Sunday, April 26, 2009

Considering the Kitchen; Does Size Matter?

Thanks to Reinventing Dad for his suggestion of this week's topic -- The Kitchen:

Toni:

There’s a lot to like about American kitchens – especially the ones on TV ads. They are all huge, painted white and bathed in blinding sunlight. Actually, most of them are a lot bigger than typical British kitchens, unless you live in Manhattan of course.

The trend I’m trying to buck, which is sneaking its way over the Pond I see, is the live-in kitchen. You know, the great big room, which also encompasses living quarters and a small office area? I had one of those in my last house. I thought it might be good for keeping an eye on small children while cooking the dinner. It is if they’re bolted into a high chair, but once they become mobile, they are just mini death traps, following you around as you carry scalding hot things from one surface to the other.

The live-in kitchen also means you can’t get away from the dishes. We had a sofa, chair and TV in our last kitchen, and even though I’m not the world’s most “domestic” person, I couldn’t relax while the stupid pans with wooden handles (i.e. not suitable for the dishwasher) sat by the side of the sink. In my present house, which we gutted and redesigned, my kitchen is an entirely separate room, complete with doors; there’s not a comfy chair in sight! It’s meant only for cooking and eating, although I must admit to a mini office taking up residence next to the bread bin. (I must find a better place for in-coming mail.)

My greatest joy in the kitchen is the little hose that comes standard with American sinks. It sits right next to the big tap(s) and is great for hosing down the sink, blasting sticky things off plates before they go in the d/w, and even for keeping lippy teenagers in check etc. In the beginning I was prone to soaking myself before I realized it’s best to point the thing at the sink before turning the water on.

My biggest kitchen regret is that the built-in draining board is almost unknown here alas. Corian, a counter-top manufacturer, do a fab continuous counter top and sink, with built-in draining board, meaning that you can clean up and tip it all straight into the sink, (which of course has a waste disposal). However, most Americans, if they wash anything by hand, place a tea-towel next to the sink (sometimes a hand towel, they can’t seem to distinguish the two) and pile everything precariously on there. They do sell “European” draining racks in the stores, but that’s just one more piece of kitchen equipment I have to find a home for isn’t it?


Mike:

I'm standing outside my kitchen door trying to imagine American-sized appliances in there. Currently, we have a washer, dryer, refrigerator, freezer and a stove in there. The reason I'm standing out here trying to imagine it is, if they were all American-sized, I can't imagine being able to fit in there with them. And my kitchen is unusual only in that it is relatively large; when we briefly considered moving, we viewed two-story houses that had less space than our flat, and the kitchens were tiny.

To be fair, I have been in some houses that have kitchens the size of the ones I remember from the US, but they are the exception. The new flats they are chucking up all over the southeast—lovingly referred to as breezeblock barracks—have kitchen half the size of ours.

But for all that, I have few complaints. Despite the fact that all of the appliances measure about 20 inches wide and fit under the kitchen counters, they are plenty big enough. Seriously, American fridges might be big, but they are mostly filled with crap, and you really don't want to go poking around in the hidden depths for fear of what you might find. And, as a single man in the States, when I kept my fridge clutter-free, it simply looked pathetic holding only a six-pack of Corona, a bottle of milk and some left over pizza.

Our freezer actually holds more than my American freezer did, and the washer and dryer, though they can't hold nearly as much as an American washer/dryer, are adequate if used intelligently.

But the stove—this malevolent electric monster too small to hold a full-sized turkey and with only two temperature settings (not hot enough, and way too hot)—has been the bane of our existence since moving in. And I doubt it's suddenly going to get any better. I can see it now, sitting there at the end of the counter, just waiting to inflict more mischief on me. On those few occasions when we do cook a large dinner, things have to be cooked in shifts, so the food is either burned, cold or still on the stove being heated up. We use the microwave a lot.

Fortunately, even imagining it stuffed full of major appliances, I can still reach around the door way and fetch a beer out of the fridge. I think I'll do that now and continue my ruminations from the safety of the balcony.


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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Humble Bathroom

This week we're discussing Bathrooms - British and American. Our guest blogger is Kat from 3 Bedroom Bungalow, who's an American recently dispatched to England.

Kat:

The first thing you need to learn about bathrooms in the UK is that they are not called bathrooms. They are the loo ,washroom, water closet or toilets. If you ask someone where the bathroom is, they will look at you like you have grown a third eye. The second thing you need to know is to turn the lights on, there is probably a pull cord hanging from the ceiling instead of a light switch. Also to flush the toilet there is usually a button and not a handle. If the button is split in half, you push the smallest part for #1 and both halves for #2 (or at least that is how it was explained to me).

Now in America I am aware that not all showers are the greatest, but normally you are at least privy to at least a hot shower. That is unless you are the last person of a family of 5 to take a shower and you have a small water heater. However in the UK, a hot shower is something that takes a little bit of skill to have at hand. First off, there is the problem of how to heat the water. I was lucky and have a boiler that heats a fair amount of hot water for the house, however I have come into contact where this isn't always the case. Some people have what they call an electric heater in the shower. It is commonly referred to as a "power shower" It is a little box that is located in the shower stall and it is supposed to heat the water as it comes out. As I have found, not so much. When staying in a hotel in London we had a room that had this "handy" device installed. I managed to get a luke warm shower an my husband got a shower of ice cubes.

Another problem with showers here is the water pressure. My house has two showers. We only use one. Why you ask? Cause the master shower puts out just enough water to make you mad. If you have long hair forget about trying to wash it in this shower. You will be there for ages before all the shampoo is out of your hair. The second shower falls in the acceptable category. It has decent pressure, but the draw back is that we have to share it with the girls.

Once you have your shower, you have to deal with the sinks. Once again, I am lucky, the house I live in was previously owned by Americans and they made a few adjustments. They installed what they call a mixer tap. This means on one side hot water comes out and on the other side cold water comes out and they mix inside the tap and come out in one stream "mixed" to make warm water. In other washrooms I have seen taps that remind me of the ancient taps we had back in my elementary school. There is a tap on each side of the sink; one tap puts out scalding hot water and the other puts out ice cold water. There is no in between. You will either blister your hand or lose a hand to frostbite.

Other than that UK bathrooms are pretty much just like American ones, just smaller and more confusing.

Toni:

The first thing you should understand when Americans say “bathroom” is that there may not be a bath in sight. As many of you know, “bathroom” refers to “the loo”, but even when they’re talking about the place where ablutions take place, it doesn’t always mean a bath-room. Many Americans prefer showers, so there’s often just a loo, a sink and a shower. More confusingly, a house can be said to have “two and a half baths”, which means two bathrooms and a loo; the room with a loo and a hand basin is often called a “half bath”.

And then there are the plugs, which I swear, are for decoration. Usually they are metal disks operated by a device near the taps, and are not removable from the plug hole. They are only supposed go up and down about half an inch but they usually get yanked out by the frustrated and uninitiated. It is impossible to get these plugs back in place and functioning, which usually means showers for all. In addition, I have yet to find a bath tub plug that doesn’t cause a slow leak, meaning that you can only luxuriate for about fifteen minutes.

Americans sometimes refer to a small hand basin as a “lavatory”, which I find quite surprising and daren’t think how “lavatory” came to mean the loo in one country and the hand basin in another!

But I have to commend Americans on their showers. None of that stick-to-your-body shower curtain, and low pressure showers here! Most of them are so powerful they exfoliate as well as clean your bod – whether you need exfoliating or not!!!


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Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter

Mike:

I find it wonderfully ironic that a nation founded by fundamentalists and infused with fanatical fervour doesn’t get religious holidays off. As I write this, I’m getting ready for a four-day weekend; as you read it (you do log in immediately to see what we’re up to, don’t you?) I am still enjoying it, while you’re dodging work by surfing the Internet under the pretence of doing research. England might not have as wide a Bible Belt as America, but it has an official religion (conveniently called, “The Church of England”) and that means we get holy days—like Good Friday, Easter Monday and the last Monday in August—off.

Time off of work aside, the central core of Easter, the actual purpose for the holiday (by which I mean the candy) is the same here as in the States, but as usual, there are fundamental differences.

In my younger days, I was part of a church-going family, and that meant Sunday services, when the congregation was always five times its normal size and every woman wore a big flouncy hat in the most garish colors imaginable. Also in my younger days, I was young, and therefore looked forward to getting home from church so I could tuck into the candy. My siblings and I always received a large, chocolate bunny, accompanied by other barnyard animals moulded from sugar-coated marshmallow in various primary hues and a generous scattering of jelly-beans all arranged on a nest of shredded green cellophane in a gaily colored wicker basket.

We also dyed Easter Eggs, which was an anticipated annual event (what can I say; I lived in rural America before cable TV). I never thought of this as a typically American thing to do until I moved here and discovered brown eggs. The white eggs of the US lend themselves well to being dyed bright colors and hidden around the house. In England they have brown eggs and I understand they paint them, though I have never seen this in practice.

So those are my Easter memories: coloring eggs and getting an infusion of candy (just in time to get me over the sugar-drought caused by the Christmas candy running out) all for the price of dressing up one morning a year and spending the longest hour of eternity sitting behind a large woman in a larger hat.

All dressed up and ready for Easter services.


Toni:

Funnily enough, I remember Easter as being much bigger in the UK than I find it here. Perhaps it's where our childhoods were. As a fairly devout Catholic family, Easter was the most important event of our religious calendar, and the end of Lent - forty days of inhumane deprivation in my ten-year-old opinion. Since kids didn't do or have a lot, they usually ended up giving up candy/sweets; in our case, since we never got many sweets, it usually meant "doing something extra", like feeding the guinea pig without having to be reminded, tidying up our rooms without being yelled at, or visiting gran more than once a week on the way home from school.

But the reward was the delicious Easter eggs on Easter Sunday (after mass of course). In England, the eggs were fairly large, hollow and chocolate, containing chocolates or sweets. We received them from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents, so it wasn't unusual to score six or seven. This presented a big headache to the parentals as they tried every trick in the book to stop us from scoffing the lot before bedtime.

In the US, chocolate eggs have become more popular in the 19 years I've been here, but they're fairly small affairs with nothing in the middle, and sadly, the chocolate isn't up to par. The focus here is more on Easter Egg hunts, where children of all ages race excitedly around gardens, in search of small plastic eggs containing sweets. It's more of a community affair than I remember my childhood Easters being, but there's less mention of the religious aspect.

In fact in the past few days, I have heard Easter referred to as a "holiday". This is the politically correct term for the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwaanza period in December, but seems to be rapidly replacing any reference to specific religious events.

(I acknowledge that Mike has raised the debate bar by posting cutie-pie photos of his childhood self. The gloves are off!)


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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Driving, or Going Round in Circles/Squares

Toni:

They tell you that's it's really easy to get around in the US, because "it's all on a grid". First of all, until you've been here for about three years, that phrase doesn't even register. They could be talking about the electricity companies for all we know.

But yes, most American cities are "on a grid" for the most part; Chicago has some weird diagonal streets that interfere with that grid, Boston is so old that it meanders around a bit, and some of the more modern suburbs have started doing that stupid cul-de-sac thing they do in England, but it's grids as a rule.

Which is fine if you know which direction you're facing. I remember when I first moved to Chicago I got lost every time I got in my car. In the end I bought a magnetic compass because everyone gives you directions in East, West phraseology and completely ignores convenient landmarks like huge churches, car dealerships and, in Chicago's case, the bloody big lake that stops you driving too far east. Usually, after driving around in circles (or squares since it's on a grid), I would head east to the lake, and start all over again.

Sometimes they give you east/west directions and they're not even correct. Like the Interstate (motorway) going from Chicago out north, then west to the airport. If people give you directions they either say "west on I-90" which means you go north from the city, or "east on I-90" which means you head south back into the city. How in the word is a stranger supposed to get into Chicago - (take note Brit Gal Sarah, this is the road from the airport).

I'd much rather hear "You make a sort of right at St. Stephen's, then take what looks like the left fork at the Ferret and Onion, and if you come to the village green you've gone too far". At least you know when you've gone wrong!

Mike:

Ah, Toni, you hit the nail right on the head; a grid system with easy to follow compass directions as opposed to dodgy directions that more often than not lead me further astray ("At the second round about past the Strangled Goose, go left and continue to where the Co-Op used to be, then left, left, right, left, left and Bob's your uncle."). It brings on flashbacks of my early days here, heading out to Newport (which I knew was to the west) and repeatedly circling a round about in Surry that pointed one way to Basingstoke and the other way to Bracknell. Having never before heard of either of those places, I had no idea where to go, and the only thing I could be sure of was, given the choice between two directions, I would chose the wrong one. A nice clear sign pointing west (or north or south or east, I'm not fussy) would have been a welcome sight.

Since that time, I have kept my eye out for such types of highway assistance, but they are hard to find. I guess they figure, in a country this small, you should just know where everything is, and if you don't you probably shouldn't be here. (It's likely part of the Home Guard's defence plans held over from the war.)

I recall, in America, driving up to Lake George and needing to be on route 9N north. Three miles before I got to the junction they started having signs for it, which increased in frequency the closer I came. At the junction I found huge, clear signs pointing to 9N north, 9N south, 9L east and Birch Avenue west. And after turning on to 9N north, there were signs to remind me I was, indeed, on 9N north. The roads in the US were made for really inattentive people.

In Britain, I come to a round about and, assuming I know I need to go toward Abergavenny to get to Llanddewi, I turn at the exit I think is pointing that way, and I only discover if I hit it right when I get to the next round about (and in rural Wales, this can be 25 miles or more) to find there is no mention of Llanddewi, Pen-yr-hoel, or even Llangattock-Vibon-Avel, thought there might be a sign welcoming me to Hereford.

But the American Interstate Highway System, what an exquisite feat of engineering! As any school kid could tell you, odd-numbered highways run north and south while even-numbered highways run east and west (and the fact that I travelled to work on a section of I-90 that ran from Nassau straight north to Albany was not confusing to me in the least*). A three-digit highway beginning in an odd number was a spur leading into a city, while a three-digit highway beginning in an even number was a spur running around a city. God bless David Eisenhower. (What a lot of people have forgotten about them is that they are military roads created for national defence. The idea that one mile in every ten is designed to be straight and flat in order to serve as an impromptu runway is, however, a myth, though I believe there is regulation requiring every second exit to have a Denny's or a Dunkin Donuts.)

The upshot is, getting to where you want to go in America is far easier than it is in Britain; all you really need to know is if the place you want to get to is generally north, south, east or west of where you are. Just don't try going toward the west on I-90 from Nassau.

*It's interesting to note that Toni and I apparently lived on the same street. We were practically neighbors.

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