Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lusardi calls 999 to get to panto

I'm sure I'm not alone amongst ex-pat Brits in wanting to keep abreast of news from home. The BBC is one prime source for this, and I monitor the news headlines regularly. When I saw the headline above, I just knew there was a quintessentially British story to share. Here's the story in its entirety.

Let's start with Linda Lusardi. Ms. Lusardi started her career as a "page 3 model." "Page 3" is somewhat of a British institution, albeit a rather dubious one. The Sun, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, has for many years featured a photograph of a topless model on page three of the newspaper. Linda Lusardi was one of the most popular page 3 girls ever, appearing for eleven years. She also appeared fully nude in various men's magazines.

More recently she's been appearing in various shows as an actress, most notably in Emmerdale, the third most popular soap-opera on TV in Britain. Again, pretty much an institution, Emmerdale, originally called "Emmerdale Farm" started out as a story set on a farm. In more recent years, the show has focused more on the goings-on in the local village. The show is also well-known for having more than its fair share of disasters, such as plane crashes, explosions, fires and shootings.

But back to Linda Lusardi. Linda has recently been appearing in Pantomime with her husband, British actor Sam Cane. Pantomime, often shortened to "Panto" is another British tradition. Presented at theatres (we have to use the British spelling, as opposed to the American "theater" here, darling!) around the country during the Christmas season, the stage shows usually feature music, comedy, audience participation for the kids ("Behind you!", "Oh no it isn't!" "Oh yes it is!"), some sexual innuendo for the parents, and cross-dressing. The lead male character is most often played by a woman, and an older "pantomime dame" is usually played by a man. Popular shows are Aladdin, Cinderella, Mother Goose, and similar.

So, Linda Lusardi (who's now 50 - that makes me feel old!), on her way to playing Queen Lucretia in a panto performance of "Snow White", is driving on the M25, a motorway that completely circles London, notorious for high volumes of traffic, when she encounters a traffic-jam. She proceeds to call 999 (The British equivalent of 911, reserved for emergency services), where she requests permission to use the hard-shoulder so she can get to the show on time. Her request was, of course, denied. A police spokesperson said "Being late for work is not a reason to call 999, contact the police or use emergency measures. Use of the hard shoulder is restricted for emergency service vehicles only."

Oh no, she didn't! - Oh yes she did!

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Full English Breakfast

I'm writing this entry early in the morning in a motel room in Pennsylvania, a little over halfway home from our Christmas trip to the Michigan in-laws. I'm munching on an apple, because I cannot abide having an empty stomach, but I'm craving the big breakfast I'll no doubt have once the rest of the family have woken up, showered and we look for somewhere to eat. There's coffee, bagels and muffins available in the lobby, but that's not going to cut it for me.

My vegetarian friends may now leave the room before I launch into the really offensive stuff.

What I'm really craving is meat. What I'm really craving is that beast known as the Full English Breakfast.

There are some excellent breakfast choices available in this part of the country. I'm rather partial to biscuits smothered in sausage gravy (a note for our British Friends - a biscuit is rather similar to a scone, perhaps a little fluffier, and sausage gravy is a thick, creamy sauce full of crumbled sausage). But the Americans, much as they seem to enjoy their meat, don't really get the British love of having more than one meat on your plate at the same time. See, the "F.E.B." usually contains bacon and sausage; in fact, for those hardcore fans amongst us, it should also include black pudding. For those who still are blissfully unaware of what black pudding is, it's a blood sausage. Very rich, very fatty, very unhealthy, and of course very tasty. But even when you find a selection of "fry-ups" listed on a menu, you can get eggs done in a multitude of ways, maybe biscuits, hash browns, etc., with bacon or sausage. Usually, if you want both sausage and bacon, you have to order one as part of your meal, and the other as a side.

So, what I really want (and will probably only get in the US if I make it myself) is one fried egg, over-easy (so the yoke is runny but the white is not slimy), bacon, sausage, black pudding, baked beans, fried tomato, fried bread and fried mushroom. Yep, heart-attack on a plate.

There are a few compromises that have to be made if you're craving the F.E.B. but living in the U.S. The bacon usually available here is sliced really thin and very fatty. It's really only good for crumbling into something for flavor. I generally go for sweet Italian sausages, but while good, they're not the same as a good British banger. Baked beans over here are generally over-sweet, and contain a lump of fatty pork; In the US, Heinz do "Vegetarian Baked Beans", which is about as close as you'll get to the beans that Heinz make for the Brits.

I'll probably write more about tea in another entry, but as a great British tea-drinker, at home I'd usually make myself a cuppa to drink with the fry-up. Tetley makes "British Blend" teabags which are pretty good. I would drink coffee if I was having breakfast at a restaurant, because most places can't make tea properly.

And, if consuming this in England, with egg-yoke running down our chins we'd probably be berating the Americans for being obese.

I'm perfectly aware that this artery-hardening breakfast is not exactly the healthy option. And I certainly would not eat it every morning. Probably not even once a week. But as a rare treat, it's precisely that - a rare treat!

So, in the interests of full-disclosure, I should also point out this article from the Times of London.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The British Are Coming!

The BBC recently reported the findings of a report compiled by ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) and the UK Foreign Office. Apparently the falling value of the UK Pound against the Euro is likely to result in fewer Brits taking their holidays (vacations) in previously popular destinations in Europe in 2009. Amongst the destinations likely to be visited instead is the United States, with 13% more Britons coming here than in 2008.

Apparently, this is partially due to excitement over the historic election of Barack Obama as President; low fuel prices and a low cost of living are also given as possible reasons.

Reports of a stealth invasion in retaliation for dumping British tea in Boston Harbor are being strongly denied, sources say.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Bit of Fry and Pinter

Right now there's another Englishman in this country I've been following avidly: Stephen Fry. I've always liked Stephen's stuff, he's a darned clever fella, but on our most recent trip to England to spend time with my folks, I watched the first couple of episodes of his BBC series Stephen Fry in America. My only regret was that he was not able to spend more time in each place. For example, his coverage of my adopted home state of New Jersey was limited to visiting a casino in Atlantic City.

Having recently started using Twitter myself, I was pleased to find Mr. Fry was an avid Twitterer. Not only that, but he's been spending the holiday season here in the States. He's been pretty much Tweeting a running commentary of his time first in New York, then on the West Coast. He's been sending photos of his travels. He visited Saturday Night Live to watch his friend and comedy-partner Hugh Laurie guest-host the show.

And he's been busy. He judged a competition to come up with original or the best Wildean remarks on December 1st, designated Oscar Wilde Day. He covered a hotel room in computers, telephones and cables to write a comparative review of smartphones. But he's been apologizing for spending so much time walking and shopping.

Go visit his website if you get a chance. Entertaining and interesting.

Finally, like Stephen, I was saddened to hear of the loss of English playwright and activist Harold Pinter to cancer on Christmas Eve. The writer of such classics as "The Birthday Party", "The Caretaker" and "Betrayal", his only serious rival was Samuel Beckett. He'll be missed.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Controversies

Having enjoyed a wonderful Christmas at my Mother-in-Law's house in Michigan, with my Brother-in-Law's family as well as my Wife and Daughter, I felt the need to write a little about some of the differences between Christmas in the US and Christmas in the UK. I think it's important to state that I find there to be more similarities than differences, especially with my Wife's family, who go out of their way to embrace British traditions as a way of making me feel welcomed. In addition, I've discovered (as is often the case) that what I've been accepting as UK/US differences are often simply differences between families. More on that later.

I guess one of the biggest differences is that, generally speaking, the big guy with the red suit and white beard is referred to as Santa Claus in the US, while most of the time Brits refer to him as Father Christmas. My American family was eager to try the British tradition of Christmas Crackers, complete with awful jokes and paper hats we all had to wear for extra humiliation at the table. And the meal we had yesterday was a lovely joint of roast beef, while British Christmas dinner, again generally speaking, consists of turkey (Turkey usually being consumed in the US for Thanksgiving). In England, I'd also usually be eating Christmas Pudding, that gloriously fruity, alcoholic, heavy steamed sponge, and a slice of Christmas Cake, just to ensure that I was incapable of movement the rest of the day. And I'm writing this article on what in Britain we'd call Boxing Day, December 26th, traditionally the day that employers would give leftover gifts to their servants and employees. Yes, "re-gifting" is nothing new!

So, on to more controversial stuff. What do we leave Father Christmas/Santa Claus on Christmas Eve? In my house it was always a mince pie (a sweet pastry filled with what is called "mincemeat", which these days contains no meat), together with a glass of sherry and a carrot for the reindeer. My Wife's family believe that milk and cookies are the generally accepted gift in the US. But a rather unscientific poll I conducted showed some rather interesting results. One old schoolfriend from England was a little conflicted on the matter. Since drinking and driving is such a big issue, her family had started leaving out a cup of hot chocolate; however, another schoolfriend had advised her that Rudolph was now the one who drives, so Father Christmas will once more be finding a glass of brandy. And then there were three American friends of mine who in turn were leaving:

1. Freshly baked sugar and chocolate chip cookies and hot apple cider with spiced rum
2. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
3. Baileys Irish Cream

I'm not sure whether this says more about globalization, or my friends! I do know that my Mother-in-Law bought mince pies, sherry and a huge carrot, so we could do things the way I had always done them. My daughter was also delighted to discover that everything she'd left had gone on Christmas morning, apart from the last bite or two of the carrot; according to the note Santa left, the reindeer each took a bite, but it was so huge, they couldn't manage it all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Dedication

My Wife has until now not been aware that I started this blog. Yet, if it hadn't been for her, there would be no blog. So, on this Christmas Day, instead of a regular entry, I dedicate An Englishman In New Jersey to my wonderful Wife, B. This is not just my story, it's our story. Happy Christmas!

There's No Sleeping at the INS!

Did you ever see the movie Green Card, with Gerard Depardieu and Andie McDowell? An American woman and a French man marry in order for him to get a Green Card. They spend much of the movie studying each others' habits, living arrangements, etc., so they'll appear to be a genuine couple. Ever think that it might present a realistic view of what it's like for an American woman to marry someone from outside the United States? Think again!

Bear in mind that the events I describe took place pre-9/11, so heaven only knows what the process is like now. It was also a grueling bureaucratic procedure that I've tried to push to the back of my mind, so the sequence of events is probably off, and I've no doubt forgotten many aspects of it.

Pretty much as soon as I'd proposed to B. we started researching what we'd have to do to get me into the country. Fortunately, we were both net-savvy, and there were online discussion groups full of couples who had been in, or were going through similar situations to us. We found out that, although tedious, the process was something we could do ourselves, without the help of an attorney, which would save us some money.

So first B. had to apply to what was then the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) - what is now USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) - for permission for me to come over to the US on what is known as a "Fiance Visa." We didn't know how long that would take to process, so we couldn't, of course, make any plans until we received the visa. When we received the go-ahead, we only had a 90-day window in which to get married. Yep, that's right - we had to plan a wedding in addition to planning for me to get over to the States within 3 Months. We got our approval in December 1998. I was over by Christmas 1998, and we were married in March 1999.

I have to say, even given the limited time we had, we had the best wedding! It fitted our personalities perfectly. It was held at a little tea-room which we had often visited together. It had a small art-gallery attached, so we had the wedding in the art-gallery and the reception in the tea-room. Unlike many couples, we actually got to enjoy our little wedding, surrounded by family and friends, one friend providing the music, another performing a song she'd written for us.

Of course, the immigration process was still not over for us. Once we were married, we had to initiate the Green Card procedure. Once we'd completed the paperwork and submitted the various documentation and filing fees, it was a waiting game, but one with some rules that we had to be aware of.

Firstly, if I wanted to work, I had to apply for a separate work permit. That was worth doing, because it takes a long time to get a Green Card. One other thing we had to take care of was something known bizarrely as "Advance Parole." This means that if we wanted to leave the country for any reason, we needed permission for me to do so, otherwise I would be considered as having abandoned my Green Card application and wouldn't be allowed back in the US. This has sadly happened to some couples, resulting in them being separated for months on end.

We were dealing with Newark INS. They did not let you make appointments to see them to get Advance Parole. All we could do is line up on the street at 4am with the several hundred others waiting to get into the building when it opened. They would only allow a certain number of people in during the day, so if we didn't get there in time, we were out of luck. When we eventually got into the building, there was a further wait during a shift change. Many people sat on the floor while waiting. B. actually lay down and rested her eyes for a while, during which time a security guard prodded her with his foot, saying "There's no sleeping at the INS!" Eventually we got herded into another room, which had its blinds closed. It'd all taken such a long time to get this far, that we had no concept of the time. We pulled the blinds aside a little to look outside and almost immediately a head popped up above a partition, telling us that we were not allowed to look outside! After going through all this, at least I had my Advance Parole approved, which allowed us to visit my parents in England.

Eventually, my Green Card came through. We were given an appointment at Newark for an interview prior to getting it. That was the closest we ever got to the situation portrayed in "Green Card." Our one and only trick question came when the woman conducting our interview asked Becky how I spelled my surname. I've spent just about my whole life spelling my name for people, so I started blurting it out, before B. shot me a look, and I realized that she was being tested. And she did get it right!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Much?

Many of you will be familiar with the early days of a "serious" relationship. It can be quite an expensive time, since you have not yet settled into the humdrum routine of spending nights watching TV, getting the recycling ready to go out, and so on. Instead, you're going out to restaurants and doing lots of fun stuff. Now imagine what this period might be like for a long-distance relationship.

When B. and I figured out that yes, we were dating, there was certainly some sticker-shock involved. We both, of course, made quite a few transatlantic flights. B's parents and one of her sisters came to Ireland for a vacation with some genealogy thrown in, and B. came with them for part of the trip, so one of my cheaper flights was to Dublin to meet the family. I discovered it pays to complain about poor service. On one of my trips to the US, there was not only a delay followed by a cancellation, but it was handled terribly by staff; a letter to head-office resulted in a free flight.

One of my regular trips was so we could go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival held in July in upstate New York. This festival is very special to us. Along with many other wonderful artists, we got to see Dar Williams, who was responsible for our relationship in the first place (she did find out about it, and has been very good to us over the years!). We became festival volunteers together, which not only made it a relatively cheap date, but also brought us together with a wonderful "family." Falcon Ridge was so dear to us that it also became the place where I proposed to B, in a solar shower stall in our campsite (yes, were were fully clothed, and yes, I got down on one knee, even though it was wet). Despite the surroundings, B. said yes!

And then there were the phone calls. Advice to anyone embarking on a long-distance relationship: Make sure you get on a calling plan QUICK! B. and I were calling each other just about every day. B's first phone bill after we started phoning each other regularly was enormous. But she got monthly bills. Mine came quarterly! Once we got onto sensible international calling plans, things were not so bad. I'm an early-morning person, and B's a night-owl, so the five hour time difference worked well for us; we'd call each other at Midnight Eastern Time, which was 5am in the UK. We'd talk for a while before I got ready for work.

Any idea how much it costs to import a husband? The story of our dealings with the INS will wait for another day.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

How did you two meet?

When I start talking with someone for the first time and they hear my accent, the first question they usually ask is "Where do you come from?" The second is "What brings you over here?", to which I usually answer "My Wife." The third question is usually "How did you two meet?" So in true American TV series style, here's a quick summary:

Previously in Graham's Life.....

Graham inexplicably develops a taste for English folk music, regularly going to folk festivals, such as The Cambridge Folk Festival, where one year he hears a new American singer-songwriter called Dar Williams. He starts listening to American Folk Music and joins the Dar List, an e-mail based discussion group for fans of Dar Williams. He starts posting on a fairly regular basis. He receives an e-mail one day from an American woman living in New Jersey commenting on something he'd posted to the list. Let's call her "B." Graham and B start e-mailing each other on a fairly regular basis, and a friendship ensues.

In these pre-IM/Chat-room days, Graham decides to start an IRC channel, so that like-minded fans can get together on Friday nights and chat. Despite it being a lively place, Graham and B often find themselves still chatting with each other through the night and into the morning. Something is going on here.

One Friday evening on IRC, with only Graham and a New Zealander still around, B mentions that she has a spare ticket for a local folk concert, and jokingly wonders if anyone wants to come with her. Graham calls her bluff and says sure....

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cops, Cars and a Cuppa - my first visit to the US (part 2)

(Continued from previous post)

I'd always known that American cops were armed, but when you're not used to an gun-toting police force, it really seems so "in your face." It's almost like something from a comic-book; the "Utility Belt", complete with packed heat - and testosterone to match. But I noticed the officer standing by the drop-off area outside the terminal building at Newark airport, much more than he noticed me. In fact, I was so invisible to him that he turned and spat right on my shoe. "Welcome to America!"

I dragged myself and my backpack (we like to call them Rucksacks in England) along the sidewalk (Brits call this the pavement) a few feet and anxiously awaited my ride (lift) while I munched on some of the candy (sweets) I'd bought at the store (shop). Would she recognize me? It turned out that this disheveled Brit with the rucksack stood out enough from the besuited dudes with their fancy luggage, that she was soon able to find me.

People sometimes wonder why it took me six years (actually, until my daughter was born) before I agreed to get behind the wheel of a car in the US. Here's why: My friend pulled away from the kerb (and yes, she had allowed me to get in first!) and headed for the highway (motorway). Unfortunately, where the airport exited onto the highway, all I could see were cars coming at us from every direction. I thought for sure that someone was going to crash into us. It was lunacy. I did the only sane thing I could have done. I covered my eyes with my hands and screamed like a girl.

By the time we'd arrived in Edison, New Jersey from Newark airport, I'd finally removed my hands from my eyes. I tumbled out of the car with my stuff and entered my friend's cute little house. We went straight for the kitchen, where she asked me whether I'd like a cup of tea. YES, I thought. She knows me well enough to know that all I want after this stressful transatlantic trip is a cup of tea. Nothing more, until I recover. I like this woman.

Would you like Green Tea, Decaf. Green Tea, Rose-hip, Peppermint, Chamomile, Cranberry Apple Zinger, Orange Spice, Red tea, White tea,Lapsang Souchong......

It was then I first learned about the insane amount of choice that Americans have. Over pretty much everything.

Please....do you just have some tea?

The amazing thing was she got it. Very quickly. I was beginning to think she might be a keeper.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Coins, Candy and Calls - my first visit to the US (part 1)

It started with getting a bus from my home town of Luton to Heathrow Airport. That was tiring enough, but follow that with a 7 hour flight, plus the time it took to get through passport control and pick up my luggage, and by the time I got to the lobby of Newark Airport, I was tired and crabby. Not to mention anxious, seeing as I was to meet up for the first time with a woman who I had previously only communicated with via the Internet or phone.

It should have been so simple. I just needed to find a payphone, call the aforementioned woman, who would then come out and pick me up from the Airport. One problem: I didn't have any US Change - only bills (or notes, as we like to call them in England). It shouldn't be too much of a problem - right?

So I started by finding an information desk and asked if they could break a bill for me. No, they weren't allowed to do that. OK, still no problem, I'd go to one of the stores and buy something, getting some change in the process. I worked out how much I'd need, then found some kind of confectionery that would result in me getting enough change. The storekeepers had been so kind as to put a price label on everything - how helpful! What they don't tell you is that sales tax isn't included in that price! So the change I'd carefully calculated was less than I needed! I tried the same procedure again, and found I still didn't have enough. In fact, by the time I had enough money for the phone, I also had pockets that were positively bulging with tooth-rotting candy!

But I had enough money for the phone. That was the main thing. I found the piece of paper with my friend's number on it and dialed. But here's the thing - when an American tells you their phone number, they say "My number is 123-456-7890." They forget to tell you that you have to dial a "1" in front of all numbers. I kept dialing the number I had, wondering briefly whether I was the victim of an expensive variation of the old "call me, here's a fake number" ruse, then thinking that perhaps I'd just copied the number incorrectly. Either way, I'd somehow managed to lose some of my change in the process, so it was back to the store to buy more candy.

I went back to the information desk to see if they had a directory. They did, and so I was able to look up the number. Of course, it was the number that I already had written down. So I went back to try again, with the same result. Eventually, and I can't recall where I found the small but all-important snippet of information about adding a "1" (after all, it was eleven or twelve years ago), I finally managed to get through and let my friend know I'd arrived...oh...over an hour previously.

(To be continued)