Just a Wee Blether…

About Christmas in the desert Ho Ho Ho

Christmas in the Arizona desert was predictably sunny. There was hardly a cloud in the blue sky and, while it wasn’t quite t-shirt and shorts weather, the temperature was somewhere in the high 50s.

Nobody was ‘walking in a winter wonderland’ or ‘dashing through the snow’. The Christmas music was blaring on the radio but it seemed a bit surreal in the Valley of the Sun.

The morning began with one of these ‘it could only happen in America’ encounters. We were leaving the house at around 7am to head to a family breakfast get-together only to discover the front left tyre on the car was flat.

I’m not into changing tyres when there are people out there who know what they are doing, so help was summoned. Five minutes later I received a voice mail message on my mobile from our Christmas knight in shining armour.

It went like this, “Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas, this is Mike at Jack Rabbit Roadside Assistance. Be with you in five to ten minutes. Once Again Ho Ho Ho.”

Now there’s customer service for you. Mike duly arrived, complete with white beard and Santa hat, gave me a huge hug when he discovered I was from Scotland, pumped up the tyre and had us follow him to a repair shop that was open 24/7, 365 days.

It turned out he had been in bed, he had to leave his family behind to help us out on Christmas morning – but he could not have been more unfailingly cheerful. It’s not difficult to imagine the mood being a little different elsewhere.

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Americans go all out for Christmas – you can tell just by looking at their houses. Every street in every neighbourhood is illuminated by spectacular light displays. Homes and front gardens everywhere are awash with lights, shepherds, mangers, angels on the rooftop, you name it.

In Scotland, I remember there being half a dozen houses per city that were lit up so dramatically, several of them for charity. And in the papers we used to report on vandals damaging the lights, stealing the charity money, and the bah humbug brigade complaining that the lights were too bright and an “intrusion”. No-one complains here.

This week I spent half an hour at the Mormon Temple in Mesa. It is surrounded by 20 acres of land and it seemed that every square foot was lit up with Christmas lights. There was a massive life-size nativity scene, choirs, everything screamed ‘have an over the top Christmas”. But that’s America for you, things are bigger, and why not?

I didn’t miss the inevitable Scottish rain but there were aspects of Christmas in Scotland I did yearn for. Silly things like Black Friday in Glasgow – when there are so many people out for their boozy office parties that getting home means a two-hour wait at the taxi rank in the freezing cold. One year I remember (vaguely) walking for seven miles in the snow before a taxi came along.

I missed catching the subway into the city centre on a Sunday morning with my “shop route” planned for all the presents I had in mind; the shop assistants wearing red antlers; the German market on Princes Street in Edinburgh; the ever-present possibility that it will be a “White Christmas”.

And of course I missed my family, I’ve had 50-something happy Christmas Days with them. Christmas in America is great but, yes, I felt nostalgic for Scotland at this time of year. And, believe me, that feeling will multiply at New Year.

Just a Wee Blether…

About the perils of overeating in the US

It is tempting to think all Americans fall into two categories – the uber-skinny Hollywood type and the clinically obese burger-chomping brigade.

Of course that’s way too simplistic, there are people here of all shapes and sizes. But this is the land where fast food is king and there is an undeniably massive problem with over-eating. ‘Let’s do breakfast’ is often cue for three or four enormous pancakes smothered in fresh cream and maple syrup.

Having lived here for nine moths I’m beginning to have sympathy with people who find themselves overweight – because it’s happening to me. Since arriving in March I’ve put on more than a stone (14 pounds to my American friends), I feel out of shape and bloated, and clothes are not fitting me.

The first problem is my lack of self-control and willpower. The food – and the sweets – are so tempting here. I’m a sucker for all sorts of American candy like tootsie rolls and in particular a confection known as salt water taffy. I could eat the stuff till it’s coming out of my ears.

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When I left Scotland, good burger shops such as Five Guys were springing up all over Glasgow. Multiply that by 100 for Phoenix. The burgers here are delicious, so are the french fries (chips are what we call crisps in Scotland), and the portions are enormous.

The other difficulty is that, with the exception of most of the fast-food joints, the food on offer is of a very high quality – irresistible to be honest. Mexican cuisine is the speciality round here but there are good restaurants everywhere. After all, Americans take their food seriously.

How many times have you heard the morning after the night before discussion? Something along the lines of ‘I had six pints, five wines, then I can’t remember the rest of the night’. It happens every day of every week in workplaces up and down the country.

The culture here is totally different. Americans don’t talk about the drink they’ve had, but they enter into great detailed conversations about how the food is prepared. Men of all ages will describe how thinly they sliced the beef in their Philly cheese steak, or at what temperature they cooked the ribs on the barbeque.

It may seem strange that, having come from the country where we offer deep-fried Mars Bars and Snickers in fish and chip shops, I should put on so much weight in a land where the food is healthier.

So what am I going to do about this? For a start I’ve been encouraged by reading about some of my Facebook friends who have adopted sensible eating plans that have made a big difference to their clothes sizes. Step forward Simon Houston, Jesse Caufield, Helen McArdle and anyone else I’ve missed.

It doesn’t have to be some sort of major diet, just common sense eating with exercise thrown in. The tempting restaurants all have salad options, and eating at home will have to mean an end to the cookies, popcorn, and other delights that seem to appear from nowhere.

I have an exercise bike so it will be a case of ‘on my bike’ and watch the pounds fall off – and all this is going to start in the New Year, so the inevitable Christmas splurge will happen between now and then.

So wish me luck. It will be a temptation-filled exercise and I’m going to have to conquer my natural inability to stop myself when confronted with mouth-watering, fattening goodies. I’ll keep you posted.

 

Just a Wee Blether…

About never stopping “at the lights”

Everybody in Scotland warned me about the same thing before I left for the US. “Be careful, they drive on the wrong side of the road over there,” people said.

In the knowledge that owning a car in America is not a matter of choice, it’s a necessity, I was told over and over again to make sure I didn’t carry on driving on the left, like we do in Scotland.

The truth is it took less than half an hour to get the hang of what side to drive on. The roads here are busy – they are also pleasantly wide and “roomy”. Yes, everyone drives on the right so it would be pretty dumb of me to drive straight into the oncoming traffic.

Another slightly odd rule of the road is that you can turn right even when faced with a red light if it is safe to do so. Again, that doesn’t take too long to get used to.

But there are other driving quirks over here that it took a little longer to catch on to. They left me perplexed the first few times I encountered them and, even now, I still have to keep my wits about me. To my mind they make certain aspects of driving in the US inherently more dangerous.

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First of all, bear in mind that unlike Scotland the road network in the Phoenix metro area is one huge grid system. All the roads travel either north-south or east-west. It means there are hundreds of major junctions (or intersections as they are always called in the US).

Now remember in the UK being told that, when the traffic lights are showing red, to “stop at the lights”. Well if you stopped “at the lights” over here you would run the risk of being in a serious accident. For the simple reason that, as you approach an intersection there is only one set of lights facing you – and it is at the “other side” of the junction.

So if I stopped directly in front of the lights my car would be sitting in the middle of the junction in the path of a line of traffic. During the day it’s easy enough but in the first few weeks of driving here at night, it was more than a little confusing.

The second, and perhaps more dangerous intersection manoeuvre involves pedestrians. In Scotland, if the pedestrian crossing lights come on, all cars have to stop, simple as that.

Not here. If, for example, I was travelling north and wanted to turn east (or right) at an intersection I could make the turn when the green light is signaling (or at a red light if it’s safe). However, at the same time as I am being allowed to turn east, the light is signalling that pedestrians can cross north to south.

In other words, I could turn right at a green light and plough straight into a crowd of pedestrians. Obviously the pedestrian always has the right of way and the onus is entirely on the driver. But it doesn’t change the fact that motorists and pedestrians have permission to cross the same stretch of road at exactly the same time. It’s quite frankly daft and highly dangerous and I wonder how many people have been killed and injured as a result.

One final curiosity – one that gives the lie to the phrase United States. Do not expect the road signs and signals here to be the same throughout the country. They are different state by state, city by city and town by town.

I remember driving in the town of Gilbert – where you turn left at an intersection when the green arrow shows. Then I crossed a road into the city of Mesa where some junction light sequences include a flashing yellow arrow indicating that you can turn left but only if it is safe. So you can pass your test in one city and discover that the signals are different in the city next door.

Confusing eh? Driving on the wrong side of the road is the least of my worries.

Just a Wee Blether…

About My ‘Coming Out’ Confession

I remember the day in 1985 when I decided it was time to come out of the closet. For more than a year I had been secretly indulging in a pattern of behavior most people didn’t understand. I couldn’t hide it any more, I had to bite the bullet, to be candid with my friends and family.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking, it wasn’t the traditional closet “outing”. Nor was it anything criminal. I hadn’t become a Barry Manilow or Carpenters fan. But it was a public activity so there was always the possibility I would be seen. I had to ‘fess up.

So how would it go? One or two knew already. But I steeled myself and broke the news gently. It was worse than many people realised. Guys, I walk around the Scottish countryside with binoculars round my neck. It’s true, I’m a birdwatcher.

If I had grown two heads it would have been easier. There was much mickey-taking. And a lot of fairly dumb questions. But I continued to insist this was something I thoroughly enjoyed and eventually there developed a degree of disbelieving acceptance.

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Fast forward 30 years and the climate has changed enormously. Most of the same people who sniggered at me can now name the birds in their garden. They can distinguish between the chaffinches, blue tits, siskins and robins that show up.

Bed and Breakfast establishments the world over advertise their premises as ‘perfect for birdwatchers’ or ‘a birder’s paradise’. Our feathered friends have not only become respectable; they are also big business.

The reason I got interested in the first place was straightforward. I liked escaping the city and taking countryside walks. I would see birds and wanted to identify the species. So I bought a field guide and took it from there.

On my first ever proper birdwatching day out I went to the River Don estuary in Aberdeen. I remember feeling a thrill when I was able to identify a ringed plover. Nothing has changed, all these years later I still get a kick out of seeing a ‘new’ species.

I miss watching birds in Scotland, it was relaxing and peaceful, an escape from the stresses of everyday life. I had favourite spots, notably the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire and the Baron’s Haugh reserve near Motherwell.

People sometimes ask what is the attraction of an activity that probably seems odd to an outsider. I don’t know the answer. Perhaps we all have some sort of an inbuilt collector’s instinct – I have ‘spotted’ more than 300 species over the years.

Having moved to America, it is like starting all over again. With the exception of a few species such as starling, mallard and house sparrow, the birds in the US are all different. Just like the UK there is a massive interest, hundreds of ‘birders’ come to Arizona for spring and autumn migrations, and the economy benefits.

At nature reserves here, birds such as the one pictured, a black necked stilt, are common. In Scotland they are a once-in-a-lifetime rarity.

Many of you might still think I’m a weirdo but nowadays I don’t care so much. I’m perhaps a little smug that my secret hobby has now achieved a degree of acceptance.