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How to throw an America-proof Halloween Party

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‘You’ll have to step up your game over here. Americans have pretty much seen it all at Halloween.’

This was the response I received when I put forward the idea of throwing a Halloween party to some friends over dinner.

If you have ever read Brummed Out before, you’ll know that I’m rather giddy for Halloween, and consistently disappointed at the lack of Halloween spirit in the UK. Not so in Michigan folks.  Just on my street this week, we’ve had industrial amounts of spider webbing, entire front lawn cemeteries, headless mannequins and a 10ft Wicker Man. All of which were cruelly denied their moment of gory glory by the last minute gales, rain and even a snow flurry that kept Trick or Treaters indoors on Halloween night.

Planning a Halloween party that won’t bore Americans is another beast entirely though.  BUT, we might just have done it on Saturday.  Americans love animatronics. We had no such budget. I was just one girl armed with a roll of garbage bags and a sick imagination. Here is how we threw Little Haunted House on the Prairie…

  1. The Dollar Store/ 99p Shop is your best friend.

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Ravens, skeletons on string, spider webs, spooky holographic pictures, candles, dolls. All can be purchased here and used as the basis for kick-ass Halloween displays. I wired my raven to a twig and perched it in an old lantern, Edgar Allan Poe-style, the holographs were put in normal photo frames to form a spooky picture gallery. The dolls were painted spooky white and their eyes were painted black. Cheap, cheerful, weird wonderful.

  1. Hack your LACK                                                               photo 2                                                                                   Ouija boards are freaky, fact. I used a printable one, some white acrylic paint, and THIS program to trace and paint one onto our cheap IKEA LACK coffee table. It washed off really easily the day afterwards and made people feel all dangerous/ nostalgic (in a 13 year old’s slumber party kinda way) while they were sitting around it.
  1. Copy and Paste

Food labels, apothecary labels, vintage Halloween graphics, invitations. Ideas are all over the internet. Be inspired and print out you faves to use.

4. Get your glow on

photo 8                                                                                               We had a scary unfinished basement and not enough space for the amount of people we invited. Scary basement seemed like a good overflow space but how to get the guests to venture down there?… Aha! Beer + Blacklight. We stashed the kegs downstairs and purchased a big ole 48” blacklight from Spencer’s. We hung blacklight bats from the joists, positioned scary dolls and horror books on the shelves, and used blacklight paint to write quotes from scary movies on the walls (on paper of course – your landlord will not appreciate having to re-rent a permanent murder basement), stuff like THIS and THIS. We also put some dry ice in styofoam coolers (like ‘em? They were pretty fun to make) to seep out eerily in the glow. It didn’t work that well – maybe we’ll add a fog machine next year.

  1. A tree is not just for Christmas

photo 7Black Christmas trees are brilliant. So sophisticated at Christmas, so scary at Halloween. This is decorated purely with rings, tinsel and creatures from Birmingham’s 99p Store (Yup, even the witch at the top – she cackles too!)

  1. Include Obscure Movie References
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I made these ‘devil’s nests’ from True Detective, with twigs, thread and some florist’s moss. The husband made me lock them away because they creeped him out. Mission accomplished.

                                                                                               Chances are, you’ll have one or two movie buffs at the party. They will appreciate a few well placed references, even if the majority of your guests do not. Apart from the quotes in the basement, we displayed my Evil Dead Necronomecon, and I made a sign for the basement, based on the haunted forest from The Wizard of Oz. I included a Black Candle in the bathroom ‘only to be lit by virgins at midnight’ – who didn’t love watching Scary Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus?

  1. ALWAYS do the bathrooms

photo 6                                                                                                As certain as the toilet getting clogged is the fact that your guests will root around in your bathroom cupboards. Give them what they want (no, not the Valium), make some apothecary bottles – a cheap one is sweetcorn and black tea in a jar labelled ‘Old People’s Teeth’. Fill them with different coloured water and there are lots of printable labels on t’internet. A scary holographic picture and lots of cobwebs help. Do clean the shitter though –that’s just good manners.

  1. Include one good scare

photo 3                                                                                                As I just wrote, people get nosy at house parties; they want to know how clean you are. You can exploit this by putting a fake body in the bathtub! If you draw the shower curtain straight across, they will suspect you are hiding something – and you are. The beauty of this is that some people will come out ready to tell everyone about it, and some will make a great effort not to – but the faces always give it away. Either way, you save hundreds on animatronics and you find out who’s a nosy parker!

  1. Make gross-looking food, offer it around –and be prepared to eat it yourself!
Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts - for that gooey but crunchy feel.

Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts – for that gooey but crunchy feel.

This year, I plumped for making Used Q-Tips, a Dirty Ashtray, Split Cockroaches and Jello Worms. The worms looked so real that people wouldn’t eat them so Mr D and myself downed a fair few just for the disgusting factor. It’s always good to circulate with these dishes as it makes people feel looked after – or victimised: tomato-tomato.

10. Don’t scrimp on the alcohol

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Halloween is the perfect time to wash a latex glove, fill it with water, freeze it, then empty it into some brightly coloured spiked punch, try to make some non-alcoholic punch for the kids too – they appreciate doing what the grown-ups do. If you’ve ever wanted to try pumpkin ale, now is the time. Jelly-shots, and Bombay Bad Bears (gummies soaked in gin) are also good adult Treats. Just be prepared for the consequences. I’ve only just finished clearing up and it’s three days later…

Oh, and the garbage bags…?

Well, apart from clearing up the debris (those jelly-shots got everywhere),  they make pretty awesome decorations – and fake corpses. Thank you Martha Stewart (yikes, can’t believe that just happened).

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Tailgating & Tom Petty

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

I don’t know about you, but during my childhood, eating before an outdoor event involved a cheese and pickle sandwich, munched on in near silence inside the family car with unrelenting rain cascading down the windows.

In the States, it’s very different. They have actual long hot summers, the jammy sods! Last week, I experienced my first American tailgate at a Tom Petty show.

Forget baseball games. The tailgate is the quintessential American experience. It’s a sort of makeshift camp involving parking along side friends, lighting up barbecues and imbibing pre-event beer. A very convivial atmosphere abounds that shows American friendliness off to its best advantage. Don’t have a beer? – have one of ours. Hey man, you like TP, I like TP – come and eat some brats.

BBQ at our tailgate.

BBQ at our tailgate.

 Although the tailgate is a staple of America’s summer culture, it has remained dormant in the foreign consciousness. For unknown reasons, it hasn’t crept into Hollywood films until fairly recently. But Silver Linings Playbook and How I Met Your Mother have included tailgate scenes if you want to get a visual.

We ended up tailgating with the head brewer at Short’s Microbrewery: a brewer in the vicinity is guaranteed to be the most popular man in the room around here – next to Tom Petty.

I don’t think Tom Petty is as big a deal back in the UK but over here he is revered, retaining a cross generational appeal. Just look at this clip from the 2008 Superbowl.

Quite strange really; mention TP to an American guy, and they either go ‘F*%$ Yeah, Tom Petty!’ (young men), or a fond smile steeped in nostalgia sweeps across their faces (baby boomer men), and at one point during the concert, a young woman leaned over to me and said ‘I know he’s really old, but I’d still totally tap that!’ Disagree on whatever you wish but Tom Petty is probably America’s best bet at achieving world peace. I suspect it has something to do with weed.

As we pulled into the car park at Pine Knob ski hill, the air was thick with the stuff. The irony of our location was not lost as we drove past countless fifty/sixty-somethings cranking up the car stereos and partaking of the ’erb (somewhere, a 20-something graduate is going without a house down payment). As the designated driver, I could tell this was going to be a long night.

Ugh: Tall people.

Ugh: Tall people.

 It seemed our group had enjoyed the tailgate a little too much. By the time we had climbed the steep steps to the top of the hill it was packed. We set our rugs down right at the top of the hill and the warm up act, Steve Winwood (yes, he of the ‘Valerieeeeeeeeee – call me’ dirty aerobics video that was always playing at Pure Gym on Broad Street) was a minute spec at the bottom, our view blocked by a shifting array of tall people and their Amazonian girlfriends who never pass up the opportunity to sit on their boyfriends’ shoulders.

Galling! The sound wasn’t up to much from our alpine perch, and eventually half of us descended the hill in search of better acoustics (and beer). The difference was immediate; suddenly Tom Petty was at least a centimetre bigger and I could hear the lyrics – something about Mary Jane? Ahhhhhh. We took advantage of this position until the penultimate song, scrambling up the hill to be reunited for ‘American Girl.’

Ah, that's better: closer to the music.

Ah, that’s better: closer to the music.

 The Aftermath: I was keen to vomit – the contact buzz from thousands of politely shared joints was finally overwhelming me. Rubbish littered the site like a last minute Glastonbury. Last night (Kiss) was sold out too – how do the staff clean up so quickly? The stairs were rammed – a bottleneck caused by someone vomiting down the steps. A boy on crutches decided to bypass this by swinging himself down the ski hill. The inevitable happened – crash, bang, thud – looked like the good leg caught it this time. It turns out that no matter what country you’re in, binge drinking will turn us into arseholes.

I started driving back to settle my stomach. My husband reclined, dozily in the passenger seat.

‘Now that baby,’ he slurred, complete with nostalgic smile, ‘was the real America!’

Into the Polar Vortex

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polar votex

So I arrived between ice blasts. I’m now 4000 miles from Birmingham with no Green Card (it’s on it’s way), no job, no driving license (and no car, so it hardly matters), and no home until next Friday. I’m not quite as ill-prepared as Christopher McCandless  but the Polar Vortex that has been engulfing the States this year has been a learning curve for the ten days I’ve been here.

IT’S SO COLD THAT…

  • You can throw a pot of boiling water into the air outside and create instant snow.
  • Many people have been hurt doing this – they didn’t check which direction the wind was blowing.
  • Whenever I stepped outside the first week, I’d say ‘Look! Fresh snow!’ with a sense of joy and wonder. Now, I say ‘Look… fresh snow’ with a growing sense of resentment at the inevitable daily car-scraping.
  • You can’t do that trick where you pour warm water over the car windscreen here – it just freezes. Engine on and scraper-brush out. Here is where you start paying. In sweat.
  • I now understand why there are so many massive gas-guzzling 4x4s over here – the weather is VERY cold every year, the terrain is harsh, and the people are determined to carry on as normal. You will not find any ‘leaves on the train line’ type excuses over here.
  • I will never consider leather a legitimate upholstery choice for my car again.
  • I have learned to click my heels like Dorothy Gale before stepping into any car – and yes, I do find myself thinking: ‘there’s no place like home…’
  • Conversations and general breathing in our car results in so much vapour that I think I’m in Cold War Vienna.
  • When taken out on a date by my husband, he wrapped me up so I looked like Randy from A Christmas Story. It wasn’t even Halloween.
  • It is considered the height of bad manners here in Michigan to enter a house with out removing your shoes.
  • The forced air system at our friend’s house where we are currently staying, dries out all the moisture from the air, which means I’ve had a 2-week nose bleed. Coupled with the flu, I look like Andrew WK (remember him children?). I bled into my cup of tea. It was gross.
  • I coughed up blood last week. Blood and mucus.
  • I’ve been told that to avoid winter nose-bleeds, everyone around here sleeps with vapourisers by their beds. Duly noted.
Yeah, 2001 was a good look for me.

Yeah, 2001 was a good look for me.

  • There is only so much chicken soup that one girl can take.
  • I have eaten all my Tastes-Of-Home tuck supplies. Yes, that includes a huuuuge bar of Cadbury’s wholenut.
  • I don’t go out. I just wait at home like a house-cat, awaiting my owner’s return. The term house-wife has taken on a new harder edge for me.
  • I have started to read a lot more Sylvia Plath.
Stay tuned for further details of my unravelling...

Stay tuned for further details of my unravelling…

From Brum to…?

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270px-Michigan_in_United_States.svgEvening Brummies,

Do remember this post?

Well it’s finally happened. Following graduation, the husband landed a job at a big bad investment bank in London and spent most of last summer in NYC (not me though, confined to the couch and enforced Corrie-watching as per usual). But it turned out that banks really are as evil as we all suspected and in November he was offered a job back in the States. So tomorrow I’m heading to the frozen north. Michigan to be precise.

Cue lots of standing around the US Embassy in London for me. In the rain. And at one point naked in a Harley St clinic to prove I was female (yes, they really do want to check you for that).

And also the nightmare that is international shipping (customs forms, dolls’ house bubble wrapping, waving goodbye to all you own in the vain hope it won’t arrive smashed to smithereens at the other end).

The question is, what does this mean for Brummedout? I guess it would be hard to continue writing about a city I no longer reside in or can even easily visit. Although I shall be keeping an eye on the place, through friends who live in and around the area.

So the next best thing would be to rename the blog and shift its focus. Or start a completely new one. What should I do? Any ideas?

I think I’ll keep posting about my ex-pat journey for a little while, and take y’all with me for the ride. So if you’d care to log in and accompany me into the polar vortex that is currently freezing up Niagara Falls, the Great Lakes and – allegedly – people’s toilet bowls, I’d be glad of the company.

Also, if you ever wanted to know about anything in particular about America from an outsider’s perspective, I’ll do my best to satisfy your curiosity. I fly out from Birmingham International (loyal to the end) tomorrow morning.

Brum, it’s been emotional.

Take care of yourselves, you hear?

 

 

 

Brum to Brum – a visit to Birmingham (Michigan)

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And so it transpired that in March and April this year I visited Michigan, the Great-Lakes state and birthplace of the husband.

Michigan isn’t so very different from around here. Al and I have always joked that we’re a Midwest-West Mids couple, both from near ailing car towns, now crippled from the collapse of the industry that spawned them and desperately hoping that a new industry can arrive and lead to a resurgence of the places we call home.

Anyway, enough of the cultural context. I’m writing this post because Metro-Detroit’s (not actual Detroit which is a whoooooole other story) ritziest neighbourhood is also called Birmingham! It’s the Beverly Hills of South-East MI doncha know? When you’ve made it there you move to um…Brum.

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Michigan’s Brum is rigggght here. Incidentally outside Detroit.

Founded in the 1860s (officially), the town was christened Birmingham by landowner Rosewell T. Merrill who hoped the place would become a similar industrial centre (hahahahaha).

I first came across Birmingham mark 2 when Al was living in nearby Royal Oak (yup, they love their English town names over there). We went to a popular pancake house there for Sunday brunch. It turned out to be more like dinner by the time a table was available. Rule number one about Birmingham, it’s over-crowded because of its reputation.

Cute cinema, shame about the popcorn...and the lack of seating.

Cute cinema, shame about the popcorn…and the lack of seating.

Similarly, our trip to its cute old cinema was disappointing. We bought tickets for Sherlock Holmes (a film I never really wanted to see anyway – what were they thinking making a titan of cerebral ability into an action man – is the power of the brain not enough? And don’t get me started on – actually this is beside the point, breathe…and relax). We got the dregs of the popcorn, I mean they were minute, fairy popcorn. Then in the auditorium there were no seats left so we had to sit on the floor. Why sell us the tickets in the first place? This is the only time this has ever happened. I shall complain to Trip Advisor directly (although considering it’s been three years, this probably wouldn’t be that helpful).

To be fair, after this, I was pretty much done with Birmingham. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its charms. It does boast a bonafide boutique hotel, The Townsend. While we have Old Joe looming over us like the Eye of Sauron, Birmingham has a rather large and eye-catching water tower. And just as we need more independent shops in our Brum, their Brum has them in spades, in a town square that twinkles with fairy lights year-round.

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Birmingham’s water tower marks the town out as quintessentially American.

They always say Michigan is a good place to be from. And quite a few celebrities grew up here before inevitably upping sticks to Malibu. Director Sam Raimi, Saturday Night Live’s David Spade, soap actress Christine Lahti and comedian Tim Allen were all Birmingham residents during their youths.

And while Tim Allen may have set his long-running sitcom Home Improvement in Royal Oak, his character’s love of Hot Rods is definitely a nod to Birmingham’s major claim to fame, the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise.

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To Infinity And Beyond: The Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise sees lots of gear heads flock to Birmingham each year. Photo courtesy of Stephen K. Donnelly

The Dream Cruise is the world’s largest single day classic car event with around 1.5 million visitors descending on Woodward Ave each year. Detroit is a car-crazy town (of course) and this event makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time and landed in American Graffiti.  Makes you wish we could take our Classic Motor Show and put it on the streets. Actually there’s an idea, why can’t we have an equivalent car cruise on Broad Street each year for charity?
Anywho, I just thought I’d let you know we’re not alone in the world. Birmingham MI is not so bad even if I do prefer the nearby hoods of Royal Oak and Ferndale (less stuffy and more trendy, they also serve better popcorn). Those pancakes were worth waiting for btw. 
Next stop, Birmingham Alabama.   
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