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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…..

Friday, February 18, 2011

Measuring up in Planet Big Apple and being cut down to size

We’ve had an Irish Winter this week in Big Apple - or at least that’s what I’m calling the inverse of an Indian Summer, especially given how I’ve already mentioned we come to each of our new planets bearing gifts of EWP (Extreme Weather Phenomena).

After the snow, the ice storms, the bitterly cold temperatures, we are currently basking in highs of 16 degrees Centigrade or as they would put it over here, around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I should actually call it an Irish Summer as with these temperatures, many of the inhabitants of the little Green Island would be out in shorts and T-shirts.

The Fahrenheit as opposed to Celsius thing isn’t really too much of an issue as basically we’ve found Big Apple seems to have two seasons – very cold and very hot. When skiing, we’ve even known the two measuring systems virtually to merge and when it’s that cold, you don’t worry whether it’s minus 32 Celsius or minus 25 Fahrenheit, you just know you’re minus - usually your toes, fingers and the end of your nose.

But metric child that I am, I do struggle with the old (to us) system of pounds, ounces, feet and inches. I've recently discovered that what looks like the Imperial system is actually called the U.S. Customary system here - virtually identical but evidently more democratic without being demi-metric.

This causes me most grief when being asked weight and height of Male Mini-me and Mini-Mum at their annual check-ups. Apart from the fact that Male Mini-me in particular seems to bean-sprout up some colossal amount each year, I feel such a pathetic mother that I can’t reel off the data without blinking – or resorting to a calculator. And when weight-wise everything is in pounds (as in hundreds of pounds as opposed to stone and pounds), it doesn’t exactly boost the ego.

I still prefer to be imperialized when it comes to the kitchen but there we have another great American tradition – the cup. If you’re like me, you have many cups in your cupboard but they do tend to vary in size. After several culinary disasters, I’ve given in and bought one of those marvellous sets that allow me to measure perfectly my half-cups and third-cups but I still can’t bring myself to use them when adding the cooking wine – where’s the fun in that! Irish measures rule there.

Where we European femaliens love Planet Big Apple is when it comes to clothing as we all go down a size – or two. Much is made about Size Zero but from one make to another, the smaller sizes seem to cover a lot of ground – and a lot more girl than you might think. For the more mature figure, you don’t even have to think numbers – just kisses. “Woman’s sizes” as they are called here are very simple – 1X, 2X or 3X and every designer brand from Ralph Lauren to Calvin Klein has its own woman’s section.

Different dress sizes I get as to me there is no doubt different nationalities have different body shapes. In another existence as a journalist in Rio, one of my favourite stories was about trying to buy a Brazilian bikini in an European body. The Northern/Southern hemisphere reverse also applies to the female silhouette, if you see what I mean. But shoe sizes? Why does crossing a stretch of water mean that my feet swell up 2-1/2 sizes. I know they do swell up during the flight but not permanently.

So here we are, supposedly bigger of feet, smaller of body, buying half gallons of milk and weighing hundreds of pounds.  And this just because we flew over 3,000 miles – at least we agree on that one! 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Seeing red as Planet Big Apple prepares for "V-Day"

As you can imagine, they don’t do things in halves over in Planet Big Apple – and that certainly applies to Valentine’s Day which no one could say is celebrated over here in a “half-hearted” fashion (sorry).

As soon as they cleared the all-embracing holiday decorations out of the shops, the shelves in our local drug store filled up with little red boxes of candy, enormous rose-carrying, all-embracing stuffed gorillas (I have no idea why – I obviously haven’t evolved enough) and red hearts or variations thereof appeared in every shop window. Even my local shoe-repair store has popped some red heart-covered wellies in the window for sale - or would that mean you want to give her the boot.

And I know that as soon as the candles are blown out and the last champagne, truffle and mungo bean-flavoured chocolate is eaten, everything will go green for St Patrick’s Day. Actually I’ve seen one liquor store that has decided to skip the Valentine’s Day stage altogether and has gone straight to the St Paddy’s Day paraphernalia. Obviously more money in Irish whiskey sales than bottles of cheap pink sparkling wine. Or in the hope that singles will buy Irish whiskey to drink with their mates on St Valentine’s Day – they could call it St Palentine’s Day.

The advanced concept that there’s no reason why St Valentine’s Day should just be enjoyed by lovers is certainly one that has already reached our new home planet. We’re back to that all-embracing, all-inclusive thing again. So of course you should send Valentine’s Day cards to your friends, your work colleagues, your teachers and other members of your family. Walk into a card shop at this time of the year and good luck on finding a birthday card. Rather the walls are full of such permutations as “From grandchildren to grandparents”,  “ From woman to woman”, “From your dog”,  “From tenant to super” (OK, I made the last one up).

There’s the “From wife with religious message” card which seems to me an interesting combination and my favourite - “Celebrating our first holiday together”.  No expectations there.  Hope there’s an enormous rose-carrying, all-embracing stuffed gorilla waiting for the sender of that one.

What I particularly love is when the most un-Valentiney products get given the V-Day treatment (yes, they even call it V-Day here). I’m not talking about the obvious special discounts ahead of the big day although who could resist the Valentine’s Day nursing uniform and scrubs sale with their heartbeat and Tweety Valentine prints.  No, it’s offers like the “Happy Valentine’s Day” laser removal special for him and her with the great slogan “The couple that lasers together, stays together”.  Now there’s a gift that should go along with the “Celebrating our first holiday together” card.

On the other end of the experience scale, we’re once again feeling our alien genes. This being the first year Male Mini-me is in an American school, I am currently having to go through the same discreet negotiations with my girlfriends as when I was trying to find out about holiday gifts to doormen. Along with the individual, sender-specific cards on display in the stores, there are also multi-packs of 15 cards for schoolkids to send out to their classmates.  However given that Male Mini-me has reached the dizzy heights of Middle School, Mini-Mum (a very definite High-Schooler) has pronounced it uncool to go down the card route. I suppose the fact that the cards were all Disney princesses and SpongeBob should have given me a clue.

Her suggested compromise is to produce Valentine’s Day chocolate rice krispie buns – ie in heart-covered cases and with red sprinkles. These have always been a successful contribution to any class, even in Paris where Male Mini-me's classmates used to ask him for the recipe. I wrote it down for him – it started off “First, find a mother who can’t bake”.  Note for all other Mamasubas out there – the same buns in shamrock cases and green sprinkles make great St Patrick’s Day buns – or turf cakes as I call them.

And what about my own Valentine’s Day? Well, it will be hard to beat last year – our first with snow on the ground and in an apartment with a little back garden.  As it was Sunday, I was lying in bed with my coffee and champagne, truffle and mungo bean-flavoured chocolates when Male Mini-me called me to look outside. There they were, the two men in my life, grinning away – and a great big heart drawn in the snow with red paint. 

They'll always be my valientines.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday reminds us of how green we aliens still are

Once a year we have a gentle reminder that we are indeed true aliens. Super Bowl Sunday, an event that dominates our new planet’s newspapers and conversations for weeks beforehand, still arrives with one of us asking “So who’s playing today?” (Just in case you missed it, it was the Green Bay Packers against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers won.)

I like being reminded how green and alien-like we eternal packers still are - it takes me back to the first weeks after landing when we emerged blinking into the bright light of August in New York, still unaware of the true foreign-ness of our new home.

It wasn’t so much the obvious things such as the continuous movie soundtrack of wailing sirens and honking taxies that made us realize we had switched galaxies. It was when things were not what they appeared to be – especially if it was something as obvious as a ticketed price. I still remember  the first time we proudly handed over what we thought was the correct money in a drugstore only to be foiled by the dreaded New York sales tax. This challenge to anyone’s mathematical abilities magically turns that $3.99-stamped pack of chewing gum into $4.33. And don’t even try to work it out with more than one item. Why do you think everyone uses credit or debit cards over here?

Then there’s crossing the street. In most countries, the green walking man at a set of traffic lights means just that – that little green aliens like ourselves can walk across the road safely. Here however just because you’ve been given a green light (in Big Apple it’s actually an ominously ghost-like white man), this does not mean all alien mobiles have been halted. In fact those cars to your left or right have usually also just been given the go-ahead and so could easily turn the little green walking aliens into little white ghosts.

I’m still working on the correct protocol in these instances. Either staring straight into the eyes of any pushy driver, hoping they may feel the tiniest twinge of guilt in running me over. Or adopting the hard-nosed  New Yorker “don’t imagine I’ll admit to seeing you even if you’re driving a car the size of a school bus, therefore if you knock me down I’m suing you” stare-straight-ahead stance. Either way, Male Mini-me now knows to cross on the “safe” side of road – ie downwind of me.

We’d think we’d be getting "acclimatised" and then as the seasons changed, we’d once again find ourselves looking at well-known items in a different way. When the rain came, we discovered the New Yorkers’ love of wellies or gumboots as they are called here. This being New York, we’re of course not talking Irish-green-only-fit-for-a potato-field wellies but swelly wellies and yummy gummies with heels, platforms, belts and psychedelic colours. This holiday season there was even a limited edition gumboot from a well-known champagne house in its trade-mark mustard yellow, on offer for a mere $98 (or $105.673473 with sales tax).

And when the temperatures dropped, we had our introduction to that great New York tradition, steam heating. Some 30 billion pounds of steam flow under the streets of New York each year heating and cooling commercial and residential buildings. But don't worry - those great pipes of steam that suddenly appear in the middle of New York streets are usually when outside water has fallen through a manhole on to the rather hot steam pipes rather than a leak in the system itself.

Meanwhile nothing can quite prepare you for your first night in a steam-heated apartment. The clunks, the hisses, the splatters, the whooshes. Throw-in your own private boiler with its groans, whines and rattles and you start to understand why New York is called “the city that never sleeps”- at least in winter.

Hot, steamy nights will never mean the same again, no matter what planet we're on.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The (credit) risky side of interplanetary travel

While I, subalien that I am, have yet to reach the first rung in the ladder of evolution on our new planet, even superaliens we’ve discovered have a long way to go before they can stand on their own two feet and hold their head high, proud in the knowledge that as they’ve matured, so has their credit rating.

Before we landed on Planet Big Apple, I had vaguely heard about how important credit ratings and credit scores were to our new hosts. I had not appreciated however how all-important they were. It didn’t take long. Just a trip to the local mobile phone company where we had to pay hefty deposits for each line we rented, deposits the company held on to for a year, interest free, just for the privilege of being able to use its network and pay the company even more money.

The problem, we quickly discovered, is that while interplanetary travel these days allows you to bring your offspring, Christmas decorations, unicycle and two chocolate fountains, it has not managed to find a way to transport your credit history. Obviously en route it gets de-atomised, de-itemised and disappears altogether. 

Moreover apparent language difficulties mean that bank statements from other planets with evidence of funds, applaudable payment routines and general upright citizenship are not translatable. No matter how many zeros you may have at the end of your previous bank balance, they mean nothing as far as a credit rating is concerned. Or rather zero.

The best is the credit card clinch – no, not a new variation of the credit card crunch post-September 2008 but what we've been held in since we arrived in September 2008. You need a US credit card but as you don’t have a US credit history, banks are not exactly falling over themselves to give you one. You eventually succeed after handing over every financial statement known to you, your husband, even to the UK taxman. You gratefully receive US credit card only to see that you have been given a credit limit that equates to dinner for two at your local diner.

Moreover because one of you has subalien status and is socially insecure i.e. without a SSN, you are not entitled to two separate accounts, only two identical cards and a shared credit limit – so you are each down to the equivalent of dinner for one.

Then here’s the clinch – in the UK and France, spending up to our credit limit and paying it all off on time like good little girls and boys usually resulted in lovely letters from our bank inviting us to use the card even more. Here, apparently, it’s the opposite. The best way to ensure you don’t improve your credit rating is to spend up to your current limit even if you pay it all off.  I’ve even seen one recommendation that you only spend up to 30% of what is available to you  - so down to just a starter at the local diner then.

The obvious solution is to have a number of credit cards and spread your spending around. But (and I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this), in order to get more credit cards, you have to have a good credit rating which means not spending up to your limit etc etc etc. And let's not forget the icing on the cake - if you are brave enough to apply for another credit card and get rejected based on your credit report, it brings your credit rating down even further!

Nearly two years on from our first full report, I just did our latest annual credit check. It was a bit like waiting for your A level results and seeing whether you’d made the grades for the university of your choice. The good news was that our credit rating had gone up. The not so good was that I checked on the internet to see how the new score compares and found kids in their 20s at the same level.

Seems we’ll just have to wait and let evolution take its course.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Getting down to basics - toilet paper heaven and public inconveniences

I was standing in my local supermarket this morning in front of a wall of choices – of toilet paper. 

Friends from France will know this is a particular pet subject of mine. When living in Paris, I was intrigued by the apparent French addiction to pink toilet roll. I would frequently spot elegant young Parisiens  with their impeccably-cut suits sauntering home carrying their Au Bon Marché food hall bags – and a giant 12-pack of pink toilet rolls.

Now I have absolutely nothing against coloured toilet roll. Coming from a country described as having 40 shades of green, I can verify we also in the toilet roll department favour 40 shades of orange. Thinking about it, I wonder if that is our just our old "cultural" differences coming out again. I don’t even mind the occasional pink roll, as all-inclusive as I am. But only pink?  I once had to write an apologetic note to friends who lent us their summer house in the country only to return to pink-festooned bathrooms after I failed to find any other colour in not one but three supermarkets in the local town.

One possible solution to the mystery was put forward by a friend who knows his toilet paper market well. His explanation was that the French government apparently stated the colour pink in its contract for the provisioning of “papier hygiénique” to all its offices. With so many very civil servants in the country, Frenchmen and women became so used to the colourful addition to the smallest room in the workplace that it is now the default hue for the loo "chez nous". Yet another example of how life in France is really "la vie en rose".  

On our new home planet, the locals see things more our way so that’s all white (sorry). In fact whiter than white, thicker than thick and softer than soft.  We have the option of special weaves for "a clean that you will notice", "ultra plush" tissues for those who want just that little bit more tender loving care and mega rolls with a guaranteed "roll fit guarantee"  to save us having to exhaust ourselves by changing the rolls so often.

And believe me, we do get through the toilet rolls because there is one very inconvenient aspect of Big Apple – the scarcity of public conveniences. As a result, at the end of every outing, the race for the bathroom as we open the door to our apartment has become a much-cherished family ritual.  

You know it’s an issue when you subconsciously start to register those stores that have public restrooms. Of course there is the obvious solution – that all-American coffee chain, where the lines outside the toilets can be as lengthy if not lengthier than those by the food counter. And may I just offer a sincere word of thanks to said coffee chain for turning a blind eye to those wishing to spend a penny rather than a dime as opposed to those establishments with the “Restrooms strictly reserved for customers” signs in the windows. They always lose my business – the dollar-paying kind, that is.

It doesn’t help that those department stores, large electrical shops and book chains that do host a restroom have them tucked away in some far-off corner with no signs. The easiest way to find them is to follow the worried-looking mums with the jigging children – they seem to have a sixth sense for this sort of thing.

I’ve sadly only just discovered that a leading maker of toilet paper even set up its own restrooms in Times Square during the recent holiday period so that visitors could “Enjoy the Go” in New York City. These splendid establishments apparently were complete with people dressed up as toilets and, this being America, your choice of three different types of loo paper.

Can’t wait to use them next Christmas  – literally.

Creative Commons License by Caroline Eagles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.