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 d├ęcor 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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