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

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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

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

2. Laura Veirs – The Lookout

sdrYou know how Harvest Moon is only, like, the ninth or tenth best Neil Young album, and for sure one of his least ambitious, but there are certain times – I’m thinking Sunday at twilight, sitting on the porch and sipping an adult beverage as the sun sinks below the horizon—when its gentle country-folk ditties are all you want to hear? That thought came to mind as I was getting to know The Lookout, the latest solo outing by Colorado singer-songwriter Laura Veirs. Not just because gentle country-folk is well-represented here, by “Seven Falls,” “The Canyon,” and several other exquisitely crafted songs. (Though a few, such as “Watch Fire,” which features feathery counterpoint vocals by Sufjan Stevens, skirt the edges of indie-pop.) It’s also because, while this is most assuredly not the hippest album of 2018 – Veirs is the kind of lyricist who is unafraid to pen a sentimental line like “Man alive, I’m glad I found you” – I can’t think of one that sounds lovelier. Continue reading

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

After two consecutive annual lists that have been mired in mellow indie rock, I’m happy to report that my picks for the best albums of 2018 are a bit more diverse – soul, folk, rafter-shaking arena rock, and even dubstep are represented, as are venerable masters and young guns. This year’s winners are also, as in the past, testaments to the art form. With one or two arguable exceptions, they hang together as cohesive works and are meant to be listened to in their entirety, from beginning to end. And not just these, but other worthy runners-up by Beach House, Fantastic Negrito, the 1975, and Christine and the Queens. 2018 really was an embarrassment of riches musically.

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.]

A Toast to the Roast: Tucking into Britain’s Traditional Sunday Feast

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Photo by Andrew Burbanks, taken at the Cowshed in Bristol, England

Waaaaay back in the hot ‘n’ hazy days of summer—you know, eight weeks ago—I boldly proclaimed central air conditioning to be mankind’s greatest invention. Well, I take it back. (I’m a fickle blogger, aye, so I am.) That was warm weather me talking, high on salty sea breezes and sunscreen fumes. Chilly weather me, wrapped in a comfy, musty cardigan, pumpkin spice latte foam sloshed across my upper lip, is more inclined to bestow superlatives on autumnal pleasures. Snuggling with the spouse, so uncomfortable during the summer heatwave, earns high marks, as does binge-watching darker fare on Netflix, like The Haunting of Hill House. But the single greatest rite of fall has got to be gorging oneself to the point of delirium on an excessive feast, something Americans raise to an art form on Thanksgiving, which as I post this is just a few days away. (Lucky Canadians already had their Thanksgiving in October.) As a Yank myself, I should be pining for this annual jubilee of gluttony right about now, but I’ve discovered a U.K. equivalent that totally satisfies my expat hunger pangs. Even better, I don’t have to wait for a holiday; I can belly up to this gut-buster on any given weekend. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my definitive pick (at least until spring) for mankind’s greatest-ever invention: the British Sunday roast. 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 early in the new millennium, 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.]

A Bloke Afloat: Getting Chummy with the English Seaside

btyWith the hottest summer on record in the UK nearing its inevitable end, it’s time to take stock of the personal highlights and lowlights of these past few muggy months. One definite lowlight: no central air conditioning in our flat! In the sweltering American South, where I grew up, central air is as essential to life as grits and saying “thank you, ma’am.” Here in England, the climate is usually less steamy. Most of the time my partner and I feel sufficiently cooled at home by opening windows and, of course, downing a few icy gin and tonics. This summer, as the weeks dragged on without any hint of rain and temperatures hovered in the high 20s C/mid-80s F, I was an ever-moist mess. 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 early in the new millennium, 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.]

Hello, Stranger, Would You Watch My Baby?
A Wary Former City Boy Struggles with Small-Town Neighbourliness

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Illustration by Jeff Cohen 

“British reserve” is a behavioural trait that’s allegedly so common in the UK it’s become a cliché.  Movies, books, even Brits themselves perpetuate the stereotype of a guarded people genetically predisposed to bottling up emotions and not making waves – “Keep Calm and Carry On” and all that. But if the cliché is true, someone neglected to tell the good folks of Southsea, the little laid-back village in which my partner and I now reside, nestled between the larger city of Portsmouth and the English Channel. After decades of living in sprawling, impersonal North American metropolises, we now find ourselves in close quarters with a community of characters who are anything but reserved. Indeed, they are an exceptionally chatty lot, alarmingly liberal with their warm greetings, all too willing to share intimate details about their personal lives, and trusting to a fault.  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 early in the new millennium, 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.]

Lovely, Actually: Embracing Britain’s Cuddliest Expression

lovelypicIt was the afternoon of Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s nuptials and royal wedding-obsessed folks all over Britain, indeed the world, were bunched around TV screens, hankies at the ready, to watch the blessed event. But not me and my partner. We had skipped the live airing to hunt for discounted summer attire in Portsmouth’s scruffy city centre shopping district. (Though of course we caught the two-hour BBC recap later that evening. We’re not monsters.) Well into our leisurely stroll from our flat to the shops, we overheard a cheerful male voice approaching from behind. “Hello, Nan, it’s your favourite grandson!” the voice crooned in that pleasantly sing-song way in which many Brits speak. Being a world-class sleuth, I quickly deduced that he was talking to his grandmother via mobile phone. “What’s that, Nan?” the voice continued. “No, I’m not watching it. Don’t really have any interest. You? Ah, lovely. I’m sure it is a beautiful dress. Well, I was just calling to wish Auntie Gail a happy birthday. Is she around? Lovely! Ta, Nan!” Continue reading