Sunday, December 27, 2009

Boxing Day

With Toni on Holiday in Colorado (and suffering a bout of bronchitis) and me finding it hard to get motivated in the midst of a four-day weekend, I thought I’d just expound, however briefly, on the joys of Boxing Day.


Mike

Tomorrow is a holiday for me, whereas you folks in the States are going back to work. That’s because we have Boxing Day here in the UK, one of the most welcomed surprises awaiting me when I made this place my home.

I don’t know about you, but even while I was living in the States, with no knowledge of British culture, I always thought going to work on December 26th after enjoying the excesses of Christmas was just a bit much. So Boxing Day remains, to me, one of the best things about Britain.

What about you in the US of A? Would you welcome something like Boxing Day?

I’d like to write more about this but, hey, I’m on holiday.


Toni

Toni regrets she is unable to attend this week’s Pond Parley discussion. She is ill.


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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Going Crackers at Christmas

This week: Christmas Crackers

Toni:

About ten years ago I asked my husband to bring me some Christmas crackers back from his 17th business trip to London that year. My (then) two children were really getting into Christmas so I thought I’d throw in as many British traditions as I could. The likelihood of them eating sticky Christmas pud complete with brandy butter was remote, and Brussels sprouts were practically banned from the house, but I knew they would go for Christmas crackers.

Back in the day, you couldn’t get them in the US for love nor money. I once asked my mother to send some, but the postage made them ridiculously expensive, so I leapt at the chance to have them hand delivered by the Ball & Chain. I told the kids about these fabulous crackers and our excitement mounted as daddy walked through the door – and presented us with a lovely tin of Harrods ginger cookies or something. Certainly weren’t Christmas crackers. Disappointed.

This year I paid through the nose for three boxes of Christmas crackers from Cost Plus/World market, and took them into the Little Guy’s classroom. I was the “foreigner” coming in to talk about Christmas traditions from around the world. They seemed disappointed to find the crackers weren’t at all edible, but that soon dissipated when they saw the cheap plastic toy inside, and of course, the paper crown. I explained that sensible grown-ups eat their entire Christmas dinner with said paper crowns perched atop their noggins, and the kids looked like they didn’t believe me. What’s so funny about that?

We are spending this Christmas with my American in-laws, and wouldn’t you know, I have just enough crackers left for all of us.



Mike:

I think Crackers are one of the coolest things about Christmas in Britain (Boxing Day is another), even though, on my first UK Yule Tide, when my wife was still my fiancée and her mum sent us to get the Christmas Crackers, I was confused that we didn’t go to the biscuits and cracker isle and headed toward the seasonal section, instead.

Now, of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without crackers. They appear at every festive dinner throughout the season and every time they do, they make people forget they are British. These normally staid citizens of Great Britain set upon them, snap them open with their table partners, willingly don the paper crown for the duration of the meal and read the achingly awful joke out for all to hear. As near as I can figure, there must be some sort of legislation compelling this behavior; I can offer no other explanation.

For the uninitiated among you, a Christmas Crack looks like a gaily wrapped, empty toilet paper tube, but with a naff gift and the aforementioned crown and joke inside along with enough explosives to put them in the “Dangerous Device” category, making them illegal to send in the mail and causing some airlines to forbid carrying them aboard least you attempt to bring down an Airbus A330 with one, but which, in practice, makes a sound about half as loud as a Greenie Stick ‘em Cap.

If you’re an ex-pat living in the UK, we’d love to hear what you think of these foreign, but irresistible holiday devices, and if you grew up with them, what are you’re feelings about them, and, most of all, what do you who have never heard/seen/experienced Christmas Crackers think of the idea? Crackers, or what?

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!




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Sunday, December 13, 2009

How 'Bout That Weather

A little light commentary:

Toni:

Not wanting to sound typically British or anything but what about this weather we’ve been having? Practically anywhere on either side of the Pond has had weird weather recently. However, I never really appreciated the temperate climes of England until I left. Growing up on the north east coastline could be pretty nippy when you had to wait too long for a bus, but there’s nothing quite like “lake effect winds and snow” racing over Lake Michigan down from Canada to give you a true sense of “cold”..

On Thursday we got up to an actual temp of 3 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill taking it down to -20. That’s -16 Celsius feeling more like -28 because of the wind. When you get outside, the hair (and whatever else) inside your nostrils freezes. It really is the strangest sensation. Your eyes water because of the cold, and then the tears freeze halfway down your face. I remember years ago when the actual temp was below zero but the wind chill was- 40 (which, if you’ll remember is the same in both Fahrenheit and Celsius). My brother in England said “Toni, that can’t be right. That’s a walk- in freezer”. Yes, it is. That’s why the TV weather people tell you not to go out unless it’s absolutely necessary, and explain the initial signs of frostbite.

Fashion goes out the window in this kind of weather. Not only do regular (women’s) boots not keep your feet warm, they get ruined by the salt that’s poured on the roads every night and the nice leather soles usually turn into suicide weapons on the ice. Hats are a must, and I have yet to find a really flattering hat that also keeps your head warm. Don’t even talk to me about hat hair, which is permanent in this season. We usually also wear scarves that can be wrapped across the face, ski masks or gaiters that do the same. Trendy jackets and coats are traded in for ankle length parkas; if you don’t have one of those, layering lighter jackets also works. In either case you are rendered incapable of putting your arms down by your sides and if you fall over, you cannot get up unassisted.

Dressing children for school is a race against time, especially if you have more than about two. By the time you’ve got the last one suited up, the first has either fainted from the heat or needs to go pee. I would suggest standing them all outside once they have the ski gear on but I think that’s classed as physical abuse below a certain temperature. Oh yes, and they rarely get to play outside once the weather gets below freezing, so they come home bouncing off the walls.

How you doin’?


Mike:

Very often, when I meet people for the first time and they realize I’m not from around here, they ask, “Don’t you just hate the weather?” Then I tell them about weather where I come from, and they gain a new appreciation for the mild, temperate (albeit, wet) climate we enjoy here.

I read Toni’s piece with a pang of nostalgia and a good deal of glee that I don’t have to put up with that any more. In Chicago, of course, the wind is the killer, but in my location, just south of the Adirondack Mountains, the real temperature got down to -22. Fahrenheit. (That’s -30 C.) At that temperature, there is no wind. There is also no bird song, or rustling of chipmunks in the wood. When the world is that cold, it is as silent as a deep sleep. The only sound is the soft crunch of snow underfoot, and your own whimpering as the snot freezes in your nose and your eyeballs glaze over with ice.

But it has its own beauty, a stark, still, silent beauty that I have to admit, I do miss.

I do not, however, miss digging my car out from under three feet of snow and driving to work. None of this two-centimetres-and-we-get-the-day-off crap. I also don’t miss shovelling my roof. Yes, you heard that right, “Shovelling. My. ROOF!

And that’s just winter.

Try 104 degrees in the shade (40 C) with high humidity. In temps like that the blacktop steams and sticks to your sneakers as you amble very slowly across it. (Cold brings movement to a standstill; heat only slows it down.)

No, the British climate may throw some chilly mornings, wet afternoons, foggy evenings and blustery nights at me, but it can never hope to touch the extremes I grew up with. In the weather department, moving to England was definitely a trade up.



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Sunday, December 6, 2009

To Tree Or Not To Tree

When is the proper time to put up Christmas decorations?


Toni:

When you have kids, there’s a lot of pressure to put the tree up as early as possible. I didn’t used to have very strong opinions on when to put the deccies up, apart from banning anything before December. That’s just wrong, although it appears that once we’ve had Thanksgiving over here (complete with green bean casserole), it’s open season. However, it also constitutes cruel and unusual punishment to make the kids wait until Christmas Eve, and, as the person responsible for wrapping and putting presents out (and Santa’s reindeer food) I couldn’t even contemplate adding extra items to that to-do list.

We put our tree up yesterday, and now I have a firm opinion on when it should be done. I swear it was an exhausting, frustrating all day event. We have an enormous artificial tree which is erected in millions of numbered parts. The Ball & Chain corralled the teens into helping while I hid and wrote Xmas cards, till all the shouting and general mayhem had finished. The decision, after much deliberation, was to put the lights on next otherwise the ornaments would probably get knocked off. Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth as we plugged in string after string of lights to find the middle bulbs all out, argued colo(u)red over white lights (as Lord knows, we have plenty of both) and generally made no progress.

The Ball & Chain (with at least one child in tow) made no less than three trips to Home Depot (B&Q equivalent) until I finally told him to stop messing around and just bloody buy new ones. They cost about $5 for a hundred miles fer cryin’ out loud.

He then needed a long nap poor thing, and I attempted to dress the tree with a 6 year old who was bent on testing the laws of physics by piling everything on one side, and who then wandered off “for a rest”. The Queenager was a big help – as far as dressing the tree went, but suddenly remembered homework when faced with the five big plastic empty containers still to be put back in the garage, glittery stuff sticking to everything, and a big mess to tidy up. Two hours later the place looked somewhat presentable – and I was exhausted. So, the answer. The best time to put the tree up is when the person who’s going to be clearing up the mess feels the most energetic.


Mike:

As Toni so deftly illustrated, putting the tree up can be a chore (a woman I used to live with who is now known only as ‘she-who-must-not-be-named’ had a tree ritual that took—no exaggeration—two full days) and that can make the faint of heart, or the curmudgeonly among us, put it off until the last minute.

But as an American, the proper time to start decorating (not necessarily put up the tree) is as soon as Thanksgiving is over. Sometimes that very afternoon.

I expect this tradition varies from clan to clan, but everyone I know subscribed to it. Thanksgiving may not keep the stores from decorating in the last week of August, but it is as good as a starter’s pistol for the average American family.

That’s why Brit’s aren’t really sure about when to start. Decorations begin to appear in November and sort of expand until Christmas week when everyone who is going to put up something has done so, then it levels out and things begin to disappear in stages after New Year.

As to when the proper time to take down the decorations is, we can look into that in January.


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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sounding Smart

And now for something completely different:

“I shouldn't be saying this - high treason, really - but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there.”

Stephen Fry


Discuss.


Toni:

When it comes to accents its great being a Brit in the States. Although many of us have different British accents, they are usually all very popular with the natives. Having grown up with British-sounding people I never really thought about us coming across as particularly intelligent or sophisticated, apart from the real boffins* that is. Indeed, there are some UK accents that sound positively brainless, even when the individual has a triple digit IQ (not naming any of course.) Americans however, don’t seem to make the same distinction, or at least I’ve never heard a British accent being denigrated.

From my own experience in the States, I have to agree with Fry’s statement. I’m quite often asked to read something out at school parent meetings for example, and when I ask why, I’m told it “will sound better with a British accent”. Personally, I think your average American has such a smooth, confident delivery on anything from the cafeteria menu to international diplomacy, I’d never dream of questioning them, but apparently I’m in the minority.

Not that I have much of a potty mouth these days, (three kids), but we Brits can usually deliver some fairly colo(u)rful language and get away with it over here. Dropping the “F” bomb usually has people in hysterics as they tell you it never sounds quite as good when they say it. And of course, if you use British swear words such as bloody and bugger (excuse me) it delights them. (Unfortunately my favo(u)rite one, “sodding”, is completely unknown here so it has disappeared from my lexicon.)

So yes Brits, if you fancy a quick IQ boost, pop across the Pond and just talk for a while!

(*boffin – seriously intelligent person, usually a scientist).



Mike:

As an American, I have to agree with both Mr. Fry and Toni. British people just sound smart. I don’t know why, they just do. And beyond sounding smarter, we, as a nation, just love the way they talk.

My wife is forever being asked to “say something British” when she visits the States, while in the seven years I have lived here no one has ever requested me to talk just to listen to my accent. Would that it was so; I’d love the idea that people assumed I was a genius just because I accent the second syllable in “Baton” and leave the superfluous ones out of “Aluminum.”

As it is, I don’t think the Brits regard Americans as particularly smart. And when we try to imitate a British accent, well, that makes us sound particularly stupid.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKTknLD9eWw


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Sunday, November 22, 2009

What's Thanksgiving like for an American in the UK, and a Brit in the US?

Mike:

For American expats living in the UK, Thanksgiving is a mixed bag. It can be joyful, nostalgic, sad and frustrating all at once. Certainly, it is not a day most Americans let go by unnoticed. It brings with it the joy of the season, and the bittersweet memories of Thanksgivings past. Then it reminds you of how far away from home you are, and for some of us, for how long. And finally it makes you realize that you are surrounded by people who don’t share your memories of this day, who have no idea what it is about and don’t understand when you try to explain it to them, and who refuse to understand your passion for pumpkin pie.

And then you try to make dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner in the UK is an exercise in futility. You tell yourself, when you are forced to make the first substitution (a real turkey won’t fit in your oven so you buy just a breast), that it won’t make that much of a difference. Then another substitution (this one involving stuffing) forces its way in and before you know it you’re serving up more apologies than meals as you treat your friends and family to a “real” Thanksgiving Dinner.

If you managed to find any, your guests will be looking suspiciously at the creamed corn and struggling to stifle remarks about how it looks like someone already ate it. They will wonder why you are making such a big deal over the missing drumsticks and how having cranberry sauce from Marks and Spencer’s could possibly ruin a meal considering it sounds so much better than the stuff you are describing that comes out of a can.

And then, after the bravest among them have joined you for the pumpkin pie and whipped cream dessert, they will ask, “Is that it?” and you will have to agree that it is, and understand that you are still alone in “getting” it.

So you finish the pumpkin pie on your own and tell yourself that, next year, you’ll just go to Pizza Express for dinner.


Toni:

It’s a bit weird being an expat in the US at this time of year.
“What are you doing for the holiday weekend?” usually gets a blank stare from me even after almost twenty years here.
“Oh Thanksgiving” (with emphasis on the second syllable, please note). “Not much really”, I reply to looks of disbelief mixed with pity.
When you’re not brought up with Thanksgiving, or anything remotely like it, it’s easy to miss the gravitas that this “holiday” has. Most of the time it completely sneaks up on me and I run around at the last minute, gathering up other expat waifs and strays for a big meal.
For many Americans however, Thanksgiving is more of a family affair than Christmas. Fortunately we have a teeny family here and we’re seeing them at Christmas so the pressure is off. It also helps that my husband travels a lot on business so the last thing he has ever wanted to do was take a flight at THE busiest travel time of the year with three kids in tow. Flight prices are ridiculous, the airports are packed, and of course the weather is usually at its most un-co-operative.
Friends of mine are already fretting about how to make peace with the brother-in-law from hell who got drunk and shouted at everyone last year, or the fact that they are guilted into staying in their parents’ house even though there’s no room for all the kids. Happy families indeed!
This year, for some reason, husband is going berserk and doing the entire meal himself, from scratch. I keep popping my head into the kitchen to see if there’s “anything I can do”, but apparently it’s all under control. He’s made the cornbread and biscuits (more like unsweetened British scones) for the cornbread stuffing (yee-haw), and has identified his chosen method of brining the turkey, which he will pick up on Wednesday. I will probably end up peeling potatoes like Cinderella, but that’s fine by me.

As long as he doesn’t make that bloody awful green bean casserole I’ll be happy.








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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Smashing Stereotypes

(In the UK that would be an adjective and in the US it’s a verb.) Let’s take a look at a few well known stereotypes and see what we make of them.

Toni:

Well, they all wear white trainers/sneakers over here so that’s one stereotype I can’t smash but there are a few that just don’t stand up to close inspection.

Stereotype #1: Americans are seen as these crazy, out there, far out people, always into this new fad and that kooky religion. Here in the mid-west at least, Americans are, I would venture to say, more conservative than even us Brits. (Now please note, before anyone has a complete conniption, I’m not saying “reserved” or “uptight”). Anyway, here’s why:

- They back off from really political discussions, even when it’s election time. Obviously town hall meetings and political rallies bring out the passions, but around a dinner table or at a party, you just don’t hear people really getting into it about politics. It’s as if it’s decided that you’ll just agree to disagree and say no more about it in case someone’s feelings get hurt.

- Ditto their personal lives. If you ask someone how they’re doing, you’ll get a very positive answer. This is in part because Americans generally aren’t as misery-prone as us Brits, but it’s also because they’re not going to stop and tell you that their cat just died or they’re sick of their kids. Obviously some will confide in a good friend or close next door neighbor, but not the world and his wife.

Stereotype #2: Americans think this is the greatest place in the world and no other country comes even a close second.

- Yes, most Americans do think this is the greatest country in the world, but most I’ve met are also very curious about other countries, would love to go to a few and some have even traveled a lot.

- And yes, there are the ignorant few who really do think that nothing outside the US could possibly be worth knowing about but aren’t they everywhere? They’re certainly not representative of anyone I’ve ever met in my 20 years here.

Stereotype #3: Americans are party animals

- Most Americans I know go out far less than my British friends and they don’t stay out late. Here in the mid west, if you go out at all during the week, things start winding down about 10pm. I have even been in restaurants where they’ve started closing up shop at that time, ignoring our requests for another bottle of wine and generally indicating that they really would like us to leave. Even events at the weekend (charity fund-raising balls for example) will finish at 11, and midnight at the very latest.

- They don’t even drink that much (or at least not when anyone’s looking.)

- There are large parts of the country that are “dry”, that is, where you can’t buy alcohol at all. In many states you can’t buy booze at supermarkets, and some states such as Utah say that if you have a drink before your meal in a restaurant, you have to finish it before they can begin serving your meal. (Or something like that.) Quite a lot of party-pooping anyway!


Mike:

Most Americans think the British are a nation of fish-and-chip eating, binge-drinking football-hooligans with bad teeth who talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. And they’re all homosexuals. Except for Hugh Grant, and we’re not really sure about him.

I’m happy to report that, after seven years of research, I can dispel all of these (strike that) most of the (no, not that, either) some of those myths (yeah, that's it).

- Bad Teeth: Sorry to let the team down, but Brits, when compared to Americans, are a step or two down on the dental-health ladder. This, however, is a subjective comparison; not everyone wants a picture-perfect, dazzling white, Tom Cruise smile. Well, not everyone over here, anyway.

- Fish-and-Chip Eaters: This, too, is a sort of true stereotype. Fish and Chips are still wildly popular with certain segments of the population (of which I am an enthusiastic member). However, thanks to globalization, I often see a longer lines coming out of KFC and McDonald’s on Friday night. I don’t mind; it makes it easier for me to get my fish-and-chips (with mushy peas).

- Binge Drinkers: Sad to say, there are some Brits who look upon drinking as a competitive sport, but for the most part they are sane and responsible drinkers. The sane and responsible ones don’t make very good footage on the “Cops Without Guns” programs, however, so we hardly ever see them.

- Football Hooligans: This behavior has been a problem in the past but the football clubs have worked hard to eradicate it. The hooliganism is (mostly) gone now, but the stereotype remains.

- They have all met the Queen and/or Paul McCartney: No, they have not.

- They all talk like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins: The only Brits I hear talking like that are ones who are imitating Americans trying to talk like Brits.

- They are all Homosexuals: Well, of course they are. Except maybe Hugh Grant

Are there any stereotypes you would like to dispel?


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Sunday, November 8, 2009

It’s only words…

This week we're delighted to have Nappy Valley Girl as our guest blogger discussing UK/UK vocabulary with Mike:

Nappy Valley Girl:

Last week, my four year old son looked up at the leaves floating down from the trees. “Mummy,” he said. “It’s Fahl.”
It took me a couple of moments to understand what he meant. Then I realised; he was talking about Fall (which they’ve been learning about ad nauseam at preschool). “Yes, that means it’s autumn,” I told him, almost automatically.
We’ve been in the US five months now, and while there are some American words I’ve picked up pretty quickly, there are some words I still can’t bring myself to say. Fall is one of them. OK, I’m happy to talk about the ‘fall foliage’ or ‘fall colours’ we’ve just been to see in New England, because that seems, appropriate for here. But to me, this season is autumn and I refuse to stop saying so. (And what by the way, is the American for Autumnal? Fall-ish? )
I can’t bring myself, either, to ask my new friends what good new ‘movies’ they’ve seen recently, or, even worse, describe a trip to the ‘movie theatre’ with the boys. It’s cinema, OK, and a film? And filling the car up at a gas station? Sorry. I just can’t stop myself saying ‘the petrol station’, no matter what weird looks I get from people.
There are some American terms I am quite happy to use when asking Americans about something, but can somehow never apply to myself. I will ask people how their ‘vacation’ was but will always talk about ourselves as ‘going on holiday’. And my boys are still going out in the ‘garden’ to play, never the ‘backyard’.
There are, admittedly, some words which sound better over here. For example, it seemed far more appropriate to go trick or treating in our suburban American street for Halloween candy. I don’t even like the word ‘sweets’. (Although it still seems odd to be referring to something like a KitKat as candy; surely that’s a chocolate bar?) And I’ve come round slowly, after initial resistance, to cookies versus biscuits. After all, in the land of Cookie Monster, what else should we be eating? And you just can’t ask for anything other than fries in an American restaurant (although the boys still try to order ‘chips and ketchup’, much to waiters’ bemusement).
But there are some words I’ve been forced to adopt: for example, I’ve had to drop my use of the very British verb ‘to queue’. This is particularly irksome because queuing has been a major feature of our first months here: at the Social Security Office, the Department for Motor Vehicles, and so forth, so it comes up quite a lot in conversation. The first couple of times I used it, on a neighbour, she looked at me as if I was completely mad. “Oh,” it dawned on her eventually. “You mean standing in line?”
And I’m trying desperately to exchange ‘pavement’ for ‘sidewalk’, or I’ll be thought of as a really bad mother. Because here, when I tell the boys to ‘get back on the pavement,” I’m actually telling them to stand on the road……….

Mike:

When I first moved to the UK, I resolved to keep talking in my native language, if only to annoy people. Seven years on, I speak so much like a native that many people, when meeting me for the first time, don’t immediately cotton on to the fact that I am American. This is not, I hasten to add, because of a change in my accent; it is due to my vocabulary.

Sorted, knackered, blimey, chuffed—I embrace them all; I've even been known to stop at a petrol station from time to time. But there remain a few Americanism that, along with my New York accent, continue to give me away:

- The automobile, to me, has always had and always will have a trunk and a hood. I’ll refer to “car boot sales” but the wares are sold out of the car’s trunk.

- Oddly, even though I don’t mean to, I tend to revert to “dollars and cents” when discussing prices. Except, of course, if I’m referring to prices in the US, then I say “pounds and pence.” I put it down to an age thing.

- Portable heaters use kerosene, not paraffin. Paraffin is what you make candles out of.

- In my view, we have a “checking” account at our bank, even though my wife insists it is a “current” account.

- Let’s keep it simple; it is LAST and FIRST names. Whenever I’m asked for my surname I’m always tempted to say, “Galahad!”

And, like Nappy Valley Girl, the sidewalk/pavement issue continues to baffle me.


Anyone have any they’d like to add?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Spooktacular (and silly) stories

There have been some funny news stories on both sides of the pond this past week, so we thought we’d share.

Toni:

This pathetic report comes from Carroll, Ohio, in the US. Two young idiots were reported as attempting to break into an apartment, and described by the caller as having “painted faces”. Given that it was the week before Halloween you’d be forgiven for imagining Joker make-up or perhaps all black make-up. Well sort of... in a very amateur, makeshift kind of way. Can you believe it? When the police chased down their car, they were still wearing their erm, magic marker faces.

Then there’s the story of the homeless man in Florida who stole a ferret from a pet store, stuffed it down his trousers to hide it (does the man have a deathwish?) and then used it as a weapon when confronted. This makes the ferret a “special weapon” under Florida law and he is being charged with battery for dangerously wielding the ferret. And all he wanted was to be Doctor DooLittle for Halloween.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the annual coffin races held in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The ghoulishness of this event is two fold, as not only are they racing in home-made coffins, (which actually look rather more like shopping trolleys/carts to me), but it's in memory of a young (deceased) girl, Emma, who was accidentally exhumed by nature and whose coffin contents came hurtling back down the mountain. You'd better read it for yourselves.

Mike:

In my quest for Halloween-related news, I discovered that there is a werewolf living in Wrexham (but it's probably just an old hermit hiding in the wood), that Marge Simpson is appearing as the cover girl on Playboy this month(but that is, technically, not about Halloween, nor


does it, technically, take place in Britain) and that "Spotted Dick" can now reclaim its rightful place on the Flintshire menus after the PC Police backed down(but that's only frightening to people who are afraid of becoming too familiar with men named "Richard").

Fortunately, I came upon a true (if you buy into this sort of thing) ghost story involving Aspley House pub in Hampshire and a generous poltergeist that is getting on the nerves of the landlady. Nothing pulls in the punters like a good ghost story, and this one is no different, but no matter how many customers squeeze into the traditional, neighborhood pub, the business can't turn a decent profit because the ghost keeps topping up the pints. That's right, if you buy a pint, drink a bit, then nip off to the loo, when you return you may find an extra inch of beer in your glass.

According to Janice McCormack, it's playing havoc with her inventory because the extra beer is coming out of her pumps. This leads me to believe it must be the spirit of a disgruntled ex-employee bent on getting revenge on the publican. Or it might be a prank played by untimely-departed Victorian girls who knew the establishment as a school. It also could be a haunting by a guilt-ridden counsellor who spent his wretched life bilking his constituents from his office in the erstwhile girls school and soon-to-be-pub and now faces an eternity of trying to make amends. The ghost, nicknamed Reedy, appeared about nine months ago, but Ms McCormack can't wait for him to leave. She is planning on holding a séance and enlisting the aid of an exorcist. Merits watching, especially if it doesn't work; then we can always pop in for a never-ending pint, courtesy of Reedy. If ghosts aren't your thing, you can, at least, be cheered by the news that the gals in Liverpool have the biggest breasts in Britain. Welcome news, indeed, if you happen to be a Scouser.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

24 Hour Fever

This week, we thought we’d jump on the 24 Hour Bandwagon, especially since Mike, ahem, gave it a bit of a push. Marsha Moore’s book, 24 Hour’s London is going on sale soon. We both endorse this book--it is a fun read, even if you are not visiting London, and essential if you are. To help kick off its debut, we’re doing our own version of 24 Hours.

So buy the book, and while you’re at it, buy ours, too. Really, you need each one of them: Rules, Britannia, for what you must know if you don’t want to look like a pillock, Postcards From Across the Pond for what life on the ground is really like, and 24 Hours: London for what to do while you here.

They would make a great gift-box set for… say, isn’t Christmas just around the corner? (hint, hint).

Mike: 24 Hours in the Life of a Cyberspace Celebrity:

10am: Wake up. Send manservant to check the post and download the receipts for the week. It’s not as much as last week so you’ll have to scrape by with only £746,837, but in these hard economic times everyone has to tighten their belts.

11am: Sooth aching ego with a brunch of caviar and French champagne.

12pm: Gather lackeys and head for the stables to check on the polo ponies. Engage in pick-up game with lackeys. Make sure they let you win.

1pm: Have servants fill Olympic-sized bathtub with scented water and rose pedals. Invite a few “special” lackeys to join you.

2pm: Snack on canapés and brie on the east portico. Have servants release the hounds to keep gawking admirers at bay.

3pm: Off to your private golf course for another golf lesson from Tiger Woods.

4pm: Write Pond Parley article.

5pm: Show article to lackeys. See to it that they laugh hysterically. Fire those who do not.

6pm: E-mail article to Toni; she’s not busy, she can post it.

7pm: Take stretch limo to Brighton for private dinner at the Brighton Pavilion. Have lackeys follow in a bus.

8pm: Leave Brighton for London. Don’t forget copy of 24Hours: London.

9pm: Hunt for ghosts with London Paranormal: www.londonparanormal.com

10pm: Naked disco dancing at Starkers ( www.starkersclub.co.uk ) with “special” lackeys. Send others out for a kabab.

12am: (I know I missed an hour; but naked disco dancing deserves more than 60 minutes) Rent a Thames Clipper ( www.thamesclippers.com ) for you and your entourage. Pay the skipper the let you drive. After unfortunate incident involving tower Bridge and the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police, pay skipper to say he was driving.

1am: Pop over to the Mahiki Club ( www.mahiki.com ) for a chat with Prince Harry; he may be boring but it never hurts to be seen with him.

2am: Back to limo to leave London—the police insist. Seems the skipper spilled the beans.

3am: Dinner of fresh Maine lobsters and salad greens plucked from the allotments next door served by the poolside. A few of the lackeys are fading; fire them.

4am: Check e-mail, evaluate offers. Write a paragraph or two of some promised article.

5am: To bed. While drifting away on satin sheets, wonder what Toni is up to…


Toni: 24 Hours in the Life of a More Typical Blogger

5am: Wake up, two hours before I should. I hate when that happens.

6am: Finally drift back off to sleep after having mentally galloped through the day’s to-do list

7am: Alarm goes off. Hit the 5 minute snooze button. Prepare to be metaphorically shot out of a canon.

8am: Leave for school with Little Guy, after emotional debate about “cool” versus “warm” clothing. Teenagers have already left although one has left his glasses and the other her violin. Neither has taken keys. Think I will be “out” when they come home at 3.30pm.

9am: Allow myself an hour to do bloggy stuff. Having back issues helps here as I can’t sit for much longer.

10am: Jjump on treadmill. Deliberately donned workout gear first thing, so might as well make use of it all. Plus hair needs a wash.

11am: Apparently, I’ve pulled something.

12 pm: Having burnt off about three million calories, now famished and trying not to devour entire contents of fridge (which would be this week’s leftovers.)

1pm: Write something for PowderRoomGrafitti (dot com). Print off a chapter from next book and rearrange paragraphs for the tenth time. Deal with Mike’s half of Pond Parleys post. (Tut)

2pm: Head for shower. Stop off at laundry room and attempt the west face of the “mountain”.

3pm: Finish laundry and decide shower has to wait. Put on lipstick to distract from hair stuck to head and skanky workout gear. Head out to pick up Little Guy.

4pm: Sit in kitchen and patiently listen to teenage diatribes against school, homework, music practice and the world. Help Little Guy with “oo” words.

5pm: Stare hopelessly into fridge looking for dinner inspiration. (No, I’m not one who plans a week’s menus in advance.) Set to.

6pm: Gather everyone for raucous family dinner; phone keeps ringing about “team” science project that one team member has left until last minute and now everyone else has to jump. Make sarcastic comment to caller about “team” work forgetting that sarcasm is a lost art here.

7pm: Run bath for Little Guy and boot up computer nearby. Bloggy comments time. Teens look over shoulder and mumble about Expat Mummy (in terrible English accents).

8pm: Little Guy in bed. Glass of Pinot and perhaps inane “news” show on TV.

9pm: Tidy up stuff; look at list for tomorrow; shower – finally.

10pm: Bed. (No seriously). Half an hour of reading; get up and tell teenagers to go to bed.

11pm: Tell teenagers to put lights out.

12am: Still awake.
1am: Woken by Ball & Chain turning over and lacerating my shoulder as he drags duvet with him.

2am: Karaoke in nearby pub lets out. Louts singing the Macarena loudly.

3am: zzzzzzz

4am: B&C gets up to pee. Shuffles feet loudly on the floor in attempt to be quiet. Pees with door open; even louder.

5am: You know the drill…

To join in, write your own '24 Hours' post and send the link to marshawrites@gmail.com - she will link to the post and on 4 November, when the book is launched, one of the entires will win a '24 Hours London' T-shirt and a copy of the book.

You can also comment below. We like comments.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

And finally - The Ten Things We Lurrvve About Our Host Culture

To round out our “Ten Things” season, we are listing the habits, customs or general idiosyncrasies of our host culture that we have readily adopted as our own.

Toni:

1. The fabulous hose attachment on my kitchen sink. I know this makes me look like a saddo, but until you’ve used one, well, you’ve no idea. It’s great for rinsing dishes (see previous post), washing the sink down, blasting food off things that don’t fit in the dishwasher, and squirting small children when they get on your nerves.



2. The casual dress code to most things. In general, (and that means there will be exceptions) whether it’s a meal out, a sports game or a shopping trip, Americans dress fairly casually. This only serves to make me look slightly well-groomed when I put the effort in.

3. The atmosphere at sports games. I’m a baseball fan, but this applies to most sports I’ve been to – everyone’s in a good mood. Grannies, small children and anyone in between feel comfortable in going to such events. Heck – they even come down the aisles serving beer.

4. The fact that I can swear at liberty and be told that it “sounds so much better”. Not that I do, but I could. I can also say whatever the hell I want to, even when sober, because everyone thinks we “Europeans” are a little bit different. When everyone else is holding back and biting their tongues, I can be the one to come out and name that elephant in the room.

5. I’m easy to remember because I’m “the English woman”. When I’m not trying to look fabulous, (see point 2) I can look like any other harried 40-something mother, but people remember me as soon as I open my mouth, which can come in handy.

6. My phone system, which may be available in England but I haven't heard anyone raving about it. Because I have phone, Internet and TV all with the same company, I can see who's calling on my TV screen. Which means it's even better than Caller ID. I don't even have to get up to see whether or not I want to answer the phone. I'll admit, the first time it happened I was a little freaked out as I was watching Wimbledon tennis and my neighbour's name came up on the screen. Very weird.

7. When you knock something over or break something in a shop, you’re not in danger of being hauled off to prison. No signs saying “You Break it, you bought it”; in fact, the sales assistants usually apologize and tell you not to worry about cleaning up.

8. You can use the loo in shops, restaurants and bars without having to buy something. OK, so I still have to look over my shoulder to make sure the manager hasn’t followed me in but it’s good to know that when I get desperate I can avail myself of their facilities.

9. When you want to go out for a "quick bite" it's very easy. Sometimes it really annoys me because I don't always want to give myself indigestion, but when I need to be in and out of somewhere in half an hour, by god you can rely on American restaurants to deliver. (So to speak.)

10. Americans’ glasses are always half full. Every so often I want someone to moan along with me, but in this part of the country at least, it’s always Sunday, every day’s a new day, and there’s always someone else worse off. Sure it gets right on your ta-ta’s, but it puts things in perspective


Mike:

1. The three B’s: Bloody, Bollocks and Brilliant. I may not be able to say “Mate” or use “Cheers” in the appropriate manner, but I have adopted much of the local idioms and sayings, and I use them in general conversation, not just to take the piss.

2. The food. Where do I begin—haggis, steak and kidney pudding, custard, sticky toffee pudding, beans on toast, full English breakfast, black pudding, Cornish pasty, curry, scones (plain), steak and ale pie, suet dumplings—where do I stop?

3. No ATM fees. You can get money out of ATM machines (hole-in-the-wall) and the bank doesn’t ding you £2.50. They tried instituting fees a while back and everyone screamed blue murder and they had to back down. C’mon you Americans, get some backbone, make those thieving bastards stop charging you.

4. The sense of history. Anytime I visit any town or area or street or hillock in the middle of a pasture, someone will tell me about something of great significance that happened there, oh, a very long time ago. And there are all these castles and Roman ruins and Iron Age hill forts all over the place. Perfect for a history anorak like me.

5. The beer. Confession time; I didn’t really move over here to get married, I just liked the beer so much I came over so I could be closer to the source.

6. Public transportation. The worst in the EU, but far better than anything the US has to offer. I travel for work, to Wales, Nottingham, Devon, Suffolk, et al, and I always take the train. On a more pedestrian note, I just returned from a six-hour “meeting” at The Dorset Arms in Lewes and didn’t have to worry about getting arrested for driving home drunk because I took a train.

7. The accents. Even after seven years, I still like the sound of all the different dialects and regional accents.

8. The comedy. I love the British humor; they are sharp and quick-witted and do irony very well.

9. The weather. If you’re from southern California or Florida, you may find it a bit cloudy, drizzly and cool during the winter, but spend 46 years in upstate New York and this weather will seem like paradise in comparison.

10. It’s so pretty. It’s hard to put into words just how beautiful the countryside is over here; you’ll just have to come and see for yourself.


Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

10 Things We Cling to From the Mother Country

This week we turn the tables and ponder the habits we still adhere to from the countries of our birth:

Mike:

1. My flag: I had an American flag flying from every place I lived in the States and I see no reason not to have one here. The only concession is, now that I am a dual citizen, I put up the Union Flag on Remembrance Day and replace it with the American flag on Memorial Day. My neighbors think I’m a nutter.

2. The “H” thing: Sorry, but it’s “urb” not “herb.” Herb is short for Herbert. And besides, it drives my wife potty, like when I say “a LUM in um” instead of “al u MIN i um.”

3. The “Z” thing: Whenever possible, when making an example, I say “Company XY ZEEEEE,” instead of “XY ZED,” just to let them know they say it wrong.

4. Coffee: I brought a thermal pint coffee mug over from America with me. I still use it.

5. Thanksgiving: if you’re an American, it’s in your genes; you must celebrate.

6. Rinsing the dishes: I know this tradition of leaving soapy dishes in the dish drainer is becoming out-dated, but many people—my wife included—still subscribe to this habit. To an American, it is just wrong. Consequently, I do the dishes.

7. Fruit of the Loom underwear and white tube socks: Just before I moved overseas, I went to Sam’s Club and bought a bale of each. I still have them.

8. Ketchup: The universal condiment; it goes on everything, except French toast.

9. Expecting good customer service: If we go into a restaurant and no one comes to take our order in the first ten minutes, I’m ready to walk out.

10. Driving on the right: I still drive on the right side of the road, as God intended. It keeps my passengers alert and the looks on the faces of the people in the oncoming traffic are priceless. (Note to the serious minded: I’m just kidding.)


Toni:

1. Saying "Please", despite the fact that it sometimes sounds either very needy or just plain ridiculous. Now I know some Americans are going to take exception to this, so please do your own private survey. I have been taking notes on this specific point for over ten years, all over the US. I have found that Americans rarely use the word itself when making a request, although no rudeness is intended. In fact, because of the intonation, they usually sound very polite. As a Brit however, I'd be looking over my shoulder for my mother if I omitted the word.

2. Making my kids say "Please". Parents all over the UK are seen withholding treats until the magic word is heard. Despite years of doing this and role-modelling the use of the word, my kids still seem to think it's optional. Apparently they warn their friends before coming to the house, that a "please" now and then would be a good thing.

3. Spreading butter or margarine on bread when making a sandwich. I have had little 6 year olds recoil in horror when I do this (and yes, I make them another one). My question is, how do you get the ingredients to stay in there without the marg?

4. Booting my kids out of the stroller/pushchair before they start school. Living in an urban area where everyone walks, it's quite common to see young children the size of small adults, being pushed around everywhere. If they don't want to walk, get one of those plastic wagons for cryin' out loud.

5. Walking instead of driving. In the interests of time, I sometimes drive when I could easily walk, but we live about an eighth of a mile from school and I never drive them there. It would take longer to get the car out, and by the time I found a parking spot, I'd be right outside my front door. However, other parents never fail to tell me how "good" I am because I walk.

6. Hankies up the sleeve. Yes, I know it's a disgusting habit and I am getting much better at not stuffing the hankie up my sleeve, but I don't always have pockets. (OK, OK, I know.)

7. Things on toast. Beans, scrambled egg, poached egg, spaghetti hoops. You name it but most Americans don't touch it, including my kids. It's a real shame because anything on toast makes a great, quick meal. (The Little Guy will have beans next to toast, but not on it.)

8. Food pronunciations. I can say "bayzil" without much of a problem but I can't make the transition to the American "tomaydo". There's just too many letters to change in the one word. First the "a" becomes an "ay", then the "t" gets the "d" sound. No. And I pronounce "herb" with an audible "h" because, well, it's there.

9. Almost laughing when someone calls me "ma'am". When I first lived in the States I was in Texas where everyone (including other women) calls you "ma'am". (If you're female that is.) In the mid-west it's still heard and I always have to check to make sure someone's not being funny.

10. Calling myself English. I know my passport says "British" but back when I lived there we pretty much all referred to ourselves as English, Irish etc. Now, if someone asks if I'm British (as opposed to Australian and South African, which I also get) I inadvertently say "English actually".

Got any you'd like to add? Leave a comment; we love hearing from you.


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Sunday, October 4, 2009

10 Things We Haven't Succumbed to

This week we ponder the habits we haven't adopted in our host countries.

Toni:

1. Not saying “Please”.

2. Baseball caps on a bad hair day. My ears stick out and it looks generally, well, ridiculous. I also don’t do the pony tail thing so I basically have to make sure my hair is somewhat clean!

3. Green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. Green beans, canned onion rings smothered in canned mushroom soup, or something like that. Yuck!

4. Walking around with a pint size cup of coffee. Who needs that much caffeine?

5. Walking through my front door straight into the living room. I have three noisy kids. I need walls and doors as a buffer.

6. Wearing seasonal clothes. OK so not everyone does this, but I will never wear a leafy sweater in the autumn/fall, red and green at Xmas, or red hearts on Valentine’s Day. Unless it’s a school-enforced thing, and even then I won’t be happy.

7. (American) football. No clue. Nor do I enjoy the beer and cheesy nachos that seem to be de rigeur when viewing.

8. Interspersing my sentences with “I was like…” to describe my emotions.

9. Cutting all the food on my plate into bite size chunks then eating it with my fork. I always serve a knife and fork even when people claim not to need the knife. Ever seen someone trying to cut lettuce with a fork?

10. Maple syrup drenching everything on my breakfast plate. I don’t have a sweet tooth anyway but maple syrup touching my sausages? Yuck!



Mike:

1. Saying “Cheers”: This is a shame, because it is such a handy word. It can be used for “Hell-o,” “Thanks” or as the closing in a letter or e-mail. But to my ears, when I say it, it sounds out of place, except if I’m clinking pint glasses with others in a pub.

2. Brown Sauce: This is something you need to grow up with, otherwise it simply tastes awful.

3. Kebabs: This is a food not meant to be eaten sober, and I rarely get drunk enough these days to appreciate the nuances of flavour and texture one provides.

4. Layers: To cope with this changeable climate, you learn to wear layers that you can take off and put on to keep yourself comfortable. Well, some people do.

5. Coffee: I’ve gone through half a dozen coffee makers and none of them can brew a decent cup of coffee. I have, therefore, made my peace with instant.

6. Glassing: This charming hobby involves smashing your pint glass against the bar and shoving the jagged edges into the face of the guy (or girl) who disagreed with you, looked at you funny or just happened to be standing nearby when the mood struck. I cannot claim to have ever seen this happen in real life, but it is reportedly so prevalent in places that they are considering banning pint glasses and making the patrons drink from plastic cups. Apparently I don’t visit the right pubs.

7. Pounds and pence: I don’t have any trouble in shops or in doing the conversion in my head, but whenever I start talking about money—what someone paid for a new house, what it cost to fix the car, things like that—I always revert to dollars and cents.

8. Tipping: Much to my wife’s chagrin, I still tip like an American.

9. Eating left handed with the fork held upside down: What is up with that?

10. Ketchup on French toast: That’s what maple syrup is for.

Care to Add yours?



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Sunday, September 27, 2009

How's Your Constitution

How do you prefer your Constitution - Written or Unwritten?

This week Iota of Not Wrong, Just Different shares her views on the written vs unwritten constitution issue.

Iota:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This is how the US Constitution begins. It’s beautiful language, and I’m sure I’d be proud of it, if I were American. I’ll be interested to read what Mike has to say on that subject.

I’ve occasionally been asked how the British government works, and I find myself fumbling rather. The workings of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, its relationship with the judiciary, the European Parliament, and the Monarchy: that is not an easy topic. There are two points which seem bizarre to Americans – and I’m not surprised. The first is that we don’t have a constitution, and the second is the role of the Monarchy in governing the country.

In reply to the first point, I say that we do have a constitution, but it’s an unwritten one. I can see how if you are used to the idea of a written constitution, it’s very odd to think of an unwritten one. I explain how there are centuries of precedent that can be called upon to challenge or justify a procedure or action, but that in practice, it just isn’t an issue. The government of the day proceeds with business, and nobody checks to see whether what they are doing is in line with a constitution or not. I was in the Civil Service for five years, in Whitehall, so I suppose I should know more about this. But I think that just proves my point. Whether something is constitutional or unconstitutional isn’t a question that comes up in the day to day workings of government. I can’t be more specific about how we manage without a written constitution. We just do.

As for the role of the Monarchy, I find myself agreeing with the point that Americans have made to me, that it’s not very democratic to have an unelected person signing every Act of Parliament. I explain that the government passes laws, and that the signature of the Queen is just a formality. She isn’t involved in the law-making process. In practice, it doesn’t matter whether she was elected or born to her job. I’ve been asked what would happen if the Queen refused to sign an Act. I honestly don’t know. I’m assuming it will never happen, but of course, we can’t guarantee that there won’t be a future Monarch who would try to wield real power. At that point, we would have to decide how to enforce democracy in the modern age, but for the time being, tradition and convention are doing the job for us.


Mike:

A few years back I watched a show on BBCi called “How to Start Your Own Country.” It was a humor show featuring comedian Danny Wallace attempting to put a country together. I found it very humorous, especially their national anthem, which featured the line, “we’ve done a constitution and we even wrote it down.” This was funny to me because, of course you would write down your constitution. It wasn’t until later that I discovered it was an ironic statement on the fact that Great Britain does not have a written constitution.

(Click to see Danny's National Anthem.)

Now, the British Empire seems to have done fairly well over the past thousand years or so without the advantage of a written constitution but, as an American, I find it a strange concept. To an American, The Constitution is a sacred document; it’s always there, protecting us, keeping the government from confiscating our guns or quarter soldiers in our spare room and providing employment for an army of constitutional lawyers and a handful of Supreme Court judges.

The Founding Fathers were pretty smart guys, but they knew they couldn’t foresee every problem their new country would encounter, so they left us with this elegant document to provide a solid foundation of laws and parameters of what the government can and cannot do.

The phrase “That’s unconstitutional” is as much a part of American life as “I pledge allegiance to the flag” and “Do you want fries with that?” and I don’t think there are many of us who would want it any other way. No Constitution? There may as well be no “Rugged Individualism,” or “Protestant Work Ethic” or Santa Claus.

I can’t say the Brits experience any sense of Constitution Envy because they don’t have one, and I don’t know if there’s any advantage one way or the other. On the one hand, I have never heard anyone counter an argument in a pub with the “That’s unconstitutional” line, but on the other hand, they have taken our guns away.

And if they try to insist we let a couple of squadies bunk down in our back bedroom, I’ll know something went horribly wrong.


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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Honking Big Government

This week we take a look at what "government" means on either side of the Pond.

Toni:

There’s a lot of Americans upset about the government at the moment. Apparently, President Obama, and his supposed love of BIG government is pushing the USA towards socialism, communism or fascism, depending on who they’ve been listening to. (Rather sadly, most of these opponents probably couldn’t differentiate between the three but seem happy to bandy the terms around.) Apart from being mildly insulted that the UK’s health system is seen as the absolute worst thing that could happen to this country, the protests got me thinking about how government is viewed on each side of the Pond.

Having grown up with unlimited access to excellent, free healthcare it shocks me that some in this country go without routine medical check ups because they have no health insurance and others can be bankrupted by health care bills. Even though everyone agrees there’s a huge problem with healthcare in the US, Obama opponents see the status quo as preferable to government involvement. What is conveniently overlooked is that Medicaid (for some low income families) and Medicare (for the over 65’s) take care of millions of Americans and both are tax funded and government run. Sound familiar?

And I have more questions- Don’t people realize that law enforcement services are also tax funded and government run? And why isn’t state education such an outrage? Why is there no outcry against federal or state funded interstate highways? I understand that this country is made up of individual, autonomous states, but within that structure there is still government, and it’s often less efficient and more corrupt than the Federal government. (I live in Chicago - I know what goes on!)

I also get that this is a collection of very different states, and that’s the way people want it to stay. What I don’t understand however, is why it’s okay to have government involvement in some things, yet it’s seen as an attack on civil liberties (or a partnership with Satan) in other areas.

Makes no sense to me and I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation.


Mike:

Probably the best argument for limited centralized government is that was what the founding fathers had in mind. But this isn’t what people are reacting against; at least I don’t believe so. Although I no longer live in the US, I did grow up there and I think I understand where this resistance comes from.

As a flag-pledging, God-fearing, Boy-Scouting American, I knew—just as I knew that if Jesus came back to earth he would, by God, be an American—that communism was bad. Well, “bad” doesn’t quite cut it. “Better Dead Than Red” seems to sum it up nicely, though.

Big government is simply the government seeking to control all aspects of your life. And that—especially if you are talking about health care—is communism, pure and simple.

If you take Big Government to its logical extreme, you are talking about a totalitarian state, so there is a basis, however small, for the current vociferous opposition. Why the health care system seems to be regarded as the Maginot Line I can’t say, but possibly is it because it represents a large entity moving from capable private hands into the slimy embrace of the Nanny State.

I have to admit, if I were still in the US, I would be firmly in the “you can take my health care when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers” camp, but after living under a national health service for seven years without developing an unhealthy interest in Karl Marx, checking The Communist Manifesto out of the local library or referring to people I meet in the street as “Comrade,” I think the American public may be over reacting just a bit here.

The founding fathers could not have conceived of anything as abstract as “health care” in an era where medicine could be described as primitive, at best. I like to think, however, that if they could have looked into the future and understood that providing adequate heath services for the entire population was to become a possibility, they might look upon that, not as governmental interference, but as something any compassionate country would do for its citizens. Like seeing to it every child is offered an education.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whipping up the Masses

This week we ponder whether Brits or Americans are better at Mass Hysteria.

Toni:

When it comes to mass hysteria, no one beats the Americans. Only this past week we have had two text book examples.

First we had parents and schools, primarily in the South, denouncing the President’s speech to returning school children as everything from “indoctrination” to “divisive”. Never mind that Presidents before him have kicked off the school year with such speeches, or that few had actually heard the speech when the fuss all started. Oh no, they weren’t having their children tainted by the words of someone they didn’t vote for– whatever the words might be. Apparently it’s up to parents what their kids hear in schools, even if they go to a state school. Given that Obama encouraged school children to stay in school, I’m hoping the more hysterical of the protestors are all feeling a tad shamefaced right now and perhaps reflecting on the message they ended up sending their offspring. Somehow I doubt it.

Next we had the President’s address to Congress on Wednesday evening. The speech was to highlight his proposals for badly-needed improvements to the nation’s health care system. Cue the Tea Party Express; a group of people who apparently don’t know how to read or listen for themselves and get all their information from Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, - the Right Wing Bigot Triumvirate. The Tea Party Express has been touring the country calling Obama’s proposals everything from “fascist” to “Afro-Leninism”, (both of which I heard with my own ears on TV). The name refers to the Boston Tea Party, which, back in 1773, embodied the “No taxation without representation” cause. Rather bafflingly, the current Tea Party go-ers largely appear to be senior citizens and thus, presumably claiming their Medicare benefits – from the government. Paid for through taxation. Not that I mind paying taxes to help other people, but I’m confused as to why no one else should be assisted in the same way. Indeed, they’re in a real tizzy about it.

Interestingly, the much-anticipated Swine Flu hysteria has yet to reach its zenith. That could be because much of the country is still basking in fairly pleasant temperatures and therefore it’s not quite on the radar. No doubt as soon as the barometer dips below 55 Fahrenheit across most of the country there’ll be the usual pulpit-style, frenzied cries of how and why the government isn’t doing enough.

And let’s not forget that the next American Idol season starts in January. Lord help us!



Mike:

I have to admit that the Brits don’t do Mass Hysteria as well as the Americans. The last really good mass hysteria they had in Britain was at Diana’s funeral. And I wasn’t even here for it so I can’t tell you about it. Since then they have had concerns, frights, momentary panics even, but nothing you could truly equate to mass hysteria on an American scale.

Whipping the populace into an uncontrollable frenzy just isn’t on. About the best they can do is convince waiting rooms to do away with shared magazines, newspapers and baby toys in order to keep us all from dying of Swine Flu. The media have also been good to the makers of antiseptic hand jell; last year I didn’t even know it exists, but now it’s everywhere. But people aren’t really hysterical over it, and they aren’t massing about it, either.

Besides, there’s little point in trying; they’d never top the Americans. Mass Hysteria is as deeply rooted in American culture as our love of firearms; it’s something we took to early and still take to readily. Remember Cotton Mather? Joe McCarthy?

Twenty people dead, an unknown number of lives ruined, and all because Americans are willing to be duped into believing that something imaginary is real and to react accordingly.

“Witches are out to steal your souls!” So we kill innocent people. “Communists are out to destroy the American way of life!” So we black list them and destroy their lives.

I also recall a sort of mass belief—though not hysteria—in angels. For a while, angles were everywhere and it seemed as if everyone believed in them, which seemed to make them real and convince more people to believe in them. Granted, this did not culminate in any unpleasantness but it might have if, at the height of this belief, a group of people were accused of trying to kill the angles.

It proves the saying, “When a myth is shared by large numbers of people, it becomes a reality.”

I’m not saying the British aren’t capable of doing something similar, I’m just saying they don’t seem inclined to.

It’s just not on.



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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Getting Away From It All

Vacations/Holidays -- do the Brits and the Americans feel differently about them?


Mike:

Do Americans look upon vacations differently than the Brits? I think they do.

Speaking for myself, I have been on far more vacations (or holidays, as we say here) since moving to Britain seven years ago than in the 46 that preceded them. And we’re not talking about the American hesitancy in going abroad; we’re talking about going anywhere.

My family, and the families of all my friends, rarely, if ever, went away for a break during the year. Our fathers got one or two weeks of vacation per year and, as in my father’s case, the time was often chosen for you. If vacation time was looked forward to in my household, it was because that was the time my father could volunteer to work in the mill during “shutdown week” and earn a second pay check in addition to his holiday pay. And we were not the exception among my friends and acquaintances.

But in Britain, my wife tells me, they always went away somewhere. Even her parents had holidays when they were young. None of them were wealthy, but they considered vacationing important.

At least some of this may have come from the proximity of vacation-worthy destinations. From where we live in Sussex, the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth and, in a pinch, Brighton are within easy reach. And, if all else fails, there is a Butlins in Bognor. I lived in Columbia County, New York. Where were we going to go for a cheap holiday that was so close by? Binghamton? Utica?

So I think if the idea that a holiday break is important and worth investing in is more ingrained in the British psyche, it is likely due to the fact that affordable holidays have been a part of life for several generations and are seen as a normal part of the year.

Add to that the five weeks of holiday leave and the availability of inexpensive yet desirable destinations and it’s not hard to see why Britons are not content to sit home during their time off.


Toni:

I remember when I moved to the States in 1990 and got my first corporate job - with a whopping two weeks holiday/vacation per year. Ten whole work days. To add to the shock, I had to earn at least half of that before I could take any time off. Vacation was accrued at just over a day per month, so even if I wanted to take the one week break that is more typical here, I still needed to work for six months first.

As Mike says, there's no doubt that Brits (and Europeans in general) have a healthier attitude towards down time than Americans. Most Brits I know wouldn't dream of going anywhere for less than two weeks, skiing trips being the exception. Anything less than about four days isn't even called a vacation/holiday.

And with the UK being so close to countries that are, well, completely foreign, Brits are quite well travelled compared to Americans. A four hour plane ride from London takes you to many exotic and culturally diverse places, while the same length flight from Chicago takes me to Florida, California. Oh yes, and Canada.

I often wonder though, if the UK had a guaranteed summer, how many Brits would venture overseas? Although many of us do indeed seek out strange and exciting places to visit, the majority of Brits just want a "bit of sun". (And who can blame us?) In the US, even those families who do go out of state for a bit of a break don't have to worry about finding the sun. And with the huge range of scenery on offer here, (think beaches, the Rockies, the dessert, Montana's Big Sky, etc.) I really don't fault Americans for wanting to see bits of their own country. Admittedly, there's less adventure when you know that there'll probably be a Wal-Mart nearby, and you won't have to worry about getting money out of the machine, or losing your passport; but this country is bloody vast and no two regions are the same.

My advice to Americans is to lobby for more time off, learn to chill a bit more and take to the roads!


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Monday, August 31, 2009

Back to our Regularly Scheduled Program

Since both Toni is STILL on holiday, and this post didn't get much air time before I butted in with my BBC interview, we thought we'd move it back to the front page.

A TASTE OF HOME

Toni:

So, I'm here in England once again. I've lived in the States since 1990 and my three children were born there. They have dual nationality and have been to England at least once a year, since they were babies. Inevitably, people ask me, among other questions what it's like coming "home". And I have to say, sometimes it's pretty strange.

Take for instance, the fact that I usually have no idea who the women are on the covers of the gossip mags. Myleen? Fiona? Not that I would take much notice in the States, but I may, at least, have heard of them. And the fact that because none of my credit cards have chip and pin, I am often turned down at cash registers and bureaux de change, as happened yesterday. (In case you're worried about me, I have to drop everything, run to the nearest cash point and come back with a fistful of cash. Very tedious.)

I still don't refer to the States as "home", but more and more, the UK doesn't resemble the one I left. Wandering around Newcastle upon Tyne, (usually lost, these days) I am defeated by the new one-way system, and marvel at the tourist trap that is now the Quayside, with its gleaming Sage, trendy Baltic museum and eye-catching Millennium Bridge. When I lived in the area, the Quayside literally resembled something from a Dickens novel and was just as dangerous.

Although I complain bitterly about the brutal Chicago winters, at least we know there's some guaranteed sunshine every summer. I feel nothing but pity for Brits these days with the gray and rainy summers. Last year we came in July and it rained almost every day; this year we've had a few bright days, but we take rain gear, sweatshirts and sunglasses everywhere we go and if by chance, we plan an outdoor event, you can be sure it will lash down.

My kids however, have embraced sausage rolls, fish and chips (when the fish is good), and the Queenager is up to speed on Emmerdale, Corrie and East Enders. Personally, I will never get over the demise of Brookside.

There is though, one thing to warm the cockles of my heart:




Mike:

America. I'm always thrilled to be there and luxuriate in the wide roads, open spaces and unending options, but after a week I find myself looking forward to the tidy little towns, winding roads and rucked up countryside of Sussex. What stays with me, however, and what I do continue to miss when I return to England, is the food.

I have given up trying to bring any back with me. It is never the same and, more to the point, it is never enough. Instead, I simply gorge on all my old favorites as often as I can while I am back home.

Oddly, the best taste of home came to me just yesterday. My wife had been on an outing with some friends and had stumbled upon a boutique selling American products. She returned with a bag of Cheddar Goldfish and, as a bonus, a little bit of heaven in a box.


We had it for dinner last night; the tiny macaronis smothered in the signature sauce made of butter, milk and a special orange powder that resembles no color found in nature and could only pass as cheese-colored to an American child. She had bought the family sized box, not realizing how much the average American family of a mom, dad and 2.7465 children eats in a single sitting.

It was all I remember; hot, salty and infused with comfort. The quintessential American meal. My wife said it was "okay."

There was a lot left over. I expect we'll have it for lunch today.



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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We Interrupt This Parley…

… to bring you a special bulletin.

Pond Parleys (well, one of us, anyway) was on the air yet again. This time on BBC Oxford, for a five-minute interview about the different ways the Brits and the Yanks celebrate.

Click the link and move the counter to 32:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00437cj


If you're looking for A Taste Of Home you can find it here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Taste of home

Since both Toni and I have recently been in (or are currently in) our home country, we thought we'd have a look at the things we missed.

Toni:

So, I'm here in England once again. I've lived in the States since 1990 and my three children were born there. They have dual nationality and have been to England at least once a year, since they were babies. Inevitably, people ask me, among other questions what it's like coming "home". And I have to say, sometimes it's pretty strange.

Take for instance, the fact that I usually have no idea who the women are on the covers of the gossip mags. Myleen? Fiona? Not that I would take much notice in the States, but I may, at least, have heard of them. And the fact that because none of my credit cards have chip and pin, I am often turned down at cash registers and bureaux de change, as happened yesterday. (In case you're worried about me, I have to drop everything, run to the nearest cash point and come back with a fistful of cash. Very tedious.)

I still don't refer to the States as "home", but more and more, the UK doesn't resemble the one I left. Wandering around Newcastle upon Tyne, (usually lost, these days) I am defeated by the new one-way system, and marvel at the tourist trap that is now the Quayside, with its gleaming Sage, trendy Baltic museum and eye-catching Millennium Bridge. When I lived in the area, the Quayside literally resembled something from a Dickens novel and was just as dangerous.

Although I complain bitterly about the brutal Chicago winters, at least we know there's some guaranteed sunshine every summer. I feel nothing but pity for Brits these days with the gray and rainy summers. Last year we came in July and it rained almost every day; this year we've had a few bright days, but we take rain gear, sweatshirts and sunglasses everywhere we go and if by chance, we plan an outdoor event, you can be sure it will lash down.

My kids however, have embraced sausage rolls, fish and chips (when the fish is good), and the Queenager is up to speed on Emmerdale, Corrie and East Enders. Personally, I will never get over the demise of Brookside.

There is though, one thing to warm the cockles of my heart:




Mike:

America. I'm always thrilled to be there and luxuriate in the wide roads, open spaces and unending options, but after a week I find myself looking forward to the tidy little towns, winding roads and rucked up countryside of Sussex. What stays with me, however, and what I do continue to miss when I return to England, is the food.

I have given up trying to bring any back with me. It is never the same and, more to the point, it is never enough. Instead, I simply gorge on all my old favorites as often as I can while I am back home.

Oddly, the best taste of home came to me just yesterday. My wife had been on an outing with some friends and had stumbled upon a boutique selling American products. She returned with a bag of Cheddar Goldfish and, as a bonus, a little bit of heaven in a box.


We had it for dinner last night; the tiny macaronis smothered in the signature sauce made of butter, milk and a special orange powder that resembles no color found in nature and could only pass as cheese-colored to an American child. She had bought the family sized box, not realizing how much the average American family of a mom, dad and 2.7465 children eats in a single sitting.

It was all I remember; hot, salty and infused with comfort. The quintessential American meal. My wife said it was "okay."

There was a lot left over. I expect we'll have it for lunch today.



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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tommy

Toni is off on her much-deserved holiday, so this week I'll take center stage with a rant about soldiers. Do we Americans coddle them too much, or do the Brits fail to show them due appreciation? What's your view?


During my son's wedding, as his Best Man was roasting him before the wedding banquet—you know, "the groom never learned much in school, he still thinks the capital of Montana is Hannah" and stuff like that—it was noted in passing that the groom had serviced in Iraq, and the room erupted into spontaneous applause. After the applause died down, my son grabbed the mic and said, "Thanks for that, but there's a table of my Marine buddies over there, why don't you give them a shout." The room, once again, exploded in applause, and then we all gave them a standing ovation. I remember thinking to myself, "This would never happen in Britain."

And indeed it would not. A few weeks after my return, I read an article in the paper telling of how three servicemen in uniform were refused entry into a pub. The young men were part of a larger group that had just left the funeral of one of their comrades who had been killed in Afghanistan. The bar manager was willing to let the people dressed in civilian clothes in, "but not the squaddies." The friends of the soldiers were outraged, but the soldiers told them, "Don't worry about it, we get this all the time."

I really find this behavior odd. In America, they would have been invited in and given free drinks. In fact, there were times in America, prior to my move to the UK, when conversation turned to world events in the bar, that I mentioned I had a son serving in Iraq, and my drinks were free.

Now, you can say Americans are jingoistic war-mongers and worship their warrior culture (no, really, go ahead, you won't offend us; if we could find a way to work it into our national motto, we would) but it seems to me that, far from appreciating soldiers, the Brits don't want them around.

Consider this: soldiers coming home from serving overseas were made to change into civilian cloths in Birmingham airport because they were not allowed in the terminal in combat gear. An ex-soldier I met and talked to about this, told me it was common practice to refuse service to soldiers in uniform, and they were, in fact, not allowed off the base unless they were in civilian clothes.

This particular soldier's take on the matter went like this:

"People think of us as trained guard dogs. Everyone wants to be protected by the guard dogs, but they don't want to be around them if they are not on a leash. That's what they see the squaddies as, dogs off their leash."

So why would anyone consider being in the military, I asked him:

"You do it for yourself, because you want to be the best, and to be part of the best. You don't do it for recognition because you know you're not going to get any."

There is no question that Britain, as a country, honors its soldiers; they hold the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day, and cheer them in certain newspapers, but on an individual level, not much as changed in the 119 years since the following poem by Rudyard Kipling was first published:

(By the way, I've made my point; you don't need to read the poem, but I think you should.)


Tommy
by Rudyard Kipling

I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

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Monday, August 10, 2009

You Gonna Eat That?

Something different this week; while Toni is off trotting the globe, our guest poster -- British Daffodilly -- and I are embarking on a trip down culinary lane, to report on the five strangest things we have eaten as a result of moving abroad.


British Daffodilly:

Thank you to Mike & Expat Mum for inviting me to post today.

The 5 Strangest things I have eaten in USA?

1. Artichokes: Who the heck invented this horrible bland, mushy veggie? Yuck. It just seems almost caveman-like picking the leaves off, popping them in melted butter & then (god forbid) sucking the stuff out of the leaf! It reminds me of a “Survivor bug-eating contest!”

2. Pretzels; In the UK they have Twiglets & they are always what are leftover from a cocktail party…the reason is that they taste like crap but are considered kind of posh. When I arrived in USA it was pretzel heaven. Everyone eats pretzels; they even serve them on the planes instead of peanuts. They come in every shape, size and either with or without salt. Now it took me a while to adapt to these however I have to say that covered in chocolate & jimmies (100’s & 1000’s) they are quite delicious. In fact a must as the salt & sweet flavor clash & give you that kind of “ahhh" feeling!

3. Eggplant Parmesan; Or aubergines fried in breadcrumbs & covered in a marinara sauce….why oh why would you do this let alone eat it? Throw the disgusting thing away!

4. Pickles: The Americans are pickle crazy. They come with every dish, sandwich and burger as a garnish where as the Brit’s would use a sprig of parsley. These are big dill cucumbers the size of a man's hand that are pickled. Everyone seems to make their own as it is a family tradition. I guess as I was brought up with Branston Pickle & Piccalilli I lead a sheltered pickle life. I cringe when I see toddlers clutching a pickled cucumber & chomping away on it….god only knows what their diapers are like!

5. Chinese Chow Mein: It took me 8 years of purchasing Chinese food in USA to find the correct equivalent to the English version of Chow Mein. A little history is needed here. Chow Mein in the UK is a noodle & meat or fish dish….very tasty. In America it is a pile of MSG that looks like the thickest nastiest pile of snot you can imagine. We traveled all over USA looking for our noodley Chow Mein & left many a restaurant from posh ones to grubby back street ones with empty bellies. It cost us a fortune. One night some American friends came over for dinner with some Chinese take out…we were flabbergasted when we saw our Chow Mein……..they then taught us the magic word….Low Mein…… 8 years it took!


Mike:

Here's my list.

1. Bubble and Squeak: I had heard much about this dish, even while I lived in America, so I was keen to try it. It's supposed to be the previous day's leftovers fried up in lard, so what's not to like? In reality, it was awful; I've never been tempted again.

2. Dragon's Blood: This doesn't really count as a "British" food experience, other than the fact that I happened to be in Britain when it happened. My wife and I were at the annual Chili Festival and one of the booths there sold something called Dragon's Blood--a supernaturally hot chili sauce. They had samples to try; my wife dared me. (You can already see this coming, can't you?)

She scooped up a blob of the thick red sauce on a cracker and stuffed it in my mouth. The next thing I knew my head exploded, then my chest. I found I couldn't breath, or talk and my throat felt like someone had coated it with lava using barbed wire as a paintbrush.

We didn't buy a bottle.

3. Black Bun: This supposed traditional Scottish fruit bread is supposedly traditionally served at Christmas, but we only have my wife's father's word for that. He made some for us one year; you could build houses out of it.

4. A Kebab: As you weave your way home from the pub on a Saturday night, you're supposed to weave by the Donor Kebab joint for a tasty, late-night snack.

A kebab is a bun containing meat, fried onions and some sort of sauce, but it's best not to think about it too much. The meat is a mysterious amalgamation of processed animal by-products fashioned into a log with a spike through it. This log is rotated upright in a grilling device and the meat is carved off in thin strips as needed.

This is not a food generally consumed by sober people, but I had some time on my hands one afternoon and thought I'd stop by the local kebab shop and try one. I was the only customer. The proprietor seemed confused to be serving someone who wasn't weaving, looking cross-eyed and shouting at pigeons. I took it home, tried a few bites and threw it in the trash; I should have used a haz-mat container.

Now I know why most of them end up on the sidewalk, after they've been eaten.

5. Cullen Skink: In America, I loved clam chowder. In Britain, I couldn't find it. I also couldn't make it (translation difficulties; it's a long story). Then one day, while on holiday in Scotland, I saw "Cullen Skink" on the menu and ordered it just because I couldn't believe the name. It was a type of fish chowder, and it was delicious. Now I always stock a can or two of Cullen Skink in the cupboard. It's almost as good as clam chowder, and a lot easier to find.

That's my offering. Pretty impressive when you consider I didn't even mention haggis, black pudding or the chocolate popcorn cheesecake I had at Harvester one evening.


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Sociable