Sunday, January 30, 2011

Happy, happy, happy....Anniversary!

Today, 29 January, 2011, marks the two-year anniversary of Pond Parleys, and the collaboration between us - authors Mike Harling and Toni Hargis.
And here's Mike with a cigar and a few words:


And they said it wouldn’t last.

This blog was the natural extension of our inaugural collaboration: a Radio 5 Live debate in January 2009. Oh, we had seen each other around in cycberspace before—Toni was even responsible for the publication of my book—but the debate put us together for the first time and, finding we liked it, we determined to keep the excitement alive.

So Pond Parleys was born, and we became a team. And like any partnership, there have been some ups and downs. Firstly, during the radio debate itself, there was a bit of jealousy when I was offered a limo ride to the BBC offices in London to sit in the studio with Richard Madeley while Toni had to schlep herself down to the local studio in Chicago and link up via satellite. (Honest, Toni, it wasn’t that great; they never actually sent the limo—I had to drive myself—and Richard was a bit up himself and never even said, “Hell-o” to me.)

In the heady, halcyon days of our relationship, we thought the good times would go on forever, but like any long term partnership, you have to take the valleys with the peaks, and over the years there have been times when we were close to calling it quits. We kept on, however, and eventually arrived at that peaceful stage that can only come with familiarity, where the passions of old are replaced with security, comfort and dependability, much like an old quilt.

When I asked Toni if she was expecting flowers and candy for our anniversary, she said an e-card would do, so you can see our relationship now is built on mutual respect and abiding esteem (but if she leaves the cap off of the toothpaste tube one more time, I’m outta here!).

And to mark this occasion, and spice things up a bit, we are introducing a new feature: The Mid-Week Mention.

Henceforth, in addition to our usual Sunday offering, we will post a brief mention of a website, news article, movie, book, service or product of interest to ex-pats. It may be something you might want to buy or see, or it may just be something to make you chuckle. But whatever it is, we hope it will be entertaining and spark some debate. (If anyone has a suggestion, please don't be shy.)

So, see you on Wednesday, and, of course, here on Sundays, where we will be looking forward to many more years together. Although I may have to cut if off before our silver anniversary; I can’t afford anything that expensive.

Toni :

I'm not even going to attempt to follow that, except to say a big Thanks Y'all to our readers and commenters. Look for the MidWeek Mention this coming week - and a chance to win something gorgeous!

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dining Across the Pond

Following on from last week's comments about dining, we decided to take a closer look at the whole experience on either side of the Pond.


If you want to go out for an evening in the States, don't just count on dinner. Here in Chicago, we have hundreds of great restaurants from posh to ultra casual. Unless you go to the uber expensive Charlie Trotters or Tru, where it's a guaranteed three hours, you can literally have a full dinner and be back in your home in about an hour. Thirty minutes if you ask them to hurry. Some restaurants and take-out sandwich places even have signs promising that if your order isn't produced within a certain time frame, it's free.

Here's how American dining goes -

Sit down at the table, waiter comes immediately with menus and to take the drink order (that bit I like), and tell you the specials. S/he will be back within two minutes to take your order, which isn't good for ditherers like me, or if you want to have a conversation with your fellow diner. Unfortunately, if you ask them for more time, they will disappear for what seems like hours. Courses will arrive in record time on the whole, sometimes before you're quite finished the one before. When you've finished your meal, they'll ask you if you want coffee, holding the bill behind their back, all the better to whisk you out of the restaurant should you decline. Gotta turn those tables.

Sometimes at this point I deliberately sit and chat just to mess with the waiter. (Very cruel I know. They have a living to make.) If you don't sign the bill and leave your credit card out (none of them fancy hand-held whats-its here), the desperate waiter will return to your table several times begging "Please pay and leave Can I get you anything else". I have never actually been asked to leave, but my goodness they come very close.

Dining in the USA - enough to give you heartburn!


Dining out in the UK can either be described as an enjoyably relaxed experience, or, if you’re an American in a big hurry (as we always seem to be) a waste of time.
Back in the States, I used to be able leave my office, go to a nearby restaurant, have lunch and return before my half-hour lunch break was over. I get a 45 minute lunch break at my current job, but I wouldn’t try something like that over here.

Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. People like me need to learn to sit and relax, but when I am seated at a table, I expect a waiter to come by before it occurs to me that I have been sitting, unattended, for quite some time. To me, it is perfectly acceptable to walk out of a restaurant after ten minutes have elapsed without someone appearing at my table to take my order.

But that’s just me and my inborn impatience. Free ice water and immediate service are my birthrights, and I expect them. Now. But once you get into the rhythm, and leave the frenetic pace of an American meal behind you, dining in the UK is actually quite agreeable.

First of all, the table attendants generally don’t greet you like an old friend and leave you feeling like you should add them to your Christmas card list. They will take your drink order, then leave you with enough time to make a meal decision (or, in my wife’s case, to decide on something, change her mind, change it back and then decide on something else). The food arrives, sometimes very soon, sometimes not so soon, but it always arrives at the same time (though I don’t know of this being a problem in the US, either).

But the biggest difference is after the meal, when the dessert is finished and the coffee has arrived. They don’t bring the bill with it. They leave you completely alone, allowing you to sip your coffee or the last of your wine, have a nice, leisurely conversation, and only bring the check (sorry, the bill) when you are ready for it.

This is pleasant and enjoyable and, having been here so long, something I have grown to expect, so does come as a shock when, during visits to the US, I find the check accompanying my apple crumble, along with the clear expectation to pay up and leave.

It’s enough to want to make me remove “Hi, I’m Mandy and I’ll be your server,” from my Christmas card list.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Going Native

In last week's discussion we appeared almost to have "switched sides" with Toni giving the American point of view and Mike being a tad more British. What's going on here? Have we both gone over to the dark side?


Since my shtick is all about being an expat, it is in my best interests to maintain my Americanisms. I have to admit, however, that after nine years here, a fair amount of osmosis has taken place, both the leaking out of my natural American traits and the absorption of British replacements.

Here is a short list:

Tea: In the States, I used to buy a 24-pack of herbal tea every 5 years or so. Now I drink at least one cup of good, British tea every day. Not as much as the indigenous population, perhaps, but it’s a lot more than I used to drink.

Speech: I have not acquired a British accent, nor do I ever hope to, but my choice of words makes me blend into the conversation smoothly enough that now, people who are meeting me for the first time, often go 10 to 15 minutes before asking, “Are you Canadian?”

Sports: I have, to my great surprise, developed an appreciation for football (and by which I mean soccer—how British is that?) and cricket.

Activities: I belong to The National Trust and enjoy wandering around the many fabulous gardens on display throughout the country. (That is not only very, very British, but for an American, it is also suspiciously, um, well, you know.)

Weather: I complain about it on a par with the locals. And I’ve also stopped comparing it with “weather back home.” If it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit here with 5 inches of snow, I don’t care if New York is -17 with 3 feet of snow, I am cold, and I am inconvenienced, and I am going to moan about it! I do, however, continue to say, “SKED u el” instead of “SHED u al,” drop the “H” in herb and refuse to add superfluous syllables to “aluminum,” so my American-ness is safe for the time being.


Even after 20 years here, most people tell me I haven't aquired the accent nor have I ever been mistaken for a Canuk. (Sometimes I'm asked if I'm Irish or Australian, but that's just because Americans are hearing an English speaker with no discernible American accent.)  However, I must confess to having adopted some of the natives' habits.

Language: I dropped "lift", "nappy" and "(car) bonnet" a long time ago in favo(u)r of "elevator", "diaper" and "hood". I mean, there's sticking to your Britishness and just plain silliness. No one understands the British words.  I have resisted the ubiquitous "Have a nice day" but sometimes find myself throwing out "How are you?" and walking straight by without waiting for an answer. I used to think this very odd, but it's just used as a greeting here in the mid west. I'm very proud that when someone asks me the question, I manage to shout "Fine thanks, how are you?" even if the other person is fifty yards down the street and round the corner.
 I'm learning.

Dining: - It's not so much the food that I've adopted; I mean green bean casseroles, (oops, sorry) Sloppy Joes and syrup all over your breakfast? I have become truly American in my expectations when eating out. I want a waiter to come to my table almost as soon as I'm seated, take my drink order and tell me about the specials. I don't want to wait over half an hour for my meal and I don't want it to come out before of after my fellow diners. If you give me something other than my order, I won't eat it just because it'd be a lot of trouble to get my desired meal (no matter how much this embarrasses my mother), and if it's not hot I will ask you to heat it up. Not too much to ask really, but you'd be surprised how "pushy" that still seems in the UK sometimes.

I'm not the only one to let a few American habits creep in though. Iota, who blogs at the Iota Quota, is a Brit who's been in the States for four years. She says "Oh, I do usually use my knife and fork in the American way, now, ie. chopping up all the food, putting the knife down, transferring the fork into my right hand and using it like a shovel. I have NO idea why I do that, since I really really don't like it, and am trying to bring my kids up with English table manners. When I'm telling them about their manners, I surreptitiously have to put my fork back into my left hand, and pick up my knife in my right before demonstrating. Could it be that it's actually easier to use them the American way?

Other habits - I definitely say "Have a nice day" - I really like that. Seems friendlier than the English "good bye", and MUCH BETTER than "see you later". Sadly, I have noticed that I have occasionally started saying "Could I get...?" instead of "Please may I have...?" That is one I am stamping on.

Emma K, A Brit in Baltimore who blogs at Mommy Has A Headache, recently blogged thus - "I must say when I lived in the UK even when I lived alone showering was not a daily occurrence, mainly because it tends to be freezing of a morning. But now I am here I shower daily sometimes twice but that is because it is pretty hot and I sweat a lot."

Or could it just be a question of going native I wonder?

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Livin' the Dream

Living the Dream

In true American style, Ted Williams was living in a cardboard box last week. Now he's a media sensation and well on his way to making some serious cash.


I know it's corny, but after 20 years in the US, the "can-do" attitude still amazes me. From a skinny, inexperienced African American guy making it to the White House, to a down and out ex-con being spotted by the side of the road, it shows that anything is possible here. There are no barriers to success.

Unlike the Rolling Stones, who sang "You can’t always get what you want", Americans prefer to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Barak Obama's presidential slogan was "Yes we can", which was a bold move for one so young and inexperienced. But it paid off.

Some might say that this approach to life can lead to disappointment, but wouldn't you rather go to your grave having tried something, than full of regret at not having had the nerve?

I remember a girls' weekend in Boston many years ago. We had tickets for a Sunday morning Duck Tour (an amphibious vehicle which drives around the streets then plunges into the Charles River for a bit of a cruise). As usual, we were running late and had been warned against that by the Duck people. As we neared the departure point, we were a good ten to fifteen minutes tardy so the English contingent gave up and started walking slowly. "We've missed it. Let's not bother. We'll do something else".

"No, no," said the Americans, "Keep running. You never know".

So the Brits started running half-heartedly, readying their "Told you so" faces. We rounded the corner to find the Duck vehicle not only still in the parking lot, but the tour guide waiting for us and encouraging us to run as fast as we could. I learned something that day.

Some say the belief that anyone can do anything is self-deceptive, and I agree that there must be a dab of realism in there. But when does realism become pessimism? When does the glass become half empty as opposed to half full?


I may be the American in this duo, but I have to take the British side on this one. Certainly good things do happen to people. Some people. On the other hand, some people get struck by lightning, but that doesn’t mean something like this is in store for the general population. And you don’t have to look very hard to conclude that there is a fair amount of Sod’s Law at work in the universe.

Sod’s Law, as you may know, is not the same as Murphy’s Law. Can anyone explain the difference? “(Oh, me, sir! Can I, sir?”)

Murphy’s Law is an engineering principle that reasons, if you build a system that has a fault in it that, if exploited, will have adverse effects, then you must assume someone will exploit that flaw. It’s an exhortation to build systems intelligently, whereas Sod’s Law is more like rain at a picnic. It’s much more pessimistic in its outlook, and therefore more suited to the British mentality.

Even when I lived in America, I wavered between being a cautious optimist and a realist, which I take to mean, expect the worst, and if it doesn’t happen, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This may sound strange coming from me after my previous post advocating optimism. The truth is, I do like to believe good things will happen; it’s just real life teaches us that they rarely do.

What I think makes the Americans different isn’t that they succeed more often, as I do not believe they do, but that, despite failure after failure after failure, they never stop believing they can and will succeed. Perhaps there is a lot we all can learn from that attitude.

And, by the way, Obama ripped off, “Yes we can!” from Bob the Builder.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Going For Broke

Welcome to 2011. I’m sure most people can agree that 2010 could have been better, but some people (I’m not saying who) faced up to the disappointment better than others (I’m not saying who). Let’s all hope 2011 brings good things.


I think Bill Bryson summed it up best when he pointed out that if you tell an American an asteroid is going to hit the earth in eight weeks and end all life on the planet, he’ll say something like, “Wow! Then I’d better sign up for that macramé class right away.” If you tell a Brit the same thing, he’ll say, “Wouldn’t you just know it. And have you seen the weather forecast for this weekend?”

The financial world has collapsed, people are out of work and for the Brits this is an opportunity for a good old fashioned grumble. It seems they can’t be happy about anything. When the royal wedding was announced, it was only a matter of minutes before it was denounced as a show put on for the sake of the population to cheer people up during the hard times.

Good luck.

I recently read the book, Whoops! by John Lanchester, a thoroughly readable account of the banking disaster and its ramifications. Ironically, and rightly, he thinks people aren’t angry enough. These people (banksters, he calls them) played fast and loose with our money, and now real businesses are going bankrupt, real people are losing their jobs and real lives are being ruined, while they continue to collect billion-pound bonuses. But all the British publics can think to do is say, “Wouldn’t you just know it. And have you seen the weather forecast for this weekend?”


Where’s the passion, the anger, the outrage? Any of that would be preferable to depressing grumblings and a laundry list of doom. It was so bad, I was actually glad to see the student become incensed enough to riot—until I realized it was just an excuse for a pack of yobs to vandalize and desecrate.

There I go, being British.

2010 was not a stellar year in many respects. There isn’t a lot we can do about that. But believing 2011 will be worse isn’t going help anyone. 2011 will be worse if you expect it to be; believe it will be better and maybe, by embracing a bit of optimism, things will improve.

There I go, being an American again.


There's a fine line between being an optimist and being an ostrich with its head in the sand, but I think Americans have it right this time. Yes, there's a depression going on over here but people aren't talking about leaving the country for pastures greener, which is what I hear from many Brits. Recent UK government statistics show record numbers of Brits emigrating "for a better life" as if the rest of the world wasn't also blanketed by fairly hard economic times. I personally know a handful of families who have left the UK in the last few years alone – some have even gone back home already!


Sometimes the American "every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining" approach can get irritating to a Brit who likes the occasional grumble, but I'm often glad I'm not living amongst so many "moaning minnies" in England right now. The UK isn't the only country having to tighten its collective belt - people are having a hard time everywhere, but they're not declaring their countries doomed, finished or down the toilet, nor are they jumping ship or wishing they could. Despite the devastation that the USA has experienced in the last few years (home foreclosures, corporate failures, job losses, not to mention natural disasters like hurricanes, forest fires, floods and oil spills) I have never heard a single American saying they've had enough of this country.

Come on Britannia! Where's that stiff upper lip? Let's rise like a phoenix in 2011!

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