Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Americanization of Emily

James Garner and Julie Andrews in The Americanization of Emily
This blog has been going for nearly three months now and I haven't yet said anything about its namesake -- the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and James Garner (who also starred together in Victor Victoria). This was the same year, incidentally, that Mary Poppins was released -- a busy year for our Julie. The film is a romantic comedy with a clear anti-war message. Julie Andrews, as usual, acts everyone else off the screen.

Although filmed in black and white, which gives it a 1940s wartime feel, the film is very much a film of its time -- the 1960s. It lacks the propaganda attitude that a typical 1940s film would have ("We're all in this together," and "Self-sacrifice is necessary for the good of our respective countries and the war effort"). Instead, the hero (James Garner) is a self-confessed coward who wants to live out the war safely away from the front line. The love-interest (Julie Andrews) encourages this because she'd rather have a live coward than a dead hero. Although Garner's character claims cowardice as his religion, he is painted as less cowardly and more just sensible in not wanting to put himself in mortal danger.

By the way, for a similar view of war (albeit a different war), you might be interested in watching Blackadder Goes Forth. In fact, if you haven't seen any Blackadders yet, your homework is to start at the beginning and watch them all in order, including Blackadder's Christmas Carol and Blackadder Back and Forth. It is essential watching for the "How to be British" curriculum and I will expect 2000 words on it by Monday.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Comparison in Pictures

Even though we've been here for four months or so now, every other waking moment I'm thinking, "Oh my goodness, I'm living in America". I dare say I'll get used to it eventually.

Water Tower

Water towers are everywhere. One does see them in the UK, but not very often.

US Fire Hydrant

UK fire hydrant cover and signThis is a fire hydrant. You may recognise them from cartoons as being dog-urinals. The exact shape and colour varies between districts. In England, fire hydrants tend to be under the pavement (sidewalk), with only the cover showing and a nearby "H" sign.

Interstate road signsIn the UK, any numbered road has it's own unique number. Different sections of a road can have different numbers, but a single stretch cannot have more than one designation. For example, the A50 just east of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, suddenly and for no apparent reason, becomes the A511. It then turns back into the A50. At no stage is it ever the A50/A511. In the US, a road can have more than one number designated. One of many possible examples of this is where the I40 joins with the I85 between Greensboro and Durham. During this stretch, it is the I40/I85.

UK postboxUS mailboxBritish houses tend to have letterboxes in their front doors, through which the postman posts letters. The postman collects letter from postboxes that are situated at convenient places around the neighbourhood. (As an aside: each postbox bears the insignia of whichever monarch was incumbent when the postbox was made. This one was a George V box (1911 - 1935).) Here, the postman collects and delivers letters via mailboxes (red flag up means that there is mail to be collected). Each home has its own mailbox.

The other thing worth mentioning under this topic is the way newspapers are delivered. Have you ever seen, in films, a paperboy/girl who goes round on their bike, just throwing the papers in the general direction of each house? When I was younger, I put it down to the paperboy/girl in the film being too lazy to get off their bikes. As I grew older and saw it in film after film, I put it down to just being a film-cliche (like the tramp with the booze). Now I realise that the films depict it this way because it's actually true -- papers are just thrown onto people's driveways! This is yet another example of how moving to the US is like leaving real life and entering the world of TV and films.

US FlagFlags are everywhere -- even on the front of private homes! In the UK, flags only tend to come out for special occasions. I guess the recitation of the Pledge of allegiance in schools can also be mentioned here. In the UK, most schools have Assembly at least once a week. The whole school meets together in the school hall. This used to be to pray (and still is in many schools -- especially those with religious affiliations), but these days the praying has mostly been displaced by other activities.
Pecan pie

Pecan pie and Thanksgiving. 'Nough said.

School Bus
Otto driving a school bus
Yes, there really are big yellow school busses like the one Otto drives in The Simpsons!

Highway 98

Long, straight roads that stretch out into the distance. One can bang the car into cruise control and just enjoy the ride.

Feel free to add your tuppence worth. If I can get some more pictures, I may one day get round to doing another post like this one.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Here Kitty Kitty

For a number of years now, Emily and Lauren have recited the famous children's mantra, "Can we have a cat?" Initially, the answer was to which the answer has always been, "No". The main reasons for this (from my viewpoint) were:

  • "Our house is too small. Where would we put their beds/litter trays."
  • "They're too expensive, especially the vet fees."
  • "There's no way I'm doing any litter training or cleaning litter trays for the next however-many years."
Mark and I both grew up in housholds with cats, so the stance was bound to soften. It turned out that Mark wanted a cat too and agreed that he would clean any messes. Then, the move to America loomed. We knew that we'd be moving into a bigger house, so that excuse was gone too.

"No way," became "When we're in America". "When we're in America" became "After we've settled in", which became "You can have one each as Christmas presents", which became "We're going to England for Christmas, you can have them after Christmas".

Hence, they could hardly believe it when today, we finally decided to go to the cat shelter. We now have two additions to our family. They are both 5 months old and may be from the same litter. (They were both found, abandoned, along with seven other kittens and two adult females. The shelter staff couldn't work out which kittens belonged to which mother.) They are both already litter trained and have been neutered. The people at the shelter named them Memory and Rosalind. Emily and Lauren have decided to keep these names.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

You Say "Pajama", I Say "Pyjama"

Today was Pajama Day at Emily and Lauren's school. All the children (including E & L) went to school in their pyjamas and dressing gowns. (By the way -- I hadn't realised, until we moved here, that the spelling "pyjama" is peculiar to Britain. It seems that the rest of the world says "pajama".)

In England, almost all schools have uniforms. The schools my girls attended regularly had non-uniform days. These were fund-raising events, wherein children pay a small fee (50p or so) to be allowed to go to school in their ordinary clothes. As their current school does not have a uniform, such fundraising opportunities are not open to them.

The pajama day, however, is not a fundraising event, but an anniversary celebration. Around this time last year, many teachers and about 300 children had to sleep the night at the school because the roads were too icy to be passable.

The Brown Paper Bag

CocktailsLast week Charles Kennedy resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. His party had lost confidence in his ability to lead them because of his poorly controlled alcohol problem. This inspired The New York Times to publish an article (11 Jan '06) about alcohol consumption in the UK.

If you're a British binge drinker who's thinking of moving to the US, you may want to bear this in mind:

  • Although supermarkets here sell wine and beer, you can't get spirits or liqueurs unless you go to a liquor store. These are few and far between. One has to really, really want one's G&T, vodka or after-dinner brandy to be able to get it. In England, we always had a fairly healthy looking drinks cabinet. Here, we haven't yet got around to visiting the ABC liquor store that is about 3-4 miles from our house. It's the only place in our immediate vicinity that sells anything stronger than sherry or port.

  • It is illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the car, whether it is being consumed or not. I think that in some areas alcohol can only be transported in the boot (trunk) of the car and isn't allowed in the carriage at all, but I'm not 100% sure about this.

  • In some areas, it is illegal to have alcohol in one's possession in a public place at all. In such areas, when alcohol is purchased, the shopkeeper places it in a brown paper bag, so that it cannot be publicly seen that one is carrying alcohol. This shed some light, for me, on something one often sees in US films and TV programmes -- the drunk character on the side of the road drinking booze from a bottle that is in a brown paper bag (when something strange happens, they look at what has happened, look at the bottle, then either shrug and take another swig or throw the bottle away).

  • If one serves alcohol at a party, then allows a guest to drive home while under the influence (here it's known as Driving While Impaired(DWI)), one can be sued or can face criminal charges if that guest causes any damage after they have left the party.
The strange thing is that, despite these laws, individual attitudes to drinking and driving (according to what I've encountered thus far) seem to be lax. I don't drink alcohol at all if I'm intending to drive. If I have to, I may drive if I've had less than a glass of wine. This is because, regardless of legal limits, I have a strong moral objection to drinking and driving.

Drink driving cartoon:  Three stooges in a car covered with pie.  Caption: Don't you stooges know how dangerous it is to drive around when you're totally pie-faced?
In the UK, there are clearly defined drink-drive limits for blood alcohol level. Three units of alcohol will tend to put most people over the limit, so most people who are intending to drive will have one or two glasses of wine, then move on to non-alcoholic drinks. Other alternatives to having a designated driver include using a taxi, or (if you're in a big city like London) get a scooter-chauffeur. These are people who have small, fold away scooters. They can pick you up from an establishment of your choice. They fold their scooter into the boot of your car, then drive you home. This means that you don't have to go back for your car the next day.

Although recommendations are given, the limits here are not set in stone. The courts can choose to lower the acceptable limit for an individual if they have been convicted of previous DWI offences. The flip side of this that an individual at a party may think that they can set their own limit. They can drive home, thinking that they can handle their drink perfectly well, not thinking that one doesn't necessarily need to feel intoxicated to be intoxicated.

As far as binge drinking is concerned -- well, obviously it's a very unhealthy lifestyle and I wouldn't recommend it.

January 28, 2006

Today I managed to visit the ABC Package Store (Package?). It's the only place that one can buy good, hard booze and it has restricted opening hours. I bought four bottles -- one whisky, one brandy, one vodka and one gin; and guess what they put it all in? I was more than a little pleased to see them put the bottles into four brown paper bags, so that I could carry them out of the shop and put them into the boot of my car.

The other thing, is that I went to see the film Fun with Dick and Jane today. (Not as good as the original, but has a lot of good laughs if you can get past it being Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni instead of George Segal and Jane Fonda.) The film has in it a character whose feelings of guilt and remorse turn him to drink. I was pleased to see that he drank his booze from within a brown paper bag!

March 29, 2009

Just when I thought that I knew it all, I recently had a new experience at the ABC store. Because having to go all the way to the ABC store to get our booze is such a polava, we have developed the habit of going only once every couple of months and stocking up. This time, the Elijah Craig whiskey was on special offer, as was the Cointreau and the Drambuie, so we decided to buy a bit more than usual. When we got to the till, the man asked us if we were having a party (hmmm... a funny sort of party where the only drinks on offer are whiskey, sambuca, Cointreau and Drambuie), but we explained that we find having to make time to go to the ABC store so cumbersome that we tend to try and stock up. It transpired that there is a limit to the amount of alcohol that one can buy at one time without a special permit (4.5 US gallons; 3.75 Imperial gallons) and we had exceeded that. We had to fill in and sign a Special Occasion Storage and Transportation Permit for them to be able to sell us the booze. With this permit, one can buy up to about 10.5 US gallons.

It may well be that the UK has some sort of laws limiting sale of alcohol, but it's not something that I have ever discovered or tested. Perhaps this is because in the UK one doesn't have to go to a specialist store to buy alcohol, so one doesn't need to stock up.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King Weekend

Today is Martin Luther King Day. It is a federal holiday to honour Martin Luther King Junior. It is supposed to be a day of service to others, but we didn't quite get that memo in time and decided to take an exploratory trip -- our first since we've been living here. On Saturday we packed our weekend bags and headed to Asheville, a small city that lies just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We stayed the night in a motel in Asheville.

Lauren at the Biltmore EstateThe next day, we went to the Biltmore Estate. It is a huge estate with, amongst other things, its own high-end hotels, restaurants, stables and winery. It can best be described as a stately home on steroids. It's not that old. It was built just over 100 years ago by a Mr George Vanderbilt, who one day said to himself "I have shedloads of money. I wonder what I can spend some of it on?"

Mark, Emily & Lauren at the wineryWe started off looking around the stable's museum, then went wine tasting at the winery. We had intended to check-out the maze, but instead decided to look around the house (about 4 miles from the winery). The house boasts four stories (one of which contains the servants' quarters); and a basement that includes an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium and bowling alley. Mark was mostly envious of their library. Because of the time in which it was built, the whole house was able to be built with electricity and plumbing throughout. This also meant that the tour of the house was also able to include architectural plans and construction photos.

Mark, Emily & Lauren at Biltmore EstateWe were very impressed with the value for money. We got to see a large proportion of the house (compared with what's open to the public at your standard National Trust or English Heritage site). In addition, all the furnishings were the Vanderbilts' original furnishings. By the time we finished we were the last members of the public to leave the house. Our car was the only one left in the car park and it was dark as we drove around the estate trying to find the elusive exit.

The next day we went to a small town called Black Mountain, set in a valley, with mountains in the distance.

Black Mountain
We drove up into the hills a bit, then visited a lake called Lake Tomahawk. After lunch we headed home.

Emily & Lauren on the swings at Lake TomahawkMark & Lauren at Lake TomahawkThe Seven Sisters at Black Mountain

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Fall

One of Mark's favourite bands is The Fall. When we were students, much of our courting involved going to various gigs. This included moshing at various of The Fall's gigs. The Fall is Mark E. Smith and whatever backing lineup he happens to have at the time.

The turnover rate of The Fall's band members has now exceeded 40, so The Guardian decided to try and hunt as many of them down as possible, to find out what had happened to them. The resulting article, "Excuse me, weren't you in The Fall?" (pdf version with lots of pictures) describes this hunt.

It describes the tracking down of each ex-member, from the easy (e.g. Marc "Lard" Riley), to the more difficult (e.g. a drummer, Karl Burns, who disappeared after leaving the band in 1998 and was last seen a "while back" looking like "a tramp"). It's quite a fun read -- especially if you like The Fall.

According to The Fall's website, they're planning a US tour this year. We're a bit too old for moshing these days, but we still enjoy going to gigs to listen to the music. As Mark is such a fan, if they come anywhere near here, I know that we'll have to pull out all the stops to try and go.

(Another good tour coming up is The Wedding Present, who we're hoping to go and see in March.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Swearin' & Cussin'

WARNING: This blog is about swearing. If you're likely to be offended by the discussion of bad language that includes references to specific words, you may not want to read on.

The British swear and curse. Americans cuss. So what's the difference between swearing and cussing? It seems that the same subtle differences that exist elsewhere between British and American English extend to the use of expletives. Thus, although many expletives have the same level of impact in the US as they do in the UK, there are differences.

I don't swear an awful lot, although I have to confess to not being entirely whiter than white on this front. I have noticed that on children's programmes in the US they freely use a word that I would be reticent to utter (w****r). This made me interested in finding out why Americans don't find this word offensive and the British do. Perhaps it means something different in the US?

A quick google search later, and I had found that there are many swearing dictionaries out there, but I couldn't find much in the way of cross-cultural studies (at least not much that was freely available on the web without having to buy a book). I did, however, find this BBC article:
The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words. It also has some interesting discussion topics posted that you may want to read.

I thought it might be interesting to compare the severity of words between the UK and US as a guide to what is or is not acceptable. Personally, I consider religious swear words as the most offensive. I think that most British people find these least offensive, but I have fairly strong religious beliefs and am offended by inappropriate use of certain words. Although I don't advocate their use, I find sexual swear words less offensive.

I would also differentiate between swearing generally (e.g. when you let out an expletive because you've dropped a hammer on your foot) and swearing at a person (e.g. the use of a term that accuses a person of having an oedipal relationship with their mother). I consider the verbal denigration of others as being far worse than the former.

My own views aside, I thought I might try and create an American-British comparison scale (see below). As you can see, there aren't many words featured on it because:
  • I wouldn't know where many words would go on each scale.
  • I don't particularly want to go trawling through endless swear words to get an exhaustive list.
Swearing scale: USA cf. UKIt's fairly crude, but hopefully you'll get the gist. It's not very informed, so if you have any insights, let me know. Perhaps I can then create a better version of the scale.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Today is the day we celebrate the Wise Men giving their gifts to Jesus. Unfortunately, it also marks the end of the Christmas season.

The twelve days of Christmas are from Christmas Day evening to Epiphany. Twelfth night is the 5th of January. Thus, today marks the official end to the Christmas season and the decorations have to come down until next year.

(Twelfth Night also happens to be one of my favourite Shakespeare plays -- probably mainly because the heroine's name is Viola.)

In case you're not familiar with the twelve days of Christmas, here's the Wikipedia entry.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Cultural Adjustment

There is an interesting article entitled Cross-Cultural Conflict and Adjustment about the emotional roller coaster that someone moving countries gets onto. It's taken from a book by Deena R. Levine and Mara B. Adelman, entitled Beyond Language: Cross Cultural Communication. I have to admit that I haven't read the book yet, but the article was interesting.

It describes the adjustment to life in a new country as a number of stages. The following is an extract from the article:

  1. Honeymoon period: Initially many people are fascinated and excited by everything in the new culture. The newcomer is elated to be experiencing a new culture. Interestingly, this level of elation may not be reached again.

  2. Culture shock: The individuals are immersed in new problems: housing, transportation, employment, shopping, and language. Mental fatigue results from continuously straining to understand the new language and culture.

  3. Initial adjustment: Everyday activities such as housing and shopping are no longer major problems. The visitors may not yet be fluent in the spoken language, but they can now express their basic ideas and feelings.

  4. Mental isolation: Individuals have been away from their family and good friends for a long time and may feel lonely. Many cannot express themselves as well as they could in their native language. Frustration and sometimes a loss of self-confidence result. Some individuals remain at this stage, particularly if they haven't been able to find a job.

  5. Acceptance and integration: A routine (e.g., work, business, or school) has been established. The newcomers have become accustomed to the habits, customs, foods, and characteristics of the people in the new culture. They feel comfortable with friends, associates, and the language in the new country.

These points refer to learning a new language and, in spite of small differences between American-English and British-English, I think that having a common language must make our integration into the US considerably easier than it would otherwise be. Nevertheless, I know that for all of us, our emotional states keep changing with every turn of the tide, but we rest assured in the hope that we will successfully integrate.

Thanks to Michael for telling me about this article and book.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Happy New Year

Is it just me, or does everyone have the experience of time slowing down as it approaches midnight on New Year's Eve? Every New Year, before midnight the time seems to go really slowly. I keep looking at my watch and wondering why midnight can't hurry up so that I can go to bed. But then midnight arrives and instead of going to bed, I get a second wind and the party really begins.

This year, as usual, just before midnight we popped the telly on and the children gathered around it with their party poppers at the ready. The children led the chorus, counting down the last ten seconds. "...3...2...1...Happy New Year". We all toasted the New Year with champagne and party poppers, then watched the pyrotechnic display that was being televised from The London Eye while The Scissor Sisters played in the background.

The great thing about putting the telly on just before midnight is not just the accuracy of the countdown, but the solidarity that is experienced with the rest of the country and Europe. One gets a glimpse of other concurrent celebrations which makes one feel a part of something bigger.

We switched the TV off and sent the children to bed. The adults continued to party, but with the volume on the stereo marginally turned down. I, despite having been saying all evening that I was far too tired to stay up much past midnight, finally went to bed at about 4:30am or so.

On New Year's Day we had lunch with my sister, then set off to stay in a TravelLodge near London. The next morning we set off back to the US and arrived home that evening.

It's Chriiiiistmaaassss!

Snowball fight: lauren and her cousin playing in the snow
Snowball Fight
You will need to read the title in the manner of Noddy Holder.

After a long journey (3 hours drive to the airport; an 8 hour flight; another 2 hour drive; and endless hanging around at airports) we finally arrived at my mum's house. We had a couple of days of seeing family and friends (seeing as much of my Mum as possible because she was flying off to Chennai, India on Boxing Day).

Playing in the snow
Playing in the snow
Christmas morning we were treated by my brother-in-law to a breakfast of muffins, poached egg and poached haddock. After exchanging presents with my family, we set off to Mark's parents' home in time for lunch. After watching The Queen's speech at 3pm, we exchanged presents. At 7pm we watched The Christmas Invasion. Although it didn't snow on Christmas Day (so was not officially a "white Christmas"), we were treated to ample quantities of snow over Boxing Day and the following days.

We stayed there until the 28th, when we headed off for Birmingham to visit friends. On the 29th we headed to my sister's house, ready for a New Year's party on the 31st.

For a Canadian view of Christmas in the UK, you might want to read The Anglo File, Too.

Mark's parents' home in the snow
Mark's parents' home in the snow.

The Christmas Invasion

On Christmas Day we watched The Christmas Invasion. It was so flagged-up that the Radio Times devoted a full ten pages to it. It did not disappoint.

This is what Charlie Brooker had to say about it in The Guardian's The Guide:

...it's possibly the greatest Christmas episode of any programme ever.

...David Tennant...immediately and effortlessly makes the character of The Doctor his own. If anything, he's even better than Eccleston was -- which ought to be impossible.

...At this rate, I hope and fully expect to see Russell T Davies immortalised on our national currency within my lifetime.

I couldn't have put it better myself.