Monday, December 24, 2007

What Holiday Food Am I?

You Are a Gingerbread House

A little spicy and a little sweet, anyone would like to be lost in the woods with you.

Hmm - I had thought I'd be a trifle, like Maddy. A gingerbread house is much more American to my mind.

Cookies for Mrs Claus

Cookies for Mr and Mrs Claus
The little ones put this plate together before going to bed and decided that Mrs Claus should have a cookie too. Hers is in the plastic bag (together with another one for Santa to have when he gets home.) Carrots for the reindeer of course - though apparently they're on a diet as they only get 3 between them. Milk for Santa to drink - "Because last year we left wine out for him and he only took a couple of sips." Hmm - well, I guess you shouldn't drink and drive a sleigh, but still, I'm very surprised Santa didn't drink it all.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

New Christmas traditions

We decided not to bother with one of our Christmas traditions this year - I'm sure it's one we share with lots of other people. It's the one where you're up till the small hours of Christmas morning wrapping presents. Not this year. I have a couple of things to wrap for DH tomorrow, and the kids have presents to wrap for each other, but basically we're done :-) Yay! So on Christmas Eve we can pack the kids off to bed and then sit and relax with a glass of wine and snuggle. A much more enjoyable tradition I think. It will not only make Christmas Eve much pleasanter but Christmas morning too as we won't be too exhausted to enjoy being woken up at the crack of dawn . . . A couple of years ago when we were in England for Christmas, Father Christmas told the kids they weren't to wake up until 8 a.m. on Christmas Day and to our amazement they didn't! We even had to wake the littlest one up at about 8:30! That's a tradition I'd like to see continue!

Friday, December 07, 2007


I picked the Littlest American up from daycare today and as we were leaving we had the following conversation:
- Can we have a menorah?
- Why, sweetie?
- Eli has one.
- Well Eli is Jewish and we're not. [I had just spoken with Eli's dad about the family Hannukah party they're going to tomorrow.]
- No, he's not!
- How do you know that?
- Well, . . . he . .. umm . . . doesn't TALK Jewish! So can we have a menorah?
- Do you know why people have a menorah in their house?
- It's for Hannukah.
- What do you know about Hannukah?
- It lasts 8 days and you light a candle every day, and you get a present every day, but there's one extra candle on the menorah. So we need a menorah for Hannukah!
- You do know Hannukah already started?
- Oh, no and we didn't get our Christmas tree yet!
- Christmas tree?
- Yes. You HAVE to have a Christmas tree for Hannukah!
Hannukahmas indeed, or is it Chrismukkah? Happy Holidays, anyway to one and all!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Quel produit révolutionnaire!

It's even Mac compatible they say. . .

The British version would dispense beer. The American one, Coca-Cola.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Seven passports between the four of us

My kids and I all have dual nationality, US and British. Contrary to what many Americans believe, it is perfectly legal to be American and have another nationality too. The Department of State explains on their website that "U.S. law does not mention dual nationality or require a person to choose one citizenship or another." Legally, we must use our American passports to enter and leave the United States, and our British ones to enter and leave the UK. UntiI I renew it in a year or so, my British passport still has my maiden name on it so, because my plane tickets are always booked in my married name, I am always unsure as to whether I should show my US passport as I leave the UK or not. My last few flights have been connecting ones - via Iceland, the Netherlands, or Belgium, so I have compromised by showing the British passport at Heathrow and then pulling the US one out at the next airport. So far so good, no one has questioned it.

Having spent thousands of dollars getting a 'green card' (which was actually pink), I thought it would be nice if my kids did not have to jump through the same kind of legal hoops if ever they decide to study or work in Europe. Apparently many other people have been thinking the same way. This evening I heard a report on National Public Radio about Israelis who have been applying for European passports - Israelis whose families left Poland for example, now applying for Polish nationality. In many cases it is not with the intent of moving to that country. One young woman who was interviewed explained that she was applying for a foreign passport so that she would not have any visa problems should she decide to work or study in London for a couple of years. A passport from one European country opens the doors to many others nowadays, and in an increasingly global society it makes sense to me to hold all the passports one is entitled to!

I've heard of Irish-Americans applying for Irish passports too. Again, the intent is not necessarily to return to the 'homeland' but to open up European possibilities. Although I have no doubt that many Americans would disapprove, I don't see this as a bad thing. I think it is important to have connections and loyalties, but that it is not only possible but probably a good thing to have a feeling of belonging to two places. I think one of the advantages of the ease of modern travel is that we can see that other places while different are places to which we might want to belong, and that people from other places can be our friends and family.

Unfortunately, while dual nationals (UK-US) such as myself are tolerated on both a personal and official level, I think there is much suspicion of people who come from other cultures/language backgrounds such as the Iraq or Iran or even Mexico. I see amazing prejudice on a regular basis against people who have not been in the US for long enough to learn English well and wonder if people really would have made the same comments about me when I had only been here a few years. I know they would not. For all the comments folks make about my accent and about the fact that I am a 'foreigner' (despite the fact that I've lived in the US now longer than I lived in the UK) the truth is I am accepted far more quickly and better than someone who does not speak English as their first language. For all the gripes I may have about Being American, I am happy to be here - but I am always happy to be back home in the UK too. Having an American passport doesn't make me any less British - but the fact that I have not renounced my British citizenship does not dilute my commitment to my adopted homeland. Unless you've lived in two countries and loved both, I'm not sure that you'll understand.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Christmas already

I suppose it should have been no surprise to see Christmas decorations up outside people's houses last weekend (before Thanksgiving) given that I had seen them in the stores in the middle of October. The Little Americans in our household were heard muttering in disgust yesterday that it was still far too early for Christmas decorations to be up because it's still "a long time" until Christmas. It might seem like a long time to them, but actually doesn't seem that far off to me. The year just seems to accelerate from the middle of October. I barely have time to turn around, take a few breaths, and figure out where the Christmas presents are that I've been buying all year and hiding around the house, when suddenly the day is upon us and, despite all my good intentions, I still end up till the wee hours on Christmas Eve wrapping presents.

We'll get our tree in a couple of weeks. As we always have a real one, (usually from my father-in-law's backyard), we don't like to get it too early. The lights will go up on the outside of our house the same weekend. I realized as I was looking at our electricity bills for the Riot for Austerity that the lights make a significant difference to the electricity bill, so much as I like them, until we finally invest in some LED lights, I will be trying to minimize the number of days we have them on.

Almost American

Stinking Billy asked why the name Almost American. Very easy really - I was born in the UK, lived in Turkey for a couple of years, and France for another year, but moved to the USA in 1985 thinking I would be here for 2 or 3 years and then I'd return to England. Somehow I ended up staying. I have now lived in the USA for longer than I have lived anywhere else. I have an American passport as well as British one (which is perfectly legal, in case you're wondering.) Having not been raised here, there are still some cultural things I just don't get. I still think of England as 'home', (though of course the US is home too.) I am taken aback when people here make comments about my foreignness, or my accent. I don't feel like a foreigner, and forget my accent is different (though I sound very American when I'm in England!) So although I am An American, and am happy to be one, I'm not entirely American and never will be, and I'm happy about that too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

How hard is this to read?

Hmm - I tried this test on some of the blogs that I read and most are apparently written at an elementary school reading level, with a few at the junior high level. I did finally find one though that the test said is written at the 'Genius' level and one at the University level. Perhaps that explains why I haven't read either of them in several weeks - I'm too lazy to expend that much reading effort. They both happen to be academic blogs, so the reading level is appropriate. I guess I have to wonder if the writing (reading) level of my blog is appropriate to the subject matter? If I'm not writing something academic, should it be written at an easier reading level? Can I make myself write like that? Would I want to? And as for my reading, 'should' I be reading more sites that are 'harder' to read? (Not that I'm sure how they've determined the readability anyway.)

I'm not going to obsess over it. I'm going to keep reading the blogs I find interesting, and writing what I feel like talking about.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Not so addicted

55%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

Clearly from the infrequncy of my posts, I'm not so addicted. Been doing a lot of reading of blogs recently though, but that's not blogging, it's reading. Reading blogs is one of my selfish pleasures - taking a little time out of the day to do something that is just for me - but I find it a little depressing too. I used to think I was a decent writer. I even taught writing when I was working my way through a Master's degree. I knew I wasn't 'A Writer' like some of the other teaching assistants in the Freshman Writing Program who were doing degrees in Creative Writing. I did think I was a good writer though, who could teach the undergraduates in my classes how to write better essays. I suppose I was good at writing academic essays. I scored in the 99th percentile when I had to take the state's literacy test to become a certified teacher. I really am not very talented at creative writing though. Never have been. I see some of the beautiful turns of phrase other bloggers seem to produce so effortlessly, and I despair of ever creating anything worth reading.

The only good pieces of creative writing I did in school were more my mother's writing than mine. No, she didn't actually write them for me, but by the time she was done inspiring me, they really were more hers than mine. Looking back, my mother was the only one who ever took the time to teach me how to write. Real cut-and-paste, with scissors and sellotape! What little I learned about good writing, I certainly didn't learn in school. I specifically remember my English teacher when I was 12 who only read the first and last paragraphs of anything I wrote and always gave me 9 out of 10. I proved he didn't read the middles by writing some outrageous things in the middle of one piece. He corrected an error in the first paragraph (which my mother, also an English teacher, had already told me was NOT an error) and gave me 9/10 as usual.

Stinking Billy was asking about the point of blogging and I really don't know what it is for me. I'm definitely not one of those bloggers who's looking for a book contract! I'm not even sure who I'm blogging for or why. DH blogs for a small, select, by-invitation-only, audience which seems to make sense. I've read some excellent blogs recently from mums with autistic kids - well-written, entertaining, and thought-provoking, that set my issues with the Little Americans in perspective. There is much I can learn from the blogs I read. Maybe if I read enough of them, I'll even learn how to write better! The good thing is that even if I don't, people like Maddy, Jude and Sandy, amongst so many others, will all enrich my life.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What Halloween's about

When I was growing up in the UK, for the couple of weeks before the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes' (or Bonfire) Night", you could be fairly sure if that if there was a knock on the door in the early evening it would be kids dragging a scarecrow-like figure around with them and asking for a "penny for the Guy." Not 'guy' as in 'bloke' or 'man', but Guy Fawkes, the man who is infamous for being one of those who tried to blow up the houses of Parliament in the year 1605. The 'pennies' the kids were asking for were usually to buy fireworks for Bonfire Night. My siblings and I were never allowed to participate in this ritual. My parents bought the fireworks and certainly would not have approved of us begging for money in that way.

Over the years, because of safety concerns retailers have stopped selling individual fireworks and age restrictions have been introduced so that children can no longer buy them. The tradition of asking for money seems therefore to have carried over to the 'new' tradition in the UK of trick-or-treating. I've written here before about how in the 20+ years since I left the UK, Halloween has claimed a place in British culture and I bemoaned the homogenization of cultures. But wait - it seems the British have added their own small twist to the tradition of trick-or-treating. I had heard my mother mention it, but was not sure whether to believe her. Today I read on the BBC site about how
On Halloween in 1986, the House of Lords debated the "recently imported trick-or-treat custom of demanding money on threat of playing a nasty trick, now being used by youths to obtain money from old people and others.
Their lordships saw trick or treating not as a tradition, but as American for begging.
I get the impression that there are many who go out trick-or-treating in the UK prepared to 'trick' - throw eggs at cars or commit other acts of vandalism. I have never seen that happen here in the US. In some communities I've seen 'TP Night' celebrated the night before Halloween, when kids throw large quantities of toilet paper at trees, but I've never seen any really damaging vandalism. This year the kids here were particularly polite. Although some of the kids had pillow cases for their candy, none were particularly greedy, and almost all asked if we were offering them one candy or more than one. Even the older kids, though noisy as they moved from one house to the next, were unfailingly polite and had made an effort to dress up.

On National Public Radio this morning there was a report about how Halloween is the 4th most commercial 'holiday' in the US nowadays (the others being Christmas, the SuperBowl, and New Year!) It seems that one way or another, it's all about the money.

Candy stash

We dug out the plastic pumpkins last night for tonight's trick-or-treating, only to discover that they still contained candy from last year! I think the little ones had been eating their stash whenever they felt like it (i.e. right before meals, how dare they?!) so I had hidden the pumpkins away high on a shelf in the basement, fully intending to dole the candy out in small doses at what I considered to be appropriate times. Apparently there are no appropriate times for children to have candy in this house as, once I put the pumpkins away, I forgot that there was candy in them! (Not at all like me to forget that there's candy in the house though - wonder if I have some kind of memory problem?)

The Halloween candy survived the year well and is still edible. (DH and I snarfed some of it last night on the premise that we had to check if it was OK and we were doing the kids a favor by letting them have the fresh stuff tonight!) On reflection, I'm sure there must also be a bag somewhere that has some of last Easter's treats in it. Cadbury's creme eggs go mouldy over time* so I hope there aren't any of those hiding in the basement - that would be a serious waste :-(

* I know this because I have been known to hide them around the house so that I have a secret supply. Once I forgot I had hidden some in a particular cupboard. When I finally rediscovered them I was sorely disappointed (after my initial excitement) because, although the chocolate was fine, the filling had gone mouldy. Even before they reach that stage, the filling can get rather dry and is not so yummy. Moral - eat your treats sooner rather than later!

Saturday, October 20, 2007


The little people in the house claim to be accident-prone today. This morning they were "accidentally" watching TV. This afternoon the larger one bit the smaller one "By accident!" Huh?

Well, at least the littler one has finally learned to say "By accident" instead of "On accident". Now we just have to work on the definition of 'accidental'!

I may 'accidentally' have the TV on tomorrow evening when today's rugby game is finally shown on a TV channel I can get without having to pay any extra for.

Autumn. Season of mists and . . .

  • road repairs
    Why one of the towns I commute through leaves their road repairs until the fall, I do not know, but it seems to be a regular thing. Last year they resurfaced a long section of road and only just got done before the first snow, and they appear to be doing the same thing this year. On Thursday the road was like an obstacle course as they had started raising all the drain covers to the new road height and it was impossible to drive in any kind of straight line down the road. Because they had surrounded all of them with large orange barrels, at times the only way to avoid the raised structures was to drive on the wrong side of the road. That made me very nervous as I set off on Friday's commute to work as we had some very seasonable, and very thick, fog. Fortunately, they had removed all the orange barrels, so it was actually possible to remain on the correct side of the road.

  • rising smoke
    Usually at this time of year there is smoke rising from many chimneys when I drive to work in the morning as people are starting to heat their houses again with their wood stoves. Not so many this year, yet, as the weather has been unseasonably warm - into the 70's Fahrenheit (over 21 Celsius) several days this week. I miss the wood stove we had at the last house. It was good to know we had an alternative source of heat, especially as we have a friend with acres of woods who's happy to give us wood in exchange for helping him cut, split and stack enough for him and us.

  • household jobs
    like taking all the window screens out and getting the snow blower tuned up for the winter. I took the window screens out last weekend, and then regretted it as the temperatures stayed so warm! Raking leaves used to be the bane of our existence in the fall, but that was at the old house. Although we have trees near the house now, the prevailing winds and the openness of the housing development means that the leaves blow right on into the neighbour's yard and we don't have to rake them :-)

  • bear tracking
    The local university tracks the bears around here, but for some reason we only ever seem to see their bear tracking vehicle (an SUV bristling with radio antennae) in October. The Littlest American was asking this week why we haven't had any bears in our yard this year. I'll have to stop and ask the bear tracker next time I see the van if the bears have changed their wandering habits this year. It may be that we simply haven't seen them, though they do sometimes leave evidence behind. Sometimes they empty out the compost bins, sometimes they leave other 'evidence' behind. I was ready once to accuse a neighbour of letting one of her dogs c**p on our lawn, when I realized that her dogs don't eat birdseed! The bears aren't the daintiest of eaters, so when they go for the bird feeders they usually destroy them - more evidence!

  • color
    Of course New England in the fall is beautiful. This week the colors around here finally started to look good - such gorgeous shades of orange, yellow, and red, that even when they were muted by the morning fog they were still stunning. I need to get some chysanthemums for the front step, though the geraniums are colorful as they are still flowering. We have a couple of little pumpkins that the kids got at school, but need to get a couple of large ones that we can carve for Halloween. It's time to buy another seasonal item too:

  • unicorn bits
    (and other kinds of candy too, as we can't give out unwrapped candy to the trick-or-treaters.)

  • Christmas decorations
    in the stores already, well before Halloween!

Thursday, October 11, 2007


I'm in that tiny percentage of the population that has familial hypercholesterolemia. My cholesterol was over 350 the first time it was tested and it had next to nothing to do with my diet or lifestyle. (That's over 9 using the units they use in Europe, and it's actually low compared to some people in my family!) I was in my 20's and I had to BEG my doctor for the blood test. He was convinced I didn't need it. When we got the results back, he didn't seem to know what to do. Rather than give me any advice, he asked what my brother and sister (3,000 miles away!) had been told to do! I knew what my first move should be - I switched doctors!

Today I watched a kid eat a "lunchable" for her lunch. Holy cow! If I'm going to eat that much fat in one meal, I'd rather it was something yummy like Ben & Jerry's icecream! I save my fat calories for good stuff! I sometimes have to remind myself though when I'm getting all self-righteous about it, that people like me are only 0.2% of the population and most people's bodies can handle fat much better than mine can. I've had to learn that what I like is not always what I should be eating - and that, somewhat like a diabetic, my life may depend on it. The difference is that a diabetic's body reacts quickly to the wrong foods. Mine reacts slowly, but over many years the wrong food will still kill me. Many people don't ever get the chance to learn that, because they don't find out until too late that their cholesterol is high.

People thought I was odd to have my kids' cholesterol tested before they were even teenagers. With an inherited condition like this, the chances were 50/50 that I had passed it on and I figured it was better to know sooner rather than later. Fortunately, we have an excellent pediatrician who agreed that an early test was a good idea and who then sent us to the appropriate expert when indeed one of the children turned out to have high cholesterol. It was a long drive for a short appointment, but well worth it! Now it is being recommended in the UK that all children have their cholesterol tested at age 15 months because so many adults don't even know what their cholesterol is. What a change from 20 years ago when my doctor thought I didn't need to have my cholesterol tested because I wasn't even 30 yet, female and a non-smoker!

Monday, October 08, 2007


Can you name all the states of the United States? Do you know where they all are on the map? How about the British counties? How many counties are there, anyway? Try Statetris and see how you do. Here's the British version, and this is the one for the USA. Oh, and there's one for the French regions too.

Even if you don't know where the state/county/region should go, you can guess pretty effectively. I'm better, nonetheless, at placing the American states in the right place than the UK counties :-( Of course it helps that I used to have to teach international students here in the USA some US geography including the names, abbreviations for, and locations of, all the states. I'm not sure that I EVER knew exactly where all the counties are. If someone tells me that they come from say, Suffolk, I nod as though I know exactly where it is, but quite frankly I'm not always 100% sure where it is in relation to where I used to live. It's easier for me to tell where US states are in relation to where I live now. (Of course, given that most of them are to the West and or south, that's cheating really - a bit like saying I know where the counties all are in relation to Cornwall!) Of course, it didn't help that the names and boundaries of the counties changed as I was growing up. North Humberside should still be Yorkshire as far as I'm concerned, and at least they've moved part of the Wirral back into Cheshire where it belongs instead of Merseyside! Oops - checks Wikipedia and discovers that North Humberside returned to the East Riding of Yorkshire some 11 years ago! Apparently I didn't notice the change in address on the occasional correspondance I receive from Hull Uni.! How am I supposed to know where all the counties are if they keep changing them? I wonder when the last time was that they changed the names or borders of any of the US states? Longer ago than 1996, I'm sure.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Riot for austerity

So, the Riot for Austerity challenge is to use one tenth of what the average American uses. A pretty extreme challenge, but they're not dogmatic about it as they say:
"the goal is to reach a 90% reduction (or the best each of us can do) *AND KEEP IT THERE* after 1 year."

I don't think we'll ever get to the goal they've set, but we're doing better than 'average' in some respects. They say that the average American household uses 900 kwh of electricity per month. So far this calendar year, we've averaged about 750 kwh per month, even though we've had the central AC on for the last three months. The next couple of months are usually fairly low ones for our electric bills, so that should bring the average down. We've already replaced almost all the lightbulbs with CF ones. My next move to reduce our electricity use will be to buy another indoor drying rack and get a washing line set up to dry laundry outdoors.

Apparently "the average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY." I weighed our trash before going to the dump this weekend. I don't usually weigh the trash bag, but I could tell as I lifted the bag that it was a lighter than average trash week. We had 2.5 pounds of trash TOTAL for the four of us for the week. We also had 7.5 pounds of paper recycling, and about 9.5 pounds of plastic and glass recycling. (I forgot to subtract the weight of the container for the glass and plastic so it was probably a little less than 9.5 pounds.) There was some other glass and plastic that was not included because they were returnable bottles with deposits on them. Any food waste that we could put in the compost bin we did, and I didn't weigh that. I'm not sure if it counts as trash anyway, but I suspect the other recycling does because many communities still don't offer recycling opportunities. So I took less than 20 pounds of stuff to the dump/recycling center - about 16% of the 126 pounds of trash the 'average' family of four creates.

There are many areas of our lives that we could make less wasteful, but it looks as though we're off to an OK start.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What a funny-looking donkey!

Several years ago, dear husband and I were driving to see some friends in northern Vermont when I saw an animal at the side of the road. There was a couple who had gotten out of their car who were quite close to it, taking photos. I said, (to my eternal embarrassment), "What a funny-looking donkey!" No, it was NOT a donkey - it was a female moose.

I was confused because I was not that close to the animal but it was standing fairly near to the people who were photographing it and looked pretty tame. So now it's a family joke that I can't identify animals, and even when we see animals like giraffes someone will say: "Ooh, look at the funny-looking donkey!" I can in fact now identify a moose (and a giraffe) quite easily, but I do occasionally have difficulty with other animals. The first time I saw a coyote, I was sure it was a long-legged fox. I knew that coyotes live around here, (I've even heard them howling at night,) but it still seemed wrong that they should. The word 'coyote' always sounds, well, foreign and exotic to me and evokes an image of animals silhouetted on a ridge at sunset somewhere in the wilderness. Maybe I'm just confusing them with wolves. I'm sure (I think) that we don't have any of those around here!

(BTW, the picture above is NOT the moose I saw that day.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bears in the yard

I've been meaning to blog about our bears for a while, but reading this post about a bear in Colorado prompted me to get started on it.

The first time I ever saw a bear near our house it was in the late afternoon when a fairly young bear was wandering down the middle of the road. A car came by and when the driver stopped to get a better look at the bear it climbed a tree in fright. It didn't stay there long though. It seemed to figure out that the car and driver were no immediate threat, and it climbed down again and ran off into the woods.

We've seen them quite a few times since, some occasions more memorable than others. There was the time a bear climbed up on the basement hatchway to get at the bird feeder on the kitchen window. We'd removed all the other bird feeders from the yard a couple of weeks earlier after a bear bent the metal poles they were hanging on through 90 degrees. We foolishly figured that if the bear had left the one on the kitchen window alone, then it wouldn't come that close to the house. Wrong! We should have remembered the story (not apocryphal) about a family in town who had left the kitchen door open and a bear wandered right into the house and started ransacking the cupboards! My husband almost had a heart attack. He was standing at the kitchen sink, when suddenly there was a bear right outside the window only a couple of feet in front of him grabbing at the bird feeder. It pulled the feeder off the window, shook out the contents and ate most of them. (Given that it had earned itself little more than a snack I was surprised the bear left so much seed on the ground.) Once it was done emptying the feeder, it seemed to consider coming up on to the deck before wandering off to the neighbor's yard.

(Yes, although black bears are really not very agressive, I was safely inside the house when I took this picture.) We thought the bear had gone, but a few hours later when my husband went to take something out to the compost bin, he surprised the bear coming out from under the deck! It was making itself altogether too much at home for my liking! We never saw it under the deck again, but who knows?

A couple of times since we've been living here, the kids at one of the local elementary schools have had to stay inside the school at recess because there was a bear wandering the grounds. Many of the bears wear radio collars so that the state department of wildlife can track them. One of the kids, seeing the collar wanted to know who the bear belonged to!

The thing is, these bears are not way out in the countryside. Our house is only a couple of miles from the center of town. I've seen a mother bear and cub scampering down a densely populated residential street even closer to the center of town. Apparently, despite the fact that humans have been taking more and more of the bears' habitat for development every year, the black bear population is still growing - from about 100 in the entire state in the 1970's to somewhere around 3,000 now! An orchard where we used to see them when we first lived here is now a housing development. It's sad to think that, despite that, the bears are doing so well that it is actually legal to hunt them and dozens are killed every year for 'sport'. Although I seem to have terrified my brother-in-law in the UK with the thought that we have bears walking through our yard, they are rarely a real nuisance. (There was that one bear though that got drunk in a local orchard on fermented apples and wouldn't leave for a couple of days, but it wasn't in our yard, so I found that entertaining rather than a nuisance!)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Proms for 7 year-olds?

Last year I was surprised to hear of graduation ceremonies in the UK for 4 year-olds, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to read this about a prom in South Wales for seven-year olds. At least they changed the cultural context a little for the prom in Rhondda by having a tea party before the disco! What really surprised me was that many of the kids arrived in limos! (At least the photo reveals that they had parents in tow!)

Limos were banned as transportation to the prom at one of the private schools I worked at here in the US because it created a very clear distinction between those who could afford them and those who could not. Instead, the students were offered a choice of restaurants to go to and the school arranged the transportation. Not so 'classy', but for many of these kids a limo was nothing special anyway. In the context of the UK state school system where something like 85% of schools have uniforms that were always supposed to promote a degree of equity, it seems downright wrong to have a prom that encourages people to spend large amounts of money on limos and on prom outfits that will never be worn again. What about the kids on free lunches? I know some of the families were very proud that they 'only' spent £20, but it was an outfit that will probably never be worn again (except for dress-up.) A 'leavers' do', or 'moving up' party would have been just as much fun for the kids I'm sure.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Riot for austerity

riot for austerity
I'm contemplating joining the 'Riot for Austerity'. Not sure how far I'll get, but the goals are worthy ones . . .

More immigration confusion

My parents recently paid us a visit from the UK. The immigration official at the airport told my father that he had a 'problem' because his fingerprint did not match the fingerprint they took when he entered the US last September. After sending him to another official, they decided that they had simply 'confused' my father's fingerprint with my mother's. He was actually expecting to have more of a problem with the fact that they never took his departure card when he left last year, so technically there is no record of him ever having left the country before returning last month . . . They didn't mention that.

And I was SO hoping that the INS' record-keeping had improved since I last had to deal with them :-(

Friday, July 13, 2007

The world's best chocolate

Many years ago someone told me that chocolate in the United States was formulated differently in order to improve its shelf life. I knew it tasted different, although I wasn't sure of the veracity of the claim about shelf life. This week Kim Severson of the New York Times said the world's best candy is British and explains the difference between American and British chocolate:
According to the label, a British Cadbury Dairy Milk bar contains milk, sugar, cocoa mass, cocoa butter, vegetable fat and emulsifiers. The version made by the Hershey Company, which holds the license from Cadbury-Schweppes to produce the candy in the United States under the British company’s direction, starts its ingredient list with sugar. It lists lactose and the emulsifier soy lecithin, which keeps the cocoa butter from separating from the cocoa. The American product also lists “natural and artificial flavorings.”

Apparently the claim about shelf life is true as chcolate bars
from the United Kingdom are made from a better recipe, containing fewer stabilizers. They melt more quickly than a Hershey bar

When I was living in Taiwan I was delighted to discover that much of the candy was made to the British rather than the American formula. I wonder why in a tropical country they felt no need to use a formula for the chocolate bars that would give them a longer shelf life? I would guess it probably has something to do with the proximity of Hong Kong where there were lots of people who were used to the British version of the candy bars.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


After spending many thousands of dollars to get a work visa and then a Green Card in order to stay in the United States, it was amazingly simple to become a United States citizen when I finally became eligible.

When I applied for United States citizenship eight years ago I did not need a lawyer to help me, didn't need to take any classes, or study from any books. I think things have become a little tougher since 9/11, but there are lots of free resources such as public library websites or community based organizations. Even the US government provides information along with the application forms. There are plenty of people out there willing to take money to help you become a naturalized citizen, but as far as I know if you've got as far as getting a Green Card, the last step is easy and you really shouldn't need to pay for any help if your English is good enough to read and understand the application form.

I filled out the forms, wrote a check, and posted it all to the relevant address. Shortly afterwards I received a letter from the regional Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Office requesting that I report to my 'local' (2 hour drive away) INS Office. The reason: I had been granted permission to remain in the United States as a resident alien 5 years earlier but I had 'never been issued' with a Green Card and so I had 10 days to report to the INS office to rectify the situation. I was rather confused because I could have sworn I HAD a Green Card.

Not only did I have a plastic card with my photo on it that looked just like a Green Card was supposed to (no, it's not green!), but I knew it was a Green Card. How did I know this? Well, firstly, it had been mailed to me in an envelope that had a return address at the INS. Secondly, I had used the card to get in and out of the USA several times with no problems over the previous 5 years. Thirdly, I had gone on a 'backstage tour' at my local INS office just days after receiving my Green Card and one of the officials on the tour had (with my permission) entered my card number into her computer to pull up the INS computer file on me to show other people on the tour what kind of information they had. So I photocopied the back and front of my Green Card and wrote a letter to the regional INS office asking them what this piece of plastic was that had gotten me in and out of the country if it was not a Green Card and could they please reassure me, since I had just applied for citizenship, that my paperwork was in fact in order. I never heard back from them until I got a letter inviting me to the local INS office for my citizenship interview.

It was actually the tour of the immigration office that had made me decide that I would file my application for citizenship the first day I could. As well as pulling up my records on the computer, we asked if they could pull up the records of the 'designated officials' at a local university - people authorized to sign visa paperwork for international students. An international student accepted at an American university needs official paperwork showing that they have been accepted and have proven to the school that they have enough money to survive their course of study. Only a handful of people at any given institution are authorized to sign this paperwork, and their names are on record with the INS as Designated School Officials (DSOs.) So if an immigration official has doubts about the authenticity of an arriving student's paperwork one of the first things they can do is check that the person who signed the forms was in fact authorized to do so. So imagine the university officials' horror when they found that the official INS list of people at their university authorized to sign was TWO years out of date! As far as they knew, they had done everything they needed to to become a DSO, but if an official had questioned paperwork they had signed, a student who was legitimately accepted at their university could be denied entry to the country. Not good!

I also saw people filing paper records at the INS office and remember being told that when those records were needed again it would be impossible to find them unless someone knew the last date on which they had been accessed because that was how they were filed.

Having seen these examples of the INS inefficiency, I was not exactly excited about having to continue to deal with them for any longer than I had to. It is no wonder they have not been able to keep track of potential terrorists. My impression was that the INS were underfunded and understaffed and handicapped by a useless computer system. It was amazing things worked as well as they did. It would be nice to think that things have improved over the intervening years, especially with all the recent discussion about immigration and security, but sadly I doubt it has changed much. There are advantages to being a US citizen rather than a resident alien, but for me one of the biggest advantages is not having to deal with the INS any more.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Watching TV last night, the weather forecaster commented that although today the temperatures would reach the 90's for a second day in a row, we can't talk about a heatwave because there is unlikely to be a third day of high temperatures. A heatwave in New England is defined (by one of the local TV station weather forecasters) as a string of three 90+ degree Fahrenheit (over 32° Celsius) days in a row. Two days of those temperatures would definitely count as a heatwave in the UK.

Some people laugh when people in the UK complain about heatwaves when the temperatures are only in the 70's, (mid 20's Celsius) and you see headlines like "Britain swelters in the seventies." It makes complete sense though that the official definition of a heatwave will vary from place to place. In the Netherlands it's classified a heatwave when there are at least 5 days with a maximum temperature above 25°C (77°F) of which at least 3 days have a maximum temperature above 30°C (86° F). (Source: World Health Organization)

Looking for information on the topic this afternoon, I discovered that depending on where you are in the UK, let alone where you are in the world, the temperature threshold is different. In a large country such as the USA, I would have expected that. 'Hot' weather in New England is not the same as 'hot' in the southern USA. I was surprised to find regional differences in the definition of a heatwave for the UK. The temperatures must be reached on at least two consecutive days and the intervening night.

Scroll down - for some reason the table below has decided it needs lots of personal space and nothing I do will persuade it to move back up the page :-(

Region Threshold temperature
Day max Night min
North East England 28°C / 82.4°F 15°C / 59°F
North West England 30°C / 86°F 15°C / 59°F
Yorkshire and the Humber 29°C / 84°F 15°C / 59°F
East Midlands 30°C / 86°F 15°C / 59°F
West Midlands 30°C / 86°F 15°C / 59°F
East of England 30°C / 86°F 15°C / 59°F
South East England 31°C / 87.8°F 16°C / 60.8°F
London 32°C / 89.6°F 18°C / 64.4°F
South West England 30°C / 86°F 15°C / 59°F
Wales 30°C / 86°F 15°C / 59°F

In the United States, the National Weather Service suggest that a heat advisory be issued when the daytime heat index reaches 40.6°C / 105°F and a night time minimum temperature of 26.7°C / 80°F persists for at least 48 hours. Local definitions are used: in Dallas the medical examiners office define a heatwave as three consecutive days of temperatures over 37.8°C / 100.4°F - that's a good 10 degrees warmer than a New England heatwave.

I wonder how the definitions will change over the next few years as global warming takes effect and heatwaves become more common? Will we simply redefine what a heatwave is?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Marketing math - when 11 equals 15.25

Are they as honest on their 15.25 ounce cans? "Contains only as much corn as the 11 ounce cans." I think not.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Learning about America

in Nelson, New Zealand.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

God Save my Country

The Little American is practicing for the Memorial Day concert at school on Friday. One of the songs they will be singing is My Country 'Tis of Thee which happens to be sung to exactly the same tune as God Save the Queen. I have now thoroughly confused her as every time she starts to sing it I join in, singing the 'wrong' words :-) She asked me to write down the words for her so that she could teach her classmates to sing God Save the Queen. (Hmm - I can see that going over well at school - NOT!) Unfortunately, she had sung My Country 'Tis of Thee so often that somehow pilgrims kept making their way into God Save the Queen! Now we're both confused!

But did you know that the same tune is used for the national anthems of Norway and Leichtenstein, and used to be used in Switzerland, Prussia and Russia?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Writers on America

I've just started reading the articles at Writers on America from the US Department of State. It looks as though there is some interesting reading there. I noticed that the site has been translated - but only into Arabic. Clearly a propaganda piece, yet not entirely 'rah-rah'. Julia Alvarez, for example, talks of the difficulties she and her family faced on their arrival in the United States, and I would guess some of the other articles are equally honest about the imperfections of the American 'melting pot'.

Monday, April 16, 2007


I remember someone telling me once shortly after I arrived in the US that a big difference between the US and the UK is the can-do attitude over here. If someone in the UK said they were thinking about maybe writing a book, the reaction would be, "What, you?" If someone in the US said the same thing the response would be "Go for it!"

I wonder how much that has changed with bloggers like Tom Reynolds, Petite Anglaise and others getting publishing deals now and becoming celebrities?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The British Abroad

To balance my earlier post on why some Americans shouldn't be allowed to travel - the British on vacation abroad don't have a particularly good image. Charles Bremner wrote in his Paris Weblog
In the old days, the Americans stood out among the visitors, for dress and behaviour. Now les anglais often draw attention to themselves while the Americans -- on the defensive in France -- try to blend in more.

Magwitch writes :
"unfortunately the most hideous people I’ve ever met when travelling are ignorant, load mouthed Brits who won’t attempt the language, the food or the culture and are generally obnoxious to everyone."

NoJags Neil writes
The perception of the British abroad is not a good one, and the absence of pissed-up promiscuous British twentysomethings on our recent holiday to Egypt was refreshing.

I don't think it's so much the individual Brit abroad, or even small groups, but mostly the larger groups that create this poor image. The chances are much higher that a Brit on a tour versus one travelling independently will be an obnoxious twit. Ditto for other nationalities.

The dark socks with sandals - such an attractive look - not! And the lobster-colored skin - de rigeur when travelling to warmer climes. Do men really still wear knotted hankies on their heads though? I doubt it nowadays, though I think I remember my grandfather doing that when sitting out in the sun in his garden.

Adam Dalton has written a far more comprehensive article about the British tourist overseas than I have time to attempt: The British Abroad - Not a Pretty Sight!

Saturday, April 07, 2007


I don't remember a bunny ever having anything to do with Easter when I was growing up. He may have shown up at other people's houses, but certainly not ours, where Easter was a religious holiday. We got chocolate Easter eggs, but from our parents and grandparents rather than a bunny, and there were no Easter egg hunts. Dear Husband grew up with different traditions, although Easter was still definitely a religious holiday for his family. The Easter bunny always brought him and his brother things like balsa wood airplanes or a kite - toys with an outdoor focus. They always got a chocolate rabbit too. I would bet they got Peeps most years too as my father-in-law loves them. Sometimes the bunny brought them a toothbrush!

For the moment, the Little Americans in the house think Easter is all about the rabbit. The Little American probably knows more about Passover traditions than the religious nature of Easter even though she does have a book of Bible stories that she enjoys reading, and often reads the stories aloud to her brother.

As the kids were going to bed tonight they wanted to be sure that their baskets were put out in the living room and some carrots left for the bunny. They then had a very intense discussion with each other about how the bunny is going to get into the house. "Well we don't have a chimney, so he can't get in that way." "He can't come in through the door because the alarm would go off. He must come in through the window." They are evidently unaware of the concept of a motion-activated alarm or what the little boxes with the red lights in the corners of the rooms are for. They also haven't noticed that all the windows are locked. Hmm - I'd better go and check and make sure they haven't UNlocked any! I wouldn't put it past them!

I've just finished filling plastic eggs to hide around the back yard in the morning. The raccoons would find them if we put them out now! I don't know what they'd make of plastic eggs as opposed to the real thing (which I know they love), but I'm sure they'd check them out pretty thoroughly!

Dear Husband is looking over my shoulder and comments that he had contemplated going outside to collect some of the wild rabbit droppings from the lawn and leaving them next to the baskets in the living room! Fortunately, he decided not to bother.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A nation of wasteful abundance

I remember being shocked in my first few days at university here to see the amount of food and paper serviettes (napkins) that were wasted at every mealtime in the Dining Commons on campus. It seemed as though everyone took half a dozen napkins instead of just one. Lots of people took far more food than they could possibly eat and then threw it away. My culture shock at this was nothing however compared to Mark Mathabane's. Mark is about my age but grew up in the black township of Alexandra in South Africa under the apartheid regime. He ended up studying in the United States too. In his book Kaffir Boy in America (sequel to Kaffir Boy , the story of his childhood in South Africa) he writes of his first few years in the United States. He too was (unfavorably) impressed by the amount of wasted food. His shock was clearly far greater than mine of course. I got over it to some extent but the memory of the shock is still there.

Occasionally as I look at our well-stocked pantry and wonder what we should have for dinner, I think how spoiled we are. We bulk buy because it's convenient. We can store far more food than we would be able to in the typical English house. Although we might not be eating what we wanted, we would have enough food for several weeks should something happen to stop us from getting to the stores.

It's not only food, but all the other 'stuff' in our lives that is embarrassingly abundant. I assuage my guilt a little by trying to throw as little out as possible. No, that does not mean hoarding! We recycle paper, glass, and plastic, and would even if our town did not require it. I pass on outgrown kids clothing to friends with smaller children, or to local agencies that collect such stuff. Recently we have used Freecycle as a way of passing things on that we have no use for anymore. (Freecycle exists in many other countries including in the UK too.) It's a small thing to do, but why throw things out when someone might be happy to reuse them? Enjoy the abundance, but cut down on the waste!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

37% American

My quiz results from the blogthings "How American Are You?" quiz:

You Are 37% American

America: You don't love it or want to leave it.
But you wouldn't mind giving it an extreme make over.

Dear Husband (who was born and raised here) scored 44%.
I passed the blogthings US Citizenship test though:
You Passed the US Citizenship Test

Congratulations - you got 7 out of 10 correct!

Then again, blogthings says I belong in the UK:
You Belong in the UK

A little proper, a little saucy.
You're so witty and charming...
No one notices your curry breath

Friday, February 02, 2007

Chewing gum

Growing up in the UK, I always thought of chewing gum as quintessentially American. It was another of those nasty American habits, like not pronouncing words properly, that marked one as boorish and uncultured. I knew people who chewed gum, but it wasn't something I did. Chewing without eating seemed rather pointless and, anyway, my dentist had advised me not to bother as I had some problems with my jaw that he said chewing gum would aggravate. I remember noticing that French teenagers seemed to chew gum more often than the English did. (They smoked more too.)

My dislike of gum is apparently typically British - as Cadbury's starts a large advertising campaign to launch Trident gum onto the British market, the BBC reported today:

most people think it looks "common" and "uncouth", according to government research. And that includes the 50% of the population who chew it.
My issue with gum chewers when I was in school was the fact that they didn't seem to know how to dispose of their gum. Of course one reason my peers didn't dispose of their gum in more appropriate ways was because they weren't supposed to be chewing it in the first place. I worked for some years in a school where gum chewing was not allowed and the teachers seemed to be fighting a losing battle to stop the kids from chewing gum or to get them to throw it in a trash can when they had finished chewing it. Then I worked at a school where it was allowed unless individual teachers asked students not to chew gum in their classes. There seemed to be very little problem with finding it in places it shouldn't have been. Then a new regime changed the rules - no more gum permitted, and suddenly there was gum on the ground outside buildings, under desks, stuck on the walls . . .

Just as I've become used to American pronunciation, I've become used to seeing people chew gum without judging their social worth. I still don't do it myself, but I really don't think more people in the UK chewing gum indicates the decline in standards that some people over there are bemoaning.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Citizenship tests

I wrote back in July 2006 that I only scored 65% on the "Do you have what it takes to become a citizen?" quiz about American citizenship. There's a UK equivalent online too. Some of the things you're expected to know for the UK test don't seem particularly useful pieces of cultural knowledge, which I would have thought was the point of the test. I scored 85% on it anyway - better than on the American one, although I admit I guessed at the answers to some of the questions that I got right! Maybe I am still more British than American!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why Some Americans Shouldn't be Allowed to Travel

Okay, there are probably some Brits who shouldn't be allowed to travel either, and these stories are probably apocryphal, but this was moderately amusing anyway:

The following are actual stories provided by travel agents

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Smarties vs M&Ms

The candy known as Smarties in the USA is not the same as the Smarties sold in the UK. There's no chocolate involved at all in the American ones so, really, what's the point? You can buy English Smarties here at specialist stores, though of course you pay a premium for an imported product.

I had always thought I preferred Smarties to M&Ms, but this Christmas I was given both a tube of Smarties and a bag of dark chocolate M&Ms. Now it may be that the Smarties were stale, as I've found imported goods often can be, but I have to say the dark M&Ms were actually better. Except for the orange Smarties of course, because I love orange flavoured chocolate and the orange Smarties really and truly have orange flavoured chocolate inside them! (I always thought that was a myth and that the power of suggestion was convincing me it was true, but the Smarties website confirms it.) Actually, given that the Smarties were in a tube, it's likely that they were rather old as they are no longer sold in tubes in the UK. I guess I need some fresh Smarties to compare against the dark M&Ms. Anyone want to send me some?

I weigh WHAT?????

I'll admit it, I've put on too much weight in the last few years. I have boxes of clothes in the basement that no longer fit. I keep them because I'm convinced that there will come a day when I'll fit back into them. Yeah, right - but keeping them gives me hope that it might happen.

I'm not sure if the weight gain is something that would have happened anyway, or is part of the process of becoming more American. After all, the statistics show that Americans tend to be overweight, so if I'm becoming more American I must therefore be putting on weight. Nah, I think it's just a part of the middle-age thing, the mommy thing (finishing off what's on my kids' plates), and the lack of time to exercise because I'm a mommy with a full-time job thing.

Anyway, I know I'm overweight and have been trying to do something about it. That involves occasionally stepping on the bathroom scales to see if I'm fooling myself in thinking that I might actually have lost a pound or two. A couple of weeks ago I stepped on the scales and got a shock - the numbers weren't anywhere close to what I was expecting. They were way off! In fact, they didn't even make any sense. I was rather annoyed that my expensive bathroom scales, that also check my body fat percentage, appeared to be broken. Fortunately, before I threw them out, I realised what had happened. One of the Little Americans in the house had reset them so that instead of showing my weight in pounds they showed my weight in stone and pounds. Americans don't use stone and pounds, but in England they do, so I was able to 'translate'. Then I tried to reset the scale to measure in pounds again. I couldn't figure out how. Dear husband couldn't figure out how either, and the instructions were of course long gone. Neither of the Little Americans would admit to having messed with the scales and certainly neither of them had any clue how to reset them.

Despite the seasonal weight gain I was anticipating back in October, the numbers on the scale are steadily getting smaller week by week though so it doesn't really matter which measuring system they are set to :-) Maybe there's hope yet that I will eventually fit back into the clothes I've been keeping! They'll be completely out-of-date of course, but that's not the point.

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