Friday 26 April 2013

Fire, fire!

This building in our town was consumed by flames last month
I was listening to a news story on the radio this morning about the funerals of the firefighters who were killed in West, Texas, when a fertiliser plant exploded last week. It was a big news story, not only because it happened on the heels of the Boston bombings, but because 14 people died, 11 of them volunteer firefighters who were the "first responders" on the scene.

I didn't realise before moving to the US that many town fire departments are completley staffed by volunteers - including that of the town in which I live. You would think that a town 20 miles from New York City would have an official fire department, but we don't. And it's not as if we don't have any fires. The scream of the town fire sirens is an almost daily occurrence here; when I first moved here I couldn't understand how anyone put up with it, as the noise is incredibly loud, like an air-raid siren, particularly if you happen to live near a fire station. But people do, because of the respect afforded to the fire department, and also because houses seem to burn to the ground here within hours.

Most houses are made of wood in New England, and many buildings too. Since living here I personally know of at least two families who have had their house burn down, and recently we had the most dramatic fire of all - a historic building on Main Street was consumed by flames, luckily not killing anyone but leaving many families homeless and three businesses displaced. The flames were so huge that at one point the whole town smelled of smoke; it was the lead item on that night's local New York news.

The firefighters who go to fight these fires all, with a few exceptions, have other jobs. They do "shifts" at the firehouse. However, fires here are ranked in terms of "alarms" to describe how serious they are. If it's a "three alarm fire", my understanding is that all available volunteer firefighters have to drop what they are doing and get to it. They're not paid, but they go into burning buildings and save lives.

And that's not all; after Hurricane Irene, when the tree destroyed the roof of our rented house, it was the fire department who were responsible for going into the house and checking it, at great danger to themselves. The fire marshal (who I got to know rather well over the course of that week) looked exhausted as he ran around town dealing with tree damage and fires that occurred when the power came back on; one day he confessed he had had no sleep, and he had bandages on his hands which had got singed in a fire.

I asked an acquaintance recently why these people do it, when they don't get paid. Is it pure altruism, the need for adrenalin or perhaps some urge to feel like a hero, I asked? He replied that some do it for benefits. Although they are unpaid, apparently the firefighters do receive some perks such as health insurance and the like. He also said he guessed that the "fire houses" were "fun" places to hang out, with free drinks and socialising (I wonder if some Dads of young kids find it a welcome escape from home?)

Whatever the reason,  I do think it's pretty amazing that these people do this job. It also seems to me to epitomise something about America. Yes, it's a very capitalistic society and money sometimes seems the sole motivator. But there is also a strong ethic of volunteerism and "giving back" in many communities. So when I hear the wail of the siren now at 6am, I, too, think of the volunteer firefighters and all that they represent.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Do You Speak NY? The results...

So the results of my quiz, as most people guessed correctly, were b), c) and c)

I know the first one was hard. This was taken directly from a comment by a neighbour last week. We were discussing Hurricane Sandy and how long the queues were at petrol stations at the time. One of the things that really foxed me when I moved here was how people taking about being "online" as opposed to be "in line". So when you queue up at the post office or DMV, you get "online". I had a ridiculous conversation here with a friend four years ago when she didn't understand that what I meant by the fact that The Doctor had been "queuing up" to his social security number. "You mean he was online"? she asked. "No, not on the internet, acutally queuing up in person," I kept insisting, while she looked at me as if I was crazy.

The cutting one is easier, but I still didn't know what my son meant two years when we were standing in line for a water slide and he cried "Mummy, that boy is cutting me!" I was horrified before realising that someone had just pushed in.

As for the third, I think most people do know what a yard sale is, but I had to laugh when my neighbour said exactly that about Father's Day last week. I still can't get over how Mother's Day and Father's Day are almost public holidays here. Even the local library is closed for Father's Day, and woe betide anyone who organises a party on Mother's Day, as I once did.

As for "come with" and "visit with", I would say these are less common in New York - or at least, I haven't particularly noticed them.

I will leave you with an amusing moment that occurred at Book Club last night.  Someone mentioned that the chocolates they had brought "came from a chocolate store in Bayonne". "You mean Bayonne, France?" asked my Australian friend (who lived in London previously). All the Americans roared with laughter. "No, Bayonne in New Jersey," the girl said - which, apparently, is a rather grimy suburb just across the Hudson. No matter how long you live somewhere, when you aren't local, you'll always get caught out....

Sunday 21 April 2013

Do you speak New York?

I mentioned in my last post that I am now something of an expert in "how to speak American". Occasionally I do find that the odd British word creeps into my speech, but on the whole I edit them out as I talk, substituting "store" for shop, "vacation" for holiday and "parking lot" for "car park". It makes me realise just how far I have come since moving here.

Of course we are all exposed to American words by TV and books (and I watched a lot of American TV growing up), so we think we are going to cope just fine, but there are some expressions, and pronounciations, you just don't get until you actually live here. One example is Thanksgiving. The emphasis is on the "giving", not on the "Thanks". I never knew that till I moved here, and I still get that one wrong. I can't pronounce "garage" the way they do, either - the emphasis on the "ahge", as in "marge".

 Then there are some particular local words or expressions - by this I mean local to New York (or possibly even to Long Island). I thought I'd set a little quiz, below, to see how many Brits would understand them.

So, without any further ado, how would you interpret the following?

1."I was online for gas for two hours"

a) I was on the internet searching for gas providers to compare prices
b) I was waiting in the queue for petrol
c) I was on the phone trying to speak to the gas company.

2. "This woman cut me"
a) Someone attacked me with a knife.
b) I had my hair cut
c) Someone jumped the queue

3. "I was gonna have a yard sale, but then I realised it's Father's Day that weekend..."
a) I was going to sell my garden, but we are doing something for Father's Day
b) I was going to do sell something in my backyard, but my husband will not be able to help because it's Father's Day
c) I was going to put a lot of junk out in my front garden and sell it, but Father's Day is sacrosanct so no-one will come.

Answers revealed in the next post....

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Moving in reverse

We don't need guidebooks to London....
Moving back from the US is a strange old affair.

In many ways it seems as if you're putting yourself into reverse gear. All the things we had to do when we first arrived here - for example, obtaining a car, buying electrical goods and registering the kids for school - we're now doing from the other way around. So we need to think who might want our coffee maker, iron and toaster, which won't work in the UK, deal with selling our car, inform the school that we're leaving.

Things that have been stuffed into drawers for four years - UK credit cards, kids' NHS health books, UK chequebooks - suddenly have to be retrieved and located, whereas the things we fought so hard to acquire over our first year - our US credit cards, New York drivers licences, work permits and the rest - suddenly seem less important. Our attention is turning to issues such as buying a car for London, and working out where to live.

In some ways, it seems like a self-catering holiday (a long, long one) coming to an end. Except you've made several firm friends during it, educated your children, seen them acquire American accents, gained a new knowledge of how to speak "American", and understand more than you want to about the US gun laws, the Tea Party and the path of Hurricanes.

What do you do with all this newly acquired stuff? The knowledge, I mean, not the irons and toasters. Do you just file it away into a corner of your mind marked "America"? Do you bore people at home with it? (I always remember a university room-mate, who came from Guernsey, and prefaced every sentence with "In Guernsey"....until we were sick to death of hearing about the Channel Island).

Hopefully it helps give you a more balanced perspective on life back in your home country- an ability to appreciate the good and compare the bad. On the other hand, it could just all slowly seep away as you slot seamlessly back into London life, as if you'd never been away.

Friday 12 April 2013

Florida, forty and more

Happiness is...building sandcastles

People have been asking about Florida, so I thought I'd do a quick update.

It was good, thanks for asking. Not that all my problems miraculously cleared up and went away - I still have a lot of painful and distressing physical issues going on - but it was a real break, both from the relentlessly long winter and from the routine struggle through the days that I've been experiencing. Being able to feel the sand between my toes after months of shivering in winter boots, and swimming in a bath-temperatured pool was better for me than any medicine, and during the time away I was able to relax a little,.

The boys were in heaven, playing with their cousins on the beach and in the pool, watching alligators at the state park we visited, even holding a baby one at the zoo. There was a boat trip where they got to see exotic fish being caught in a net, and then see and hold them close up. There was an Easter Egg hunt on the beach. There was a trip to the aquarium to see Manatees. And there was an all-you-can eat Easter brunch where they got to stuff as much candy, strawberries and chocolate as they pleased (while we feasted on seafood and roast lamb).

Yes, that really is a wild gator.

We spent my actual fortieth birthday in Pennsylvania. In search for a suitable place to stop off on the journey home (and not wanting to spend my milestone birthday on a six hour car trip), we were recommended the Brandywine River Valley region, on the Pennsylvania/Delaware borders. Here we found a quaint B&B (amusingly, the owners warned us about crooked floors and beams, not realising that it was exactly like an English country cottage), and, surprisingly for middle America, stumbled upon a fantastic local restaurant. I'll name names here because it really was so good - the Sovana Bistro, situated in an unprepossessing shopping centre, serves locally-sourced, seasonal food which was expertly cooked. What's more, they also do (gourmet) pizza, so the Littleboys were happy too.

The next morning was spent visiting Longwood Gardens, a botanical garden founded by the DuPont family (of Lycra fame) which has the biggest and most spectacular greenhouses I've ever seen, more impressive than even Kew or the NY Botanic Garden.
The conservatory at Longwood Gardens

Apart from The Doctor dropping a huge wad of cash somewhere in the botanical garden, and then a slightly hellish journey home taking the "scenic route" to avoid a traffic jam on I-95, all in all it was a pretty good birthday weekend. And, although I hadn't wanted a party, a friend managed to arrange a little gathering at a bar in town, and I got to celebrate with my girlfriends and a couple of margaritas. (Thanks also to my brother-in-law and his wife for organizing a delicious cake-and-champagne celebration in Florida).

Now we are back, and have exactly three months to go before we leave the US. We're on the home stretch, and I can't believe that it is all about to come to an end. What with two lots of visitors coming, three piano recitals, Littleboy 1's birthday and all that packing up to do, it's going to be a busy few weeks.  While I don't feel cured in any sense, I feel a little fortified by Florida and I'm gathering all my strength.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and women.

I'm not going to share my political views about Margaret Thatcher here because it's just too controversial at the moment (although I will say that having parties to celebrate anyone's death is in very bad taste).

However, something occurred to me about her legacy for women. Not necessarily in the sense of being a good role model, or actively helping women in any way, shape or form (her two female ministers were Edwina Currie and Virginia Bottomley, I seem to recall - not exactly inspiring). But in the sense that women of my age grew up with a female Prime Minister.

I remember at the time there were two women on the world stage - her, and Mrs Ghandhi in India (who was unfortunately assassinated). Since then, of course, there have been several more female premiers - although not in the US, of course. I wonder if Hillary Clinton can do it in 2016? But Mrs. Thatcher was one of the first. And that's fairly extraordinary when you think about it, that Britain led the way in electing a woman to lead the country. What is more, Thatcher had two children.

As a child I remember nothing before Mrs. Thatcher, so I grew up thinking it perfectly normal our country had a (strong) woman as a Prime Minister, and also as Queen. And I do think that as girls in the 1980s we thought we could be anything - not only going into professions like teaching or nursing, as our mothers had done, but becoming doctors, journalists, architects, film directors, politicians or whatever it is we wanted to do.

Everyone who has tried to balance career and family knows it isn't that simple, of course. But I do think that whatever she stood for, and whether she wanted to or not, Margaret Thatcher did blaze a trail for women, if only in that a generation of little girls grew up assuming that women could be just as powerful as men.

What do you think?