International Man of Mystery

My job requires travel. I visit factories, construction sites, and customers wherever and whenever necessary. In the last three weeks I’ve been to Portugal, Germany and France. This week I travel to Spain. Next week perhaps a return trip to Germany or a quick trip to Italy. Based in England most of my travel is one day trips – one L O N G  D A Y ! I’m not complaining (well maybe a little bit) but traveling the way I do requires leaving my house here in England at 2:30 or 3:00 AM to catch a flight and spending most of the day traveling (planes, trains, and automobiles). Then I return the same day at midnight (or 1:00 or 1:30AM – technically the next morning) only to repeat the process the next week or several days later. Eventually it catches up with you.

Of course on the weekends Deb and I like to see as much of England as we can, so we stay busy traveling around here, too. And I love it (mostly)!

You won’t find this in any Holiday Inn Express Lobby

My continental travels are almost always comical at some point. Like the time in Spain I was looking for a rest room: “Donde esta el bano, por favor?” only to be directed to the swimming suits or bath towels in a major department store. Turns out ‘aseo’ is the Spanish word for restroom – seems I was asking where I could take a bath. Or in Portugal when I spread some kind of creamy cheese all over my bread thinking it was butter. My hosts were quite amused – apparently you eat it with a spoon like yoghurt. In Germany I have stayed in a hotel (?) that looks like something out of Grimm’s Fairytales. I got busted taking pictures of the dining room and lobby. The proprietor must have thought I was some kind of corporate hotel spy: “Was ist los!!??” I just thought the place was quaint but didn’t know a way to politely tell her without sounding insulting.

So I stumble along, nodding, smiling, pointing at items on menus, signs, and maps. God only knows what kind of idiot I must appear to be to my “new friends”. But even though most of my international travel contains much mystery, I occasionally learn something new along the way and try to remember it for next time. And I pray that my guardian angel is multilingual. I miss the ease of traveling in the U.S. but sometimes even that can be challenging, so I tuck my ‘Rick Steves Guide to Europe’ in my briefcase along with my Google Translator app and trudge along. How lost can I get?

Safe Travels,

Denis

Ten Things Americans Should Know About England

After living here for 4 months, I am now of course an expert on all things British. Please don’t be intimidated by my vast knowledge of the culture, the geography, the history and the people of this great place; this Great Britain. Just learn from my wisdom.

Here are (in my exalted opinion) the top ten things Americans should know about England:

  1. Brits don’t understand (or care to understand) anything about American baseball. Don’t try to explain it to them, it will only make you crazy (or in English parlance: mad). Really, don’t bother.
  2. No one in England drinks beer from a bottle. They may drink it from a (sometimes less than clean) glass at a dodgy pub but they won’t drink it from a bottle. Only Americans and Barbarians drink beer from bottles.
  3. Left is right. The origin of driving on the left allegedly has something to do with jousting but that sounds like bollocks to me. I think it’s retaliation for our Independence from England – that and the bloody roundabouts. Just remember to stay on the left and yield to the right – you’ll be fine.
  4. “I need to spend a penny.” A quaint expression meaning ‘to use a public toilet’. Never leave the house without 20 or 30 pence in your pocket. Most toilets don’t give change and none take bills even though there have been times I would have gladly paid £5 for much-needed relief.
  5. People are really very friendly. If you’re in London you may not encounter the most welcoming folks but it’s no different from New York. When’s the last time someone in New York held a door for you or smiled at you? Plus the majority of people you’ll encounter in London are likely tourists. If you want friendly, come to the towns and villages. People there are truly nice; proud of their homes; and happy to meet you. Plus a pint is cheaper in a pub in the Cotswolds or Midlands than some posh pub in Central London.
  6. Don’t wear big white tennis shoes. Also don’t wear your favourite team’s jersey or T-shirt unless of course it’s Manchester United or Liverpool (but then you could still be in for a fight). The white tennis shoes and “I love Opryland” T-shirt just makes you a target for ridicule, not to mention pick-pockets.
  7. Brown Sauce. The most popular brand, HP, has a malt vinegar base, blended with tomato, dates, tamarind, and spices. Good on everything, particularly fish and chips.
  8. Garden Centres. Not to be confused with the garden center at your local Home Depot or Lowes. This is not just an area of the parking lot cordoned off for seasonal sales of shrubberies and manure.  These are permanent structures with toys, apparel, garden furniture, giftware, butcher counters, bakeries, wine bars, cafes and playgrounds for the kiddies. Additionally they sell plants, flowers, shrubberies and all other garden necessities.
  9. “You alright?” The equivalent to our “Morning, how are ya?” or “Hi!” No real response is expected here. Just a “Hi” or “Fine, and you?” will suffice. Or “Okay.” It’s one of those mindless greetings that we are all familiar with. No one really wants to know ‘how you are’ or ‘if you are alright’.
  10. Long Live The Queen! Although it’s been bandied-about that the Royalty is outdated or unnecessary; don’t be confused. She’s beloved. She’s an institution. And Elizabeth has NEVER brought dishonor to the Crown. Suggestions that she should step down and let Charles become King are ridiculous and American. Her Diamond Jubilee is receiving more press here than the 2012 London Olympics. Plus two days off work!

Who can resist the charm of an English pub?

I hope that this helps those of you that are planning travel here, or even better, those of you contemplating “taking the plunge” and actually moving here as we have.

We’re traveling to Paris this weekend and then I have business in Portugal next week. Stay tuned for my Continental wisdom. Rick Steves – watch your back!

Cheers,

Denis

English to English Translation

I’m learning to speak English (proper English) but more importantly I’m learning to understand it. There have been a few embarrassing moments (like when I asked a work mate what his brother’s medical speciality was upon learning he was an M.D. – turns out M.D. means Managing Director – I think he’s a real estate developer) but more often I just vaguely understand what is being said. So I am often dependent upon context clues but I’m learning some new words and old words with new meanings (to me anyway).

Here are a few examples:

Shortly after arriving here I was driving to work and listening to the radio. The traffic report warned of a bonnet on the Motorway and that traffic was being diverted to avoid it. I wondered aloud, “Who still wears bonnets?” “Maybe there’s an Amish community nearby?” “And why can’t cars just drive over it?” Of course now I know that a ‘bonnet’ is the hood of a car. Also the ‘boot’ is the trunk. Too bad – because “junk in your boot” just isn’t as poetic!

‘Cheers’ is not just a toast but means ‘thanks’ or ‘good day’. Sort of an all-purpose greeting. Like ciao or aloha.

‘Fancy’ means ‘I would like’ something. As in, “I fancy a cup of tea and a scone!” Whereas  something fancy is ‘posh’. As in, “My favourite Spice Girl is Posh Spice!” Besides, Fancy Spice sounds stupid. ‘Posh Spice’ just sounds a little dated and very 1990’s now that Posh is married to Beckham and they have little Spices and Becks.

‘Mad’ means ‘crazy’. No explanation required unless you’re mad.

‘Brilliant’ – everything and everyone is ‘brilliant’ or wants to be.

‘Keen’ means ‘I love it/I like it/I want it/I covet it’. As in, “I’m keen on Adele’s latest Album.” “Or I’m keen to see Season 3 of Downton Abbey.”

You should never wear a ‘fanny pack’ here in the UK or refer to one – ‘fanny’ means ‘vagina’ and this could be very embarrassing for all involved.

‘Knackered’ means ‘worn out’ or ‘tired’ but getting ‘kicked in the knackers’ means something else entirely.

A ‘bap’ in a bakery is a roll but don’t ask the woman behind the bakery counter if you can see her ‘baps’, that will likely get you a ‘kick in the knackers’!

A ‘bloke’ is a guy. A ‘bird’ is a young woman. A ‘duffer’ is not a golfer but a ‘geezer’. An old lady might be called a ‘twirly’ because they show up at the Post Office at half past eight and exclaim, “Am I too early???” (pronounced twirly)

Of course I’ve learned much of my new English from my work mates but the bulk of it is from watching English television. Probably not the best way to learn the language but at times it is very entertaining. My favourite adverts (they’re not called commercials here) are Aldi or Dulux. They’re brilliant!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssnxi2eDV9g

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCKgCkubGc0

I must admit that the accents and regional dialects can be a real challenge. And it’s complicated further by the Welsh, Irish and Scottish folks that we encounter. Just about the time we think we have a handle on the language we encounter a shop clerk or neighbour that we can’t understand. Of course they probably just think that Deb is a ‘twirly’ and that I’m a ‘duffer’.

Cheers,

Denis

Waitrose, Sainsbury, Tesco and clotted cream

Salad cream?

Grocery shopping in England is an adventure. We generally shop at Tesco because it’s close by and reasonably priced by UK standards. It’s clean and well stocked. Deb prefers the more posh Waitrose and I like Sainsbury near my office for quick pick-up items and great (and cheap) wine selections.

Onion marmalade - really?

Regardless of where we shop, I’m amazed (and often puzzled) each time by some of the products available. Our shopping trips are getting shorter but my attention span in grocery stores is shorter still and I am not as fascinated by the 17,000 varieties of olive oil as my dear wife.

In all fairness, Deb is an excellent cook and knows what she needs to prepare fabulous meals. The challenge is sometimes finding the proper ingredients, especially with me standing on the sidelines tapping my foot or grimacing. “Oh, for the love of God just pick an olive oil!”

Spanish, Italian, Greek, Israeli...

Because I’m bored and to “help” I have become Deb’s ‘advance man’ in the grocery markets. While she leisurely glides the trolley through the aisles, I run ahead like a dog in search of the elusive rabbit for the next item on her list, which I retrieve and return to her usually to find it’s “not exactly” what she wanted. Defeated I return said item back to its proper place like the sad pup that I am and try again.

This game continues throughout the store. Next item and I’m off in search of the ‘Holy Grail’ of vanilla paste or clotted cream or lemon curd only to have my hopes dashed again and again and again. But I can’t stop myself! Deb and I are like the tortoise and the hare of Tesco: me madly dashing from aisle to aisle while she calmly (painfully) examines each of the items and makes her careful selections. And she ALWAYS wins!

Of course this is further complicated by the multitude of varieties and British names of items on her list. Who knew grocery shopping would be so challenging? And so fun. I love my wife; I love my life. I’ll meet you at the till!

Peace,

Denis

That’s Mr. Cranky Pants To You!

Some days are better than others. Today is one of the “others”. Bad night of sleep. Lousy weather. I have a crick in my neck. I have employee evaluations to complete. And I have an appointment to see my dermatologist (who for the record has no bedside manner; although I don’t why you’d have to be in bed to see a dermatologist).

And it’s Christmas! Well, it’s Christmas on T.V. and at the mall, and on the radio endlessly, and at work – another boatload of sweet treats and fatty delights was just delivered here. And I swear some of my co-workers would eat dirt on a cracker if it were free. So I’m a little cranky today and I should probably just stay in my office so no one gets hurt. But for the love of God, will someone please stop draining the coffee urn without brewing another pot of coffee! Is that too much to ask? Because it’s Christmas and I’m supposed to be cheerful and I can’t do that without some caffeine. I’m begging you! Just one cup of coffee…

Deep cleansing breath. Deep cleansing breath. Go to a happy place. Go to a happy place. I try so hard to not be a curmudgeon but sometimes it feels as if the cards have been stacked against me. I’m really a lovely person (once you get to know me) but even lovely people can have crummy days now and again.

I admit it. I’m running a little low on patience, compassion, and give-a-shit-ness today. And I don’t care if that’s not a word either. I’ve received three calls on my cell phone this morning from someone who says each time, “hold on I’ve got the wrong number”. What am I supposed to “hold on” for (to)? Is this some kind of elaborate joke or some vicious conspiracy to slowly drive me mad? It’s working!

For the record I would like to just wallow in my self-pity and embrace my contemptuousness and be left alone (WHY CAN’T THEY LEAVE ME ALONE?). And the idiots on the road this morning (no doubt singing along with “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” blaring from the ALL CHRISTMAS radio station) were particularly annoying in their inability to get out of my way! Not too mention the eternal roadwork on the Expressway exit near my office which is a daily thorn in my side. Poor me!

Tomorrow will likely be a better day. And I will likely be in a better mood. But today the forecast is cranky with a good chance of crabby. So brew another pot of coffee and steer clear of Cranky Pants!

Oh and Merry (almost) Christmas!

Peace,

Denis

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJxi0zCdGEY

Liar, Liar; Pants On Fire!

Lying seems to be the great American pastime. Politicians lie so much that it seems newsworthy when one of them is discovered telling the truth. University officials lie to cover up the misdeeds of coaches. Bishops lie to cover up the misdeeds of bad priests. Attorneys lie to protect their guilty clients. Cops lie to protect other cops. Advertisers lie to sell more stuff. Lying in America seems to be rampant. And acceptable (sort of).

I know that lying is supposed to be a sin. And there’s a commandment: “Thou shalt not lie”. I’d be a liar if I told you that I know which commandment it is, but I know it’s in the top ten. So if God commands us not to lie, why do we do it so freely. Why do we lie so much???

I know that there are some “good lies” or “little white lies”; for example when someone gives me an awful gift, I usually respond with something like, “Thanks. I love it!” It just seems rude to be honest and ask, “What in hell were you thinking when you selected this ugly-ass sweater for me?” I know because I’ve tried the honest approach and lying would have spared feelings and the resulting wrath (however the ugly sweaters stopped, come to think of it, all gifts from that individual have stopped). It’s also a good idea to lie when people ask, “How old do you think I am?” or “Does this (dress, suit, jacket, sweater, etc.) make me look fat?” Also lie about how cute their babies are – even if the kid looks like Yoda or the Mayor of Munchkin City.

But lying is a slippery slope. Lying leads to cheating; cheating leads to stealing; and stealing leads to God-knows-what. Folks cheat on their taxes and rationalize that “everybody does it”. People justify cheating the government by finding “loop-holes” in the tax code, welfare system, unemployment insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid. And the ‘little guy’ feels entitled to cheat whenever possible because the Big Banks, Major Corporations and Wall Street have cheated him (her). It’s a vicious cycle.

Let’s stop! Or more to the point, let’s start. Let’s start by telling the truth; the whole truth; and nothing but the truth. I know it’s radical but let’s try.

And if I tell you that your butt looks big in those jeans, you can feel free to tell me that you think my grandchild is ugly (but you’d be a liar). Maybe I need to re-think this…

Peace,

Denis

Sneezing, Runny Nose, Itchy, Watery Eyes…

My cold medicine claims to relieve my sneezing, runny nose, itchy, watery eyes, etc. I guess the key word here is relieve. Relieve the systems not eliminate them – ugh! Why can’t I feel better now? And what about the pounding in my head? And what about my (nearly) constant coughing?

It’s a perfectly beautiful autumn day here; The St. Louis Cardinals have just won the World Series; The Green Bay Packers are headed to 8-0; Last night was our ‘Dinner Club’ and we shared a fabulous meal and lots of laughter with great friends; Halloween is tomorrow (and my grandkids have the most adorable costumes) and I can’t stop coughing my fool head off! Poor me! Why me? WHY ME??? Come to think of it, Poor Deb, she’s got to put up with me. I’m not a very patient patient.

None of this makes any sense. I’ve gotten my flu shot. I take (mostly) good care of myself. I eat right. I get a reasonable amount of exercise and rest. And yet here I am, fallen by the common cold. “Cough, cough, cough.” “Sniff, sniff, sniff.”

But somehow I’ll muddle through. And please don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve already got that covered. I just need to find the remote control, my Puffs Plus Lotion® tissues and my Vicks VapoRub® and settle down in front of the T.V.

“You know Deb, a cup of that peppermint tea would be nice.” “Deb?” “Deb?”  “Cough, cough.” “Sniff,  sniff.” “Deb!!!”

Pray for me! This might be a long recovery…

Peace,

Denis

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Do you remember the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? I remember it as the first time I ever saw a car with the steering wheel on the right (or the left if you’re facing the car, but you know what I mean). At the time I thought it was movie magic. Now I know that there is nothing magical about it.

I’ve spent the last 40 years driving on the right side of the road. Now much to my chagrin the right is WRONG. Driving here in England is like trying to write with my left hand – I can do it but the results aren’t all that good. So I am driving very S L O W L Y. I’ve garnered lots of attention with my careful driving and in a Peugeot® to boot! Actually I’ve only been honked at once but I’ve been stared at quite a bit whilst making my WIDE LEFT TURNS. Oh well, I’ll just keep a stiff upper lip (actually my bottom lip is numb from biting it).

Peugeot - French for lousy

Yesterday was my first official day of driving ‘the correct way’ as my English colleague Mark calls it. Turns out yesterday was also my first official driving incident as well. After leaving the village of Cricklade on my return to the hotel in Swindon I noticed the car driving roughly. Keep in mind it’s a Peugeot® so I wasn’t initially alarmed. But when the car began shaking violently I knew it wasn’t just poor French engineering. I had a tire blowout on the A419 Carriageway, which is a highway by U.S. standards but with no shoulder.

I prayed and then cursed (or maybe it was the other way around) but thankfully was able to get the car to a grassy shoulder. I wasn’t hurt, the car wasn’t damaged (except the left front tire which is shredded) and Avis had the emergency road service lorry there within an hour or so. Things could have been much worse.

So my day of sight-seeing and exploring Wiltshire came to an abrupt end. I did the ‘drive of shame’ back to the Blunsdon House Hotel with a tiny front tire on my rental car. Defeated, I parked the car and went to my room.

My Saturday adventure was more adventurous than I had hope. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang never got a flat tire on A419! All in all, it was still a beautiful day and perhaps I’ve gotten all my driving bad luck out-of-the-way, but I doubt it. The good news is that I was back out today with no incidents to report. I found my way to ASDA® (it’s the Super Wal-Mart® here in the U.K.) and back to the hotel with a little the help from the GPS – she has a really lovely British accent. So with my confidence restored, I’ll keep motoring on.

See you on the round-about!

Peace,

Denis

Habla Ingles?

I’ve been in Spain on business for a week. I’ve toured a dozen or so ‘El Corte Ingles’ department stores here in Madrid and Valencia (think Macy’s meets Telemundo). I love Spain (what I’ve seen of it) and I’m trying to learn to speak Spanish. I really am.

But “habla ingles?” is still how I begin most conversations here. Sometimes I begin with “hola!” or “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes” or “buenas noches” but I’m not quite sure when “tardes” and “noches” begin and end so usually I just say “Hola”. I often say “gracias” and “de nada”, too. Beyond that things get a little sketchy. What I have found is that MOST Spaniards seem to appreciate that I’m trying to speak a little (muy poco) Spanish (or they’re just enjoying my stupidity and can’t wait until I’m gone so that they can let out a big belly laugh; either way I’m fine) and many will respond S L O W L Y so that I can understand them (sort of). I can see why total immersion teaches you how to speak a second language. You’ve just got to figure it out – if you want to eat or need to go to the bathroom or have lost your way – you need to be understood.

I will be happy to be home next week but if I had another week or fifty-two here in Espana I could really be “habla-ing some Espanol”. But instead, I guess it’s back to ‘Rosetta Stone’. I hate those cheery ‘Rosetta Stone’ people; they’re so smug and they’re ALWAYS right. If I could just move to Spain for six months or a year I would never need ‘Rosetta Stone’ again. Of course that would mean quitting my job and living in Spain with no income; not to mention the cost of airfare, hotels, paella, manchego cheese, wine and cafe con leche. Hmmm? I guess maybe ‘Rosetta Stone’ is a more reasonable option – damn it! I just think that I learn better “on the job” so to speak. No one in Madrid or Valencia has asked me “donde esta la biblioteca?” (where is the library?) but I have been asked “quires otra copa de vino?” (would you like another glass of wine?) and because “si” is my default response, I only realized after the third “copa de vino” that I should probably say “no”. So hey, ‘Rosetta Stoners’: here’s a heads up – we’re not spending our free time at the library. I’m just sayin…

I actually felt pretty good about myself today. I asked a Senora if she wanted my seat on the Metro and she understood me. Also I asked a couple how old their daughter was and then told them “mi nieta es tres anos tambien” – I felt so Continental!

Tomorrow I’m going to Mass – of course it will be in Spanish. I just hope nobody asks if I want more “vino”.

Adios mis amigos.

Paz,
Denis (pronounced: DAY-NEEZ)

Calling All Grammar Police!

I have to admit that sometimes I don’t speak properly and there are times when my spelling, grammar and punctuation need editing (Just read any blog post). But I am aghast at how awful some people’s use of the English language has become. Too often I find myself silently correcting another’s speech. And sometimes not so silently – Rosko! It has become such a distraction that I find it hard at times to be in meetings with (allegedly) well-educated, professional people. I am afraid that this grammar (or lack thereof) problem has become nearly epidemic.

Let me give you some examples:

I have a customer who says “irregardless”. Irregardless? Really??? It’s not even a word! I have a work associate that routinely uses the word “exasperate” when he means to say “exacerbate”. Which I must admit, I find completely exasperating! And don’t get me started on using “I” or “myself” incorrectly instead of “me”. I guess some people think that they sound fancy when they say “I” instead of “me”. News flash: you only sound stupid when you use it incorrectly.

Being this correct all alone is exhausting. I need your help because this is not just limited to my circle of friends and acquaintances (although there is some serious verbal abuse – not that kind – going on with my work associates and family members). Recently at a family gathering someone commented that our two-year old granddaughter “Sure does talk good, don’t she?” We tried to shield the child.

Please share the load. Start correcting poor speakers. We owe to our children and our grandchildren. This problem is nationwide – worldwide and it’s time to right this wrong. I promise that tonight when you turn on the news you will hear folks butchering the English language. Especially some of those yokels who want to mandate that ‘English only’ is taught and spoken in our schools. I have a challenge for those people: start speaking English yourselves. And it’s pervasive. Even our past President couldn’t pronounce “nuclear”. This is a far-reaching and overwhelming issue. Celebrities, politicians, clergy, business leaders – all guilty of massacring our language.

Don’t get me wrong. I love regional dialects and accents and colloquialisms. I think that they are charming. My friends from Boston move their ‘R’s’ around – like taking the ‘R’ out of chowder (chowda) and placing it in ‘idea’ (idea-r). And my friends in Wisconsin routinely say things like, “Hit it once with a hammer a couple of times” or “Throw me down the steps a pack of cigarettes”. And my friends from the South will welcome “All y’all”. Even here in Saint Louis some folks make ‘O’s” sound like ‘A’s’, for example: horse is pronounced “harse” and corn is often called “carn”. And this can sometimes lead to humorous statements, like when our Deacon invites us to “Pray to the Lard”. I chuckle every time (Lard please forgive me).

I haven’t even taken the time to discuss poor writing skills. I’ll save that for later. Suffice to say, I receive e-mails that are so poorly written I sometimes feel that I need a ‘decoder’ to make sense of them. And don’t get me started on text messaging. It is truly the decline of our entire civilization. R U kiddin’ me?

So I’m calling all grammarians. Step it up! Do your part. Stop the abuse. Our precious language is counting on you.

Peace,

Denis

P.S. Feel free to correct my grammar, spelling or punctuation in this post.