Alternative Perspective

A look at British culture from an outside perspective and a look at American culture from an outsider living within it's borders.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Ugly Awakenings

You go a few days with little to talk about and something like this happens. Of all the things I thought I'd be talking about in my little 'how the other half lives' Blog, I didn't think I'd get to talk about international responses to terrorism.

I was in England when 9-11 happened. I was in America when 7-7 happened. While the scale of the attacks in London is smaller than 9-11 the degree of co-ordination seems greater. But when comparing loss of life it's no game of Top Trumps.

After 9-11 I started making it a habit of checking the news every single morning. 'To see if the world is still there' I used to put it.

Yesterday, we got home late, and Katy had been painting the wall that my wireless router and cable modem plugs into earlier that day, so they were both unplugged. As we were going to bed she asked me if I wanted to go on the internet in the morning, and I said she needn't bother. I was tired, and my morning newschecking ritual didn't have the urgency anymore that you can feel when an ocean away from loved ones.

Funny then that I should wake up to a message sending me 'commiserations' and hoping that none of my family lived in London. They don't fortunately... but just yesterday after the olympics announcement I was being asked if I knew anyone who lived in London, calling to mind the people that I do know that live in and around the city.

As I write this, I don't know how devastating it's going to be in the long run. The UK firecrews are still going into some of the train stations with cutting equipment and oxygen masks. It was 5 days after 9-11 before they pulled the last living person out of the wreckage. Hopefully no family in England will be put through that special kind of hell.

Two years ago, I was working in England, and a minutes silence was held on 9-11. Some of the more ignorant people in the office were voicing complaints afterwards. 'They wouldn't do this for us.'

I mean ignoring the dozens of British people that died that day for a minute, I just wanted to paint a simple picture for those people living back in Britain that seemed to think America wouldn't bat an eyelid if something like 9-11 happened there.

This morning, the radio show I normally listen to on the drive into work was cancelled. Instead they were covering the events in London live. Patching from one news station to the next, following the story. Jay Sevron, who normally does the 3-7 pm slot was in. He'd presumably pulled himself out of bed and hauled ass to the station.

The guy at the army base this morning who checks my ID and drivers license every day (I drive through the army base to get to work... it's much shorter. I don't work in the army base) just waved me through today, with a sympathetic smile. No joke about my English accent today. No asking for my ID, just a brief moment of eye contact and a wave. He probably didn't want to ask me if I had any loved ones in London.

The first person I met at work this morning asked that question, and people have been asking me so far if I'm okay.

I am okay. I'm not pulling my hair out over a missing loved one, but I haven't managed to get in touch with my family yet to make sure that they're doing okay too.

For anyone that thought America wouldn't shed a tear for us Brits, I just wanted to show you that you were wrong.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Hose can you see the fireworks?

How topical eh? It being the fourth of July and me posting about fireworks and all that! First of all I wanted to do a little update about St George's day in England. I was told yesterday that this year it was celebrated properly. The day was made a holiday, bars were given licenses to stay open later than normal and people were encouraged to fly flags and apparently a lot of people did. That's great news if you ask me, even if I'm mostly pleased because someone actually went out and did something instead of complaining. Go England!

So yesterday, Katy wanted to go see the fireworks, and despite every cell in my body telling me it's the wrong time of year for them, away we went. Here in Massachusett's fireworks are illegal to sell, so you can only go to official displays. Even then they're done offshore on floating platforms by the local fire department. Not having ever witnessed offshore firework displays before moving here, I can say that the reflection of the water does add nicely to the overall affect of things.

In England we don't have the Fourth of July fireworks thing, obviously, we have a slightly more bizarre holiday called Guy Fawkes. It falls on the 5th of November and totally undermines Halloween year in and year out much to my annoyance. Again it's not an official holiday so you don't get the day off, even though it is one where people actually do things. England can be a bit weird like that. May Day, nobody does a thing, but you get that one off.

Guy Fawkes was the only one of the conspirators who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in England in some 16 something or other. Maybe it was 17 something or other. A while ago anyway. They put a crap load of gunpowder underneath and the guy left to light it, got caught. Something like that anyway. The history is a bit argued. One thing that is agreed on is that it wasn't just Guy who did it. He was the only one caught and took the full blame back in the past.

Somehow this all translated into a night where we build a big bonfire, burn an effegy of Guy and let off fireworks. It's called Bonfire night as much as it is Guy Fawkes night, and I'm sure some people call it Firework night.

Last one I was in England for though, the fireworks started around the first of October, and lasted every night until about mid November. Every year some kid blows off his hand trying to throw fireworks at strangers in the street. After that one they proposed a bunch of laws to prevent that type of thing going on. I'm not sure if it had the desired effect.

The big difference is that fireworks are sold in corner shops up and down the country, which makes it very easy to get a hold of.

I couple of fireworks displays stick in my mind. One had the barriers too close to where the fireworks were being launched from. The wind was blowing towards the crowds and just about everyone got eyes full of ash. Ash is raining out the sky and you're looking up to see fireworks. It wasn't so great.

What was a lot more fun was a different display where some of the fireworks tipped over and launched into the crowd where I was standing. Nobody got hurt, but seeing a mob of people running away, screaming, as huge white trails whizz around their legs and explode was bloody funny even for me, running along with them.

There are though some rather fundamental differences between how the British do fireworks and how the American's do them. Naturally. That's what the blog is about after all right?

In England fireworks would usually mean a crappy funfair. The kind that sells pork sausages in a huge bun and call them hot dogs. They aren't generally accompanied by music. They just stand by themselves, and people go 'oooooh' when an espescially pretty one goes off.

America, well at least around where I live, does things differently. First of all they do it on a much bigger scale. They shoot off massive fireworks bigger than I ever saw in England, and they do it synchronised (mostly) to bad songs about how great America is (there are good songs about the countries finer qualities but fireworks seem to demand the cheesiest ones), themes from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas movies, and bizarely, the themes from TV shows and songs from Disney movies.

Oh and Grease songs... though of course they edit them so children don't have to ponder what 'the chicks will cream' means. You know, cause if you're watching fireworks, you'd instantly think about getting wet with desire and turn into some kind of sexual deviant because you heard a Grease song. When I was a little kid, I and everyone I knew, knew the words to the songs from Grease (in my defense I had an older sister) but we just didn't know what they meant.

Fireworks in America do stuff that you wouldn't believe either. Like make Smiley faces when they explode, or bizarre as anything else, CUBES. Bloody impressive when you think about it. They make interlocking circles and they make circles with stars inside of them.

And of course, the only ones that getting applauded are the ones that blow up really big and don't do anything else.

If you reacted with surprise at the inclusion of the word 'applauded' in that previous sentance, well, I'm going to guess you aren't American.

Americans applauded fireworks. It's the strangest thing. I don't mean at the end, they applaud the people that made the display. That's not what I mean. I mean during the display, if there's an espescially big firework, the audience applaud. This is a particularly American thing. Applauding when there's no one there to hear the applause but the people applauding.

They do it after films too. Or even more bizarre, they applaud along with an audience at a quiz show when they get a question right.

Back though to the fireworks. There's nothing wrong with applauding fireworks of course, it just seems a little silly to someone from a culture where applause doesn't mean 'I liked that' but instead is meant to show the person or people who did something you liked that you liked it.

Sometimes it seems that people just seem to clap because everyone else is. That however doesn't just go for America.

So the fireworks were spectacular, the music a lot less so, and all in all I think it was a better show last year. Still... fireworks that explode into cubes... you have to wonder what they'll have next time don't you?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Coriander... and guns

Yesterday, while picking Katy up from work (she'd had a flat battery in the morning so I'd driven her in) her employer asked me if I wanted some fresh coriander. Fresh coriander is a wonderful thing so there was no way I'd turn such an offer down. Her employers are a married couple, of Indian descendancy but who moved here from England, and like me find trouble getting hold of such things as fresh coriander.

Despite spicy buffalo wings being a popular dish in America, there's little else that's given much spice. Infact, American's as a whole don't seem used to spices at all, and they really can't take as much as the average English person can. That's no doubt down to the fact that curries aren't anything as popular here in America as they are in the UK.

Spices, you get a taste for them, but you also slowly build up some resistance to them. You never get to the point where nothing is too spicy, but you slowly go up through the levels from one level of spice to another. What would have had you rolling on the floor in pain, half a year or so later could be perfectly tollerable.

Many American's fail to see the enjoyment in spices, but there are plenty that fortunately do. America is a big enough country to offer just about everything, but depending on how popular it is can make it harder and harder to find.

In England I lived about ten minutes walk from Rushholme and it's famous curry mile. My parents in Derby lived only a short distant from my favourite Indian restaurant, Jee Ja Jees.

When I moved here, there was one single curry restaurant on the cape, instead of the dozens within a stones throw that I was used to. Funnily enough the curry restaurant that was on the cape was run by a couple that had relocated from Rushholme. Rushholme has a whole range of varying quality restaurants, and the lesser ones border on nasty, unfortunately this one was nearer those lesser restaurants. I could see how being on a peninsular with no other Indian restaurants would be far more appealing than being in a mile long stretch with of dozens and dozens like in Rushholme. We only went there once.

Supermarkets may carry some of the ingredients to make some curries, but it was a struggle getting together what I had in my head as the necessary ingredients of Chicken Tikka Massala.

In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams joked that every planet had a drink called 'Gin and Tonic' but on each planet it was different. The spellings would be different but the pronounciation the same.

I wonder if he didn't get the idea from massala sauce. Chicken Tikka Massala has a relatively interesting origin. It's not a traditional Indian curry, but nor is it a horrendous English approximation of one. It was created by Indian's in England who were trying to appeal to English tastebuds. They achieved this rather well actually, as the Massala was not only imported back to India, but it became the single most popular dish in Britain. It surpassed fish and chips even... but unfortunately for me, I couldn't stand the cheap common versions of the dish.

Most people agree that it's a sweet, tomato, coriander and cream based sauce, but from there people seem to argue wildly. Tikka infers that the chicken has been marinated in Tikka spices and then grilled, preferrably in a Tandoor (a wood fired brick oven that gives chicken a very distinctive flavour)... though many people skip some or all of that and just use plain old boiled chicken instead of cooking the chicken seperately as you should.

Some places use coconut and some don't, the minority do use coconut but to my palette the kind with coconut is far superior. So I use coconut cream (fortunately sold so you can make Pina Coladas) and unsweetened dessicated coconut. That's where the sweetness of my massala sauce comes from. Without a tandoor, I can only skewer and grill my marinated chicken, but it comes out wonderfully.

The hardest ingredient to find was actually coriander. The sauce uses both ground coriander seed and fresh coriander leaves to give it it's distinctive flavour and I couldn't for the life of me find any. By coincidence I ended up settling with cilantro, which turned out to actually be coriander. Perhaps then it wasn't coincidence but my nose, but this renaming of a plant that was already well known by the time the American's moved here has always bemused me.

Still, once I had that, it was the missing link and I was able to make Chicken Tikka Massala at home and most importantly make it as spicy as I wanted.

So guns... I won't go off on any lengthy diatribe. I don't like guns, but unlike most people I know gun control wouldn't work here in the states. Not when there are already hundreds of millions of guns out there in peoples homes. In Britain, guns aren't a big problem. They banned hand guns a few years back after a madman walked into a school in Scotland with a bag full of them and just started pumping children full of bullets. I was nervous about what impact that would have on organised crime and the black market, but fortunately, it did do what was hoped and gun crime plummetted.

I know it's said that criminals don't obey laws, so how could a gun law do anything but make victims more victimisable, but certain laws did have a good effect. If you commit certain crimes but you have a gun with you when you do, the penalty for doing so is much stronger. Burgalers aren't looking for confrontations, and it had an effect.

Of course, a big difference is that in England, not even the police carry guns. They don't want to actually. But guns aren't part of British society. Over here, similar laws would most likely hurt more people than criminals just because the guns are so prevalent. The arguement goes, if only the police are allowed guns what if the police go rogue? A bit paranoid perhaps, but here, you couldn't disarm the police unless you could easily disarm the criminals, which you can't.

Would America be a safer place if there were *no* guns. Sure it would. The problem is that there are far to many to get to that stage.

Yes, guns don't kill people, people kill people, but there's a side of that arguement that people often overlook. Guns make it easier to kill people, and someone is more likely to die if they're shot at than if they're stabbed. The detachment of space between you and the other person, and that you only have to pull a little lever makes it very different from being right there in someones face plunging in a knife.

I know the constitution says you should have arms so if the government ever becomes corrupt then the people can take it back, but think about it. If the government comes corrupt they'll just change the constitution... it's already happening too. The government has already decided what is and isn't arms. I don't agree with the idea that people can own AK47s because the potential for killing the person you're pointing at and anyone else in the vicinity is fire higher than with a hand gun (and if someone mugs you, even in America the penalty for mugging isn't death).

So yes, I wish someone could click their fingers and make hand guns go away... but I also acknowledge that there are far too many for gun control laws to work. You can't look at American society in a bubble without comparing it to other countries without guns where death rates of violent crime have fallen since the hand gun ban, or without looking at places that allow guns but don't have anything like the problems America has with them, countries like Canada.

The constitution allowed you all to have guns to prevent corrupt presidents. Bush (this isn't a slam on Bush, because he didn't make the courts hand him Florida) didn't win the election the first time out fair and square. The votes in florida at the end of the day went to Al Gore... but a court ruled that it was too late to change the winner. Not the people of America, the courts. So a president who had had less of the popular vote than the other guy, as well as who should have had less of the electoral vote but was handed a state over the mess the recounts got into there, ended up in the white house. Someone who didn't fairly win an election took control of the country, and what did the gun carrying people of America do, finally given the chance to use their guns for the one reason that they're allowed to have them...

Nothing. They did nothing. In my eyes they waived the right to bare arms there and then... but it's too late now to just try and fix the problem with a few gun control laws. No, the first step is acknowledging that there is a problem. With American society and American guns.

Friday, July 01, 2005


Yesterday showed me quite nicely that even the hugely proud America is guilty of overlooking the importance of their national holidays. In England, when we celebrate the patron Saint of England, the mighty Sir George, slayer of dragons, we don't get a day off work, and we don't actually do anything.

No flag flying... nothing. About all anyone seems to do is complain about how much more of a celebration Saint Patrick gets. Personally I've long been proposing making it a day off, and organising a football match for the English team. About the only time you see flags flying in England is when there's a match on, and it's about as patriotic as we limeys get.

Whether or not you think flag flying is the hallmark of arrogance, or the height of national pride is of course up to you. I wouldn't do it myself, but that isn't to say I'm ashamed of my heritage either. England is after all a fallen empire, and while national pride remains, it remains unspoken.

Part of that is a result of something that makes for an interesting contrast between the cultures. Over here, someone who isn't flying a flag or speaking in support of at least the soldiers fighting in Iraq gets branded 'unpatriotic'. That and 'unamerican' are some of the strongest insults people use over here, always having the maximum impact and the strongest reactions.

I honestly think a lot of the outwardly patriotic 'look at me I'm flying a flag!' lifestyle is a result of social pressures. It's a bit like people being openly and outwardly heterosexual. Fondling women in public as if to say 'I'm not gay, see?'. Not that there's anything wrong with consensual public fondling of course.

I'm not saying these people are fake in their celebrations of American culture and nationality, just that they seem a bit self conscious about it. I do love America, so I better show it, because I don't want anyone to think that I'm not proud to be American.

Every flag is treated like the shroud of Turin. I'm sure the dos and don'ts of flags aren't that different to they are in England, it's just here people take them seriously. Flag protocol is very important. There are people trying to get a constitutional ammendment made that makes mistreating the flag illegal. While there's a lot to admire in all this, there is still that question in the back of my mind with regards to how honest the gestures are.

To get to that contrast I hinted about earlier, in England, if you were to erect a flag pole in your front garden and fly the British flag, it would probably be presumed that you were a racist. Unfortunately, the white supremists in England have done so much to taint the flag as to have given it that stigma. Of course, if anyone of any other culture in England flew their own flag, there'd be no social issues with it, but an English flag is consider by some people to mean 'F**k off back to your own country.'

Enough people that it's not flown outside our homes. This is of course a very sad aspect of British society in the modern world. Pride of nationality has become almost synonomous with racism, unlike in America where not showing enough pride is enough to make you a social outcast.

So when Americans wished me a 'happy holiday weekend' I couldn't help but smile at the inappropriateness of it.

Some people might have taken that as 'typical American arrogance' (something I might add that isn't typical of Americans at all. It's just very visible, and for the most part it isn't arrogance it's ignorance thanks to an education system that predominantly focusses on American achievement) but I just took it to show how far detached from it's original meaning the 4th of July celebration has become. 4th of July means fireworks, and cookouts... sitting back in the scorching hit knocking back cans of beer with family and friends... flying the flag and eating foods all coloured Red White and Blue... it no longer means 'celebration of defeating the British and winning American independance'.

Of course, it didn't really dawn on anyone that I mightn't be doing anything special this weekend. But why would it? This is an important weekend to everyone over here. 'Enjoy the holiday weekend' is just a different way of saying 'have a good weekend'. There is no real holiday this time in England, so I've no desire to indulge myself in anything particular, unlike the rest of the country. If anything helps my home sickness this weekend then, it's actually the fact that the true meaning of the holiday has been lost... just as it would have been back in good ole' Blighty.