Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Getting Excited for Christmas

We fly out to London tomorrow -- Hooray!

I've just finished my Christmas shopping and am now starting to feel really Christmassy -- carols on the radio, frost on the ground, Christmas decorations up and the prospect of going home. I've also started the packing and all the presents are wrapped and ready to take. Emily and Lauren are almost bouncing off the walls with excitement. I don't know how we're going to get them to sleep on the plane (essential if Christmas is to not be a total washout).

Generally speaking, in the UK, there aren't a huge number of Christmas lights adorning people's homes. However, this US tradition is becoming more widespread. In Mark's parents' neighbourhood a number of people (including one whole street) have clubbed together to extensively decorate their homes with outdoor lights (not quite to the extent depicted in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation). They collect donations for charity from those who go to view their lights. Over recent years, a tradition has developed in Mark's family that every Christmas Eve night we go and look at the Christmas lights.

This year, we won't be at Mark's family's for Christmas Eve, so I don't know if we'll get a chance to take a tour of the lights (although hopefully we will). We thought we'd take a video of our local lights here in our neighbourhood to show them.

Our itinerary is:

  • My family for the 23rd to the 25th
  • Mark's family from lunchtime on the 25th to the 28th
  • Birmingham friends from the 28th to the 29th
  • Mark's Grandad on the 29th
  • Back to my family from the 29th to the 1st of January, with what is bound to be an excellent party on the 31st. If there's anything any of my brothers and sisters can do, it's throw a party.
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

How to Cope without British TV and Radio

Today you have a special treat -- a guest entry from Mark:

When we first arrived in America, I decided that I would not cling to all things English. I was expecting to miss The Guardian, Radio 4, FiveLive, BBC1, BBC2 and Channel 4, the politics, the football, the cricket, but I thought I’d be able to cope. We were coming to live in America, and I wanted to enjoy America for America, to learn to live with and to love the best of its media and its culture. I did not expect that to be difficult because I have always so enjoyed visiting the USA in the past. When I hire a car, I want to get American radio on. When in a hotel room, I am keen to get American television on. Viola and I have always enjoyed the best of American film and TV too, so we were looking forward to catching all the best films as they came out, and seeing the new television months before it comes out in Britain.

For the first three weeks or so, I found it pretty easy to cope. We’d put American TV on each morning in our hotel room, we listened to American radio in the car and there was too much to think about to miss all things English (and you don’t miss good tea, black pudding, toast and marmalade so much when you’re learning to love root beer, jerky and hush puppies). But as the weeks went on, I surprised myself by just how much I began to miss home, and I have had to learn the secret of how to survive as an English person in America. Just in case there are others out there in the same predicament, or others considering the move, here’s how I have managed.

I had never realized how fond of Radio 4 I was until I hadn’t got it any more. Waking up in the morning means the Today programme. Friday evening means Any Questions? Saturday mornings mean The Week at Westminster. Sunday night means The Westminster Hour. When do you laugh as much as when you listen to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue? I am not a gardener, but I always listen to Gardeners’ Question Time. It rarely speaks to my situation, but Money Box is a staple. If you leave the UK and you’re a Radio 4 devotee, you will really miss it. But the good news here is that it is perhaps the easiest problem to solve. Everything is available on-line, not only to listen live, but also archived.

Of course, you’ll need a computer for this, but then you probably have one of those if you are reading this. Ideally you need some decent speakers too, and ideally a good broadband wireless connection and a laptop. With the laptop, you can take the radio around with you. If your laptop is like mine, you can close the lid and carry on listening. And if it seems like a right business going to the web and finding the link each time, just add a button bookmark for Radio 4 and Radio 4 live at the top of your Firefox browser.

I do the same for Five Live and of course one could do it for any other channels one listens to regularly. One problem with Five Live, however, is that many of its sporting events, including all the football, are unavailable on-line. And, alas, the thing I have really missed recently is Test Match Special. The BBC did not have the rights to broadcast the recent England v. Pakistan series abroad. I am hoping that that will change in the summer.

Si-Link FM Transmitter
Si-Link FM Transmitter
Speaking of Five Live, the audio feed tends to be that bit weaker than for Radio 4, and this raises the general issue of listening on the laptop: sometimes it’s just not loud enough. But a couple of weeks ago I found a great little gizmo for $15 (reduced from $30) which you can plug into the ear-phone socket of your laptop and it broadcasts a local signal for you to pick up on your radio. This was a revelation. You have to place the laptop pretty near to your radio, and you have to do a little tweaking, but once you are used to it, it is a great way of getting the radio feed from your laptop loud and clear. It’s called a Si-Link FM Transmitter and is a great investment.

Television, though, is a bigger problem. When my brother Jonathan came over to see us a couple of weeks ago, he brought with him a video of some of the highlights of British TV since September, and it was fabulous. It’s strange how even the sound of the links between programmes can make you just a little homesick. Outside of treats like that, though, what does one do? There are several things worth mentioning. The first is BBC America, which comes in most cheap cable and satellite packages. (We have Time Warner Cable, but will be changing in due course to Dish Network – see below). I had my hopes a bit too high when we first got this, imagining that it would give one the best of current BBC television. What it actually gives is endless repeats of Monty Python and Benny Hill, and a few other bits and bobs of interest, but stuff that is usually already some months old. We enjoyed catching Viva Blackpool, which we had missed when it was on in the UK; and it featured new Dr Who David Tenant. But you won’t get the latest series of Little Britain, at least not for some months, or Newsnight.

There is some TV that you can catch on the internet for free, albeit via a shaky realvideo link. The two that I watch, usually on the archive rather than live, are Question Time and the new Andrew Marr programme Sunday AM. I learned of the latter, which started after we had left the UK, because of a pastiche it has in its opening credits of the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner. I dare say that there are other BBC programmes one could watch on-line, but I don’t know of a list anywhere, and those are the only two I have found so far.

So it’s straightforward to get your fill of British politics, and you can top that up, of course, by reading The Guardian Unlimited. But what about sport? I’ve already mentioned Five Live, but there is good news on the TV front. If you are a football fan, there’s a whole channel devoted to it even on the basic cable packages. It’s called Fox Soccer Channel and broadcasts a lot of live premiership football. One of my staples has become the 5 pm GMT (12 pm ET here) live match every Saturday. In fact, I am now watching more premiership football on American TV than I was on UK TV, because you have to subscribe specially to Sky TV for the live Premiership stuff in the UK. Fox Soccer Channel gives you the Sky commentary, but overlays it with an American introduction, which always refers to the “EPL” (English Premier League), “soccer” and “game” (never “match”), e.g. they have a “player of the game”.

Cricket is initially more of a problem, but I think I’ve found the solution. It seems that Dish Network has the rights to the UK test matches for the next four years or so, and the good news is that Dish is much cheaper than Time Warner Cable. It’s around $30 a month. You have to pay a premium, something like $70-$90 for the cricket for the season, but since that is now also the case in the UK too, with Sky taking the home test matches, it’s not so much of a big deal. So at some point soon we are going to be making the switch. It’s a fantastic thought that I will still be able to watch cricket in the summer. I could hardly hope for more.

Don’t get me wrong. I am enjoying building on our love of some American TV series and films by learning more of American politics and sport. I went to my first Duke basketball match on Sunday and loved it, especially the atmosphere (but where were the cheerleaders?) and NPR radio is a staple when I’m driving, and sometimes in the house too. But it’s much easier to enjoy all that America has to offer when one has access to a lot of what one misses from the UK too.

April 25, 2006

You can find an update to the parts of this post that are pertinent to football at:
How to cope without British TV and Radio: Football Supplement

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Hidden Cost of Living

Before moving to the US, almost everyone we met told us how much we'd be financially better off because everything in America is cheaper. Now that we are here, we realise that although some things are cheaper here in the US, many things are more expensive than they are in the UK.

Everyday Living

In England, higher end food shopping is done at Waitrose or M&S; middle range are Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda; and the low end is Kwik Save, Lidl and Aldi.

When we first moved to the US, we went shopping for basic supplies in the first supermaket we found. The prices were in orbit and we were surprised that the fruit and veg. were not all gold plated or studded with diamonds. This place was Harris Teeter and we have since found out that there are cheaper places to shop (Kroger, Food Lion, Walmart, Target). In addition, prices are greatly reduced with the use of loyalty cards (these provide on-the-spot reductions rather than points for spending later).

However, even in these "cheaper" places, the prices are, at best, the same as UK prices and are often more expensive. For example, the cheapest loaf of bread we've managed to find was $1.50 + tax; the cheapest 2 quarts of milk (I think that this equates to about 2 pints, but I'm not really sure) was about $2.30 + tax.

Utilities (landline phones, mobile phones, gas, electricity, water, TV, internet) are all more expensive here than they are in the UK. Clothes can be cheaper if bought from a lower-end shop like Walmart. However, bought from a Mall (unless in a sale), they are about the same or more expensive.

"But, some things must be cheaper, otherwise how is this myth propagated?" I hear you ask.

You're quite right. Some things are cheaper. Electrical items and petrol are a lot cheaper here than they are in the UK. Staying in hotels and eating out are also a lot cheaper. Houses are also cheaper in that one gets a lot more for one's money. For a similar price as our ex-council house in Birmingham, we've got a 0.46 acre plot with a fairly large house. However, it must be said that many houses in Britain have stood the test of time better than any I have yet seen in the US (some that were built back in the 15th century are still functional). The values of houses, at least in this part of America, depreciate with age. Buying a house here is not the investment that it is in the current UK climate.

I think that the myth propagates because visitors to the US stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and see the big US houses; and go home thinking that everything in America is cheaper. Conversely, US visitors to the UK stay in and eat at the more expensive Brisish hotels and restaurants; and they visit British people in their small British homes. Then they carry home with them the report that the UK is expensive.


The other thing to consider is that in the UK the VAT is 17.5%. Generally speaking, in the UK, the price you're quoted is the price you pay.

Here the taxes added onto purchases add up to only 7% (this varies from state to state). What still takes me off guard is that all the prices quoted are without tax, so when you go into McDonalds and order an item from the dollar menu, it costs $1.07.

A good example of hidden costs was our Time Warner Cable bill. We expected the advertised cost to be the cost we'd pay, but when our first bill arrived it had added expenses for equipment hire (normally included at no extra cost in the UK) and 7% tax (normally included in the quoted cost in the UK). We have since found several services that are cheaper than Time Warner Cable, but the hidden costs still exist.


I have already talked a little about tipping in the US. This can be considered another hidden cost.

So, what's the moral of this story?

If you're planning to make the big leap across the big pond, you can probably expect the standard of living to be higher than you've been used to (after all, you're probably moving because you've been offered more money than you're currently on), but don't expect the overall cost of living to be lower.

The other thing is that if you're selling your UK home and buying a house in the US, you might want to keep some money aside to facilitate your re-entry onto the UK property ladder if/when you need it.

(By the way, you might like to read Michael's blog entry about exchange rates.)

March 28, 2006

It seems that according to ECA International, the US had a higher cost of living than the UK. At least they did six years ago. Here's the article:

UK Continues to Hold Its Own As One of the World's Most Costly Locations

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Lament

This morning, I awoke to news that the State of California had executed Stanley Williams by lethal injection at San Quentin prison. The Romans, an ancient superpower, had crucifixion. The USA has lethal injection.

I don't know if you're familiar with Corrie ten Boom. Her book, The Hiding Place, is about her experiences during WW2 -- how she and her family hid Jews in a secret room in their home in Holland. They were all caught and arrested. The blurb on the back of the book recounts an incident that occurred while she was in a Nazi concentration camp.

Corrie Ten Boom stood naked with her older sister Betsie, watching a concentration camp matron beating a prisoner."Oh, the poor woman," Corrie cried."Yes. May God forgive her," Betsie replied. And, once again, Corrie realized that it was for the souls of the brutal Nazi guards that her sister prayed.

In the same way, my lament is not for Mr Williams, but for a Nation that leads the world in many different ways, but still is capable of such barbarism.

Here's the Campaign to End the Death Penalty website's links page.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Doe Deer!

There are a lot of deer where we live, but I hadn't seen any apart from one on the side of the highway that had been hit by a car -- a sad sight. That is until today. We were driving along the interstate when we saw a deer dashing out across the road. It basically just ran and hoped for the best. (I must admit that I think that closing one's eyes and running for it is probably the only way to cross eight lanes of fast moving traffic.) It didn't stop on the central verge, but just continued its mad dash and was narrowly missed by more than one car. At one stage, its hooves skidded on the tarmac (pavement to Americans) and I thought it was done for. However, it got back up and continued its dash. We all breathed huge sighs of relief as it made it to the other side.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


The film Pleasantville is about two teenagers who leave their sitting room and enter the 1950s sitcom on their television. If you're thinking of moving from the UK to the US, be prepared to step out of real-life, through your TV screen, into the world of film and television. There are the post boxes with the little red flags outside each house; the sort of fire hydrants that dogs relieve themselves against; people who say "Y'all"; and the long, straight roads with double yellow lines down the middle where you can bang your car into cruise control and sit back and enjoy the ride.

Our Street
Our Street
We have taken this step and entered a world that looks not so much like a 1950s sitcom, but more like Wisteria Lane. I'm talking about the look of the place. I don't yet know the inhabitants well enough to know whether the neighbourhood contains a Gabrielle, a Lynette, a Susan or any other Desperate Houswives equivalents. For evidence, compare the picture of Wisteria Lane with our street.

There is also an element of Stepford about it. I don't mean that all the wives on the estate are perfect and I suspect that they're really robots. But, we have moved into an area with an H.O.A. (Home Owner's Association).

There are similar areas in the UK (e.g. Bournville Village Trust in Birmingham), but I think that they are less common in the UK than they are here. This is the first time we've lived in such an area. One pays monthly fees that go towards general upkeep of the common areas and common facilities (our common facility is a swimming pool). They also have regular meetings and various committees that one can be on. There are also lots of rules and politics which I caught glimpses of when I attended a meeting.

The H.O.A. obviously also has some sort of Lawn Patrol Special Forces to police the upkeep of lawns because last week we received a letter giving us 14 days to aerate and seed our lawn. I'm not sure what would happen if we were not to do this.

In our defence, because Mark has had to hit the ground running with his job, the unpacking of boxes has been more of an uphill struggle than it otherwise might have been. We have been so concerned with the inside of the house -- finding places for things, buying and assembling furniture, trying to get ready for Christmas etc.; that we had neglected the exterior. (Bear in mind, also, that the house had been empty for a while before we moved in and that we have had a drought and local water restrictions.) As a result, the front lawn has become rather brown and covered in autumn leaves.

We have had lawns in every house we've ever lived in and we've never had to re-seed or aerate a lawn. Normally, grass just grows and we just mow it, but I suppose that England is not as hot and dry as here. Although it needs doing and it's good to have the slight push, I'm more used to our lawns being our business rather than someone else's.

However, I don't want to be too hard on the H.O.A. Perhaps the slight draconian edge is needed to keep the area looking nice (and possibly thus keeping property values higher than they might otherwise be) and to provide a sense of community.

So, if you're thinking of moving to the US, be prepared to leave the real world behind and step into TV-land.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Doctor Who

Many Americans reading this may not know what I'm on about, but put your hand up if you're looking forward to the Dr Who Christmas Invasion, due to air on Christmas Day on BBC1. Every time she thinks about it, Lauren gets so excited that she goes round the house singing the theme tune. When it was still online, she watched the Children in Need prequel over and over again.

I grew up with Tom Baker as The Doctor, Mark's Doctor was John Pertwee. Before the new series started (the Christopher Eccleston series), we primed our children. When it started, we sat them down and watched it with them -- after all, Dr Who is part of our English heritage. It is as British as cricket, tea and scones, or Marmite; and they needed to be educated.

We were on tenterhooks because we weren't sure that Russell Davies could pull it off. We dreaded a travesty, like that awful film starring Paul McGann. Our fears were unfounded. The children loved it and so did the adults. Let's hope that David Tennant is as good.

The good news is that we're going to be in the UK on Christmas Day, so can watch The Christmas Invasion. Unfortunately, though, we will have to wait until the second series makes it's way onto DVD or BBC America before we can watch it.

The other thing is, who would have thought that Billie Piper would come to something? Hats off to her.

If you're feeling nostalgic for Dr Whos of yesteryear, try perusing the TV ARK Dr Who pages.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag ...

One interesting thing about life in the US, is how many US flags one sees. I think that we British are just as patriotic, but are quite content to be quietly patriotic. The flags only come out for special occasions. In fact, recently, the World Cup clashed with the Queen's Golden Jubilee. I think that there were probably more England flags around Birmingham than there were Union Jacks. Does this mean that we are more patriotic/passionate about our football than we are about our Royal family?

Our children's school has a big flagpole with a US flag on it. The children are taught about how the flag should be treated (shouldn't touch the floor, should be folded in a particular way, shouldn't be burnt etc.). Each class also has a flag in their classroom. Every day at school, they stand facing the flag, put their right hands on their hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The status quo was rocked the other week when a boy who had only recently moved to the US refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. (I must say before I continue that this account is as told by my children, so if I discover that there are any inaccuracies, I'd be happy to correct them.) I dare say that his allegiance was probably to the flag of his home country. After some deliberation, the school decided that all American children must stand and recite the Pledge, but that non-Americans, although they should stand with the rest of the class, need not put their hand on their heart or recite the Pledge.

America is built on immigration. Non-Americans move to America and become Americans. They become Irish-Americans, Greek-Americans, Mexican-Americans (you can continue this list with prefixes that cover pretty much any country you may choose). As a non-resident alien, my allegiance is currently firmly to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, the US is currently our host country and, if we live here for a number of years, my children are likely to grow up becoming just as much American as they are British (Anglo-American?).

I told my daughter (whose class this entire affair concerns) that she can choose what she wants to do. If she wants to say the Pledge of Allegiance, I don't mind; but I also don't mind if she doesn't want to.

The Union Jack

It has occurred to me that some people might not have an understanding of the difference between the England flag and the Union Jack.

The Union Jack is made up of:
St. George's Cross for England (Source): St. George's Cross
St Andrew's Saltire for Scotland (Source): St. Andrew's saltaire
St. Patrick's Cross for Ireland (Source): St. Patrick's Cross

These three flags are superimposed to form the Union Jack. The Union Jack represents the whole of the United Kingdom, so would be flown in such events as the celebration of the Queen's Golden Jubilee. St. George's Cross, however, is the flag of England, so would be flown to show support for the England team in the World Cup.

I don't want to leave out the Welsh, so here's St. David's Cross (even though it doesn't feature in the Union Jack) (Source):
St. David's Cross

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Christmas Lunch

In the UK, we have a very firm idea of what a Christmas lunch/dinner entails. The essentials are turkey, sausage wrapped in bacon, stuffing, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, shed-loads of gravy, carrots and brussel sprouts; all followed by Christmas pudding with brandy butter. Optional items include ham, boiled potatoes, sausagemeat stuffing, chestnut stuffing, bread sauce and an additional vegetable of choice. Obviously, you also have to include the mandatory Christmas crackers.

Otherwise, it's just not a Christmas meal.

Here's an extract from the TV series Bottom, starring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson (Source):

EDDIE: God, seven o'clock. Another twenty-seven hours of Christmas to go. I don't thing I'm gonna survive it, I'll have to blank out in front of the telly.

RICHIE: You hold that finger right there young man, no-one in this house watches the telly until the Queen's Speech!

EDDIE: But it's Noel's Christmas Family Video Accidents!

RICHIE: I don't care, we're English here and we're going to do Christmas properly. Alright? Well, unless there's a Bond film on, obviously. [yanks the cord out of the television] Okay? Now let's keep it Christmassy. Right now look, there's only five hours until lunch, I've got to get my sprouts on. Don't want them all crunchy.

EDDIE: Not sprouts! I hate sprouts!

RICHIE: Oh will you stop whinging Eddie! Nobody likes sprouts.

EDDIE: Then why are we having them then?

RICHIE: Because it's Christmas! Oh look, we've got guests coming, remember? So I'd better get on with my turkey.

EDDIE: What are you going to do with it?

RICHIE: Well, it's the season of goodwill and peace on Earth, so I thought I'd chop both its feet off, rip out its innards, strip it, shove an onion up its arse and bung it in a very hot place for four hours until its completely burnt.

EDDIE: Fair enough.

Similarly, in the US, there are certain things that seem to be mandatory as part of a Thanksgiving meal -- turkey, mashed yams, pumpkin pie and pecan pie. As I'm not going to be in the US for Christmas, what I'd like to know (if you're an American reading this) is, are there any other items that you would consider to be necessary for a Thanksgiving meal that I have not yet experienced? Are the required contents of the Thanksgiving meal set in stone (as they are in the UK) or is there a level of flexibility?

My other question is this -- is the fare at a traditional American Christmas meal the same as the fare at a Thanksgiving meal, or does a traditional Christmas meal in the US more resemble the British Christmas meal?

By the way, the Christmas episode of Bottom (Holy) is my favourite episode. It's the episode where Eddie drank all the brandy, so they had to have "vodka margarine ... spiced ... up with a couple of bottles of hairspray" to make it flammable. (By the way, do you flambee the Christmas pudding in the US?) It's also the episode where Ritchie thinks that he's the Mother of God. It's well worth a watch.

Friday, November 25, 2005


America --

  • you can disagree with current politics
  • you can be bewildered by the way white collar workers feel the need to own fuel guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs
  • you can abhor tipping (I refer to the first comment to the "To Tip or Not To Tip" post)
But, we are eternally in their debt. Why? Because they invented Pecan Pie.

Southern Pecan PiePecan pie is the quintessential Thanksgiving dessert. We were lucky enough to be invited to an American family's home for Thanksgiving. A couple of days before, they phoned and asked us if we'd like to bring a pudding. Our initial thoughts were of banoffee pie -- a staple of students. However, one quick google search later, we decided that "Mamma's Southern Pecan Pie" seemed to be easy enough to have a shot at it -- so, off we went to Wal-Mart to buy the ingredients.

(As an aside:
If you come to the US, don't expect all Wal-Marts to have a supermarket element to them. The first time we went into a Wal-Mart it only sold junk food. However, we have one near us that is an enormous great place that sells everything. Oh, and the other thing is that Wal-Mart is basically Asda. Wal-Mart bought Asda a few years ago. One can tell because Wal-Mart has the "Rollback" marketing logo and George clothing.)

Mark made two pecan pies, which we took, along with a bottle of wine. It was a very relaxing affair -- our hosts had a down-to-earth lack of "standing on ceremony" which had the effect of immediately putting us at our ease. The turkey, mashed yams and other fare went down well, as did the pecan pie.

Pilgrims Land on Plymouth Rock
Shouldn't this be Nov/Dec, 1620? (Source)

The thing that struck me most about thanksgiving was its low-key nature. It is a haven from commercialism that falls between Halloween and Christmas, both of which have been commercially hijacked. Because there is no giving and receiving of presents or decorations involved, the best that the retail industry can manage is to have sales the next day.

Thanksgiving is a pure feast, a gathering of families and friends that is un-sullied by commercialism. Even if our ancestry does not date back to the Mayflower Pilgrims, a feast that encourages us to reflect and give thanks for all that is good in our lives has to be a good thing.

If you want to find out more about what Thanksgiving is celebrating and the history of the feast, here's a few good links:
Plymouth Plantation
The History of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Traditions

December 02, 2005

In light of Leon's point that this account of my first Thanksgiving in the USA gave it a rather "pure" slant, here's a Native American viewpoint to provide some sense of balance (I came across the link on SinnaLuvva's blog).

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

To Tip or Not to Tip?

Is the whole area of tipping in the USA considered to be a quagmire? Who should you tip and how much should you tip them? I don't know if you're familiar with Seinfeld (an American sit-com set in New York), but who to tip and how much to tip is a theme that quite often crops up. Here's a few examples (Source).

In a discussion about wood being delivered for a fireplace, in The Robbery:

JERRY: Whatta ya tip a "wood guy"?

Then, when discussing getting a gardener, in the same scene:

JERRY: Would I have to get a gardener?
ELAINE: Yeah, you can get a gardener.
JERRY: You tip him?
ELAINE: You can.
GEORGE: [to Elaine] You don't tip a gardener!
ELAINE: You can tip a gardener.
GEORGE: You don't need a gardener.

From The Trip 2:

GEORGE: How much do you tip a chamber maid?
GUY: I don't know, five bucks a night.
JERRY: No, a dollar, two tops.

This clip is from The Airport (by the way, a skycap is an airport porter):

SKYCAP: Where you goin'?
JERRY: Uh, JFK. [To Elaine] I need some small bills for a tip. You got anything?
ELAINE: Yeah, you want five?
JERRY: Gimme ten.
ELAINE: You're giving him ten dollars?
JERRY: Well, we got three bags.
ELAINE: That's a pretty big tip...
JERRY: That's what they get!
ELAINE: They don't get that much.
JERRY: Let's ask him.
ELAINE: We can't ask him...
JERRY: Let's see what he says.
ELAINE: Jerry, we don't have time for this...
JERRY: Two seconds. [To Skycap] Excuse me, my friend and I here, we were having a discussion and we were wondering what you usually get for a tip.
SKYCAP: Depends on the person, depends on the bag.
JERRY: Uh, how about a couple of people like us.
SKYCAP: People like you? I wouldn't expect much, you don't even look like you know what you're doing...
JERRY: C'mon, seriously...
SKYCAP: Well, since you asked, usually, I get five dollars a bag.
JERRY: What!?
ELAINE: What!?
SKYCAP: That's right.
JERRY: Five bucks a bag?
ELAINE: Five dollars a bag? I don't think so.
SKYCAP: Look, you asked, I told you.
ELAINE: You got some nerve trying to take advantage of us...
JERRY: All right, look, we're late. Thank you very much...
ELAINE: You're lucky I don't report you...
JERRY: Fight the power, Lainey...
[As the two leave, the Skycap checks their baggage. Jerry's two pieces first:]
[Then Elaine's:]
SKYCAP: ...Honolulu.

In England, it is rare that anyone offers to help. If one is at an airport or train station and needs a trolley for one's bags, or a porter to help, one asks for help and gets it because it's that person's job to help. This usually tends to suit us just fine.

When we first arrived in the US, a man with a trolley asked us if we'd like some help with our bags (we had 4 suitcases and 4 hand-luggage bags). When we got on the bus that took us from the terminal to the car hire place, the driver was very keen to help us with our bags. We were pleased with this help because we had a lot of heavy baggage. We were told that $1 a bag is a standard tip. If a driver takes 10-15 bags per trip and makes one trip every hour, he/she could get about $10 per hour in tips. Add this to their wage and it's a pretty good rate. However, I dare say that without these tips, it may be difficult for the man to make ends meet.

We were told that we should tip the removal men who unpacked our belongings when our container arrived from the UK. We were told that $20 a head was the expected amount. Although we dutifully did this, because we were keen to get to grips with the American way of doing things, I must admit that I rather begrudged this tip mainly because the men did nothing but complain. They whinged about the heaviness of every box. Their attitude towards being offered drinks and cakes as refreshment was also poor -- no politeness or thanks. They hung around after they'd finished, waiting for their tip.

What's interesting is that history repeats itself. What has been seen in Europe can also be seen in the US. People tip; the amounts of the tips increase gradually over time because it is a means of the well-off salving their consciences regarding the socioeconomic state of those that serve them; the tips supplement the income of the lower classes to an extent that they become expected; failure to tip begins to bear negative consequences; the upper classes introduce measures to curtail tipping; the practice of tipping gradually increases again so that the cycle is renewed.

Tipping, in the past, has been considered un-American and had even been made illegal in places. It was considered that a person should receive a good wage for doing their job and that the practice of tipping just accentuates socioeconomic differences. I think that this is pretty much the attitude in the UK today. However, "When in Rome...". If the current US social structures dictate that tips are necessary, and if I am going to live here, then I suppose that I have to fit in with this.

The USA seems to be at the stage in the cycle where tips are expected. If one is not received, a person may be offended and may even provide a service that is below par next time they deal with you.

If you're interested in knowing a bit more about tipping, try reading Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities.

Here's a few guides to tipping:
HowStuffWorks: How Tipping Works
BBC: International Tipping etiquette
FindALink: Tipping etiquette
Absolute beginners: Tips and Tipping

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Snakes and Spiders

Did you know that this state has the highest incidence of venomous snake bites in the whole of the United States? I'm not sure why this might be, but I'd like my family to not become a member of this statistic.

Copperhead (Source)

I know that any Americans reading this are likely to think that this is a load of fuss-and-nonsense about nothing. But, to give you some context:

In England, the children say, "Can I play in the back garden?" and I can just say "OK." This is because, in the UK, there is nothing in nature that can seriously harm you (unless you're allergic to bee stings or something). Snakes are few and far between and only one species is venomous (the Adder). I lived in England for over 30 years and have never seen a snake in the wild. Spiders are common, but are all harmless. Accidentally walking through a spider's web is no more than an inconvenience.

In the USA, playing in the back garden introduces a whole new risk factor of encountering creatures that can hospitalize you. Locally, our state boasts 37 species of snake, 6 of which are venomous. Our house is on the outskirts of the city, so is in a rather rural setting. Snakes-wise, our back garden (actually, it's a wood that runs across several people's land, but without fencing) mainly plays host to the Cottonmouth (a type of Water Moccasin) and the Copperhead. We are also known to have the brown recluse and black widow spiders.

Black Widow
Black Widow (Source)
My first thoughts were "What on earth did we think we were doing, leaving our lovely England to go somewhere, where even the children's playing in the garden is dangerous?" However, the locals seem to be able to take it in their strides, so why shouldn't we?

I think that the danger may be more pronounced if we are naive. Local children know not to turn over rocks and logs; or put their hands in crevices or places where they can't see what's there. Local people know to use sticks and to wear ankle high boots in the woods. I've also noticed that local children know how to tell one snake from another. They know which snakes are poisonous and which are not. They also know what the rattle of a rattlesnake sounds like. My children, however, are innocent of all such matters.
The plan is to get educated and educate them. I don't want to scare my family, but I do want them to know how to behave.

During this winter I plan to teach them:

  1. how to behave when in the woods or in the under-house storage area.
  2. how to tell a venomous snake from a non-venomous one (although non-venomous ones can still bite).
  3. what to do if they see a snake, spider or spider's web.
Cottonmouth (Source)

I also plan on learning some first aid. Snake and spider bites are rare (about 8000 venomous snake bites a year across the whole of the US), but they are avoided by people knowing how to behave and what to do.

If you're planning to move to the US and you don't like snakes and spiders, I suggest getting a house with a nice, well cut lawn, where such creatures are unlikely to venture. Otherwise, it's probably best to get clued up.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

All Hallows' Eve

A PumpkinHow can I have a blog on Americanization without discussing Halloween? Halloween is such a big festival in the US and we just experienced it for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Halloween has gone full circle. Starting off as a Pagan festival, it was Christianized when the Church made it the eve of All Saints' Day (All Hallows' Day). For one night, the dead can walk the earth and make the most of it before the holy day arrives. Now, it is once again a Pagan festival, with All Saints' Day all but forgotten. Halloween itself, having survived its relegation to the position of "Eve" by the Church, is once again a festival in its own right. In fact, I recently saw an advert on the telly that claimed that October the 30th was the "eve of halloween" and, furthermore, that it was "mischief day".

Pagans 1, Christians Nil.

Witch's HatPerhaps I'm being too hasty in saying that the Pagans have won. In fact, many Christians resist the pull of Halloween. In the UK, may Christians just don't partake. Others actively resist by holding "alternative" celebrations for their youth clubs, to desuade them from going to the school's Halloween disco. All Saints' Day has not yet been forgotten.

In the USA, however, it is an entirely different story. Halloween is woven into the very fabric of the society and has maintained its Harvest roots. As far as I can see, Christians here have one of two responses:

  1. They put their hands up and say "What the heck, it's just a bit of fun!"; dress their kids up as witches, ghosts and zombies; and send them round the neighbourhood demanding "candy".
  2. They feel uncomfortable with the whole "ghosts and ghouls" business, so they emphasise that Halloween is really just a "Fall" (Harvest) festival. They can thus partake of the tradition of sending their kids out to get sweets simply by dressing them up as Disney Princesses or Power Rangers.

I'd like to finish this post by adding another interesting observation:

A PumpkinAlthough, in the USA, the celebration of Halloween is very much tied in with the Harvest festival (eg. the use of pumpkins and scarecrows), it seems to me that in the UK it is becoming more and more tied in with Guy Fawkes. I think that this is mainly related to the proximity of the two festivals (October 31st and November 5th). Let me know what you think.

If you are more than a little interested in Halloween and Guy Fawkes, try these linksA Pumpkin

All Hallows' Eve
The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows
Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night
History and legend behind Guy Fawkes

There's also a good "Canadian in Britain" view of Guy Fawkes at
The Anglo-File, Too: Bonfire Night

If you like British politics, you may also be interested in this political weblog:

Guido Fawkes' Blog

Monday, November 14, 2005

School Days

One aspect of our move to the US that has been stress free and straight forward is sending the children to school. When we were deciding where to live, we initially looked at two things -- how good the public schools were and the crime rates. If an area had bad schools or a high crime rate, we ruled out the possibility of living there. Our research in this matter did not go unrewarded. We find ourselves living in a lovely neighbourhood close to the school where the crime rate is well below the national average.

(As an aside, this is another example of differences in our "common language". In the UK, a public school is a school that is owned by the public (i.e. not owned by the state); whereas in the US, a public school is one that is publicly owned (i.e. belongs to the public / is run by the state).)

Our decision to buy the house we bought was based mainly on the fact that the school had a good record. The allocation of places in schools here is very strongly based on catchment areas (or Attendance Zones).

We simply arranged an appointment with the school, registered the children and they started school the very next day. The children love going to school. They made friends quickly and seem very happy there. I like it because the school very much encourages parent involvement, so I can help out in the classroom. The school also encourages parents to meet their children for lunch, which we all enjoy now and then.

When we were still living in hotels, the girls used to be "carpoolers". The school has a very well organised system whereby parents can drop off and pick up their children by car. It is a well-oiled machine. When we were waiting in the car pool, my husband used to roll down the windows of the car just to listen to the children talking in their American accents. It sounds like English children playing make-believe.

I think I'd better elaborate further on that last sentence. In England, we have a large infusion of influences from the US by way of TV programmes, films and pop music. As a result, one sometimes witnesses a phenomenon wherein one hears children, who are playing games that involve role play, playing their characters or singing pop songs in American accents.

Anyway -- back to the topic at hand. We now live only 5 minutes walk from the school, so the children are "walkers".

Here's my list of how schools in the USA differ from UK schools:

  1. The grades are slightly different (although I'm led to understand that this varies from state to state). Lauren had just finished year 3 and Emily year 5 in the UK, but are now in grades 3 and 5 respectively in the US.
  2. US schools don't have uniforms (although I dare say there might be exceptions).
  3. US schools have short Christmas and Spring (not necessarily Easter) breaks and a long summer break.
  4. In US schools, each classroom has an American flag in it. Children start each day by standing, placing their right hand on their heart and saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
  5. US schools have catch-up days for unscheduled school closures. For example, if the school has to close for unexpected reasons (eg. a burst pipe or excess snow/ice), in the UK all the kids and teachers alike shout "hooray" and have a lovely day at home. In the US, however, they replace the lost day with one out of the holidays. In our girls' school, for example, the entire Spring break consists of catch-up days. This means that, potentially, they could go right through from Christmas to Summer without a decent break. There are, however, alternatives to the Traditional school calendar (eg. year-round schools) that you could investigate if you'd rather. For us, we're going to disappear off to the UK for a good long holiday in the summer.
  6. In the US, there are lots of different types of schools, for example, montessori, magnet (a bit like centres of excellence in the UK), year round, home school and a whole array of private schools with religious affiliations. Although there are a lot of different types of schools in the UK as well, it may be worth getting to know what the USA has to offer before making any decisions.
I know this is by no means an exhaustive list, so let me know if there are any more that you can think of.

Driving in Cars

In comparison to the UK, the USA is BIG. Its countryside is big; its homes are big; and its roads are big. I know that this is not necessarily true in certain cities, such as New York, but generally speaking, everything is big and everyone relies on cars. One thing that I was certain of before we moved to the US was that I would need a car. With this in mind, I thought I'd dedicate this blog entry to the joys of buying a car and getting a licence.

If you ask people about what you need to be able to legally own and drive a car, the answers will vary depending on who you ask. This is because:

  • laws vary from state to state
  • even within a particular state (at least in this State), very few people know, including those who work at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
I thought I'd just say what we did and if it helps anyone, then that's good.

In this state, if you are a resident, you must have a state driving licence within 30 days of having become a resident. However, if you a non-resident (this includes non-resident aliens), you can drive on your existing driver's licence from your country of origin.

Firstly, we found an insurance agent whose quote fell short of actually drawing the life force from our bodies as part-payment. Many insurers will not take into consideration any driving experience from another country, so my husband's nearly 20 years worth of clean licence and no claims bonus counts for nothing. In addition, most insurers would not touch you with a barge pole unless you have a local state driver's licence. However, there are insurers out there with more flexibility. We were lucky in that we had two good recommendations, so we chose the best quote. If anyone wants to know who we went with, let me know and I can send you some details.

Secondly, we found a car we liked and put down a payment.

Ford Taurus
Ford Taurus

Thirdly, we got temporary insurance coverage from the insurance broker so that we could drive the car off the lot. One also needs the temporary insurance to be able to take a driving test. One needs to take the driving test in order to get a driver's licence; and one needs the driver's licence to get the non-exorbitant insurance.

It took us a bit of time to figure this out, but, in the US a car licence does not automatically come with a car, but is bought by an individual as part of the process of registering the car's ownership with the Department of Transport. They then send you your number plate (singular, because one only has to have a number plate on the back of the car). When the car is subsequently sold, you can take your number plates with you to your replacement car. The car salesman will issue you with a temporary number plate until your actual number plate arrives.

Fourthly, the plan is to pass our state driving tests so that we can get properly insured. This is the bit I haven't done yet. The good news, though, is that this is much easier here than it is in the UK. These are the steps to passing your driving test:
  1. Read the DMV Driver's Handbook from cover to cover. Although most of the driving laws are intuitive, there's the odd thing that's different than in the UK, such as being allowed to do U-turns and being allowed to turn right even if the traffic light is red. In addition, you'll need to have read the handbook ready for your written test.
  2. Get some driving practice under your belt.
  3. Go to the DMV with your passport, proof of local residency (eg. a utility bill), UK driving licence (with counterpart) and your SSN or ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number). Take the written test. No appointment is necessary as it's done on a first-come-first-served basis. If you pass the written test (25 multiple choice questions), they'll take you straight out on the road test. If you pass that, they issue you with a licence there and then.

This all sounds easy enough doesn't it? But it's not so simple if you happen to be a "trailing spouse".

The plan falls apart at the mention of the "SSN or ITIN". The DMV say that one cannot take a driving test without a SSN or ITIN. That's the bottom line. There's no way round it. Unfortunately, as I am not allowed to work, I am not entitled to a SSN; and as I don't pay tax, I'm not entitled to an ITIN.

Although there is such thing as a non-working SSN, Social Security are adamant that they will not issue them for the purposes of getting a driver's licence. They also sent out memoranda in 2003 to all the DMVs nationwide instructing them that the SSN should not be requested for identification as a requirement for taking a driving test. Nevertheless, the DMV require an SSN or ITIN.

It's not, however, all bad news. I can get an ITIN number if I submit a joint tax return with my husband. I have been told that the earliest I can get an ITIN is about next February or March. We were very pleased that our insurance broker was understanding enough to insure my husband as a main driver and me as an occasional driver for six months pending my getting an ITIN.

I have spoken to other H4 visa holders who have not had this problem. One friend said that she went with her husband when he applied for his SSN and they allowed her to apply for an ITIN at the same time. They still have to file a joint tax return, but at least she hasn't had to delay getting her driver's licence.

So, if you're coming to the states on an H4 visa, perhaps you can get your ITIN at the same time that your H1B partner is getting his/her SSN and, hopefully, the rest can be plain sailing.

December 02, 2005

As I had talked to several H4 visa holders who had received their ITINs without any trouble, just by going to the IRS office, I decided to give it a shot even though this was contrary to what the IRS documentation said. So, today I went to the IRS just to see what happens. They told me what I already knew -- that I would need to file a joint tax return with my husband.

I quizzed them further on this. It seems that it used to be possible for H4 visa holders to get an ITIN without submitting a tax return, but the regulations were changed in December 2003. Now that I think about it, everyone I have spoken to has been here since before then.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Trailing Spouse

Did you know that I'm a "trailing spouse"? I find it quite a funny phrase because I don't in any way see myself as "trailing" behind my husband. Anyway, that's what I am in Homeland Security terms. The topic of this blog entry is to outline some of my experiences of being on an H4 (non-working) visa.

Before leaving the UK, the plan was to come over to the US on a non-working visa. I would then apply for jobs where the employer could sponsor my upgrade to a working visa. Sounds good -- but easier said than done. I'm fairly convinced that my CV (resume) looks good because within a couple of hours of posting it on Monster I'd got a phone call from an interested company. Unfortunately, though, the US immigration only allows a certain number of working visas (H1B) a year and this company had already met their quota. I'm still going to keep applying for jobs in the hope of finding a company who has not met their quota.

Caveman and Wife
The other thing I thought of was to do a college course in the interim. This would help me keep my skills up-to-date ready for when I can work (maybe in the next year's H1B allocations or if we get greencards). Unfortunately, college courses here seem to be considerably more expensive than they are in the UK. I think that my next fallback (plan C) is to try and find voluntary work, although voluntary positions in my field are few and far between.

I think that although I need to carve out my own niche, the motto "never say die" comes to mind, as does "hope springs eternal".

If you want to tell me your "trailing spouse" experiences, or offer much needed advice, my ears are open.

November 18, 2005

If you're a trailing spouse or going to be a trailing spouse, you might find this website interesting:

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Common Language

Many have said to me, "At least you don't have to learn a new language. At least you can all understand one another."

Yes -- well, obviously, as I don't speak fluent French or German or any other language you may wish to name that is not English, so this statement is true. However, when two languages are distinct, they use different words to mean the same thing:

e.g. window, in French is fenetre (please excuse the lack of accent); or tree in German is baum.

When American English and English English meet, there are many words that are different, like with different languages. Examples of these are:

sidewalk -- pavement
diaper -- nappy
stroller -- pushchair

I can't be bothered thinking of any more right now, but let me know if you can think of any.

However, sometimes the same word can mean different things. These are some I've thought of just now:

pavement -- in English English, this means a path that goes along the side of a road, whereas in American English it's the stuff a road is made of (tarmac)

pants -- in English English this means underwear (boxer shorts, Y-fronts, knickers), whereas in American English it means trousers

My third example is somewhat ruder and I can't bring myself to sully my blog entry with the word itself, so I allude to it:

f***y -- in English English this is a female private part, whereas in American English it means bum/buttocks

Again, feel free to let me know any more you can think of.

When my daughter was at school, a child said to her, "I like your pants" (use your imagination to put it in a nice, strong, southern American accent). My daughter immediately thought that her knickers were showing.

I heard a story from an American who had visited the UK. (Let me say, before I continue, that the person in question is a nice, upstanding, happily married, family man.) He was sitting on the settee of the English family that he was visiting and was playing with, and getting on quite nicely, with their young daughter. Wanting to see if the child would sit on his lap, he then innocently tapped his thighs and said to the child, "Why don't you come and pop your f***y here?" The parents wasted no time in waiting for an explanation, but did not hesitate to throw our nice American out of their home.

"So," I hear you ask, "what's the moral of this blog entry?" Well, it's simply this -- a common language can be a dangerous thing.

November 23, 2005

I thought I might try to get together a little list of UK-US differences, but I changed my mind, mainly because it's been done before -- ad infinitum. Instead, here's a few websites and books that explore the cultural and language differences between the US and the UK. However, be warned that none of these are likely to fully satisfy you. This is because they've bound to have missed things out or got things wrong; and because there are many regional variations within each country.

Anyway, here's a list:

January 10, 2007

You may also be interested in this blog: Separated by a Common Language


Welcome to my new blog. I aim to use this blog to set out my experiences of relocating from England to the USA. I'll express the joys and the frustrations and hopefully it will help others who are mad enough to take the same leap. I've been here, in the US now for nearly two months. Although I love it here, very little has been easy. To start us off, here's my "Buying our house" story.

The StreetWe came over in July for a week to check the place out. While here, we looked at houses. I'd been in touch with a realtor and a mortgage agent from the UK and we met up to discuss mortgages. We explained that we had just had an offer on our house in the UK and that we should be able to put down about 15% deposit on a US house. We also made clear that if the sale did not complete before the closing date for the house in the US, we would need a 100% mortgage. If this was not possible, we decided that we would be better renting for a year or so before trying to buy a house in the US.

Lauren on the deckingThe realtor and mortgage agent said that this was bound to be OK as long as we have a good credit rating. One international credit check later we were set to go. Or so we thought....

This was the first time that the dreaded SSN reared it's head. SSN stands for Social Security Number. Without it the entire US would cease to function. We were told that the actual mortgage application could not be completed without an SSN, so all the paperwork was completed except the SSN. The rule is that one can apply for an SSN 10 days after entering the country. One can be given the number about 2-3 days thereafter and the SSN card follows in the post. After that, it would take about 2 weeks to process the mortgage application -- plenty of time before the closing date.

The back gardenTherefore, we could not move straight into the house, so decided to stay a month in an extended stay hotel. We got the SSN and were ready to go. As we hadn't yet completed on our house in the UK, we switched to a 100% mortgage. The underwriters turned down the mortgage, so we offered a 5% downpayment and moved into the house, renting it from the owners. The 95% mortgage was also turned down. Not only that, but we were told that even if our house sale in the UK had gone through and we could put down 15%, that would not be enough. We needed a minimum of 20%.

Emily on the deckingThis is when the system of earning commission kicked in and showed its full force. With the imminent falling through of the house purchase, the realtor and mortgage agent stepped up their skills to a whole new level. The realtor sweet-talked the sellers and the mortgage agent sent the mortgage application back to the underwriters and asked them to look at it again. After much persuasion, they eventually granted the 95% mortgage and, with much relief and champagne, we recently closed. I think the realtor and mortgage agent really felt that they'd earned that commission.

I think that the moral of this story is:

  • rent first, don't bother trying to buy unless you have enough savings for a downpayment of at least 20% and about $7K or so for closing costs.
  • don't expect anything to be easy.
  • don't give up.
Our House