Sunday, June 26, 2011

Playing tennis in the USA - British and American differences

I’ve started playing tennis in the USA recently.  Back in the UK, I played a lot of badminton.  Badminton is a great game for northern Europe as it is an indoor game, meaning that you avoid the cold and rain in the Winter months, unlike with rugby and football where you get very muddy and freeze your balls off, at least in my experience.  It took me a while to get my badminton game back together after many years of not playing seriously, but I got better and for a time I was captain of the Headingley C Team, which sounds almost grand, but in practice means doing an awful lot of phone texting to remind team members where the next match is and what time they should show up.  Now that I am over here, however, I have packed in badminton and I am playing tennis in Florida.  With Wimbledon underway back in the UK, I thought it might be fun to compare British and American differences when it comes to tennis.

Playing tennis in Florida is obviously a much hotter experience than anything you get in the UK.  I’ve bought a baseball cap to protect my eyes and head from the sun and have considered getting sweatbands.  Basically, you have to play tennis either in the evening or the morning here, unless you want to sweat to death.  The chances of play getting rained off are lower, however.

There is more high fiving and fist bumping in American culture and less hand shaking.  In England things are more formal and reserved in this respect and the only physical contact is usually a bit of hand shaking and maybe a gentle pat on the back.  I don’t really mind the American way, as I can get fed up with the stiffness and formality of British culture sometimes, but I am still adapting and trying to work out what is appropriate here!

Badminton takes a heavy toll on the knees, as you are moving fast and constantly changing direction.  Tennis means less stress on the knees and legs generally, but more strain on the elbow and shoulder of your racket arm.

I still find some of the pronunciations amusing.  “Deuce” virtually rhymes with “juice” in England but the vowell sound is more like “moose” in the US.  I am going to stick to my English pronunciations, however, having resolved before I began living in the USA to follow the maxim of my hero, Quentin Crisp and to: “On no account learn the language, the more English you sound, the more likely you are to be believed.”  This is somewhat undermined, however, by many Americans mistaking me for an Australian!  (Some people don’t get the Northern English accent, apparently!)

(Another American expression that has caused me confusion is "I'm good".  In the UK "I'm good" usually means "I'm ready" or "I'm up for it", whereas in the US, it more often means the opposite: "I'm done" or "I've had enough".)

I would like to play some matches for the local club, but I need to get a lot better and I am still trying to remember how to play some of the shots.  My service still needs lots of work, for instance.  I am getting there, however.

As well as playing with a local club once a week, I also play with my wife once or twice a week.  We go to a local court, which hasn’t been properly maintained, but is within walking distance.  It is cracked and overgrown, but it has a net and you can just about work out the markings, so it is okay for a knockabout.  (Sometimes we follow up with a dip in the pool, which is rather nice!)

As far as the professional game goes, there are numerous British and American differences that I could name, but the main one, as Rob at The Inconsequential Opinion pointed out, is that unlike with the Americans, the Brits never win at Wimbledon!  Well at least, we haven’t had a winner since Virginia Wade back in 1977, an event that I only vaguely remember from my childhood!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

British TV vs American TV and how I watch BBC iplayer in USA

Having sampled some of it on my multiple trips across the pond, I must admit that one thing that I wasn’t looking forward to when I finally started living in the USA was American TV.  I am almost ashamed to admit this, as time and time again, when it comes to British TV vs American TV one of the cliches that you read and hear is British expats saying is how bad American TV is and how much they miss Coronation Street, Bruce Forsyth, the X Factor etc.  It all sounds a bit sad and pathetic to me.  For me, it wasn’t the soaps, or Brucie, or the British talent shows that I was worried about missing: it was the channels like BBC 4 TV, where you can watch a documentary about the history of the British Skiffle Movement, the story of evolution since Darwin, or watch a live performance of Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony. 

Maybe I am sounding like some sort of cultural snob, but I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I am knocking all American TV.  America does do some marvelous documentaries, the ones by Ken Burns springs to mind.  But American public television relies on donations, so quality documentaries are relatively few and far between, especially for a country of this size.  In terms of comedy and drama, however, American TV excels and two of my favourite shows: Curb Your Enthusiasm and House MD are produced here.  (95% of American TV is utter dross, of course, but that is true of British TV too, in my experience.  But I find it generally doesn’t matter, as you can usually avoid the dross with a handheld device known as the remote control.)

Which brings me to my actual problem.  My difficulty isn’t with the quality of the American TV programs that you get, it is with all the bloody adverts!  They are loud and they go on for ages and ages.  In fact, American TV can sometimes seem like one long series of adverts with occasional breaks for the programs.  It really is that awful!  I know now why Americans have a reputation for channel hopping, they are trying desperately to avoid being bombarded to death by all the endless ads. 

Anyway, back to my beloved BBC (who incidentally, don’t show any adverts in the UK).  After messing around with various free proxy servers and getting no joy, I found a free program that enabled me to get BBC iplayer in USA called Expat Shield, by tricking the BBC computers into thinking that my laptop is in Scotland, rather than Florida.  We also bought a new flat screen TV with a socket it in the back so I could put my laptop through it.

But after all that, the irony is that I hardly watch BBC iplayer or live British TV that much.  The truth is that I can watch the world news on BBC America, all my favorite British comedies like The Mighty Boosh and Never Mind the Buzzcocks are available on Youtube, and big events like the Royal Wedding and the European Cup Final are shown on American TV.  Plus there is always Netflix to stream movies and the library to borrow DVDs from.  Still, it’s reassuring to have the BBC option, I guess.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

10 completely untrue sheep facts

Having gone on rather a lot about alligators since I started living in the USA, and given that this British expat blog is called From Sheep to Alligators, I thought that in the interests of fairness if I should dedicate this post to those splendid woolly quadrupedal, ruminant mammals from the North of England, otherwise known as sheep.  Rather than risk boring you with reality, however, I thought that I would amaze you with my 10 completely untrue sheep facts!

1.  Sheep are predominantly nocturnal animals with specially adapted eye lids that help them to identify their favorite prey in the dark.  Their diet typically consists of worms, spiders, hedgehogs, and men walking home from the pub. 

2.  The Eiffel tower in Paris, France, is made entirely out of wool.  It was knitted in 1872 by Marie LeBouche, wife of the famous Belgian biologist and philosopher, Francois LeBouche.  The design is based on pattern from Scotland.  

3.  We all love to open our electronic mails and surf the interweb, but did you know that the “http” that begins each website address was invented by a sheep called Tony? 

4.  Sheep were valued in ancient Japan for their physical dexterity, ultrasonic hearing abilities and basket-weaving skills.  They were also believed to possess psychic powers! 

5.  The sheep mating season occurs in late July and early August with a typical ewe (female sheep) laying somewhere between ten and twenty eggs.  Young sheep, known as lambs, build intricate webs which they use to catch flies, which they live on until they are old enough to leave the nest. 

6.  The oldest male sheep ever known was called Franklin, who reached the ripe old age of 87 years old.  After opening a successful chain of health food shops during the 1970s, he  died tragically in 1983 after being implicated in a financial scandal. 

7.  Sheep have existed since the time of the dinosaurs.  Ten million year old sheep fossils have been discovered as far a field as the deserts of South Yorkshire and swamps of North Wales.  Ancient sheep possessed elongated canine teeth which they used to inject a venom twice as potent as that of the black widow spider into their prey.  These “saber-toothed sheep” grew up to 3 metres (10 ft) tall. 

8.  Tough guy actor, John Wayne was phobic of sheep and once refused to go out on a film set in New Zealand because of his fear of being savaged.  “It is the way that they look at me,” he told one Aukland reporter. 

9.  Gambling is a serious problem amongst young sheep.  Although exact figures are difficult to collect, it is thought that as many as 75% of lambs have addiction issues. 

10.  Black sheep were the victims of prejudice in the 19th and 19th centuries with their dark color being labeled as the mark of the devil…  Hold on a minute, this fact is true!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Perils of Writing a British Expat Blog

Living in the USA and being a British expat blogger is generally fun.  But there are perils too associated with writing a British expat blog.  Probably the hardest thing for me sometimes is finding the balance between how you treat your homeland and how you treat your host country.  If you appear to treat either of them too unfavourably, people get upset.  Even praising one country can appear to damn the other in some eyes.

I could, of course, make my opinions and humour (humor?) as bland as possible and avoid all possibility of controversy, but that’s not me, and frankly, I personally prefer to read an expat blog where someone actually says something.  Experiencing the expat blogger’s impressions, opinions, viewpoints is the whole point reading a blog, methinks?

I guess one of the things that can make things awkward is that many Americans and Brits tend to have fairly two dimensional views of each other, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, especially if they have not traveled to the other country.  Brits can find amusement in American naivity of Europe, but the British idea of America can be a simplistic amalgamation of New York, the Deep south, and the Midwest bible belt, with no real idea of how these places fit together (or don’t fit together, as the case may be!) 

Some subject areas are certainly thornier than others for a British expats blog writer.  I think at some point I will have post a blog about my impression of American politics.  That is almost bound to annoy some people.  In general terms, I must say that British politics seems rather civilized compared to the raging cauldron of hate that is often modern American politics, where even the blandest of statements by a politician can kick off a fierce argument between left and right.  Americans are certainly committed to the idea of democracy and their constitution, but I am not always sure as an outsider that their system works very well, not at present, anyway.

As well as politics, there are other American and British differences.  The whole concept of America as a nation state is different from most places in the world for a start, including Britain.  You don’t often find me quoting Margaret Thatcher, but she said that Europe is founded on history and America is founded on philosophy and that is absolutely true.  Americans will argue until their blue in the face about what exactly the their constitution means and how much it is fixed and how much it is a living document open to change.  It’s important because in some ways, the constitution *is* America.  If you aren’t in keeping with the philosophy espoused in the constitution, you can be labeled un-American, a concept which is essentially alien to the Brits, who don’t have a constitution and are British by virtue of being born there regardless of any beliefs – sure, you can be labeled unpatriotic in the UK, but you could believe in communism, or some other form of totalitarian system that is contrary to mainstream British values and still wouldn’t be called “un-British”.

Whatever you think of it, America is certainly an interesting place.  Millions of diverse people sharing an area of land with nothing in common apart from that they are all supposed to agree to a few basic tenets.  Going back to Thatcher, she described Bolshevism as a big social experiment.  I kind of think of America that way too.