Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

I felt fine not celebrating Thanksgiving (which actually caught me off guard, I was expecting a twinge of home-sickness) but I had enough friends asking me questions about Thanksgiving that I decided to cook the meal and invite over some friends. I was able to find a six pound turkey that was about the same size as a Chicken. I also decided on making cranberry sauce, stuffing, candied yams, corn bread, mashed potatoes, and zucchini (courgette) bread for desert. (My friend from France had made us a french meal after returning from a trip and no one had ever heard of using courgettes for bread and couldn't understand how a vegetable could be made into a sweet bread so I couldn't resist a demo.) For all the people out there that think that zucchini bread does not a desert make will find it funny that none of the guests would believe me that the candied yams were not part of the desert either, sugar really is in more American foods than other places.
The friends that I had over were from Poland, France, and Taiwan. I had invited friends from Ireland also but they couldn't make it so I ended up not making the corn bread or mashed potatoes, which kind of made me mad because I had to go to 3 different grocery stores before I was able to find corn meal. (Corn, a very American food.) I thought I would have trouble finding a turkey this early before Christmas but I guess the grocery store keeps a few in deep freeze throughout the year for people's feasts. I was not surprised that when I looked for the jellied cranberries in the can (not because I like them, but I thought my guests would get a kick out of it) that I could not find them. Instead I just boiled dry cranberries in cranberry juice until it was jelly and it ended up being tastier than any cranberry sauce I've had before.
So of course all my friends wanted to know more about the "Thanksgiving rituals". I was kind of flummoxed because most of traditions that I know of center around strategies of how to eat as much food as possible then watching American football. The one tradition that I did have as a child and hated was to go around the table and say what you were thankful for before eating; but with the other tradition of skipping lunch I never felt very thankful for anything staring at all the food. They also wanted to know the differences between Canadian and American Thanksgiving and I was at a loss for that as well. Instead we ended up talking about soap opera similarities in all the represented cultures.
They were all impressed by my cooking but I felt like everything tasted a bit off. However, I just chalked it up to rounding errors from switching all the recipes to metric measurements. I did succeed in stuffing everyone enough so that the food they brought as gifts (Cadbury chocolate and sesame rolls) never did get eaten and I had a fun time explaining why I had "Christmas dinner" leftovers for my lunch the next day. (Yes, working on Thanksgiving and the Friday after were a bugger.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More British Foods

  • Spotted dick: Tasty sweet desert. I had to try it just because of the name. I have a feeling that this is an old enough recipe that there are 100 different variations with some good and some, not so good. It is another pudding, and by that I mean spongy bread with raisins in it. The funny thing is that it would taste great with some "American" pudding on top of it but there does not seem to be an equivalent here.
  • Cornish pasties: I've bought them from street vendors and from the grocery store. It just seems like it is to easy to skimp on the meat and instead server a flaky crust full of grease. The locals I've talked to say "you have to go to Cornwall to get a good pasty but with nothing else to do there it is a long trip for food".
  • Mince pies: As soon as Halloween was over they replaced the shelves with Christmas food, and mince pies seemed to be the first on the shelves. They are small (usually two inches across) and sold 6 to a box. They are quite good (a little more spice tasting compared to American mincemeat pie) and cheap so I can see why they are popular.
  • Christmas pudding: Similar to fruitcake but the fruit is closer to mincemeat and raisins and it is moister from the sugary syrup it is soaked in.
  • Crumpets: It is pretty much half an English muffin that is fried instead of baked. (Or a very thick pancake that is only fried on one side; either explanation works). They work great when I make avocado pizzas since I'm not to much of a tea person.

A food custom that I am not used to here is that eggs are not refrigerated. Since I don't have space in the fridge and I eat enough eggs that they never last past the due date anyway I'm not to worried about spoilage. I am all to happy to deal with a shorter shelf life in favor of more space in the refrigerator. (That, and I felt really silly buying unrefrigerated eggs from the store them in the fridge when I got home.)
The only craving that I have had for American food since I got here was for pancakes; which is odd since I don't eat pancakes that often. There are Scottish pancakes that are sold here but they are sold pre-cooked. They aren't bad but pancakes need to be eaten immediately after being fried because they don't keep well. The mix that they sell for English pancakes is closer to crepes. It satisfied my craving enough that I don't feel the need to make pancakes from scratch but since syrup is so hard to find here too I ended up just buying some cheap strawberry jam and heating it in the microwave until runny. (Again, good enough so that I didn't feel a desire to make syrup from scratch.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Autumn activies

The first thing I had to get used to was saying Autumn instead of Fall.
The "Lord Mayor's Show Parade" exists because the Mayor has swear an oath to the crown every year. It's a parade that has been happening for the last 800 years. (They did cancel one year back in the 1600's because of some person's funeral). I wanted to see it because I figure if it has been going on that long they must be doing something right. For the most part it was a normal parade but there were a few things that struck me as odd. I've seen cannons in parades but this was the first time I've seen tanks and missiles. It was also weird watching military just marching. (Anytime I've seen them before now they were playing instruments.) I guess this is me admitting my insulated shock but it is just odd watching patriotism for other countries like kids wave British flags. Also, it felt weird to have soldiers dressed in the old 1700's red coat uniforms and have people cheering since I was raised on the idea that the "Red coats" were the bad guys. Other odd things were the women scantly dressed in carnivale in 5° weather and all the dignitaries riding by with puppets on their hands. (It just didn't seem like good symbolism).
The other thing is everyone (around 85-90%) wearing red paper poppies for Remembrance Day. (I originally thought it was for a Football match.) Apparently poppies grow better in disturbed soil, so when everything was leveled from all the shelling in World War II it actually made more poppies grow. A poem "In Flanders Field" is written and it becomes an annual tribute. Now people are complaining it is a requirement instead of a symbol (apparently there is another tradition of handing people a white feather for being unpatriotic if they aren't wearing their poppy) and everyone talks about the Royal British legion (Charity selling the poppies, so that's why they all look the same.) in the same way as the Salvation Army during Christmas.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Conspicous Consumption

It is weird being in such a rich neighborhood. There are so many Austin Martin DB9 parked on the roads they seem like every day cars. I see Bentleys, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis every day too. The hood ornament that keeps catching me off guard is the Maybach because it is just two M's and I can never remember the car name. When I see one it catches my attention because it looks like a hearse with the curtains that it has in the windows. There are a lot of roads where you have to take your life in your hands when crossing the road and the good news is the super expensive cars seem to be the only ones that drive slow enough to walk in front of. I can only guess that the probability of law suits of hitting pedestrians is a lower concern then denting their shiny cars but at least I get across the street.
Another thing I find amusing is the constant construction. I might be surrounded by mansions but they are still built "row home" style where there is no room between them so all the construction material has to be unboxed in the road before being carried through the front door. It seems like on any given day when I walk from the tube to campus that at least one person on each block is either getting a bathroom or kitchen remodeled. I just find it funny that having the money to remodel your house so often seems very inconvenient as far as enjoying having the money.
It does make it a little more depressing trying to be as frugal of a student as possible while there the level of rich eccentricities around me is so high. But, the upside is that I feel 100% safe walking to the tube at any hour of the night.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fashion

Something weird has happened when moving here. I am now feeling naked when I leave the flat in a T-shirt. (That is really saying something growing up in California.) It is just more formal fashion here. I mean there are undergraduate students wearing ties and suit coats to class. I've never seen that before. I guess growing up with all private schools will do that. However that being said I have no desire to follow some of the fashion trends here. I have no desire to wear pink or lavender dress shirts. For some reason there are lot of people that dress like that here. Another fashion trend that I find funny is using American college football colors. I see people wearing college football shirts or hoodies but it is obvious they are wearing them because of the colors. I know this because the teams with clashing colors have been changed. It was weird the first time I saw a UCLA hoodie with coordinating colors instead of blue and yellow.
The other thing I realized is that I have to dress different because of transportation changes. In New York I got into my car in the garage and only had to deal with the cold walking from my car into the building at work. Here, I use the tube so I had to buy a thicker coat and carry around a scarf and gloves.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Transportation

Bike: So the whole plan was that I would be riding my bike as much as possible. That idea kind of went out the window when I flipped my bike. I think it helped though. Riding for a week then taking a couple of weeks off helped to ingrain riding on the opposite side of the road. The way I see it, there is four stages. First stage is knowingly forcing yourself to ride on the opposite of the road. The second stage is to remembering to ride on the left side of the road but still swerve right when you are not thinking about it. I think I am at the 3rd stage, riding on the left, and actually swerving left without thinking about it but still feeling relived when you realize you made the correct decision.
Tube: While I was waiting for my knee to heal I've was using the tube. The price of riding the tube is about the same as it was in New York. For the Day Pass or per ride, and that is saying something since I am not in Zone 1.
Walking: Luckily I have been able to convince my mind to still look both ways for cars. I can't convince myself to switch to looking right first but as long as I look both ways I should keep myself out of the hospital, however I have had a close call of almost stepping into the road in front of a bike. Everyone asks me to compare living here in London to New York City. The biggest difference is cars actually stop for pedestrians. Not only that but when you approach a sidewalk and wait for the car to pass through before crossing, they will stop and flash their brights madly that you didn't just start walking.
Taxi: London Taxis are special built cars with a very distinctive shape, and luckily I now know there is a lot of headroom in London Taxis, and that is saying something for me. Taxi's here are expensive and I really don't think I would have taken one if it there had not been 4 other people with me to pay the fare. (Co-workers headed to a party)
Train: The train routes for London overlay the tube lines but make fewer stops. As long as you use an Oyster card it is basically the same price too. So as soon as I have the stops memorized for the tube then I can start working on memorizing all the train stops for all the express routes.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

British Technology

Of course since it is my field so I am going to notice how technology is being used differently here. That and I have grown to notice the little things over the years.
Since I am so far north all the satellite dishes are perpendicular to the ground instead of pointed toward the sky. I guess it is good when it snows. No snow can build up on a vertical satellite dish.
I was looking for a wireless router for my room. At the store they only ones for cable or wireless (BT = British Telecom) There was nothing for just the person that wants a router. I finally found one at a charity shop.
The ATM cards have a chip in them. It makes it possible to save the PIN on the card itself so more secure but people are a lot more paranoid about covering up their PIN when typing it in.
The size of electrical plugs really makes travel sized un-useful.
Part of the culture here is to format emails like letters. I must have looked so rude for the couple of weeks that I didn't add "Dear" in front of their name and Sincerely to Cheers at the end.I am doing it now but it still looks weird.
The security door around here have a button to release door that has to be pressed (ON THE WALL). I get quite annoyed since it is not built into door handle like the U.S. It seems like a fire hazard since someone might forget to press it before running out and get squished into the door so no one can press the green button. The also lock us all in when security goes home. I can get out because I have the badge, but again blocking exits seems like a fire hazard.
The secure doors around here have the green button on the wall to unlock the magnetic lock. It is one of those things that I am glad that OSHA takes care of in the United States since they make buildings build it into the door latch. It just seems like if there is panic and people run for the door they will not remember to press the button on the wall and there will be a buildup before someone remembers.

Monday, November 08, 2010

City Smells

One thing that I have noticed is that every big city has a different smell. London is no different, here it smells like laundry detergent walking down the streets. I can only guess it is because all the washing machines have dryers built into the same machine here. When the two machines are squished together and then further squished so it can fit under the counter in the kitchen like it is in most homes I just don't think that it can be that efficient, and can't wash all the soap out of the clothes. At least that is what I am guessing since I feel like that is how I smell every day. But anytime I'm walking or riding my bike it is the same smell.
I was thinking what other cities smelled like:
New York City- It smelled like wet dust, even during the summer. It was somewhere between fresh earth and wet cement.
Los Angeles- The use of ice plant is used all over the city as a ground cover and the smell of it mixes with all the push carts selling mexican sausages.
Beijing-It was the smell of disinfectant cleaner that was supposed to smell like roses. I guess the same cleaner is used all over the city. It was funny, when I was in Chinatown in New York, it had the same smell.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

British Foods

  • Yorkshire pudding: This one is basically a pop-over. As far as I can tell it is a tasteless fluffy thing that is just there. It does not really taste like anything but it is included in different meals, represented in different sizes.
  • Devon cream: It's Bavarian cream, but it is served hot or cold, on sweet or salty foods. I bought a little pudding cup to try it, and I couldn't stop thinking that I was just eating the inside of a donut.
  • Brown sauce: I guess it is just my American tastes but I really don't see why everything needs a vinegar taste. It is basically Ketchup with more of a vinegar taste to it.
  • Marmite: Start with brown sauce, then cram as much salt as possible in it until it becomes a paste. The British people I've spoken to swear by Marmite and hate Vegemite. The Australians I've talked to swear the opposite. I can't tell a difference between the two, they both taste like pure salt to me.
  • Treacle tart: Autumn standard treat. It tastes just like a pecan pie without the pecans so I'm not sure why it is popular in Autumn (saying Fall will have people look at you weird).

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Guy Fawkes Night

So the idea behind Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night) is celebrating the overthrow of the plot to blow up the parliament building. The best I can figure is that since the same government has been in charge here for around a thousand years they really don't have an Independence day, so this makes up for it. The only problem was that the Fire Brigade threatened to go on strike. Honestly, if the fire department went on strike for the 4th of July, then everyone would be angry. (Luckily they called it off).
On Friday when I was riding my bike home I saw someone burning a bonfire. I know part of the tradition is burning an effigy but it seemed like they were going to burn down half the block with how big the fire was.
On Saturday they had a special trip to the Guy Fawkes celebration for the student village I live in. There was a carnival which I was not expecting so my friends and I walked around for a while then went to watch the fireworks. (There was not bonfire since the strike was called off at the last minute.) Since there is not as much patriotism attached to the holiday there was no patriotic music to the firework show. Instead they played songs like Ghost busters, Superman, Flash Gordan, and my favorite A-Team theme song. I didn't realize how used to patriotic or classical music I was for firework shows. The tube workers did not call off their strike so we had to take buses home. The buses were so busy that we walked about half way because all the buses were full. We were finally walking by a bus stop when a non-full bus stopped so we only ended up walking about half the way home.
Once back they handed out sparklers for everyone to play with. after waving them around for a while of course everyone felt like 8 year old kids. So the logical thing to do was to take pictures while trying to spell things. We got the name of where we lived. But we couldn't wave out hands fast enough for the camera for "Bonfire 2010". We still had a few sparklers left so we ended up with the warden drawing cock with his sparkler.