Spring Already?!

The past few days have been unusually warm here in suburban Philadelphia, and on today’s walk with the dog I saw evidence everywhere of an early spring. img_1584

Snowdrops aren’t a surprise in late February, but lots of other things are also starting to bloom, like the pretty little purple crocus that are scattered across a lot of lawns on our street.

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More worrisome is that the tulips and daffodils are starting to send up shoots, and it’s definitely too early for them.

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Can you spot the buds on our cherry tree in the front garden?

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Even the lovely forsythia is getting in on the act — I think of these shrubs as the true harbinger of spring, their long graceful branches bursting into bright yellow leaves as the weather warms. February is at least a month too early for these buds to be showing.

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But proper Englishwoman that I am, it’s the roses I’m most worried about. Over the years I’ve planted a number of David Austin Old English shrubs and climbers, and this morning I spotted these buds on the climber that rambles all over the back of the house.

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Anyone know a spell to get the roses to go back to sleep?!

 

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Dates, Floors, and Toilet Doors

When you first make the leap to a new life in another country, you expect a lot of things to be different — language (or at least dialect), driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, different architecture and street landscapes. But there were three aspects to life in America that I didn’t expect and that totally flummoxed me when I first came here; and frankly, still do. I’m talking about dates, floors, and toilet doors.

Dates

In the UK, dates very sensibly go Day, Month, Year. So, today being 13th February, 2017 would be listed in numeric form as 13/2/17. It’s a logical progression, from smallest measure to largest. Simple. Imagine the surprise, then, when you’re told that the classes for the new year at graduate school start on 9/3. What? The 9th of March? How can that be?? No, someone explains, that means September 9 — and they give you the “what planet are you from?” look.

Well, the only country on the planet that does Month, Day, Year is the USA (at least, that’s what it says in Wikipedia so it must be true). A number of countries in Asia go Year, Month, Day. And, the ever-diplomatic Canadians apparently use all three formats: Day, Month, Year; Month, Day, Year; AND Year, Day, Month. Which is very noble of them but must get highly confusing.

When filling out forms of any kind, I’m now so used to the Month/Day/Year format that I have to think twice about what I’m doing with anything international. Not everyone does.

The British press corp was refused entry to the White House for the Trump-May press conference on January 27 because of confusion over dates — the security services apparently couldn’t fathom the birth dates of the listed reporters, which were all written UK style (remember, this is the style used by most countries on the planet, i.e., is the international format).

Floors

As any Brit can tell you, the floor of a building that’s at ground level is called the ground floor. When you go up one level, you’re on the first floor, because it’s the first Floor added, right? So, a building with a ground floor and then four more floors on top is numbered G, 1, 2, 3, 4. And, as far as I remember, that’s pretty much the convention across Europe: the first level you walk in on is called some variation of “ground,” then you start numbering 1, 2, 3 as you go up. Very sensible and straightforward.

Not in America. Here, the first floor is the one at ground level. The second floor is the next one up. This caused me no end of confusion when I first got to the university’s library. The buttons in the elevator (lift) went B, 1, 2, 3. I had no clue where I was at any given level. I spent weeks repeatedly finding myself in the basement instead of on the ground floor.

I’m not sure why such a small change should be so bloody difficult to take on — maybe because it’s such an automatic part of life, something that you just assume is straightforward? Just to add to the confusion, sometimes in elevators here you’ll see numbering that goes G, 2, 3…. where the building owners have decided to be a bit fancy and call the first floor ground; but the next floor up is still 2.

It also caused confusion when we bought our house here in the suburbs, and I told my mum it had two bedrooms on the third floor (to me, this now means up two flights of stairs from the ground). She was staggered that I’d moved into a four-story house. I had to gently explain that no, I meant attic rooms that were up two flights of stairs, so second floor UK, third floor US. She seemed a bit disappointed that I hadn’t actually moved into a mansion.

Toilet Doors

Now, this one is just bizarre. Given how ‘coy’ Americans can be (Americans Can Be So Coy!), why the devil are the doors on public loos so tiny?

In the UK, the doors and partitions on public cubicles go all the way down to the ground and all the way up to the ceiling. And the doors themselves close nice and snug, with no gaps.

But in the US, the cubicles in a “women’s restroom” typically have about two feet of space at the top and bottom of the doors and partitions. And there’s usually a good inch of air space between the door and the frame. To a Brit, this feels like trying to go to the loo in the middle of an open field.

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I have zero explanation for this. Someone once told me, “Oh, it’s for security reasons, so you can see if someone’s in trouble, and easily get them out. And, you can see if someone’s actually hiding in there.” You certainly can. After 32 years in this country, I still long for a proper public loo, where no-one can see my ankles and the door seals all the way around.

I guess it does make it easier to help out a friend in the case of a toilet paper emergency.

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When the Weather Goes Bonkers

We’re suffering from weather whiplash here on the east coast. Yesterday was a beautiful, mild day, full of sunshine and soft breezes. Downright balmy. It was so lovely that in mid-afternoon I actually went and sat outside for a while with a book (and the dog). The temperature topped out at just over 60 degrees Fahrenheit (around 16 celsius).

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That gorgeous blue sky looks oddly incongruous with the bare trees and winter-brown grass.

Fast-forward less than 24 hours and it looks very different.

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This is the view from the back door. Those are the dog’s paw prints bottom left; she was not impressed that “her” garden was suddenly coated in cold, wet stuff this morning.

As I write this, the snow is still coming down and it’s a decidedly-not-balmy 28 degrees (or -2 celsius). The weather forecasts a total of 4-6 inches of snow, accompanied later today by strong gusts of wind. Fingers crossed the power doesn’t go out.

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Super Bowl LI

This Sunday America will be brought together in one of the few events that pretty much everyone in the country watches, or at least has some opinion about. Yes, it’s Super Bowl time — the final game of the (American) football season. But the adverts, the half-time show, and the food are equally as important as the actual game.

On Sunday evening the New England Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons at NRG stadium in Houston, Texas, for Super Bowl LI (that’s number 51 for those who don’t know their Latin numerals; I haven’t the faintest idea why the Super Bowl is numbered this way). This marks the culmination of a season that started with pre-season games back in August. There are 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL), divided into two conferences. After each team has played 16 regular season games, the four best teams in each conference go into the playoffs; the final two meet up in the Super Bowl.

This year, punters are expecting a high-scoring game, with the Patriots favored to win by three points. This is their ninth appearance at the Super Bowl (the most of any team). Sunday marks the Falcons’ first trip to the Super Bowl since 1999 and only the second in the franchise’s history. So, naturally, a lot of people will be rooting for the Falcons just because they’re sick of seeing the Patriots win.

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As I know next-to-nothing about (American) football, despite being married to a lifelong fan, I’ll avoid saying anything else about the actual game. Which is fine because, as with most American events, shopping, entertainment, and food are a big part of the whole thing.

Ads

For every analyst pontificating about the strengths and weaknesses of the two contestants, there is at least one more who is focused on the ads. By Monday morning there will be a slew of articles and media blurbs on the “best and worst” ads of the game. It’s like waiting for the annual John Lewis Christmas ad to drop — only much, much bigger. Personally, I’ll only be paying attention to the TV screen when the ads come on.

(http://www.superbowl-commercials.org has the current crop of “leaked” and previewed commercials for Super Bowl LI, as well as most of the ones from past seasons.)

The rights to broadcast the game cycle among the major broadcast networks; this year, it’s the turn of the Fox network. Fox reportedly set this year’s base rate for a 30-second commercial at $5 million (the same as CBS charged last year). At those prices, it’s not surprising that advertisers pull out all the stops to create buzz. Some companies have taken to releasing “teasers” for their ads in the week before the game, while others release previews of the full ad on YouTube. Creative pitches with celebrity cameos and special effects are common. In fact, given how bland and uncreative American TV ads tend to be, it’s pretty much the only time you’ll see anything overtly humorous or vaguely risqué.

At the time of writing, there’s a lot of attention on three of the upcoming ads. Snickers (a chocolate bar made by Mars, Inc.) has announced that, for the first time in super bowl history, it will be presenting a live commercial (actually, Advertising Age points out that in 1981 Schlitz did a live taste-test commercial, but it would be pedantic to point that out).

Skittles (a small, hard candy also made by a division of Mars) released its ad “Romance” on YouTube on Tuesday; by Wednesday afternoon it was on YouTube’s list of trending videos and had amassed more than 500,000 views. It’s a cute little number with a young man lobbing Skittles at his girlfriend’s bedroom window; inside we see the whole family (along with a guy in a ski mask and a local cop) lining up on the couch to gleefully catch the candy in their mouths as it flies in through the open window.

Budweiser beer has a reputation for producing some of the most iconic and well-crafted Super Bowl ads. In recent years, they’ve gone for “heart-warming” slots that feature their famous Clydesdale horses. The 2015 slot, with a man looking for his lost puppy, was an outright tear-jerker, but so well staged that you could forgive the sentiment.

This year’s ad takes a different tack and is already generating a lot of debate. It’s a minute-long piece called “Born the Hard Way,” which they debuted this week. It focuses on a German immigrant in the mid-19th century who makes it to America, facing an arduous voyage and angry crowds shouting, “You’re not wanted here.” The young man finally gets to St. Louis, where he ends up becoming one half of the duo that created Budweiser. The company says the ad conveys a message about “not backing down from beliefs and dreams,” but after days of protests over President DT’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, it’s hard not to see the spot as an overt political statement on the positive effects of immigration. It’ll be interesting to see if the so-called “alt-right” start calling for a boycott of Bud.

The Halftime show

Last year’s Super Bowl was the third-most watched broadcast in US TV viewing history with an average 111.9 million TV viewers. And this doesn’t count people who may have been watching at bars or restaurants. The viewing peak came between 8:30pm and 9:00pm eastern time, when an average 115.5 million people tuned in — for the half-time show. With numbers like that, artists are eager to perform in a show that can make — and occasionally, come close to break — their careers.

My personal favorite in recent years was 2009, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band showed how it’s done with a hard-hitting, superbly executed show of rock standards. No flash and glitter, just classy showmanship based on pure skill.

Last year, Coldplay were the headliners, with appearances by Bruno Mars and Beyoncé. While Coldplay’s set was generally forgettable, Beyoncé stole the show, with a dynamic rendition of “Formation” and an overt racial-justice theme.

The most controversial in recent years was the 2004 show headlined by Janet Jackson. Near the end of the high-energy set, surprise guest Justin Timberlake joined Janet on stage and America was briefly treated to a “wardrobe malfunction” swiftly dubbed “Nipplegate.” Yes, America went nuts over a less-than-one-second flash of a woman’s nipple. Her thoroughly entertaining set, complete with calls for the audience to reject bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance, was all forgotten in the ensuing “indecent exposure” scandal. (As I’ve written elsewhere, Americans Can Be So Coy!)

This year’s halftime headliner? Lady Gaga. In a recent interview for CBS Sports she said, “I think the challenge is to look at it and say, ‘What can I do differently’?” This should be good.

Food

The final aspect of all this is the super bowl party. Different families and regions have different preferences but around here the favorites seem to be: chicken wings with various sauces; ribs; pizza; chili; tortillas, nachos, and chips, with dips like guacamole and pico de gallo; and beer. Lots and lots of beer.

Which takes us to one of the more bizarre local Super Bowl ‘traditions’ — the wing bowl. Started by a pair of Philadelphia talk-radio hosts in 1993, this is a local eating contest to see who can snarf down the most chicken wings. It’s held the Friday morning before the Super Bowl and has become quite the media event. The Wells Fargo Center, which seats 19,500, sold out this year — for an event that starts at 4:00 a.m. There are side-contests and the competitors are paraded around the packed arena on floats, escorted by young women in minuscule bikinis called the Wingettes. (No, I’m not making this up.) A large amount of beer is consumed throughout the morning.

This morning’s winner was 50-year old Bob Shoudt, who managed to down 409 wings over the course of two 14-minute rounds and one two-minute final. The oldest Wing Bowl winner, Bob took home $10,000, a new car, a ring and medal, and a fair amount of local media exposure. And if you really want to know, the record stands at 444 wings, at the 2015 Wing Bowl (the dubious honor belonging to one Patrick Bertoletti). It’s not an entirely male sport — last year’s winner was a woman, Molly Schuyler, who won with 429 wings.Today, she entertained the crowd with a solo performance in which she devoured 4.5 pounds of steak and a pound of mashed potatoes in 3 minutes and 18 seconds.

There’s probably something meaningful to say here about the American celebration of excess, but frankly this is just an image I’d rather not dwell on any longer.

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Becoming a U.S. Citizen

I am an immigrant. My story is not unusual; it did not involve any danger, heartbreak, or difficult decisions. As a straight white woman with the “right” kind of accent, my journey from student to green card to naturalized citizen was straightforward. But sometimes it was also downright nerve-wracking and for one brief 30-second interlude mind-numbingly terrifying. Most Americans say the IRS (Internal Revenue Service, the federal tax authority) is the scariest government institution. I think most immigrants would agree, it pales in comparison with the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).

Here in Philadelphia, the local news is focusing a great deal on two Syrian refugee families who were turned away from Philadelphia International Airport on Saturday morning, despite having all the valid paperwork and approvals to emigrate to the States. This was thanks to the new President’s Executive Order barring arrivals from seven countries, including Syria. Their nephew told the local media of waiting eagerly at the airport with other family members for his uncles and their families, only to suddenly be told by customs officials that there was no point in waiting as they had been sent back. (Oh, and they had to pay for their return plane fares, too.) I can barely imagine the horror, the helplessness, and yes the rage, that this family must be going through.

Student Visa

Like I said, my own story is very different. I first came to the States in 1985 on a student visa. I applied for this at the American embassy in London, which involved a day of standing in lines and filling out forms (this was pre-internet). I remember at one point having to promise that I was not, and had never been, a member of, or a sympathizer with, any Communist or Nazi party or organization.

The student visa, stamped into my passport, allowed me to enter the US, to study here, and to get certain forms of work that were pre-approved by the University. That’s how I paid the bills and ate during the three-month summer break; I variously worked answering phones at the university student housing office, checked out books at the university library, and did some paid research work.

Green Card

In 1990 I married an American citizen, and set about applying for a green card. This is the Permanent Resident Card that authorizes you to live and work in the States. I would need one if I were to get a job after graduating. Again, hours of filling out forms, gathering documents, and waiting in various offices. I remember the “final” approval interview, when the spouse and I had to appear at the INS offices in downtown Chicago.

This was about the same time as the movie Green Card came out (a forgettable romantic comedy starring Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell). In the movie, they are grilled about all sorts of minutiae to “prove” that their marriage is legitimate, even down to Depardieu’s character being asked what kind of toothpaste his wife used. I remember perching anxiously on a plastic chair in an anonymous waiting room and suddenly turning to my husband and asking him: “Do you know what kind of toothpaste I use?” Naturally, he didn’t have a clue.

When we were finally ushered into a tiny little office, the bureaucrat on the other side of the desk was utterly humorless. But the actual interview ended up being brief to the point of perfunctory. It wasn’t until it was all over that I found myself imagining how very different the day would have been if I weren’t a white woman with an English accent.

A few weeks later the coveted Green Card arrived in the mail. It was actually a disappointingly small piece of plastic, the size of a credit card, pale pink in color, with my name, picture, and details printed on the front, and an alarming black strip on the back with a long list of letters and numbers printed underneath. My entire life, summed up in those numbers and letters, with who-knows-what data embedded in the black strip.

Permanent Resident

From that point on, when I applied for work, or whenever I left the country, I’d carry the little pink card with me, serene in the knowledge that I was a Permanent Resident. The only drawback I could see to not being a full citizen was that I could not vote. Otherwise, to all intents and purposes, I felt like I belonged. Occasionally I’d wonder about citizenship, especially after our first child was born, but I (mistakenly) assumed I’d have to renounce my British citizenship, which I was not prepared to do.

But then came the 30-second interlude of mind-numbing terror. This was the early summer of 1999. I’d been on a ten-day business trip that took me from Philadelphia to Singapore (by way of Amsterdam), on to Hong Kong, and then back via San Francisco. I literally circumnavigated the globe. By the time my plane landed in SF on Saturday morning, I was so jet-lagged out of my skull I didn’t even know what day it was, let alone the time. I was also feeling rather ill (it later turned out I was in the early stages of pregnancy with son #2).

I stumbled up to the Border Control desk at the airport, and handed over the British passport and Green Card. The agent stared long and hard at my Card, then looked up, leaned forward and sternly said, “Do you know how long you’ve had this?”

I was paralyzed with terror. Oh my God what have I done wrong? Has it expired? My husband and (US-born) child were on the other side of that barrier — would I ever see them again?

After what felt like an eternity but could only have been a few seconds, he said, “You’re eligible for citizenship! Why haven’t you applied yet?” Still scared witless I stammered something about “Been meaning to…” He handed me back my precious little pink card and said, “Well see that you do, young lady, see that you do. We need people like you!”

I staggered past his desk into baggage control and collapsed on the nearest bench, near-weeping with relief (remember: jet-lagged and pregnant, not a good combo). It wasn’t until much later that I wondered if “people like you” was really as creepily exclusionist as it sounded, or if he was just trying to be nice. But it worked: I set about figuring out citizenship in earnest.

Citizenship

Once I realized that the INS wouldn’t actually demand that I physically hand over my British Passport — and that Her Majesty’s Government couldn’t care less how many additional citizenships I claimed — the decision was easy. The year after #2 son was born, I applied for citizenship.

Once again, forms, documents, paperwork — and a written test! I dutifully studied my list of 100 sample questions. Some were laughably easy: what American holiday commemorates the first meal the pilgrims shared with native Americans? Others I did have to look up: who is currently the chief justice of the Supreme Court? This part of the whole process was a little anxiety-provoking but I wasn’t particularly worried about the outcome. I also had a rambunctious six-year-old and a toddler running around; who had time to worry about the machinations of the government bureaucracy?!

The process took a little longer than usual because right after I applied, 9/11 happened. Still, I was stamped and approved and told to appear for my swearing-in ceremony at a courthouse in Philadelphia in mid-January, 2002. We got permission from the school for the six-year old to come along, figuring it could be an important learning moment for him. In the event, while he did try very hard to be good, the stuffy and crowded room full of strangers didn’t impress him in the least. But for me, the whole morning was profoundly moving.

The judge told us there were about 80 of us becoming citizens that day, from over 60 different countries. I remember a young woman from West Africa, who was crying tears of joy and hugging everyone she saw. An elderly Laotian couple, bent double, escorted to the front of the room by a solicitous grandson who helped them sign their names. A tall, middle aged Indian woman, regal in a beautiful sari, and utterly serene until her name was called and she broke into the most radiant smile. A young French man, trying his hardest to be cool and diffident while his American wife wept and snapped photos.

It was America at its most gloriously diverse and its most powerful best. Every single one of those people had a story — and you could tell that for many of them, this day marked the culmination of a long and harrowing journey. Most of us were in tears by the time we all stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time. I was bursting with pride.

The final part of the day was when we returned the six year old to school. My husband insisted I needed to walk him into the classroom. When we opened the door, 20 six-year olds were sitting at their tables, with little American flags in front of them, and they all cried out “welcome.” It turned out that the teacher had found out why our son would be absent from school that morning, and decided to turn the event into a civics lesson for the kids. We got to share red-white-and-blue decorated cupcakes, and I had to try very hard not to cry all over again.

Each student in the class had decorated a flag that the teacher made into this wreath (it still hangs on the wall of my office). And each of them also wrote a sentence in a little booklet about why they were proud to be Americans. Some said things like “because my grandpa got to come here.” Many said “because of the firefighters” (this was just four month after 9/11).

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May every one of those refugees and immigrants so cruelly turned away this weekend eventually be admitted. Because while they need the sanctuary and prosperity that this country offers, America truly needs them.

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The Blogs I Follow

One of the wonderful things about the world of blogging is the connections you can make with people whose lives may be very different from your own. If you’re a (somewhat) regular reader of this blog, you’ll have noticed some links over on the right-hand pane to other blogs that I follow. The one thing these have in common is that (with one exception) they in some way reflect the expat experience; but their differences are what make these blogs really fun to follow.

In no particular order (except how they’re listed on my page) here’s a look at some of my favorites.

The Kitchens Garden

Written by Cecilia G. (“Celi”) this blog tells the story of her life “developing a mostly sustainable/mostly self sufficient/mostly organic farm to feed ourselves with, out here in the Midwest of America.” Celi is an expat from New Zealand, where she was a High School Teacher of Drama for ten years. Now, she spends her days dealing with runaway pigs, stubborn chickens, and the kinds of weather extremes that you can only find on the open plains of Illinois.

I love reading her daily blog for the photos of life on her farm — a world away from my warm and comfortable suburban house — and for her periodic philosophical musings. If you get a chance, check out some her recent posts: Waste Not Those Feet (January 24) and Is That Art? (January 26) were two of my recent favorites, posts that make you pause and think anew about your world.

Marta Lives in China

Marta is a Spanish expat who has lived in China since 2006. She blogs about life in Suzhou with her Chinese boyfriend “and our chubby golden retriever.” Sometimes she describes taking foreign visitors on treks around Suzhou, with lots of photos of the area.

This blog has been eye opening, though, for showing the kinds of details about life in another country that you just can’t get from newspapers and TV. One recent example: Her January 16 post “How to Survive Winter in Suzhou” revealed that there is no central heating there and houses are badly insulated, so “it is often as cold inside as outside.” Did you know that, starting in October, Chinese people start wearing their long underwear? Until I came across Marta’s blog, I never pictured Chinese people wearing LongJohns.

Careful Cents

This one is not about the expat life, but about being a freelancer. Created by Carrie Nicholson, Careful Cents is “a community of solopreneurs and freelancers who are committed to building life-centered businesses.” Her website is full of useful information and advice about starting and growing a freelance business. She has also written a lot of stuff on personal finance and financial organization. If you’re a new freelancer trying to figure out how to make this work, or a seasoned independent looking for ideas on generating more income, you should check out Careful Cents.

Carrie also runs a Careful Cents Facebook community, where members post questions and stories, and ask for help with particular problems. As someone new to the world of freelance writing, I’ve found it inspiring and helpful.

Expat Mum

This is the blog of prolific writer and blogger Toni Summers Hargis. Originally from the northeast of England, Toni has lived in the States for a couple of decades, mostly “trying to come to terms with the oppressively hot summers and unbearably frigid winters of Chicago.” (As someone who also lived in Chicago for a number of years, I’d put Philadelphia summers well ahead of Chicago’s for oppressive heat, but Chi-town wins hands down on the winter stakes.)

Toni can also be found occasionally writing for the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and a slew of other publications. Her posts are spot-on accurate about life as a Brit in the USA, ad often laugh-out-loud funny. She’s also a lovely human being — even though we’ve never met, I can say this because she responded immediately when I emailed her out of the blue asking for help with blogging.

She’s also written a book which was updated last year: “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; a Step-by-Step Plan for International Students.” I wish it had been available back in 1985 when I first came here as a grad student…


Expats Blog

Finally, at the bottom of the pane you’ll see a link to expatsblog.com. This is a site dedicated to the expat experience with interviews, articles, practical information, and links to some excellent blog posts. A quick glance at today’s front page has interviews with a “small town Texas girl living in Germany,” a French expat living in Saudi Arabia, and a Swiss woman raising her kids in Australia. It’s a fascinating look at the differences that unite us.

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The First Three Days

It’s been an extraordinary three days on the American political scene. I didn’t set out to write a “political” blog but it’s impossible to be a citizen of the USA right now and NOT have something to say about this current political transition. I’ve lived here for just over 30 years, and DT makes my sixth president, but I’ve never seen anything like this.

Numbers and Alternative Facts

First came The Inauguration on Friday. Much has been made of the fact that the crowds on the Mall in Washington were much smaller than those at Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009. This is the comparison photo that’s gone viral.

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Actually, DT’s crowd was more comparable in size to some earlier Republican inaugurations, which just goes to show how much energy and excitement there was around Obama back in 2009. According to politifact.com, crowd estimates for Obama in 2009 stood at about 1.8 million; the crowd at George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001 was about 300,000; and Bill Clinton’s in 1993 drew a crowd of about 800,000. Which puts the 250,000 – 600,000 estimated for DT’s crowds at about par for the course for a not-wildly-popular incoming president.

So, the attendance figures weren’t that exceptional — but the new administration’s reaction to reporting on those numbers certainly was. In one of the most whiny and bad-tempered press conferences I’ve ever seen, the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, on Saturday claimed the turnout was “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period” — something demonstrably false — then went after the media for their ‘misleading’ reporting.

Meanwhile, DT was paying a visit to the CIA headquarters where he said in his speech that the whole “feud” between him and the intelligence community had been created by the media: “They sort of made it sound like I had a ‘feud’ with the intelligence community,” he said. “It is exactly the opposite, and they understand that, too.” [As reported in the New York Times.] Another wild assertion that is demonstrably untrue.

The next day, the various Sunday morning “talking heads” political shows on TV had a field day with all this. But the real eyeopener came on the show “Meet the Press” which is broadcast on the NBC network. DT’s Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway was being interviewed by Chuck Todd; he pushed her repeatedly on the issue of Spicer’s clearly-false statements on Saturday about the size of the inauguration crowds. Conway said that these were not falsehoods: “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

Within hours, “alternative facts” was trending across all social media.

It’s not at all unusual for a new administration to have some hiccups with communication in its early days; no press secretary or spokesperson is seasoned and polished right off the bat. But, to start your new administration by openly attacking the media and accusing everyone else of lying is so staggeringly inept that it defies belief. Fortunately, the collective media do not seem to be taking this lying down — if the major news outlets had gone after DT’s bombastic lies more thoroughly when he was campaigning, we might not be in this mess now.

The Speech

Now let’s rewind for a moment to the inaugural speech itself. It always intrigues me how much pomp-and-circumstance surrounds the start of each new administration here. The contrast with a parliamentary system where governments come and go all the time is striking. (Only the French come close, with their hybrid political system that emphasizes the role of the president, and a love of ceremony and pomp to go with it.)

One of the highlights of the whole thing is the new president’s speech. These are mostly pretty dreadful affairs, full of empty froth about moving forward, with a dose of humble thanks for the previous administration and for ‘all those who helped to get us here.’ God features in there somewhere (this being a country where no political leader can make a major speech without invoking God in some fashion). The whole thing is usually vaguely uplifting and patriotic and utterly forgettable.

Obama’s speech in January 2009 was built around the phrase “A New Birth of Freedom” from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Obama referred to ideals expressed by Lincoln about renewal, continuity and national unity, stressing the need for shared sacrifice and a new sense of responsibility to answer America’s challenges at home and abroad. It was pretty stirring stuff.

Once again, the contrast with DT couldn’t be more stark. Trump’s speech described an utterly dystopian vision of an America of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” where “the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.” He pointed to “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” He also said that the education system is failing our children even though it is “flush with cash” — a description that had all the teachers I know howling in derision. And of course he made the declaration that promptly spawned a myriad of social media memes: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

There were the usual calls for unity (which rang hollow with a resounding clang after the tenor of much of his campaign) and claims that “our country will thrive and prosper again.” But, not only was the overall tone notably bleak, it sounded less like a new leader laying out his vision for the country and more like a campaign speech.

From the tone of this speech to the weekend’s complaints about media bias and the focus on “alternative facts” this is an administration that has yet to grasp the significance of governing or the burden of what it means to lead.

The Women’s March(es)

Which takes us to the final, extraordinary part of the weekend — Saturday’s marches. The numbers are still being tallied, but it appears that at least 3 million “women and allies” demonstrated in cities across the USA on Saturday, literally from Seattle to Miami and all points in between.

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And not one report of violence breaking out; not one arrest. The group of women who organized the march here in Philadelphia were hoping for as many as 20,000 to show up. Saturday afternoon, the mayor’s office put the number at 50,000. I wasn’t able to go but many friends and neighbors went either to Philadelphia or down to Washington DC. They all reported a positive and joyful experience, inclusive and diverse and downright uplifting.

This is the logo that someone came up with for the Philadelphia march. For anyone who doesn’t recognize it, that’s the iconic Liberty Bell, housed here in Philly, with an added women’s symbol.

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These two photos are from the Philadelphia march Facebook page.

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And here’s one final shot of the front page of Sunday morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Many march organizers, including the extraordinary women who set up the one here in Philadelphia, are planning to keep the momentum going. I look forward to what comes next.

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