Sunday, 16 January 2011

#44 Being a massive tourist.

...and back to New York, for the last time.

It is a fact I still find breathtaking: more people visit London each year than New York. Except that they don't, really, because over three quarters of New York's 45 millions annual visitors are domestic, and the commonly-cited figures consider only international tourists. So pipe down London.

The truly breathtaking number is this: New York, as isolated as it is from other countries (only East Coast Canadians are close), receives nearly ten million international visitors every year. The vast majority of those people fly for five hours or more to see Lady Liberty through their airplane windows. That's commitment.

It's testament to the reputation - part puff, part deserved - of the Big Apple. Only Paris could claim to be nearly as fixed in the popular imagination. And, as Doug Stanhope put it, "Fuck the French".

I had two weeks to spend in New York after finishing work. Since my departure was ahead of schedule, I'd neglected a lot of tourists 'musts', so I bent to it.

Less of a blog post, more of a love in.
If you wanted hard-hitting journalism, you've come to the wrong place. By which I mean Blogger generally, and specifically this blog, and specifically this post. Almost everything I did in my last few days was wonderful. Almost.

First, stop making excuses and go to Shake Shack. It's fucking spectacular. Cheesy fries, a cheeseburger of some kind and, of course, a milkshake, are a bare minimum. I went for the vibrating burger that tells you your order is ready; I stayed for the taste (and I really didn't expect to).

While we're on food, check out Sarabeth's West for the best Bloody Mary's this side of the Tudors.

The Met Cloisters feel like an odd visit as a European: why travel 4,000 miles to visit a museum of Mediaeval European art? Well, because it's spectacularly well-curated, laid out around a mocked-up monastery to put the art in proper context, and because the gallery tours are excellent.

Top of the Rock? Well, that was the 'almost'. It's okay, if you like that sort of thing, but pretty much exactly what you would expect. The short museum in the base is quite interesting...

I went back to the MoMA. It's still great. The current Abstract Expressionism exhibition is particularly amazing for the fact that it draws entirely on the MoMA's collections - which shows quite how important the institution is to modern art. Andy Warhol's films, though, are much more interesting in concept than in practice.

The American Museum of Natural History is as good as ever, though they let me down.

Finally, Ellis Island:

a) is much better if you aren't conned into getting the worst audio guide ever.
b) teaches you more about America than any other museum I've been to.
c) needs a queuing system that doesn't involve Stage I hypothermia.

The gaps were filled with a gooey assortment of regional and international foods, outdoor sites (the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park), and topped off with spectacular pie from Four and Twenty Blackbirds (of Park Slope - look them up, and try the Salted Honey), and milk from Momofuku Milk Bar.

In summary, I'm a fat fucking pie, and I can't believe I'm no longer in the best city in the world. But I'll be back.

Check out my website for a new blog in the next few days.


Saturday, 8 January 2011

#43 Our Nation's Show Home

I hate feeling like a tourist in America. Obviously, given my perfect vowel formation and undropped aitches (ZING!) I stand out as English, and I've make a point of correcting people. "Actually, I live in New York," I say. In case you were finding it difficult to imagine what my corrections were like.

Why? I suppose it's because I'm terribly afraid of seeming ignorant - even when I am. Because I have winced time and again at the obnoxious and erroneous foreign tourist, and I want to maintain the moral high ground by not being lumped with the tourist riff-raff.

As an aside I have two annoying tourist anecdotes. The first comes from a teahouse in Nepal, where a couldn't-help-overhearing-four-tables-away loud American addressed his fellow diners:

"Do you know what the difference between a spice and an 'erb is?"


"An 'erb is a leaf. And spice is a seed." which my group of Cambridge scientists mouthed the word 'cinnamon' and snickered into our port glasses.

The second occurred only a few days ago, as I toured the Mediaeval art of the Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters. A mother, looking at an illustrated family tree of Jesus Christ, gripped her about-six-year-old's hand tightly:

"But we don't need proof because we believe, don't we?"

Their nation's capital

So I finally made it to Washington DC - a last-minute trip that denied me my normal reading and preparation time. Given the aforementioned reticence to appear stupid, my friend and I (she is similarly shy) followed various people around in the vague hope they were heading towards sights. (Obviously, we chose likely targets - men holding SLR cameras, and anyone Asian.) So the first day was a rather esoteric tour of Capitol Hill.

In the evening we picked up a cornucopia of tourist bumf - I've never written that word down and always wondered how to spell it; thank you Google - and educated ourselves.

It turns out there's quite a lot to see in DC. The Smithsonian Museum network is the biggest (perhaps 'most monumental') monument to public erudition in the world. If the British Library, the British Museum and the Natural History museum all moved to the same block, it still wouldn't compare because things like Dorothy ruby red slippers (which were originally supposed to be silver), the original Kermit the Frog and the biggest ballistic missile ever built wouldn't be on display. The National Mall is the Mecca of museuming, except you don't have to be American to be let in. And it's free.

I was impressed, at almost every turn. I was impressed by a photograph of Elvis with Richard Nixon. I was impressed by a whole exhibition on Abraham Lincoln. I was impressed by a life-size crochet coral reef. I was impressed by the blistered and blackened heatproof tiles on the front of the Apollo re-entry ship. I was unimpressed by the Hope Diamond, to be honest, but I seemed to be in the minority.

Most of all I was imbued with a huge respect for the tangibility of American history. Of course recency is a factor, but it's more than that. The air hums with an implicit understanding of what America is all about, and everything her sons have achieved. It's all in the geography of DC. I think they should redub it: not 'Our Nation's Capital', but 'Our Nation's Show Home':

"...and on your left, you will see the likenesses of the handful of people who created our government - the only stable revolutionary government in the world. On your right, notice the unrivalled contribution of America to the 20th century's popular culture. Along the corridor you'll see the world's biggest library, containing 22 million books covering the whole of recorded human history. Stop by our collection of moon landing craft on your way out!"

In 1779, the nascent American government decided not to turn to an established city (New York or Philadelphia being the likely candidates) for their new capital. Instead, they holed up in Philly for ten years whilst building one from scratch. As such, the place is laid out in pleasing Germanic order: on Capitol Hill the legislature and judicial branches face each other in resplendent Neo-Classical glory, and just down Pennsylvania Avenue the Executive - or Barack, to his mates - is within easy reach. The Washington Monument, a mesmerising obelisk (and the tallest freestanding stone building in the world, apparently, though I find it hard to believe) completes an elegant right-angled triangle. Philadelphia and New York are hardly disordered, as I have noted previously, but DC would make an obsessive-compulsive cluster-orgasm.

If you shook America over a bit white rug, the contents of Washington DC is what would fall out. I sort of suspect that's how they did it. Travellers, including me, search vainly for the 'real country', the 'real city'. Well, America had the foresight to summarise everywhere and everything else in DC as they went along. In DC, America is your oyster, and the half-shell is clutch of free-to-access civic buildings. That analogy didn't really work, did it?

Just go, please.

Friday, 31 December 2010

#42 And now for something completely different.

Fourteenscore and seven days ago I brought forth upon this website a new blog, conceived in comedy, and dedicated to the proposition that I can write funny.

It's important to remember that that was it. Excusing the odd bit of forgettable political rhetoric, the purpose of this blog was entertainment. Whether I have achieved that purpose is not for me to say - ask one of my ten readers. But the aim was benign, or even benevolent.

I'm making the point for three reasons:

1. Because it has been suggested, reasonably, that my Lettuces From America comes across as anti-American.
2. Because I wish to deviate for this one post from comedy.
3. Because my time in this great nation is coming to an end.

On the last point: I leave in a week. (To wit: I have been offered a job in London that precipitated the difficult and swift decision to move.)

And so, to deviate, what follows in not especially funny, and is aimed at an American, as well as a British, audience.

Why I love America

Over the past ten months, I came to understand patriotism. Or, at least, love for a country. I still think it's slightly silly to be proud of the geographical accident of your birth. But insofar as your nationality leads to your being associated with the values of your nation, I suppose it makes sense.

The problem is that I fell in love with the wrong country. I can claim some allegiance to America - my grandfather and his parents were American citizens, and I have lived here for the best part of a year - but calling myself 'American' would be a stretch. So why am I in love? Why, especially when all appearances were that I scorned the place?

The love is simple: America was founded on the most laudable principles of any nation state - freedom, equality, and an overarching faith in man and his ability to self-govern. Britain still hasn't got there. France took five attempts to get it right. Yet America, a fledgling nation with very little in the way of power or resources, nailed it first time. This was in part the work of a cohort of public-spirited and prescient heroes: George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. The Continental Congress took a ragged bunch of thirteen British colonies and built the greatest nation in history.

America delivered on this foundation as it accepted the poor and disenfranchised citizens of the world through the 19th and 20th century not as charity cases, but as citizens and equals. Obviously it lost its way from time to time: the xenophobic Immigration Acts of the early 20th century, the slow progress of the Civil Rights movement. But by and large Americans have spent the last two centuries making good on the promises of their Constitution. E pluribus unum.

So why am I so down on it?

The negativity heretofore expressed reflects my feeling that this is a country falling far short of its potential - which, given its power and its principles, its pennies and its people - is surely the greatest of any nation on this earth. When you're good, America, you're very good, but when you're bad you're bloody awful: the armchair fundamentalism and kneejerk conservatism, the callousness of foreign and domestic policy. For a year I have seen a nation wilfully allowing a great many to piss on its proudest principles. And it saddens me.

My polemics were aimed at many Americans, but never America.

So if these blog posts have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That the love is greater here,
Than it did at first appear.
And these weak and idle themes
Were no more than angry scream,
Yankies, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, I will mend.
And, as I am a humble Brit,
If you felt my yarns lacked wit,
If you scorned my serpent's tongue,
Know this blog will close 'ere long.
Else Palin a liar call;
Happy New Year unto you all,
Though I mock Americans,
I sure wish I was one of them.

A round-up of my last few days in New York and Washington DC will follow, but I'm basically done. If you've enjoyed Lettuce From America, check out my new blog in 2011. And to my very small readership: thank you, sincerely, and have a wonderful year. I hope you got even a tenth as much out of reading this blog as I got out of writing it.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

#41 A Kwanzaa cash-in has no place in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life

Below is an unedited version of a note I just sent to the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum's wonderful Milstein Hall of Ocean Life - which forms a major part of probably the best life sciences collection in the world - was almost entirely obstructed on 26th December by temporary stalls coinciding with the Kwanzaa festival. It was the gallery I was most excited about seeing - I don't know if I'll have another chance - so I was fairly upset.

Notably, this closure was not clearly indicated on the Museum's website, nor was it explained at admission.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I attended the Museum on 26th December 2010. Being a biological sciences graduate, I was particularly excited about visiting the Ocean Life room.

However, most of the area was blocked off by temporary erections for Kwanzaa. This would have been acceptable, except that these erections weren't exhibits - rather, they were commercial stalls. No warning was given at the front desk when purchasing tickets that a whole hall of biosciences exhibits were closed off. And would the African Peoples gallery not have been a better location for Kwanzaa-related stalls?

I love the museum dearly, and think the collections are wonderfully curated. To close them off for commercial purposes is an affront to the educational purpose of the Museum.

I am copying this note to my blog, at

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Yours sincerely,

Samuel Palin

Why have I copied this here? Partly to publicise what I believe to be a very poor curatorial decision, and partly to highlight a distinctly British form of complaint: the strongly-worded letter.

Anyway, if you're with me, please tell the AMNH through their online email system.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

#40 Thanks: given.

Tryptophan doesn't kill you, spectacular overindulgence does.

An oft-heard gem at this time of year is the assertion that the high levels of tryptophan in turkey - which actually aren't any higher than other meats - are responsible for the post-prandial miasma that falls on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The theory has gained traction, perhaps, because it allows Middle America (which I finally found, incidentally -see below) to blame their subconscious stupor not on their colossal calorie intake - which leads to all sorts of nasty thoughts about diets and jean sizes - but on biology beyond their control.

It's sort of like when people blame their irritating personalities on lack of sleep. "Sorry, woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning!" she opined with a winning smile. "Nope, you're just a poisonous, undersexed little bitch!" I replied sweetly.

Anyway, I did Thanksgiving- my first Thanksgiving - in Ohio this year. Ohio can be characterised as 'middle America' for all sorts of reasons. Politically, it is the 'barometer of the nation' - a key swing state where traditional, modern, rural and urban mix. There are huge state colleges and windswept corn fields, small towns and big cities. Stars and stripes billow elegantly in the cold wind, and SUVs doze on driveways.

The whole notion of 'middle America' seems elusive and vacuous, until you go to Ohio. Bill Bryson, in his 'Notes from a Big Country' (or 'I'm a Stranger here Myself', as published in America), searched for Amalgum, USA - his ideal small American town. I don't know whether I'd call it ideal, but Amalgum would be a good surrogate name for Dover, Ohio.

The meal

Brits and Americans have a long and colourful history of antipathy on the subject of food. Americans decry bad British food, despite many of their staples originating there, and despite the fact that Britain is home for far more restaurants of international note than America, a country with five times the population and forty times the land area.

In turn, Brits mock, misrepresent and out-of-hand dismiss a variety of US delicacies, from the Turducken to the Krispy Kreme burger.

It was within this shroud of skepticism that I arrived for Thanksgiving, armed with British seasonal delicacies - flapjack (the British oat tray bake, not the American pancakes) and parkin. My hosts steeled themselves. In turn, I hunkered down to take on deep-fried turkey, baked corn, noodles and pumpkin.

Deep-fried turkey is to dining what Brasseye is to comedy: very out there, but unquestionably brilliant. 45 minutes in hot oil rendered our 12lb turkey crisp-skinned, tender and moist - the best turkey I've ever had, in fact. I heartily recommend it. Do be careful, though - it's terrible dangerous.

Every other constituent of Thanksgiving food is a variation on a basic theme: sweet carbohydrate. There are all, to a dish, glorious. This includes the desserts: pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream, key lime pie, key lime ice cream - almost anything in pie or ice cream form.

My foods, for what it's worth, went down modestly well. Flapjack was misinterpreted as a breakfast food, because it sort of resembles a granola/cereal bar...except that it's far more sugary and buttery. Which says a lot about the American palette.

There I went, being a mocking Brit again. Really, I have nothing but praise for the gastronomic genius of the country that brought us both the Krispy Kreme burger and sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows.

And the rest

It's just a lovely idea, isn't it? A nice, secular holiday that is just about being thankful for the people around us, our wealth, the fat of the land.

I was. We were. Fuck Boxing Day.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

#39 Bet you didn't know I don't care!

There exists a corpus of 'facts' which aren't really facts, proffered with the pride and enthusiasm of the know-it-all, but without the 'know'. I refer to statements like:

'Did you know that tomatoes aren't vegetables?'


'Did you know that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space?'


'Did you know that you lose 3,000% of your body heat from your head?'

They are irritating because of the smug way in which they are delivered. Often 'I bet you didn't know...', in fact, rather than 'did you'. The assumption of superiority - an insight which the lesser interlocutors lack - grates jarringly.

Perhaps they upset me especially because I see myself in them. Through my youth - and no doubt, in my ignorance, today still - I have been and am a purveyor of such 'facts'. I remember telling people how fungi are animals when I was a child, and I blame Dorling Kindersley.

Incidentally, the fiercest fuel for these insufferable know-it-alls is QI (the British television show). It is a whole programme dedicated to often spurious facts, and watched partly for its comedy, but not insignificantly for the ammo it give viewers to throw arrogantly at unsuspecting dinner party guests.

It doesn't really matter if that facts are true - or accurately represented - or not, because your colleagues are unlikely to have much knowledge of the finer points of Shakespeare's scatological habits, and so are unlikely to mount a defense. You can bask in the warm glow of superior insight into some minutiae, and surely your friends will drink in the incomparable wit of your company. Never admit you got the fact from a TV show, of course, and try to weed out others who may have watched. The key is convincing everyone that your knowing that Amazonian custard frogs are the only animals other than humans to conduct full ritual burials fits into your wider knowledge of custard frogs, or the Amazon -but a piece in the monumental puzzle that is you.

This was going to lead into something, but I've gone so far off-topic I'll make a separate post. It's not even about America, for shame.

(Incidentally, all of the statements I proffered at the start were false, though I know nothing for sure about the burial rituals of custard frogs.)

Friday, 19 November 2010

#38 Christmas is coming, the goose is getting sadly replaced.

Britons bemoan the iterative expansion of Christmas. From one day of family cheer, nearly two months of commercial reverie has grown. Well, as the eunuch flasher said, you ain't seen nothin'.

My first winter in America beckons, and the simple truth is this: nobody does it better. It's all about the spacing of holidays. (And, I suppose, the bloodthirsty rapacity of unrestrained capitalism, but I'm picking my battles.) Halloween - which is about as big a deal here as the Second Coming - segues neatly into Thanksgiving, which serves as a teasing prelude to Christmas. From mid-October until New Year, middle America can justifiably say that it is 'holiday season', and stuff its collective face unrelentingly with lard and eggnog.

And here in the melting pot, it's even better: Hanukkah lights up mid-December; Chinese New Year draws the animalistic revelry into February. This year, our Muslim friends have come along for the ride: Eid-al-Adha just ended. Americans of every colour and creed face a four-month assault on their waistlines and credit cards.

I simply love it. As SoHo's normally exquisitely-appointed storefronts descend into sparkly gaud, and Halloween Reese's ads segue, almost imperceptibly, into Christmas Reese's ads, I tingle all over with excitement. I don't find the commercialism oppressive. Nor the pressure to buy gifts, or to bake.

The fact of the matter is, Christmas is the great leveller. Its trials; bustling high streets, far-too-small ovens. Its joys: family unity, carols, binge drinking,. They are the same, give or take, for all of us.

And it is the great regressor. As much as we try to be grown up about it - and I urge you not to try very hard at all - the excitement is childlike. Butterflies fill our stomachs faster than pumpkin pie. We fall head-over-heels in love - real, syrupy love - every time.

I'm excited. So excited I'm prepared to concede turkey's place at the Christmas table, after a long and largely fruitless battle in goose's favour. America is getting to me.

Let it snow, children.