30 November 2009

Bits and Bobs

I’ve been washing my hair with 12p shampoo for a month now, and it hasn’t turned green or fallen out. Hurray for cheap stuff! I never thought I’d find such items here in the UK. I was under some illusion that there were no generic brands or something, but really some of those ASDA prices would make Americans go crazy.

One thing I have found (or not found) is solid deodorant. Now, hear me out. I know it’s random, but after noticing that I couldn’t find it, I realized I really couldn’t find it. I know I have a history of standing in stores staring blankly for unusual amounts of time, but the deodorant aisle doesn’t usually hold my attention. After careful evaluation (far more careful than someone of my age should take), I ended up with an aerosol can (which is the prevailing choice next to roll-on). And let me tell you there is nothing like: a. spraying freezing cold liquid onto your skin, b. having the first ingredients of deodorant be methane and butane, or c. inadvertently breathing in the “refreshing breeze” flavor.

A couple of weeks ago we went to the movies. (By the way, 2012 has great special effects, and virtually no plot; worth $1.99) When I bought my ticket the guy asked me where I wanted to sit. I shrugged and said “the middle?” Then he asked me if I wanted priority seating. Again I shrugged and said “I don’t think so.” having no idea what that meant. He dutifully typed something into his compy and we got our tickets with assigned seats. Assigned seats?! As it turns out the non priority seating is actually my preferred spot. The theatre was by no means full and as we all sat in our assigned places, it felt a bit strange. I can’t really find the point. I guess it makes camping out for good seats all the more superfluous when one can just by tickets online and guarantee themselves prime seating as well.
Before the movie we endured about half an hour of commercials, in fact more than I had seen in weeks of non TV watching. It was plenty. Then, of course, previews, and by the time they were finished I had completely forgotten why we were there in the first place.
The movie cost about the same as home, only being a student actually mattered. Also, no one was interested in watching the credits.

I did find it pretty much impossible to find a fresh turkey before Christmas here. Short of going to a proper butcher, of which there are surprisingly many. At home I would really have no idea where to find one, and here they’re on every corner (so to speak.)
One friend asked me if there were thanksgiving lights. The answer is sadly no, they’d probably never catch on anyway.

Other than that I found salt and pepper shakers in the shape of light bulbs, fell off my bike in front of people, and had a conversation with a woman who was very passionate about the pronunciation of “route.” (does it rhyme with cute or snout?)

29 November 2009

The Switch On

Tonight was Coventry's Christmas light "switch on." It's a nice event held in towns across the UK where people get together, entertainment is provided, and a semi/real celebrity pushes a button or something to switch on the city's Christmas light display.
During the day today, Cov had a Chinese Market, a display of real reindeer and penguins, and a lifesize gingerbread house (disappointingly not edible.)

There was entertainment by some singers I'd never heard of, mostly because I've never seen x-factor or Britain's got talent. The switch on was done by Wallace and Gromit, the Mayor and his wife, and that guy from "A Hitchhikers Guide." So, not a bad line-up! It was a pretty nice atmosphere and not too cold. I was actually surprised that so many people turned up, but it probably shows my inexperience with such events.
Afterwards I went to the "Light in our Darkness" service at the cathedral to mark the beginning of Advent. I can't believe it's already that time of year!
Christmas for me this year will be spent in a village in Stropshire with a host family. Should be intersting!

York

I wasn't thrilled to learn that York is almost a three hour drive from Coventry. Also, heading north, historically has meant rain. But, when we arrived it wasn't raining. In fact, unbelievably, it was sunny. I almost forgot what that looks like. Seizing the good weather we went to climb the tower of York Minster, a huge church and major landmark in York.
The whole Minster took me about two hours longer than I expected to, but in the best way possible. We started by climbing the 275 spiraling steps of the tower which was really nice, and gave us great views of the city. From there we went all the way down to the crypts. Here you can see parts of the original foundation built by Romans, and also the foundation of the church build by the Normans in 1100. The current building was completed in 1472, which really wasn't recent, unless you compare it to Roman times.
We then went into the minster itself to enjoy the enormity of the place, and its intricate wood and stone carved decorations. The choir practicing didn't hurt either.
After this I split from my engineering major companions (as they wanted to go to a train museum) and headed into the town. It was absolutely packed with holiday shoppers. I did manage to make my way down Yorks oldest street, Shambles, which dates back to the Doomsday book (1085).
The whole area was so charming, and the colorful market, plus a Christmas Fayre, plus an array of local foods and samples, endeared the city to me further.
It is important to mention that although it was cold enough for a winter hat and gloves, it was miraculously still not raining. I had a good time enjoying the sights and smells. The Christmas Fayre (with a 'y') had rides and lots of local craftsmen and artists. There was a section of stalls selling local Yorkshire products, so I had samples of Christmas pudding, sausages, and fudge, awesome.
As the sun set, I used my last hour in the York Art museum which was also, great.
Be it the weather or the season, or whatever, I really enjoyed York and would happily return, despite the three hour drive.

28 November 2009

Oo-de-lally

According to my favorite Disney classic, the 1973 Robin Hood, back in the day, "oo-de-lally" was a commonly used phrase. After spending an afternoon in Nottingham, I can attest with certain authority that no one says it anymore (if ever). Also, sadly, we didn't find a troubadour rooster, or an outlaw dressed as a stork with an uncanny talent at archery.
What we did find was Nottingham castle. Like many English landmarks, it is a much changed place from it's original buildings, but now houses a nice museum focused on the history of Nottingham. When we'd had our fill we enjoyed the city center all set for Christmas with an ice rink, and (the now ubiquitous) German Christmas market.
It was really nice and only rained a little. We went into the St. Stephens church, and wandered through some of the charming streets, ending at another museum, more dedicated to Robin Hood. Did he exist? Did a "Rob Hod" exist? Who knows? Although I love Disney's version I seriously question its historical accuracy, but who really cares? It's a great story true or not. I'm really glad I don't go to Nottingham University because the whole time I was there "Not in Nottingham" was going through my head. I guess it didn't help that I watched the movie in preparation for the trip.

27 November 2009

A first time for everything

Thanksgiving this year was inevitably a strange one. I was very excited to share it with new friends, none of whom knew what thanksgiving was all about. I don't think I had the best explanation of this highly evolved holiday. I like to say it was a utopian couple of days when the "pilgrims" and "Indians" lived in peace, after the Indians kindly saved the remaining pilgrims from dying. More or less immediately after the first Thanksgiving was over the pilgrims set to spreading disease to the Native Americans, and generally killing them in any other way possible.
But, it really is a great holiday. I was able to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade via live webcam feed on Times Square. It was the best way I've ever watched it, as it was completely without annoying commentary and periodic broadway performances. I could see the baloons, listen to the bands, and watch Santa arrive in peace.
I got up early and for the first time made my Mother's stuffing and also for the first time put it into a turkey, and then also for the first time proceeded to cook it. It was really a monumental day for me. When I was a kid, by the time I got out of bed, the turkey was already in the oven, and on Thursday, I regretted having never watched my Mother make the stuffing. I realized that I had no idea how it was supposed to look before it was cooked. I also realized that I had less hesitation about intubating a cadaver than when I went to stuff the turkey.
Anyway, it cooked, like magic, and by the evening everything was coming together. Potatoes on the stove and apple betty sizzling in the oven. When my friends arrived I had them make "hand turkeys." As none of them live in a country where a holiday is completely turkey based, I think they actually had fun doing a 2nd grad project. I also annoyingly had everyone say what they were thankful for.
When I went to cut the turkey, I felt like I had just married it, as everyone seemed to want a picture of me weilding a knife in its general direction. Cooking turkey, okay, carving turkey, a whole other problem
The next day I was very glad that black friday doesn't exist here. I could walk around freely without any insane holiday shoppers trampling me. Although, as Christmas creeps in closer, the shopping here has gotten a little hairy.

24 November 2009

How you say? Show.

Today I rode the bike to the Emergency Services Show. It was about six miles away, and about three miles in, the traffic was backed up. I figured there was no way it was for where I was headed (but it was!). Happily on the bike, I cheated and rode on the "pavement" passing many trapped motorists. Unfortunately about 1/2 a mile away I ran out of pavement, and after riding in the traffic for a while found a path to the entrance I could take. Of course it involved lifting the bike over a fence, and in the end was completely not worth the time it took, but I still enjoyed leaving the road.
The expo was great. Outside of getting tons of free pens, I also got some cool keyrings, lots of information, got to play with a lifepak 15 (awesome) and saw more emergency vehicles than I will in a year. From motorcycle ambulances, to helicopters, to police jet skis, it was all there. Even a rescue kayak! Yes!
It goes without saying that it was super squirrely, and I'm very glad I went.
Oh yeah, one vendor gave me mulled wine and I met a lady who is a fan of LLBean, and had even made the pilgrimage to the flagship store.
Oh yeah, and the weirdest vendor there prize goes to: "Amputees in Action." This company hires out amputees to be in movies and shows (usually war movies). And at this venue they were offering "take the stress out of casualty simulation." They also have the hilarious lines "It will only cost you an arm or a leg to be one of us!" and "We lose it, you use it." also they gave me a stress squeezie thing in the shape of a foot. Score.

23 November 2009

A labor of love

If you have ever mused: "I wonder how much fun it would be to ride a bike 3 miles with a 13 pound frozen turkey in my backpack while its raining." then look no further. I can attest that there is very little fun involved in riding your bike while carrying a 13 pound turkey in the rain. It is probably more fun that riding 3 miles with a live turkey, though. Ah, silver linings.
It is thanksgiving week and although I am looking forward to sharing our traditions with the rest of the world, I am a bit nervous about all the people who are coming over. I mostly has to do with the admittance that I have never cooked a turkey. Everything good I had to eat in college was made by the uni or my roommates. Not me. Every past thanksgiving I have kind of helped out, chopped, or stirred, but never really was a part of the big thanksgiving picture.
Also, our kitchen is sparsely stocked with a few plates, random silverware, and a strange assortment of pots. I'll be borrowing a few things from willing neighbors, it is weird not to have all the necessary things at my fingertips. But, I love a challenge, and everyone has been so helpful, I couldn't ask for better.
So, I am tentatively looking forward to this years Thanksgiving, while "Bernard" thaws out in my mini fridge.

22 November 2009

Chester

On Saturday I visited the town of Chester. It's a very charming town with (like many charming English towns) a long interesting history dating decidedly back to Roman times. They had built a wall around the town, many buildings, an arena, and lots of columns (as was their custom.) The Normans made their contribution with the Chester Cathedral which is absolutely beautiful and huge. In the Tudor period they build plenty of those "black and white" buildings. Many were rebuilt during the Victorian era, because they looked quaint. Also, a great covered shopping area was perfected over time now called the Chester "rows" Basically, the 1st floor of buildings has a covered area on the facade that allows shoppers to wander around in dry comfort.

We had a nice tour in the morning, then in the afternoon, I convinced some people to nerd it up with me in the local museum. It was really nice for a small town museum, and I'm feeling a theme of such places, that they'll have everything from locally excavated roman artifacts to collections of butterfly specimens. Which really is a great and sort of vexing variety. This particular museum also had a reproduction Victorian home, which reminded me of childhood vacations.
Afterwards, we lost a few less nerdy people, and headed to the cathedral. All of my excursions with the school begin like a bad joke. "Four women from Germany, France, America, and China walked into a cathedral...."
It is very nice and worth the admission fee. It is said that a Roman temple stood on the same site, but the current building dates back to the 11th century, has a ton of history, and was happily spared from destruction by Henry VIII (who had a penchant for destroying churches he didn't like.)
When we'd had our fill of the grand atmosphere and the practicing church choir, we headed back to waste the rest of our time in the shopping district.
We walked through the main shopping area and in one store I saw a box of American cereal for sale for £8. It was not an especially large box. And until yesterday I didn't realize importance and cultural significance of this cereal. The cereal was Lucky Charms, and it was in a candy store. I am missing my calling to import US goods. Really, an $12 box of cereal?!
Happily back to the bus after dodging variable rain clouds, we headed home.

20 November 2009

Bulk food Awesomeness

When I first moved to New Hampshire, I wanted to find some familiarity. Stores, the landscape, the climate, many things were different than what I was used to. But, when I visited the local Costco, I found it to be a familiar and happy place. I was also at the time overcome by discovering their beer aisle. How naive I was!
Today I visited a UK Costco. It was a bit of a pilgrimage as I had to take the train to get there, and then walked quite a distance, but when I arrived, I knew I was in for a foreign bulk retail treat.
I did find it strangely familiar with almost the exact layout of my store at home, and extremely similar products and brands. I found myself looking for my usual Costco shopping companions, which did make me feel a bit sad.

So, I spent an unusual amount of time combing the aisles for differences. I indulged in many samples of course, most notably, alcoholic beverages. Where the NH store had beer and wine, the England store surpasses it with liquor. Jameson to Baileys, and everything in between, it made me feel that the Maryland Costco is seriously lacking. And then they gave me samples!

The most glorious thing I found was a bag of 1610 PG Tips tea bags. It was absolutely enormous to the point of ridiculous. I was actually pretty sad that it was so big, as I couldn't really justify buying it. It came to about 9p a bag, which really is a good price, but really, 1600 tea bags! Just think of it. I could have 4 cups a day for a year! I could make over 800 good pots of tea with that. 800! By the time anyone normal drank all this tea, even a heavy tea drinking household, half of the bags would be expired. But regardless of how impractical it was, this gigantic bag of tea filled me with joy. Basking in its glow, I was suddenly struck.
“Excuse me. You’re going to think I’m insane, but could you take my picture with this enormous bag of tea?”
“Sure, I’m an American, so I understand.”
I stumbled upon the only other American I’ve seen in England at the Costco, in the tea aisle. The coincidence kind of freaked me out.

I also found haggis, literal tons of Cadbury chocolate bars, giant square pizzas, American peanut butter, a yard of jaffa cakes, pounds of Haribo gummies, and a $6 bag of pure American marshmallows.

I had something to eat at the cafe of course (where you can indeed get a hot dog and drink for £1.49) but I got a decidedly British alternative of a jacket potato with baked beans, and the first coke I’ve had in two months.

I made it home on the train with far less confusion and anxiety than last time.

14 November 2009

Leeds

Last week I went again into the north to Leeds. I didn't really know what to do here to take up all of our time, but we started in the local art gallery. Unfortunately much of it was being constructed upon and some galleries were closed. They did have some nice modern sculpture. From there we went to the Leeds City Museum. This is a very nice place that takes you through the history of Leeds, and I mean history. From the movement of tectonic plates bringing the UK out from underwater, to local Roman artifacts, to a unique collection of taxidermied wild animals. By the time we finished there it was raining. Surprises.
One thing Leeds does have is malls. Whatever you call them, downtown Leeds is full of malls, they are around every corner, in various degrees of posh. We spent most of the rest of the day seeking refuge from the rain in these various malls and got really good at wandering in circles. Leeds also has a great huge market. So I enjoyed seeing all the weird things you could buy there.
A word to the wise, these are not gummy colas. Even when I confirmed with the seller. They are in fact, gummy beers. And they are in fact, horrible.

08 November 2009

By the Sea

Before I got there I knew a few things about Blackpool. It had a beach, they lit lights in the fall, and James May had never been there because he ran out of gas.
I know a bit more about Blackpool now. In November, the lights are beautiful, the sea is cold and turbulent, and it never rains. No wait, wait, I mean, it always rains.
It was sunny blue skies for most of our journey to the northwest coast of England. Then we made a turn and, welcome to North England: it's raining. I didn't mind, figuring it would be just like in Cov; rain for 10 minutes then clear up. Oh how wrong I was.
I did feel quite excited to be on the coast, thrilled even to see hear the incessant waves and seagulls. The rain was off and on throughout the day, but mostly on. We had a nice blue badge tour of the high spots. The guide did her best to keep us dry, touring more inside than out. We finished in the center of the city and immediately found the closest chippy as it was raining again. Fish and chips taste better when you're looking at the sea. Though I could have been overly influenced by a warm dry shelter. No, it was still the best fish and chips I've had.

We walked town to the center pier, and popped into the lifeboat store/garage. All the lifeboats in the UK and Ireland (as far as I know) are run by donations and volunteers. The Blackpool boat is very cool and my dad helped me realize that by seeing the rescue boat, the trip was "research."
The pier was huge and had rides, games, and souvenir shops on it. I got a few pieces of Blackpool "rock" which is basically just candy sticks with "Blackpool" written in them.
Around 5 the famous lights were turned on. Blackpool was visited by a royal, (Princess Louise) back in 1912. They decorated some of the streets with lights to greet her, and they liked it so much, they decided to do it every year, growing more spectacular with time. Now, novelty lights line the main promenade for miles, each block having a different theme.
Our trip organizer and bus driver cleverly decided to drive us down the promenade to see the lights and it was far better to see them all warm and dry from the bus. Sorry I didn't have more pictures, but well, I'm sure you can figure the reason.

07 November 2009

Brom

Last week I met my friend who graciously showed me around her hometown of Birmingham. I had heard a lot about it, as far as I can tell, Birmingham really gets a bad rep. I found it to be pretty interesting; full of shops, history, art, and industry like any good European city.
We stopped in the modern art gallery, Ikon, where I didn't understand anything that was going on. We also went through the symphony hall, the war memorial, and to the other art gallery to see an exhibit of old photographs of the city.
A large portion of the city center is pedestrianized, making it very pleasant to walk through. Now, to the "pincushion" (pictured above). I got the feeling that the city has mixed feelings about it, and my environmentalist guide could barely look at it without needing a place to be sick.
I think it's kind of cool looking, which is high praise for a building that contains a giant shopping mall. I also think it's a little out of place, virtual yards from the undoubtedly beautiful St. Martins church.
After getting a quick view of the mall (it has a Krispy Kreme shop where one doughnut was £1.50!) and enjoying the detailed interior of the church, we went onto the immense Bull Ring Market. I don't know why, but I love markets. Especially the beautifully arranged fresh fruit and veg and the nerve wracking atmosphere of everyone shouting different deals in every direction. Oh, and the horribly fascinating array of meats at the butcher stands. Beef tongue? Tripe!?

Well, anyway, I enjoyed Birmingham, and since it only cost me £3.10 to take the train to get there, I am sure a return visit is in order. Oh, and speaking of the train. What brilliance! How fun! How confusing! I bought an open return, and happily collected my tickets from a fancy machine at the Cov station. I got there easily enough, (it is only two stops) but the return was a bit confusing. I walked confidently into the station, clutching my ticket, pretended for a full five minutes that I, (like everyone else there) knew what I was doing. It wasn't too long before I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. Trains were going everywhere, in every direction, and at least one was leaving all the time! (the one I needed? who knew?!)
More seasoned riders were running to their platforms, casually reading magazines, or buying overpriced sodas while I was wandering around reading timetables that might as well have been in Mandarin. After a while, Coventry flashed up on the noticeboard I happened to be staring at, and I immediately went to that platform. Now I was the confident one, listening to mp3s and having a snack, calmly waiting. Or at least I was for a few minutes. Doubt seeped in and I realized that I was only allowed to ride on a Virgin train, and the one I was waiting for was not run by Virgin. So I dashed back up the stairs, found the correct platform and made it there just in time. Now who's a master of the train system?!

06 November 2009

Remember, remember

Thank goodness, in 1605, some Catholic extremists decided to blow up parliament. Thank goodness one of them lost his nerve and caused them to fail. If that hadn't happened, there wouldn't be a November holiday in the UK! Traditional Guy Fawkes day, or bonfire night, is celebrated with a bonfire including burning and effigy of Fawkes, and a fireworks display. What an impact on history he's had here, to have a whole holiday named after you, still celebrated 400 years later?! Wow.
Anyway. Thanks to Guy and his friends I found myself this evening pedaling 4 miles in the rain to Longford park to take in a proper English fireworks display.
My nerve faltered when it was so cloudy, but I was assured it would go on rain or shine. So, armed with my waterproofs, high-vis vest, and blinking taillight, I set off into the unknown.
I found the park without a problem other that by the time I got there I was an hour early and it was raining. A lot. I hid for a while under a bus stop, then found the giant Tesco and spent some time taking that in. This is a huge store/mall comprised mostly of a Tesco supermarket that was more like a super Wal-mart with clothes and other goods.
I dried out as the rain came to a stop just in time. I followed the crowd into the park and was very surprised to find a couple of carnival rides, games, and food stands. It was just like the 4th of July only cold. I got some absolutely amazing freshly made donuts that almost immediately put me into a euphoric/diabetic coma.
I enjoyed watching the rides go and the people for a while before the fireworks started. The display was much like at home, kind of boring until the end. I always wonder why they don't just light them all at once. Now that would be a show. Everyone ooh'd and ahh'd in the appropriate places, but they didn't play any British patriotic songs (if there are any) during the fireworks.
I managed to get away from the crowd exodus pretty quickly and enjoyed my far dryer ride home.

05 November 2009

Change

The other day I spotted a coin on the floor and victoriously went to pick it up as finding coins on the floor is my only source of income. I turned it over in my hand and found it be American dime. So I had made a pointless 7.5 pence. But really, how weird.
Change here is an important part of the culture, I think. Mostly because there is so much of it. In the US $1 coins do exist, but are barely legal tender. When you use them, people look at them as strangely as if you'd handed them Monopoly money. After careful scrutiny, they relinquish and take it, still skeptical and wondering who Sacajawea is.
Here, on the other hand, they got rid of the pound note about 20 years ago and never looked back. Now, and probably then too, there are commonly used two pound, one pound, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, and 1p coins. That’s a lot of change! (I miss the quarter myself.) There is always a healthy amount of change jingling annoyingly in my pocket.

Over the last week, unbeknownst to me, I received a pound coin from the Isle of Man. I went to spend it today and they wouldn’t take it! It was like trying to spend Canadian money in America, only those are actually two separate countries. These coins look the same, are technically from the same country, have the same queen on them, but somehow are different. I guess it's a good excuse to visit the Isle of Man, so I can spend my 1 pound there.

03 November 2009

I miss EMS

We were called out a 4am for a sick person. When we got there we went to the door and rang the doorbell.
An inquisitive “Who is it?” came from inside.
Were you expecting someone else at this hour?

We were called for shortness of breath. When we go there we went in and found the patient in moderate distress but able to say:
“I have oxygen here, but I didn’t put it on.”
That’s when I picked up the tank and smacked him in the head with it.
Cured.

We were called for a psych problem and arrived to find a lady rolling on the floor, shouting, and being generally uncooperative. Her friend came over to help us calm her down.
Friend: “It’s okay, it’s okay...you’re just crazy.”
Thank you, captain obvious.