Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reducing Back to Zero

I hate doing this. I had been so conscious of money living in London throwing away the opened food in my fridge felt physically exhausting and like I was breaking my own rules. I had to much stuff to get it all packed. To many souvenirs that I had picked up along the way. I sold what I could around the flay on ebay, and gave away or donated everything else.
For the actual flight out I felt like I needed to be a good example to the end and wanted to make sure to leave my flat clean. I under estimated how long it would take me to walk to the tube station with all the heavy luggage and ended up being in a hurry and I got to the airport 2 minutes late to check in my luggage. All the gate attendants wanted to do was leave so I was cut no slack. I ended up needing to pay £100 extra. (The lady on the phone started at £600) With a little embarrassment I got the key back for my flat and slept there one more night.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

High Tea

It looks like the last activity I got to be a part of was a high tea. Now high tea is different than afternoon tea. The way the British tradition goes is afternoon tea is a mid-afternoon snack around 3-4. served with biscuits or cucumber sandwiches. Basically the stereotype of what people think tea time should be. High tea replaces dinner. This means there are meat pies (one was pork with a gelatin brown sauce, the other was pork and apricot. Both were tasty.), quiche, meats and cheeses, breads with all the relish and pickled onions, and vegetables. It's things like this that I will miss about London. It makes no sense, everyone knows that and does it though because it's been done for so long that way. But that's what I love about it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Going Away Party

Well there was no way out of it. My supervisor had basically did bait and switch with my funding wanting to get me to work for free. Instead I decided to head back to the US. I seemed like a sad time to leave so I made sure it was two people's birthdays too. It ended up being a much more mellow party as compared to others. People showed up, played some games, everyone had fun. The music was at a lower volume and everyone just talked and played games instead of danced. It made for a very mellow send off.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Inside of Parliment

One of the things on T.'s list of things to see was inside the parliament building . (As in the one with Big Ben in the bell tower.) So what's it like inside? Well the only place I could take pictures was the oldest part (from the 1300's) it was also the plainest part, and only big part of the building. The newer part is mostly hallways which is surprising from the look from the outside. The rooms inside are actually quite small. Another thing that really caught my attention was the smell. It had old smell to it. But old dignified smell. It wasn't old building smell though. It was like an old dignified cologne smell. I could only guess there was a guy that was paid to mix a special blend of herbs to create a cologne smell special to the parliament building then spay it around every day. When I brought this up with a British friend he told me that the old way of getting the yellow in tweed was to dye it with urine. The damp air of the Thames right next to the parliament building would bring out the smell of urine. So it is very possible my theory is right that they pay a guy to handle building smell every day. There are weirder (to me) traditions they follow in there.
Oh yeah, and a lot of British tradition happens there and I was in awe at all the history. I just don't know how to write that down without sounding boring. But one thing was obvious: it is a mish-mash of whatever traditions stuck over the hundreds of years. I can only imagine US traditions will be just as opaque in another 700 years.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Teaching Easter

So how to explain all of the Easter traditions to someone that has never celebrated them before. You really realize how silly they all are when seeing them from the outside:
We had to have an easter egg hunt. Now all the european students went home for easter break so that left the wardens and mostly Chinese students. (There were a couple South American students). Explaining they are supposed to hunt around with the head warden's little kids for Cadbury eggs hidden by a rabbit (We had to stay in story because of the little kids) I think most of the Chinese students got the gist of what was really going on even with a little language barrier.
Then I had big hollow chocolate eggs for T. and I on the couch. I had to explain in the US chocolate rabbits are left. The whole idea of a rabbit leaving you a rabbit to eat seems demented.
One really fun thing to do was to go to Harrods and Fortnum & Mason to see the totally over the top chocolate eggs. It was like the Christmas display windows in NYC only these ones were for sale. Two foot tall £150 chocolate egg with fancy writing. Who in their right mind has spoiled enough children to think they need to buy that to have a good relationship with their kids? I can only guess it is for suck up rich middle management to buy insecure bosses. Fun to look at though.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Snowdonia

Mount Snowdon is the tallest mountain in the UK outside of Scotland. When I saw this trip mentioned by one of the residents I couldn't help but propose for me to be in charge of the planning. As the planning got closer I realized this was the perfect place to propose to T.
I ended up filling up a van, planning all the meals, and buying the food. We had a 7 hour drive to a mountain cabin owned by the university. I thought it was going to be a house, but no it was a mountain cabin with a fireplace to keep us warm and funky old mattresses in a 300 year old rock hut with a cement floor. It really added to the whole feeling for the rest of the trip. But the first night it wasn't that inviting since everyone was just so tired we all collapsed as quick as possible.
After a breakfast of french toast soufflé (one of my signature easy large group dishes. I did get help from M and C. It's not like I was slaving away alone.) we headed up the mountain. Half way up it was so foggy no one could see 50 feet. I pulled T off the trail a little ways and gave her the ring. We finished the hike to the top just in time for the group photo, but our half the group took the wrong way down and took a lot longer to get back to the cabin.
The second day we visited the town of Caernarfon. (Yes, Welsh names are hard for me to spell) The castle there was a nice easy walk and really went well as part of the little seaside sleepy town. Everyone was happy to just lazily walk around instead of another day of hiking, T and I included.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cooking What I Crave

There was a lot of stuff I was craving that I could not get in London. Every time I ran into this situation I am so glad that I was not scared of cooking things myself. Everything on this list is funnily something that I have never made before. So the list goes:

  • Peanut butter cookies: this is funny since I never had a craving for them or even really liked them when living in the US.
  • Avocado pizza: I've always made this on English muffins but I made it with this time with hand thrown dough. I think I was craving the dough more than anything.
  • Enchiladas: This I actually made before but I couldn't resist since my friend brought back tortillas from their US visit.
  • Fish tacos: It's weird I've never made this before as restaurants make it with the shredded cabbage and such. But I had this craving since I had the corn tortillas from my friend I felt I needed to savor.
  • Horchata: made for the Mexican party.
  • Hand-made tortillas: made for the Mexican party.
  • Chicken noodle soup: craving the home-made thick noodles.
  • Oreo stuffed chocolate chip cookies: My sister sent me Oreos and I didn't know what to do with them.
  • Gingerbread men: Christmas craving.
  • Cheddar biscuits: Famous from the restaurant Red Lobster. I had this craving for Christmas too.
  • Cornbread: I bought corn meal for the first Thanksgiving I was here but didn't get around to making it until my second Thanksgiving.
  • Pumpkin pie: Thanksgiving craving with a home-made crust too.
  • Persimmon pudding: I've made this before but I couldn't resist making this since I had access to persimmons.
  • Biscuits and Gravy: Every time hearing about British biscuits I got the craving for American biscuits.
  • Macaroni and Cheese: I thought this was not an American food so I found it funny when I could only find this at the American grocery store. I didn't feel like paying £4 for what would cost less than a dollar in the US.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St Partick's Day Party

Talk about luck, the last day of the term was on the 16th. St. Patricks Day was on the 17th. Of course this should be the theme for the end of term party in the student village. In thought it makes perfect sense. The reality is that most of the students went to their own St. Patricks Day parties so they came to the student village party as an after party or did not show up at all. Hind-sight is 20/20.
Which meant for the people that did show up there was extra of everything. We had decided to make Irish stew so each of the wardens and everyone on the planning committee got two bags of potatoes (I did not know that there are different textures of potatoes: waxy and starchy) onions, carrots, spices, and sheep's neck bone. The stew I made never even got used so I ended up eating stew for the next two weeks until I got tired of it.
A leprechaun hunt was also planned out so me and another warden C. went in search of chocolate gold coins. After striking out at 3 different grocery stores and 2 candy stores we found them at a little connivence store that a last ditch effort. I decorated the place with all the green lights we had while everyone else put up shamrocks. The fridge was filled with (predictably) Guinness. There was also a Ceilidh caller (Irish barn dancing, no I don't know the reason why this is so popular for college parties) . With the lower turn out the party was much more low-key but it made it easier to deal with the drunk people since that is what St. Patricks is all about.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Meditation Flash Mob


I learned about a flash mob that was happening at the British Museum. It was for a group meditation. I thought it would be interesting to take part in a flash mob so I headed over. Even after a year in London I arrived late because I mis-judged how long it would take to travel by tube. I walked around the outskirts of the group and found an empty spot to sit.
The first part was to be silent meditation with the second chanting. I sat quietly trying to clear my mind of being late and concentrate on meditating. Of course since I was on the outskirts I was prime fodder for being photographed by the media that was there. It is a little hard to concentrate on anything with a constant shutter clicking from a camera inches from my head. Sure enough I later saw a picture of me on one of the news websites.
At 6:30 at the center of the circle the second part started I heard the low chanting. The volume of each “ohm” slowly rose with every exhale and I could hear it creeping closer and closer to me as people joined in. Finally it reached me, then flowed around and surrounded me the other late comers joined in. It sounded as a complete surround stereo but no one person was chanting loud enough to stick out so it was not distinguishable to be coming any certain point. The thing is though is that no one breaths at the same pace. So instead of the volume rising and falling with each breath it slowly became waves of sound as ohms bobbed up and down around me. Listening to the waves as they crashed into each other was an interesting thing to listen to; amplifying in volume as people joined rhythm for a short time.
Then with the ring of a chime everyone went silent again at 6:45. With a few relaxing breaths people started to get up. It was surprising how refreshing the whole experience was. Of course I did the exact opposite of meditating since I was paying attention to the everything going on around me instead of focusing on the meditating like I was trying to. But the feeling of being part of the larger group helped me to understand why there are so many people that do meditate with others.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Oldest Pub in London?


I thought it was interesting how there were so many old buildings in London still in use. It seems like the buildings that were the oldest still in use where the pubs. So I did a little research to find the oldest one in London. As it turns out, it seems to gets a little hazy around 1666 since the great fire of London seemed to burn most of the records. There are a lot of pubs that all claim to be the oldest and one with one of the more reputable stories is the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
Apparently, it’s been a pub since 1538 but the wine cellar is from a 1300’s monastery wine cellar that monks would sell wine out of to support the monastery; good enough for me. T. and I headed down to check it out.
Of course a building that old had a different level for each room. The other problem with buildings that old is the low roofs. So, of course with my height, as we explored the building I was constantly forced to look up and down bumping my head and tripping a few times. The worst was in the basement where the door to the toilet didn't even come up to my shoulder. We explored the whole building from the sub-basement wine cellar up to the private dining rooms. I was amazed at how large the place was, because it was pretty obvious that each room was added on one at a time as needed.
One of the rooms really caught my attention; not because of the decoration but because of the smell. It had what I thought was the acrid smell of old buildings. It made my skin crawl and I can only describe it that it reminded me of death. T. told me it was the smell of a burning coal fireplace. The way she said it I could tell she was surprised that I had never smelled it before.
In such an old place I felt like we had eat something traditional. We ordered meat pies for dinner there since it seemed like the most traditional thing to have but they ended up being ready made pies heated up. So much for being historical when we were eating the equivalent of a microwave dinner.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mexican Party

Save Chinese New Year, all the other parties are very British. I couldn't really throw an American party though. It seemed odd but what parts of American culture would I bring out. Not to mention that I was only one of two Americans in the student village so it would not really be very appealing to the students at large. So how about a Mexican Fiesta!
This was really an excuse for me to make some Mexican food that I was craving. I had never made my own tortillas before and with being so hard to find them here I thought I would have a hand at it. Growing up in southern California made Mexican culture second nature to me but it is the border culture, completely different from central Mexico. So I enlisted the Mexican students to help plan. This expanded into including pretty much all the south American students. But hey, I was happy that it was a non-european party!
The thing that excited most people was the piñata. They had all heard of it but never tried to hit one. After searching at a few places I finally found a party store that had them. I bought two since everyone knows something always goes wrong when you have a piñata. I was worried where I would find refried beans but finally found them at Whole foods of all places. I also bought an assortment of hot sauces for a tasting.
Of course this was still London so alcohol was still involved. I knew nothing about Tequila but  I went to the one off-license that was famous in London for having all the weird types of alcohol and basically bought £100 of tequila on their advice. I also made some horchata for those that did not drink (also a first time experience but it was tasty.)
Everyone had fun. Everyone dove for the candy and I made sure to grab the stick so no one was hit. I was glad I had bought two piñatas since the first one was killed after only a few hits. The south American students took care of the music since I had no clue and after seven different tequila tastings a lot of people were dancing the tango. But most importantly I took care of my craving for warm tortillas.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Politics of Writing a Paper

There are two conferences that really matter for what I am studying. The problem is that the deadlines for both of these are a week apart. This meant that everyone was spending every hour they had to get either results or paper done by the deadline.
I had been working on the intranet for the group so much and had run into so many problems that my own research had not had my attention it needed. Just as I was getting started my advisor told me instead of trying to submit my own paper I would instead help someone else to submit their paper.
I emailed out to co-workers and only one emailed back that he needed help. So I moved over to temporarily sit in the desk right next to his. The problem: the co-author of the paper was someone that no matter what I tried did not like me (based on me delaying his experiment when I first started my PhD). So it went, I asked multiple times a day how I could help, what I could work on, what I could contribute to the paper. Only to find out the writer I was sitting next to had stopped by the other guy's office and had ended up having a meeting without me so the direction changed and I went through the whole process of asking questions again.
I came up with ideas that got past major hurdles that was stopping significant results, programmed where I could, and wrote or corrected the paper through every revision. I knew that the co-writer was talking bad about me behind my back but I felt like if I did everything I could he would see I had contributed, change his tune, and bury his grudge.
In the end though, I felt like I could have got more done had I worked on my own paper. There was a lot of time I spent puttering with nothing to do. Since the only time I was being included in meeting was when I staked out  offices or jump up when I noticed the writer wasn't sitting next to me for to long. I tried talking to the co-writer. But to my face he said he didn't have any problems and denied saying anything about me even when my advisor confirmed he had been talking to him.
So I did the best I could in the situation I was stuck in. I was glad when the paper was done and I could go back to working on my own research. A lot of other people in the office still had the later deadline so for the next week there were still no one in the office. After that we all went out and enjoyed a nice dinner at a Chinese restaurant and I ended up spending more on on meal (£20) than I had spent while living in London.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cultural Differences: Standardization

I guess you don't really think about standardization until you experience a different standard somewhere else. Of course there are the standards that everyone knows about like flipping the switch down to turn lights on here, imperial vs metric measurements, and driving on the left instead of the right but it is the little things that are unexpected.
Beds: Single beds here are what I would think of as the width of a cot. They don't really have twin beds. The next size up is a double bed which is literally the size of two single beds, so a little wider than full size bed but not as big as a queen.
Gas ovens: This was the big one for me. My oven has the temperature in Celsius but apparently judging by cooking instructions on packages there are ovens out there with 6 settings. So directions just say set you oven to 4. I guess it's easier to remember than 350.
Windows: During the summer I didn't like waking up at 4am with the sun so I went out to get some curtains. Apparently there are a limited number of window sizes because when I went in with the measurements all I need to know was that I had a size 3 window.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cultural Differences: Plumbing

The British use the terms toilet and loo, but the only place you will see reference to a water closet is W.C. on the very old public toilets. Toilet paper is called a bog roll and yes, they get amused when I slip up and call something, without a bath in it, a bathroom. The thing is I live in a very international village. I can think of around 30 countries people are from off the top of my head. And the one thing that everyone seems to complain about is the plumbing.
Toilets: indoor plumbing was introduced hundreds of years after buildings were built here that are still standing so the standard toilet's waste pipe coils around and exits above ground (as opposed to American toilets which require a hole in the ground for the toilet pipe.) While this means a toilet can be put in room just by bolting it down, there is just not as much suction. Which leads to:
The Toilet Brush: The British students complain that the Chinese students don't know the proper use of the toilet brush in a similar way you would complain about someone not knowing how to use toilet paper. There is a toilet brush next to every toilet public and private and with British toilet design it is a normal thing to require its use.
Sinks: British sinks have hot and cold spigots instead of mixing them to a normal temperature. So, especially during the winter months, the cold is completely ignored and hot is used in short bursts for as long as scaldingly possible. I have not been able to get a straight answer as to why this is.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Edinburgh


It was a 8 hour coach (bus) trip from London up to Edinburgh. We left at 10pm so we got there at 6 in the morning. I had to get everyone checked into the hostel then T. and I headed out for breakfast. We found a little American greasy spoon diner in 50's style complete with chrome and jukeboxes. The funny part was that we had haggis and black pudding as part of the the full scottish breakfast.
From there we headed down the royal mile. I had been to Edinburgh before and the castle seemed overpriced for what it was worth. Instead I wanted to see the modern architecture of Scottish Parliament. I was interested in seeing the sharing of power; how the local government worked when England wanted it to have as little independence as possible. We couldn't take a tour so we decided to go for a walk in Holyrood Park. We ended up climbing to the top of the smaller of the two hills. I enjoyed the hike more than seeing any sites. I had been in London so long that I had not realized how much I missed being outdoors and hiking. That night we found a Mexican restaurant. I found it funny that I could order a haggis burrito but I have to admit it tasted very good. The spicy haggis was very similar to chorizo.
The funny thing is that Edinburgh is built on many hills. Walking around the city requires going up and down many times. The next day everyone was complaining of sore legs. We took it a lot easier and instead went to a few museums. There was a few people that didn't show up for the bus ride home when we left. We ended up leaving a few people to find their own way home.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Working on a PhD or Slave Labor

One of the oldest concepts of doing a PhD is that you need to "do your time". It's a tradition. Why should any professor want to let students get get through without doing what they had to put up with? However my supervisor's goal is to build an empire, unfortunately that needs to be done with labor, which means lot of students. Honestly, if I had known this I would have chosen a different advisor because I see a difference between doing your time and being cheap labor. To me "doing your time" means something is being learned that has to do with research, no matter how menial it is.
My supervisor has high hopes for himself. He wants buildings named after him, but to do that he needs prestige. How to build prestige better than fame. What if you don't have fame? Then you fake it. He holds multiple conferences throughout the year for the different research groups he is in charge of. With all the conferences he uses the PhD students to staff and run them. I have no problem helping with a conference that has to do with my research area but it helps no one for me to be filling envelopes for a conference that has nothing to do with my research. The PhD students are seen as cheap labor. Usually in exchange for this we get to network with the people at the conference but instead we are moving flags around to different entrances to save money and filling seats when he or donors give talks to make it look like there are more people attending the conference. I have not been able to talk to anyone other than other PhD students.
I by no means am saying that he expects only the students to do work. He is always working. Since so much of time was spent working on conferences doing normal research needed to be done during the holiday break. The problem was that my supervisor tasked me with creating an Intranet over the break instead of hiring an expert. He had chosen software to run that I was not familiar with and proved more complicated and time consuming. I used the entire break learning the software and building the site to his specifications. I ended up getting revisions to complete the next day on Christmas eve and New Year's eve at 11:45. I was able to launch the site after the break but at the expense of getting no research done.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Chinese New Year 2012

I don't what the rules are that are used for what day Chinese new year but this year it came extra early. Since I was a warden this time around I wanted to try to include everyone more than last year. We had the same lion dance and food planned (and I made sure to have the chinese fortune cookies since the Chinese students had never heard of them.) My part that I volunteered to do as karaoke.
The warden (J.) in charge of hiring a marquee (tent) didn't do it in time so it couldn't be reserved. Instead we bought three pop-up gazebos and tied them together to the three I had bought for the welcome weekend. Since heaters usually came with the tent we had to use all of the emergency heaters we used when the boilers broke in student's flats. The problem being that it kept tripping the fuse. Even after all the heaters were turned off. So we traced it back to one of the hotplates was shorting out so that went into the trash. Unfortunately not before it shorted out the router we were using for the internet connection we were going to use for Karaoke. We found a different router but I could not get the Chinese language pack installed on my computer correctly. So the plan I came up with was T. would handle the Chinese side on her laptop and I would handle the English songs. We had both laptops setup and I could switch between them for the large screen for people to see. I got everything working right at the time we wanted to start doing karaoke. It went off without a hitch switching back and forth between Chinese and English songs, and of course everyone loved the lion dance.
At the end of the night I don't think 90% of the students even realized that we had hit any problems much less all of them. But the reality is that I had been running around the entire night putting out problems so much or running karaoke that the night was over and I didn't even get 15 minutes of socializing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

School Politics

There are those times where people do things that appear so stupid you hope they have malicious intent just so you can believe that people can't be that stupid. This is one of those times.
The student village that I live in is in danger of being shut down. Not because it doesn't make enough money, it is the only student hall that makes a profit. It's not because people don't want to live here, it gets the highest ratings every year out of all the halls. It is because people in charge do not want to admit they have made a mistake.
Years ago, without doing any research "Commercial services" decided to build new student halls. They call them grad pads because they are all private studio flats instead of shared halls. But to make them affordable they are tiny, made of cheap plastic looking material, and as many are crammed into a building as possible. Of course since they cut every corner the elevator does not work good and Internet is very flaky. The best part is that it costs £1000/month ($1500) to live in these shoe boxes. Obviously, they can't keep them filled even the first year it is open. They have another building being built right now to add to the vacancies.
So the current halls where the rent is half as much (it is further away) and has a waiting list is being shut down. Not because anyone is expecting students to fill in the spaces in the empty halls because of the price difference. It is because without this village showing how badly they blundered open grad students just look like they don't want to live in student halls instead of reality.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Earl of Sandwich

There is something that I have had to get used to since getting here, sandwiches are everywhere. Back in the US buying a sandwich from a convenience store and you're taking your life in your hands on how old it is. Here every convenience store, off-license (liquor store), and grocery store have them, and frankly with the sandwich getting its namesake from here I'm not surprised.
With all the competition there is a lot of niche differentiation so I have been having fun trying a lot of different types of variations that I would never think of. It is really amusing to go into a seedy off-license and buy a gourmet sandwich with the lettuce still crisp because the are delivered three times a day.
With Sandwiches being the main thing being sold for quick food (The deli counters here are much smaller at the grocery stores that have them) I have not been able to figure out why I don't see more people eating while walking. It was a habit that I have picked up while in New York City. Everyone did it there. But here, I don't see anyone. The weird thing though is that no one looks at me strange when I do it here so it's not like there are any cultural rules against it.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A New Year

New Year's Eve and it was rainy. So instead of hanging out squished between sardines for hours we had a much lower key party with just a few friends instead. We played a game that one of my friends had got for Christmas. Long, involved and lots of rules. When midnight got close we got our friend to switch the computer to live TV and risk a £1000 fine so we could see the countdown and fireworks. It was pretty obvious that they had upped the budget this year for the fireworks.
I have found something funny in the first week of the new year. My commute has me walking through one of the richest neighborhoods in London. As people put the trees on the curb I have realized that I have yet to see one taller than 6 1/2 or 7 feet tall (2 meters). For this rich of a neighborhood in the US there wouldn't be a tree below 12 feet. I am just amused at how much more low key even celebrating Christmas is here.