Wednesday, December 17, 2008


(You should have seen the size of the bag
she came home with last week)

(So if I've got this right, you can refuse someone accommodation on the basis of their age, height, weight and/or genetic information - whatever that may be)

(Wasn't that what they did the year Bush got in?)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Weather (contd.)

There are more freak weather conditions heading our way.

According to my iPhone, the forecast for tomorrow is for snow, a low of -5°C and a high of -6°C.

Could Do Better

Much as I love CNN, I'm afraid it repeatedly shot itself in the foot tonight.

In advertising run throughout the evening, CNN claimed its election coverage had attracted "the biggest audience than any other network".

It also ran an opinion poll about the Obamas' new dog. The results were as follows:

(That's 107% by my count - not to mention the missing "the")

Come on, CNN: you can do better than that!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Gravity isn't the only thing that works differently in the US. Weather doesn't follow the normal rules of numerical linearity.

When I got up this morning and checked today's weather forecast on my iPhone, it said we'd have lows of -1°C and highs of 1°C in our town. However, the actual temperature was given as -7°C (it's now up to -3°C)!

In case you don't believe me, look at this:

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Tonight Show

We first came across The Tonight Show - or more precisely Jay Leno - when we were in Berlin and had NBC piped through our cable. Needless to say, it quickly became the highlight of our evening's TV watching.

When we moved to France, we were robbed of this privilege, and subsequently spent the next 6 years pining for a Jay Leno fix, satisfied only with the occasional foray onto the show's online site (incidentally a great source of clips from current and previous shows).

Imagine our joy therefore when we learnt that we would be moving to Lenoland itself, and could watch the man himself live every weekday evening

Well, the joy was shortlived. The Tonight Show is recorded in Burbank, California, i.e. a completely different time zone, and primetime viewing on the West Coast is night-owl TV around here. That means we have to wait until 11.30pm to even get a glimpse of our comic hero, whose Monologues, Headlines and Jaywalking sections are televisual classics - not to mention his interviewing style.

Worse still, we found out about a month ago that NBC thinks Jay Leno is getting too old for TV (he's been hosting the show for about 20 years now), and was going to axe him next spring. Having waited so long for the pleasure of seeing him, this was truly a tragic blow.

Luckily for us, help is at hand: rumour has it that NBC has not only relented, but offered Leno a primetime EST show from May. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Now all we need is for Saturday Night Live to become Saturday Evening Live.


Gravity works differently here in the States. Either that, or we live in an anti-gravity field (which would however explain my superhuman ability to deflect fat).

I always thought that gravitational forces make heavy things move from a higher point to a lower point.  I now know that's a quaint Old World misconception.

Our house is halfway up a slope, so applying Newtonian apple-on-head physics, you would expect rainwater to run down the hill and collect - and at sub-zero temperatures freeze - at the bottom. Wrong! Somehow, a thick sheet of (black) ice has built up on the slope outside our house, while the top and bottom of the hill have remained completely and frustratingly free of both ice and snow.

Stranger still, this gravitational anomaly only seems to apply to water (perhaps it isn't heavy water) and grass (which also seems to defy the gravitational pull and stays firmly rooted to the spot). Applying the ice example, you would expect passing cars to slide about in circles in front of our house, yet bizarrely enough they skid down to the foot of the hill instead.

Can anyone who got more than 14% in their last physics exam please explain this phenomenon to me?

Terms of Endearment

I've just discovered that I really like being addressed as hon' by strange women in supermarkets - even if they just want me to sell me something.

Somehow it just doesn't sound the same as when the kids at school back in England used to call me that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Odd Products

A product for the non-Jamie Olivers among us
(yours truly included)

The product for people who think their food is salty enough
(I think)

At this price, I suspect it not only looks like but also tastes of another feline by-product
(It also gives a new meaning to "being on the piss").

Expat's Dilemma

One of the pitfalls of moving from one country to another is having to get used to a different currency.

In my short life I have suffered no fewer than four such mental monetary realignments: moving from England to Germany (pounds sterling - deutschmarks), from Germany to France (deutschmarks - francs), European Monetary Union (francs - euros) and now the move from France to the United States (euros - dollars).
Each time I was confronted with a new currency, it took about two years to start "thinking" in the local currency. In the meantime, I went through something like the five stages of grieving:
  1. Denial (0-3 months) - My brain refuses to accept that I am in another country. All prices are automatically converted into the old currency in my mind;
  2. Insanity (4-6 months) - The new currency means nothing and is essentially Monopoly money. Everything therefore seems incredibly cheap. Stage 2 is the most dangerous part of the cycle, since I spend willy-nilly (this is where I am now);
  3. Depression (7-15 months) - Having lived with the new currency for some time, I start forgetting the reference points (the price of bread, alcohol, DVDs, etc.) in the old one. However, I still can't really get to grips with the new one. As a result, I don't understand anything anymore. This is theoretically the best time to move to another currency;
  4. Schizophrenia (16-24 months) - I have got used to the new currency and can more-or-less move from one to the other, though still reminisce about the one I have "left behind"; and finally
  5. Acceptance - The point of no return. I think only in the new currency forsaking all others.

Given that we're due to be in the States for about three years, I'll just have time to get used to the dollar before I'm back to square - and stage - one again. Unless, of course, Euroland is so smitten by President Obama that it decides to adopt the Greenback.


Notice the deliberate mistake? Precisely: they forgot to mention that wheels and heels need to yield to space hoppers.

I'm sure the ice conditions are very unusual when temperatures get below minus zero!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Election "Unwords"

With the US presidential election well and truly over, and Barack Obama on his way to the White House, I feel the time has come to call for the banning of words and terms that were overused, misused and occasionally abused to the point of infuriation during campaigning.

In the style of the German "Unwort des Jahres", I would therefore like to present my nominations for "Unwords of the Election", some of which I sincerely hope are consigned to the dustbin of history for all eternity:

  • I approve this message
  • Pork barrel
  • Lipstick
  • Endorse
  • Maverick
  • Change
  • Joe the Plumber (he was neither called "Joe" nor was he a certified plumber)
  • Swing states
  • Pundant (which I heard Obama, McCain, Palin, Hillary Clinton and others use incorrectly for "pundit")
  • Sarah Palin


- You're from Australia, aren't you?

- No, England.

- Of course! I always get those two accents mixed up.

You Say "Potato" (contd.)

Because of the large Jewish community in the States, a lot of people are called "Aaron". Unfortunately for non-Americans like myself trying to get their tongues round local pronunciation norms, the name "Aaron" is not pronounced "ah-ron", as it would in England for instance, but "e-rin".

Non-Jewish families also name their children thus, though sometimes - and I suspect this may be socioeconomic in origin - the child is Christened "Erin".

Fortunately for us New World newbies, in this case the name is said just like it's spelt.

House Construction

I'm beginning to suspect that the story of the Three Little Pigs is actually a parable about house construction in Africa, North America and Europe.

As you can see from the photo above, even the most expensive houses around here (i.e. suburbia) are built not of stone, concrete or brick, but what one person I spoke to described as "8-foot stick". This wooden superstructure is covered in insulation - typically Tyvek - and then some sort of thin cladding. The fancier abodes get a faux-Victorian brick facade, but more often than not (our house included) the outside of the house is clad in amazingly flimsy plastic panelling that disintegrates the moment you come close. Interior walls are made of plasterboard. In most instances, the roof is just strips of felt stapled to wooden boards.

Not surprisingly therefore, these houses don't stand up to any hurricanes that come huffing and puffing by, which is why all houses have a "tornado room"; a typically subterranean and/or brick-walled room that will resist the ravages of Mother Nature and to which you can retreat if you don't fancy dropping, covering and holding onto table legs as your house of cards collapses around you.

All this leaves me to wonder why houses are built so rudimentarily. Is it purely a question of cost? Or could it be that people don't bother investing in sturdier accommodation because they move around so often (our house is just six years old and we're already the third occupants)?


Flying back from a business trip last week, Laurence spent the best part of an hour scouring the seven levels of the car park in the increasingly desperate search of her car - until it finally dawned on her that she'd arrived at a different terminal to the one she'd departed from.

When she got on the shuttle bus to the correct terminal and told the driver her story, he not only took her to the proper car park, but actually drove inside, found the right level and dropped her off right next to her car!

Now that's something you'd never get in Europe. L'Amérique: douze points!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Americans put Jif on their sandwiches.

So do we - as much and as often as possible!

Monday, December 1, 2008

National Public Radio

Where would we be without National Public Radio?

Some people watch television while eating breakfast. We turn on the radio the moment we come downstairs, continue listening to NPR in the car, and then tune in again while cooking our dinner. NPR is simply superb, an American BBC Radio 4, a fresh, bold and blissfully advertising-free haven of non-partisan reporting, solid, interesting journalism and offbeat humour.

The similarity with Radio 4 is not coincidental. Many reports and shows are produced together with the BBC World Service. The station even airs News Hour every day. But there are plenty of great homegrown classics too, including Car Talk, hosted by the hilarious "Don't drive like my brother" Click and Clack brothers, Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion series, Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me! (a news quiz) and Fresh Air, to name but a few.

Another major advantage for the mobile, Web 2.0, iPod generation is that many of the shows can be downloaded as podcasts and listened to whenever you get the time.

In the country that brought you Fox News and commercials every 7 minutes and even before the closing credits on TV programmes, NPR is a refreshing and uplifting experience whenever you listen.

Sacred Cow IPA

Sacred Cow was undoubtedly named thus in a vain attempt to stave off criticism. With good reason: Sacred Cow, which one clearly inebriated online aficionado describes as "a bold, refreshing, hoppy India Pale Ale with superb roundness and balance" that makes it "uniquely and deliciously drinkable", is by far the worst thing I have ever drunk, and the holder of the dubious title of First Beer I Have Poured Down the Drain.

My advice to anyone considering trying Sacred Cow is: don't. Or rather: come round to my place; you're welcome to have the five I have left.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taxonomy for Dummies

Conversation overhead in a café:

- Do you want to taste this broccoli?

- No thanks.

- Oh, I forgot: you don't eat vegetables, do you?

- No, I don't.

- Hold on: I thought you loved corn on the cob.

- I do. But corn on the cob isn't a vegetable.

- That's true.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Great American Inventions

Given the rapid onset of winter round here, it's hardly surprising that many people do their jogging on fitness centre running machines. At a local centre, all the treadmills face outwards towards the street, so as you pass by you are momentarily confronted by what appears to be 30 to 50 people running, rowing and Nordic skiing towards you - though like all the best nightmares, they never actually get anywhere.

Fitness fanatic and budding inventer Alex Astilean clearly thought it was boring running on the spot in a sweat-filled room (I must admit he has a point), so he dreamt up a mobile treadmill that you could use outdoors.

The SPEEDFIT Treadmobil combines two classic American passions: fitness and automotive propulsion. It's a "men-powered" (his words, not mine) treadmill on four wheels with a rudimentary handlebar, as the following video shows:

There's only one thing that puzzles me: why would anyone pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars on a Treadmobil when they could just go running?

Alex also has another invention: the "all-green, non-motorize" SPEEDFIT SpeedBoard, and an even more attractive video to sell it with:

Unfortunately, Alex was so keen to market the Speedboard that he didn't wait for Anke to actually lose those 100 pounds (on top of what she spent on the Speedboard itself) before releasing his video. So now we'll never know if she ever achieved her American dream.

I wish both of them success.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Odd Products

Shopping can be an eye-opening and occasionally bewildering experience in the US, as the following products clearly show. But before you start, don't forget to sanitise your trolley handle:

How often have you found yourself 100 calories short of your recommended daily intake value? Now there's a solution to this dietary conundrum:

Invited to a fancy dress party at your local church? How's this for a God-given disguise:

(Yes, it really is a Jesus costume)

We all know honey is basically just sugar, and sugar is bad for you, right? So pick up a jar of this:

Gone to the dogs? Feeling ho(a)rse, sheepish or moo-dy? Try the snack vets go ape for:

Don't know why this is defined this way. Don't all recliners have two armrests? Perhaps it's because you can hold two glasses of beer at once. Perhaps because that makes it "stereo":

Who needs a hot, wooden hut and sweaty, naked Swedes when you can have this:

Are you one of the 2 billion people on this planet who ruin their feet wearing Crocs? We have the perfect accessory for your mobile phone:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nuclear Herd

I found out today that my 8-year-old daughter is a mad cow. So is my 5-year-old son.

From trying to donate blood in France, where you can't give blood if you've lived in the UK for a cumulative year, I'd known for a while that I and even Laurence were mad cows, but this latest revelation did come as something of a surprise.

The problem is that here in the United States they are so worried about contracting vCJD, the human form of BSE, that you may not give blood if you have spent just 3 months in the UK or indeed a total of five years in one of the following European countries at any time since 1980:
  • Albania
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • The Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Kosovo
  • Liechtenstein
  • Luxembourg
  • Macedonia
  • Montenegro
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Serbia
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Turkey
(Have I missed any?)

That makes both Anna and Tom officially mad as hatters.

Ironically, the Web site of the American Red Cross - the organisation responsible for collecting blood - states the following:

"There is no evidence that CJD can be transmitted from donors to patients through blood transfusions. However, nobody knows for certain that this cannot happen."

By that token, I could claim that all Americans are stupid because they've had fully eight years under George W Bush. I know that there's no evidence that stupidity can be transmitted from the president to the people through citizenship, but hey, nobody knows for certain that this cannot happen.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Insta-heat and Insta-fire

All summer long, as you walked out of our local supermarket, you had to pass by a large and virtually unmistakable display of bags of charcoal. That's hardly surprising, since no-one - us included - needed much encouragement to have a barbecue on the beach. Yet this being the land that brought you drive-through funeral parlours and fast food restaurants, this was no ordinary charcoal, but Match Light briquets, a special form of reprocessed coal dust that is so drenched in lighter fluid that you simply pile it up, apply a burning match, step back swiftly to avoid the ensuing ball of flame, and in ten minutes hey presto, you're ready to cook your chicken 'n' ribs.

Now that the temperatures are below freezing and no-one (mad dogs and Englishmen included) would do anything outside, this pile of Match Light bags has been replaced by an equally unmistakable pile of Duraflame firelogs.

Firelogs are another wonderful American invention. Gone are the days when you had to scrunch up paper, carefully pile up kindling then balance coal and wood of various sizes on top in the hope that maybe - maybe - after about an hour's diligent tending you would a nice fire roaring in the hearth. Firelogs are made of compressed sawdust soaked in natural wax.

As a result, they not only light in about 5-10 minutes, but they burn for exactly 3.5 hours and allegedly produce less soot - and therefore pollution - than wood. Good, eh?

Of course, we don't need firelogs in our house. Not because we don't have a fireplace, though. Oh no, ours is a real fake fireplace (which I'm tempted to turn on for the first time tonight).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Me Too

I can see Russians from my window!

Supersize Them

This weekend, Laurence told me about what some of her colleagues snack on: slices of apples smothered in peanut butter!

In an attempt to ascertain the dietary value of this healthy snack, we consulted my 48oz jar of Costco-brand peanut butter. This states - and I'm not exaggerating here - that a 32g (2 tbsp.) serving of peanut butter contains fully 16g of saturated fat. In other words, half of it is pure, unadulterated blubber. What's more, said jar reliably informs us that this corresponds to 25% of your recommended daily intake.

Given that Laurence is sure her colleagues put at least twice that much peanut butter on their apples, they must be consuming half (if not more) of their recommended dose of fat simply filling in time between meals!

Housekeeping Tips

One of our neighbours told us about a neat way to cut down on ironing and dry cleaning: you simply hang your suits and trousers in the shower and the steam presses them automatically.

That certainly sounds like a great labour-saving idea. I only wonder how you get rid of the water stains and dried-in shampoo afterwards.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Earthquake Preparedness

Some 5 million people are today taking part in the Great Southern California Shake-Out, a drill based on a pretend earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale.

In view of the number of fault lines and earthquakes in the region, it is undoubtedly a very good idea to prepare for the worst, and could potentially save many lives.

However, I do feel that the motto "Drop, Cover and Hold"

and the underlying message are reminiscent of the 1950s "Duck and Cover" campaign:

The latter may have been about how to react to a nuclear attack, but both suggest that cowering or hiding under a table is enough to survive the effects of such disasters - which perforce also include collapsing buildings. So unless tables are much stronger in the US than in Europe, I would guess that the practice is as useless a survival tactic as cowering in the event of a nuclear explosion.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Having lived in Germany (where virtually all your rubbish is separated at home and collected separately) and France (where virtually all your rubbish is simply thrown out), I was heartened to see that we have a recycling box, although I admit that I was a little sceptical when I realised that everything - from cardboard and paper to plastics and glass - was lumped together.

I was therefore particularly pleased to discover recently - having put them into the recycling bin for the past 3 months - that there is a 10-cent deposit on all fizzy-drink cans and bottles. Given my avid consumption of the aforementioned beverages, my shopping bag (yes I have one - it's even made of cotton) is now almost as full when I go to the supermarket as when I return.

However, as I heard on the radio this morning, there is an unfortunate downside to all this environmentally-friendly recollection of cans and bottles: because the deposit is only 5 cents in neighbouring states, Michigan loses an estimated $10 million a year because of people "exporting" their empties from another state.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Journalistic Endorsement

The guys at Newsweek magazine clearly read this blog. In fact, they appear so impressed with my political analysis that they put the headline of one of my posts on the cover of this week's issue.

Thank you, Newsweek.

I'm Dreaming of ...

... a white November?!

Barely a week after our second Indian summer and temperatures as high as 22°C, the following scene greeted us this morning:

Friday, November 7, 2008

First Puppy

According to the BBC, while President-elect Barack Obama is busy choosing his White House staff, the rest of his family is choosing the puppy that he promised his daughters in his election-night speech:

"Because daughter Malia has allergies, the Obamas may be considering a 'hypoallergenic' breed that sheds less hair. Options could include a labradoodle - a cross between a Labrador and a poodle - a schnoodle (schnauzer and poodle), or a cockapoo (cocker spaniel and poodle). Malia, however, is rumoured to favour a goldendoodle - a poodle crossed with a golden retriever."

Although I think the goldendoodle should have been called the poo retriever, I have a few suggestions of my own for the First Puppy:
  1. A German sausage (a cross between an Alsatian - aka German shepherd - and a dachshund - aka sausage dog)
  2. A spagbol (a cross between a spaniel and a border collie)
  3. A sheep poo (a cross between a poodle and a sheepdog).

Can anyone think of any other combinations the Obamas might choose?

Wassup 2008

Remember Budweiser's hilarious "Wassup" commercial from the year 2000?

Well, some bright spark has come up with a contemporary sequel using the same actors as in the original ad:

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Have trampoline, will bounce!

Downsize Me

I don't know whether it's all the Reese's peanut butter cups that I've been eating, the gallons of Coke I'm drinking or all the driving around, but rather than putting on weight, as I had feared, I've actually lost a tremendous amount in the three months since coming to America - and it's staying off!

As a result, I now look less like this

and more like this:


Laurence and I love cider, even though each of us prefers their national variety. Imagine our excitement then when we discovered that a famous producer of cider, the Franklin Cider Mill, was located just a short cycle away. Every now and again, the mill holds a fair, and people flock there to stock up on cider (half or whole gallons only - this is America after all) and freshly-baked doughnuts. 

On a recent fair day, Laurence took Anna and Tom down to Franklin to get us some of our adored tipple, but was somewhat taken aback when the man offered a glass to the kids. "Is that allowed?" she asked
. "Sure," the assistant replied. "All the kids round here love cider!"

It turns out that there is not a local waiver on the legal drinking age (21). American cider simply contains no alcohol. The only difference between normal apple juice and cider is that the latter is unfiltered and unpasteurised. Although I was heartbroken to discover this, I must admit that it really does taste delicious. And you can hardly taste the maggots.

Local News (contd.)

Local crime reporter D.W. has outdone himself again:

Woman Reports Minor Cut After Traffic Accident
   A 30-year-old woman leaving her apartment was involved in a car crash at the complex's exit onto Drake Road. A man, also 30, rear-ended her vehicle.
   The man reportedly lost his temper immediately upon exiting his vehicle and ripped some paperwork out of the woman's hand.
   The woman reported to police that at some point during the incident she suffered a small cut to the webbing of her left hand. The cut reportedly was deeper than a paper cut, but required nothing more than a Band-Aid to treat.
   The woman wanted the incident documented, nothing further.

Ignoring the wishes of the intriguingly web-fingered victim, D.W. decided to give the story two inches in the Beacon.


I needn't tell you that Halloween is big in the US. But look at the size of the pumpkin one of Laurence's colleagues spotted on the highway:

Monday, November 3, 2008

President Obama

Well, the votes have all been cast and counted, and the results are clear: Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States by a landslide.

No, you haven't slept through the entire 4th of November. This was the outcome of the mock election held at my children's elementary school today.

The Sound of Silence

One of the disappointing sides of autumn and the onset of winter is that it has robbed me of one of my favourite pursuits.

Sitting on the kerb waiting for the school bus to arrive, I would close my eyes, filter out the everpresent background hum of cars and wallow in the chirping of the crickets, croaking frogs, chattering chipmunks and rasping cidadas. For me it is the sound of summer, and recalls holidays in the sun, and more particularly southern France; a meditative, soothing, almost primeval lullaby that I could easily immerse myself in for hours.

In August this chirping, croaking, chattering and rasping was sometimes so loud that were were convinced it couldn't possible be natural and could only be caused by the overhead power lines.

Now all I have is the occasional honking V of Canada geese flying past. The rest is silence - and of course cars.

Party Colours

I was recently surprised to learn that the American Democratic Party, the marginally more left-wing of the two major political parties in the United States, is associated with the colour blue, while the more conservative Republicans have red as "their" colour despite the fact that it is typically associated with socialism, communism and other left-of-centre causes.

I was even more amazed to discover this weekend that neither political party had a standard colour until as recently as eight years ago (indeed the colour-coding is still unofficial). It wasn't until the 2000 election that NBC journalist Tim Russert decided at random to refer to "red states" and "blue states" when talking about traditionally Republican and Democratic strongholds respectively - and the classification has stuck.

Ironically, therefore, there must be right-wing extremists across America who are hoping the country will go red tomorrow, while diehard Democrats live in fear of the red peril.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Local News

I know you can't wait for the latest news from the Crime Watch section of my local paper, the Beacon. So without any further ado, I give you the low-down on our crime-riddled community in the immortal words of ace reporter D.W.:

   A woman living at a home on (...) told police that she left home about 1pm Oct 15 and discovered a small amount of money missing when she returned at 3pm.
   The woman left a couple of doors open at the home. When the woman returned, she noticed that the doors were slightly open.
   Inside, she saw a kitchen drawer open and an air compressor moved from its previous location. The only thing she noticed missing was about $2-$3 in loose change that had been on a television set.

Car Alarms

One great thing about America - if you're a driver, that is - is that most cars have alarms, and most car doors are locked and unlocked by remote control. So when you get out of your car, you simply press the "padlock" button once to lock the car, and a second time to prime the alarm. Cool, eh? Well, not entirely.

You see, what they don't tell you at cross-cultural training (yes, I've done that too), is that whenever people prime their alarm, the car horn sounds briefly to confirm this. I can't tell you how often I've jumped out of my skin thinking some SUV was bearing down on me, when actually the driver probably hadn't even noticed I was there. Even my own car still gets me spooked about 6 times out of every 10 - and it's me operating the remote!

Having more or less got used to this car-horn-does-not-equate-with-danger scenario, I now face a far greater peril: getting run down because I ignore a polite appeal to get out of the way of a fast-approaching, four-wheeled gas-guzzler.

You Are What You Eat

Yesterday we all went out to celebrate our quarter year in the Land of Opportunity.

Food is always a wonderful gauge of cultural assimilation. I've seen sweet and sour frogs' legs on several Chinese restaurant menus in Paris, and you can get curried sausages at chippies across Berlin. I've even come across (no pun intended) curry- and rhubarb-and-custard-flavoured condoms in a vending machine at Gatwick Airport. Last night's trip to the California Pizza Kitchen was a superb example of such culinary eclecticism.

Although we did not have the classic spaghetti with meatballs which most Americans will swear is genuinely Italian, our exquisite meal was definitely a case of adapting foreign cuisine to suit local palates. All of us had a pizza; my daughter Anna had a Hawaiian, my son Tom a barbecue chicken pizza, Laurence's had a pile of guacamole on the top, while I had a Thai chicken pizza that featured the following classic Mediterranean ingredients: beansprouts, peanuts and sesame sauce.

All thoroughly delicious, but I do wonder what Italian tourists must make of it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

War of the White Goods

I am living in the land of the great unwashed. Why? Because household appliances in America do not clean properly. Indeed I'm thinking of starting a campaign to have washing machines and dish washers renamed "rinsing machines" and "dish rinsers" since whatever programme you choose, your clothes and plates come out only marginally less dirty than when they went in. 

We first thought it had to do with our cleaning products. So we bought others. But that changed nothing. So we assumed it was because our machines were old, and replaced them with brand-new ones. Same difference.

After lots of head-scratching and in-depth research, we can now conclusively say there there is not one underlying cause, but three:

  1. You can't get the kind of detergents you buy in Europe (the only Ariel you find round here is a mermaid). American supermarkets only stock domestically machinufactured products with fancy names like Hey Presto! (as in "Watch your money disappear down the drain") that seem intrinsically incapable of removing dirt;
  2. You can't get the kind of brands of white goods that you get in Europe (the only Whirpool you find round here is in your bathtub); and most crucial of all
  3. American dishwashers are made differently. (a) They have not one water inlet, but two; one for hot water, the other for cold; and (b) They do not have an internal heating system. So whereas in Europe your machine takes cold mains water and heats it up to the required temperature, its American counterpart just takes some cold water, mixes it with some hot, and attempts to wash using the resultant lukewarm brew. If your hot water isn't very, the machine fills up with the wrong ratio or the cold water pressure is far higher than that of the in-house hot water system (we fall into the "all of the above" category), you end up wearing freshly-washed dirty clothes and eating off plates with inbuilt flavourings on them.

Which reminds me, I've got some clothes to hand (re-)wash and dishes to (re-)clean. 'Scuse me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Educational Insanity (contd.)

The plot thickens.

The woman who assessed my son's language skills and decided that he needs ESL tuition refers to him as "Tom" (including the inverted commas) and says she plans to begin "servicing" him this week.

So who's the one who needs help with their English?

Monday, October 27, 2008


As the four of us we were having our dinner tonight, there was a very loud and menacing knock at the door. Once we had landed on our seats again and recovered our senses, I went to the front door, only to see someone jumping into a car and racing off. On the doorstep at my feet lay an orange, plastic, pumpkin-shaped bag with a piece of paper sticking out of it.

We had received our very first boogram.

A boogram is a mysterious note, usually in the form of a poem, left anonymously by your friends or neighbours in the run-up to Hallowe'en and accompanied by gifts or sweets for the household's children as well as a large sign that shows that you've been hit. The latter you are intended to hang on your front door - a bit like a cross indicating there's Black Death in the house - to prevent yourself being boo'd again.

Boograms are a bit like a nice version of the chain letter because the poem/note instructs you to send boograms to and thereby bestow gifts upon two other neighbours. Apparently, in some instances all the houses in the street end up with a boo sign on their doors, and it gets pretty difficult finding someone to "ambush" in this way. You are therefore encouraged to be proactive and get in there early.

Having put the kids to bed, my wife rushed out to a supermarket and bought two boogram sets (of course they had everything in stock; from boo paper to boo bags, boo signs and boo candy), while I hastily penned two personalised boograms for our intended victims. Unfortunately, it turned out that the house of one of our target families already sported the "boo off" sign, so we quickly had to adapt their poem for a Plan B alternative. I then hopped on my bike and cycled over to the first family (whose house we had never visited).

The lack of street lighting and a moonless night helped conceal my presence, but it also hid the house number and letterbox so completely that I spent a frustrating 10 minutes going up and down the road, sneaking up paths and approaching front doors in an increasingly desparate search for the number, using the faint illumination of my iPhone display as a rather pathetic torch. I even tried pinpointing the house with my in-phone sat-nav, to no avail. I finally chose what I hoped was the right address, deposited my poem and bag, gave a menacing rat-a-tat-tat on the bug screen and fled.

I still don't know if I got the right house. And because the boogrammer is supposed to keep his identity secret, I'll never be able to ask them whether they got my goody-bag. But it was hugely exciting in a Just William, postman's knock kind of way.

Tomorrow we go off with the kids to deliver our other boogram. Let's hope we find the house this time.

Celebrity Come Dancing

What if, instead of all the campaigning, commercials and speeches, Obama and McCain went head-to-head on the dancefloor?

Get 'Em While They're Young

Barnes & Noble has slipped even further down in my estimation. In its children's section, right next to the reading area and within easy reach of inquisitive kids' hands, our nearest Barnes & Noble prominently displays the following blatantly political made-for-children's books:
(Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope)
(My Dad, John McCain)
(Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight)

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against political literature. People should be free to buy whatever they want to read about. What I don't like is when political propaganda is fed undiluted to impressionable minds that cannot differentiate between reality and convenient fiction (i.e. "spin").
I was amused, however, to discover that the book "The Rise of Barack Obama" is now 50% off: