Philadelphia Bleeds Green!

Americans are huge sports fans, not just the big four sports — baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, and (American) football — but pretty much anything that involves competition. They also love underdogs and stories of teams/players beating-the-odds. Which explains why the greater Philadelphia region has turned resolutely green in support of the football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. (“Football” here is short for “American football” — yes, non-Americans, I know it makes no sense, just go with it for now.)

On January 13, despite being the underdogs, the Eagles beat the Atlanta Falcons, so making it to the coming weekend’s Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings. The winner will go on to the Super Bowl on February 4.

 

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I stopped in at the local supermarket a couple of hours before the game against the Falcons last weekend and found the store full of Eagles-themed stuff, from flags and paper plates to bags of chips (crisps) and cookies (biscuits). The bakery section was full of Eagles goodies. If you wear Eagles gear on an Eagles game day, the supermarket gives you a 5% discount on your total grocery bill. I think every other person in the store that day was wearing an Eagles shirt, hat, or coat (yes, I had an Eagles cap perched on my head).

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At one point, the person who does the announcements over the store speaker (usually something like “attention shoppers, discounts available this week on chicken”) encouraged everyone to do the Eagles chant: E A G L E S, Eagles!!! About half the store enthusiastically joined in. Even the Philadelphia Orchestra got in on the act, with a clip of them playing the Eagles’ fight song all over social media before last week’s game.

 

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Incidentally, the Eagles logo is the only one in the NFL that faces left (the others are either centered or face right). A quick online search suggests it’s because the feathers behind the bird’s head make a stylized capital E; so now you know.

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The Championship game this Sunday, January 21 (kickoff at a 6:40pm local time) will be an even bigger deal. Our school district will encourage kids to wear Eagles gear to school on Friday; teachers and staff can do the same if they put a dollar in the charity envelope.

We have Eagles season tickets, thanks to the Spouse’s passion for the team. I think “bleeding green” is genetic; his late mother was a huge fan and I remember in the late 1980s whenever the team did something dumb on the field, she’d have to leave the room to calm down (yelling at the TV being Not Good for her heart). Firstborn son has inherited the passion. He and his dad came home from the January 13 evening game against the Falcons frozen, exhausted, and jubilant.

They’ll be in the stands again this Sunday evening. And this time, Spouse is frantically trying to find a dog mask to wear to the game. Allow me to explain. The Eagles were dominating the season this year until star quarterback Carson Wentz was badly injured in a game in early December. Without Wentz, analysts assumed the Eagles would lose to the Falcons last week. After the game, two of the players appeared in these dog masks, gleefully calling out the assumption that the Eagles were the underdogs.

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It is now impossible to find one of these masks anywhere in the greater Philadelphia region. They’re even sold out on Amazon (despite the price doubling in the hours after the game against the Falcons) and other online retailers can’t deliver until sometime next week (too late for the Vikings game). The Eagles organization has announced that fans can, indeed, wear the masks into the stadium on Sunday, as long as they take them off to go through the security checkpoint.

All teams have a home field advantage when they play, and that’s particularly true in Philadelphia. Eagles fans are passionate, dedicated, and LOUD. Imagine the stadium on Sunday evening: a sea of green with dog masks everywhere.

Fly, Eagles, Fly!!

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Deep Freeze Update

The word ‘cold’ doesn’t begin to describe it. We got about three inches of snow yesterday morning then the temperature plummeted. As I write this post at midday on Friday it’s warmed up to all of 15 degrees here in southeastern Pennsylvania, with a wind chill of 5 (-9 and -15 in Celsius).

This is the view from the window of my home office. The lacy ice patterns are quite lovely — from this side of the glass.

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The local school was closed yesterday and initially planned to open two hours late this morning; but, at 6:30am we got the alert phone call (and text and email) saying that with the extreme cold and icy roads, school is closed again today. Needless to say, the teenager has yet to emerge from under the covers.

Earlier this week I learned a new weather term: ‘bomb cyclone’ (not as spectacular as it sounds). When a low-pressure rotating storm system, or cyclone, experiences a fast and dramatic drop in pressure, it’s known as ‘bombogenesis’ or ‘bomb cyclone.’ One of those brought the big storm that churned up the coast yesterday and froze everything along the eastern seaboard.

It’s all relative, of course. In Chicago, where we used to live, it’s currently 8 degrees with a wind chill below zero. The only time I remember the Chicago schools closing for severe weather was when the wind chill was below -20, too cold even for hardy midwestern kids to be waiting around for the school bus.

Meanwhile, Florida has been hit with unusually-chilly weather, with temperatures around 40 degrees overnight. There’s a corner of the internet where people are debating what to do about the frozen green iguanas dropping from the trees. I kid you not. Some people are saying “move them into the sunshine!” while others point out that these are wild critters and will bite you if you wake them up. And, others point out that iguanas are not native to Florida, so you should save the ecosystem by letting them freeze; or, take them home to keep as pets. Which is how green iguanas became such pests in parts of Florida to begin with (who knew).

This picture, picked up by a lot of the news sites, sums up Florida this morning.

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Happy Freezing New Year!

Winter arrived with a vengeance a couple of weeks ago in this part of the USA, and it doesn’t look like leaving anytime soon. The temperature has stayed below freezing for days and everyone is huddled in heavy coats, hats, and scarves. Of course, there are parts of the country where it’s been a lot colder for a lot longer: according to weather.com, Minnesota saw a temperature of -45 on Sunday morning (that’s -42.7 Celsius); North Dakota saw out the old year with a wind chill reading of -58; and Chicago enjoyed its coldest New Year’s Day on record with a HIGH of just one degree (that’s -17 Celsius).

A friend who lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, took this picture of his local harbor on New Year’s Eve. Yes, the water is frozen.

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In comparison, our corner of Pennsylvania seems positively mild. December/January temperatures usually hover between 30 and 45, but we’re now on track for the longest deep freeze since at least 2004. The local county issued a Code Blue Declaration on December 25 and has now extended it to January 8. (A Code Blue means the authorities expect the temperature and wind chill to be below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, posing “a threat of serious harm or death to individuals without shelter.”)

The latest forecast shows we might actually nudge up to 32 degrees tomorrow, with snow on Thursday and some epic deep cold on Friday and Saturday. Yesterday, our oldest son (home from college on winter break) went for his five-mile daily run, and as usual, sat on the front step for a few minutes to cool down when he got back. Big mistake. He found chunks of ice in his hair when he came inside; the sweat had literally frozen in his hair. Lovely.

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Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, we’ve had just two snowfalls so far this winter season, both no more than a couple of inches and easily cleared. In most towns and cities, it’s the responsibility of the property owner to make sure the sidewalk is clear of ice and snow. In our town, you have ten hours after the snow stops falling to clear a path 30 inches wide along the sidewalk in front of your property. In the northwestern corner of the state, the town of Erie had five FEET of snow dumped on it over the course of two days on December 25-26. I’m guessing their local authority gave everyone extra time to shovel.

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In our town you can tell when snow is expected because gleaming white streaks appear down the center of the roads: that means the Borough workers have been out brining the streets, spraying salt water to cut down on the ice and snow buildup after a storm. One of the benefits of living in a small town (less than one square mile) is that pretty much every street gets brined in advance and plowed after the snow falls. In contrast, there are side streets in the city of Philadelphia that never see a snow plow all winter.

The neighborhood does look very lovely at this time of year, particularly in the evenings when all the Christmas decorations light up. Almost everyone who celebrates Christmas puts up some kind of decoration, which will start to come down now the season is over. Some go for massive inflatable Santa Claus figures and plastic reindeer, others festoon their house and trees with colored lights. Fortunately, our neighbors go for understated wreaths and white lights; I think the result is very elegant, especially in the snow.

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A few months ago my sister-in-law decided she’d had it with cold weather, and moved to Fort Myers, on the southwestern coast of Florida. Apparently the temperature there will top out at 62 degrees this afternoon (16 Celsius). She’ll probably complain it’s too cold to go to the pool. I may have to stop speaking to her until the spring.

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Squirrel Season in America!

Although the weather is still mild during the daytime, the nights are getting cooler and the first signs of fall (autumn) are cropping up around the neighborhood. One sure sign that the season is changing: the squirrels are in hyperactive mode!

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Squirrels are a constant presence here in the mid-Atlantic suburbs — and, of course, they are all grey squirrels. In the spring and early summer you can hear them chattering and challenging each other across the treetops; in the winter their big nests are easy to spot in the bare tree branches; and in all but the coldest weather, you see them scurrying up and down the trees and dashing across the lawns.

But it’s the fall when they suddenly seem to be everywhere, frantically collecting food supplies and storing them for the winter. There are a lot of oak trees around here and in early October their acorns cascade down in waves, littering the ground with a veritable squirrel banquet of goodies. (If you want to see how high a 60-pound dog can jump, watch what happens when a random acorn drops on her rump as she ambles down the street.)

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I read somewhere that squirrels don’t actually remember where they bury the acorns they collect; they just dig around in the spring and hope to find them again. Which explains at least some of the little saplings that spring up around the edge of the lawn every year.

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Every day for the past two weeks I’ve had to hit the brakes at least once while driving around the neighborhood as some busy little squirrel darts across the street in front of the car.

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I tried to get some pictures around the neighborhood but as I’m usually walking the dog when on foot, the squirrels don’t hang about to get their pictures taken. (The two squirrel pictures here were swiped from a Pinterest board.) But I have managed to snap some of the beautiful fall plants that are now in bloom, mostly deep russet red and bright yellow/orange chrysanthemum.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve heard the squirrels chattering to each other; they all seem to have something stuffed in their mouths as they dash about.

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But I did notice this morning that there was a huge flock of birds at the top of one of the tallest trees on the street, all calling and chirruping to each other and excitedly getting ready to migrate before the winter. (I couldn’t tell what kind of bird they were, the tree was too tall, and I don’t know one bird song from another.) In the next month or so the trees will empty out of at least half of their bird inhabitants and the days will get quieter. Some of the long-term weather forecasters are saying we’re likely to get another mild winter, which would be a huge relief.

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Update from Apocalypse Central

I haven’t written much on here in recent weeks, in large part because each successive news cycle seems to bring some event so devastating that I just don’t know where to start. But first, I should make it clear that all is fine in our cozy little corner of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Here, the most arduous challenge right now is negotiating the thousands of acorns strewn across the sidewalks when out walking the dog. And in a way that makes the recent news all the more dystopian, a feeling that we’re living in a safe bubble while the world around us falls apart.

First came the hurricanes. There’s a season for these every year, a roughly eight-week period when hurricanes are most likely to hit along the eastern side of the continent. Back in August the forecasters were warning that this would be a bad season, with Atlantic waters “unusually warm” and no sign in the Pacific of the periodic El Niño (which tends to temper the eastern storms). They were horribly right.

fullsizeoutput_a95Headline from a Weather Channel online article.

The USA is a migratory country; as people move around from state to state, they leave family and connections scattered across it. Everyone knows someone who knows someone in Texas or Florida, Puerto Rico or Nevada, or wherever the latest apocalyptic event is unfolding. And one of the side effects of being on social media a lot is that I learn about the experiences of an extended web of people, like the friend’s brother who posted pictures of the rising waters around his neighborhood in Houston when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas city in late August.

Then Hurricane Irma pounded into Florida in early September. This one was personal; with an aunt and a cousin on the east coast of the state and a sister-in-law in Fort Myers on the west, I spent two days obsessively updating the Weather Channel radar and hunting down news stories. The sister-in-law decamped to a hotel and her college-age son flew back here to Pennsylvania for a few days after his central-Florida campus was evacuated. Fortunately, even though Irma made landfall right over Fort Myers, their home was unscathed and the power came back on after a couple of days.

But then came Maria. And the contrast between the pace of the recovery effort in Florida and the one in Puerto Rico is mind-numbing.

One of my friends is originally from Puerto Rico and while her immediate family all live around here, her extended family are in San Juan. Two days after the devastation of Maria she’d had confirmation that everyone was OK: “Well,” she said, “everyone’s home is damaged or destroyed but thank God they’re all safe.” She then told me about friends who were frantically trying to find a flight back to the island, to check on family members they’d been unable to reach. Now, it’s been almost three weeks and many are still without power, running water, or basic transportation.

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This is a Reuters wire photo showing some of the devastation.

A few days ago I was at our local FedEx office (a private mailing company) to ship a gift to someone in New York. A young woman came in with a big bag of stuff: “I need to send this to Puerto Rico.”
“Well,” said the agent, “We can ship to the island but not deliver. Your recipients will have to go to the central collection point, do they know that?”
“Yes,” said the young woman wearily, “I’ve been doing this for days now. They know what to do.”

I looked over at the bag she’d placed on the counter: boxes of instant-use cold packs and antiseptic wipes, and cans of spray cleaner. Just imagine the story behind the need for those items. That’s when it really hit me — that in the 21st century 3.5 million citizens of supposedly one of the most advanced countries on the planet were dependent on what distant relatives could send in the post because the federal government just couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get its act together.

A couple of days ago Hurricane Nate came ashore along the border of Louisiana and Mississippi, but without the extreme impacts of its three predecessors there was almost no national news coverage, just some cursory stories about “heavy floods.”

Meanwhile, there was the earthquake in Mexico City on September 19. Not part of the USA but again, many people have family and friends there and there was heavy news coverage. That evening my 17-year old showed me a video shot by one of his young friends who lives in the city: two hours after a practice earthquake drill the sirens had sounded again, this time for real. She’d run outside to safety and caught a video of a building, maybe 4-5 stories tall and a couple of blocks away, that crumpled to the ground in seconds, billowing dust and debris. (The only earthquake I’ve ever experienced was in August 2011 when a 5.8 quake in Virginia sent its ripples across the eastern States. Here, it was just a prolonged rumbling that rattled the dishes in the cabinets and confused the dog but even that was pretty unnerving; a full-blown quake must be one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable.)

And then came Las Vegas. The worst mass shooting in US history, 58 dead and nearly 500 injured. I have a young friend who moved to Vegas last year; she was nowhere near the strip that night but she described the atmosphere in her classroom the next day, trying to find something reassuring to tell her 7-8-year-old students, many with homes just a couple of blocks from the strip. Another friend told me that her husband, a country music fan and gun owner, was weeping in despair as the news unfolded, devastated by his helplessness in the face of this carnage.

A day or two later I caught the tail end of a press briefing where someone in law enforcement said something like ‘we’ll be going back over everything to try to figure out what we missed, so that we can try to stop something like this occurring again.’ Because God forbid that anyone should wonder why a private citizen had amassed a veritable arsenal of powerful weapons in the months before the attack.

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The shooting happened on October 1 and yet already the story seems to have faded from the news cycle — aside from breathless conjecture about the gunman’s motives and what the Mandalay Casino may do with the suite he used. There was a brief flurry of attention to the ‘bump stock’ that the killer used to modify his (perfectly legal) semi-automatic to make it fire like a full-blown automatic. The picture above is from a Reuters wire story on this. And gun control groups tried yet again to say, “This is not normal! We have to do something!” But the media frenzy has already moved on.

Now, the focus has shifted to the wildfires raging across California. Yet more apocalyptic pictures are filling the news feeds; yet more stories of devastation and loss, interspersed with incredible acts of heroism by first responders and by ‘ordinary people’ who have been caught up in something appalling and find themselves acting in ways anything but ordinary. This is just one screenshot from a social media account.

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The firestorms are so bad that the smoke plumes show up in this picture from NASA, taken from the space station.

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And I haven’t even touched on the craziness coming out of this administration. I fear that the constant pounding of dire news, along with the constant cries of “He said WHAT??” in reaction to the latest bile coming from the president, is starting to beat us down. On October 5, at an evening photo op with various military officials, Trump said this was “the calm before the storm.” When a reporter asked, “What storm, Mr. President?” he replied, “You’ll find out.” No-one knew what the hell he meant and the meme-makers had a field day with it on Friday morning. But, where was the outrage? How is this normal?

There’s just so much awful going on that you can’t react any more. Irony has pretty much given up and gone into hiding. This was the front of the New York Times website on October 10. Note the juxtaposition of the two main stories.

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Ever since the election last year, the Spouse has insisted that we’ve somehow crossed over into an alternate universe where everything is out of whack. Like the TV show “Sliders” from the 1990s, he keeps wondering where the wormhole is that will take us back to the relatively-sane universe we’re supposed to live in.

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The Sound of Summer

The heat of summer brings a distinctive sound to the eastern USA — not children playing or lawnmowers thrumming but the incessant shrill buzz of the cicada.

As humans we’re often not aware of the soundscapes that form the background to our lives — we react to particularly loud, unpleasant or evocative noises but tend to tune out the quieter waves of sound that can vary so much from place to place. Case in point: the sound of cicadas. While walking the dog this morning I found myself unexpectedly “tuning in” to a sound I’d never heard until I came to the US — the high-pitched whine that you hear everywhere outside the city throughout June-September, and most especially in August. The sound rises to an incredible crescendo around 9:00pm after a particularly hot/humid day, when the crickets join in.

(Click on the above link if you’ve never heard the sound. As cicadas aren’t exactly photogenic, I’ll illustrate the rest of this post with pictures I took of neighbors’ gardens showing off their summer colors.)

Cicadas — Magicicada periodical cicada to use the scientific name — are downright weird. Deposited as eggs in trees, the ant-sized young fall to the ground, burrow down near tree roots, and stay there for anywhere from one to 17 years. Yes, 17. The entire brood eventually reemerges at the same time, with ground temperature playing a key role in the cycle. The nymphs hike up the nearest tree, shed their exoskeleton, grow wings and (in the case of the males) start making a racket to find a mate. Apparently, the males have organs on their abdomen called tymbals. Muscles pop the tymbals in and out, which creates the distinctive cicada shriek, with different species having different sounds. (Yes, I looked all this up; the internet is a wonderful thing.)

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Cicadas are harmless, don’t fly very fast, and aren’t particularly destructive to human crops or plants. So, most of the time, we don’t really notice them; unless there’s a particularly big swarm, in which case there can be quite a few exoskeleton husks littering the patio or the sidewalk every morning.

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While reading up on cicadas before writing this, I found out that many of the big 17-year Swarm X (as in Roman numeral ten) appears to be emerging four years early this summer. Scientists’ best guess is that global warming is leading to longer periods of ground temperatures above 64 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the grubs to grow faster and emerge sooner. We won’t know if this is a permanent change that will lead to the development of a whole new brood, until another 13-17 years have passed. Either way, they’ve certainly been noisy the past few weeks.

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On the other hand, I see the other summer noisemaker, crickets, far too often. Especially in our basement. People in the neighborhood claim that crickets are prevalent around here because there used to be a cherry tree orchard in the area; as that would have been 100-odd years ago, it doesn’t seem likely. Whatever their origin, I’ve found out over the years that the best way to get rid of them is to lay out strips of sticky tape, particularly duct tape. They jump on and can’t jump off. Sounds cruel, I know, but anything that looks that much like a large jumping spider deserves whatever it gets.

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Still, the sound of cicadas and crickets calling out their presence every evening is a reminder of just how much life is lurking out there in the quiet gardens of suburbia.

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Tipping in America

What’s with Americans and tipping? It’s one of the odd little quirks about this country that I still find baffling. You’re expected to tip not just the restaurant server but the guy at the bar, the hairdresser, the cab driver, the hotel porter (actually, everyone you encounter who works in a hotel); even the garbage workers and newspaper deliverers leave envelopes for “holiday tips” in December.

fullsizeoutput_a31Tipping is totally embedded in pretty much any service interaction here. The standard at a restaurant is 15%, with more for “good” service. If you’re paying by credit card, there will be a line at the bottom of your bill (which is called, confusingly, the check) for you to add the tip. Some places even have handy little calculators printed at the bottom of the credit card slip to help you figure out what 15-20% of your bill comes to.

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If you go to use the credit card machine in a cab, they usually now include a stage in the process where you stipulate the size of tip you want to add (and in my experience this defaults to 20-25%, which can feel downright extortionate — unless you’re traveling on the corporate expense account in which case, why not?!)

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The only time I ever got a tip when working in the UK was when I was a student and working part-time in a big London department store, as a server at an “American Style Ice Cream Counter” (yes, really, the irony does not escape me). A young mother who spoke little English stopped by with her son, who gleefully pointed to the biggest sundae on the menu, a colorful concoction that cost about 3 pounds and came complete with red-white-and-blue sugar sprinkles and a little American flag decoration. When she gave me a 20 pound tip I assumed she’d made a mistake and tried to explain that this was too much, but she laughed and insisted, indicating that I had a nice smile and had made her son very happy. Needless to say, that 20 quid went right into my pocket, not into the near-empty shared jar where we were supposed to put any meager “tips” we received. (It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that a woman who appeared Arab, judging by her clothing and head scarf, may not have been used to getting friendly service in 1984 London, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, back to the States: why is tipping so prevalent in this country? Are Americans such generous people that they’re willing to fork over extra cash to anyone who does a good job? Well, no, not exactly. Some cursory online research suggests tipping actually took off in this country during Prohibition — definitely not one of America’s finer moments — when bar owners struggling to make any money encouraged tipping to help their beleaguered staff makes ends meet. Whatever the origin, it’s now actually enshrined in the labor laws in many states; which means that businesses are allowed to pay their staff less than the state minimum wage in jobs deemed to be partially-dependent on tips for their pay.

Given that most wait-staff in most restaurants work incredibly long hours for very little money already, this can be downright exploitative: “It’s not my fault you didn’t take home much money tonight, you should’ve worked harder and gotten bigger tips.” It also means the wait-staff take the brunt of any kitchen screw-ups that leave the punters less than happy. Doubtless restaurant owners will claim they couldn’t afford to stay open if they had to pay all the staff minimum wage, but I find this hard to (pardon the pun) swallow. If paying your workers minimum wage means you can’t stay open, then there’s something very wrong with your whole business model. And I can’t be the only person who would go out of their way to patronize any establishment where tipping was off the menu.

Either way, for Americans it’s automatic. So what happens if you fail to tip appropriately? The first (and only!) time I was guilty of this was not long after I first came to the States. Then-boyfriend and I were at a club waiting for the band to start up (Gil Scott Heron, I think). It was one of those places where you sit at a little table in the smoky darkness and a waitress brings your drinks. The young woman told me the total and I carefully gave her the exact amount, thinking I’d made life easier for her by not forcing her to scramble to find change. I got the iciest glare imaginable as she stalked off; the boyfriend recoiled in horror and hissed, “Why didn’t you tip her?” He then explained about the 15% rule and I just about passed out from shame. When the same waitress grudgingly delivered a second drinks order sometime later, I over tipped so massively out of embarrassment that I think our table got the best service for the rest of the evening.

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Such moments make the whole tipping expectation excruciating for a Brit. We absolutely cannot bear to Do The Wrong Thing in public. So I still go into paroxysms of anxiety every time I go to get my hair cut, take a cab, or have a porter carry the bags to a hotel room. And probably continue to over tip massively as a result.

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