This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Four: Oasis (Not the Band)

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When the spouse and I began the epic quest to find our forever home last year, we tried to be open-minded… ish. We were flexible on the location, so long as it was within walking distance of the hubby’s office. (Of course, COVID-19 has rendered that condition indefinitely irrelevant, as his office closed in March and he’s been Zooming from our dining room table ever since.) We were also open to a broad range of property types, including terraced and detached houses, bungalows, flats and two-storey maisonettes – a new and glamourous-sounding term for this uncultured Yank. Out of the 40 prospects we viewed, the only one rejected on sight was an overpriced penthouse flat inhabited at the time of our visit by the tenants from hell, whose decorating style might be described as Extreme Urban Squalor. The tangle of bras drying on the radiator in the lounge added a certain je ne sais quois, while the half-eaten pot of stew decomposing on the kitchen counter infused the dingy rooms with aromas of bad meat and worse life choices.

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This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Three: The Dreaded Shed

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The coronavirus has put the kibosh on a slew of social activities for the time being, forcing many of us to conjure stay-at-home alternatives to fill our days. Bread baking has seen a rise in interest, as has posting the hit-and-miss results on Instagram. (Sorry, @theaussiebaker, but it appears you’ve seriously singed your buns.) Some dedicated fitness buffs have created home workout routines in order to beef up or slim down. I know, it sounds cuckoo to me too. My pal Tim is learning a bit of French, which will come in handy if he’s ever again able to travel to France, or even order in a French restaurant. (This COVID-19 is merde, non?) More than a few of us have even resorted to awkward video chats with friends and family to stave off boredom. Will Aunt Karen ever get her microphone to work? Tune in next week, or the week after, or the week after, to find out! Continue reading

This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

Chapter Two: Pump and Circumstance

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Mea culpa. In a previous post on adjusting to life in the UK, I dismissed the widely held view that it is exceptionally rainy here, noting with premature smugness that the weather in the months since my arrival hadn’t been any more inclement than anywhere else I had ever lived. Well, this past winter definitely dampened that naïve notion. From mid-November through the holidays and into the new year, the forecast was persistently grim for much of Britain. In Portsmouth, the coastal city that my spouse and I call home, steady downpours occurred almost daily. And though the clouds parted for brief interludes, you could always count on one thing: At the exact moment you left the house to run an errand or whatever, the heavens would open up. The deluge didn’t subside until March – clear skies greeted us right around the time we were all ordered to stay indoors to keep the coronavirus at bay. Isn’t it ironic, Alanis?

So yeah, newsflash, the possibility of looooong soggy spells in Britain is all too real. As such, homes that have areas below street level, like the two-storey flat the hubby and I bought back in October, need extra protection against flooding. This is why there’s a sump pump on our property. Having hitherto lived my life fully and freely above terra firma, I’ve never encountered one before. In the aftermath of the stressful incident described below in vivid detail, I Googled “what is a sump pump and how does it work,” and discovered that it’s an electric pump system that propels excess water through a pipe up and away from the house and into an external drain. Whether this is done by physics or by Order of the Phoenix-approved wizardry, I’m still not sure.  (Wikipedia has the full breakdown, but it’s a lengthy entry and I lost interest pretty quickly.) On a Googling roll, I then did a search for “sump etymology,” because who would name something “sump” on purpose? I learned the term is derived from a “Low German” word meaning “swamp.” Obviously, then I had to Google “Low German,” because that sounded kind of judgy and, well, things just spiraled from there. Continue reading

This Must Be the Place: Putting Down Roots – Finally – As a First-Time UK Home Owner

[Blogger’s note: I’m an American expat living in Portsmouth, England, with my British-born spouse. We moved to the UK together a few years ago and lodged in rental accommodations for a time, but eventually the property bug bit us and we purchased a flat of our own – a first for this fifty-something vagabond. Here you can read about the lows, the highs, and the near-constant DIY that have followed. Check back soon for the next installment in the series!]

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Chapter One: The Welcome Rat

Plump and bewhiskered, with a greasy brown coat and a long naked tail straight out of children’s nightmares, the uninvited guest seemed to take no notice of the two hulking humans peering at it disgustedly from above. It didn’t squeak, didn’t scamper away, didn’t try to gnaw at the nearest ankle. It just wobbled woozily in place, its eyes squeezed shut, its demeanor listless. I’m no expert on rodent behaviour – everything I know about rats I learned from the movie Ben — but something about this one seemed off. Was it sick? Had it lapped up a spilled pint in one of Portsmouth’s panoply of pubs and was now pissed out of its tiny mind? Or had it merely paused for a moment of quiet respite away from the, um, rat race? I got my grim answer when my partner pointed out the poison traps nestled in nooks around the courtyard where we stood, at the entrance to the flat that just minutes before had become ours. (We have since learned that such traps are common around these parts.) Poor little guy, I thought. Then a second later I thought, I am not picking that thing up if it expires right here.

My new life as a home owner was off to a bumpy start. Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Dinner, Supper or Tea: What Say Ye? Hashing Out the Terms for British Daily Meals

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My spouse and I are about to celebrate the third anniversary of our move to the UK, and every once in a while, when I’m feeling cocky, I’ll think I’m ready to graduate from an entry-level understanding of British life to at least an intermediate status. Then, inevitably, I’ll be confronted with a humbling reminder that I still have lorry-loads to learn.

Take the confounding conundrum of what to call daily meals in Britain. Stateside, the terms are easily digestible. Virtually everyone in North America calls the first meal of the day “breakfast” and the midday meal “lunch.” For the evening’s repast, the folksy “supper” lingers in certain areas – I can recall my dear old southern grandmother beckoning us kids to the supper table – but “dinner” dominates in our pop culture-steeped minds and hearts. After work, we may fill our bellies with a Swanson’s TV Dinner or a KFC Dinner Box or, in Canada, a Kraft Dinner. (Mac ‘n’ cheese to the rest of us.) A few years back, US advertisers force-fed us the slogan “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner,” much to the horror of vegetarians and contraction-phobes across the country. If we invite that special someone over for dinner and a movie, perhaps we’ll watch the classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or the somewhat less lauded Dinner for Schmucks. And if we find ourselves lucky, in love or otherwise, we might exclaim, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” Though we shouldn’t get too attached to that catchphrase du jour as it’s sure to join “Whassup!” and “Gag me with a spoon” on the fad compost heap any day now. Continue reading

Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#93: Parliament – Mothership Connection (1975)

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Growing up in America in the mid-1970s, back in the pre-Spotify Stone Age, my go-to sources for new music were the three Rs: radio, record stores, and the roller rink. (Wait, is that four Rs?) Radio gave me my fix of the top pop hits of the day – “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Jive Talkin’,” etc. And as the record stores in my vicinity seemed to be staffed solely by long-haired potheads, I likely experienced my first taste of Pink Floyd and Yes in those hippie havens. But the roller rink is where I got schooled in funk and soul. Savvy ‘70s rink DJs knew that if they wanted to get us kids away from the snack bar and out onto the slick floor for an “All Skate,” they just had to drop the needle on “Getaway” by Earth, Wind & Fire, or “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players, or Parliament’s crossover smash “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” I couldn’t get enough of these rousing rink faves then and I’ve held them close to my heart ever since, even though I haven’t been on eight wheels in decades. Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Keep the Change – No, You Keep the Change! The Tricky Business of Tipping in the U.K.

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Illustration by Jeff Cohen

The spouse and I ventured to Winchester one Sunday this spring to see a favourite singer-songwriter perform at a rustic pub near the town’s train station. While waiting for the show to begin, I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a lager, forking over a fiver to the sullen barman behind the taps. He slid the pint towards me and deposited the change, a 50-pence piece, into my outstretched palm. “Mind if I leave this with you?” I asked, hand still thrust toward him. He peered at me with a marked expression of distaste, as if I’d replaced the shiny coin in my grasp with an eviscerated dung beetle, or a ball of freshly foraged belly button lint, or a teeny-tiny MAGA hat. “I’d… rather you not,” he huffed, and folded his arms tightly across his chest as if to further protect himself from our toxic transaction. “Well, okay then,” I muttered, sheepishly pocketing the pence. I slunk away feeling like I’d committed some grievous faux pas akin to clipping my toenails during a church sermon, or publicly declaring that I actually enjoyed the Game of Thrones finale. Continue reading

Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#96: The Cars – The Cars (1978)

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Can I get through this review without resorting to automobile-related adjectives, metaphors, and/or puns? For you, dear reader, I shall attempt to steer clear abstain.

Unlike the band at #100 on the RS list, which launched its career full of quirky promise then grew artistically over several successive albums, the Cars peaked with this high octane dynamic and catchy first outing. At a time when rock was going through a bumpy transition from the bombast of superstar acts like Queen and the Who to the terse, punk-tinged sounds of the new wave era, one dweeby-looking Boston quintet managed to cruise in both lanes appeal to fans across the board. Classic rock aficionados heard echoes of Queen in the layered backing vocals on the hits “Good Times Roll” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” – no surprise, since producer Roy Thomas Baker worked wonders with both bands. And the robotic singing, succinct synthesizer melodies, and coolly detached personas of the group members, particularly gangly bandleader Ric Ocasek, appealed to new wavers, suggesting Gary Numan with meatier guitar hooks. (The punchy intro to “Just What I Needed” remains one of the great attention-grabbing riffs of all time.) The strong follow-up album, 1979’s Candy-O, nearly equalled its predecessor, lacking only the original’s showroom floor shine element of surprise. But then the lustre began to fade. (I’ll give that one a pass.) Ocasek and company would continue to have Top 40 hits throughout the 1980s, including “Shake It Up” and “Magic,” but the albums themselves never again matched the consistency and – I give up – drive of this still spry debut.

Test of Time Points (out of 10): 8
Blogger’s Success in Avoiding Car-Centric Clichés: Licence Revoked

Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#100: Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77

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One of the principal architects of American new wave music, along with Blondie, Devo, and a select few others, NYC’s Talking Heads upended the pop paradigm in 1977 with this groundbreaking debut. Frontman David Byrne’s agitated nerd persona, pretty much fully formed from the get-go, was a real game-changer at a time when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the airwaves. The top tune here is of course “Psycho Killer,” which rivals The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” as the most sinister jukebox classic of the rock era. That career-defining track alone likely lifts this album into the nether regions of the RS list ahead of the Heads’ two later ‘70s releases, More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music, both of which are superior in my opinion. While the 11 tracks on 77 all thrum with energy and wit – “The Book I Read” and “Don’t Worry About the Government” are among the standouts – in hindsight the musicianship and melodies sound a bit rudimentary compared to the subsequent globe-spanning work by this ever-evolving band. Still, as rock ‘n’ roll introductions go, this is a tantalizing taste of things to come.

Test of Time Points (out of 10): 7

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

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1. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

Call it the Little Album That Could. Unlike the two previous annual list-toppers posted on this blog, the first full-length effort by Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever was not a slam-dunk for best of the year. Hope Downs is neither the final masterpiece by a beloved rock icon who’d had a career full of them, like 2016’s worthy winner, nor, as was the case with 2017’s champ, an audacious, brainy comeback inspired by the death of said icon. No, it’s simply fun, jangly indie rock, played with shiver-inducing vitality and a lack of fuss, the way God intended. Ten great songs, imbued with the familiarity of bygone groups that I adore, by a scrappy Melbourne fivesome with an unwieldy moniker and a knack for killer hooks. And in the complicated climate of 2018, that ended up being enough. Continue reading