Monthly Archives: November 2014

Too busy for vacation

I wish I was at the office.

I wish I was at the office.

It’s Thanksgiving day and I’m on vacation right now. As you read this, I am either on a beach, on a mountain, or in a bar. Or possibly still in bed. Why, then, am I writing a blog post, you ask? Well, I’m not. I actually wrote this blog post last week, before leaving on vacation, and just scheduled it to be published in the future (a nifty feature of WordPress).

And why would I do that, you ask? Well, because I don’t particularly fancy being behind my computer while on vacation, or doing anything that remotely resembles “work.” Blogging is, in fact, my hobby; it qualifies more as fun than work. Nonetheless, spending time at my computer is not my idea of a holiday. And I am most certainly not going to do any work work while away; I won’t even read my work emails, less do anything about them.

I’ve come to realize this is not an attitude shared by most Americans. Everyone talks all the time about having to do work on the holidays (or over the weekend for that matter). It seems a matter of course, even expected, that people will check (and respond to) their work emails while they are on “vacation.” When someone comes back from a few days out of the office and you ask them how their break was, it’s not uncommon to hear them say “Well, it wasn’t much of a break…” Or before a holiday, when you ask people what they  have planned, they might say “Trying not to work on the holiday…”

What’s up with that?! Americans have less vacation time than any other developed country in the world. Indeed, the US has no statutory minimum employment leave (even China has a minimum of 5 days). Compare this to the UK, where employers are required by law to give their employees 20 days (4 weeks) of holiday (in addition to the 8 bank holidays). The Netherlands also mandates a minimum of 20 days. And in France, workers enjoy a whopping 30 days (6 weeks) off each year.

In the US, meanwhile, employers are left to decide for themselves how many vacation days they want to give to their employees, and most times they give only 2 weeks (!). If you’re lucky (like me), you get 3 weeks. It’s exceptional in the US, in the private sector at least, to have even 4 weeks vacation. So essentially, the best deal in the US is… the bare legal minimum in Europe.

And the worst part about it is that oftentimes “vacation” days actually mean “Personal Time Off” (PTO), which comprises any day you are not in the office, whatever the reason. Fall sick with the flu and need to spend the week in bed? Well, there went a week of your “vacation” down the drain. Compare this to the UK, where if you’re sick, you just phone in sick and don’t come into work. Nobody is counting or limiting your sick days for routine short-term illnesses (if employees are off sick for more than 7 days in a row, then they need to provide a note from the doctor).

So, let that sink in. Of the 52 weeks in the year, Brits are not working for 4 of those weeks, a little less than 8% of the time; the other 92% of the time, they are working (assuming no sick days). The French, meanwhile, are on holiday 11.5% of the year and working 88.5% of the time. Miraculously, the economies of Britain and France still appear to be functioning, despite this excessive laziness on the part of Europeans (read: sarcasm).

And then there’s the poor Americans, with their paltry 2 weeks vacation. They are working 96% of the year. And then for the 4% of the time that remains – the 4% of their wage labor life that truly belongs to them and no one else – they “try not to work.” I do not understand.

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Mustard v. yellow sauce

Tastes just like yellow.

Tastes just like yellow.

Having lived abroad for so many years, I have many foreign friends; some of them also live in the US and read my blog and give me suggestions for topics to cover (like double dipping, which a Ukrainian friend told me is an American concept that doesn’t exist in Ukraine).

Another of friend of mine, a Brit, commented on condiments. Specifically, how condiments suck in the US. I had never thought about it before he pointed it out, but I realized it’s true, at least compared to the UK.

Take, for example, mustard. In the UK, English mustard – such as the standard brand Colman’s of Norwich – is a brown, wholegrain, thick, fiery affair, a good deal spicier and stronger than the bright yellow, vinegary-y American-style mustard which appears in an equally school bus yellow plastic squeeze bottle (and is confusingly referred to by its brand name, “French’s Mustard,” even though it is nothing like actual French mustard, such as Dijon mustard). It is also referred to (more appropriately) as simply “yellow mustard.”

But the British love for condiments goes far beyond mustard. I remember when I used to go for a pub lunch, the pubs would always have a carrier basket full of condiments which they would bring to your table for each meal. Aside from the obvious ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, it would usually also contain malt vinegar, HP sauce (a brown sauce), Branston pickle (and other jarred pickled chutneys), salad cream (an inexplicable mayonnaise-like substance), marmite, picalilli (an Indian-style relish of pickled vegetables and spices), and Worcestershire sauce, just to name a few.

The fact that Wikipedia has a category entitled “British Condiments” which comprises 31 pages shows that the Brits aren’t messing about (the Wikipedia page “American Condiments,” on the other hand, doesn’t exist). Sure, Americans love their ketchup, salsa, and certainly barbecue sauce, but they don’t seem to relish condiments in the same way the British do (yes, pun intended).

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Pet mania

Now THAT is a VERY good boy! Good boy! Good boy!

Now THAT is a VERY good boy! Good boy! Good boy!

I was walking down the street in my neighborhood the other day and I passed a woman walking her dog. As I slowly overtook her, I overheard her talking to her dog as it did a poo: “Good boy!” she exclaimed.

If it had stopped there, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought; it was cold out, and probably the woman was just displaying her pleasure at her hound having so expediently done its business.

But it didn’t stop there. Her exclamations continued: “Gooood boy! Goooooood boy! Oh yes aren’t you a very GOOD boy!” And so on. It must have lasted a good few minutes, because as I walked out of earshot I could still hear her cooing away.

I thought that was how parents talked to their babies when they potty train them, not how people talk to their dogs when they take an indiscriminate dump on the sidewalk. (And I thought to myself, even babies can’t begin to understand what is being said to them, so how does the dog have any chance of getting it?). I concluded the woman was just a crazy. Wrong. The following week, I witnessed the same scenario with another dog owner in my neighborhood. And I’ve seen the same pooch-poo-cheerleading again since then.

Apparently this is a thing among American dog owners: over-enthusiastic toilet anthropomorphism. Never having been a dog owner myself, maybe there is something here I am fundamentally missing. But I have come to the conclusion that American people take their pets very, very seriously. Especially so for dogs. A dog is elevated almost to the status of a child, with great attention given to its diet, no expense spared on its medical treatment, and custody battles fought over it in the event divorce or separation (yes, really). Cats may never reach quite this level of importance, but they get a lot of attention, too.

Clearly this is partially a function of the level of development in the US; people take such good care of their pets because they can afford to. In Somaliland, people regularly shot the stray dogs. In Liberia, the scrawny cats would eat people’s rice bits that fell onto the floor. (Yes, cats eat rice. Cats can actually eat virtually anything and survive just fine.) But even comparing the US to other developed countries, I feel Americans demonstrate a particular fervor toward their pets.

One story from my teenage years comes to mind which I will never forget. I used to babysit for my neighbors; they had two children: a toddler and an infant. I went over one morning and the father was giving me instructions for my day of babysitting while his wife was getting ready. He introduced me to the dog, a un-spayed purebred. He showed me where her food and water were kept in the kitchen and told me about her diet.

He then explained to me that it was “that time of the month.” Yes, that bitch had he period. So she needed to wear a menstrual pad (yes, really). He demonstrated to me how to affix the pad (it tied around the bitch’s behind like a string bikini) and how to change it. All I can say is, thank God she wasn’t using tampons.

After a ten minute explanation about the dog, his wife had finished getting ready and came downstairs. They then wished me a good day and headed out. I was so distracted by the canine maxi pad that it was only when they had left the house that I realized he had given me no instructions whatsoever about the feeding, bathing, clothing, or sleeping habits of his two children.

True story. I swear.

 

 

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Taco Hell

Tacos so perfect they aren't even tacos anymore.

Tacos so perfect they aren’t even tacos anymore.

I spent most of my teenage years a vegetarian. In the 1990s, fast food restaurants in America weren’t exactly vegetarian friendly. Read: they had no vegetarian options whatsoever (save for french fries, if that counts as a meal). This was long before the days of McDonald’s stocking “healthy” menu items like salad.

One of the few fast food restaurants that did offer vegetarian options was Taco Bell, often mockingly referred to as “Taco Hell.” Sure, most of the tacos contained beef or chicken. But there were also bean-based meals like the 7 Layer Bean Burrito, containing seven layers of mass-produced goodness: beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and guacamole. Or, the good old “Pintos and Cheese” bowl (refried beans, cheese, and red sauce).

And, back in the day, all of this cost $0.99. You could have a good solid feed at Taco Bell for under $3.

I remember the first time I went to Taco Bell. I wanted to make sure the beans were actually vegetarian since many refried beans contain animal lard (yes, I was one of those vegetarians that checks every label for every ingredient). Perplexed by my question, the cashier opened a cupboard beneath the counter, hauled out a large sack, and flipped it over to examine the label. It looked like a sack of cement. In fact, it was a sack of dehydrated, powdered refried beans that Taco Bell would reconstitute by “just adding water” (like instant mashed potatoes). After carefully reading the ingredients label, the conscientious employee informed me that no, the beans did not contain lard. They may, however, contain cement. But they are definitely vegetarian.

You think that would have scared me off, but I forged ahead and ordered my bean burrito anyway. And there was no looking back. To this day, I love Taco Bell. Go ahead, judge me. Think whatever you like; I’ll keep on eating it. I won’t deny the fact that Taco Bell is a perverse abstraction of Mexican food. Or, the fact that I’m even putting the words “Taco Bell” and “Mexican food” together in one sentence is likely to cause fits of outrage among many of my readers. But please forgive me: I’m from Connecticut, not Texas. I can claim the excuse of not knowing any better.

It’s so artificial and yet so good. And it’s not only the beans that are fake – notoriously, the sour cream, guacamole, and liquid orange cheese all come out of a food gun. Imagine something like a squeeze-handle caulking gun, but with tubes that fit inside it that contain toppings (I hesitate to use the word “food”) so the people rapidly preparing the Tex Mex delights can just shoot some guacamole onto your taco with a quick squeeze of the trigger. Mmm, so good.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Taco Bell has been largely unsuccessful in its attempts to expand its franchise outside of the US. Taco Bell entered the UK market in 1986, but apparently British people didn’t understand the allure of orange cheese and reconstituted beans, and all the locations were shut in the mid-1990s. More recently (in 2010) it has made attempts to re-enter the market. Maybe 21st century Britain will have more appreciation for the culinary art of expediently delivering guacamole with the finesse of a food gun.

I found a post in a forum which speculates as to why Taco Bell has been an “utter failure” in many of the international markets it has tried to break into. The writer of the post asks, “Any theories?” And one reader posted in response: “Could it be that Taco Bell in general sucks?” Not. True. I ❤ Taco Bell.

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Interrogation

InterrogationI recently blogged about the tendency of some Americans to monologue and subject those around them to a never-ending stream of information about themselves that the world never needed or wanted to know. Well, I realized the opposite can also be true. In addition to incessant talking, some Americans have the equally annoying habit of incessant questioning.

I went out for dinner with a female acquaintance the other week, looking for nothing more than to get to know each other better and enjoy a nice restaurant meal together. The meal ended up being delicious. And the woman was nice enough. But by the end of the meal I felt exhausted – because she had been asking me non-stop questions the entire time. I barely had a chance to chew my food, or ask her any questions in return, or maybe just enjoy a moment of quiet together over a glass of wine.

Now don’t get me wrong. Asking a person questions is something you do when you have a genuine interest in getting to know that person better, and on the other hand it’s off-putting when you meet self-involved people who never ask you any questions about yourself (I do always wonder how such people are so lacking in curiosity about others). But you don’t just get to know a person by asking them questions about their self, their past, and their preferences; you also get to know a person organically and naturally by spending time together and discussing topics of common interest.

I have noticed in the the US that people tend to ask a lot more personal questions, a lot more directly, and a lot more up front in the getting-to-know-you process. (American people also tend to volunteer a lot more personal information about themselves directly and up front.) I’m comparing this to British people, who tend to be much more private and reserved. The Brits avoid direct personal questions, which could be perceived as nosy or invasive; they tend to stick to “safe” common-territory conversation topics such as the weather, current events, sports, or something that both parties can moan (read: bitch) about together, like the London Underground.

These even plays itself out in the form of introductions. I remember in the UK, I would sometimes talk at length with someone – for example a random person I met at a house party, and spent most of the evening chatting with – without them ever asking my name (or me theirs). Then, at the very end of the night, when you part ways, one person might say, “Oh, by the way, what’s your name?” or even “Oh, by the name, my name is Ritch.” You introduce yourself as an afterthought, as though even asking someone’s name too soon in the conversation might be too pushy.

This is of course exactly the opposite of the American style, which is all about bulldozing right in there, proactively walking up to someone at the party with your hand extended, ready for handshake, and blasting “Hi, my name is Bob, what’s yours?” I appreciate that American forwardness and ease of talking to strangers. But I do wish sometimes that conversation could occur a bit more naturally – and part of that is sometimes silence occurring naturally.

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Pass the carbs

Carbs are my favorite food. Err, I mean my favorite organic compound.

Carbs are my favorite food. Err, I mean my favorite organic compound.

One thing I have noticed since returning to the US is Americans have a very weird relationship with food. I’m not even talking about the all too well known American habit of consuming grotesquely large serving sizes of both food and drink. No, what I’m getting at is the way Americans view food and refer to food.

It seems as though the American mind has abstracted food to its constituent parts, and rather than regarding cooking and eating as one of life’s great pleasures, food is perversely seen as fuel at best and sin at worst. This is reflected in the comments that I hear American people make, which strike me as bizarre – at the dinner table, someone said to me, “Pass the carbs.” I’m thinking, do you mean to say, “Pass me that basket of delicious crusty bread rolls”?

At work one day, I saw a colleague salting and peppering some hard boiled eggs for breakfast. I said “Mmm, that looks tasty” (clearly, I have been living away from African street food for long enough that hard boiled eggs have once again become appetizing to me). She responded by saying, “I need to eat some protein.” I was once on a dinner date and, when we were selecting items from the menu to share, I suggested a salad, to which the guy said, “Yes, let’s get some roughage.” Roughage? What, are we livestock?

I was on a business trip with a colleague and, when she saw me eat a bowl of noodles for dinner, she asked if I had eaten enough. I was taken aback, because I had just watched her eat one Luna Bar – a nutrition bar similar to a PowerBar – for dinner. So I returned the question to her. At which point she said, “Oh, that contains 12 grams of protein.” Wait, is that a meal? Is that even food?

I’m convinced this is part of the reason why so many Americans are overweight. I lived in France and ate plenty of delicious croissants (not carbs) and foie gras  (not fat) and poulet (not protein) and yet I, like most French women, did not get fat (as explained in the book French Women Don’t Get Fat). French people love to eat, and they love food for what it is: food. One of life’s great pleasures. They take time and joy and pleasure in its preparation and consumption, rather than eating on the go while doing something else, American style.

I must go now, because it’s time for me to eat dinner: a delicious, home-cooked Ukrainian meal of borscht, dumplings, and salads. I couldn’t tell you what’s in it, but I know it’s going to be mouth watering.

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Apple picking

You know what I need? Thirty more of these.

You know what I need?  Thirty more of these.

In September I visited a friend in Wellesley, Massachusetts and it made me nostalgic for New England. We went apple picking at an apple orchard in the nearby countryside with her three year-old son. Despite my age being approximately three decades greater than his, I think I was having more fun than him, at least until a man drove by with a bale of hay on a forklift.

It was the first time I had been apple picking in probably 20 years or more. One of my fond childhood memories of growing up in Connecticut is going apple picking with my mother and brother in the autumn. The “pick your own” farms are open to the public and usually the way it works is you prepay for a picking bag of a certain size, for example a bushel or a half-bushel or a peck or a half-peck (yes, these are real apple measurements).

Then you wander around the orchard at your own pace, picking the apples that take your fancy, and making sure to climb a few gnarly apple trees and horse around along the way. You’ll soon be weighed down with apples – a bushel of apples weighs around 48 pounds, and even a peck (four of which make a bushel) weighs 12 pounds.

After hauling them home, you next have to figure out what the hell to do with all those apples. Because it’s more apples than you would otherwise ever buy or consume. In my family, we would usually bake a couple apple pies and my mother would hollow out a few apples and fill them with brown sugar, cinnamon, and raisins to make baked apples.

After doing this, we would still be left with more apples than we would otherwise ever consume. So we would proceed to make an insane quantity of applesauce and freeze some of it. If only we knew how to make candied apples. My friend in Massachusetts opted to make a superbly delicious apple crisp, and then left the rest of the apples uncooked for her husband and three boys gobble up.

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