Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Place For My Stuff

Now, I may be a modern man (you know, the sensitive kind, in touch with his feminine side and all that) but I still cannot bring myself to carry a “man bag.” I’m sorry, I know it makes perfect sense, but if I did that, I’d have to grow breasts and change my name to Natalie.


I don't care who you are or how cool
you think you are, if you carry a purse, you look gay.

And don’t try telling me my briefcase is just a man’s handbag in disguise: a briefcase is a briefcase, it contains stuff I need for work. Besides, I don’t carry it all the time, so if I did put anything handbaggish in there—like wadded up tissues, half a roll of Life Savers, eight ball point pens that don’t work and £4.87 in loose change jangling about in the bottom—I would not always have ready access to it. So that’s why I sort of like the cold weather (“sort of” being the operative phrase; but at least give me credit for trying to tease a silver-lining out of this miserable weather).

When it’s cold, I wear a jacket. That jacket has pockets—lots of them—and I can carry around all of life’s essentials which, during the warmer months I have to go without.

Right now, for instance, I am wearing a jacket that is no puffier than anyone else’s on the bus (we’re all looking a bit like Kenny from South Park here days) and stashed in the various pockets are:

 - One pair of gloves
 - One hat
 - A London tube map
 - A pack of tissues
 - A camera
 - A notebook
 - A scarf
 - Three Santa hats
 - Half a box of Strepsils
 - A paperback novel

All of these items are, for this time of year, indispensable. In other months I might trade the Santa hats for my cigar holder, lighter and cutter, or the scarf/hat/glove combo for an ordinance survey map of the Ashdown forest and a micro-bralla. But the upshot is, as long as it is cool enough for a coat, I have a place for all my stuff.

During warmer weather, I am forced to rely on my wife. Though this isn’t a tremendous hardship, it is 1) inconvenient, because, like my briefcase, I don’t always have my wife with me (but unlike my briefcase, she makes for better company on long bus rides), and 2) I fear the items I consign to my wife’s handbag may become lost among the seemingly endless items she keeps in there.

Somehow, my wife has acquired the handbag Hermione Granger used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the one she kept a tent, camping furniture and a portable shower in. I’m serious: one time, while we were out to dinner, a need arose for her (we’re talking about my wife now, not Hermione Granger) to record a date in her diary. She plopped the bag on the table, dug through it and extracted an appointment diary thick as a Michener novel, bulging with receipts, sticky-notes and several wadded up tissues. She declared it was her work diary, not her personal diary, so she laid it down, rummaged again and pulled out another novel-sized book. This time, it was just a plain note book, so she laid that aside and dug in again. On the third dip, she came up with the correct, and equally bulging, diary. She then pulled out half a dozen ball point pens, none of which worked, so I loaned her the pen I carry in my coat pocket.

In short, copious as my coat capacity is, her handbag puts it to shame, which makes me miss, even more, all the pockets, folds and secret compartments I have to go without during the warmer weeks. Sadly, I won’t have to worry about that for the foreseeable future.

And don’t entertain any ideas about getting me a “man bag” as a belated Christmas (or early birthday) present. I wouldn’t use it—I’d never be able to fit all my stuff in it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

That Holiday Again

It’s Thanksgiving Day as I write this, and I am away from home. Not simply away from my homeland, but away from my adopted home in Sussex. We’re on holiday this week in Kirkcudbright (pronounced ca-COO-bree if you can believe it) a small town in south-west Scotland. But at least I have Thanksgiving Day off.

Even though we are in a very rural area—-the landlord told us it is like stepping back into the 1950’s, and he was not far wrong—-we managed to cobble together a respectable Thanksgiving dinner. I have a turkey breast, stuffing, roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, several types of veggies and Bisto gravy. All in all a good effort for very little work.

I mention this because it is significant that having a Thanksgiving dinner over here is not as disappointing as it used to be. Back in Sussex, I could have had creamed corn, yams with marshmallows, rolls, French-cut green beans with almond slivers, corn bread, pumpkin pie and even hot chocolate with a dollop of Marshmallow Fluff in it. (The only thing I still cannot find is that really cheap cranberry sauce in a can that tastes like the inside of a drainpipe—-somehow, the posh and very tasty cranberries in port sauce we picked up in Marks and Spencer’s just don’t say, “Happy Thanksgiving” like a slab of tin-infused purple jelly.)

Years ago, when I tried to pull together a Thanksgiving dinner, I always ended up with a hybrid meal containing dubious substitutions that tasted of disappointment, whereas now it’s fairly easy to create a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all (well, most) of the trimmings. It’s hardly any fun any more. I blame the Americans.

No, really, you can’t swing a ferret without hitting an American. And where Americans go, they bring America with them—-not that anyone should have anything to say about that, it’s exactly what the British did back when it was their turn to rule the world. But it has taken the challenge out a Thanksgiving. Time was, no one of my acquaintance over here had even heard of the concept of creamed corn (nor could they believe it when I explained it to them) but now you can buy it at Sainsbury’s.

So here I am, 3,000 miles away from America and another 300 miles away from my home and I can still have a nice turkey with stuffing and potatoes and cranberry sauce meal. But that’s where the Thanksgiving similarity ends. All that gets you is a Sunday dinner in the middle of the week. And even if you manage to convince a group of family and friends to come share the day, you’ll merely find yourself sitting around a table, having a Sunday dinner in the middle of the week with a bunch of people who just don’t get it.

Thanksgiving is about food, yes, but it is so much deeper than that, and without having grown up with it, a person cannot grasp the tradition, the meaning, the true spirit of Thanksgiving. Christmas over here is a joy, New Year’s is just about the same and Easter is a bonus. But Thanksgiving—-along with the 4th of July—-remains one of the few times during the year when being an expat really hits home.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Country Comforts

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
Robert Louis Stevenson - The Land of Counterpane

That has been one of my favorite poems since I was a child, especially when I was sick and in bed, as I am now. (And, no, it is not The Man Flue, I have an ear infection and a fever, thank you very much, but I’ll soldier on despite the pain.) Appropriately enough, I do have three pillows at my head, but unfortunately, my toys these days consist of a BlackBerry, a WiFi enabled laptop and a box of tissues. Useful, to be sure, but not as much fun as leaden soldiers.

As a rule, I attempt to avoid illness, especially now when I know that, in my misery, I will not be able to surround myself with the familiar comforts of home.

As a sick-bed must-have, Campbell’s Chicken Rice Soup is number one with a bullet. Dress it up with extra rice, some garlic salt and there is no better cure-all this side of a Jewish Grandmother’s kitchen. Tragically, it is unavailable here. I look for it all the time (always nice to have a few cans in the larder, just in case) but have never found it. This, naturally, has led to some experimentation with native ingredients. Bad idea.

Nyquil is also among the missing. As is a qualified pain reliever. British aspirin, in addition to being doled out in packets of sixteen tablets, has the curative properties of tap water, and the various aspirin substitutes are not far behind. I think it must have something to do with what we are brought up with-—the drugs we take as children must get into our chemical structure, making us immune to foreign drugs. This is why I always have a large bottle of Aleve on hand-—it is the only drug that seems to work for me, and I have to have it shipped in from the States.

To be fair, there are a few indigenous comforts I am learning to adopt to ease my convalescence along. The main one is tea, simply because they have better tea over here and there is nothing like a nice cup of tea when you are feeling poorly. Add to that a steaming cup of Lemsip at bedtime and you can forget about American drugs. For four hours, at least.

But I know I’d be up and around by now if I just had a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Rice Soup.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

This is Pants

We interrupt the scintillating tale of our vacation in the Royal Forest of Dean to bring you this special update on the state of my underwear.

You’ve been waiting for this, haven’t you?

Some time ago I posted about the lack of quality underwear in this country, and proved that the quality of men’s undergarments in the UK are no match for what can be bought in the US of A.

In that post, I did note that I had, at long last, found some acceptable underwear from Marks and Spencer that were comfortable and durable but, alas, only sporadically available. My loyal readers suggested I shop for them on line. I did. Thank you.

But in the months since discovering underwear that doesn’t disintegrate after a few washings, I have uncovered another, awful secret: it shrinks. (Okay, you in the back making cracks about how it’s me that’s getting bigger, not the underwear getting smaller, please knock it off; we’re all about to die laughing.)

I found this out while getting dressed this morning and attempting to pull on one of the aforementioned pair of Y-fronts. It looked as if I were trying to squirm into a white cotton Speedo. All of the pairs from that batch were, essentially, useless (unless you count sending my wife into a spasm of giggles as useful). I then found another M&S pair from a different batch that were still wearable. Then I looked at the labels:

The shrunken Y-Fronts were made in China; the “still okay but I’m keeping an eye on them” pair were made in Sri Lanka.

After discovering this, I said to my wife (who was still whipping tears from her eyes and gasping for breath), “I wonder where the American underwear was made.”

So I went through my underwear pile looking for a US pair. I admit that the bundle of Y-fronts and tube socks I brought over with me are getting a little thin on the ground—as well as in other locations—these days, but recall that they were purchased almost nine years ago.

“They were probably made in Bangladesh,” my wife said.

But when I turned out the still springy elastic band and located the label, I saw printed there, in proud, red, capital letters: MADE IN THE USA.

I rest my case.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Disconnected - Part IV - Wherein I Wake up

(The continuing saga of our holiday in Gloucester)


Sun. 12 Sept

In my dream I was taking Part III of the Prince2 exam.

For those of you who didn’t live through the previous Prince2 campaign with me, Prince2 is the Project Management methodology (we PMs enjoy using terms like “methodology” – another one we like is “rebranding”) currently favored by the Office of Government Commerce, whose job it is to favor these sorts of things.  And being, as it is, a government organization, you can bet the favored methodology is anything but simple and straightforward.  The clue is in their logo:


Or, maybe this expresses it better.


Prince2 Certification is not actually mandatory, but finding out your PM is uncertified is a bit like visiting your dentist and seeing on his office wall—in place of a diploma—an affidavit, signed by himself, stating that he’s always been interested in fiddling with peoples’ teeth and fancies himself pretty good at it so he thought he’d have a go.

A few months ago my Prince2 certification expired and I had to re-enlist.  Long story short, I somehow, miraculously, passed the exam (and quite well, thank you very much) and thereby avoided becoming the laughing stock of the office (I was sure they would start calling me “The Project Manager formerly known as Prince2”).  My stress levels dropped and I congratulated myself on the fact that I will never, ever have to take that exam again.

But here I was, betrayed by my subconscious, sitting a fictional Part III of the exam and feeling my anxiety writhing and climbing inside me like a spider skittering up a rain spout.  The series of 50 questions that I had 20 minutes to complete began:

Question 1:
A question mark, but don’t make a point of it.
Chose one:
a. A
b. B
c. C
d. D

Question 2:
Fog, ten years from now:
Explain

And so on.

There were other plot nuances I could divulge to give you a sense of the complete story arc but you probably hate it when people start describing their dreams to you.  So I’ll tell you about my other dream, instead.

In this dream, a young girl was being held captive and, although she had a mobile phone with her and could call for help, due to government cutbacks, every agency she called –police, child welfare, MI5 – simply put her on hold or told her they would make a note of her issue and get back to her at a later date.

This was the dream that woke me up, and I took it to mean that I shouldn’t watch the evening news before going to bed.  With sleep now beyond me, I got up, stumbled through the unfamiliar darkness to the far side of the kitchen and turned on the light so I could make some coffee.  Then I spent fifteen minutes looking for a spoon.

If I were in charge of hotels and guest cottages, I would force the owners to live in them for one week each year.  This would eliminate many of the little annoyances that remain even after they have lovingly outfitted the place to perceived perfection, as our hosts had done.  The cottage was charming, well-decorated, kitted out with quality furnishings and utensils (at least I saw nothing I recognized from the Pound Shop) and even had two-ply paper in the loo.  They had, in their minds I am sure, thought of everything.  Well, a week or so of living here would have set them straight:

As noted earlier, I had to walk all the way through the kitchen to turn on the light.  Whose idea was that?  And everyone knows that cutlery belongs in the drawer just to the left of the sink.  So what is it doing in a cabinet on the other side of the kitchen?

Another thing they did was put wooden counters throughout the kitchen.  They look lovely but wood, as anyone should be able to tell you, warps when it is wet (there’s the sink, there’s the draining board; pay attention, these are clues) and if it stays wet, it rots.  My father was a cabinet maker.  I grew up to the smell of sawdust and the grinding of a belt sander and was, at an early age, imbued with a near religious reverence for wood, which means I cannot leave the cottage until the dishes are washed and dried and all the counters wiped down.  This is not something I relish doing while on holiday.

But as petty annoyances go, nothing beats the bathroom waste bin.  You know the ones I mean, the white plastic cylinders about the size of a flour canister with a little pedal on the bottom you are supposed to step on to open the top, allowing you to drop whatever it is (I don’t want to know) that needs dropping into a little plastic cylinder.  They are in every bathroom in every hotel, guest cottage and B&B in the world.  No matter how posh the establishment, you’ll find one in the loo, but you’ll never see one in anyone’s house.  Do you know why that is?  Because they are shite, that’s why.

They are so light and flimsy that attempting to step on the peddle results in you inching forward as the bin inches backward until it ends up out of reach behind the loo.  And if you do manage to gain enough purchase on the tiny pedal, the lid will fly open with just enough force to careen the bin off the nearest wall and send it rolling under the sink, disgorging its contents along the way.  So I am not a fan of these bins and my heart sinks each time I see one in a hotel or guest house bathroom.

This place has one in the kitchen.

Now, not only do I get to constantly experience the joys of these useless apparatuses, but as a bonus, I get to take the garbage out every 20 minutes.

But enough of the carping.  As I said, the place is lovely, our hosts most gracious and the inconveniences petty.

Except for that one about the waste bin.


(Next: the first morning)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Disconnected - Part III

(The continuing saga of our holiday in Gloucester)

We were heading for Chippenham, but managed to completely miss it, ending up in Devizes instead. By now we were ready for lunch but Devizes was not ready to let us stop; the entire town was locked solid with parked cars, leaving us no choice but to allow ourselves to be carried on through on the rippling flow of stop-and-go traffic to be dumped into a wilderness that, on the map, was nothing but a criss-cross of red and white lines, many of them unlabeled.

From there we drove randomly, eventually stopping at a service station out in the middle of nowhere that, unaccountably, had a large and very busy Subway attached to it. Judging by the car park and the queue at the till, it must have been the only Subway in the entire county, a place the locals visit when they want to treat their families to a special meal, such as a foot-long tuna sub with sweet corn and a blue drink in a plastic bottle. Good thing it was merely the lunch hour—if we’d have arrived at dinner time we might have needed a reservation.

After that, we grew tired of adventure and headed north for the M4, where we covered the final half of the trip in a tenth of the time the first half took.

To continue our holiday tradition, we stopped at the Tesco in Chepstow to do a week’s shop. Later on, I knew, when we finally reached our destination, we would put the groceries away in logical places, hang up our clothes, pack everything away in drawers and quickly fall into our usual routine. For us, going on holiday, at least in Britain, is less like a week at a resort and more like living in someone else’s house.

Still, that’s not a bad way to have a vacation; it’s cheap, you’re surrounded by familiarity and comfort, you don’t have maids poking around while you’re out during the day and you get to visit all of the local attractions that you would never see if you actually lived there. It’s such a good idea that we spent one holiday in our own flat, using the week to tour a variety of local sight-seeing destinations we would otherwise have never gotten around to.

And so we left Tesco’s with our groceries, running into Kate Humble on her way in, ostensibly to do her weekly shop, or to slip into a blind cleverly hidden in the produce department for a special segment on “Autumn Watch,” highlighting the mating rituals among Chepstow Tesco shoppers.

We were now just past the time for check-in and we were close to our destination, but there was still one more holiday tradition to get through: the tradition wherein the directions—supplied by the cottage owners—leave off a vital piece of information. In this case, we were to take the major road we were driving north on through the center of town and turn at the Gagging Ferret. No problem. The trouble started when we discovered that the road we were on did not, technically, go through the town.

After becoming acquainted and reacquainted with the bypass several surrounding villages and a car park or two, we eventually reached our destination—later than we’d planned, knackered from the drive and stressed out from taking so many wrong turns (including going the wrong way up a one-way street), which is, of course, also part of the tradition.

The accommodation was lovely, the area quaint and quiet and the landlord friendly and effusive. He was a displaced Londoner who had come to visit the Royal Forest of Dean some 14 years earlier, fell in love with it and never left. He was filled with nothing but praise for the area, how peaceful it was, how beautiful and wild the landscape remained and how welcoming the locals were.

His wife was also from London but his three young daughters were locally bred, making them, in his estimation I imagine, true “Foresters.” I had to wonder how the locals might feel about this; if they were anything like the old Yankees of Maine, you continued to be regarded as an “outsider” for the first five or six generations.

“If a cat has kittens in the oven,” they would say, “that don’t make ‘em biscuits.”

So after getting the key and exchanging life stories, we set up housekeeping and took stock of the local area.

I love vacationing in the UK. Over the years I have discovered a host of stunningly beautiful locations and then returned home thanking my lucky stars I didn’t actually live there. Pretty and peaceful it was, but there was a single pub/restaurant (albeit, a very nice one) in the scattering of houses that masqueraded as a village, along with a single, small convenience store/post office combo. And that was it, no shops, no market, no cinema, no Starbucks, no fast food joints, no hair styling salon on every corner, no betting shops, no kebabs and no rail link to get you anyplace where you might find these things.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. This was, after all, why we came. I’m just saying—having been spoiled by the delights of civilization—that I’m glad I don’t live here.

I grew up in a very rural setting—more rural that this—and I loved it. But that was before the days of 24-hour television, internet, computer games, shopping malls and mobile phones, back when we knew how to entertain ourselves and could find diversion in the simplest activities, such damming up a stream or building a raft out of twigs and leaves and encouraging your little brother to try it out in the mill pond to see if it would float.

These days, we’re not happy unless someone or something is holding out attention, but not for long. We crave 24/7 connectivity but can’t communicate in more that 140 words at a time. As a culture, we’re addicted to sucking the teat of technology and we cry when it is pulled away. I’m not altogether happy about that, but having long ago sold my soul to the cyber-gods, there was little left to do but open a beer, light a cigar and settle down at the picnic table in the garden to check my e-mail on my CrackBerry™ and connect my laptop to the internet.

I turned them both on. There was no signal. None at all. No phone, no internet, no way to communicate with anyone, no way to update my blogs…

Imagine my disappointment.

(Next: coming to terms with our surroundings)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Disconnected - Part II

Driving in Britain is always a crap shoot.

This is a country, after all, where one well-timed accident can make three quarters of the population late for dinner, and where a stiff breeze brings transportation to a standstill.  Consequently, Britons possess a skewed idea of how long it should take to get somewhere.  “Three Days” covers most trips within a hundred mile radius, while anything longer requires you to begin sometime last week.

Add to this their astounding reservoir of detail, and their willingness to share it, and you will understand why I never ask for directions.

If you do innocently let it slip that you are planning a trip to Ticklebottom, your companions are sure to give you detailed directions urging you to take the Bilgewater Bypass to East Periwinkle and turn left at the Slaughtered Duck toward Bobbin Upendown and other mysterious instructions that you will promptly forget.

Your best refuge, in these instances, is to nod knowingly as if you are thoroughly familiar with these locations because if you let on you’ve never heard of the Swingsan Roundabout, your guide will begin naming equally unfamiliar landmarks until you admit your ignorance or your ears start to bleed.  The safer alternative, therefore, is to feign understanding and hope there won’t be a quiz at the end.

They also possess an unnatural ability to recall where traffic tie-ups are likely to be, and offer various ways around them.  If you tell them you are leaving on Wednesday, for example, they will tell you about the big Wednesday Afternoon Car Boot Sale off the Chuckablock Turnpike that causes an eight mile tail-back from Tuesday evening until Thursday afternoon.

So I never tell anyone where I am going or give the faintest hint that I don’t already know how to get there, which, in this case, was a shame because they could have told me about the traffic jam at Stonehenge.

Now, I’ve driven past Stonehenge a number of times, so I should have remembered, but traffic jams, to me, are like birth pains: I hate them while I am stuck in the middle of them, but as soon as I am on my way again, the relief of revving up to 60 MPH makes the misery melt away as quickly as the memory of labor dissipates when the mother is presented with her new baby.

My decision to plot a route past Stonehenge was due to two factors: 1) we couldn’t check into the cottage until 3 o’clock, and 2) I am in the middle Sarum, Edward Rutherford’s fine book about the Salisbury Plains.  This was a great opportunity, I reasoned, to see the area I was reading about, and for a while it was.  The green and undulating landscape rolled by easily until I crested a rise some eight miles from Stonehenge, saw the solid line of brake lights and, like the forgetful mother, recalled the impending unpleasantness only when it was far too late to do anything about it.

The traffic jam outside of Stonehenge is nearly as old and immovable as Stonehenge itself but, ironically, has little to do with Stonehenge.  The causes are more due to A) Devon and Cornwall, B) people’s desire to be there, C) the A303 being a major artery to facilitate that migration and, D) the insanity of squeezing this surfeit of traffic from a four-lane divided highway into a two-lane road.

With all the opportunities the British have to practice merging, you’d think they would be better at it, but they continually manage to make a hash of it, causing traffic to back up for mile after mile because they can’t figure out how to smoothly converge from two lanes into one.  And so we sat, rolling forward inch by painful inch, watching as vehicles ahead of us arbitrarily switched from one lane to the other, driven by the desperate but misguided certainty that traffic was moving faster in whichever nearly stationary lane they were not in.

We put the time to good use.  We read War and Peace, did a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and then watched Rocky movies until the battery on my laptop ran out.  Eventually, we caught sight of the vortex that spawned the jam.  It was a quarter mile—or about half an hour—in front of us, and not far beyond sat Stonehenge, looking like a scattering of small rocks nestled in the triangle formed by the A303 and the A360 bypass.  We admired it for, oh, about two minutes, then started reading Moby dick.

If I failed to be amazed by Stonehenge on my previous visits, I am doubly un-dumbfounded since reading Mr. Rutherford’s account (a guess, admittedly, but a scholarly guess) of how it was built.  Surely it was a massive undertaking, but the technology was not a mystery and the whole project could have been completed in ten years.  In my view, the most amazing thing about Stonehenge is that it is still there.  It was an ancient and useless ruin by the time the Romans landed and managed to survive only because people who found it in their way over the ensuing centuries couldn’t be arsed to do a thorough job of erasing it from the landscape.  Even as late as the 1940’s the British military was lobbying to have it removed because it was impeding their exercises.

Now, thankfully, the world has recognized that Stonehenge, by virtue of its age alone, is worth saving.  Unfortunately, while having been named a World Heritage Site might protect it from intentional destruction, it has not placed it in the most capable of hands.  Instead of treating it with the reverence it deserves, it is displayed like one of those 1950’s roadside attractions in America that promise the world’s largest ball of tinfoil or the Amazing Glowing Rock.  And like those attractions, every time you visit, the display seems just a little more tatty.  So if you do visit, expect to be underwhelmed.  And if you visit in ten years time, don’t be surprised to find it under a tarpaulin.

At length, we eased into an orderly, single-file line and the speedometer climbed into double-digits.  On the next rise, just beyond Stonehenge and less than a mile away, we could see the tail end of yet another traffic jam on the A303, caused by an overabundance of holiday makers and the junction with the A36 at Deptford, over thirteen miles away.

Happily, that had nothing to do with us.  We veered off onto the A360, sped past Stonehenge, the parking lot filled with tour buses, the lines of cars parked along the roadside where people had stopped to see Stonehenge without having to pay, and out into the Salisbury Plain.

And promptly became lost.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Disconnected

On Saturday, 11 Sept 2010, my wife and I went on holiday to a cozy cottage on the cusp of the Forest of Dean.  My plan had been to post updates from there and, armed with a WiFi enabled laptop, my brand new Crackberry™ gizmo and a BT Broadband dongle for backup, we set out.

Things did not go to plan.

This is the story of that holiday, and my seven days of being
DISCONNECTED


Sat. 11 Sept

This holiday came none too soon.  Our last week away had been to Iceland in the middle of January, an intentionally ironic holiday designed to plunge us into enough cold, snow and ice to make our return to Sussex seem like spring.  What we failed to take into account, however, was that Reykjavik enjoys a climate much like our own, and they were having a better winter than we were.  So that disappointment—compounded by the fact that the one time the Northern Lights appeared during our stay was while we were sitting in our room watching utterly forgettable television—was followed by many long weeks and months of uninterrupted work.

Multiple yearly holidays may be a new concept to me—I managed the first forty-six years of my life on about three vacations, after all—but I have since come to appreciate the benefits of one week out of every ten to enjoy as I see fit.

Our autumn holiday, therefore, was not intentionally ironic; we were to spend the week snug in a little guest cottage between the Severn and the Royal Forest of Dean, taking in the wonders of yet another part of this pretty little island.  It would also, I hoped, provide an opportunity for me to pay some much-needed attention to my blogs and backlog of e-mails.  This resolution had less to do with the impending week of free time and more to do with my recent re-conversion to technology.

I have, for some time, been disillusioned with advances in computers and related gadgetry.  Our relationship, which began in the barnstorming days of personal computing, when everything was filled with passion and possibility, began to sour about five years ago.  We had fallen into a passionless routine, and all the attempts to win me back just seemed like showing off to me.  A phone that takes pictures?  I never wanted my camera to make phone calls, so what’s the point?  And then there was the bi-yearly ritual of making me rearrange all of my files and folders and turning my familiar applications into indecipherable puzzles.  And wireless computing?  It all seemed just too Harry Potter and Hocus Pocus to me.  I had grown used to the idea of allowing the cyber world into my home via a computer cable, as long as it remained safely contained behind a sheath of insulation.  But to have it roaming willy-nilly all over the place at will, well that was just unseemly.

In the end, we decided to stay together for the sake of the children, but a frosty silence always descended when we were in the same room together.

But then I got BT Broadband, and a wireless laptop.  Windows 7 followed and, after a brief climb up the learning curve, I fell in love with it.  The latest acquisition was my Crackberry™ and it immediately became essential.  I could take notes with it, check and answer my e-mails, post to Facebook, record voice notes and access Twitter.  Eventually, after a few fumbling attempts to rekindle the passion, Technology and I warmed to each other, I re-resolved to become a Twit (That is what they call Twitter users, right?  Or is that just me?), and became excited by the prospect of twitting, posting and updating while on vacation.

So I practiced a bit, and waited for the holiday; I didn’t have to wait long.

Our Going-On-Holiday routine has been well-established over the years and begins about a month prior to the event with an informal countdown and my wife becoming increasingly anxious about the fact that the suitcases are still in the loft.  Then, a week before we leave, she begins to pack.

I admire this trait.  She gets the full benefit of the holiday, basically stretching it out for an extra week, and it goes something like this: on the Saturday before we leave, the “packing table” appears in the living room.  Over the next few days, piles of panties, socks, toiletries, slacks, blouses, brochures and provisions gather and grow.  And there they remain, until the rising frequency of reminders prompts me to fetch the cases from the loft, allowing her to merrily transfer everything from the table into the suitcase.

It’s her talisman, her Zen method of easing into holiday mode, while I tend to wake up on the morning we are leaving and think, “Oh, we’re going on holiday today,” toss an armload of random garments into the mix and have a quick look at a map of Britain to plot a route.

This time, the route consisted of “head west until you hit Wales, then turn right.”  In a country as small and water-bound as Britain, you can only go so wrong.  If you unwittingly miss your target, the ocean will keep you from going too far astray and will encourage you to turn around and try again, hopefully paying a little more attention this time.  In the States I had to rely on different clues, such as signs saying “Welcome to Vermont.”  I find this a perfectly valid method of getting places by car, since years of experience have taught me that, even if I do plan a detailed route, I’ll end up lost anyway.

And so, locked and loaded, we set out through the drizzle.  Our target was a mere two-and-a-half hours away so we allotted ourselves five hours because this is Britain and I had a plan.

Travel Plans




--------------------------------------------------
This is a portion of a much, much longer narrative.
I will be posting episodes in blog-sized chunks in the coming days.
I cannot tell you how long that is likely to be.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Easy Living

The British kids are going back to school today, and if it seems as if they have just begun their summer school holidays, that is because they have.

Compared to their colonial cousins, British school kids get a paltry amount of time off for the summer. Granted, they make up for it during the rest of the year—the British school year seems to consist of a few weeks of classes, a few weeks off, a few weeks of classes, etc. I’m sure there must be some advantage to this system—such as not allowing time for all of the knowledge the teachers struggled so hard to cram into their pupils’ heads to leak out of their ears—but I still prefer what I grew up with, even at the risk of returning to school more ignorant than when I left.

In the States, when school is on, it’s ON. They call it the school year because that’s what you do during it—School. In September and October you’re settling into your new life; you used to be a 5th Grader, now you’re a 6th Grader, and at the top of the Elementary School food chain. You make do with Columbus Day and Halloween for diversion, and in November you look forward to Election Day and the mini-break (not to mention the turkey) at Thanksgiving.

December brings the Christmas/New Year ensemble, with its full week off and the opportunity to ride your new bike when it’s minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Then, I must admit, winter and school just drag on. And on. And on. And there is nothing for it but to hunker down, get to work and look forward to better days. It’s good training for adult life.

Even so, spring does arrive eventually, with muddy fields, blooming lilacs, cautious warmth and the Memorial Day weekend. Summer cannot be far away.

When I was a child, summer arrived in three phases, and the first was Memorial Day. It might be May, it might still be cold and dreary, but the Memorial Day weekend was the official starter’s pistol for summer. That was when the seasonal businesses reopened and people with swimming pools cleaned them out and got them ready for the coming season and people, like us, without swimming pools made the inaugural trek to the local swimming hole to test the waters. They were always freezing, but we didn’t care.

The second, and most important, was the middle of June when, after sitting in sweltering classrooms taking end-of-school tests for five days, you at last heard the clang of the final school bell. There is nothing to compare to the feeling of stepping out of school and seeing the whole of the sweet, sunny, sultry summer unfolding in front of you.

And finally, with the official summer solstice unnoticed and in the past and a few weeks of leisure under your belt, the Fourth of July would arrive. This was not a harbinger of summer so much as a confirmation that summer was here and in full swing. Picnics and fireworks—what better way to affirm your freedom?

During the summer, my friends and I would swim at the creek, ride our bikes, camp out in the woods or just enjoy lazing around in the hot, humid afternoons. The days stretched on forever, the world was benign and welcoming, and the possibilities for adventure were endless. We had no Internet, X-Box or iPods, but we were never bored.

I consider myself especially fortunate, as this long and languid period, for me, was punctuated by the Chatham Fair—the annual agricultural event held over the Labor Day weekend. We would go to the fair, look at the animals and exhibits, eat fried dough, cotton candy, candied apples, and then head for the main event—the rides. The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Ferris Wheel, the Scrambler, the Octopus—we would ride them all, repeatedly. Mostly without throwing up.

There would be car rallies, horse races and some has-been celebrity would put on a show in the grand stand and we would notice, as dusk settled around us, an autumnal chill in the air, signalling the end of this marvellous and magical season. Then the fair would pack up and leave town. We would have the next day—the first Tuesday in September—to find what clothes still fit us, get new hand-me-downs and steel ourselves for the coming year, where we would be back—on the bottom of the food chain—in Junior High School, to repeat the familiar cycle.

Now I just get a day off at the end of August; it’s not quite the same.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Just Like New York, Only Better

Being removed, as I am, from the familiarity of friends and family, I tend to appreciate it when someone goes out of their way make me feel at home.  I would therefore like to thank the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) for an unexpectedly inspirational morning that left me nostalgic for the glory days of the Department of Motor Vehicles Office in Albany, NY.

Our DMV was so legendary for its awfulness and buffoonish officialdom and I never expected to see its like again, but the Brighton DVLA managed to leave them pale in comparison.

In general, people would rather have root canal than visit any government office, so making supplicants feel impotent, off-guard and a little bit frightened is the bread and butter of any civil servant, but to totally cow and humiliate people, well, that was a thing of beauty.

It didn’t start well; they opened on time and had a deli-style “take a number and wait” system that threatened to be efficient, but they cunningly overcame this challenge by having one of the three clerks inexplicably disappear while the “average wait” time displayed on the overhead viewing screen changed from 4 minutes to 13 minutes to 22 minutes in short succession.

If this had happened in New York, they might have felt their point was made and leave it at that, but this office went the extra mile by having the absent clerk return to her window but not serve any of the waiting people.  Instead, she fixed up her hair, spent a protracted amount of time laboriously opening a can of Coke with a letter opener and chatting with the clerk at the next window.  Then, and this was simply breathtaking, she took up a small pile of mail and began dealing with that while ignoring the people who had taken time off from work, and otherwise had to rearrange their lives, who were standing in front of her.  I was so overcome with admiration that I nearly wept; with those few simple gestures she conveyed to a room full of people, louder than if she had used a bull horn and more obviously than if she had spelled it out in red tape on the walls, that all the time, effort and money we had expended to be there was totally irrelevant.  She showed us all how a true civil servant remains insouciant before the inconvenience of the masses.

And insouciant she was, for she could afford to be.  In large, not-to-be-missed writing on the display board was a warning that they tolerated no abuse of any kind toward their staff.  This might include, one should suppose, suggestions about how people might like to be treated in order to keep them from being cranky enough to become shirty in the first place.  This promoted the fear that, unless you behaved meekly and obediently no matter how poorly they treated you, you would be deprived of, not merely your car, but your liberty as well.

While I applaud this masterstroke of crowd belittlement, it does take some of the fun out of it. I always enjoyed the occasional sparks at the Albany DMV.

Despite this disadvantage, she worked the room with such consummate perfection I could not help but be won over by her; I want to have her children.

But I mustn’t forget the Brighton Office as a whole.  Although this one clerk took the opportunity to shine, her performance would not have been as memorable had it not been for the supporting cast:

First, her two colleagues, who sent a disproportionate number of people away empty handed:

“But the man at the post office told me this is what I needed to do,” cried one distraught applicant.

“Well he doesn’t work here,” the clerk replied, and sent the dejected man on his way.

Another brilliant ploy was to have no toilets available.  If you felt the need, you had to leave the building, and the office complex, and walk to the top of the hill at the end of the street, elbow you way through the train station and make use of their lavatory.  And, of course, you had to take a new number when you returned.

Lastly, they kept the waiting room so hot sweat trickled down my back even though I was doing nothing more energetic than sitting and admiring their ability to reduce grown people to gibbering children.  There was a fan in the room, but it was not turned on, unlike the multiple fans on their side of the barrier, where they sat drinking cold soda and cups of tea while we looked in vain for a water fountain.

It was really quite exciting, and I could not imagine how the experience might be topped until I paid the parking fee: eight pounds for less than an hour and a half, or about ten pence a minute.  Way to go!

New York, you’re good, but you have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

10 Things to Be Happy About

While surfing the web the other day, I happened upon an article about sunspot activity. Namely, that there suddenly is none. Scientists have never seen anything like this before so the logical conclusion is, it’s the end of the world. (You have to extrapolate a bit to arrive at this conclusion, but just a bit.)

In any event, it hardly matters because, if you surf a little more you’ll find that we’re doomed to collide with a giant asteroid and that Yellowstone Park is scheduled to explode at any minute. Either of these events promises to plunge the world into uninhabitable cold and darkness, but just in case none of this actually happens, BP—as a sort of backup plan—is filling the oceans with oil.

Meanwhile, one half of the world’s population is trying to kill the other half because they don’t have the same imaginary friend as they do.

Add to this the government’s decision that you and I need to pay for the fiscal adventures the bankers went on a few years back and you begin to understand why some people, myself included, are looking a bit grim these days, and walk around as if they are carrying John Prescott on their shoulders. Frankly, I find it amazing that any of us have the strength to get out of bed in the morning.

But we do. We face the day, we fight the good fight and we try, against all odds, to look on the bright side. And that’s what this post is about—ten good things this modern and hectic life offers us that the harbingers of doom do their level best to cloud from our vision:

1. Indoor plumbing: Because an unfathomable amount of time has been saved, discomfort avoided and noisome smell eradicated due to the invention of the flush toilet. Just think about it; this is the only time in history where a man of modest means can rise up from the sofa when Midsommer Murders goes to commercial, have a dump, flush it away and still have time to make a cup of tea before the adverts are over.

2. Modern medicine: Because you would not believe the number of people who, in centuries past, died from simple things like paper cuts, catching a cold or even drinking the water because they didn’t have basic medicines. Once you scratch away the Jane Austin veneer you’ll find life back in the good old day was uncomfortable, brutal and short. And imagine having a hangover and not being able to pop a few aspirin to see you through the morning.

3. Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream: Because, well, seriously, what more do I need to say about that?

4. The smell of bacon (or fresh-cut grass, if you’re a vegetarian). Because, even though these were readily available prior to the technology boom, you would have had a hard time noticing them. (See Item 1)

5. Really small laptop computers: Because I’m writing on one now, and if Charles Dickens had tried to do this, he’d be spilling ink all over the seats and stabbing his pen through manuscript pages every time the bus hit a bump.

6. Decent instant coffee. Because when I was younger it, tasted like brown water. These days, it comes close to tasting like good coffee. And you don’t have to wait an age for it.

7. Electric kettles. Because they are the hallmark of a civilized society, as well as the perfect complement to Item 6.

8. iPods: Because when I was in high school, kids who wanted to be a nuisance to others lugged huge radios around and blared really crap music at a decibel level similar to that of an Apollo rocket during liftoff (and they always had a menacing look about them, as if they were hoping you might suggest they turn it down so they would have an excuse to rip your arm off and beat you to death with the bloody stump) but these days, the best they can do is crank up their iPods so that, even though they are six seats away on a crowded bus, the only thing you can hear is the hiss, chink and pops emanating from their ear buds. But whenever this happens you can smile inside, knowing that, by the time they are thirty-five, they will be stone deaf.

9. The Eurostar. Because the option of travelling to Europe in a metal tube skimming (more or less) safely over the ground is an eminently better option than shooting through the stratosphere in a metal tube at the speed of a bullet. A derailment trumps a fiery explosion every time.

10. Blogs: Because I can promise a list of ten items and, when I only come up with nine, I can ask other people to fill in the blank.

And they do.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

A while back, in a post peripherally about the recent and tragic World Cup, Steve from Yorkshire commented about that particular phase of the World Cup (this was during our brief period of optimism—remember that?) and its resemblance to WWII. The comment went, “The World Cup is like WWII because the …” But you’ve heard that already.

Sensing this was an ephemeral joke, I told it to as many people as I could, including a bus-buddy on my way to work that morning. When we met up at the bus stop in the evening, he said to me, “Remember that World Cup joke you told me? My wife called me and told it to me after I got to work, and three other people told it to me this afternoon. That Internet really moves fast!” (By the by, this was ironic coming, as it did, from a BT employee.)

But his point was well made: humor, in the age of instant communication, has an incredibly short shelf life.

This got me thinking. And, after my brain recovered from the shock of such an unusual event, it occurred to me that I don’t hear many jokes these days. Time was, if you were out with some friends at the pub, or at a house party, or even chatting on the bus, someone would say, “I’ve got a great joke; stop me if you’ve heard this. A frog hopped into a bank…” And a week later, when you found yourself at another gathering, you could pull that joke out and be relatively sure that most people hadn’t heard it. A good joke could last for months.

Now, people don’t bother; they know everyone has heard them all. In fact, the rarest of pleasures available in these digital days is getting an Internet joke I have not yet heard. But even that is a fleeting and bittersweet delight because I know, by the time I get to the pub (or even out to the kitchen to tell my wife) everyone else will have heard it, as well. And so will I—over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Internet is brilliant (after all, it was because of the Internet that I finally learned the real words to “Louie, Louie”) but I think the slow death of classic joke-telling is one of its unfortunate downsides; not only have I not heard a good, new joke in a long, long time, but venerable, old jokes are starting to resemble dead horses because they are being flogged around cyberspace so often. Information sharing is no bad thing, but we’re becoming like The Borg, practically reading each other’s thoughts in real time. And have you ever seen a Borg tell a joke? I think it’s clear that the lack of humor in their culture was what made them so cranky, like the Germans.

I wish I had an answer, I wish I could say the trend is reversing, but I fear we are entering a new era, an age where humor arrives via your IN box and is shared by use of your SEND TO ALL button (as an aside, please stop that, okay?). Perhaps this will lead to spam filters evolving to the point where they can divert any joke you have heard before (though this would make your incoming mail volume drop by about 97%) and filter out those recipients you have already sent it to.

I realize that’s a depressing note to leave you on, so here’s a good joke to cheer you up: A transvestite walks into a bowling alley wearing nothing but fish-net stockings and lederhosen and, as he’s requesting a pair of shoes, the clerk says to him…

Sorry, I see you’re heard this one already.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What Happened?

I wasn’t planning to post anything until after the England game tomorrow so I could update you all on the World Cup. However, I wonder now that any of that is necessary; everyone over here watches it, so they already know what happened, while the people in America…

If I were to make a good joke at America’s expense, I would go on to say, while the people in America don’t have any idea what is going on, or don’t care, or whatever. But I just stumbled across this video (I understand it has gone viral, so I’m not sure how I avoided it so far):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbn3rOPmR9w

Apparently, America has awakened to the World Cup in my absence. I am simply gobsmacked by the amount of celebration surrounding this goal and the number of people watching it. Incredibly, if you go to the 238 mark, you’ll even see my old home city of Albany, NY (right before the shot of “Some guy in Arkansas”).

All I can say is, well done, America. Now the rest of the world can’t continue to make fun of you for being so unaware of soccer. (And, yes, I call it soccer. As someone else noted, we already have a wildly popular game called football, so we have to call it soccer, like the English used to, in order to keep from being confused. Deal with it.)

Watching this video, in addition to amazing me, makes me sorry I was on a train from Greenwich (that’s GREN-ich) to Horsham. This time I am going into town to watch it on one of the outdoor screens at a local pub. Superstitious as any fan, I notice that they do well when I’m not watching, but I’m not going to let that stand in my way. They will win, or not; this is more about being part of it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Wife Walked Thirteen Miles in the Middle of the Night and All I Got Was This Lousy Tee Shirt

It’s midnight and instead of being tucked up in bed as any sane person should be at this time of night, I am in Horsham park with twelve hundred other people as part of the charity walk my wife signed up for.

But, you ask, if your wife signed up for it, why are you there? That must be the young, single men asking the question, the rest of you—the long-time married men and, of course, the women—completely understand.

The truth is, I wouldn’t have missed this and was, in fact, planning to go out and watch it anyway, so I figured I may as well sign up to and help out.


When they told me I was going to be a marshal, I thought I was going to be issued a Stetson hat and a tin star; a six-shooter, I figured, would be too much to hope for. As it stands, a six-shoot might come in handy because I have been assigned Station 11, which sits at the epicentre of five popular pubs and is in front of the only kebab shop on that side of town. Now, Horsham is a safe enough place, but the night belongs to the young and, as a fifty-five year old man, I would be enough of a target just being on that same corner with 157 youngish revellers who are drunk enough to want to eat a kebab, and all I am armed with is a bright yellow vest reading, “Marshall.” It may as well have a bull’s eye embroidered on it.

My job, they tell me, is to guide one thousand women wearing blue shirts and bobbly headgear safely across the intersection at prime chucking-out time. I am there to protect them, but who is going to protect me?

3:30 AM

I’m back home now. Having been ordered to “Stand Down” (my, but aren’t these ladies very military?) I found myself with nothing to do but return home and loyally wait up for my wife, who is due to finish about 5:30 AM. Then we’re going out dancing.

It all went very smoothly. The kebab shop was inexplicably closed. And on a Saturday night. I have to wonder if this was not somehow arranged because, when those women began arriving at around 1:30, there was certainly not enough room on the side walk for them, me and the usual horde of intoxicated, rowdy and yurking-up-in-the-gutter youngsters. They began appearing in dribs and drabs (the walkers, not the drunk people) but once the main body arrived—wearing their signature shirts and the glittery, ping-pong ball antennae they were issued—it looked liked the world’s largest, and most orderly, hen night.

I also turned out to be not alone. For the first hour, I guarded the corner on my own, but with the shop closed all I saw were a few puzzled partiers lurching by—lads in saggy jeans and untucked shirts accompanied by teenage girls skinny as the stiletto stilts they teetered on and wearing nothing but knickers and a bra—wondering where they were going to get their kebab. But just before the walkers arrived two young men in Marshall jackets appeared and helped guide the long blue line safely into the town center.

Afterward, I returned to the park and hung around long enough to see my wife return from the first leg of the route and set off on the second. They tell me they have raised over £140,000 for St. Catherine’s Hospice so, all in a all it has been a safe and successful night.

The only downside is, I had to give back the marshal vest, so all I am left with is the tee shirt. I really wish they had given me a tin star.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Take Your Wife to Work Day

As I write this, the movie Death on the Nile is droning on in the background. This is strangely appropriate as I am currently in the Agatha Christy suite, which is, they assure me, the best room in the Royal Seven Stars hotel located in the quaint and quirky village of Totnes in South Devon. For those of you who haven’t been following this blog closely (and if not, why not?), Totnes is the location of one my employer’s customers, so I have spent a good deal of time here over the past year and a half.


The Canal, the bit I am really familiar with.

It’s a welcome departure from the places I usually travel to for work—inner city Travel Lodges, Premier Inns on the local industrial estate—but that’s not the only thing that makes this trip different: this time, I’m on holiday.

I finally got fed up with staying in such a pretty location and only seeing the hotel and the short, but beautiful walk along the canal to our client’s offices. So I booked a long weekend and my wife and I have spent the past two days exploring the town and the surrounding countryside. It’s been an interesting holiday, staying in a place that is so familiar, yet made foreign by having different things to do and my wife with me.

The room is a bit different, too. I usually have a single, but I’m a guy who knows how to treat women so I booked the most expensive room at the hotel for our stay (actually, all the other rooms were booked this weekend, but we don’t have to tell my wife that, do we?) It’s large, with a sitting area (where I am writing) and a big four-poster canopy bed (mink handcuffs not include*) where my wife is lounging after a hard day of exploring the retail opportunities of Totnes and watching the big screen TV. All she needs is a little bell on the sideboard to ring for maid service.

The bathroom is the size of our spare bedroom back home and comes with a shower and a double sized bathtub/Jacuzzi (of course we did). But the luxury suite aside, there are other things to consider when bringing your wife to a place you are so familiar with.

When we checked in, the staff knew me, and called me by name. I felt a little like Benjamin Braddock in the Graduate when he brings Elaine to the Taft hotel where he is schtuping her mother, and found myself hastily introducing my wife in case the hotel staff had assumed that, after 18 months of staying in single rooms by myself, I had finally pulled. Then in the dining room on the first morning, the waitresses demonstrated an alarmingly thorough knowledge of my breakfast preferences and morning habits. In a more cynical woman than my wife, this might have aroused a degree of suspicion.

All that aside, we’ve been having a wonderful time. Totness is a charmingly eclectic village where the well-heeled and those of the Bohemian lifestyle mingle easily. It is also, apparently, where old hippies come to retire. The local attire is refreshingly different, as well; whereas, back in Horsham, the only remarkable nature concerning fashion among the young is its uniform skimpiness, here it is the dizzying variety of individual nonconformity. It’s a bit like Brighton, but smaller, more intimate and without the raucous nightlife.


Totnes High Street, with the local castle in the background.

I must close now as we’re getting ready to go out to dinner with some friends. Yes, I’ve lived in Sussex eight years but have made no friends among the local Horshamites or my co-workers, but in my visits here I have become familiar enough with people to keep in touch with them and visit with them when I return. Tonight we’re going out with James and his fiancĂ©e Jenny. James runs an organic flower business and routinely dresses as if it is 1860.

But this is Totness, so that is considered quite normal.


*I jest of course; the room is very tastefully furnished; there are nine mirrors in the room and not one of them is above the bed.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

PC Candy

A Mr. Simms Candy Shop opened on our high street a few weeks ago. Mr. Simms, I am told, is a franchise that has a fair number of stores up north and they are now beginning to extend into the south. Mr. Simms didn’t come for the grand opening, or maybe he did—it would have been hard to tell with all those people packed into the shop.

Candy, the recession-proof food.

This candy store is off to a good start, thanks to their winning formula: go into any Mr. Simms shop and listen to the people as the peruse the shelves and counters and you’ll understand that they are not selling confections so much as they are selling memories.

“Oh, I remember those! And look, they have golden nuggets and fruit salads and cola cubes; I used to save my pocket money to buy them.”

Smarties, but not as we know them.

The candy hasn’t changed—it’s still just sugar and it’s still as bad for your teeth—but the perspective has shifted. I dare say, with our adult palettes now attuned to fine wine and haute cuisine (or at least a bucket of the Colonel’s best on a Sunday afternoon) the candy probably doesn’t even taste as good as it used to, but the nostalgia value is hard to put a price on.

Except for one item: the candy ciga...um, I mean, crayons.

Remember them, the hard white sticks made of sugar with one end tinted pink? We used to think we were so sophisticated, sucking on a make-believe cig…I mean, crayon, just like our dad, or mom, or mom’s new boyfriend.

I’m glad they kept the candy, and I understand the need for caution, but really, who do they think they’re fooling? Every school kid knows what comes in a cellophane wrapped, soft pack that you get into by peeling the top off of and shaking a few out. Crayons, right?

OK, these are chocolate, but you know the kind I mean.

Right.

The least they could have done was use the Marlboro hard pack that opens at the top; that would look more like a box of crayons and less like what your dad keeps stashed in his coat pocket along with his Bic lighter and house keys.

Repackaged cig…I mean, crayons, notwithstanding, I had a nice visit with Mr. Simms’ southern elves. It was doubly fun for me because I got to play the “what American candy does this remind you of?” game. I was pleased to see they had Smarties, and Sweet Tarts, though they called the Smarties “Fizzers” and the Sweet Tarts “Refreshers” and had to explain to me that British Smarties were similar to American M&Ms but without the “M” on them. And none of the candy tasted like American candy (the Fizzers, appropriately enough, fizzed). It was all too confusing. And they didn’t even have paper dots.

I expect I’ll make good use of the store; I have a grandchild on the way and I want him (fingers crossed) to grow up multi-cultural so we will, no doubt, be shipping bags of the stuff over for Christmas, Easter and birthdays.

And if my grandson grows up thinking that British children smoke crayons and colo(u)r with cigarettes, well, you can blamed the confection constables.


DISCLOSURE:

Allow me to disclose this: I may be an American, but I’m not residing in their jurisdiction so I don’t have to disclose a thing. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA.

Okay, I feel better having said that, and now. I’ll disclose, not because I have to but because I want to:

Do you know what Mr. Simms gave me for the above, glowing review? Nothing. Not even a free Ju-Ju Bee or a packet of Twizzlers!

No matter; I don’t do this for gain; if I did, I would have quit long ago.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Day in the Garden

My wife and I took Friday off so we could do something we have been meaning to do for the past eight years but just never seemed to get around to: visit Leonardslee Gardens.

Leonardslee, one of the prettiest gardens in England.

Leonardslee is just down the road from us. Hence the reason we have never visited; who wants to see something that is right in their own back yard? But Leonardslee is well worth the visit. It is one of the largest and most spectacular gardens in England and the Loder family—who own it—are also responsible for two other magnificent Sussex gardens: The High Beeches and Wakehurst Place. These have been a splendid trio of gardens for many years, though sadly, they are soon to be twins.

Bluebells in bloom at Leonardslee.

Wakehurst Place is now safely in the hands of the The National Trust and The high Beeches, though privately owned, is still going strong, but after five generations of overseeing the gardens at Leonardslee, the Loader family is packing it in. This is to be their last season; after this, the fate of the garden is uncertain.

Rumor has it that they sold out to some Russian zillionaire (who else, after all, could afford it) who is no doubt connected with the Russian mafia (name me a Russian zillionaire who isn’t).

Imagine this as a landfill site.

I realize the new generation of Loders probably has other ambitions aside from gardening, but it is surely a shame to see the tradition come to an end. The new owners are very likely already engaged in “negations” (“Nice house you have here; be a shame if something were to happen to it”) with local Councillors to gain permission to use the valley as a landfill so they can level the ground off and build high-rise tenements on it.

Leonardslee is also home to the largest Wallaby herd in Sussex (though, really, how many would you need to have to gain that particular title?).  The Wallabies, naturally, will have to go; you can't have them roaming feral around the car parks of the tenements, can you?  I expect the new owners will host a combination Grouse and Wallaby Shoot during their first season, followed by a massive Walla-barbee-Q.

Taste like chicken.

I’m just glad we made the effort to see these stunning gardens, and the adorable wallabies, while there was still time.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Outside the Demographics

Spring came into its own this past week and, uncharacteristically, carried on through the weekend. It was a wonderfully sunny and warm day on Saturday, which proved quite a bonus as my wife and I were heading to Essex to meet up with some of my fellow countrymen.

We reconnected with NFAH, finally met a few other bloggers in person and enjoyed a lovely meal at an Italian restaurant in the charmingly twee village of Saffron Walden. And if it came to my attention during the meal that I was, once again, the lone male at a table full of women, I certainly didn’t think much of it. It’s just the way things are.


Saffron Walden

But at one point, the subject of blogging and the blogging community was brought up (at a table full of bloggers, go figure) and I did point out that I seemed to be the lone male voice (with the notable exception of Brit Out of Water) in the expat world. I don’t consider my situation very unique, so why am I an honorary member of the Mummy Blogger crowd?

The answer, it turns out, is screamingly obvious; I simply managed to avoid realizing it these past eight years: expat blogs tend to be written by the trailing spouse (stranger in a strange land and all that), and in every case I can think of (aside from myself and Dylan) that trailing spouse is female.

Up until the moment one of my blogging friends pointed this out, I had never thought of myself as a ‘trailing spouse.’ But there you have it. At least in the future, when I go to these sort of gatherings, I won’t have to wonder about being the only guy there.

And I always do enjoy meeting up with my fellow bloggers. We may be from different backgrounds in the States, with different experiences and different expectations, but when we meet up over here as expats, we bring with us so many shared experiences that the basis for a friendship is already present. The conversation, even from the initial introduction, is never awkward because we feel as if we know each other already.

That’s a good way to be, even if I am the odd one out.

We spent a relaxing few hours together in conversation, then parted, with promises to keep in touch. Then my wife and I took advantage of the commerce opportunities Saffron Walden afforded before heading home on the train.

And as we passed through London, I naturally I treated my wife to dinner at an exclusive restaurant.

Hey, I bought you dinner, what more do you want?

All in all a remarkable day: good weather, good conversation, good friends and good food. I’m already looking forward to the next time.

================================

Married to an American Moment of the week:

While watching the television.
Me: What’s he eating?
Wife: It’s a Chupa Chup
Me: What’s that?
Wife: It’s a boiled sweet on a stick.
Me: You mean like a Tootsie Pop?
Wife: What’s that?
Me: It’s a hard candy on a stick, but with a piece of Tootsie Roll inside.
Wife: What’s a Tootsie Roll?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Balls Up

In the end, apathy and lack of money won the day.

About a year ago, the Shelly Fountain, Horsham’s iconic and vaguely pornographic water feature, fell into such disrepair that it was shut off and left forlornly empty. As time went on, the town polled the citizens to see what they wanted to do with this marvellous work of art that had put Horsham on the map.

The Glory Days.

The response was underwhelming.

I wrote to the local paper stating the case for repairing the fountain, but it appeared I was a lone voice crying in a sea of curmudgeonly complaints. No one, it seemed, had wanted the poxy thing to begin with and they saw this as their chance to get shut of it. A Facebook page dedicated to bringing back the Horsham Christmas lights enjoyed 3,037 supporters; a similar page to show support for the fountain rallied only 315. Condemned by social networking, its fate was sealed; The Council decided it would have to go.

So the great ball was propped up on steel girders and the fountain area surrounded by a metal fence, and there it sat, sad and broken, like a death-row inmate waiting for the padre and warden to lead it on that final walk to the metaphorical gallows. There would be no phone call from the governor.

Waiting for the hangman.

But then a miracle reprieve arrived from an unlikely source: the economy collapsed, austerity budgets were adopted and, when The Council looked into removing it, they found digging it out and paving over the area would actually cost a lot more than fixing it.

Repairs began in March, which The Council made very clear were not paid for out of the district coffers but with grants from the art foundation. The fountain was cleaned and fixed and filled and ready to be re-unveiled at a ceremony during Horsham’s popular English Festival.

At the appointed time, the crowd gathered, the speeches were made, the fountain revived…and shut off due to an electrical fault.

That's all folks...

So now it sits, a little cleaner, but empty, nonetheless, waiting for the repairman.

But at least it’s still here.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Feeling the Love

BUT FIRST, A SHAMELESS AD:

My wife is participating in a sponsored half-marathon for St. Catherine’s Hospice.
Okay, she’s not actually running, and it’s only a half-marathon, but she is doing it between midnight and 6 AM so she deserves some support.
Horsham Midnight Walk to sponsor St. Catherine’s Hospice
19 June 2010 – midnight to 6:00 AM

NOW BACK TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BROADCAST:

I just cancelled my ISP after eight complaint-free years to sign up with BT Broadband, on the theory that having a consolidated bill and paying two pounds less each month would somehow transform my life. That’s like divorcing your wife and marrying your dental hygienist because you’ll save money on your biannual cleaning and won’t have to drive to the dentist.

I’m sure someone out there has done that and is dying to tell me how badly it went. Thanks, but don’t bother. I’m committed; the hygienist is awaiting my call and the wife already found out. I told her, I mean, I informed my ISP this morning. They took it hard.

This surprised me. England not being the spiritual home of customer service, I fully expected the rep to give me the equivalent of a verbal shrug and move on. Instead, they dragged me through the seven stages of separation grief, which, as an American, pleased me. We don’t like people letting us cast them aside lightly, so I’m used to a bit of grovelling when I call to cancel a service. I think I was more prepared for it than the rep.

“But we’ve been together so long! Was it something we did? Have we made you unhappy?”

“No,” I said, my voice laced with faux regret, “it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve changed; I’m not the person you thought I was when I signed on.”

“But we can change, we’ll make you happy.”

“But BT is offering…”

“BT! That slag! You deserve better! Please come back to us.”

“I’m sorry, really I am. I know I shouldn’t have been looking around when I was happy with you, but this deal caught my eye and, well,… You really don’t want to stay with someone as fickle as I am.”

“It’s not your fault. We forgive you! Can’t you see how much we want you?”

“Look, I gotta go. I need some space right now-“

“No! Please! Can we still be friends?”

“I don’t think so.”

I hung up, feeling a mixture of guilt, amusement and admiration. Whether or not it was true, they made me feel like they cared, and that gave me just the slightest pang of homesickness. It made me ponder my ISP infidelity and I began to second-guess my decision. Really, what was so bad about my current provider that I had to jump on the first sleek and shiny thing to saunter by? Maybe I was being too hasty. Maybe I should call them. Maybe they would take me back.

Then, as I replayed the conversation in my mind, analysing the begging, the promises and the resolutions, I realized there was one thing they had not done: they had not offered me a better deal. That’s the way we do it in America, Sparky, and if you can’t see your way to it, then get used to the sight of my backside as I walk away from you.

I’m so glad I didn’t weaken. Now I’m looking forward to my new ISP; I’m going to love slagging off BT.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

One Of The Girls

I had a different post ready to go up, but I was diverted by some arresting statistics. This worked out nicely because I was going to post a secondary item in the sidebar but that item lends credence to what these statistics pointed out so, thanks to being so alert (or easily distracted, take your pick), I can post now everything in a single article, the premise of which is:

Over the course of my life, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the company of women.

I don't mean to say I am a modern incarnation of Don Juan, wooing women on two continents (having recently and successfully stormed Europe). No, I mean I just always seem to be around women, through no fault (or complaint, for that matter) of my own.

As a young lad, I had an older sister, a doting mother and an absent father. Dad was around—he often stopped in between shifts at the mill and sessions at the bar—but he didn't leave much of an impression. Mostly it was me, mom, my sister and about 6,000 cows.

I was, however, a Boy Scout, so I managed to do my share of male bonding during my teenage years, but just as it looked as if I was on my way toward a wall-balanced life, I joined a charismatic Christian cult. While I did make some male friends there, these organisations tend to draw more females than males, but not the sort who would do you any good, if you get my meaning.

After checking back into hotel reality, I got a job as a keypunch operator. To say this field has a disproportionate number of women would be like saying the ocean is damp; I was the only male in the entire department.

When my children were growing up, I was working nights while my wife worked days, so me and the other moms all got together at day care and, later, for school meetings and such.

As a born-again bachelor, I took up scuba diving, a truly manly sport. But then, ignoring the advice of a good friend (a woman, I might add) I went scuba diving in the Caribbean and, as it had for her, the experience spoiled me. I could no longer face the dark, cold lakes of the Adirondacks, so I sold my gear and became an Irish dancer. I mean, what choice did I have?

I was actually surprised by the predominance of women there, what with Michael Flatley being all the rage, but there was only one other man in the entire class.

So I went to Ireland, met my current wife and settled in Britain. And started a blog. Or three. And, without meaning to, I began to acquire followers. But is what I discovered about them while doing routine blog maintenance this afternoon:

Of my followers, 82.2784810126582% on my Postcards blog, 91.4285714285714% on the Pond Parleys blog and 88.4615384615385% on my writing blog are women. Now, this isn't a complaint, simply an observation, but my intent was to promote myself as an expatriate writer a la Bill Bryson and, instead, I seem to have become an honorary member of the mummy-blogging circuit

So what's a guy to do when he find himself, once again, surrounded by women? Go out and do something that puts him in contact with other people, of course. And that's what I'm going to do.

I have volunteered to assist my wife in her latest endeavour—a sponsored walk. She's doing the walking; I'm just helping out by being a steward. And you can help out by sponsoring her.

Click this link: http://www.justgiving.com/sleep-walking to donate money toward the cause. The walk is to raise funds for St. Catherine's Hospice, a worthy charity. It's only a half-marathon, and they are only walking, but they are doing it between midnight and six in the morning, so she deserves a bit of support.

Oh, and did I mention this is the Midnight Walk for Women? Twelve hundred women, two thousand flashlights (torches), eighteen hundred bottles of water and me. I expect there will be a few more men there, but here I go again.

Don't worry; I'll bring my camera. Updates to follow.

And thank you for your support.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Come On, You Know You Want It

So, who do you think wants it more?

What, no Labour? And where is the BNP?

This is my first general election, and I'm pleased to be voting in such an exciting election. It's every bit as historic as America's last election (who'd have thought that the US would ever be liberal enough to elect a man who admitted getting high in college to the presidency?) and I'm proud to be part of it. Even though my vote won't make a blind bit of difference.

You see, I don't get to vote for the who I want to run the country. I only get to vote for my local MP. Then, whichever party gets the most MPs gets to have their head MP as Prime Minister. And they elect that guy (or woman), and I have no say in the matter.

So with Horsham a solidly conservative seat, voting for anyone is an exercise in futility. Unless, of course, you are voting Tory.

But it's still good to get out and vote.

The exciting bit is watching a party who everyone had written off as irrelevant a few months ago come into the fore. The Lib Dems are, by some accounts, ahead of the Labour party. And, if they succeed in hanging Parliament (oh, if only; maybe we could make it happen if we all brought enough rope) they will be in a position to effectively select the next leader, which makes this an interesting race indeed.

The best thing about British elections is that the campaign period only lasts about a month. This keeps most of us from getting so very, very sick of political broadcasts, but still allows the candidates to do stupid things that make the electorate shake their head in collective wonder and switch parties. (Can you say, "Bigoted woman!")

Anyway, I'll be watching with interest, and going to the polls a week from tonight to throw away my vote. I hope you all do the same.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Horsham’s Hidden Talent

As the husband of a social worker, I sometimes find myself in strange situations, such as Row J of the Capitol Theatre in Horsham, sitting between two middle-aged couples; a single man, on his own, out to enjoy a bit of amateur musical theatre. I was just glad I wasn’t wearing my corduroy sport coat; that would have pushed me passed the edge of plausible deniability.

I was there as part of an outing for one of the centres my wife manages, and to handle important tasks such as holding doors, minding handbags while people went to the loo and making awkward conversation with people who are meeting me, once again, for the first time. But as a bonus, I got to see the Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s presentation of Oklahoma! (The exclamation point is in the title, I’m not that excited.)


The play was surprisingly spectacular, taking into account, of course, that it was a local production. I mean, West End it wasn’t, but the company did manage the nearly impossible challenge of staging a believable version of a Broadway extravaganza while simultaneously retaining those special qualities only an amateur production can offer: wobbling scenery, props descending from above onto the head of an extra, a “Dirty Dancing” lift that nearly ended in disaster. So, yeah, it was a great performance.

When I booked the ticket last week, I asked the woman behind the counter if it was the sing-along version. She smiled politely at my joke and assured me it wasn’t, to which I replied, “It will be when I’m there.” I needn’t have bothered, the audience—most of whom looked as if they had attended the premiere of Oklahoma! and may have needed to hire a babysitter in order to get out for the evening—unabashedly sang along, even though the cast needed no help in that arena. Too bad no one in the audience could dance.

When you’re putting on shows in the West End, you get to pick from the most talented performers in the world. When you put on a show in Horsham, however, you’re fishing in a much smaller pool, so I expect the casting sessions went somewhat like this: “You have the physical qualities we’re looking for in our leading lady. Can you sing? Good, good! Can you dance? Um, okay, …can you fake it?”

The group, after all, is the Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic—not Dance—Society, so I’m willing to cut them some slack. And the singing was suburb; bold, confident, occasionally complex; it resonated through the auditorium. On the other hand, the dance routines, to be kind, lacked finesse. It looked as if some of the cast had taken a few years of ballet when they were younger and had spent half an hour or so teaching the others what little they still remembered. In addition to the near-catastrophic lift, there was an ill-advised “spin and carry” sort of move that looked like a form of torture. I also noticed a few “rabbit in the high-beams” type of looks I recalled from my own dancing days, as players struggled to remember where in the routine they were. And I swear I could see a few of them counting out the beats, one of my favourite tricks.

But confident or not, they performed with enthusiasm, and made up for it in the singing. The final number, the aptly named “Oklahoma!” sung by the ironically-named “Curly” and supported by the entire ensemble, was rousing, energetic and well-polished.

And they stayed true to the original production, even when it did them no favors. In the scene where the townsfolk rouse Curly and Laurey from their marriage bed (no spoiler alerts here; I assume you all know the story), Curly comes out of the house wearing only his trousers, which allowed us all to see the rest of the gear involved in those cunning little stage microphones you see taped to people’s faces. If they had updated it at bit, say had Laurey come out dressed as a Police Constable and Curly in a set of Winnie-the-Pooh jammies (“Have you been in Kanga’s honey-pot, Pooh? You’re such a naughty bear!”) it would have avoided the awkwardness of revealing the tape and wire strung around his torso.

What impressed me most, however, was something I didn’t even realize until my wife mentioned it on the way home: they all spoke in American accents. The fact I didn’t notice shows how good they were. A bad accent or, worse, a local accent (“I say Jud, old bean, you’re not sweet on this Laurey girl, are you? If so, you’re in for a thrashing.”) would have been immediately noticeable.

I have a great respect for Brits who can do an American accent. I’ve been here eight years and the best I can do is mimic the Cockney accent perpetrated by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but that doesn’t really count.

So my hat is off the HAODS for their talent, tenacity and theatrical flair. But the dancing, really, a bit more energy next time, okay?