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How to celebrate the Fourth of July in London

TweetHow to celebrate this very American holiday in London? I’ve been wondering that myself for about a decade. The thing about celebrating Fourth of July is that the enjoyment comes from knowing all your family, all your friends, the entire nation is celebrating too. When I lived in in New York, the Fourth meant cookouts in Prospect Park organised by my friends, legendary party-makers and grillers John Fasciano and Frank Reilly. It meant ball games and hanging out among a whole bunch of other groups of people, all playing ball games and hanging out and happy to be off work. Everybody eats hamburgers and hot dogs and it’s all about ritual. In London, it’s still about ritual, but…different. I’m not lucky enough to be invited to the American ambassador Matthew Barzun’s party. The Democrats Abroad group has an annual ticketed picnic, but it’s always seemed a bit big and impersonal. Plenty of restaurants put on special menus with “American food”, god help us. Just booking a table with our little family seemed sad and anticlimactic as the kids don’t have any of the associations with the holiday that I do.   A few years ago my friend Jenn came to rescue. “Come to dinner for Fourth of July!” her email beckoned. She gathered a group together and booked a table at an American-style restaurant on the busy King’s Road, deep in the heart of West London. We came, we ate and drank, we waved little American flags. To be honest, the place where we eat is a little bizarre. It’s called The Big Easy — yes a restaurant for Fourth of July — and the menu looks like they free-associated when someone yelled, “Southern food!” Lobster, barbecue (Texas, Memphis, Carolina and Kansas style), jalapeno poppers, fajitas, jumbo shrimp, clam chowder…it’s like hitting every roadside diner from San Antonio to Charlotte.   This isn’t the holiday as we know it. No fireworks, no ball games, no John F. and Frank R. Today my husband is already anticipating his lobster bib (lobster for Fourth of July?) and ice-cold longneck. But it’s good friends and food and a new ritual. Happy Fourth of July! My tips for celebrating the Fourth of July in London If you plan a barbecue, have a rain-day Plan B in case English weather appears. This year it’s hot and sunny but it can just as easily go the other way. Book any American-style restaurant as far in advance as you can. They get packed with expats and...

Returning to New York City…as a mother

TweetI spent 10 of my most formative years in New York City — those in my 20s and early 30s, drinking, dining, dating, working and generally becoming what passes for an adult. Then I left for London and a British life with my husband. I love London, but New York is still my spiritual home. That just makes it all the stranger that my kids have never been there. My daughter did make a brief appearance at 4 months old, doing the rounds to meet my close friends. I remember virtually nothing of that trip except that we stayed in a corporate apartment in midtown that my husband had organised through his job. I anxiously warmed formula and baby rice and put her to bed in a pop-up travel cot I’d borrowed from a friend. Since then I’ve been back to visit friends on my own, doing the drinking and dining thing (dating is on hold per my husband’s instructions), and generally acting like a long lost New Yorker. This Easter however, I will be returning with my husband, my 9-year-old and my 14-year-old — a family. I will be experiencing the city for the first time as a mother. Visiting New York with kids That means for the first time I’m researching things kids do in the city (funny enough, hitting my favourite cafes before shoe shopping isn’t anywhere on the list). I’m debating the merits of the Guggenheim versus the Moma versus the Natural History Museum for the under-21s and wondering just how many we can cram in. I’m getting advice from friends of friends of places I didn’t even know existed, like the M&M store where you can get your face put on one of the candies and the Sony Wonder Technology Lab. It’s literally a whole new world. The city has gotten a lot more kid-friendly and kid-cooler than when I lived there. I’ll get to visit sights I haven’t been to since my mother and father came to visit while I living in a Brooklyn apartment next to Prospect Park, like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. (Everybody knows the *real* New Yorkers only see those things when family comes to town.) Will they fall in love, like I did? My own love affair with New York began during a cross-country trip with my parents and brother and sister in our yellow station wagon. Back then, Times Square was still a scary place to walk late at night. When we arrived...

5 ideas for carving Halloween pumpkins

TweetI love doing Halloween with my daughter here in the UK, especially since it’s still in its infancy. There’s a bit of trick or treating, there are a few parties but the celebrations aren’t over the top, like what can be a consumer-fest in the U.S.  I also find the whole super-gruesome costume thing that adult revelers have embraced creepy in the extreme. But one thing I am glad that has caught on here is creative pumpkin carving. I’ve never been particularly skilled in this regard. You have to get one of those little pumpking carving kits – knives can be unwieldy for fine work. In our neighbourhood I’ve been seeing some impressive versions. Here, my Halloween pumpkin gallery and 5 tips:   Tip 1: Use the natural contours of the pumpkin to create your design. Don’t worry about getting a perfectly shaped gourd. Unusual features can make it more interesting.   Tip 2: Two jack-o-lantern heads can be better than one for a front garden display   Tip 3: Carving a big face that covers a large part of the pumpkin lets out a lot of light for a dramatic display   Tip 4: You don’t need to restrict yourself to traditional faces. Ghost scenes, cats, witch’s hats — all look great carved into your favourite Halloween gourd.   Tip 5: The important thing is to have fun. A simple jack-o-lantern (triangular eyes, blocky mouth) is the easiest to carve with kids. You can always add a scar or a tooth or two.  ...

The latest great American import: the doggy bag

TweetThe list of things America has given the food world is substantial: Velveeta, the Hard Rock cafe, the list goes on. But now one of our most widespread contributions has finally gained purchase on English soil: the doggy bag. So simple a concept. After your restaurant meal that you’ve paid for, you take home what you haven’t eaten to enjoy later. That might mean having yummy leftovers after a late-night drinking binge, say, or for breakfast when you just fancy some fajitas or beef and broccoli instead of Wheetabix. Now chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Thomasina Miers are championing the use of goody bags and even some high-end restaurants are offering them. I know what most Brits are thinking, because it’s what my husband thought the first time he visited my hometown: “Why are all these waiters urging me to take home a box of food I didn’t eat the first time round?” In America it’s simple – because there’s no possible way (unless you’re dining in a trendy NYC eaterie with minuscule portions) that you could eat your entire entree. The food is piled high to gravity-defying proportions. The mashed potatoes evoke Richard Dreyfus’s mountain, the enchiladas hang off the edge of the plate. And don’t forget the two side dishes that come with your entree and the free trip to the dessert bar. But we don’t have those Grand Canyon portions here. Isn’t taking home a box of food on the Tube just too embarrassing and un-British? From experience I can definitively say: Maybe. The Brit in my life still finds it amusing in America when our waiter Tad asks not if we want a box but how many (and reacts with confusion if we decline). But slowly over time, after seeing the kids happily chow down on second-time-round pizza or avoiding cooking one evening as we combine (thoroughly) reheated chicken with fresh veg from the crisper drawer, he’s come around. We won’t request a doggy bag from Claridge’s (although we could!), but nothing’s wrong — and a lot is right — in not letting food go to waste....

Thanksgiving: it’s not the same for expats

TweetDon’t tell me you don’t know what today is! It’s just the biggest holiday in America outside of the gloriously commercial three months of Christmas. What – you don’t know? Well, me neither. Since moving to England, I’ve found that the fourth Thursday in November comes round just like the first, second and third ones and it’s not until a fellow American reminds me that I realise it’s Thanksgiving. It’s not that I don’t like it. I’ve always loved the holiday, whose name conjures memories of my mother’s fancy holiday tablecloth, the china platter with the picture of a turkey on it, the electric warming basket for the dinner rolls. Every year the menu and the guest list is reassuringly the same: my Aunt Elaine’s compulsively irresistible sausage ball hors d’oeuvres, my Aunt Sarah’s watermelon pickles and chocolate pie, the green bean casserole (Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, Durkee french-fried onions) that my brother demands, and my mother’s greatest hits line-up: Grandmother Blanche’s cranberry relish recipe with an entire apple and orange ground in, my mother’s slightly burnt pecan pie (sorry, Mom), her perfectly cooked turkeys and homemade stuffing. (Fellow expat bloggers I Carried a Watermelon and A Modern Mother have suggested they’d like to have American-brand Stove Top Stuffing. Tsk tsk.) But the truth is, not only can’t I easily remember Thanksgiving is coming now – none of our friends from school are celebrating, nobody has the day off work, THERE IS NO TELEVISED SPORTS! – but I can’t get excited about doing the American abroad version. I tried that once when a New York friend came to visit. I invited several enthusiastic but clueless British friends. “I wanted to bring an American dessert,” one said excitedly when she arrived. “So I brought Krispy Kreme donuts!” We had plates of pecan pie a la mode, with glazed donuts. Bless. “I don’t like to celebrate here,” an American friend confided in me a couple days ago. “It’s a bit sad and lonely because it’s just us, not the extended family.” Being a transplanted American and now fully paid up British citizen, I realise there are some ways of thinking and acting that I wouldn’t give up for the world. But Thanksgiving doesn’t translate for me. When I celebrate it, I want to do so my family’s traditional way, with the traditional food, with my parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins there. I’m looking forward to the traditional British mince pies and Chrismas crackers next month with...

The definitive map of the world according to Americans?

TweetOne of the challenges as an American abroad – both living and travelling – are the preconceptions people have about us. You know – childlike, fat, shorts-wearing jingoists. Anyone who knows me, knows this isn’t universally true of Americans. I, for one, hardly ever wear shorts. I’ll leave it up to you to decide the accuracy of this map, sent to me by Sarah Ebner who writes the Times’s School Gate blog. Source: Photos of Awesome Shit My First Sergeant Said, via Facebook...

My day on 9/11

Tweet“This is so fucked up” “What are you talking about?” “Turn your TV on.” Ten years ago I was sitting on my sofa in Brooklyn when my friend B. IM’ed me on AOL Instant Messenger a little after 8:45. I turned on the TV and saw what so many other people did – smoke billowing, newscasters reporting that a plane had hit one tower of the World Trade Center. The two of us IM’ed back and forth, trying to deduce what exactly had just happened – was it small plane that had simply go astray? Something bigger? I was watching the towers on TV at 9:03 when the second plane hit and there was no mistaking it – this was all planned. I watched at home alone, IM’ing friends as long as I could, until I couldn’t stand the solitude anymore. I was safe from the carnage in downtown Manhattan, but I was also cut off from my fellow New Yorkers as the ground shifted beneath our feet. So I set out on foot to find people to connect with. The rest of the day was surreal. I ran into one friend outside a Brooklyn restaurant. We both had the same idea –shouldn’t we go to the hospital to give blood? It later became clear that there wouldn’t be thousands of survivors needing blood. Word on the street was that hospitals wanted you to stay away rather than clogging up their waiting rooms with useless helpfulness. About an hour later I was in downtown Brooklyn and saw a friend I’d gone surfing with several times. She was riding around on her bike, seeing the people coming streaming over Brooklyn Bridge and looked as aimless as I felt. I spent the rest of the day trying to get to friends in another part of Brooklyn. First I was abandoned by a bus driver with a dozen other people at a remote stop amid warehouses and overgrown lots before a local car service cruised by and returned four of us – an hour and a half later – to the downtown stop where we started. Later I stood on an overhead platform for the G train and took pictures of the blackened mess after the towers fell. I finally made it to the pub where my friends were and the conversation at every table was, “What’s happened to our city? To us? What does it mean?” Despite having worked at an office on Wall Street, I didn’t know anyone who died...

Do expats celebrate 4th of July?

TweetI can tell that I’ve finally assimilated into the British way of life when July 4 rolls around and my English husband has to remind me that maybe it might be fun to celebrate America’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Oh yeah. Should we have a burger or something? As a kid, I always loved the Fourth of July. We would drive to the edge of town where skeezy guys wearing dirty gimme caps manned the wooden shacks selling fireworks. You couldn’t buy fireworks any other time of year, so it was a real occasion to go out to these shacks and agonise over our purchases – Bottle Rockets and Black Cats and Snakes and whatever Dangerous Fireworks that looked like they would blow your hand off. Then we’d wait until dark (which took ages with the long summer days), drive out to one of the cotton fields and stand among the deeply plowed ruts watching our and other groups’ fireworks pop and crackle against the dark sky. Somehow, hitting an “American-style” restaurant in London just doesn’t capture the mood. So here are 5 things I won’t be doing this Fourth of July: 1. Eating red, white and blue ice cream. This was a once-a-year artificially flavoured treat when I was a kid, and I loved picking out the little white candy stars in the blue ice cream. It’s long discontinued – on grounds of good taste at the very least, but I could always make these alarmingly patriotic ice cream sandwiches, if I could work up the nerve. 2. Watching fireworks from a rooftop in Brooklyn. My friend R. once threw a rooftop barbecue and firework-watching party and someone showed up with a disposable barbecue. It turns out that when you use one of those directly on a tar paper roof, the roof will eventually get into the spirit and catch fire too. Don’t worry though – beer will put out the flames as long as you haven’t drunk it all. 3. Having a hot dog. Because all those preservatives ironically make you look older, not more youthful. 4. Associating fireworks with “the Fourth” rather than Guy Fawkes Day. Now that I’ve spent eight years saying Remember Remember the 5th of November, with bonfires, neighbourhood-wide parties and school firework displays, I tend to think we might just do this kind thing better over here. Don’t tell the Tea Party I said so… 5. Trying to replace all those great memories and experiences I’ve had of picnics and...

A very cool video of my spiritual home, New York City

TweetI left New York City more than 8 years ago to live in London, and I still don’t think I’m over it. The city is like a lover I can never forget. Sometimes it drove me mad, or made me depressed. Sometimes I vowed to leave. I did do that once – relocating to Paris, which I had adored from afar since I was a teenager. About a year later I had to return to NYC for mundane reasons (sort out my sublet apartment, attend a family wedding, etc) but I vowed I would be back walking along the Champs Elysees within six months. I didn’t leave New York for 4 years. The feverish pace sweeps you up, the shiny glamour seduces you, the grit rubs up against your skin. You’re never in doubt that you are at the center of “it” – whatever “it” it is that you want. I can’t help it. I want to be a part of it. Mindrelic – Manhattan in motion from Mindrelic on Vimeo. (Photo: Kaysha via Flickr)...

Cool kids’ TV shows – then and now

TweetWhen I was young, TV didn’t have the bad name it has now. Back then it was a social studies medium, Broadway training ground and musical outlet extraordinaire. Sesame Street and The Electric Company (featuring actors like Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman and eventually a victim of its own success according to Wikipedia) were the gold stand – educational and very Free to Be…You and Me. One of my favourites was Schoolhouse Rock, animated educational shorts that combined catchy tunes with, say of the use of interjections, the number 5, or the American Revolution. Get a couple of bottles of wine into 30- and 40somethings and mention Schoolhouse Rock and you have a guaranteed singalong. These shows affected how I think about issues like gender equality. They promoted my love of language and music. They made learning accessible and fun. They engendered an unshakeable affection for the actors involved. These days, television is much changed, as anyone who’s spent a Saturday morning watching poor-quality mind-numbing shows with terrible laugh tracks that seem to mainly promote backtalk and being cool. But in the past couple weeks I’ve heard about a couple of shows that have made me prick up my ears. The first is Disney Junior channel, which launches today. This post is not sponsored and I haven’t seen the programming but any channel that features the voices of Richard E. Grant, Billy Connolly and, er, Catherine Tate reading poetry gets my vote. Presenting culture – in this case works by AA Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson among others – to kids in an easy-to-absorb format works. (Long before I went to the Opera, I knew the “Barber of Seville” because of Bugs Bunny and Hamlet set to “Carmen” because of Gilligan’s Island.) The other show is Annabel Karmel’s new kids’ cooking show on ITV (pictured). I’ve been a fan of Annabel’s cookbooks for ages, since we used her weaning recipes with my now sever-year-old. In her new show “Annabel’s Kitchen“, the chef cooks and interacts with kids and puppets. Yeah, OK, I know. The puppet thing is a bit Wayland Flowers and Madame for me. But Annabel has tasty recipes that encourage parents and kids to push the boundaries beyond spag bol and cheese sandwiches. Worth checking out – they just might be shows your children reminisce about in adulthood....

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