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!

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to:

MHMail55-MT AT

or just pop it into the comment box.

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 ;)

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to:

MHMail55-MT AT

or just pop it into the comment box.

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.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to:
MHMail55-MT AT
or just pop it into the comment box.

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.