Category Archives: Holidays

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me… a sky high electricity bill

When I was a kid, at the bottom of a hill down the road from our little cul-de-sac stood what could only be described as a bungalow on stilts. It was the kind of house whose owners had a year-round commitment to proving the old adage that you can have all the money in the world but you can’t buy class or taste. They’d built the house themselves, presumably making full use of the services of a partially sighted architect, and a landscape gardener who had tragically lost all but one finger in a horrific accident involving a strimmerweed whacker and a pair of garden shears. Sure, their home gave them a lovely view over some North East Wales hills, but I can imagine that the only upside to living there would have been the fact that you wouldn’t have to look at the outside of the house all day long.

Anyway, their lack of sophistication came to a height every Christmas. Each year somewhere around the start of December, word would spread around that the family at the bottom of the hill had put up the Christmas lights on their house. And, over the next week or so, we’d each have to make our way down there to check out for ourselves whether they had managed to surpass the garish extravagance and tastelessness of the year before. They rarely let us down.

It’s around this time of year that British tabloids like The Sun do a small news feature on the couple from Dewsbury or Weston-super-Mare who have either spent £15,000 on their Christmas lighting, or are being threatened with legal action by neighbours for erecting a ‘son et lumiere’ spectacular which plays Also Sprach Zarathustra every hour on the hour for 25 days straight. It’s as reliably annual a story as ‘Postcard Turns Up At Address 67 Years After It Was Posted’ and ‘Dog Saves Cat From House Fire’.

Living in the ‘burbs of Brooklyn at Christmas is like having a place on a winter-themed Las Vegas strip, only marginally less tasteful. Imagine Blackpool with less vomit and more inflatable snowmen, and you’re heading in the right direction.

A few specific things to note:

1. Electricity consumption in the area must go through the roof at this time of year. Eco-awareness has not yet come to South Brooklyn it would appear, unless there is secretly a crew of 36 people cycling non-stop on exercise bikes hooked up to the grid, in a church hall somewhere in the neighborhood. If you’re on such a team and you’re reading this, do reach out to me and I will lavish you with all the mince pies a man with limited baking skills can create.

2. One of the joys of Christmas (NB, other seasonal quasi-pagan/religious festivals are available – see local listings for details), as far as I am aware, is that you put decorations on your tree and around your house as a family. Imagine my disappointment on Sunday when I discovered crack teams of professional house decorators at at least five houses in the area, erecting elaborate displays that wouldn’t look out of place at Disney World. Come on people – if you want the decorations, at least put the time in yourself. Although to be fair, if I had a set of 2000 fairy lights, and it was me who had to take each one out looking for the duff bulb, I might be tempted to turn to paid assistance too…

3. Young children would do well not to learn their Christmas traditions from the decorations that they see in gardens in the area. After all, the nativity story does not – as far as I’m aware – read “And so it came to pass that a penguin was born in a tent, and the three wise snowmen did travel from afar, bringing gifts of decaying pumpkins left over from Halloween, giant illuminated candy canes, and reindeer made of wire. And then Santa arrived on his inflatable Harley Davidson, wearing Ray Bans to protect him from the millions of red, white and blue lights that shone from the trees. And peace reigned, except from the houses whose speakers did blast out Hark The Herald Angels Sing.”

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.

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.

Expect the unexpected

Like Drew Barrymore and her endless ability to score the lead roles in sappy rom-coms, A Brit Out Of Water would be nothing without a stereotype. Don’t get me wrong, I like to tell it as I see it, but sometimes you just have to fall back on good old-fashioned exaggeration to get your point across. I am, after all, a man.

For instance, where would all the fun be if I didn’t characterise the British as ever-so-slightly repressed stuck-in-the-muds with a predilection towards moral superiority and a penchant for inbreeding. And if I didn’t insist that that the sun never shines and that black pudding is compulsory by law on Tuesdays and Fridays, you’d probably not even believe that I was British in the first place.

Meanwhile all Americans have cameras with lenses longer than their arms, eat sandwiches filled with enough meat to feed a small army, and have a commitment to pronunciation that can at best be described as ‘perfunctory’. Obviously, most New Yorkers are brash, rude, and wouldn’t know the phrase ‘thank you’ if it came up to them and whacked them in the head with a bag full of bagels.

If stereotypes were to be believed, of course, the French are garlic eating surrender monkeys whose all-encompassing arrogance makes them the most self-involved nation outside, well, Britain. Certainly, legend would have it (and occasional experience has confirmed) that as a general rule they’re not particularly patient when it comes to dealing with foreigners who get in their way. So when The Special One had a small vehicular malfunction on our holidayvacation on a narrow and hilly road last week, and the traffic built up around us, I expected the honking horns to rise to a rousing crescendo within a matter of moments.

Not a bit of it. Everybody got out of their cars and gathered around us, offering advice and comfort as we sought to get a car with the power of a small lawnmower over the brow of a particularly steep hill. There was practically wild applause as we finally got going, the locals waving us on our way as they joyfully returned to their cars. Stereotypes count for nothing in this beautiful part of the world, I can tell you.

Unless you’re talking about back seat drivers, that is. Fourteen years without having sat behind the wheel, and I still managed to offer a barrage of misplaced advice and unhelpful tips. I’m just grateful that The Special One didn’t have a bag of bagels with her…

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.

Happy New Year

Watching the countdown to midnight shows as we played games and chatted last night, I was struck once again by the difference in scale between the UK and the US. In Britain, the New Year’s Eve shows generally feature Angus Deayton or that woman from Hear’Say. Maybe you’ll get a performance from Daniel O’Donnell or Westlife, but that’s about it.

Flicking between the networks here, I managed to see appearances from Alicia Keys, Fergie (the strangely manlike Black Eyed Peas singer rather than the strangely manlike former royal), Plain White T’s, Lenny Kravitz, Carrie Underwood, Akon and Natasha Bedingfield. Admittedly Cat Deeley popped up to present the Fox show, just to make me feel at home, but otherwise it was major stars all the way and not a Keith Chegwin or Chuckle Brother in sight.

Still, at least the champagne tasted the same.

It’s been a pretty big 2007 for this Brit Out Of Water. It started with a proposal, which led to a marriage, which in the meantime had led to a whole new job on the other side of the pond – and a brand new family into the bargain. Even the immigration officer from the US Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square found it within himself to smile and admit that it was “a big year in anyone’s book” as he stamped the form that would give me a work visa.

And of course, 2007 saw me dip my toe in blogging’s strangely alluring waters for the first time. Thanks for stopping by and reading – and thank you to all of you who have passed on word of the blog to friends and family. Of course, if you want to nominate A Brit Out Of Water in, say, the best new blog category of the Bloggies, who am I to stop you?

No doubt 2008 holds just as many culture shocks and petty rants as 2007, which you’ll be able to read about here. There might even be a redesign in a few weeks if you’re lucky. In the meantime, thanks again for all the support – and best wishes to you and yours for the year ahead.

Bah humbug (or a guide to rampant commercialism)

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Yes, it’s November 14th, and yes, the sight you see before you is a full-on Christmas extravaganza, found in the building which also holds my office. It’s actually been up all week, and I only managed to get round to photographing it today.

Generally in the United States, the arrival of festive decorations comes a couple of days after Thanksgiving. But with Thanksgiving still a week and a bit away, and retailers feeling the pinch due to the far-from-buoyant American economy, Christmas truly has come early this year.

Next year, Father ChristmasSanta Claus will be wearing a pair of red Speedo’s while he delivers his presents on a jetski.

Halloween be thy name

Halloween in Brooklyn

It’s Halloween, and I have to say that I am scared. Not by ghosts, vampires, ghouls and lost spirits, but by the scale of America’s commitment to the Halloween tradition.

Although I recently read a news story that said that UK spending on Halloween-related products has risen by more than 1000% to 120 million pounds in the last five years or so, I’ve got to say that the whole thing has always passed me by. Sure, you might see the occasional trick-or-treater out on the streets, or a carved pumpkin in the window of a home or two. And yes, greeting card shops and fancy dress stores often had displays of a largely orangey nature in the run-up to the ‘big’? night. But nothing can prepare you for the all-encompassing commitment to Halloween that engulfs America on October 31.

Imagine Oxford Street during the January sales (except with the vast majority of the shoppers being dressed like the cast of the video to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, and you will have some idea of what Carroll Gardens was like this evening. Belligerent young masses roamed the streets, their long-suffering parents trailing a few yards behind, with all children grabbing sweetscandy from the huge number of families sitting out on their stoops waiting to receive the youthful trick-or-treaters.

It wasn’t just spooks and spookesses either, with Batgirl, Darth Vader and, erm, a giant spoon all among the participants. The little girl downstairs showed the Brit-friendly nature of Brooklyn, coming dressed as a number 2 London Routemaster bus. I didn’t quite have the heart to tell her that Red Ken has probably turned it into a bendy bus by now.

Kids wandering the streets I can kind of understand. But New York today was simply jampacked full of crazily costumed people or, as I prefer to call them, freaks.

Stepping into the liftelevator at the office today, I was joined by a cowboy with a facial gunshot wound, as well as a mad scientist complete with Einsteinesque hair and a frankly desultory clipboard. Cinderella (who, by the look of her, hadn’t been starved to the point of malnutrition by the Ugly Sisters) stood alongside me the queueline for lunch. And I’ve seen more sodding cheerleaders than Giants Stadium over the last few hours. Whatever happened to putting a white sheet on your head, ripping two holes out of it for eyes and hoping that your mum didn’t notice the rips over the coming months?

When it comes down to it, most of these people are old enough to know better. I mean, is there really any need to turn up for your office job dressed as Heidi the mountain goat herder’s daughter? I think not. Call it bah humbug-ism, call it just being a British killjoy, but let’s save Halloween for the kids. Even if they do squirt water at you and run off with your Jaw Breakers.