Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Free Willy

I did say I would share my experiences of finding a doctor, a dentist and hairdresser (In God We Trust). Well, here is the first of three. The first time I needed medical assistance over here is well told amongst friends and family. I had put off finding a doctor and a dentist. It seemed too over-whelming. It isn’t just a case of go to the nearest one. You have long lists of those ‘allowed’ on your medical plan. They each have different specialities. You have to choose who you want. It confused me so I didn’t bother. Then I was forced to!
My 5 year old son was messing with the zip of his swimsuit – a sort of Surf-cum-Victorian affair to protect his albino skin from 100 degrees plus. I had seen some of the American children laughing at it at the pool, with good reason as it turns out. I had barely got the words ‘stop that or it will end in tears’ out when we heard the blood curdling scream from the back of the car. The following silence was scarier. He was too terrified to move. His willy was well and truly stuck in the big chunky wetsuit style zip. After some tentative examination the only way to release him was to pull the zipper up more and it was going to be messy.
We found ‘Paediatrics Express’ – urgent care for children on the Internet. We didn’t know the routine. Cash first – questions later. We handed over the medical card and it seemed to take an eternity before she asked us what our deductables were. I was stressed so I should be forgiven for shouting ‘I don’t know what f**king deductables are and I don’t care - Please just attend to my son’s attachables’. My son was by now just whimpering occasionally in my arms when I moved too quickly. As it turned out they attended to him well once I got passed the admin – after applying some numbing cream, used to pierce ears, they pulled the zip up. The volume of screaming would suggest the cream didn’t work. Still, he has an impressive war wound to show the girlies when he is older. Unfortunately he is quite keen on showing it already! He did note only today that the hole in the middle never heals up....
I still hadn’t found a family doctor when the school were threatening to exclude the children as they were not vaccinated against Hepatitis B. We don’t routinely vaccinate children for this in the UK. It is associated with drug users and medical workers and contracted through dirty needles. Maybe they are preparing the children for their future use of drugs ‘in da hood’. They do a double whammy – My son brought his first ‘I am drug free’ poster home last week at the age of 5 as part of his drugs awareness education. If that early intervention doesn’t work at least he has his hepB shot.
After finding a Doctor I now know that first admin experience is usual. The level of care and where you attend depends on medical cover. The deductables are the amount you have to pay – a sort of excess. I tried to find a ‘family’ doctor rather than each have a different doctor but you have to get past the admin!!! The first receptionist said that I could attend but should take my children to a Paediatrician. I explained I wanted a family doctor to treat us all, as a 'unit'. She said that paediatricians use smaller needles!!! I left quickly. The second doctor’s receptionist said she would put a request in to see if the doctor would allow us to see him (rather than one of their well trained health care professionals – I think they meant glorified nurses) I left quickly.
I finally found what seems to be a normal doctor’s surgery – as I would expect at home, except that I have to flash the cash each time. The doctor was nice – spent time talking to me about his love of Scotland and only charged $210. Americans I meet are keen to talk to me about two things, Scotland and the NHS. They are terrified of the consequences of such a service being fully adopted in the USA. (Obama is still pushing ahead with it now)The ones who speak to me don’t want it. Paying for treatment fits in with their approach to things – a sort of survival of the fittest - you work hard you get what you want and if you don’t then you don’t get anything.
I have found the level of choice difficult. How do I know who is best to treat me for different illnesses. I want my doctor to tell me. I don’t want to take prescription drugs on the basis that I saw a good ad on TV for them (although to be fair the ads here are never good!). I want my doctor to choose on the basis that he was the one who went to medical school and should know. Once you get passed the paperwork and  have found a doctor the biggest thing is there are no queues if you can afford to pay. I guess that is exactly the same in the UK!

Monday, November 29, 2010

When in Rome...

One thing I still find difficult in America is the whole tipping thing. Service is always with a smile. It is done so enthusiastically! Everybody greets you with ‘how are you today? I have learned the stock ‘Good, Thanks’ answer. They really don’t want to know how you really are! (…well, I’m not too good today, me Nobby Stiles are playing up blind and I’ve got a bit of phlegm I cant clear… is not what they want to hear… mind you I don’t think anyone does!). They respond to any ‘thank you’ with a gushing ‘you’re welcome’. I got reprimanded by my son for not saying it to him when he thanked me for something today. Everything is a ‘Gooooood Jawb’ whether it is or not. Their departing shot is ‘Have a nice day’. All false, but pleasant and practised to perfection. They have no qualms in saying it like they mean it. Some of them do! It doesn’t work anywhere else – for example at Disneyland Paris they just can’t pull it off but it works here. Why the enthusiasm – it is for the obligatory tip!
During our trip to Washington, the happy bus tour guide voice over gave some helpful tips on tipping. For your hotel maid $2 per day, for the porter $1 per bag, For restaurant service 15% standard, 18% for parties of 6 or more and 20% for excellent service. What about bad service? To be fair the service is normally excellent. It has to be. Waiters get paid a pittance and rely on tips. Is it better than England where they don’t have to give a shite cos they get paid anyway?
I do get a bit pissed off here by the feeling of being ripped off (by the way – using the word ‘pissed’ is generally ok in America). The price quoted for a menu item is never what you pay – add around another 22% on in service charges and taxes! I have embarrassed my self in stores when I have accused them of overcharging me. ‘I’m sorry Ma’am, that’s the sales tax!’ Ahh! Thank you – you were legitimately ripping me off then! My mom said she had to make an emergency dash to buy some new glasses before VAT goes up to 20% . This is double the average sales tax in the USA yet I feel more ripped off here. The reason is simple; I don’t feel so ripped off in England because the tax is included in the price you see on the price tag. What you see is what you pay! It is the same for food! The service charge i.e., the waiter’s wages is factored into the price of the food in the UK. Any tip is a genuine bonus for good service. When you stop in a hotel room you pay for clean sheets and a clean room – per night! So why the obligatory tip for that service?
At the hotel we had our car valet parked. We went out to collect it. The driver took our suitcase (at least $1 then but we hadn’t been told how much to tip for the car that you have already paid to have parked for getting it back again!). He carried the suitcase into the road and tried to open what he thought was our door. It wasn’t. He had the wrong keys. The other driver ran out shouting ‘this is mine!’  He left our suitcase in the middle of the road without a backward glance. Smile gone. It was no longer his tip. He didn’t care... Bastard!
So -what happens when the service isn’t so good? We had poor service in a Chinese restaurant in Washington. I waited… and waited for chop sticks...(pretentious I know!) even after finally attracting the attention of the waitress. My food was cold when I finally got to shovel it in! Cold Chinese food is not good. I waited…and waited to order drinks. It was not good service. We didn’t have to wait for the bill with 15% already added on. I asked her to remove the gratuity and let us decide how much to give. I refrained from telling her it is rude to snatch when she whipped the bill away. She was very angry that we had questioned the tip. Not a hint of an apology. It should not have come as a surprise! I had complained twice during the meal. I guess people just pay.
Afterwards in the taxi on the way back to the hotel (well the happy bus stopped at 5pm) the Taxi driver commented on the fact that we were British (He noticed!) and that we had a new Prime minister (he noticed more than me!). He asked what would make us Brits happy. I told him -Nothing - We're British - we love moaning! Maybe we do, but equally we have a reputation for not complaining, for shutting up and putting up (not sure where from!). Sometimes it is justified not to tip and not feel embarrassed about it!
I got an email from one of the Moms from the bus stop. She is collecting for a ‘holiday gift’ (as we are not allowed to say Christmas) for the bus driver. She wants $10 from each child. That’s around $350 if all gave. I had another 2 emails from the ‘home room moms’ (moms who help out in the classroom!) in my children's classes. They were also collecting for holiday gifts… for the teacher, for the TA, for the baker the butcher and the candlestick maker. Now – is this another form of tipping for a ‘Gooooood Jawb’?
I want my children to express their appreciation by selecting a small gift and giving it to their teacher. As I teacher I might have welcomed a collection of £15 from each parent but it would have meant nothing. I wouldn’t have remembered the children. I still have one of the baubles (I broke the other one and cried when I did) that a boy in my class gave me wrapped in beautiful tissue paper for Christmas in 1998. I still remember his name. Now his mother might well have been behind it all but he gave me the gift, he was excited for me to open it while he was there. He was pleased. So was I. True appreciation, not a tip!

I asked the Taxi driver what would make Americans happy. He said the economy. Well, for me I would start with price tags that reflect what you have to pay, wages that reflect the job done and tips that are genuinely given in appreciation because people do their jobs exceptionally well.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Seen it, Done it! Next!

We have never taken the children to London. I have never done the London tourist stuff. I really shouldn’t be surprised when most Americans I speak to haven’t been to Washington. Sorry – I should clarify for any American readers – Washington DC not the state of. There are two apparently.
To get to Washington we had to run the gauntlet of Virginia – now you will know if you have checked out http://www.jezblog.com/ that this is a dangerous thing to do. I was more than mildly alarmed when I read the road signs ‘Speed limit enforced by Aircraft”. How? A rocket launched up our tailgate if we aren’t going fast enough? Bomb a big crater in front to slow us down? We survived Virginia almost without incident but then I didn’t wield my camera! What I had not really factored in was the danger of going on a 5 hour car journey after Hubby had tucked into thanksgiving turkey and stuffing the day before. It was bad! In America they don’t mind the word ‘fart’ but object to the word toilet – preferring ‘rest room’ or ‘bath room’. Well. Hubby farted and it wasn’t a rest or a bath he needed…
Washington was cold...and sat on the happy open topped tour bus was absolutely freezing. They seem like a good idea until you realise that the hop on and off thing is pretty inflexible and they only go one way round the circuit – so if you are on stop 29 and want to go to stop 26 you have to sit on there for 2 and ½ hours… or walk but we are in America so that wouldn’t have been right. The tour guide voice over was very safety conscious, ‘Please keep body parts inside the bus. It is for your own safety and it is the law’! What body parts would you dangle out? It was too cold for most parts to be unsheaved! Not for the first time I wondered what a law enforcement officer would do to uphold the law. In this case I think the body part in question may affect the response!
We did all the sites, even a tour of Congress, although my daughter was miffed at the airport like security, ‘We have to throw all our drinks away just to go into this thing?’ I thought Hubby was going to wolf whistle during the introductory video where they told of the British burning down the original Congress building in 1812. A case of sour grapes I guess for losing the War of Independence! I made the mistake of asking a question just before the end of our guided tour. You could see the tour guide take on a slightly deranged look with a glint in his eye as he launched into his undergraduate speciality of Lincoln, only pausing to negotiate some stairs before resuming on an excruciatingly detailed response to my inane question. There’s always one and this time it was me!
We saw a cavalcade of black cars by the Whitehouse. I don’t know if the flying flag means that Obama was home. I had been telling my daughter how rude it was that we weren’t invited in for tea at the Whitehouse. After all, if the President were to call by my house I would invite him in. Perhaps he was just on his way out. Maybe over the years when I reminisce about my trip to Washington I will recall him waving from one of the car windows. I’m sure I will be thankful for my visit to the railings of the Whitehouse when I get that pub quiz question ‘who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?’
We were the most typical of tourists. We had our photos taken at all the famous landmarks. Hubby thought it hysterical to frame any shots with me in them with the landmark coming out of my head. I carried around a Worcester breast Care Charity bag (after all everybody knows somebody) and took its picture at famous places too. For Charity! We jumped off the bus, did the photo and hopped back on. This isn’t really the way to see places and it was made painfully obvious at Arlington National Cemetery. Hubby tried to contain our son by telling him it was a grave yard. I know he didn’t get it when he asked about the Gravies. I explained what each headstone represented and he was reflective and quiet for a short while. I felt touched by JF Kennedy’s eternal flame burning by his grave stone. Hubby said I was more tapped that touched. We had 30 minutes before the next bus, not enough time to visit the grave of the ‘unknown Soldier’. As we jumped back on the bus the voice over paid lip service ‘…as we peacefully resume our tour…’ We too had paid lip service – it should have been a place where time didn’t matter, but we had a schedule and I still hadn’t seen the Reflecting Pool!

As cities go Washington is a very beautiful one. It is compact so you really can walk most places. I recommend it. I’m not sure how it quite compares to a tourist trip to London – I’ve only ever gone there to get drunk with Friends. I must put London on my ‘to see and do’ list, get my camera and tour bus tickets, and go!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

No! Really! I'm lovin' it!

You could be forgiven for thinking I don't like America or Americans much. I guess I have focused on those things that irritate or bewilder me and that I find strange. Today I would like to give thanks to those people who have shown absolute warmth and kindness in welcoming me and my family. We spent thanksgiving with such people.
Admittedly it is irksome when they titter at words we use. For example, I got asked to pass the pot holders. I looked blank then realised it was the oven gloves they were after. They sniggered at 'oven gloves'.
'Of course you'd call them oven gloves,' done in a mock English accent. Well, that's what they are - gloves for the oven. Pot holders could be any number of things.I confess though I do laugh more at them saying 'erbs to be fair (for all you Facebook fans tbf). Although in return the mock 'Charlie bit my finger' is wearing really thin every time I call my son's name!
I got asked to bring sweet potato pie. I really didn't fancy it myself: sweet potatoes and an obscene amount of butter and sugar, topped with more sugar, butter and pecans (pronounced Pea Caaaarns). I also made Delia's roast Parmesan parsnips and just substituted parsnips for sweet potatoes (I'm such a wild child). They were better than the pie. (I think I should get some sort of fee from Delia for so much advertising). It was a big turkey roast with some weird trimmings - sweet potato, corn bread, other stuff with sweet corn - like Christmas dinner on the wrong day with the wrong trimmings... but good. There were lots of pies including pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie. I guess I should have refrained from sharing that 'pie' in the north-east of England meant something different. I tried to explain but it gets complicated when other slang doesn't mean the same... you know... pie is another word for fanny... but then Americans don't use that word either in the same way  so It may cause offence!! When you have to explain that much it wasn't a good idea to say it in the first place!
There were 18 family guests and other friends and it was nice. The whole thing has an autumn/harvest theme in line with the original meaning of  Thanksgiving. We got asked to write what we give thanks for on paper leaves and to stick them on the windows. I had to stop Hubby getting his coat. He's not partial to emotional outbursts.
I wrote mine and gave thanks for kind people who had invited us into their homes and lives and shared their thanksgiving with us. I am so glad I have some good friends here. I miss friends at home and, even though I may not have seen them often before I left the UK, I think about them virtually every day now. I am thankful for the new friends I have found here and I guess I will be missing them when I return home!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In God We Trust

Today Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. It is allegedly a secular holiday now but its origins are steeped in religion. On 6th September 1620, 102 men, women and children left England for a new life in America. Thirty five of the travellers were Puritans, unhappy with James I who would not adopt their ideas about how God should be worshipped. Obviously they would be able to worship how they wanted in America because there would be nobody there to stop them. In 1621 in Plymouth, New England (imaginative lot weren’t they?) to celebrate their successful harvests and to give thanks to God for their fortune, the settlers tucked into a feast of turkey and goose. Thanksgiving was born. The date got shifted to where it is now in the 1940’s by F D Roosevelt to extend the Christmas shopping period. The sales start tomorrow – Black Friday. (at least that’s what I think Black Friday is for but I am in the south! Who knows?!). Sales before Christmas are better. In the UK you feel utterly ripped off when all the crap you gave and received for Christmas is in the bargain sales bucket on Boxing day. Weirdly, Thanksgiving is like a Christmas day albeit without presents and a Christmas tree but it has the traditional turkey roast, friends and family gathered and a deluge of sales ads on TV!
I wonder what the Pilgrims would make of the absence of God in the society they are acclaimed to have found. Well – absence isn’t quite true. In a recent poll (I may have made up …but didn’t) 96% of Americans believe in God…. But there is a web of silence…
‘In God we Trust’ is on every American dollar and swearing allegiance to the flag is done as ‘one nation under God’. Just as an aside, My son’s rendition of swearing allegiance is hilarious. He knows the tune rather than the words and it is done with a total American twang! They do it every morning at school. He has to do it on a regular basis on Skype to the relatives. In England, every morning in school, the children simply swear!
Here, every other building is a Christian church and yet I have been told you can not say ‘Happy Christmas’ in case it offends so ‘Happy Holidays’ is used. Religion is the one thing no one talks about. I expected to be invited to everyone’s church. In fact I was warned about it before I came. A neighbour asked my daughter to join them for a Sunday morning church session but I declined on her behalf. I haven’t been asked. Maybe I have something of the devil about me beyond saving!
The 'Yellow Pages' listing for Churches is just mad. Under each heading is a huge list of individual churches. The headings include Presbyterian, Presbyterian Evangelical, First Baptist, United Methodist, Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal Zion, Assemblies of God, Baptist Free Will, Baptist independent, Baptist missionary, Baptist southern… this list goes on and on and they have the Pilgrim Fathers to thank for that! The strange thing is, it is not talked about by any of the Churches’ respective flocks. (I said FLOCKS!)
It reminded me of a Monty Python sketch in the Life of Brian. You know the one where they are in secret anti Roman groups…. I have changed just some of the words and names (all the swearing is original Monty Python!)…

The Life of Jane
JANE: Are you the Zion Baptist Missionary Church?
CHUCK: Fuck off!
JANE: What?
CHUCK:  Zion Baptist Missionary Church? We're the Missionary Baptist Church of Zion! Zion Baptist Missionary Church. Cawk.
BOB: Wankers.
JANE: Can I... join your church?
CHUCK: No. Piss off.
JANE: Hey. I don’t want to commit sin. They make me do it. I hate the Devil as much as anybody.
MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH of ZION: Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhh. Shh. Shhhh.
CHUCK: Stumm.
TAMMY: Are you sure?
JANE: Oh, dead sure. I hate the Devil already.
CHUCK: Listen. If you wanted to join the M.B.C.Z, you'd have to really hate the Devil, and Catholics.
JANE: I do!
CHUCK: Oh, yeah? How much?
JANE: A lot!
CHUCK: Right. You're in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Devil are the fucking Zion Baptist Missionary Church
M.B.C.Z.: Yeah...
TAMMY: Splitters.
M.B.C.Z: Splitters...
BOB: And the Zion Missionary Bible Baptist Church
M.B.C.Z : Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
LORETTA: And the Missionary Baptist Church of Zion.
M.B.C.Z : Yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
CHUCK: What?
LORETTA: Missionary Baptist Church of Zion. Splitters.
CHUCK: We're the Missionary Baptist Church of Zion!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Episcopal Baptists.
CHUCK: Episcopal Baptists! C-huh.
BOB: Whatever happened to the Episcopal Baptists, Chuck?
CHUCK: He's over there.
M.B.C.Z: Splitter!

It has been tough enough choosing a Doctor, school and Hairdresser (all of which I need to share with you). Thank God I’m an atheist and I don’t have to decide who to entrust my soul to whilst in America!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Take Me Home, Country Roads

My blog wasn’t funny yesterday – apparently. I’m not sure it was supposed to be. Just to relieve the pressure of trying to be funny I’ve decided to write a sad blog. This is about leaving England. I cannot describe the emotions I felt the day the container left with all of our furniture. I felt so gutted I wrote a Haiku! A prelude to blogging. A warm up exercise. It read:

The removals came that day.
Behind, in the rain
I left something of myself.

I was pleased with myself until I realised I had got the numbers of Syllables muddled (7,5,7 instead of 5,7,5) Can you imagine my embarrassment? No – Probably not. Those of you who are worried by my lack of humorous blogging would have been more than concerned by a technically incorrect haiku!
I remembered when Hubby left England at 6am, 6 months earlier – the pioneer setting up our new life – only it didn’t feel quite so romantic - more like the nutter who was wreaking our old life. It was just heartbreaking.
I hate to wake you up to say Good Bye.
But the dawn is breakin', It's early morn`,
The taxi's waiting, blowin' his horn.
Already I'm so lonesome I could die.
Leading up to me leaving I was in a perpetual state of anxiety or exhaustion. I had to sell our things – the TV I never had time to watch – sold for 10% of the original price to a fat man on eBay. (A description of the people who turned up from eBay could fill a book, let alone a blog!) I thought he was going to die from a heart attack carrying his prize away! (You ‘win’ on eBay!). I’m not sure how much of a winner the woman who bought Hubby’s full size pub pool table was. She was never going to get that up her stairs to her spare room.
I had to throw things away I had kept forever. In a hat box I found the sort of bits and pieces you shove in hat boxes in the absence of anywhere appropriate to put them (except for hatboxes!). There was an almost empty bottle of ‘Jules’ by Christian Dior, circa 1987. I told people I wore it because I preferred aftershave to perfume. Truth was, I was obsessed with the hottie who lived round the corner who wore it. He used to turn up – visiting from Uni every so often and smelling of Jules, woo me (that’s a polite way of putting it) and, when he had had his wicked way, bugger off. I couldn’t help myself. Even now – sniffing the bottle and inhaling deeply, like I did then, I remembered him, and the state of excited anxiety I felt when I saw him. Waiting for something to happen… Like I did the day in the rain watching my belongings go.  Bottom line is – in both cases I expected I would be f**ked and there was nothing I could do about it!
When I finally sat on the tarmac at Heathrow ready to take off, I could do nothing to stop the flow of hot tears as we taxied down the runway. The song of John Denver still ringing in my ears:

‘Cause I'm leaving on a jet plane,
Don’t know when I'll be back again,

Oh Babe I hate to go.

As it happens I do know when I’ll be back home to visit. Only, as it has already been pointed out to me, I’ll feel like an outsider there too! An outsider supping Ribena, eating sausage sandwiches, staying out after 10pm and swearing a lot and no one will think it strange!

Do You know Bob?

This is a real Face book Conversation. My status read:

Stranger: Got asked if I was from England or France! How stupid can Americans be?
Stranger: Merd!
Stranger: Equally got asked for ID for alcohol. Like I look under 35. How sweet can Americans be!
Liam: They always think I am from Oz
Chris: One time I was in Canada lined up in McDonalds an American woman asked the girl behind the counter if they accept Canadian money. The girl replied of course we do this is Canada to which the women replied I thought you would prefer US dollars as its worth more. Bit random but true!
Chris: Nothing wrong with being from OZ either :-)
Carrie: I was in New York and the guy behind the counter in a shop asked me where I was from. I said, 'Liverpool', to which he replied ‘Do you Know Sheena Easton?’
Neal: French was the language in England for 300 years following William the conqueror, maybe they detected it in your accent. Ha Ha
Deb: I love all this.  What a laugh :)
Geoff: very
Stranger: And No I don’t know Bob from Leicester!!! When I explained where I was from yesterday (Birmingham), the woman said 'Oh so you're from the suburbs of London'
Neal: Used to get asked a lot in the Midwest if I was from out of town, I usually replied "overseas, I'm Irish but live in England", ‘what like England in London’, "No like London in Ireland" I'd say. ‘Wow. Do you have a castle?’
Geoff: two nations divided by a common language!!!

I went to the hospital for a blood test. The woman filling in the form assumed my place of birth was London. I said it was Birmingham. She was surprised ‘Really? Spell it. You know what – I’m just gonna put London. Is that ok?’
In answer to that - relatively England is a small place but I don’t think the scales are understood. Sure, England would fit into the state of Louisiana, yet there are 51.5 million people compared to only 4.4 mil in Louisiana. The UK is smaller in square footage than Michigan with 60 million more people. What I am trying to illustrate is that the significance of other places in the UK just isn’t recognised here unless it is full of brown tourist signs or Bonny Prince Charlie left a lock of hair there whilst passing through on his way to Skye. They have heard of Skye – population 6 and 1 million seals. Birmingham is the UK’s second city with 9684 people per square mile. Compare that to the US’s densest city – New Jersey with 1174 people per square mile. It comes very close to DC, the US’s most densely populated place with 9830 people per sq mile. It isn’t so much divided by a common language in this case as a lack of geographical knowledge. I don’t assume everyone is from New York. They shouldn’t assume I am from London so ‘No – it isn’t ok to put London’. Although, on the plus side, as no one at home ever said I had a beautiful accent maybe never having heard of Birmingham in the United States is a good thing after all!

*facts and figures are from the internet - not sure how reliable that makes them - maybe I should have made them up!

Monday, November 22, 2010

That's Not a Chimney!

You don't have to travel far out of middle class suburbia to be in the middle of nowhere. The middle of nowhere in North Carolina is a 4 lane highway, trees as far as the eye can see and the occasional horror house dotted along the roads. These old (not always deserted) houses are horror classics. - Amityville style! Actually - given that the real Amityville House of horror, where 6 family members were shot dead in their beds, went on sale in May 2010 for $1.15m perhaps I'm thinking more 'Monster house' - more knackered (there's a word Americans don't know!). What does the Amityville price tag say to those desperate folk in negative equity...?
Travel further into the Forest and you are into log cabin country- those cabins that also feature in American horror movies like 'The Vanishing.' I had the absolute joy of staying in such a cabin in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest. It was like a scene from 'The Evil Dead' without any of the Zombie devil bits (although there was a particularly vicious pull out sofa bed that has scarred my sister for life). It truly was in the middle of the forest - with lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! It was beautiful. Front and back porch with rockers, most of the furniture made from rustic branches and a claw foot bath tub but with all mod cons.
If ever you get the chance to see the fall in America (Autumn as we know it) then do so! It is truly spectacular. I thought the brochure photos I had seen were camera trickery - I know Jez, the camera never lies but colour filters can result in disappointment when you see the reality! I thought the red trees in the pictures has been super imposed. The reality was amazing. The mad combination of reds, oranges, yellows and greens across the Appalachian Mountain range are like nothing I have ever seen before (although I did grow up in Kings Norton so I only have the Lickey Hills to compare!).
In this blog I have been harping on a bit about the strange things I find in America. Well sometimes stranger things are closer to home.  As a result of one strange thing here, I discovered that there is a whole new language used in Britain that I don't know or understand. We went to Chimney Rock Park and went to the top of Chimney Rock - in an elevator! This is America! Later, viewing the rock from a distance I pointed out that it wasn't really shaped like a Chimney at all. My 17 year old niece agreed. "No, it is more like a Chode than a Chimney."
Now there was a new word for my repertoire. I didn't know what it meant either but the picture of Chimney Rock gives the perfect definition. If not - ask someone younger for the definition!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

May cause offense!

I was told I had a potty mouth after my last blog (by a self proclaimed 'stuck up ageing relative'). It’s true – I do swear but I don’t like to offend so I usually save my most offensive language for close friends and family! I like swearing and don’t hold with the opinion that it is for people who are unable to articulate themselves adequately and suggests low intelligence. Well – I wouldn’t hold with that would I? I think swear words are incredibly expressive and do exactly what they need to do! Swearing is about context though. I swear all the time but in 18 years of teaching only one student heard me swear and that was because I didn’t know he was in the room. I had walked into a classroom and found a boy sitting at a desk – truanting and drinking coke. I sent him to his next lesson and bent down to pick up the can off the floor and went straight into the most offensive farty smell ever. I was nearly sick and couldn’t help but exclaim out loud ‘Oh for f**ks sake!’ I heard a titter and looked up and saw another student hiding behind a filing cabinet. I told him I would deny it if he ever told anyone!
Anyway – the Americans I have met don’t like swearing and I haven’t heard them swear – at all. (obviously I haven’t met any mofos from the ‘hood!) Even my most colourful friend doesn’t swear but they use the word ‘Freakin’ all the time. Now as this is a clear substitute for the real word I don’t think this is ok. I think it smacks of duplicity? Hypocrisy? Something anyway. They use the word crap all the time too, but I guess there is a lot of it here. They don’t mind children using the word ‘crap’ and don’t mind the word ‘fart’ at all. Hubby pointed out that as Fart is an onomatopoeic word we shouldn’t take offence! Whatever - Crap is swearing in my book and swearing is crap in theirs!
There are a few language nuances that may gain points on the swearometer and at the very least cause humour. Take ‘fanny’ for example (I’m sure some do …now I am just being crude, apologies). I can legitimately ask ‘Does my fanny look big in this?’ and no one laughs or takes offence. The first time someone referred to their fanny pack I nearly spurted my drink all over them. What would be kept in such a pack I wondered? Emergency sanitary products? Femfresh? Clippers? In case you are confused she was talking about her bum bag…
It works the other way too. A neighbour told me that when he was a student waiting tables he met some English lads. He went out for a drink with them after his shift. Much to the horror and amusement of the Brits he walked along shouting ‘Wanker’ to any passing American. They did not respond as they do not know what it means – although that may have changed with the popularity of Guy Richie Films. I don’t think I should try it. They don’t use the word ‘Tosser’ either. I wonder what the American equivalent is as there are certainly some about.
We recently watched ‘Scar face’ on TV and all the swearing had been dubbed. As a consequence there was virtually no dialogue. The film lost its meaning. It really is about context. No one wants to hear their Granny swear (although mine did all the time – like a caricature of the comedy sketch gran on Catherine Tate, my Nan was more extreme) but swearing does have its place and in the absence of it here I feel I have lost mine!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Red Light! GO!

Even after 6 months I still go to get in the passenger side of the car to drive it! Driving on the wrong side of the road isn't as hard as you might think. For a start it helps to have the car the wrong way round. Right side for driver! However, for someone who doesn't know their left from right, it has posed some challenges!
I had to take my test within 60 days of being in North Carolina. I arrived at the test centre (center for any American readers) on day 60! I did try to read the NC driving manual before the test... really I did!
The first part of the test was verbal. I got interviewed by a man who showed me some blank road signs and asked me what they meant. I pointed out that this was unfair as they were blank. It turns out that only a railroad crossing is a yellow circle and only a little house shape is a school and I should know that. In my defence I reminded him that on the highway the sign always has little people in it!
He then showed me some other signs and asked me to explain them. One was a yellow diamond with 'Yield ahead' written in it. I explained that it meant give way to other vehicles. He looked at me utterly exasperated. Turns out - all he wanted me to say was 'Yeild ahead'. It was a reading test! Finally he showed me a blank yellow triangle. I admitted I hadn't got a clue - pointing out that in real life it wouldn't be blank. He said 'No passing'. I was shocked. I said 'Shit! Really? I failed? Am I that bad?' To which he said 'the sign is 'No Passing' -you now need to take an on line test!'. All of this was, of course, after he had described his love of Scotland.
The on line test was 25 questions of which I had to get something like 22 correct. I got the first 3 wrong! I readjusted my thinking to be like an American. For example, which carries the most points - leaving the scene of an accident or overtaking a yellow 'Freddie Kruggar' school bus with its stop sign out? The yellow school bus is premium! Drive home pissed (most Americans I have met do!) but don't ever drive past a stationary school bus. Instant ban! Once I got the American logic I got the remainder of the questions correct. Fine to drive whilst drinking hot Starbucks and chatting on your mobile but watch out for that bus! My daughter, at the age of 8 has been ridiculed for still sitting in a booster seat. American mentality. Just as an aside - I hosted a Halloween street party and did apple bobbing. Several parents would not let their children bob for apples because of 'shared spit' in the water. Killer germs! Those same parents will let their children ride in their cars, not in booster seats while they chat on the phone and drink hot coffee! No one to my knowledge ever died of apple bobbing!
I then had the driving test. I was fairly scared. I had barely got used of the frequent terror moments that get you when driving on the wrong side of the road - those hideous flashbacks to the right side of the road  when you get totally confused about where the f**k you should be! (Julia - you'll remember one such moment in Cyprus- on the wrong side - turns out it was a dual carriage way)  I led him to my vehicle and the test began. He immediately started talking to me about driving on the wrong side of the road in England (and of course his love of Scotland). He described in detail his frustration at roundabouts and how his wife had to navigate... not this exit, not this exit, turn left, turn left NOW. His tone had changed. I asked him if he was describing his driving experiences in England or instructing me. Turns out he was doing both! I really wanted to interrupt his reminiscence of discovering the Burbeck tartan after his name sake to tell him I was trying to concentrate on driving the wrong side of the road and to please shut the f**K up!
I had to reverse in a straight line. I failed miserably. He said he understood that it was because I was used to looking over my other shoulder. He even gave me a mini lesson in reversing. I didn't have the heart to tell him I have never been able to reverse in a straight line! Driving back to the test center we came to some lights where I had to turn right. The lights were on red. I sat! he looked at me funny. I then remembered I could turn left on a red! Red light! Go! This has confused me - Be warned - it differs from state to state but in NC you can turn left on a red (if it is safe to do so) unless it is a red you cant turn left on! There are both types in NC! I was so confused I started to turn right on reds too. That is an offence - not as offensive as overtaking a stopped school bus but bad!
At the end of the test he informed me that he had talked to me to see if I focused on him or the road. He said he was pleased to observe I hadn't taken my eyes off the road. That was because I was desperately trying to work out which side of the f**king road I should be on!
In truth, the test was easy. No reversing into a parking spot or emergency stops and it was only 15 minutes long. Driving here is easy. No roundabouts, congestion or aggressive honking of horns. If I do hear a horn it is usually because I have forgotton to go right on a red!

Is that an Outdoor Cat?!

I could smell it before I could see it this morning. Cat shit in the garage!
We have two cats - Cat 1 and Cat 2! (names changed to protect the identity of the cat shitter!)We took the cats' litter tray away on Sunday after fashioning a cat flap for them. As we are renting a house we cant just rip a big hole in the side door and stick a cat flap in. Well, we could but they have our $2300 deposit! We looked at buying a new door but then Hubby had an idea to open the one of the electric garage doors a few inches and put a plank of wood  underneath - almost the width of the door - thus leaving a small entrance/exit for the cats. He keeps telling me it will be great once I have painted it to match the door!
So - now they can go out! I wonder what they make of all the strange things... We had to get them cat passports! To be valid they have to be vaccinated against rabies and have a blood test to prove it. This is so they can return to the UK. The day they flew to the USA the vet phoned to tell me to bring Cat 1 back in as her jab hadn't worked - how does it not work? Too bloody late - she was in the departure lounge at Heathrow!
Trying to work out what they needed to enter the USA was impossible. DEFRA wont engage cos they only care about when they come back - not where they go, but where they go affects your ability to take them back! Arrggggg! I even phoned the North Carolina state vets office. They weren't sure what was needed and said just bring them - it will probably be OK! As it happens Hubby got interrogated more than the cats and they cleared customs faster than Americans arriving home! He does sometimes travel unshaven as you might expect a terrorist to so he gets picked on! They asked if he had cat food in his suitcase. You can imagine there wasn't a hint of derision in his voice when he said 'No cat food - I believe I can buy it in the supermarkets here.' Of course we now know that isn't quite true. It is Whiskers Jim, but not as we know it!
When we were looking for a house the Realtor asked if they were indoor cats or outdoor cats. I didn't know there were was a distinction. Over here they remove the cats claws and feed them 'indoor cat food' and they stay indoors. We were told on Saturday night that it was illegal in the state of NC to let your cat outside! I did a bit of research and couldn't find any evidence of this being true but I did find out that  fights between cats and dogs are illegal in some parts of North Carolina which is good news for Cat 1 and Cat 2. In other States the laws are not so cat friendly, for example they are not allowed to chase dogs up telephone poles in Minnesota and, in other states, have to wear a taillight (presumably outdoor cats) and three bells as a warning to birds! where is the fun in that for a cat? In Georgia they are not allowed to yowl after 9pm! In California cats and dogs are not allowed to have sex without a permit. I was wondering if this was sex with each other or species exclusive! Given Dogs are not allowed to 'bother' cats in Kentucky it might not mean cats and dogs together! I know the Internet isn't always the best source of information so I checked with the vets. They can go out if they have an up-to-date rabies vaccination and a special tag to prove this! That means Cat 1 can't legally go out. If she is caught out will it be me or the cat that goes to jail?
On another note, according to the Internet research I did it is illegal in NC to take a deer swimming in water above its knees or use an elephant to plow a cotton field! MMmmmmm!
So, this morning I reflected on the madness of bringing them here. They (I) miss nanny cat sitting for them when we are away! It is a problem not having friends and family to help out with such things. My mom - even though she is allergic to cats, would willingly stay at my house looking after them. Maybe she had wild parties while we were away... I worry about taking them back although Hubby assures me that given Cat 1's overactive thyroid glands and age I needn't worry about 3 years time...
In answer to the title question 'Is that an outdoor cat?' after cleaning up the little dirty protest in the corner this morning I think I have one of each!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Home Maker

The things that have challenged me in my new role as homemaker  in America haven't been the things I expected - but there have been some challenges!
Cooking is troublesome because it is hard to get the ingredients you need!
There are the obvious language barriers, the first being pronunciation:
You'll be surprised how off putting it is for both sides- I requested 'no tomato' on my subway sub. Three servers were laughing so much the manager had to finish my order. On the flip side, Hubby and I burst into fits of giggles whenever there is a mention of ERBS!
The second is a different name for something, for example, cilantro - How was I supposed to know it was coriander?!
Then there is the absence of certain ingredients from the supermarkets. I was invited to a dinner party and offered to make desert. I thought I would wow them with Delia Smith's Tiramisu. It should have been easy. It was exhausting!
Boudoir Biscuits - Boudoir what??!! Find them on the shelves of  any Morrison's but nowhere to be found in North Carolina. I settled for sponge cake and hoped it would work.
Strong espresso coffee - the easy little sachets of instant espresso (very good before you sneer) don't exist - I had to drive to Starbucks and get a double espresso and drive home looking like a real American (never without a coffee cup... really... even at the school bus stop!)
Rum! Buy it from the liquor store - they give it to you wrapped in brown paper like a dirty secret. I kept insisting 'It is for a recipe'. I left clutching my brown paper bag hoping the prohibition mob or abstinence party were not picketing the exit! I felt certain there were a group of people praying for me outside but they may have just been drunk!
Mascarpone cheese. There, if you are willing to pay the price. $6 for a little biddy tub of it! Why?!
Egg whites, egg yolks...RAW! OK - organic free range eggs are not quite so popular here but you can get them (at a price). No problem with the eggs until I watched Gordon Ramsey. Sorry! Chef Ramsey, as he likes to be called in these parts. He really is very popular! A wannabe served a raw egg. 'F**K. NOOooooooooooo! Are you trying to Kill them?' Ranted Chef Ramsey. I then realised that America might not have got over the panic we experienced in the '80's from Edwina Currie! Salmonella death eggs! By this time I had made the Tiramisu. At the dinner party we had to explain what we had brought with us. I introduced my dessert with the health warning that it contained raw eggs (pronounced 'roar' if you are English, sort of rhyming with 'sow' if you are American so the moment was painfully prolonged while they translated what I had said). The hostess politely put it in the fridge and it didn't reappear. I'm sure she didn't want to poison her guests. Later- I decided to get it out anyway and have some as it really is very good! You know what, Chef Ramsey? - everyone eat it and no one died!
This weekend it is my turn to host Soup night - a neighborly (check the spelling!!!) get together involving soup! I wanted to do Roast Pumpkin Soup (Delia again!). Pumpkins in America you say - no problem! It will soon be thanksgiving with pumpkin pies galore! Well - EVERY shop cleared their pumpkins on 1st November! Real pumpkins are for Halloween decorations. Pumpkin Pie is made from canned pureed pumpkin! but you know what - I cant roast a can! I wonder how I will get on finding the ingredients for Minestrone instead. Pancetta anyone???

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I am feeling utterly bored, isolated and lonely today!
I went on Facebook but because of the time difference there is no one to talk to in the UK. Even when I am on Facebook I am alienated, for example, by the deluge of X-Factor comments. I found myself watching some clips of X-Factor on U-Tube. Now that IS sad! I never missed Xfactor - every year until now! I have to admit I enjoyed it but also it is a social medium - a point of conversation - a point I can no longer share in!
So - why start a blog? I read a friend's blog every day (jezblog.com - go look for yourself!) but the primary purpose of his blog is to share fantastic photographs that he has taken all over the world - worth sharing and a life worth commenting on. (Jez, I hope you don't mind the link - I love looking at the amazing photographs you have taken and your fascinating take on the world!) ...but who would read my blog? Saddo watches X-Factor clips or goes to Walmart! ...but maybe it is also the mundane and ordinary that is also worth commenting on - I find my self a stranger in a strange land doing the strangest of things simply because I am not where I am familiar with. It is extraordinary the lengths we go to to feel normal. Take Saturday night for example - I accosted a woman in a shop because she was English! We met for coffee one morning and then arranged to meet up on Saturday with hubbies for drinks. She brought along another English couple. I enjoyed the evening and the company but it was a little weird! They were strangers. The commonality was that we all knew what Ribena was and missed Irish sausages! Her husband is American - I wonder if he felt strange that evening! I think maybe they have all lived in the US too long... as is the fashion, everyone goes home by 10! No cramming them in for last orders here!
So - who will read my blog? perhaps no one but I think I might gain a huge amount by writing one and externalising some of the strange experiences I am having as a stranger in a strange land. I might recognise that most things are not so strange at all. I might even do some more exciting things (other than having already packed my life into a cargo container and shipped it to North Carolina!).
Most of all if I sit here talking to myself - I wont feel quite so bored, isolated and lonely!