Friday, December 26, 2014

The Christmas Miracle

It’s the twenty-fifth of December, and you know what that means: after the orgy of gifts and the festive breakfast, when boredom begins to settle in and you decide to take a walk around the park, the True Miracle of Christmas occurs.

That’s right, this is the one morning of the year when people in Horsham—and possibly throughout West Sussex, and even the rest of the southeast of England—actually acknowledge one another.

To be fair, you can’t say “Good Morning” to everyone on a normal day—there are simply too many people. This is the root of the “Reserved Southerner Syndrome” but it does not explain the practice of—even if you are the only two people crossing paths on the South Downs Way—realizing a sudden urge to fiddle with your smart phone just at the moment you come within eye-contact range of the other person.

People in other parts of the country say “Good Morning.” I have personally witnessed this. Even the famously dour Scots will often stop and chat with you (try to stop them) but the Southerners remain a taciturn lot.

On Christmas morning, however—perhaps because they are imbued with the holiday spirit or, more likely, because there is hardly else anyone around—they will say, “Good morning,” or even, “Merry Christmas.” It’s quite startling if you’re not prepared for it.

And this was how it was this morning when we took a stroll around the town park. The couples, the people out walking their dogs, the parents with kids running around like excited chipmunks—almost all of them looked our way as we passed, smiled and greeted us. It was a strange, though not unpleasant sensation, like being suddenly and inexplicably transported to Devon.

But this phenomenon, like Christmas itself, is ephemeral: before we even completed our walk, as the noon hour approached and more people drifted into the park, the greetings become fewer, more grudging and soon stopped altogether. The joggers began staring resolutely ahead as they passed (yes, jogging, on Christmas morning—give it a rest!), the couples, when they came within hailing distance, suddenly turned toward each other in animated conversation and single people became very interested in the flora and fauna at the sides of the pathway as we went by.


Random Photo: Yes, this is what Christmas morning looked like this year.
It was incredible the lengths people went through to avoid even inadvertent eye-contact. And I’m not suggesting they were doing it intentionally—it’s something inbred, like their affinity for fish and chips and suspicion of foreigners.

Take, for instance, the young woman walking her dog. She was just ahead of us and we were slowly catching up, meaning that we would soon be uncomfortably close to her for an unnervingly long period of time, making unintentional eye-contact almost inevitable. So she stopped to check something on her dog—fleas, ticks, admiring the latest tattoo—until we drew level with her. Then, because we would actually be facing her at that point, she felt a sudden need to swivel and gaze off into the distance, thereby avoiding any possibility of awkward, interpersonal engagement.

When out of ear-shot, I queried my wife about this phenomenon and she equated it to being on a bus and having some creepy guy sit down next to you. “You don’t exactly want to strike up a conversation with him,” she postulated, “so you learn to ignore people.”

I countered with the observation that having to sit next to a potentially undesirable person for a protracted period of time could not compare to passing someone on a semi-secluded pathway, and that, in those fleeting moments, there could not possibly be any harm in acknowledging the existence of the other person.

We didn’t get to pursue the conversation, however, because I noticed a woman sporting spikey dreadlocks and facial tattoos coming our way and felt a sudden urge to fiddle with my smartphone.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Settling In

“Privileged” is not too strong a word to describe how I feel about having lived for a dozen years in the flat at 36 Pelham Court.

It was solidly and thoughtfully constructed. It was accommodating, quirky and wonderfully anachronistic. It was timeless, imbued with a sense of permanence and continually surrounded us with the comforting feeling of home.

All that said, having now spent a month in a flat built a mere decade ago, I have come to appreciate that there is a lot to be said for modern living.

For instance, we now have more than one plug point in each room. There is even a special plug point in the bathroom so I can plug my shaver in there, instead of having to take it to the office and use an adapter to plug it in. We now have “mixer” taps. No longer do I have to use the Hot tap until the water begins to scald the skin from my bones, and then switch to the Cold tap until my fingers turn blue. And the shower: I made many humorously disparaging comments about the weak drizzle that dripped from the shower in my erstwhile flat, but after a while I got used to it. Now, however, I realize what I have been missing all these years: the showers here—both of them—have the sort of water pressure that would do the North Korean riot police proud. (NOTE TO SELF: Do they actually use water cannons, or do they go straight to their AK-47s?)

Naturally, newer and more advanced doesn’t always mean better, and I have run across a few down sides.

Modern living, at the time these flats were built, meant “open plan.” As a result, the bulk of our new flat is made up of an area I call the Kiliving Room, wherein we watch TV at one end, cook at the other and sit down to dinner somewhere in the middle. It’s a strange sensation, not altogether unpleasant, but odd, like standing in an elevator and facing the wrong way.

The flat is also equipped with self-slamming doors. It seems the EU is very keen for us to always close doors because, gosh, the breadbox might explode or the wardrobe could suddenly self-combust and, with the door closed, you would have an extra minute or so to get out of your abode before turning into a cinder. You might even have time to grab the photo album on the way out.

In the past, they had to rely on people like my wife to make sure people like me closed doors but, frankly, they don’t trust my wife to do a proper job and, let’s face it, she can’t watch me every minute of the day, so at some point between the construction of our old flat and the building of this new one, they passed a law decreeing that every door had to be self-slamming and constructed of solid Kevlar.

As a result, a visitor to our flat might (SLAM) assume that my wife and I (SLAM) are having an un-ending quarrel (SLAM) because every time we (SLAM) leave a room, we SLAM the door.

This has resulted in the acquisition of a number of door stops, which now litter the flat, lying around in the general area of doorways like docile rodents, except they don’t squeak when you step on them.

The other, probably, unintentional side-effect of this law is that our hallway is really, really dark.
   
This is a picture of our hallway. At noon. On a sunny day.

One of the things my wife—an enthusiastic recycler—was looking forward to was a better recycling facility.

Can you blame her? This is the recycling area at Pelham Court.
Unfortunately for her, there is no recycling available in the annex, where we live. Unfortunately for me, there IS recycling available in the main building, which means that once a week I get to walk across the Forum—under the curious, collective gaze of pedestrians, shoppers and people sitting around drinking coffee—carrying a big box of rubbish.

But that’s a small price to pay to save the planet.

In short, it’s nice here; we like the flat and, as a bonus, this is our front yard:

Hey you kids, get offa my lawn!


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Learning to Love Again

This flat had a lot to live up to: we weren’t exactly chuffed to be moving in the first place and the flat we left behind held a special place in our hearts. Still, I hoped our inaugural days here might have been filled with the excitement of discovery and the heady promise of a budding relationship. But instead of greeting us like a new lover—giddy and eager to please—the flat remain coy, distant and reluctant to commit.

Our old flat was solid and dependable and we loved its anachronistic quirkiness. This place is a new build, which means everything is smaller, less substantial and more expensive. The building is only ten years old but it is already showing its age and I expect, before another twenty years go by, it will be torn down and replaced with something even more shoddy and doubly expensive.

So, instead of welcoming us unconditionally, our new home pinched around the edges and came with a lot of rules, one being a ban on putting holes in the walls and thereby making it impossible to hang photos or pictures or decorations. When we first viewed the flat, we did notice that the woman living here was residing in a big white box totally devoid of character, but we put it down to the fact that she was only staying here temporarily.

No one's idea of fun.
When I learned the real reason for the pristine walls, I was overcome with despair. If you are not allowed to impose your personality on a room or shape a space to your convenience then, my friend, you are not at home, you are living in a hotel. And I did not relish the notion of living the rest of my days in a hotel.

Fortunately, clever gremlins at the 3M company have been busy these past dozen years working on just this problem, and have—without my noticing it—come up with a whole raft of products designed to hang, hook or otherwise fasten things to other things without doing permanent damage to the thing being attached to.

Now, I admit to being skeptical of some modern innovations, but I am an enthusiastic convert to these nifty and versatile hooks. In addition to what they are supposed to be used for, I have used them to suspend a toy plane from the ceiling (my grandson made it for me) and attach a paper towel dispenser to the wall to free up valuable counter space.

(Incidentally, 3M neither solicited nor paid me for that gushing endorsement. Mores the pity; I could have used the money. Their products might be wonderful but they are substantially more expensive than nails.)

And so, with pictures going up and things slowly being stowed and the mountains of boxes being whittled down to foothills, the flat is, rather tentatively, beginning to feel less foreign. This has also been helped, oddly enough, by the fact that we still have the original flat.

This move wasn’t one of those “get it all done in one day” types. We have a two-week overlap so we still have some stuff at the old place and we have been making repeated trips back there to collect and clean. The first trip was a melancholy affair, filled with regret and tinged with the fear that a bad, and irrevocable, decision had been made.

As the days wore on, however, it began to feel more like bumping into an old girlfriend at a party, where you try to ease the awkwardness by making small talk but you only make it worse and you just know she’s thinking, “I hope his new girlfriend is a right bitch. And I bet she’s not as pretty as me,” and so you cut your conversation short and go back to your new lover and suddenly she seems more comfortable, more compatible, and more like home.

At least they let me put my flag up. Long may she wave.


Friday, November 14, 2014

FATCA Explained

Unless you are a tax lawyer or involved in the expat community, there is little reason for you to have heard of FATA. Yet.

FATCA, at its heart, is a law designed to make people obey a law that is already in place. In my view, a reasonable response to this situation would be to concentrate on finding the offenders and prosecuting them.

Instead, the US Government decided to hunt chipmunks with a howitzer.

FATCA is so monumentally ill-conceived that it is difficult to pick just one of its potentially horrific consequences. What bothers me most about the law, however, is how it is making my country appear to the rest of the world. This is not exactly a hearts and mind initiative.

Consequently, I am offering my take on FACTCA; I want to get it out before someone else thinks of it:

Paying a Visit

A sovereign nation sits at his desk looking over the latest reports. He is cautiously optimistic. An economic upturn appears to be imminent, one that could improve the lives of his people, but it is too early to tell. Still, if nothing goes wrong…

There is a knock at the door.

Sovereign Nation: Come in.

The door opens and the USA walks in, wearing a trench coat, fedora and leather gloves. Two others, similarly dressed, enter as well. Their eyes are narrow. They do not smile.

Sovereign Nation: Greetings. To what do I owe this honor?

USA: Well, me and my boys here—IRS and Treasury Department—thought we’d stop by to give you a heads up about a law we just passed.

Sovereign Nation: That’s very nice or you, but I don’t see what it has to do with…

USA: This law, you see, it says that you have to hand over all the financial information from all your financial institutions for everyone in your country. To us. Now.

Sovereign Nation: That’s preposterous! How can YOUR law tell US what to do?

USA: Yeah, I hear you; it’s a real bitch, isn’t it? But, hey, the law’s the law. Now hand over the data.

Sovereign Nation: No, absolutely not! It would not only violate our own laws on depositor confidentiality, but also—and I cannot stress this enough—we don’t want to. That data is none of your business!

USA: Look, let me lay it on the line for you. We’re tired of our citizens moving to your country, earning money here and not paying any taxes to us.

Sovereign Nation: But…but they’re working in our businesses, earning our money, shopping in our stores, contributing to our economy, not yours. Why should they pay taxes to you?

USA: Hey! You handle your citizens your way; we’ll handle ours our way! Capish?

Relax! We're from the Government; we're here to help.
Sovereign Nation: Well, then why don’t you just pass a law saying they have to pay taxes to you on any money they earn abroad.

USA: We already have that law. See, the thing is, we don’t trust our citizens. We figure they’re fiddling the books, so, what we’re asking for is your help in assisting our citizens to comply with the law.

Sovereign Nation: Then why not just take the data for US citizens?

USA: We thought about that, but it turns out we don’t trust you either. You might let a few fish slip through the net. Not on purpose, mind, but we think we’re better equipped to find what we’re looking for than you are.

Sovereign Nation: Well, that’s totally unacceptable. We will not comply.

USA: Hey, your choice. We’re not here to force you into anything.

The USA clasps his hands behind his back and begins to wander around the office, whistling to himself, looking casually here and there.

USA: Nice economy you have here.

Sovereign Nation: Thanks, we’re rather pleased…

USA: Be a shame if something happened to it.

Sovereign Nation: (Nervously) Like what?

The US as Enforcer.
USA: Like, say, a 30 percent withholding tax on every transaction that travels through a US bank.

Sovereign Nation: That would ruin us! Our economy would crumble. There’d be widespread unemployment, riots in the streets, people would die! How can you…

USA: What? You’re thinking of blaming this on us? All we’re asking you to do is obey the law. You do, and your economy bumps along unhindered and everybody wins.

Sovereign Nation: And what do we get out of this?

USA: You get to keep your economy from going into the toilet.

Sovereign Nation: But we have that now.

USA: Look, I’m not asking again. I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse. You play ball with us, nothing unpleasant happens. You don’t, and, well, as I said, the law’s the law. It’s out of my hands. Really, I’m just trying to help you here.

Sovereign Nation: (Sighs) Well, since you’ve got us against a wall, okay, we’ll do it.

USA: Now you’re being smart. I like it when you’re smart. Stay smart and nothing bad will happen. So, we’ll have that data now and be on our way.

Formerly Sovereign Nation: Now? It’s going to take months to collect and collate and…

USA: Okay, okay. I’ll give you an extension. Four o’clock. Data on my desk, or my boys come pay you a visit. Capish?

Formerly Sovereign Nation: Capish.


For more FATCA:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

If I Could Turn Back Time

I just spent the better part of three days taking photographs of notebook pages so I can store them “digitally” on my computer.

This, naturally, is to do with The Move.

(ASIDE: I realize many of you will be thinking, “Hasn’t he moved yet?” The answer is, No; the move is still eight days away. That’s what I get for announcing our move six weeks before the fact.)

We’re determined to use this as an opportunity to de-clutter, which means ruthlessly ridding our flat of things we don’t actually need—like 20 or so volumes of journals dating back to my teens. They take up a scandalous amount of shelf space and I have finally reached a point in my life where I am not so obsessive that I need to have them near to hand (my therapist would be so proud) so I am packing them up for storage in my father-in-law’s loft.

Still, I couldn’t let them go without making some sort of record of them (I said I was getting better, I didn’t say I was cured) and that involved photographing each and every page and uploading them to my PC.

I didn’t read them (who has the time, or the will?), but the odd sentence jumped out at me occasionally, often enough to let me know—on a deep and visceral level—that if I had access to a time machine and could use it only once, I wouldn’t go back in time to meet George Washington or Winston Churchill or even Jesus, I’d go back to find my 20-something self so I could slap the self-obsessed smugness out of him.


"First stop, 1978, so I can slap the shit out of myself..."
I’d do that, even knowing that my 20-something self would never bother listening to any hard-won wisdom coming from his well-over-20-something self and it would be a wasted trip but, gosh, I’d have to try; I was such an asshole when I was younger.


Seriously, isn't that a face just begging to be slapped?
Coming face-to-face with my former self in those ancient journal entries was occasionally amusing, sometimes baffling (What on earth did I do that for?) and often cringe inducing. And then it got worse; after a while I noticed that my 20-something self was rapidly heading toward my 30-something self, and he was still an asshole, but an asshole now raising children! How could they let this happen? (Whoever they are.)

Finally, my early-40-something-self acquired a proper PC and the journal became electronic so I was spared any additional peeks into my past. By that time, I was a single man again and I would say I was going through my second childhood except you have to grow up first to have a second childhood.

When I gratefully glimpsed the last snippets of my former life, my I-can’t-really-be-40-something-can-I? self was as angst-ridden, confused and self-centered as ever, which leaves me to wonder how I ended up here.

But somehow, that erstwhile bundle of neurosis managed to make the choices (dumb luck is my guess) that would lead him to Ireland, an expat adventure and the woman who would become my long-suffering wife, so perhaps he didn’t turn out so badly after all, despite his inauspicious start.


Not such a bad guy, after all.
If given a shot at that time-machine, maybe it would be best to leave my 20-something self to fumble along on his meandering way and, instead, pay a visit to Coca-Cola’s board room in 1985 where some bright spark is saying, “I have an idea, let’s take our successful formula and change it!” He would benefit more from a slap upside the head than my 20-something self would.






Wednesday, November 5, 2014

America the Beautiful

America is such a vast place that, on any given day of the year, it is a good bet that you can find a world-class beauty spot somewhere. During the early weeks of October, however, that spot is definitely New England, and I would be remiss in not exclaiming (again) just how beautiful it is.

Purdy, innit?
Our trip this year was fabulous and, despite my annual carping about the border crossings, fairly relaxing. The weather—traditionally agreeable in early autumn—was especially stunning, with sunny days, clear nights, crystal blue skies and temperatures that occasionally reached into the low 80s.

I was surprised, but pleased, to note that you Americans are not wasting your time braiding rubber bands as so many of the young people here are.


Thankfully, this fad is on the wane.
On the other hand, you are too busy panicking about the Ebola virus to have time for much else. (Seriously, relax—only a few people have it, it’s not exactly an epidemic; wash your hands, don’t kiss strangers on the mouth, you’ll be fine.)

What surprised me most, however, was how foreign I felt in my own country. As if I needed that nugget of unwanted truth underscored, I set out four times to visit friends or family and, four times, I got lost. And each time I was reminded that I had turned down the offer of a Sat-Nav with a contemptuous, “I grew up here; I know my way around.” (Also, they were going to charge me an extra $15 for the privilege. I think next time I’ll swallow my pride and pony up the extra cash; it will save a lot of aggravation in the long run.)

The rental car was another joy. The lights came on automatically, whether I wanted them to or not. And when I did want them on but they didn’t automatically light up, I had no idea where the switch was. It took me nearly a week to figure out how to turn on my headlights. Also, when I ran into a spot of rain, I put the wipers on and the rear window wiper came on with them. When I turned the wipers off, the back wiper kept going. I never did figure out how to turn that off and I spent the entire two weeks with a very clean back window.

Otherwise, it was a lovely time, with ample opportunities to play with the G-boys, test out navigation skills in the corn mazes and tour pumpkin patches with them (they were mad about pumpkins—good thing, too, because they were everywhere).

Pumpkins here...

...pumpkins there...

...pumpkins everywhere.
Somehow, they both managed to find a pumpkin.
While we’re on the subject of pumpkins, is there anything you won’t put pumpkin flavoring in? I realize you had a lot of them, but pumpkin coffee, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin ice cream? What happened to a good old pumpkin donut and a cup of hot cider?

Our visit to one farm was quite an eye-opener. Some farmers these days, in order to make ends meet, are turning their farms into family adventure parks. This is a bold move, as farms are insanely dangerous places. I have to say they do a good job sanitizing them, but sometimes I think they go too far.


For all you kids under the age of 20, this is what a real cow looks like.
I was shocked to see that an onerous task we were forced to perform as kids is now something children flock to willingly—and pay for the privilege!


I wish these kids were around when I was forced to pump water.


During our stay, we visited a posh gallery and checked out the gift shop.
We just browsed; we didn't buy anything.


Apparently, this is a gate for really stupid people.
We left America just as the weather was turning, and arrived in Britain in time to enjoy another week of surprisingly mild days before autumn’s grip took hold. Strangely, I find—after the spectacular weather in the US and the mild days here in Blighty—that I am glad for the cooler temps. I has stopped me thinking that spring is just around the corner and has put me in the mood for turkey dinners, home-made bread and snuggling on the sofa with a hot toddy.

Winter’s coming; we might as well enjoy it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

America the Border-full

Date: 22 Oct 2014
Location: 36000 feet, somewhere over the Irish Sea

I apologize for the tortured pun in the title, but it's been a long flight and I'm a bit muzzy-headed.

Our trip to America was very nice. The biggest problem with it—and the reason I dread going every year—is that it is book-ended with the need to cross the US border. In years past, this has caused no end of aggravation and angst.

My feelings about this can be summed up by something I wrote on the outbound trip:

As far as air travel goes; it’s no wonder people find it stressful. Think about it:

You start off facing a barricade of people who—simply because you want to fly on an airplane—assume you are a criminal and treat you accordingly. It’s their job to try to stop you from getting on the plane by finding any excuse they can dream up to detain you long enough to miss your flight. If they can, they will detain you long enough for you to miss Christmas with your family, as well.

If you do make it through that gauntlet, and if you are travelling to the USA, your next stop is a man whose job it is to keep you out of the country by whatever means possible, even if you hold a valid US passport. This man would also like nothing better than to see you detained in a place where you look forward to Christmas because that’s the day they don’t do the waterboarding.

Meanwhile, your luggage has gone on its own odyssey. First, it has been scrutinized by dual sets of inspectors—one to stop you from taking any forbidden items out of the country you are departing from, and another to stop you from bringing any into the country you are travelling to. The list of Forbidden Items is made up randomly every morning and changed throughout the day depending upon the inspector’s mood and violations can, you guessed it…

After that, your luggage is handed over to actual thugs who are legally allowed to break into it, trash your belongings and steal any valuables they wish. Don’t try to stop them, or even lodge a complaint—they are only doing what the law allows them to do. Non-compliance—or even simply being noticed by one of them while he or she is in a whimsical mood—can mean the difference between your continuing to think of The Midnight Express as entertainment instead of a documentary. Best to keep your eyes averted and let them get on with it and, if they question you, just answer them with a subdued, “yes sir,”

Then, if you manage to make it through all of this, and some jerkwad with a jihad fixation doesn’t take your plane down, You are passed on to the last hurdle where, whatever has not already been confiscated or stolen from you, is assessed so they can charge you to bring it into the country.

But after that, you are allowed to walk through the security doors, enter the arrivals chute and find yourself vomited out into the airport lobby.

Welcome to America, land of the free, home of the brave.

I am pleased to report that, while much of the above has happened on earlier trips, none if it happened on this one. I think, after having released all that bile, I was at last prepared to simply take things as they came.

The US Customs and Immigration guards were still grim-faced and intimidating and the thugs in the TSA uniforms still wandered about eyeing random people suspiciously, but I shrugged it off and went on my way and before I knew it we were being served by Carmen, the friendly and efficient rental car lady.

And we didn’t even get lost driving out of the airport, which is the traditional way we begin our USA Tour.

So, yeah, it was a great trip: we visited friends, played with the G-boys and did our bit to stimulate the US economy (the technical term for the amount of money we spent over the past fortnight is, I believe, a “Pile”).

We’re getting into landing mode now—trays stowed, seat upright, electronic devices off—so I’ll sign off and pick this up again later.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

America the Bountiful

LOCATION: 38,000 feet; east bound, somewhere over the North Atlantic

Yup, another US holiday under my belt—literally.

This visit was something of a revelation: apparently, what has been missing from my life is people telling me I’m fat. If just one more person references my girth it will have been the perfect vacation…oh, wait…the winged waitress just told me to fasten my seatbelt so my fat stomach doesn’t jiggle all over the people sitting next to me. Okay, she didn’t actually say it, but I could tell that’s what she was thinking.

None of this, by the way, was my fault.

We’re not new to America; we know what we’re up against, which is why, throughout the fortnight before every visit, we eat light breakfasts, have a carrot stick for lunch and dine on thin soup for dinner. The idea is to acquire as much of a buffer as possible before heading off to the land of plenty. My wife did all right, and I was doing well, too, until that unfortunate incident with the sausage roll vendor.

With five days to go, feeling fit (and slender) I took a stroll through the town market, as I am wont to do, and came upon a new stall selling sausage rolls. They were large—not the bit-sized variety you find in Waitrose—and boasted fresh, locally sourced ingredients. They did look good, and I proposed to buy one someday. Not that day, of course.

Then I noticed that they sold a variety made with blood pudding and, curious, asked about it. The lady told me they didn’t have any left (which was fine; I only wanted some information) so I thanked her and left.

From there, I wandered into the mall, did some window shopping, and then went into W. H. Smiths to see if I could find a good book for the flight. As I was perusing the best seller titles, someone standing behind me kept saying, “Sir! Sir!” I never think that anyone would call me that, but as there was no one else in the aisle, I turned around.

It was the Sausage Roll Lady, holding a sausage roll.

“I found one,” she said, her cheeks rosy with exertion and glee.

I was incredulous, dumbfounded and more than a little bit chagrined that she had chased me all that way just to sell me a sausage roll I hadn’t actually intended to buy. I was also left with no choice but to accompany her back to her stall and buy it. When we got there, I was still feeling that she had gone through a lot of effort for a small sale, so I bought five (on special for a tenner) and, yeah, that bit was kinda my fault.

So instead of a light and healthy lunch, I had a large sausage roll for my noon meal, on that day and every day from then on until we left. The result was, instead of boarding the plane with a buffer zone, I was carrying a handicap.

And then we arrived in America, with its buttery biscuits, Reuben sandwiches, clam chowder, proper bacon, tall stacks of pancakes, chicken fried chicken, Brueggers’ chili, corned beef hash, Goldfish (don’t get excited; it’s a cracker) and extra-large bags of Chex Mix and, well, apparently (if my critics are to be believed) what I need now is a tee-shirt with “Goodyear” emblazoned across it.

So now I’m wondering what is worse: the thought that I have left my American friends with the impression that I am letting myself go, or all the carrot sticks and bowls of soup awaiting me upon my return home.

On the other hand, those sausage rolls were really good; maybe I’ll visit that stall again, and then see if there’s a place in town that makes novelty tee-shirts.




Thursday, September 4, 2014

Against All Odds

We didn’t exactly make our quest for a new flat stretch out as long as four seasons of Downton Abbey, did we? And that’s a shame, because I was anticipating a months-long odyssey that would give me something to write about for a change—even if it was just apartment hunting—but then we went and found a flat.

Chronology:
7PM Thursday: Learn of random evictions by new landlord
8PM Thursday: Start looking for flats
11AM Friday: Make appointments to view flats
9:30 AM Saturday: Take the first flat we see

Oddly, we found our current flat in a similar way—went to Horsham on a whim, walked into a random letting agent’s office and was shown the flat we’re in now—but we couldn’t expect to be so lucky twice in a row, especially with the paltry pickings available to us.

Thanks to our laughably-small target area, our initial search rooted out only four flats that we thought might be suitable. One seemed too good to be true—large double bedroom, balcony, parking, nice location—but the others were sorta, eh. Still, it was all we had to look at, so I went to the letting agent to arrange viewings.

It turned out that the flat we had deemed too good to be true was, indeed—as these things so often are—too good to be true; someone had already rented it. So I made appointments to view the consolation prizes and went home somewhat disheartened.

The next morning we met the letting agent and went to our first viewing. We were not optimistic. The flat was part of a complex built just after we moved to Horsham. Being new, they were sure to be tiny and expensive and shoddy. They were also in one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen, and they all had balconies that overlooked Sainsbury’s Car park. My wife didn’t even want to see it but I have always wondered what the flats looked like inside and, since the viewing was free, I made the appointment anyway, figuring I could satisfy my curiosity and then we could move on to the flats we actually might like.

But when we entered the flat, we were stunned.

Dominating the large living room/kitchen area were glass doors leading to a balcony and the subsequent view beyond, not of Sainsbury’s but of the lovely and leafy historic section of town. We both stepped onto the balcony to admire it and then noticed that, even though we were both out there—along with a small round table and two chairs—we were not crowded at all. In addition to that, it was blissfully quiet. The balcony and the view encouraged thoughts of sitting out with morning coffee watching the sun rise over the town, or enjoying amenable summer evenings with a cup of tea and a good book.

From that moment on, we were both thinking, “We could live here.”

The rest of the flat turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as well. It had large, bright rooms, was solidly built and came with an allocated, secure parking spot (you have to live in Britain to understand how that can make you nearly giddy with delight).

To be fair, there were disadvantages: it seemed, overall, smaller than our current flat (turns out that was just because of the way it was laid out; it's actually larger), there was also a lack of storage space and it had two bathrooms.

It’s a two bedroom flat, not a guest house! What is the advantage of two bathrooms? Although I can see how convenient that would be--if you need to visit the loo in the middle of the night, you can just go to the en suite instead of taking, say, four more steps out the bedroom door to the toilet in the hall. In my opinion, the en suite would be better used as a walk-in wardrobe.

Just to be sure we weren’t falling for the first pretty face to come along, we viewed the other flats, which convinced us that taking the first one was definitely the right thing to do.


And so, we have a flat, not simply near the town centre, but pretty much in the town centre, with parking, a view and a walk-in wardrobe that doubles as a shower.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pulling Up Stakes

The next time you are feeling snug and secure in your life, think of this:

Somewhere, in some anonymous city, in a beige office, wearing an off-the-rack grey suit with a red tie, sits a middle aged man, staring at a spreadsheet on a computer screen. He is making tick marks on the spreadsheet and watching The Bottom Line.

He’s feeling a little low this morning due to a party he and his wife attended the previous evening. It’s not that he’s hung-over, but the way his wife and Gary kept chatting in the corner…she would never, though, would she? He makes another tick. The Bottom Line dips. He frowns.

His colleague, Richard was at the party, hinting of rumblings in the company of redundancies and no bonuses. He couldn’t be made redundant, not with Geoff about to go to university. He makes another tick. The Bottom Line dips. He frowns.

Kelsey’s orthodontia bills would be due soon. Finding the money was not going to be easy, especially as his wife wants a holiday on the Costa del Sol, and judging from the way she was looking at Gary, cancelling her holiday would not be a good idea. He makes another tick. The Bottom Line rises. He smiles.

He reaches for his coat. Time for a celebratory lunch. He leaves the office, thinking how his boss will be impressed. This will keep him safe from redundancies, maybe even get him a bonus. He could buy a present, surprise his wife.

He leaves, unaware that ticking the box set in motion a chain of events that will turn other people’s lives upside down. And even if he was aware, he wouldn’t give it much thought; it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.


As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, our box has been ticked. As a result, the flat we have called home for the past twelve years—the only home I have known in Britain, the flat we have been very happy in and where we had hoped to remain for some time to come—is no longer a safe haven, leaving us no option but to move.

What happened was this: a year or so ago our block of flats was, once again, sold to another company. Generally, this is greeted with the usual “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” enthusiasm. This time, however, our new owners are a bit more proactive. First—as you will recall—they made me take down my flag. Then they began the process of renovating the flats, so they can rent them out at shockingly inflated prices. This wasn’t a worry because they only did it when someone vacated a flat, and we had no intention of vacating ours.

Then, the other evening, while returning from our postprandial constitutional, we stopped to chat with our long-time neighbor. He informed us that his lease was up for renewal, but instead of a new lease to sign, he had instead received a letter telling him he had two months to get out of his flat. When he queried this—citing his length of occupancy and the fact that he was an ideal tenant—he was informed that they wanted to renovate the flat and he needed to go.

Nothing personal; just business.

It took me and my wife about ten minutes to agree that living here with that particular Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads was not an option and that it would be better to jump before we were pushed.

We are, as the Brits say, “gutted” by this, not only because it is the home we set up together and had no intention of leaving, but also because it is an amazing flat in an amazing town. Therefore, in the ten minutes that followed the decision to leave, came the determination to remain in Horsham, which is certain to make moving exponentially more difficult.

In the US, when it came time to search for a new abode, I had about 5 counties to choose from. Where I lived didn’t matter much because every town was basically the same and, no matter where I chose to live, I’d have to drive everywhere, anyway. In my current lifestyle, however, this is not the case.

This is the area I could, and did, live in during my time in the US.
The outlined area covers roughly 1,500 miles.
Hampered by our desire to be within walking distance of the town centre and the need to be near rail and bus lines, we have confined ourselves to an extremely small, much sought after, and very expensive location.


The area I live in now, at the same zoom level as the NY map.
The magnified area is approximately 1 square mile.
We are, however, determined. It’s going to be expensive and it’s going to be a huge disruption at a time when there is already enough disruption in our lives, but we will, somehow, preserve the quality of life we have grown accustomed do.

This isn’t business; it’s personal.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Taking the Challenge

Yup, I caved. And pretty quickly, too. I first heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge only a few days ago.

My daughter-in-law posted a video on FaceBook of her getting drenched by a bucket of ice-water and I was, naturally, mystified. After that, I kept seeing more and more of the same sort of video so I finally looked up ALS and found out it’s what we in Blighty call Motor Neuron Disease. And, yeah, it’s a horrible thing, well worthy of every penny (or pence) you can donate to it.

But despite people in the US dumping buckets full of ice over their heads, it isn’t something that has taken hold here. Still, I thought I could do my part.

It’s a worthy cause, but if the videos I have been watching are anything to go by, some people ought to freshen up their understanding of the laws of physics before they attempt this seemingly innocuous feat. I do hope those people are in the minority, and that most manage to drench themselves without the need to visit A&E. (That’s the emergency room, for you folks in the US, not the popular TV channel showing WWII documentaries.)

And there may be other drawbacks to this worthy undertaking, as well. If you happen to be a popular person, you’re probably going broke running down to Hannaford for bags of ice. On the other hand, if you are a lonely sort of person, this is probably akin to a protracted Valentine’s Day, with you sitting at home eating your single-serving TV dinner and with only a bucket of ice no one wants you to do anything with for company.

But all worthy causes have some sort of downside, so don’t let that stand in your way. This is a worthy cause, so make good use of your ice, like I did.


By the way, no one nominated me; I just nominated myself, and I nominated myself to do it again. And I'll keep doing it until I run out of ice or whiskey.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Now They Tell Me

Yesterday, after 12 years and four months on this island, I discovered they don’t have canned corn beef hash here. I wish someone had told me about this sooner.

I’m not saying it would have been a deal-breaker, but it might have encouraged me to come better prepared (perhaps instead of eight bags of Halls Mentho-lyptus cough drops, I might have brought only four and two cans of Hormel). That way, I could have been prepared and I wouldn’t be feeling the way I am feeling at the moment.



This all came about because of the Jersey Royal Potatoes (tm), but first I want to remind you about the hot dogs.

Make no mistake: the do not have hot dogs here. What they have are things that come in a can or a jar that are shaped something like hot dogs, and that call themselves hot dogs, and sometimes try to fool you by claiming to be “American Style” hot dogs but, trust me, they are to actual hot dogs what your uncle Barry—who considers himself an ace Elvis Impersonator—is to the real Elvis.

Above Left: Your Uncle Barry   Above Right: The King
Lower Left: "American" Hot Dog (because nothing says "American" like "Ye Olde Oak"
Lower Right: The real deal
They try that shit with other things, too.
"New York" bagels? Fat chance.

However, every time summer rolls around I get the urge to have a hot dog, and conveniently forget the disappointment suffered the year before (this is the same psychological phenomenon that makes the Brits become excited over the World Cup every four years) and end up buying a jar of hot dogs and eating them until I feel sick.

This year, I resolved to not fall for the trickery of “American Style,” and I did really well. I mean, here it is the beginning of July and, well, anyway, about those Jersey Royals (tm).

It’s Jersey Royal Potato (tm) Season here in Blighty, and people go ga-ga for these expensive, tiny, yet wildly popular, spuds. The “wildly popular” portion is due to the unique flavor derived from the soil of Jersey (the Channel Island, not the kidney-shaped state) and the traditional seaweed fertilizer they use, or is it because the word “Royal” is in the name and, despite being outwardly snarky about the Royal Family, the Brits, deep down, really love them and anything associated with them, I’m not sure which. The “expensive” part is due to the fact that, because they are so small, the islanders import leprechauns to harvest them, and these wee, gold-hoarding folk have a strong union and won’t work for under £25 an hour. And the “tiny” part is, well, because they are tiny.

Like potatoes, only smaller.
I don’t recall having this particular brand of potato in the States, but if we did, we probably wouldn’t call them Jersey Royals (tm), we’d most likely refer to them as “those tiny little potatoes; chuck ‘em to the hogs and bring in some real ones.”

Not surprisingly, we bought some. We had them for dinner the other day. They tasted like potatoes, only smaller, but because I really like potatoes, I saved the few, ping-pong ball sized leftovers to have for lunch the following day.

Let us move, now, to the following day, where I am heading home on the noon bus. I’m wondering what to have for lunch when I remember the Jersey Royal Potatoes (tm) in the fridge and I think about how good they will taste sliced and fried. And what, pondered I, would be the perfect meat accompaniment?

The first thing that sprang to mind was haggis. I kid you not; fried haggis and potatoes tastes almost as good as the smell of fried haggis is bad—a sort of inverse ratio. I even had haggis in the freezer (tell me you don’t) but, as the phrase suggests, it was frozen and I wouldn’t have time to thaw it out.

So the next meat-type accompaniment to fried Jersey Royal Potatoes (tm) then entered my mind: corned beef hash. This surprised me, because I hadn’t thought about it for years, but once it entered my mind, it would not leave. And so, on the way home, I visited three different stores, and not one of them stocked cans of corned beef hash. Arriving home disappointed, I fried up the potatoes with some eggs; it just wasn’t the same.

That evening, I related the story to my wife. She refused to take responsibility for her county’s lack of foresight and instead insisted that corned beef hash was not something native to a can but something you can actually make.

Sweet Jesus!

Imagine cooking and combining potatoes and beans and corn beef and spices and all manner of miscellaneous ingredients. It wouldn’t simply be a lot of work, it might actually be healthy, and taste really good. Who wants that?

Looks tasty, no?
Real corn beef, the corn beef I was weaned on, comes out of a can: it looks like dog food, it smells like dog food and, for all I know (I don’t often eat dog food) it tastes like dog food. But it’s what I think of when I think of corned beef.

Looks tasty? NO!!!
(Now, imagine a Brit coming to America and asking for some corned beef, expecting to get his version but getting mine, instead; now you know how I feel about their hot dogs.)

And this is why I ended up in Sainsbury’s this morning. You see, we shop at Waitrose (you Brits will understand; for you American, it’s like shopping at Hannaford as opposed to Costco) and, if such a thing as canned corned beef hash did exist in Britain, they wouldn’t stock it anyway. So, with hope in my heart, I went to Sainsbury’s because, if there was a store that would stock such an item, it would be Sainsbury’s. (Actually, it would be Tesco, but I couldn’t be arsed to walk that far.)

As you have already guessed, they didn’t have any.

But, because it was summer, and because I was there (and so were they) I bought a jar of American Style Hot Dogs (along with a packet of cheap buns), came home, and ate them until I felt sick. All because of a Jersey Royal Potato (tm).

So if you’ll excuse me now, I think I need to lie down for a while.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Taps

Twelve years ago, when I first moved into this flat, one of the first things I did was put up a flag.

I did this because I have always had a flag flying from any home I have lived in. I’m an American; it’s what we do. To be fair, I did know that I was going against the rules of my tenancy agreement, which stated that nothing was to be put on the balcony, but I didn’t think anyone would mind. I also didn't think that I would be violating an actual law. Not the bludgeoning to death of the delivery man and hiding his body in the coal cellar type of violation; more like the allowing your dog to poop on your neighbor’s yard sort. But a violation nonetheless.

However, the flag stayed up, no one complained, no kittens were killed and life went on as before.


Long may she wave
Because I had just come from America, it did strike me as odd that no one else was flying flags, but I soon came to understand that overt displays of patriotism were deemed by the locals as being a bit gauche and over-the-top, something an American might do. What I did not know was that, in order to fly a flag, you had to secure permission from the local council. The fees for the red tape to acquire this permission could cost hundreds of pounds and permission was not always forthcoming. Many councils, it seems, simply did not allow it. I think most British people didn’t know this, either, but since they rarely flew flags, it never became an issue. Until the summer of 2012.

That was the summer of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations and the London Olympics and, suddenly, everyone was patriotic and, without realizing they were breaking the law, everyone put up flags.


A bit over-the-top, don't you think?
The local councils, who make a point of knowing these things, did realize it was against the law and soon found themselves faced with the onerous (not to mention unpopular) task of having to put almost every citizen in the entire country in jail.

Then something truly amazing (and, as far as I know, unheard of in the annals of government) occurred: common sense prevailed. The national government, realizing they were sitting on a potentially embarrassing issue, quickly passed a law giving everyone and anyone the right to fly a flag.

However, if you happened to be living in a building you didn’t own—say, a rented flat, for instance—you had to have the landlord’s permission. And I did not. But, again, no one complained, no baby harp seals were clubbed with cricket bats and life went on as before.

Then yesterday this letter arrived:

“We [the landlord] have received several complaints with regard to some residence (sic) of Pelham and Waverley consuming illegal substances in their flats and within the communal grounds.

The above will not be tolerated and further to this letter anyone suspected of doing so will be reported to the Police and also have their tenancy terminated without further discussion.

I would also like to take this opportunity to advise residents that Flags are not to be displayed on the balconies or in windows within the development.”

So, in addition to having to dismantle the meth lab in the back bedroom and uproot all the marijuana plants I was growing in the loft, I had to take the flag down.

(Note to local police officers: the above was a joke—I do not have any illegal substances in my flat so please put down the battering ram and call off the drug-sniffing dogs.)

I admit to being more than a little disappointed. In the grand scheme of things, hanging a flag seems relatively innocuous when compared to drug trafficking, and the off-handed nature of the flag codicil appears to me like someone told the guy writing the letter, “and while you’re at it, make that asshole take his damn flag down!”

Oddly, my neighbors seem more upset about me having to take down my flag than I do. One of them even came to my door to give me a pamphlet that spelled out my right to fly the flag (conveniently omitting the part about needing the property owner’s permission). I’m touched by this but, there is little any of us can do.

So the flag came down and will likely stay down. For the first time in my life I am living in a place where I am forbidden to fly the nation’s flag. An era has ended, but no one was hurt, no puppies were abandoned and life will go on as before.

I just wish someone had been around to play taps.


Day is done...gone the sun...