Tuesday, September 30, 2008


You've probably seen the scene about Starbucks and decision-making in the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film You've Got Mail.

In fact, Starbucks doesn't just force you to make a thousand choices to get a cup of coffee. I went in there after some common-or-garden ground coffee, and having passed what I thought was the hardest hurdle - choosing the type of coffee - they wanted to know what blend I wanted and whether it was for a Turkish coffee maker, Bodum-type percolator or a coffee machine. And when I confessed that I needed it for the latter, I was then interrogated as to whether the filter had a flat or conical base. I ask you: DOES IT REALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE? (I bet it doesn't).

Honestly, I'd rather be stuck in one of those darned call routing systems than go through that rigmarole again. Come back Kenco instant coffee (which I can't get here either): all is forgiven!

Note to Kindergarten Teacher

Dear Mrs Clark,

Just to let you know: the scrawl that you circled in red and corrected at the bottom of the homework sheet headed "Sign and return" was not an attempt by my son to write the word "van", but rather my signature.

Yours, etc.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Book Sections

Barnes & Noble has really come down in my estimation.

They may stock virtually every book since the Gutenberg Bible, but isn't it a bit sick having a separate Memoirs of Affliction section (including, I might add, such titles as "My Lobotomy" and "ADHD & Me")?


This really surprised me - and it's not the first time I've encountered an almost floor-height urinal. You see, I'm no giant, but my midriff (to use an acceptable euphemism) is often at the upper extremity of urinals in the US.

Since I know that the average American is about 300 foot tall, I must assume that men have their micturition apparatus reattached at the knee when they have the inevitable postnatal circumcision.

This would also explain why all swimwear is knee-length.

Miss Teen USA 2007

We've all heard the much-propagated urban legend about blondes being dumb. It's also relatively common knowledge that most beauty queens aren't Mensa material. Add these two elements together and combine them with the fact that world affairs isn't really an American forte, and the results can be extremely hilarious:

Friday, September 26, 2008

You Say "Potato" ...

With so many minute linguistic differences between American and British English, I think the time has come to give you a primer - hopefully the first of many - in Neworldspeak:

Behind (AE) = Bum (BE)
Bum (AE) = Tramp (BE)
Tramp (AE) = Loose woman (BE)
Crazy (AE) = Mad (BE)
Mad (AE) = Angry (BE)
Pissed (AE) = Angry (BE)
Drunk (AE) = Pissed (BE)
Peed (AE) = Pissed (BE)
Pants (AE) = Trousers (BE)
Underwear (AE) = Pants (BE)

Consequently, whereas a British bobby would frown on a pissed tramp for being mad enough to pull down his pants and show his bum, a female cop in the States would be pissed if a mad bum peed on her pants and called her a tramp.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


It can be rather disconcerting not having a fence around your property.

Just now, a strange, bearded man in a hoody brazenly walked through our back garden (sorry: "yard") and into the next. It had me rather worried until I saw the logo on his back: he was from the electricity company and had come to read the meter.

There isn't really any cause for concern. Crime is extremely rare in this neck of suburbia - so much so that our local newspaper was shocked to report a spate of recent burglaries (two, to be precise: one merely attempted, the other because of an open window - and all the opportunist thief took was cash and an iPod).

In any case, if there were a fence around my house and garden, I wouldn't have so many squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks and rabbits to put me off my work.

The Circle of Life

I don't know why I even bother putting plates, knives and forks in the dishwasher.

They only get dirty again the next time we use them.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups

What an omission!

Here I am, blogging away for weeks on end, and yet I forget to mention one of the gustatory highlights (aside from s'mores) of life in America: Reese's (pronounced "ree-sees") Peanut Butter Cups.

Picture this: crunchy peanut butter, not too sweet, slightly salty, covered in smooth, rich milk chocolate. Have I got your mouth watering yet? (Mine certainly is).

If truth be known, on a scale of 1 to 10, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups probably rank up there alongside - if not above - my teenage all-time fave: a Marmite, peanut butter and taramosalata sandwich.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Street Lights

Streets lights simply don't exist in the US.

It's bad enough having to walk along the road because of the lack of pavements (see Priorities), but it's downright dangerous negotiating - as I did this evening - even the short distance from the house to the local supermarket on a moonless night when you can't see your feet, let alone the omnipresent potholes (but that's another story).

Now I understand why everybody leaves the lights on outside their house. It's not to ward off burglars, but because they're fed up of hearing pedestrian Europeans breaking their ankles.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I know you can get the iPhone around the world, but I got mine here and it was developed here too, so I really insist on spending some time raving about it.

The iPhone truly is the best thing since sliced bread (if indeed sliced bread was a good thing). In fact, I'm hard-pressed to find words to express the impact it has had on my life. But rather than waxing lyrical, here are the hard facts, starting with the basics:

In France I had a two-hour mobile phone subscription for about €40. Here, for a paltry $80 a month I get 450 minutes talktime during the day (rolling over into the next month if unused), unlimited calls at night and over the weekend, unlimited Internet access and unrestricted up- and downloading.

But that's just the subscription.

Aside from the usual sleek design for which Apple is famous, the iPhone itself has:

- A Safari browser with which you can look at Web pages horizontally or vertically by simply turning the iPhone on its side;
- A fabulous touchscreen that you can zoom into simply by pressing two fingers on the screen and moving them apart;
- Preprogrammed direct links to YouTube (where you can, of course, play all the video clips), iTunes and the AppStore, where additional programs cost next to nothing (eat your heart out, Bill Gates);
- A nifty weather function showing temperatures and conditions now and in the days ahead at any number of destinations (I have my own town programmed in so that I don't have to stick my head out of the window to know what clothes to wear);
- A useful stock price function with one-day, one-week, one-month, three-month and six-month charts for those unfortunate enough to own shares;
- Push e-mail (i.e. electronic messages are sent directly to the iPhone the moment they arrive on the server rather than having to be downloaded) and all attachments - be they PDFs, Excel spreadsheets or simply Word files - can be opened and read;
- And of course the usual phone, SMS, calendar, clock/alarm, camera and calculator functions.

Because the new iPhone uses 3G, Web pages are called up very quickly wherever you are. And whenever you come within range of an unsecured or previously stored wi-fi network, the iPhone automatically piggy-backs on the network to give you even greater bandwidth (that's Internet access speed to you, Mum).

But the crème-de-la-crème killer app has to be the built-in GPS. Not only can you find out where you are at any given moment in time (I like looking what part of the house I'm in as seen from above), but whenever you come across an address, be it on Yellow Pages, in your personal address book or on some site on the Internet, you simply click on the address and the iPhone opens up Google Maps and asks if you'd like directions there ("From current location?").

I feel like I've died and gone to techie heaven. In fact, my wife is furious that her company only gave her a BlackBerry.

What luck that I have to buy my own toys.


You have been warned

Another Chinaman living in area: Slow, brother of Ped

(They've had drug problems in schools since 1974?
No wonder the sign is mounted on a cross)

Reduce speed: retired Chinese Olympic gynmasts in area


"Where do you live?"
"14 Mile and Woodward."
"Really? My brother is over on 13 and Maple. We're at Quarton and Telegraph."

When I lived in Europe, I laughed at the idea that most American streets were built in a direct north-south or east-west line with major intersections at exactly one-mile intervals. Boring, I said. Unimaginative.

Now I understand that it makes finding your way around much, much easier than in sinuous Europe. And, as in the above example, you can tell people where you live - without revealing the exact address, I might add - by simply naming the two streets that intersect closest to you (for the record, we're off Inkster and Walnut Lake).

To make things even easier, many of the the east-west roads are often named after the distance in miles from the city centre.

Add to this the fact that many cars have an onboard compass indicating the direction (N, S, E, W) in which you are travelling, and you don't need an IQ of more than about 25 to find your way from A to B (though I bet there's probably someone out there wondering how far 8 Mile is from 12 Mile).

Sat-navs; who needs 'em?


Costco is superb.

Costco is a warehouse store where you can buy more-or-less everything - from toothpaste to apples - provided it's in bulk. You can even get electrical appliances at bargain basement prices. The containers may be huge (the jars in the picture contain fist-sized gherkins) and there are generally no more than one or two brands of each product, but the quality is just the same and the prices are far lower then in normal supermarkets. And since everyone has plenty of storage space in their double garages and wardrobe-sized fridges, there's no problem buying in large quantities - provided your car boot is big enough, which - this being America - goes without saying.

To give you an idea of the contents of the average Costco shopping trolley, here are just some of the things I got at my most recent visit:

- One triple pack of 1.25kg bottles of ketchup
- Two twin packs of 3-litre bottles of apple juice and grape juice
- Two 36-can packs of Coke
- Six 1.5-litre bottles of rosé
- One 2.8-litre bottle of liquid soap
- One 36-roll pack of loo paper
- One 4.5kg bag of granulated sugar
- One 1.75-litre bottle of gin
- One 12-pack of tins of sweetcorn
- One 10-pack of tins of tomato purée.

Costco is proof positive that big sometimes really is beautiful. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to tuck into my 1.25kg jar of pretzels.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Interior Decoration

Is your store too small to accommodate your merchandise upright? Fret not: simply smash a hole in your ceiling.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Call Routing Systems

"Thank you for calling USA, Inc. For English, press 1, para español, oprime el número 2. Thank you. Now please enter your 10-digit telephone number and press the pound button on your keyboard. Thank you. Please enter your 5-digit ZIP code. Thank you. Now please enter the nine digits of your Social Security number. Thank you. If you wish to continue being led in circles by an automated call answering system, press 1. If you would like to speak to one of our operators, hang up now. Thank you. Now please specify your ethnicity. If you are Caucasian, press 1, African-American, press 2, Asian, press 3. If you are Hispanic, please stay on the line while we ignore you. If your wife is in the first quarter of her menstrual cycle, press 8. If you have ants in your pants, press 5. If you have 17 or more children, press 9. If you like M&Ms on Tuesdays only, press 4. If you have a weak bladder, you'll never reach your desired correspondent before it's too late. If you have shoe size 13 or above, hello big boy. For all other enquiries, please wait for the next available agent. To return to the main menu, press star. I'm sorry, but all our staff are busy right now. Please try again later."

Call routing systems in Europe give you a few options to choose from before you reach the right department (albeit manned, more often than not, by someone in India). In the States, every other call you make somehow ends up on a apparently endless routing loop - featuring the soothing voice of a soft-tongued female speaker - that seems designed purely to make you hang up in despair. And the ironic thing is that if you do eventually get through to a human being, you usually find out that:

a) All calls get routed to the same person anyway
b) No note is taken of any of the data you have entered, even if you end up speaking to a call centre agent
c) You've reached the wrong department (and no, they don't have the right number)

Luckily, help is at hand for us attention-deficient type-A personalities: even the people who work at these stores get so pissed off with their own call routing system - and presumably the fact that most of the people who need to contact them never get through - that they tell you how to find the emergency exit out of Playbackland and back into the Land of the Living ("Just hit zero the moment the phone's picked up").


Thursday, September 18, 2008


I have conclusive proof that Americans are cannibals.

You and I might eat the odd cow, pig, chicken or even horse, but the Americans clearly go much, much further. They eat foreign nationals. And not just any common-or-garden foreigner (unless I'm greatly mistaken). Americans seem to have a predeliction for the Swiss.

I'm surprised I didn't realise earlier. There are plenty of foreigners in this neck of the woods. I've come across lots of French people, of course, Germans, Poles, Russians and oodles of Chaldeans (I had to look that one up too), but not a single person from Switzerland.

I now know why: the Americans have eaten them.

But that's not all. Consuming the entire Swiss emigré and expat population clearly gave the locals an appetite for that unique combination of Alpine air, edelweiss, Toblerone and Heidi that is only to be found in genuine Swiss flesh. So when there were no more - the Swiss obviously got wind of the the wholesale slaughter of their compatriots and stopped coming - the Americans were forced to mimick that certain je ne sais quoi they so relished by creating additives with which they could spice more commonplace foods and thus pretend they were eating the real thing once more.

Now I've eaten a few odd things in my life. I love oysters and "surimi", and often crave so-called prawn-cocktail crisps, but never before have I come across anything as repulsive as this: Swiss-flavour cheese.


A letter from my kids' (American) school today contained the following statement:

"More than a decade of research has consistently found that the more often kids eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink and use drugs."

I wonder how watching their parents glugging aperitifs and then several glasses of wine night after night will stop my children becoming alcoholics. Or does the sight of adults drinking put children off alcohol?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Stars & Stripes

Today is Constitution Day, so all the children at my son's elementary school (and probably every other school across America) trouped outside to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. After school, my son said, "It was a bit strange. It was like we were praying to a flag". 

In the US, the American flag commands a level of respect reserved elsewhere for relics, national treasures or other irreplaceable artefacts. This is hardly surprising. According to the US Government Printing Office, the Stars & Stripes is considered "a living thing". It even has its own Code stipulating what can and cannot be done to it, ranging from the obvious to the odd, and including:

- The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing;
- The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water or merchandise;
- The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling;
- The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything;
- It should not be printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use; and
- It should be illuminated if displayed at night.

Once this living thing is deemed too tattered to represent the United States, it has to be destroyed in a dignified manner – preferably by burning, a complex and solemn ceremony typically conducted by veterans, boy scouts or guides and involving a recital and then first cutting off the blue field (the bit with the stars on), getting someone to hold it, then cutting off and individually burning the red and white stripes followed by the blue field.

As today's homework, my son was asked to practice the Pledge of Allegiance (hand on heart, bien sur). Although we have a whole year before the next Constitution Day, I feel it's all a bit much patriotism - not to mention for the wrong nation - for a Franco-Anglo-German kindergartener to understand. Think we'll pass on that one.


According to Wikipedia, "McCain has gained the endorsements of many high profile figures, including President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former President George H. W. Bush, and former First Lady Nancy Reagan."

Somehow I can't see any of the above endorsing (let alone hugging) Barack Obama.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I just heard that we got 5.8 inches (147mm) of rainfall this weekend.

That's positively diluvian!


Before moving over to the States, we met our landlords – themselves French expats off on their next assignment – so that they could brief us about the house and give us some tips about where to buy what. As we were saying our goodbyes, the man turned to me and said with some urgency: "Have I already warned you about beachwear?"

Believe it or not, there is a strict code of conduct about what you should and should not wear at a swimming pool or down at the beach, and bizarrely enough it's almost the opposite of what is the norm in Europe. Since we live 300 yards from a lake with its own bathing beach, this is of not insignificant importance to us.

For those as yet unaquainted with US standard-issue beachwear, it is as follows:

Whereas those of the child-bearing persuasion are permitted to squeeze themselves into the skimpiest of bikinis – provided that even pre-pubescent girls don't omit to wear the top half – all males over about the age of 2 (i.e. those no longer requiring nappies) must wear what we in Britain would term "Bermuda shorts"; a baggy, knee-length cross between common-or-garden trousers and sports shorts that gives you two-tone legs (brown below the knee, white above) and almost drowns you if you are foolish enough to go swimming.

This left me wondering: what is the logic behind this disparity? Are American women so nymphomanic that the sight of a penile bulge or bare male thighs would cause them to do unspeakable things to the holders of such anatomy? Is it perhaps a religious thing; a sort of WASP burka? Or is this just another one of those strange allergies that everyone seems to have this side of the Pond yet doesn't exist anywhere else on the planet? (I can see it now: "Do you suffer from Upper Leg Sun Allergy? Lite-Stop is clinically proven to provide effective relief from ULSA").


It's refreshing to see that the commercials over here aren't only for boring old washing powder and suchlike. But I was amused to hear the following warning as part of an ad for anti-impotence drug Cialis:

"Ask your doctor if you are healthy enough to engage in sexual activity"

Political Allegiances

Last week, I heard the following story on the radio: A woman asked a Republican senator if she could have some McCain signs for her yard. When the senator asked the woman if she would like to join the Republican party, she replied, "No way! I'm a Democrat!"

I really can't understand the woman's line of reasoning. She feels proud enough of her political affiliations to refuse to even consider changing sides, yet wants to encourage people to vote for a candidate who espouses political sentiments diametrically opposed to those of what she clearly considers "her" party.

The problem, if indeed it could be described thus, presumably lies in the American political system, which is extremely personalised. The presidential election and more particularly the primary selection procedure which precedes it are mainly to blame for this.

During the primaries, ordinary people vote for who should be the Democrat and Republican presidential candidate. Not only do would-be candidates spend tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars on their campaigns. Because they are from the same party - and are therefore on the same side of the political divide with very similar political leanings - as their party rivals, the main differences tend to be personal. This means that party candidates are chosen first and foremost on the basis of their (perceived) personal qualities, a very emotional assessment that leads to fervent passions that are whipped up into extreme animosity towards other candidates by the rallies, speeches and ads as the campaigning progresses. The intention is obvious: to rally support behind a given nominee. The unintended side-effect is that some people end up hating the eventual winner so vehemently that they would prefer to vote for the candidate of other political party come election time, as many disappointed Hilary Clinton supporters say they will do.

In England we call that cutting off your nose to spite your face. It's the sort of thing that my five-year-old son does when he doesn't get what he wants. It's not the reaction that should underlie an adult's decision on whom to elect as the leader of the world's most powerful nation. 

I say depersonalise elections and get the politics back into politics.


In Britain, you can get whole milk, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk. By contrast, in health-conscious, super-sized, double-whammy, 64% obese or overweight America, you get far more choice, but most things tend to be low-fat, even-lower-fat or contain no fat whatsoever.

On a recent trip to my local supermarket, where the choice is somewhat smaller than in the bigger stores, I came across the following types:

- Whole milk;
- DHA omega-3 milk;
- DHA omega-3 reduced fat milk;
- 100% lactose-free reduced fat milk;
- 2% reduced fat milk;
- 1% reduced fat milk:
- 1% reduced fat vitamin A & D milk;
- 1/2% low fat milk;
- 1/2% vitamin A & D milk;
- Skimmed fat-free milk;
- Vitamin D milk; and
- Homogenized vitamin D milk.

Unfortunately for yours truly, the only type they didn't have was the one I wanted: UHT milk.

Monday, September 15, 2008

All Change

"If Obama becomes the President of the United States, will they repaint the House?"

Reader's letter to Télérama magazine


Linguistic differences can be so quaint.

Look at the photo on the left. In Britain, if used at all, the term "wife-beater" would relate to the contents of the gentleman's cup (typically Stella Artois), not because of the effect said beverage has on those who consume it, but the kind of person who drinks this particular brand of beer.

Here in the States, the expression refers to what he's wearing around his torso, though interestingly enough for the same reason.

Let me make one thing clear: In the summer I often sport what we in Britain call a "vest" or a "tank top" (partly because I find it cooler than a T-shirt, partly so you can see my tattoo), and I have in the past drunk the odd can of Stella.

I do not beat my wife (often).

Pedal Power

The automobile isn't always the king of the road in the US.

Today I had a wonderful four-wheels-bad-two-wheels-good experience. Cycling down to my nearest cash dispenser to get some money, I found a car parked at the drive-thru ATM, its driver clearly reading the statement he'd just had printed out. What fun I had ding-dinging him out of the way.

Bikers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains!

Thursday, September 11, 2008


In a country in which breasts are always covered up and nipple-erasing bras are de rigueur, it is interesting to note the shape of the lamps on our hall ceiling.

Or is this perhaps merely a subtle protest against American prudishness by our French landlord?


Depending on your socioeconomic status, either ignore this sign or speed up and perma-honk.

You're late: he's waiting for you over there.

This ain't no round-a-bout.

Bike Paths

I've made a wonderful new discovery: bike paths. Having harped on about the lack of pavements (see Priorities), I was startled to find that there is an extensive network of bicycle paths along major roads, sometimes on one side, sometimes even on both.

HOWEVER, this being the U.S. of Car, there is one rather bizarre twist: every now and again, the bike paths simply stop. Not, as one might expect, at a road or other obvious junction, but usually some 100-200 yards or so further on, as if they simply ran out of tarmac or planning permission.

Very occasionally you might come across one of these beforehand:

Unfortunately, nine times out of ten you'll turn around a corner to be confronted by this sight:

You then have no choice but to turn your bike around, head back to the last road you crossed and hope you can find another path somewhere further on (which, if you are lucky, may just be a few hundred yards away, though often enough it's on the other side of the road).


In Europe, disaffected youths spray swastikas on walls as a form of protest. I was therefore intrigued to come across the following grafitto on a bike path in a neighbouring town here in the US.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

School Buses

School buses are a fine invention. They not only ensure that kids get home from school safely (important since there are no pavements to walk home along - see Priorities). They also leave gainfully employed parents more time for work, and non-working parents more time for essential cosmetic maintenance. And - by way of an environmental consequence - school buses cut down on school runs and therefore fuel consumption.

So who are the gas-guzzlers: Europeans, who take their children to and from school in 4x4s, clogging up the roads in the process and leaving their oversized engines running while they wait for their darlings to emerge, or Americans, whose children are transported collectively and therefore cost-effectively?

In many ways, school buses are a lot like another great British invention that has been consigned to the dustbin of history and the memories of old fogies like myself: milkmen.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Carrot Cake

"Carrot cake - made with carrots!"

Is this supposed to be consolation for those people disappointed not to have found trees in their Black Forest Gâteau or cantankerous royals in their Victoria sponge?

Monday, September 1, 2008


If duskmeter unavailable, please check daytime outside

Ce ci n'est pas une porte

Chinaman living in area?

Power Lines

Be it wealthy or poor, old or new, travel through any neighbourhood in the US - or so it seems - and you can't help but notice the power lines. They are everywhere, extremely ugly and not only line the roads, but seem to traverse properties willy-nilly and unmistakeably at a height of about 25 feet.

Many people have power, cable TV and phone lines running along the edge of their property. So far, so bad. If you're lucky, which I am not, then the offending wires criss-cross your neighbour's garden - or, better still, his neighbour's. If you're unlucky, which I am not, you are confronted with the sight of as many as ten lines obscuring the view at head height whenever you look out of your bedroom window (although the sight of squirrels using them as inter-tree bridges does soften the impact somewhat). 

Why is this, I wonder. This isn't the Third World. There are plenty of mechanical diggers around. I've seen them. There's even a large unemployed workforce - especially here in Michigan - that, armed with said diggers, could put these eyesores underground before you could say "Urgh".

So is it just a question of money, or are Americans so inured to overhead power lines that they neither see them nor care anymore?

Two-Buck Chuck

"Two-buck Chuck" (as it is dubbed on account of its price and its creator, Charles Sutter) gives you a ten-buck headache. Does that make it a bargain?