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So what is a newyorksubalien...

I’m a New York subalien. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly legal – it’s just my loving other half, official alien that he is, comes with a so-called “supermodel” visa that apparently denotes him as one possessing extraordinary abilities (falling asleep within 5 minutes of sitting down in front of the TV, remembering only 2 of the 3 items on a mental shopping list and not knowing where the dishwasher tablets live after 2 years in our apartment are just some of his many talents).

The same visa leaves me extraordinarily unable to possess that most American of entities - a “social” i.e. a Social Security Number. Calling it a “social” makes it sound like the password to some party-filled, fun-packed lifestyle. That’s not far wrong as without these all-important 9 numbers, you pretty much can’t have a lifestyle at all - no bank account, no credit card, not even a driver’s license.

So what does a subalien do? Well, like over sub life forms waiting for evolution to give them a leg up on the ladder of existence, I have plenty of time to observe and these, dear reader, are my observations…..

Thursday, January 27, 2011

There's no day like a snow day

This morning school children throughout New York heard their favourite two words – “Snow Day”. 

In New York, if the first white flakes start to swirl to the ground in the evening light, kids throughout the city go to bed with the same degree of excitement and expectation as if it were Christmas Eve – or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, of course. And that feeling when they awake and you tell them Mayor Bloomberg in his infinite wisdom has declared a snow day and schools throughout the city are closed is as magical as telling them Santa has been.

Today’s snow day was only apparently the eighth for New York City schools since 1978. Worryingly however, this is our fourth since we arrived in September 2008 so if you’re looking for proof of global warming, that’s as good as any. Or alternatively we as a family bring to our new host country the gift of extreme weather phenomena. Come to think of it, there was an extreme drought in Brazil just after we arrived and the rainiest summers ever (or so it seemed) when we debunked to France and then to Ireland (and that IS saying something). So perhaps we should come with a weather warning.

New York is magical in the snow. All in all 19 inches of snow fell in Central Park yesterday – enough for any fledging sledging fiend. From tots who can hardly walk, stuffed as they are into the obligatory stand-up-on-their-own-they’re-so-padded snowsuits to the trying-to-be-super-cool High School kids wearing the obligatory beanie but no coat, no waterproof trousers, no gloves. I assume to guarantee they are super cool.

This being New York, size is all important and as with cars, apartments, bank balances, bigger is always better. Some of the contraptions we have seen should require a driver’s license due to their speed and supposed braking power; others are bigger than some studio flats I’ve seen advertised. We, of course, being “European” cause great amusement when we appear with our “bum boards” – the little plastic discs with handles that keep many a business afloat in European ski resorts as we always forget to bring them and always have to buy them.

Routinely  the “Are you really going to use those?” looks turn into sheer admiration as the astute New Yorker suddenly appreciates the rare combination of an extremely effective mode of downhill transport that can serve as an emergency shovel and – and this is the crux of it - takes up minimum storage space. That huge SUV (Sledge with Ultimate Volume) doesn’t seem so cool when you end up having to eat your meals off it as there is no space for a dining-room table. In the spirit of Interplanetary Exchange, we have distributed freely our excess supply of said bum boards and I’m expecting to see them on the runways as the ultimate fashion accessory in the Winter 2012 shows.

Now if I could just get everyone to start wearing red all-in-one ski-suits….

Friday, January 21, 2011

Getting served right in the Big Apple

From the moment you walk up to the till and hear “Will the next guest step down please” to the ubiquitous “Have a nice day!”, you know you can only be on one planet!

This is the world where (supposedly) the customer is king, where you can order anything to go anywhere and have it arrive yesterday, where your typical order in a restaurant has more to do with how you don’t want your dish of choice than how you do want it. Diner staff now laugh admiringly when we order our respective brunch dishes, amused by the non-New Yorker accents but the very New-Yorker attitude (although I hasten to add I cannot bring myself to forgo the warm Irish smile).

And I love the concept of that most American of coffee shops that promises to redo your favourite beverage if it’s not just how you like it. With the multitude of drinks they prepare, it is not infrequently my cappuccino comes out more like a latte so I have been known to take them up on their offer. Then the other day I met the ultimate in customer service, US-style. On returning my drink and explaining why I wanted another one, my delightful barista immediately retorted "Oh, you mean you wanted a DRY cappuccino" – i.e. "the customer may always be right but that doesn’t mean I was wrong".

Then there’s the US Postal Service – a venerable institution over here that serves many functions. But any visit, no matter what time of day, generally requires food, a sleeping bag and a day off work as, from what I can see, the same four people in our local branch handle stamps, parcels, money orders, passport applications and for all I know deliveries.

But there’s no sense of urgency, no change in pace or staffing levels during peak posting periods, no reason not to ask me whether my Mum liked the silk scarf I sent her for Mother’s Day the last time I was there. Put it this way, I would be sending Christmas cards to the lovely USPS lady who checks my forms for me as I wait in line if it didn't involve another trip to the Post Office to buy the stamps.

And it’s not just the old-timers that fall short; the new kids on the block too can sometimes slip up. I’m thinking specifically of a rather well-known computer store packed with energetic, young, switched-on assistants all rushing up to help you when you only really want to check your email quickly mid-shopping spree.  

Have a problem however with any of their products and you need to make an appointment. Turn up for said appointment and discover that it’s you and a whole bunch of other people booked in for the same time slot. Not the best piece of marketing for a product to be sitting around in a room full of people whom you know are only there because they too are having technical issues. In France I had a reaction to a dental procedure that would have allowed me to play the other lead role in “Beauty and the Beast” without make-up. At least there my dentist had enough sense to smuggle me in through the back door and not put off his other clients.

As time goes on, ironically, I find I’m also going through another bestial transformation of sorts here. On arrival in the Big Apple, we were counselled about the importance of the great American saying - “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. In other words, if you want something done, you may have to make a lot of noise as if you don’t, someone else sure will be. 

As I tried to get our home together, time and time again nice Irish subalien would place an order for something, get a delivery time and spend days waiting at home, all in vain. She would call and be told they had gone to the wrong address, they had rung the wrong doorbell, they had rung the wrong telephone number, they had loaded the wrong product. 

And then finally I snapped – after waiting two weeks and 4 missed delivery dates for a new dishwasher,  the beast in me – or should that be the alien – finally came out. The dishwasher arrived within one hour of the phone being put down – now that’s what I call service.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stateside skiing - good manners over good food

We’ve just had 9 inches of snow fall overnight in New York City and this morning city commuters were joined by hardened Alpine athletes heading out for Central Park with their cross-country skis. 

The current batch of winter storms nationwide has meant that apparently there is now snow on the ground in all 50 states except for Florida (even in Hawaii, snow has fallen on a volcano).  So it should have come as "snow" wonder (forgive me) when I discovered there are actually ski areas in 37 states – forget Utah and Colorado, I want to try skiing in Alabama and Tennessee.

On our arrival on this planet, we were much overjoyed to discover that many of its inhabitants also seemed to pay homage to the Snow King and that we would even be able to fall at his feet (many times) at a special meeting ground less than 3 hours from our dwelling place. 

It was with great joy and warmth in our hearts therefore that we set off our first year in the (rented) alien mobile for a weekend ski trip upstate New York; we quickly discovered how essential was that warmth in our hearts as every other molecule of heat was sucked from our bodies by the biting winds and temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius that make up just another day when skiing on the East Coast. Now you know why I may want to ski in Alabama and Tennessee.

Never mind, we thought. The bitter cold would only justify the leisurely, long lunch that we are so fond of in Europe and which generally seems to dictate our choice of runs around midday as we aim for our favourite mountainside hut. Forget quaint mountainside huts. Think shopping-mall food hall. Forget tartiflette, raclette and fondue. Think sticky bean chili, mass-produced chips and gloopy Boston Chowder. And no wine. Only whining from the multitude of mini Snow King followers whose hands have frozen. And from me, because there's no wine.

Since then we have skied both East and West, from quaint Vermont to the dizzy heights of Vail (and I mean literally "dizzy" as with Vail resort lying 2.4 kms above sea-level, the altitude sickness means even I don’t want wine).

The food is not like Europe (but then we’re not in Europe), we’ve discovered more polar protection gear for more parts of the body than I knew existed (gear not bodily parts) and the concept of a long lunch is as foreign as the idea of a one-piece ski-suit. But given the prices you pay here for ski passes, who wants to waste time not on the slopes – and who wants to spend two hours over gloopy Boston Chowder.

But then there is the other, more civilized side of Stateside skiing which puts us older civilizations to shame. Free tissues at every ski lift and in every lodge for those ever-present runny noses; quiz questions written on boards at the bottom of ski lifts with the answers displayed at the end of your journey; lift operators who ask how your day is going – and really mean it.  And the ski queuing system.

Now I know that Americans are sometimes seen as being, shall we say it, pushy. Anyone who might hold this belief only needs to compare ski queues in Vail and Verbier. In Verbier (as we found recently), it’s the old “shoulders first” mentality, with no hostages taken and no allowances if that lump blocking your ski tips from advancing the necessary 5mm just happens to be a falling four-year old! 

In Vail, thanks to the marvellous "multiple-lines-on-each-side-of-the-lifts-filtering-in-alternately" system, the only falling is people falling over each other to be polite -  "No, it was your turn", "Are you sure?" "Absolutely", "Thank you so much",  "Have a nice day". 

So there you have it - skiing US-style: impossible cold, imperfect food, impeccable manners.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The facts of life on tipping in New York, from French kissing to the big one

You know when you’ve reached a new level of friendship with a New Yorker when they hesitate a moment, then lean across the table and asked in a hushed voice “So how much did you tip your doorman this year?”

We went through agonies our first Christmas trying to find out what was the right amount to give but no one was able – or prepared - to give us any precise guidelines. Only this Christmas, our third, have I been granted access to that most intimate of exchange of confidences amongst New York girlfriends – forget what goes on in the bedroom, this is way more personal!

Tipping is a fact of life in New York but unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to find a “facts of life” guidebook with pretty pictures and pointed arrows telling us aliens how to go forth and multiply percentages correctly in our new homeland.

At the just started-out kissing stage, you have the relatively easy hurdle of how to negotiate your first restaurant bill, French or otherwise. One rule of thumb we eventually discovered is to double the sales tax itemized in your bill and round up, giving a tip of around 18%. But then there are all the little niceties that we didn’t find out about until several months at the kissing stage, such as if you have a drink at the bar while waiting for your table – or at any bar come to think of it – you’re expected to leave a $1 tip for each drink.

Given the number of restaurants and bars in this island planet, thankfully there was little need for us to return to those establishments where we made our first faltering steps into the grown-up world of tipping and face the wrath of those we did wrong by. But it wasn’t long before we started wanting to progress to having casual relationships, seeing the same person more than once and wanting to be good enough at it that they would want to see us again too. Before you get too hot under the collar here, I’m talking about our beloved delivery guys from the same four or five restaurants that we depend upon on those days when Mamasuba, superhuman as I am, can’t cook/won’t cook.

It’s been a trial and error process on that score and general consensus on the recommended amount seems to vary on whether it is raining, snowing, and whether there is an “r” in the month. But given we’re getting our eel, salmon, rice crispie and oreo cookie combination sushi rolls delivered with 15 minutes of putting the phone down, I think we may have it sussed.

So that leaves the big one. The serious full-on relationship. The one where you see them every day and they know everything about your life, your laundry habits and whether you wear slippers or not - your doorman, your supervisor, your handyman. As I said at the beginning, I remember our first time very well – we felt so alone, no one seemed to understand how important it was to us, no one wanted to talk about it afterwards. That first relationship was a short-lived one as we moved apartments after nine months but we still talk to each other so we must have done something right.

We’ve been practising hard over the past two years and this Christmas we tentatively entered into a new adult relationship with our building's super. He rang the next morning to say “thank-you”. We feel so grown-up!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Street-walking and soliciting: getting involved in your kid’s school New York-style

It’s the start of the New Year and I’m bracing myself for my annual January regime that involves mental anguish, physical exertion but which hopefully will lead to gains rather losses – it’s soliciting time!

No, I’m not switching professions so to speak. I’m just being an active parent in my children’s school (bet that’s confused you even further). One of the quaint customs of New York private schools is that while you obviously pay no mean sum for your darlings’ education, you obviously don’t pay enough as during the year you are also asked by doting school volunteers like me not to be mean and to give a further donation to the school foundation.

Where I grew up, the only thing I understood by foundation was the ubiquitous cosmetic slapstick, preferably in bright orange, which they may still be wearing today on the streets of my home town. My current understanding of foundation isn’t that different ie it’s still of the “make up” variety – only this time making up the gap between tuition fee revenues and ideal targeted school expenditure.

To most terrestrials, the obvious answer would be to either raise school fees or spend less. But as with eye-boggling garage fees, life-shortening street-cleaning parking shuffles and Hallowe’en doggy parades, what to us aliens, sub or otherwise, appears to be beyond belief is seen as totally normal to New Yorkers.

Still at least I’ve got the street-walking out of the way for this year. This other admirable tradition is designed for the safety of our children and involves parents from two families patrolling the streets around the school at going-home time looking out for “incidents”.

Given the number of things you cannot do specified in the release form you sign before you head out (eg tell anyone when to cross the road, direct ambulances to the nearest hospital), the most likely incident is your own anguish when your child looks the other way as you walk by in your nifty, bright yellow “Security” tabard.

The sacrifices we make for our children's education -  if my mother only knew...

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