Monday, December 26, 2011

The Boxing Day Paradox

The fact that no one knows why Boxing day is called what it is shows how old it is and that it has lost its meaning. Traditionally you spend Christmas with family and Boxing day with friends.
But in the last four or five years America's tradition of Black Friday has crept in. You can tell that the major British stores have hired American advertising companies; going all out with early morning sales and loss leader items.
So there in lies the paradox. Normally stores are closed on Boxing day, but now some aren't. They have huge advertisements that the stores that do stay closed feel like they are fading into oblivion, so they advertise Boxing Day sales too. But, they stay closed. Their advertisements say the sales are the 26th and 27th and on the very next line it says the store will be closed on Christmas and Boxing day. So when you go to the shopping center all of the stores have up banners and decorations for the sale, some just don't have any lights on.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Teaching Christmas

The thing about London is that it is an international city. I ended up spending Christmas with Chinese friends. The thing is, in China, Christmas is just another holiday that gives stores an excuse to have a sale. So it was my job to expose all the traditions and nostalgia. Songs like "I want a hippopotamus for Christmas" and "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" produced laughs every time they played. The movie "The Christmas story" does a good. Job of bundling up and showing all the traditions but the Chinese restaurant scene at the end "while funny, was also racist". The student village I lived in had cleaned out during the summer and I took the old Christmas tree and some lights that did not pass the new electoral codes (they were not LED lights) but we had no ornaments. One of the projects we did for the students was to make the salt dough ornaments. So, even though I had never done it before, we did a new tradition of making our own ornaments too. They ranged from snowmen and gingerbread men to sonic the hedgehog (apparently hedgehogs are Chinese winter animals) to a little more phallic.
A normal thing to have for Christmas dinner here is what I would call "Turducken". (A chicken inside a duck inside a turkey) something very redneck in the U.S. But here the name "three bird roast" makes it sound so much more posh. To be honest I couldn't tell the difference between the chicken and the turkey but the stuffing was good.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Playing Santa

Every year the student village I live in has a Christmas party. This year since I am a warden I thought it would be funny if I was Santa. For at least the last eight years it was something no one else wanted to do. Originally I had thought that I would just be dressed up to collect the secret Santa presents, but the other wardens kept asking how I would react to people sitting on my lap.
While building the decorations they decided to build Santa's Grotto. I decided to use it as a place to stash secret Santa presents. While dressing up as Santa I used two pillows to try to add some girth to my frame. Trying to navigate through a party with that much extra padding on helped me as a reminder that I never wanted to get that size. It was just too hard to move easily.
After passing out the presents all the Chinese and Indian students wanted to have their picture taken with me. The best I could gather was that this was their first Christmas and they wanted a picture to send home to show the local culture. That's all well and good but once you put on the costume people see you as a character instead of you the person. This led to some grabby hands during the photos. After a half hours of taking photos with different students I finally changed out of the costume to enjoy the party with everyone else.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


For my Halloween costume I wore a mustache. Everyone was making the comment that I was just getting a head start on Movember (growing a mustache during the month of November to raise awareness/money for prostate/testicular cancer). So I thought, what the heck. I've never tried growing a mustache. At work a co-worker was also doing it and convinced me to join their group. Hey now instead of just growing a mustache I was doing it for a cause. People would donate to our group on the website so it showed that I was helping but in reality I wasn't soliciting anyone. (Our group did do a little over £1000 in donations though.)
At the end of the month, the general consensus was I looked like a porn star or Freddie Mercury, neither were images I really wanted to portray. Not to mention the scratchy feeling, feeling the hairs touching, or the extra water every time I used a drinking fountain. So I don't think I'll be repeating the process.
But, before shaving it off I couldn't help but try different styles. I first started by trying to wax it using hair wax. Bad idea, it made my eyes water and burned every time I shaved off a little more no matter how much I thought I washed it out of the whiskers. I also tried "Charlie Chaplin" and "Godwin's law" styles. Yep clean shaven looks best on me.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

The British are curious about Thanksgiving. I was asked a lot of questions about a lot of different aspects of the holiday. The funny thing is that no one wants to know about Canadian Thanksgiving (It's in October). That being said last year I only knew of one pub that was doing Thanksgiving stuff. But for some reason this year Whole Foods was pushing Thanksgiving hard. I can't figure out why but I didn't want to complain because it made it easy to find pumpkin filling to make a pie that I have been craving.
Since I didn't have as many guests this year to help me pig out I decided to go with ham instead of Turkey since I'm actually not a huge fan of Turkey. To round it out I made stuffing, mash potatoes, and candied yams. Of course candied yams were the favorite but how can you go wrong with that much butter and sugar for something that isn't dessert?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cultural Differences: Alcohol

I don't know if it is just because I grew up in a pretty sheltered life when it came to alcohol or if all of Europe has drastically different views on alcohol then the U.S. but it is one of the things I have noticed since being here.
Pubs really are part of the culture here. Pubs are classified by what breweries they sell their beer from. (Similar to fast food chains selling Coke or Pepsi) The cheap pub chains like Witherspoons are seen similar to Walmart as in they destroy local businesses through price. Another thing that is apparently killing pubs is cheap liquor from grocery stores.
In the U.S. I would say that you have a problem as soon as alcohol affects your life. Here alcohol is a problem when it is depended on. They are genuinely surprised when I say that if you were to show up for work with a hang-over multiple times a week people would start to worry. Here the sign of a good home-town pub is the pub owner has keys to the regulars houses to get them home when they are to drunk.
Level of drinking
I know I'm with a lot of students so there is heavier drinking but at pubs stag or hen parties come in all the time and are quite annoying because their goal is to get as drunk as possible. As I previously talked about getting drunk and ending up in some anonymous bed is seen as OK. It is seen as something that happens to everyone that drinks and it is up to the friends to take make sure the drunkest person doesn't end up with a psycho.
Drinking in public
Now I am aware this has to do with the public transport system here. Most of the places I have lived in the U.S. you had to drive home so you didn't see people staggering down the street. Well at least non-students. I still remember "drunk alley" in Oregon. I just get caught off guard seeing people in their 50's and 60's red eyed and listing as they walk around on a Friday or Saturday night.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cultural Differences: Forwardness

Now that it has been a year here I feel like I understand some of the deeper cultural influences that influence the culture here in the U.K. as opposed to what I'm used to in the U.S.
The first one is the idea of "pushing boundaries" vs "knowing one's place". The American culture really does always try to see how to get more. There is a good side to that: I have the ability to talk to strangers which people still seem mystified about here. However the British culture also has it's benefits. Not everyone gets to be rich; so there is a lot more of the culture exploring enjoying your station in life. This means, well, enjoying life instead of over-working yourself.
When I try to explain the concept that is taught in the U.S. that you can be whatever you want to be as long as you work hard enough, it is seen as naive here. At the same time the fact that I find it impossible to respect someone more just because they have "sir" in their name (the only discernible benefit they really get is free upgrades on British Airlines)
Alcohol and dating go hand in hand here. I've heard the joke that if it wasn't for alcohol then the population would plummet in the U.K. The problem is that it is not really a joke. There is a different idea about drunk sex here. In the U.S. it seems like the prevailing idea is that if the person is drunk they have lost their ability to make an informed choice so it's rape. Here, you made the choice to get that drunk, and it was usually so you had enough courage to talk to the opposite sex anyway so if you end up in bed it is most likely what you wanted.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night

Last year I had been under the impression that Guy Fawkes Day was seen as a national day similar to Independence or Bastille Day. Apparently that is not the case which makes more sense since the musical theme this year was all scary songs. (Last year was all superhero theme songs.) This is defiantly the first time I have seen fireworks choreographed to "Devil went down to Georgia" and "Thriller".
The big part that I found surprising is how polite the culture is here. The student village was partially subsidizing the cost of people attending. Normally everyone gives me their money, I buy the tickets, then pass them out. This was a little different because everyone just gets in huge lines and pays at the turnstile. There was no way to buy the tickets in advance so when I got to the front I explained it the whole predicament to the guy collecting money. Without even skipping a beat he let me collect money as he handed people tickets to 43 people. After everyone was through I added needed extra money and even got a written receipt. All without complaining or saying it couldn't be done.

Monday, October 31, 2011


A costume can be an expensive thing for someone that has an imagination. This is a problem since I had lots of ideas and little capital to follow through with. Instead I searched around my flat to see what I could scrape up. As it turns out I bought an WWI pilots hat at one of the summer festivals. I had a brown leather jacket, white scarf, and khaki pants so it made it an easy decision. I didn't feel like the costume was compete without a mustache though, so it was off to one of the few "fancy dress" stores in London. I can't figure this out, when I arrived there was a line literally wrapped around the block to get in. You would think that with that much interest there would be more than 8 or so costume stores in London; especially with how popular fancy dress parties are. I went to a less popular costume store and only had to wait for 20 minutes to get in.
Running a party is much different than enjoying it. Last year I spent much more time socializing than I have been able to this year. I don't feel like I know anyone nearly as well as last year.

Friday, October 07, 2011


I was not expecting to have an offsite type meeting doing a PhD but my supervisor wanted to have a team building exercise. There are a lot of English country side mansions that have been turned into hotels. We visited one of these in the sleepy town of Brockenhurst. We started with a scavenger hunt and I must admit was mostly a waste of time... to team building. It was nice however to wander around a quaint little town. The next morning we had to give a presentation of our research which was helpful since everyone is so huddled in their little cubicles most of the time. Each group was then given a Lego mindstorm robot kit and we had to come up with the a design based on a word we were given. (Ours was "guidance") This part was actually fun and did help with the team building. I do have to admit that it did a lot better of a job being offsite then trying to do it with just a meeting like it had when I started last year.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

One Year!

I've lived here a year! Even so I still have some things that catch me off gaurd. Everything is almost the same here, almost. I have come to call these things Twilight Zone moments. There are little things that happen that catch me off guard and make it feel like the twilight zone even after I have adjusted to everything else. So obvious one is cars on the left side of the road become normal over time, but others just won't.
  • Light switches are pressed down to turn on.
  • Lots of other tall people (like three times as many)
  • Tea Break (Yes really, even when no one buys tea it's still called that)
  • People talking about which accent they chose to use while growing up
  • Swearing on TV or the occasional breasts in the free daily paper on the tube.
  • Having tax included in the price so I can add up the bill in my head
  • Every piece of paper being A4 instead of letter sized
  • Dates written with day/month/year
  • Different movie ratings and no green screen before each movie trailer.
  • Drinking in public.
  • Gambling not seen as a sin.
  • No jaywalking laws.
  • Store advertisements proud of being sustainable
  • Different accents on announcements and commercials

words: I have gotten used to using a lot of different words but for some reason my my brain will not allow me to say "zed" instead of "zee" for 'z'. So "zEE bra" is pronounced "zEH bra" here. I also still laugh every time I hear someone use the word "whilst".

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Move-in Weekend

300 odd students have a weekend to move in. About 85% arrive on Saturday. The night before all the PhD students that were still living there, went around to all the flats and gave them a mug, a box with some tea and candy, and a poster with all the events.
I remember when I arrived last year I was tired, jet-lagged, wet, and just wanted to be left alone so I tried to judge people as they arrived about how long of a spiel I would give them. I was the most chipper person in the group so for most of the day I was the first person people would talk to. That lasted until my voice gave out. Everyone gets a huge pack of info that the University hands out. The important stuff is written up in "Survival guide". The reality is that it is pushed hard because no one wants to answer the same question over and over.
For the first two weeks there are activities every day. This makes everyone get tired and grumpy with each other since we don't get a break. It also means that I don't feel like I've been able to socialize since I've been helping behind the scenes so much. I also remember that I was so disoriented the first week that I didn't go to a lot so it is weird experiencing them all now.
There was a BBQ, barn dance, scavenger hunt, bowling, second hand sale, dance, karaoke, guide to the University (How to use the tube), trip to Kew Gardens, movie night, pub crawl, doctor's registration, football, basketball, and board games. Yeah, it was busy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Moving Out

So what happens when you try to help 300 odd students move out? well it wasn't organized that is for sure. Since a Masters degree is only a year here and the majority of the students living in the student village are Msc students they were already done so there was an impromptu party the night before move out. Everyone brought any alcohol they did not want to move or take home with them. Since the head warden was also moving out he contributed all the liquor he didn't want to take with him either and he had received some pretty odd liquor as gifts over the years. Come Saturday there was a lot of people moving out with some large hangovers.
We had set up a way for people to donate stuff to a second hand sale that would be resold to the students coming in. (Had to be sold because everyone would just take free stuff, not what they needed. All the money was donated to a charity) The thinking was always everything gets donated (including half-used boxes of food) or everything gets trashed (creating huge piles of trash).
As I was collecting keys from everyone there were a lot of goodbyes, a lot of people asking for extra time, and I had one friend that had his suitcase filled with all his clothes that disappeared with someone else's stuff. (So was probably on its way to China) As the cleaners went through each flat cleaning them out over the next week it was funny to see them trading and haggling over stuff students had left behind.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Buckingham palace

There are only two months out of the year that you can tour Buckingham palace. If it was up to the queen it wouldn't happen at all but she had to make the agreement for the UK government to help repair Windsor castle after a fire. There was a little part of me that wanted to go as a way to stick it to the man (or woman in this case).
Of course it's a palace so there is over the top opulence. I can't figure out why anyone is surprised that anyone's reality would be distorted living this separated from reality. The gardens were huge which made me feel weird since I knew we were in the middle of London but I couldn't hear any traffic. I do understand there needs to be a balance since there is the need to impress foreign heads of state and such but the longer that anyone stays in these surroundings the less grip they will have on reality. However, I must say it was not over the top as much as the Vatican, hmmmmmm.
What is funny was for how wonderfully understated all the overstatements of wealth were the gift shop at the end was full on tacky. London souvenir shops are kind of famous for putting the union jack on everything possible so I guess the palace gift shop was a step down from that but it did have chocolate crowns and the such.
Of course, the real reason why I wanted to make sure to go this year was because of the royal wedding. During the wedding itself I wasn't really sure why everyone was so captivated by it. Seeing all the details gave me a better understanding. I had more respect for all the tradition, at the same time that I felt a little sorry that they were forced to have wedding a certain way. (Of course any pangs of sorrow quickly went away at the knowledge of how much they spent on the wedding.) I had read the Queen thought that the wedding dress was presented in a way to bring up Princess Di. I do have to admit the dress did look spooky, very ghost like. But everything for the wedding did a good of explaining all the symbolism that I didn't realize was there.
Gift store was tacky

Saturday, September 17, 2011

End of term party

It was the last party of the year. September, so it was already getting cold again but we wanted to do something outside. We hired a laser tag company to come. Basically it was a giant inflatable maze you climbed into. Everyone's gun also had sensors on it so you would just pile into the dark tunnels and start shooting. We also tried having a barbecue but it started raining half way though so everyone was either in the laser tag or village hall with an unlucky few manning the grill.
Later in the night we hired a bus to take us to Oceana club. Of course the British tradition is to pre-drink so everyone imagine you and 50 drunk friends on a coach together. It got pretty loud just getting there.
The reason why Oceana was chosen is because it is huge. There are 3 dance floors: a club, ballroom, and a disco complete with Saturday night fever light up squares on the dance floor. There are also plenty of themed bars such as the Aspen ski lodge and China room. It was the last time we all were going to see a lot of these people so it felt strangely like school prom type event. Of course since all of the masters students were done with their course they were getting extra drunk so instead of being a designated driver I got to be the designated get people night bus person. All in all quite a fun night.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The "Beeb" TV Nation

The BBC is funded by people paying for a TV license instead of commercials or product placement. This means that when watching American shows my British friends are amazed at how many times shows have that pause for commercials and how short American TV shows are (since they don't show the no commercials). Normal TV means BBC 1, 2, and 3. Channel 4 and 5 are privately owned so they have commercials but not as many as American shows. Any other channels and you need a satellite dish. Since they switched over to digital here all the remotes have an extra red, green, and blue buttons that will interact differently depending on the channel and show.
The funny part is how they enforce TV licenses. If you have a TV or watch live TV on-line (I don't) you have to pay £145.50 a year. (Free if you're over 75, 50% off if you're blind, and £49 if you watch in black and white.) The joke is the enforcement. They send tons of letters. Somehow they knew I moved, even when I didn't fill in an address change. Stores will turn you in when you buy a TV, and if all else fails they have a van that drives around using radio emitters to detect TV antennas in the same way as RFID tags.
Of course living with cheap college students, a lot of them have TVs for playing playstation (and probably watching) and no license. Now if they got their TV antenna detuned it would be legal, but since they are only living here for a year they figure the process will take longer than that. Apparently the TV enforcement will try to lie their way in to the flat. If that fails then they get a warrant. But the can't touch anything so you only need to cover the TV with a sheet. Of course this is all second hand hearsay and they were surprised to hear the vans could pick up TV antennas by bouncing radio waves off of them. I don't really care because there is a TV room on the rare occasions I want to socialize. ( I have yet to watch TV alone and frankly I'm happy with most stuff on because I watch so little that what I do watch feels like a anthropology study of British culture)
Oh and "The Beeb" is the nickname for the BBC.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Much Ado About Shakespeare

A group of friends had seats for the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. It was on my checklist of things to do while I was here in London so I jumped at the chance. Now, usually you can get £5 standing tickets the night of the performance. But, standing for three hours straight can be quite painful I've heard from the people that have done it.
The whole theater is a re-construction of what the theater looked like when Shakespeare was originally writing the plays; a protruding stage with three levels of seats that wrap around about 3/4 of the stage. The design means a lot of timber beams blocking part of everyone's view.To add to that the seats we had were at the very edge so we saw most of the acting of the people's backs. Add to this that we were sitting on wooden benches (I paid the extra £1 to rent/hire a cushion) and it felt very authentic.
Of course because it was Shakespeare I could only understand about every other word. Of course, I faired better then the Chinese friends but not quite as good as the British friends. It did make a difference that they were speaking in real British accents. I so much more enjoyed hearing it that way then the proper thespian accents.
While it may sound like I'm complaining, it was quite the contrary. I had a blast. It really felt like they sucked you back in time 500 years. At least they did until I heard the airplane flying over-head. I had read the synopsis of the play so at the end of each scene I could guess where we were in the play and there was a whole lot of physical humor. I would recommend going to anyone that hated Shakespeare in high school because it felt a lot more alive.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Notting Hill Carnival

Apparently in the 80's there were race riots here in London. To help integrate people afterward they created something similar to Carnivalle or Mardi Gras for the neighborhood community to show off their culture. Sunday is kids day, and Monday is adults day. I got a group of friends to come with me on Monday.
It starts with a parade with different dance companies and local groups putting together elaborate dance outfits and drumming squads. It was marvelously interesting to watch but there were large gaps that would develop waiting for the next section of the parade to catch up so we got bored and decided to check out the rest.
The parade basically goes in a big circle and in the middle you can buy food or trinkets. There is a large Jamaican influence so we got jerked chicken, curry goat, and fried plantains. I guess another part of the Jamaican culture is weed. This is the first time I've seen it being sold openly on the streets. Apparently it is the one day out of the year that the police look the other way.
And, boy was there a lot of police. Supposedly there was twice the number of police and they were shutting everything down two hours early because they did not want any riots like what happened a few weeks ago. I have to say that the police in London are infinity more friendly than the police in NYC. We were cracking jokes with them, and dancing between them as we walked from place to place.
The reason we walked around so much was that groups had set up platforms every block or so with large groups of speakers. Each platform was playing a different kind of music from the neighborhood and you would just walk up and start dancing. It was like just hopping from party to party. I danced to Reggae, Techno, Jungle, and Drum and Bass.
There was one point where we got so crowded on one block that I could tell the crowd was at a breaking point. The DJ stopped the music and was saying "we need police on our left" (A fight had started from people just pushing harder to get through the crowd) "and an ambulance on the right" (a girl had fainted) We decided it was a good time to leave. In the police's attempt to control the crowd so that it didn't get to crowded we had actually also been effect kettled in on this block.
We finally found the right choice of streets that were not closed to get out of the crowd. We noticed that the police had changed from their bobby hats to florescent yellow riot gear. As we got further away from the crowds there were police arriving that had the armor plated boots so they were ready if a riot did start.
Luckily everything was peaceful and we only got back home about two hours later than we were expecting to. I, personally am amazed at how good of a job the carnival does of exposing different groups to each other. I know I talked to a lot of different people that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

British Foods III

  • Orange Squash: British friends were trying to explain this one to me but as soon as I tasted it I realized it was just Sunny Delight. The funny thing is that any other squash (e.g. lemon or black current) is just concentrated fruit juice that you usually add 2 to 1 or 4 to 1 water.
  • Pudding: Trying to explain American pudding here is hard because there is nothing similar here. The best I can do is a semi-solid gloppy chocolate sauce. Pudding here can refer to any desert. More specifically though it usually refers to cake in the shape of an upside-down bowl, usually soaked with alcohol. Unless of course it's Yorkshire pudding, then it is a pop-over like thing eaten with steak. Like I said just about anything can be pudding here. Australian pudding is somewhere in between.
  • Cookie classifications: The tea culture here makes it so there are many types of sweets to eat while drinking tea. The most basic is biscuits, which refer to hard cookies. Whereas cookies are soft not that common (about the only ones I could find called cookies are a few soft bake chocolate chip). There is also cakes, the size of cookies but spongy (the most popular being Jaffa cakes.) The other type are digestives, not as sweet as biscuits (taste very similar to graham crackers), as thick as cakes but more crumbly. All in the name of "having a little something with tea".
  • British scones: About as close as something I could get to American biscuits, but denser. softer then scones in the U.S. and smaller (size of an American biscuit.) Eaten with jam and double cream there is a vocal disagreement between north and south UK on if the jam or the double cream goes on first. (I can't tell a difference in their arguments since they are not arguing on the amount to put on).
  • Cream classification: single cream is what I would consider light whipping cream. Double cream is thicker than heavy whipping cream but not as thick as "thick double cream" (or triple cream) which has the same consistency of sour cream but is just the taste of sweet cream. From there, there are plenty of other creams named after cities that vary in the amount of sugar and vanilla is added to basic double cream.
  • Sausage rolls: I saw a guy wearing a shirt "Sex, drugs, and sausage rolls" so I know that a lot of people like them here. Think sausage strudel. But, the sausage is the British breakfast sausage that is more like a blended pate then meat, and it tastes like eating a tube of salt.
  • Malt: It is everywhere. Basically it is hard to find a food that does not have one of the following as an ingredient,  malt vinegar, mar-mite, or just plain malt in it. I mean salsa does not need malt in it.
  • There is no sour taste in the repertoire here. I was having a conversation with someone about how Hershey's uses sour milk as compared to Cadburys. He just couldn't get it that someone would like the sour taste. (Or milk that has gone off according to him.) Then I realized there is no sour cream in the grocery store and sour candy does not exist in the stores. 
  • Meringue: Here these are large (about 6 inches wide and 4 inches tall) dried crusty egg whipped desert. Similar to if you were to take the top of a lemon meringue pie and let it dry out. They come in chocolate and vanilla and frankly taste like pure sugar. I couldn't make it though an entire one. I had to throw the rest away.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

London Riots

Well the song Panic by the Smiths seems appropriate. It all started with guy getting shot. Of course it bothers me the original protest that have a real grievance get drowned out by the rioters that just want to loot. This looting was different from others that I have experienced though. There didn't seem to be any racism hiding under the covers, just people that saw an opportunity to get stuff that they normally wouldn't normally be able to get. I am amazed at how well the police have been able to show restraint. I like it after how much respect I lost for the police after my experience with the egotistical narcissistic cops with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement in New York City.
I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs so I was quite familiar with riots going on at a distance. I was not expecting to live right next to where some looting was happening. Until about 2AM I was hanging around with friends, watching the news, each with our own laptop and chatting over facebook with other friends. No one really wanting to walk to their own flat. As each shuttle bus dropped more people off from the tube we got updates on which stores had been smashed and where the mob was. The next morning on my way to the tube I took pictures of a burned out building, burned and overturned cars, and broken windows everywhere. The funny thing is, during the entire event I never really felt unsafe because I didn't hear any gunshots like I have when living in California.
The reporting is interesting since there is always the British influence. I have heard them refer to the looters as hooligans and ruffians. There are references to the idea of taking it personal, being ashamed of the actions, and hurting national pride that this could happen in London. Not to mention a cultural duty to shame the people that were looting. The good side, I was happy to see, was the people coming out the next day wanting to help clean up. At each of the points that got looted people showed up with brooms. I think this is such a better reaction then what people were saying after the LA riots that they were stupid for burning down their own neighborhoods.
The next day at work everyone was of course in that post tragedy shock. It made me feel a little queasy since the last time I felt this vibe was for September 11th. It was the same thing where people commiserate together to try to make sense out of something they don't understand, with the news going on people's laptops in the background.

Friday, August 05, 2011

No Garage Space

I think I've found one of the underlying cultural influences that makes a difference between British and American culture. Here in the U.K. there are a lot less garages.
I was chatting on a bus with Canadian and British friends about the difference license rules for the three countries. It came up that some states in the U.S. require a license for driving a boat and I realized that out of all the times that I have driven a boat I never had a license. My British friend was amazed that driving a boat was a normal activity, as she had never even been on anyone's personal boat. The conversation then turned to jet-skis, of course kayaks, ATV's (she didn't even know what it was), and Dune Buggies. She didn't know anyone that owned one but my Canadian friend was just like the U.S.
Then it hit me. There are no garages here. People don't buy all the recreational vehicles because they don't have garages. Living in New York City most people didn't grow up there so they had experience with having a garage. Most of my friends here in London didn't grow up here either but the cities they grew up in were old enough that they didn't have garages there either. The lack of a garage means other things too. I think this might also influence the difference about consumerism. There is less motivation to buy new stuff when you don't want to put the spare in the garage. Having kayaks for so long has required me to have a garage for some time. Now that I have my own flat the instinct has hit me again but without storage it has become a weird sensation.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Invisble Hand of the Free Market

I never realized how much of American culture is intertwined with free market principals, or at least how much it has become lately. "Always look for the lowest price". "The price is the only thing that matters". I think part of it is no longer having a car here but it does seem odd to me when I buy something to just pay the price at the local shop because they are local. My normal procedure is when I need something I research what is the very best item of that type that fits my needs and price point. Then I figure out the way to get that item as cheap as possible, used, online, or through a sale at a store. (It is usually the case I figure out the best one for my needs is some obscure thing so I have to buy it online.) One of the problems that I've had here is that since I don't know the names of the shops, or the majority are smaller shops that are not online it is harder to find prices and inventory of local shops for me.
It is very true that there is much less of a shopping culture here. The concept of people shopping to the point of pathological hording is an alien concept when I tried to explain it. So I thought they would be very shrewd about what they do buy. That is not really the case. The thinking here is: "I need something, what model does the local shop offer". This carries true for food, electronics, even pubs.
This does however build up community. People get to know their local shop keepers and the variety of local shops is already something that has been hard to get used to since I never know which shop sells what when I am looking for something.
The problem is that as chain stores start to replace the local shops here people are getting the worst of both worlds. They don't get the community, and the prices aren't cheaper since no one shops around.

Monday, August 01, 2011

I'm a Warden!

As I've said before I live in a student village of about 360 post-grad students. I had applied for the position to be a sub-warden so I wouldn't have to pay rent. I didn't get the position though. I couldn't answer the question "Why I wanted to be a sub-warden". See I was already on the committee to plan activities, I already go to most of the social events, and I couldn't say the real reason that I didn't want to pay rent. So, I choked on the question.
Then, another sub-warden left for an internship in Belgium. They offered me her position without another round of interviews because I ticked all the boxes. I was available on short notice. I was a foreigner when everyone else is British (still weird being a minority). I was already living in the village so I knew how things run, and the head warden and assistant warden were planning to leave soon so they wanted people that had a little history.
I got a new flat to live in. In a city where the rent prices force the the majority of people to need a flat-mate I am living alone for the first time in my life. My major duties are to plan parties and social events but since I was already helping to do that there is no change so my biggest sacrifices are I have to stay home on Thursdays and one weekend a month in case someone locks themselves out of their flat or has electrical issues. (I don't fix anything, just call someone). I think it is a good trade-off for free rent but my first night on duty I missed the one night my friend from high school who is in famous enough of a band that they are touring Europe because I couldn't leave the village. The good side is that now I have stories like talking someone down after they ate some "magic" cake a stranger gave them.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How I Deal With Stress

There is a famous saying: "Stop and smell the roses". I find this saying very interesting since I study human perception and performance. As the stress level rises people usually start loosing senses. First smell, then hearing, then touch, then even their vision starts to narrow. This tunnel vision does not bode well for me doing research since the whole point is to see tangential influences. So every day as often as possible (usually when I get to the tube station) I try to remember what sounds and smells I experienced on the walk there. If I can't think of any then I know I an experiencing to much stress and try to notice the smells and sounds of where I currently am. Forcing the mind to account for many senses breaks out of the tunnel vision and naturally lowers the fight, flight, or freeze response that stress can induce.
I find it funny that they realized so long ago that if you didn't remember the smell of the roses then there was a problem. The whole idea of enjoying the little things has become so important to me with the huge amount of stress that is hitting me right now. Normally in the past I would skip out on vacation somewhere. But without time, money, or a car that is a little harder. Instead I have been trying to focus on enjoying as many little things as possible to put a smile on my face. So again I have learned how important it is to just enjoy the smell of the roses.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll

Sex: This may seem counter-intuitive but stick with me. Exposing people to sex actually makes them have less sex. Talking about sex here is not as taboo as it is in the States. "Page 3" of the paper is notorious since it shows a different topless woman every issue. Late at night there are boobs on T.V. and I've been weirded out by being in conversations with friends about which is their favorite porn site. That being said, every person I've had the conversation with has had less sex partners then an equivalent friend I know in the states. So I guess the morel is if you don't want teenage pregnancy talk about it!

Drugs: Well I consider alcohol a drug (and I really like the making this entry fit to the title too.) I am just amazed at how regulated alcohol is here. A shot is either 25ml or 35ml depending on the pub but they have to serve it from a jigger. Also glasses of wine are served from a larger jigger. Any of the pint glasses have to be etched with a line at the pint mark with the official crown showing that the glass is really a pint and it has less of a 1/4" of head on it. The funniest thing is that every British person I know, knows all of this and checks for every pour the bar tender makes, not to mention bringing up the fact that there is 568ml to a pint.

Rock & Roll: Summer in Britain is the time for festivals. The equivalent I can think of in the states is Coachella. The thing is that there are so many here. The biggest is Glastonbury, but there is also the Reading (pronounced red-ing) Festival, the Secret Garden, the Latitude Festival, and others that I am sure I have not heard about. All multi-day, multi-band concerts that people go and camp out for a few days for. I guess there is much more of a hippy type culture here than I thought.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Evolutionary Government

Growing up I was always taught how revolutionary the American government was, but never really thought about it since it was what I had always known. After living here in London for a while I see just how different it is.
There is a recursive nature to the U.S. government. There is the federal constitution, and all the states have their constitutions, and for the most part the power structure follows the a similar path (e.g. The executive branch having similar powers just at a smaller scale: president, governor, mayor).
The U.K. works on something they call a living constitution. Basically, any new laws rule out old ones. This means that if there have not been any laws passed in a certain area for a while laws can date back a few hundred years. The way the power is structured makes it pretty obvious it has been slowly built up over the last thousand years with what just works. So guilds still have some sway and there has only been a mayor in London for the last 10 years or so. Weird stuff can happen like London has two different police forces. MET watches over most of London except the borough of London City which has its own police force just for that small area.
The Greater London Authority is the name given to the power structure for London. Different boroughs have different levels of power depending on how big those villages were before they were swallowed up by ever growing London. ( Can't say the city of London because London city is one of the oldest boroughs) Even the boundaries of greater London are something people have trouble defining. It seems like the greater London Authority just has less and less power the further the borough is.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Cultural Interpretation

I went to a Thorpe Park with some friends. (Think roller coasters). I got my adrenaline fix and had a fun time watching Chinese friends that have never been on a roller coaster before. The part that caught me off guard was the part of the park that was stylized as Americana. This meant that there was 50's American music playing, along with band stands complete with the stars and stripes bunting, and all the store signs were made to look like freeway signs (reflective green with freeway numbers). All the things individually made sense but putting them all together seemed a little off.
It gets worse though all the stuff that was supposed to be American still had British touches. On the ride "Tidal Wave" they had half a bathroom. The problem being the pipe size was the skinny British size and the sink and bath tub had the two faucets that are so British. But the kicker was the Dr. Pepper real estate sign. Another thing was the new ride for 2011. It was river rafting that tried to recreate what happens in a Louisiana. I'm not sure if they were going for the "Deliverance" angle or being a little crass that they would recreate Hurricane Katrina.
So this was the first time that I have ever been somewhere where they were trying to recreate my culture. It was interesting to see what comes through as representative of your culture at the same time that it seems a little insulting. I asked the Chinese students and they have felt the same thing when Chinese New Years happened.

Monday, July 04, 2011

4th of July

The 4th of July is obviously a very American holiday. The whole point though is that the celebration of telling Britain whats what. So it felt weird not getting the day off. Instead I just went to a pub after work with an Irish co-worker and commiserated over some of the weirder points of British culture.
At which point I went home and got training for becoming a warden. Yes, that is the term they use here for the people who help take care of the social functions at the student village. The good news is that I get to live in my own studio flat. The better news is that I don't have to pay rent. That is the pay in exchange for helping to plan social events, help out at the parties, and be available for calls once a week. I think it is a pretty fair trade.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Summer Fête

To celebrate the end of the term the student village I live in decided to throw a traditional British fête (think festival, pronounced fate). Aside from the traditional barbecue food and bad pop songs there were a lot of carnival type games:
  • Splat the Rat: A taped up sock is slid down a long black drainpipe. When it pops out the end you have to hit it with a bat. The skill was in timing when the "rat" would come out.
  • Coconut Shy: coconuts were placed in cups that were attached to sticks. hit the coconut out of the cup and you can keep it.
  • Hoop-la: Ring toss over posts.
  • Croquet Challenge: croquet hoops were set up with different point values when hit them through.
  • Beat the buzz: metal hoop is passed around a bended wire. The skill is getting the hoop from one side to the other without touching the wire, completing the electrical circuit and causing a buzz.
  • Jaques Tumble Tower: Think giant game of jenga that is about 4 feet tall.
  • Sponge toss: They had painted the queen in a bikini with a hole where the head should be. People took turns putting their head through the hole while people threw wet sponges.
  • Hook a duck: rubber ducks with numbers on the bottom in a wading/kiddie pool with a hook in their back. You have a fishing pole with a hook on the end. Hook the right numbered duck and win a prize. It didn't take that long before people were jumping or throwing others in the pool.
  • Rocket launch: It is supposed to be cow-splat where you bet money where the cow will relieve themselves in a field, but no cow. Instead me launched a 2-liter bottle filled with air and water and everyone stood where they thought it would land.
  • Coin-drop: silver coins put in the bottom of a large drum of water. drop copper coins into water. If your coin touches the silver coin you get to keep it. The skill is that it is random chance with how much the coin flips when it hits the water.
I guess that was all the traditional games but there was also a bouncy castle, Frisbee, a football to kick around, and giant games of checkers and chess. We were missing Moris dancers which apparently are supposed to "dress up silly, ring their bells in the air, then drink all the booze". (It amazes me how much of British culture is getting drunk while dressed odd.) It was perfect weather, sunny and 30 degrees (that is about 85°F). I think I have adjusted to the weather since it felt warm and I was more than happy to sit in the poll with ducks and plastic balls floating around me.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How to put on a conference

One of the reasons that I couldn't stay longer in the U.S. was that my research group was hosting a conference. Since I've never helped put together a conference before it was quite the eye opener for all the extra things that go on.
There is all the obvious things that need to be taken care of,but the things that caught my attention were the things my supervisor did to make this little conference seem bigger than it was. To keep other people from walking through the area large signs with the conference name were placed to partially block doorways. People could still get through but it made it obvious not to. He worried about flag placement to draw as much attention as possible and had us move flags as the venue changed. We also had a question rehearsal so we would already know all the most likely questions we would receive from people arriving. But my favorite was when he asked us to herd people to move toward the front of the conference room to make it look more full. He also wanted us all in the conference room when the person (lower level royalty) that was the major funding for the research was talking to make it look like maximum bodies were present. Other little things that are easy to overlook was pairing poster presentations with lunch so people were more likely to stick around.
The building that was used for the conference was the Royal Geographic Society building. It felt weird being in there since they had artifacts from Capt James Cook, Roger Kipling, and the first guy to climb Mt. Everest, Edmund Hillary. There were maps on all the walls that were hundreds of years old. Some famous ones like the world map showing California as an island from the 1600's and the 1300's Chinese map proving that Columbus did not discover America. I felt like it very much had the romanticized British explorer vibe to it. I defiantly felt like I was in the league of extraordinary gentlemen.

Friday, June 17, 2011


When back in the U.S. I realised how much I had adjusted to British money. Since American money is all the same color and size I found myself checking and double checking every time I paid for something.
Here the money are different colours sizes and usually different textures (and I really like they put Darwin on the £10 note). The problem is that there is no one pound note. So when I break a five I get a lot of change back. This has led to me being in a constant fight to keep my amount of change down. In the U.S. I just kept a change dish but if I did that here all my money would be converted to change in a week. Most people here just carry a change purse but I think that just delays the problem.
British coins do make since when you know the system. The values go up as the color changes from bronze to silver to gold. Within each category larger size means higher value and octagons are worth more than circles.
Now that I am back I small amount of American money still and it is a weird sensation to look at it as worthless since I can't use it here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


While taking with family over a BBQ my sister J. said that the one thing she was most scared of was skydiving and it was on her bucket list of things to do. Well, that is all it took for me. Pretty soon we were piling into a car after finding the closest place on our phones and we were on out way there.
The first five times you jump it has to be tandem. The person assigned to me was short guy named Alex. I found it funny that here I was in the middle of Utah and the guy assigned to me was British from Milton keys, so he enjoyed me catching him up on some of the British stuff.
We had to jump in two shifts because someone had to watch my sister's baby. So I went first with J. and her husband watching their baby. The rest of the plane was filled with guys that were celebrating that this was one of the people's 9000th group. (Yes, the Internet meme of "over 9000" came to mind.) Since we were in Utah we were jumping from 13000 feet. The 10 people in the group jumped out first and the plane rose fast enough to feel like I was being pressed down. Things seemed to speed up then and I don't remember to much of that because we had already scooted to the edge.
Everyone else up to this point was feeling very nervous for the whole drive to the airport (Even my sister's husband who had jumped before). I was feeling as an outsider for the group since it did not seem like a big deal to me since I knew it was safe. It was a weird sensation wanting to feel nervous. Of course that was all taken care of when I looked over the edge of the plane. The fear hit me when I looked down. Then, without waiting, we jumped.
Basically for the first five seconds my body froze in sensory overload mode. It wasn't fear, joy, or any other emotion I've ever had before. My brain truly didn't know how to process the information it was receiving, and it was receiving it to fast to respond to anything. After five seconds the wind pressure balances with how fast you are falling and stops you from falling any faster (terminal velocity) and you get the same floating sensation as an astronaut. At this point I felt like I was swimming through the wind and the feeling of pure happiness hit me. From that high up you can see quite far and the beauty of the scenery was breathtaking. After falling for what seems like forever to liven it up a bit the instructor started rocking us back and forth to do some tricks.
I've always heard there is whiplash when the ripcord is pulled. In reality it felt very smooth, more like braking in a car. He asked me to stand on his feet and he loosened the straps a little to make it more comfortable. As we glided down I got the lesson on how to steer the parachute and how to land. I had fun pulling the left cord and making lazy swooping circles down to the landing zone. Since there was no wind, we just kicked up our legs and had a butt landing in the gravel. Total time in the air, 14 minute flight, 35 seconds falling and 10 minutes parachuting.
I watched my sister's baby while waiting for them to go through the whole experience. They paid to have a video taken that I opted out of ($90 on top of the $185 for jumping because the camera person has to jump too) The only downside to the entire event was that it took forever for my ears to pop. I felt it was totally worth it and would be willing to do it again.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Visiting Home?

I came back to the U.S for a couple of weeks to visit family and go to my nephews wedding. I have to admit I felt the twilight zone feeling in my own country; where I'm used to everything but little things catch me off guard.
It was weird hearing "Federal" in front of all the laws as it was announced on the flight and in the airport. Every time I heard it, it was for something ridiculous and the announcer sounded like they were trying to be apologetic but was using the law to hide behind. I had not been back since the change to the extra pointless security song and dance. I am thoroughly angry that I was told to use the back scatter X-ray without being told what it was. Yes, I feel violated.
I was surprised that I was not surprised by the lots of people talking with American accents. I guess for the same reasons of hanging out with so many different nationalities making it so I did not pick up a British accent, easier for me to adjust to everyone speaking with an American accent. My family was surprised that I didn't have an accent but I feel that I had picked up the sing-song cadence that faded my first day back in the U.S. The deadpan sarcasm has stayed though. It was weird catching myself referring to London as home when talking to family.
The biggest difference I noticed for the 3 state road trip was the blatant consumerism billboards. The billboards seemed to fall into one of the two groups. "You're not happy, buy this to be happy" or "You're sick, do this procedure and you'll be happy". I couldn't help looking at all the billboards I guess because of my loss of desensitization away from them.
I brought digestives, Jaffa cakes, and Soreen squidgy bread with me. I bought stuff for s'mores, shampoo, protein snack bars, isopropyl alcohol, some new shoes, and a good frying pan for the things I could not find back in the U.K. (I think part of it is just not having access to a car.)
I have adjusted to prices in pounds in my head so the prices in dollars seemed high to me and I kept forgetting tax for figuring cost in my head while waiting in line so I never had enough cash in my hand.
The way I dressed was defiantly foreign, especially for Utah, not to mention not adjusted for the heat. Everything felt so far apart with so many parking lots. I felt like my brain was stretching the whole time there.
I didn't have a problem driving after adjusting to left hand traffic. Since all my experience with left hand traffic over the last 8 months has been as a pedestrian there was no spill over to when I was behind the wheel. (except for a one time urge to go left around a round-about.)

Thursday, June 02, 2011


When I was looking into the housing situation here I noticed the washing machine was always in the kitchen. It makes sense when the norm is to not even have enough room for a living room much less a laundry room. When I got here I found out the combo washer and dryers do not work the same way as in the U.S. (forced air to dry). Instead the water is just heated to boiling surrounding the tank and the water vapour leaves through the plumbing vent instead of a special dryer vent. This of course does not work all to well so everyone buys a dryer. But the term dryer here means a self standing wire contraption that is set up indoors (because it rains every day) and can be easily collapsed. The thing is since the weather is so damp clothes are pretty much drying all the time. Mix this with the smell of laundry soap always lingering even with the extra rinse and suddenly the brand of soap to buy becomes important since your room and everything in it is going to smell like that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My walk to the tube

I walk on a path through a cemetery on the way to the tube every morning. All winter it has just been part of the walk standing in the way between me and my destination. Now that it is Spring the once bare aspen trees that lined the path have created a walk though the dappled light of the woods. It has become a nice surprise every morning with all the birds chirping. It feels a little like it's out of a Disney movie with how good the weather has been lately.
The weird part though are these bugs that are trying to warm themselves. Normally I guess they fly around but along this path light only makes it through in random little holes. So as I walk down the path there are bugs flying, frozen in three dimensional space, glowing as they are lit up in the specks of sunshine. Dodging my head around them has become somewhat of a video game. It's pretty fun to do and even funnier to watch others.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Politically Correct

One of the cultural differences here is that for the history of Britain it was the majority of white people all the way back. There is less of a drive to be politically correct when you are not trying to dance around the fact that there were a lot of different cultures that became the melting pot. (That being said, this is of course England. Talking to people from Scotland, Wales, or Ireland will get a different answer.) So when filling out the census it was quite odd when I got to the question and the only two choices for white were: British-white, Other-white. Of course that being said apparently all the people I hang out with went to school during the time they were trying to introduce some diversity. So they mock fake story problems often using names such as "Ravfikki" and such.
There is also no ambiguity about religion. There doesn't need to be when the figure head of the country is also the head of the state religion. So they get a huge kick out of me calling it Spring break instead of Easter holiday. Even more so since everything they have associated with Spring break is from T.V. so basically girls in bikinis and wild parties.

Monday, May 16, 2011


I had vaguely heard about this tradition when living in the U.S. It did not prepare me for the fervor that I experienced. It is an annual TV show where each country in Europe has a group singing and dancing. For some reason though all the groups are notoriously bad. What passes for high fashion in one countries culture is laughed at in another and modern dance and singing has the same problem. So watching the show with people from different countries led to everyone defending their own country quite loudly. All this was happening as the same time as a birthday party I was at. So there was a group of people huddled around the TV screaming or cheering at it for 3 hours during the party. Then the voting starts.
The voting is a total sham because it is all political. Half the total score comes from each country has a judge that can vote for 12 different countries except their own. To give you an idea, Eastern Europe always votes for each other. Apparently the first year that the U.K. joined the Iraq war no other countries would vote for them. The other half comes from phone-in votes. Again you people can't vote for their own country so people have been known to cross country lines so their cell phone will register in a different location.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

It's Just a Jump to the Left

An update on the whole getting used to traffic moving on the left side. I am not quite sure when it happened, but I switched over. It only took me three months here to look left first instead of right when crossing the road but that was just out of the need to preserve my life. The real change was when I realized I was going up and down stairs or walking down paths on the left. If I want to walk slow and enjoy the spring weather I caught myself naturally moving to the left of the sidewalk to let people pass me. I caught myself getting frustrated with tourists in the tube walking down their right side of the stairs while I was going up on my left side.
The only thing that has not changed over is my brain is still predicting which side the car will end up on when they make a left hand turn, or come out of a round-about. Hopefully that is the final step.

...and yes I realize my brain is going to have to go through the time warp again when I move.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

A Royal Wedding

It has been interesting living here during one of the most British things possible to happen: The royal wedding. It has been interesting watching the dual over the top patriotism and apathy happening at the same time. According to the paper, about 80% of British people don't care or are annoyed by the wedding, and that is about the same as what I found. But the level of kitsch showing up in stores and the number of flags that have been up is off the charts so I think there is a disconnect what people say publicly and how they act privately. (I guess also very British). I do think that there I felt a higher level of interest from my American friends than here. Of course being here though, it was bizarre having someone's wedding day declared a national holiday. But a friend explained it to me as I get president's day every year; they get one day off every twenty years.
There is no way I wanted to go into the center of the city with all the people camping out in tents along the route so luckily the village I lived in decided to throw our own street party. I found a shirt that said "Thanks for the Day off" in the same script as "Keep calm and carry on" signs. (I got a lot of people telling me they liked it.) There was a barbeque (sausages), croquet, and British flags everywhere. They showed the wedding using the projector and everyone threw confetti on each other at the same time. It was a cool group experience and I liked being able to talk to all the British people about how they felt. The best part though was the renting of a bouncy castle. A huge group of us must have spent three to four hours jumping and flipping in there. By the end I was tired, sore, had a few friction burns, but very happy. It was very cathartic.
A group of friends and I decided to go out to a club afterward. We had wanted to find another dubstep night at a club. (A music genre that started here in London that I have enjoyed for dancing.) I got more comments about my shirt and enjoyed completely physically wearing out my body dancing. Getting up out of the seat of the night bus when we got home took some effort. As I write this two days later I can still feel it a little.

Friday, April 22, 2011


I am not going to lie. Doing a PhD in a foreign country is stressful. Stressful enough that I didn't feel like I could even write about it until it was a little under control. Contrary to popular belief there are foreign customs and a different language here. I understand that maybe next to Canada, the U.K. is probably the most similar culturally wise but that is part of the problem. It's not so different that I can switch between worlds, so the false confidence that I know what to expect keeps getting derailed constantly and every time it does my stress level goes up.
Then there is the normal stress that I was expecting which is the uncertainty of a PhD. Of course long hours, daily commute, and no money are normal for a PhD so these are actually cause of the least stress.
The biggest cause of stress that caught me out of left field is being cut off from family and friends. I foresaw being lonely a problem so I made sure to build up a large group of people to hang out with here so that is a non-issue. It was that as soon as I was out of the picture in the U.S. some friends just cut me out completely like I no longer existed so dealing with that has added much non-needed stress.
I used to think that all I needed to do to keep my body healthy was to exercise regularly, take my vitamins, and eat right. Up until now that has worked great. Now I see if I don't monitor my stress level it will shut my system down just as fast as any sickness. Monitoring one more thing to keep it in check has, you guessed it, added to my stress level.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

American Grocery Store

I feel so dirty. I broke down and went to an American grocery store. I have been happy I have not had any cravings for food that I couldn't cook myself. At least until now that it has got warmer. Now we have had a few barbeques and fires in the fire pit of course the talk comes to roasting marshmallows, and for me, s'mores. The funny thing I didn't realize is that graham crackers are only an American thing, so by extension so are s'mores. Graham crackers are not something that I really wanted to try making either. I had looked up a few grocery stores that sold American food before I moved here, and looking up the list there was one only a block away from where I was. I guess there is a large number of Americans that live in the neighborhood so they stock some stuff. They had a small shelf hidden away in the back (like the adult section at the video store) with all the stuff that Americans can't get in London. It was rather embarrassing seeing all the "American" food because it was mostly junk food and candy. I talked with some British women in the store and she was overjoyed there was just somewhere in London that she could get Reese's peanut butter cups.
I got my graham crackers and introduced all my friends to s'mores. Apart from graham crackers being close to digestives (a wafer eaten with tea here) everyone enjoyed them hugely and we went through both bags of American marshmallows by the end of the night. (British marshmallows are smaller and come in pink and white for some reason. They also have something called mallows here that are the same size as American marshmallows but they are twisted rainbow colored things that have more sugar in them and I'm not sure how they would fair roasting over a fire.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Stranger in a strange land

It is weird living in another country. There, I said it. There are so many things you take for granted just knowing the culture and such. The other day I saw some teenagers being questioned and searched by police and it made me realize I don't know the laws here. Do I have the right to remain silent or to an attorney (barrister)? Because I keep up on the field of computers I know that the law here is that if you have your computer searched and you refuse to give a password then you can be arrested but what about other stuff? This has created a strong desire to stay under the radar even when I'm innocent. Basically I can understand the extra stress that immigrants feel in the U.S. Whereas a citizen gets a fine would I be sent home, wasting all the money I've put into living here? I can see how easy this could be abused by people in power. Police could cross the line and I'd never know it so wouldn't report it.
The other thing I'm trying to get used to is the culture of interaction. One thing that British people hate about American culture is the fake politeness. Especially telling people to have "Have a good day" that you don't know, or sharing personal information to soon. Also, shaking hands at the end of a conversation and not the start. Frankly no one touches anyone here when talking to them. I think I've freaked a few people out just by touching them on the arm.
The one good thing is that I think that I finally understand British humor. There is still a lot more formal traits in the culture here, and the desire to keep them in the culture. So not knowing the proper thing to do leads to awkwardness. British humor is to introduce these situations and then revel in the awkwardness.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Trip to the Dentist

So as part of living here in the U.K. I need to do all the mundane things like going to the dentist. It had been six months since I had the root canal so it's not like it was something that I could put off either. Whether I liked it or not I would need another interaction with the U.K. medical system.
Making the appointment was easy. I had heard the stereotypical finding a dentist would be hard so I had asked the local dentist months ago, and they just looked at me weird. I only needed to request an appointment a few days in advance. From what I have talked to with my British friends the dental system has changed a lot in the last 10 years so all the stereotypes of British teeth being bad from not being able to find a dentist are no longer true. And, since everyone is covered there was no reams of insurance papers to fill out or make sure this dentist accepts my insurance.
The actual visit was different from what I am used to, but fine. Instead of the normal eight x-rays I only got four, but the dentist poked and prodded all my teeth, was happy with everything and seemed a little shocked that I said I flossed every day. (I have never had a checkup in the U.S. where the dentist didn't chastise me for not doing something better.) There was no polishing but I've never been sure if that was necessary or not. And the final thing was the request that I come back in 9 months instead of 6.
I felt like the dentist did their job but there were a lot of little things that were missing from the same exam from the U.S. Admittedly I don't know if it is because the national health care system does not cover as much or if the litigious U.S. society causes more checks then are really needed, or if dentists in the U.S. are doing everything they can charge the insurance for. Total cost for the x-rays and checkup: £17.00.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

British Isles: The safest place on earth

I was walking from the tube station with some friends and the conversation turned to if we were in Australia we would need vary our path from day to day so crocodiles wouldn't learn our habits. (My friend, from Australia, says this is true for some parts of the country.) So we each related what we were taught as kids. I learned it was fine to chase coyotes back up into the hills as long as you didn't corner them; and what the sound of a rattle snake meant. My Polish friend related how to avoid wolves then the three of us looked at the British guy who had a confused look on his face. There are no dangerous animals here. Anything big enough was hunted to death long ago. There are no poisonous snakes or spiders either.
So then I started talking about the other stuff I learned in school like earthquake and flood drills. The U.K. doesn't really flood, has never had an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or anything else really. And that is when it hit me - The whole "pub culture" makes sense. It is totally fine to pass out on the way home because you wouldn't be carried away by a pack of wild dogs or washed away in a flood. In other places the culture would develop to look down on getting that drunk because there would be a chance that a snake would bite you while passed out in the field. I'm sure there are some other reasons in there too, but it made for a good laugh before we got to "uni".

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Ocean Filter

It is interesting what does and does not make it over the Atlantic and what has been filtered out for one reason or another. I've talked about the one way language barrier before (caused by American movies and TV showing all over the world, the reverse not being true so I don't know a lot of British slang.) But there is a lot of stuff I can talk about for American culture that everyone understands until there is just some hole and my joke will deadpan. Then I get the look. Of course, if I'm not sure if they have heard of something and they have I also get that same look.
I was watching TV with some of the British students and they had never heard of the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" but have heard of the band "Save Ferris". (They also were truly disturbed when they saw Cameron in the movie saying "Hey batter, batter, batter, swing batter". I had to explain that was normal to say at a Baseball game and was not Turrets.)
Besides the odd movie that has slipped through I have noticed that the coverage of American culture is a recent phenomenon so shows like Gilligan island got a blank stare from everyone. Since they get the shows but not the commercials I find that references I make to commercials leave the biggest holes. I was trying to explain the Pillsbury dough boy, which to me, makes perfect cultural sense. That is until I catch myself saying that poking a little white thing and making him laugh will help sell pastries.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

End of term boat trip

They talked me into making the flyer for the party for the end of the term. We had decided to have it on a boat that make a 3 hour tour up and down the Thames river. I thought it was obvious but no one had heard of Gilligans island but I couldn't resist. I added a picture of the minnow on the party flyer, even if only the two other Americans and one Canadian were the only ones to get the joke.
So these party barges (or disco boats) are pretty regular things for London. They all pretty much look the same and have to have really low roofs to go under all the bridges. This meant if I didn't want to lean my head to one side I had to spend a lot of time outside, which is fine since I was taking pictures anyway.
I got to see the Parliament building and Big Ben. The MI5 and MI6 headquarters (Think British versions of the FBI and CIA respectively) are both on the water which seems kind of weird when you want to keep secrets. Going under the Tower bridge was interesting. It is just as decoratively painted underneath as it is on top.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patricks Day

I've been told that for Ireland St. Patrick's Day is a national holiday so the streets are littered with passed out bodies. My friends that are Irish here though didn't feel that the level of partying was even worth the effort so they actually did less than most of the other students. Other things I learned: saying St. Patty's day is not OK but St. Paddy Day is.
Wearing green for the day is not a part of the culture here. I'm guessing it's because of the fight over Northern Ireland and the British side is orange for that fight. That being said an excuse to drink is not passed up so St. Patrick's Day is heavily celebrated here. Of course since St. Patrick is the saint for Ireland the drink of the day is Guinness. The big traditional thing to wear here for St. Patrick's Day is the hat. Now normally I am told that you are given the hat when buying four pints of Guinness. However this year, as long as you donated two pounds to the charity you got the hat. Which I was happy about since I wouldn't have got the hat otherwise. My friend however had it all planned out a little to well of which chains of pubs gave which kind of hats (Yes, pubs are franchises here like McDonald's which dictates which ales are served.) and how in previous years that he had drunk 8 pints to get both kinds of hats (The Guinness top hat, and a clover leprechaun hat.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Pancake Day

So the tradition for the day before the start of Lent is called Pancake day. New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Rio De Janeiro has Carival, here they eat pancakes. Instead of trying to get all the sin out before starting Lent the tradition here is to get rid of all the food that can't be eaten during Lent and would spoil. (Apparently that just magically just happens to be the ingredients for pancakes.)
Now British pancakes are what I think of as a crepe. We had a gathering in the village hall and a few people including me had a try at flipping them in the pan. Sweet and savory toppings were presented (lots of different kinds of chocolate sprinkles, fruit, golden syrup - basically corn syrup but made from sugar, lemon juice, sugar, cheese, and ham) Of course by the end of the night people were mixing the ham and chocolate on their pancakes.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Leeds Castle and Canturbury

One of the funny things about living in a country that has had the system of a Monarchy so long is that you can visit the institutions of that system. One of those institutions is Leeds Castle. Since it is usually a king ruling over the country, when they die, their son becomes king. Of course the son will want to move into Buckingham palace with his wife (now queen) which means the old queen needs to find a new home and has also had any money striped of her that is part of the crown. A tradition started up of giving Leeds castle to the Queen as a wedding present in her own name. So once the king dies, she lives out her life then leaves the castle to her son in the will so the castle stays in the family. Apparently this castle went through quite a few generations of this happening.
The castle itself had all the proper romantically stereotypical castle traits like a mote, archer slits, and the sawtooth roof-line. Hence, it being the tourist attraction it is. Inside of the castle there is the castle side of castle and home side of castle. The castle side of the castle dates back to the 1300's because they never felt the need to remodel the whole thing. The home side seems the same as Hearst Castle or the Rockefeller Mansion.
The part that I found the coolest though was the castle maze. It had a real hedge maze that was circular with the goal being a large rock in the middle. I was not expecting the large rock to actually have a set of stairs leading down to a grotto under the maze. It was like the prize for solving the maze. Everything was decorated in shells and set in the motif of under the sea. It must have taken someone years to have glued all the shells all over the walls into these patterns. It makes me wonder if they did it out of boredom. The people I was with came to the realization that anyone rich enough to build their own private zoo has crossed the line between real life and eccentric loss of reality.

Part of the bus (coach) trip also included stopping off in Canterbury. Of course I had to read Canterbury tales in high school so I couldn't help feeling like I was making my own pilgrimage to cathedral since I studied the cathedral in Art class. (It's a very good example of British Gothic.)
Besides fame from the book the cathedral is also famous as the seat of the head of the church of England, so basically the U.K.'s own personal Vatican City. The reason why this is so important is the idea that the Monarchy receives their power from God. This basically gives the arch bishop of Canterbury some real power. So it was cool to see the one of the few pieces of British history that I knew before coming here: where Thomas Becket was murdered. (The kings knights did it since he wasn't giving his support to the king, and it is such a big deal since they killed him in the church.) And by one of the "few pieces I knew" that I mean is he was murdered in 1170 and they presented it on a plaque giving the day of the week. I'm not used to building standing since 1170 much less written records accurate enough to know the day of the week it happened.
It was nice seeing all the art in the church but I felt a little like a tour guide to my group of friends I was with since I was explaining the symbolism. (dogs at the feet of tombs represented fidelity - hence the name Fido for a dog's name.) to the technique of how to create stained glass windows (glass powder is mixed with water then baked until it melts into glass again.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

British Comedy Show

When I visited London five years ago as a tourist I went to a comedy show and spent half the time with a blank stare because I didn't understand the jokes about British TV shows or celebrities. So with a little hesitation I tagged along with friends to a local comedy show. I have to say I was able to get a lot more of the jokes.
The host comedian warmed up the audience by asking where everyone was from and cracking jokes about that area of the U.K. or Europe. I know where most of the major cities are now in the U.K. and exports from most of the areas so I laughed right along.
British humor is always known as being self-deprecating and dry and that was true but there is also not the hang up about political correctness there were a lot more jokes about race. (However I didn't feel they crossed the line over to racial jokes.)
The next comic played songs on a guitar. It was funny, but had to keep rhythm to the song so there were not as many jokes. It did sound realistic when he did his own accompaniment with his mouth that sounded like a trumpet.
The last comic was a guy from Idaho. His observations about British pub culture seemed to hit a chord with what I had said to friends. Every punchline one of my friends would look at me to see my reaction. I just nodded my head and kept laughing. The comic noted that normal behavior on a sunny day would be to go into a dark pub to talk about how rare it is sunny, and when he went outside to puke because he didn't have as high of a alcohol tolerance as his friends they remarked "Oh good, you're making room for more."

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Chinese New Year

There is a large push to try to get the Chinese students to integrate with others in the student village. To this end a Chinese new years party was thrown, only no Chinese students wanted to help plan it so we had to drag some along. The first thing that is a big tradition is making dumplings. With Chinese students supervising, I took two huge cleavers and chopped leaks on a large plate. Everything seemed to need to be minced with the cleavers, even the ground pork. once it was all mixed chopsticks were used to put a small blob into a dough wrapper which was then sealed up with a wet finger.
We then turned to decorating. With a watchful with someone who could read all the decorations were hung with the writing pointing the right way. But it was so windy that the tent broke one of its main supports. Extra ropes were added to tie down the tent but all the lanterns swaying back and forth made me feel more like I was on a ship.
Chinese beer was supplied for the party so that all the British students wouldn't complain, and they had planned karaoke but the screen didn't work so to sing to the music people would search on their iPhone as soon as the song started to pull up the lyrics. I would have tried to sing along but without the phonetic help for the Chinese characters I was at a loss.
One thing that was cool was that they had hired a dance group to a traditional Lion Dance (think dragon looking thing) complete with drummer and extra sets of legs so about every minute or so the lion would switch dancers holding it so it could keep up the crazy pace without anyone getting tired. The climax was the lion eating a cabbage hanging from the top of the tent then spitting out over the crowd. Apparently since I was showed in ripped up lettuce I will have good luck.
Of course it was important for everyone to wear red to the party but the only thing I had was the undersized t-shirt I wore under my ripped up Halloween costume. I wore a cardigan over it so it looked fine but at the end of the night they wanted a picture with everyone in red so I took off the cardigan. With the tight shirt and my arm around the guy next to me everyone said my pose looked like me (and the guy on the other side of the group picture) were both doing modeling poses. (followed up by plenty of references to Zoolander.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

American Party

A friend of a friend was moving from London to Amsterdam. He is American and wanted to have an American party so I was invited to help add to the ambiance (Now there is a first). I wasn't really sure how different it would be to all the British parties I've been to. I mean college parties seem to center around drinking, with the only difference is British pub culture makes it more acceptable here.
Well I was wrong. The first thing I noticed walking in were all the people wearing baseball caps. It hit me it was the first time I had seen anyone wearing one for a while since I really only regularly talk to one other American and she doesn't wear them. The guy throwing the party had brought back a large pack of the red solo cups from the last trip to the U.S. for authenticity. Apparently Beer Pong is a very American game since no non-American had ever played. The red cups were used for Beer Pong and Flip Cup but buying a keg was more expensive than cans so everyone just emptied one can into two cups to keep the ambiance. (Yet another example of the difference between a British and American Pint.)
I spent my time just talking so the main thing I noticed was the lack of accents; at least in my eyes. Being in London has made me acute to the different British accents (I now can recognize the difference between a Birmingham and Manchester) It took me a half hour or so to go back to recognizing the Connecticut accent from North Dakota. (Texas was different enough it hit me right away).


Only about an hour away by train, Oxford is a pretty easy place to visit from London. This meant that the British people that I went with had been there previously and only wanted to visit pubs. (Their view of Oxford is also that it is the school you go to if you want to go to a bunch of formal dinners and live out in the middle of nowhere. Since the school I am at is at the same level so no one complains about admittance, instead it funny that I guess I ended up at the "party school")
The meaning of Oxford apparently is the best place to get your oxen to ford the Thames river. To this end they have a large ox statue at the train station. Or course in keeping with tradition, I needed to climb on top and take my picture.
I didn't realize before we got there but there were multiple universities in Oxford. (I had been to busy to look up where I wanted to go around town, hence just tagging along with people familiar with the city.) In reality we only saw Trinity College, and Oxford University but apparently there are three others. Each department of the university has its own crest that we saw all over the city.
The thing about oxford is that it has been there for a while, so a lot of the buildings look very much the same. They all use the yellow stone, and I really like it, but when block after block looks the same it makes it easy to get lost. My favorite piece of architecture was the "Bridge of Sighs". It looked the same as the one in Venice except in yellow stone instead of white marble.
The high point of the trip was going to the Museum of Natural History. It seemed like they had as much stuff as the New York museum of natural history but only had one level to display it. Display cases would group similar looking things together even if they were from half way across the globe. I guess it is because the museum is from a time when they organized things differently.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Burns Night

Apparently "Robbie Burns Day" is a celebration of all things Scottish. It is a big enough holiday that it is considered a Bank Holiday. They were having a party in the Village hall and looking for people to help cook some haggis. How could I refuse a chance to do that? Luckily it is just pulled out of the bag and boiled for 90 minutes.
So it goes that Robert Burns was a poet in Scotland that died in 1796 who wrote poetry to things such as haggis, and is credited with writing "Auld lang syne". The way it is celebrated is with all things Scottish. Scotch whiskey, mashed swedes (a.k.a. neeps, think giant turnips), mashed potatoes (tatties) and of course haggis.
The haggis ended up being pretty tasty. Basically it tastes like a spicy but not hot spicy Mexican chorizo. (Not to surprising when you realize it is heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep blended up with some spices then stuffed into the stomach and boiled for an hour and a half.) The mashed swedes tasted very similar to mashed potatoes but a little less starchy.

I know that I am defiantly becoming assimilated because when they first told me about what they were doing for the party it didn't even phase me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fancy Dress Parties

At first I thought it was just a way to say costumes for Halloween. But no, the British love their fancy dress parties. There are multiple clubs where each week there is a different theme to dress up for. Almost all the Christmas and New Years parties were costume parties as well, each having their own theme.
To top it off, I had a few friends that had their birthday on the same day and decided to throw a joint birthday party. In it they asked people to dress as something that started with "A" or "K" (their names). I wasn't sure how many people were going to show up in costume so I didn't know how elaborate to make mine. (not to mention time or money) I finally went with being a King when I found a Burger King and got a crown. I bought a sword that I could blow bubbles with and a "Santa's bag" on clearance that I cut open and glued a white scarf around the fringe for my robes. (For a total of £2.50 from the pound store). About half the people were dressed up so I spent about the right amount of work.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Living with Royalty

One of the first things that you are taught as a child in the U.S. is that royalty is tyranny. There is no voice of the people when there is royalty. Now I'm aware that the U.K. is a constitutional monarchy but having a Royal family still costs British tax payers a lot of money. When I was here five years ago there was a news article about how each British Citizen had to pay £0.70 to support the Royal family. I've asked friends about this, and their answer is that it is good for tourism. You can't get rid of a Royal family and then bring them back if you decided you liked having them around. So the U.K. has one of the few Royal families left and use it as tourist attraction. (I just know that any museums or sites owned by the royal family, like castles are the ones that have the outrageous admission prices.)
As far as the government side, I understand that having the royal family around to entertain visiting heads of state. (The U.S. doesn't have this department so the President pulls double duty.) But it was also explained to me that royalty thinks long term since they want to see their children be in power after them, where as a politician will say and do anything to get re-elected the next term. The thinking for the House of Lords, that appointed instead of voted in, is that since they see after trades, if they are appointed then they do not have favors owed to any companies.
But I still think it is weird that I will be getting the day off for the wedding in April when the prince gets married.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I don't really follow any sports in the U.S. as it is. It's even worse here since I don't even know the sports. They were talking about Football (Soccer) and started going on about the different positions. I mean I at least know all the Baseball, Basketball, and Football positions from playing the game. The last time I played soccer was in Middle School.
The British are crazy about any sports that are done in a pub. (darts, pool, competitive drinking...)To give you an idea, while in the store I heard two kids run over to the sports section and have one say to the other: "Cool, the new year's darts are here.
There is a big rival Cricket competition that happens every two years happening right now between Australia and the U.K. Since I have no idea about Cricket rules watching it as I walk by any TV's is like a parade in weirdness. I'm sure someone that never had seen a Baseball game would thing the same thing.
I realized that rugby and football area pretty much in the same class of sport. I know that a lot of people find that sacrilege but there are also "Irish rugby", and "Australian rugby" and they are as different from each other about as much as football is from rugby so I guess they are all in the same family.
Net ball: At first it is what I thought they called basketball. As it turns out, it's similar to basketball except there is no backboard, and you can't move when you have the ball. It looks pretty fun but it looks like it is the equivalent of softball is to baseball so only women play it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


It is kind of scary but I think I am becoming assimilated into British Culture. Now don't get me wrong I won't be drinking tea anytime soon, but there are little things.
L. noticed that I have started looking left before right when I cross the road. I was watching a movie and it literally took me two seconds of thinking "What does him driving on the wrong side of the road" have to do with the plot before I realized he was driving on the right, because it was in Italy. I feel like I have started to pick up the British Cadence when I speak. Not the accent (L. agrees) but the rhythm of my speech has changed. (Except how I say American, somehow that has become Amuricun because I say it so often.) I think in Celcius for tempreture, I only know my weight in stones (because that is what the scale at the gym tells me) and I used the term "flat" to refer to my apartment for the first time without thinking about it first.