ‘league ladders’ that had fallen out of my brand new copy of the bible (or Shoot! football magazine, as I believe it was actually known).

Essentially the Shoot! League Ladder was a piece of cardboard with a tiny piece of card on it for every club in the country. Each one was pushed out of the cardboard frame until you had 92 thumb-sized tabs that could be pushed into the perforated card to reflect where each club was in the league at that point in the season. Given that this was the 1980s, I never had to move Manchester United’s piece of card much above position 8, although I did take a relatively inexplicable interest in seeing the rise and fall of “Harry McNally’s Blue & White Army”. Or Chester, as most pundits seem to insist on calling them.

Statistics have always been at the heart of being a sports fan. Whether it’s the percentage of first serves achieved by Andy Murray or Roger Federer, or the lap times of a 10,000 metremeter runner, being a proper sports fan is something that requires a mind for numbers. You also need an extraordinary ability to retain the facts that Rain Man would struggle to remember. I only remember the date of Brit Out Of Water Senior’s wedding to The Wicked Stepmother because it coincided with Ryan Giggs’ first goal for Manchester United, in a 1-0 triumph over our light blue City rivals.

Of course, in America, sports stats are just as important. But to say that I know nothing would be to do a disservice to those who know nothing. I’d have a better chance of guessing the number of grains of rice in the world than I would have of telling you how many three pointers Nate Robinson has scored in the last three seasons.

Yesterday I was forcedpersuaded into taking part in my office’s NCAA brackets competition. I assume that NCAA stands for No Clue About Anything as that pretty sums up my knowledge of this sports prediction tradition. Essentially there appear to be about 32 teams (which I assume to be college teams, given that UCLA and Stanford were among them), and you have to choose who will beat who, all the way through to the eventual final. I guess that the person who gets most right wins the prize.

Suffice to say that it was only about half way through filling in the form that I realised that this was a basketball competition. I haven’t even heard of some of the places involved, let alone know whether they’re a good team or whether they’re capable of beating another team I’ve never heard of. I ended up with Tennessee winning, just because The Special One would never forgive me if I didn’t. It’s akin to picking Scunthorpe United to win the FA Cup because you like the colour of their kit.

Apparently they call it ‘March Madness’. The only madness is the fact that I’ve made another $20 donation to a fellow colleague’s pocket.

Let there be (saintly) love

As regular readers will know, I’m not a particular fan of abbreviating words or finding shorter ways of saying things. I always prefer calling friends David rather than Dave, for example. Although only if they are actually called David. I tried calling my friend Liz ‘David’ once. Suffice to say that these days she’s less ‘my friend Liz’, and more ‘Liz’.

When it comes to Christmas, I absolutely point blank refuse to call it ‘Xmas’. Yes, I know that it’s derived from the Greek for ‘Christ’, but exactly how lazy do you have to be to say ‘ex-mass’ rather than ‘Christmas’. That millisecond that you save is hardly going to be the key factor that prevents you from achieving world peace and instead condemns man to a life of pestilence, war and famine, is it?

So today (he said, sounding progressively more like the grumpy old man that he fears he may well be becoming), I’m finding myself unwittingly engaged in a one man crusade to remind people that February 14th should be known as Saint Valentines Day, as opposed to Valentines Day. Nobody in this country uses the ‘St’ anymore, it would appear. It doesn’t appear in news coverage, it doesn’t appear in incessant adverts persuading me to buy chocolates, and it doesn’t even appear on the ‘Valentines’ cards themselves.

I wished The Special One a happy St Valentines Day this morning, and she looked at me as if I had wished her a Merry Little Smurfmas. Even the (very funny and apt) blogs I’ve read today from Brits and Americans alike have insisted on calling it Valentines Day.

Maybe I just missed a meeting when a group decision was taken to drop the saint? Or perhaps it’s for the same reason that I have to say ‘happy holidays’ rather than ‘happy Christmas’? Whatever the case, it’s frankly taking the pisssaint.

I know as much as the next man that Hallmark have hijacked this old fertility festival and turned it into an easy way of boosting sales at an otherwise difficult time of the year. But at least let’s try to stick to the – ahem – romance of the original inspiration. Let’s face it, it’s got to be better to feel you’re being persuaded into a outward demonstration of love to honour the memory of a dead bloke from Rome, rather than because of the difficult first quarter of American Greetings’ financial year?

Now, hands up all of you who think that this unmitigated rant is going to help me when The Special One discovers that I haven’t bought her roses?

Me neither.