My American Tipping Nightmares

Everyone loves American tourists, as they are renowned to be big tippers, whereas most American servers despair at European tourists as they have a reputation for not tipping generously. Let me give you an insight as to why this is so, and why when British people tip in the US it can bring on a bout of anxiety. Having lived in both countries on and off, I see the dilemmas and cultural differences, but that doesn’t influence my preference to tip or not. I only really grasped how important the tipping culture is in the US when my cousin, who used to be a maître d at Indochine and 150 Wooster (a while back now) in New York City, told me if people didn’t leave at least 20 percent as a tip they would chase them. I realize now that she wasn’t joking, but you must understand in most countries, restaurants do pay their staff the minimum wage, and not like the US where the minimum wage is allowed to be made up with tips.

In the UK, people generally tip 10 percent and round up at the same time; if the bill is £18, most people would leave £20 because it would look mean to ask for 20 pence change, so in fact the tip is 12 percent. People do tip 15-20 percent for exceptional service, but still round up rather than calculate an exact amount from a percentage. However, in the US, 15 percent is deemed normal for average service, and 20 percent is considered the minimum one should leave. If the bill is $32, then a 20 percent tip would be $6.40; some people would round it up to $40 making it 25 percent, but most calculate it exactly to the cent.

Then there is the tip jar that I struggle to understand—I get why they exist in cafés and diners where you go in to grab a coffee or a sub, and will leave a tip if the service in general was good, but not self-service restaurants. Do you feel guilty if the jar is sparse and you opt to take your change rather than put it in the jar? I did at first (and watched them watching what I chose to do) and got over that quite quickly. I was once in a self-service organic café where the line was long (20 minute wait), basically as there was one cashier taking orders and the money, and it wasn’t a cheap café either. I paid by card and there was still the option to add a service charge on the slip, which I added zero to without hesitation, as well as a tip jar glaring me in the face. Why should I tip when the cashier never even looked at me and I hadn’t even got my order yet? How could I ascertain how much to give when I haven’t received any actual service? They yell when your order is ready; you have to collect it and then clear up after yourself too. I can’t see any reason why I should tip in a place where the only interaction was to place an order and pay for it, and everything else I did myself?

My British friend, Sara and I would hang out at a local café to use the Wi-Fi (and feel a bit guilty), but would order coffee, tea, a muffin, and banana bread. When it came to the tip, both of us would sigh and wonder what to leave as it was a regular hangout. The bill came to just under $15, and we had been there for a couple of hours. We spent 10 minutes discussing and calculating the various percentages, unsure whether we should tip precisely or over tip. We worked out 20 percent would have been $17, but to wait for $3 change would have looked too cheap, so we ended up leaving $20 which worked out to be a 40 percent tip. The service was fine and friendly, but the whole experience was more about how the servers would perceive us than how much we wanted to leave, and caused so much anxiety we ran out as soon as we could.

Another awkward situation arose when I offered to buy a pizza and beer for a friend who had helped me out, I mean that’s not expensive to share a pizza and have a drink each? The question is whether to tip on drinks or not, and most people say not to, because they are bringing you a drink. What I find annoying is the breakdown on the check of the food, beverages, tax, and service charge, and then suggestions for tip amounts. We ended up with a pizza a couple of sides, and he had several beers. He suggested I leave 25 percent as a tip as the server was someone he knew. I was opposed to leaving so much as we didn’t get any special treatment and the service wasn’t exactly fast in a quiet local place. So the pizza and beer ended up costing me $60 and I have to admit I begrudged the tip, which was equivalent to buying another whole pizza pie. To me a tip should to equate to buying the server a drink, not a whole meal.

I learned my lesson when it came to ordering in a pub though; there was one side of nachos and the rest was drinks. The service was bad and slow, the server had no idea of what wines there were and we ended up having to go in and get someone to take our order. Again, the American friend advised us when it came to tipping that it should still be 20 percent despite the slow service and the fact we only had drinks. The tip equated to another glass of wine, and I put down what I wanted (10 percent) and told him if he wanted to look good by tipping well he could make up the rest. I make no apology for failing to tip because someone expects it and because of the minimum wage law loophole that exists.

I’ve since found not all states are as bad, the following states pay a full cash minimum hourly wage to tipped staff;

California $10, Alaska $9.75, Oregon $9.75, Washington $9.47

(https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/tipped.htm)

If these states can do it, why can’t others? That means that tips are given in addition to the wages, just as it should be, and how it is in pretty much the rest of the world! Maybe it’s time for the US to understand how uncomfortable and awkward tipping is in a situation that is supposed to be relaxing and fun? The general rule of double the tax is fine in Massachusetts (6.25 percent), but works out to be nearly 20 percent in New York. For a Brit that’s way too much, and now I opt for 10-15 percent and round up to the dollar as a compromise. I think I would rather stick to states or establishments that pay their staff well because they value them rather than feel obliged to pay the staff wages via a tip.

It really is so much simpler in the UK—you pay the price you see on the menu, and then tip if you want to, knowing the staff still get paid (admittedly not always that much, but at least minimum wage), and I have been to places that have service charges included who remove it when the service was bad without asking. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s fair and transparent. You can read what the tipping etiquette is on most websites (and it differs greatly), but if it is written by an American in a city, that opinion will differ greatly from someone in a less populated area. A tip is not, and should not be classed as a wage; it’s not the responsibility of the customer to pay wages, but employers have a loophole that allows tips to be counted towards the hourly minimum. It’s their choice to pay the staff or not, and those who do pay at least the full minimum will have happier and harder working staff, and customers who won’t be made to feel guilty if they don’t tip 25 percent.

Everyday Things That Make Me Go Grrr

Life isn’t always easy, but we put up with things or make the best of what we can’t do anything about. We all have our pet peeves, and grin and bear them otherwise we would be screaming each and everyday. I’m sure most of you can empathize with some of my grrr moments.

  1. Writing an email, when your computer crashes and it didn’t save.   I now have an propensity to over save constantly or opt to write shorter emails in case of a crash. Auto-save can’t be relied upon, but has salvaged some emails, but saving a draft is so much safer and then adding to it later. Over saving may sound a little OCD, but is much better for your sanity in the long run. If it’s important pen and paper is always safer or at least to draft key points.
  2. Trying to open a child proof container, failing and then trying with pliers and any other sharp tool.  Childproof can also mean adultproof if you have long nails. This results in my leaving bleach bottles half open so I don’t have to break a nail or cause any other injury from using a pair of scissors to pry a cap open. I use rubber gloves to depress and sharply turn the cap, and it’s a mission at times and once I hear that click, I’m so relieved. Yes, I have a few unopened bottles lying around because no one can open them, and I’m too embarrassed to ask anyone.
  3. Attempting to open the new pump dispenser on your hand wash bottle and breaking it instead.  Maybe I’m too heavy handed, but I follow the directions on the bottle, only for them to fail me. Backup plan: decant into the old bottle, so don’t throw it away until the the new pump is working.
  4. The ink in your pen running out or dries up At the worst possible time. I use gel pens most of the time or a ballpoint, but why oh why at the crucial point when you need to write down a thought or sign your name does the ink dry up or run out? Shaking, licking, or scribbling furiously to get the ink working again sometimes works (but only for a few seconds), but the only way to solve this crisis is to have several pens to hand.
  5. Being unable to open a plastic bag at the checkout. I understand they are vacuum wrapped, but when you need to open the top of the bag and the cashier is speedily piling up your shopping it doesn’t help. No amount of rubbing or trying to find an edge works, and everyone stares at you in sympathy and are glad it’s not happening to them. If there was ever a reason for bringing your own bags, this is one besides recycling of course.
  6. Having an important conversation on your cellphone when the reception drops. Sadly, this happens more in rural areas, but the fact it happens also means it’s an excellent excuse to end a call that you don’t want to have. I’ve used this on many an ex-boyfriend when they were whining about something or making some excessive demand on my time. On the flip side it’s annoying when it’s a call you need to make as you hold your phone in the air desperately searching for a signal.
  7. Going to the bathroom to find there is no toilet roll left. I do get annoyed at this, but I always carry my own pocket pack of tissues just in case, in public, and at home I bulk buy rolls. Men don’t care so much, but for women it’s crucial. Never be the one to use the last of the roll, and check there is a roll before you go!
  8. Getting caught in the rain with no umbrella, and trying to look as if you aren’t bothered.  Being British born, one thing you do learn is carry an umbrella with you at all times. However, there are times when you accidentally leave a wet umbrella on the bus, or the wind is so strong it blows away or inside out rendering it useless. In the end you carry on walking briskly unaffected and with your head held high, while getting drenched. It’s only water after all…
  9. Finding a Buy one get of free offer, ONLY to find there is only one item left. I love a good offer, but nothing is worse than to find you have missed out and there is only on item left with a BOGOF, or the only items left are damaged or been opened. Grrr…why do selfish people do that?
  10. Wanting to tell a FELLOW passenger to turn their music down by throwing them Paddington Bear stares. I’ve been told I have an excellent Paddington Bear stare (a disapproving long and hard stare), and on most occasions it works, but why don’t people realize that others can hear their music through their headphones? If you have your music on loud and multiple passengers glance at you there’s a pretty good chance everyone can hear your choice of music. Please turn down the volume or invest in earbuds which are less intrusive. Thank you in advance!

My 10 Most Memorable Moments in Life (So Far…)

I’ve had some close shaves in my time thus far, and those were memorable as in to remind me not to do that again. There have been some good and fun times too, and with each experience you learn more about your strengths, and find ones you didn’t think you had. I’m in my fourth decade, a little bruised from the ride so far, but you learn to pick yourself up and appreciate things more, and also realize what is really important (and am still learning). I could tell you, but it’s something we all need to discover in our own way.

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Running across the Ponte Vecchio at 3 a.m. alone. This was a magical moment for me as I ran home as I lived Oltrarno, and I marveled at the beauty of Florence. No one else was around; the moonlight shined on the Arno, and the streetlights lined the cobbled streets lighting my path home. I could hear my own footsteps as I stood in the middle and imagined the historical events that had occurred on the bridge; Giuliano de’ Medici being stabbed there on his way to church, and had Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo stood where I was now for inspiration? The Ponte Vecchio is never quiet; it is packed each day full of tourists and traders. For a few hours between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. it’s empty, and if you ever get a chance to walk across the bridge alone, do so. I was coming back from a party, and for a few precious moments I had the bridge to myself.

Watching the sunrise on Lipari Island. Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands in Italy. I’d intended to visit for a couple of days and ended up staying a couple of weeks instead. I bumped into a lady called Hermione Del Bono on the hovercraft over; she was English and had met an Italian on holiday when she was younger, and moved to be with him. She offered to let me stay in her hotel (Hotel Carasco), but I was happy to stay in the Youth Hostel, which was a castle. However, due to events (see the volcano tale) I took up her offer. One day I woke up and saw the sunrise from my hotel room, which was over looking the sea and watched the brightest and largest sun rising from the horizon and the sea. Due to the position of the island, the views were clear and unobstructed. It was one of the most beautiful things to watch, as the sea was still and the sky completely clear. I hope to be so fortunate to see such a sight again.

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Clinging to the side of the volcano on Stromboli. This was the day I nearly died, and made a pact with God. I learned some huge lessons in one day, but the whole tale can be a short story in itself. I climbed the active volcano in Stromboli, except the weather was bad, raining and windy, and no guides would take us (not advised), so we went alone. That wasn’t clever, but there was a group of us. The thing was I was at the end of the group helping a slower member, and we were told to follow a different path by the man in front of us. That was a mistake as we ended up climbing on molten ash (which is dangerous and slippery), and we both nearly slipped off the edge. We managed to climb into a crater, but the group had left us, (as the way down was on the other side). It got dark, and windier, and it wasn’t safe to climb down or go any further. Watching an active volcano erupting in front of you barely meters away was incredible, and was definitely not planned. I remember watching the sun rise, with the volcano still throwing around some lava, as gulls flew around. I’d prayed to survive, and I now had a bargain to keep with God.

The lengths I’ll go to for a cheap bottle of Stolichnaya. I used to plan my flights to stop in Dubai for the excellent Duty Free. Usually I had a couple of hours to browse and planned my purchases on my way back to save carrying it around. However, my plane was delayed, and left me only 30 minutes for me to get my connecting flight. What to do? Get the £3 bottle and risk missing the flight, or have faith in my abilities. Somehow I managed to get off the plane, run down to the shops, buy the Stolichnaya (I knew where it was, but no time for anything else!), run and pee (I hate toilets on the plane), and then find my other boarding gate. I did it in 20 minutes, but the ironic thing is the bottle stayed in my freezer for 5 years!

Having my first independent place.  My first place was a house share in London with some University friends. I moved in on my 21st birthday, to a three storey house complete with two cats—George and Arthur. The owner (Noel) was renting it out and going off to Bequia to sail on a yacht to nurse a broken heart, and wanted tenants to look after the cats as well. It was a great place, fab parties, and Concorde would wake me up each morning.

Lying alone (very ill) with gastroenteritis in the Marco Polo in Kathmandu. I’m not sure how close I was to dying here, but it wasn’t good, and the hospitals there were not safe. I had left my trekking party and was going to venture alone; maybe spend time in a monastery or do smaller treks. I was alone, but the illness didn’t hit me until a couple of days later, and I think it was from some ice I had in a drink. A girl who had been on the same bus getting into Kathmandu knocked on my door after a few days to ask if I wanted to go out. I struggled to get out of bed and let her in; her name was Frankie, and she saved me. She had rehydration salts and looked after me. I couldn’t eat for 2 weeks, anything I drank came straight out, and I was shivering with a temperature. Frankie is a dear friend still, but if I hadn’t had the courage to speak to a stranger on a bus, and then tell her where to find me if she wanted to have company, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I was weak, vulnerable, and no one knew where I was in the world except a girl I had briefly spoken to on a bus.

Getting my motorcycle leg (muffler) burn in Bali. A split second mistake, when my Japanese friend, whose English was poor didn’t hear me yell, “Stop!” when she took off on a hired moped for the day, when I was still climbing on. It hurt, there’s a scar, and more tales to go with it. It did however persuade Emirates (it was well bandaged) to bump me up to Business Class, as I said if anyone bumped into the wound, I would need medical treatment.

Being in the gravel trap at Copse in Brands Hatch. I was working at Brands Hatch as a hostess for an event, and we were allowed to drive around the circuit as a perk or to have a pro driver take us around. I opted for a driver take me around to do a lap, and we ended up being in the gravel trap at Copse—a famous corner in Brands Hatch on the Grand Prix circuit. We had to be towed out by the crane, and I loved every second of it. The driver on the other hand was a bit embarrassed, but that was a once in a lifetime event, where many famous drivers have exited a race from ending up in the gravel trap at Copse.

Making a cup of tea for Stirling Moss. If you haven’t heard of him, he is a legendary Formula One racing driver who was a guest speaker at an event I was organizing. When asked if he needed anything, all he wanted was a cup of tea with milk and one sugar.

Surviving being snowed in during a Nor’easter. I once lived on a beach in Massachusetts, and there was a Nor’easter arriving. I’d not experienced one before, and made sure I had stocked up on chocolate and snacks. My landlady lived next door and told me it would be fine, and if the power went we’d figure something out. I was literally snowed in. I woke up and the windows had at least 8 inches of snow (there was no light), and I couldn’t open the door, as there was nearly 2 feet of snow. I watched from the back glass doors the sea crashing onto my deck; I wasn’t frightened, but watched in awe how the sea and the snow were in control.

Stranded at Lukla Airport. Lukla Airport was (in my day) a cleared gravel path, which doubled up as a landing strip for aircraft, flying in trekkers from Kathmandu to climb on Everest. There was a little shed with a table, a man and a walkie talkie (no airport lounge access) where it can squeeze in a maximum of five people. I recall in March 2000 wandering down to edge of the mountain, looking out for any sign of a plane. That was the only way we would find out if any planes arrived. We took it in turns to look out, as cellphones were in their infancy. I actually had a satellite phone (my brother gave it me as a precaution), but that was no good unless I had anyone to call. The weather had been so bad, the clouds made flying impossible and on day three, the queue for the pool table got longer. My days consisted of drinking my vodka supply (taken in my Sigg bottle for such emergencies) and playing pool with anyone around. It made me realize that life is simple and people survive.

I hadn’t washed for a couple of weeks (water freezes after a couple of minutes) and wearing make-up wasn’t important at all compared to wearing layers, and making sure you had enough batteries for your torch. We got the second plane out eventually, and the plane was like a 5 year old flying a remote controlled plane for the first time. The entire journey was turbulent, and it is the only time I have ever thrown up on a journey as we dodged some mountain tops, and skimmed a few ledges. I was glad to be back on land, and grateful. I didn’t think I needed to do that again, but I went back a couple of years later.


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10 Ways To Stay Sane (The Maverick Guide)

I find that happiness and love are overrated at the best of times, because we can’t always be in a perpetual state of love or happiness, but we can remain sane and balanced—and that’s healthy. It’s not easy though, but in time you learn to become a little more selfish, because staying sane is what enables you to survive, and to see things clearly without the rose tinted spectacles. How do you know if you are sane, or if you are losing that sacred and delicate balance? Read on, and see if any of the following resonate…

  1. Listen to advice, but stop and think about it. Was that advice asked for, given by someone you know and trust, or was it conveyed to you indirectly (like a story)? Some advice is good, and is given in good faith; others give advice from their ego and is usually best discarded. I’ve listened to advice and ignored some, but advice is an informed opinion based on experience and knowledge. When there is no basis for it, it’s hard to accept as good advice. However, no two events are ever exactly the same, and while advice is useful, don’t depend on it. People do give out bad advice, sometimes on purpose, or through arrogance.
  2. Don’t give advice unless asked for, and always add a disclaimer. There are a couple of reasons for this, mainly because you don’t want to get blamed if your advice doesn’t work out. A disclaimer warns people, and lets you off any guilt that you may or may not harbor. When things don’t work out people like to blame or find a scapegoat, and that is usually the person who gave the advice. Don’t get involved unless you choose to, and if you don’t want to offer an opinion, remember you’re not obliged to. The consequences? People may bad mouth you, or stab you in the back, all because your advice didn’t work out for them. Simply not worth it.
  3. Learn to say ‘No’ and mean it, not a British, “I’ll think about it,” which really is a polite way of saying just that. That also means you learn to press reject on a call you don’t need or want to take. I used to feel guilty if I didn’t take a call, and would answer all calls and mutter a garbled message promising to call back whenever I could, but now with auto reject, most people aren’t offended and know you are otherwise engaged. Don’t agree to something for an easy life and feel resentful, and if you don’t want to go out, then don’t. You don’t need to have a reason—you have a choice. Being able to say ‘no’ without hesitation does take time, but is very powerful in keeping you sane.
  4. Eat what you like in moderation, because diets deprive you of the food you find tasty and that you enjoy. I’ve lived among models and dancers who all starved themselves, and they never enjoyed their food (without throwing it up). As long as you are sensible, and have a healthy and balanced diet, you shouldn’t deny yourself the foods you enjoy. Having a chocolate bar, a slice of pizza, or a tub of ice cream won’t kill you, as long as you don’t do it every day of the year. Food is necessary for survival, but eating food you don’t like for the sake of losing weight will get to you eventually. Indulge every now and then, because it will make you happier. Trying to stay thin because of society perceptions isn’t mentally healthy, and at my lowest I was a size 2, and people thought I was ill. Ignore what the media says, because staying artificially thin is dangerous for your health and mind.
  5. Switch off your cellphone at night. You can do it, but it takes will power and self-control, because you don’t need it on when you are asleep. Make your own rules, and in time others will get used to it. Having a cellphone doesn’t mean you are available 24/7, but you have that capacity; it’s for your convenience and not for everyone else. The alarm will still chime when it’s switched off, or if you struggle to switch it off, start with putting it on mute, then put it in its case face down. Your sanity will thank you.
  6. Choose your friends and company wisely. A friendship is a two-way relationship; if you aren’t getting anything in return, then cut them loose. Friendships can be unconditional, but when that is abused (as in you are always there for them, but they aren’t for you), then consider either addressing the situation (they may just not be aware of it) or delete. I do believe in supporting friends without needing anything in return, but if you dread seeing or talking to them, then what’s the point? You need to look forward and enjoy the company you choose, otherwise question why you are spending your free and valuable time in their presence.
  7. Don’t give into revenge. Karma exists, and revenge will make it worse. Think to yourself that Karma will do its job (justice), and trust that it will. Revenge eats away at you, takes away precious time in your mind (and can drive you crazy thinking up plots to get even), and like Darth Vader, you then enter the Dark Side. Staying angry and frustrated (rant and rave to get it out of your system) in the gray zone for a while is normal, but don’t go over to the Dark Side.
  8. Watch a classic movie or cartoon. These days with CGI and stunts, the films and cartoons of yesteryear can bring some balance into your life, when things were so much simpler, and life was less complicated. Chuckle at the old hairstyles and fashions, the sped up fights, and special effects of the time. Simple things like Tom and Jerry chasing one another, or The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road can bring a sense of familiarity and calm, because you know what will happen. They are also a reminder that life goes on, regardless of the era, age, class, or education. All of us humans are in this together, and others will go through what you have, and future generation will do as long as the planet hasn’t been destroyed.
  9. Be kind to yourself. We all make mistakes, because that’s what humans do—learn from mistakes. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and while you may regret some things, it’s not the end. Know that others make mistakes too, and don’t hold onto a grudge, because you are only harming yourself. You can forgive, but sometimes you can’t forget. That’s a human way of building up experiences of what not to do. Forgive yourself, and don’t beat yourself up over what could have been, just make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  10. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t to please others, or to impress. Remain true to yourself, as it’s easier, honest, and people will see through a façade. In the workplace one has to put on a persona, and it’s expected, but other than that, be the authentic you. I’ve met many well-known people who behind closed doors are nothing like their public persona, and they lose a sense of who they really are. Those who maybe impressed; what does it say about them? Are they superficial, and do you really want to be in their company? Fake people do stand out, and they do it from insecurity. Wouldn’t you rather people like you for who you are, rather than what you think they would like you to be? With me, it’s what you see is what you get.

My Updated And Realistic Bucket List

Back in my twenties I wrote a bucket list when I had a cancer scare, and made a promise to myself that if I survived I would find a way to do these things. It took a while to save up, but I did manage to do most of the things on the list; I rode on an elephant (I don’t need to do that again, and now I see that it’s cruel), I’ve walked on the slopes of Mount Everest, I lived in Florence for a while to see first hand what I had been studying all these years, I’ve island hopped in Thailand, and backpacked around Asia by myself. Among the things I didn’t achieve was settling down with a decent blonde haired 6-foot chap who was a millionaire, but maybe that was a little unrealistic at the time.

Sometimes we need these lists to inspire us, and to remind of us of what we are looking for. I felt it was time to update my list, and make it practical, yet still inspirationally awesome in that some may shake their heads at me and scoff, but once you’ve faced death, you realize it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

  1. Build or find a beach house/hut where I can see the sunrise and sunset each day, and where I can write in peace and quiet while inhaling fresh air. Ideally this house will have a freestanding bathtub overlooking the ocean, where I can begin and end each day. I’m thinking somewhere on the West Coast, only because the East Coast has such bitter winters, or maybe an island I have yet to discover.
  2. To reach Mount Everest Base Camp (5,364 metres or17,598 ft). This is a possibility as I have a friend who is a Nepalese Guide with his own trekking company now, and so it’s more about finances and finding the right time to go (https://www.facebook.com/happyharitrek/) I’ve made it to Tengboche (3,867 metres or 12,687 ft) and a little higher, but at the time the weather was too bad for us to continue and we were stranded in Lukla for several days. Also I need to get fit again for such a feat, both mentally and physically. In a way it’s unfinished business, but last time I wasn’t fully prepared, and I hope the next time I am on Everest I will be.
  3. Travel on the TransSiberian Railway; there are several routes you can take, but I would like to share the unique journey with someone special. However, if that doesn’t happen I hope to find a good friend who can rough it enough to enjoy such a journey. I have Russian blood (Siberian) going back several generations, so it will be interesting if I feel anything special once I get there.
  4. To open a spiritual/writers retreat with it’s own organic café making homemade cakes, pies, and soups. I would like it near the ocean, but close enough to a city or town so that food could be donated to the homeless, and that some of them could make a fresh start at the retreat if it suited both parties. I already have a name for the retreat, but it is what I would like to do, in addition to my writing. It would encompass several of the things that are important to me; helping the homeless, having an unconditional space to find yourself, a place for me to experiment with my baking and cooking skills, and a haven for writers and artists to be creative.
  5. Have my books published by a leading publishing house. I have several works in progress, and I would like them to be published by a publisher. It will take time and work (besides finishing the manuscripts, and polishing them) and in the meantime I have to make ends meet somehow. Ever since I was a child, writing books is all that I wanted to do, but I made a mistake; I read advice and listened to others for a couple of decades saying that you have to work and write on the side. That doesn’t work for everyone, especially not in the line of work I was in where I was on shifts, and also on 24 hour call at times. There were days I would work for 14-16 hours, and start at 4 a.m., so it was impossible to write when you are tired and exhausted. I have faith; I have non-fiction and fiction manuscripts, all with different pen names. It’s fulfilling writing and researching—I just hope others feel the same, and that I can live off my writing.

I’ll probably add to this list, but I’ve kept it short because I want the goals to be achievable, and not just things to tick off a list. These are things I am passionate about and have reasons for my wanting to do them. Ultimately we are free to do what we want, but there are at times things that stop us; finances, responsibility to others, health, and confidence. It’s also not a matter of doing things quickly—I want to enjoy the experiences and do them properly, because there is no rush. This is for me and no one else. Part of the whole thing is the excitement and planning, and even having these ideas now, gives me something to aim for and to look forward to.

10 Of My Favorite ‘Only In The US’ American Stores

There are some stores, even though they have transatlantic counterparts where the original American versions are still so much better, for choice and price. Online shopping and international shipping can bridge that gap in times of desperation, but sometimes the real thing matters, and here’s why…

  1. Old Navy. While most Americans see this a budget version of The Gap and a place to get basics, I love this store for just that—quality basics at a reasonable price. One of my favorite pairs of black leggings/pants was found in an outlet store and they have served me so well, I daren’t wear them, as I can’t find another pair. There is no Old Navy as yet in the UK, but I am sure they would do well.
  2. Banana Republic. Recently a few branches have opened in the UK, but the online store serves the rest of the country where there are no stores. There is obviously more choice in the US with a store in nearly every mall, and the prices are much better and reasonable. The ambience of the stores in the US is more relaxed compared to the UK, where the brand is new and getting established and is seen as more exclusive than a chain.
  3. Dollar Tree. I love and miss this store, but branches do vary. I was fortunate to live close to some good ones that had a large range of items and also stocked frozen food. Some items were hit or miss, but generally I could find all my basics for the house here, snacks, and some bargain branded pantry staples.
  4. Marshalls. This is another bargain store I would always spend time in browsing, but again I was lucky to find some excellent buys. I bought a pair of Merrells for $35, a king sized Ralph Lauren fleece blanket (in New York) for $25, and way too many pairs of black yoga pants for under $10.
  5. Trader Joe’s. A favorite of many people because of the quality and prices. As a vegetarian it served me well, and it was the only place that sold buttery croissants that I liked. They also have a great wine selection, and their own brands of snacks are healthy and good value. It ticks all the boxes; I just needed one to be closer to where I lived.
  6. Christmas Tree Shops. I used to get the flyer through my door and in the papers all of the time and when I finally went to one I loved it. Bargains and ideas for the home galore and a wonderful selection of international foods. It’s a place you know you will always get good value, and don’t have to think about finding it cheaper elsewhere.
  7. Sephora. Believe it or not there isn’t a Sephora in the UK. The closest is in France (and they are fun too), but the US website ships to the UK. I prefer to browse in the stores, without anyone asking if I need any help, after checking the website for any specials.
  8. Abercrombie & Fitch. Some people see this as a preppy brand, but I have some classic favorites from this store, and they do very comfortable underwear. Comfort is king, and the t-shirts are pre-washed for that precisely. I actually buy the men’s versions, as they are better quality (more durable cotton), longer in the body and also in the leg. When my cargos got too many holes, it was a sad day and trying to replace them with another version, well that search continues.
  9. Panera. Besides the amazingly fresh bakery items, I like the healthy menu options, and that you can eat in casually or takeout. The soufflés and croissants are excellent, but they do sell out fast. They offer some well-priced meal deals, and the portions are generous, so good value for your buck.
  10. Department stores. I have a few favorites—Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, and Bergdorf Goodman. I prefer to shop alone in these places, and browse. While they can be seen as old fashioned, they still are wonderful places to find all you need under one roof.

10 American Foods a Brit Misses

Once I am back over the pond, I do miss some American foods that I acquired a taste for. Whether you consider them healthy or not is another matter, but I enjoyed them and hanker for them when I am not stateside. These are the foods I look forward to upon my return that I can’t get here in the UK, well not just yet.

  1. Spinach Bagels, or in New York, Pretzel Bagels. Bagels are much bigger in the US than in the UK, and do taste better. An Everything Bagel is a good substitute if I can’t find either of the above, and is great with some soup, or with a garden burger.
  2. Sweetcorn Chowder is my favorite, usually a cup because they are so big, or a cup of New England Vegetable Chowder is what I used to have for lunch or a midnight snack. With a sprinkling of croutons, it’s perfect for any time of day or the year.
  3. Cheetos, I miss dearly, and while they do have them in the UK they are not the same, I repeat; they are not real Cheetos. In the UK we have wotsits, which are cheesy puffs, but smaller. The Cheetos in the UK are thinner and shorter and are less cheesy, but I don’t know why. They are not real Cheetos because after eating a pack my fingers would be orange in the US, and here in the UK there isn’t even a hint of orange on my eager fingertips.
  4. Boxed macaroni cheese. This handy cupboard staple has seen me through some tough times. I like Kraft, but found the generic brands in the supermarkets were as good. I would add some fake bacon or some spinach to make it more of a meal, and added more butter to make it creamier.
  5. Pepperidge Farm Cookies. In particular Double Chocolate Milano, or Plain Chocolate Milano cookies. There is no substitution and nothing comes close. Perfect as an anytime pick me up, tea time treat, morning brain booster, or when I have writer’s block.
  6. Cedar’s Artichoke Spinach Hommus. I would always have a tub in the fridge and was great for dips or to hold my sandwiches or wraps together at lunchtime. The sound of two vegetables does make it sound healthier, and that is what I will continue to believe.
  7. Tofurky Hickory Smoked Deli Slices. When I first tried these I only used them cold, then I added them to a grilled cheese and they tasted even better. What was great is that they had just enough flavor, and I could eat them hot or cold when I needed a protein kick.
  8. Walgreen’s Nice Banana Nut Bread. I was convinced this was a healthy snack; it tasted good and was only a dollar. It was either that or a pack of chips, and often I would have both in my hand and wander around the store. The use of the word banana made me feel it was a better choice over a pack of corn chips.
  9. Funyuns. I’ve loved these for decades and is my guilty little secret. I eat them alone when no one else is around, and yes, it’s a family sized bag.
  10. Snyder’s Honey and Mustard Pretzel Bites. My brother is actually responsible for me getting hooked on these, but there is a cheaper option in Trader Joe’s that tastes as good at a fraction of the price.

Americanisms that the British sigh at

As American films, television shows, celebrities, and culture dominate the world, most of us know what common Americanisms mean, or we look them up. On the other hand most Americans don’t bother to find out what the equivalent is in other countries, especially in the UK, so here is a mini guide to what we Brits know, but don’t bother to correct Americans. Why? Simply because we know what they mean and adapt. Here are some of my tales, when there was confusion on both sides. For reference the American word is first followed by the UK term (which came first!).

  1. Projects v Council Estates. I was in New York City when my Uncle mentioned there were some new projects in his old neighborhood. I innocently asked what kind of projects were they. Then they showed me, and I realized it was what is now termed purpose built housing. I honestly thought they were implementing some work or recreational projects in the area.
  2. Blowout v Blowdry. When I first saw this on a Groupon offer, I wondered what on earth they do. I was looking for a blow dry, I mean that makes sense—they blow dry your hair. I must admit I thought it was some kind of misprint as it sounded like an intimate act, but Groupon doesn’t advertise that kind of thing, not in the UK anyhow.
  3. Cellphone v Mobile (phone). While everyone does know what these terms mean (cellular phone) many Americans won’t call it a mobile, and insist on calling it a cell. A cell to me is a prison, and not a mobile phone!
  4. French Press v Cafetière. I had a communication break down when I rented a room and the owner was showing me the kitchen. She told me she had a French Press, which I ignored because I had no idea what it was. Then I saw the cafetière, and mentioned it. “Oh you have a cafetière,” I said, to which she smiled, as she had no clue what I was on about. Somehow we went back and forth talking about the same item and not even realizing it. In the end I never used it.
  5. Cookies v Biscuits. Most people know that UK biscuits are US cookies, but in the US, biscuits are scones. I was surprised to find them on breakfast menus and the worst, as biscuits and gravy. Somehow it seems so very wrong to eat them as a savory dish. Long live the cheese scone.
  6. Sheer Panels v Voiles. I was helping my old landlady with some refurbishing to show her house on an open day, and thought voiles would be a cheap and quick way to add color and hide things. After a day of searching in Target, Pier 1, and Home Depot, I found several. Finally she gasped, “This is what you were on about!” because she had no idea what I was looking for, and spent the whole day being quiet, because she didn’t want to sound silly for not knowing what a voile was.
  7. Open Container v Open Bottle or Can. I was very confused when I saw signs prohibiting ‘open containers’, because I didn’t know what it meant. Surely someone can open a can of soda and drink it? Finally a friend explained it was to stop people drinking alcohol in public, and they use the word container to disguise that fact, but apparently all people know that an open container means alcohol?
  8. Sunnyside Up or Over Easy (egg) v Fried. I ran into this problem when I was ordering breakfast one day. You could choose how your eggs were done, and I just wanted it fried. The server looked at me, and I quickly scanned the menu and it all is said was eggs of your choice. I’d heard the term sunnyside up and said it and hoped for the best. In the UK we just say ‘well done’ or ‘slightly runny in the middle’.
  9. Skillet v Frying Pan. It still amazes me that some Americans can’t figure out what I’m looking for when I ask for a frying pan. It’s simple—a pan to fry something in. The amount of times people have corrected me and said it’s a skillet, and I want to fry something not skillet something.
  10. Trash or Garbage v Rubbish. You’ll be surprised at how many Americans don’t understand the word. In fact it astonishes me. The words are usually interchangeable, but to be trashy in the UK means something is cheap and common, so the word isn’t used often, as it is slang. As a result I try not to get into the habit of using the word trash, and use the phrase bin it, so that people know what I mean. Seriously, I once asked where the rubbish goes in the US to be met with a blank stare.

10 Chocolate Bars of Worth

I once contemplated taking time out in a Buddhist nunnery to find myself and get away from the rat race. I read the rules: No sex, alcohol, caffeine, or chocolate. The first three I could survive without for a while, but the thought of no chocolate was too much, and was the deciding factor that it wasn’t right for me.

America has a poor reputation for chocolate; whenever I go I always take a supply of my favorite bars—as much as I can fit into my luggage, and when I run out it becomes an expensive habit of finding imported chocolate. However, drugstores frequently have specials on Godiva and Lindt chocolate, and with my loyalty card discounts I can justify my luxury chocolate consumption. The recent ban of UK imported chocolate to the US from Cadbury’s (Kraft) only goes to prove US chocolate is inferior. I have even contemplated buying an extra luggage allowance just for chocolate, although I am aware I’m bordering on eccentricity here. Sadly, since Kraft took over Cadbury’s, even UK Cadbury’s has suffered with smaller bars and the chocolate does taste different—less creamy and with a bitter aftertaste. Since I have not yet found suitable replacements, a bar has made the list, but as a chocoholic, Cadbury’s you cannot fool me.

A word of warning, Marks and Spencer bars won’t be easy to find, but over the years they have had gourmet chocolate bars with praline and ganache. If you do happen to chance upon them, they are worth paying for the sheer indulgence as they melt into your taste buds, and it will be hard not to get addicted to them. These are my current favorites, but as an open-minded chocoholic, I am always on the look out for new bars, although I am attempting a few sugar free days per week…

  1. Galaxy Ripple: Simply a creamy and delicious chocolate bar made up of flaky layers of chocolate, encased in chocolate that makes it easier and less messy to eat.
  2. Nestlé Toffee Crisp: Although I’m not a fan of rice crispies, I do like the combination of rice crispies covered in chocolate with a top layer of toffee. I hate the orange wrapper, but it’s what inside that matters. This is also a favorite of David Beckham.
  3. Marks and Spencer Swiss Milk Chocolate Bar: This is a decadent bar and not one you share with just anyone. The chocolate is creamy and light. There are versions with praline fillings, and these are ones you should eat alone. I do, because it’s expensive and I’ll only share with someone who appreciates good chocolate.
  4. Cadbury’s Flake: I’ve loved this since a child and always wanted to be ‘Flake Girl’ in the iconic adverts. They have stopped them now, maybe as they thought they were sexist, but they were liberating really. It can be messy to eat, as the flake will crumble, but the best part is emptying the leftover flakes into your mouth by tapping the wrapper into your mouth directly. It’s not very ladylike, so do it alone, but otherwise you waste so much chocolate.
  5. Terry’s Chocolate Orange: This is a childhood favorite—tapping the orange and having a chocolate orange slice. When they introduced bars I was very happy, although they do seem to have gotten smaller recently.
  6. Lindt Lindor Milk Chocolate: I was ecstatic when I friend of mine was managing a Lindor promotional tour and gave me a bag full of chocolate truffles. Generally this is my back up chocolate when I am abroad as I know they won’t change the recipe. The little red balls have saved me many a time when I needed a fix.
  7. Godiva Dark Chocolate Ganache Bar: This is a luxury item for me, and I do treasure each mouthful. Perfection is every sense, and if you have never tried it, once you have, chocolate will never be the same again.
  8. Nestlé Aero: This comes in various formats, but I like the block bar and the single chunky bar. I don’t like the ones with flavors, just the plain milk chocolate version. The bubbles melt in your mouth as you eat a chunk.
  9. Nestlé Dairy Crunch: In the US I tend to eat this frequently as it’s more readily available and is on special most of the time. It’s a simple bar of chocolate with rice crispies in it. I’m happy to say the UK and US versions taste the same.
  10. Nestlé Kit Kat (Dark): I only like the foil wrapped version, as the ones in a plastic wrapper just don’t taste the same. I still like the milk chocolate version, but the dark chocolate version is better, and in the US it tastes better then the milk chocolate counterpart.

Recently I have been trying other bars and Aldi have an excellent range. I do like Green & Black’s although they did sell out to Cadbury’s. I am aware of the ethical implications of where our chocolate comes from, and I do support Fairtrade, but this is up to the companies to implement too. The truth is can be ever know 100% where any of our products come from unless they are from our own garden?

10 Philosophically Inspiring Songs

We all have playlists where a particular songs have a deep meaning, whether they were playing when something life changing happened, your childhood memories, or were the songs you grew up with at school. Music and their lyrics have the ability to evoke our emotions whether it be happiness, sadness, calmness, or inspirational. These are my classics, and whenever I need a boost, listening to any of these songs can put things back into focus. In a world where a façade is becoming the norm, music allows us, as humans to focus on humanity and reality—to live in the here and now, the present. Sometimes we can’t express ourselves and feel alone, and music bridges that gap so that we know it’s not just you that feels like that. There is a hidden transparency in the lyrics of most classics as they inspire people, and comfort them when there is nowhere else to turn to.

  1. Wonderful Life by Black, Colin Vearncombe (1986). Even though it was re-released in 1987 and was more successful the second time around, this song accompanied by a thought provoking black and white video was a classic in the 1980s. Sadly the writer of the song (who was the vocalist), Colin Vearncombe, died on 26 January 2016, from injuries sustained in a car accident in Ireland. Hauntingly inspirational, there is honesty and truth in the lyrics, but always hope, and that “There’s magic everywhere…” The refrain always reminds me that things aren’t that bad, and that when things are down, that’s part of life.

“No need to run and hide
It’s a wonderful, wonderful life
No need to laugh and cry.”

  1. Life for Rent by Dido (2003). When I first heard this song, it was if I could have written the words myself. It was comforting to know I wasn’t alone in my dreams and how my life was turning out. “I haven’t ever really found a place that I call home,” is how I have felt for most of my life. These following words inspired me, and I thought why not?

“I’ve always thought that I would love to live by the sea
To travel the world alone and live more simply
I have no idea what’s happened to that dream
’cause there’s really nothing left here to stop me.”

So I did, I rented a place by the sea, because there was nothing to stop me except finances. The trade off was living and eating simply. That’s how I became the writer by the ocean.

  1. You’ll Never Walk Alone by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (1945). I doubt Rodgers and Hammerstein ever thought one of their songs would become the anthem for a football club (Liverpool F.C.) and adopted by numerous other clubs. The lyrics show solidarity—a means of keeping the faith, staying loyal, and supporting others whatever the case. I often play this when I feel the world is against me, but the initial lyrics help me to carry on:

“When you walk through the storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark…”

When words can give you strength, not only are they precious, but when your darkest moments cannot be shared with anyone, there is something ethereal in the lyrics:

“Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone…”

Angels watch over and protect us, or another force that supports us as long as we have the courage to continue. It’s an invisible faith, and those words keep me going, and I carry on writing and facing the challenges that land at my feet. Some days are better than others, but we are never alone, even if we feel we are.

  1. Imagine by John Lennon (1971). The ultimate song to inspire humanity to work together for a better place to live. The lyrics may sound utopic, and maybe one day a generation can look back and see that not everyone was bad, and that people did want peace.

“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one…”

Sometimes I say to myself, we aren’t dreamers but those who know humans have the power and capacity to create a better society, but materialism and greed get in the way. The message is, as humans we should help one another when we can, and not be selfish.

  1. Heroes by David Bowie and Brian Eno (1977). As a teenager I loved this song, because it gave me hope—that it doesn’t matter what we do, we are all important and “We can be heroes, just for one day” was an anthem for my generation. Faith and love can keep you going, when everything else is against you. RIP David Bowie, 11 January 2016. You are an eternal hero, who still inspires.
  2. Moon River by (composer) Henry Mancini and (lyrics) Johnny Mercer (1961). A short song, but full of hope and innocence.

“Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see…”

I listen to this song whenever I feel stuck, as it reminds me that we are here for a short time as we drift through life. There is so much to see in the world, and money aside, what is to stop you exploring? I realized I didn’t need much and the money spent on air tickets was worth it. I’ve walked on the slopes of Mount Everest, and island hopped in Thailand. Rather than talk about it, I did it.

  1. Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel, written by Paul Simon (1964). The original recording with only Paul Simon playing the guitar is the best version. You can hear the honesty as they sing, and the lyrics depict the real world—that we remain silent, and turn a blind eye to what is really happeningaround us. Even though it can sound like a melancholy song, it shows that people are aware, “People talking without speaking
    People hearing without listening…”

It reminds me that we should listen to people, and not just hear their words, but to understand what they want to say. Honesty is hard, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the easy way out, because if we all did that, then humanity is doomed.

“Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell…”

We don’t have to be silent, because the truth is there if we choose to see and hear it.

  1. I Will Survive by (written) Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris, performed by Gloria Gaynor (1978). An iconic song that has given countless people courage to pick themselves up when all seems lost. It inspires courage and bravery when you are at a low ebb, and encourages you dig deep and find strengths you didn’t even know you had.

“But now I hold my head up high
And you see me
Somebody new…”

  1. My Way by Paul Anka, performed by Frank Sinatra (1969). I was walking along the promenade in Nice, France (May 14, 1998) when I saw on the newsstands that Frank Sinatra had died. At that point in my life I had quit my job and bought a ticket to Italy, and decided to go to places that I had kept meaning to visit. The song has so much meaning to me—it was a tough thing to do, and I did it alone. There were mistakes, accidents, incidents (I nearly fell off an active volcano), but I survived and learned.

“Regrets, I’ve had a few… I did what I had to do…Yes, there were times…When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way…”

Life isn’t perfect no matter how much we plan it, but as long you do it your own way, you learn from it, and it makes you stronger.

  1. Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through by Jim Steinman, performed by Meatloaf (1994). Jim Steinman’s lyrics are always deeply philosophical—challenging human emotions and how we deal with them, but this is one of my favorites. I often have this on repeat when I have writer’s block and the first few lyrics say it all:

“You can’t run away forever,
But there’s nothing wrong with getting a good head start…”

Sometimes when I write, I feel as if I’m trying to run away and escape life—most of us have at some point. Yet there are hidden depths within the lyrics:

“There’s always something magic
There’s always something new
And when you really, really need it the most
That’s when rock and roll dreams come through…”

There is something metaphysical about the lyrics, that the hope is there if you believe in it and yourself. Magick does exist, and dreams can and do come true.