Sunday, April 25, 2010

Prom tiddly-de prom prom

With Prom season fast approaching, we take a look at this uniquely American import.


The English, I was told, were more sensible than their Colonial cousins and didn’t do proms. The concept was unheard of. Until about eight years ago. (Coincidentally, that’s when I arrived; you don’t think I brought the Prom Virus over with me or anything, do you?) And since then, the trend has been escalating.

Joanne of Dickies Suit Hire in the Bishopric traditionally supplies wedding apparel, but lately more and more of their business is going to outfitting teenagers for The Prom. According to Joanne the girls come in either looking for something low in the front, low in the back and halfway up their ass, or a bridal gown, but in a different color. They start as early as February, trying on different styles that cover or display their tattoos, belly button rings and spray-on tans and “have no concept of what constitutes a prom dress.” But there are a few, she says, who are just happy to be getting dressed up.

The latter might pay as little as £80 for a dress, the former, when you include hair pieces, shoes, fake tans and other accoutrements, can run as high as £800 ($1,200). And that doesn’t include limo hire, flowers, etc., etc, etc. (Can you say, ka-CHING?) The boys, of course, show up a week before and want a black tux for forty quid.

She showed me a picture of last year’s Prom King and he looked like the groom in an Arkansas wedding—meaning, of course, that he was very young. (You can still legally marry at the age of 15 in Arkansas, unless it’s a blood relative, then it’s 12. Cue rim-shot.)

But seriously, that is one of the biggest, and most important differences between the US and UK proms: the age. A senior in the US, going to her Senior Prom, is likely to be at least 17 or 18. She will have her own car (what, you don’t have a car? Loser!) and quite possibly a part time job. So while mommy and daddy may be expected to cover a portion of the damage, she and her beau can, and in my experience, often do, pay for their big night themselves.

In Britain, the giddy couple are 15 or 16 and have no problem putting their hand in their parent’s pocket when it comes to buying them their first big night out.  In the US, the prom, which comes very close to graduation, is looked upon as a sort of ceremonial induction into adulthood. Appropriate at 17 or 18, but 15?

Well, the genie is out of the bottle now, and you Brits are stuck with The Prom, just like you can’t stop Halloween. But, in my view, the prom is a bit like Halloween in that it is celebrated, but no one is quite certain why.

(For a bit more of my Prom views, visit my Postcards From Across the Pond blog.)


As Mike mentions, the American “prom” has crept across the Pond, although I doubt it will ever surpass the original for pomp and circumstance. We’ve all heard about the limos that seem to be de rigueur, and the over-the-top, over-priced WAG style prom dresses, but in many ways, there’s not much difference between the prom and what, in my day was the “leavers’ do”. Being an all-girls’ school, we invited the boys from the school up the road, and since we were all eighteen by the end of upper sixth, (not that anyone ever asked for proof) most of us had been in the pub and were a bit pissed when we got there. Apparently they don't let you in these days if it appears you've been imbibing.

In the US, the legal drinking age in all states now is 21. (I know.) This means that alcohol shouldn’t play a part in high school proms, but it does. To be honest, although teens do their share of silly-drinking over here, the culture is nothing like that of the UK. However, many schools make both students and their parents sign a contract regarding expected behaviour and consequences for infractions. An example of which is here.

Some proms are lock-down affairs, where no one is allowed in half an hour after it starts, no one can leave and come back, and sometimes they have to stay all night. It’s safe to say that all proms have a heavy parent/chaperone presence throughout the night. I don’t even remember there being many teachers at our leaving do’s and certainly not parent chaperones. What happens these days anyone?

The newest trend is the prom after-party. Have a quick Google of that one and you’ll find night clubs advertising their facilities for them. (Remember, these American kids can’t legally drink.) On some occasions, one or two families will allow their teens to rent a hotel suite (I know) and host a party. Sometimes the spoilt teen has the wherewithal to rent a hotel suite him or herself without the parents’ knowledge. This is where it can sometimes get out of control. Mind you – is this any different from going to someone’s house for an impromptu party when their parents are away at a family wedding for the weekend?

People in the UK who complain about yet another crass piece of American culture crossing the Pond must surely be just referring to the show-off elements of it rather than anything else, because the rest has been going on for decades.

What should we talk about next week?

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Sickness and In Health

Since Toni's celebrating twenty years with the Ball & Chain, our minds turned to wedding ceremonies on either side of the Pond.


I am no expert on British weddings, as—aside from my own, which was held in a registry office—I have only attended one.

This is my wedding, along with all the guests; doesn’t it look like my mother-in-law is holding a gun to my back?

Even so, I am aware of how they differ from America weddings.

First, there is the cost. Now I’m not saying a British wedding can’t be extravagant, but none I have heard of has rivalled the ones I attended in the States. One of my friends claimed to have spent $30,000 on his wedding. It was a hugely lavish affair with hundreds of guests, a fleet of limos, champagne bar, gourmet food and free drinks. I remember it as a riotous night and a great, though expensive, send off for the happy couple. They divorced four years later.

The wedding ceremony itself is not a lot different, but the events leading up to it, and the reception afterward, are definitely culture-specific. Bridal Showers are unheard of here. Instead, they have a Hen Night, which I won’t go too deeply into (the phenomenon deserves its own post) except to say they raucous, raunchy affairs that often require police intervention.

Likewise, the bachelor party is a bit more, shall we say, exuberant than the American counterpart, and make can make a prison riot seen tame by comparison.

The reception, especially a lavish one (e.g. $30,000) runs a bit differently as well. First, there is the announcing of the Bridal Party where everyone and anyone associated with the family is required to march in two-by-two as the MC calls out their names. Then the series of first dances, the money dance, and the circulation of the bride to all of her guest, ostensibly to say “Hi, thanks for coming” but in reality is providing you with the opportunity to hand over more cash.

That’s the other thing about American receptions; they may cost a bundle, but it’s not as if there isn’t a return on the investment. My friend never told me how much income was derived from his big bash, but I know my erstwhile partner and I handed over a grand, so if you do the math, that 30K might not have been such a bad investment after all.

But the tradition that leaves my British friends shaking their head in wonder is the cutting of the cake. When an American couple cuts the cake, they feed each other the first piece. Ahhhh, you say, but the tradition almost insists that this be used as an excuse to smash wedding cake into each other’s faces. Really, the crowd expects it and would be disappointed if it didn’t happen.

So if you’re a Brit invited to an American wedding and see the two main participants grinding cake into their partner’s face, it is NOT the signal to start a food fight.


Although American and British church weddings look the same, with the white meringue dress (guilty) and the towering cake, I was surprised at how many differences there really are, including the run-up. You can really put your foot in it if you're attending a wedding on the "other" side of the Pond.

Being “part of a wedding” in the US is often a huge commitment both of time and money. If the couple has moved since their childhood, guests often have to travel thousands of miles and book an hotel, bridesmaids regularly pay for their own dresses and someone has to host (and finance) a shower. The groom’s parents don’t get off Scot-free either, as there’s a rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding for which they cough up.

In the UK although hen and stag parties are big, there are no showers, bridesmaids’ breakfasts or rehearsal dinners. There’s also a lot less fussing around before the wedding takes place too - the bride gets out of the car and walks straight up the aisle. Remember the state of Diana's gown when she emerged from the Royal carriage? Even she didn't have the opportunity to nip into a side room to straighten it out. About ten years ago I was a bridesmaid in a big fancy wedding here and we were at the church literally hours before the wedding ceremony. We dressed at the church, had hair and make-up done, then photos. Oh and, being the tallest bridesmaid I went down the aisle first. On my own. Before the bride and her father. Eek. In the UK, the bride and her escort walk down the aisle first, followed by the bridesmaids.

Bridesmaids don’t usually number more than a handful and there isn’t a corresponding number of groomsmen standing up at the altar waiting for them. American "wedding parties" sometimes look like sports teams there are so many of them up on the altar. Once the wedding is over, it’s a bit of a free for all in the UK with people exiting from their pews whenever they fell like it. In the States there’s a certain etiquette to who walks down the after the bride and groom (usually bridesmaids and groomsmen in pairs, the parents of the bride, parents of the groom etc.).

One of the funniest differences to me is the significance of clinking glasses at the reception. While in the UK it is a call for someone to make a speech, in the US it’s a call for the newlyweds to kiss. First time I saw an American wedding I was very confused.

Mike talking about the cake cutting ceremony reminds me of one cake-related thing that astounds many Americans. See, not only are many British wedding cakes actually delicious fruitcakes, it’s a custom to keep the top layer to celebrate the birth of the first baby. Seriously!

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's that time again

In which we muse over our respective election experiences:


In three and a half weeks I am going to have the privilege of voting in my first British National Election.

I've been waiting for this day since I received my citizenship back in 2007 but had no idea when it would arrive. The thing is, they don't hold elections on a schedule here as they do in the States. It's up to the party in power to call an election; they have a five-year window to do it in, but they can call it whenever the mood strikes, and when they do, they only have to give four weeks notice.

This means the party in power can shamble along annoying the electorate as much as they please, but if they manage to do something that makes them suddenly popular and likeable (okay, you may have to stretch your imagination here a bit) they can quickly call an election and hope nothing untoward—like an honors for cash scandal, an embarrassing expenses claim or a the eruption of a particularly kinky affair—pops up over the ensuing month.

However, and as you have probably guessed, political parties generally don't do much to endear themselves to the electorate, so they commonly hang on to power like a wino clutching a half-empty bottle of Night Train, calling an election only at the last possible moment.

That is what has happened in this case. Labour is so very unpopular that most people actually knew the election was going to be on 6 May for some time because that was the last possible date it could be.

The other oddity is, individual voters do not have a say in who becomes Prime Minister. All I can do is vote for my local MP. After the dust settles, the party with the most MPs in power get to have their leader promoted to Prime Minister. But the party elects their leader, and that can be anybody they choose.

Add to this the enigmatic statement locals often inject into political debates: "Of course, we have a 'first past the post' election process" and I sometimes wonder why people vote at all. In all the time I've been here I have never had the "first pas the post" idea satisfactorily explained to me. But I suppose, given the fact that no one over here truly understands the Electoral College, that merely make us even.

So, come 6 May, I will go vote, because that's what I do, whether or not I think it does any good or not.


It’s the exact opposite here; election dates are set in stone thus politicians have years to plan, campaign, raise money and generally make us all so fed up with the whole thing that we can hardly bear to drag ourselves to the voting booth. Presidential elections are held every four years, and it’s the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Usually, there are other positions to vote on too. This year we’ll be voting for a third of the country’s US senators. Each state has two senators apiece, who sit for six years although a third of these fine citizens changes every two years. We will also be voting on a few Representatives (who hold office for two years) and 37 state Governors, (4 years) in the Gubenatorial elections. (That’s pronounced “goobenatorial” and still makes me laugh.)

The recent Presidential campaign literally went on for two years. In the first year Republicans and Democrats had their “primaries”, where various characters from each party campaigned against each other to win the party’s nomination. Once the nominees were named (Obama and McCain) they picked their would-be VP and this “ticket” campaigned for the big job.

The thing that staggers me in this country is the amount of money involved in these campaigns. Candidates either have to possess or raise millions of dollars to campaign competitively. The more money you have, the more advertising you can buy. Simple as that. While in the UK, paid political advertising is not allowed in broadcast media (although parties get free time), in the US it’s the only feasible way to campaign. Both countries have laws regulating campaign financing or election expenditure but they are almost the opposite in what they do. The UK sets a cap on total expenditure while not being as strict on individual donations, whereas the US strictly limits the amount individuals can donate to a party or candidate, while setting no total cap on fund-raising and spending. Obama raised a staggering $750m and spent almost all of it.

By the time we got to the Presidential election I was so burned out by it all, I was secretly wishing that the system could be more like the UK one, with a stealth (ish) announcement of the election date!

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Name's the Thing

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but how would you know it's a rose, especially if someone came up to you offering a bouquet of, say, Snodgrass? Likewise, when you are in a different country, hearing a person's name may not give you a clue as to how that name is actually pronounced, spelled or, indeed, what gender it is supposed to represent.


When I came to the States I quickly realised there were more than a few differences in the way a name could be pronounced when talking to an AT&T customer service rep. Although I'd given him my name at the start of the call, he kept calling me "Tiny". Toni. Tiny? Hmm. Interesting.

When I had my daughter and gave her the middle name of Eleanor, people kept spelling it Elena. Now, on the phone in particular, I have to say "Eleanorrrrr" to make sure there's no mistake. Needless to say, the naming discussions we had on the arrival of our two boys were long and anguished. Paul is a big name in my family, but was relegated to a middle name since Americans say "Pol" or "Pall" to my ears, and Americans wouldn't know what to make with my "Pawl" version. One of my favourite names, Rory, was firmly rejected by my husband, insisting that there were two many "Rs" and Americans would never get their mouths around it. (I now have a godson called Rory, so I'm good.)

The other funny thing about names on either side of the Pond, is well, the names themselves. I have never heard of so many inanimate object-names since moving here - Stone, Wood, Clay, Cole (okay, "coal"), to name but a few. And then there are the girls walking around with boys' names, (says she, with a boy's name—but it's Antonia really). Even in my own extended family we have a female Aiden, which is not as unusual as I first thought either. (And isn't there a female Kennedy family member called Rory?) Amongst my kids' friends, there are girls called Emmerson, McCadden, Callen, Barri, Tobi, Peyton and Sloane, all of whom I have sent boys-only party invitations to in past years!

And don't let me forget the men walking round with girlie names. Many of you will know that John Wayne was really called Marion Mitchell, but even today in the US we have men called Rosie, Lyn, Carroll, Val, Dana and more. A lot of times it's a derivation of a foreign (as in not British) name, and sometimes they just chop half a name off and put a "y" on the end, but it still sounds funny to these British ears.


Some years ago, while my wife and I were visiting Seattle, we were served by a waiter wearing a nametag that read: "Prosperity." Since my wife is British and I can't be bothered, we didn't ask if it was his name or a slogan for the restaurant. The couple sitting at the next table were Americans, however, and asked him straight away about the unusual moniker. He assured them, in good humour but with the practiced air of a man who has done this many times before, that it was, indeed, his name.

But that was Seattle, so you expect that sort of thing.

Another odd name, also from America, comes second, third or fourth-hand to me and may be apocryphal (I read it on the Internet, after all): Peninsula.

Really, what are these parents thinking? If you saddle children with names that require them to stop every time they say it in order to provide additional explanation, you have not made them "special," you have taken a significant portion of their life away from them.

My wife's name is Shonagh. It is pronounced SHO-na and spelled—by friends, family, acquaintances, government agencies and dodgy charities sending us junk mail—in any number of creative, though never correct, ways. Additionally, she is forever having to explain to people that it is SHO-na, not Shawna, not SHO-nog and certainly not SHO-na-ga. I get the feeling that the "specialness" of her name has long ago worn off.

Because there is a Celtic branch of our family, we have friends and relatives with such names as: Mhairi, which, unbelievably, is pronounced VAR-ee, Niamh, pronounced NEEVE and Siobhan pronounced shi-VON (though this last one will be familiar to any Ian Rankin fan).

At least these parents made a conscious choice when naming their children. Perhaps these were old family names they wanted to keep alive and, well, sucks being you but you get tagged with it. (Our own family names – Cecil, Percival, Melvin, Phoebe – have wisely been consigned to history.) That may or may not lend some mitigating circumstances to lumbering a child with such a weight. But for another class of name, there is no excuse.

Theresa Green is an example. Did her parents know what they were doing? Did they giggle when they came up with it? Or did they innocently bestow a family name only to discover, after the fact, what they had done and then kept quiet hoping no one else would notice? Now, I don't know any Theresa Greens, but I did know of a Richard Head.

Personally, I think he should have been able to sue his parents for naming with intent.

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