A Ramble on the differences in College Education, Father & Son Trips, and the evils of Drinking

One of the things about getting older is that you develop a tendency to reminisce. And my trip to New Orleans with our Jake was a time of many old man’s moments.


As an impending High School Graduate, Jake is about go through a classic American “coming of age” experience. But first we needed to work out what he would do next, and since he didn’t fancy going to work in MacDonald’s, we were coming to the end of a very long winded, and, to an Englishman, bizarre process. It was time to choose a College (sorry University).

I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but I have great memories of the process I went through in 1970 to choose a University fitting to my talents. Please bear in mind that my school thought I was a waster who could never deliver on his potential, “could try harder” was my middle name as far as the Wyggeston Boys Grammar School was concerned. But I set my sights high, and applied to 6 “red brick” Universities. To those who don’t understand that phrase, they were all young, based in city centres, and majorly built out of red bricks in the post Victorian era. Big, social places, but older than the comparable American institutions.

I went to Newcastle, Manchester, London, and most significantly, Leeds. Yes, I went on my own, on the train, but these are two issues that don’t happen in modern day middle class America. The parents haunt their poor children through this process in America.

In America, there is choice in everything. In most areas of life choice is a fabulous thing, but trying to work out where to apply to go to College is very confusing, particularly since there are 4,000 to choose from. In England there are 139, with a few more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For those that don’t know, there are around 5 times as many people in the US as there are in Great Britain, what on earth is going on? In February 2005, USA Today reported that 64 percent of high school graduates go to college, but in the UK, only 45% of school leavers go to University.

New Orleans

New Orleans

It is all quite different in many subtle ways in America, not least because if you can afford it, anyone can find a college that will take them. And then there are abundant sports scholarships, a concept that really doesn’t exist in Europe. The economics are totally different to Europe, US colleges charge up to $70,000 a year (£40,000), and all US courses are 4 years long (most courses in the UK are 3 years). I’ll give you my cynical explanation of this issue, they just don’t teach American kids to a high enough standard in the High School system, so the first college year is mainly teaching them the basics that they missed earlier on. Like reading, and writing, and yes, even arithmetic.

But this is also one of the key benefits of the US system, how many of us in the UK have chosen a degree course at the age of 17, and then been stuck with it. For instance, my father made me do Maths, “those computer things are a passing fad”. A great visionary my dear old Dad.

So Jake has theoretically applied to do Economics and History, but in his first two years he can chose whatever courses he likes. There are certain rules, he has to do a science as well as a liberal arts. But the variety is just fantastic, he needs to pass the courses, but he can change his mind on his direction many times, and most of the students do.

I got diverted from our road trip, and an old man’s memories.

Tulane University

Tulane University

Jake and I rolled in to New Orleans, not his first choice, but they had offered him a scholarship of $30k per annum. A pretty hefty bribe, but I promised not to try and sell the place too hard.

Tulane University sits 5 miles from the centre of New Orleans. It is beautiful, very low rise, full of green spaces, but something struck me as strange. I turned to Jake, “do you think the amount of females is uncommon?” A quick internet search showed that there are 25% more girls than blokes, and it was 28C, in April. We both loved it.

We wandered around New Orleans, which is old with great character from its French and Spanish colonial days. But it has a high crime rate, which puts many American middle class parents off. We had a great time, we saw kids playing in jazz bands on street corners, and even managed to creep past a few bouncers to watch some really great bands.


Which brings me to the differences, what do I remember of my exploration trip to Leeds University 44 years ago?

Well I think you should make the key decisions in your life very logically, weigh up your priorities, evaluate the evidence, and then reach the proper solution. And in 1970 I decided I needed to go to Leeds University because they had just opened the largest bar I had ever seen.

Which is the funniest thing, because in Tulane, of course, they have no bars. I have to admire my son in many ways, but one of the obvious ones is that he has chosen to go to College, sorry University, in the US. He has foregone what most of us English folks remember most about our University life, drinking.

And what is the other key issue? It is about getting away from your parents and starting to grow up, something that many Americans just don’t get. I remember my first week at college (university), it was great. Yes, there was drinking, but most of all there was freedom. In the US, 50% of kids have their parents tagging along for the orientation week.

Wild Music - Cajun Style

Wild Music – Cajun Style

Times do change, Jake is so much more mature than I was at his age. I had hair down to my shoulders, horn rim glasses, and an obsession with Monty Python. Yes, quite a change. And above all else, how did I feel after our trip to visit the place where Jake will spend his next 4 years?

Jealous, oh how I wish I could be enjoying that life, even without the drinking.

Did I mention drink too many times in this ramble? But I would give up drink to go back and enjoy it all over again, and in America, as always, they do the rest of it so very well. Welcome to New Orleans Jake, a truly great place, you will have a wonderful time.

An Englishman’s Blog from America – Happy Holidays & Breakages that Occur to Old Men

Happy Holidays.
One thing I can never get used to in America is their strange aversion to calling Christmas by its real name. Happy Christmas.

Xmas Decorations - very Ironic

Xmas Decorations – very Ironic

As I have commented on before, the incidence of church going in this fine country is enormously different to the UK. There are more Christian churches within 3 miles of our house than in the whole of most counties in England. One of these days I am going to do a survey of churches in the area, but I still haven’t summoned up enough courage to blog on that subject yet.
My very knowledgeable son tells me this strange behavior is due to “the separation of church from state”. Apparently the constitution mandates that there is no governmental acknowledgment that we have just celebrated a day on which the majority of the population think that their God’s son was born.
Most people in the US don’t say Merry Xmas, and there is no Boxing Day holiday the day after. Strange though it might seem, in America there is no celebration of the day when the upper classes in England used to give their servants their annual present. Somehow, that tradition got lost during the American Revolution.

We started our holiday with a trip into the mountains. One of the key benefits of living in Denver is that the trip from our house to the car park by the ski lifts at Breckenridge took less than two hours. The other benefit, particularly to a poor skier like me, is that the slopes are wonderful. The pistes are wide, the snow is lovely, and there is no ice to scare me to death.
I mean that there is no ice on the slopes, obviously there is always far too much ice in the drinks.

Expert Skiers

Expert Skiers

As a very poor skier, this is the place to practice falling over. When this happens in the Alps, the snow boarders spray snow in your face, and the kids use you as a ski jump. In America, when the inevitable happens to me the whole slope stops, and several people try and help you up. And they don’t even push in at the lifts.

However, the highlight of my Xmas was not my visit to the Emergency Ward.
Now let’s be clear, arriving at ER at 5 past midnight on Xmas morning in the UK would be an exercise in painful patience, as one waited for 3 or 4 hours for the drunks to be processed. I was processed and in a bed within 10 minutes.
I will skate over the procedure to return my arm into the proper configuration, but put it this way, I was a lot more sober than my wife by the time they got my shoulder back in one piece. The only delay, was waiting for them to wheel over the portable x-ray device over, and develop the pictures. Twice, without even moving me. The whole process took two hours, and everyone was very pleasant, and extremely professional.
The only problem was finding dear Heather as she wandered around the hospital, so she could pay for our part of the costs. We have an excellent insurance policy, one of the best money can buy, but we still had to process a credit card charge for $250 before they would let me out. The insurance company will have paid over $2,000.
My feelings about this issue are a bit complicated, who would wish they had waited 4 hours instead of 10 minutes? But with the issue of “Obama care” in the news every day, I keep asking the same question….what happens to the 44 million Americans who don’t have health insurance cover?

An Old Man

An Old Man

But I have an admission to make. I didn’t injure myself on the ski slopes, I fell over in my neighbours’ garden while staggering home from a few drinks.
I have promised not to sue the neighbours, that probably proves I have little chance of turning into an American.

However, I did fall off the first ski lift we got on.

Happy holidays. Despite being an old man with only one working arm, I had a great Xmas with family and friends.

We are all looking forward to our second calendar year in the America, it is a fascinating country, with lovely people, but really quite different.

An Englishman’s Blog – Life in the US – on being a Road Warrior

Great excitement tonight as I check in to yet another American hotel. Because today I am….wait for it……the Marriott Houston North “Guest of the Day”. I eagerly ask the nice lady on the desk if the prize is a lovely bottle of wine. She smiles……I have won an “amenity”, which is in my room, which now has a super executive bed, presumably approximately the size of a small European country.

I open the door, and there is the ice bucket, one glass chilling. And a bottle of water and a bag of nuts. Life on the road is a series of disappointments. I have shared my room with cockroaches, caught scabies, and struggled to find the bathroom in the middle of the night many many times. A continuous roll call of different hotels is no place for a man with a dodgy prostate like mine.

The Prize

The Prize

Selling in America is different, a respected profession, unlike in Europe. I always used to ask new salesmen what they answered to the most boring of pub questions “what do you do for a living?” In summary, in Europe, I would tell them that if you want to pull, never say you are a salesman.

Selling is a dirty word in the UK, but in the US there is real pride in being a Road Warrior.

As I have perhaps said before, the key thing to understand about America is that it is vast. Flying coast to coast takes over 5 hours. From my home in Oxford I can drive to anywhere in England in far less, well anywhere you would want to go on business. Customer visits in the UK might mean an overnight stay, but in America you have to arrange several adjacent meetings, or else the time spent travelling and the costs involved make it all too prohibitive.

The Oldest Restaurant in Colorado

The Oldest Restaurant in Colorado

But being on the road every other week has its frustrations, and you certainly have to have a calm disposition. You rely on certain routines and methods. And queuing.
For those who know me well, this will have produced a snort of derision. Ward and patient queuing, what a laugh.

But business travel is a series of quiet bits between queues. I have even had to change my age old passion for being the last one on board the plane. My reasoning has always been simple, why sit in an uncomfortable seat when you can be nice & relaxed in the airport bar? My long suffering wife will recall when I have got this slightly wrong…….”last call for Mr & Mrs Ward”. But my line is simple, “they have our bags, they won’t take off without us”.

However, in America you are forced to try and get on first. The problem lies in getting all your travel needs in to a suitcase which you can “carry on”. But most of these aircraft do not have enough overhead locker space, a major design fault you might say, and so you fight to get on as early as possible. My excitement last month was gaining “silver status” on United, which meant I can now jump the queue, and board in group 2, only slightly behind the weak, the sick, and the very blessed.

No longer for me the humiliation of the dreaded “gate check”, as my bag is dragged off me and put in the hold. I am now a true Road Warrior.
There are other rules of the road. I never put anything in a drawer, this limits the opportunity for an old man to leave things behind.
And I print out all essential bookings, there will be an argument or a mistake at some stage of every trip. Last week it was my side kick Vrinder who booked rooms for both of us, but managed to book for a week later. Paper still works best, it saved us being ejected from the Sheraton.
Lots of people use boarding passes on their iPhones, but the first time I saw one rejected I knew this development isn’t for me. No point in queuing at security to only have to go back to queue at the check in kiosk and then re-enter security. I know best, I am a Road Warrior.

The Star Spangled Banner - Sung before every Sports Game

The Star Spangled Banner – Sung before every Sports Game

But things do go wrong. Last month in Michigan, I keyed Detroit airport into Apple Maps on the iPhone, and the nice man guided me along politely. I was cruising, I had plenty of time, it had only taken me an hour to get to the hotel the previous day. But with Sat Nav (sorry GPS), you just don’t pay attention to your route like we did in the good old days of maps.
After 50 minutes I noticed that I was driving into a poorer area. The houses were literally falling down, in fact many were ruins. With the financial collapse of Detroit, many houses are worthless, and areas have been deserted, and I now found myself in such an area. And one thing I know, American airports are NEVER in poor run down areas. I locked the car doors.
Pulling off the road into an abandoned gas station I checked the man on the phone. Yes, he was sending me to the wrong airport, in fact it appears that this had also been abandoned.
So back to good old Google maps, and a very hairy drive back in the opposite direction meant I caught the flight by minutes. Don’t do business travel if you are easily stressed.
I have now visited 24 states of the Union in the last 18 months, and the differences are amazing to a foreigner. The accents are very different, the ethnic mix can be very different, and the politics veers, but are always right of what Europe calls center (sorry centre).

Sunset in Colorado

Sunset in Colorado

In Colorado cars stop to let you cross the road, in New York or Washington DC, they will speed up to try and scare you out of their way.
In Texas everything is big and loud, but in Seattle they are probably the most quiet and polite people you can meet.
But above all else I am continuously struck by the way they greet me. They all love the English.
The stereo-typical conversation yesterday was about wanting to meet Prince Harry, they are obsessed by the Royal Family. I didn’t laugh, she seemed like such a nice lady.

So my life as a Road Warrior is always lively. I dress in a white shirt, and dark suit, every bit the English gentleman. Please don’t laugh, it works.
And I try and survive the life of a Road Warrior. My record trip was 12 days, 8 hotels, 6 airports, 8 states and 4 different rental cars. I have met many interesting people, but I am obsessed with stupid things, like collecting hotel and airline points that I will never spend.

The most ridiculous thing I have done? Probably booking a flight for the evening rather than the morning.
In my defense, please bear in mind that America has a very strange fixation with the old 12 hour clock. The only people here who use the 24 hour clock are the military, and they use it for a reason, it is more reliable. Even I couldn’t possibly get 9.00 and 21.00 confused.
And so I would rather be at home, or down the pub. Or spending time with my family. But I am a Road warrior, a very old Road Warrior, but I am pretty good at it.
Can I lie down now please nurse?

Another day another city

Another day another city

Blog – the most powerful country in the world can’t write a cheque (some quite long reflections on the crisis, and some personal reminiscences)

It is an interesting time to be a foreigner in America. This week the government was shut down, and the largest economy in the world got within a few hours of running out of money.

Proud of the Flag

At least that’s how it got painted, in reality, it wasn’t quite like that. But, as one of the many politicians put it, “you wouldn’t run a corner shop this way”. I thought that was a very British thing to say (but I have to admit he didn’t actually use the adjective corner).

One of the reason it resonates so much with me is that I am also financially un-clean. Sixty one years of age, over the last 40 years in the UK I have possessed every credit card in existence. I still remember with great joy the day I finally came to possess an Amex Gold Card, and that was over 30 years ago. Credit card companies in the UK fell over themselves to stuff plastic into my hand, and yes, too often I succumbed to their weasel words. In other words, I am viewed in the UK as no credit risk at all. In the US things are very different, and after 12 months absolutely no-one will give me a US based credit card.

But back to more important matters, and a few weeks ago in Washington DC the right wing of the Republicans, known as the Tea Party, had a bright idea. They really didn’t like the way it was all going, the Government got in the way too much, spent far too much money, and in particular these proud nationalists wanted to rid the world of Obama Care. Which I am sure you all know is America’s fairly basic attempt to put some form of health insurance within reach of the 45m who don’t currently have it. These folk who would figuratively dump the tea in the harbor are an interesting bunch. They are concentrated in certain states, they certainly are not poor, but they are very noisy. I should explain to English readers that America has an interesting parliamentary system, based on three tiers, who need to work together to get laws passed.

At the top is the President, and as you all know Mr Obama is a Democrat, described as a communist by many Americans, but in UK terms he is slightly to the right of the current UK Conservative party. But he has an agenda, yesterday he announced that following up his success in this battle, he next wants to legalise 12m illegal aliens. He obviously likes a fight. Then below the President you have two houses of congress, the upper house, the Senate (which is currently Democratic as well), and the lower one, the House of Representatives, known as the House.

The Waterboys Live in Boulder

The Waterboys Live in Boulder

The problem is that, unlike in the UK, the elected members (including the President) go through the democratic process separately, often at separate times, and so politically they get out of alignment.

At this point I have to admit that it is a bit rich for an Englishman to lecture anyone on democracy. Our second legislative house is inhabited by cronies of the political elite, and is completely unelected. Our head of state is a queen, and you can’t get much more daft than that, but strangely enough it does work. Most of the time.

In America, the House is now Republican, and they are sticking their heels in and picking a fight over the size of the budget. America owes $16trillion, and everyone agrees something needs to be done, but the President is not giving up on his health care reforms, and so the current fight began. Obama Care was passed through both houses, and effectively Obama has won two elections on this platform, but the reality is that some Republicans would go to any lengths to repeal it.

The key issue is, that political parties in the US do not hang together as one entity like they do MOST of the time in the UK. And despite their leaders’ wrath, the Tea Party faithful thought they could threaten to bring about the end of the financial world as we know it, and thus hold the country to blackmail, but they misjudged the mood of the country. Obama wasn’t going to budge, the majority of America didn’t like what they were doing, and the game was up. No Tea spilling, and no welcoming light in the harbour.

78000 in the Broncos Stadium

78000 in the Broncos Stadium

I guess that a period of 2 weeks when Government employees weren’t paid isn’t that significant. I suspect the average American is far more embarrassed than is warranted, and the rest of the world outside of the financial and political circles didn’t really notice. But the real problem is, what happens next? There are around 435 elected members of the house, of which 230 are Republicans. The problem with this system is that they must put themselves up for re-election every two years, and so they are always looking towards the electorate. This is a good thing in some ways, they are called the House of Representatives, they represent their people, but the problem is the way it influences their behaviour.

There are probably only 40 Tea Party affiliated members of the House, but many others are under threat of de-selection. Unlike in the UK, these elections have “primaries”, ie the sitting candidate is rolled out against challengers before he has to fight the real opposition. And the Tea Party has money, lots of money, to spend on campaigns to oust the Republicans that they feel are not voting their way.

This is certainly not democratic, it is driven by money, and it feeds a widening gulf in American society. Around 50m Americans survive on food stamps, and about 30% of households receive some form of social benefit. Before the last election Romney (the losing Republican) said that 47% of Americans were dependent on Government handouts. As the outsider, I have to believe this gulf between the Tea Party and the majority can only get wider.

Snow in October - but then the sun comes out

Snow in October – but then the sun comes out

However, all of this palaver this week has been a personal inspiration, and I have finally come up with a solution to my own cash problems. I am going to put $1000 on a 3 legged accumulator……the politicians to be back sitting on their fiscal cliff next February, a Government shutdown of at least 4 weeks next time, and Senator Cruz (the new Tea Party star) to lose the next Presidential election to Mrs Clinton.

I love capitalism, isn’t it great?

And my memories of Amex, well they are a bit clouded. One day in around 1984 the Lloyds Bank manager called me in to his lair. I remember it well. I smiled at him, he was an old grey haired man, sitting in a wood paneled right on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road room. He then explained, in a very aggressive manner, that he expected me to pay back the money I owed on the Gold card immediately. I learnt my lesson, I went over the road to the Globe and had a warm pint, and turned over a new leaf.

Yeh, right, just like the US government has. This must be why I love America so much.

Time Flies – it’s 12 Months now

They say time flies when you are happy, so we must have enjoyed our 12 months as foreigners in America.
I sat the family down last night to celebrate 12 months in Denver, and asked them for their highlights. Ben at 13 wasn’t impressed. 3 road trips was all he could recall – 3 road trips, do they know how lucky they are?
It’s hard to top an American Road Trip, 2000 miles, dodgy hotels, fantastic sights. My most memorable sight was probably at the Grand Canyon. No, not the “big hole in the ground” as Jake called it. I am referring to the lady pushing her dog round the rim of the canyon in a pram. Americans really love dogs.
My favourite thing in America? Undoubtedly the service.
It is difficult to explain the service one expects in a London pub to the majority of Americans, bearing in mind most haven’t made it to Europe. In fact, some don’t even make it out of their State. But no American could comprehend the way that food gets thrown at you in pubs in London or the way barmen insult you all over the UK. In America, service is wonderful almost everywhere.
The maddest thing we have done? Well we started very strongly in the “stupid Englishman” stakes, pushing 16 large suitcases, our entire possessions, across the vast spaces of Dallas airport. That was one connection too many, who on ever thought that was a good money saving idea?
Americans are obsessed with cars, every kid in Jake’s class of 17 year olds have a car (apart from him poor boy). So is there a correlation between the standard of driving and the standard of the test? Our Colorado test record so far is 10 minutes, with no engagement of reverse gear. And the examiner was the driving instructor. Yep, that proves it.
Of course the biggest difference between the UK and the US is the role of the church. I am warming up to this one, I am just starting a mapping project to work out exactly how many churches there are in our area. But there are certainly over 8 in a 3 mile radius. And most people go to church on a Sunday (or Saturday), whilst the church plays such a small part in life in the UK. One I need to explore.
Regular readers will be waiting for my continuous rant about guns, and I have to report that I am working hard to get to the bottom of this, the most illogical of issues. I am now consuming literature about the American Revolution, and taking training from a student of American history, our Jake. There has to be links to the pioneer spirit, and to the way the settlers over threw us English, fed up with “taxation without representation”. The “right to bear arms” in the constitution certainly comes from their fear of invasion, and there are many in places like Texas who still believe that their guns are required to ward off the forces of the hated Federal Government. Yes, it sounds idiotic, but they believe it.
I obviously got off to a bad start with my neighbours, middle class Americans are lovely people, but they do need their personal space. Consequently I no longer kiss acquaintances, in fact, there are only 2 American ladies who I kiss hello and goodbye, and their husbands have promised not to shoot me. I have always realized that the majority of the inhabitants of this fine land will never get the sarcasm and cynicism (let alone tactility) that makes up an average Englishman, but despite all this, we have made good friends here.
I still think Healthcare systems in this country are absurd. It makes no sense in a Capitalist society to be paying twice as much per head to target a life expectancy that is over 3 years less than our own. The sugar content of foods is unbearably high for our English palates and we are still embarrassed to see people out and about with oxygen tanks despite it being a regular sight.
The weather in Colorado is lovely. Over 300 sunny days makes one so much happier. It rained this month for a week, which no-one had seen before, and therefore very ill prepared for. Like having the “wrong leaves” on the train tracks. However despite all the scientific reports, only 42% of Americans believe in the concept of global warming, and considerably less believe something should be done about it. The reason, and the biggest problem in American society is the role of “interest groups”. Whether it is the oil lobby, the NRA (National Rifle Association), or the vast Health industry, the amounts they spend on influencing opinion, and buying politicians is enormous. They now want to scrap the $123,200 limit on how much one individual can donate to a candidate.
US government is once again within 3 weeks of running out of funds, because the two parties can’t work out a compromise. All politics in Europe is a compromise, but Washington is paralysed, due to the interest groups driving the politicians, every one frightened to lose his seat.
Well, I’m off down to the gym now (yeh, right). OK, it’s Friday, so I’m going to have a few drinks while watching a game of Aussie Rules football with a bunch of lovely Americans, and a few from down Under. Might try my continental greeting on some more of the ladies and give a couple of the men a brotherly hug. Please send flowers if I get shot.

USA & UK – The Real Differences (Observed at the end of 12 Months)

America is a confusing country.

It is vast, and for a foreigner, the contrasts can be quite confusing. The classic English cynicism is really a mandatory vice for someone who wants to cope. Having been to the UK twice over the summer, now is perhaps a good time to dwell on the real differences between our two great nations.

Colorado Rapids on Independence Day

Colorado Rapids on Independence Day

By which I don’t mean the minor issues, gun control, health insurance, a lack of a sense of humour, and the drive to police the world and borrow money to spend on “defence”. And I’m not quite brave enough yet to do the big one, religion.
I need to try and understand the differences in terms of the less obvious things.
For instance, I have to tell you that American men are very shy, they would never be able to cope with French toilet habits. Let’s look at the difference in public toilet facilities between our two great nations, at a football (sorry soccer) stadium. In the UK there are troughs in which the men stand elbow to elbow, and low betide you if you have any nervous reaction when the man next to you moves his elbow vigorously. In America, all urinals are individual, with several feet between them, and the insertion of “modesty” screens is very common.
Probably a reason to stay in America for ever, particularly if you have prostate problems like mine.

The place where many Americans are at home is in their car. I did meet a Texan businessman, in Houston, who actually caught a bus to work. But this is, of course, a very rare occurrence in this city full of big hats, big boots, huge belt buckles, and huge cars.

Transport in Providence RI

Transport in Providence RI

Driving in America is really quite different to Europe. The roads are wide, with no distractions like round-a-bouts, I feel the need to spell that one out so that the American reader can get the idea. It was very funny to watch the drivers struggling to cope when they put one in our neighbourhood a few months ago.
And most American states have a driving test that is impossible to fail. One of our immigrant gang felt the need to have a driving lesson before her test. The instructor was very insistent on pointing out the places to watch out for as they drove around. He then got out at the test centre, and got back in again. Yes, he was also the examiner. 15 minutes later and she had passed, without even engaging reverse gear.
The way drivers view each other, or particularly pedestrians, varies enormously around the country. In Colorado, drivers stop everywhere for those on two legs. But in Texas, or even Washington DC, the average car driver treats it as great fun to scare the life out of those less fortunate than themselves. In many places, put simply, the car is king.
Perhaps my strangest observation is the difference in the attitude to cleanliness in America. I don’t know how Americans ever get on in France, because most of them hate physical contact. Many rush away to spray their hands with antiseptic after having shaken hands. And in the supermarket there are wipes you can use to disinfect the handle of the trolley. And people use them, I’ve seen them.
But above all else, America is a vast place, with many different types of character, and many different belief systems.

Proud of the Flag

Proud of the Flag

There are 10 US states that are bigger than the United Kingdom, 26 are bigger than England.
I travel a lot, and so I see a lot of different places, I have now visited 24 states in the 12 months since we arrived. But I always try and remember that I only meet with a certain type of middle class, mainly white business person. I have absolutely no interaction with the 60 million people on food stamps, and so my political arguments have a certain irrelevance. My lovely American neighbours like to call me lefty, or the commie. But honestly, almost all of the American political infra-structure is further right wing than the main parties in Europe.
My advice to an Englishman in America? Don’t discuss politics, even my dear friend John in Deddington would be a commie to most Americans.

Lincoln - Washington DC

Lincoln – Washington DC

My travel brings many benefits, in the last 12 months I’ve seen the Mall in DC, the Falls in Niagara, and loads of Canyons in Arizona and Utah. But I still make the odd classic error. A month ago I was packing up to get on a flight to Memphis the following morning, and then wondered idly why the idiots at United Airlines had failed to send me an email reminder to check in. Oh dear, yes, I had booked the flight for 8pm instead of 8am, which was a very costly mistake to fix.
There are huge numbers of differences between the UK and America, no 24 hour clock, diesel fuel out of green pumps, light switches down for off, and a power system that dims the lights when I plug in the Dyson.
But what is there not to like? Great food, excellent service, really nice people, and a fabulous landscape.

I think I’ll stay for another year.

Blog – The Great American Road Trip (sorry – a longer rant than usual)

There are some things that are certain about a family road trip.  There is always going to be a big argument, the immature ones are bound to throw their toys out of the car.

The problem this time was that it was me.

We had spent a few hours wandering the streets of Los Angeles on foot, and the hills of Hollywood in the car.  Everyone was bored and irritable, but I was generous – ”so young Ben, what would you like to do with the rest of the day?”  “The beach? Your wish is my command, I know just the place”.

The problem was the usual Los Angeles problem, appalling traffic.  So 1.5 hours later we had covered the 15 miles to the beach, and they all started moaning about the time it had taken.

I did calm down after a couple of beers.

In my book the best road trip in the world is the Pacific Coast Highway South from San Francisco, so we flew to one of my favourite cities to start with 3 days of immersion in local culture.  And that is certainly what we got, loads and loads of local culture.  I should explain that money is not exactly flush at the moment, and being the idiot I am, there is no way I would rent that strange American institution, the Recreational Vehicle.  For goodness sake, it might be posher, but it is still a caravan.

So we had to avoid my usual work funded SF haunts, the lovely Marriott or the enormous Hilton, and we booked in to the very special sounding Bel Air.

I am well aware of the issues in SF having wandered around it many times, and I knew the hotel was in the Tenderloin area, only 2 blocks from the Hilton, 3 from the JW Marriott, but still a dubious area.  This is mainly down to the number of people sleeping on the streets, and the “soup kitchens”, or “missions” as they are called here.  Not particularly dangerous in my view, but you wouldn’t let a female walk it on their own, at day or night.

IMG_1813This was a shock to the 3 kids, we had gained an extra one for the trip, the lovely Jasmine having joined us from back home in Deddington.  She and Jake were very affronted by the street people, SF has a lot of very extreme cases, they emptied their homes for people with mental problems some years ago.  The ones that have survived haven’t gone very far.

At one point we caught the trolley car back from my spiritual hippie home, Haight Ashbury, and found ourselves alighting onto the pavement in central SF with a very troubled lady.  As if her drug and sanity issues, she was also blind.  So for 40 minutes Jake and I wandered the Tenderloin with this lady attached to my arm trying to find her food and a bed for the night.  Quite a lesson for us all, but the street people were very helpful, and eventually we found her a home, and stuffing $20 into her hand I tried to salve my middle class guilt.


But the real problem was the hotel, whose interior should have been gutted years ago.  Or demolished possibly.  There was a hole in one bedroom wall the size of a football, or maybe a skull.  Another room had bullet holes in the window, and the plumbing was, er basic.  But, and there are some that know me who will be amazed, we stuck it out……the sheets were clean.  I think.  As I said, a good learning experience for young people, made me wonder about RVs though.

Then we drove down the coast road through Monterey, stopping at Carmel, and then a night at the fabulous Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo, which is blessed with unique and individually themed rooms.  We occupied the Sky Suite, last time Heather and I had the Rock Room.  We ate in the most kitsch restaurant in the world, dressed up in Pink, with glorious Gents toilets modelled like a waterfall.  I will say that it is very disturbing trying to pass water into a fountain, not best suited to my renowned prostrate problems.


Every Ward holiday includes a game, sometimes cards, this time it was Pit.  A great game for waking up a restaurant at the end of a quiet day.  The classic Mexican restaurant in the wild outskirts of Santa Monica lit up as the waiters tried to work out why we kept shouting “trading two, anyone trading two”.  The food was excellent.

Our location in LA was a classic road motel, but clean and cheap.  Then the “worlds’ best road trip” headed due East into the desert, and a stop at Joshua Tree National Park.  I must say one of the things I love about the US is their National Parks, very well managed, and such extreme beauty.  Unfortunately neither of the musical allusions of the area, Gram Parsons’ illegal funeral pyre, or the U2 album cover, could get the kids out of the hotel pool.  Can I blame them?  Yes, it is an unreal sight, hundreds of thousands of those strange trees, well worth the trip.

They just wanted to pretend their Dad had brought them on a beach holiday after all.


Then onwards to the dramatic state of Arizona, and firstly Sedona.  Red Rocks, kids moaning about no pools, they insisted in sitting in the hotel room after a 6 hour drive while the grown-ups toured the town (and the bars).  I will say that the 400 mile drive across the Mojave Desert is one of the most boring journeys in the world, at one point dead straight for 100 miles with no habitation at all, and 102°F outside.  You don’t want to run out of petrol or breakdown, and many of these roads are falling apart, infrastructure investment is not a priority right now in the US of A.

And then on to the Grand Canyon.  Always wanted to do this trick, we led the kids to the edge with their eyes closed.  “Wow”.  “It’s a big hole”.  Out of the mouths of……

So we finish up in Las Vegas, 150,000 hotel rooms in the middle of the desert.  The kids are amazed – “why?”


And what were their highlights?  Jake – “the Bel Air, Grand Canyon and Las Vegas”.  Jazmino – “SF and Grand Canyon”.  Ben – “the English sweet shop in Santa Monica”.

Heather – “the Vortex in Sedona”, its best you ask her for details.  It’s a strangely wonderful place, full of psychics and magic stones.

For me, after 1626 miles and 915 photographs, I just wanted to ask Ben why the detour to find an “In N Out Burger” was not a highlite, but in reality it was a disappointment.  Jake spending $20 to get his picture taken with Darth Vader in Hollywood?  Luckily his own money…..really?  Jasmine and Heather buying CDs off “musicians” on Sunset Strip…..want a laugh, ask them for a critique on the quality of local LA rap music.

And that classic image that can only happen in America, a man pushing his dog in a pushchair.  Why wouldn’t you bring your best pal to see one of the wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon?

Finally, well I have to admit to two episodes of toys and prams.  Upon reaching the airport at Denver to start the mammoth journey, I asked Heather to give me the kids’ passports, only to find she hadn’t brought them…..how would we get on the plane?  Heather quietly reminded me I told her the day before not to bring them.  My excuse?   I am an old man.  And luckily you don’t need to provide proof of identity for under 18’s.

The classic American Road trip……..I thoroughly recommend it.  Probably best to take a younger driver though.

American Culture & the Mounties

I think Spring is in the air, and I just found Jake cooking pasta for his girlfriend. Second time today……yep, it must be.

This is an interesting season in Denver, the brown trees turned green in two weeks, and the bunnies in our back garden multiply, er like rabbits. Heather sits on the grass and they amble around her, as do the squirrels, it’s like a scene from Snow White. Or is it Wizard of Oz? I’m getting old, my memory is deserting me.


The reason we have rabbits is that the typical American middle class household is obsessed with baby substitutes, sorry, dogs. I can only count one of our neighbours who doesn’t have a canine or three, so the rabbits seek refuge under our decking. The unfortunate by-product of this is that the foxes that tour the area also like our garden, Heather found bits of rabbit strewn about last weekend after we had seen the fox sneaking in late at night, just as we were crawling in from the pub.

Yes, the good news is there are pubs of a sort in Middle America, and the amount of breweries is un-believable. There are supposed to be 175 in the Denver area, and so there is no need to drink Budweiser or similar filth. The only problem is that presumably to differentiate themselves, they make the beer out of some strange things, caramel or wheat I guess are ordinary, but what about “whiskey-soaked pumpkin seeds and orange blossom honey”. Yes, the majority of them taste like………

It might come as a surprise to you my reader (singular), but I am not a patient man. I hate queuing, but the amount of airports I am going through means I have to get used to it. 4 weeks ago visiting New York, I got back to Newark airport an hour and a half before the departure time, plenty of time you would say. But the queues at security were out the front door, apparently someone had shot himself at Houston airport and everyone was freaked, and progress through security just slowed to a crawl.

Americans do get freaked by some things, but ignore others that I would regard as being far more important. An average of 30 people are shot every day across America, which goes completely un-remarked upon, but then what is logically a small incident gets blown out of proportion.

The Aurora “Batman” killer is back making the headlines because he is about to be sentenced for that terrible act, which happened about 8 miles from where I sit right now. The prosecutors are making a big thing of the fact that the gunman walked past two cinemas to perform his deed in the third. Why? Because the first two allow guns in the auditorium and the prosecution are arguing that was a deliberate move to prevent him from being shot back, thereby justifying a death sentence.
Yes, dear Europeans, there are cinemas in America where you can take in a gun.

Anyway, to get back to Newark airport, I wanted to exploit my capitalist right not to queue, so I purchased a priority pass. $60 later, I got through security just in time, only to realise that I had managed to book myself on the only airline in America that doesn’t give you a reserved seat, unless you pay extra. Although a familiar concept for Europeans, thankfully those airlines are but a distant memory to me now.

So I had forgotten to pay for a seat, and they have a bizarre queuing system. You find your position behind a post – C19 is the 19th person in the C queue. Capitalism? I wanted to slit my wrists.

The kids have broken up from school and we are off on that true American tradition, the Road Trip. Jake has a friend joining us on #wardsontour, it’s the California Coastal Highway and then over to Arizona, I suspect some laughs will befall us. I need some laughs the way work has been.


So far it has been remarkable that I haven’t got an American speeding ticket, unlike my colleague Vrinder who got done in Yellowstone for doing 65 in a 40. And despite a passport photo that makes him look like a terrorist dear boy, they didn’t lock him up. My major incident was being stopped in Calgary by a Mountie. He seemed to think that steering with my knees while taking a picture of the skyline was a mistake. I groveled, he was a real Mountie, what was that TV program?

In the grand tradition of the American Dream, even a 12 year old gets a year book at the end of the year. But unfortunately for poor Ben, they had forgotten to put him in it. I was incensed for him, demanded the phone off the wife, intent on ringing the principal and telling him what I thought of the way they had treated my youngest. Did I say I wasn’t very patient…..now where has Heather hidden the phone?

Education & Cars – in America


Please don’t tell my wife, but I’ve dented the car.
The good news is that I never ever wash any of my cars, in the UK they only ever turned up clean on two occasions. Firstly after a service at the BMW garage, or alternatively when using valet parking at Heathrow airport. But now in America I don’t have a BMW, I have a Subaru, the only company that would give me credit, and lets face facts, they are not going to give me a free car wash. And the Audi with 140,000 miles on the clock is such an odd colour that is deserves to be dirty. Funny that it is this one that I always end up driving.
So the Suburu has 6 months of dirt on it, after two road trips you can’t really see what colour it is either, I think that perhaps she won’t notice the dent.
The weather has been bizarre in Denver these last few weeks of April, although the locals say this is normal for Spring. Last Monday I went to work in my shorts, at noon it was 60F, with lovely blue skies. But at 4pm it started snowing, the temperature had dropped by 30 degrees in 4 hours. Lots of strange people here do wear shorts at this temperature, but I just felt like a fool. A cold fool.IMG_1620
The boys are doing very well at school, it took some time for them to settle down, but they are now well entrenched in the US education system and can comment on the differences. Needless to say, Jake at 17 is quite vociferous, but having achieved 103% in his World History, he can probably comment from a position of strength.
I have degree in Maths (sorry Math), and in my day to get 100% you had to get all the answers right, even in a multiple guess exam. And to be honest, in my school days I wasn’t going to worry anyone with regard to getting too close to those kind of numbers. Luckily, Jake doesn’t take after either of his parents in his attitude to study, he works very hard, so I ask him “how do you get 103 out of 100?” The answer lies in a bizarre marking scheme which means that work is continuously assessed by the teachers, and they award extra marks when they see fit.
Yep he’s smart, he works hard, and they like him. I hope he grows up wanting to support his father in his ill funded dotage, perhaps I need to be nicer to him while there is still time.
Jake was very frustrated initially because the US school system wouldn’t recognize his UK achievements, but now a 35 out of 36 in his ACT has gained him recognition, and has put a smile on his face. He deserves what he gets, but unfortunately he now thinks that going to Harvard might be a good idea. With fees of $85k per year.
IMG_1616Ben at 12 is much more cautious about broadcasting his achievements. Last week a fantastic report arrived from the school on his work so far, and his mother then chose to ask him about the Honor Roll. This is a strange, but very common occurrence across America, I see bumper stickers all the while boasting about children’s achievements and cringe.
Anyway, it then becomes clear that Ben has been on the Honor Roll for some time, and has been given bumper stickers, but was so embarrassed that he hadn’t told us. Furthermore he had cut them up, re-arranging the letters into interesting anagrams far removed from the original intended sentiment.
His mother doesn’t know whether to be proud or to tell him off. She jokes that she wants the next one to put on the car.
And then I realize that this might just save me, I could use one to cover the dent on the bumper. The problem is I need two stickers, yes, I dented both cars. All I can say in my defense is that I have never had a working garage before. In 38 years of house owning, it is not something that has ever troubled me, why would you need a garage? But in this part of the US, everyone has two car garages, some have three car garages.
So without checking, I backed one car out of the garage into the other which was sat on the drive. I, one of the 2 people in our street that has actually taken a test that ensures you can drive safely.
Now I must go and search Ben’s room for a bumper sticker or 2. Proud, that’s me.

The Road Trip – an American Institution

When I think of road trips, I drift back to National Lampoon’s Vacation.
We weren’t going to Disney (they called it Walleyworld), and we certainly didn’t have a dead grannie. We didn’t even have a dog tied to the back fender (bumper), and Ben refused to lie still when we tried to tie him to the roof.
Last week it was Spring Break. If you are following my love affair about this fine country, you will know that I have a thing about the American obsession with religion. I have always been taught that Easter was the biggest Christian festival, but everyone worked on Good Friday.
Good Friday?
And we didn’t do an Easter holiday, we had a Spring Break.
We had a pair of lovely friends over from the UK, so we borrowed a car with 3 rows of seats, and got out on a Road Trip to New Mexico. Yep, three rows of seats, this was a real road trip.IMG_1273
Unfortunately, my memories at this point go back to my youth. Camping in Europe was not common in those days, but that’s what my parents made me do. We would drive to obscure European countries, and camp. I know a lot of my friends don’t believe it, but yes, we camped.
And the following morning we would pack up, and put the whole thing on top of our Austin Cambridge. But on one occasion my Dad got it wrong, and once we were doing a fine lick on the autobahn, it all shot off the back. No deaths, but a lot of tears.
There is a reason I don’t do camping any more, and it isn’t just that I found that there are things called Hotels.
So, off we went, and there were strict instructions on the packing, one small bag each. This is a bit of a problem for Ben who can get through two pairs of dodgy coloured trousers in a day, but I explained he had a choice. He chose the seat in doors that his bag would have occupied, which made it easier; as I said, I never feel happy strapping things to the roof.
Santa Fe is 400 miles due south from us, not a difficult route, the interstate freeway is a mile from our house, and once on the I25, unlike the M25 in England, you are moving at a good rate. And it is straight, on occasions it is dead straight for 20 miles, and it goes all the way to Santa Fe.IMG_1280
So, 6 hours later we are in the coolest, most laid back part of America. These guys can’t be bothered to go to California, where us Brits think the mother of cool sits, they stay in New Mexico and they really chill. The only thing that stops the chill is the prices in the shops, jeans for $300, “native Indian” sweaters for $400, this place is where rich cool people go. The lady in the shop in the old jail building told me Julia Roberts lived up the street, and “don’t miss the café next door where they filmed a Clint Eastwood movie”.
We visited rocks, we walked around a lot, and then we got to the Indian cliff dwellings. I loved this bit, a genuine Indian guide, and jewelry even I could afford.
The best thing was wandering around the caves the Indians lived in 500 years ago, and then we got to the cave paintings. Now I can’t lie, this story isn’t mine. Our dear friends Denise and Tucker went there with their bright 13 year old, and the guide got everyone very excited by the fine drawings of hands on the walls. Abi then pronounced her profound dismay that whist Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Americans were drawing “turkey hands”.
My family complain on these trips, not about the distances, but about the picture stops, but there was one stop I had to make. In every country they have warnings about the animals that are going to charge across and ruin your car (apart from the deer that got me in Oxfordshire). So as we drove on the roads around Taos in Northern New Mexico, there were arguments. I did agree that the pictures of cows crossing did look peculiar, what was that strange thing over their heads?
Not a sombrero as Heather suggested, but instead a flying saucer – the locals are peddling a story that aliens are coming down and abusing their cattle. Forget crop circles, these guys have a conspiracy theory that has some action going on, and presumably it all helps with the tourism, bearing in mind Roswell is just down the road.
So we headed back through the mountains at 85mph without any police interference, and I do have to admit that this still gives me a strange thrill. In 1978 I was driving in New England, when I got pulled over by a policeman for doing something absurd like 70 in a 65 limit. I still remember the fear I felt as he strode up to my hire car with his gun vibrating in his holster. And then he gave me a ticket, and the bizarre thing in those times, he trusted me to go down to County Hall and pay it. Ha, the fools.
However, I paid a high price for my crime, spending nervous hours worrying as I stood in the huge queues at JFK, wondering which jail they were going to put me in.
Road trips, fantastic, but only in America. You can get to a different land in 6 hours, in the UK, you are still on the M25. Please try it, they are something very special.