Category Archives: Only in America!

It’s logistics not luxury

iahThis morning I was at the airport in Houston for the 52nd time since April 2012 when I first touched down for a flying visit to look at schools and houses.  By the time we leave for good in less than three weeks, that will have nudged up to 57 times.  That’s 57 times in 28 months, which is an average of almost once a fortnight. Now despite what Mr N would have you believe, this isn’t because I’ve had a holiday every two weeks or so (although, depending on one’s definition, I could be considered to have been on a permanent holiday for two years). I do acknowledge that 14 of the 57 will have been for holiday flights that have involved me. As these figures include both departures and arrivals, that’s seven holidays in 28 months which equates to one every four months. Possibly a little excessive, maybe, but four of these have been long weekends on cheap last sorts of deals, more like mini breaks than full blown vacations really, so ignore these and that’s three holidays in a bit over two years. (I’m not going to go down the road trip route today – don’t mind the pun – which are, well, arduous, driving-wise, not what everyone would typically define as a holiday and honestly quite certainly not restful.) So anyway, that means that 43 of these trips, predominantly to George Bush Intercontinental but also including William P Hobby, have not been for my holidays.  Rather, they have been, mainly, to pick up or drop off other people who have been coming here to see us, or to drop off and then pick up people who normally live here who have been going visiting somewhere else.

The point that I have rather laboriously been coming to is this: as an ex-pat, life revolves around airports and aeroplanes, and as an ex-pat in the US, where exploring the country means either getting cosy with your car for many hours on the road or flying because it’s vast and doesn’t really do trains, then it’s extra aero-centric.

Firstly, while Mr N can be a bit sniffy about my holiday habit (his terminology), back home in England we were not averse to regular weekends away in London and Edinburgh, say, as a family, or trips to the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Wales (north and south), holidays in Devon and Cornwall and Norfolk and the Highlands of Scotland, and further afield and for longer in Europe, and I had my fair share of girls’ weekends, most recently to Bath and Oxford and London and Anglesey.  The kids, too, had trips away – with school and, H and F at least, with friends and to festivals. We sometimes flew, but usually didn’t need to. Within America, more often than not we have flown, and that has included school trips – no puking on coaches for our little darlings out here! If you want to see places and visit people, air travel tends to be necessary. Now admittedly that’s “necessary” in the top-end terms of my first world privileged lifestyle, but in the context of home (UK) and here (US) and making the most of  these specific circumstances in which we find ourselves, I think I can just about justify use of the word necessary.

Secondly, we are a holiday destination!  In a period of 18 months we had 22 visitors in 11 separate visits.  Undeniably this visitation rate has noticeably diminished over the course of Year Two, after all it’s expensive to get here, a bit of a schlepp, it’s not New York, few people are gonna come twice (put your hand up the marvellous Mildred for that one!), and, of course, we’re coming home now so everyone can see us for free. Nevertheless, it’s a fact of peripatetic life that folks will want to come and stay with you and enjoy the country you’re in while they’ve got the chance. And being visited means airport pick-ups and drop-offs as well as mini-trips with the guests squashed into the itinerary: you’ve gotta give ‘em a good time, right?

Then there’s the reason you’re here in the first place – work. Actually Mr N has travelled less while here than he used to in his previous non-ex-pat job, but he’s had a few jollies as well as his 2014 exile to Oz that have required airport trips (I always take him and pick him up, he seems to have an aversion to taxis even though they’re on expenses. How good a wife am I? Thank you). Very many of my fellow trailing spouses’ spouses spend a lot of time in the air. It kind of comes with the territory.

Fourth, there’s the daughter thing. H is at university in England. She is by no means hard done by. We give her a very generous student allowance. She always seems to land on her feet (in the words of Grandma, “she could fall in a bog and come up smelling of roses”). She’s working in Italy right now. She has another job back in England in a few weeks. With the proceeds of both, she’s planning a trip to South Africa. She almost doesn’t need us (almost is the key word here). Frankly, it’s often fraught and sometimes edgy and always shouty when she’s here. But. She’s our daughter and she’s usually 5,000 miles away. I cannot, and do not want to, deny her opportunities to come to Houston to be with us. Mr N and I miss her, her brothers miss her (they might deny it but they do), she misses them (she might deny it but she does). Why be four when we can be five like we used to be? The only answer to that is why not?

It’s been a case of logistics over luxury, without a doubt.  However, very soon, visit number 57 will kick-start our final journey home and my relationship with the airports of Houston will be over. As it’s our “demobilisation” flight we get to go business class so the luxury, temporarily, is going to take over. But it’s the logistics that win, and right now I’m wishing they weren’t being quite so final.

Serving up a bit more weirdness

So, because it has endless possibilities and is very entertaining I’m gonna just continue for a little bit more on the lines of my previous theme, namely, what I find mad (funny) about America and, for today’s particular delectation, we will be gorging on something sweetly bonkers. But first, like a little tray of amuse-bouches to start us off, here are a few more unlinked funnyosities that have popped into my head since my last post:

  • I think everyone knows that they adore a bit of British blue blood over here, but actually they (those with whom I’ve ever had a royal chat at least) hate Camilla vociferously and deeply, still affronted by her usurping of the goddess Diana, whereas the lady Cam is one of the few I quite warm to because she seems to be a bit of a laugh.
  • Americans eat pickles a lot. That’s one from the list I’ve mentioned before, but as a bonus illustration of this love affair, if you take part in any long distance run or bike ride here, you’ll get sliced pickles, pickle juice and sometimes even a great big whole one along the way.  Apparently it stops you cramping, but even so!
  • Public loos are, indeed, public. That would be public in the sense of not private. Cubicles often don’t go above shoulder height, never go down to the floor and the inch wide gaps round the doors actually let you see in (or out, so you can catch the eye of the person who’s looking in on you, for example). Another from the list above, but just so odd and disconcerting that I thought it worth drawing your attention to.
  • Sticking on the loo (humour me, do), portaloos are called portapotties and the phrase ‘to go potty’ doesn’t mean to go loopy, it means to go to the loo. Which is loopy. Yes? I mean actual grown-ups use this phrase.
  • Now, I could go on about the words literally forever, but I’ll finish (for now at least) with just one more: entrée. It is the word that is ubiquitously used in restaurants for the main course. I don’t think I need to explain why this is hilarious.

Moving on, then, to the entrée of this piece (admire what I did there, please!). If I said “Girl Scout Cookies” to you (and you were not American or hadn’t spent time in suburban America in early Spring) you might imagine a group of noisy, laughing lasses, surrounded  by a puff of flour and with greedy fingers wiping clean the bowls of cookie dough while soft-baked, all-shaped, choc-chip-ful, nutty, fruity biscuits lie cooling on racks. In other words, home-made. And by young girls. Maybe with some supervision, at home or by Brown Owl or whatever the US equivalent of the pack leader is.

And if I list the following ingredients, I suspect that, wherever you’re from and whatever time of year it is, you’d visualise some kind of highly processed and packaged sweet food stuff: whole grain wheat flour, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, canola [rapeseed] oil, dried cranberries (cranberries, sugar, sunflower oil), malt syrup (from corn and barley), invert sugar, natural flavor, baking soda, ammonium bicarbonate, salt, mono calcium phosphate, soy lecithin, distilled monoglycerides (BHT and citric acid added as antioxidants).

If we put the two together what we actually get is: Cranberry Citrus Crisps Girl Scout Cookies = highly processed and packaged sweet foodstuff.  It’s bordering on the libellous IMG_1899isn’t it?

Girl Scout Cookies, I’ve learnt over my two short Spring seasons here, are an American institution. We’ve bought quite a lot of them, off friends whose daughters are Girl Scouts and who (the friends not the daughters) are heavily engaged in their selling via email and face-to-face supplication, and off strangers who set up week-long stalls, aka barricades, outside all the local supermarkets.  This year we majored heavily on the afore-mentioned Cranberry Citrus Crisps as well as Mint Thins. Neither are very nice, to be truthful. I’d rather buy Jaffa Cakes or Ginger Nuts or HobNobs or any number of American equivalents on the shelves of Kroger. If I have to eat processed biscuits I don’t really care how much they cost, price doesn’t come into it, it’s all about that nom taste, and GS Cookies don’t deliver.

Oh I do understand how important it is for Girl Scouts to raise money for and awareness of their undoubtedly worthwhile activities. But per-lease! I’m sure it could be done more imaginatively and, for the girls themselves, more engagingly. Like really baking for instance. On the packet of my Cranberry and Lemon Crisps is proudly printed: “Selling Girl Scout Cookies helps girls develop 5 skills that they use throughout their lives: 1. Goal Setting 2. Decision Making 3. Money Management 4. People Skills 5. Business Ethics”.  What bullshit! It makes them lots of money, doubtless (the troop buys in boxes and boxes, the parents commit to buying then selling on x number, and, I’m guessing here, probably end up with an excess of the worst flavours which they only just manage to chomp their way through before next year’s onslaught starts again), but it’s hardly Harvard Business School stuff. And no fun for anyone. That mixture of homespun, homegrown, nurturing, Mom’s-apple-pie fakery with the grooved, seasonal, this-is-what-we-do-in-March tradition with the hard-nosed, boring, bringing-it-back-to-business reality is sooo American. And, yes, it’s also weird.

I have no pudding for you to round off this mealtime metaphor but do feel free to fight back, you Yanks out there, and entertain me with what you find strange about other nations (like the word pudding in this context which my Belgian friend V finds so funny). I suppose that would be just desserts…

From alien to acceptable in two years.. awesome!

18 wheelerI love American trucks! (In the British sense of the word truck that is: lorries, artics. Or in US English: 18 wheelers.)  They all, without fail, have shapely cabs, with a grand, proud profile unlike their dull, flat-faced British counterparts.  Chesapeake Bay Retrievers to our Cavalier Spaniels.  And they’re smart: metalwork shined to mirror standard, paintwork gleaming and in bold reds and greens and blues.  They blast along the highways and freeways in the centre lanes, intimidating yet somehow solidly reassuring, like they’re in charge. They loom up.  I remember being struck by their imposing, handsome bulk when I first came to the States yet over the last two years familiarity has bred nonchalance so that, mainly, I don’t notice them any more.

But it’s not just aesthetic and aural perceptions that can change, it’s less tangible stuff around attitude and acceptance, too. So, for example, as well as the distinguished trucks, another thing that has blobbed from being novel to normal about this country is the once curious ubiquity of flags and wreaths. Specifically flag-wise, the national ‘Stars and Stripes’ and, in Houston, the Texas state ‘Lone Star’ flags and, wreath-wise, door decs celebrating pretty much any holiday, feast day, season… you name it.

I passed a building (some kind of civic hall in a small town) the other day whose front was draped with the Stars and Stripes which, I swear, was the size of a tennis court.  Flags fly everywhere here, but they’re clearly obligatory at car dealerships, and the bigger the vehicles for sale, the larger and higher the flags; if it’s a pick-up you’re after, head for the sky filler!  I can’t say I love the flags like I love the lorries, and it’s a bit odd that there are rules about displaying them (I was going to elucidate about the Texan flag being the only state flag that can be flown at the same height alongside the national flag, but it turns out that’s an erroneous urban legend – all state flags can! However, there are plenty of other rules governing their flying, one being that the Stars and Stripes has to be lit up at night), and even odder that there’s a pledge of allegiance (“Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible”). Nevertheless, there’s a pride in, and reverence for, something intangible (the country? the state? the individual? progress? democracy? freedom? the new world? the sunny climes? what?) that’s actually quite sweet and touching and a little bit refreshing (or it once was, at least, but now goes by unnoticed) after the sarky cynicism and world-weariness of damp old England where the Union Jack outside someone’s house usually means they’re a nasty and unintelligent racist [is there any other sort?].  I hope I remember that the rippling furling and unfurling and flapping of a vast flag in a strong wind is a sight to behold and can be a positive thing.

Then, lest we forget, there are the wreaths. The charming, floral, homely wreaths on front doors. Back home, some people put them out at Christmas, otherwise they adorn coffins, but either way generally they tend to be plain green. It doesn’t really work that way here. easter wreathRight now, we’re coming to the end of the Easter wreath season (think delicate pastel eggs, nests) and swiftly moving through Spring towards Mother’s Day (think yellow, think shrieking “Mom I Love You”). We’ve already had Christmas/New Year/plain old Winter and Mardi Gras; soon to come will be Memorial Day, followed before we know it by the approach of Summer, 4th July, Labor Day, Fall/harvest festival, Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, and back to Christmas again. Possibly there’s a festivity or two I’ve missed out. And there’s a wreath for every occasion. I’ve already written about the crazy Christmas decor decorum and how it creeps up on you and this wreath thing is the same: when once it seemed kitsch and bizarre, inchmeal it segues into convention. If it sounds like I’m taking the piss, I’m sorry. I am, I suppose, but fondly, because in actual fact, for every Michaels shop-bought one, there’s a lovingly home-made, or at least customised, example and, truth be told, they do brighten things up. Now, if ever there’s a place that needs brightening up, it’s England so while no wreath has ever adorned a door of mine, that might be about to change as I head home to Blighty. That’s how normal it’s become. Blimey!

As for expressions, it really is true that EVERYONE says “awesome” when they mean “fine” or “good” or “glad to hear it” or “fancy that!”. For a while I tried my hardest never to say it just because, but I’m no longer irritated by it. I suppose I’ve come to understand it as “fine” and “good” and “glad to hear it” and “fancy that!”.  And oh how I LOVE “good job”!!  As for “y’all”, “y’alls” and, especially, “all y’alls”, don’t get me started. I don’t think I can ever use them at home, that would be ridiculous (wouldn’t it?); but who doesn’t use them here? And why not? So versatile, so deep south, so – well – appropes for any occasion. And while to be told “have a nice day” is annoying in England (because it’s always insincere toe-the-line Mc-speak), “have a good one” is a natural, universal, cheerio-equivalent that I give as much as I receive these days. We all now say ‘to-may-to’ and ‘bay-sil’ and ‘dee-po’, and use ‘gas’ for petrol and  ‘restroom’ for loo, and more, just for a simple life. Who’d have thought it? If I stayed here long enough, would I get the drawl? [Mind you, can’t bring myself to say ‘wodda’ for water, it seems so awkwardly affected, and for the same reason haven’t been able to set foot in Whataburger, though that’s not been a major setback.]

The uninhibition (not sure that’s a word but it’s preferable to uninhibitedness, which is a word) of your average American, while definitely renowned and possibly a cliché, is nevertheless a truism. Shoppers in the supermarket actually do introduce themselves to you down the self-serve beans and pulses and nuts aisle; fellow queuers hand you their business cards; waitresses flatter you, “oh ma’am what a gorgeous necklace!”. It’s a perplexing business at first, particularly for us reserved and rather aloof northern Europeans. “Why the hell is this person I’ve never met before being so familiar?” was my wrinkle-nosed, head back, unnerved – and of course unspoken – reaction to begin with. But nothing bad has so far come from a chat with a stranger I’ve found, and lately I’ve heard myself complimenting people I don’t know from Adam on their hair and their clothes and all sorts. Whatever [or should that be ‘whaddever’?] next? [Sorry! Getting carried away!]

I read a recent Facebook post on the weirdest things about America that Americans don’t realise are weird.  It’s funny and I agree with some of it (including the flag thing, as above …) and it’s what set me on the train of thought for this post. But there are some weirder and more disturbing aspects of this country, if you ask me, and I plan to go there soon – maybe next time if I can work out how to word things reasonably sensitively (I don’t want to be shot, after all, nor do I want to offend). Today though, I’m embracing what once was – for me, two years ago – strange, that has now become surprisingly endearing, possibly routine and definitely acceptable, simply through assimilation.

But it has also made me ponder on how long (if ever?) it might take for weird and disturbing to become endearing, routine and acceptable. Redneck gun-toting Jesus-loving Republican, me? Could it ever be possible? Surely not. Let’s go with unexpectedly conformist. But, hey, who the bloody hell knows what could happen if I were to stay any longer, this is America after all.

Attack line 4

Right then, this is my fourth line of attack on Mr N (on the assumption that he reads this blog but chooses to remain diplomatically silent and, overtly at least, non-judgmental).

The background is this: we’re leaving America in July (see last blog post). Apart from R, our 15 year old, none of us has been to the Grand Canyon. [R went on his school trip last year. When I was at school we got day trips to places like Knowsley Safari Park, Hardwick Hall and Stratford-upon-Avon. Sad animals, historic houses and Shakespeare-land. Anyway.] So, I’ve suggested a last little trip, en famille except for H, oldest offspring. [She’ll be in Italy entertaining language students. In my day, holiday jobs were the weekend shift at KFC or working nights on the production line bagging frozen sprouts. Anyway.]

To my battle plan, then, and first mention – just broad suggestion – last week, by text to Mr N in Oz gets the terse and, I detected even on that wee phone screen, sarcastic response: “How did I know you were going to say that?”  Chirpily, I float back with, “Because it’s a fabulous idea.” Then some chuntering follows from him about the dates and details of our ‘repatriation’ (aka flights home, freighting of stuff – which will be bikes mainly it would seem judging by the fullness of our garage with said equipment, only one of which is mine, and I’m just parking it here). I reassure with a “Leave it to me”, to which he counters, “Haven’t you just been on holiday?” I have, of course, but I ignore the question because obvs it was rhetorical. That was my first line of attack over. Sowing the seed.

Sensing some slight resistance (if I’m honest, I completely anticipated it), I make a decisive move on to attack line two: his Mum and Dad, get ‘em on board, advocating on my behalf! During our weekend Skype call, I mention it and we’re away, they think it’s a brilliant proposition. “Well you’re only coming back to rainy old England, I’d put it off for as long as possible if I were you”, was one of Grandma’s dour and pragmatic pronouncements (and a little deflating it was too, it has to be said, that wasn’t really going to be one of my intended selling points of the trip!) but hopefully she’ll be a little more upbeat when she next chats with Mr N, as well as, importantly for my campaign, unbiased, but I suppose I’ll take whatever support I can get.

Attack line three was the direct sell.  A bit more meat on the bones and all the benefits, by email. I’m thinking, a four or five day trip to the Hoover Dam (appealing to the engineer in him and in F, his oldest son on the cusp), the Grand Canyon (on everybody’s bucket list, yes?, and, frankly, it’s on our doorstep) and Zion Park (cycling/hiking opps, that should prick his ears up), flying in and out of Las Vegas (maybe even time for a cheeky spin at the roulette wheel, who knows what might happen there). No probs anticipated with our demobilisation arrangements, I’ve started the conversation. Won’t be expensive. Would be if we had to do it from the UK. Told him to ask his Perth housemate what he thinks (I call him “holiday Jim” and for good reason so I expect that he’ll back me up).

I’ve had a message from him about toothache since, but nothing specifically, or even obliquely, about this which I’m taking to be a good sign.  He’s home in three days (for the first time in 12 weeks!) at which point, of course, attack line five will begin in earnest when he’s knackered, jet-lagged, but oh so bloody pleased to be back: full body blows from all angles and all three of us (me, F and R). He probably doesn’t have a chance. Especially as attack line six, the Normandy landings if you will, is likely to be my just booking it all anyway.

But just in case, as I said, this is attack line four (with photo included for added emphasis). I do know that we are incredibly fortunate to be in a position to even debate the possibility, but in that position we are. I also am aware that I’ve barely contributed financially to the family income over the last two years, which was not my choice but nevertheless means that, as with all our USA adventures, he’ll be doing all the actual paying if we’re strictly talking in monetary terms and not in things like organisational terms which, if he’s talking about it at all, then I suspect it will be in the former terms, though at least he’ll be with us this time – a big Brucey bonus from his perspective, n’Grand Canyonest-ce pas? And, what he does already know and you maybe don’t: I’m really low maintenance! I do camping, hosteling, shacking up in cabins, low-price motels; genuinely love a bit of squashing in and making do, you can play bananagrams and drink wine anywhere. Even the Grand Canyon. So when I say “not expensive”, it probably means “really cheap” in many people’s eyes.

Do feel free to take sides.

We heart holidays

A day or two ago I was having to watch the NBC coverage of the Winter Olympics because my VPN wasn’t connecting. [This means, in layman’s terms, no access to BBC tv or radio. Aaaaaaah, think Munsch’s Scream. I Screamdon’t know what it means in technical terms.]  Having watched two weeks of the London Olympics on NBC [swimming, swimming and more swimming, featuring American swimmers winning, winning and more winning] I was pleasantly surprised at the balanced coverage of Sochi. This is probably because there aren’t that many American competitors in the running for medals, and no one discipline is dominated by them but, hey, who cares why. And they even seem to be embracing the Canadians – there was a lovely back story about Alex Bilodeau and his inspiring brother Frederic.

Temporarily less panicked about my inability to watch or listen to the BBC, soothed by the slice of blade through ice and the dazzling performances, skies and whiteness, it was, sadly, too good to last, of course, this being America and that being American telly. Yeah, within five the ads interrupted. And then five minutes more, on they came again. And again. And again. And so on. How do the Americans stand it? If anyone American is reading this, can you tell me?  I know you can record what you want to watch and fast forward through the breaks but to my mind that’s just as disruptive, and in any case we haven’t got a recorder, and it’s not an option when you’re watching live sport either.

Somehow it’s become completely acceptable. To the point where the commercials during the Super Bowl are just as eagerly anticipated as the game itself, and take up more time – literally, actually, more time – than the 60 minutes of play. I mean, honestly!  And they were, by and large, mediocre – I know, I watched them, all 62 of them.  But hours and hours of media energy has been expended – before, during and after the game – on what they’ll be (yes, there are even sneak peaks) and which ones bombed – like it’s important to anyone but the food, finance and car companies paying for them.

So, anyway, there I was watching the snowboarders dropping in slope style  on NBC (get me, it’s all about the lingo this snowboarding thang), and on comes a car advert. I’ve actually forgotten which one  – think it might’ve been Chrysler, or was it Chevrolet, so probably one beginning with ‘Ch’ then? – but that won’t worry them because I’m definitely not their target market, not when I found it hilarious instead of being stirred to my soul as I think I was supposed to have been.  Get this: the premise of the ad was that it’s because Americans only take two weeks’ holiday a year that they get great things done, like landing on the moon and, well yes, building fab cars like the one being advertised.  There was a direct mickey-take of Europeans for taking “the whole of August off. That is OFF!” [I can’t promise to be quoting accurately but that was pretty much the line and the emphasis.]

Let’s just spend a min or two analysing this shall we, and then we can laugh together?

Now we all like a bit of a work ethic, I think, don’t we?  But it’s a big leap from working hard at whatever McJob you can get for 50 weeks of every year for a pittance to getting great things done as a nation. Of course not every job in the States is a poorly paid, manual, service one, but here more than anywhere in the developed world millions of these lowly-paid subsidise our cheap burgers, cheap processed food and cheap clothes through their below-the-living-wage incomes without much of a break. That’s a work ethic gone a bit mad.

Even if you’re adequately or well recompensed, there’s something called work-life balance that is quite a widely accepted thing for the rest of us non-Americans  to aim for as part of the whole package: that means some basic stuff like not just reasonable maternity leave but shared maternity/paternity leave choices, unionised workplaces which stick up for the workers in the face of the overwhelming power of major conglomerates. Oh yes, and enough time off so that we can get away for more than a long weekend at a time, don’t all have to crowd the beaches and shops and state parks at once, or stick our kids in holiday camps for 12 weeks. You might call it maintaining perspective, enjoying the fruits of one’s labours, staying sane, embracing life, all sorts of things that are wholly positive.  Plus I’m certain there’s some research somewhere that proves there’s a point at which work stops being efficient no matter how hard you try – maybe something like 40 hours a week for 46 or so weeks of the year?

Then there’s Detroit to have a little think about.

And then there’s the really funny bit.  We might not have made it to the moon, but between us Europeans we have managed to build the first submarines, cameras,  cars,  jet engines, thermometers, phones, radios, telescopes, fridges, gas turbines, trains, subways, and on and on and on I could go.  Of course the Americans have done loads, but so have we. And the Brits and the French – we built Concorde. Even though the French are particularly keen on lots of holidays.  Just saying.

There are many great things about the USA but its television coverage (of anything) is ruined by commercial breaks (too many) and the commercials themselves (usually rubbish, sometimes patronising, occasionally funny for the wrong reasons).  It’s really quite obvious, methinks:  the American people need more breaks, just not commercial ones. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)


Is this the way?

Given that I’m 47, I really don’t care too much how many likes I get for my Facebook posts. Honestly, I don’t, I am old enough and mature enough to be able to judge my own worth – good or bad – in other less transient, more steadfast ways, such as how many lunches I get invited to in a week. (Joke.) No, no, seriously, I mean, I have friends I can count on (and in more than one country!), I could earn myself a decent living if I had to (yeah, I know I don’t actually do that just right now but I would and will again), my children are pretty well-balanced and amiable and capable of conversing with adults and have friends, Mr N and I still get along.  That kind of real life thing. But it does suck you in a little bit, this social media lark, doesn’t it?

So, let me tell you about my most liked post to date.

It was this picture, with the caption ‘Is this the way?’.  If you’re from the UK, or you’ve lived there any time recently, then you won’t need any explanation so skip the rest of this paragraph (unleIs this the way?ss you can’t resist clicking on the link below for a singalong… oh go on, you can’t help yourself, can you..). The song “Is this the way to Amarillo” has been a hit for Tony Christie twice – first time round in about 1971 but second time around MASSIVELY in 2002 as part of that year’s Comic Relief. Quite how it – and more precisely the accompanying video featuring Peter Kay – captured the zeitgeist bang on and took the whole country by storm is difficult to express in a mere sentence. But it did. Everyone was not only singing the song, but marching idiotically to it too, everywhere. (Watch the vid.) And oh, how we laughed when Ronnie Corbett fell off the running machine.

Now, two things are interesting about this. One is that the video features, among very many other people, Jimmy Savile, since dead and disgraced as a rampant paedophile, so you’ll have noticed, if you’ve watched it lately, that there’s now a paedo warning – yes, for this, the nation’s favourite schmaltz-fest!  Alongside all our fave Coronation Street stars, children’s presenters, has-been comedians,  ventriloquists and their puppets – Rod Hull and Emu, Keith Harris and Orville the Duck, I mean, I ask you? – and even Mr Blobby. We really don’t need to be warned off, this is quite simply a visual metaphor for a country gone a bit loopy and proof of Britain’s deep-seated attraction to trash, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Just wrinkle your nose up in distaste for the few moments when Savile’s strutting his stuff (ew, that tracksuit!) but don’t let it spoil the tripey joy of the rest of it.

The second thing is that, despite Amarillo being in Texas, I’ve not met a Texan yet who’s ever heard the song. (I have marched and sung several times to uncomprehending stares.) I thought it was a world-wide smash! And I thought Tony Christie was American, possibly even Texan to boot! It was on the basis of these meagre and fallacious facts that my boys and I dreamed up our visit to Amarillo.  So before we knew it, the day was dawning on a Texas Sunday morning, some time late last year, when the pull of the song became too strong, and off we set on our mini road trip.

Ten hours’ driving time – with, along the way, an overnight stop in Abilene (home to Frontier Texas!, an acclaimed museum which was closed), lunch in a diner in Lubbock (birthplace of Buddy Holly, death row for culture), and a night in a cabin in Palo Duro Canyon State Park (a bit of a wow – a sudden slash of red out of the flat blue sky and brown land for miles around it and, indeed, the second biggest canyon in the States)  – we got there.

At which point, and only then, we wondered why.  Turns out, Mr Christie’s a Brit, and the only reason he sang about Amarillo was because it rhymes with pillow.  Hmm, should’ve checked beforehand maybe? A brief summary of the Wikipedia entry for the city kinda says it all:  there’s a public library, it used to have a thriving theatre which is now a parking lot, and Route 66 ran through before it was removed from the United States Highway System back in the 80s. Now it has Interstate Highway 40, alongside which we were staying for what turned out to be a very long evening and night in the Big Texan Steak Ranch Motel, right next to the Big Texan Steak Ranch itself where, overlooked by a vast model T-Rex with cowboy boots on its short forelimbs, if you want to you can eat a 72″ steak, and if you manage it within an hour you get it free. We didn’t try.

To be fair, we had quite a fun time in Amarillo – there is the Cadillac Ranch just on the outskirts – also next to the I-40 – and a quirky little free RV museum which Trip Advisor helped us out with – and we got a bit hysterical holed up in our motel room reading out the Wiki highlights.  We can say we’ve now been to the Texas Panhandle.  As well as the canyon on the way there, we squeezed in a stop in Dallas on the way home too. So back home and all things considered, we agreed, my boys and me, that our little adventure was a success.  And not least (for me) because it proved the source of my most popular Facebook post yet.

High hopes, then, have I for our forthcoming Breaking Bad road trip on the basis that this time, the whole world will get it. Not that I care or I’m counting of course…



Christmas decorations? Could do better!

IMG_1117 IMG_1118 IMG_1109 IMG_1122 IMG_1127 IMG_1129 IMG_1115



My friend Sue (she knows I’m writing this) isn’t American but she has been here for 12 years.   I took these pictures of her house today specifically for this blog.  And I didn’t even bother to include her three Christmas trees. Yes, she does have three.

Sue may be the Queeof Christmas in my book, but she’s got serious competition from countless others. Did you know that you can buy Christmas pictures, banners, cushions, tea-towels, hand towels, crockery, serving bowls and plates and jugs and glasses and mugs, tree skirts and mats, table runners, table mats, doormats, salt and pepper grinders, nutcrackers, corkscrews, loo roll, kitchen roll, bedding, dog bedding, dog bowls, and, actually, absolutely anything that goes in a home?  And folk do.  The shops are bursting with it all and it’s being bought, more and more of it to add to last year’s and the year before that’s.

It is difficult to comprehend the scale of the standard interior yuletide decor unless you’ve experienced it. Even these pictures of Sue’s place don’t do it justice. You walk in and you’re suffused with it, suddenly wishing you had a glass of mulled wine in your hand and resisting the urge to burst out with a carol or two. Last year I was quite overwhelmed, although this year I’m much less fazed. I believe it seeps beneath your skin until you become immune to the glorious, cheesy, over-the-topness and eventually start kitsching up like a true native. At a do the other night where we exchanged secret santa gifts, I was genuinely taken by a festive apron and a nodding reindeer candle holder, so you see it’s already happening to me.  (Last year I took a pepper spray as a bit of a, I thought, fun gift to a secret santa party which didn’t go down well. If it’s not Christmas themed and preferably decorative and made of china then, well, you really shouldn’t bother.  And everyone knew it was mine because a) I was the only non-American and b) I hadn’t put enough effort into its presentation – it was just a very small wrapped parcel when, as an absolute minimum, it ought to have involved some tissue paper and a gift bag or box. Mortified I was.)

So lordy lordy, the pressure’s really mounting to get our house decorated. And that would be outside as well as in. Now that our neighbours, the Ks, have switched on their lights, ours is the last of the five in our little crescent to remain dark. This happened last year,  our first Christmas in America. Mr N was away in the build-up, and I just couldn’t leave it any longer without us being considered the miserable British b*stards in the corner not joining in.  So I got myself a string of lights, visualising something of an ‘understated but classy’ look, and set boldly forth with the stepladders, hammer and nails.  Well, our house is not the biggest or the highest, but blimey, the ladders were heavy and hard to manoeuvre  round the shrubbery and the nails I was using were actually flimsy picture hooks which kept falling out of the fascia boards, which themselves were very hard to reach, and the line of lights quickly became an uneven series of slumps between the fixings, not a neat, tight contour of the roof as originally envisaged. But having lugged the ladders to the front of the house and got started there was to be no turning back. Three hours later (honestly, three), with a right sweat on and, frankly, feeling more than a bit cross, I’m at the end of the light string but, sadly, not at the end of the house. I have two choices: i) go and buy another set, or ii) make do. I made do.  The lights sagged a bit dismally from the eaves at the left, over the windows and door, to three-quarters of the way across the front of the house, where they abruptly took a straight line down. ‘Unusual’, I would say, rather than ‘understated but classy’.

Two days later, things took a turn for the worse. We had a storm. I feared my lights wouldn’t survive at all. But they did! Partially. The full string was still up, but one half, in a block to the left, had gone out, leaving alight just a couple of droopy dips in the middle and the straight down bit. They had now become officially ‘sad’ and, I’m ashamed to admit, that’s how they stayed for the season. While out walking the neighbours’ dog (thankfully they at least were abroad and would not, therefore, be witness), a lady from somewhere else in the neighbourhood stopped to introduce herself because she recognised the dog. “Oh”, she exclaimed with a dawning realisation after a couple of minutes of chat, “yours is the house with the lights!”  ‘Nuff said. I have no photo to show, but our holiday guests, Helen and Mark, can vouch for the awfulness, shamed as they were by having to stay in said house with the lights.

As I write this, all we’ve managed so far is an advent calendar inside and a big fat zero outside so we’ve got some serious santa-fying ahead of us this weekend.  Back home it wasn’t unusual for us to put the tree up on the night the kids broke up from school, but here it starts with a vengeance right after Thanksgiving so we’re well behind and I’m starting to feel that I can’t have anyone round until some more energy’s been spent on it.

But the funny thing is, despite the early clamour to get extravagantly Christmassy, your typical Yank heads straight back to work on Boxing Day (which simply doesn’t exist here – I never knew that till last year!) so it’s all over in a flash. We of course like to slum it out for days, gorging on leftover turkey and chocolates, watching films and TV specials, playing board games, doing the quiz of the year, certainly not working, and of course drinking too much and inappropriately early in the afternoon. We really should, then, make more of an effort with the decorations. Yes indeedy, most certainly could do better!


Going postal

usps logoIn US slang, ‘going postal’ means becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, in a workplace environment. It derives from a series of unrelated incidents in the 80s and 90s where postal workers did just that, in post offices. Without meaning to trivialise these tragedies, I have to say that going to the post office here in America makes me feel right on the edge of going postal myself. Let me tell you why.

Firstly and mainly, in my local post office there is always a queue but never any queue discipline.  Now, I know that us Brits are queuers by nature and queue discipline is in our DNA in a way that it isn’t for the rest of the world, so if you’re not British, just humour me for this bit, there are some other reasons why the post office can send one over the precipice into insanity that I’m sure you’ll identify with as you read on.

So, back to the queue issue for the moment and picture the scene. You wait a while. Shuffle forward. People  join the queue behind you. A member of staff approaches smilingly, not you though, instead the person behind you. Let’s be clear here, that would be the person who came in after you who has not been queuing for as long as you have been. This person gets personal service from the smiling queue server. They’re taken out of the queue and, you notice ten minutes later, have finished whatever their postal business was before you’ve moved a full foot. You wait some more. You watch Mr Smile approach someone else in the queue. Who is of course behind you. You continue your waiting. You get to the front. A man who has been wrapping  something somewhere else in the room, but not in the queue, comes now and stands in front of you, ready to take the next free counter. You let him go, grudgingly. Maybe, you think (at least the first time it happens), this person has already queued once. Another minute or seven’s wait. And then who should turn up next to stand at the front? That second jammy bugger who got the personal bloody service from Mr Effing Smiler. Well, you know that she hasn’t been in the queue already. In my book, that’s plain pushing in – with permission! – and it’s simply not cricket.

[As a little aside, I have, once only, been the recipient of The Smile’s benevolence.  I was queuing to buy one stamp for one card, idiot glutton for punishment that I am, when he asked if he could help me, disappeared off, and came back with the stamp and a “No charge, ma’am” flourish! How peculiar, but I did come away feeling pleased, like the golden light of the lucky had shone down on me. Maybe it’s a strategy – if you do it enough, eventually everyone who’s ever queued at the post office will get Old Smiler’s blessing in the end?]

Secondly, there is some kind of weird reverse resource/efficiency time warp going on in the post office whereby the more staff there are, the longer your business takes you.  So, in view of this USPS-specific distortion at play, and the fact that there are always loads of staff (some at the counters, some being busy behind the scenes with boxes and tape and weighing and things, some hanging around the self-service and PO Box section of the building you have to walk through first doing who-knows-what but not serving, and of course, our old chum Smiles wandering up and down randomly bestowing his charity), it follows that the inevitability of a long queue ahead is a given, no matter what time of day you go. There’s no order or sanity to the whole experience.

Thirdly, there may well be lots of staff at hand, but whether any of them are competent enough to ensure your stuff will get to where you want it to is completely in the lap of the gods.  In our one year and four months here, we have had several no shows (letters/cards etc that have simply never got there), one item returned before it left the country for not enough postage paid, and one big box of stuff that went all the way to the UK and then came all the way back to Houston. Do let me explain to you about the latter. It was gifts for my small niece and nephews who celebrate their birthdays in the same month. They are siblings so we’re talking same address, one big box. I had queued, of course, and then been sent to the side of the room to complete the address and customs forms. Then, it goes without saying, queued again. Eventually I made the counter, the forms were checked, the weighing and labelling and taping up was done, I was asked the value, I paid the fee which covered postage and customs and insurance. Just as it was ready to go, I read on a poster on the wall some “dos and don’ts” for the customs paperwork. Don’t, it advised, use general terms like ‘sporting goods'; be specific. I had used that very term. Furthermore, don’t, it cautioned, put just one total value; itemise. I had put just one total value.  My particular “associate” that day was incontestably incapable and I should’ve known there and then that this package was doomed. Own stupid fault I know, but instead of taking my business elsewhere, I duly refilled out the customs form correctly and off it went, for “guaranteed delivery”, apparently, “in five business days”.  Fifteen or so business days later, and still not having heard from my sister-in-law, C, about the safe arrival of the much-awaited presents, I contact her. No, she confirms, they haven’t arrived yet. But she has just received a card from a mailing depot miles away from where she lives, round the M25 and then some, saying there’s a package requiring a £28 excess charge waiting to be picked up. It’s obviously mine and I’ve not paid enough postage or tax this end. So I transfer £28 to C’s bank so she’s not out of pocket on what are now very late presents for her kids and she’s pretty sure that she or my brother should be able to get to the depot the weekend after next. Imagine then my surprise (that’s a calm word for how I actually felt) when, ding dong, perhaps a week later, there’s a USPS delivery at my door and, how did you guess dear reader, hello box of pressies!  And with absolutely no explanation why. It’s still here in my house, the box, I can see it from where I’m sitting typing right now. (Sorry F, B and R, hoping still to get them to you one day!)

I’ve not even touched on the Bermuda triangle-like hole that stuff sent the other way falls into. Or at least, stuff that is sent to our house. Like my original marriage certificate. And one of F’s 18th birthday presents. Try tracking them, I hear you say?  Well, track them I have, but can get no further than US customs in New York. I’ve tried phoning, I’ve tried emailing, I’ve even tried via my favourite ol’ post office down the road, who proved concerned but useless. It seems that once anything addressed to us makes it over the Atlantic and hits land, it has a high risk of vanishing.

Those little white USPS vans with their blue and red stripes, our mailbox at the front of our house – love ‘em both. But I love them because they’re iconic symbols of America like the yellow school bus that have become a familiar part of our lives. The reality of the postal service itself, though, I’m finding really much harder to love, except in a masochistic sort of way.  Like I said, I’m on the edge of going postal.

All that jazz!

American high school football is a thing to behold.  Not having any children who go to a local public (i.e. state) school here, it has taken us over a year to see our first high school game, and we only just managed to get that in as the season is drawing to a close and semi-finals and finals are in full swing. But my oh my, what a glorious, leg-kicking, band-marching, pom pom shimmering, back-flipping, baton-twirling, musical blast it is, and that’s even before the game itself has kicked off!  It is sheer excess.

this is how big a sousaphone is

This is how big a sousaphone is

I counted at least 60 players lined up for each team, all fully helmeted and padded up, little white towels dangling archly from the back of their trews. (Why? Someone said it’s to wipe the sweat off their hands, someone said “because it’s cool”, I’m guessing it’s a status thing as it denotes you’re a ball handler… But then again, what the bloody hell do I know?) I counted 13 sousaphone players in the opposing team’s band alone. Do you know how big a sousaphone is? I counted more than 52 skirt dancers during the home side’s half-time ents slot. That’s more than 52 specially made long black swishy silky skirts with brightly coloured linings that whip on and off with a flicking of wrist and rasping of velcro.

skirt dancers

The actual skirt dancers

I lost count of all the cheerleaders, pom pom girls,  flag wavers, acrobats, dancers. We were introduced to coaches, team captains, some of the cheerleaders, mascots, in fact anyone and everyone who was special for some reason. They   somersaulted or high-kicked or whoop-whooped their way through their introductions.

There is, to be sure, something quite quaint and old-fashioned about the whole set-up, almost 1950s-ish. Of course we sang the Star Spangled Banner to get it all going, but that goes without saying (every cycling event, running race, sporting clash big or small, charity do, you name it, we sing it at the start), so I think it’s more to do with the clear division of roles. The girls look good (without exception they had swinging ponytails), and they charm, cheer, entertain and, I’m afraid I have to say it, play hostess to the players with the refreshments. The boys, mainly, are there for their footballing prowess. In truth, though, it’s not that simple. Firstly, the bands are mixed. But secondly, cheerleading is considered a sport in itself and one in which competition for university scholarships is fierce. Top cheerleaders, I’m told, must not only be stellar athletes with tumbling skills, but have a presence that gets a response from the crowd.  But because of its origins and its shimmer and – I don’t think there’s any getting away from it –  its fundamentally supporting role, it still doesn’t feel entirely 21st century to me.

But anyway, back to the hullaballoo of it all. The human time and effort, not to say cost, that is caught up in the razzmatazz of the game is truly staggering.   I think all in all there must have been upwards of 400 girls and boys on that field at some point during the evening. Nor is it only the kids themselves, it’s the coaches – that’s football coaches, band coaches (would that be conductors?), dance and acrobatics and cheerleading and pom pom coaches (choreographers?) – and the parents who have to fetch and watch, not just the games but all the training. And then who designs the outfits, and who makes them? How many outfits a season does, say, a cheerleader need? Time and effort aside, it can’t be cheap to be a part of the football entourage, whether playing or entertaining.

We were watching the Cy-Fair Bobcats vs the North Shore Mustangs, a semi-final match between the varsity (top level) teams of the Texas 5A Region III District 17 high schools. Now I don’t really know what that means either, but it does suggest that there would’ve been an awful lot of similar games happening round about the same time in Houston and state-wide.  Presumably the finals are even bigger and jazzier and louder affairs. Earlier in the season, every school has its ‘homecoming’ – where its alumni return and the school hosts a week long celebration that might include a parade or a ball but always focusses around a big football game. Maybe that’s the one to go to next year!

This one was played out in a nearby stadium which is a shared facility for the local schools’  bigger games.  The loos were clean and there were lots of them, and there was hot food and drink for sale (including a Chick-fil-A concession) and plenty of room to sit on the bleachers (capacity: 15,000!) with a big electronic scoreboard with all the stats, and live commentary to help us along.

It beats the standing-on-the-sidelines-in-the-pouring-rain-with-a-bad-cup-of-instant-coffee UK school sporting experience. Even if we didn’t completely understand all the rules. And all for $7. Just wow!


Entering dangerous territory…

It’s generally quite a good idea to avoid the subjects of guns, religion and politics when in conversation with a Texan, if you’re not a Texan yourself that is. However, my good friend Susie – who is actually from Louisiana but she’s been in Houston long enough to have become quite Texan – owns four guns so I have been unable to stop myself from talking about guns with her. I mean, why four?

Susie lives on her own in a nice house inside the loop (that’s much nearer downtown than us) and not in a gated community. Houston has little ‘zoning’ – so you get a mash of housing, shops, doctors, dentists, schools, industrial buildings all mixed together.  One minute you’re in quite a posh area, two blocks along and it can be very different.  So anyone could turn up at your front door, right? A single gal needs to protect herself, especially a gal who’s grown up with guns in the house and who has never questioned her right to own one.  For most Americans who own a handgun, and Susie is no exception, it’s about personal safety rather than being macho, homicidal, suicidal, in a gang or even for hunting. [I’m talking ownership not usage – most gun deaths in the US are from suicide, and then are gang-related or in areas of high poverty and social deprivation.]  This is rather astonishing when there is conclusive evidence that nations – and the individual people who live in them – become less safe as gun ownership rises.  But gun-owning Americans seem constitutionally unable to digest the facts.

I have only weakly raised this with Susie as I want to stay being friends with her, she’s so nice.  And after all, this is the state in which, after every horrific mass shooting, the public debate turns, within one day, to whether or not teachers should be armed.  I have heard on a live radio phone-in an apparently sane man (at least, he was freely living in the community) accuse another who was publicly against the very free and easy gun laws of Texas of having “the blood of dead children” on his hands for previously stymying any discussion about the need for armed security in the classroom.  I have had sensible and normal conversations with Americans who don’t own a gun and who are exasperated by the power of the NRA lobby and the mentality of many of their compatriots, but they haven’t been Texan (or from Louisiana) and they’ve started the conversation, not me.

So, with Susie, our gun chats have been quite superficial but she did make us howl with laughter when she told us a story about when she nearly used her gun in self-defence.  It was halloween and had been noisy out in the streets, what with all the trick or treating. Late into the night, she’s in bed when she hears a crash and then what sounds like her vacuum cleaner being switched on. Of her four guns, she keeps one loaded in a special holster under her bed, so this is what she reaches for. She says she stood in her bedroom in the dark for what felt like ages, blood thumping in her ears, arms outstretched Cagney and Lacey style with gun pointing at the door. Saying nothing. Hoover still going. Absolutely terrified. Eventually, she manages to shout “Get out, I’ve got a loaded gun and I’m ready to shoot!”. She doesn’t really feel ready to shoot at all. Nothing happens. She can’t tell if anyone’s still there, all she can hear is the hum of the hoover.  So she grapples with her phone, rings a friend, garbles the situation.  “OMG!” shouts her pal, “that’s TOTALLY what they do, put on the vacuum cleaner so you can’t hear what they’re doing, DIAL 911 NOW and keep your gun pointed at the door.” Susie dials 911, then waits some more. She’s still in the dark, still completely freaked out, still hearing nothing except that droning. After a while, she can’t stand it, her dogs are quiet, she doesn’t understand why they aren’t barking (have they been shot???), so she heads to her bathroom window and starts climbing out, loaded gun in hand. The window only opens half way so she’s quite contorted at the point when a cop pops up and urges her to put her gun down. “Ma’am please put your weapon down! It’s not safe to climb out of a window in that manner with a loaded weapon!”  “There’s someone in my house, they’ve shot my dogs, they’ve put the vacuum cleaner on, please help me!” she jabbers. “Please put the gun down and come to the door and let us in, we’ve been round your property and there’s no sign of a break-in, we believe you’re completely safe. Please put your gun down, ma’am.”  Well, long story short, she’s persuaded to go to the front door to let the police in, and on the way through the house realises that her fat dog has knocked a hairdryer onto the wooden floor, which has switched itself on and is blowing and noisily vibrating away while the dog has gone back to sleep unperturbed. Of course she is immediately and massively embarrassed. She gets to the door, peers round, explains what’s happened, apologises, thanks them profusely.

What colour would you like yours?And the officer says, “Well ma’am, no need to thank us, we’re here to serve you and keep you safe. Now would you like me to come in and check round for any more threatening appliances?”

But she still hasn’t told me why she needs four guns, or whether any of them are pink, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get round to asking.