The First Thing You Unpack

Am looking after a kitten in a Golders Green house for one night. The owners are a US couple, a detail borne out by one notable omission in the kitchen. There is no electric kettle. Just a coffee machine.

Neither person is a tea drinker. When visitors have asked for a cup they use the microwave oven to boil a cupful of water. Asking around the modern hive mind that is Twitter and Facebook, I learn that this substitute method is quite common for US households entertaining British guests.

In fact, I now know that in the US electric kettles are a distinctly rare kitchen appliance. Stove top kettles are a more likely choice for the mere 4 per cent of Americans who drink tea. One reason is the difference in mains voltage – 120v in the US, compared to the UK’s 240v – doubling the boiling time for electric kettles in the States. But there’s the whole ritualistic connotations of boiling an electric kettle that the US doesn’t have: it’s what you’re meant to do during a TV advertising break (fewer of those in the UK per hour of TV, making it more of a big deal). It’s something you can easily set up in a room without a cooker: offices, student rooms, hotel rooms.

Suddenly fascinated by this subject, I chat to people online and find that one US store, Target, does stock affordable electric kettles on their website, though they’re not always in the physical shops.

From a Brit who lived in LA: “After months of no joy at even Target I finally bought a new one in a Persian market on the westside of LA. Ridiculous.”

From a Brit in Arizona: “Been here 4 yrs and only spotted electric kettles within the last six months, at Target. In Arizona you make ‘Sun Tea’, teabags in water and leave it outside to brew.”

Target’s item description has one sentence that would never appear on a UK listing:

“- Boils faster than a microwave”

And by way of a counterpart appliance, I had this from an American in the UK:

“It took me nearly a decade to find a reasonably-priced decent waffle iron in Britain, which is standard kit in any US kitchen shop.”

But for me the most defining aspect of the electric kettle is its importance during one of the most stressful and defining experiences in life: moving house.

As one Brit reminds me:

“When you hire boxes from a moving company, the ‘how to pack’ instructions tell you to leave the kettle till last.”

And from another Brit:

“That’s exactly how it is: electric kettle packed last, and first item to be plugged-in. That first cup makes it feel you’ve arrived.”

Thanks to everyone on Twitter and Facebook for the enlightenment. Quotes from Stuart Nathan, Sophie Heawood, Caroline Corbett, @eighths, @cybermango.

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Yes I Can (eventually)

On the Stansted Express, a steward comes past pushing an unwieldy refreshments trolley. He has a heavy foreign accent.

‘Tea? Coffee? Morphine?’

With its dated orange hand rails and slightly faded upholstery, the Stansted service might not be a patch on its faster and more up-to-date Heathrow counterpart, but offering passengers morphine does seem a bit extreme. So I ask.

‘Yes, morphine. Blueberry morphine.’ And he produces a tray of muffins.

After which, I spend the rest of the journey musing on fruit-flavoured narcotics, and narcotic-flavoured sweets. Strawberry Heroin. Cherry Cocaine. GHB flavoured Maltesers. I think one of the reasons I’ve never become a junkie – apart from the cost and the whole going-to-jail-forever bit – is that drugs simply don’t taste as nice as, say, Galaxy Caramel bars.

It was the same when I first tried alcohol as a teen. ‘Is this what all the fuss is about? But where’s the sweetness?’

Accordingly, my first drink of choice was cider. Even now, though I’ve grown into supping the occasional lager (in the shape of bottled beer), the appeal of real ale – ‘proper’ beer – still baffles me.

The train steward’s trolley bears a Fair Trade sticker. Like recycling, fair trade products have taken that same journey towards acceptance: via initial associations with radicalism, stopping by left-wing co-operative cafes, church groups and arts centres, before entering the mainstream consensus of being Obviously A Good Thing. My new job’s free tea and coffee facilities are Fair Trade only too. I wonder if there’ll soon be divisions and hair-splitting among what’s labelled ‘fair trade’, the way nutritional information makes even unhealthy foods sound good for you: ‘Our Fair Trade is more Fair than yours.’

When choosing an ice cream-based dessert at Marine Ices in Chalk Farm the other day, I go for banana split. Somehow, I’m convincing myself that I’m meeting one of my Five A Day portions of fruit, and that this allows the clear bad-for-you indulgence of ice cream. It’s akin to smokers who see Marlboro Lights as a dietary aid. Loopholes in contracts with oneself.


In the days after Barack Obama makes it as President, a few newspapers remark upon how it’s now officially okay to be nice to Americans.

Young Mr H is from Queens, NYC. We’ve been Companions for the past two weeks now. I know that’s not very long, but those weeks have made very happy indeed. I’m generally in favour of happiness. I don’t know about you.

So yes, I’ve had no trouble at all in contributing to the whole Being Nice To Americans effort. I like to think I’m doing my bit. God Bless America…

Regular employment AND a love life? As Mr Obama is so fond of saying, Yes I Can. Even me. The next step is to update the diary more regularly. Seeing as both Mr H and my employers are avid readers, it’s the least I can do.

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