Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bathroom Basics

Photo courtesy of geniusJonesYour comments on my recent post Chips and Other Confusing Words started me thinking that there was probably more to say on the subject of bathrooms.

Just the word itself is a subject of cross-cultural confusion and discomfort. To a Brit, a bathroom is the place where you have a bath. It took me a long time in the US to get comfortable with asking where the bathroom was when I needed to relieve myself. Conversely, my Wife was quite shocked when in England to hear people ask where the toilet was. In polite company, she might hear a British lady talking about going to powder one's nose, but she might also hear someone announce that she was going to spend a penny. The origin of the previous phrase, incidentally, comes from a time when to enter a stall in a public convenience one would need to insert a penny in a slot in the door.

British slang words for the toilet also include loo (a discussion of possible origins of that word can be found here), khazi (it's likely the origins of this word come from the Italian casa, meaning house), bog, lav (short for lavatory, another common term) and WC, short for Water Closet. British friends visiting America may hear slang words such as head (this is thought to be due to the location of the crew toilet in the bow or head of a ship) or john.

I cannot let this talk about bathrooms go without a little explanation about plumbing, for the benefit of any transatlantic travelers out there. When I first encountered an American toilet, I found it somewhat scary! I thought it was blocked and about to overflow. I have since learned that American toilets have a higher water level than the toilets I was brought up using. Conversely, American travelers to Britain should be aware that yes, British toilets are meant to have a low water level. The water has not drained away. This difference means that British men using flush toilets (as opposed to urinals) in America are forced to subject anyone within earshot to what I refer to as "The Niagara Falls Effect," whereas in Britain, some careful aiming results in a discreet, almost noise-free performance.

On the subject of urinals (sorry Ladies), in the restrooms (I am certainly not going there to rest!) of pubs and other public places in Britain, you will often find a communal along-the-wall urinal, rather than the individual units that are more common in the US.

Then, of course, there is the infamous British love of toilet-humor. More on that later, I think. I need to go wash my hands.

I am a little cautious about opening this one up for public comments and discussion, but please do let us know your thoughts on this subject.

Friday, April 24, 2009

British Y-Front Sales Boosted by Recession

How timely! After talking about pants/underwear/underpants/trousers in my last blog post, the latest news from the BBC is that sales of Y-fronts have increased by 35%, according to British store Debenhams. In fact, sales of Y-fronts have overtaken sales of boxer shorts for the first time since early 1990, interestingly, the last time Britain was in a recession. A spokesman from Debenhams said,"They provide a much greater sense of security than loose-fitting boxers, and perhaps, in these troubled times, that's what men need to feel."

And with that brief (hah!) newsflash, which will no doubt thrill my friend Sheila, who for some reason is fascinated by Y-fronts, I wish you a great weekend!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chips and Other Confusing Words

During the discussion that followed my recent interview on Cindy's Country Corner, Cindy asked me, "Graham, I have heard that most Brits love their fish and chips! And, you obviously do! So, here’s my question. Are the chips more like french fries, home fries, potato chips or none of the above?"

I thought most American people knew what British "chips" were, but it is not the first time I have been asked this question, so I thought I would clarify this. British chips are American french fries (I hope we have got past the embarrassing term "freedom fries" now), but unlike most fries, which are usually quite thin, British chips are generally fatter.

What Americans call potato chips, Brits call crisps.

For the benefit of my non-American friends, home fries are par-cooked potatoes, diced or otherwise cut into chunks, then shallow-fried.

There are so many of these little differences, I think an entire series is warranted. Let us go on for a while:

What we Brits call pants, Americans call underwear. In Britain, the word underwear is often used to describe any undergarments, such as underpants, bras, undershirts (US undershirts are UK vests, while a US vest is what a Brit would call a waistcoat). An American calls them pants, while a Brit calls them trousers. My four-year-old daughter always bursts into fits of giggling when I tell her about pants and trousers and so on.

While we are on the subject of anatomy and accessories, if you have not already checked it out, you might enjoy an earlier post here, Don't say 'fannypack' around me.

Finally (for now anyway), you might enjoy The Very Best of British - The American's Guide to Speaking British, a website which is full of these little differences and makes a very entertaining read.

Confused? Do you have some more differences or questions about language differences? Please post a comment and let me know.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Interview With an Englishman

In a recent post, I mentioned that I'd been interviewed for Cindy's Country Corner, a blog I often enjoy reading. Cindy has now posted the interview on her blog. She's a former newspaper editor, and her experience shows, since she managed to ask me a great set of questions that prompted me to share quite a bit.

Read the interview here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Susan Boyle Sings "Cry Me A River"

Just a quickie today, as an update to yesterday's piece on Susan Boyle. Scottish newspaper The Daily Record claims to have an exclusive; they've found a 1999 charity CD featuring Susan Boyle singing the standard Cry Me A River. It's a wonderful performance too. It does suggest that Ms. Boyle has some range to her vocal talents.

The article goes on to talk about interviews she has done for US TV shows, and suggests she's been lined up as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show:

"BGT supremo Simon Cowell reckons that if the appearance goes ahead, it will guarantee that her debut album will top the charts in the States."

As usual, I'd love to know what you think - please post a comment.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Susan Boyle - Scottish Singing Sensation Shows 'Em!

Last Saturday, on British TV talent show Britain's Got Talent, an unassuming 47-year-old-woman with a frumpy figure, unruly hair, bushy eyebrows and wearing a fairly unattractive dress, was laughed at as she strutted out on stage for an audition. As she answered the judges' questions before her performance (with some degree of sassiness, I might add), they pulled faces, the audience giggled and muttered and hosts Ant and Dec mugged from the wings. Before she had finished her first line (she was singing I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables), everyone had stopped laughing, and many were gasping, cheering and clapping. If you have not seen it yourself already, please check out the YouTube video (I don't do this usually with links, but if you select this link, it'll open the video in a new window, so you can keep on reading).

If you are anything like me, you may have had shivers running up your spine when Ms. Boyle started singing. At the time of writing this, close to 14 Million people have watched the above YouTube clip. From surprising a panel of cocky judges on a talent show, that unassuming 47-year-old woman from a small town in Scotland has progressed to wowing the World. Apparently, she is already in talks with Judge Simon Cowell's Sony BMG record label. Even celebrity couple Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher got in on the act, when it was widely reported that the two had sent the following messages to each other on Twitter:

Kutcher: This just made my night.
Moore: You saw it made me teary.

So where has Susan Boyle been all these years? According to the Daily Mirror, she was bullied as a child, due to her fuzzy hair, and a learning difficulty caused by being starved of oxygen during birth. She found comfort in singing. After taking part in choirs and concerts while at school, she graduated to playing clubs and pubs. She is well-known locally for singing karaoke. A spell at Edinburgh Acting School in the 90's was cut short when she had to look after her sick Mother (her Father died ten years ago). It was her Mother who wanted Susan to enter Britain's Got Talent. Ms. Boyle has eight older siblings, and still lives in the same house as she grew up in, with a ten year old cat named Pebbles. Although things are likely to change very soon, she was unemployed and volunteered for her church. She claims never to have been kissed.

I think that what has captured the world's imagination is not just her voice, which is fantastic, but the fact that it comes from such an unlikely source. Mark Smith, in Scottish Newspaper The Herald says that people like Susan "stand out because everyone on television now has the same face, the same hair and the same teeth. Someone on the programme might make this point one day, but it's unlikely anyone would hear them over the tearjerking violin music being played over slow-motion clips of Susan smiling."

I think the danger is that some "image expert" will try to change Ms. Boyle, and that will spoil the magic. To a degree this process may already be starting. Apparently, judge Piers Morgan ordered a film crew to film in a neighboring town rather than Boyle's hometown Blackburn, which Morgan branded "a dump," according to newspaper The Scotsman.

I would love to hear your thoughts on Susan Boyle, her amazing performance, and her future. Please do post a comment.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What a Load Of...Colin?

It was reported last week that UK Supermarket chain Sainsbury's announced that they were going to rename the white fish pollack with a French name, "colin." Apparently, they believed that flagging sales were due to Brits being embarrassed to ask for pollack, because of its similarity to the British word "Bollocks," which is slang for testicles. I don't buy that explanation, especially when the renaming comes (in some stores) with special packaging designed by Wayne Hemingway, but clearly inspired by artist Jackson Pollock.

Yes, I said packaging. Sainsbury's sells pollack prepackaged. So it's not as if customers have to ask out loud for the fish in stores. I think this is all an attempt to use the media for a bit of free publicity.

Because of its mild flavor, pollack, caught in British waters, is a good substitute for cod, whose numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. It is a more popular fish in France than in the UK. It is also cheaper than cod.

To add a further level of complexity to this tale, the French word "colin" actually means "hake," rather than pollack. The French for pollack is actually "lieu jaune," which could unfortunately be pronounced "loo john." In addition, "colin" is actually pronounced "coh-lan," so as columnist Marcel Berlins rightly points out in the Guardian, "the supermarket took a decision to deal with a nonsensical problem by using a difficult-to-pronounce foreign word that is wrongly translated from the English."

My interest in all this? My Father's name is Colin!

Real problem or just a marketing ploy? Please post a comment and let me know what you think.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Graham Makes Some Excuses - and a Guest Post

You may have noticed that I haven't posted to my blog for at least a week. I've been busy on some side projects. First, Cindy from Cindy's Country Corner interviewed me for a forthcoming entry on her blog. I've also been working on the design of a new blog/website. Lastly, Vicki, who writes one of my favorite blogs, The Divamom Life Love Shopping and Food Blog, invited me to write a guest post, based on a little comedy of errors I experienced this Easter weekend. You can read all about it in her blog post: Eggy Errors (by Graham Gudgin). It's my very first guest post, so I was really excited about that. Go check it out, and while you're there, take a look at some of her earlier posts.

Normal service will be resumed this week!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Michelle O - Behind Every Successful Man...

From Our London Correspondent:

Michelle Obama has come across as the real heroine of the G20 summit. She has come across so well to us over here. The British TV media has lavished HUGE praise on her and the students at this largely ethnic school, treated her like a film star, screaming upon her appearance. She was clearly very emotional about their welcome for her.
This bodes very well.

I received this e-mail from my brother who was excited (He entitled his e-mail "Michelle, OUR Belle") about media coverage of Michelle Obama's visit to a school in London. I've included the video from the BBC here. She did get a remarkable reception, and it is quite amusing watching the security people appear to be wondering what to do if the First Lady gets pulled into the crowd.

The Obamas were in London so President Barack Obama could attend the G20 Economic Summit. Recently, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the US. Much of the media reported Brown as being snubbed by Barack Obama during that trip. There were stories, for example, of a bust of Winston Churchill, given to President Bush by previous PM Tony Blair after 9/11, being returned to Britain. Unfortunately, a gift to Gordon Brown of 20 DVDs of American movies was unplayable in the UK, because of differences in the format.

During this visit, The President seemed to be going out of his way to make up with Britain. The technology-loving President did better with gifts this time. He presented The Queen with an engraved iPod containing recordings of famous American show-tunes. This was to accompany a gift of a a rare songbook signed by American composer Richard Rogers. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the iPod also contained "photos of her White House visit; photos and video of her stop in Richmond, Va.; video of her 2007 and 1957 trips to Jamestown, Va.; photos of the president’s January inauguration, as well as mp3s of Obama’s inaugural address and his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention." In return, The Queen gave The President the traditional gift of a silver-framed photograph of the Queen and Prince Phillip.

Again, Michelle Obama clearly went down well with the British Monarch. The Queen even went so far as putting her arm around Mrs. Obama, after the two joked about their significant height difference.

Did you follow the G20 Summit or the Obama's visit to Britain? Please let us know your thoughts.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Center - Renewing a Sense of Community

In my recent blog post How I Got To Know My Community by Getting Involved, I described the origins of a nonprofit group I have been a member of since I moved to the US, The Center For Community Renewal. I wanted to describe a little more about what "The Center" has done over its history, because unfortunately, the organization could soon fold.

The Mission Statement of The Center is "Foster and support local, grassroots initiatives that strengthen communities and neighborhoods by providing financial, volunteer, educational and consulting resources not readily available elsewhere." Ian Durand, the Executive Director, brought together a group of local people who were involved with different nonprofit groups in the area. Our meetings often consisted of brainstorming sessions where we discussed projects of our own respective organizations or of others, and how to solve some of the problems that arose. Because the members have always had a wide range of experience, wonderful symbiotic relationships developed. Whatever the problem or challenge, there was usually someone who had found an answer, had good information to share, or could come up with some good ideas.

We initiated our own projects. Among the most successful were several series of "mini-grants." These were small awards of up to $500 made to a local organization or individual in order to get a grassroots project going. The recipients of these grants had a great idea that would generally help to foster a sense of community, but were not likely to receive money from elsewhere. Ideally, we wanted the awards to help get a project off the ground in a way that could be sustained. We also offered the recipients advice and support.

One such project, "Heavenly Angels," started with a very detailed application from its founder, Linda Seickel, for under $100 for materials (yarn, etc.). Linda wanted to make clothes, blankets and related items for premature babies in local hospitals and burial gowns for those who had died. We asked her what she might be able to do with $500. Eight years later, Heavenly Angels has made and donated well over twenty thousand items. Another recipient was a woman who wanted to put together and give "kitchen start-up kits" to households in Manville, NJ who had lost everything in Hurricane Floyd.

Another project of The Center was something we called "Passport to Edison." This was a weekend event designed to help familiarize Edisonians with the different parts of our Town and local organizations. We set up "checkpoints" at places of significance around Edison Township. Collaborating with different township groups, we "stamped the passports" of people traveling around town, the idea being to collect all the stamps. We produced a guidebook to Edison to accompany this event.

A few years ago, Ian Durand and his Wife April Cormaci decided to move to Canada. Up until now, The Center has survived, but in a much scaled-down version. Members have taken turns to facilitate meetings. We did offer a round of mini-grants, and organized a round-table discussion and networking event for local groups. However, without Ian and April at the helm, there have been problems. The couple supported the organization financially, so when they moved, our group was without a revenue stream. In addition, we are so heavily involved with our own projects and organizations that we are unable to devote the amount of time The Center deserves.

At the most recent meeting, we started discussing whether to continue The Center or not. It is looking like the Center may not be around for much longer. I am personally very upset about this, as we have done some wonderful things, but I can see that without a dedicated leader and a revenue stream, it really cannot continue in its current form.

I am already thinking about the possibility of starting another group or project to keep the spirit of The Center alive. I want to preserve some of the best parts of the organization. This would probably include offering small grants to great projects that might not otherwise get grant money, and creating opportunities for nonprofit organizations, community groups and individuals to build useful relationships with one another. Of course, it would need to be financed in some way. There is also the issue of people having the time to participate. It is possible that there could be a role for Social Media and other ways for people to get involved virtually.

I would love to hear your opinions or any input you might have about this idea. Please post a comment.