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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, October 27, 2011

From store candy to eye candy: getting into the spirit of Halloween!

We saw our first vampire the other night. It was about 1030 pm on a quiet tree-lined street but we quickly decided that he – together with his 40ish vampiress companion – posed little danger, except perhaps to the laws of good taste (if you excuse the pun).

The sighting, chilling as it was (I’ve long decided that 40ish is too old to wear a vampiress outfit) did serve to warn us of the start of the Halloween party season. We had been aware of its imminent arrival thanks to the myriad of “pop-up” costume shops which had sprung up over Planet Big Apple, all of which seem to specialize in variations of “pop-out” outfits for women. Until we arrived here, I had not appreciated that to be a true celebrant, you have to take the  “wee” in Halloween  very seriously, especially when it comes to skirts and bodices!

This poses a dilemma for every parent with a teenage daughter, in fact forget the teenage, just a daughter.  Our first year here Mini-Mum was shocked when she turned up at school on October 31st – it seemed some students like to keep up with certain Halloween traditions ie plenty of displays of flesh rather than blood and gore. Let's just say, for someone dressed up as a wicked witch, she looked positively saintlike.

Costumes are big business, no matter how skimpy they are. In total the US National Retail Federation anticipates Americans will spend $1.2 billion on adult costumes, $1 billion on children’s costumes and $310 million on pet costumes. Just to be clear here, we’re talking costumes FOR the pets. My favourite – the killer whale – doesn’t seem to have caught on as pumpkins and devils are apparently still the top two pet get-ups.

In total, spending on Halloween is expected to reach nearly $7 billion - now that’s a lot of candy. I know because I see it in the shops around me – bags and bags of it. Of course you don’t have to succumb to all this consumerism - I’ve never been so proud of Mini-Mum as when she manufactured wings for her Batgirl outfit from two “dead” umbrellas.  But at the same time you have to let go a little – having sugar-free treats only at the Halloween party at Male Mini-me’s first school was, to me, a little excessive (or should that be "not excessive enough").

Let’s face it – 90% of the sweets the children gather that one night just sit in a bag at the bottom of the wardrobe for the rest of the year. If you’re really into recycling you could just quietly bring them back out again 12 months later and stick them in the calling bowl by the door (only kidding – I know Halloween is all about mean, evil people but I’m not that mean and evil).

If I sound as if I don't get into the "spirit" of things, you couldn't be further from the truth. This is the alien who proudly discovered that she could see the Halloween lights in her Paris apartment from the top of the Eiffel Tower. But I have to admit this year, I reached a kind of a watershed. Now that both Alienettes are in the dizzy heights of Middle and Upper School, I wondered whether they would think it silly to have decorations gathered lovingly from three different planets sprinkled all over the apartment. In other words, I worried they had been weaned off Halloween.

The nudge I needed came from the most surprising source - old Killjoy himself, Superalien. He pointed out that just because the Alienettes didn't say anything, it didn't mean they wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't go to my usual lengths of getting the right planetary atmospheric mood.

Mind you, he also pointed out our local pop-up costume shop. Any messages there???

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Discovering the secret agents in Planet Big Apple customer care centres

I’ve just spent the last three days on hold – literally. It’s medical plan renewal time and that means hours on the phone trying to find out details about new schemes and sorting out issues with the old one. Not to mention booking flights home to Planet Europe for Christmas and trying to get a plumber to fix our loo (I refuse to call it the “john”). Although you’ll be reassured to know we do have more than one loo so I haven’t been totally holding on, so to speak.

I shouldn’t complain overly. Even getting to the “on hold” stage is a major accomplishment over here, thanks to the mysteries of local call centres. With French automated customer care centres,  I used to take great pride in the fact that my Irish-French accent  - almost always - passed the voice recognition test. Not quite so for Superalien (or “Extraterrestre Extraordinaire” as I suppose I should have called him there). He would spend his time trying to say “oui” in fifteen different ways. It was as if the French language had more tones than Mandarin.  Poor old Double-Extra would get more and more frustrated, with his “oui”s ranging from sounding like someone who had just dipped an extremity into boiling water to John Wayne telling his horse to stop.

At least, I thought, this would be one less thing to have to contend with in Planet Big Apple. Mais non!  I quickly discovered that I was the one sounding like John Wayne as I attempted to give account numbers/flight reservations/my DNA code over the phone only to be greeted with “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. Can you try that again?”

The number 8 is a particular problem – I keep forgetting over here it usually involves two whole syllables and the only way I can get it right is by pretending I’m a grande dame of English society describing what she had for lunch in full-bodied vowels (think Dame Judi Dench and the words “I ate” and you’ll get my drift).

My apparent subnormal ability to speak the language is only compounded by my subalien, socially insecure status with no 12-digits against my name. Too many times after finally negotiating the vocal hurdle, I would stumble at the ultimate numerical  challenge - being asked to key in the last 4 numbers of my (non-existent) social security number.  With no other alternatives or options offered, my failure to respond would result in calls disappearing into thin air. Eventually out of sheer frustration, I discovered the magic key. Forget 007 – my new secret agent identity in these instances is 0000 – and it seems to work.

Suddenly a whole new world opened up to me –  I actually got to speak to real, live people (not that it meant my reasons for calling were ever resolved of course) but still, it felt better. I became bolder. On one call, when faced with what seemed like 6 million numerical options to get through to the next stage, I pressed the one number not listed - 0 - and shock horror, I was put on hold to go straight through to a representative.

And then, after expressing my pleasure at managing to break through the system, one very helpful representative let slip the ultimate password, the magic key, the way to cut your on-hold time in half. You don’t need a secret agent, just a secret word – “agent”. Just say this at any time in any call to a customer care centre and the real people come on. Now if only they were as good at getting rid of problems as James Bond!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It's a dog's life - planetary customs and costumes!

It’s October – the leaves are (finally) starting to turn brown in the city and the city’s brownstones are starting to turn into Hallowe’en houses with pumpkins, ghouls and giant skeletons popping up everywhere.

But while October is obviously a blessed month for the little aliens in our current planet, it also brings blessings - literally - for the many four-legged aliens walking the streets, not to mention the two-winged and the floppy-eared. In honour of St Francis of Assisi, the Italian monk known for his love of animals, churches and chapels throughout Big Apple hold Annual Blessing of the Animals services around his October 4 Feast Day. Just in case you thought this simply covered dogs and cats, previous participants at New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine have apparently included sheep, goats and even a llama.

While this may seem a step too far to some dwellers from other planets, it does not take long living amongst my current companions to appreciate nothing is too far so far as pets are concerned. I mean, why not go to a stationery store with two parrots chained to your shoulder?  Or take your pet budgies (still in their cage) for a stroll by the river in your shopping trolley? I’ve seen both this summer while out walking the Alienettes, neither of whom were chained to my shoulder or in a shopping trolley, I might add.

As in any big city, pets mean companionship. In Paris it was the same. A study while we lived there hypothesized that the high ratio of dogs to Parisians was because so many people had moved to the city and were a long way away from family and friends. Hence their dog became their family. Ironically of course having a dog in Paris is the best way to make friends and probably the only way to meet neighbours in your building. I once watched in amazement at a chic Parisian restaurant as the archetypal haughty maître'd proceeded, completely unbidden, to put a plate of prime entrecôte on the table – for the customer’s white pooch. Silence fell around the room as the little dog devoured the food with relish. I waited for the other diners to express their dismay but no, it was all oohs and aahs and “trop mignon” – and they were not talking about the steak!

Here they may draw the line at eating from the table but your dog may still get brought a drink of water before your thirsty toddler. There is however every reason to take a dog seriously here as he or she is, in all senses of the word, an important consumer.  In total Americans are expected to spend over $50 billion on their pets this year, up 5% from 2010 despite the economic doom and gloom. In Big Apple every restaurant that closes its doors at the moment seems to be quickly replaced by a doggy daycare centre, a doggy spa, a gym or a grooming parlour. And let’s not forget the dog walkers who ask upwards of $15 for a 30 minute walk and then juggle a multitude of dogs at the same time – well, not literally juggle, more jiggle.  

One website noted a dog walker’s rate depended on his or her training and certification (yes, we are talking about the walker here rather than the dog). That said, seeing some walkers calmly stride through the park with 8 perfectly-behaved dogs makes you appreciate how you can be a professional pooch promenader. I sometimes wonder if they could work the same magic on some of the smaller two-legged aliens in the park.

One area where professionals and amateurs both notch up a 100% score is on poop collection. This unfortunately was not the case in Paris. Most visitors do not realize that Parisians are not being grumpy and aloof when they walk around with their eyes fixed on the ground – they are just looking out for doggie doo. Here however the local aliens can be stung with a $250 fine if they don’t clean up after Fido – worse, they are likely to get a stinging ear-lashing from the next passerby.

The plus side of this - apart from clean sidewalks - is that dogs are welcomed pretty much anywhere in the city, even more so when they are carried in one of the many dog-carriers (mock croc anyone?), strollers (all-terrain version starting at $350) and my personal favourite, a puppy purse. This is what it sounds - your little darling is encased in a fitted bodysuit with his legs free and a handy strap for you to carry him over your shoulder, like, well, a handbag.

And this leads me full circle to the obvious and ultimate Big Apple doggie accessory - the Hallowe'en costume. Bunny rabbits, hot dogs, taco dogs, killer whales - you name it, they have it. Forget the two-legged version in the Village, this is the annual Hallowe'en parade you want to see. Last year's affair in Tompkins Square saw a dog dressed as an ipad, one with a doggy version of Lady Gaga's meat dress and another in a green curtain gown à la Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind". Thinking about it, to survive that, the poor little things need all the blessings they can get.
Creative Commons License by Caroline Eagles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.