Ugly sweaters

Now how many holiday parties do I have to wear this to?

Now how many holiday parties do I have to wear this to?

I have been invited to an overwhelming number of holiday (read: Christmas) parties this year. As a non-Christian, I don’t normally pay much attention to Christmas, beyond enjoying the opportunity to have some time off work and see my family and loved ones.

But, after all these years abroad, now that I have experienced the full lead-up to Christmas – and “lead-up” is the right word, because it seems the “season” starts right after Halloween, gains momentum after Thanksgiving, and reaches a full frantic frenzy by early to mid-December – well, now I’ve realized that it’s impossible not to pay much attention to Christmas.

Unless you want to risk social ostracism by opting out of the multiple, back-to-back, often conflicting holiday party invitations. Taken individually, you want to attend them, but taken as a whole CONSTANT-CHRISTMAS-PARTY-MARATHON-MASS – I was literally invited to ten holiday parties in ten days – you just want to crawl into your bed and hibernate until January.

Well one of the holiday party traditions which I discovered this year is the so-called “ugly sweater party.” A friend of mine hosted one, and my office also hosted an ugly sweater contest. (Sadly, due to my insane work schedule of late, I ended up participating in neither, despite having ordered a sufficiently ugly sweater from eBay for $0.99.)

Apparently this is a thing that you wear horrendously ugly sweaters with a Christmas or winter-style design in a tongue-in-cheek fashion (evidently it’s also a trend in the UK, if the “Christmas jumper” entry of Wikipedia is to be believed, although I must have missed it when I was living there).

I’d never heard of this before, but now I know it’s cool / camp / hipster / [insert other appropriate word]. To the point that it even has dedicated websites, such as www.buttuglysweaters.com. Yup, Christmas parties are some serious stuff.

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Hugs and kisses (or handshakes)

Bear Hug

What are we supposed to do next? Shake paws?

Anyone who has lived in multiple countries or cultures will understand that moment of confusion when you meet a new person in a new place and… have no idea how to appropriately greet them. Do I shake their hand? Do I hug them? Do I kiss them on the cheek? Do I kiss them on both cheeks? Do I kiss them on the cheek three times?

Inevitably, there is a socially strained moment of awkward hovering when neither party is entirely sure what to do or where to go. Maybe a couple of clumsy air kisses are exchanged, hopefully with each party starting on the same side of the face to avoid any risk of accidental lip contact.

I’ve noticed that in AMERICA, the preferred form of greeting friends is hugging. The “hello hug” is not something I have observed much in other cultures – in France, it was faire la bise; in Holland, it was the three kisses; in Liberia, it was the finger snap handshake, and in England, it was simply avoidance of all physical contact with the other person (because that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?). But in the US, it’s all about hugging: hug hello, hug good-bye.

You can usually tell how close the people are by how close their hug is. Couples, of course, embrace. Close friends do a full body hug, going for the real thing. And acquaintances do the “ass out hug” – the hug that creates the least bodily contact between the two greeters (and makes them look as camp as possible).

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Cars win

Choo choo! All aboard the express service to the 1980s!

Choo choo! All aboard the express service to the 1980s!

I never thought I would miss the London Underground. I take back all the salty words I showered upon it during all those years I slaved and sweated through it like a sardine in a tin (or should I say, a sardine in a tube).

But these days I find myself reminiscing for the “tube” as I go through my morning commute on the DC metro system, also known by the awkward acronym WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority).

The District of Columbia, an urban center and the nation’s capital, has pretty good public transport as far as American standards are concerned. But I’ve come to realize just how much lower American standards are than European standards when it comes to public transport, be it trains, subways, or buses.

It really hit home for me when, shortly after I returned to the US in January of this year, I was taking the Caltrain between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Mind you, this is one of the wealthiest, most technology advanced regions of the country, not to mention one of the top five most densely populated metropolitan areas in the US. So really, an ideal place to be making an investment in mass transportation.

Instead, you find yourself in the ghetto-fabulous, retro-tastic cattle car that is the Caltrain. One time when I was getting off the Caltrain, I noticed a plaque on the wall near the door. Now first of all, let me tell you, getting off the Caltrain is an awkward affair, requiring you to descend a set of large metal steps and breach a not insignificant gap onto the platform below. Every time I got in and out, I was reminded of trains I had taken in India and Romania. Well, as I was clambering out one day, I spotted this plaque, which read:

Caltrain: Assembled in 1985, Refurbished in 2002.

So let’s get this straight. It’s 2014. This train is nearly 30 years old. And it was lasted updated 12 years ago. Clearly, we Americans are not investing much in public transport.

One European friend, when taking the train from New York City to Connecticut, was shocked by the state of the Metro North Commuter Railroad carriages (anyone who has taken the ultra-modern, smooth-sailing trains in Holland and visited the US after would probably have the same reaction). And the same story seems to apply not only to the trains/subways/buses themselves, which are usually much older and more rudimentary than their counterparts in Europe, but also to all the infrastructure (or lack thereof) surrounding the public transport.

Take, for example, the ill-designed, user-unfriendly machines that patient passengers must use to make payment for the BART in San Francisco. They look like they were designed by an amateur engineer in the 1990s. Or the entry/exit gates at subway stations. Every time I tap in and tap out of the DC metro – waiting for the clunky gates to slowly open and close, waiting for the card reader to process the last transaction and turn from red to green, and waiting for the next half dozen people resignedly shuffling in front to do complete the same pattern – I think back to exiting the London Underground at King’s Cross station at rush hour, being one of hundreds of passengers swiftly flicking through the modern Oyster card-reading barriers in split seconds. It’s only now that I’m realizing what a well oiled system it was.

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I need a new…

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

Who knows how to work it baby? The cobbler.

My roommate, who is German, came home from work one day and told me he had broken his shoe; the sole had fallen off while he was walking. They were the only nice pair of professional shoes he owned and he wore them to work every day. He went to a cobbler to try and get them repaired, but the cobbler had turned him away. So, he bought some glue and fixed them himself. Voila. He continues to wear those shoes at work every day.

It got me thinking about how many cobblers there were in London, which was something I noticed when I lived there. They were usually nestled in and around London Underground stations or squeezed into small shops in London City. And they always seemed to be doing a brisk business, including female customers getting heels re-affixed to pumps they pumped too hard.

I realized that in Europe, if your shoe breaks, you go to the cobbler to patch it up. The same is true in Africa, the only difference being the cobblers are often shop-less vendors sitting on the side of the road; that said, they are just as ready (indeed more so) to restore any shoe or flip-flop to wearable condition (and for small money).

This struck me, because as an American, my response to a shoe breaking was… go out and buy a new pair. Shoes and clothing are so cheap in the US (and have become cheaper over my lifetime), and there is such a mentality of consumption, that the “solution” to a broken shoe is replacement, not a repair. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” becomes “If it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one.”

But even if an item isn’t broken, I feel it has become a habit in our culture to simply cycle through consumer goods – throwing away old items as soon as they show the slightest wear or obsolescence, and replacing them with newer, shinier versions. I realized I’ve become guilty of this myself. For example, before January, I had never even owned a smart phone; during all my years abroad, I got along just fine with my £5 Samsung phone. But when my brother gifted me an iPhone upon my arrival in the US (albeit one from 2010), it became my new standard.

But, I soon grew out of it. Using it on a daily basis, I began to get annoyed with its slow operating speed (surely due to the fact that it was 4 years old and several generations old). Sure, it worked. But it often froze up and I had to wait a long time for applications to load. So, I bought a new one. Well, by “new,” I mean a used Samsung Galaxy II that I bought on eBay for $114. But still, a new-er phone. I similarly upgraded my laptop, from the piece-of-shit $280 one I bought in January when I was unemployed, to a nicer one I’m using currently.

Next thing you know, I’ll want a new iPad, and a new Kindle, and by the time I’ve replaced all those things, it will be time for me to buy a newer phone and a newer computer again…

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Bagels

I'll have one of each, please.

I’ll have one of each, please.

Bagels are one of my favorite foods in the world. I could eat a bagel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one day. Indeed, I have.

To me, the bagel is a typically American food, something that I grew up with. I regularly ate toasted bagels for breakfast and bagel sandwiches for lunch during my childhood in Connecticut, only miles away from the bagel mecca that is New York City. Bagel-eating is one of those things that Americans are often teased about by the French, it being viewed as a silly American dietary habit like peanut butter or cinnamon (God knows what the French would make of our green bagels, or the Irish for that matter).

So I was surprised to learn that bagels are actually… Polish. Yes, the bajgiel originates from Krakow, and was brought to New York City by Polish Jews (which probably explains why NYC remains prime bagel territory today). Indeed, it turns out bagels are consumed in various forms throughout Eastern Europe, not to mention their cousins the pretzels which live in Germany.

I learned from my personal experience living in the UK and Canada that London and Montréal are also known for their bagels. These bagels were different than the ones I was used to noshing back home, but among the best I ate abroad.

In London, Brick Lane is known for its bagels, which are smaller and chewier than the American variety, and are often satisfyingly consumed in the middle of the night after some heavy drinking in East London. Bagels can also be found in a few north London neighborhoods with Jewish communities. Beyond those select areas, I found most of the “bagels” available in the UK to be disappointing. They were not the real deal – baked (not boiled-and-baked) and soft (not chewy) bread in the shape of a bagel – a bagel impostor, if you will. Let’s put it this way: if your jaw isn’t tired after chewing the bagel, it probably wasn’t the real thing.

The Montréal-style bagel is also a thing. I used to make special trips to the other side of Mont-Royal to visit the famous Montréal bagel factories of Saint Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel. The Montréal bagel is a breed of its own: denser, sweeter, and much thinner with a larger hole, it is baked in a wood-fired oven. It is delicious, but if you’re used to eating a hefty New York style bagel – doughy mass of “carbohydrates” that it is – then you’ll probably need to eat two Montréal-style bagels to be satisfied. Which is why I often ate them in pairs.

And yes, I totally had a bagel for breakfast this morning.

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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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