Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Food! Glorious Food!!

As you may have guessed from the title of this blog, today I want to talk about a topic which is near and dear to the hearts of many people. No, not pathetic little Cockney thieves in some reason to think they deserve two bowls of slop, but rather the topic of the famous song - food.

The food in America is a strange and curious thing, and it's funny because you simply cannot guarantee what is going to be good and what is going to be slop based on what it is and where you find it.

For example, in the UK if you decide that you need some ham or chicken slices to go in your sandwich you effectively have two options; you can go the Asda route which entails purchasing 300 slices crammed into a plastic package and which you know beyond all reasonable doubt consists of 80% water, 19% dog and 1% ham or chicken. But of course, it costs 99p (that's Asda price) and you are under no illusions that it will taste of anything but water and dog. Alternatively, you can go to Marks & Spencer's and remortgage your house, take out a bank loan and Max all your credit cards just to be able to afford two slices of premium ham/chicken. Of course, this colossal sum is justified by the fact that although it tastes nice, they smother enough herbs and spices over the chicken/ham that for all you know you could still be eating dog.

Contrast this to my experience in America whereby I raided the local supermarket for essentials on my first weekend and purchased a pack of ham and chicken which looked very much like the Asda variety. It was certainly priced like the Asda variety. Imagine my surprise when the following day I made a sandwich and was treated to a taste and texture of meat unlike anything you would find in the UK outside of Antony Worrall Thompson's fridge. If we had food like this readily available in the UK I don't think Jamie Oliver would need to strap children into electric chairs just to get them to eat a sandwich instead of a burger.

Which brings me on to my second point. As you are all no doubt aware, the United States of America is highly famous for being the burger capital of the world. Unless you have spent the last 10 years living as a nomad in Nepal you are probably at least passingly familiar with the documentary Super Size Me which details explicitly the problems arising from the fast food mentality of the US.

So given that I am in the home of the Big Mac, The Whopper and Wendy's you'd think it would be relatively simple to get a decent burger. My first attempt was at a place called Best Burger. Sorry lead me rephrase that, my first attempt was at a place laughingly called Best Burger. They could have called it "By God Shoot Yourself Now Rather Than Eat This Burger Burger" and it still would not do justice to quite how bad this disgrace for an organic compound was.

My second attempt at a burger was along more traditional lines with a quick lunch at Burger King. This Burger was in fact passable however I should emphasise that phrase passable, and given that this came from one of the biggest names in the burger industry it was still a disappointment. The only saving grace is that unlike the UK, Burger King in the US do not have the audacity to charge you a months wages (and they get your order correct).

Fresh from the failed burger quest we move on to a pleasant surprise - the pizza. To be honest, I had not expected much from the pizzas here on the grounds that there was no reason to expect any different from the UK. I had of course underestimated the Italian presence in New York. Quite simply, the pizzas here are delicious and surprisingly healthier than in the UK as they are made according to Italian tradition. Please note, I said healthier, not healthy.

Last but not least, we come to the lunchtime menus which can only be categorised by the sandwich known as the “Chicken Parm Hero” for which I wholeheartedly and unashamedly blame Juan Martinez. To call this a sandwich is like calling the Statue of Liberty a "model". This leviathan is so large that when I had a foot long Subway the following day it looked positively miniscule. The Hero had quite literally changed my perceptions, or perhaps it is so vast that it simply warped space-time on my desk to such a degree that anything placed there now looks smaller. Of course if that's true, why does the amount of work on my desk not appear to have shrunk?

One final note before I sign off, with all of this talk of burgers, pizzas and epic sized sandwiches it probably sounds as though I'm eating as much crap is when I was a student. Never fear ladies and gents, the majority of my meals have so far been at a nice little Italian restaurant over the road where the lasagna is quite simply to die for. Of course, having said that it is the size of a small third world country. I am in America after all.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


As I'm sure all of you are aware, the United States of America can very easily name technology as one of its claims to fame. While they would arguably come second only to Japan, we must remember that it is the Americans who (arguably) put man on the moon. It was the Americans who, for better or worse, harnessed the power of the atom. It was in a small valley in California that some bright spark realised that by making computer chips out of silicon they could place a PC in every home.

It all therefore comes as something of a surprise that technology over here has the consistency of my grandmother's Bubble and Squeak. Sometimes you hit gold with a mouth full of delicious potato goodness, other times you are stuck with a mouthful of cabbage.

My first example is the humble lift, or elevator as they so lovingly refer to it. Many of my colleagues at work in Sidcup may be aware that as a general rule I avoid the elevator in our building like the plague. I currently have a theory that our elevator is perhaps the first elevator ever developed. Please understand, I do not refer to the first elevator created by man as judging by the look of the contraption it quite probably predates the early dinosaurs. In fact, this elevator is so ancient and decrepit that it wouldn't surprise me if the company simply employs handyman who seems to be the everyday "fixing" it.

But I digress, we should return our focus to the American elevators which are in many respects far superior. They seem capable or zooming me up or down 14 floors with the same grace as Superman showed in swooping down to save damsels in distress. Also, much like the aforementioned Superman, the whole journey takes approximately a billionth of a second. Even more fantastic, the display which accounts the floor is so efficient that it pretty much skips the numbers between the lobby and your destination.

Nevertheless, there is something quite foreboding about taking a trip in an American elevator. Earlier this evening, I went roaming around the apartment building in an attempt to find some of the fantastic facilities detailed in my hand out. Suffice to say my building must have been designed by the ancient Greeks because somebody obviously felt the need to include a good old-fashioned Labyrinth. I am reasonably confident that had I not been sidetracked into an elevator, I may well have discovered the Minotaur stalking the halls.

Inside the elevator I was treated to another seamless journey that took me from point to point with the same instantaneous transportation one does not expect to find outside of a Star Trek transporter. And I think this is the problem. I am a child of Great Britain, one of the greatest countries to ever pioneer the science of engineering. By nature we build fast mechanical contraptions that are incredible eyesores and usually function with a smoothness that can only be compared to the feel of rubbing a pineapple against a cheese grater.

But despite all this you can always guarantee that an English contraption will last through the centuries due to its basic sturdy manufacture. British craftsmanship may result in rickety contraptions and you are guaranteed to feel every bump, notch and jerk involved in its usage, but there is a certain safety in feeling the machine work around you. When listening to my dad talk about machinery, or Mark talk about cars, there is always reference to the operator feeling the machine at work. In these American elevators, the ride is so smooth that you do not feel the mechanics at work and therefore you do not feel the safety of physics propelling you up or down the building.

Along a similar vein is the cooker in my apartment. In true American design, the cooker seeks to hide absolutely every facet of its function and as a result I cannot comprehend how the freaking thing heats up food. Sure, it has a series of dials to operate, just like in the UK. However the innards of the machine are completely closed off, I can see no gas burner nor can I see the tell-tale signs of the electric cooker. It may as well run off of bloody magic. And since I cannot understand it, I do not trust it. On the bright side I am sampling more than a healthy amount of the local cuisine. Expect a blog on food in the near future.

My final rant on technology should bring a smile to any of my colleagues reading this. As part of an initiative to cut costs last July the case handlers at my workplace were outfitted with the latest high-tech voice recognition software. Unfortunately when it comes to typing, my fingers move slower than continental drift. It is honestly a pace that can only be described as glacial. So naturally I jumped full on board with this initiative and my Dragon allows me to write lengthy blogs with ease. Others of my colleagues treat Dragon like the annoying Aunt at weddings; they keep their head down and pretend it doesn't exist.

The reason I bring this up is because it's not perfect and since I'm using dragon to write these blogs you may see the occasional screwup creeping in. Over the months of using dragon it has come up with some spectacularly wrong interpretations which we have affectionately entitled "Dragonisms". One of my earliest was when I dictated "please acknowledge receipt of this letter" and Dragon kindly typed "please ignore receipt of this letter".

On the bright side, Dragon usually understands nine out of 10 words which is a better level of comprehension that my mother usually manages, especially if the topic is technology.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I want to start this blog by stressing that despite the cultural stereotype that all young people spend all their time sat in front of the TV, aside from watching DVDs, I do not really watch much television at all.

Quite frankly the quality of television these days is simply not up to the standard of the shows which were around when I was a child and as such I can't be bothered to look for the one golden nugget amongst the non-stop drivel that is the soaps and reality TV which make up the bulk of programming.

With the above in mind, I was amazed to realise that I was vaguely looking forward to watching American television. It was on a family holiday to Florida that I caught my first glimpse of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which would become a small obsession during my schooldays). I have recently become obsessed with The Big Bang Theory (expect a blog on this any day now) and was therefore looking forward to seeing this before it becomes available on DVD in the UK.

So with all this anticipation in mind I was pretty shocked to realise that American TV is quite frankly bollocks.

The main problem is that while we in the UK have a substantial amount of tripe littering our screens it is nothing compared to the absolutely galactic amounts of drivel that smears American TV. However, in all fairness, the issue here is probably one of our own doing. After all, we in the UK only see a small amount of American TV and it is usually cherry picked as being the best of the best.

We sit in our comfy United Kingdom watching such classics as Friends, Frasier and The Big Bang Theory and we think of America as a gigantic comedy manufacturing television studio. In reality, we don't realise that Americans have to sit through over 200 channels (and that's only basic cable) of 24 hour a day shite. When viewed like this you can see that it is merely a statistical certainty that by making so much programming they are bound to get the occasional hole in one.

With that problem aside, let's assume for a moment that you do discover a good TV programme or film to watch. All I can say is that I hope you like advertising because unless you have an incontinence problem and need the bathroom every five minutes, you are going to get seriously ticked off with the amount of adverts. Most stupid of which is the fact that they advertise the programme you're watching during its commercial break.

A lot of you are probably thinking that I'm exaggerating so let's give an example. On my first weekend here I found one channel playing the 80s Tom Cruise classic Top Gun. Having recently spent a weekend in Hull with Dave blaring out Kenny Loggins "Highway to the Danger Zone" I was feeling nostalgic and decided to watch it.

IMDB tells me that Top Gun lasts 1hr 50mins, yet on American TV this film was on for 2 1/2 hours. For the statistically impaired, that means that approximately 25% of the running time of this film was commercial breaks. And this calculation does not take into account the amount of time cut from the film due to it being pre-watershed. All I can say is thank God it wasn't Lord of the Rings.

So next time you will sit down to watch a rerun of Friends, take a moment to thank our American cousins for having the patience to sit through enough television to create a program like Friends. And also thank your lucky stars that you only have to put up with one 10 minute break.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Planes, Glaswegians and Passport Control

I've never had a problem with flying, in fact like most journeys I find the travelling and the method of travel to be part of the enjoyment. I had always suspected this was just childlike excitement when I went on holiday with my parents but, as I discovered when I went to the Canary Islands, I still enjoy travelling with the same childlike fascination. Who knows, maybe I just need to grow up.

So it's fair to say that when my boss laughed when I told him I was flying with British Airways, I was a little taken aback. When he then went on to explain that he cast himself as an "ABBA" (Anyone But British Airways) I began feeling slightly dubious about the journey.

Things begin at Heathrow airport, at the infamous terminal five which has caused so much controversy. To be perfectly honest, it probably wasn't worth all the hassle. The area where you get rid of your bags & sign in can only be described as a colossal waste of space. The security checkpoint personnel were friendly but again I think the whole system must have been designed by a baboon as I quite honestly think my blind autistic niece could have designed a better layout.

My main problem is the area where your hand luggage is scanned for bombs or other hazardous materials. For instance, why do they feel the need to point out on the sign that you are not allowed to carry nuclear materials? Surely the only people trying to smuggle a nuclear device in their hand luggage are not going to be put off by a sign telling them they are not allowed? Am I missing something? Is there a new Blackberry that requires a plutonium battery?

In addition, you are expected to queue for half an hour in order to be presented with a conveyor belt whereby you have to place everything short of your epidermis into a grey tray ready for a very bored looking security guard to scan it while you get frisked coming out of the body scanner. The problem is you are expected to fill the tray in 30 seconds, and this includes having to remove any laptops from laptop cases. Why can you not be given the tray at the start of the queue so that you can empty your pockets etc into the tray while you queue so that when you reach the conveyor belt you do not have to hold everyone up while you remove everything.

Moving on to the flight itself, this was a pleasant surprise. After being paraded through the first-class section, I found my seat in the rear of the cattle class. It was much better than I remembered on family holidays, with a television in the back of the seat in front and an on demand entertainment service with a huge selection of films and television programmes covering a variety of genres.

Of course, it is not usually the entertainment or the airline which provide the letdown but is in fact your fellow passengers. Sat in front of me was a Glaswegian couple and to my left were two Glaswegian guys. The wife of the couple in front decided to put her chair back, but given the velocity and force in which the chair reclined I can only assume that the age-old question of "who ate all the pies" has now been answered.

The Glaswegian fellow to my left decided that instead of dealing with the matter in a calm collected manner, he would deal with the matter by jamming his knees into the back of the chair attempting to push it back upright. Not wanting to be outdone in the rudeness and vulgarity stakes, the husband in front decided to climb over the back of the chair and threatened to punch the other Glaswegian's lights out. Given that by the look of him the only way to accurately measure this man's age was with carbon dating, my money was on the chap to my left.

Unfortunately this clash of the titans was quickly put down by the air steward who, to his credit, managed to quieten the situation in a very calm and amenable manner.

The rest of the flight proceeded very well, I spent the majority of the time watching the entertainment which included The Men Who Stare at Goats, Couples Retreat, The Simpsons and my personal favourite; an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

Having completed the flight, the only remaining obstacle was the US immigration and Customs check at JFK. All I can say is, if any of you ever lose your passport and had the audacity to report it as lost, should you ever find it again for God's sake tell the UK passport office that it has been found. The alternative is being shown to a small waiting room guarded by a couple of chaps with M16 assault rifles. Apparently, having a passport that is listed as lost or stolen is frowned upon in the US and making the mistake of not informing the passport office that it has been found is considered a gross mistake. I wouldn't mind, but it's not like the Americans never make a mistake, just ask Fidel Castro.

So, having narrowly escaped a Glaswegian fistfight and an anal probe by the US Customs and immigration service, I hailed a taxi and prepared to make my way to Manhattan...

To Blog or Not to Blog, That Was the Question

I'm told a very good place to start is the beginning, and since this seems logical I suppose I should begin my blog by answering the question "why are you blogging?".

The answer is very simple; it's all Alex Freeman's fault. If anyone is actually reading this then I'm sure that you will be familiar with Alex (as he seems to know absolutely everybody ever), and you will therefore probably also know that Alex has once again begun the monumental task of trying to read 100 books in 2010. As a little bonus, he has also decided that this year he will blog his effort with reviews of every book he reads. For those foolish people who have not yet read his blog, I strongly suggest you do so as it is highly entertaining and you may well discover a new book to read.

Getting slightly back on track, the reason that this is all Alex's fault is because while we were discussing his blog I stupidly suggested that I would like to write a blog but have nothing interesting to say. I am currently sat in an apartment in the middle of the Financial District of New York, literally within spitting distance of such famous landmarks as the Empire State building, the World Trade Center and (for anyone who spoke to Dave about his trip to the US) Brady's. Somehow I don't think the "nothing interesting to say" argument is really valid at this point.

So, since I'm going to spend the next seven weeks in one of the most interesting, dynamic and energetic places on earth (and seeing as I cannot be bothered to retell the same story 20 times) I thought now would be a good time to write a blog.

What will follow over the next seven weeks will be a diary of my experiences and thoughts of life in the Big Apple, in the hope that it will entertain you and preferably so that when any of you visit this wonderful place (I'm looking at you Mark) you won't make the same blunders as I undoubtedly will.

One final note, should anyone actually read this stuff please feel free to comment at the bottom and if there are any suggestions for places I should visit make a note either in the comments section on facebook and I will visit and blog it.