Tag Archives: The Special One

Early to rise, early to grump

Four times this week, I’ve woken from my deep and blissful slumber at 6.30am. And not just because one of the cats is aggressively scratching the door in an attempt to persuade me that it should be fed.

Each time I have reluctantly emerged disheveled and groggy from under the duvet (which I believe for legal purposes I have to call a comforter in the United States, despite the fact that it makes it sound like some kind of security blanket), and reached for the closet to pluck out my dressing gown. Ten minutes later – having finally managed to find the armhole in the pitch blackness of the room, put it on, taken it off so that it wasn’t back to front like a straitjacket, put it on, taken it off again because it was inside out, put it on again, and finally grappled in the bottom of the closet to find the missing waist cord – I get my day started.

Now, this week was an unusual week, given that I had very early starts at work, but nonetheless there are always two or three days a week where I have to get up an hour earlier than strictly necessary. That’s sixty minutes of lost sleep, making me sixty times more likely to be grumpy by the end of the day (as I’m sure The Special One will happily confirm with a world weary roll of the eyes).

And the reason? Clearly it’s not a desire to go for an early morning jog along the Atlantic Ocean coast. Nor is it a willingness to skip merrily to a delightful little patisserie nearby, to pick up croissants and fresh baguettes. I mean, I would, but trudging through the cold to get a loaf of Home PrideWonder Bread just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

No, it’s because The Young Ones have to start school at 8.15am, and given that we live an hour or so subway ride from their educational establishment, one of us always has to get up at 6.30 to wake them and make them lunch.

I’m not complaining about making the kids lunch, obviously. Well, I am, but that’s a different matter. In the end, despite a certain amount of grumbling, I’m happy to accept the role. What I struggle to understand is why they have to be at school at 8.15am.

The strange thing is, they seem to be the lucky ones, with other kids having to be at school for 8. Of course, I understand that parents work, and so dropping them off before they head off to the office is a necessity for some people. But in New York, most kids at high school either live within walking distance of school or get the subway on their own. Classes finish at 2.30 or 3, but show me a kid who wouldn’t swap an hour of freedom in the afternoon for an hour of extra bed, and I will show you a 13 year old who probably has extra-curricular commitments as a shoplifter.

In the UK, school starts at 9, and finishes around 3.30. Much more civilised if you ask me. Maybe there are studies that show kids are more receptive to learning early in the morning, and I would kind of understand that, and should certainly respect it. All I can say is that there are studies that clearly show that I am substantially more tetchy having got up at ridiculous o’clock in the morning.

It’s time for change in more ways than one, I can tell you.

Raining on my parade

After revelling in the glory of a long hot summer, this weekend saw all my gloating catch up with me. Having inadvertently – and inadvisedly – grounded The Young Ones for numerous indiscretions over the course of the previous week, The Special One and I found ourselves trapped inside by fierce rain and wind, with two children doing passable impressions of captive polar bears stuck in an all-too-small public enclosure.

After the 13th teenage tantrum of the day, a trip to the supermarketgrocery store suddenly seems like a tempting option. Sure, it means getting soaked to the skin within three paces of stepping outside the house (regardless of the availability of an umbrella), but that’s a small price to pay to avoid getting into a prolonged discussion about whose turn it is to feed the cats.

Unusually for a murky day in Brooklyn, the streets seemed busier than usual as I walked out into the persistent rain. Then I remembered the street parade due to head down our closest avenue that afternoon, and the advertising posters proudly proclaiming that the event would take place come rain or shine.

Stopping briefly for a moment to take in the parade, I watched as a group of cheerleaders marionetted their way past me, their hairstyles now welded firmly to their heads by their ten block march through the torrential downpour. The stick wielding Jessica Simpson wannabes were followed by a vaguely menacing troop of what may have been army cadets. The rain had forced them to don their matching dark green trench coats, causing them to resemble a maverick group of Eastern Bloc renegades hellbent on taking Brooklyn by force. If it wasn’t for the fact that not one of them was taller than 5ft 3, and that they couldn’t march in time to save their lives, I might have been mildly concerned.

The final group I watched before sense returned to my rain-soaked brain was a marching band, resplendent in white uniforms which would almost certainly have been transparent had I been unfortunate enough to be watching a few blocks further down the parade route. Nevertheless, the ensemble oompah-ed with glorious abandon, bringing to mind the brass bands of the annual street parade that Little Sis and I used to watch when we were kids. To be fair, those bands of old were never blasting out Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” while marching past a branch of Starbucks, but I think you know what I mean.

Thinking about it, I believe that this was actually the first time I’ve seen a proper street parade since the days of watching the Buckley Jubilee back in the 1980s. Saturday’s event may have been on the streets of Brooklyn, but with spectators and participants alike grimly gritting their teeth and getting on with the task in hand despite the driving rain, I’ve never felt more at home.

The true cost of avoiding homesickness

The Special One is more British than she cares to let on. Sure, she might externally appear to be an ‘h’ dropping, zucchini munching, country invading, milkshake swilling gas guzzler, but cut just under the surface and she bleeds HP Sauce.

Now, part of that is that My Esteemed Mother-in-Law’s mother was English, and resolutely maintained her British citizenship through years of living in the deep south. But really The Special One’s Britishness comes from her love of condiments. Whether it’s Branston Pickle, Maldon Sea Salt or mint sauce, she can’t get enough of the things that the British add to their food in a desperate attempt to make it taste of something edible.

Slowly though, I’m introducing her to more and more British products. PG Tips – as mentioned recently – was an easy one, and Ribena wasn’t exactly tough. I expected mushy peas to be more of a struggle than they actually proved to be, while Cornish pasties were the unexpected hit of the winter of 2006. Black pudding is still a bridge too far though, and the less said about tripe the better. Cold cow’s stomach in vinegar doesn’t appear to do the trick for The Special One, for some reason.

One thing that she’s particularly partial to is English sausage. Quieten down at the back, and stop sniggering. Proper meaty British bangers are a world apart from the fat laden patties that she occasionally had with gravy and ‘biscuits’ (or ‘tasteless sugar free scones’, as I generally call them) in her youth. And having been a vegan for some considerable time, there’s now nothing she likes more than minced pig sinew in a crispy shell.

Close to my office is Myers of Keswick, a British ‘corner shop’ serving the rather large expat community (and Anglophiles) in New York City. I can’t actually let The Special One go there anymore. Partly because she insists on pronouncing it “Myers of Kezwick,” but mostly because she would come back with a lifetime’s supply of Mr Kipling’s Bakewell Tarts if given half a chance.

So today I ventured there alone to stock up with essential items. ‘Essential’ if your idea of essential is Curly Wurly’s and three pounds of Cumberland sausages, obviously. And a bumper box of PG Tips, some HP and Branston, a chicken and mushroom pie and a bag of Twiglets. What more could a man ask for? Apart from maybe a spicy curry Pot Noodle and a bag of pork scratchings.

I reckon if I’d bought that shopping in the UK, it’d probably have cost me about 15 quid or so, depending on the quality of the sausages. Head 3458 miles west, and the price suddenly escalates to 64 dollars. Clearly the dollar is worth next-to-nothing, but that’s one hell of a price to pay for some creature comforts. As a great philosopher once wrote, “Man cannot live on Branston alone.” But after that shopping trip, we’ll probably have to give it a go.

Trains cost…and right here’s where you start paying

Everybody likes to get something for nothing. Whether it’s the complete stranger walking up to you outside a cinemamovie theatreer and offering you tickets that they can no longer use, or a snack company giving away sample products on the streets, there’s no greater bargain than ‘free’.

But like a junkie desperate for just one more fix, the joy of the occasional complimentary Mars bar sends some people into a desperate downward cycle to get everything for free. Whether it’s a few illicit music downloads or a pad of Post-It notes from the office, no ill-gotten cost saving is too small for the true freeloader.

I don’t have categorical proof, but I bet Buster Edwards and the rest of the Great Train Robbers pinched a pint of milk or two off Mrs Miggins’ doorstep when they were mere nippers. And if Jesse James worked as an intern in Corporate America today, I’d say there’s a fair chance you’d need to pay closer-than-normal attention to your paper clip supplies in the stationery cupboard. The acorn of today is the oak tree of tomorrow. Actually the acorn of today is still an acorn tomorrow, but I think you take my point.

Most freeloading I can deal with. That’s not surprising given that I work in the entertainment industry, the whole foundations of which would fall apart if it weren’t for the phrases ‘guestlist’ and ‘plus one’. But sometimes, the something-for-nothing brigade really just get my goat. Especially when they’re breaking The Rules.

The Special One often tires of my unwillingness to break The Rules. She’ll happily get up on a plane when the seatbelt signs are illuminated, or smuggle food into the movies, leaving me to harrumph quietly in the corner. She thinks her refusal to play the game makes her a maverick. I tried to point out that mavericks don’t read the Pottery Barn catalogue, but she was too busy plotting her next coup d’etat to listen.

In any case, I’ve got no problem with rule breaking. It’s just that if I’ve got to pay for a product or service, it’s pretty galling to see somebody next to me taking the same thing for free. Particularly when it comes to public transport.

In London, the fare evader generally takes one of two forms. There’s The Athlete, who looks at the ticket barrier in the same eager-to-jump kind of way that Colin Jackson or Ed Moses used to look at hurdles on a sports track. If you see somebody travelling on a tube train casually carrying around a pole vault pole, you can pretty much be sure that they’re just planning to do a runner when they get off at Edgware Road. Well, either that or they’re Sergei Bubka, obviously.

And then there’s The Close Companion. It may initially seem that The Close Companion is attracted to you by your irresistible scent or ability to pull off that ‘just stepped out of a hedge’ look. But don’t be fooled, he’s just trying to get through the ticket barrier in the same 2.8 seconds as you. By the time you realise what’s happened, you’re either flat on the floor or you’re being sworn at by a scrawny man with ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles.

Here in New York, the fare evader takes on a completely different guise. Sure, there’s the occasional student jumping the barrier, or the otherwise well-to-do person who forgot their Metrocard and hasn’t got time – or more likely, the inclination – to go home for it. But when it comes down to it, the ultimate New York fare evader is The Parent Of A Six Year Old.

Apparently travel on the subway is free until you reach the height of 44 inches. But given that there’s no Alton TowersSix Flags style height measurement by the turnstiles into the subway, it’s difficult to prove who is or isn’t entitled to travel for nothing.

The ridiculousness of the whole thing reached new heights this morning when a kid who was practically as tall as me was prompted to duck the barriers by his mum. Such was his size, he practically had to slither sniper-style to get underneath. It was like watching Shaquille O’Neal’s mother forcing him to duck under the turnstile on a shopping trip to the Big Apple.

With the desire for free stuff so strong among New Yorkers, most parents seem to shove any child they can lay their hands on under the turnstile paddles in an attempt to beat the system. Don’t even think of crouching down to tie your shoelaces near the entrance to the subway – you’ll be mistaken for little Johnny and thrust under the barriers before you can say Harry Potter.

I come from a land down under

Having tired of the geographical incorrectness of calling me a shandy drinking southerner, She Who Was Born To Worry has now taken to calling me her ‘Yank son’. Not that she actually has another son and needs to differentiate us as a result. Although there has been talk of an elusive half-brother called Eric (the forklift truck driver from Belgium) now that I come to think about it…

Actually, I think she just imagines that I’ll pick up the phone to her one day and start talking with the mid-Atlantic twang much beloved of the likes of Joan Collins and Shirley Bassey. As it happens, I’m taking active measures to ensure that never happens, including listening to plenty of podcasts from British radio, and a compulsory three hours of BBC America every week. I’ve even persuaded The Special One to watch the first series of Spooks with me, having picked the DVD up on a whim at Heathrow Airport. She’s not so keen on the presence of Keeley Hawes, but as I’ve presented it as a means to maintain my British identity, I think I’m going to get away with it.

The strange thing is that while She Who Was Born To Worry thinks I might be in danger of turning into an American, America is pretty convinced that I’m not even British in the first place.

When accent identification skills were being handed out, America was obviously eating a burger and fries, and reading Entertainment Weekly. In what is rapidly becoming the linguistic equivalent of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, I’ve lost count of the number of people who, on hearing my pretty robustly English voice, have firmly identified me as an Australian. I’m not alone in the problem either – as far as most Americans are concerned, Brits must be walking around with metaphorical corks dangling from metaphorical hats, throwing virtual shrimps on the barbie. The grill, that is, not the faintly pneumatic Mattel creation.

The strange thing is that Australia has a population three times smaller than the UK’s, and most Americans will never even have met an Australian, let alone correctly identified one. In contrast, the relatively close relationship between Britain and the USA (and the fact that it only takes seven hours to get between the two, rather than more than twenty) means that Britain and the British are a much more familiar concept than Australia and Australians. Of course, with many Americans still struggling to understand the need for a passport, it’s likely that Lilliput and Lilliputians are more familiar than the two combined, but that’s a side issue.

Incidentally, I’ve been also been identified as Irish, German and Scandinavian as well since arriving in the States. It’s a source of undeniable pleasure that nobody’s accused me of beingcalled me an American yet. It’s only a matter of time.

As I cooked dinner tonight, The Special One and The Young Ones sat down to watch the X Men movie. Having seen an interview with the cast half way through, The Youngest excitedly bound into the kitchen to say that she had no idea that Wolverine was British. Ironically, Hugh Jackman’s actually an Australian. The three of them have been living me for a year now, so their ‘all foreigners must be Australians’ radar will have to go in for a 10,000 mile service.

The Great American Conversational Disaster

My ability to waste away hours upon end talking non-stop about very little is the stuff of legend. If Inane Chat was an Olympic sport, I’d have played an integral role in the triumphant Team GB homecoming from Beijing at Heathrow earlier today. Arguably the title of Sir Brit Out Of Water would have been a little excessive for one whose major talent is to be able to blather on about next-to-nothing, but I would have accepted the knighthood with the quiet dignity and grace that it so richly deserved.

The problem with being a Brit Out Of Water is that it’s kind of like undergoing the surgical removal of your small talk. The delicate seven hour operation, which conveniently takes place at high altitude as you fly across the Atlantic, extracts all of the cultural and conversational touchpoints that you’ve held so dear for upwards of thirty years, and leaves you almost 100% chat free for at least the next year. Sure, you can talk about events that have happened directly to you, the news, or universal feelings of love and loathing. But if an expat even thinks about straying into an extended discussion about anything else with a local, you may as well pull out a sudoku puzzle and settle down in a corner on your own for twenty minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great conversations with people I’ve met since I’ve been here, and I’ve met some fascinating folk. But having spent the last twenty years or so talking about football and the joy of Spangles, suddenly my capacity to connect with people on a sporting or nostalgic level has disappeared. While my ability to name every FA Cup winning side since 1968 may have made me a must-have on the London party circuit, my distinct lack of knowledge regarding the preferred starting line-up of the New York Knicks makes me a social pariah in some city circles. And while my witty bon-mots regarding Roland Rat or Multi-Coloured Swap Shop were the talk of the town, my vacant expression at the very mention of Three’s Company or Alice marks me out as a sad and lonely televisual outcast.

I’ve recently started paying a bit more attention to the Yankees (much to the dismay of The Special One) in the hope that I might be able to ferret away a few choice facts about Johnny Damon’s RBI or Derek Jeter’s OBP for use in a future conversation. The fact that I don’t know what an RBI or OBP is (and wouldn’t be able to pick Johnny Damon out of a police line-up) is neither here nor there. And I’ve decided that all future TV nostalgia chats will be veered towards Chips or Cagney & Lacey, given that I have more than a working knowledge of each. Admittedly it may get boring for my new friends to have to talk about Frank Poncherello or Sharon Gless week-in week-out, but some sacrifices simply have to be made.

In the meantime, any conversational cheat sheets from US readers would be extremely welcome. Packets of Chewits and cans of Irn Bru to anybody who helps me pass my forthcoming PhD in Trivial American Conversational Nuggets.

365 days out of water

I’ve finally made it to a whole year out of water. That’s 365* days of living with The Special One, 365 days of working in the United States, and 365 days of thinking “blimey, what just happened to me?!”

So, other than 365 days, what other 365s has the last year held for me?

365 times that I’ve wanted to have an everything bagel for breakfast. I have only given in on 207 of those occasions.

365 pushes and shoves against me on the subway. That’s approximately 1.83 shoves per journey.

365 times when I’ve been forced to ponder why the UK doesn’t have an all-encompassing commitment to the hot dog too.

365 inadvertent steps into dubious standing water.

365 wrong turns by taxi drivers with only a passing knowledge of the streets of the city.

365 sightings of the Empire State Building which have prompted an internal response of “crikey, that’s the Empire State Building.”

365 times I’ve been grateful for a summer that lasts more than 365 minutes.

365 passers-by who have stared at me for not wearing a coat in March.

365 occasions on which I’ve cursed the fact that you have to pay a fee to use an ATM that’s not one of your own bank’s. As well as a fee to your own bank for the privilege.

365 minutes in total sat listening to assorted weirdoes espouse their sanctimonious claptrap on the subway.

365 times I’ve struggled to remember which one’s a nickel and which one’s a dime.

365 times I’ve emerged from a subway station and stood on the street corner for ten minutes trying to work out whether I’m facing north or south.

365 people who’ve attempted to imitate my English accent with a passable impression of Dick van Dyke.

365 occasions on which I’ve used a swear word in the workplace (and 364 on which I’ve been rebuked for it).

365 moments when I’ve thought “I’m sure I’ve seen this in a movie.”

365 times that I’ve had to apologisze for alleged anti-American sentiments.

Thanks for keeping me company over the last year, and to all those who have tipped off friends, colleagues and readers about the blog. I’m 365 times more grateful than I can ever tell you.

* If anybody even thinks about saying it’s a leap year and that I’ve been out of water for 366 days, there’s going to be trouble.

The war on New York’s streets

Back in the days when The Special One and I were dating, and I was still a Brit Very Much In Water, the two of us made a pilgrimage up to my home city Chester so that she could meet my mum for the first time. The day beforehand, The Special One had experienced one of the UK’s finest summer traditions at a lunch at The Best Man’s house, although it has to be said that ‘eating a barbecued sausage that is incinerated on the outside and practically raw inside’ won’t generally feature in Vanity Fair’s catch-all feature on the Things That You Simply Must Do In London. Still, it does mean that The Special One will always be able to say that the first gift her future mother-in-law gave her upon meeting was a package of pharmaceutical cures to address the, erm, ‘issues’ associated with food poisoning.

Thankfully, the symptoms quickly subsided, and the three of us were able to take a walk around the city to see some of the sights. For those of you who are not acquainted with Chester, it’s an entirely walled Roman city that was founded in the first century AD. Originally known as Deva, the city has been intensely developed over the years, but there are still Roman remains throughout the centre including an amphitheatre, ornamental gardens, and a shrine to Minerva. Hell, there’s even a shopping centre called The Forum, although that admittedly owes more to the great god of Greggs The Bakers than to the Romans.

Strolling around, The Special One was struck by just how much Roman ‘stuff’ (I think that’s the collective noun for a lot of Roman artifacts, but please do correct me if I’m wrong) there is scattered around. There are bits of pipe outside the library, an old strongroom near the Dublin Packet pub, and various columns all over the place. It’s pretty much impossible to walk for more than ten minutes without seeing a remain or two.

Of course, Americans are fascinated by old stuff. Not to say that the British aren’t, but I guess it’s always a bit more impressive to see Roman remains when in your own country a McDonalds wrapper from 1973 counts as ancient history. Sure, there are native Indian remains in various places, and the current Republican presidential candidate must surely have been around when the Liberty Bell was cast, but American cities aren’t exactly blessed with a wealth of history. That doesn’t make them bad places, I hasten to add – it just means that there’s a profound contrast for Americans when they see Roman remains in Europe.

None of this fascination, however, explains New York women’s current obsession with wearing sandals that make them look like gladiators going into war. The first time I saw somebody wearing a pair of these, I had to look around to see if I had missed a battle reconstruction that was going on down the block. Sadly the lack of 800 centurions in full costume led me to the reluctant conclusion that the woman was doing it of her own free will. Clearly however, I assumed that she was a one-off – a Russell Crowe fetishist with a talent for leatherwork and a high tolerance of people pointing and staring, maybe? But now I seem them every time I leave the office, in all manner of shapes and sizes. New York has quite literally gone gladiator sandal mad.

I reckon somebody in a shop somewhere in Manhattan is convincing gullible consumers that these things are genuine centurion’s footwear, excavated from just outside Salisbury, and polished up for the modern-day consumer market.

Thankfully, as with all fashions, it’s just another passing trend. Sadly, next week is probably due to witness the olde worlde doublets and breeches revival. There’s no accounting for taste.

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…

Getting away from it all

I’ve been away for a week, sunning myself in the south of France and taking advantage of the lack of broadband to take an impromptu blog break. Fortunately, the presence of a The Special One, good friends, a big swimming pool, great food and plenty of the aforementioned sun, I seemed to get by…

The trip to the Cote D’Azur came via the wonders of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 last Friday, which may well be the quietest airport on earth – and all the more relaxing for it. Like most major construction projects in the UK, it took seventeen times as long to build as it should have done (and cost thirty four times its original budget) but it’s still a huge step forward in air travel as far as I’m concerned – especially as I’m well used to the limited facilities of New York’s JFK airport. As we slipped effortlessly away from the terminal in a taxi to stay with The Best Man and family, I felt proud to be British.

Then I saw a giant billboard for Nuts TV, proclaiming “every night, darts and fights.” I packed away the Union Jack, slipped the maroon passport back in my pocket, and pondered the day’s date, July 4. No wonder the Americans were so keen on independence.