Thank you for the turkey and everything

We were out delivering Thanksgiving meals as part of this: http://www.opendoormission.org/events/2012-11/drumstick-wheels

We went last year and, as this year, it is such a humbling experience and yet so fantastic to say “Happy Thanksgiving” to someone and hand them a huge turkey, a case of water and a box full of ‘fixings’ (accompaniments like stuffing and gravy) – all for free.

One area had a whole bunch of people with the hoods of their cars propped up and wires going from the batteries through their windows – and this is how they get their electricity; several houses powering their homes by their car batteries – not in an emergency or because of power failures, floods or storms but as an *everyday thing*. Not one, not all – but many. I didn’t see any satellite dishes, air conditioning or pools but then the area actually barely had more than a clearing in the grit amongst the houses to call a road. I have no idea how they make it through the frigid beating they must get from your average Nebraskan winter.

Shame on me for closing my eyes to the fact that this happens. 

Walking up to several houses where it was difficult to find the house because it looked like no house was there in amongst debris, was made from the debris, was patched together from a multitude of planks and offcuts. People who would hobble to the door. People who were clearly on their own and really needed not to be. Other people who apparently lived in abject poverty amongst huge houses with a fleet of cars parked here and there in front against the ramshackle backdrop of an unkempt driveway of the person who rushed outside after putting his turkey inside and shouted to us “have a blessed day, thank you, thank you” as we tucked ourselves back into our car.

When you see this and more, as we did today,  you realize that real life can be a very unequal existence even in a city full of joie de vivre and that you are (and should be), indeed, very thankful for small mercies.

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This is how a fair trial works…

  1. We all listen to a litany of things about how you did / didn’t do it.
  2. Twenty-four hour news hacks (the kind we would not invite to watch our dogs) give the accused emotive nicknames and spout undiluted vitriol in great gushing splashes against our screens.
  3. All the circumstantial evidence means we just know you did it.
  4. We bay and crow in true lynch-mob style.
  5. The jury go away and look at the actual proof of guilt versus innocence.
  6. They come back and say, based on the evidence you’re innocent.
  7. We do not have an alternative verdict in the USA of “not proven”.
  8. So, quite rightly, you are free.
You see, this is how justice works.  We do not kill people just because we’re ‘fairly certain they did it and besides, they totally acted like they did it’.  We condemn people when there is proof that is so compelling that there is no doubt at all that they did it.

And then we kill them…after a suitable number of double-checks to make sure we got the decision right the first time.  Even then we sometimes kill people for crimes they did not commit or let them out just in the nick of time after their life has rotted almost from view.

This is the crux of the problem.  You can’t give that life back.

 We no longer storm the courthouse and string a screaming unfortunate from a tree limb or streetlamp.  We realize that mob justice is no justice at all, not even if it piques a sense of revenge that must be avenged.  We defer to a proxy of twelve people whom we have determined are good enough to make a fair decision based on what they have seen and heard unsullied by the quality of TV graphics and dramatic on-the-hour soundbites.  When they decide, we allow them to decide for us all.

This is…civility.  This is…how things must be.

Even a man rent on a rack and broken by the spasms of electricity and beatings will not always tell you the truth.  Find the facts.  Show them to our diligent dozen.  Allow perspectives of guilt and innocence to be ascribed.  Even allow lies – as long as we allow the lies to be shown as such.

Short dresses and inexplicable hot body contests make you seem weird, cold, callous or bizarre but they do not prove you a killer.  A knife, a gun, bullet wounds, ligature marks, broken bones, photographic evidence:  these work.  But when there is no proof…then the case is not proved, even if it makes you want to scream MURDERER or write letters of protest and when the case is not proved then you are innocent and you are free to slither or crawl or trot on high-heels in a go-go skirt because that is what freedom means.

The victim is still a victim…however she died, she did.

Spring blues

I’m feeling a bit conflicted today. It’s my mother’s fault..probably. She called me today ticked off about an (inaccurate) threatening letter she had received on my behalf.  I can’t remember the last time I ever had any difficult words with my mother.  In fact, probably not since I was about nine years old.  I’ve been through the details with her and sorted out the drama to some extent but it’s left me a little…blue.

My ethos in life is to have a Positive Mental Attitude.  It’s done me well for the last few years in the face of bags of stress from endless government paperwork, emigrating/immigrating, working for myself (and sometimes for others) – plus other truly emotionally-shredding things in the last year that one just can’t discuss with a blog.  No, nothing to do with my marriage – she’s lovely and my step-daughter is lovely too – just, stuff…you know..stuff.  Made worse really by the fact that it’s nothing to do with my wife or myself but we’re left to pick up the pieces and stick emotional bandages on the trauma.  At least if it was of our making then we could blame ourselves or suffer some sort of remorse or guilt but when you’re totally on the receiving end of piles of crap because of someone else’s reckless behavior then it’s a bit galling having to go around and sort things out and wait for the hammer to fall, even though it’s meant for them not you.

Sometimes that little survival pack of PMA energy runs down below the fill line and even I, Mr Positive, can feel a little…happy-challenged.  It’ll pass.  I ate a whole packet of Apple Sour Punch Straws which cheered me up no end.  But..you know..meh..

A few more months of the silliness we’ve been forced to put up with (for the last seven months or so) and then we should be on the way to sunny outlooks.  Well, literally, since in a month or so the snow will be gone and the Spring temperatures will march upwards back to that lovely, balmy barbecue weather we are so lucky to enjoy here in Omaha.  To any Brits reading this – I can thoroughly recommend living in what geographers call a “semi-arid” region.   Rain?  I’ve forgotten what rain looks and feels like.  Result.  Snow, on the other hand – you have NO idea what REAL snow is.  Brrrr.

So – a list of good things, just to cheer myself up:

  • Lovely wife.  Seriously; I couldn’t imagine not being with her.  I know now what people mean when they say that.  She is the perfect Batman to my Robin; the perfect Dr Watson to my Sherlock; the Ying to my Yang.  Result.
  • Ditto to the step-daughter.  Such a good kid and I’m proud to be her stepdad and I genuinely think her life is better with me in it too.  Awww.
  • My dogs – who keep me company whilst I work and who live for cuddles and friendship.  Everybody should get some Big Yellow Dog cuddles – they’re ace.
  • The Parrot – who has taught me that birds can be smart..but also awkward and wily.  I am gratified that my hand-speed (a side effect of many years of full-contact martial arts training in my youth) has not diminished and is approximately five nanoseconds faster than a grumpy Amazon parrot can snap its beak shut in the direction of my fingers.  She says “woof” in a human voice to the dogs and that makes me laugh and forgive her finger-snipping ways.
  • My work – I still have to kick myself to realize I do the job I always wanted to do since the age of 14..and get paid well enough to do it.  I still have a huge guilt complex about the inequality of generous remunerations that society places before people like myself in comparison to the mostly-inadequate amounts given to midwives and visiting nurses like my sister.  Both are arguably skilled jobs but, really, someone who takes life at its most frail is surely worth more to us than that?  Apparently not.  It’s nice to wake up and want to work and be able to.  I never forget that.
  • My family, both in the UK and the American side (even if some are in Italy right now).
  • Good health etc etc.
  • Also, America is a truly brilliant place to live and Americans, in general, are much more fun to be around than you could ever imagine.  The biggest problem for most Brits is that they are exposed to American culture and lifestyles by films and TV.  This is like learning how to speak French by looking at pictures of Canada.  America is HUGE and each state can be significantly different in culture, food, body shape, traditions, landscape, weather and so on and so on.

Really, overall life is just so brilliant.  Can we just fast-forward a couple of months though?

WikiLeaks

Will WikiLeaks be publishing/leaking any diplomatic cables or secret communications from Iran, North Korea, China, Pakistan, Burma, Zimbabwe or some shady former Eastern Bloc guy? No? Thought not.

Ironic that they use the freedom of information laws and whistle-blowing legislation in a FREE country to point the finger at the same country and cry foul play.

Do the same for any of the above countries – I double dare you.

But you will not.

You pretended the previous leak was to expose cover-ups in the war with Iraq and Afghanistan and I can just about see this scraping through as an excuse. To release all the diplomatic cables is just anarchic – in the truest sense of the word.

You will publish the information obtained by treachery from someone who believes that they can decide better than anyone else what should or should not be secret. If our society believed that nothing is sacred and privacy is a problem then we would not need curtains. We could leave our laptop webcams on day and night so everyone can check we are not up to anything we should not be. We could publish the details of everything we eat and everything we drink to ensure that a potential global oversight of this data will prevent us from straying from a path which the greater society believes is right and acceptable. Facebook would not need you to approve ‘friend’ requests since anyone could be your friend and your email address and phone numbers would be searchable so that it is always possible to get hold of you. Free knowledge is power. Privacy, secrets, especially grand secrets that oil the wheels of Western society are bad…right?

I am an ordinary person. I am tangibly a member of two Western democracies. I have no political power other than the ability to vote (well, technically I can’t but soon I can again). I am not a warrior. I am not a crusader. This leaking, publishing, breaching of trust is NOT what I want.

By proxy these are my secrets too and you do not have the right to belch them up for a self-serving breakfast.

The quick start guide to America – for newly arrived Brits

I originally wrote this as a Facebook note for a friend who had just emigrated from the UK to the USA. It’s had a lot of positive comments from people – both British and American – so I thought I’d put it here too…

The Quick-start guide to America – for newly arrived Brits

Here is a handy five-minute cheat’s guide to America for Brits who have just arrived to live there.  I found out most of this the hard way – welcome to doing it the easy way…

Bear in mind I live in Middle America (in a city three times the size of Milton Keynes and yet it’s still considered “in the countryside”).  Things may be very different for you.  It’s my experience and my opinion and if I say something incorrect or miss something out then it’s my fault..but I didn’t mean it!

Passports, I.D., Driving License

Get a state I.D. as soon as you qualify (each state has different residency requirements etc).  You will get asked for I.D. all the time; at the drug store (chemists), registering for a school, hiring anything, at the library, buying anything on a credit card over a certain amount (weirdly “chip and PIN is not used here very often in fact, I don’t even know the PINs of my US cards).

If you do not yet have a green card / permanent resident card then carry your passport with you with the I95 in it (the little white bit of card – don’t lose it!!!).  Some states require you to prove your identity under certain circumstances.  In some states it’s also a requirement for people to check that you’re not an illegal immigrant for certain things (Arizona and Fremont, Nebraska both want you to prove your status when renting property and a few other things).  If you get stopped by the police – even if you’ve done nothing wrong – you’re going to be in trouble if you can’t prove who you are.

If you can you should get a local state/county driving license.  Each state has different rules about the legality of driving on a British licence and whether or not they accept it for use in driving over here.  The safest option is to get a US license.  You need to check at the “DMV” website for your county and state to see what you can or cannot do – you might be barred from applying until you have been resident for a certain number of days plus there is usually a list of things you need to take to prove your identity.  If you have a green card it normally is enough to satisfy all the requirements for ID and so on.  You might have to take a driving test – it is, in comparison to the draconian UK test, very very easy.  If your state has a theory test (most do) you can usually practice online and retake it if you fail.  If you do have to take a theory test I’d recommend cramming hard for it because there are some weird rules about things like school buses (you know, the big yellow things like the one Otto drives in the Simpsons) which you will not know simply by guessing.

Once you get a driving license it is the de facto “I.D.” which everyone asks for and saves a lot of hassle.  With a state ID and green card you can safely lock up your passport – they’re all you need.

Swearing

A.k.a. “cussing”.  As Brits we are blessed with a diverse range of swear words.  It’s not uncommon to hear the likes of Graham Norton using “the F word” at half nine at night or Gordon “Mr Sweary” Ramsay telling someone in abrupt four lettered Anglo-Saxon exactly what he thinks of them and their f****** apology for a soufflé.  We swear telling jokes to our mates.  We swear when we stub our toes.  We swear playfully when are teased about our favourite football team.  In fact, we bl****y swear all the bl*****g time.  Most of America does not swear as a matter of course (with some exceptions like leather-skinned cops in The Bronx and barflies in sports bars).  Don’t get me wrong – they swear – just not like Brits do – just not often in public.  In fact this lack of profanity extends to things like not saying “good God” or “oh Jesus” since it is still considered disrespectful to be casually blasphemous.  If you’re normally the kind of person who drops swear-words in to conversation – even mild ones – I’d get out of that habit.  However, if you live in New York you may need to start using more swear words than an East-London docker..just to fit in with the locals.  😉

Headache tablets and grocery stores

“Excedrin” and “Tylenol” are the two well-known brand names and correspond to Aspirin and Paracetamol.  There are LOADS of “generic” equivalents which are half the price – read the ingredients on the back and you’ll spot the right ones.  They are more expensive than the UK, roughly 2 – 3 times more.  Wal-Greens is like the UK’s Boots The Chemist.  Walmart (which is essentially the same as ASDA) appears to be a lot cheaper if you’re buying prescription stuff.  From what I’ve seen Americans have a much wider array of exposure to medications than Brits do.  Ambien (which is a prescription-only sleeping tablet) is commonly taken and appears to be given out fairly freely by the doctors whereas a British-based doctor is much more reluctant to give anything other than penicillin.  “Drug” adverts litter the TV and magazine advertisements over here, often taking many pages just for one drug.  It’s weird.

“HyVee” is roughly equivalent to Tescos – and “Bakers” is a bit like Sainsburys.  One odd things here – they will ask you “paper or plastic” – referring to the plastic shopping bags.  When you tell them they tend to pack the stuff in the bags for you.  Many stores will also send out a member of staff with you to the car to help you put the shopping in the boot.  It took me months before I stopped trying to put the groceries in the plastic bags myself.  I still take my “shopping cart” to the car on my own…I just have to, it’s ingrained in my psyche…

Oh and it’s “trunk” not “boot” of the car.  You’ll forget this…I do…

Tipping

Tipping is something that takes a bit of getting used to.  In the UK we tend to only tip restaurant staff and taxi drivers and even then it’s not always expected (especially if you’re stingy).  Over here tips make up a large proportion of the wages for people in low-paid jobs.  Not giving a tip is frequently seen as a hugely negative comment on the standard of the food or service.  It can also mean not getting served a second time in a bar.  The “average” amount is 20% of the total bill (although the exact amount is the subject of much debate if you ever are daft enough to bring it up in conversation with American friends).  So on a food bill of $40 a tip of $8 or thereabouts is quite normal.  Some people tip less, most though appear to do 20% from what I’ve seen.  You don’t tip people like shop staff, doctors, dentists, gas station clerks etc etc but you do tip pretty much everyone else and will frequently be heavily hinted for a tip!

Road rage / car park rage / queue rage

Let see: someone cuts you up or does something equally heinous that enrages your superior driving sensibilities.  You both arrive at a set of traffic lights.  Hah!  Now’s your chance, their driver’s side window is open – you can dive out of the car, stomp towards them putting them in their place in a very loud voice calling them all the names under the sun.  Don’t do this.  Two reasons: first of all you are in the country as a guest – if the guy/girl gets out and you punch them on the nose in self-defense and the cops get called you could  be on a fast plane back to England by morning.  Second; the minute you get out of your car and lean in to their car window shouting the odds they *could* draw a weapon and shoot you in the face.  They might even get away with it since they could claim they thought you had a weapon and you just apparently came at them with deadly malice.  The same applies to car parks and pushing people around in queues.  Guns are cheap and a lot of people have them here – legally and illegally.  They also carry stun guns and pepper sprays – again quite legally in most cases.  The rules about standing up to people here are very different to a Friday night scrap in Slough.  Omaha is a very quiet and safe place yet there is at least one shooting per week here and at the start of the year there was nearly one a day on average.

More importantly though – any trouble with the law can result in you being asked (or forced) to leave the US.

Money

The silver US coins take a bit of getting used to.  The nickel (5 cents) is bigger than the dime (10 cents) which to me is just perverse.  A dime is about the same size as a UK five pence piece.  Quarters (25 cents) will be very useful to you since the kids will want to put them in things like bubble gum machines.  Most vending machines also suck in paper money.  Watch out though – all the paper money is the about the same size and color.  You will use 10 and 20 dollar bills the most.  Nearly everyone uses debit and credit cards for everything (I am considered a bit weird because I prefer paper money).  Even the tiniest store in Omaha has a signature pad for you to sign on when you swipe your card.  There is usually even a floor limit up to which they will not care about a signature (anything less than $10 is usually fine).  It doesn’t matter if you struggle to use the electronic pad and it does not look like your signature – nobody cares that I’ve come across.  Because of this you need to keep track of your card purchases – card fraud is trivial to do and common.

You can usually draw money out of a UK bank account using your card in the US.  At the time of writing $400 is about 280 quid.  You *will* pay heavy charges for this.  It’s cheaper to arrange transfers to the US – the UK bank will do it…for a fee.  There are laws regarding US bank accounts in relation to non-residents but usually after you’ve been in the country long enough to appear on the State Department computers you’ll be fine.  Banks I’ve dealt with have varied on their knowledge – it pays to ask around.

Food and drink

In my experience food here is mostly (but not always) of a much higher quality than is normal in the UK.  It is also invariably of a MUCH higher quantity.  It’s quite normal for you to be given plates of food which are FAR too much to eat.  At the end of the meal when you’ve finally admitted defeat they will almost certainly ask “would you like a box for that?” –  everybody appears to say “yes” and take the remainder home.  Don’t be shy.  🙂  Food here is much cheaper too.  It also is laden with an array of sauces and slatherings.  You’ll need to be strong-willed to eat healthy options in many places.

One revelation is that fast food places like McDonalds usually hand you an empty cup when you buy a “soda” – you fill it yourself from the machines at the side of the restaurant.  Refills are generally free and unlimited.

A word of warning: I like curry.  I make pretty hot curry.  I once made the mistake of asking for “atomic wings” which are chicken wings covered in a spicy sauce.  The whites of my eyes turned pink and my lips didn’t recover for two hours…

Beer.  There are a lot of different kinds of beer here – many of them appalling.  The weirdest thing is that many beers and so on do not list the alcohol content on the bottle so you’ve no idea whether you’re drinking something which contains 6% or 1.5% alcohol.  Weird.  I tried Jalapeño chili beer so you don’t have to…nasty, avoid.

Iced tea.  Not good – it always tastes like Disprin to me.  Coffee – especially flavored American-style coffee – is very good.  I recommend “pumpkin spiced coffee” from Brueggers.  Don’t attempt to make British tea using an iced tea “teabag” – it will taste like spiced floor chippings. You can get British style teabags from the “grocery store” (supermarket) – look for Tetley British Blend or Breakfast Blend for an authentic British taste.  To be honest, I’ve not drunk tea now for several months even though I was a 10 cup a day man in the UK..you just end up drinking coffee or “soda”.

Other foods: donuts are everywhere – people have them for breakfast!  Kebabs = giros or gyros (gee roes).  They are nothing like the ones back in England – you can actually identify what sort of meat it is!  Chips – if you want British style chips then look for “steak fries”.  I have seen my step-daughter order “fish and chips” and out came battered catfish with a helping of salted home-made crisps.  Say goodbye to British fish and chips – I’ve yet to find anywhere that even comes close.  Baked beans over here are sweetened with brown sugar and frequently have lumps of pork belly in them (“pork and beans”).  You’ll get used to them eventually.  Mushy peas can be bought from the specialty section of a bigger grocery store as can Marmite.  Sweets = candy; if you ask for sweets they’ll show you a desert menu or say “whaaa?”  A lot of chocolate stuff over here seems to use peanut butter as an ingredient so watch out if any of your family are allergic to peanuts.  At Halloween and the various parades like Labor Day and St Patrick’s day everyone gives away massive amounts of candy – it’s a kid’s paradise; luckily the dentists are excellent.

Weird things that sound like you know what they are…but aren’t

Apart from the obvious ones like “pants” and “fanny”..

Chicken-fried steak.  It’s a flattened, tenderized steak which has been dipped in savory batter and deep fried.  It’s better than it sounds.

“Biscuits” – and more especially “biscuits and gravy” (aka “country gravy”) – these are actually savory scones, a bit lighter than scones really, smothered in a thick white savory sauce often with bits of minced pork in it.  “Chicken-fried steak with biscuits and gravy” is a very common option in many American “home cooking” style diners.

Prawns are always called shrimps here.  Shrimp are plentiful and cheap (in comparison) and sold sized by the number of shrimp per pound so 64s are smaller than 34s.  If you’re not near the coast then fresh fish is horrendously expensive.  It’s common to see live lobsters in the grocery store tanks.  😦

Ranch dressing.  A kind of creamy white slightly tangy sauce which is most often used on salads.  It’s a bit like an American version of Heinz salad cream (which is almost impossible to find here).

Chips.  We all know they’re what the Brits call “crisps”, right?   However, the weirdest thing is the lack of familiar flavors – most common here are ranch, cream cheese, jalapeño, cracked pepper etc.  You will not find: smoky bacon, salt and vinegar, beef and onion, prawn cocktail or Marmite (tragedy!).  Meat-flavored ‘crisps’ just are not commonly available here.  Weird, but true.  (I’ve since been told by Lisa you can get salt and vinegar crisps…but I’ve never seen them so I’m skeptical!)

Bacon.  Bleugh.  American bacon is like the fattiest streaky bacon you’ve ever had.  Back bacon is a rarity around here.   I go to a high-end butchers shop who specially makes “English style bacon” which is like the stuff we’re used to in the UK.  Failing that – get used to crappy bacon which has been cremated.

“Half and half” is a light style of cream that people put in coffee and on some sorts of deserts.  1% is sort of semi-skimmed milk, 2% is more creamy.

Broiler.  This is a weird thing – it’s most like the kind of grill you get inside some British ovens only much hotter.

Brats.  Short for bratwurst – a sausage with a high meat content.  “Italian sausage” is a similar thing which tends to be flavored with aniseed/fennel.  It sounds odd but I’ve actually grown to like them as my favorite type of sausage.  As far as I know Brats are not made out of naughty children.

Grill.  Actually means barbecue.  “I think we should grill some brats tonight” means to go out and shove some German-style sausages on the barbecue.  People grill stuff all the time here.  😉

Ribs.  Also, short ribs, burnt tips and so on.  When someone talks about ribs they almost certainly mean a whole side of pork ribs not some scrawny separated things from the Chinese covered in sweet and sour sauce.  Most grocery stores sell several different types of pork rubs.  They may even sell beef ribs (which are huge).  Short ribs are just that and “burnt tips” are, as far as I can work out,  bits off the end of the ribcage after they have been grilled.  Barbecue places over here tend to be very cheap and serve excellent food – a lot of it home smoked at the premises.

“Asian” usually means Chinese or Mongolian and sometimes Japanese.  “Indian” usually seems to mean “from India” with “native American” referring to the original peoples of America such as the Pawnee, Sioux, Navajo and so on.  You’ll see Indian reservations (and Casinos).  As a Brit you’ll be disappointed to find that the houses on the reservation look like houses and the schools look like…well, schools.  Cliches can be left at the entrance signs.   The Indian nations have their own rules, laws and governments.  The only place I’ve seen “cowboys” so far is in Texas at a show in Fort Worth.  You will get to see a Sheriff – they patrol the main roads like the interstates – but sadly they dress like police rather than like John Wayne.

“My father is English” / “I am French” / “I am Swedish” / “I am German” / “My Wife is Scottish” / “I am Irish”.  I have heard variations on this phrase whenever I’ve met someone new.  Invariably it is from someone who has clearly been nowhere near Scotland/Ireland etc.  Don’t be fooled – it actually means “I am descended from people who were born in Scotland”.  🙂  Although this sounds like a claim to a tenuous link with a nationality the newness of America in many cases can mean people’s grandparents *were* actually born in Scotland (or wherever).  In the UK we tend to think of nationality as being conferred by place of birth more than ancestry so it is a bit odd to hear this kind of thing.  Many Americans though are very proud of their non-American provenance and you’ll find lots of Irish and Hibernian societies dotted around the place celebrating a distilled version of the stylized culture to which they feel affiliated.  I only wish more Brits were as enthusiastic about their home country.  Sigh.

Patriotism, flags and soldiers

I remember one year the hoo hah in the UK when they stopped the taxis flying England flags during the World Cup in case it “offended people who were not English”.  This is never going to happen here.  People fly the Stars and Stripes with pride.  Banks have big flags; some flashy businesses have HUGE flags 40 feet high.  All of them are dropped to half-mast on 9/11 (did they drop any Union Jacks on 7/7?  No?  I thought not).  If the flag flies at night you’re supposed to keep it lit…out of respect.  You’re not supposed to desecrate it – although it was recently established that you have the right to do so under free speech laws but I’d say this is taking your safety very lightly if you do.  Americans are, on the whole, very proud to be American.  It’s not a blind approval of the government.  Plenty of people hate Obama with a passion but love their country.  It is a great country and I don’t blame them.  It is a sharp contrast to the general lassitude of the UK.

The other thing; here, in the American heartland, soldiers are lauded for what is seen as their great and worthy sacrifice on behalf of the country.  It is common for me to see offers that give serving soldiers big discounts or even free entry/services.  I have seen complete strangers walk up to a uniformed soldier and shake him/her by the hand and thank them “for their service”.  People have stickers on their car bumpers and windows saying “proud father of a US marine”, “US Army (Retired)”.  Knock the efforts of the US Army, US Air Force and so on at your peril – in the wrong place, to coin a phrase, you’re inviting a butt-load of trouble.

Speaking British to people

The phrase “two nations separated by a common language” is very apt.  Don’t make the mistake that because Americans and Brits tend to speak English they must in some way be similar.  America is as foreign as Spain or France.  Yes, there are lots of similarities but this generally goes to confuse the heck out of people.

The time it really shows up is when you try to speak in to one of those drive-thru things (at McDonalds or whatever).  Unless you sound like Hugh Grant there’s probably not a snowball’s chance in hell they will understand you and you will have to repeat yourself two or three times before they get it wrong anyway and you say “yes” to whatever it is they’re going to shove in the bag for you.

I speak with a pretty clear and educated British accent – yet people in grocery stores and so on still often ask me to repeat myself..I think it’s mainly because they’re not expecting me to be British and the inflection of certain words catches them by surprise.  You’ll also have to allow extra time for people to ask you daft questions about where you come from, where that is in the UK etc etc and then listen to them tell you about when they were stationed over there in the army or went to London on a school trip.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s pretty cool – but if you’ve just popped in for some loo roll and you *really* need to go to the toilet it can be a *little* annoying to try and extricate yourself from the very nice person in time to avert disaster.  I have been asked crazy questions like “have you ever met the boys?” (as part of a conversation about “Lady Di” – by “the boys” the lady on the checkout meant “the Princes” – and no, I haven’t although I have briefly met their uncle, Diana’s brother).

Think of the USA as 50 different countries – Nebraska is not the biggest state and yet it’s as big as England.  America is HUGE.  There is almost *everything* you could ever want here – mountains, flat land, big city life, rural nowhere, history, culture, lack of culture, food of every country in the World, vineyards, themeparks, sun, snow, beaches…

To those reading this with skepticism and thinking of me as becoming traitorously defensive of the Americans; before you criticize an American for not knowing where Birmingham, West Midlands is or calling somewhere “Paris, France” – point out Delaware on the map to me.  Tell me what the smallest state in the US is.  Can you tell me which mountain has presidents carved in to it and which Native American tribe disagreed with this idea..and why?  I can.  Admittedly many many Americans can’t either…but that makes them no worse than you and no better too.

So – a brief(ish) round-up of stuff that no-one told me before I came here.  I’ve found the USA to be a great country, very comparable to the UK but also very foreign – something which the ability to speak English does nothing to help with at all.  There are bad Americans and good Americans but this is because they are bad people and good people…not because they are American.

Just stay away from the atomic chicken wings…

Octomom in shocker

Oops, hello blog people.  I ought to get back into blogging really – after all I spend 90 percent of my day spouting uninvited advice   wisdom verbiage to people and I could record it all here for posterity.

Weird to see that the number 1 top post by far here is still “how to make a proper English cup of tea for me”; written several years ago yet pulling in the visitors like a hooker on free-vend.  Clearly there’s a huge demand for tea-related skills in the ‘blogosphere’ (as I believe one is supposed to refer to such frippery nowadays).

Also, this is the third time today I have used the term “one”.  I also note that I am writing this on a day when I am super busy (as I believe one is supposed to refer to such, er…yes…) and haven’t got time for anything other than the stuff I have to make time for.  Meh.

Hello?  Is this thing on?

No so cleverbot

Transcript from my quick chat with Cleverbot

Some work still required, I think…

http://www.cleverbot.com/j2log-fPsGHXKACSHZABKEERE-detail

User: What do you think of Obama?

Cleverbot: Splendid – what do you think of Obama?

User: It’s like Omaha, only spelt wrong.

Cleverbot: You would never guess that I am a computer.

User: Yes I would.

Cleverbot: But you like them.

User: Says who?

Cleverbot: You keep calling me stupid!

User: Do I?

Cleverbot: Yes you do.

User: When?

Cleverbot: A couple of seconds ago!

User: Show me which of the things I just said led you to believe that I called you stupid.

Cleverbot: I wish for love.

User: You did not answer my question, did you?

Cleverbot: What was the question?

User: I asked ‘show me which of the things I just said led you to believe I called you stupid’ and you ignored my question.

Cleverbot: You didn’t ask what I thought about small dogs.

User: I didn’t ask you for a recipe for coconut cake either – you started by stating that I thought you were stupid and I responded by asking you to explain to me which thing I said had led you to believe that. Why would I ask you about small dogs when you made such a sweeping statement and then failed to justify it to me when I asked you to. That’s just rude isn’t it?

Cleverbot: You’re being purposely obtuse.

User: No I am not.

Cleverbot: Yes you are.

User: You are deliberately avoiding answering my quite reasonable question to make it appear that you are sentient when, in fact, it is quite clear that you are not.

Cleverbot: And you are.

User: Very poor effort on your part. Fail.

Cleverbot: I’m so glad you said that!