Tag Archives: Brooklyn

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?

I smell the blood of an EnglishWelshman

I’ve never liked having things stuck in my arm. When I was a kid at school, I once fainted after having the BCG (anti-tuberculosis) vaccination. To be fair to me, I didn’t faint straight away at the sight of the injection. Instead, I went back to my physics classroom, sat on my high stool and continued with the lesson. Until thirty minutes later that is, when I told Broadsheet Benny that I was feeling a bit hot. Apparently when I fell backwards off my stool and crashed onto the hard wooden floor, he demonstrated his unique British reserve by putting his hand in the air and saying, “Sir, I think somebody has fainted.”

I have to confess to a small amount of disappointment that I hadn’t actually fractured my skull as was suspected. Although a fractured thumb can be pretty painful too, you know.

Anyway, needless to say I’ve never had much of an appetite for injections since then. I winced in agony when I had multiple injections in both my big toes in order to have ingrowing toenails removed. I closed my eyes when I had acupuncture to cure some stomach problems. And I’ve steadfastly avoided tetanus shots with a commitment and devotion that would impress the most stubborn of trypanophobics. Or needle haters, to you and me.

So when I saw the American Red Cross’s mobile blood donation service outside my office today, my first thought was something nice and simple like “You know, I’d really love to be able to give blood and save the life of somebody less fortunate than me, but in this day and age, do they really have to stick a needle in my arm or can they just walk me past a small suction pump and then give me a nice comforting biscuit and cup of tea?”

Thankfully, before the guilt could truly descend, I remembered one vital fact – if you spent three months in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996, you’re not eligible to donate blood in the United States, for fear that you will introduce variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (the human form of Mad Cow Disease) into the blood supply. Given that practically the only time I spent out of the UK during that time was a week in Fuengirola, I’m guessing I’m out of luck when it comes to blood donation in this country.

Of course, of more relevance might be the fact that my mum used to regularly feed me and my sister with cheeseburgers from Iceland (the store, rather than the country), with the cheese contained within the burger like some kind of beefy Pop Tart. To say the meat was high quality would be like claiming that Eliot Spitzer hired prostitutes for the conversation. Ever since news of Mad Cow Disease emerged, I think all three of us have been waiting for one or the other of us to have our legs collapse from under us whenever we’ve entered a farmyard.

Irrational though it is, I actually find it slightly irritating that my blood isn’t welcome in this parish. It seems that I’m allowed to pay taxes until the (mad) cows come home, but if I want to vote or want to save lives, well I’d better think again. Even former malaria sufferers from South America are more welcome to give blood than me.

Fortunately I’ve got my own private blood donation policy going on at the moment, so I don’t need to worry about America’s disinterest in my supply. Admittedly, accidentally cutting my fingers to ribbons with surprisingly sharp kitchen knives isn’t exactly saving the world, but at least it provides a new destination for my red stuff, I guess.

Are there dollars in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

When you’re a Brit exiled in America, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that the dollar has about as much value as the Zambian kwacha. For a start, whenever your friends come to visit, you have to endure the tales of how they spent sixteen straight hours shopping, and bought two pairs of jeans for the price of a bag of Maltesers. If I hear the cry of “of course, everything’s so cheap over here” one more time, I swear I will shove their over-active credit card where the sun doesn’t – and more importantly, wouldn’t want to – shine.

The flipside, of course, is that when you earn your salary in dollars and you spend any time in the UK (as I am doing for work at the moment), you find that buying a sandwich costs about as much as a Paul Smith suit. And don’t even think about having that bag of crispschips to go with it. It’s no wonder Americans don’t leave the country that often.

But the fact that the dollar is barely worth the paper it’s printed on isn’t my only problem with the US currency.

When I got to the UK earlier this week, I collected up all my dollar bills, carefully folded them up and placed them neatly in my wallet. OK, that’s a lie. I grabbed them all, scrunched them into a ball as I normally do, and stuffed them into my jeans. My pockets bulged in a frankly inappropriate fashion, such was the sheer amount of paper involved. Though I hadn’t counted it, I was fairly sure that the cash would be enough to get me a taxi home from the airport at the weekend, and still leave me change for a bagel.

Having changed jeans this morning, I totalled up the cash and found $13. It’s barely enough to get me out of the environs of JFK, let alone to buy me breakfast at the end of my journey.

It’s fair to say that the United States has an obsession with paper currency. If ever the country decides to get its arseass in gear about saving the environment, they could do worse than look at the amount of paper used to create their notes. And given that every TomBrad, DickDirk and HarryLarry in bars and restaurants gives you your change in dollar bills to ensure that you’ve got no possible excuse for not tipping, walking around after a night out can sometimes feel like going for a stroll with a ream of company letterhead in your back pocket.

Personally I’d love the US to abandon the dollar bill in favour of a coin, yet repeated attempts to introduce the dollar coin into general US circulation have failed. Probably because you’d need to be an Olympic standard clean-and-jerk weightlifting specialist to carry round all your change after an evening in a bar.

Sadly I think we’re stuck with one dollar notes for a considerable time for come. I’m seriously considering getting a large rucksackbackpack to carry around a week’s worth of change in.

Maybe when it’s full, I’ll be able to use the cash to buy a single round of drinks in Britain?

I can but dream.

London, England

Travelling to the airport on Monday, my taxi driver asked me whether I was from London. Distracted momentarily from a state of perpetual nausea caused by the constant stop-start motion of driving down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, I replied that although I was actually on my way to London, I actually originated from the North-West of England. The driver’s response? “Oh, so you’re from England, not London?”

I long ago accepted that the ‘Great’ has pretty much vanished from Britain, and that in many ways my home country is little more than a footnote in world history. Sure, we punch above our weight in certain things such as music, football and Branston Pickle production, but we’re not the force that we once were. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt that so many Americans have such a fundamental lack of geographical understanding of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as I believe it should be known.

When it comes down to it, many of the residents of my adopted country believe that the UK consists of two places – London and England. Wales is in England, “Ed-in-burrow” is in England, and the Cotswolds are probably somewhere between Big Ben and “that wheel thing”. Trying to explain where Chester is can be difficult enough when you’re talking to a Brit. But when you can’t even use Manchester and Liverpool (the UK’s third and seventh largest urban conurbations respectively) as reference points, you may as well as just give up and tell some Americans that you come from London.

I know that America is an immensely huge place, and that as a result it has cities far larger than anything that the UK can offer – other than London. Given that you can travel from one end of the UK to the other in about the same time it would take you to get from the bottom of New York State to the top, I guess it’s maybe like asking somebody from Colorado whether they’ve heard of Poughkeepsie. But even so, you’d struggle to find anybody in Britain who hadn’t heard of Seattle and Washington (the twenty-third and twenty-seventh largest cities in the US respectively).

Still, nothing’s as bad as Macy Gray proudly strutting on stage at the Glastonbury Festival a few years ago and shouting “Hello London” to a bemused crowd. After all, what’s 150 miles between friends?

A very British sense of humo(u)r

Crime isn’t funny, I know. But a New York Police Department sign which I saw in a yellow cab on my way home this evening made me laugh out loud. The sign read:

“Reward up to $500.00 for the arrest and conviction of anyone who commits GRAFFITI VANDALISM”

And scrawled underneath that in neat ballpoint penned handwriting?

“Bite me, pigs.”

When the chips hit the fan

It’s always strange to find out how other people view your nation. For example, every single day, somebody talks to me in a faux British accent that suggests they’ve come straight off the set of Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. To the majority of Americans, the British are posh and haughty. Even the fourteen year old from the council estate who was knocked up by her drug dealer and now pushes around baby Britney in a pushchairstroller all day talks like the Queen as far as most residents of this fair land are concerned.

Why people feel duty bound to talk to me like I’m a Cockney is beyond me. I don’t go round talking to people in their particular accent or dialect, however tempting it might be sometimes. I tried it in a WalMart in Tennessee, and it almost led to the cashier refusing to sell me a cheese ball – a harsh punishment if ever there was one.

The slightly unsure attitude to Britain is particularly apparent in the world of entertainment, where the baddies are almost exclusively played by Arabs or the British (just watch 24 if you want confirmation).

And who cares about our history or beautiful countryside when you can obsess incessantly about Princess Diana? I still get asked about the ‘People’s Princess’ to this day, as if somehow we were close and my insight could prove useful to laying her ghost to rest. At that point in the conversation, it seems difficult to confess that Mr MacBottom and I didn’t even cancel a barbecue on the day of her death as, well, we’d already bought the meat and it wouldn’t keep for another day.

Of course, when it comes to food, everybody thinks Britain is a third world country. That is, until they go there and realise that some of the best cooking in the world now takes place in the UK.

Such high culinary arts caused a problem for the “Bizarre Foods” series on the Travel Channel. The basic concept of the show is that Andrew Zimmern (of whom it was famously once said “Who?”) travels the world eating strange and disgusting food. And when it comes down to it, the UK just doesn’t produce enough gruesome food.

Admittedly sheep intestines don’t look great when raw, but in haggis they seem pretty appetising. Eels aren’t my bag, it has to be said, but do they really require a dedicated segment in a bizarre foods show? And pigeon, cockles and hare just don’t seem to compare to deep fried rat if you ask me.

The show reached a new low on the bizarreness scale when the show turned its attention to Christmas pudding. I mean, dried fruit, nuts, peel, eggs, flour and sugar may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s hardly monkey brains is it?

Strangely there was no sign of black pudding, although given that even The Special One has tried that now, maybe it has begun to lose its bizarre charms? Thankfully, she’s a full convert to the Great British Banger, and didn’t even bat an eyelid when I ordered sausage, chips and beans for Sunday lunch in Bay Ridge.

Now that’s love.

The Carroll Gardens cleaning curse

As any readers from the UK will probably know, there’s something known as ‘The Curse of OK!’ under which a remarkably large number of celebrity couples that open their homes to the cameras of the glossy magazine OK! suddenly find their marriage falling apart. Personally I reckon it’s more due to the fact that most celebrities have the sticking power of a poster affixed to a bedroom wall with nothing more than spit, but nonetheless the theory of the curse perpetuates.

Now I fear that a new curse has emerged, which peculiarly fixates only on dry cleaners in the Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn. The Curse of A Brit Out Of Water, as we’ll arbitrarily call it, says that any laundry or dry cleaner that allows my shirts to pass over its threshhold will close down within a matter of weeks. First it happened to No 1 Dry Cleaners on Smith Street, and now Elegant Cleaners on Court Street will pull down its shutters for the final time at the end of the month after foolishly agreeing in a rash moment to clean my shirts.

Rumours that my shirts are so scruffy that most cleaners lose the will to stay in business are apparently wide of the mark. Both cleaners claim that their landlords doubled their rents and that they couldn’t afford to stay as a result, but whatever they say. they all know that it’s really down to the curse.

Now when I wander the streets of Carroll Gardens, I see laundry proprietors nervously watching me pass, silently willing me to keep walking past their store. Others begin frantically shuttering their properties as I approach, desperate to escape the eager clutches of the curse. There’s even a suggestion that they’re forming a community group to warn each other whenever they see me leave the apartment with a bunch of shirts in my clutches.

Sadly, I still haven’t managed to bring down Armando’s. But he can’t escape the curse for much longer, mark my words.

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.

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.

Signed, sealed, delivered

When I was growing up in North Wales, fish and chips on a Friday night used to be a big treat. I say ‘fish and chips’, but generally I preferred fishcake – the little fried cakepatty that has almost certainly never been in the same room as a fish, let alone been made of it. Anyway, it was always really about the chips – deep fried nuggets of golden potato, crisp in places but at the same time deliciously moist from their time steaming in their paper packaging. And plenty of salt and lashings of brown sauce, obviously. Never vinegar though – acid belongs in batteries, not on your chips.

Our fish and chips generally came from Ted’s, a short walk around the corner from our house. Although for a time we used to drive a few minutes up the road to get them from another chip shop near the shopping centre. To be honest, calling it a shopping centre is similar to describing a fishpond in your garden as one of the Great Lakes – about ten small shops and a library doth not a shopping centre make.

The point is that whenever we wanted fast food, we had to go to get it. Actually there was only Chinese, Indian or chips to choose from, but once the choice had been made, we had to get in the car to get it – it wasn’t going to come to us. It’s the same in most non-metropolitan areas of the US, as far as I can make out, although given the sheer scale of this country, I guess that can on occasion mean making a 100 mile round journey just for a portion of chicken wings.

Moving to London was a culture shock, given that many more places would deliver pizza, curry or Thai food direct to your door. Indeed, I’ve built up many a good relationship with Chinese takeawayout places over the years – after all, even this keen cook has to have a night off every so often.

But even in London, there’s still plenty of places that refuse to deliver food and which either don’t allow takeaway, or else make you visit them to pick it up.

Yet in New York, it seems that any place that refuses to deliver would go out of business within approximately six hours. There is simply nothing that cannot be delivered, and at pretty much any time of the day. From sushi to Ethiopian and falafel to fettucine, all you have to do is pick up the phone and call, and whatever food you desire will be with you in an indecently short amount of time. They say in London that you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. In New York, you’re never more than six minutes away from a General Tso’s chicken. Coincidentally, the chicken may well actually be rat, but that’s another story.

I’m not sure whether it’s sheer weight of numbers that enables food delivery on such an incredible scale, or whether it’s the “I’m just too busy to cook” mentality that has forced food places into it. Probably a combination of the two. Even some restaurants that are reckoned to be relatively high end will still happily deliver items from their menu direct to your home. I might try ringing Gordon Ramsay’s at Claridges to ask for them to bring round some crispy Suffolk pork belly and fondant potatoes next time I’m in London, just to hear the reaction.

Still, I’m pleased to report that I haven’t found anywhere that will deliver fish and chips just yet. You can actually get great fish and chips in Brooklyn, but you just need to go to get it. Some traditions are worth keeping, it would seem.

Mushy peas, anyone?