BRITS VS YANKS: Government (Shutdown)

As we look across the pond at the government shut-down in the US, I suspect many here are wondering how the heck this could happen (and trust me, many back home are thinking the same thing). As similar as our democratic systems are, it points to the striking differences between how our governments operate. Whose is better?

To start with, Brits vote for a party. Americans vote for a person (be it a Senator or Congressman or President). So in the US, you can have a ballot where you vote for your local Republican congressman because you like his/her policies, but you can tick a Democratic President on the ballot for the same reason.

As you vote for a party in the UK, once the counting is down, the party with the most votes and seats comes into power and the head of the party becomes Prime Minister.  Done and dusted. That means that for the next 5 years, the party and Prime Minister that were voted into power control the government, the policies, the budget, etc. They set the agenda. That’s it, and if you don’t like it, you can vote differently in the next elections.  (We’ll save coalition governments for another day.)

In the U.S., we have this thing called “checks and balances” or as some in D.C. call it “quagmire” :-).  Because you can vote individually and NOT down party lines means you can end up in any given election year where you’ve elected a Democratic President, the House is controlled by Dems, but the Senate is controlled by Republicans or any similar confusing permutation (to recap, our lower house or Congress is similar to your MPs, and our upper house or Senate is similar to your Lords).

So as a result of this system, where no one entity has too much power (the powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government in the US are clearly separated and defined), our Congress and Senate and President end up bickering a lot. And since they cannot agree on many things, they end up in stalemates.

Enter Government Shutdown.  Because one party (in this case the Democrats) could not agree on the budget the President and his party (the Republicans) put forth, and since the budget needs to be approved by both the House and then the Senate, the deadline came and went without consensus.

In the U.K., this just doesn’t happen.  There is little recourse if you don’t like the budget conservatives (ruling party right now) put into place, except to protest with your local reps or vote differently in the next election.  Acceptance and move on.

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However, you should see Budget Day here! It was nothing short of a royal wedding coverage. It’s absolutely fantastic (for policy wonks and geeks)! There are helicopters hovering over the black car carrying the famous “Red Box” that is attached to the UK Treasurer as he leaves 10 Downing and heads to Parliament to read out the new budget. Budget Day last fall was November 22nd and the BBC (and other networks) had a 4-hour special breaking into their regular news programming to carry the speech live and then go into extensive analysis with experts, followed by immediate feedback with citizens across the country.  Four hours! Live TV! On the national budget!!

But this doesn’t happen in the U.S.  The two sides go into their corners and negotiations are heated. The shutdown this time has become even more politicised than before. Thanks to this President, it’s vicious and nasty. The message you hear when you call the White House says calls cannot be answered because the Democrats are holding government funding “hostage”. (Listen here). And this irresponsible and erroneous ad has been approved of by the President, contrary to what the White House press secretary recently said.

Many are affected by the shutdown, but the scaremongering the President has attached to “our nation’s security” and not being able to “pay the troops” is overblown and misunderstood. This piece by Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling explains exactly what happens in a government shutdown to the military and why. As he’s been in command when this has happened before, I suspect he has a better handle on it than the President.

And the issues they are squabbling over are extensive but at this point it boils down to DACA (Dreamers, the children who came illegally to the US to stay and work or study and allowed to stay b/c of a law Obama put into place in 2012), border security, children health insurance, and spending and investment.  This has happened in the past (Monica ended up roaming the halls of a fairly empty West Wing during the Clinton White House because of a government shutdown, and we all know how that ended). But in every instance, it takes compromise on both sides of the negotiation.

This President touts himself as being a tough negotiator, a “dealmaker”.  In this case, I’m glad the Democrats are digging their heels in, but getting to this point doesn’t help anyone, and I fear the President and his pride will be determined to win this. And the American people are already turned off by Washington. 80% of Americans polled in 2017 say they disapprove of the way Congress handles their job (Gallup). No surprise there.

I’m not sure which is better. I do like being able to vote for the individual rather than the party. I do like the theory of checks and balances but it just doesn’t seem to work well in practice.

Alternatively, I’m not sure having a fait accompli is good either. However, without the option to change policies halfway through an administration, I think it becomes that much more incumbent for the sitting administration to get things right.  If they don’t, they’ll be voted out at the next chance. They have one shot and have to make it work.  Let’s hope the Dems and Reps in Washington can do the same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LUMIERE LONDON!

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For anyone who happens to be in the City this weekend, you cannot miss this. I am heading down on Sunday night, but a friend went last night and thought I’d share some photos:  Lumiere London

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My husband and I saw some “Son et Lumieres” Shows in France on our honeymoon years ago, but still remember what a beautiful spectacle it is, especially as they light up beautiful, centuries old buildings. But London has added so many other aspects to this show, and modernised it in an interactive way. See the photos below. You can go to different parts of the city for different routes and exhibits. Download the app and it will guide you to the different exhibits. Enjoy!!

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Does Anyone Over a Certain Age Say This Anymore?

I was speaking to my 13-yr-old recently and coordinating weekend schedules. She wanted go to the mall with her friends to “go shopping” together. That stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t understand why at the time, but a few days later it sunk in.  What is this thing they call “going shopping together”? When would anyone find the time?

Is it just me? Am I the big loser (as The Trumpster so often says)?  I’m over 50, I work and I’m raising a child, we’ve moved continents 3 times (not country, CONTINENTS) and I’m thinking maybe all these things have contributed to my predicament. I racked my brains to think of when anyone last said those 3 little words (“Let’s go shopping!”) to me.

I do remember an Australian friend coming through London on a work trip and we had an afternoon together. We met near Regent Street and she had already stated up front in texts “We have to go shopping! I need more work clothes!”  The idea put fear in me. Perhaps it’s because I’m so bad at it? Or don’t care? I’ve never really been bothered about shopping but always loved my girlfriends who did — who would drag me out and show me what I was missing. I always needed their expertise to help me understand what looked good or what was “in” at the moment. I relied on them.  I was much more comfortable buying stuff online when that became cool — even if it didn’t fit and I was supposed to send it back for a refund (I say this because I’m too lazy and rarely did).

Anyway we went to Reiss near Piccadilly and she helped me pick out a beautiful black-and-white striped jersey Bardot top that I wear constantly. That was about 6 or 7 years ago.  She’s a self-admitted clothes horse and has a room in her house dedicated to just shoes. I think she dropped £600-£800 that weekend.  I’m not making fun at all — I’m admiring. It’s clearly a deficit of mine.  Likewise another friend in L.A. took me shopping years ago in my early 30s on Melrose Avenue and I STILL have the 3 or 4 items she hand-picked for me that I would NEVER have picked for myself. They were so cool and trendy! They don’t fit, of course, but I still have them. Thinking I can recycle them for my daughter?

Anyway, I guess I’m saying I miss it. It’s not to say I haven’t been shopping with my husband or daughter, but that’s different.  It’s less about the shopping and more about the girl talk and bonding that happens whilst shopping. Women, and men, tend to get more isolated as they get older.  Those bonding moments are fewer and far between.  So, I know my friends cannot believe I’m saying this, but sometime soon, will someone ask me to go shopping with them?

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Doesn’t Everyone Start Their Day Like This?

Driving my husband and daughter to the Tube stop and school, we were having a fun bicker about something trivial when my husband said “Hang on, hang on. Do you think we bicker more than other families, the same as other families, or less than other families?” My daughter was torn between the same and more. I said definitely more, for sure. Husband: “What?! No!! I would say definitely less! Why would you say more? That’s absurd!” And the bickering started up again. 😂

LITTLE LONDON SURPRISES

London can be a very cold, harsh, unfriendly and unforgiving city.  As much as I love it here, there are days when it really does try the toughest of spirits. But as we close out 2017, I can’t help but think of the small acts of kindness, the little gems that occur on a daily basis, the serendipitous events that unfold around this cavernous, brilliant, bustling metropolis. You just have to look.

To start with, there is the “driver’s etiquette”.  This is true country-wide but it’s really a sight to behold in the throngs of London traffic. Perhaps it’s the English tendency to queue politely for everything and anything, but even at the height of rush-hour and impatience, you will see the “zipper system” working efficiently. When two-lanes merge into one, everyone waits for each other and it’s the exception to the rule when someone jumps ahead. Likewise, at 4-way stops, it’s a polite “after you” indication that occurs (to the point that sometimes I wonder if anyone will go!).

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But my favourite is “the wave” and the blinkers “thank you” afterwards. Anywhere in London (and the UK), when someone is switching lanes ahead of you or you need to let the car in, or if a vehicle is turning into your lane from a left or right intersection (junction), you slow down with hands on the wheel and give them the one-handed wave — an indication that it’s ok to go.  Once the car moves in ahead of you,  he or she then “thanks” you by putting their blinkers/hazards on briefly. If two cars are at a face-off on a narrow street where only one can pass through, one will blink the headlights which is an indication that you should go ahead. Once you pass, you give “the wave” as thanks. It’s an absolutely brilliant system that works seamlessly in most cases.  Cars, busses, trucks, lorries, everyone does it.  When I go home now to the States, I find the driving unbelievably aggressive and self-righteous. Everyone just assumes that they are King of the Road and deserves to squeeze in ahead of everyone else. Very unbecoming.

Another present delivered itself to me in a complete stranger’s act of kindness. My girlfriends and I were doing a long 12 mile walk in preparation for a charity event one summer.  We started out in Chiswick, went along the Tow Path to Putney Bridge, turned up the south side of the river past Hammersmith and Barnes and up to Kew Bridge. As we were nearing the end of the walk, I realised I had somewhere along the way dropped my iPhone (don’t ask me how – it’s a bad habit). One of my girlfriends rang it and a lovely man answered. “Oh, excellent, you called! I was hoping you would. I have it here on my desk at work. I went out for a run at lunchtime and saw it on the Tow Path near Hammersmith Bridge and thought if that was my iPhone I would want someone to pick it up for me. So I did!” I know. Very lucky. But floored that in a city 10 million strong and geographically massive, some good samaritan went through the trouble to retrieve it and take care of it until I had called.

There are many others – a plumber who came to fix a problem with the sink who wouldn’t charge me because, as he said in his very East Laahhndon accent “This was too easy to fix. Took only 10 minutes and no parts. No worries”. Or a barista at Starbucks who ran after me when I left some cash on the counter.  Or a Sainsbury employee who picked up my parking card when I dropped it. Just yesterday, I dropped my reading glasses somewhere in one of the aisles, only to find them already at the Lost and Found when I got to the till and realised I didn’t have them. (Yes, I drop things a lot!)

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However, my last little miracle has a slightly different twist. When we first arrived here, we didn’t have a car and took busses everywhere. Our 6 yr old had gymnastics near Chiswick Bridge. We hopped on the 190 bus heading into London, got off at the bus stop, went into the club where she changed into her gymnastics outfit and I sat in the coffee area with the other parents.

She had an absolutely favourite grey cardigan sweater (jumper) that she adored, and given we had only been in the country for 5 weeks and we didn’t even have our furniture yet, I understood her attachment to things…as permanency was something she was unaccustomed to. She wore it everywhere.  She definitely had the sweater whilst on the bus on the way there, however, after she finished and changed again, we couldn’t find it.

I was torn — I know how topsy-turvy her life had been in the past 2 months, but I felt it was time to instill the lesson of holding onto things that are important to you. I was stern when we realised she had left it on the bus. “This is what happens when you don’t take care of things.” She was wailing. “This is an important lesson to learn, sweetheart. That sweater is gone. You will never – ever – see it again. I’m really sorry but you should have taken better care of it.” As we walked back to the bus stop the sobbing continued. “Mummy, can’t we ask the bus driver to find it? Can’t we call the bus company?” “It’s gone, sweetie. If you leave it somewhere, you will lose it. That bus has gone into the city now.” I really felt bad for her – she was only just six. But I thought to myself “she’ll never lose anything ever again.” Lesson learned. I was a bit cross and stood fast.

A 190 bus pulled up heading westbound towards home and we hopped on. I’ll be damned if that little sweater wasn’t sitting right there on the seat where she left it!!  I couldn’t believe it. The gymnastics lesson was an hour and a half. Plus changing time and the walk, we probably got off that bus about 2 hours earlier. What are the chances the exact same bus would be coming back on his route as we got on!? And even slimmer odds that the sweater would still be sitting forlornly there waiting for her. Of course, my lesson was utterly and completely lost at this point. “Look, Mommy! Here it is!! It came back to me!”

It was a long time before she realised that anything she loses doesn’t miraculously return to her. But I still laugh at this story — only in London.

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NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: WHOSE SHOES WOULD YOU WALK A MILE IN?

Atticus Finch said in To Kill A Mockingbird “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He is explaining to his daughter, Scout, that we mustn’t judge another person until we have experienced what they have been through.

I would like to think of myself as the magnanimous, understanding person Atticus was referencing,  but I know I fall short.

He does not mean the people you feel sorry for or empathise with. He is talking about people you — without knowing it — have judged…or misjudged.  The people you would normally find the hardest to relate to, the least likely you can understand. Not someone who is poor or disadvantaged, living in poverty or worse. Although that would be hard to fathom, that is something that most of us would want to do to understand the difficulties that person faces. That is the definition of empathy. This is not an easy path, but I think we assume this is what Atticus is talking about. Whereas the shoes of someone whose values you do not like, whose causes you don’t believe in, whose doctrines are not ones you subscribe to — those are shoes far harder to step into.

For me, it would be very hard to walk a mile in the shoes of an Islamic terrorist. I would not understand them, nor want to understand them. And that’s where I fall short. I would find it very hard to walk in the shoes of a racist. A member of the Ku Klux Clan or even some of the Afrikaners we met while living in South Africa.  I would really bristle to walk in the shoes of a serial sexual harasser. Or worse, someone who abuses and rapes women.  Politically, I do not completely understand Brexiteers. And I find it very difficult understanding Trump voters. I cannot fathom that they see Trump as someone who will save them and the country.  I struggle with all these things.

But, isn’t the point that we do attempt to understand the opposite point of view? That we do try to listen and deconstruct it? You do not – at all – have to agree with it. But I would love to sit with a Trump supporter and really have an explorative, educational exchanging of views. Bridge the gap between us.  If we could discuss where he/she is coming from, how they arrived at this place in time where they felt the only answer was voting for a former TV-celebrity billionaire with no experience in government and no record of helping others, that would be a start.

I want to understand the racists whose views were formed from a young age. How did they arrive to the bias they so clearly have? When living in South Africa, we met Afrikaners who rolled their eyes and said things like “Well, your blacks aren’t like our blacks” as if we were merely discussing the difference in primary schools or bad restaurant service when in reality we were discussing racial tensions in the US and South Africa. I was appalled. I found myself judging. “How can they be so overtly racist?”

My husband pointed out to me that the woman we were speaking to had a completely different background and upbringing to us.  Economically, we were probably similar to her, and around the same age, but that’s where the similarities stopped. We all grew up in the 70s but in South Africa there was state-run media and the government controlled all the information that was fed to the public. She did not see the international news stories about the fatal youth uprising in Soweto or they were told a very different story – one that was far from the truth.  They didn’t have televisions in most of the houses and farms until well into the 70s, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and other outside media was banned countrywide, and they heard about things blacks were doing to whites through the filter and skewed POV of a scared white minority government.  They were 12 or 14 years old at the time whose parents told them the government was right.  My husband pondered were we to be born in South Africa with parents of a certain generation and the government lying to us, with a media machine in place to counter anything we might have heard, would we have turned out any better? I don’t know.

Of course, we would all like to think we would have seen it — would have sussed out the racism and inequalities and known about the apartheid system to keep blacks uneducated and seen the injustices. But would we have? Really? I don’t know. It was then that I realised I had judged them and found them lacking. I had gone to anti-apartheid rallies in the 80s. I bought the single “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” by international musicians who took a stand. I followed Mandela’s release and cheered when he won. But wasn’t it me who was lacking? If I couldn’t take away all the freedoms and education and bias that I was brought up with to see what kind of person I might have been had I been born in Pretoria rather than New York, aren’t I close-minded? I am assuming I’d be the better person, but I don’t know that.

I find the art of listening is lost on this narcissistic social media world we live in. So I would love to know whose shoes are the hardest for you to walk in. Whose point of view do you really not understand? If we could all listen to each other, sit for a spell, exchange points of views, come to some sort of understanding – with respect for each other – wouldn’t we be a better world for it? My New Year’s resolution is to do just that: I will try to listen more, judge less. Join me?

 

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TALKING TO TEENS DURING THE HOLIDAYS? START WITH YOUTUBE REWIND 2017

Does anyone know the Big Shaq song “Man’s Not Hot”? Do you understand it at all? What is he SAYING? Never heard of it at all? I like to think of myself as a semi-cool parent, but I just don’t get it. He’s wearing a big winter coat on a beach in Miami saying he’s not warm enough to remove his lovely jacket. And then he exclaims ‘skkrrrra-pop-pop’ (roll your r’s on the skrrrr).  He’s gone from a virtual unknown to nearly 100 million views on YouTube for his video. And apparently, it’s in contention for the Christmas #1 song in the UK this year!!

So although there is much to pontificate regarding the iGeneration that is serious, I’m focusing on the more fun (and challenging) aspect of pre-teens and teens:  How do you carry on a conversation with them?

I imagine at some point this holiday season you will find yourself stuck by the tree with some eggnog and a moody, bored teenager opposite you who would rather be sticking needles in their eyes than hanging out with a bunch of old fogeys. Family gatherings at the holidays are ripe for bringing together people with little in common to talk about.  And today’s kids are foreigners with their own fads, lingo and trends that make it near impossible to find common ground. 

Although we think this digital world is isolating, it’s also connecting in a way that we never had

 

My daughter told me this morning on the way to school that, yesterday, YouTube just released it’s annual “YouTube Rewind List”.  Who knew?! This is a list of all that happened in their world that helped to shape the year. She tells me anyone who is anyone between the ages of 12 and 20 will know this list.  It includes rappers, DJ’s, YouTubers, popular songs, fads, challenges, trends, etc. This is an excellent starting point:

But. It is so much more interesting to watch WITH your child as they will be able to explain all the points of reference you don’t get. The video starts with a girl in an orange sweatshirt dancing. “Oh, that’s that girl — she’s famous for her dancing” exclaimed my Child. She went on from there, stopping and starting at every point I didn’t understand or get. “Wait,..you don’t know about ‘The Floor is Lava’?!!?” No, sweetheart…Do you know about Trump’s latest stunner in moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

One of the things that’s so vital as a parent is open lines of communication. But if I shut out everything I see as silly in her world, I’d be clueless to her POV.  To me, YouTubers and fads and songs that I have never heard of are trivial, trite and time-wasting. They are not going to change the world. But discussing her interests and seeing things through her eyes will help me to understand how she and her friends think and respond; help me see how they relax and how they are inspired; what makes them laugh or cry.

The YouTubers and DJ’s and videos of her era are the TV-stars, rock stars and movie stars of my era

Every generation has gaps in knowledge that need to be shared both up and down the age groups. My parents would take me to Broadway musicals in New York and in return I would play my Springsteen and Grateful Dead albums to them, explaining their cosmic relevance and likability.  They were willing to listen to me and my passions as long as I gave theirs a fair shake. My Child spends about 4 hours/week on social media and Netflix and YouTube.  She also competitively swims, plays hockey, rows, sings, plays piano and is a good student. So she’s well-balanced. My point is the YouTubers and DJ’s and videos of her era are the TV-stars, rock stars and movie stars of my era. It’s just a way to relax…and be different than your parents.

I am surprised, though, at how universal these trends are to a certain age group.  On holiday last summer in Greece, we had friends from Seattle join us with kids the same age as the Child — 11, 12, and 13 years old.  Our Child: Do you know Liza Koshy?  Seattle Child: Yah, love her. More recently the Child was texting with a friend in Washington D.C. and discussing Lele Pons, another big YouTuber who is Venezuelan-American, so I’m figuring she has the Latino world as well.  And then even more recently, Seattle Child and London Child were discussing Riverdale and how they both have a crush on Jughead (seriously, Jughead?!). Another well-known global YouTuber is an English-speaking Swede, so just another reminder that the digital world has no borders.  And there are no time-lapses between country/international release dates that we had growing up. They are all watching the same thing at the same time — globally.  I would argue that although we think this digital world is isolating, it’s also connecting in a way that we never had.

And the YouTube Rewind 2017 video shows much more than just Despacito, Ed Sheeran, slime paintball parties and funny dancing. It touched on social issues that were big in 2017 to this generation: the Houston and Puerto Rico hurricanes, the Ariana Grande/Manchester bombing, the Las Vegas shooting, the Vive La France celebrations from Macon’s victory election, the solar eclipse, and more.  It’s not just frivolous and non-sensical.

But besides the YouTube Rewind 2017 video, below are a few things I’ve discovered in conversations with my daughter that I thought might be useful. An “IN” and “OUT” List to help you navigate the pre-teens and teens you run into this holiday season.  Conversation starters.  Granted, they will probably still think you are totally unhip, but at least you might get a nod of appreciation for trying to bridge the gap!

The digital world is confusing for us “first generation” parents and I have definitely made my fair share of mistakes which I will write about, as well as lessons learned. But sitting here at my desk, I turned off my Sia “Everyday Is Christmas” new album I’d been listening to on Spotify and put on Big Shaq’s “Man’s Not Hot” to try to listen to the song through my daughter’s ears.  It’s actually a pretty funny and fun song, and after watching the video a few times, I found it definitely grows on you!

THEINLIST

People:

Liza Koshy – YouTuber — funny, in the opening scene of YouTube Rewind 2017

LeLe Pons – YouTuber — funny, Venezuelan-American, also in the opening scene of YouTube Rewind 2017

PewDiePie – YouTuber — Swedish, funny

Fine Brothers Entertainment — YouTubers, funny, from New York

Lilly Singh — YouTuber, Canadian, also known as ||Superwoman||

Logan Paul and Jake Paul — YouTubers, comedy and vloggers, created “Zoosh”

Marshmallo — huge DJ, also seen in YouTube Rewind 2017 video, he’s the guy dressed all in white with a marshmallow head and black eyes and smile painted on.

Cole Spouse — plays Jughead on TV’s “Riverdale”, a dark version of the old Archie and Jughead, Betty and Veronica comic books.

Gadgets:

Slime — if you don’t know what this is, you really are just coming out from under a rock

Fidget spinners — same as Slime, you really should know these

Challenges/Trends:

The Floor is Lava — this is a challenge when you are with friends in a store or mall or park and suddenly someone says “the floor is lava” where you have to find ways to stay off the ground. Seen in the YouTube Rewind 2017 video.

Backpack Kid — also on the YouTube Rewind 2017 video, he’s a 15 yr old YouTuber who dances with a backpack and swings his arms straight from side to side. The dance is also known as “The Floss”

Stranger Things — the whole show and cast are pretty awesome for both kids and parents

Lingo:

Beef — this has made a come-back from the 80s! If someone has “beef” with someone else it means they are not getting along

Squad — homies, clique, group of people who are close friends and get along

Triggered — this is when someone’s really angry, they get “triggered”

Savage — I haven’t quite figured out how to use this properly in a sentence but it’s something along the lines of pretend-dissing someone. Sorta a backhanded “ouch” moment.

Ship — to ship two people means you think they would be good together — in a fun way, not too serious. “I am shipping John and Jane. They hang out all the time and they are so cute.”

THEOUTLIST

Miranda Sings — YouTuber, funny – I was just getting to know her and her work when she started a TV show a year ago October on Netflix, and then never heard about her again. My Child says they stopped watching her once she went to Netflix.

Mannequin Challenge — sooo last year. When you take a video moving through a group people staged motionless in a funny position.

Pretty Little Liars — TV show about a group of mean girls who are stalked by a creep named A. But no one cares anymore who “A” is, as the storywriters keep revealing and then switching the murderer/stalker around.

Water bottle Flip — this was a challenge last year that was very popular where you take a water bottle and flip it up in the air to land perfectly on a flat surface without falling.

BRITS VS YANKS: MERRY CHRISTMAS OR HAPPY HOLIDAYS?

The UK is not only winning this debate, but leading the US in the direction both countries are heading.

This is only the second time in 10 years that we are not going home for the holidays.  I can envision Washington and New York decked out with all the lights and window displays and wreaths. Ice skating in Central Park, the massive tree at 50 Rock, the horse carriage rides, the snow, the smell of chestnuts roasting in the street vendors trolleys.   Near the Washington Cathedral, a little round building that looks perfect for a Hobbit called The Herb Cottage, was a favourite stop for my Mom with my sister and I in tow to get ornaments and wreaths and cards. The whole cottage burst with scents of cinnamon and nutmeg spice and a cozy warmth wrapped you up like a blanket.

Very similar to Oxford Street and Regent Street here in London. It’s a festival of lights, with caroling and music and Christmas markets and an enormous “kissing” tree in Covent Garden. Kew Gardens has their Christmas lights walk, a merry-go-round and Santa’s Grotto (there are loads around the city) that transports you to his workshop at the North Pole. It’s a lovely time of year, despite the grey and dark short days.

The similarities don’t end there: although the majority of both populations is Christian (75% polled in 2015 the US, and 64% in 2010 in the UK), they base their foundations on freedom of religion.  And as we know, the US and the UK have been accepting immigrants from all over for centuries now (lest we forget the US is founded on immigrants fleeing religious persecution). Therefore it’s inevitable that we have become a more diverse society — ethnically, culturally AND religiously.

So naturally, somewhere along the way in both countries, there evolved an understanding that not everyone celebrates Christmas.  However, it’s from this starting point that we diverge dramatically.

War on Christmas

In the US for years now there have been issues with saying “Merry Christmas”. The religious right (and Bill O’Reilly and Trump) have called it a “War on Christmas”.  Which is baloney.  As far as I know, no one is trying to ban Christmas – apart from the Burger Meister Meister Burger (you have to have grown up in the US to understand that) . What did start happening is we realised that people who don’t celebrate Christmas sometimes took offence to the greeting. They would have preferred “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa”, so to make things easier, people just started saying “Happy Holidays”.

A growing share of Americans, 52%, say it does not matter to them how they are greeted during the holiday season

This is in line with the way the US culture is on many levels — to be ultra, overly PC about things. Don’t want to hurt or offend! Some people don’t believe in God? Then we should stop saying the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the flag of America in schools (something I grew up with in the 70s). Don’t celebrate Christmas? Then you cannot have a Nativity plays in schools (also something I grew up with).  The stores, ever worried about the all-American dollar, started putting up “Holiday Trees” instead of Christmas trees.  Over time, some religious folks started a rallying cry, claiming they felt they were being stripped of what they saw as foundations of US culture.  But in reality, the diverse culture with its diverse religions was just upholding and honouring the very laws the country was built on: Separation of Church and State.

Separation of Church and State vs. Christian-faith Based UK

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson addressed the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in a letter saying “I contemplate…that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an

 Whereas the US put into place clearly defined statutes that separate church and state, the UK is based upon the Christian faith.

establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” He is referring to the First Amendment of the Constitution (and Article Six) but he was using the language of Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in America, who said in 1644 “A hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world”.

Thus, the very separate path our two countries have taken over the past 200+ years is quite basic:  whereas the US put into place clearly defined statutes that separate church and state, the UK is based upon the Christian faith. The Crown is a one-man corporation run by God, so to speak. As the brilliant CGP Grey says, “According to British tradition, all power is vested in God and the Monarch is crowned in a Christian ceremony.” The Head of State is the Queen (the Monarch) and the official religion of Great Britain is Anglicanism.

With this in mind, you would think that the UK would be more religious than the US, right? Not at all, just the opposite. The latest poll and survey in 2017 shows that more than half the UK population say they have no religion at all. And this tracks with the 2015 poll that says the UK is among the least religious countries in the world.

Understanding the Brits

In the UK, religion is just not discussed. It is a very private matter.

After seven years here, I could not tell you what the religion is of the hundreds of people I know well and have befriended. Religion is not discussed, it is not worn on your sleeve (likewise with politics too).  Back in the States, I know the religions of all of my friends — they wear it with pride.  Here, like many things, it is personal.  And often forgotten.  I wouldn’t be surprised if most of my friends don’t practice any faith or religion.  But nearly everyone I know do enjoy the Christmas traditions: the family dinner with roast turkey, the tree, Father Christmas and stockings, etc.  Very little is mentioned about the baby Jesus or the three wise men, but goodness me, try to come between a Brit and their Christmas Panto or Boxing Day! They do so love their traditions, regardless of the meaning or origin.

And that’s the key, there is little or no religious attachment to Christmas for the modern-day Brit. It’s a month of festive feeling, of office parties and heavy drinking.  Everyone here commonly says “Happy holidays” in their heads, but it just comes out as “Happy Christmas”. They are not thinking about going to church, but more likely about days off work, time with family.  You might possibly say that Christmas for the Brits is like Thanksgiving to us.  It’s really that simple.

And they’d be absolutely mortified if they thought they were offending anyone! They’re just bumbling through, wouldn’t think to ask one’s religious beliefs, so they fall back on their go-to.  I suspect the giant Menorah in Trafalgar Square (which was centre-stage in a beautiful Hanukkah celebration last night with Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan) is a reaction to someone in the US telling them they might be offending people.

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I’m not trying to be flip, but this is a country with less than 10% of its population going to church. To them, it’s not about faith or religion. Offices still have “Christmas parties” and stores have “Christmas sales” — it’s just an excuse for a drink and a bargain. The underlying meaning is whatever you, personally, put on it.  I have friends who have said “Happy Hanukkah” to me and Muslim family members who put up Christmas trees.  We all can and should celebrate whatever belief we subscribe to, the more the merrier. You are pagan and celebrating the Winter Solstice? Go for it! Atheist and expecting “Happy holidays”? You got it. A Kwanzaa feast? Most excellent. Those winter naked people who jump in freezing cold water? Well, if that’s your thing…The important takeaway is to be inclusive.

When I first arrived here, after years of the Political Correctness in the US,  I was shocked with all the overt Christianity: our daughter’s primary school doing a Nativity play and an Easter bonnet parade. It made me very uncomfortable. But now that I get the lack of religious meaning attached, I find it’s quite nice to retain some fun traditions that I remember growing up. There’s an added bonus as well in today’s inclusive world: in both primary and secondary schools children here have religion classes where they learn about Hinduism and Islam and Judaism – even Zoroastrianism.

And I think the US is following suit.  A Pew study from 2017, reports:

“As the long-simmering debates continue over how American society should commemorate the Christmas holiday,..a survey finds that most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasised less now than in the past – even as relatively few Americans are bothered by the trend. In addition, a declining majority says religious displays such as nativity scenes should be allowed on government property. And compared with five years ago, a growing share of Americans (52%) say it does not matter to them how they are greeted in stores and businesses during the holiday season – whether with “merry Christmas” or a less-religious greeting like “happy holidays”.

So let me end by saying Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Kwanzaa! Whatever you celebrate, may peace and joy be with you this holiday season.

TAKE MEGHAN MARKLE’S (AND MY) LIFE IN THE UK TEST!

Dearest Meghan,

Congratulations on your first official week here in the UK! As the soon-to-be bride of our favourite royal you’ve seamlessly settled in to your role as a champion of his charities up in Nottingham. Hopefully you will continue supporting your own charitable work, but understand first step is all about fitting in here.  And your style!! Wow! It’s already being called “The Meghan Effect”. The handbag you wore sold out in minutes (Strathberry) as did the trench coat you wore for that first outing. So, well done, you! No faux pas, fashion or otherwise!

Next up, however, is the “Life in the UK” test. I understand from the Palace that you will be taking the steps all Americans take (no special treatment for you! How egalitarian!) and that means you are now transitioning from your Visa to the wonderfully British moniker called “ILR”.  ILR means – and I kid you not – Indefinite Leave to Remain. Think about that. Cocktail party fodder: ‘Are you a British citizen yet?’ ‘No, but I do have Indefinite Leave to Remain!!’ Ahh, er, hmm. Why not just say “Stay”?

Anyway, in order to get ILR, you have to pass the Life in the UK Test. They have changed it since I took it in 2013 and you should be thankful! It used to be something like 40 or 50 questions out of a possible 1500 questions and you had to get at least 75% right.  It was insanely hard. Questions like:

TEST #1 (OLD TEST, 2013)

  1. What percentage of all ethnic minorities (living in the UK) live in the London area?
  2. What is a quango?
  3. In the UK, the number of children and young people under the age of 19 yrs old is A) 13 mill B) 15 mill C) 17 mill or D) 19 mill.
  4. Which service does income tax NOT pay for? A) roads B) rubbish collection C) Education D) Police
  5. Scotland has their own bank notes. Are they valid to be used anywhere in the UK?
  6. What percentage of the UK population lives in Wales?
  7. TRUE or FALSE: During the 1950s, the there was an immigration shortage and the UK recruited West Indies migrants to come drive buses.
  8. TRUE or FALSE: The Queen is the Head of State of the United Kingdom.
  9. How many seats does the UK hold in the European Parliament (MEP’s)?
  10. Information about training opportunities can be found at which TWO of the following? A) your local college B) LearnDirect C) The Home Office D) the post office

*(ANSWERS TO ALL TESTS BELOW)

There was a disproportionate amount of questions (IMHO) on job centres, trade unions,  population statistics and the Welch education system, but perhaps that’s why they changed it. Now, there are online tests that include questions like (you must get 15 out of 20 right to pass):

TEST #2 (NEW TEST, 2017)

  1. When did Britain become permanently separated from the continent by the Channel? A) 50,000 yrs ago B) 10,000 yrs ago C) 15,000 yrs ago D) 18,000 yrs ago
  2. Who was reigning in Britain when Wales became formally united with England by the Act for the Government of Wales? A) Elizabeth I B) Henry VII C) Henry VIII D) James I
  3. Which flag has a diagonal red cross on a white background? A) Cross of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland B) cross of St. David, patron saint of Wales C) cross of St. George, patron saint of England D) cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland
  4. When did the War of Roses start? A) 1462 B) 1478 C) 1455 D) 1388
  5. How many members does the Scottish Parliament have? A) 60 B) 90 C) 129 D) 120
  6. TRUE or FALSE: Pool and darts are traditional pub games
  7. Which British sportsman won 5 consecutive gold medals at the Olympic Games in the rowing category? A) Christopher Dean B) Sir Chris Hoy C) Sir Steve Redgrave D) Bradley Wiggins
  8. When did the UK join the EEC (European Economic Community)? A) 1963 B) 1957 C) 1973 D) 1977
  9. Which court deals with the most serious cases of children aged 10 to 17 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland? A) Youth Court B) High Court C) Magistrates’ Court D) Crown Court
  10. What is the name of the best preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe and which traces its origin back to the Stone Age? A) Skara Brae B) Maiden C) Bayeux D) Stonehenge
  11. When was the National Trust founded? A) 1890 B) 1895 C) 1980 D) 1910
  12. After the Black Death, new social classes appeared in England, including owners of large areas of land known as: A) Clans B) Nobility C) Gentry D) Judiciary
  13. Which of the following operas was written by Gilbert and Sullivan? A) Cats B) The Mikado C) The Mousetrap D) The Phantom of the Opera
  14. Who was the first English Prime Minister? A) Admiral Nelson B) Oliver Cromwell C) Henry Pelham D) Sir Robert Walpole
  15. How old do you need to be to apply for a free TV license? A) over 70 B) over 60 C) over 75 D) over 65
  16. Which British sportswoman won two gold medals for running in the 2004 Olympic Games? A) Dame Kelly Holmes B) Dame Ellen MacArthur C) Jessica Ennis-Hill D) Jayne Torvill
  17. What percentage of the total British population is located in England alone? A) 84% B) 79% C) 58% D) 60%
  18. Which court deals with cases involving personal injury, family matters, breaches of contract and divorce in England and Wales? A) Crown Court B) High Court C) County Courts D) Sheriff Court
  19. In which period did British film studios flourish? A) 1940s B) 1950s C) 1930s D) 1920s
  20. Where was the first tennis club founded? A) Brixton B) St Andrews C) Haywards Heath D) Leamington Spa

So much easier, right? 🙂 But you are a smart cookie.  You went to Northwestern, you’ll do fine!

ADVICE: LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES

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My advice: Don’t do what I did. I sorta took it for granted that it would be a piece of cake. Most people going in there are refugees or immigrants who have scraped and scrabbled to get here. English isn’t even their first language! I was cocky – how hard could this be? There were about 20 of us in the waiting room and the ones who were cramming, noses in their books, until the very last minute were all the Eastern Europeans and the Asians (Chinese and Indians, mostly). The ones sitting back with arrogance and a yawn were us Americans, Canadians, Aussies, and New Zealanders.

What I did find somewhat ironic was when I went to take the exam, they give you a list of test centres closest to your address. For me, this was the Iranian Association in Hammersmith. Yes, I was taking a Life in the UK test at the Iranian Centre (?). I wasn’t entirely sure it was official — especially when i pulled up to a little run-down, nondescript store front on King’s Street in Hammersmith.

As we were about to be called, an Asian woman turned to me in broken English and asked “What day is St. David’s Day?” I replied, very self-assuredly and probably somewhat patronising, “Oh, I don’t think we need to know the exact date. We just need to know that St. Andrew is for the Scottish, St. David is for the Welch, St. George is for the English and St. Patrick is for the Irish.” “No, we need to know dates!” she said very frenetically, and started rifling through her book. I started to sweat. I hadn’t learned that! I started consulting my book too. March 1st for David, November 30th for Andrew, April 23rd for George and of course, because of my Boston roots, I already knew St. Patrick’s Day of March 17th.

The exam was quick and multiple choice or True False (and yes, there was a question about St. George’s Day). Once finished, you wait in the waiting room for them to call you into a glass-fronted office where you can all watch as they either hand you a certificate or they don’t.  I quickly called my husband “Can you use Scottish money in London?” “In Wales, do schools follow the Welch National Curriculum or do they have the same curriculum as England?” “Does the Queen appoint Life Peers or does the Prime Minister? Or does he advise her to do it and then she does it?” I was panicking. I watched as two Aussies – a boyfriend/girlfriend team who showed up with no books to hand – went in together and they both got rejected, came out looking rather sheepish.  Damnit! I should have studied more!

Needless to say, I did pass, but probably just barely. I know I got at least 4 or 5 questions wrong, so I was borderline.  So DO NOT do what I did. Study! Take it seriously! And then you’ll be on to learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road!! Another outrageously hard test here in the UK, which many people fail MANY times (there’s a story of a woman who has failed 90 times!). Perhaps, as you are going to be a Royal and all, you might not need it. But still, I shall guide you through.

 

ANSWERS:

OLD TEST: 1. 45% 2. non-departmental public bodies carrying out functions on behalf of the public 3. B. 4. B. 5. YES 6. 5% 7. TRUE 8. TRUE 9. 78 seats 10. A. and B.

NEW TEST: 1) B. 2) C. 3) A. 4) C. 5) C. 6) TRUE 7) C. 8) C. 9) D. 10) A. 11) B. 12) C. 13) B. 14) D. 15) C. 16) A. 17) A. 18) C. 19) C. 20) D.

 

MEGHAN MARKLE TOP 10 LIST: DO’S & DON’T’S

Dearest Meghan, Congrats! I know you have a lot on your plate today.  You don’t want to make a dog’s breakfast of this royal photo shoot this afternoon, hence I’m sure you are quite quite busy! However, if and when you’ve got a few minutes, here are some helpful tips for adjusting to life in the UK. Transplanted from the US myself for 7 years, and being married to a Brit for nearly 17 years, I thought I could be of some help. So if you need any, just get on the dog (cockney rhyming slang that Harry may or may not use (?). Translation: dog and bone = phone) and we can talk.

  1. Learn the difference between the geopolitical terms U.K, Great Britain and England. Most Americans don’t know what separates one from the other. Do the Brits? It’s so confusing!  And where do Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland fall? Learn all these! Be very careful what you call the Scottish (they’d be offended if you said they were British, even though the Welsh and the Scots come under the “British” heading technically). There is no better video to untangle all this than this excellent explainer that I used to show my American university students studying here in the U.K.
  2. When wearing a skirt at a garden party and it’s rather chilly, do not say to The Queen “I should have worn pants today”. This will be taken to mean you have decided to forego all undergarments and are going commando. Pants = Underwear. Trousers = Pants. Likewise, if anyone asks you at the wedding “How’s yer father?”, they are NOT inquiring as to the health or status of your Dad, in any way, shape or form.  And do not ask anyone else about their father. In this strange context, it is euphemistically referring to sexual intercourse and your sex life.
  3. BARKSHIRE (or as the Brits say BAHKSHER) and BERKSHIRE are NOT two different counties outside of London. They are, in fact, the same county! Similarly, with DARBYSHIRE and DERBYSHIRE, BARCLAY Square is Berkeley Square, etc. The vowels are what really mess us up here. And the R’s or lack of them. And just when we think we’ll be the same (i.e. Pall Mall, we Americans say it with long A’s. Surely they will too?), they go and do a reverse switch on us (and use short A’s: Pal Mal)! And then there’s just the weird pronunciations like Leicester is Lester, and Cockburn is Coburn and Chiswick is Chissick.
  4. Forget the word VERY and replace it with QUITE. “Very good polo-playing, Harry!” becomes “Quite good polo-playing”. In fact, remove ALL hyperbole from your lexicon and replace it with very subdued tones. “That was a super awesome ballet we saw!” Becomes “It was really rather good.” Or “You did such a great job on that speech! You nailed it!” becomes “Not bad. Well done.” I’ve already posted, but there’s an excellent explainer of what the British mean and say here. It’s a mine-field!
  5. You can fancy a pizza or fancy going to a movie, but do NOT fancy anyone other than Harry. Fancy can be used for many things but for people, it’s your Significant Other.
  6. Rent the Railway Children. It’s actually not a very good movie, and totally dated, but these crazy Brits absolutely LOVE it. They can quote from it, remember every actor in it (Jenny Agutter gets particular mention from men), and you offend their national pride if you say you don’t like it.
  7. The Importance of Tea: I’ve written about this before, but it’s a cultural staple that runs the generations. It’s in every office, home, school and very likely, the palace. If there is EVER a break in any conversation, some Brit will likely use tea as a way of dealing with awkward silences. If you are sitting with Charles and Camilla and running out of things to say, throw in “Fancy a cuppa?” and then signal for the butler to bring you all some tea. It’s also their go-to at trying moments. There’s a wonderful comedy skit where a family is gathered round the radio listening to Neville Chamberlin make the sobering announcement that Britain has entered into war with Germany (World War II) after which there is a silence and then the Grandad says “Cuppa tea, anyone?”. It’s brill.
  8. Land of Backwards Doors: It takes some getting used to. After the Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston in 1942, major changes were made to building codes all across the US to make sure that all doors in public spaces opened outwards. This means office buildings, coffee shops, sports centers, grocery stores, houses, gas stations, etc. Here, there are no such codes and therefore you often go SLAMMING into doors because your mind is telling you they will go one way and they go the other. Don’t know the palace set up, but just be aware!
  9. Vernacular/Lingo: So much to learn!! Brill for brilliant. Dog’s breakfast, cock up, toad in the hole, spend a penny, blimey, crikey, etc. Likewise, they have no idea what “khakis” are – never heard of the word. And Fall means when someone actually takes a tumble. It does not mean a season of the year. Autumn is what we are in right now.  And, Will and Kate might giggle when you say “Guys, up ahead past the median, near that private school and past the grocery store, can we pull over so I can hop out on the sidewalk and then you can pop the trunk please? Gotta get my umbrella.” Translation: “Mates, once past the central reservation, near that public school and past the supermarket, could we please pull up so I can step out onto the pavement and open the boot? I would like to get my brelly.” Two nations definitely separated by a common language, as George Bernard Shaw said. By the way, they say BERNerd, not Bern-ARD.
  10. Pantomime: A lot like the Railway Children. It’s a cultural thing that is sorta lost on Americans but a huge part of Christmas, so you may be seeing one soon with the family. I’ve tried to explain it to Americans for years and it never comes out right: OK, it’s this play where they take a children’s fairy tale and sorta tart it up and mix it up. The lead female characters are always played by men, and vise-versa. “So it’s for kids?” Well, yes and no. Also for adults as there is some nuanced humour that goes over the heads of the kids. “So it’s a comedy?” Yes, but not like you think. It’s usually really bad jokes and slapstick. And lots of talking back and forth to the audience in a very silly way. Actor: Oh, yes I did!! Audience: Oh, no you didn’t! and that goes on for a while. It really doesn’t translate well, and Americans go in with all the wrong expectations, but it’s actually crackin’ good fun!

So, there you have it! Just a beginning cheat sheet for you.  And yay for another royal wedding! I think we Americans love the royals way more than Brits do. So we are all rooting for you to settle in nicely. It’s a lovely lovely place, this little island, and I’m absolutely chuffed you are coming over. Gobsmacked, in fact. Fabulous news. I truly hope the Brits will welcome you as I do. And congratulations again! Many secretly say they think Harry is the best royal, so well done, you!

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