Sunday, February 27, 2011

Winter Begone!

This winter has been extraordinary on both sides of the Pond, but which side has it worse? (Not that it's a competition.)

Mike:

I have to start off by saying that, in order to avoid another upstate New York winter, I would happily endure ten Sussex winters and count myself lucky.  While they do have their own unique pleasures—the hushed beauty of a heavy snowfall, the crystalline stillness of a twenty-below-zero morning, with the air so breathtakingly still you swear it could shatter—for the most part, they are pure torture.  Sussex winters are, in comparison, a walk in the park, but they bring their own special discomforts, or at least I’d better find some, or this may be the shortest post I ever write.

Sussex winters are damp and dark and, although not cold enough to freeze your nose hairs, the dampness has a way of seeping into your bones and drawing your soul out through your nostrils.  If you are susceptible to SADD, which thankfully I am not, you can have a bad time of it.  Even the most southerly parts of Britain are well north of any bits of the continental US, so it is dark when you get up, dark when you get to work, dark when you get out of work and pretty much grey in between, lending a look of perpetual twilight to the weeks between October and March.  And on those rare occasions when the sun does shine, it is in a position to be continually in your eyes.

So the worst thing about a Sussex winter is the incessant drabness.  The best you can hope for is hoarfrost, when the grass, trees, bushes and stationary birds all sprout a furry froth of frost.  It is exceptionally pretty.  But mostly it’s just grey, which tends to make you listless and depressed.  In Upstate, like it or not, you get a fresh coating of snow, oh, every two or three days, it seems, and, like it or not, that gets you outside to shovel, sweep, sprinkle rock salt, make snow angels and have a snowball fight with the kids, whereas in Sussex you would just be sitting inside, eating comfort food and gazing out at the gloomy, drizzly afternoon thinking about how cold you are.

The good thing is, the dark days linger for a relatively short time and by February, when New Yorkers are so winter weary they start doing daft things like naked snow bank diving (honest, I saw this myself) the days are already noticeably longer in Sussex and snow drops are beginning to appear.

So, yeah, winters can be a drag in Sussex, but in this Pond Parley exchange, the US wins (or loses, depending on your point of view) hands down.

Toni:
Every winter I say "What the hell are we doing here?" as I gaze around the frozen tundra that is Chicago. Some winters are not as bad as others but it's all relative. We spend four months (somewhere between November and March) in below-freezing weather, where it's too cold to be outside for any length of time.

It's just been announced that February (which isn't even over) has had the most snow in over one hundred years. (see Expat Mum post for impressive photos).

The thing about snow in Chicago is that
a) it falls on a completely flat landscape, which means there's no skiing, not even a hill or two for the kids to have fun on
b) it doesn't melt so it just sits there, getting dirtier and dirtier, for months

c) it can lead to big fights, as I alluded to in a December post . People spend hours digging their cars out of piled up snow, only to have their parking spot "stolen" as soon as they drive off. This has led to the mayor-condoned practice of "dibs" whereby people place plastic lawn chairs, children's garden play equipment and anything else thay can think of, to warn people not to park in that spot. All day. A few people have earned a smashed windown or two by daring to park there anyway.

The sun shines a lot during the winter months, which means there's not much danger of SADD. What you do get however is CABIN FEVER, especially if you're stuck in the house with small children who need to run around. It can literally get dangerously cold here and a trip to the local park isn't really an option. Yes, there are more and more indoor options where the kids can run around, but none of them are free and well, you're still stuck inside. The supermarkets get full of moms with kids as it's seriously considered "a day out" in these frigid months.

Everyone's getting very excited at the moment in Chicago, because winter's almost over. I know in the next month I'll see people walking around in sweatshirts - and shorts, and they'll be grilling outside despite the fact thet they'll still be able to see their breathe. Brrrr...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

MidWeek Mention - BED & FED

This week we're featuring a great new accommodation idea in the UK:

My name is Annabella and I want to tell you about the ever-increasing community that is Bed&Fed. Not only is there an opportunity for Brits to make money from their home and show off their fabulous hosting skills, but our friends across the Pond can definitely reap the benefits of staying with ‘real’ people (rather than in sterile hotels) who can give them a real taste for the UK and Ireland at an affordable price. Plus it's a lot of fun meeting new people!

FOR HOSTS:

Put a spring in your step and chase away those Winter blues by earning the easiest income you can imagine, while staying right where you are, at home.  Bed&Fed, the network of budget-beating ‘home from home’ guest rooms across the UK and Ireland, is celebrating its first birthday this Spring! More importantly with regards to the current economic climate, the website (www.bedandfed.co.uk) also offers a fantastic opportunity for homeowners to cash-in as Hosts.
Becoming a Bed&Fed Host is easy: earn money while sharing the comforts of your home by charging anything you like per person per night and ensuring that your guests are fed that evening with whatever supper you had already planned, have a good nights sleep and a simple breakfast of cereal and toast.

There is an unprecedented demand for Bed&Fed-style guest rooms, judging by the number of emails I receive from people looking for somewhere to stay. The Bed&Fed scheme is the easiest way to host - you can make money while showing off your fabulous hosting skills, and you don’t even have to provide the cooked breakfast that B&B owners dread so much!  As Hosts you are local experts - there is no-one better to stay with. Bed&Fed provides the toolkit for people to be their own entrepreneurs, and our network is demanding even more Hosts, which is fantastic news!

But what is this ‘tool kit’? It’s a paid profile on the website (you become a member of the Bed&Fed Community) with everything you’d expect including, amongst other things, a map where you can mark yourself should you wish to be located on the soon-to-be-released Bed&Fed iphone App.  Your business can be as big or small as you want it to be with Bed&Fedas your platform.

The reviews given by guests for this type of homemade hospitality, have been fantastic.  But what do the Hosts themselves really think?  A comment left on Bed&Fed’s Facebook pagespeaks volumes:  “We had a lovely B&F guest to stay last night.  Very chatty and fun - and he brought a lovely bottle of wine with him. He was very complimentary about the comfortable bed, our home, the supper and loved playing with our dog.  Perfect guest."

Bed&Fed’s success comes from its personal approach to business, expelling corporate methods in favour of friendliness and interaction with its database of Hosts. Belonging to theBed&Fed Community is fun: a cookbook of ‘Bed&Fed Recipes’ is in the pipeline, the ‘ChiefChick’ (me) blogs and tweets, the website has animated videos and even a catchy jingle.  In short - it has spirit. 

As part of our 1st Birthday Celebrations, every Host (for the modest annual membership fee of £70), will automatically gain access to discounts at various food companies and a £40 wine voucher.  Plus, this year there is a chance of winning the much coveted ‘Hostess with the Mostess’ Award – now who wouldn’t want that on their mantlepiece!

Bed&Fed is now recruiting and new Hosts will receive 15 months membership for the price of 12.

Important: Remember to reference your very own Hero “Pond Parleys” if you register to become a Host.


FOR GUESTS:

Why use the bed&fed directory?

  1. NO BOOKING FEES
  2. NO SINGLE SUPPLEMENTS
  3. SIMPLE TO USE and lots of choice from castles to cottages, farms to countryside retreats.
  4. Benefit from the local knowledge of your hosts 
  5. No need to remember passwords or usernames
  6. LIKE STAYING WITH FAMILY FRIENDS - Read the article THE GUARDIAN did to see what we mean - CLICK HERE 
  7. CHOOSE FROM DIFFERENT PRICE RANGES in our steadily growing database
  8.  A FRIENDLY AND APPROACHABLE COMPANY: Any queries please email chiefchick@bedandfed.co.uk or go to www.bedandfed.co.uk


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Broadening Our Minds

We've lifted a great quote from Expat Mojo's 365 tips for expats this week, and we're reflecting on how our own travels have colo(u)red our views of our own country.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime".
– Mark Twain


Toni:

When I first came to the States I admit to being a bit of a grammar snob. If I heard something slightly different from the British version, I automatically assumed (albeit silently, thank goodness) that the Americans had bastardized the original.

I heard the word "momentarily" a lot, especially when waiting on the phone for a customer service rep. "The next representative will be with you momentarily". Of course, "momentarily" means for a fleeting moment doesn't it, I would think condescendingly. Then one day I looked it up in Webster's dictionary (an American dictionary I'll admit) and sure enough it gave two meanings, the other being "in a moment". Americans were using it correctly. Gasp!  There are many other words and phrases that were actually once used in the UK; it's British English which has moved on while American English is often truer to the source. Words such as "closet" are now old-fashioned in the UK, but still in common usage here.

Lesson number one - British isn't always right!

My time here has also made me appreciate this about England:

  • The gorgeous smell of a garden on a summer evening. Here in the Midwest of the USA, there aren't many smelly flowers.
  • The relatively temperate climate. In Chicago we typically have summers in the 90's (Fahrenheit) and winters in single digits.
  • Public swimming pools. Apart from outdoor pools in the summer (which we don't have in the city) there aren't any public swimming pools; you usually have to join a health club and pay monthly fees for all the other things you don't use - like the weights room, and the running track.
  • Good TV. Yes, we might have hundreds of cable stations but they seem to be divided into news, entertainment, sports, crappy reality shows and crappy sitcoms; there are rarely any deep documentaries and the only decent drama comes straight across the Pond, often a couple of years later.
  • Proximity to a coast; being brought up near the wild and windy north east coast line, I thought I missed the sea when I lived in London, but here in the American mid west I rarely smell the salty air. We have Lake Michigan here with nice (man-made) beaches, but it's just not the same.
  • Too many food items to list.

And finally, from a distance, England still looks like a pretty good place to live even though everyone seems to be fairly pissed off at the moment. At least you don't have Sarah Palin!


Mike:
  
Every American—at some time during their life—should be required to spend a year abroad.  Really, it would do them good.  Denmark would be a good place, or Belarus, but ultimately the country isn’t important (as long as it isn’t Britain—you can’t swing a bowler hat without hitting an American here these days); what is import is that they get out and understand there is a wider world that doesn’t care about The Super Bowl, how much money Bill Gates is worth this month and who is most likely to win America’s Got Talent.

Similarly, an equal number of Danes and Belarusians need to spend an equal amount of time in America, both to keep their countries from becoming overcrowded while all those Americans are there, and so they can learn that not all Americans are redneck, gun-toting, fundamentalists ready to barricade themselves in their farmhouses and spark up the fuse to Armageddon.  Granted, we’ll have to send them to Michigan, Wisconsin or one of the other more placid states (or at the very least avoid the Deep South) but I think it would go a long way toward promoting universal peace and understanding.

(Excerpted from my upcoming book, Off on a Tangent – the ramblings of an accidental expat, due out in this summer.)

So, in moving to England, my world opened up, and I have to admit it has been such a pleasant experience I am having trouble finding things I miss from my old life back in the States, but with a little effort, I came up with these:

  • Denny’s:  I miss being able to just stop off at an informal dining place for coffee or a Ruben sandwich and some conversation.  The only comparable establishment over here is Wimpy’s, but the food there is the stuff of nightmares.
  • Alieve:  I have to send to the US for this, the only pain reliever that works for me.  And standard aspirin comes in packets of 16 and you can only buy one at a time.  The next time I go to the US I am bringing back a 500 tablet bottle of Bayer.
  • Medical Treatment:  Back home, I used to go to the doctor for a once-a-year check-up.  In Britain, they do not do preventative medicine and only want to see you if you are dying.  And even then they will make you feel like you are wasting their time.
  • Dry cleaning:  Too expensive and really crap service.  I used to take my shirts out for cleaning in the States, and I miss have nicely pressed and starched shirts.
  • Cheap Cuban cigars:  How ironic, that in the country where smoking a Cuban cigar is considered treason (it is part of the “trading with the enemy” act) that I could easily procure reasonably priced Cubans.  When I moved to a country where they were legal, I assumed I could get them even easier, but a decent Vegas Robiena cost about £14 (about $20) at my local tobacconists.  I cannot, in good conscience, set fire to something that costs that much.  I want to smoke it, not frame it.
  • Optimism:  The news here is uniformly awful.  No matter what it is, it is going to kill us all.  There is no sense that good times are just around the corner, the only thing lurking there is certain catastrophe.
  • Friendly people:  It’s a cliché for a reason.  Americans are friendly (but not as friendly as Canadians), and the British, especially the southerners, as a reticent bunch.  I’ve been here ten years and still do not know anyone I could call up and ask if they wanted to go down to the pub for a few beers.  The only people who spontaneously talk to me are displaced northerners and nutters.

And finally, I miss that sense of belonging, of being in a crowd when someone starts chanting, “USA!  USA!” and soon everyone is chanting.  I realize outsiders look upon with a bit of fear and find it very tribal.  But it’s my tribe.





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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Midweek Mention - Introducing the new Expat Mojo App.


The (lovely) American Resident has been very busy developing an I-Phone app - Expat Mojo Lite. You can see it here.

You can locate the app in the I-Tunes category of Lifestyle. It was inspired by reading forum and blog comments from the tired, worn out, disenchanted expats suffering culture shock, homesickness or just general fed-up-ness. It is meant to help with little nudges: suggestions, tips and reminders all completely controlled by the owner of the phone.

You don’t have to be an expat to use it—you could be anyone feeling a bit meh. Some of the 365 tips are quite inspirational and universally applicable, like this one -

"If you make a mistake, smile and apologise and try again. You'll be forgiven".

Others are more specifically for expats, but can apply to anyone travelling abroad: "When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable. (Clifton Fadiman).

Oh,, and it's free. Go take a look and if you like it, leave a review comment on the I-Tunes page.


------------------------------------------------------------

And finally, a word from Roger Penycate who kindly donated a prize for our first Midweek mention:

"I'd like to thank you all for entering the competition, the winner has been announced and has chosen the London Buses. I would, if you don't mind me taking the liberty, like to remind you that in addition to the GB category on our web site there are several more categories covering 100 subject and themes, ideal gifts for both self-indulgence and for friends, relatives, acquaintanaces etc. If ever you find your hand shaking or your wallet/purse twitching or indeed hear a stange noise from your crdeit card saying 'use me' our web site address is...www.miniaturepicturecards.com
Everything is for sale :0)

Cheers and thanks to Toni and Mike for hosting the competition"

Roger Penycate (Fulham supporter)



Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day

This week, seeing as how we can't avoid it -- it is everywhere we look -- we thought we'd discuss Valentine's Day.


Toni:

Valentine's Day in the USA is one of the biggest days of the year for the Hallmark Company. Apart from the plastic roses, shiny balloons and teddy bears bearing chocolate, Hallmark sells literally millions of cards.

After all, over here, Valentine's Day is not just for the romantic or lustful; people send (signed) cards to family members, teachers, colleagues and neighbours. That's probably five per household right there. School children under the age of about 10 are encouraged to take something for their classmates, which usually involves a piece of candy and a small card. You can even buy multi packs of small Valentine's cards for that purpose. It's almost on a par with Halloween when you look at the crap that comes home from school.

And now we have Sweetheart's Day too. What's that all about?


Mike:

Sweetheart’s Day? What on earth is going on over there? I had to look it up on Google and I still don’t know what/when/where it is. Good thing, over here, we only have to worry about Valentine’s Day, and not very much, at that.

I recall V-Day in grade school as a lesson in pure agony: being forced to give a card to every girl in your class—even the one who gave you an Indian burn when the teacher wasn’t looking—while hoping in vain for a special note on the card from the achingly pretty girl who sat in the front of the fourth row but never looked your way, even when you shot her in the back of the head with a spit ball. It was almost as bad as the co-ed gym classes where they attempted to teach us to square dance.

No card, no nookie.

I do remember V-Day as something of an occasion throughout my adult years, but after ten years here, it has faded into the background. I tend to think they are going a bit overboard here these days—especially when I see the Ann Summer’s window display (“No soft toys for Valentine’s Day!”)—but I have a feeling, if I were transported from our little Swan Walk mall directly to the half-mile long, two-storey Crossgates Mall in Albany, I would be assaulted by so many red hearts, cutsie teddy bears, roses, chocolates, bottles of pink champagne, slinky nightwear and signs, signs, signs, enticing you to buy, buy, buy that I would be reduced to a jabbering wreak within minutes. Given this, the displays in Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and the town as a whole seem positively timid by comparison.

There also doesn’t appear to be the pressure to buy. Oh, you’ll see the occasional ad on the telly implying that you won’t get laid on V-Day unless you get your wife, girlfriend, mistress, civil partner this particular brand of perfume or chocolates, but there is no real urgency about it.

So, as with most things, the British, for now, seem to be keeping this holiday in its place. Commercialism is creeping in, but you only have to make a trip to the US to see how much worst things can get.


What do you think of V-Day? And, more to the point, what did you get, or wish you had but didn't?






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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

MidWeek Mention - A Spot of Tea?

This week we'd like to draw your attention to a lovely chain of blog posts being done about the English custom of offering tea to house guests.

First the lovely Iota blogged amusingly about the ancient ritual of tea in England, what it means to the giver and the receiver. (Be sure to read both blog posts.)

Then Michelloui, The American Resident in England gave us her perspective as someone not having grown up with the tea thing.

Next Nappy Valley in New York - joined the Tea Party with her thoughts and memories.

For non-Brits, we recommend a read of all three blogs which describe precisely, what tea means to Brits. For Brits, the blogs will bring a smile to your faces and perhaps prompt you to add a comment here or on their blogs.

And the best ever tea cup/mug - one which holds the biccies too -

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Canadian, eh?

We are pleased to be joined this week by Maria Foley, a restless repatriate who holds both British and Canadian passports (and is desperate for the opportunity to use either one.) You can read her musings on expat and repat life on her blog, I was An Expat Wife. (http://iwasanexpatwife.com/)

I used to be English, but now I’m Canadian. More or less.

I was barely out of diapers (or is that nappies? Two sentences in, and already I’m losing my linguistic footing), when my parents decided to move to Canada. At the tender age of almost-four, assimilation was easier for me than it was for them. Not that there weren’t bumps along the way. I lost my West Bromwich accent on the ride from the Toronto airport to our new home, but other traces of Blighty remained stubbornly resistant to the twin siren songs of peer pressure and mass media.

It’s not as though I didn’t try. All kids, especially immigrant ones, yearn to fit in. When I told my friends I wanted to grow out my fringe and stop plaiting my hair, they stared at me in confusion. When I mentioned I wasn’t allowed to wear tights until I was older, they pointed wordlessly at the leotards on my legs. I resolved to learn the local lingo as quickly as possible to save myself from the ignominy of being labelled “weird.”

The only thing standing between me and true-blue Canuck status was my parents. (Yes I know, that’s two things. But they presented a united front.) Growing up with immigrant parents is a minefield of potential embarrassment. Mine were so bloody British! When my mom sent me to the store to buy fags (in front of my friends — was the woman trying to destroy me?), I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole. I didn’t dare bring anyone home for dinner in case it was Bubble & Squeak or (God forbid) Toad in the Hole night.

Food was a very clear marker of the cultural divide I faced. Even though they’d moved to one of the most multicultural cities in the world, my parents were still stuck in the Dark Ages (West Midlands, circa 1968) when it came to food. My children don’t believe this, but I didn’t have pizza until I was 14. That was exotic enough — forget about Chinese takeout. (Or should that be takeaway?) I knew nothing about ethnic cuisines; when my teacher said that rice was a staple in China, my first thought was, “Wow, those Chinese kids sure are lucky to be eating dessert three times a day.”

Meanwhile, my parents were slowly — very slowly — integrating into Canadian culture. They tentatively tried out new words and concepts. (“The car runs on gas. It has a hood and a trunk.”) The one thing they couldn’t let go of was the idea of England as “home.” It drove me crazy.

“We’re thinking of going home for a few weeks next summer,” they’d say.

“You’ve lived here for fifteen years,” I’d reply. “You’re Canadian citizens. You vote, you own property, you hold down jobs. For the love of God, WHEN IS THIS COUNTRY GOING TO BECOME YOUR HOME?”

Now that I have several international relocations under my belt, I have a better understanding of the power of “home.” And even though I’ll never think of England that way, I’ve come to see that my leftover Britishness is a small but significant part of who I am. I’ll always prefer tea to coffee, HP sauce to ketchup, and The Office with Ricky Gervais tothe Steve Carrell knock-off. (Although I sometimes waver a bit on that last one.)

I couldn’t help but pass my watered-down British culture to my children, and now they’re almost as useless at code-switching as their mother. I can’t take all the blame, though; they’ve also fallen prey to outside influences. I first noticed British words creeping into their vocabulary during our expat years. One minute they sounded like regular Canadian kids; the next, they were revising for tests, erasing mistakes with rubbers, and watching telly.

When my little one was about seven, she announced: “Mum, I’m going to say haitch instead of aitch from now on. Is that okay?”

“Nowt wrong with that,” I replied, almost fainting with shock on hearing Jack Duckworth’s voice coming out of my mouth.

I’m not sure if all this makes us bilingual, bicultural, or merely confused. I’ll just pop the kettle on while I try to sort it out, shall I?


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And the Winner is.....

Drum Roll again..........


The Randomly Selected number was 10, which means that Almost American is the winner of the Miniature Post Cards prize. In honour of her grandfather, she chose the buses, so she'll be receiving that gorgeous picture in the mail. (AA, please send your mailing details to expatchicago@gmail.com)

Congratulations and thanks to Roger Penycate for supplying the great giveaway.

Keep your eyes peeled for more competitions on the MidWeek Mention.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Drum Roll Please - - - - The MidWeek Mention

Here it is, the first ever Mid-Week Mention on Pond Parleys. We hope to highlight great web sites, products, blogs, people - you name it! (Obviously as long as they have some relevance to the blog!)

Dan da da dan dan da-a-a-a-n....

We'd like to tell you about a fab web site owned by Roger Penycate, a Londoner who has lived in the US since 2002 and currently lives in Virginia, .

Miniature Picture Cards, offers unique pictures of nearly 100 different themes and topics, They are, as Roger describes them;

"Larger pictures (up to 20" x 12") which include apertures containing lots of smaller (miniature) picture card sets".  The pictures (un-framed) are available in a variety of sizes.

As well as a plethora of subjects for the American and Canadian markets, there is a delightful Great Britain section specifically for ex-pats and anglophiles. Card selections include the inimitable London Buses

.
Aren't they great!

There's also cathedrals, Kings & Queens, scenes from Dickens and these great old pubs:


And lots more....

We have teamed up with Roger to offer one free picture (maximum size 17" x 14") in a seriously easy competition. 

All you have to do is visit the site here and tell us which card is your favo(u)rite. It's that easy. Come back here and tell us in the comment box. Roger will then be picking a random number, and the person whose comment is in that place on the comment list wins whichever card s/he chooses.
He's even picking up postage, so US and UK readers are all eligible.

You have till Saturday to try your luck, and we'll announce our winner in our Sunday post.

Good luck!

Sociable