Sunday, July 26, 2009

First Impressions

This week, Toni is off on a jolly ;) so it's my turn to have a rant. not too difficult to think of at topic as I have just returned from the US where I--along with every other visitor--is a suspected terrorist:

When you meet someone for the first time, you generally like to make sure there is no broccolli stuck in your teeth, your shirt is buttoned straight and devoid of obvious stains and your fly is zipped. You want them to like you, so you extend your hand in a friendly manner, smile and say, "Pleased to meet you."

Unless, of course, you're the United States of America. America seems to go out of its way to intimidate, frighten, frustrate and generally alienate visitors who comes to its door. I realize I have banged on about this before, but I will keep banging on about it until their policy of organized thuggary ends.

Some years ago, I gave up flying into America because I resented being treated like a criminal in my own country. My work-around involved flying into Canada, which improved the experience in several ways; it was cheaper, the Canadians were a lot more pleased to see us and we got to see a bit of Canada in the bargain.

The best part was, driving into America beat flying into America hands down. The border guards were generally friendly and chatty and it was a pleasure crossing into the US and feeling I was home.

This time, however, our trip took place a few weeks after yet another escalation in the "let's keep out all the foreigners" laws, and it was anything but a pleasure. We approached the border as usual and I explained I was an American with a British wife, but instead of inviting us to inside so we could fill out the customary form, they confiscated our passports and ordered us to drive to a special building.

At the building, I was ordered to park my car. Then my keys were confiscated and we were ordered to yet another building.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with international travel, but when a border official takes away your passport, it leave you feeling very, very vulnerable, more than a little nervous and likely wishing you'd worn your yellow underwear.

I was merely feeling vulnerable and a bit pissed off that I was, once again, being treated like a criminal in my own country. I wasn't too nervous because it was, after all, America and to my knowledge they were not yet sending their own citizens to secret prisons, but if this had happened to me in, say, Albania, I'd be wishing I'd worn my brown pants.

Now I understand the need for security, but I don't see the need for such extreme behavior. You take someone's travel papers and car keys and you might as well handcuff them because, until you return those items, they are, de facto, your prisoner. I'm an American citizen; what did I do to merit that?

I apologize to my readers but I have to say this: "What the f@%k is wrong with you, America!!! When did you become so frightened and insecure that you feel you have to intimidate innocent people to make yourself feel better? You used to be strong and proud and sure of yourself but after one sucker punch you turned into the playground bully. Get a grip, will you?"

There, I feel better.

No, actually, I don't, and I won't until my country returns to being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Do they really want people to stop visiting and to start thinking of them as thuggish and reactionary? Are they happy that people who might have vacationed in America with their families and tourist dollars are now going to other destinations because they don’t want to be treated that way? Are they purposely seeking out the last drops of worldwide good will so they can turn them sour? That's such a shame, because America is a great place and I want people to know that, but it's hard to get past the trauma of actually getting in.

America’s motto may be "In God We Trust" but they should consider taking on board, "You only get one chance to make a first impression."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Go to Work on an Egg

This week we look fondly at an institution on both sides of the Pond - breakfast.


Two of the sweetest words this side of the Atlantic are “Full” and “English,” especially when spoken together and most especially when you happen to be in a traditional country inn. But even in Little Chef, the Full English Breakfast is an event worthy of starting your day off with.

For those of you not in the know, these are the ingredients of a full English Breakfast:
- Eggs
- Bacon
- Sautéed mushrooms
- Fried tomato
- Fried bread (bread soaked in fat and fried in fat)
- Sausage
- Baked beans
- Fried potatoes

The best part is you get countless variations. You don’t have to have all the items, you can order your eggs scrambled or grilled (or “over easy” if you want to see a puzzled look on your waitress) and, if you ask nicely, you can substitute extra bacon for the sausage.

I have to admit it took me a while to work into the English breakfast; there was something about baked beans in the early morning, or sautéed mushrooms and fried tomatoes that just made me long for a good old American pancake. Gradually, however, I made peace with each item—even the tomato—and can now order a “Full English” without having to make substitutions.

Granted, not everyone eats a Full English for breakfast every day over here, just as no one eats a pile of pancakes dripping with butter and syrup every morning in the States. Mostly I have a cup of coffee and a breakfast bar, just as I did when I was living in America. But here, I have the option, and when it is presented, I take it.

The only thing better than the Full English breakfast is the Full Scottish breakfast, or the Full Irish; I get them confused. Whichever it is, it has black pudding (blood mixed with oatmeal and stuffed in pig intestine) on its roster, and that is a treat indeed.

So, although I'm a fan of the big American breakfast, I have to admit that the first meal of the day holds a bit more variety over here in Britain.


Well I’m surprised at that. I mean, take a look at this typical American breakfast menu for variety. Doesn’t it make your mouth water?

Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with breakfast. Even though we’re constantly told that it’s the most important meal of the day, during the week many people don’t eat anything before rushing out the door. TV shows and movies where you see workers coming into the office with a gallon of coffee and a giant muffin or Danish, are fairly representative. At our school, the younger kids are given a snack at about 9.30am each day, mainly because so many of them come in having had a “breakfast drink” and nothing else.

Come the weekend however, it’s all about the breakfast. In Chicago, many restaurants serve breakfast and it’s quite the social event, with Americans lingering over their plates for far longer than the twenty minutes usually allotted to meals. That’s partly because it takes at least ten minutes to read the menu, and then another ten to make to decide what to have. The egg options alone can take up a full page, with eggs benedict, florentine, scrambled, omelet, devilled, fritatta, over-easy and sunny side-up (basically a fried egg with the yolk still runny) to name a few. Also on your plate will probably be hash browns or other small, fried potatoes, bacon, sausages (pathetic apologies thereof) and even pancakes. Although I've been here for almost two decades, I still can't have pancakes on the same plate because the acoompanying maple syrup drenches not only the pancakes, but everything else too. Sausages and syrup. Yuck!

And if you plump for a seemingly healthier option, be warned, your breakfast will still feed a small army. Granola ( like museli) will come in between layers of yogurt and topped with fruit, looking more like a Sundae than a breakfast dish. Franch Toast usually comes with a huge dollop of cream and a pound of fruit on top. It's no wonder many Americans eat "brunch" instead of breakfast - and then don't eat much for the rest of the day! Like the Full English, it's not something most people could (or should) eat every day.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Trick Question

(Every so often at Pond Parleys, we’ll vary the format just to keep it interesting. This week Toni addresses one specific point and invites comment.)


Q. When is an anti-biotic tablet not an anti-biotic?
A. When it’s masquerading as gold bullion.

Recently I had occasion to take one of the kids to a dermatologist (typical teenage skin problems). We were prescribed two creams and a wash, which cost me a total of $140 and that was after the discount they give through my health insurance company. The fourth prescription was for a thirty-day course of anti-biotics. The doctor gave me a “coupon” which assured me that I would only have to pay $25. Anyone in the States should set their “scam” alarm to go off when coupons offer seemingly big deals. Live by the motto “If it sounds/looks too good to be true, it probably is”.

My regular pharmacist referred the prescription on to a big chain pharmacy saying that he never managed to “get these things to go through”, and didn’t want to land me with the full bill.

“Oh, how much would it be normally?” I asked, innocently.

“Seven hundred dollars” he said. Yes, you read that correctly. Not quite sure what the conversion rate is today, but that would be upwards of three hundred and fifty quid on any day.

Now I have heard of some expensive medications before, but give me a break. I asked the pharmacist why it was so different from any other anti-biotic on the market and he said it wasn’t, it was just new and therefore the manufacturers “incent” doctors to prescribe it. (Not naming any names for fear of lawsuits.)

When I presented the prescription and coupon to the big chain pharmacy, no one batted an eyelid. I expressed concern about the coupon actually working and was told that they take this sort of rebate coupon all the time.

“So who picks up the other $675” I enquired, not quite so innocently this time.

“Don’t worry about that, your insurance company will be billed”, was the breezy response.

Now, without rehashing the intricacies of the US Health Insurance system, this was not the answer I was looking for. First, it’s not a “rebate” or any other kind of bargain if the cost is just being passed along to the health insurers. Everyone knows that the health insurers don’t absorb this cost; they pass it straight back to us, the people needing coverage, in the form of extortionate monthly premiums and “out of pocket” expenses. It’s no wonder the cost of health insurance is sky-rocketing and out of reach for over 47 million people in this country.

Second, and more important to me, we have a high deductible (excess) which we haven’t yet reached, so anything that is submitted to my health insurance company comes straight back to me in the form of a bill. I am NOT paying $700 for acne treatment no matter how much I love my kids. I called my insurance company, and I was correct, they wouldn’t be covering the cost. I then called the anti-biotic manufacturer to ask about the whole thing (more from a “discovery” angle than actually finding a way to get the tablets, at this point). Lo, and behold, on hearing that I would be picking up the $700 bill, they told me to get the pharmacist to re-enter me into their system as a “cash-paying patient” and the manufacturer would pick up the balance. So I did, and I think I only had to pay the $25, but can you imagine if I hadn’t started asking questions? I’d be interested to know how many people have been caught this way, and also if indeed, $25 is all I end up paying. Once that cost is processed, it’s very difficult to straighten it out because you can’t exactly take medications back and the system isn't particularly customer friendly.

This is not a call to debate the merits of one health care system against the other. I don’t care whose health care system you think is the best – a $700 30-day course of anti-biotics is a sign of an industry that’s completely out of control and out of reach for too many people.

Don’t you think?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Oi! Who you looking at!

Mike's post over at Postcards prompted a thought for this week's discussion. Who's friendlier - Americans or Brits?


I hate to sit on the fence but it really depends where you are in each country. I was brought up in the North East of England and believe me, they are extremely friendly people. You can't stand at a bus stop for more than two minutes without the little old lady in front of you telling you her life story plus medical history. Where my mother lives (which is semi-rural) I am frequently greeted by locals who have no idea who I am or whose daughter I am. I'm sure someone like the Brit Out of Water, living in New York, might have something to say about the level of friendliness there, as would many people living in London. Brit Gal Sarah, on the other hand, has experienced friendliness in Oklahoma that she could barely believe. My own southern experience has been that there is a reserve that would rival anything you'd find in the UK. Southerners are friendly, don't get me wrong, but there's a suit of armour there at the same time.

One thing I've noticed is that police officers are a lot friendlier here in the US. Not that I have had much to do with them you understand, but there's none of that withering sarcasm or borderline personality that hangs over every encounter in the UK. Many years ago I had occasion to call the police at 3am when my alarm went off and the husband was out of town. The responding officers were perfectly nice when we discovered that it was a huge helium-filled balloon that had come off its tether and set the motion detector off. Half an hour later, after they had finished looking at all the work we'd done on the house (one of them was rehabbing his own house), I was wishing they weren't so friendly if only because I had to get up in a couple of hours for the school run.

I even have a photo of me sitting on a policeman's motor bike on Beale Street in Memphis. (My mother was with me so it wasn't the 20-something drunken incident that it could have been). I'm not sure I would even have approached a British police officer with such a request although I admit I plastered on the English accent and pretended I was a moon struck tourist.

Another thing I noticed recently, highlighted by the wide grin of Farrah Fawcett that has been everywhere on the TV - most Americans automatically shape their mouths into a smile when they talk. Just do a personal survey for a few days if you don't believe me. It used to throw me because they smile even when they're not telling you a joke; teachers do it even when they're relating the latest "infraction"; sales assistants do it telling you that the 50% sale doesn't apply to your chosen item. Even political commentators, who are currently dealing with the devastating news that Sarah Palin is stepping down (cough, cough) break into a smile before they voice their carefully-worded responses. Oh wait...that may be for another reason.


Despite the fact that I haven't had a spontaneous conversation with anyone in my hometown since I've moved here, I can't say the Brits are not friendly. They are, in my local area, simply reserved. Furthermore, despite my saying, here and now, that people in North America (mustn't forget the Canadians, who are even friendlier than we Yanks) win this contest hands-down, overall friendliness is mostly a matter of locale.

My life here has fallen into a comfortable routine, one that involves rare contact with other people. Not because I don't desire it, simply because the locals are standoffish. The people I count as friends here (and I can do that on one hand) were already friends of my wife or people who sought me out because I'm a famous author and worthy of their adulation. I have never spontaneously struck up a friendship with anyone on this island and all but a few of the conversations I have had since moving here have been with my wife.

Compare that to Canada and the US, where I have just returned from and where, in the first 24 hours, we found ourselves in three different conversations with total strangers. And when we met my future daughter-in-law's family for the first time, we were treated like family and, after about ten minutes, I felt as if I had known them my whole life. All the people we interacted with on my recent trip were open and friendly, and it made me realize just how little interaction I have with people over here.

However, as I pointed out earlier, this is a matter of location more than anything else. When I travel for work out to Devon, the people I meet on the street as I walk to work in the morning all smile and say, "Hell-o." I even had one local fall into step with me, after he saw me taking a photo, to tell me the best locations and times of day to get good pictures. The people from the north, likewise, are friendlier than the people down here, so the Brits are not all staid and reserved.

But these past weeks in the US have convinced me, without a doubt, that the Americans are the friendlier of the two nations.

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