Tuesday 30 June 2009

American quote(s) of the week

Overheard by The Doctor on the train yesterday:

Commuter: "So, what are you doing for the Fourth of July weekend?"

Fellow commuter: "Well...let's see. Friday, I think we're going to some barbecue. But I don't know what time. Saturday, I think there's another barbecue. I'm not sure what time or anything. And Sunday....well, let's see, I think we might be going to a barbecue."

Other than watching fireworks, is there any other Fourth of July activity? I think we had better buy some more charcoal....


We are also enjoying the coverage of Wimbledon on US television. The NBC opening credits are especially great - shots of Big Ben, the Queen and the Tower of London. Then split screen shots of the players reminiscent of 'Dallas'. Every time they show Andy Murray they play that Brian May guitar riff on "God save the Queen'.

It's also refreshingly irreverent. Take the closing of the Centre Court roof, yesterday. As the roof slowly closed over, we could just imagine that back home on the BBC John Lloyd or someone would be intoning about a 'historic moment'. The US comment? "Hey, this is weirdly exciting!" followed by "well, you know it doesn't look you're inside at all - it's not like being in a giant Costco or something."

I'm sure the poker-faced officials at the Lawn Tennis Association are relieved about that.....

Friday 26 June 2009

My family and other animals

One thing that has really surprised me here is the amount of wildlife, considering the fact that we are only 20 miles or so from New York City.

I don't mean that we have large mammals gambolling through the garden, although we do seem to have an unusually high number of fat squirrels. There is also a beautiful red parakeet-type bird that I have yet to identify, which is a bit more exciting than sparrows when you are staring out of the kitchen window doing the washing-up.

But Long Island being a good few degrees warmer than the UK, and a lot more wooded, means that we have an exotic insect population. For example, the other day I completely freaked out in the car when I realised that the faint tickling on my wrist was a simply enormous winged black creature. The Doctor thinks it may have been some kind of moth, but all I know is that it looked like a miniature version of a Doctor Who monster. It promptly disappeared down the side of my seat, only to re-emerge on my leg a minute or so later. At this point we had to stop the car and try to evict it, because The Doctor was not prepared to drive with me screaming out suddenly every few minutes. The wretched thing was now, of course, nowhere to be seen.

Then there are the mosquitoes. Every time I walk down the drive one of the little buggers comes to nibble me, and, following our neighbour's example, I have become paranoid about not leaving the porch door open at dusk. Littleboy 2 has obviously got this message. "Mummy, where are the scooters?" he asked the other day, staring out of the window. Darn, I thought, he's finally clicked that their mini-scooters aren't here - they, along with the rest of our shipment, have yet to arrive. It was only when Littleboy 1 started talking about 'scooter bites' later that I realised he meant the mosquitoes.

However, there is 'good' wildlife too. The fireflies glowing in the garden as we sit having supper. The rabbit that bounded right past the Littleboys as they played in a local playground. And the huge live hermit crabs we found on the beach yesterday, attracting a little crowd of fascinated kids. (On closer observation, the boys in the group just wanted to look at the underside of the crabs, while the girls wanted them to be killed or tortured.)

But there is one thing we don't (yet) appear to have. I nearly screamed the other day when The Doctor announced something from the kitchen; what I heard was "we have mice". Mice, the bane of my life in London - surely I should have known we couldn't escape from them. But no....he repeated, "We have ice". Yes, our great big American fridge/freezer makes industrial quantities of the stuff at the flick of a switch, as he had just discovered. So, lovely iced drinks and no rodents. Hurrah.

Monday 22 June 2009

American question of the week

Before I get on to my latest question about America, readers of the last post might be interested to know that I have now established that I CAN get a permit to work, AND a social security number. Although it might take months and months to come. But there is light at the end of the legal alien tunnel. In other news, The Doctor took the theory part of the driving test, and passed with 100%. Half the questions were related to drink-driving and the others involved recognising road signs such as 'Stop'. I'm glad they ask people to recognise that one.

Now, onto more pressing matters. My question this week concerns basketball hoops....

1) Why do so many American homes have a basketball hoop in the yard? I mean, it's not just the odd one. It's as if you were driving along the road in Britain and every garden had a soccer goal in it, or a cricket pitch. It's just SO ubiquitous I have to ask. And in the spirit of the driving test, I'm going to allow a multiple choice answer.

Is it

a) Because all Americans love basketball, simple as that?
b) A sort of middle class emblem; a sign that you are a normal family with some kids, 2 and a half cars, and a big enough house to erect a basketball hoop outside?
c) Because people put them up in the hope that their sons will grow to be 6ft professional basketball players?
d) A discreet sign that you are a member of some kind of cult? (a bit like Pampas grass in a front garden is supposed to signify that people are swingers. According to my friend Peter, that is).
e) None of the above?

Answers from non-Americans and non-expats also welcome.....

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Enough to drive you crazy

As outlined in my previous post, driving is an absolute prerequisite for living in the US. (Quote of the week; local lady, when I told her that I lived just behind the library, which is great and has loads of kids' activities: "Wow. I mean, you could even WALK there.")

So you would have thought it might be pretty easy to get a driving licence and purchase a car, yes?

Er, wrong. Acquiring a car has been one our biggest headaches since our arrival in the USA. It all stems from the bigger problem of not having a social security number, which has cast us adrift in a sea of bureaucracy, forms, emails from over-zealous types and inability to pay for things due to lack of ID.

It looked so easy. The plan was, we would arrive here and buy the car of a guy from The Doctor's new workplace who would soon be leaving to go back to Europe.

But, as we discovered on arrival in the US, if you don't have a social security number, you basically can't do anything. It made buying a car nigh on impossible, as to get insurance you need a New York State driving licence, and to even apply for the licence you need the social security number.

The Doctor dutifully went down to Social Services in Brooklyn just a few days after our arrival. He queued for three hours in the kind of place that has notices up saying "It is an offence to kill a federal employee" (so does that mean it's OK kill someone else? we wondered). When he reached the head of the queue, sorry, line, he was told he had not even been activated on the system yet by the visa people, so couldn't even start to apply.

Not having the number had all sorts of interesting implications. It has been virtually impossible to do anything over the phone, including topping up a pay as you go mobile and registering the utilities for our house in our name (this required an in-person visit to their offices).

We soon realised that it would be weeks, if not months, before the process of being able to buy the car began. And so we have been forced to rent the car off the actual owner until we get our licences. And this (required by state law) is no picnic, either. You have to sit through five hours of videos, take a multiple-choice quiz, AND do a roadtest.

The Doctor has all this to look forward to, now that his precious number has finally arrived. And assuming he passes, there will be more queuing, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and hundreds of forms to fill in to transfer the ownership of the car. Oh what fun. And I am supposed to do it too. Only I don't have a social security number because I'm not eligible for one. How the heck I am supposed to apply for the licence remains a mystery.....

Meanwhile I'm finding it impossible even to buy petrol on my credit card, because it's a UK card and they always ask for the zip code. We haven't been able to apply for a US credit card yet, because guess what? We didn't have a social security number...

So yes, the process of acquiring and driving a car in this country might be easy. But, like many things, as we're increasingly discovering, it's only easy if you're an American.

Monday 15 June 2009

Little house in the big woods

Well, the title is probably slightly misleading, but forgive me, I am a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books about her pioneering family. House no 9 isn't that little, and the woods are not that big, but it IS very wooded around here and although we didn't arrive in a covered wagon, but an ageing Dodge, moving here does feel a bit like being a pioneer arriving in Indian country.

We've been in the house five days now, and have spent most of them out shopping for our new home in true American style. Shopping in the US is, I am realising, very different to shopping in London, where you might schlep into Oxford Street on the tube, dodge raindrops in your way in and out of shops, grab a quick sandwich from Pret and lug your heavy bags home again. Or you might drive, and spend hours finding a parking spot, pay a small fortune on the meter, and then realise it's about a mile's walk from the actual shop you wanted to go to. Or you might go to Ikea, but that would be a nightmare beyond contemplation.

Here, you roll up in your car, park in a simply immense, free, parking lot, enter a huge indoor mall, with every shop you could possibly want under the sun, a choice of about 50 restaurants (half of which seem to be Japanese - luckily the Littleboys have unexpectedly decided they love chicken teriyaki), and carry your bags a few yards back to the car. All of which makes it immensely tempting to buy, buy, buy. The Doctor has already treated himself to a huge new set of non-stick pans to cook with, while I have indulged in a shiny new laptop, at which I now sit. The Littleboys have ended up with some gimmicky, overpriced electronic Chinese toys we picked up in the mall, including a mouse that runs around squeaking - the kind of impulse purchase we never would have made at home. No wonder American consumers make the world go round.

I guess the major difference is that everyone expects to drive everywhere. The Doctor is taking the train to work at the moment, but when he went to the Long Island Railroad station to ask about a season ticket, the guy at the booth was astounded. Although people commute from here into Manhattan, they clearly don't commute to two stops down the line. "Why don't you just drive?" he asked. "It's so near...."

No-one can believe that we don't have two cars. (Actually we don't even have one, as we we have been forced to borrow, rather than buy, the Dodge, due to not yet having NY state driving licences. This heinously irritating saga probably merits another whole blog post so I won't bore you with it here...). And yet here we are incredibly near Main Street, with most of the amenities you could want within walking distance. We can actually see the local wine shop from the top of our bedroom window - a definite plus in my book. I know the US auto industry is in decline, but I can't see them becoming a non-car culture any time soon.

But another of my first impressions is that everyone is incredibly friendly. From the postman who just now knocked on my door to introduce himself; (although he corrected me when I called him the mailman; it's 'carrier', apparently, so as not to be sexist. Yes, like pigeons); to the neighbours who invited us for an impromptu bbq laast night; to the garage owner I had to phone about the Dodge (don't ask...); to our landlady, who had laid on everything to make our moving day easier, including food in the fridge, soap, towels and two bottles of local wine. Some cynical Brits say Americans are just being fake when they're so friendly, but I must say, people seem genuine. The only time I ever exchanged words with my London postman was when I had to chase hin down the street for misdelivering the post to the wrong door yet again - and all I would get was a sullen grunt.

Anyway, enough of my wittering. Fellow blogger Expat Mum has suggested that I pose a question every week to be answered by fellow Expat Brits/American bloggers. I have many, so will start with one that has already intrigued me.

Q. Do Americans have baths? No bathtub that I've been in seems to have been designed with a bath in mind. The one in this house has an amazing shower, but when you try to run the taps the shower simply pumps out as well, so stuck it is in the 'shower' position. Some of the motels we stayed in didn't even seem to have plugs you could put in for a bath. The Littleboys like their bath, but I'm wondering if I should be training them to have showers....

Sunday 7 June 2009

On the road

Well, ten days since we left Brooklyn and we are still living out of a suitcase. We are supposed to be moving into House 9 this week, and although the last fortnight has been kind of fun, I can't wait.

In the past fortnight, we have stayed in:

A beautiful hilltop house near Charlottesville with The Doctor's Virginian cousins (this, needless to say, was the highlight of the trip)

A mountain lodge motel in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, with unreformed, country-style cooking, eccentric fellow guests and bears in the backyard

Two Holiday Inns, one huge and sumptous and in the middle of nowheresville, New Jersey, one rather downmarket and in the central business district of Long Island. Funny how chains can be so homogenous and yet vary so wildly in quality....

A distinctly grotty motel in Eastern Long Island. This was in a great location, and had the advantage of a fridge and cooker, but was tiny with nowhere to eat in the room. Perhaps the low point was the Littleboys eating their Weetabix (which I have faithfully carried around with me) on the doorstep in the pouring rain, prompting the Doctor to comment that we finally looked like 'poor white trash'.

I am now seriously beginning to tire of washing boys' filthy bibs and milk cups in bathroom sinks, trotting down to the basement of hotels to do laundry (the corridor in this one looks like something out of The Shining), unpacking and repacking suitcases, and going to bed at the same time as the boys (as late as 10pm, which only has the advantage that they sleep in in the morning). And the joys of eating out every night start to pall when one has to find somewhere suitable for two lively boys where they can have something to eat other than chips and ketchup.

On the plus side, we have spent the past two days taking a look at Long Island's glorious beaches, in beautiful summer weather. We had a superb time in Virginia, catching up with relations of The Doctor's we last saw 15 years ago, and easing ourselves into their laid-back, Southern way of living. We have walked in the mountains and woods (I've picked several deer ticks off the Littleboys already...), paddled in the sea, driven on terrifying Interstates, shopped in huge malls and eaten in diners.

Our American experience has truly begun.