Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas, American Style

There's no denying that many Americans really get into the Christmas spirit......


It’s so busy in the Expat household at this time of year – especially now that I’m legally an American and am embracing my new culture heart and soul. All the beds are now sporting Seasonal bedding and,…….what? You haven’t bought seasonal linens? Like these? 
Aren’t they fab?

I also changed all the towels out just to get everyone in the Christmas spirit. My regular ornaments are all carefully stored away and my angels, reindeers and gilt stocking holders adorn every living space. Oh and I have four foot topiaries like this one dotted here and there. I hold back a little by not doing the bedrooms and bathrooms – other than the linens, that is.

The kids love Christmas of course – who wouldn’t when you get loads of stuff you’ve been wanting for ages. I’m having a bit of trouble getting the Man-Child into the matching Christmas sweater though. For goodness sake, I’m not asking him to wear it to school but it would have been nice on the family photo card. I mean, it’s not that bad –

is it? Still, he compromised and wore a red sweater.

I’ve been wearing my Christmas ear-rings for a few weeks now, and have my Christmas Day outfit (red and green of course) picked out already. We’ll be skiing, but they had a great sale on last summer at the ski shop, and everyone will notice me on the slopes. I might even wear a Santa Hat over my helmet, if it will stay on. The kids are a bit mortified but they rarely ski with me anyway, so what’s the big deal?

Is it any wonder I’m always knackered by Christmas Day?


I’m so glad Toni wrote about this, as it is one of the many nuances that make the US different from the UK. Of course, this nuance is part of the more comprehensive difference of the Americans simply being OTT.

I have a Christmas tie. I wear it once a year to my office Christmas party. When you push a button, Santa’s eyes light up and it plays Jingle Bells. This is about as exciting as it gets. Also note: I am the only one who does this.

In this era of the Internet, I suppose the Brits could acquire bed linens, curtains, clock faces, oven mitts, dinnerware and colostomy bag covers sporting festive, seasonal décor but to my knowledge, nobody does. The most they might go for is a holly and mistletoe print table cloth for the big meal, and perhaps some seasonal serviettes to go with it. (They do, however, seem game for some seasonal naughtiness, if the window display in

Ann Summer’s—Britain’s answer to Fredrick’s of Hollywood—are anything to go by. I, personally, wouldn’t know, because my wife won’t let me go in there.)

But seasonal silliness—be it Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween or Pearl Harbor Day—is an American trait I do miss. The flags, the adornments, the over-the-top decorations really make the holiday spirit come alive. Don’t get me wrong, they do a grand job over here, but that extra oomph the American’s give it adds additional dazzle.

And I do miss those sweaters.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Snow Joke

This week Mike and Toni take a look at the current weather in the UK ....


There’s snow here in Britain. Again. As I write this, on a Friday, I have been “working” from home since Wednesday and have not ventured outside for two days. No reason to, really, I’ve seen snow.

After eight years, I am no longer surprised by the depth of ineptitude the British display where snow is concerned. Basically, it snows, and the country shuts down. At first I used to be amused by this, but now I just take it in stride and have even come to believe the British are often unduly hard on themselves for being so helpless in the face of six inches of frozen water vapour.

Mainly I think it is due to the fact that the British love to point out how rubbish they are at things. There’s no world cup going on at the moment, and the Olympics are still over a year away, but it’s snowing, so they can point to that and say, “We used to run a great empire and now everything stops as soon as there’s a bit of snow! What happened?”

I’ll tell you what happened; you don’t get enough practice. If it snowed like this every winter—five to fifteen times each winter—believe me, you would be as good at it as we are. But when you have a population of 60 million people and only 18 of them own snow shovels, well, things can get out of hand.

So let’s leave the question of why the Brits are so hopeless with snow behind and focus on the more important issue of why, when it does snow, do they all go out and buy a sled.

We had a significant snowfall just last February. And the year before that we had a fairly decent display. And each time people flocked to the stores to buy sleds. Don’t they all have one yet, or are these some EU regulated biodegradable type sled that only lasts one season?

That is one of the biggest disadvantages of living in Great Britain. But we’re not talking about the EU this week, we’re talking about winter, and having such a mild climate means that you don’t naturally keep two sets of gear on hand: summer gear (footballs, short sleeve shirts, a barbeque, deck chairs and a collapsible swimming pool) and winter gear (sweaters, ice skates, sweaters, skis, sweaters, snow shovel, sweaters, rock salt, sweaters and sleds). Back in the States, progress of the yearly cycle was marked by the ritual packing away of all seasonal gear, putting it in the garage loft and hauling out the boxes filled with items to see us through the coming six months.

With what amounts to a single season all year long, there is no delineation, and no real need to maintain a stock of exclusively winter/summer accoutrements.

So that is why Britain is now at a standstill: it’s snowing, and they don’t know how to prepare for it or how to deal with it once it’s here. And with all the kids out of school, the only thing to do is go buy a sled and take them to the nearest hill.


If it wasn’t for a personal family disaster this weekend, I would be half smirking at the snow panic in the UK. Unfortunately, my cousin got married in the Birmingham area on Saturday, and many of our family members from the northeast of England either had one helluva time getting there or (as with my sister) had to turn back, and the planned family get together in the hotel bar the night before, was abandoned.

Still, I can‘t believe how incapacitated the UK has been this past week. Living in Chicago, where we have snow and dangerously low temperatures every winter has definitely toughened me up. Many big cities in the US are deluged with snow every year, (see below) and boy are they prepared for it.

Average annual snowfall (in inches) for the snowiest large US cities:

Cleveland, Ohio 63.1
Denver, Colorado 61.0
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 52.4
Detroit, Michigan 44.0
Boston, Massachusetts 41.8
Chicago, Illinois 38.0
Columbus, Ohio 28.8
Indianapolis, Indiana 27.0
New York, New York 22.4
Washington, DC 21.2
Kansas City, Missouri 20.1
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19.3
Baltimore, Maryland 18.2

Many residents own snow blowers, we all have an abundant supply of snow shovels and de-icing salt, and some even have fancy salt spreaders like this one.

Chicago has a $17 million snow removal budget, and almost 300 snow ploughs, with 40 fancy new ones this year alone. Typically, with a large snowfall, the ploughs are out in the wee hours of the morning and all but the narrowest side streets are cleared by the time people set off for work. The winter parking restriction went into action last week, so if you park on a designated arterial road between the hours of 3am and 7am, and it snows, your car will be ticketed and towed. Given that we woke up to an unexpected six inches of snow on Saturday morning, I’m guessing a lot of people were looking for their cars that day.

One of the most controversial traditions we have in Chicago is “dibs”, where people place lawn furniture (and anything else that works) in “their” parking spaces after they have dug out their cars. Literally, they expect you not to move them and park in the spot.
Can you believe it? As you can imagine, it leads to fisticuffs every year, although the mayor has unofficially endorsed it, although it is still technically illegal. Streets and Sanitation will tolerate it for about a week after a major storm, but then the chairs are removed as debris.

Oh, and the dogs wear booties. Seriously, the temps are sometimes so low that frostbite is a risk, and the salt on the sidewalks causes major problems for dog paws.

I should really go and buy some now before they’re sold out!

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving - Does Anyone Else Get it?

This week Mike and Toni discuss what Thanksgiving means when you're a foreigner in the US and when you're a yank away from home.


It’s Thanksgiving Day as I write this, and I am away from home. Not simply away from my homeland, but away from my adopted home in Sussex. We’re on holiday this week in a small town in Scotland. But at least I have Thanksgiving Day off.

Even though we are in a very rural area—the landlord told us it is like stepping back into the 1950’s, and he was not far wrong—we managed to cobble together a respectable Thanksgiving dinner. I have a turkey breast, stuffing, roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, several types of veggies and Bisto gravy. All in all a good effort for very little work.

I mention this because it is significant that having a Thanksgiving dinner over here is not as disappointing as it used to be. Back in Sussex, I could have had creamed corn, yams with marshmallows, rolls, French-cut green beans with almond slivers, corn bread, pumpkin pie and even hot chocolate with a dollop of Marshmallow Fluff in it. (The only thing I still cannot find is that really cheap cranberry sauce in a can that tastes like the inside of a drainpipe—somehow, the posh and very tasty cranberries in port sauce we picked up in Marks and Spencer’s just doesn’t say, “Happy Thanksgiving” like a slab of tin-infused purple jelly.)

Years ago, when I tried to pull together a Thanksgiving dinner, I always ended up with a hybrid meal containing dubious substitutions that tasted of disappointment, whereas now it’s fairly easy to create a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all (well, most) of the trimmings.

But all that gets you is a Sunday dinner in the middle of the week. And even if you manage to convince a group of family and friends to come share the day, you’ll merely find yourself sitting around a table, having a Sunday dinner in the middle of the week with a bunch of people who just don’t get it.

Thanksgiving is about food, yes, but it is so much deeper than that, and without having grown up with it, a person cannot grasp the tradition, the meaning, the true spirit of Thanksgiving. So T-Day—along with the 4th of July—remains one of the few times during the year when being an expat really hits home.


There have been numerous posts in the expat blogosphere about Thanksgiving, many of them from bemused Brits fairly new to the US. You see, this holiday is huge and Americans take it very seriously.

Given that we have a tiny family in the States and all live over 1,000 miles away, we had planned to sit down to an intimate family dinner. This apparently causes apoplexy in friendly neighbours and we were swept up into their family gathering. So it was that we became part of a Thanksgiving meal for 20! Yes, 20!

As you'd expect, with so many people gathering, it was a Pot Luck affair with various guests taking responsibility for various dishes. The Ball & Chain (who seems to have been replaced by a crazed chef at the moment) brined and cooked the turkeys, while I and the Little Guy successfully attempted pumpkin cheesecake (delicious, despite the fact that I misread the instructions and put a quarter of the required cream cheese in.)
Other dishes included turkey gravy, which over here is a thick, white affair, corn souffle, and of course, the inevitable Green Bean Casserole. I won't linger too long on this lest I start up another World War, as happened on this blog last year. Jeez. 81 comments.

Kat, (Three Bedroom Bungalow), an American in England, thoughtfully tweeted me a photo and the recipe for her green bean casserole, which I promised to share here.

2 cans green beans
1 can cream of mushroom soup
black pepper to taste
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup cheddar cheese
handful of slivered almonds
1 3/4 French's French Fried Onions divided

Mix all ingredients and half of onions in bowl, put in 9X9 baking dish cover with remaining onions. Bake at 350 degrees F or 180 degrees C for 20 min or until bubbling.

I'm sorry Kat, (and other devotees) but I'm still not convinced. Mind you, the same raging debate will happen in about a month when I suggest to my American friends and family members that we purchase a Christmas cake!
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brits are Healthier but Americans live longer. Go figure!

A report in the scientific Demography Journal finds that older Brits are healthier than older Americans, yet Americans live longer. This week Toni invites fellow bloggers Melissa (Smitten by Britain) and Michelle (The American Resident) to discuss the issue with her.

No surprises really. Americans in general, aren't a healthy bunch and are always seeing their doctors (when they can afford it). Although obesity is rising in the UK, it hasn't reached the levels of the US, therefore related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and heart disease are correspondingly less frequent in the UK. That American doctors run far more tests on their patients and refer to specialists more frequently, also means that illnesses and diseases are reported more often.

So how come these unhealthy Americans still end up living longer than their British counterparts?

Not to be unkind, but Americans seem to go on treating their elderly when the poor sods are well past their sell-by date and are probably quite ready to "go". It's not uncommon to hear of families of really old patients insisting on "life-saving" surgery to extend his or her life by another three months. Unlike the UK, where hospital doctors rule with an iron rod, Americans can and do insist on treatments and surgeries since it's they or their insurance that's paying.

Apparently because people in many countries are now living longer, 80 is the new 50 and more and more geriatricians (that's a real term BTW) are performing successful surgeries on patients in their 80's and older.

Since Britain's NHS funds are limited, unlike the seemingly bottomless coffers in the US, it isn't surprising that treatment options for the elderly are sometimes dictated by cost. British studies have shown that older breast cancer patients have typically been given less effective treatment than younger patients, although this trend is changing. Because of this and other health trends however, I wouldn't be surprised if health and mortality rates in both countries are the same in a few decades.


I view this study from a slightly different perspective than Toni. Americans spend a lot of money on health care yet our life expectancy is only five months longer than a country that spends half the money yet provides health coverage to all of its citizens. As an American, you have to ask yourself, “Are we getting our money’s worth?”  Sure, we could pat ourselves on the back for coming out ahead despite having lousy health but I don't think that's anything to boast about. We spend billions of dollars and go through years of preventative testing for diseases like cancer and heart disease, only to live five months longer than the British.

I think Toni has put her finger on something here. Despite our poor health, maybe we live longer than the British because we move heaven and earth to make sure we do. Indeed many Americans seem to believe they have the right to live as long as medicine will allow, even if it comes at great expense, not just to their our bank balances but to their loved ones who care for them until the end. Then there are those who will spend copious amounts of money to look as though they have drunk from the fountain of youth, as if this too will help delay the inevitable. It’s this lack of acceptance and end of life issues that helped de-rail universal health care in 2009. (Remember death panels?)

And that leads me to what I think is the most important reason we don’t get the biggest bang for our buck in life expectancy - lack of universal health care. When an individual doesn’t have health care insurance he is less likely to go for preventative care, and less likely to visit a doctor with symptoms, meaning serious illnesses are caught later, when they are more difficult and expensive to treat, and the prognosis may be poorer. It’s these preventable deaths that help drive down U.S. life expectancy numbers.

But Britons shouldn't take heart in this study either; yes, as a population Americans are unhealthier than Brits, but as Toni mentioned, the British are coming, and quite quickly as well. Once illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer begin to reach U.S. levels, life expectancy will drop and the gap between the U.S. and the U.K. may widen. To keep this from happening, the NHS will need to take a cue from the U.S. and improve on preventative testing –testing younger and more often.


I would love to glow with pride over the amazingness of my home country's health system.


This research gives me nothing to glow about, as the inaccuracies of the interpretation and irresponsible reporting of data are frustrating.

The researchers conclude “It appears that at least in terms of survival at older ages [of people] with chronic disease, the medical system in the United States may be better than the system in England." I am incredulous that a person reporting on scientific studies would leap to this conclusion from such thin data. Their statement is irresponsible and potentially damaging. But in this climate of mistrust of Obama’s healthcare reform, perhaps it was intended to be.

I decided to Google more data for my own information. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall life expectancy in the United States is 75.7 years for men and 80.8 years for women as of 2010. In Great Britain, life expectancy for those born between 2007 and 2009 is 77.7 years for men and 81.9 years for women, according to the U.K. Office for National Statistics.

Statistics can be found to support either side of most arguments.

The authors of this recent report also state that death rates among Americans were about the same as the English in younger age groups. This tells me that healthcare is not better or worse in America (or an effect would be seen in all ages), but that end of life attitudes are different. Toni also identifies this difference in end of life attitudes and comments that UK doctors 'rule with an iron rod' (with regard to end of life care). I would suggest that it is more of an 'ethical iron rod'. All end of life decision-making in the NHS is based on a framework, which is not about funds but about quality of life. If Americans are living longer but living those months or years on ventilators, possibly conscious but most likely not, then what's the point?

(Although the full report isn't available online, these articles give more detail about the results):

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Flavor of The Nation

This week: is the US a one-flavor nation?


So there I was indulging myself with some hard candy/sweets stolen from the Little Guy’s Halloween stash. Unbelievably, the first three I put in my mouth were so revolting I had to spit them out. Cinnamon, effing hot cinnamon and weird, spicy cinnamon! What is it with Americans and their penchant for cinnamon? Everything here is cinnamon flavored.

Seven out of ten boxes of cereal in a supermarket will be cinnamon flavored, as are many pastries. What I’ve never understood however, is cinnamon chewing gum. It’s supposed to freshen your breath not make you smell like a halitosis-suffering dragon! And cinnamon flavored breath mints – isn’t that an oxymoron?

My fave cinnamon item however, has to be the tooth pick. I mean why go a second without the delightful taste of cinnamon in your mouth?

Americans have a huge sweet tooth in general and I have to be very careful when buying baked beans. Most cans of beans have a very sugary taste, even when they’re not too high in sugar content. (Tip- for more savory beans in the US, buy the cans labeled vegetarian.)

What, to my mind, should be a savory meal, is often laced with spices, and god knows what. Last Thanksgiving, I made a sweet potato casserole from a Williams-Sonoma (very posh) recipe that was so sweet I had to start again with half the recommended sugar and maple syrup. Half way through the first attempt I seriously thought I was making the pudding/dessert!

Oh how I miss sensible sweets like Parma Violets, even though they tasted like my grandmother’s pocket handkerchiefs.!


If we’re entering a debate on who has the more discriminating palate—Americans or Europeans—we can end it now. I know as well as anyone that Americans have four major food groups—salt, sugar, fat and pizza. And, as Toni points out, they tend to flavor everything they possibly can with cinnamon.

Back in the States, I put cinnamon on my toast, on apples, on pastries, in cider and any number of other food items. The only reason Americans no longer need to sprinkle cinnamon on everything is that everything now comes with cinnamon in it. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with it; having been weaned on cinnamon, I rather enjoy it. In fact, I think I’ll go see if we have any in the spice rack. Coincidentally, we’re having pizza for dinner tonight—a little cinnamon will surely perk things up.

But before I go on, I need to digress a bit due to a word Toni used: Savory. I rarely heard it in America outside of gravy commercial, but here, people use it all the time: “You can’t put (food item) out now, it’s a savory!” or “These dishes can’t go together, one is a savory.”

I’ve kept silent for nearly nine years, but now I have to ask: “Just what the f*%k is that supposed to mean?” Is “savory”—along with what is and what is not—taught to little British children? It must be, for they use the word with great solemnity. I might not know what it means, but I know it is taken very seriously. When someone tells me I cannot have such and such because it is not a savory, well, that is not something I am prepared to argue with.

I suppose we don’t bother with it in America because—getting back to Toni’s subject—the line between a main course and dessert is very fine indeed. As Toni discovered, they are virtually interchangeable—you just need to add a smidge more sugar—and some cinnamon—to make almost anything into a dessert.

Cinnamon Apples

I’d like to think that my taste buds have shaken off the shocking sweetness and saltiness of American food and have come to appreciate the more subtle flavors of Continental cuisine. I have, after all, grown fond of haggis, fish-and-chips and the other major UK food group: curry. But when it comes to candy, I am afraid I find the local offerings a bit tame. The sweet tarts aren’t as sweet or as tart, the sour drops aren’t as sour and there isn’t any cinnamon in anything.

And, seriously, what is up with the Parma Violets? Whose idea was it to make a candy out of a dryer sheet?

What do you think of the new-found flavors in your host country?

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Seeking Familiar Comfort

This week sees Mike feeling a little under the weather, and it’s prompted a variation on home sickness:


When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Robert Louis Stevenson - The Land of Counterpane

That has been one of my favorite poems since I was a child, especially when I was sick and in bed, as I am now. (And, no, it is not The Man Flue, I have an ear infection and a fever, thank you very much, but I’ll soldier on despite the pain.) Appropriately enough, I do have three pillows at my head, but unfortunately, my toys these days consist of a BlackBerry, a WiFi enabled laptop and a box of tissues. Useful, to be sure, but not as much fun as leaden soldiers.

As a rule, I attempt to avoid illness, especially now when I know that, in my misery, I will not be able to surround myself with the familiar comforts of home.

As a sick-bed must-have, Campbell’s Chicken Rice Soup is number one with a bullet. Dress it up with extra rice, some garlic salt and there is no better cure-all this side of a Jewish Grandmother’s kitchen. Tragically, it is unavailable here. I look for it all the time (always nice to have a few cans in the larder, just in case) but have never found it. This, naturally, has led to some experimentation with native ingredients. Bad idea.

Nyquil is also among the missing. As is a qualified pain reliever. British aspirin, in addition to being doled out in packets of sixteen tablets, has the curative properties of tap water, and the various aspirin substitutes are not far behind. I think it must have something to do with what we are brought up with—the drugs we take as children must get into our chemical structure, making us immune to foreign drugs. This is why I always have a large bottle of Aleve on hand—it is the only drug that seems to work for me, and I have to have it shipped in from the States.

To be fair, there are a few indigenous comforts I am learning to adopt to ease my convalescence along. The main one is tea, simply because they have better tea over here and there is nothing like a nice cup of tea when you are feeling poorly. Add to that a steaming cup of Lemsip at bedtime and you can forget about American drugs. For four hours, at least.

But I know I’d be up and around by now if I just had a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Rice Soup.


If you look in my medicine cabinet you’ll find Dioralyte, the kids’ diarrhoea-stopper and general miracle powder, Tyrozets, the throat number and general miracle lozenge, and Feminax, the answer to any cramping woman’s prayers. I can’t find anything close in the US so every British guest is asked to bring at least one of each in lieu of the usual Cadbury’s chocolate, Branston pickle or Marmite. (Yes, I sacrifice all of those for decent British drugs.)

I can’t say I agree with Mike’s assertion that American drugs are better/stronger than their British counterparts. When I showed my lady doctor the list of ingredients on my Feminax packet she was aghast that the stuff (codeine) was sold over the counter and advised me to be very careful. Given that I am usually parenting at least one child, I usually take half the recommended dose of Feminax unless I really want to pretend they don’t inhabit my world. Powerful stuff.

And then there are the British foods and drinks I consider must-have’s for recovery from anything:

  • Lucozade. Vile, orange, fizzy stuff that meant (in our house) that you were really quite poorly. It served the same purpose as Gatorade, replacing the stuff you lose when you’re dehydrated and can’t eat, but (dare I say it) tasted even worse. Ah, good times. Pop over to the web site BTW, they’re giving away an I-Phone an hour.
  • Night Nurse – Actually, it’s probably exactly the same as NyQuil, but doesn’t the name just scream TLC – if you know what I mean? That reminds me of the conversation I once had with my paediatrician when one of my kids had really bad flu. I mentioned that the Night Nurse was working wonderfully, and noticed a momentary look of shock on her face. I realised that she thought I had hired a night nurse to deal with the child through the night, and immediately clarified the situation. Despite being English, I am not royalty!

Vicks Vapour Rub– spread so thickly over your chest that it makes your eyes sting and stream for hours. You can actually buy this in the US, but it doesn’t seem to be the staple that it was for me as a child and my kids won’t let me anywhere near them with the thick gooey stuff ever since I put some under my sons nose and accidentally got it on his chapped lips. He screamed so loudly I think the neighbours were a little concerned. Americans go for the gentler versions of Vicks – vaporisers, light creams and other namby-pamby treatments.

Oh and as Mike says, soup is always good. Only for me it’s Heinz Tomato Soup all the way.

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Colo(u)r of Winter

What does the onset of winter mean to you? Here, Mike and Toni share their thoughts:


We’re having a lovely autumn here in Sussex. Nothing to compare to the autumn colors back where I came from, but it’s unfair to make that comparison, as there is nothing in this world as fetching as a New England Autumn. Still, it’s doing its best, with red, gold and orange hues mixed with deep shades of green contrasted against the crystal blue sky.

Sorry, but autumn always makes me wax eloquent, or try to.

The good thing about autumn here, as opposed to back in the States, is when the red, gold and orange leaves fall from the trees, the green will stay behind. For the most part, green is the color of winter (along with the grey sky, but I can deal with that) and I like it a lot more than the white of the frozen tundra I used to have to endure.

In my view, green is a perfectly acceptable color for winter. I imagine it is like living below the Mason Dixon line, where winter doesn’t always mean a visit from temperatures that are best left in the laboratory for experiments to discover how noble gasses behave under extreme conditions. White is nice, in its place, but green is glorious, especially when it means I don’t have to shovel my roof.

But this winter, after nine blustery, brooding and bracing but (largely) snow-free British winters, we are planning a mid-season trip back to my homeland to introduce ourselves to the newest member of my family. And there is a chance—a slight one, to be sure—that I may be momentarily captivated by the serene, snowy landscape that will certainly await us. I put myself in danger of falling prey to memories of ice skating on the mill pond, tobogganing down the hill in the Town Park and cups of cocoa with marshmallows to warm us as we return—toes tingling, cheeks glowing and noses running—to the warmth of a familiar kitchen. I am just as certain, however, that after a few days of it, I will remember all the reasons I grew to loath the weeks between mid-November and the beginning of April and long for a return to the green of a Sussex winter.

And, besides, ice skating is way over rated.

As I write this it's Halloween and unseasonably warm in Chicago, thank goodness. There's nothing worse than Trick or Treating in a gale force wind or torrential rain, both of which are perfectly normal for this time of year. Given what we are about to experience (ie. winter) , warmth at this time of year is bitter sweet for Chicagoans. We know that within a month, we could be plunged into sub zero temps, the likes of which most Brits could never imagine. I thought it was cold growing up in the north east of England, but apparently I didn't even know the meaning of cold.
As Mike mentioned, not only does it get cold, but it gets barren too. The leaves fall off most of the trees and everyone's lawns disappear. When I first moved here I couldn't believe the sight of once well-groomed gardens looking like nuclear fallout scenes for the entire winter.
Yes, the snow is pretty - for a while. But months and months of shoveling (we city swellers don't tend to own snow-blowers) and salting wear thin very quickly. The salt plays havoc with your shoe leather and hardwood floors, and dogs tend to have to wear dog booties to protect their paws. (There's going to be fun in the Expat household the first time we try to wrestle new dog into them, I predict.)
Downtown there's a free ice rink where yes, families have great fun  - until the first signs of frostbite appear. Seriously. Our weather reporters constantly tell us how to spot and treat minor frostbite incidents, and parents are warned not to take children out unless absolutely necessary. Oh yes, (memories flooding back now) as parents of young children, you very quickly learn where the best and/or cheapest indoor play facilities are.
Fashion goes out the window as the floor length parkas come out. Many people here still wear furs, and although I don't, I have to admit that there's nothing better for keeping out those freezing winds as they whistle down from Canada, gathering speed across Lake Michigan. Boots with heals are relegated to the closet and 'sensible' footwear reigns supreme. (Lovely aren't they?) Last year I was so fed up with the cold I even wore a black balaclava (ski mask) to the horror of my children.  (I sensibly pointed out that since no one could actually see who I was, I wasn't embarrassed in the least.)  
Oh and your nose hairs freeze too. A very strange sensation indeed!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Trick or Treat

Halloween memories are completely different depending on which side of the Pond you grew up on:


I grew up with a Trick-or-Treat style Halloween, so it was a bit disconcerting to find it absent here. Now, however, I appreciate not having to stock up on candy over the week leading up to the 31st of October, and then put up with teenagers with no discernable costume (unless you count being dressed in untied sneakers, dropping trousers and a hooded sweatshirt as a costume) knocking on your door and expecting you to hand over the goods.

Trick-or-Treating is as American as a Post Office massacre; Halloween is not; the British do celebrate it. Halloween decorations are all over town as I write this. There will be parties and special events; I just don’t expect to see any Trick-or-Treating. That is an American tradition.

And as an American, I looked forward to Halloween for the candy. When we were little, we would dress up as tramps (old clothes and soot smeared on your face), ghosts (drape an old sheet over your head and have your mom cut eye holes out of it) and other easy to concoct costumes and make the rounds of the nearby houses. This was a difficulty for us as we lived in a very rural area, but my dad could often be convinced to drive us to the nearest town.

All families participated in Trick-or-Treating, and some looked forward to it almost as much as we did. They spent the week before doing up the house in black crêpe paper, gossamer spider webs and fake blood, and making popcorn balls, pumpkin cookies or candied apples to hand out the local children. They would have been disappointed if no one arrived.

As children, even in such a rural area, we managed to drag home a respectable haul, at east enough to see us through to November, where the next candy-laden holiday awaited.

And on 1 November, as we rode the bus to school, we would see the trees along the streets streaming with toilet paper, and the town squares slick with broken eggs and smashed pumpkins. When I finally grew old enough to join the crowd responsible for this, Halloween took on a whole new meaning.

In those times, nocturnal high jinks were expected, and accepted. The nearby town of Stuyvesant Falls had a long-standing tradition of the teenagers setting the bridge on fire and the local police and fire department trying to stop them. It isn’t as bad as it sounds: the bridge had a steel deck and sat over a creek. Lighting a bonfire in the middle of the bridge did no damage and had no chance of spreading. So the kids would plot and the cops would chase them and the firemen would gather in the firehouse just up the road to enjoy a few drinks and wait.

Sometime during the small hours of the morning, the bridge would be set alight, the cops would try to capture those responsible and the firemen would roll down the hill and have a few more beers while they watched it burn. It was good fun for all.

One year, a neighbour who still had an outhouse on her property that she was planning to remove, let us tip it over, so we could experience the mischief her generation used to visit on the neighbourhood. I was privileged to participate in this historic event, but all in all, I have to say, it wasn’t as much fun as setting the bridge on fire.


I'm a bit remiss this year as my Halloween decorations aren't up yet. I did get the box (yes, box) down and it's all ready I promise. Look -

here it is, ghoulish plastic fencing for the front, a fake gravestone, and lots of fake spider web stuff to stretch over the fence. My neigbours have had their fronts decorated for two weeks. Halloween is huge in this neigborhood.

I do have three gi-normous bags of sweeties ready for the Trick or Treaters, although we're usually out Trick or Treating ourselves and I end up with twice as much as we started off with.

In our neck of the woods, Halloween is a great family event. Everyone walks around the streets, telling each other which houses are the spookiest and where the best candy can be found. Even people who don't have kids get into the spirit and often dress up to greet us. There's one particular house which is decorated so well it's only in the last few years that the Little Guy has plucked up the courage to walk through the gate!

It's in the costume department that I really come into my own however. All those years of enforced needlework classes at school really pay off come October. In years past my kids have been everything from Bo Peep (complete with paper sheep dangling from the waist band and a visor worn backwards and upside down as the large bonnet), chimney sweeps (black clothes and a painted toilet brush. New, of course), and Marie Antoinette with her head sewn back on (crinoline made from scratch and bloody stitch marks round the neck).

Look at these cute babies (teenagers now) - Flapper dress hand made BTW. 

This year I think I've surpassed all previous efforts however, with Recyclo-bot........

Take one large cardboard box, a computer that's ready for the trash, silver paint, duct tape and a hot glue gun. How fab is this? The sleeves are the legs of an old astronaut costume, and the helmet (still being worked on) is a plastic plant pot covered in foil. Even better is that the 2nd grade lesson "theme" this year is recycling.

People may bang on about how commercial Halloween is etc etc. but this big kid loves it!

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

How I Became an Expat

This week Mike and Toni reveal the intimate details surrounding their decisions to marry foreigners. You have been warned.


It all started in Ireland, but the story of how and why I ended up there would, itself, fill a book. And some day I hope it will, but for now, let’s just say I went to Ireland. Let’s also agree that, during a time in my life, escaping to Ireland had been a very attractive prospect, so during my trip to Ireland, I did have, in the back of my mind, the thought that I might have ended up living there.

Happily, that had not been necessary. As fetching as the country turned out to be, and as friendly the people and inviting the Guinness, I just didn’t feel the country calling to me in any meaningful way. In short, I would not have chosen to live there, which reinforced the idea that Americans, who already live in the greatest country in the world, are best to stay put.

As it happens, while in Ireland, I fell in love with a young woman from England. Two months later, when I went to Sussex to visit her, I found myself feeling strangely at home. My initial thought—as I looked around me while dragging my suitcase along the sidewalk and following a man who turned out to be my future father-in-law–was that I could happily live there. This was, however, irrelevant: if anyone was going anywhere, it would be to America because, as anyone can tell you, everyone wants to live in America.

But someone forgot to tell my beloved this, and she surprised me—during a lovely walk along the Brighton prom where we discussed the ins and outs of a long-distance relationship—by revealing that she would prefer to not live in America. We went to bed that night with the issue unresolved.

As I lay on a futon in a spare bedroom smaller than an American walk-in closet, I mulled over this surprising turn of events and, during those dark hours, determined that I could, and would, become an expatriate.

At breakfast the following morning, I informed this woman—who, in truth, I barely knew—that I would move to England if she would have me, and the ensuing conversation gave rise to the most hypothetical marriage proposal in history:

“Then we could live together,” she suggested.

“Well, if I gave up my job and moved over here, I would want you to marry me. So, if I did move over here, would you marry me?”

“I suppose, if you did move over here, then I would marry you.”

The rest, as they say, is history.


It's to no one's surprise that I ended up an expat (or would that be "immigrant" since I'm now a citizen?). My mother always thought I'd live abroad, and indeed, I didn't take a gap year off as I thought I'd wander the planet for a few decades before finally realising that I should probably get myself a real job, which would in turn, necessitate further studying at the ripe old age of say, about 35. It's rather surprising however, that my expat-ness should be in the USA. I had visions of me trailing around some hot, dusty Mediterrenean country or beyond, rather than surviving the torture that is a Chicago winter.

There I was, working for the corporate behemoth in London, when in walks a giant American on secondment from the Dallas office. Two years later he was back on the plane and that was that. We split up. Then we got back together again and tried the long distance relationship thing. In those days there was no e-mailing, and his hand-writing was so bad I used to have to ring him up to ask what on earth his letters said. Anyway, long, complicated story short, we married in London and when my visa eventually came through about a month or two later, I hopped on a plane to Dallas and joined my shiny new husband. None of this "Do I fit here?" malarkey. I mean, it's the USA fer cryin' out loud. They speak English. How hard can it be? Well, let's just say you could write a book about it.

PS.  If Mike has the most hypothetical marriage proposal in history, mine has to be the most confused (at least at the beginning). So there we were at dinner, the Ball & Chain having popped back from the States to tie up some work, and us trying out this ridiculous long-distance relationship. To say things were a bit tense would be a gargantuan understatement - me chattering insanely, about anything and everything, the B&C - well I wasn't quite sure what was going on in his head.

At one point he looks at me and says "It's all a bit difficult this long distance relationship isn't it?", to which I hastily replied "Oh, I don't want to talk about it now. Can we just finish dinner first please?" Poor chap had been about to propose and I thought we were about to become history. Bloody typical.
And the rest, as they say.....

What's your story - 12,000 words or less, please ;)

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Manning Up

This week’s guest poster is Anthony Windram of Culturally Discombobulated – The misadventures and ramblings of a Brit living in the US.
Visit him at


America emasculated me. Not literally, of course—immigration officers did not neuter me upon arrival as if I were an overly virile alley-cat—but there are moments, living in the US, when I feel America has, figuratively speaking, emasculated me, which in fairness, is a lot less messy.

I should have realized this may be the case when, before I had my visa interview, I had to undergo a medical examination—a thorough medical examination—where I had to strip down to my boxer shorts and put on a fetching medical gown made of paper. My nerves over this medical weren’t helped by the fact that the doctor appeared as enthused at the prospect of prodding and pinching my pasty carcass as I was. She took my pulse, checked my blood and then gave the dreaded command.

“Open the gown and pull your boxer shorts down.”

“Erm…all the way down?”

“Yes,” she snapped back. “I need to check that you’re the gender you claim to be.”

“This all seems a little unnecessary. You could easily verify that by looking at my Adam’s apple? See, there it is,” I said, pointing to my throat.

“However much we might both prefer that – no!”

So down went my boxers.

“You have to remember,” she said, while checking that I was indeed the gender I’d claimed, “you’re moving to a paranoid country. And you can pull those back up now.”

Beginning with that experience, I feel my masculinity is being intermittently questioned here. My relationship with America may be varied and complex, but what it certainly is not is a “bromance”. Of all the things I find difficult about living here, relating to and socializing with other males is pretty high on the list. So far, I’m more comfortable in the company of American women than American men.

Put a group of men together in a social setting and conversation soon flounders; interesting and diverse conversation is not a high priority. As a collective, we are all about the lowest common denominator, and there are two components every man needs in his social arsenal to enable interaction without the investment of thought: sports talk and bad humour. Woe be to the man not skilled at either.

And in America that man is me.

Component One - Sports Talk:

All those sports facts taking up far too much room in my brain are now utterly useless; a lifetime of knowledge made redundant at a stroke. Where I was previously a sure thing in a pub quiz, now I’m a dunce. When people mention Roger Clemens and a Brett Favre, I’ve no idea who they are, and while it is true that soccer is growing in popularity, there are only so many times you can drag the conversation back to your particular sport. If people are trying to watch the Superbowl they don’t, in my experience, appreciate it if you spend the whole of the game talking about why Dario Gradi was such a great soccer manager or the tragedy that was Jimmy White’s failure to win the snooker World Championship.

Component Two - Bad Humour:

The rhythm and beats that make up my humour are not necessarily the rhythm and beats that make up their humor. For generations now all British male interactions have observed the time-honoured tradition we like to call “taking the piss”. It is second nature to us. Whatever you do, no matter how good or bad, I will take the piss out of it.

But taking the piss is an equal opportunity offender and you are encouraged, nay expected, to do the same to me. And it’s not about being snarky, it’s merely our screwed-up, passive-aggressive way of showing affection to each other. Not so here: I went bowling once and I did okay—not amazing, but not bad—and other men actually high-fived me.

It felt so wrong.

I didn’t want to be congratulated, what I really wanted was for them to take the piss out of me and not say, “Good game, good game,” as if they were doing a bad Bruce Forsyth impression. To repeat my early thought, it felt wrong.

Thankfully, in such social situations there is also a third component that I completely forgot to mention earlier, a component that proves to be the great equalizer when it comes to cultural misunderstandings borne out of components one and two.

Component Three: Alcohol.


My experience has, thankfully, been the reverse of Anthony’s, starting with the fact that I wasn’t required to pull down my trousers and display my naughty bits as part of the initiation ritual.

(I weep for you, America, I really do. You used to be proud and brave and noble, now you’re a coward and a bully. With a fetish. But I digress.)

In America, I lacked the two components for successful male bonding, whereas here, while I still don’t have them, people assume I did back in the States.

I was never a follower of sports and therefore could never join in those types of conversations, which made my manliness suspect. Here, no one expects me to know the rules of Cricket or the finer points of Rugby so, in this regard, I get off quite lightly.

And my humor, although developed in the States, seems to have found a home here. I wrote my book with an American audience in mind, but it has done much better among the locals. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I am merely a second-generation American, the product of a refugee from Barrow-in-Furness.

That would also explain why I like the beer.

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

What's crossing the Pond these days?

Mike's gallavanting around northern France at the moment and without a computer (he says) so it's just me, Expat Mum this week.

I'll take this opportunity to update my US/UK knowledge if you don't mind.

This past week, a friend in the UK commented on "how very American" it is that I have a dog lady who takes my energetic dog off a few days a week. Dog lady has an exercise centre/center where Dusty can run and run (I can't even let her off the leash in Chicago), and she works on some basic obedience too. (I've blogged about it here if you want the long version.)

I tell you, it's BIG business here. Not just dog walkers, but doggie day cares and doggie fitness centres/centers (oh forget it, I'll alternate the spellings). And about a mile from me there's a new Pooch Hotel which would put the Hyatt chain to shame.

It got me thinking about other "very American" things and wondering which ones have crossed the Pond.

Self-service checkouts? They are all over the place here and I did notice them at larger shops in England this year. My question -  are they better than the American ones? I fall for them every time - "Oh, let's not stand in line" I think. Twenty minutes later I'm arguing with the robotic voice that I have, in fact, placed the damn bananas in the bag. There's a reason they have an employee specifically for self service assistance. It never works.

Drive-through banking? Again, all over the place here but I can't recall seeing any in England. To be fair, I don't go in for much banking in England, not having an account, so I'd be interested to know.

Mail trolleys/carts? Gone are the days when postmen/mail carriers lugged huge sacks over one shoulder. (To this day I can see our poor family postman humped over to one side carrying that thing down our street.) Chicago mail carriers push the stuff around in a wheeled contraption. It has one handle at the front and two huge bags on either side. No heavy lifting whatsoever. What about UK posties?

And still on the mail subject - there are lots of domestic mail boxes in the US and relatively few doors with letter boxes/slots. No one I know in England has a mail box though. However, if you fancy one, there are several companies that sell them, including this little number which I think is rather fabulous. Anyone?

And finally, one thing that, tragically, doesn't seem to be wending it's way from the UK to the US is the brilliant restaurant hand-held device that waiters use to both take your order and process your credit card. None of that farting about putting your card in the wallet, having the waiter take it off somewhere and doing god knows what with it, then bringing it back for your signature (which they never, ever look at anyway). If you look at this trade website you'd think they were everywhere, but here in Chicago where there's practically a restaurant for every resident, I have yet to see one. (I do admit I need to get out more however.)

So, - you cosmopolitan bunch you,- have I missed anything? Fill me in.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Expat View of London

This week we are delighted to have guest blogger Erin from 'Cross the Pond, to talk about being an expat in London.

Seven months ago I boarded a plane with my husband of six and half years, our two-and-a-half old daughter and our 11-week-old son to move from our comfortable and happy life in New York City to the wilds of London. We didn’t have a clue. I was completely game, thinking it would be an adventure for us all and we’d skip through the historic streets of London singing pub songs, quoting Shakespeare to the jolly Brits while eating bubble and squeak and washing it down with a stout English pint.

So delusional! Okay, maybe I didn’t really think it would be that great, but I did have a bit of a rude awakening.

For a country that has had women as Queen and Prime Minister (at the same time), they are not very women friendly – bank-wise at least. Because I don’t work in the UK our bank would not allow me to open an account – not even a joint account. We moved here but without a permanent address (we were still in corporate housing) so they would not allow it. I still don’t have an account in my name – just a joint account. I felt like we had gone back in time to 1950 and I was the little housewife depending on my man to bring home the bacon for me to fry up in a pan! After 20 years of working my arse off it was the biggest pill to swallow. I still resent it.

But once I came to terms with that I started to look around the place. It is lovely, and historic and has that wonderful feeling of being European: old, fascinating and full of possibilities. I felt like a kid again...until I realized the new prime minister was born the same year I was – six months AFTER me!! Shocking. How could I possibly live in a place where the guy running the joint is younger than me? I need supervision and have little business running the household – how could he possibly be qualified? I consider myself a kid but I guess I’m not if the leaders of the free world are of my generation!

There have been some serious culture shocks. I figured it would be an easy transition from one English speaking country (one that was previously owned by England) to another. Wrong. The language isn’t the problem – although some of the accents (Cockney, Liverpool, Scottish) I’m straining to understand. It’s just different. For example: the portion sizes are much smaller here. I like that – a lot. Few places have built-in closets – ghastly! I’ve had to give up half my wardrobe because I don’t have the space. People are not as welcoming – they stick to themselves – very polite and lovely, mind you – but no one is inviting us for drinks, etc. I’ve been told it’s because we Americans can’t differentiate ‘acquaintance’ from ‘friend.’ Maybe not – but I still want to have a dinner party with people other than Americans. Paper towel rolls are a joke here – give me Bounty!! And don’t get me started on the nickel and diming: council tax, water and gas, electric, a license to watch TV – madness! And television – you must have cable or a giant library, there is no debate here.

But all said and done London and New York are a lot alike while being completely different. While NY is really a lively, happening, living-breathing entity unto itself – the city that doesn’t sleep, the city so nice they named it twice, etc. - London is steeped in something so extraordinary you can feel it in your bones. This is the land of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Churchill, Queen Elizabeth (I and II!), the guy from House, Stonehenge, Victorian everything – it’s the place where all that truly speaks to me was born. And I can visit all of them (except for the guy from House as they have laws against stalking)! All the great castles and churches are within driving distance. I love the Museum of London and the Victorian and Albert Museum – to name just two. Even as I think about it I get excited wondering when we’ll see it all – and we will see it all. It’s fantastic.

But New York is still home in my heart. I miss the bustle of the subway and Times Square, Broadway, my favourite haunts, my office, my old apartment and buddies in Brooklyn; hotdogs and Fourth of July bbq’s; great television and TiVo; and H&H bagels with a schmear. Heavy sigh. It’ll still be there when we get back with the Statue of Liberty welcoming us home. I’ll be bringing half of Fortnum and Mason back with me - though.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Now is the winter....

As sunmer ends and the nights close in, let us pull up a chair and ponder the winter to come:


A few years ago I flew into Heathrow and the pilot announced that it was "63 and cloudy" in England. After what I can only assume was a silent smirk, he quickly added, "But then it's always 63 and cloudy here isn't it?" And yes, it appears that way. Hands up how many of you (in the UK) have said in the past few years that the winters don't seem as harsh as they used to be?

Forget your glorious English summer - How I long for an English winter.

Although it is still warm and sunny here in Chicago at the moment, my heart is already sinking at the thought of another long and frozen winter. Chicago doesn't even get the worst snow, but that's often because apparently "it's too cold for snow". Yes folks, if we get snow it's a sign that things are warming up.

Over the next month or so, people all over the northern plains will be preparing for winter as follows:

•Mulch the gardens if you don't want to lose all your perennials. (There is a very limited number of perennials that make it through anyway.)

•Prune all the dead and crisp branches down to the ground.

•Buy in huge quantities of salt to keep the sidewalks navigable.

•Train your dog to wear dog booties, as the salt can be very painful on their paws.

•Join every local toddler gym and indoor play facility (if you have small children) as they won't be playing out between November and March.

•Match up all the gloves and mittens - they can be needed at a moment's notice.

•Make sure all the snow suits/pants fit.

•Put away all your fashion boots and coats. Parkas and snow boots are the only option.

•Find at least one snow shovel. (In our case, have a back up for when you leave it outside and someone helps himself to it.)

Although we don't have the continuous darkness that Mike refers to, we do have months and months of sub-zero temperatures. On a really bad day the weather guys on TV will tell us to stay indoors and give us "frostbite signs" to look out for.

Now I've depressed myself and it's sunny outside. Must go and make use of the sunshine while I can.


The days are closing in, a sharpness is creeping into the evening air and a tinge of yellow is highlighting the hedgerows. Autumn is here, which means winter cannot be far behind.

Not that I mind so much; winters in Sussex cannot hold a candle to the winters I left behind in Upstate NY. Oh, there is the odd year when we get more than our share of snow, when the traffic snarls and the sidewalks ice up and everyone starts to grumble (it’s what we do best in Britain, after all) about why we can’t cope with a little snow. (I’ll tell you why: it only snows about once every ten years here, you don’t stockpile road salt and maintain a fleet of snow plows. No one even owns a snow shovel. That’s because you don’t need to, so stop whining! Just clean up what you can with what you have to hand, wait for the rest to melt and thank your lucky stars that you don’t know what REAL snow is like.)

Anyway, aside from the odd blizzard that socks us with, oh, two or three inches of snow and the few days the thermometer dips below the freezing mark, winters over here are a doddle. For me, anyway; people who moved here from Florida or Southern California must think they’ve landed in hell, but it’s paradise to anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line.

What it lacks in cold, snow and ice, however, it makes up for in darkness. Don’t forget that even southern Britain, latitude-wise, is on a par with Labrador, and while the Gulf Stream keeps the weather relatively mild, there is nothing you can do about the sun and its relation to the earth’s axis.

At the nadir of the year, it’s still dark when I get to work, already dark when I leave, and grey in between. I only get to see the sun on the weekends and then only when it is visible through the cloud cover that seems to appear at the end of October and not dissipate until April.

This is the time of year when pubs come into their own; there is nothing like an evening in a cozy pub by a wood fire in the inglenook fireplace to keep winter at bay. And British ale is specially brewed to contain all the vitamin D you need to offset the lack of sun. Either that, or it makes you not mind the lack of sun so much. Either way, it’s how you get through the winter.

In spring, you can start drinking lager again.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Say What?

Foreign nurses in Norfolk, England are receiving a crash course in euphemism after patients asking to "spend a penny" found themselves being escorted to a hospital shop. Mike and Toni reflect on how easy it is to make similar mistakes even when you’re speaking the same language.


Having married an American (a southern one at that) I’m used to hearing words and phrases that have no discernable meaning, and I’ve given up trying to figure them out. When my husband first said “If I had my druthers” I didn’t know whether he was talking about a favorite pair of shoes or a pet name for his grandma. Honestly! On further inspection, I’ll admit that it’s not a great stretch to see that “druthers” derives from the words “would rather”, but when you’re put on the spot, the meaning isn’t quite on the tip of one’s tongue.

Similarly, when I was first asked for my “John Hancock”, I stood staring at the sales assistant, wondering whether he needed a good slap in the face. How was I to know that your John Hancock is your signature? (The signature of John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence is the most flamboyant and therefore the most recognizable.) And when fellow students on my Masters Degree program announced that they would be “boning up on” various things, I thought this was rather too much information personally. Of course, it isn’t rude in the least and means to study (or swot up on) a subject.

Hubby’s conversation is liberally peppered with euphemisms such as “crying Uncle” or just “uncle”, which of course, means to give up or surrender. (The origin of this is so debatable I’m not even going to bother with it.) He also says he’s going to “put something up” which I quickly learned is a southern way of announcing he’s going to put something away as opposed to getting the attic ladders out.

Americans are masters of the euphemism when it comes to unsavory or personal matters. No one dies, they “pass away” or have “bought the farm”; complete nutters “have issues” or “baggage”, if someone is downright bloody rude, they are “rough around the edges” and anyone who drinks too much is obviously “self-medicating”. (A great one to use if you ever manage to drink too much in public is to say you were “over-poured”.)

Yet again, a whole nuther language!


The first time I knew I was dealing with a foreign language was on my first trip to England, when my future father-in-law asked it I fancied a “wee dram.” Naturally, I had no idea what he was on about. But then he’s from Glasgow, and even English people can’t understand them. So I remained confused, over one point of language or another, for some time.

My favorite source of confusion, like the hapless Norfolk nurses, was over “spend a penny.” “Visit a man about a dog” I could deal with, as it was not much of a stretch from seeing the same man about a horse. But a penny? Especially when the toilet cover-charge in Victoria station has just gone up to 30 pence! It just didn’t—and still does not—make any sense.

But I have had just as good a time confusing the British with my American idioms. “Boondoggle,” “Charlie horse,” “going Postal” have all been met with odd stares and silence. The best, however, was committed by a co-worker from India who, while we were at a company picnic, noted that one of our number was wearing his “knickers.” This caused a great deal of mirth among the others, though I knew exactly what he meant: where I come from, short pants are called Knickerbockers, from the Dutch who had settled the area and left portions of their language behind (Dutch rub, Dutch Uncle, going Dutch, in Dutch with your wife, etc.). So shorts could be referred to as knickers there without many people raising an eyebrow. In Britain, however, it means you’ve been raiding your wife’s underwear drawer. Again.

After eight years, my wife and I have pretty much learned each other’s language. She’s used to me referring to what she calls “stair rods” as “a cow pissing on a flat rock” (for those of you scratching your heads, these both relate to really enthusiastic rain). My wife faffs and gets knackered, while I’m fidgety and get beat.

All in all, it’s an interesting exchange of culture. I’d like to go on, but it’s getting late, and I’m knackered.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

American Religion and British Secularism - A Few Surprises

This week, we're delighted to bring you guest poster Noble Savage. She's an American living in the UK and started blogging when she moved there in 2005. This week, she has something to say on religion in the UK versus the US:

Noble Savage:

Like a Plymouth pilgrim in reverse, I fled America for Britain to escape religious tyranny.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but only just.
When I see things like this on American street corners and someone like this on American TV screens -- spouting hate, ignorance and vitriol night after night, in the name of religion, patriotism and the aggrandized sense of moral superiority that accompanies both -- I do feel that I’ve escaped a way of life that, if I’d stayed, I would have undoubtedly struggled with and against. As an agnostic and then an atheist, I have always felt uncomfortable with the pervasiveness of organised religion in my home country and thought it ironic that a nation founded on principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state could be so dominated and divided by that mythical man in the sky.

When I moved to England as a young adult, I was a bit shocked at the lack of religion. As a 20-something living in London and hanging out with lefty liberals, this should have been unsurprising but still, it was. Even the rare few friends and acquaintances whom I eventually learned did attend church never proselytized or used their religious beliefs to openly judge my lifestyle or political opinions. If they did disagree with me or judge me, they had the quintessential British politeness to do so in the privacy of their own head or home. That’s not to say that the British never use their religious beliefs to shape their opinions and, consequently, the law, but it seems to be less pervasive and in-your-face than it is in the States.

The thing that strikes me as most odd about the UK’s secularism is the fact that, technically, it is a religiously-affiliated nation, run and represented by the Church of England. There is no separation of church and state, yet it remains fairly separate because of the populace’s laid-back attitude to religion. This is a nation where 33 per cent consider themselves atheist or agnostic and only 15 per cent attend church regularly. The comparative figures for America are 7 percent and around 40 per cent, respectively [figures from].

Nothing illustrates these differences more perfectly than in 2008, during the Democratic nomination process in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stood on a historic ballot. For the first time ever, America’s Democratic voters had to decide between a a black man or a woman. Rumblings and misgivings about each came from all quarters. But it was when a friend of mine quite rightly commented, “I can see either of them getting elected president before anyone who identified as atheist,” that I knew that even more than skin colour and even more than gender, religion holds a monopoly on American politics and culture.
For that reason, I’m quite happy to stay in merry ol’ England, where we have an admitted atheist for a Deputy Prime Minister and messages like this appear on the sides of buses. When it comes to religion, the UK is definitely my stop.

Post Script from Toni, our Brit in America:

I have little to add to Noble Savage's views except to say that if you're not a right-wing religious zealot, it's all a bit scary in the US at the moment.

I had a taste of the religious element as soon as moved here in 1990. Most people (in Dallas) were heavily involved in their (mostly Protestant) churches and were almost aghast when I confessed my non-attendance. Many offered to take me along to their church, never for a moment thinking that I had no intention of joining any church at any time. Even in Chicago (lots of Catholics, of which I am the lapsed variety) there's a much bigger percentage of church goers than in the UK.

All this I can live with however. I respect a person's right to practise a religion as long as my right to take a pass is respected in return.

What really annoys me is the religion that is inserted into American government despite the supposed separation of church and state. Having had many debates about this, the usual answer is that this country was founded by Christians and the entire Constitution envelops the Christian ethic. Never mind that they were trying to escape enforced religion, or that there are millions of Americans who don't have God and the Bible as the center of their belief system. And god help agnostists and atheists - we're all going to Hell in a handbasket apparently.

People who call themselves Christians are getting downright evil, as Nobel Savage showed above. This nasty side has always been apparent in the intolerance towards gays and lesbians, but now it's being directed against Muslims specifically, with Obama's middle name Hussein being interjected whenever possible to remind us that they think he's one of them.

I miss the tolerance in the UK and realise now that, like many, I took it for granted.