Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Americans love any excuse to play dress-up-and-party, and today’s the day everyone wears green. Yes, it’s St. Patrick’s Day in America, which means everyone claims Irish ancestry, wears silly shamrock hats and ties, and goes around butchering the pronunciation of Éirinn go Brách.

It seemed absurd to me at first — most of these people could barely find Éire on a map — but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Odds are, particularly if you live in a big city, that a good chunk of the people you meet have one or more grand- or great-grandparents who hailed from the Emerald Isle. It’s one of the most common ethnic ancestries of all Americans, just behind German and African. Philadelphia has the second-largest Irish-descended population at 13% of residents (Boston is first at 15.8%). And, for the 34.5 million Americans who claim some Irish ancestry, there’s often a tale of bitter hardship involved, along with overcoming incredible odds, and a sheer determination to succeed. I think that’s a large part of the reason why everyone here seems to embrace St. Patrick’s Day — the story of the Irish is a quintessentially American one.

You could spend the day grumbling that this is an appalling pastiche of a noble people, that the emphasis on booze and hijinks plays into the worst cultural stereotypes, and that St. Patrick himself was probably born in England and anyway would likely be appalled at the commercialization of his name. But that would be churlish. Frankly, it’s just way more fun to give in and enjoy the crazy.

Most of what passes for beer in the U.S. is pretty disgusting anyway, so why not drink it green?


Is there anything more bizarrely American — the ultimate cultural mishmash — than a green bagel?



Whoever runs the social media for the Philadelphia police department does seem to enjoy his/her job. And in case you’re wondering, the Shamrock shake is a McDonald’s thing, a limited-time offering every year (proceeds go to the Ronald McDonald charity network). They reportedly taste like a mild vanilla milkshake with a hint of mint. Strangely, I’ve never had the desire to try one.



And the biggest and brashest St. Patrick’s day stunt of all? My vote goes to Chicago, which really does dye the river green every year, on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.


It started in 1962 when some stunt-inclined pollution-control workers, who habitually used chemical dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges, thought it would be fun to dump 100 pounds of dye into the river. The river stayed green for a week. But everyone agreed this was great fun, and it’s been done ever since — except now they use more environmentally friendly powdered, vegetable-based dye that only makes the river green for a few hours.

So, I’ll drink the god-awful beer, laugh at the variety of green foods and clothes, and thoroughly enjoy living in such a gloriously diverse country.


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Teenage Language

Parents and teenagers speak different languages. ’Twas ever thus; but when your teenager is growing up in a different country from your own background, it can add another layer of mutual incomprehension.

Usually, it’s the parents who have no idea what their children are saying, but in our household it’s just as likely to go the other way around. There’s the obvious language difference, when I confuse my sons with words like “anticlockwise” or “the car boot” (see Divided By a Common Language). And then there’s also the history difference, too. I remember my sons being baffled by the opening scenes of the Chronicles of Narnia movie a few years ago — a mother and children racing to get to the air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden, followed by the trauma of the children being sent on a train to live with a stranger far away. They’d never heard of the blitz or the mass evacuation of children from London.

Getting back to the teenage-language thing. More interesting (at least, to me) are the phrases and slang of the young, that pop up in everyday use. I have no idea if these words are specific to American youth or are more-or-less universal. A couple of years ago there was “squad goals” and before that calling stuff “dope” (nothing to do with drugs per se). Which brings me to two recent examples.

The first came a couple of weeks ago, when I asked the resident teenager, “What does it mean to say a person or thing is ‘woke’?” He laughed so long and hard that it was a full two minutes before he was able, breathlessly, to attempt an answer: apparently, it means aware, fully clued in on the latest issues of our day, and “not falling for any bullshit.”

Did anyone catch this photo that went viral after the women’s marches in January? #wokebaby


A quick google search shows a strong case for “woke” being derived from African American vernacular, giving the term an overlay of awareness of social injustice.

A few days later I asked the same teenager about the word ‘fleek.’ More riotous laughter. “Mom, it’s ON fleek.” “OK, but I still don’t know what it means.” “Like, on point, styled just right, sharp.” (Again, Google hints at an African-American origin for the phrase.)

Got it. So now I’m curious: does anyone know if these two expressions are U.S.-specific? Given the ubiquity of American pop culture, I’m guessing they’re heard by baffled parents in other countries, too?

I like to think that my English accent gives me a bit of a pass with my sons and their friends — so when I say something ‘old’ it comes across as ‘quaint’ rather than ‘hopeless’. But maybe I’m deluding myself.

Either way, for an interesting take on memes, on fleek, and race (because this is America and, yes, many many things boil down to race) check out this Wired article from a few days ago: Want to Profit Off Your Meme? Good Luck if You Aren’t White



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College Mail Deluge

While the weather continues to be absurdly changeable, there is one constant in our life at the moment: the deluge of mail coming into the house every day from colleges all over the USA.

Our youngest is a junior in high school (one more year until he graduates). This means that he will be applying to college in a few months’ time — bearing in mind that when Americans say “college,” or sometimes even “school,” they mean university, not the last two years of  high school-level education.

With undergraduate tuition running at anywhere from $10,000 a year for a state-run institution, to $50,000+ for the elite private universities (and yes, that’s just tuition, not including minor details like a roof over their heads, food, books, etc.), college is seriously big business over here. No wonder, then, that the various institutions start targeting students months before the autumn application round starts.


This is just a selection of what’s arrived the past couple of days — many of them places I didn’t even know existed until the brochures arrived. Do you want a small, liberal arts college nestled in the countryside? A large institution with a reputation for serious research, in the heart of a big city? How about a massive campus that’s a world unto itself? The sheer range of options is overwhelming. And they all look wonderful! Every single one seems to tout its diverse student body, range of extracurricular clubs in the sports and the arts, challenging coursework, opportunities for summer programs/travel abroad/internships, etc.

Williams, in Massachusetts (annual tuition $48,000), sent an entire 20-page chapbook, full of glossy pictures extolling its many virtues.


There is no limit on how many places you can apply to — except the hassle of writing application essays, and the fact that every single one charges an application fee (anywhere from $45 to $90).

Many eons ago, when I was going through this in the UK, the system was simple: you got to choose up to six institutions and courses through UCCA (the University Central Council on Admissions, now called UCAS). You ranked those six in order. Maybe you’d visit a couple of the places beforehand, to make sure they really offered what you wanted, and maybe one or two would want to interview you in person before deciding if they’d offer you a place. That offer of a place was based on your expected A-level results (such as, “we’ll take you if you get two A-grades and one B-grade”). Then, you’d bite your nails waiting for the A-level exam results in late-August that would determine where you ended up.

Doubtless the system in the UK has changed in the decades since then, but I can’t imagine it’s anything like the American version?

So, all of this means that, like many middle-class suburban parents, we’ll be spending a good chunk of the summer on college visits. Something of a right-of-passage road trip for many families, when slightly shell-shocked parents find themselves tramping around endless campuses and sitting through “welcome to xyz!” presentations in halls and meeting rooms, dazedly wondering (a) when the toddler suddenly became a college-bound near-adult, and (b) how the hell they’re going to pay for all this.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a neighborhood with a really “good” school system — and part of this is the extent to which the high school kids are plugged into the world of opportunity beyond the local borders. Their grades, preliminary test results, interests, and ambitions get entered into the online system that the universities tap into, looking for prospective students. Hence, the daily mail deluge.

But, if you’re a poorer student, perhaps in a struggling inner-city or rural school system that doesn’t have access to these kinds of resources? Many of the more expensive universities now make a point of offering all of their financial aid in the form of grants, not loans — so, theoretically, a kid from a poorer family could get a free ride all the way through at, say, Princeton. But, if you’re not already “in the system” in some way, odds are, all those lovely colleges don’t even know you exist.


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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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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