newyorksubalien has evolved. New city, new life, new blog

newyorksubalien has evolved. New city, new life, new blog.

Yes, I’m still socially-insecure and still deemed too primitive a life form for a bank account. I still can’t say ‘water’ correctly and voice-recognition software still doesn’t understand my number 8.

Meanwhile Superalien is still as super (at least in my eyes), Male Mini-Me is taller than all of us and Mini-Mum has returned to the home of the Mini, only popping back from London to sleep, be fed and help balance out testosterone levels.

But in my new home of Chicago, I can at least lay claim to my own subgroup. I’m now Chi-rish as in Chicago Irish. Apparently the hyphen is important so as not to be confused with Chinese Irish or the town in Armenia. But I’m trusting my readers not to be churlish and to forgive these, my (hyphen-less) Chirish chatters…..

Friday, November 14, 2014

Pants in the bedroom but still can't get my head around the balls

It all began with pants in the bedroom.

For those of you born and raised on this side of the pond, there’s nothing too unusual about that. But for Windy City blow-ins like myself, the use of the word "pants" in the bedroom had previously been restricted to non-legged undergarments as in “the dog’s got your pants again – that’s what happens when you drop them on the floor”.

But last week I caught myself asking Super if he wanted me to take his pants to the dry cleaners. What’s worse, he understood. It was then I realized that the conversion from Irish to Chirish was well underway. I’m even getting used to seeing "realized" spelt (spelled) with a “z”- and can say “zee” rather than “zed”.

I’ve written before about how sharing the same language hasn’t meant conversations with the locals don’t get lost in translation. Our first summer, we did the obligatory trip to Navy Pier and I tried to buy water from a hot dog stand. The conversation went like this. 
"Two waters, please”
“Two orders of what?” 
This was repeated several times until I realized I had forgotten the “pretend you have a piece of fluff at the back of your throat which you are trying to regurgitate” method. I also tried to hand out Hallowe’en rubbers to trick-or-treaters this year – until I remembered they are called erasers.

But I do now go to the grocery “store” to buy “produce”, with the emphasis on the “pro” rather than the “prod” – perhaps that’s a clever ploy by the locals to stop you doing just that with the avos and peaches. There they laugh at me when I say I don’t need a bag as I’m just going “down the road”. Although to be fair, with a Northern Ireland accent, even my British friends laugh at me when I say that. Sidebar, if you meet someone from Northern Ireland, get them to say “How, now, brown cow”. Better still, google Liam Neeson talking about his role in a cowboy movie and you’ll get my point.

I talk about my kids being in 10th Grade or being a sophomore (still had to check how to spell it ‘though) and I’ve even discussed an upcoming Manchester United "soccer" match. But that leads me to one thing I am still struggling to come to grips with – all the balls, be it foot, base or basket.

Now this I appreciate is a true crime in Chirish-land where if there is more than one team in a particular sport, you must decide for one or the other. Actually this is in a way similar to my wee corner of Ireland where you have to be either Protestant or Catholic. To the extent, that when Super discovered he had Jewish ancestry, our local 90-year old farmer, in all sincerity, asked him “But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

My inability to sort out the balls is so bad that I have to use my own mnemonic tricks to remember who plays what. So (in my mind) it goes “cubs” rhyme with “clubs” so the Cubs are baseball, “bears” make me think of “barefoot” so the Bears are football, “bulls” go with “balls” so that leaves basketball. 

The Blackhawks I have no problem remembering as we moved into our new home just before they won the Stanley Cup. The cheering that night made me first think of football games in Brazil while the window-smashing and police sirens later took me back to my wee corner of Ireland. I haven’t worked out anything yet for the White Sox so needless to say if asked which baseball team I support, I’m for the Cubs.

Plus it took me a while to see their team logo says ‘Sox” – sorry, back to the bedroom again!

Friday, October 24, 2014

"Bone-ing" up on the local underground history

We’re surrounded by bones, half-empty graveyards and ghosts. And not just in our neighbours’ Hallowe’en-bedecked gardens.

It all started on a dark, windy night. Well, actually, it was a sunny, cloudless day when, walking in Lincoln Park, I noticed an innocuous sign marked “Hidden Truths”. “Hidden Bodies” would have been more appropriate as it explained Lincoln Park used to be a city cemetery and the final resting place for an estimated 35,000 souls. That was until the city decided at the end of the 19th Century it needed the land and that those resting places weren't so final.

But with only 10 men reportedly given just over a month to complete the task, not all of the bodies managed to make it to new graves. Some researchers estimate over 10,000 people could still be buried there to this day. That’s a ballpark figure. To include the ball park, the Lincoln Park Farm Zoo and the Chicago History Museum. A museum which, by the way, literally proved to be history in the making after builders constructing its underground car park in 1998 discovered the remains of 81 early Chicagoans and an iron coffin. As the bones were over 100 hundred years old, they at least did manage to find a final resting place - the Illinois State Museum.

Our underground Lincoln Park neighbours aren't the only local ghosts we have to watch out for next week. Just down the road from us at 2122 North Clark Street is the site of the 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre where arch gangster Al Capone had seven men gunned down in a garage. Six of the men worked for Capone’s rival Bugs Moran, the seventh was an unlucky car mechanic. The garage has since been torn down and now is the garden of a retirement home. No irony there. 

Apparently some of the senior residents have reported seeing gangster ghosts and hearing screams and automatic gunfire. Others claim that dogs walking past the site become very agitated. This, the paranormal experts say, could be due to a "psychic imprint" left by Highball, the unlucky mechanic’s dog, who witnessed the murders and was apparently permanently traumatized by the event.

I decided to test this one out by walking the Irish Wheaten Terror past the spot the other day and for once he was as good as gold. For some reason, all he wanted to do was go and dig holes in Lincoln Park….

Monday, May 5, 2014

Celebrating 50 years with a return to nips, poops and naps

We have a new member in our family. And after two weeks together, I’m amazed that all our other body members are still intact. For the latest addition to our brood is a “Chirish” Wheaten Terrier called Cadbury whose bark is (thankfully) non-existent but unfortunately, at only 14-weeks old, the same can’t be said about his bite.

Cadbury joined us to celebrate a monumental birthday and if I thought a pup would make me young again, I was wrong. I am currently feeling all of my 50 years and more, and the only nipper in the family has four legs. But we love him. Especially when he’s sleeping.

The baby similarities are scary. Super and I have been reduced to discussing poops and pees, frequencies and consistencies. I receive a morning report by text with the overnight and first shift update. Complete with that little emoticon of steaming brown doop. I’m learning to hate that emoticon.

We’d discussed having a pooch for many years but apartment living, landlords and frequent moves have always been our excuses. Now we have a house, or more importantly our own home, and we are right beside one of the biggest doggie baths in the USA, Lake Michigan.

His name came with him and with his chocolatey-coloured coat, both milk and dark, I think it’s perfect. It’s already been shortened to “Cabbie” which is also appropriate as I seem to spend hours shouting it after a rapidly-disappearing, fast-moving object.

The men in the family have launched a campaign to rename him, with Fergie or Giggsie popular suggestions after a certain football team (Moysie was never an option).

Male Mini-me is also pushing for Dougal, not because beloved pooch’s shaggy coat reminds him of the Magic Roundabout character (what do you mean, you’ve never heard of him?). Rather his goofy, slightly bemused air does resemble the young pup priest in the TV series “Father Ted”. If you've never seen it, you’re missing Irish dry humour at its best.

While coming to grips with the doo-doo’s and don’t’s of puppy training, I’m also having to learn puppy-owner etiquette. Cabbie now knows he has to sit nicely and wait until the approaching dog-owner (usually female) decides whether he is sufficiently well-enough behaved to socialize with their darling. 

I have a feeling I met the Park Mother on our first outing together. Our British accents passed muster so Cabbie’s limited manners were overlooked – this time. And I was given the nod to attend “Yappy Time”, the ultimate pet gathering, held between 5:30 to 7pm every week day, although apparently it’s more relaxed at the weekends. 

After five years in the Big Apple, I thought nothing would surprise me as to the lengths dog-owners will go here to pamper their pets. I was wrong. Telling a friend about our latest arrival, she confided in me about amazing boarding kennels near O’Hare airport where you can leave Fido to play while you fly away. Makes sense, I thought, especially when you can apparently leave your car in their car park while you are on holiday. Positive bargain, I thought.

Then I looked it up on the internet. First, I chose the wrong noun. It is not a kennel, it is a resort. The dogs do not have pens, they have suites. There are slumber party and relaxation lounges, bone-shaped pools and a host of additional extras such as pool-view rooms, personal cuddle time and mineral water. I’d be afraid that a stay at the $100/night Top Dog suite with a full-size human bed and a flat screen TV may mean Cabbie would never want to return home. Especially as he would have a bed-side photo of us all to watch over him. And I discovered you have to pay extra to park your car -  and supply its family photo yourself, I assume.

I suppose in a world where "come" and "down" are the norm, no one notices if you slip a little "on" in there......

Monday, April 14, 2014

In Al Capone's town and elsewhere, the Taxman cometh

This time of the year is a very taxing one here in Chirish-land and throughout the US as across the country, the good folk of America race to meet the April 15 IRS deadline and file their income tax returns.

IRS stands for Inland Revenue Service but other popular alternatives are Infernal Revenue Service and Income Removal Service. No doubt Chicago’s most notorious resident Al Capone would have had his own version after finally being caught, not for his illegal gangland operations, but for failing to file his taxes.

Along with learning how to navigate health insurance options, understanding tax requirements has to be one of the biggest challenges to living this side of the Atlantic. There is one basic rule we quickly learned – if in doubt, pay it out. Unpaid taxes are a thing to be feared here, attracting penalties like Al Capone’s enemies attracted bullets.

In the UK, we file our taxes and wait for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Service to send us a polite letter if it needs more money. Here, even when you file your tax return on time in April, if you haven’t actually paid enough taxes between January to December, you are already liable for penalties. So not only do you have to calculate how many noughts you owe but also how many more you owe for being naughty. And perish the thought if you still underestimate because that’s when the penalties really start.

It doesn’t help that you generally have to file a federal return and a state return. And if you are living in certain big cities such as New York, they are also due their own significant chunk of your earnings. Working out who gets what is enough to make anyone ready to be submit themselves to the Intelligence Retrieval Service.

The good news is that for most people, the fear of falling short leads them to pay too much tax throughout the financial year so they end up actually receiving a refund. Last year this averaged around $2,800, which sounds great except, as some have pointed out, it also means they essentially were giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan.  A loan, which for the 2012 tax year totalled just under $310 billion, according to statistics from the IRS (this time standing for Interest Rates are for Suckers?).

Refunds are helped by deductibles, an encyclopedia of tax allowances and deductions which could easily be described as Imaginative Reporting of Spending. Had a rough year at the bingo halls? Never mind, the tax man allows you to deduct your total losses up to any amount you won. If your doctor signs off on it for specific medical reasons, wigs, weight loss expenses, clarinet lessons and even swimming pools can be used to stop you going bust. And talking of bust, there is even the famous case of a professional exotic dancer who managed to persuade the tax courts that her breast implants were a work expense and therefore deductible.

There are also other ways of getting something back. Several restaurant chains have special “Tax Day” offers to help you fill up while you fill out your forms. From McDonalds where you can grab a second Big Mac for just a cent, to the Hard Rock Cafe, where if you grab the mike between noon and 2pm, you can “sing for your supper” (I know, I told you people eat early in Chicago).

And it’s not just food handouts. Over at Office Depot, they appreciate the necessary cathartic process required after tax filing so they’re giving customers the chance to shred up to 5 lbs of paper for free. I however prefer the therapeutic service being offered in our local wine bar which is picking up the tax amount on all food and drink tomorrow. That’s my kind of IRS – Imbibing Rioja Slowly.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Chicago home comings and goings

It’s always good to go home. It’s where I went last week, and it's where President Obama popped back to, dropping in on Chicago the same day we returned from the Emerald Isle. Except he didn't have to stop at traffic lights as he sped into town from O'Hare airport.

Chirish-land is proud of its presidential son but perhaps not so keen when he heads home to water the houseplants due to the inevitable traffic snarl-ups. Unlike other recent heads of state, his family home is not a ranch in Texas or California but a 6 bedroom, 6,200 sq ft red-brick house on a relatively quiet residential street in the South Side of Chicago.

Apparently not a great deal has changed since the Obamas had to move because of his job relocation. Except that the street is now a good deal quieter as it is blocked off completely by those nice men in black suits and sunglasses. And as the same nice men are reportedly looking after the garden (and most likely the houseplants), Obama himself has admitted the lawn has never looked better.

It must be a little tough on the neighbours 'though. All visits have to be announced in advance and I pity any local teenagers hoping to throw an impromptu house party while Mom and Dad are out of town. And then there are the tour buses, inching their way through the busy residential streets, just for the fleeting 3 seconds it takes to drive behind the back of 5046 South Greenwood Ave.

The area is not new to celebrities. Just around the corner is the former abode of Boxing World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali who also co-founded the city’s largest mosque a few blocks away. Obama will no doubt have been pleased to discover he also now has a permanent monument in the nabe which will outlast his presidency. A local shopping mall has immortialised the spot Michelle and he shared their first kiss after a Baskin Robbins ice cream with a 3,000 lb granite boulder. Probably to mark where he "bowled her" over.

At the start of his first presidency, Obama said he hoped to return home every few months but in reality he has had few opportunities to visit what is nicknamed the “Western White House”. Many are questioning whether the family will eventually return once his Presidency ends in 2017. There was already speculation towards the end of his first term the Obamas' house was going on the market and the possibly no-longer 1st family would be moving to the 50th state (as in "Hawaii 50"), where the lawns are always green, with or without the Secret Service.

The President no doubt was relieved not to have had to give up the day job last year. He's still reportedly paying off his mortgage on the home he bought for $1.65 million in 2005. But at least house prices have picked up a bit, with his home currently valued at just over $2 million by some real estate websites.

Of course when he comes to sell, he won't be able to boast of living in the "The World's Ultimate Gated Community" as was the case when his neighbours put their house in the market in 2009. But at least his lawn will be looking good.

Friday, March 21, 2014

You know it's Spring when the cigarette buds start to appear...

Yesterday officially was the first day of spring and we awoke to a light covering of fresh snow and a lovely Google Doodle of a little man (who bears an uncanny resemblance to my other “Super” half) making flowers magically appear from what, to snow-weary Chirish eyes, looks like our backyard until a few days ago.

To be fair, a more realistic doodle of things sprouting from the Chicago snow banks would be cigarette trees, going by the huge number of cigarette butts which have emerged from the melting ice packs on the streets.

So far the only fields of green I’ve seen were the hordes of be-hatted, be-scarfed and be-jewelled St Patrick’s Day revelers who filled the streets last weekend. And yes, the river did look like a psychedelic bed of clover.

But the city is definitely emerging from its winter chrysalis. Along the lake shore, the runners are back, stretching their wings after several months literally spent on a treadmill. And if I, in any way, doubted the Irish heritage of our new home town, the swiftness with which the locals are donning shorts and bareing their legs the minute the temperatures rise above freezing has convinced me that I truly am in Chirish-land.

Perhaps one of the biggest signs for me that Spring is here was a solitary male member of the 'metallus detectoris" species that I spotted yesterday amongst the trees in Lincoln Park. Known for its distinctive high shrieking call, this elusive creature emerges when the snow has finally melted, spending its days wandering the grasslands in the search of materials with which to feather its nest.

This particular specimen may have been a little premature as while the snow may be gone, it would take a metal grinder not a detector to break up the ground. And while this is not a huge issue for those of us with only a small backyard and in no rush to unearth the garden trowels,  for the maintenance teams at the city’s baseball fields, drastic measures are being adopted.

At the US Cellular Field, home to the White Sox, the crew is facing 30 inches of permafrost. If that sounds like some hairdressing salon disaster, the remedy does even more so. Essentially the ground staff are using something akin to a giant hairdryer under a tarpaulin to blow hot air on the frozen pitch in an effort to thaw it out before the season opener on March 31.

From an energy-saving point of view, where are the city's infamous long-winded, full-of-promises politicans when you need 'em! 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Chirish guide to being Irish

As the great day approaches, the many suggestions on offer as to how to celebrate the wearing of the green never cease to amaze me, mainly because many of them are about as Irish as Barack O’Bama. So here are a few guidelines to show your green credentials are more emerald than limey.

Don’t eat corned beef and cabbage

A favourite beef of mine (sorry). This most un-Irish of dishes came to my attention in our first year living in the Big Apple and I assumed it was simply because corned beef was readily available as a stalwart in Jewish cuisine. However the Big Onion, in all its Chirish-ness, is no different which got me wondering.

A few google searches later and I discover the most traditionally Irish thing about corned beef was the beef itself. Back in the 17th to 19th centuries, it was a big industry in Ireland, either traded via the Atlantic or used by the British armed forces. But, as you can probably guess, Irish people themselves couldn’t afford it - until they emigrated to America, that is. So it really is an O'Bama-style traditional Irish dish.

The true culinary companion to cabbage (and not to found in Jewish cuisine)  has to be ham, either boiled or baked. But then we're back to the old American bacon versus Irish bacon dilemma. Except we've solved that one by getting Male Mini-Me a DIY curing kit for Christmas so now there are two males bringing home the bacon in this household.

And then there’s lamb. You really can’t get more Irish than Irish stew but trying to track down some reasonably-priced lamb is like trying to catch a haggis on a Scottish mountain (you know, the creatures with one set of legs shorter than the other so it can run quickly around the hillsides).

If that seems like a tall story to you, I’m seriously beginning to wonder if all the sheep here only comprise of legs as a) that’s all I seem to be able to buy in the shops and b) it would account for why it costs an arm and a leg to buy them.

Don’t imagine it’s always been a big parade day in the Emerald Isle

The first St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin was only held in 1931. Given the man himself died on March 17, 461, it has taken a while for the whole green-shamrock-beads-in-the-shops thing to catch on.

In my wee corner of Ireland (where the great man is actually thought to be buried), it took us even longer to jump on the parade bandwagon, with our first parade in Belfast only taking place In 1998. Support at that time was, shall we say, mixed, despite it trying to be very much a cross-community event - which in Norn Iron usually just means one or other of the two communities is cross.

Today, I am proud to say, the Belfast “carnival parade” is very much cross-community, with this year’s line-up including a "Manchester-born winner of the UK X-Factor", the Tir na N’Og Irish dancers and the South Asian Dance Academy

Don’t wear green but blue instead

Only kidding on that one although apparently St Patrick was originally associated with the colour blue.  Even today, St Patrick’s blue is a sky blue used by the Order of St Patrick in the UK or a dark blue in Ireland as seen in the Irish Presidential Standard

Don’t expect to be served a drink in a pub on St Patrick’s Day

Again, only kidding although in Ireland, it was true for over 30 years last century. That was because the very nice man who made St Patrick’s Day a national holiday in 1903 also instigated a law closing pubs for the day in 1927 for fear of excessive alcohol consumption on a religious holiday. The law was repealed in 1961 but during that time, the only place to drink legally in Dublin was the Royal Dublin Society Dog show. Surprisingly attendance shot up. No doubt they all needed the hair of the dog come March 18.

Don’t go on the go unless you want to be fined up to $1,000

And here I’m not joking! We all know that what goes in has to come out sometime and there is a fair amount of imbibing of many dubious liquids on March 17. In order to avoid dubious liquids of another sort, Chicago’s City Council last April doubled the maximum fines for both drinking and tinkling in public to $1,000.

Given this will be the first St Patrick's Day under the new ruling, it brings a whole new meaning to the traditional pot of gold!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Chirish-land shows its true colour - all 40 shades of it....

If we’ve been feeling the effects of global warming over the past few months, at last we’re about to embark on a period of global greening, even if we can’t quite yet see the grass through the snow!

St Patrick’s Day is just around the corner and Chicago is participating in Tourism Ireland’s annual "Global Greening" campaign which sees iconic monuments such as the Sydney Opera House and the Pyramids in Egypt all given the green light. 

Buildings and skyscrapers all over Chirish-land will adopt several of the 40 famous shades (as opposed to 50 infamous ones) in the week running up to next Saturday’s parade and the celebrated dyeing of the Chicago river.

The first thing that pops into your head when you see the Chicago river is that it is green already. Honest, it is. A nice murky, soggy welly-boot, moss-covered-wood-‘cos-it’s been-raining-non-stop-for-two-weeks green. But apparently it gets greener.

The story goes that in 1961 the Business Manager of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers encountered a workman in Irish green-splattered overalls. He discovered the plumber had been using a green dye to test for waste leakages in the river and the idea for turning the river into an apparent field of clover was born.

The first year, around 100 lbs of dye were used and the "clover" hung around for a week. More recently, worries about possible pollution caused the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers to rethink their dousing and today around 40 lbs of vegetable dye are used, the recipe for which is as closely guarded a secret as Coca Cola. 

The powder dye is actually orange so you just need some white in there and there's the Irish tricolour. Which could be provided this year by floating blocks of ice as we'll only be seeing daytime temperatures climb above freezing in the week before the big event.

Having lived through a few St Paddy’s Days in New York, I’m almost immune now to the luminous-green hats, beads and flashing sunglasses that invade the shops this time of year. The Shamrock Shakes are back at McDonald’s and the supermarkets are pushing corned beef and cabbage (don’t ask). I did have to look up the ingredients for an Irish Car Bomb cocktail as it was a new one on me. Needless to say, it sounds as if it should taste as awful as its tasteless name.

I’ve been warned that the top of our wee road is a no-go area the day of the parade because the rest of the city will have been on the go there since 8am. In particular we’ve been told our go-to local Irish pub, the nicest I’ve been in outside of the Emerald Isle and provider of real Irish bacon, sausages and tea during early morning Premier League football matches, is a very definite no-go-to. 

So we’re planning to give it a miss parade-day and instead slip over there for a quiet dinner and wee drink the following Monday night when all the shenanigans have died down. Why that Monday? Only because it’s actually St Patrick’s Day!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Polar bares and river rabbits

On pain of boring everyone rigid about how frigid it still is here in Chirish-land, the Arctic conditions are at least allowing one upcoming event to live up to its name.

The Polar Plunge is held annually in Chicago to raise funds for the city’s Special Olympics. As the name suggests, it involves a plunge (or a paddle) in the wintry waters of Lake Michigan. Usual attire is a swimsuit and little else, giving a new meaning to polar bare. Last year, the water temperature was a balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit which is basically freezing in Centigrade. This year, the concern is that it will be frozen – literally.

As of the middle of February, some 88% of the Great Lakes were covered with ice, the highest percentage since the mid-1990s. We had a few days last week when temperatures nudged into the positive column and everything started melting. That was fun. It was a bit like a sunny day in Northern Ireland in the summer. People started wearing shorts and tried to use their BBQs. Except the tops were still frozen over.

But just like summer in Northern Ireland (as in “What did you do last summer?” “Oh, I went to the hairdresser that day”), our “spring” was short-lived and we’re back to Defcon 1 duvet coats and Dangerous Temperature alerts.

Interest in this Sunday’s Polar Plunge is heating up however due to the participation of Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel and comedian Jimmy Fallon. Emanuel was the first on board after promising to take part if Chicago schoolchildren read more than 2 million books in the Summer Learning Challenge.

Fallon, who just took over the Tonight Show this month from Jay Leno, was then lured into signing up after Emanuel promised he would appear on Fallon’s show if he took the plunge. Fallon is now calling himself “Swimmy Fallon” and says he will be wearing a suit and tie. Apparently Emanuel is asking for a recount of the two million books, just in case.

The forecast for Sunday is suitably polar – temperatures of around minus 10 degrees Celsius and snow showers.  But the temperature in the lake is currently around minus 1 so it will actually be warmer in the water.

And at least Swimmy and co won’t have to worry about the giant attacking fish that people have been emailing me about recently. 

That stems from a report Chicago is looking at how to prevent Asian carp overrunning the Great Lakes. The carp, introduced to the southern US in the 1970s to keep catfish ponds clean, are now in public waterways such as the Mississippi river. 

Thanks to their impressive rate of reproduction, they have become known as river rabbits which is doubly appropriate as they can also jump. But not quite a bunny hop, rather up to three metres into the air. And into nearby fishermen. According to the Environment Protection Agency, there have been reports of injuries ranging from black eyes to concussion. And the fishermen didn't look too good either!

The good news is that scientists have only discovered river rabbit DNA and no actual carp in the Great Lakes and in reality current numbers are thought to be very few, if any. So the only things leaping out of Lake Michigan this coming Sunday should be the very cold and very brave Polar Plungers. Woolly hats off to them all. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gum, Goofy and the Golden Arches – the Chicago connection

Wrigley’s chewing gum, Walt Disney and McDonald's – three things I’ve always regarded as all-American. What I’ve never realized until recently is they are also all-Chicagoan.

The gum I hit upon soon after our arrival, a big clue being the fact the name Wrigley kept cropping up around our new hometown. As in Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and the Wrigley Mansion, home to well, I’m not sure whom but a very nice one at any rate, on Lincoln Park.

What I soon after discovered is that Mr Wrigley was not originally Mr Gum. His first loves were scouring soap and baking powder. But obviously there was much competition amongst purveyors of baking powder back in the 1890s so Wrigley started giving away sticks of the sticky stuff as an added stick. And it stuck.

Not only did Wrigley introduce us to Doublemint, but also to the idea of a double day of rest at the end of the week. For he was one of the first employers to give his factory workers both Saturday and Sunday off. Wrigley, the company, is still looking out for us even today. A visit to saw me clicking in the intriguing “Benefits of Chewing” link. There I discovered how chewing sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after food and drinks has been proven to help protect your teeth.

Better still, chew instead of chow. And then you save the calories but, thanks to Wrigley, you can still savour the flavor. Especially if you choose any of the Extra Dessert Delights options such as Key Lime Pie, Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream and Strawberry Shortcake.

I’m waiting to see if they take it a step further and develop a hamburger variety. But that might be encroaching on the territory of a certain Chicagoan corporate neighbour that also boasts a downtown landmark building. Except that instead of the Wrigley Building’s ornate, soaring clock tower, this one has 60-ft golden arches. And seating for 300. And a two-lane drive–through.

I only discovered recently that McDonald’s has its corporate headquarters in the Chicagoan suburb of Oak Brook. But I should have been tipped off by the city's Thanksgiving Parade. Until now this American tradition has been indelibly linked in my mind with the word “Macy’s”. But whereas in the Big Apple, the parade was thanks to the owners of the big shop, in the Big Onion, it’s all down to the makers of the Big Mac.

McDonald's Corp's Chicago base is because the company's founder, Ray Kroc, was born in Oak Brook. Again news to me but apparently the man who had the vision to plant those Golden Arches across America and beyond did not own the chain’s first burger bar in California (that was in fact owned by the McDonald brothers). Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman, visited the restaurant, saw the patty potential and entered into business with the McDonald brothers, eventually buying out the exclusive rights to the McDonald’s name. I suppose even he didn’t think McKroc’s sounded the same.

Reading about Kroc led me to discover my third, somewhat surprising, Chicago connection. When he was 15, Kroc lied about his age and joined the Red Cross during the First World War. At a training camp in Connecticut, he came across another Chicagoan who had done the same. In his autobiography, Kroc noted this young chap never came out on the town with the rest of the volunteers when they had time off. Instead he would stay in the camp drawing. His name? Walt Disney.

Disney’s Chicagoan heritage may not be known to many but the city is taking steps to correct this. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared December 5 – Disney’s birth date in 1901 – to be Walt Disney Day. The same day, the new owners of the Disney family home where Walt was born announced their plans to restore the house to its original state and eventually open a small private museum. 

The house was built by Walt's carpenter father Elias in 1893 while he was working on the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Many believe that Elias’ stories about the World Fair (which saw the creation of the Ferris wheel) helped inspire Walt Disney's own Magic Kingdom in later life.

Come to think of it, modern day Chicago still has much that resembles Disneyland. A Main Street, a big lake, castles and towers like the Wrigley Building, rides like the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier - and, of course, McDonald's!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

POST FROM THE PAST: Seeing red as Planet Big Apple prepares for "V-Day"

From the archives of, a Valentine's Day remembered....

As you can imagine, they don’t do things in halves over in Planet Big Apple – and that certainly applies to Valentine’s Day which no one could say is celebrated over here in a “half-hearted” fashion (sorry).

As soon as they cleared the all-embracing holiday decorations out of the shops, the shelves in our local drug store filled up with little red boxes of candy, enormous rose-carrying, all-embracing stuffed gorillas (I have no idea why – I obviously haven’t evolved enough) and red hearts or variations thereof appeared in every shop window. Even my local shoe-repair store has popped some red heart-covered wellies in the window for sale - or would that mean you want to give her the boot.

And I know that as soon as the candles are blown out and the last champagne, truffle and mungo bean-flavoured chocolate is eaten, everything will go green for St Patrick’s Day. Actually I’ve seen one liquor store that has decided to skip the Valentine’s Day stage altogether and has gone straight to the St Paddy’s Day paraphernalia. Obviously more money in Irish whiskey sales than bottles of cheap pink sparkling wine. Or in the hope that singles will buy Irish whiskey to drink with their mates on St Valentine’s Day – they could call it St Palentine’s Day.

The advanced concept that there’s no reason why St Valentine’s Day should just be enjoyed by lovers is certainly one that has already reached our new home planet. We’re back to that all-embracing, all-inclusive thing again. So of course you should send Valentine’s Day cards to your friends, your work colleagues, your teachers and other members of your family. Walk into a card shop at this time of the year and good luck on finding a birthday card. Rather the walls are full of such permutations as “From grandchildren to grandparents”,  “ From woman to woman”, “From your dog”,  “From tenant to super” (OK, I made the last one up).

There’s the “From wife with religious message” card which seems to me an interesting combination and my favourite - “Celebrating our first holiday together”. No expectations there. Hope there’s an enormous rose-carrying, all-embracing stuffed gorilla waiting for the sender of that one.

What I particularly love is when the most un-Valentiney products get given the V-Day treatment (yes, they even call it V-Day here). I’m not talking about the obvious special discounts ahead of the big day although who could resist the Valentine’s Day nursing uniform and scrubs sale with their heartbeat and Tweety Valentine prints.  No, it’s offers like the “Happy Valentine’s Day” laser removal special for him and her with the great slogan “The couple that lasers together, stays together”.  Now there’s a gift that should go along with the “Celebrating our first holiday together” card.

On the other end of the experience scale, we’re once again feeling our alien genes. This being the first year Male Mini-me is in an American school, I am currently having to go through the same discreet negotiations with my girlfriends as when I was trying to find out about holiday gifts to doormen. Along with the individual, sender-specific cards on display in the stores, there are also multi-packs of 15 cards for schoolkids to send out to their classmates.  However given that Male Mini-me has reached the dizzy heights of Middle School, Mini-Mum (a very definite High-Schooler) has pronounced it uncool to go down the card route. I suppose the fact that the cards were all Disney princesses and SpongeBob should have given me a clue.

Her suggested compromise is to produce Valentine’s Day chocolate rice krispie buns – ie in heart-covered cases and with red sprinkles. These have always been a successful contribution to any class, even in Paris where Male Mini-me's classmates used to ask him for the recipe. I wrote it down for him – it started off “First, find a mother who can’t bake”.  Note for all other Mamasubas out there – the same buns in shamrock cases and green sprinkles make great St Patrick’s Day buns – or turf cakes as I call them. 

And what about my own Valentine’s Day? Well, it will be hard to beat last year – our first with snow on the ground and in an apartment with a little back garden.  As it was Sunday, I was lying in bed with my coffee and champagne, truffle and mungo bean-flavoured chocolates when Male Mini-me called me to look outside. There they were, the two men in my life, grinning away – and a great big heart drawn in the snow with red paint. 

They'll always be my valientines.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dibbing, dabbing and nabbing - a Chicago winter continued

You’d have thought there wouldn’t much use for beach chairs in the snowy wilderness that currently is Chirish-land but you’d be wrong.

Walk along any residential street and you’ll see vacant fold-up plastic pews in bright green and orange, just waiting for their owners to return. This is the Chicago winter tradition of “dibs” – reserving your street parking spot on the basis that that hour you spent shovelling it clear entitles you to leave for an unlimited number of hours without anyone else taking it.

It doesn’t have to be beach chairs - upturned wheelie bins, kids’ outdoor sit-on toys (because they won’t be using them for at least another 2 months), there’s even a photo somewhere of a statue of Jesus saving the day – or at least the spot.

Calling ‘dibs’ is not legal. Chicago streets are public property but authorities usually turn a blind eye to dibbing after heavy snowfalls when it can take some time for side streets to be cleared.  But woe betide the brave soul who ignores dibs etiquette and nabs the spot. Reported “punishments” for offenders range from burial by snow (the car that is, not the driver) to the more extreme slashing of car tyres.

This winter already is in the top ten snowiest since records began in the 1880s so I can understand the frustration of the dibbers and the nabbers. Getting a car dug out is no mean feat when you have to contend with the walls of snow cleared from the sidewalk on one side and the bank of snow pushed to one side by the snow plows on the other.

So far we’ve had just under 62 inches of the white stuff this winter  – that’s over 1.5 metres to us aliens. And with temperatures well below freezing (today is the 20th  below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s minus 18 Celsius in alien-speak), all that deep, deep snow isn’t going anywhere just yet.

But signs spring is around the corner are emerging on the snow-plowed streets. For in Chicago, the gradual approach of spring is heralded by the gradual loss of car springs - and burst tyres and bashed wheel rims, all thanks to the arrival of the pothole.

It's a bit like a Whack-a-Mole game except that you're swapping critters for craters. Some 625,000 potholes were filled in last year but we're off to a flying start in 2014, with 100,000 dabbed in already thanks to hard-working crews who are out 7 days a week. You can even plot their progress like some video game thanks to the special pot hole tracker website launched by the city showing their latest 7-day "score". 

I tried to find the website and was distracted by which markets “only the ripest and freshest crumbling asphalt from around Chicagoland”. With Valentine’s Day coming up, I was sorely tempted by the bags of PotholePourri or the chance to name a pothole after my loved one thanks to the International Pothole Registry.

So long as he doesn't interpret it as meaning our marriage has hit a bump in the road! 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Super Bowl traditions - wings, wacky wagers and widescreen TVs

It’s that time of the year again when days are measured as countdowns to the big moment, when all conversations converge on one topic and when we aliens head to the slopes for a weekend skiing trip as a) we have no idea what the fuss is all about and b) we know we’ll be the only ones there, at least on the Sunday. 

Yup, it’s Super Bowl time.

This is our 6th Super Bowl and as usual, we do at least know who will be playing - the Seattle Seahawks from Washington state and Colorado's Denver Broncos. So no prizes for guessing which state we’ll be skiing in for REALLY quiet slopes.

But also as usual we have failed in our attempts to understand why the whole nation pretty much comes to a standstill on the big day. TV coverage begins at 2 pm local and runs until 10:30 pm – in between, there is a half-time show from (this year) Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, an interview with President Obama and numerous commercials all vying to be the funniest, the saddest or the weirdest while paying the TV company up to $4 million per 30 seconds in their efforts to do so.

Oh and somewhere in there, there’ll be an actual game, where the time on the clock will count down from 60 minutes but which will take between 3 and 4 hours. More amazingly, it has been calculated the average NFL game has only 11 minutes of actual play.

But there is no denying that these are some of the most American 11 minutes. Average viewing figures for the Super Bowl have exceeded 100 million since 2010 and there have been calls for Super Bowl Sunday to be made a national holiday given it unites Americans in their love of football.

And the love of a good party. The popularity of Super Bowl parties means that total food consumption this coming Sunday is only second to Thanksgiving. Except that pumpkin pie is replaced by pizza, sweet potatoes by chips (as in our crisps) and turkey is replaced by chicken wings. An estimated 1.25 billion of them, according to the National Chicken Council’s 2014 Wing Report, up 20 million from last Super Bowl. 

Apparently if you laid all 1.25 billion end to end, they would stretch from the Seattle Seahawks’ home on the west coast to the New Jersey stadium where the game is being played  - some 30 times. Given they’re wings, I’m assuming that’s as the crow flies.

Most parties take place at home, with apparently nine out of ten viewers watching the game at their own or a friend's house. This is great for TV retailers who sell 7.7 million TVs in the week running up to the game, according to the National Retail Federation. The most popular are 50 inches or bigger  - as in the width of a double-sized bed. 

Other Super Bowl traditions include betting on just about everything and anything. Last year a record $99 million was wagered through the sports books in Nevada, the only state where sports gambling is allowed. But that is estimated to be only a tiny fraction of total wagers placed illegally. This year bets are being taken on key game changers such as what hat Bruno Mars will wear to start his half time show and will any of the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers be shirtless during the performance. 

There is one major break in tradition this year in that this will be the first outdoor Super Bowl in a “cold-weather” environment. If you have been following the news recently, you’ll know that cold this year in the USA has taken on a new meaning. There had even been fears of a Snow Bowl but current forecasts are for temperatures just about in the positive column, Celsius-wise. And it will help that on every seat will be a “warming” pack with a cushion, muffler, gaiters, three pairs of hand and foot warmers, lip balm and a pack of tissues. That makes tickets, averaging around $2,600 each, a real bargain! Actually, apparently it is - supposedly the second cheapest Super Bowl in the last 8 years. 

Another talking point this year is the fact the competing teams come from the only two states in the USA that currently allow recreational use of marijuana. So this year’s Super Bowl has in some quarters been re-named Stoner Bowl, complete with the obligatory T-shirts, hoodies - and alternative party food recipes. 

Just in case you think we are being completely churlish and not getting into the spirit of our new home, we do aim to be watching the game with a bunch of other people while drinking beer and eating snack food. And dare I say it, even getting high - as in 30,000 ft high. For that's our Super Bowl tradition - a pre-Bowl skiing the bowls, take-off at kick-off and taking a gamble  - on whether there will be in-flight live TV.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Defcon duvets and chattering Chirish teeth - it's winter in Chicago

So you may have heard it’s been a tad cold here in Chirish-land recently. So cold that I should have renamed my blog

It’s really all our fault. I've mentioned before the arrival of the Sub-alien family on any new planet seems also to involve the arrival of other 'sub's as in subnormal winter temperatures (New York), subnormal summer temperatures (France), even subnormal rainfall (Brazil). And sure enough, our first real winter here and what do we bring - polar vortices with temperatures so low the whole Centigrade versus Fahrenheit thing becomes immaterial.

Not all of us are complaining. With 2 snow days off school already this year, Male Mini-me is enjoying that Christmas-Eve-like excitement on the night of a big snowfall or freeze, never quite knowing whether he will be granted that extra-special lie-in.

Except that he won’t. Because, according to the City of Chicago Municipal Code, all good citizens of Chiberia need to ensure their sidewalks are clear of snow and ice by 10 am if snow stops falling after 4pm. Or if the snow stops before 4pm, 3 hours later. Except for Sunday when you don’t have to clear. So that would make it a Snowy Day Snow Day if you see what I mean.

Anyway, Superalien has made it clear there is little point in having mini aliens if they’re not the ones shoveling up the fluffy stuff. Which didn’t go down too well until last weekend’s trip to the local DIY store resulted in the reincarnation of the snow blower left in our yard. And then the whole little-boy-playing-with-loud-machines-and spraying-snow-everywhere-thing kicked in. Oh and Male Mini-me wanted a go too.

For the females in the family, the cold poses another problem.  How to look pleasing when it’s freezing.

Hats had never featured in my wardrobe until we moved to New York where they became an odd-day accessory. Here they are an every-day necessity which of course gives rise to the problems of the non-rise ie flat hat hair. 

I’ve been fascinated by how fellow Chiberiennes have embraced the battle of fashion versus freezing, utilising ear-warmers, head bands and snoods to fend off the effects of minus 15 degrees Celsius. True their hair does indeed seem to retain some body and height but those little white icicles around each strand may have something to do with it. Personally I think Superalien has it right – easiest way to solve the problem of hat hair is lose the hair, not the hat!

And then there is the coat issue. I was reading the other day about what makes a real Chicagoan and one of the benchmarks was your choice of winter coat. The first stage is realizing that what has served elsewhere as your cozy winter coat for the last upteen years is only an autumn coat here - or a Defcon 3, as I prefer to call it.

You realize why everyone has those bulky duvet things so you buy one, a fashionable enough version, not too Michelin-Man-like and falling above the knee. You decide to go for a walk by the lake to celebrate your immersion. And then you realize that this is merely the Defcon 2 version and that you're only half-way there – you’re Chic but not Chicagoan. In fact you’re not 'a-go-an' anywhere. Because your legs have frozen.

No, for the true Chicagoan the only viable winter coat is the Defcon 1 - a long, duck down coat. As in it’s so long you have to duck down to find the zips at the bottom. Not exactly the coolest of looks but who wants to be cool with a wind chill of minus 30 degrees Celsius!

Chicago - the ultimate chillin' out city. Especially in the winter.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Giving back rather than kicking back on MLK Day

We’re about to enjoy the luxury of a three-day holiday weekend over here thanks to MLK Day. For those of you not in the know (like me five years ago), this stands for Martin Luther King Day and honours the civil rights leader whose birthday was on January 15.

With many workers in the US amazingly only given 10 days’ paid vacation a year, any additional public days off are usually a cause for huge celebration. But perhaps it is too soon after “the holidays”, with memories of packed airports and weather-related delays, or perhaps the January credit card bills are beginning to roll in – either way, MLK is probably the most low key holiday weekend in the vacation calendar.

Perhaps in the light of this and keeping in mind Martin Luther King’s mission, the idea emerged in the 1990s of encouraging people to use their day off to volunteer in their community and the King Day of Service was born. Giving back instead of kicking back.

Now I have some experience of volunteering USA-style, as, thanks to my socially insecure status, the only people happy to let me into their offices or schoolrooms are those who don’t have to pay me. 

And as always in our current abode, you are spoiled for choice even in your volunteer possibilities. Want to work with kids, old people or dogs? No problem. How about dogs AND kids (when the little ones read to a dog) or even dogs and old people when you take dogs and cats from shelters to “visit” in a seniors’ residential home. You can even play Wii games while you are there with the same seniors so that could cover any kids and old people preferences.

I’ve begun to suspect from the various orientation sessions I've attended that signing up to be good-hearted in a metropolis might in reality be another way of seeking to be “happy-hearted” given the subtle checking-out around the room. Since actually taking part in projects, I've quickly realized I don’t quite fit the profile of the average volunteer. Let's just say that if I did ever help out in a seniors’ home, there might be some confusion on the part of my fellow volunteers as to which “side” I was on.

This coming Monday will be our first in Chicago, a city where Martin Luther King’s legacy is particularly relevant given it is still regarded as the most racially segregated city in America. Chicago was however the first city in the US to name a street after Dr King, with Martin Luther King Drive spanning 14 miles through predominantly African-American neighbourhoods in the South Side of the city. 

Last year’s MLK Day marked also the public inauguration of President Barack Obama, former Illinois Senator and Chicago home-owner. The timing was a happy coincidence as the constitutionally mandated date of January 20 fell on Sunday so the public ceremony was pushed back a day. Appropriately, Obama paid tribute to Dr King by using one of the civil leader’s bibles at the swearing-in ceremony.

Given the enormous impact Dr King has had on modern American history, it may come as a surprise to learn it took four years for the proposed federal holiday to be approved by the US Congress. It may also come as a surprise to many on the opposite side of the pond that the campaign for the holiday was greatly helped by a song specifically penned for the purpose. The artist? Stevie Wonder. The song? “Happy Birthday”.

As the Alienettes will tell you, I'm all for having MLK days throughout the year in the form of practicing Many Little Kindnesses. And I am not apparently alone despite the reputations of some of this country's citydwellers.

Superalien often tells the story of how he was accosted by a very gruff local in New York who spotted him studying a street map. His indignant tone was not because Super was blocking the sidewalk, but because he hadn't asked him for directions. I've also seen an elegant female Wall Streeter, striding womanfully and purposefully down Park Avenue, only to check herself, turn right round and go back and ask the very lost-looking Japanese couple a block away if she could help.

And in our first days after landing in America, some kind, anonymous stranger took the effort to bundle up, trek to the post office and no doubt spend many hours in a queue just to send Male Mini-me’s brand new school blazer, left in a cab in the usual post-arrival daze, back to his new school with a little note wishing him well for the academic year.

I've still a few random acts of kindness of my own to perform before I pay that one back. So it's Wii Fit with Fido for me  - and I'll finally get to find out whether my fellow volunteers see me in the Senior category or not!