Fireworks: UK vs. US

UK                                                                   US
-damp, cold                                                   -hot
-a few fireworks in the back yard          -have they stopped yet this year?
-a penny for the guy                                  -fundraising
-big bonfires                                                 -barbecues
-burning effigies                                          -barbecues
-winter coat and gloves                           -shorts and T-shirt
(and of course both places have plenty of organized public displays)

Yesterday was the 4th of July. Here in the US, that generally means fireworks. Lots and lots of them. In my neighborhood, the explosions started about 2 weeks ago with whistling noises, occasional  booms of things that sound too loud to be legal, and the on-and-off crackle of fire crackers at strange times of the day. However, all of that pales into insignificance compared to the sheer volume (both in quantity and noise) of fireworks that go off on the 4th itself.

The first time I spent July 4th in the US was when I visited here in 2005 or so with my husband when we were still dating. I was amazed by how many fireworks people set off. How could they keep going for so long? How much money did these people spend on fireworks? Didn’t they know it was dangerous to set these things off in the street? Of course, I promptly forgot all about it until we moved here in 2010. That year we had just had a very, very tall tree cut down and the whole of the back yard was covered in twigs, sawdust, and tree branches. 622049
Let’s just say we didn’t sleep so soundly that night, with a yard full of tinder and fireworks exploding all around.

This year, the July 4th temperature was 110F, and it has been a very dry year, so I’m very thankful that we didn’t have a tree situation this time. The whole notion of fireworks on a hot, hot day (and night  – they go on until at least midnight, without a single break, as though each house has coordinated things so as to maintain a constant stream of explosions) is very different from my experience of fireworks growing up. For most Brits (although perhaps less now than when I was younger) fireworks means November 5th. Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. It also means a high likelihood of a cold, damp, drizzly evening rather than scorching sunshine. As a kid, I didn’t think it was all that much fun to wait around getting freezing cold just to watch something that was over in 5 minutes. Having fireworks in the summer certainly makes sense from that point of view. Well done on the founding fathers for signing the declaration in July rather than November. Of course, we need to remember Mr. Fawkes, without whom November 5th would be forgotten. Sometimes when I was a kid, I’d see teenagers sitting outside shops with a stuffed pile of clothes, collecting a ‘penny for the guy’. I always wanted to give a penny, but my mum would tell me it ‘was begging and it’s not allowed.’

It looked fun though. That part appealed to me a lot more than the fireworks, although now I find it a bit strange to encourage kids to build effigies to burn later on a fire. Do kids still do that these days? Here in the US, fireworks are sold to raise money for various organizations. Where I live, I’ve passed firework stands raising money for a school, a fraternity, and a racing pigeon club (!).  I’m not a fan of allowing random people to set off fireworks in their own backyards, but it’s a way of raising money.

As a scaredy-cat child (I’ve written before about the fear instilled in me by various public service films I watched growing up), I was uncomfortable at the fireworks displays to which my parents took my sister and me a few times. At least twice, we went to displays at the village vicarage. There would be a giant bonfire with a guy on top and a small fireworks display. Of course my parents would want to get close enough to see, while I’d be convinced the bonfire would collapse, burning everyone within a mile-wide radius. I was once offered a sparkler. I declined. After all I’d seen the warnings on TV where a little girl picked up a spent sparkler and ended up with a giant bandage on her hand.

Now, I’m still not too keen to get anywhere near fireworks, but a nice, organized display can be pretty spectacular. fireworks



Most weekends, my husband and I go to yard sales or estate sales. We don’t actively search for them, although I do know people who make detailed plans to hit yard sales: laminated maps, printed lists, and a very carefully planned route. There are just so many that we can’t help but pass at least a couple on our way to or from Saturday morning coffee.  These are events I have come to enjoy since moving to the US because I have never seen them in the UK. In Britain, we have car boot sales where people pay to use a parking space and then fill the boot (trunk) of their car with things they want to sell, but I’ve never come across either yard sales or estate sales there.

The sales advertise themselves via handwritten signs attached to lamp-posts. Sign writers, take note. Good signs have the date. “Today” is not much use if the sign has been there, flapping in the wind, for the past month. If I don’t usually go down that road, I don’t know if today is really today or was three months ago.  Good signs have large bold lettering. I can’t read a 16-point font sign driving along the road. If your sale is down the road on the left, don’t post the sign immediately at the turning. Give us a warning and time to change lane! If you draw an arrow on your sign, make sure the average person can figure out where it is pointing. I’m pretty sure you aren’t directing me to a sale in a treehouse, but I’m not always sure. Also, don’t write an essay on your sign. When and where are all I need to know. I’ll figure out if it’s worth stopping as I drive by. If I’m struggling to find the info in a mass of text, I’ll give up. Finally, please don’t say ‘Huge sale’ or ‘Biggest sale ever’. Those always seem to be the tiniest, with the junkiest stuff for sale.

Bad sign: yard-sale-sign-fail

The average yard sale has  tables of books, some old furniture, clothing and shoes, and a bunch of odd knickknacks (some odder than others).  Despite all those stories about people finding priceless paintings or rare Ming vases at yard sales, I’ve never found anything like that.

I like estate sales more, although I felt a little uncomfortable at the first few I attended. It felt odd browsing through someone’s life, all put up for sale after their death. However, I enjoy it now  – mainly because it allows you to see inside all kinds of houses. The most amazing house so far had a lovely wide staircase and huge windows, and backed onto a private lake. The most grungy was a very run down house with a terrible mildew problem and at least 20 lamps hanging from the ceiling in one room, plus creepy dolls. Most are predictable, but some have such an eclectic mix of art and literature that you really wonder what kind of person lived there. Some would have been very interesting people to meet.

A lot of the things in our home come from yard and estate sales. A handy chrome rack to stash unpaid bills, framed artwork, a like-new watch for just 25¢, book shelves, clothing, numerous books, and a hideous wooden monkey (that I did NOT want) – all yard sale deals.

Even better than yard sale purchases are FREE things! I’ve not seen people in England leave free, unwanted items in their front yard for others to take ( perhaps because the local councils can be pretty strict about how you get rid of things in England), but here you’ll sometimes pass a house with a pile of stuff and a sign saying ‘free.’ Our most recent free-in-the-street find was a drum. Well, two drums. My husband loves drums – playing them and fixing them up. When we picked them up they looked like this: drums before

And now, after some sanding, staining, and lacquering,  they look like this:drums now (I should confess that my only contribution to this transformation was opening and closing the back door so my husband could take them outside to spray with lacquer.)

So there you have it – one person’s trash can look very nice with a bit of effort!

Doing Things Differently

Americans might think all British TV is Downton Abbey-esque period drama, but that is certainly not the case. I was reminded of all this when my husband called me over to look at 29 Things The U.K. Does That The U.S. Needs To Start Doing on Buzzfeed. Click on the link to check out the full list. The pictures below all come from the Buzzfeed list.

Buzzfeed 29 Things The U.K. Does

Buzzfeed 29 Things The U.K. Does

Often when I watch British TV shows with my husband, he is amazed by what people are allowed to say on British TV. He’s not averse to swearing, but there have been so many times when he has remarked, “You can’t say that on TV.”  Well, in the U.K., you can after 9:00 p.m. American TV can  seem quite tame compared to some British stuff. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a whole different discussion.

Some shows that I think would have a hard time succeeding in the U.S. include The Inbetweeners – a comedy about 4 hapless high school students with one thing on their mind (offence factor high) and Outnumbered – a sitcom about a family of five. The children in the show are not completely scripted, but improvise what they say, leading to cute and funny, although sometimes just weird, dialogue that touches upon controversial topics at times (medium to low offence factor). Clicking on the links above will take you directly to Youtube clips. I’m not crazy about The Inbetweeners, but Outnumbered can be hilarious.

Buzzfeed 29 Things

Buzzfeed 29 Things

Another difference listed on Buzzfeed dealt with money. First, I’m afraid that American money is the most dull-looking money of any country I have ever visited. Even the newer ‘colorful’ paper money is just blah. I read a blog post by another Brit living in the US (sadly I don’t remember where it was) and he said that even after living in the States for years, he confuses the coins. Me, too. Seriously. There is not much variety and they don’t have their value written in numbers. I just save up all my coins and cash them in when it’ is time to pay my property tax. Just look at all the different coins we get to play with in the UK – all the different shapes, sizes, thicknesses, and colors. What fun, eh? So what if you lean to one side when you have a pocket full of pound coins.

Buzzfeed 29 Things The U.K. Does

Buzzfeed 29 Things The U.K. Does

The third thing on the list that struck me was about writing the date. That one always confuses me. If I see 5/3/2012 I really have to think about it. Is it May 3rd, or is it March 5th? I always write the month in full to avoid confusion, not to mention that 15 years of living in Asia conditioned me to write the date in the format: 2012/05/03 – biggest to smallest. Logical. Just like the British style of going from smallest to largest. But small, smaller, big…hmmm. That’s confusing!

Buzzfeed 29 Things The U.K. Does

Buzzfeed 29 Things The U.K. Does

Maybe the biggest difference on the list is the drinking age of 18 in the UK. My husband is just horrified when I say it’s perfectly feasible to be in high school and legally drink with your teachers (although the wisdom of those teachers might be questionable). I don’t know that it is a good thing. But it is different, as are laws on carrying open containers of alcohol: Carry away. You can also buy alcohol pretty much whenever you want it. Maybe things are a bit too lax!

Cookies and Smiles

Way back when, I was in the Brownies (girl guides/girl scouts). I was a leprechaun. I’m the short one with dark hair below.

001There are a few things I remember about being in the Brownies. One is an Easter Sunday parade at church (there was some official ‘Brownie’ word, but that’s not one of the things I remember). We were instructed by Brown Owl to bring half a dozen eggs which would be distributed to needy old age pensioners after the church service. These eggs were supposed to be raw, so the deserving OAP could whip themselves up some scrambled eggs, bake a cake, or whatever else you can do with eggs. However, my mother refused to believe the eggs should be raw. She  didn’t believe they’d let a group of  seven- to nine-year-olds sit in church for an hour with boxes of fragile eggs and insisted on hard boiling mine. I still have visions of some old dear trying to crack an egg for a morning fry-up, only to find a rubbery ball in the shell.

Another thing I remember is selling ‘Sunny Smiles’. At the time, all I knew was that the money was for poor children, and that I struggled to sell even one book while other brownies would sell volumes and volumes of the things. I’ve since found out that the money raised went to the National Children’s Homes. I don’t know if brownies still sell Sunny Smiles, but they were the British alternative to Girl Scout cookies. While American brownies were shifting boxes of thin mints, I was trying to sell  black and white pictures of orphans.

Girl Scout Cookies

Girl Scout Cookies

Sunny Smiles

Sunny Smiles

They were small pictures, perhaps 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches. I found the image here on a Facebook group I belong to. I always felt a little sorry for the children in the booklets. Of course, I felt sorry that the children were in need, but I felt even sorrier that people would leaf through the books, looking for a kid they considered cute enough to buy. People would tear out the kid they wanted, and sign their name on the stub left in the book. I’m not sure why they had to sign their name, but I think it was supposed to act as proof that you didn’t just sell the whole book to your mum and dad, and that you’d forced your parents to pressure their friends and coworkers into buying some. Any children the buyers thought were less attractive would be left in the books at the end of the selling period, and I felt very bad for those children. As an adult, selling pictures of young children seems odd, although the intention was good.

I can’t help thinking that boxes of cookies (or should I say biscuits?) would have raised more money, but the little booklets were easy to carry around. Looking back, Sunny Smiles were a nice, if strange, idea. Anyone else sell Sunny Smiles?


Eating a sandwich the other day, I started to think about bread. The sandwich was good, apart from the bread. The bread wasn’t bad. It was nicely chewy, a little grainy, didn’t disintegrate due to juicy tomato slices, but it was sweet. Really sweet. Everything was good about the sandwich apart from that sweetness.

Until I started to live overseas, I didn’t give bread much thought beyond ‘Do I have enough for toast?” If bread on a holiday in a foreign country was different from the bread at home, it was no big deal. Vacations are opportunities to try all sorts of new things, and since vacations  outside the UK meant France, it was all very good! But when being overseas is your everyday reality, it matters a little more.  It wasn’t an issue when I lived in Italy. Plenty of decent (and not sweet) bread there. But as I moved further from home, I realized bread is certainly not the same thing in every country. To clarify, I’m talking about sliced bread. I know that buying a fresh, whole loaf is invariably tastier, but more often than not, I buy sliced loaves for convenience. I used to go to a bakery and get them to slice up a granary loaf while I waited back in the UK.  I’ve not seen a bakery, as I know it, in the town where I now live.

When I lived in Japan, I was amazed by the sliced bread. For a start, they don’t sell you the whole loaf. You buy it in bags of between 4 and 8 slices. It was often doorstep-thick, soft and puffy, but lacking in body and texture. Not to mention fibre! Wholemeal bread was relatively scarce, though it existed, but it too was soft, squishy, and far too sweet. japanese_bread01

I learned to eat rice balls stuffed with picked plums and wrapped in seaweed instead, or rice rolls filled with fermented soy beans. I still would if they were relatively available here. I really enjoyed them!

Now I live in the US, and bread looks a lot more like the bread I ate in the UK. Loaves are full size.  I have a wide choice of whole-wheat breads made of various grains. However, it still doesn’t taste like home. The main difference between British bread and American bread is the sweetness. Bread here is sweet. Much sweeter than English bread. One of the few things I remember from studying Dante  many years ago is the line in Purgatory where he talked about the saltiness of other’s bread. He was speaking both figuratively and literally   (the salty/bitterness of exile, and the actual saltiness of bread from outside Tuscany: see this blog post for an explanation of  Tuscan bread). For some reason that resonated with me when I read it and now I always think of that when I eat bread here –  while certainly not in exile, I’ve chosen to settle abroad, and the bread just isn’t right! It looks right, smells right, but it just doesn’t taste right due to that sweetness. Although here is now my home, there will always be little differences that will never feel quite right.

“Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui,
(You will know how salty another’s bread tastes,)
Paradiso XVII: 58-59

And my preferred loaf? A nice granary. What’s yours?


Give me your bag!

For some reason, the bus was particularly busy the other day. It felt like about five people got at every stop, so it was quite crowded. One woman got on with a very small child, a stroller, and a fairly heavy-looking handbag. She stood while her daughter sat. I was in the seat behind and noticed her bag.  Two thoughts went through my head at the same time.

The first thought was more of a memory/reminiscence. I suddenly remembered taking the bus in Seoul, something I did twice daily for several years. Sometimes, when there were no free seats, I’d experience older women (probably 30+ years older than me) tugging on my bag. The first time it happened I wondered why on earth someone was pulling my bag. Hardly a subtle strategy to steal a wallet! But it turned out she was offering to hold my bag for me while I struggled to stay upright on a bumpy ride. Seoul bus drivers drive fast and like to treat the clutch very roughly. Passengers lurch back and forth with the bus, watching passing cars come perilously close. In fact it’s not at all unusual to see cars and buses collide in Seoul. I would usually thank the person offering to take my bag and hold onto it, but some women would be very insistent and rather than conduct a handbag tug of war it was easier to pass it over. It was very kind of them to offer to hold it. I would feel uncomfortable handing over my bag, although it was usually a bag of groceries or a few books and nothing valuable. It wasn’t so much because I was worried they would take my stuff, but because it was usually a tiny, shrivelled old woman who didn’t look she should be carrying anything. Of course, those women were probably much stronger than me, despite appearances!

The second thought was to reach out my hand and offer to hold her bag on my lap, but just before the words came out I stopped. I suddenly wondered, here in the US, what would be the reaction to a stranger reaching out and grabbing a bag? I decided it might well be negative and decided against finding out. However, part of me felt bad that I didn’t try. It could have been a nice thing to do for someone. Maybe the woman would have understood my intention and accepted my offer. She might have understood but just turned it down. But on the other hand, she might have thought I was trying to steal her purse. Or someone watching might have thought I was up to no good. Since I did nothing, I’ll never know.

How would you react if a stranger offered to hold on to your bag on a busy bus? Would you offer to hold someone’s bag on your lap? The situation certainly made me think. Maybe I’ll offer next time.

BYOB, or “What’s a Blue Book?”

One thing that came as a big surprise to me attending college in the US is the exams. Not the fact that we have to take exams, because of course I had to take exams in the UK, too. In the US, exams come up a lot more often than in the UK.  I like this because it’s a lot less stressful to swot up on a few weeks’ work than on a whole year’s work (or two whole years’ work as was the case for a couple of my undergraduate courses). Another surprise for me was that they just take place during regularly-scheduled class hours, rather than at a random time, in some room you’ve never heard of, in a building you didn’t even know existed (more stress). However, the most surprising thing was that you don’t get given a booklet in which to write your answers. You have to buy your own. My introduction to this was a line on my first syllabus: Scantron and blue book required for all exams.

I had no idea what this meant. My husband was amazed that we don’t have such things in the UK. I explained that they just give you a booklet to write in, and as you fill one book, you raise your hand and someone will bring you another. And another. As many as you need. In fact, perhaps this is one reason why UK colleges have less exams – the cost of all those booklets would really add up.

001 Anyway, a blue book is exactly that: a blue book that says ‘Blue Book’ on the front. When I saw my first blue book, I was amazed how small it was. I had a little further confusion when my next instructor informed the class he wanted us to bring ‘Green Books.’ Green Books turned out to be the exact same thing only with a green cover and a certain percentage of recycled content in the paper.

The second mystery item: the Scantron. It turned out to be a computer-readable sheet for multiple choice questions.002

As I took my very first Scantron exam, after filling in my name, I read Important : Use No.2 pencil only.

I wondered if it really was important or if I was about to fail thanks to my ‘B’ pencil. It was too late to find out if B was anything close to a No.2. In the end, all was well. But my first experience was nearly not a very good one.

Now I’m used to it, but at first it felt really strange to BYOB(ooklet) to exams! Oh, and I have a No.2 pencil now. Just in case.