Monday, February 28, 2011

I’m in bits!

When I started writing this blog I was determined to stay focused on a theme – me being a stranger in the strange land of America. Sometimes the fact that I am just strange seems to dominate. I don’t want to be autobiographical and the blog isn’t supposed to be about me but occasionally I am struck by a thought I want to share!  My apologies to my readers who tune in to learn something about America or Britain! But who knows – reflect on this and you might learn a bit about yourself!

At the weekend I heard James Blunt singing ‘1973’:
And though time goes by
I will always be
In a club with you
In 1973
Singing "Here we go again”
It got me thinking about where a part of me will always be. I wondered what other people thought so I posted it on facebook and the only response I got was ‘Not listening to James Blunt, the posh, gay twat’. Not as deep and meaningful as I hoped, so I thought I would air this thought again on the blog.
I realized that there wasn’t just one place I would be, but several (more than I mention here but I didn't want to turn it into Desert Island Discs!). I wonder, how many bits of us can we leave somewhere before we disappear? Then again, I’m not entirely sure I have I left bits of me in the past – I think there are times when I left different somehow – I left an old version of me there and a new one moved on!
A part of me will always be walking through the rush of cold air and dry ice in The Dome in 1987. It was the hottest new nightclub in Birmingham. I don’t know what music is playing – I never noticed. I am walking through the crowds with my best friend – she is beautiful, glamorous and sparkly. We are Alive. We are gorgeous and we know it! It was our moment! We were both on the brink of real changes, of realizing childhood dreams. It was exciting to look into the future. Would I want to stay there or go back? Not now, but I am happy to leave a little bit of me always there, adrenalin happy and full of anticipation, holding hands and looking for adventure!

Another different bit of me is in the Phoenix Club – Ahh those Phoenix nights – when garlic bread was the future (sorry - couldn't resist the link!)!  It is Sunday night and the surroundings are incongruous with the crowd. It is a wine bar surrendered for one night a week to rock! Full of long hair and lip gloss and that was just the boys.  As usual Journey is playing. They had the same play list every week!
Living just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the night…
Working hard to get my fill
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin' anything to roll the dice just one more time…
Don't stop believin'
Hold on to that feelin'
It is almost time to go home to sleep until Wednesday and the next rock night out! At university I tended to skip the learning and just do the drinking! Wild times that couldn’t be maintained into adulthood! I had to grow up, leave that bit of me behind, and get a job!

A bit of me is in my boyfriend’s arms in 1991. His brother is driving us home after a Saturday night out. He is singing Depeche mode:
All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary

They can only do harm
His voice is deep and I can feel rather than hear the song. It reminded me of being a little girl, curled up and feeling safe on my Dad’s lap listening to the deep resonance of his voice through his chest – a place another little bit of me has stayed. I married that boyfriend and guess I didn’t really need to leave anything of me behind!

A bit of me is sat exhausted feeding my new little baby girl, looking out of the window and wondering what on earth I had done and how I would cope! Ronan Keating came on the radio:
If tomorrow never comes
Will she know how much I loved her
Did I try in every way to show her every day
That she's my only one
And if my time on earth were through
And she must face this world without me
Is the love I gave her in the past
Gonna be enough to last
If tomorrow never comes
I still shed those tears in the here and now that I cried on that day – as they splashed on my tiny baby’s face I realized nothing would ever be the same again. I would never be the same again and no love would ever overwhelm me as much as the love I felt at that moment for my daughter. A bit of me I am happy to leave with my son and daughter forever.

And now? Will I leave a bit of me here in North Carolina forever listening to banjo strummin’ in the Appalachian Mountains? If I don’t leave a bit of my heart I feel certain I will leave (or lose) a bit of my mind!!!

Where have you left bits of yourself?!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Incy Wincy Spider!

I like spiders. Sorry I should correct that. I like English spiders. I don’t know if my Mom’s absurd arachnophobia acted as reverse psychology when I was growing up. She would scream and cry at the sighting of a harmless house spider and we would have to remove the offending creature from the room. As a result I have never been afraid of spiders… until I came to North Carolina.
I was given a reason to be afraid within a week of being here. After driving to the wrong community pool for a weekend, then refused admission (wrong wrist band!), we realized the green roof we could see from our garden was our pool club house – literally at the end of the garden and across the road. Gardens here have no fences so it became a daily trek across the weird grass (it is grass Jim but not as we know it) and across the road to the pool. I vaguely remember flicking my foot across my other leg in response to seeing an insect leap up and land on my calf. I might have been less casual about it had I known I would have a purple tennis ball size festering lump of pus there within a day. It stood out amongst the numerous hideous mosquito bites I had already acquired. I decided to always drive to the pool from then on. I also decided to check out spiders on the internet and was sorry when I did.
The weather in the summer is amazing - 100°F and 85% humidity brings with it some pretty weird critters. Poisonous snakes aside there are some deadly spiders. The well known one is the ‘Black Widow’. Common in these parts! We went to the fantastic and free North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh and looked at one close up. There was a weird man perched by the exhibit... waiting for unsuspecting tourists. He told my then four year old son ‘See one of these and you are dead!’ My son looked at him with one of those hesitant shocked half smiles that would translate into a polite 'Oh really!' and a hasty retreat if he was an adult or a less polite ‘Fuck off, you nutter’. Instead the smile floundered and his lips turned into a nervous wail for his mommy! My son now behaves like my mother when he sees a spider. The man heckled me as we walked away, ‘they love your dark holes and fuse boxes’. I hoped he was still talking spiders. As far as I was aware I hadn’t got a spider in there but I would have to ensure better husbandry from now on!
Even more disconcerting here is the ‘Brown Reclusive’. Bites from these spiders can be deadly. Like the deadly snakes, it can be difficult to tell a Reclusive. Like Black Widows and the pattern on Copperhead snakes, they have an hour-glass shape. Boys, be warned – the hour glass shape is alluring but dangerous!!! If you see a spider out and about it may not be a reclusive, although if it refuses to engage in small talk it may be! One way to tell is they have six eyes (instead of 8)…I’ll just go get my magnifying glass.
One day at the pool a little spider was drowning. My instinct was to save it. I scooped it out and plopped it onto the side of the pool. It reared up at me waving its legs in an aggressive manor. Looking at me with its numerous eyes…too tiny to count! I should have just sqidged it like I see most Americans do. It isn’t natural for me to want to kill spiders – they eat other unsavoury critters in the house. Although judging by the insects I have seen here, spiders would have to be huge to eat them! We had resident cicadas last summer in the garage. It was deafening in there for weeks. One day at the pool my son refused to go up the steps of the waterslide. I went over to find a Praying Mantis on the hand rail. The life guard came over to move it and it flew at him. He nearly fell down the stairs. This thing was around 7 inches long. Would have taken a few spiders to munch on that!
My Hero!
I have grown to adore the little frogs that sit on the windows at night in the summer time. They come to catch the insects attracted to the house lights. They make a right racket but they eat nasty critters. So far no one has told me they are poisonous!
Spiders that are poisonous are even more worrying than snakes. They are smaller and harder to spot. I have just been on a kamikaze rummage in the garage (pronounced ga…rrrrrarrrjg ish here). We still have unpacked boxes from the UK. They might forever remain that way given the high risk of a colony of Brown Reclusives moving in. ‘Oh look – undisturbed boxes with lots of private nooks and crannies for shy types – lets set up home’. Actually –given my natural aversion to housework they might consider the whole of the house worth colonizing – they might put little signs out for their friends saying ‘Safe vacuum free zone’. My only hope is that being reclusive they live alone and have no mates!
Local advice on avoiding spider bites… Wear gloves when gardening; be careful of dark crevices in closets… blah blah blah! I say – Keep your hands in your pockets (after carefully checking them for spiders) and stay indoors armed with a hand vac! And Mom… when you come to visit, if there is a spider in your bath… don’t call me!

Please feel free to comment – you can do this anonymously if you want to!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Starring Samuel L Jackson

‘Ahh Snake in the pool!’
I launched in to the follow-up of ‘Snakes on the Plane’. Samuel L Jackson would dive in at any minute and wrestle a big black Mamba that had attached itself to my suddenly exposed nipple on my suddenly unfeasibly large breasts…
Thankfully no such trauma (although I was beginning to like the sound of that!) but it wasn’t without drama. I looked around – there was only me, the two 16 year old lifeguards and my two kiddies. Many ‘sub-divisions' – or housing estates have community swimming pools here. We often had the pool to ourselves last summer so I hadn’t thought it strange that no one was there. Apparently another family had spotted the snake and swiftly departed. Stupidly, we stayed and looked for it. It was quite hard to spot as it was only 6 inches long. I’ve seen bigger. As they say though– size isn’t everything and this snake was feisty! After being caught in the pool net it wriggled through a hole (as snakes do!). The life guard threw a towel over it and scooped it up. It bit the lifeguard and wriggled away. It was ok. I found out that day that of the 37 snake species found in North Carolina only 6 are venomous and deadly and the biddy snake in the pool wasn’t one of them!
The top 6 nasty snakes here in my new home state are; 
  1. Copperhead (found throughout NC)
  2. Canebrake Rattlesnake (found throughout NC)
  3. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (found in southeastern NC)
  4. Pigmy Rattlesnake (found in southeastern NC)
  5. Cottonmouth (found in wetland areas in the eastern half of NC)
  6. Coral Snake (the rarest, found in the south and southeastern areas of NC).
One of the most deadly – the Cottonmouth is found in water in these parts. You can tell it is a Cottonmouth rather than an ordinary water snake because the inside of its mouth is cotton coloured – all white and fluffy! I figure if it has its gob open and you are close enough to see inside you are already a gonna! Apparently it is the world’s only semi –aquatic viper. Not sure what our semi aquatic pool snake was then…. Not a viper!
The most common of the poisonous snakes in North Carolina is a Copperhead. I used to drink copious amounts of ‘copperhead cider’ at university – obnoxious but not venomous so I know the colour I am looking for. We went to a mini lecture at the North Carolina sea life centre on snakes (aspiring middle class parents trying to educate their kids … or terrified strangers trying to survive the wild life!) They gave some pointers in spotting the difference between venomous and non venomous snakes.  It all seems to require perfect memory recall in a potentially fatal situation. You don’t want to get it wrong… Ahh let me remember was it spoon shaped heads or triangle shaped heads that are dangerous… and what was the exception?

I found some really helpful tips so that I can be better prepared this Spring when the snakes come out of hibernation:

  1. Cottonmouths… are often loners, so if you see multiple snakes coexisting peacefully, it is probably not a cottonmouth.
So if you see a shit load of snakes you’re fine!

  1. "Copperheads" have a similar body shape to cottonmouths but are much brighter, ranging from coppery brown to bright orange, silver-pink and peach. The young have yellow tails as well.
Who cares what the difference is – they are both bad MoFos

  1. "Coral snakes" have several look-alikes, including king snakes. They have distinctive coloring, though, with a black, yellow and red bands, a yellow head, and a black band over their nose. One rhyme to help distinguish coral snakes from king snakes is 'Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, friend to Jack.'
Blah Blah Blah – Just remember the colours of the German flag and avoid all of them in any combination.

  1. Most of the time coral snakes will not bite - they are very shy.
Hope that you don’t meet a socially advanced extrovert Coral Snake!

  1. Nonvenomous snakes usually have a round pupil in the eye. Venomous snakes in the U.S. (except for the coral snake) have an elliptical pupil like a cat's eye. It looks like a small vertical slit in the middle of the eye. This can be difficult to determine without getting dangerously close, however.
No Shit Sherlock! Ignore this top tip and don’t eyeball a snake!

  1. Rattlesnakes- Look for the rattle on the tail. If the snake has a rattle on its tail it is a rattlesnake, and therefore venomous. Some harmless snakes imitate the rattle by brushing their tails through leaves, but only rattle snakes have the button-like rattle at the end of the tail that sound like little salt shakers. If you can't see the rattle, they also have a heavy triangular head and elliptical eyes like a cat's.
OK- Bad advice! Hear a rattle? Don’t look for leaves or try to distinguish salt cellar sounds. A rattle usually means the snake is already pissed off and ready to strike. Don’t go eyeballing it as well to double check!

  1. Venomous Snakes in the U.S. tend to have varying colors. Most snakes that are one solid color are completely harmless. However, some cottonmouths are also venomous so this is not a foolproof way to tell them apart.
Hey – top tips these! Ignore this tip too

  1. Nonvenomous snakes have a spoon-shaped rounded head and venomous snakes will have a more triangular head. This is because of the venom glands (this is less noticeable on the coral snake).
OK! Another top tip! Apply to all snakes – except Coral Snakes… again!

  1. Some venomous snakes in the U.S. will have a small depression between the eye and the nostril. This is called a pit (hence "pit viper"), which is used by the snake to sense heat in their prey. Coral snakes are not pit vipers, and lack this feature.
So remind me again – how do I spot a Coral snake? Something to do with German flags…

  1. If the end portion underneath the snake is going straight across, then it is venomous. If it starts to interlock, looking diamond shaped, then it is safe.
Hey Snaky – roll over and let me tickle your tummy…

  1. Some nonvenomous snakes mimic the patterns and behaviors of venomous snakes. Eastern milk snakes can look like copperheads, rat snakes can look like rattlers, and harmless king snakes can look like coral snakes.
So – Use all the other top tips to distinguish…

My conclusion – consider any snake as venomous and run away quickly in a zig zag line (actually I think the zig zag line is for crocogators!) They advise that you don’t garden without gloves and don’t camp without checking inside sleeping bags etc. They also advise not to handle snakes. I advise anyone coming to North Carolina not to, unless absolutely necessary and then – don’t garden, don’t camp, don’t stick your hands into any dark crevices (actually I think that is sound advice anywhere in the world and something I live by after a few unpleasant crevices!!!) and whatever you do – don’t touch a snake!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Glorious Day!

One of the things I love about North Carolina is the varied landscape (well, other than the predominance of trees). Drive 3 hours in one direction and you are at the coast with its weird sand spit that runs along the whole coast line so that you have to cross over marsh land to get to the beach. Drive in the other direction and you are in the Appalachian Mountains. They were beautiful in the fall. We went back last weekend to a very small ski resort. Anything that offers skiing is beautiful to me! This wasn’t the sort of skiing you would get on a plane from the UK for but I was impressed that after only a 3 ½ hour drive I could ski (or certainly try to!).
As we approached the area I got very worried. There was no snow to be seen anywhere. There is nothing worse than going skiing and having no snow! It is a fundamental requirement! Only when we got to the bottom of the mountain did we see the snow! It was like a little snow oasis, maintained by snowmakers. This is America! When I say small, it was just one 'mountain' and you could see all the runs from the bottom! One black run (they said two but the second was really a sliver that joined the main run half way down, 3 intermediate, 1 tiny green run and a baby slope. Oh and some crazy terrain parks for crazy snowboarders! Rather than try the ‘Hard core’ black from the top, I managed the sliver – called ‘a thin slice’. So thin in fact that I had to slide down sideways. Still – it was my first black run! Had they sold hot wine or hot chocolate and brandy at lunch I might have been persuaded to do ‘Hard Core’! In fact they sold no alcohol at all and the resort was separate from the town so there was no European style Après ski. For most part people were local or had driven a few hours so I guess there was no market for it – or maybe they don’t do Après Ski!
Upon arrival we paid the parking fee (unusual here) and drove to what my hubby calls ‘Parking Muppets’. Those luminous jacketed people you get in car parks to point to the obvious space. This one was a gem. He stopped us and we wound down the window. He asked ‘How many cars are you parking today?’  Ummmm just the one – unless the Dodge Challenger in my head counts?  We went into the ski lodge and hubby asked where the ski hire was. The man looked bewildered so hubby asked again. Hesitantly he looked out to the mountain and pointed to the chair lift… Ski Higher! What we should have asked for was the rentals!
Hubby is a reluctant skier which is great for me because he is happy to stay with the children. I had to make lift buddies  – friends you make for 5 minutes whilst sharing the chairlift. I got on the lift with a temporary lift buddy . He asked ‘Where in England are you from?’ I could tell he was a clever man with those additional words ‘in England’ added to the usual question. I told him.
‘Ahh Birmingham. Home of the dog show!’ I like that and made a mental note to self to use that as a stock response. Made a second note to not hastily feel obligated to add ‘no – I was never a participant or contestant’. Turns out it is a small world. My lift buddy had been a lecturer in Manchester when I was a student there.
My 5 year old son had never skied before. After a day’s group tuition and a private lesson he progressed from the now ‘dumb’ baby slope to the ‘bunny’ slope. He took this a little too literally and tried bunny hopping down. He was over zealous on his turns too and ended up going full circle and skiing backwards. Eddy the Eagle in the making.
My 8 year old daughter had skied twice before but still did the beginner’s day. After her lesson on the next day she did the smallest intermediate run with her dad. On the last day he suggested I take her on the most challenging intermediate. I stood with her at the top. It was one of those where you can see the top and the bottom but not the bit in-between until you go over the edge! It was very steep at the start. What was I thinking? She could just about snow plough turn! You are meant to protect your children not lead them down a kamikaze mountain plunge! By the second turn she was out of control and crying. I managed to stop her (and stop her trying to point her skis downwards!!!) and it took all I had not to disembark and walk her down! I explained that every time she went across the slope she would slow down. We continued – lots of wide turns till we got to the bottom when she said ‘Mommy you are much too slow!’ Kids!
The Irish family we went away with have lived in the states 15 years and became citizens last year. Fully fledged Americans with American children. They are still asked ‘Where are you from?’ I am tired of it after 7 months. While it is never asked in an unpleasant way – Americans are always interested and pleased to talk to you and love the accents- it does remind you that you are a stranger. I am frequently asked if we will stay here. I sat on the ski lift alone – going to the top for my final run of the trip. The sun was shining, the sky was clear blue and the snow sparkled like tiny diamonds below. It was a glorious day. For that moment I asked my self – Why would I ever want to leave?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Special Relationship

‘Your problem is you are trying to be friends with Americans’ said one of my ex-pat Brit friends last week at lunch. Originally from Halifax, she has been here 6 years and only has one American friend. We spent the weekend with a couple from Ireland who also endorsed this sentiment and they have been in the states 15 years. I was discussing the fact that even though I feel I have met some nice people who I would call friends here I do not feel I am myself with them. I feel the friendships are at a surface level which I don’t know how to move beyond. There is still a formality about the friendships I have here.
My Halifax friend said that will always be the case because there is a ‘disconnect’ between Americans and British. She thinks it is because they lack humour (or certainly the same sense of humour). This doesn’t quite explain it for me. American comedy is hilarious. Some Americans clearly have a great sense of humour. I have discovered ‘Two and a half Men’ since I got here and it is very funny. I have always been a fan of Southpark and now I live here that seems funnier. I have experienced for real the episode that shows the fear of ‘pink eye’. I didn’t quite get it in the UK but say ‘pink eye’ here and it throws everyone into a frenzied panic. Schools go on lockdown, crowds disperse, and mothers run inside with their children and take cover… Pink eye is conjunctivitis!
I think the 'disconnect' between Americans and Brits comes from two things – inextricably linked – and that is being religious – believing God has chosen a path for you and you are special. This also ties in with the old puritan work ethic – you get what you deserve! Doesn’t help the needy in times of economic downturn when the better off think they are privileged because they are special to God and the needy are somehow sinful! Combined with this attitude is the whole belief of ‘Manifest Destiny’. In 1845, an article in the New York Post told Americans:
‘It is our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty’.
It was to encourage people to leave the eastern coast, go west and take over America. This of course ignored the fact that America already had an indigenous population, whose belief that land could not be owned left them wide open to white greed and exploitation. This fundamental belief that being American is their god given right gives an assuredness and lack of reflection that I don’t like. I don’t mean individual confidence – they are as likely as anyone else to have self doubt and ask ‘does my fanny look big in this?’ – And lets face it America is the home of self help books, therapy and plastic surgery. It is more an innate attitude of ‘I am American, therefore I am!’
I think this can be illustrated by looking at Hilary Clinton (not for too long though – it may hurt your eyes). She is not liked. She is assured and hard nosed and confident. Everything you want from a man in politics but people don’t like to see it in women. People are unnerved by her self control. For example, she held it together when Bill put his cigar in the wrong ashtray. She may have been more popular if she had gone on Oprah and cried. To make herself look softer, in a recent interview with Harpers bazaar, she talked about handbags. It doesn’t really work. She will still be considered a hard-faced bitch – but now with a pink bag! Me – I think this perception of her embodies that American arrogance and assuredness that I see to lesser and greater degrees in some people around me.
Blair and Bush had a ‘special relationship’ and connected. This could be because they both lacked a sense of humour but George Bush was a walking comedy show! I think it is more likely that Blair had his own version of ‘Manifest Destiny’ in his head – he knew he was special and chosen. Combined with his religious self righteousness he fitted right in there with Americans.
When I speak here I make complete generalisations. Individual Americans can be self depreciating, humorous and reflective but as a national psyche I feel there is an assuredness, lack of reflection and an inability to laugh at themselves that is unnerving. It will be a surprise to no one but the Americans when China has finally bought America on the stock market. Maybe then they will truly reflect on being special and the concept of Manifest Destiny and the negative effects it can have on a Nation! Perhaps you have to be ‘great’ and then lose it all, like the Brits, in order to be reflective... Everyone needs special friends then!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A commercial break #1

I worry that one day I will have exhausted all the things that there are to comment on in this strange land. That day has not come yet! Somehow, almost everyday there is something new! A little gem given to me! Rather than having nothing to say I sometimes struggle with the content of my blog - because I have so much information on a topic I don't know where to start. One of those topics is advertising in the USA, especially local business ads,  medical, financial and legal ads. I recognise the danger of discussing advertising and taking the piss out of big companies here in the states. I've seen the ads for law firms offering to represent anyone injured by another party. I'm more on the insult than injury but in case of potential litigation I should make it clear now I abdicate any responsibility for the content of this blog, true or otherwise!
Anyway, rather than write one big blog where lots of companies try to sue me for one blog post I thought I'd make it easier for them by looking at individual and small groups of ads and that way they could better target their litigation.  I've decided that I ought to share some of these ads as mini commercial breaks in my blog. 30 second snippets - little peaks into the strange world in which I find myself. This also means that when I am not able to post a full blog (I have obligations... cupcakes to bake!) I can still share something! A short blogget!
Here goes. Tonight Applebees (it is a registered trade mark- it might help me later if I say that now...or should I pretend I didn't know that?!)  advertised their local restaurant. Applebees is a typical big American restaurant chain. I haven't eaten in an Applebees restaurant yet but I'm sure the food is good. Most big chains are pretty good and consistent.
Here's the last line of their ad:

Applebees - open until midnight or earlier

Gotta hand it to them. An amazing selling point!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Grand Tour

This weekend I was discussing Europe with some Americans and I got asked which was my favourite city in Europe. I tried to explain without name dropping too many cities I had been to that because Europe wasn’t one country – it was lots of different ones with different history, culture, language, food, architecture… I couldn’t just pick one city. Most capital cities of European countries have something special to offer, in fact most cities have some aspect that is unique and special.
I don’t think we Brits appreciate how lucky we are having such travel opportunities on our doorstep. Many Americans are desperate to visit Europe but poor holiday allowances, prohibitive costs and, for 63% of them, a lack of passport makes it impossible. Americans are pretty insular geographically and seem to spend all their time leaning the names of the state capitals rather than exploring the geography of the world! On the other hand we (71% have passports) go to Europe to lie on a beach, get sunburned and drink too much and call it travel!

I haven’t been many places in the states yet but Washington tops as the place to visit so far!  Each State has its own state capital. One reason the Americans would not appreciate the uniqueness of European cities is some state capitals were designed from scratch. They didn’t grow organically. Raleigh is the state capital of North Carolina. Raleigh’s location was chosen because of its proximity to a Tavern the state legislators used! That must have been so they could get pissed, not bother to plan a city and just use the blue print for Philadelphia instead. They didn’t seem to notice Philadelphia has a big river running through it… or that Raleigh is a mirror image – they must have turned the plans over! As cities go Raleigh is bottom of my list. It has no atmosphere! Other than on the day I toured it on a Segway with my sister and niece. Now that was funny…until my sister mounted the curb and overturned herself and her Segway onto me and broke off my Wheel hub! I nearly peed my pants I laughed so much.
Something familiar? In the heart of Savannah
I went to Savannah in Georgia recently. It was really beautiful and familiar. The European influences were very apparent and that is why I liked it. The city founders wanted to capture the grandeur of tree lined avenues in Paris. There are many fine examples of Georgian (as in George I not Georgia) Regency and French architecture. Down by the waterfront there was a huge 19th Century redbrick building – ‘The cotton Exchange’. It could have been lifted straight out of Manchester- well the plans probably were, along with the bricks. It hasn’t all been knocked down to make way for wider roads and strip Malls like some places in America. Its very high percentage of Irish might be to thank for the lovely little pubs dotted everywhere. Apparently they dye the fountains green on St Patrick’s Day. It is designed on a grid system like most American cities but the grids contain 22 squares which are miniature parks. The Brit in charge combined the opportunity to design a brand new city with all the best things from Europe included.  Sadly not all US cities were planned so well. All grid and no Grandeur!
Discussing the French influences of Savannah I was asked if it was true that the French hated Americans. I explained that as I was neither I really had no idea. (I didn’t add that I could probably hazard a guess!) Maybe it was my home city’s proximity to Luxembourg that confused them. I said I was from Birmingham and was asked if Luxembourg was nearby. (You know – the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg – a country in its own right!) I guess in American terms it is nearby. They were surprised when I explained I lived on an Island unconnected to Europe. I have, previously, even been asked if I am French! Even the local supermarket's new 'international section' consisting of all things British (which I am soooo excited about) such as Ribena, treacle pudding and HP sauce has a little row of SaurKraut next to the Heinz baked beans. It's all Greek to them!
I was told I would like Boston.. because it is so English! Speaking about this one American said you can’t see the British influence any more. I questioned this. Surely the architecture was very British. He said ‘Oh Yes – It is – but it isn’t full of British people any more’. MMmmmm! That might be because it was in the 1770’s that the Colony rebelled against the British rule and America went on to win the War of Independence! The Brits went home or eventually became American! Didn’t manage to stay there for the last 200 years holding on to their English accents but did enough to ensure it is a pretty city!
I went on to recommend Italy – I haven’t been to Rome but I loved Florence and Venice. One American was alarmed. He said his friend went to Naples and was issued with a taser gun when he got off the plane. Clearly a lack of geographical and cultural knowledge here. I think he was confusing Naples, Italy – a UNESCO world Heritage site - with Naples, Florida*.

*Where there are lots of reported taser related activities including Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson being tasered!)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Douse the Lights!

My Dad still says ‘Douse the lights’. I don't know why as I’m fairly certain electric light bulbs were invented when he was a child. Maybe they had lots of power cuts, calling for the frequent use of candles, maybe his parents said it and it stuck. I suppose, if an American heard my Dad say this they could be forgiven for thinking that Great Britain – the birthplace of the industrial revolution- was not very technologically advanced. They certainly seem to have some notion of primitive life ‘over the pond’.
When I recently went to a ‘clothes swap night’ the hostess wanted some ‘clothes pins’. I worked out that she meant pegs and popped home to get some. The ladies gathered around the big bag of lime green and purple pegs I delivered. I thought they were admiring my very trendy and cosmopolitan pegs until I heard one of them whisper to another ‘Well she’s got so many because they don’t have tumble dryers in Britain’. They don't hang washing out here. It seems that in some states it breaks state law to hang your clothes out on a line to dry. People… Yes…clothes… No!
My hubby was actually asked if we have dishwashers in the UK. ‘Yes’ He replied ‘but not many people can afford to pay their wages in the economic downturn’. It goes without saying they believed him!
On the on hand I guess we have to hand it to the Americans – Their incredible commitment to technological advancement is amazing and they lead the way in certain fields (mostly anything connected to pharmaceuticals which is mega money or warfare)  but even that sparks ridicule as I saw on a face book status the other day:
When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12billion to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300°C.
The Russians used a pencil.

On the other hand I have been struck – no, more like dumbstruck – by the American lack of sophistication. The biggest example of this is the ‘Chip and Pin’ Credit cards. They don't do chip and pin! I love the idea that Americans arrive in London and are refused credit with their Amex cards because they are unsecured by ‘chip and pin’. I love even more the idea of the sorts of responses they might come out with when asked about the absence of a chip and pin:
‘Gee – I haven’t seen Chip in years and I don’t know Pin but I’m sure he’s a great Guy!’

‘We don’t endorse homosexuality in the Land of the Free – if you Brits want to bring Chip and Pin together, may Sodom and Gomorrah escort you to an eternal life of damnation in hell’ (I actually heard that sentiment on a religious channel whilst channel hopping)

‘Hey yeah – Sure I have Chips. Aint got no Pin. Is that a sort of buffalo cheese dip?’

‘Are you hanging chips out with pins? Don’t you Brits have tumble dryers?’

Credit cards here just have the old magnetic data strip. In most stores you just swipe it. They rarely ask to see it. Sometimes you have to put in your postcode (Zip) but given the whole county has the same Zip code it wouldn’t be hard for a thief to guess it. Sometimes you have to sign but never, in all my purchases (and there have been a few) has the cashier checked the signature against my debit card. My Amex doesn't even have a signature strip on it! I have NO idea what secures that! When ‘chip and pin’ was introduced into the UK it saved billions. Fraud dropped from £218.8 million in 2004 to £98.5 million in 2008.
So why wouldn’t the US adopt it? One reason sited is the cost of implementing it but the reduction in criminal activity would pay for the costs. I read a few American websites and the bias was incredible. Wikipedia showed a picture of a micro chip next to a metal pin - I think to show the size of the chip but it seemed a bit literal to me! A website suggested that in Britain ‘the banks get to effectively make up their own rules, and the rule they've chosen is that if your PIN is used, then you must have been negligent about protecting your PIN, therefore you're liable for the fraud’. I may be wrong but the level of protection that seems to be offered if your card gets fraudulently used is very good in the UK. I was amazed at the sophisticated level of protection from my UK bank. My on-line bank account was suspended when I tried to transfer some money. They spotted the log on was in the US and were concerned that it was fraudulent! They obviously ignored my farewell letter and forwarding address!
So why wouldn’t US adopt chip and pin? There are three overwhelming reasons: No.1 – Banks do not offer protection for your cards here – and with chip and pin it would be the opposite of the scare mongering – banks would have to ensure more security because the card should be better protected. They are not prepared to pay for the fraudulant use of cards or for the new systems they would need; No 2 – there is no way Americans will remember a 4 digit number!; No. 3 - No need for pins – They have new fangled machines called tumble dryers here!

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

To All My Valentine's

I miss being a history teacher – so I thought I’d do a bit of history today. I also miss being an English teacher so I thought I’d combine some history with a story. I miss being a rational human being but there is bugger all I can do about that whilst living in this strange land! …but this blog might explain some more of the madness to you!

Once upon a time various Christian martyrs called Valentine preformed various heroic acts (not sure what acts but they probably endured some sort of torture for their Christian beliefs – worse than the torture inflicted on the good Christian folk of North Carolina of sitting through a 2 hour sermon every Sunday and giving loads of money to the church for the privilege) At least two of the Valentines are honoured on 14th February, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. There may be a third – from Africa. There are other St Valentines on other days!  There was nothing romantic about any of them so I think some stuff was ‘embroidered’ to justify the day as we know it now!
Here’s the embroidery:
One of the Valentines was a priest who refused to follow the Roman Emperor Claudius’s new law that young men remain single (must have been the Valentine of Rome then! Nothing gets passed me- although I don’t know where Terni is!) Claudius believed married men did not make for good soldiers (this may be the whole theory of men who aren’t having sex are more aggressive. Silly Claudius - single men get it – married men don’t!). The priest Valentine secretly performed marriage ceremonies. When Claudius found out about this, he had him arrested and thrown in jail. He offered Valentine a deal – become a Roman pagan or die. Seems like a no brainer to me! Not to Valentine who tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead. Claudius had him executed! Go Claudius! Before his execution, Valentine is reported to have performed a miracle by healing the blind daughter of his jailer. I wonder if ‘healing’ is a euphemism! Otherwise it’s still nothing to do with romance!
Chaucer talked of Saint Valentine’s Day being when birds choose their mates …but he was talking the feathered kind and it was seasonal rather than romantic and it was a different Saint Valentine – Valentine of Genoa – celebrated on 2nd May:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
Still nothing to do with romance. People have since misused Chaucer’s references to reinforce the other Valentine on 14th February! Shakespeare played his part too and somehow the idea of Valentine being a bit of a Romantic stuck. Cards from the love struck to the impervious began in the late 18th century. The idea is you send a card to one carefully selected individual to whom you declare your love. The Brits sent a few cards in Victorian times and with the advent of cheap postal services cards could be sent anonymously. This meant that the lovely sentimental love verses changed to rather more racy rhymes! (feel free to post any you know on the blog). One Brit sent a card to an American whose dad happened to own a large stationary store in the 1840’s. The Americans added a bit to the priest story that has no historical basis whatsoever (like the first bit did?) but ensures a Romantic connection. American Greetings (a card company) have added to the adventures of Valentine (the Roman one – the priest bloke – pay attention) and claim that on the evening before Valentine was executed, he wrote a  "valentine" card to the girl he’d ‘healed’! I wonder if it said ‘Yeah I know I promised it wouldn’t be a one night stand but…’
Valentines Day was supersized. Now it is big business The Brits send around 23 million cards (population of UK is around 61 million). According to my research the Americans (population 312 million) send around 1 billion!  I couldn’t work out why there were boxes of Valentines cards in stores like you get for Christmas cards. I was thinking there were some pretty desperate people out there if they felt they needed to send out 20 cards. I don't think there are many Mormons in the area! I found out why when I received an email from my 5 year old son’s teacher reminding me of his Valentine obligations. They couldn’t email me to tell me when my children would be released from a ‘lock down’ after a bank robbery in the area but they sent me this:
Just a reminder we will be sharing our Valentines on Monday.  Please be aware we have egg and peanut allergies in the room, if attaching candy to your valentines.  Below is a list of student names in case you lost the list
(She forgot to mention the small boy with the 'small British boy' allergy!) I wouldn’t be adverse to my son having a little sweetheart but he isn’t allowed ONE! I was informed that all the kids take in candy and cards – not for one carefully selected valentine, that isn’t allowed. It has to be to the whole class. All or nothing! Everyone has to feel loved! You know my philosophy – kids should learn and deal with rejection, failure and whatever else real life throws at them as they grow up. How they gonna feel when they leave school and get NO cards cos they are ugly and mean? They might have been less mean if they had been made to reflect on the absence of Valentines from a young age! Approximately 190 million cards are sent as ‘proper’ Valentines in the USA, the rest are sent by kids with teachers receiving the most Valentine cards. So my children’s induction into Valentines Day state side shows, that just like the Saint Valentines that that the day is named after, it has nothing to do with Romance!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Take a moment!

To all my friends who don't take enough time for themselves, and to me, who - with a surfeit of time- has forgotten the value of moments!
England in the Spring time. Enjoy x

W. H. Davies


WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bang! Bang! You're Dead!

Last night, as events unfolded of a very local bank robbery, I shared it step by step on face book. It looked like it had the makings of a hilarious blog! This morning, I could no longer see the humour in it!
yesterday an armed man entered the local bank. At I went to the local supermarket 200 yards away to return a DVD. I saw three police cars. I thought this a little unusual because you normally only see them in the central reservation (median here – and you can’t pass your driving test unless you call it that!!!) having an afternoon snooze! You have to call the police if you are involved in a car accident with more than $1000 of damage. When I saw three I assumed it was a ‘write off’! I just missed been part of the community ‘lock down’ at where all shops and schools are locked – no one can enter or leave! I vaguely wondered what the helicopter was doing above my house!
Waiting for the kids at the bus stop I learned that there was a bank robbery taking place with a hostage situation. The kids were not coming home yet! The Gun man didn’t just have 7 hostages in the bank, he had several schools too! Someone at the bus stop who knew all about it (there is always one) said the armed man had talked about looking for Jesus. I knew then it was not going to be a good outcome. It is easy to give into the demands of a robber wanting money… but Jesus? He’s gonna be disappointed… armed… and clearly mad!
The school was on ‘code yellow’ which means ‘there there is something in the community that poses a threat to the school’. The school is ½ mile away. Luckily it wasn’t a code red – they would have had to sit under the desks! I suppose I should be glad they have procedures but it just seemed tragic to me! There was NO communication from the school. The school hostages were finally released and I picked the kids up at 6.45pm 3 hours late! I knew they were safe but I was worried they would be upset. My five year old son was very afraid – they had been told something was happening in the community. He thought I had been in danger.
The neighbour who took hubby shooting said it was a pity hubby was away as he was a ‘crack shot’ (at least I think that’s what he said). He said it would be just like the movies, they could go down there and when the suspect came out dragging a hostage by gunpoint they could shoot him down. As it turns out, that is exactly what happened, 3 hours into the hostage situation. It wasn’t hubby firing the gun though; it was a SWAT team…just like the movies.
The ‘robber’ had been a 19 year old black teenager with mental health issues. They said he had recently spent some time in a hospital. I listened to a radio programme yesterday which talked of research into mental health being 100 years behind that of physical health.  I wondered if his stay in ‘hospital’ and his treatment had been compromised by financial status (or lack of it). He had recently got back on his feet according to a ‘friend’ and had re-enrolled in high school as a 9th grader. Here, if you don’t make the grade it doesn’t matter how old you are – you don’t have special help and lessons with the correct year grade – he was 19 and being taught with 14 year olds.  What does that do to self esteem? This too is the place where you have the right to bear arms, and with that brings easy access to AK47’s for angry young men.
Neighbours spoke today about how awful it must have been for the hostages. I agree but my thoughts were somewhere else. This morning, on the wrong side of Wisteria Lane a mother is grieving for her dead son and I’m left wondering – what is The American Dream?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lord wont you buy me ...

Lord wont you buy me a Mecedes benz?
my friends all have Porches
I must make amends...

I’m not sure I am going to get much sympathy for this blog but a problem shared… If I share it with lots of people does it get halved or divided up amongst all of you? I hope so - then I'd feel loads better and you would only feel a tiny bit worse!
I had a bit of a trauma today. I tried to open the boot (sorry trunk) of my car and it wouldn’t open. I pressed the unlock button again and tugged on the handle. I then realised it wasn’t my car. In the land of the free where there is so much choice, everyone chooses the same thing! There were identical cars all over the place. It is another of my Ground hog experiences. I park in a row of shops (they call them strip malls) and then later I forget where I have parked and have to press lock on my key. Eventually I get close enough to the correct car for the car to honk! It doesn’t like you locking it twice and tells you so. I like to think it is saying ‘bye’ when I lock it and leave! It is more likely saying ‘F**K you too!’ if it knows what I think of it!
Another thing that caused me pain when I left England was having to sell my car as well as my house. I loved my car. If it had honked at me for locking it twice I would have done it all the time – Like saying – 'Yeah! That’s MY car'. It was a pretty, shiny, blue CLK. After my first old banger which I got with a student loan, I have always had a brand new car and never kept it for more than 3 years. I progressed to a sports car when I suggested we have a baby. Hubby part ex-ed my hatchback for an MGF within a week of the suggestion. You can’t fit a baby in one of those. I later tried to upgrade and gave him the choice – baby or Audi TT. Baby won. The TT would have been a lot cheaper! Still the baby came in handy for a later upgrade. I managed to get my first Mercedes after watching Top Gear. They showed crash test results. My Freelander was bottom and Mercedes C Class was top! A baby needs a Mercedes and Mommy didn’t rest ‘til she got one!
We discussed what car I would have when I got to America. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! I thought I needed a big car – to taxi my visitors from England around. Given that they are few and far between I don’t think that should have been the dominating factor in selecting a car. I was thinking – a nice M Class or a Volvo XC90. (pretty small by SUV standards here). Although expensive by American prices they are loads cheaper here than in the UK. What I had not considered was that we had no credit rating here. No one would lease us a car and we didn’t want to use our cash (never a good idea and leasing guarantees me a new one after 3 years!).
Hubby gets a company car – not a usual perk here. There wasn’t much to choose from and he settled for a Buick Lacrosse (no I never heard of one either). Hubby drools over Mustangs and Dodge Challengers. They were not on the company car list. He tried to get an allowance so he could pick one of those instead but the company wouldn’t let him! Bastards! I must admit they look very ‘rock and roll’. We couldn’t have had one for my car even if I had agreed – they wouldn’t consider us for a car lease! To satisfy his desire, hubby’s agreed to drive along the Californian coast this summer from Los Angeles to San Francisco, only if I hire a Challenger for the trip. Mmmmm Let me consider if that is an acceptable condition to place on me…. Yep! I’ll live with that! I wonder if he’ll let me play heavy rock loudly?!
So, here’s where I want the sympathy. In the end only one dealer would deal – Honda! Sympathetic 'ahhs' now please! A Honda!!! Now there is one particular car everyone loves in Wisteria Lane and it’s a Honda Odyssey. They all have them. Thankfully I didn’t know that and selected a Honda Pilot. I find it hard enough to find that on a car park and there are less of them! It is like a glorified mini bus with mostly just one of the eight seats occupied at any time. It guzzles the (cheap) fuel (sorry gas) and I feel like an environmental terrorist. In car parks it’s no longer a case of ‘Hey, that’s my car’ more a case of ‘Hey! Where the f**k is my car?’

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Home Sweet Home

When we decided to come to America and ‘give it a go’, like we were trying a new flavoured ice cream, there were many things that caused me pain in the transition. The first one, ‘for economic reasons’ (i.e. we couldn’t afford it if I didn’t work in America) was selling our house in the UK and getting something smaller – Hubby said it would rent easier (still read as – we need to cut the mortgage down!). I loved the house we had been in for ten years, it was the children’s home and I still couldn’t believe it was mine. With a central staircase, double galleried landing and a sun lounge, the girl from the council estate done good. I was proud, but pride comes before a fall and it wasn’t really mine. Most of it was the bank’s so I agreed to sell.
Hubby left for the US and a month later, swapping solid oak floors for laminate, we moved into our new, more compact ‘des res’! I would have found the move very difficult had I not been fortunate to be hospitalised with swine flu just days before. I was like one of the unclean during an outbreak of the Black Death. Everyone wore masks and they put yellow tape across the hospital door.  As soon as they confirmed it was swine flu (with the risk of pneumonia and death) they sent me home immediately! As it was, on the day of the move I didn’t care as long as I could lie down somewhere. I lay in the bed ‘til the removal men (stoic and brave to cross the threshold) took our bed. I lay on the sofa until a charity came and collected it (we were moving to a smaller house remember!) I then got transported to the new house by which time my son’s bed had been unloaded. I crawled into that. I don’t recommend swine flu at all!
Two days after the move we were told by hubby’s company that we couldn’t use the housing allowance they were paying us to buy a house in America. They like to keep you flexible and their options open. They don’t want you stuck somewhere financially. We were gutted. We nearly pulled out of the whole deal. We didn’t want to rent and I had been persuaded to sell my house in the UK on a promise of bigger and better things in America!  It wasn’t until I actually got to America that I realised I had been persuaded by a bit of fool’s gold!
We lived in the new UK house for six months – me, the two kids and the two cats. It wasn’t fun because I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in America either. I wanted my home back. We went on a visit to NC in spring to find a house to rent.  We found something twice the size of my beloved house in England… all with a shared community swimming pool. I was placated.
It wasn’t till we moved in that I realised the houses here are spoof! They look spectacular. For $400,000 you get 4000 square feet! Almost twice the house, half the price.  We could do with that sofa back! …but they aint built to last. Many of the houses are stone cladded – think Jack and Vera, or vinyl covered wood. Some, like ours have brick fronts – but the bricks are just cladding too. They have lovely touches – like huge bathrooms and his and her sinks (that’ll stop whiskers in soap after shaving – HIS whiskers not mine!!!). We have the biggest kitchen I have ever seen. I’m not sure what to put in all the cupboards. I keep one empty to put my children into if needed.. Well, that’s what I tell the neighbours children. They believe me because Harry Potter lived in a cupboard under the stairs. It is all spoof though. They do not last at all. They don’t seem like a good investment to me!
Renting is weird. On the one hand it is liberating because you don’t have to do anything. On the other it is hard to make it homely. It is a bit like borrowing someone else’s welly boots – you don’t really care how muddy they get or what they look like as long as you don’t damage them. You don’t bother washing them 'til you need to give them back. (Weird analogy I know, especially as I don’t recall borrowing any wellies and now no one is likely to lend me theirs if I needed them!) I’m not saying I don’t do any housework (although I don’t, really) but I don’t do any home improvement either. I got some curtains to put up at the back door so that burglars (reported on i-neighbors) couldn’t look in at night. I got the cheapest I could find. I would never have done that in my own home. It isn’t my home and as long as we give it back clean and unbroken that’s OK.
As it is, I am sooooooooo glad they stopped us from buying. Not only is the process very expensive here (houses are cheap, realtors are not – think I’ll save that for another day) it would seem his company are right – house prices are still not stable and ending up with negative equity would be bad.  Like Hubby’s company, I want to keep my options open and be flexible too. It is very hard to know where you want to live until you have lived somewhere, and while I don’t mind trying on these wellies for a short time and slopping around in the mud, I certainly don’t want to get stuck in the mire!