Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Finite Summer

It's Memorial Day this weekend; the official start of the American summer.


I always think it's funny that summer "officially" starts at the Memorial Day weekend. For one, it's been boiling in various parts of the country for a while now (tho' not Chicago - don't get me started) and two, doesn't the summer start with the Summer Solstice on June 21? Anyway, this weekend, we will all start BBQ'ing every meal, wearing shorts and flip flops and generally adopting an entirely different way of life. Many work places switch over to "summer hours" which basically means leaving early on a Friday afternoon. Some schools are already out for the summer and most will be done by June 10th.

In many places in the States, you have to have two completely different wardrobes because of the huge diversity in weather. For example, in Chicago, you need heavy duty parkas and snow boots for about three of the long winter months; in the summer jeans are far too heavy, and don't even think about wearing a jacket. Most people have their winter things cleaned and they store them (under the bed in special zipped bags usually) until next winter. This time of year it's a bit maddening as it's shorts one day and back to jeans the next.

Labor Day (first Monday in September) signals the official end of the summer, which I always find a bit sad. (Well, you would too, facing a Chicago winter which is still going on this year.) Again, no matter the weather, the end of summer means that local pools are drained, water fountains are switched off and lifeguards at the beach are no longer on duty. All very official.


Ah, Memorial Day, the official beginning of summer. We didn’t need the solstice to tell us that the sunny, hot weather was here to stay, and that school would soon be a thing of the past. This was the gateway, the starting point, of the new (and welcomed) season.

It was a weekend filled with traditions: the annual parade, culminating at the cemetery for speeches and a reading of Flanders Fields, then barbeques, ball games and—most importantly—the first swim of the summer.

No built-in pools or sandy beaches for us; instead, we would assemble a group of about six kids and make the trek to the local swimming hole.

We would start from our house, wearing swim suits under our shirts and shorts, and begin the long walk from the dirt road we lived on. This would have recently been tarred to keep the dust down and—warmed by the sun—the tar would squish under our feet. From there we walked the hot tarmac of County Route 25 and after that the dusty fields sloping down toward Kinderhook Creek. We followed the old wagon road, kicking up low dust clouds in the stagnant air, and followed the edge of the fields to a break in the trees that gave access to a bend in the creek known, for as long as anyone could remember, as “Wagners.”

Wagners on Kinderhook Creek, where I spent many a summer day.

There we jumped off the rope swing and splashed in the staggeringly cold water. It would warm up in due time, but at the end of May the creek—pronounced ‘crik’—was still high and fast and cold. We would swim until our lips turned blue and then, shivering and dripping, would pull on our shorts and shirts and begin the return journey. We rarely bothered with towels; we knew we would be dry by the time we reached home.

We never considered that school didn’t end for another two weeks, or that the solstice was another week beyond that, Memorial Day delivered the promise of summer, and it rarely disappointed.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

MidWeek Mention - The Tudor Tutor

We recently discovered a great web site by writer and self-confessed Anglophile, Barb Alexander. The site is called The Tudor Tutor and is choc-a-bloc with facts and funnies about all things Tudor.  This week Barb answers some questions for us, although there's a lot you can already learn about her on this page.

PP - You have over 1,200 followers on Twitter, and almost 900 on Facebook --- were you surprised by this? What kind of readers do you have?

"I'm flattered and thankful to have as many readers as I do. They're Tudor enthusiasts, history enthusiasts, travelers, teens, college students, parents, Brits proud of their history, Anglophiles, academics, historians, all over the map. It is the best party at which to be and I'm really happy to be there every day."  

PP - You say you're not an historian, and you ask your readers not to challenge you to academic duels. Has anyone ever been really nasty or otherwise picked a fight?

"I had to put that disclaimer in there! I have some readers who, when they first found me, may have taken issue with my rather irreverent and casual tone for such a topic, and asked about my "thesis" and other credentials. Being upfront has been most helpful, and I'm glad to say they stuck around! I try to do with the Tudors what I did in my classroom when I taught junior high and high school, which is make you love it and enjoy it, not just learn who and what and where. That's really what I'm about: blowing off the dust and making it fun and accessible, without sacrificing the respect the subject deserves."  

PP - How many hours per day/week do you put in on your Tudor fascination? Do you have a "real" job these days?

"In our family, I'm our house co-manager and co-chef, homework quality control specialist, gardener, bedtime reader, and so on. I'm a freelance writer and editor as well. Therefore, I'm on the computer all the live-long day. I have a bit of a focus problem so I am constantly popping back and forth among my freelance work, my blog posts, Twitter, and Facebook. I don't have a smartphone or Blackberry or the like so I am never, for example, tweeting from the grocery store or on vacation. I don't even know how to text-message! But as long as I'm in the house during the day I am connected."

PP - You say you have a "book idea". Would you mind sharing?

"I based my blog on my book, The Tudor Tutor: Your Cheeky Guide to the Dynasty, although the blog tends to go off on tangents, incorporating relevant news stories, book/TV reviews, pop culture references, that sort of thing. The book is more of a basic "Here's what you need and want to know about the dynasty and its players." I have spent quite some time querying agents but have yet to learn the secret of being a published non-fiction author today when one is not a Kardashian nor a "Jersey Shore" cast member. Maybe that will all change in the near future? I keep my fingers crossed and my queries and proposals out there!"

PP - Do you have plans to cover any other period or dynasty in this much detail in the future?

"My original book idea was actually a cheeky guide to all the British monarchs, from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II. I shopped that idea around as well but adjusted it to focus on the Tudors when that end took on a life of its own, through massive interest on the Internet as well as the beginning of the Showtime series. At this point I would like to continue to pursue representation on my current idea, but in the future I think it might be interesting to explore in-depth the Plantagenets, or perhaps the Scottish Stewarts. Really, wherever there's history, there's a load of great stories to dive into and bring out the cheeky!" 
If you like history with a cheeky twist, treat yourself to a visit.
(There's also a great post about Barb over at Brit Fancy.)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How Classy

Spring-boarding off a recent post on the American Resident about social climbing this week we take a look at the class system on both sides of the Pond.


With regard to my fellow humans, I honestly don’t care who you are (in terms of lineage) or how much you have. I have some very rich friends (we’re talking private plane wealthy) and friends on the breadline; I have friends born into “privilege” and some who were figuratively dragged up; they’re just my friends. Fortunately, it’s a lot easier to have this attitude in the USA.

See in the States, many people’s grandparents and great grand-parents came here with the clothes on their back, and the sole aim of bettering their lives. That betterment didn’t include climbing social ladders, it meant providing the basics for your family with perhaps an education thrown in. If you were able to do any better, it was celebrated; people were happy for you. There was no talk of “social climbing” or “getting above your station”, and to a large extent it’s still the same today. The term “nouveau riche” doesn’t exist.

Yes, this country does have “old money” and snobs (usually on the east coast and parts of the South); if anyone can trace their family line back more than a hundred and fifty years you’re going to hear about it. By the same token, if anyone reacts at all to a couple who have done well for themselves (like the in-laws of a certain British Prince), it’s usually to comment on their success or their nice house – and not in a jealous or patronizing way. In fact, people also pride themselves on having dirt ancestors, and if there’s a criminal or two, well, all the better.

It’s hard to talk about the USA in terms of class; it’s more about the money. Money can buy you a lot of things – from jumping the queue/line at a fancy restaurant (bribe the guy in charge) to by-passing local and national laws (support local or national politicians and you’ll find you can get a lot of things done). Unlike the UK, not much of it’s a secret either.

It may not be pretty, but it’s a lot easier for an expat to understand.


As for myself, I was born poor white trash; I think I’ve done okay, and I never recall anyone in the US implying that I was rising above my station. Except perhaps my dad, but that’s another story.

Were I to make that same rise in the UK, I don’t think I would have experienced any flak, either. I can’t speak from direct experience, but I know people here who have made similar shifts in their socio-economic status and not suffered for it. These social shifts, however, do not cut across guarded boundaries. The difficulties—as well as the thinly disguised indignation—begin, in my opinion, when a person moves into a social circle that is effectively closed to outsiders.

A self-made millionaire is de facto admitted to the wealthy class, but those in the club may shut them out, and look down on them for their common ways. But this can happen even in the US. The real difference in Britain is with the ruling class. Marrying the heir to the throne does not erase the fact that you are not “one of them.” Your ancestors did not curry favor from some king and end up a Lord, ergo, you do not belong in their club.

Class, from my vantage point, is less important than it used to be in the UK, but as long as people continue to refer to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge as “a commoner,” it will continue to enjoy a healthy life.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

MidWeek Mention

If you're an expat currently living in the UK, here's a great web site for you.

Expats Plaza is an expatriate guide containing a large amount of information on practical aspects of living in the UK (housing, banking, schooling, healthcare, tax, etc.). Information is free to access and no registration is required.

Expats Plaza is run by people who are (or have been) expatriates living in the UK themselves and, therefore, have direct experience of the challenges faced by expatriates during relocation and also in the various subjects covered within this website.
If you or anyone you know, has just landed in the UK, check out Expats Plaza and save a lot of time and stress.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Expat Obligations

In last week’s discussion we ventured into the area of expat voting, which got us thinking more deeply about it.


According to British electoral laws, voters who have lived outside of the country for more than 15 years automatically lose their right to vote in British elections. If you’ve been popping back and forth in those 15 years, you remain eligible to vote in the last place you were registered.

I’ve now lived in the States for 21 years (gulp) and although I consider myself English through and through, I have no problem with this law. I don’t pay taxes in the country, and although I try to keep up with national politics, I am not as informed as I would be if I were voting there. Plus, I don’t think I should be allowed to stick my nose in on affairs that no longer directly affect me. Some countries require all citizens to vote no matter how long they have been out of the country. An interesting one that.

As an American citizen however, I have to file a US income tax return on my global income forever and ever, no matter where I live. Additionally, it’s against the law to give up your US citizenship in order to avoid those taxes. (I wonder how they’d know, but we won’t go there.) To be fair, through tax treaties with other countries, double taxation can be avoided by allowing credits for foreign income taxes paid while living outside the USA, but you must file a US return to claim these credits. Sounds like a government job creation scheme to me; why can’t they just let you off your taxes if you’re domiciled somewhere else?


It always surprises native Brits when I tell them I have to file a US tax return on the money I earned in the UK. To tell the truth, it came as a bit of a shock to me, as well, but over the years I have come to accept it as simply one of the privileges of being a US citizen.

First, and foremost, the deduction is designed to be large enough to keep people like me from having to pay anything. It I were a multi-millionaire, I might feel differently (or pay my accountants to build a tax shelter) but as a work-a-day sort of guy, the only disadvantage is the yearly headache of filling out all those forms.

As for advantages, it keeps me in practice for dealing with US Bureaucracies—something you don’t want to take on without basic preparation—and it reminds them that I am here, so when my turn to suckle at the dwindling Social Security teat rolls around, they will, hopefully, recall that I have been dutifully filing my tax returns all these years and not forget to send the few remaining drops I am entitles to my way.

Also, it assures my right to vote; I pay taxes, therefore I vote.

I was taken aback by the fact that Brits are not allowed to vote after being out of the country for 15 years, but in thinking it over, it makes sense. We don’t actually vote in a national election here, we just vote for our local representative and, if that party gets the majority, they get to elect the Prime Minister. If that were the case in the States, I don’t think I would feel qualified to vote. The mayor of the town I used to live in, the head of the county I left behind, the governor of the state I was all too happy to leave have no effect on me over here, and I therefore have no right to vote for them. The President of the US, however, is another matter, and I look forward to my absentee ballot every four years.

So, in my view, the worst thing that could happen is that I start making enough money to go over the deduction amount and have to start paying US taxes on the excess. And if that is the worst that can happen, may it happen soon.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

MidWeek Mention - A Book is Born

It’s Here!!


This may seem a touch self-serving, but what good is having a blog if you can’t toot your own trumpet on it occasionally?

More Postcards From Across the Pond is now available on Kindle – paperback to follow soon.

If you have joined the ebook revolution, you can download More Postcards From Across the Pond from:

Amazon US         Amazon UK
(both the above as subject to tax/VAT—wouldn’t you just know it)
(cheaper, tax free and a variety of download options)

Optionally, if you are a troglodyte like me and do not yet own a Kindle, you can down load a free Kindle app for your PC here:

Or you can wait for the book; don’t worry, I’ll let you know.

If I have to say so myself—and at this point, I guess I do—this book is even better than the original.  (What?  You haven’t read the original yet?  Well now’s your chance.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Points of View

This week, we look at being an expat and how, as an expat, you relate to your home country.


This coming August will be the ten-year anniversary of my first trip abroad. I became an expat (not to mention an ex-bachelor) six months after that, so I have a lot of milestones to reflect on over the next few months.

These ten years have gone quickly, yet my life in America seems distant and surreal now, and when I think back on those early days, I can see how my attitudes and opinions have changed. Exposure to another culture provides the opportunity to embrace a broader world view, and I like to think I am a more rounded individual for having taken advantage of it. But does this necessarily make me less of an American? After all, if I am pointing out America’s foibles and not automatically taking their side in every argument, does this mean I am no longer, as the song goes, “a real, live nephew of my Uncle Sam”?

I bring this up because an old and dear friend of mine wrote to me this week to tell me she was not going to follow my blog any longer because I had turned into an “American Basher.” The letter went on to point out that I had not lived in the US for some time, but she did, and she still loved her country. Is that to imply, as an expat, I do not?

I find that a bit harsh, especially as an American. You may do many things to us, but do not question our patriotism.

I find this a bit ironic because, if you ask an American what they are, the majority of them will say they are something else: “I’m Italian,” they’ll say, or “My family is from Poland,” or something similar, even if their family has been in the US for generations. Is it okay to like another country only while you are living in the US? Once you actually move to one, should you stop being “German” and become “American” instead?

And is this a typically American trait? (Here comes that American bashing again.) There were many Irish immigrants in my area; real immigrants who were born in Ireland and came to the US. If they called home and said, “You know, it’s really nice here. The cost of living is cheap, I make good money and it doesn’t rain as much,” I can’t imagine their mothers saying back to them, “Faith and begorrah, you’re a traitor to the Mother Country, you are!”

I can’t imagine that mostly because Irish people don’t really talk like that, but I also think the people left behind would be happy that their friends and family had found a good life and wouldn’t be so pre-occupied with how well they were, in their perception, supporting the home team.

And this is just the ten-year mark. What should I expect when I hit the 20th anniversary?


Perfect timing – this month marks my 21st year in the USA. (I married and emigrated as a child bride of 14!) It’s very sobering to realise that I have lived in Chicago (20 years) longer than I lived anywhere else in my life. Who would have thunk it?

So am I more American now? Have I deserted my “home”? Not at all, but as Mike pointed out, I do embrace a broader world view and I don’t just back everything the UK does, like I may have done initially. Nor does it mean I automatically defend all things American, - although you have to be a lot more careful when you’re bashing your “host” country. I was able to poke gentle fun at my fellow Brits in “Rules, Britannia”, but I am much more reticent in the book I’m currently writing (about the USA). Americans don’t like being made fun of, especially by interlopers. On the whole, they take themselves and their country quite seriously (which is not to say Brits don’t, they just wouldn’t be caught dead admitting it).

So Mike, I would just say that your friend is wrong. You don’t bash the USA either here or on the Postcards blog. What you do, (and very well I might add) is hold a mirror up from time to time, and point out the anomalies here and there. OK, maybe we do take the mickey just a tad but, hey, how can you not laugh at a country that produces Sarah Palin as a serious political candidate, not to mention Donald Trump?

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oh What a Lovely Wedding

This week, we reflect back on that big event.


I was pleased to see Toni’s date on her TV appearance (see last post) —Robert Chatterton Dickson, British Consulate-General in Chicago—proven right in his view of perceived British apathy concerning the wedding. 

“I think on the day,” he said, “there is going to be a huge amount of public enthusiasm.”

It was touch and go up to the wire—even my attempts to cajole my workmates into the spirit by stringing bunting around my desk didn’t help—and I woke up on the morning expecting it to be just another day.  But soon after my wife (who can sleep-in for Britain when the mood strikes) was up extra early and the telly was on and the festivities began.

I think simply being in Britain for the event made a huge difference.  You really could feel the excitement, even way down here in Horsham, so being anywhere near the million-plus mob outside of Buckingham Palace must have been quite the adrenaline rush.

It was noted that the crowd was made up in no small part by American’s, Canadians and ever some Aussies., but that’s really no surprise.  People like us, who actually live here, can stay at home and watch it on the telly—it’s only the tourists who would have to stand 87 deep outside the gates to get a glimpse of what we can watch close up while sitting comfortably and drinking a cup of tea.

But wherever you were, it was great to be in Britain that day.  As Mr. Chatterton-Dickson further observed, events like this “show Britain at its best.”  And this was the best of Britain.  Whether you think the Royal Family is an anachronism that needs to be retired, or believe the Monarchy to be a priceless national treasure that must be preserved, you have to agree on this: there is no other country in the world that can do pomp, ceremony and spectacle as well as the United Kingdom.

It was a day I was proud to be British, and I am pleased to say, we watched the spectacle with interest, and in style.


Well, I’m afraid to say I didn’t get up at 4am to watch the pre-wedding stuff. I’m just not a morning person and 7am was early enough for me. By the time we were up and getting ready for school (no day off over here) they were on the balcony and snogging.
Being one of the only British parents at school, I got a lot of attention at drop-off, with little kids asking me to say something and parents waving at me like the Queen; all very light-hearted and jolly. Pity there wasn’t a street party.

My family were all at my sister’s so I felt a teeny bit lonely watching the replays on my own, and I have to say, I was very impressed with the way the crowd behaved themselves. Brits may know how to do pomp and ceremony but they also know how to behave themselves en masse. I’m referring mainly to when they were allowed to move right up to the Palace railings. There was no shoving or running, just a well-behaved throng, staying behind the police cordon and generally being no trouble at all. I was proud of my fellow countryfolk and, although I don’t like being in huge crowds, part of me was wishing I was there.

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