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.