Saturday, July 27, 2013

Lazy Days

Forgive me for not writing, but I’ve been very busy enjoying myself by doing absolutely nothing. Not my fault; I had to. The reason for this inactivity is summer: an unexpected*, glorious, dare I say “hot” and unprecedented number of contiguous days, SUMMER!

(* Actually, the weather minders predicted a nice summer back in the very cold and snowy March of this year, but nobody believed them because they lie to us all the time.)

I rest my case.
But this time, they were bang on. The 4th of July dawned a bit grey, but then it got nice, and it has been nice—with blue skies and sunshine—ever since. An atmospheric anomaly of this magnitude and this magnanimity has never occurred in all the years I have lived here.

Since moving to Britain eleven years ago, I have voluntarily worn a pair of shorts exactly three times, and only for brief periods during the warmest part of the day, but this year, I have been wearing shorts for the past three weeks. A few of those days have peaked into the 90s and most were solidly in the 80s. The grass is beginning to crisp, the sun is unrelenting, the pavement is hot as a skillet and we sleep at night with the windows wide open, lying on top of the covers, sweating. I love it.

It is the first time in years I have experience anything like an Upstate New York summer. In fact, this is better than a NY summer; the locals may be complaining about the heat and humidity, but this is merely a shadow of what transpires back home. And we are able to keep the flat at a liveable temperature by keeping the windows and balcony doors open all the time, yet we are not being eaten alive by mosquitoes, gnats and horseflies. That said, I have noticed one or two house files flitting around, a sight that is also unprecedented. That made me want to buy a fly swattersomething I haven’t needed in years but couldn’t live without in NYand nostalgic for those gruesome fly-strips.

I couldn't live without a fly swatter, but those fly strips always
struck me as a bit creepy; there was always one in somone's grandmother's
house, hanging in a corner, covered in dusty fly skeletons.

So far, my wife has vetoed the purchase of either of these items.

The weather, coupled with the fact of my “retirement,” means that this is the first stretch of really fine summer days that I have been totally free to enjoy since the summer break between my junior and senior years in high school—and that, my friends, is a long time, indeed. Therefore, I have dedicated myself to enjoying the days. I have been riding my bike even in the hottest weather, wandering around town soaking up the heat through the soles of my sneakers, lounging around the flat in a pair of shorts and bare feet, drinking cold beer while sitting on the balcony in the sunshine, and enjoying the sultry, summer breeze as it wafts through the windows at night. It’s almost like sleeping outside, and is reminiscent of the summer nights of my childhood, with my own (screened) window open, allowing the scents and sounds of summer inside: the buzz of the cicada, the smell of the pines, the scent of new mowed lawn. (Okay, here it’s usually the smell of the kebab shop and the sound of drunks wending their way home after chucking out time, but still.)

Days like these make me long for watermelon, my mother’s German potatoes salad, ambrosia made with Cool Whip and a can of fruit cocktail and a for-chrissake-proper hot dog that does not come out of a can.

Remember this? Soooooo yummy!

Serious Hot Dog FAIL!
Trust me; I'm an American, I know.

Today, however, it’s cooler, and due to rain soon, so it’s back to long trousers, regular shoes and, if I read the clouds right, an umbrella. I don’t mind, really. Dressing like a grown-up after all this time is also reminiscent of summers gone by. It’s like the day after Labor Day, when the new school year started and I put on the stiff corduroy pants and paisley print shirt mom bought from the Sears catalogue, the signal that it was time to get on with life and let the easy days of summer fade.

So today I’m getting on with life and back to work (well, after the weekend). And I really won’t mind the rain when it comes; the grass could use a bit of water.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Exhibitionists

Today, we did something I don’t ever recall doing before: we took a trip to London clad only in light, summer outfits. During an average year, you can count on one hand the number of times the weather is comfortable and stable enough to leave the flat without first suiting up in fleeces or jackets or coats or scarves or hats or gloves or a combination thereof. Today, however, marks the beginning of a second week of what I call “almost summer” weather (because it isn’t yet in the 90s with 87% humidity like it gets back in my old home town), and it is simply wonderful.

We, therefore, seized the opportunity to go—sans jackets—to London, to see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. This exhibition has been staged annually since 1768, allowing anyone to submit a piece of artwork for possible inclusion. And many do. A rotating panel of Royal Academicians (all practicing artists or architects) shift through the thousands upon thousands of entries to winnow out a “short list” of five thousand and, finally, decide on the 1,200 or so that are put on display.

Because of the broad scope of entries, it is an eclectic and all-inclusive exhibit and anyone willing to cough up the ten quid entrance fee is bound to find something to their liking. And, of course, much to be bemused about.

The works are almost all for sale and, although the prices range from a low £65 to a breathtaking £450,000, the vast majority can be hung on your parlor wall for a mere £2,000 to £20,000.

In case you are interested in bulking out your art collection, here are highlights of some of the more notable works:

Several fetching pieces rendered in the medium of “archival inkjet,” meaning, one must assume, that they were run off of an Epson printer. I expect you are all thinking, as indeed was I, that anyone could do that. And you could, but I doubt you’d be able to charge £500 for the results. (Other unconventional media used by artists included mattress ticking, yarn, plastic soda bottles, something called “sugar-lift” and rusty nails in concrete.)

One very interesting picture, rendered in the rather pedestrian medium of oil on canvas, featured a blank square surrounded by a larger blank square.

This isn't the real one; I made this, as no doubt could you.
It would save you some money.

It looked something like this. Interested? It was only £1,000

A Rorschach-type inkblot caught my eye because it looked vaguely like a pornographic drawing. I then discovered the name of the work was—oddly enough—Pornographic Drawing, and that the ink to render it was made from chopped up pornographic tapes. It can be yours for a mere £12,000.

Viewing the works is an inspiration to budding artists. I know this because I recently took up watercolor painting (you’ll be hearing more about that in the future, no doubt) and, as an exercise, I created a chart of my pallet and the various color-combinations thereof. This chart looked startlingly similar to a £7,000 painting hanging in the Royal Academy.

This is my reference chart; but it could also be a work of art.

Does this mean I have a career as an artist ahead of me?

In addition to this, there was a very large work consisting of several abstract areas of primary colors with a price tag of £168,000, a portrait that, if I had painted it, would have ended up in the rubbish bin as a tragically failed attempt, a crucifix covered in bees and a sculpture by a famous British artist that could only be described as a tiny lump of metal selling for £1,800. It all got to be a bit much, but when I proposed sitting down on the art-deco bench in the middle of the room I discovered it was actually another work of art selling for nearly half a million pounds.

I hasten to add that most of these works—as well as many, many others—have already been sold, so I am not insinuating that they are bad art (or at least unprofitable art), they are merely art that I personally wouldn’t have in my house, which is—as noted earlier—one of the great things about the Summer Exhibition: the avant-garde, as well as the traditionalist, are bound to find something to appeal.

And if you happen to have a couple thousand quid burning a hole in your pocket, you can take some of it home with you.

One work of art looked remarkably like this: it was
going for £1,500 but I’ll sell you this one for £250.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cultural Exchange

Having recently acted as a guide for a visiting American, I have become reacquainted with just how confusing the British culture can be. So I thought I’d give you the benefit of my years of experience and educate you concerning one of the little-known oddities of the UK.

If you drive along the country roads in Britain long enough, you’re likely to come across a sign with the enigmatic caption, “Heavy Plant Crossing.” (NOTE: you are also likely to come across signs with the starling warning, “Tank Crossing,” but these are not enigmatic; they mean exactly what they say.)

Yeah, it means just what it says.
But back to the Plant Crossing signs. Britain, as you know, is an ancient land that, for eons, lived in harmony with nature. The creation of paved roads is, historically, a relatively recent event, and due to the fact that putting in the highway system basically meant paving over farm paths they had been driving their livestock to market on over the past centuries, many of the migratory routes of indigenous species were suddenly blocked by tarmac strips.

The natural world generally won’t alter migration patterns simply because Bogbottom Council decided to run the B11753 between Lower Sheepdip and Abbott Grim, so the timeless migrations still continue even though they often cross active roadways. This is the case of the Heavy Plants, which can be a hazard to drivers.

During seasons of drought, the plants follow their ancient migration paths to find water and richer soil. For species like cow parsley or primrose, it isn’t a problem. At least, not for the motorists. But when the heavy plants, such as Quickthorn, Yew Hedges or even Gorse cross the highways, well, you don’t want to meet up with them if you’re driving a Ford Escort.

Therefore, to benefit motorists as well as the plants, signs have been erected along the ancient migratory paths to alert drivers to the possibility of large bushes suddenly jumping into the roadways.

A Heavy Plant crossing a road
So, if you visit Britain and your hosts take you for a drive around the countryside (and if they don’t, insist that they do so; it is exceptionally beautiful) and you see a Heavy Plant Crossing sign, you can tell them about the great plant migrations and the safety measures put in and they will be properly impressed with your grasp of local knowledge.

No need to thank me.

And for you Brits visiting America, there is a sign in the US that may need a bit of explanation:

Many years ago, when the west was still a wild place, inhabited only by the ancient people who had lived there since the Great Spirit brought them to the land, a great chief had a beautiful daughter, named White Dove, who needed a husband.

Only the mightiest of the braves would do for White Dove, so a contest was arranged and all the best braves of the tribe—Running Deer, Howling Wolf, Falling Rocks and Soaring Eagle—were given two weeks to hunt in the forests. Whoever returned with the most game would win the hand of White Dove.

So off they went, into the forest. Two weeks later, Running Deer returned with four elk, three buffalo and ten hares. Behind him was Soaring Eagle with five elk, two buffalo and eight hares. Then Howling Wolf returned with six elk, five buffalo and twenty hares. And they waited for Falling Rocks, but he didn’t return. They waited the next day, and the next but there was still no sign of him. Finally, the Chief decided to give White Dove’s hand in marriage to Howling Wolf. The two were married and raised many fine braves but even as they grew old and watched their family grow and multiply, Falling Rocks never returned.

Even to this day, as you drive through the American west, you will see signs saying, “Watch for Falling Rocks.”

He STILL hasn't come back.
Yeah, the old ones are still the old ones.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A New Frock for Rachel

This, as you are aware, is an expat blog, devoted (for the most part) to my adventures as an accidental expat. I am, however, also a writer, though this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone (hint: have a look on the right side of the page).

As it happens, it is time for me to talk about my books; I will attempt to make this quick and painless and, hopefully, interesting. Now come along with me:

I currently have four books out: three humor books and one novel of which I am, justifiably, proud. Finding Rachel Davenport manages to blur the lines between chick-lit, thriller and comedy crime caper, and I felt sure this would make it a sure winner. By simultaneously covering three genres, it would—I reasoned—triple its audience. Instead it seems to have confused people, so the publisher thought we should re-brand the book and put it in a single category:

New Frock for Rachel
By the spiffy new cover, I bet you can guess the category we decided on. And I agree with the decision because, even though the book contains several explosions, a couple of knife fights and a rape scene, it is mostly a fun and funny book about a young woman in search of herself and who encounters two very different men along the way. So the chick-lit category suits Rachel fine, and I hope fans of the genre who are looking for a story involving romance and a happy ending are not disappointed.

But you don’t have to buy the book to find out because I am giving this book—as well as my others—away FREE for the remainder of this month. It’s a sort of Christmas in July promo aimed at reaching a wider audience and getting a few more reviews up on the Amazon sites.

So, if you want any of my books, just click the links and use the coupon codes and down load the ebook for free. If you want an actual paperback, send me an email and I can send you one at cost, which will save you a few pennies, at least.

All I ask in return is that you consider putting a review up on Amazon after you finish reading the books.

Christmas in July!
          Free ebooks - any of my titles - for the month of July
Sorry! Christmas is over.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Virtually Real

For the most part, I am pleasantly surprised when meeting...Oh, wait, it’s the first of the month...pinch, punch and white rabbits and all, where was I?

Oh, yes, meeting up with a person who has heretofore been among my virtual acquaintances, someone who—although I have been engaging with them on Facebook and/or exchanging missives with them via e-mail—I have not actually met and therefore have no reason to believe that we could tolerate, much less like, each other in real life, or—more to the point—that they are not actually a 45 year old serial arsonist currently residing in a secure facility.

Happily, as I began to indicate in the opening sentence, neither of those two scenarios is generally the case, as was true when I met up with Abby, an Anglophile from Sulphur Springs, Arkansas and author of The BritophileDiaries who was in London wrapping up her first “trip of a lifetime” to the UK (and Switzerland). We met up on a rainy Friday morning in front of St. Paul’s and as I approached, she looked at me from under the hood of her wet rain jacket and I nodded a greeting from within the hood of my own waterproof coat and she said, “Hi Mike,” and I said, “Hi Abby, welcome to summertime in Britain,” and we set off to find some place get out of the rain.

It was, as usual, like meeting up with an old friend instead of a virtual stranger. There was no initial awkward phase as we decided whether the actual person was less interesting or more likely to be an axe murderer than the on-line persona we were more familiar with. So we went for brunch at Café Rouge and had a lovely natter about, well, everything.

It was so nice talking with an American—something I do all too infrequently—and for her part, I think by then she was a bit homesick and just as glad for the non-foreign company. She was chatty and friendly and seemingly comfortable spending time with a man who is, frankly, old enough to be her grandfather.

After lunch, we took the tube to St Pancras station because it was one of the few things I thought she ought to see in London that she hadn’t already visited. So I gave her the 50-pence tour, showed her the clock and the big statue and the grand architecture—both old and new—and bought her her first glass of champagne at the (reputedly) longest champagne bar in Europe (also in contention for the most expensive).

Abby having her first ever glass of champagne. Shhh! Don't tell her mom!
She then returned the favour by giving me a tour of nearby King’s Cross station, which I had not been to since it re-openned in 2012. Specifically, she showed me the baggage trolley sticking out of the wall at Platform 9 ¾. Abby is a fellow Potter-geek, so she was happy to wander through the station’s Potter store with me, even though she had already been there. (She was, incidentally, on her way to the Harry Potter Experience, so in the Potter-geek arena, she’s got me beat.)

Platform 9 3/4 and a tourist having her photo taken by the resident photographer.
There is a queue and it costs, but you can snap a picture like this for free.
Soon, it was time for her to head north for her appointment with Potter and, as casually and abruptly as the meet-up began, it ended. At her tube stop, she stepped out of the carriage with a backward wave, as if we were long time friends expecting to see each other in the not-too-distant future.

It was an easy, engaging afternoon that made me, once again, grateful for virtual acquaintances, and how easily they can slip into the territory of real friends; it was also a day that reminded me of how American I still am, and how much I enjoy talking with a fellow countryman, even if I occasionally have to explain things, like “pinch, punch, first of the month” to them.