Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tears In The Syrup

Me: .....chickens....?
Waitress: (pitiful look) Okay...

Where I went to university I lived above a greasy spoon for my first year. The guy who owned it was named Wayne. Every now and again he'd clearly seen the bedraggled, mischievous faces of us lot who lived upstairs and would wander up with fry-ups spilling over big, heavy plates. If I'm honest I don't really remember anything other than the lake of baked beans on there. Although I'm also certain there was a doorstop wedge of fried bread involved as well. After I moved out of that place I infrequently would pop over to another greasy spoon closer to the beach. In which you could only order a Number One of a Number Two. Without any sense of irony a Number Two swapped out the sausage and potato for an enormous black pudding that looked an awful lot like a number two. That was the extent of choice.

A pervert's wet dream

I distinctly remember going to an American diner for the first time in Lewiston, NY. Actually I remember an awful lot of first times when I came over more than fifteen years ago now. I remember being offered frozen custard and turning it down because all I could envisage was my Nan gleefully picking the skin off a bowl of cake and custard. Gah. I remember being brutally cold and trying to order a hot chocolate in a Tim Horton's in Niagara Falls and the girl behind the counter not being able to decipher what I was asking for at all. Which frankly is a pet peeve of mine. You might have an accent. But when all you sell are donuts, coffee and hot chocolate (let's not count the sandwiches in there - a cardinal rule is if it's sold in a donut shop it really isn't a sandwich) it really can't be that hard to figure out what two-word drink someone is ordering when it's cacking it down with snow outside and the first word they say is "hot." I then also recall her figuring it out and telling me I sound like James Bond. At the time Pierce Brosnan was James Bond. And he's Irish. And I - despite that one time I shaved my head and looked suspiciously like the last potato in Galway - am not Irish in any way.

An authentic Irishman
I remember arriving in Buffalo, NY and the bunch of people I met up with said we needed to go buy some milk. Then we went outside, got in a car and started driving down the thruway. We were still driving five minutes later. And all I kept thinking was, "wait.....are we going to a farm?" Which is a long way from popping around the corner to the Spar and passing your mate coming out holding a pint of milk, a newspaper and a single roll of toilet paper and it being very clear they need a cup of tea and a poo. I remember driving down a suburban street with friends and seeing that someone had put one of those massive twenty gallon drums the kind that football players seem to dump over their head coach during every game. Unless you're a Bills fan obviously. There's been no reason to celebrate anything at all that involved pouring ice and water over some twat in a visor-capin Buffalo for decades. Actually an idea I had was for a Gremlins movie-franchise relaunch where a man somehow has been infected with the Gremlin gene, lives his whole life as a crossbred mogwai/human until that dreaded day when he has a massive drum of ice water dumped on at a televised football game and then goes on to go batshit nuts and eat everyone.

Anyway - I remember seeing that drum and the car stopping suddenly and two people jumped out and stuck it in the back. And I was absolutely certain I had just been present for perhaps the most feeble, whitest middle-class robberies ever committed. Had no concept of garbage picking at all until then. And still didn't really believe it for years afterwards. Especially considering I had a relative who kept "finding" things that he claimed were frm garbage picking that nobody in their right mind would be chucking out. Like a canoe that someone clearly had just left out on their front lawn.

I remember being taken to Sullivan's in Niagara Falls for a hot dog and being bewildered that a) there could possibly be twenty different types of hot dog, and b) that people actually were queuing up to buy a hot dog. And then I ordered a chili-dog because that's what people ate in TV shows I'd seen and thinking that it tasted an awful lot like someone had accidentally spilled chilli on a hot dog. And I remember going into a grocery store for the first time to buy cereal and practically breaking down after realizing there was an entire thirty foot aisle of choice. All of which I'd never heard of - bar your corn flakes and rice krispies. And they had two prices marked on them for some reason. And then - after genuinely feeling like I might crack picking out a box of Life and getting to the cashier who then told me a price that was not only different from the two prices it had listed under it on the shelf - but perplexing higher (sales tax and whatnot).

American grocery stores are dangerous places.

But that diner. First of all - there was a lot of flannel and trucker hats going on in there. And no - not college kids and hipsters. Big, haggard men who's every fiber screamed that they'd been a farmer their entire life. And the waitress was nice. Sincerely so as well. She seemed to actually give a shit that I'd gone in there. I could tell because every time she inexplicably kept giving me coffee even though I hadn't paid for it she would stop for a chat and ask me stuff. I remember knowing I didn't want pancakes or waffles - I was very much in the understanding stages then that because Gavin eats things with flour in that's actually why Gavin then spends enormous periods of time afterwards feeling like total shit. So I figured I'd play it safe and order sausage and eggs. What followed next was a series of questions that would have Oedipus Rex baffled. First of all she asked me if I want links or patties. I was fairly certain that my order only involved two things - some sausage and an egg. Quite what links or "paddies" had to do with them was a mystery. So she offered an olive branch and let me know she was talking about sausage. After I twigged what she was on about I distinctly remember answering by making a hand signal that was supposed to mean links, but could only have looked like I was miming masturbating delicately with my index finger and thumb. 

Most breakfast food looks like a wound in The Walking Dead
She then asked me what kind of eggs I want. Which I thought about really hard (eyebrow furrowed, lip bitten) and replied, "....umm.....chickens...?" It turned out she meant what shape I want them in. Eggs in America is a bit like Cadbury's chocolate back home - about fifty different shapes of something that for all intensive purposes tastes identical to all the other shapes. So I let her run through the thirty eight different types and picked the first one she said - sunny side up. I'm sure she really appreciated that. Then lastly - the pièce de résistance - she asked me what kind of toast I wanted. I wasn't prepared to learn about seventeen kinds of toast I'd never been exposed to and decided against any. And then - after getting my coffee refilled umpteen times in a few minutes - they brought my breakfast out. And the monsters had done something my innocent little foreign mind just could not compute. Something that still now turns my stomach. They had poured a puddle of maple syrup over my sausage (unfortunately not a euphemism). I was confused and horrified. And not anywhere near as aroused as the notion of pouring sticky things all over my sausage should make me. Needless to say as a newly-arrived Englishman in America I grudgingly ate them so as not offend the really nice waitress. A few weeks later I ended up in an iHop (surprisingly not a prosthetic leg made by Apple) staring down at a plate of sausages that some barbarian had covered in powdered sugar.

Of course all these years later I'm an expert at breakfast. I'm quite capable of confidently telling the waitress that no I don't want all the free toast, biscuits and pancakes thank you. And no syrup anywhere near anything I'm eating please. I'm sorry Canada - I love you dearly. And I would move to Quebec City or Toronto in a heartbeat. But outside of Stephen Harper, Celine Dion and Bryan Adams (Worst. Threesome. Ever.) I can think of very little that makes me gag more than maple syrup. And keep that rancid pish you call bacon off my plate. This is really the key to the entire restaurant that I'm foreign. The four cultural cornerstones of America after all are way over the top holidays (balls to all of you that think Halloween and Christmas is over done - it's amazing), not being able to pronounce the letter T properly, high school massacres and bacon. And lets all be clear that the worst atrocity there is the last one by far. 

The fact that pumpkin-spice bacon exists is the clincher there.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Melt

In twenty six days I will gave been in Arizona for a year.


I have a confession. I spent six weeks in college packing fudge. Actually - let me back up. Just to be clear - that's not something I said in college. No. I had three jobs in college. For two years I worked in a cornershop as the evening manager. I worked for two months in a Walkers Crisps factory packing Monster Munch into boxes. I literally sweated Pickled Onion flavoured crisps right into my own eyes for twelve hour shifts. And for six weeks I worked for an eccentric South African family who lived in and owned a chocolate factory. Part of the time I wrapped Christmas chocolates they made for Boots and Woolworths. And the rest of the time I literally packed fudge. One evening while I was packing fudge I was hit in the back of the head (I'm told, by a falling box of fudge) and swallowed my tongue.


This is genuinely a better photo than my Greencard photo.
"That's all very interesting Gavin. And quite honestly sounds like something discovered after a character on Broadchurch is hypnotized to reveal a past trauma in order to help solve a murder. But pray tell - why are you bringing this up?" I'm bringing this up because a mantra I live by is that you really have no idea how different your life will be in twelve months. Weird shit happens. And always keeps happening. My life a year ago is not remotely the same. It's 2,500 miles different for a start. Which is more or less the same distance as moving from Bristol in England to Cairo in Egypt (I did want to say that I did look up a generic image for British people in Cairo and Google offered up a disturbing amount of people wearing Burberry). Let's just say there's a markedly different amount of flannel being worn here in Arizona. Ironically I'm probably wearing it more than anyone in some desperate attempt to pretend it isn't 115 degrees. I do though own an entire array of jackets that it will require a plane journey for me to get any use out of. I do see some people who have insisted on wearing jeans and jackets right the way through the summer. But those people are clearly mental. I've had a few people try and say it's akin to people in Africa covering up all of their skin to regulatte their temperature and protect themselves from the sun. So essentially a group of Denim Bedouin, if you like. But no - denim layers at 115 degrees is demented. I can't even imagine the amount of liquid trapped under there. Admittedly though when I started work in January I attempted wearing a sweater. My brain told me it was just the time of year for it. That lasted two days until I started feeling faint. Here - this is my work photo ID. It's shockingly bad partly for the fact it's a picture of someone in Arizona wearing three layers and a tie. But more so because the person taking the photo took it before I even looked at the damn camera. Shifty is the perfect description.



Gully Washer

I also now have an entirely different career. To be fair it does still involve an office cube and being surrounded by people who are convinced I'm a lot younger than I actually am. And it pays a whole lot more. But it's not the same at all. Certainly not the same as a few years ago of being a stay-at-home dad. I've developed friendships that I will hold dear until the day I die (by the way I'm dearly hoping that doesn't have anything to do with fudge packing and tongue swallowing). And I'm right around the corner from my kids. Which is a whole lot different than 2,500 miles.

If I could say one word that encapsulates much of my life during that time it would probably be, "Minecraft." Shudder. The feverish addiction my kids have developed for that thing is a thing to behold. Actually it wont be much of a surprise if I said a better word to describe the last eleven months was, "hot." Good God it's been hot. I'm ashamed to say I think I became one of those people that moaned a bit too much about the heat. I recall being at a British expat meetup thing late 2014 and the principle thing I asked all those lovely people was "please tell me it isn't just going to be this hot all the time?" And every single one of those people looked confused and told me it was actually cold at the moment. It most definitely wasn't. But they were British so I knew they couldn't possibly be lying. Plus some did the distinctly British thing of taking quite a bit of schadenfreude (the irony of employing a German word there) in remembering how revolting sweaty their own gusset was for the first few years they moved to Arizona.

Actually I prefer another thing that those born and bred here do. For example this weekend I opened up a bank account here. My old one was so local and small a bank that the local farmer gave away free cheese in the store when you opened an account. So I opted for a big, national bank. The kind where you can take a photo of your check to deposit it (yes - I'm well behind the times there). Anyway - the guy at the bank was obviously aware I'm not a local. I mentioned it was hot. He laughed. I then mentioned plenty of people have told me I'll get used to it and be wearing sweaters just like everyone else does in January in just a few years. To which he chuckled and said, "no - you'll never get used to it." He clearly enjoyed saying that.

Outside enduring the heat and the relentless assault of Minecraft lots has happened. I've had a wonderful time with my kids. From the minute I surprised my son at his school (and he leaped across the room struggling to understand how we both could be smiling and crying at the same time) I've seen him actually start school. Save a little blip where he absolutely hated being dropped off he's actually enjoying it. He loves his class. He enjoys having friends. He's not so hot about having to do work. He hasn't done so well with recess. Because time to play has normally always involved his sister and he can't quite understand why he isn't allowed to. But that will sort itself out.

My daughter has carried on as per usual as far as school goes. She worked her way into a statewide program for absurdly-advanced kids. In which she had a reading comprehension test last week and it was determined she is at an 8th grade level. Which is genuinely mental. Her school library doesn't even have any books recommended for her. And her math (I still hate pronouncing it that way) level is a few grades higher too. She's made friends. She's in a few clubs. And as of next weekend I'll be her soccer coach.

I've met a shocking number of people too. And I'm delighted to say most are wonderful. The thing I should say more than anything is that I held my own preconceived ideas of the kind of people I'd likely encounter here.I was quite expecting a mix of Sheriff Arpaio (the power-mental Sheriff of Arizona who refuses to not racially profile Latinos) and Doug Stanhope. Basically I expected people to be quite political and possibly demented. But weirdly this has been the most diverse, multi-cultural, uneven bunch of people you can imagine. And yes - while my favorite people I've met are those men who rant about Mexicans but get all confused in the underpants area when they see hot, Latino women - on the whole I've met a strangely, tolerant, melting-pot of people. I've met a surprising number of British people. Weirder still is I've become friends with a large number of British people who don't live anywhere near this place. Lovely bunch of misfits they are too.

I did want to say too that I thought Arizona would be exceptionally religious. Not in a personal-relationship-with-the-Big-Fella way. But more a Jesus Says I'm Allowed to Hate You kind of way. I've been quite surprised there too. On the block I live on there is a church of some type sticking out of each side. Right near me is a huge Sikh temple. Around the corner is a Mormon church. Furthest away is a gargantuan Catholic megachurch. The kid with a flashing billboard outside that has messges on it to passing motorists that says "Pray for Anonymous and his gambling addiction!!" And on the other corner is a little mosque. Which - puzzling considering the whole Danish cartoon thing - has a big picture of Mohamed (from off of Islam) on a sign outside. There's also a Buddhist mini-temple thing down the road too. Which - and I'm aware I'm channeling Arpaio here - I'm dearly hoping has a panda in it.

Mmmm Mongolian Beef.
Needless to say those eleven months have rocketed by. And I've absolutely no idea what life holds for the next year. I'm excited to find out though. And I can say this. This last year has been great. I'm quite happy. And I didn't think I would be. Sure it's been weird. And there a whole bunch of things I wish were different. Minecraft and the heat, specifically. And while I'm aware my ex-wife moved here for her man and because she likes the heat surely they'd be every bit as happy somewhere a little milder that still has plenty of heat and isn't California expensive. Like Texas. That'd be nice.

Anyway. Here's to the upcoming anniversary. I'm excited. I mean - it's not like I'm nearly 40....