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.

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.

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.

Language – joining people or separating them?

Language is a strange thing, words are used in different ways in different cultures.  The locals here in America still laugh at the things I say, last month it was “Punter”, by which I rudely meant prospective customers.

But pants is one of the funny ones, what does that mean?  Always a problem if an American says you have nice pants.  And please don’t react when someone compliments your wife on having a nice fanny.

Not that they would.  Sex is something that doesn’t exist in America.  A singer “accidentally” pops a very small amount of breast out on TV, during a strange event called the Super Bowl, and everyone is still talking about it two years later.  Bizarre, somehow they want to protect their children from these things.

Our Jake is off to a school prom tonight, huge palaver, an hour and a half of photos with their mates before they even get on the bus to take them to dinner.  And they all get searched getting on to the bus, 17 year old kids, but of course they can’t have an alcoholic drink until they are 21.  The problem is they go to college at 18, are they really not going to drink?  Away from home, over protected and fussed over, but in theory they still aren’t allowed to drink.

But of course they do, the licensing laws here just do not make sense.

Cars are close to sacred beings in some parts of America, but at least here in Denver they aren’t any different than they are in England.  In fact there are considerably less high end Porsches and Ferraris than you would find in Oxford or London, but otherwise the cars are very similar.  However take a short flight to Texas, and you find a different world.  Huge trucks, enormous wheels, and 12 lane highways.  I love Texas, and Texans are so positive that it can be very refreshing, but almost to a man, they don’t get English cynicism at all.

In most American cities there are at least two freeways to get from A – B.  In theory the grid layout makes navigation in America easier, and certainly cities like New York are much easier than London or Paris.  But GPS…..sorry Sat Nav is still a boon when travelling in America, even if no Americans understand they didn’t invent it.

If you really want a fun argument, try and explain that they didn’t invent mobile…..sorry Cell Phones.

But back to Sat Nav.  Denver has a strange problem with street names.  We live in Galena, and there are 6 of these in the Denver Metropolitan Area.  Goodness knows how many Fulton’s, Ida’s and Geneva’s there are, they are everywhere.  It is as if they got a job lot of road name signs and they just never managed to buy any more.

So you have to be very careful when looking for a street, you have to know the post code……sorry Zip code, and area.  The situation is further complicated by the mania for redevelopment.  So a street is named, split up, but not renamed.  Last month I was in an unfamiliar area, about 3 miles from our house, and found myself on Havana Street.  Another of those repeating names, but no, I realised it was the same street which passes the end of our enclave….sorry, estate.  The only problem was they broke up Havana, with a reservoir and a state park.  Some roads stop totally at the freeway and start again on the other side – with no connecting tunnel or bridge.  It all makes driving very complex.

Early last year I came over to Denver to look for an office, I needed an address for our Visa application.  I had been to the Denver Tech Centre area many times over the previous 6 years, but you learn to rely on Sat Nav (sorry GPS).  I had spoken to a managed office provider locally and arranged a visit to view the premises.  So I left my 9th floor hotel room, went down in the lift, and got in to my car in the car park.  I keyed the address in to the Sat Nav, and 6 or 7 minutes later I was parking at the Regus office centre.  Up in the lift to the 9th Floor, and the manager proudly then showed me their best available room.  I stared out at a fantastic view of the mountains, and ………straight into my hotel room which was exactly next door, 50 yards away.  No, technology doesn’t always give you the best result.

Some of the oddest language differences have appeared in the last month.  Remember the green stuff you put in stews for flavor and garnish?  It’s called Erbs.  Every time Heather asks for kitchen roll, the American ladies laugh out loud.

But the one that cracks us all up is the Italian cheese you put on pasta in nice restaurants.  No it is not ParmeSHAN, why oh why would it be called that?

Two countries, one language, yes, but actually it is a very different culture here.  There are 6 churches within half a mile of our house, priorities are different.  We are adapting slowly, and there are huge benefits, great food, fantastic service, and some really nice people, but we still really miss our lovely open friends.

And when you think of America, please don’t ever make the mistake of thinking we are very similar.  Two very different cultures, with one messed up language.  Remind me to write about Ben and the Spelling Bee contest (very Lisa Simpson) some time.

Life at a Mile High – America and Consumerism

One of the biggest changes in the life style in America, by comparison with the UK, is the rampant consumerism.  Planning is a bit more under control in Colorado, in most American states strip malls are everywhere, whereas here there are just shopping centres every 10 miles or so.

But I have to admit I have occasionally succumbed to the shopping bug that runs at full pelt in this country.  I wandered in to my favourite shirt shop, Lucky Brands at Park Meadows, a long 10 minute drive away, and purchased a most lovely shirt.  Getting back home, I showed it to Heather, and told her how great I thought it was.  Yep, she said, it is exactly the same as one in your closet (actually she said wardrobe).  What an idiot.

IMG_0807It is astoundingly dry here, static is an issue at a mile high, not what my dear English friends want to hear, but the weather here is fantastic.  We have had 4 weeks at below zero, but for the last few days it has reached 20 degrees C.  Strange lumps of snow linger in the corners of the garden, and fountains are still partially frozen, I guess that shows how deep the freeze was.  But most of the time the sun shone, so it didn’t feel so bad, and it just never rains, amazingly in 4 months here it has only rained once (for less than 10 minutes).

The climate plays terrible tricks in other ways.  I bought a Xmas tree the first weekend of December, Ben was feeling down, so we went and bought it to cheer him up.  But within 2 weeks it was dead, dried out, kaput.  We had an artificial tree for Xmas.

The Xmas lights round here were astounding, they competed for trophies in the local media.  The house over the road had two deer made out of lights on their front lawn, but one night someone mounted one on top of the grazing one.  We all laughed, but IMG_0797perhaps this is not in tune with the average middle America sense of humour.

Our pathetic attempt at lights was probably the joke of the street, but everyone is far too polite to comment.  But it did make us think of the Deddington tree again, yep, I learnt a lot of my decorating abilities from last year in the square.

Last weekend was our Jake’s 1IMG_08187th birthday, not one of the great events in a growing lad’s life, but one well worth celebrating.  Izzie bought him a lovely American flag based tie, the best the “thrift store” had to offer, and his mother and I helped him buy an amplifier so he can form a band, become a superstar, change the world and enable me to retire.  At last.

We had a busy birthday weekend, we had some Americans round, and some mad Aussies.  Good fun, and on Sunday we went up to see Red Rocks, a great concert venue, we look forward to seeing Justin Beiber in the summer.  And then on we went to The Fort, a local restaurant based on old western cuisine, but please bear in mind that old is 1860 around here, there was no-one here before that.

And the great news is that the birthday regime from Pizza Express in Banbury lives on, they banged a drum, the mad local bloke dressed as a “First Nation Citizen” produced the hat, and there was Jake in the Buffalo head being told………Gryffindor!

The clientele IMG_0819were instructed to join in 3 times….Hip Hip  Hazaa, but no-one can explain this strange choice of words.  The buffalo steaks were great, but a poor substitute for Ben who had set his heart on Rattlesnake only to find they are currently hibernating and therefore not for catching (or eating).

Who says culture doesn’t cross the globe.  Earlier in the weekend we had been subjected to 2 renditions of “Happy Bar Mitzvah to You” from an adjacent table.  And the local Synagogue is offering “Jew Chew” to the high school kids at lunch time.

So life here is all a bit of a shock.  Think I will have to do something about the nylon carpets and the “Joey” sofa, something you do have to see to believe, imagine a 7 piece corner piece with individual controlled progression from Economy to First Class, but how will I ever get it home to England?

Think I need to put a damper on the electric side of life.  At least that what Heather says.   Poor me.

Accents and other Things that are Different

I have a bad habit I need to confess to.

Well all right, I only have time for one today, but I need to get it off my chest.  I think my problem became very clear to Heather, my lovely wife, some 20 years ago when we went to meet with one of our clients, up in the North of England.  In Rochdale to be exact.

After lunch, the boss man took Heather to one side and said (I won’t do the accent), “if Mike continues to take the micky out of me, I am going to knock his block off”.  But I wasn’t taking the micky, it was just the first example Heather had experienced of my terrible problem.

When speaking to anyone with an accent, within minutes I will be attempting (but badly) to speak in the same lingo.  I wonder if there is some kind of 7 steps process that can help me.

To be serious for a moment, the key difference between the UK and the good old US of A is the attitude to guns.  Like most Europeans, I find the amount of gun deaths in America to be very disturbing.  The quoted figures of less than 50 in the UK, to over 11,000 in the US has to indicate that this is a key problem.  But, no matter how many times I try and discuss the issue with sane and grown up Americans, I simply don’t understand the huge commitment the majority have to owning a gun.  I am still working hard, but it is something deeply cultural.

If you haven’t seen it, go to YouTube and view some of the Piers Morgan interviews of the last few weeks.  Piers is a man that few us in Britain liked, and most were happy to see leave for the US to take up a nightly TV interview slot on CNN.  But he is has really come to life in my view, although not in the minds of most Americans, who have started a petition to have him deported.

On a show last week Piers interviewed a Larry Pratt, who looked perfectly normal, argued quite sanely, but when Morgan put the gun death numbers in front of him, he suddenly announced that the UK figures were rigged, and really there were 790 gun deaths a year in the UK.  The problem is that people believe these things.

Earlier in the week Piers interviewed an Alex Jones from the NRA (National Rifle Association), who foamed at the mouth, and with bulging eyes told Piers that he needed the guns to ensure that the UK didn’t invade again, invoking the American War of Independence.  Bizarre in the extreme to an outsider, but lots of people see him as a hero, people keep telling me they need more guns, not less.

Some of the differences about living in Colorado are a bit weird.  When Heather came to give me a kiss earlier, she gave me a shock.  I mean an electric shock.

Denver is a mile above sea level, and despite freezing cold temperatures on occasions, it is very dry.  The sun shines for over 300 days a year, and it has only rained once in 3 months, both of which make the freezing temperatures more palatable.  But the climate, and the wall to wall nylon carpets, creates static electricity like I have never seen before.

The lack of air also means my tennis is hopeless, the balls fly out, and even a short rally leaves me lying on the floor gasping for breath.  At the Broncos game this afternoon, some of the opposition footballers were given oxygen on the side lines to enable them to cope.

I needed a bit more than oxygen to cope, football is a great game, but after it went to extra time it took 4 ¼ hours for 1 ¼ hours of action.  Unreal, particularly at – 12 degrees C, 75,000 fans created a fantastic atmosphere, but they don’t have a roof.  It snowed.  And they lost in extra time.

And there were opposition fans in front of us who everyone chatted with, and they even survived the home team managing to lose a game they were 100 – 1 to win at one point.

Earlier in the day we took the boys to have some jabs, they have to have a huge number in order to be allowed to be in school.  The fire station where they were giving the inoculations was in a suburb called Aurora, much more of a mixed community than the enclave that is Greenwood Village.

Walking in to the temporary clinic, a couple of the locals greet me, calling out in support of my Broncos shirt, Go Broncos.

As I say, I have this terrible habit of copying the way people speak, honestly, I don’t mean to do it.

And now I can add Jive Talking to my failings, and my family thinks I am a rude and dangerous person.

Anyone know of a cure?

Xmas Parties and Freezing in America

I have to start with a startling confession, my wife has been stalking me at parties.

It was a good Xmas, or as the whole of America put it, the holidays.  It is certainly a strange idea to a European immigrant, but they are so scared of upsetting someone, that they don’t wish you “Happy Xmas”, it is always “Happy Holidays”.  All very odd, as a Hindu work contact said to me this week, he still celebrates Xmas.

Politeness is endemic in middle America, and unlike far away places like New York, Colorado drivers are also very polite.  But they have this very strange traffic control device, known as the All Way Stop.  Just imagine that you are going down a straight road, which is clear and visible for several miles, you approach a junction, and then this red sign looms, All Way Stop.  A merry dance ensues, when cars approach in all 4 directions and stop in turn, and then eventually someone goes.

It is bizarre, as if the local traffic planners have never seen a roundabout.  In fact they have just built a roundabout in the area, and it certainly leaves a lot of locals very confused.  I have seen people heading the wrong way round the first one round the corner from our office.

The driving competition in the house is hotting up, with Jake and Heather both beating my amazing 92% pass rate of the driving theory test.  They both made 96%, yet another thing I am not going win at.  But you have to feel sorry for Jake, the kids round here can drive a year earlier, at 16.  But, we have discovered that he has to hold a driving permit for 12 months before he can get a full license, so he will actually be later driving on his own here than if we had stayed in the UK.  Perhaps a good job his lovely girl friend can drive very well.

You would not believe the cars that some of the kids drive out of the school car park.  Jake saw a Ferrari draw up alongside a kid, the driver got out and moved to the passenger seat, and then the kid got in and drove it off.  No surprise they get an accident in the car park every year, this term a boy was run over twice.  He got a broken leg as the girl backed over him, and a broken shoulder when she pulled forward again.

Xmas day was great, snow on the ground, and the lovely Roz and the fantastic Wayne staying with us.  The ground outside was frozen, and so was the dinner.  Heather ordered two ducks and a goose off the web site of the most expensive food shop in the country.  Whole Foods is an unbelievable place, I counted 20 types of olives at the “olive bar”, they have an enormous range of every type of food, beautifully presented.  It is like Selfridges food hall, but 100 times bigger.

Heather turned up to pick up the food on Xmas Eve, to find the items were frozen.  An argument ensued, but the store manager did not seem to understand that the web site not mentioning the minor fact that the items were frozen was significant.

But in some areas American law has a very extreme amount of consumer protection.  In particular I fail to believe that anyone ever buys the drugs they advertise on the TV, if not every ad break, at least several times an hour.  We have all read the leaflet which comes with our latest miracle cure, and wondered which of the many side effects will get us.  But on American TV drug adverts, the side effects are read through thoroughly, which leaves you no doubt that the drug is not at all useful, but absolutely deadly.  Obviously such protection does not extend to food stuffs on the Web.

And the best Xmas news is that we were invited to a few local parties.  The things we all missed most were our friends and family, and the Pub.  But round here, the drinking takes place at people houses, and we certainly managed some drinking with some really lovely people.  And some of them were Australian.

But the big problem is that Heather is very concerned that I am going to upset everyone, which will then mean that she won’t get invited to a party ever again.  Where did she ever get this idea from?

But the real problem is that middle class American men right now are obsessed with tax, and particularly in not paying more tax.  And I am not good at ignoring comments on big issues, and so the discussion begins.  Again.

I am consciously trying to avoid being party political, but it is only logical to me that middle America has to pay more tax.  Every country in Europe is paying more tax, due to the recession, which was started by the American obsession with selling mortgages to millions of people who could not afford them.  But in the last 4 years America has had tax cuts through this recession, and the Government has borrowed to pay the recession costs.

Now there is a price to pay.  Is this an argument I can refuse to address?

As I say, my wife is stalking me at parties.  The key benefit is she is looking great, she has lost huge amounts of weight, and is very lovely.  Perhaps this is another reason I need to keep starting the arguments having this discussion, but I am not sure I can cope with the chunks her high heels are taking out of my shins.