Tag Archives: America

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…

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.

Counting on it

When I was at school, which is quite some time ago now, your school year related to the number of years that you’d been in that particular school. So, when I first turned up at West Lea Infants School, I was a 1st year. And when I left the 3rd year there, I went into the 1st year at Buckley CP. Admittedly my Not-So-Posh-As-It’d-Like-To-Think-It-Is secondary school in Chester had ‘Removes’ and ‘Shells’ rather than first and second years, but at least there was still a linear progression after that.

Then everything changed, with the introduction of such terms as “Year 6” and “Key Stage 92”, and I lost all track of where I was with the UK school system. Then again, I got confused when they changed the front cover of the British passport from black to maroon, so that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Needless to say that when I got to the United States, the grade system appeared about as penetrable as Fort Knox. Indeed, my attempt to explain the relative school years of The Youngest and The Eldest to a friend this weekend was only finally resolved with complex algebraic formulae, a road map and a small tube of Super Glue.

As a result, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” which I was regrettably forced to watch this evening, could have been Mastermind for all I knew. For those who haven’t had the ‘good fortune’ to see the show, it’s basically a quiz show where people pit their wits against (or alongside, really) ten year old American schoolkids. It’s a bit like Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire, with added humiliation.

Really it should be called “Are You As Stupid As These Americans We Found From Who Knows Where?” This evening’s show featured a woman who would have been knocked out had she not been able to rely on a ten year old to tell her how many centimetres there are in three-and-a-half metres.

Frankly, however much Americans rely on feet and inches, there’s no excuse for not knowing that there’s 350 centimetres in three and a half metres. And if you don’t know that kind of thing, please don’t go on national TV and let the world know that you don’t have a clue.

By the way, did I mention that she was an American high school teacher?

Cushioning the blow

It’s days like this when you realise just how sodding big the United States is. This time yesterday, I was in Los Angeles soaking up the sun ahead of my long trip east back to The Special One and co. The temperature was in the 80s, and t-shirts and shorts were the only attire necessary.

Twenty four hours later, I’ve traveled two and a half thousand miles or so without leaving the country, and it’s suddenly colder than a PTA meeting that’s just received a surprise visit from Gary GlitterPee Wee Herman. It’s blowing a blizzard outside, and my nasal hair has been frozen rigid by a quick trip outside to postmail some letters.

Clear skies on the trip back from LA meant that I was able to take in the full extent of the American landscape from my window seat, from the glory of the Rockies and the Grand Canyon, through to the madness of Las Vegas and Manhattan. And if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that the cities of America – or even the built up areas – represent a tiny fraction of what is an astonishingly beautiful country. Admittedly, parts of the environment roughly resemble what I imagine the surface of the moon to be like, and are probably only ever going to be inhabitable by mountain goats with a penchant for eating gravel. But it’s still a damn impressive sight.

Thankfully my Delta flight proved to be uneventful. Not because I’m scared of flying – after all, I commuted back and forth between New York and London for an eternity (or eighteen months, if you prefer), and you can’t do that if you’ve got a head for heights like BA Baracus.

No, the problem I’ve got is actually with their safety procedures.

I generally don’t listen to the security briefing – I’ve heard it so many times, and despite everybody surviving the recent Heathrow crash, I’m largely of the opinion that if a plane goes down, it’s pretty much game over. But for some reason, I listened this time round. Amidst the “take off your high heels before leaving the plane via the emergency slide” and the “follow the lights at floor level until you reach your closest exit”, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the statement that “in the event of landing in water, most of our seat cushions can be used as flotation devices.”

Now, I think most of you will agree that if your plane has crash landed on water, things aren’t looking good. Especially if you’re – say – in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But if you’ve landed in a lake, river or a reservoir, that flotation device might just come in handy. So why in hell aren’t all of their seat cushions capable of being used as flotation devices?!

I can just imagine the scene now:

Plane crash survivor 1: We’re so lucky to have survived this horrific crash, aren’t we?
Plane crash survivor 2: We sure are. But will we ever get out of this water alive?
PCS1: Don’t worry, you can use the seat cushion that you so handily remembered to bring with you as a flotation device.
PCS2: We’re saved! We’re saved! OK, here goes…erm, why am I sinking…?

Maybe the airline had budgetary issues when they were having their planes made by Boeing, and had to make cutbacks? But I can tell you one thing – if my plane ever goes down, and I find myself in the water with a seat cushion that doesn’t float, I am going to raise hell on the phone with their customer services team…

We’re flying Delta to Tennessee this weekend, and I’m fully expecting the flight staff to come over the intercom and tell passengers that most of their pilots can fly planes.

That said, if it keeps snowing for a few days, we won’t be flying anywhere. We’ll have to save our game of seat cushion Russian roulette for another week.

What’s for lunch

I’m currently in the south of France, basking in the glorious sunshine in the odd moment or two when I’m not working. The few days I’m here are an opportunity to catch up with the latest developments and debates in the industry in which I work, as well as to spend time with colleagues and acquaintances that I haven’t seen for a while. And inevitably, that means ‘doing lunch’.

Meeting people and spending time getting to know them is a pretty essential part of my job, and as a result, I’ve had more than my fair share of business lunches. Sadly they can’t all be like today’s lunch, which involved seafood, good company and plenty of chatting – all in a swanky restaurant on the beach with the sun gleaming majestically off the sea a few yards away. There are worse ways to earn a living, I can tell you.

What struck me today is that eating out at lunchtime is different wherever you are in the world. When I first started out in my career back in the UK, I had a number of lunches that could potentially have had books or plays written about them, such was the bacchanalian excess that ensued on more than one occasion. All in the name of (professional) relationship building, obviously. Drinking at lunchtime in Britain is a commonly accepted part of doing business, and although not everybody does it, it’s certainly not frowned upon in most companies. Unless your business is ‘driving trains’, of course.

In the United States, business lunches are much more transactional and, well, professional. There is a more firmly established agenda, and conversation is much less likely to deviate from work matters. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s actually a more open and transparent way of doing business that admits that two people can have a professional relationship without first having to talk about the recent downturn in temperature, or whether the other person’s dog is properly house-trained.

Certainly, the very prospect of alcohol with lunch generally seems to be frowned upon in America, unless you know that person very well. Even at lunches with friends, the ordering of a beer tends to lead to your companion sighing wistfully before not-so-subtly mentioning the magazine feature they’ve recently read on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Here in France of course, not ordering at least a bottle of wine with lunch as my colleague and I did today can lead to near instant deportation. But to be fair, the stillflat water that we opted for instead meant that we could concentrate far better on the glorious food placed infront of us. While the British focus on the booze, and Americans on the business, the French just make sure that they get the food right. Which to my mind shows they’ve got their priorities in exactly the right place. And probably explains why they’re perfectly happy to sit there for two hours enjoying the experience.

Now if you don’t mind, it’s almost time for dinner. After the meals I’ve had over the last few days, I should probably phone the airline to see if I can get an extra wide seat.

Short not sweet

As I’ve said before, sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I’m in America. Aside from the fact that I moved here from London and one city is generally pretty much like another, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that wherever you are in the world, you slowly get used to things. As another UK-to-US migrant Fish Without A Bicycle recently said in the comments on this blog, she’s found herself abandoning her knife in favour of just using a fork despite her better efforts. I imagine that the crumbling of the British Empire many years ago began in a similarly (seemingly innocuous) fashion.

One thing that has definitely lessened in my consciousness is the US accent. Unless I hear a particularly extreme accent, the days when I quietly used to think to myself “for some reason I appear to be surrounded by Americans” seem to have long gone.

But every so often, somebody will say something – or more often, I’ll read it – and I will be brought kicking and screaming to the reality that I am in a country that speaks a language that is sometimes as foreign to me as, say, Cantonese.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that English is a fluid living language that continuously evolves. And the UK can hardly be considered innocent of all crimes against language. It’s not easy to be proud of a country whose kids have invented the word ‘gopping’ for ‘disgusting’, after all.

But in New York it seems that every existing word needs to be shortened in a bid to use as few characters as possible. It’s almost as if some people believe they are taxed for every letter they use in conversation. Or maybe it’s just an attempt to limit any movement of the mouth that’s not for stuffing popcorn in?

I guess I don’t mind some of the more comic-book shortenings such as ‘shrooms’ for mushrooms, or even ‘toon’ for cartoon. But is there really any need for ‘gator’ or ‘roach’? Does it really save you that much time?

My current bete-noire is the replacement of neighbourhood with ‘nabe’. Every time I see it, I cringe with embarrassment and shame. Even news organiszations are using it now, such as the New York Post sub-headline here. In reaction, I might just have to start lengthening all my words, becoming some overly-verbose English buffoon who takes ten minutes just to ask where the nearest bank is.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to ask the superintendent of the condominium in which I am currently residing to give me directions as to where I might catch an omnibus. I’ll be back for some more weblogging soon.