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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.”

The art of flushonomics

The problem with the credit crunch is that it either takes away your ability to savour the finer things in the life, or makes you feel guilty about enjoying them when you are savouring them. Whether the object of your affection is a rich and decadent chocolate cake or a sleek and sophisticated flat screen TV, it seems that even the vaguest suggestion of pleasure has to be consigned to the scrapheap these days for fear of what the neighbours will say.

Actually, while we’re on the subject, can I just complain about the phrase ‘credit crunch’? Rarely can one meaningless phrase have been repeated on so many occasions in such a short period of time. Indeed, I put you all on notice that if I hear that saying one more time, I may have to stick your liquidity crisis where the sun don’t shine.

Anyway, as I was saying, ostentation is out, and poverty is the new black. Or pink. Or whatever colour it is that’s apparently ‘in’ these days. We are quite literally in a race to the bottom, with people finding new ways to out-poor each other. In Manhattan, that means only having six eggs for breakfast – I know, the inhumane cruelty of this financial downturn.

But wherever you look, shops are having sales, restaurants are offering bargain menus, and people are taking more public transport than ever before. If this need to be seen to scrimp and save gets any worse, you can almost see city bosses considering a name change to Nearly New York.

There is one area, however, that New Yorkers – and indeed Americans in general – do not need to save any further. An item that has already been value-engineered down to the minimum possible level, and which would be rendered (even more) useless for its purpose by any further cost savings.

Because, to be honest, toilet paper in this country is – and please do excuse the pun – really crap. I had no idea that paper could be created as thin as toilet roll seems to be in this country – I probably used thicker tracing paper at school. It almost makes me nostalgic for the days of that scratchy shiny toilet paper that your grandmother used to put in outside loos; it may have removed six layers of skin every time you used it, but at least you didn’t get any embarrassing tear-related incidents on a regular basis.

It is easier to thread a super-sized McDonalds consumer through the eye of a needle than to find double-ply toilet roll in your local store. And rather than acting as a saving device, I’m convinced that American loo roll effectively costs you more, given that you have to fold it over at least thirteen times before you can create some kind of barrier that might give your hand a fighting chance of coming out unscathed.

I’m writing to the UN anyway. They’ve been looking for better ways of identifying how countries are developing, and I can see no better benchmark than the average thickness of a state’s toilet paper. You can have all the healthy water and trade surpluses you like, but if you can’t relieve yourself without fear of the consequences, you’re still in the third world as far as I’m concerned.

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Incredibly, it seems that I’ve reached my 300th post. How fitting that it was about a load of s**t. If you haven’t already – do add A Brit Out Of Water to your RSS feeds, follow me on Twitter, or just send me an email to say hello. If you read regularly and want to be added to the blogroll at the side, then drop me a line – the email address is in the (otherwise non-existent) ‘about section’.

But most of all, thank you for reading and (particularly) for commenting over the last eighteen months or so – it’s more appreciated than I can ever begin to tell you. Or more indeed than I ever would tell you. After all, I am British. You don’t expect me to express emotion, do you?

Reasons why America is great (part 5 of a series)

You know me as a sophisticated Brit about town, so it may shock you to learn that I didn’t live in a (permanent) home that had a purpose built shower until I was in my 30s. Sure, there were the grim shower blocks at university, or the occasional “shower attached to the tapsfaucet” that would suddenly fall apart at the slightest wrong touch as you grappled for your soap-on-a-rope. But on the whole, my formative years were all spent in the bath. Well, the moments when I was washing myself, at least. I tried turning up for a job interview in a small tin bath once, but needless to say, they weren’t impressed.

I’ve always loved a bath, I have to admit. Whether playing as a kid among the suds provided by Mr Matey (that’s the bubble bath,  I hasten to add, not the nickname for that dodgy bloke who you might see hanging around the school fieldyard at hometime), or just soaking after a rare bout of exercise, the bath has been an ultimate source of comfort and joy.

Of course, it’s also been a right pain in the arseass. I once lived in Southfields in South-West London, in a basement apartment that was described by estate agents as a spacious garden flat. What they failed to mention was that it was actually the coldest space in London, with no real need for a fridge other than as a means to warm up. With no shower, my morning ritual in the winter started with a frantic run from my bed to turn the gas fire on, before hurtling back to the bed to get back under the covers to melt the icicles that were now hanging from my extremities. A few minutes later, I’d sprint to the bathroom, and desperately turn on the hot water tap in the bath, before urging my by-now-calcified toes to propel me back to my bed for another brief respite from the Arctic conditions. Finally, if my hands were not already blocks of ice, I’d summon up all my courage, run back to the bathroom, and sit sobbing uncontrollably in the bath for a few minutes as I attempted to wash my hair before the water froze solid around me.

Not the most relaxing start to a day, I have to admit.

Since leaving that flatapartment, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a bath again. The thing is that despite more than thirty years of bathing, once I switched to the shower it became practically impossible to go back. I mean, who’s going to willingly switch from the get-in get-out nature of the shower to the “swimming in your own dirt” style of the bath? Yes yes, I know that you can put sweet smelling salts and rose petals in a bath and luxuriate in it with a glass of wine. But it may have escaped your notice that I am a man, and even being in the same room as some lavender is enough reason to be chucked out of the men’s union. No, I’m a shower man through and through these days, and no amount of products from Lush or Kiehl’s will change me.

It was only upon moving to the United States though that it dawned upon me that I had actually never previously had a proper shower at all. Because when it comes down to it, showers in the UK are less shower, and more damp squib.

Oh sure, British showers will do everything as advertised – get you clean, and rinse all the soap off you. But it’s essentially a dull trickle of water that you move around in an attempt to get wet. There are exceptions, of course, but if you want power in your shower, you have to come to America.

Only the American shower will almost knock you off your feet with its sheer ferocity, pinning you up against the wall of the bathroom and threatening to drive a hole deep into your heart within a matter of minutes. US showers are like the skin’s equivalent of sand-blasting, stripping off extraneous layers of skin, and leaving you looking shiny and new underneath. Or red and blotchy if you got a little bit too close, obviously.

Power showers in Britain will get shampoo out of your hair in ten minutes. Power showers in the US will get the hair out of your head in ten seconds. Power showers in Britain will wake you up gently. Power showers in the US will come into your room, drag you kicking and screaming out of your bed, slam you against the doors of the shower, and insult your grandmother.

Keep your baths, I’ve got my shower and I’m sticking to it. I may not have much skin left, but it’s got to be better than developing wrinkles