Category Archives: Lessons learned

Learning to be a grown-up

I’m proud to say that The Special One treats me like an adult. It comes as a shock sometimes, given that internally I still feel like the 10 year old putting penny sweets in a paper bag in the local sweetshopcandy store. But for some reason she still insists on talking to me like a 36 year old.

Of course, the problem with that is that she expects me to act like an adult. And so, when she asked me to read some passages of a book on birth to prepare me for the arrival of The Little One, she didn’t bother chasing me up like a kid with their homework to make sure that it had been done. She trusted me.

Of course, that was her big mistake. Well, my big mistake, but you know what I mean. Like all big mistakes, it eventually gets found out. Now, it would be embarrassing enough for any father to be caught out like this. It’s particularly embarrassing for me, given that The Special One actually wrote the book in question.

I guess the problem for me (apart from surviving the slings and arrows of an outraged wife) is that the best lessons I’ve ever learned have not come from books or classrooms, but through experience. You learn not to put your hand on the side of a hot oven by putting the aforementioned hand on the side of the aforementioned oven. You learn not to go all-in on a pair of threes by going all-in on a pair of threes. Life is a great teacher.

Now, learning through mistake and misadventure is all fine when it’s your own life you’re messing up. It’s a whole different matter when it’s a defenceless child you’re dealing with. And the problem is that there are some childraising issues that no book is ever going to be able to help you with.

Take fecal matter, for instance. No, please, take it. I have no idea why The Little One’s nappydiaper will one day contain half a litre of deep yellow Coleman’s mustard, and the next day resemble the aftermath left behind by a small group of partying rabbits. And unless a book contains a comprehensive colour chart vaguely reminiscent of a paint catalogue to help me identify the likely cause of today’s particular hue, it’s going to be of no use whatsoever.

Similarly, for years I’ve watched friends expertly turn a bottle upside down and dab a little bit of milk on the inside of the wrist before feeding their baby. So when The Special One left me with a bottle of breast milk to feed our daughter, I instinctively put a droplet on my wrist, as if I was a young ingenue applying Chanel No 5 ahead of a secret assignation. And then I realised that I had no frame of reference to tell me what I was looking for. I was guessing that it was for heat, but was it too little or too much, or was I actually testing for some skin-based poison, or to make sure that I hadn’t inadvertently filled the bottle with Sprite?

The fact is that mums either have innate knowledge that dads are not born with, or they read a hell of lot more about this childraising lark, or they make full use of their network of fellow mums to get their questions answered. My money’s on the latter (unless The Special One is reading this, in which case it’s clearly innate knowledge, darling).

If I’m right, then why is it that there aren’t some more ‘dads groups’ so that I can ask the unaskable among a group of my peers? A gathering of fathers would allow me determine whether purple trousers go with yellow tops, without being given the look usually reserved for the moments when I’ve accidentally stepped in cat vomit and trailed it through the house. Or to ascertain whether a particular type of crying is caused by actual pain, or an intense disappointment at my recent haircut.

Of course, the problem is that if you put a group of men in a room together, the closest you’re likely to get to baby talk is whether it’s possible to put day old pizza into a food grinder and serve it to your child. In the absence of any other foodstuffs, obviously – we’re men, not animals. And while I have every interest in a full and frank exchange on the weekend’s sports, it’s not going to help me work out where to insert that thermometer…

Frankly, I think it’s time for The Special One to write a book on childraising. I will definitely read it this time, I promise. I’m an adult, after all.

Two years and counting

I often tell people how easy it is to forget that I live in New York. I mean, when your morning consists of getting drenched by torrential rain, squeezing up into somebody’s slightly musty armpit on the subway, and getting delayed exactly seventeen minutes more than is strictly necessary, it’s difficult to believe that you’re not actually in London.

Infact, the cities are so eerily similar at times that the recent second anniversary of me being a Brit living out of water passed without comment – or without me even noticing, to be honest.

Like a petulant child that feels it is being ignored or underappreciated, New York has spent the last two weeks trying to get my attention. After all, no sprawling metropolitan area likes to be taken for granted. As a result, the city employed three agents to provide me with a vivid reminder that New York’s like no other place on earth:

1) The deathwish biker
As I think I’ve mentioned, I don’t drive. I’m also pretty environmentally conscious, although my refusal to drive is more to do with a casual unwillingness to kill people than it is with a distaste for excessive emissions. But even as a non-driving eco-warrior, people on bikes can irritate the living bejeesus out of me. Don’t get me wrong, some of my closest friends ride bikes, and I preach transportational tolerance at all times. But come on, let’s be honest, there are some people who get on bicycles and turn into idiots. That doesn’t excuse the time that I opened a car door, and accidentally twanged a speeding biker into a brick wall, but it does maybe explain it.

Cyclists in cities the world over are bound by a common code to give the v’sflip the bird to at least twenty pedestrians a day, and to use pavementssidewalks to scatter passers by in their path. Nothing unusual there. But most of them at least have a vague desire to stay alive.

Not the New York cyclist that I spotted recently though. Waiting to cross a busy avenue, I stood patiently at the junctionintersection as uptown traffic slowed to a halt, before I stepped out into the road. I casually glanced up to see a cyclist approach the head of the stopped line of cars at speed, shout something along the lines of “parp, parp”, and plunge headlong into the traffic heading across town at high speed. Screaming “wheeeeeeeeee!” as he swerved through the cars as they screeched to a halt around him. With a triumphant wave over his shoulder to stunned onlookers, he carried on with his journey.

2) Shouty Bagel Guy
The bagels in our local bagel place are without doubt the best that I’ve ever had in New York. And trust me, I’ve spent many hours and piled on many pounds to check the veracity of that assertion. As a result, I’m more than happy to queuewait on line for five or ten minutes over the weekend in order to get my hands on some.

Last weekend, loaded up with bags of fruit and vegetables, I stopped by to pick up breakfast. Ahead of me in the line stood a heavy set man with his stunningly indecisive girlfriend, who took around five minutes to decide she only wanted a small coffee. Having reminded myself that I’m not a New Yorker and can therefore have a modicum of patience, I bit my lip, waited my turn, ordered my bagels, and turned to walk to the till to pay. As I turned, my bags knocked with all the force of a particularly venomous feather into the leg of the guy ahead of me. He turned, and sneered at me using his top lip in a way that would have made Elvis look like an amateur, and turned to his girlfriend while shaking his head.

In a voice that almost certainly made me sound like a kid that was beaten up at Eton for “sounding too posh”, I looked at the guy and said “I’m sorry, but it was an accident you know.” And in a thick Brooklyn accent that could probably have been heard in New Orleans, he responded with “Yeah, well you got your bags right up my ass, haven’t you?”

Obviously I retorted with “that’s because your ass is so big that it’s practically impossible for anybody to walk into the store without hitting it.” In my head, that is. In real-life, I went red, paid for my bagels, and walked out of the shop in fury.

3) The Seat Snatcher
Nobody likes standing on the subway, but frankly it’s a fact of life in New York. I swear that some people train daily at home so that they’re able to race into a carriagecar and seize any empty seat before someone else sits in it. Even if they get in a good ten metresmeters away. Frankly there are few lengths that some commuters won’t go to in a bid to find a temporary home for their rear.

On one not-so-packed journey home, a man on the train I was on took the art of grabbing a seat to new lows. A small child vacated her seat temporarily to talk to a member of her family a yard or two away, and the lure of the bright orange plastic proved too much for the guy, who promptly sat down in it. The girl returned a few seconds later, looked the man directly in the eyes and burst into tears.

In my defence, I didn’t know she was coming back to the seat, and the tears were a slightly excessive reaction. I even offered her the seat back, but the damage had been done.

Still, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Once, twice, three times a New Yorker

New York and its population come with a certain reputation for fieriness. To be fair, some of that is deserved. Hell, I even perpetuate it myself, telling tales of being whacked in the arm by an old man and his umbrella, or being pursued around a supermarketgrocery store by a woman with rage management issues. But like the dog that’s had its teeth removed and replaced with foam molars, New York’s bark is much worse than its bite.

The problem is that it’s not as good a story to say that the people of New York are essentially fine upstanding citizens who love their mothers and do a lot of great work for charity. It’s so much easier to stick with the notion that all New Yorkers are impatient and crazy, and more-than-capable of dropkicking a cat more than 60 metresmeters at the end of a particularly bad day.

Thankfully, every so often (generally just when you think you’re at the end of your tether) New York musters all its strength to give you a demonstration of why it’s actually not that bad after all (and why you shouldn’t allow yourself to be affected by the stereotypes). And the last couple of days have given me some great examples to reassure me of New York’s loving intent.

1. The car crash victim
Walking to the opticians on Friday, the idyll of a bracing stroll through the streets of Chelsea was broken by the sickening crunch of metal on metal. Looking up, I watched as two cars pulled into the side street to survey the damage caused by an accidental low-speed crash. This being New York, I readied myself for screaming and shouting as the ‘wronged man’ stepped out of his car to survey the damage. With swearing expected at the minimum, and full on flying fists as a distinct possibility, surrounding pedestrians waited for the theatreer to begin.

Instead the driver looked at the minor dent on the bumper of his car, smiled understandingly at the quivering wreck of a man sitting in the car behind, and waved him on his way. New York was robbed of another drama, and Friday evening went on undisturbed.

2. The chorus line
A couple of blocks down the road, I looked up to see a crazy young(ish) woman around fifty meters away, walking towards me ranting at the top of her voice. Here we go again, I thought – I’m about to be verbally abused by a mad woman who hasn’t been seen in the same postcodezipcode as ‘sanity’ since 1987. Denied the opportunity to cross the road by fast-moving oncoming traffic, I readied myself to put my head down and hope for the best.

Then two small children skipped out from behind the woman, and I quickly realised that, far from being crazy, the three of them were actually giving a full on walking Broadway version of one of the songs from Annie. It was like seeing a female Von Trapp trio traipsing through the cold city streets, content in each other’s company and happy to fend off the cold without a care for what anyone else thought. Damn them for their cheeriness, I thought, before quickly self-flagellating myself for my grumpy New York attitude.

3. The patisserie lady
Last night I went into a high-end grocery store to pick up a dessert for a dinner party we’d been invited to. The queueline snaked past the patisserie counter, making it difficult to tell a pecan pie from an apple tart given the vast array of coats, scarves and bags obscuring the view. My plaintive mumblings of ‘excuse me’ were ignored by every single member of the line, with each one clearly fearful that I was using my desire to buy pastry-based products as some sneaky way of cutting infront of them.

Just as I was giving up hope, a lovely looking old lady looked at me, and backed away to allow me room to see what delights were on offer. She seemed to smile as she did so, a knowing glance between us regarding the sad state of affairs that is modern manners these days. As I started to look into the cabinet, I took a second to remember that New York is all too willing to show you its softer side, if you just give it a chance.

Then the crotchety old bag stuck her head right in my face and shouted at me to back off and not push infront of her, before ranting mercilessly about the ‘youth of today’.

Ah New York, it never lets you down.

‘Z’ for ‘zero respect’

I’m more than 34 weeks into my American adventure, not that I’m counting. And for all the times I put my foot in it, get on a train heading in completely the wrong direction, or get looked at as if I’m a founding member of the National Association for the Protection of Cockroaches, I don’t think that I’m fitting in all that badly.

I’ve managed to give directions successfully, and can offer helpful advice to tourists stranded in the city. I barely notice that the cars drive on the wrong side of the road, and I even manage to say the word ‘jeez’ in every other sentence. OK, that last bit is a lie. All readers should feel free to shoot on sight if ever you hear me say ‘jeez’, ‘neat’ or ‘dweeb’. Tough on linguistic assimilation, tough on the causes of linguistic assimilation – it’s the only way.

Where I’m most proud is that – unlike Hillary Clinton – I seem to have developed the ability to pick the right word at the right time to suit my audience. There’ll be no misspeaking on my watch, I can tell you. My line of work is all about words, and I constantly have to make sure that I’m spelling the same word in different ways depending on who I’m writing to. And despite some initial expletive-causing errors (thankfully I can shout ‘bollocks’ at the top of my voice here, and people couldn’t care less), I’ve managed to provide color or colour, caliber or calibre, or theater or theatre in the right place at the right time in pretty much all circumstances.

In fact, so good has my ability been to become a language chameleon that I was even worried that maybe I was becoming a little too accomplished at this ‘being American’ lark. I’m possibly a little over-sensitive to any accusation of becoming more US than UK, given that a sizeable proportion of my friends regularly threaten to bring down all manner of violence on me if they ever hear even the slightest indication of a mid-Atlantic twang. Frankly, the fact that I’ve barely mastered English should be enough to convince them that I’ve got no chance of speaking American, but still they carry out precise scientific tests every time I land in Britain, just to make sure that my accent hasn’t shifted by even an nth of a degree.

Sadly, I fear that my Americanization may already be under way. Yesterday I drafted up some copy for a colleague, and correctly managed to use ‘center’, ‘licensing’ and ‘honor’ among many other words. I avoided every possible vocabulary trap with considerable aplomb, and sent it off for approval with a smile on my face.

And indeed, everything proved to be perfect. Except for one spelling mistake.

I’d spelled ‘merchandising’ with a ‘z’. Merchandizing. Every other word in the American language appears to have a ‘z’ rather than an ‘s’ before ‘ing’, so I just naturally assumed that merchandising followed suit. Incredibly, I’d managed to over-translate. I had to be taught how to use the English language by somebody whose country can’t say herb without dropping the ‘h’.

I’m more American than an American, it would seem.

Sure you can tell me that some people do spell it ‘merchandizing’ but that’s no comfort to me now. I am but a short step from eating pumpkin pie and putting my hand on my heart for the Star Spangled Banner. The end is nigh.

Lessons learned part 3

So November is at an end, and the start of the new month sees a liberal coating of snow on the streets of Brooklyn. It could be a sign of things to come, given that the temperatures are set to drop lower and lower over the next week as snow becomes a part of our everyday existence.

With another month as a Brit Out Of Water completed, it’s time to take a look at some of the salutory lessons I’ve learned over the last thirty days in the country ranked 29th in children’s science education according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development*:

• Every grocery store in the United States has at least fifty different gratedshredded cheeses to choose from. This compares to possibly two (and even then only in the most advanced supermarkets) in the UK. I’m not sure whether this is because American have more everyday uses for grated cheese, or because they hate grating it themselves with a barely describable passion. It’s just a shame they don’t spend as much time on making their good cheeses as they do on their grated stuff. Thankfully I can get Cheshire cheese at Stinky’s in Brooklyn so, when it comes down to it, who cares?

• Americans have invented a new word for getting off a plane. Forget disembarking and its fancy four syllable ways. Instead, say hello to ‘deplaning’. Short, sweet, and to the point. Not really English, but that’s beside the point.

• This country must be the only place on earth where primetime television on a major TV network on a Sunday night contains (at least) two hours of back-to-back cartoons. Admittedly it’s Fox, and the shows are The Simpsons, King Of The Hill, Family Guy and American Dad, but come on people, have you not heard of Lovejoy, Last Of The Summer Wine and Songs Of Praise??

• My least favourite phrase in the world right now might well be “I’ll just get you a waiter”. Please, can’t you just take my order?

• Every pay packet seems to have seven hundred different taxes removed before it reaches me. If they add any more, I will be paying the US government to work within a year or so.

• People want a first-class public transport system, but they’re not prepared to pay for it. I may well be the only person in New York who thinks that a rise in subway prices is acceptable. I mean, two dollars for a journey anywhere in the system sounds like a bargain to me. New Yorkers – if you’re complaining now, just you wait until they bring in a London-style congestion charge for driving into Manhattan…

I’ve now had well over 4,500 hits on the site (thanks again, Mum and Dad!), and it’s good to see more and more people leaving comments. And thank you to those of you who’ve passed on details of Brit Out Of Water to their friends – it’s really appreciated. Finally, before this turns into a Gwyneth Paltrow-style Oscar speech, thanks to Fuel My Blog, who gave me their Blog Of The Day award today. Given that the only other thing I’ve ever won was a bubble gum pen for coming third in a competition in Whizzer & Chips, I’m very honoured.

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*Britain only came 14th in the same table, so I’m in no position to crow. Well, a better position than Americans, but you know what I mean.

Lessons learned part 2

So another month is over, and after more than two and a half months in the land of the brave, it’s probably as good a point as any to look back at some more of the things that I have learned since becoming a Brit Out Of Water:

• If you have an unrepentantly British accent, it’s near impossible to go into a restaurant and come out two hours later without having been given a look which suggests you’ve accidentally brought in a basket of rotting rat carcasses with you. Even tonight at a down-to-earth neighbourhood Italian restaurant, my polite request for a side order of broccoli was met with a glance that suggested I had spat on his grandmother.

• Wine is more expensive than gold. Unless you’re happy drinking what tastes like grape juice with added grain alcohol.

• The word ‘piece’ is almost certainly the eighteenth most popular word in the American vocabulary (more popular than ‘truth’ but less used than ‘ammunition’) eg “Did you see Heather Mills on TV? The piece that I don’t understand with her is what Paul McCartney ever saw in the mentally unstable self-obsessed attention junkie?” or “Only using Facebook at night – that’s the piece I’m working on right now”.

• Pizza companies will happily deliver 23 eighteen inch pizzas to a wedding venue at 11pm, even if they haven’t been paid in advance.

• Accidental blasphemy, of even the ‘bejeesus’ variety, can go down like a cup of cold sick if you happen to be standing next to a card-carrying member of some right wing religious institution.

• Taxi drivers in New York possess more belligerence than a London police officer in Stockwell tube station. Having asked a cab driver to take me to Brooklyn on Tuesday night, the cheery soul subsequently berated me for actually wanting to go to Brooklyn Heights, and spent much of the journey calling all his friends and relating the story to them in Lebanese. It’s like getting in a cab in London and asking to go to Putney, and then being criticised for actually wanting to go to Putney Bridge.

• Having a rehearsal dinner for the wedding party on the night before a wedding is a tradition that the British should adopt.

• In America, black humour is something performed by Chris Rock or Eddie Murphy.

With well over 2000 page impressions since I began the blog, this site is hardly going to be valued at $15 billion by Microsoft, but it does keep me mildly occupied so thank you for reading and for continuing to read. As ever, pass on the link to anyone you think might be even half-interested in the tales of an outsider in New York. And feel free to comment on any post, even if it’s just to tell me to “like, get over it”…

I’m off to watch some cable TV. With 1867 channels to choose from, “CSI: Miami” has got to be on one of them, surely?

A slight return

I’ve been in New York for one month and one day, and now I’m sat in terminal 7 at JFK Airport awaiting a flight to Manchester to see family and friends. So I thought it would be a good chance to look back, and see what I’ve discovered about (American) mankind over the last few weeks.

Among the pearls of wisdom that I have garnered are the following:

• Fresh milk comes in cartons big enough to flood small villages in Wales, and will allegedly not go bad for about four weeks. I don’t even want to think about the number of chemicals that requires.

• Some American women are capable of incredible vanity. One girl that Soon To Be Wife and I walked past last night actually turned to her friend and used the phrase, “You know, I think she f***ed us over because we’re hot.”

• Asking for still water in a restaurant will earn you some very blank looks. I still think that requesting ‘flat water’ suggests that you’re going to get previously sparkling water that somebody mistakenly left the top off overnight.

• Complaining about the weather is difficult when it’s still well into the 80s in late September.

• Britons struggle for small talk when they can’t complain about the weather.

• Fitting the stereotype perfectly, any American mocking your British accent will sound like Dick van Dyke. But they’ll still sound more convincing than Don Cheadle in the Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen movies.

• New York has the best bagels in the world. No question.

• Swearing in the workplace is a rare mistake, rather than an occupational necessity.

• If cutting up shop-bought salads for lunch is just too much work, you can ask the person behind the counter to chop it for you. Sadly, however, most waiters won’t cut up your steak and feed it to you, no matter how difficult a day you’ve had at the office.

• There are probably more people from Britain in New York than there are in Swindon. Clearly US immigration’s standards aren’t as high as they used to be. And I should know.

What I’ve also finally learned is how to use Typepad’s stats engine properly, and it seems that quite a few people are reading this blog, for some unknown reason. I’ve been blogging properly for about 30 days, and already there have been well over a thousand page impressions. Admittedly most of those are probably my mum refreshing the site just to make me feel good about myself, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Anyway, to those who are reading, or that have sent me emails saying that they’re enjoying it, thank you. Please do pass on the link to anybody you think might find it vaguely entertaining, and feel free to leave comments if you’re seized by the desire. I’m actually really enjoying writing on a regular basis again, but it would be great to have even more people reading.

In the meantime, I’m off to the UK. Don’t tell anyone, but I might actually miss this city while I’m gone.