28 August 2010

This Feeling

I don’t know this feeling
but like others, it comes and goes.
It fills me with anticipation,
and sadness at the same time.

I don’t know this feeling
but like others, it sneaks up on me.
It causes me to take time out,
not to be alone.

I don’t know this feeling
but like others, it keeps me going.
It reminds me what the reasons were,
and what the future holds.

I don’t know this feeling
but like others, I’m in denial.
I think I know what it is,
but I’ve never been homesick before.

26 August 2010

Maybe it's (not) a British Thing Pt. 6

When I think of British stereotypes, I think of boring food, rainy days, and bad teeth. Stereotypes are sometimes (usually) based in fact and as an American, I know that the rest of the world thinks that we have excessively large cars, yards, hamburgers, and pretty much everything else is too big too (which is all true). So, I am not surprised when people make jokes about my SUV, our cowboy hats, crappy beer, and the fact that I have the nerve to complain about gas prices. I openly admit to these less than charming characteristics of Americans, and more openly, make fun of them mercilessly.

But back to making fun of my adopted country. All Britons will admit that the food is boring, but that doesn't mean it's not good. And yeah, it rains a lot here. In fact, it's raining now. But, it makes the grass green. So, take that.

I have recently discovered that most Britons I know don't know that they are mocked in other countries for having bad teeth. I don't know where it started, maybe something to do with their highly sweet candy bars, toothbrushes that are made of twigs, wooden dentures, and toothpaste that doubles as grout. No, I have no idea.

I don't know anyone here that is missing any essential teeth. Though I haven't met everyone. But, my most recent testament to British oral health began last night when I was eating peanuts and felt a strange pain in my mouth. When I checked it out in the mirror, I discovered that I had broken a tooth. This has never happened to me, so logically, I panicked. Sometimes in my life, stresses accumulate and then one catalyst event throws me into barely controlled (temporary) insanity.
Once I rinsed my mouth, examined the piece of tooth, did a panic dance, and shouted expletives for a few minutes, I called a friend of mine who could advise me on dentists. Everything I knew were all the things I didn't know. Where to find a dentist, do they exist here, how (dear Lord) much it might cost, could it be done in the next two weeks, do they do white fillings!? I knew it didn't make any sense to panic, but that didn't stop me. My fears were somewhat assuaged from his advice and by then I had all but decided that I could go without eating for the next six weeks. In recounting the story to my neighbor, I noticed that she didn't get it when I said “And, now I have to go to the dentist in a country with notoriously bad oral health! Ha Ha...It's funny right?”

I was already a big fan of the NHS here (if for no other reason than yellow ambulances), but I did know that dentistry wasn't covered in the national healthcare scheme. But it kind of is. I know now that a general visit costs about £20, a filling (or more) costs about £50 and anything more 'major' costs about £120. It turns out that x-rays, cleaning, fixing a broken tooth, and filling another one falls into the £50 category. That's a bargain! Seriously.

I called the office up at complete random, and got an appointment for the same day which I know will never, ever happen to me again. I assumed I'd have to wait for a week, then need a second appointment that would occur after I had already left the country. If anything could have delighted me about going to the dentist, knowing that it could all be sorted in one day was it.

Happily, the office was within walking distance and I just looked out for something with a sign that probably said something weird like 'Dental Surgery' or 'Torture Chamber.' I found it. For the record, it looked and smelled just like dentist offices (as we normals call them) at home.

I truly abhor seeing the dentist (which is probably what lead to my tooth breaking) and I find I had more anxiety about it than flying. Wearing my tinted safety goggles for 'health and safety,' with needles coming at me, whirring drills, and numb face, I literally thought to myself “Find your happy place!” Which was useful as it took me a few minutes to decide on one. The whole thing took about an hour and was pretty much exactly like any visit at home. I didn't get a sticker though. Which I really needed.

So, I'd like to bust the stereotype. I've met more Americans with visibly bad teeth than I have in the UK. England has dentists, and they do a good job. Although, no one in the office introduced themselves to me or seemed to notice that I was so freaked out. But that's okay. I think they were just proving another British stereotype.

21 August 2010

Cookies

Inexperience worries
that the dough isn't right.
Flour covered hands roll with
makeshift pin and juice glass cutter.

A watchful eye of foreign ovens
ensures nothing is on fire.
Plain icing needs sprinkles,
arranged on each masterpiece.

Scrutinizing the mess,
but pleased with their uniformity.
Tears caught me by surprise,
flown all the way home with one bite.

19 August 2010

Maybe it's a British Thing Pt. 5

Tomato-Tomahto. Let's not call the whole thing off. I guess I can't do this series without a word on words. I didn't really want to get into the lexicography of US v. UK terms. Mostly because it quickly gets confusing and some of it I knew before I arrived. Also, I find most of it quite charming. For example, why don't we call it a car boot? And nothing sounds better than “a mini cooper with white bonnet stripes.” But some words are just too fancy. I mean, courgette? Aubergine? Seriously.

Almost every conversation I have with a Brit ends up with talk of our vocab minutiae and the whole thing is just one of life’s mysteries. No one can explain why a sweater is a jumper, a trash can is a bin, or a backpack is a rucksack. Am I going to wear a bathing suit or a...a swimming costume? I can't even say that without giggling. There are a million more, none of which have any explanation; and the American Revolution would be stretching it. Some of it, though, leads to amusing situations.

In my first foray into the world of 'the gym.' I had to go to an orientation to make sure that I wouldn't inadvertently hurt myself, I guess. I think it really is to add another level of annoyance to the whole process. And for people like me, a deterrent. I mean, my showing up to the gym is a miracle in itself, why push it with an embarrassing orientation process?
Anyway, I had come from class, so I had to change when I got there. I checked in with the girl at the desk.
“Hi, I'm here for orientation.”
“Cool, you can just wait over there.”
“Oh, okay, but I have to go change my pants first.” (rushes to locker room)

About three minutes later I was in the midst of changing when I realized what I had said, and at no one in particular I shouted “Trousers! I need to change my trousers, dammit!” Because of course, here, pants are underwear and it's not something you'd announce to the world if they needed changing.
I returned sheepishly to wait, hoping that she had caught my accent and forgiven my bringlish faux pas.

This was certainly not my last experience into the intercontinental wordplay confusion.

I went to a dinner at the cathedral and it was really lovely. As is customary everywhere, a palate cleansing sweet item was set out, and the people I was sitting with offered me 'pudding.'
Always eager for any kind of sweet palate cleansing food, I headed to the front table which was actually full of pies and cookies. Not that pies and cookies are in any way a disappointment, but not what I was expecting. I returned with a slice of apple and my inquiry.

“I hate to tell you guys, but this is not pudding.” My joke was met with quizzical looks. “I mean, this isn't what I call pudding. This is- this is pie.” (crickets chirping)
“Ohh! Of course, pudding is just what we call what you'd call uh...dessert. What do you call pudding?”
“Wait, um. I mean, pudding is um, a diary product that is, like, uh, impossible to describe, actually. It's uh, cold, and creamy, and sweet, and usually chocolate.”
Thankfully a sweet wise person saved me.
“You mean custard.”
Another understanding “Ohh!” went through the table.
“Custard- yes! That's what it is. Well, I'm glad we cleared that up. I think.”

It was then explained to me that pudding was dessert and 'dessert' was more of a posh term that nobody says. Little did I know at the time that custard still isn't exactly pudding, and many people prefer to pour it hot over pies or cakes instead of letting it cool in the fridge. Weirdos.

Although, this practice, as well as that of 'pouring cream' is pretty awesome and almost no pudding would be complete without it.

So, be careful when you're here. Though I don't think there are any actually damaging Bringlish faux pas. Only other amusing misunderstandings having to do with looking for the birds that fly as opposed to the birds that....don't. But I don't think many Brits even say that any more.

Oh, and 'inverted commas?' Seriously? Full stop.

18 August 2010

More Tea

The laptop is warm on my knees
I take another break for tea.
The research continues,
words reluctantly multiply.
I'm probably overcomplicating it
and distraction abounds.
I hear something outside, or
the relentless allure of the internet.
When a sudden idea peeks around the corner
and I'm back to the point.
That five minutes of work
certainly deserves a reward.
More tea.

10 August 2010

In case you were wondering

Academically, things are going fine. I met with my supervisor last week who is awesomely and annoyingly hands off. I am very glad not to have a supervisor who wants to meet every week and check up on my progress every five minutes. I'm also glad to have one who cares, but is happy to leave me alone. But, I kind of need a little more discipline as I am in actuality, a terrible student who is easily distracted. Hence, I have been more interested in writing blog posts and booking trains than finishing my case studies. He seemed happy with my progress, and was unhurt that I have already conducted a couple of interviews and nearly finished my lit review without him.

So, I am about half finished now and if I actually bother to read stuff and 'critically analyze' it, I can easily be finished before the due date.

As for my wild-ass plan within a wild-ass plan, I have booked my flight home (woot!) Eurostar tickets, a few overnight trains (yeah, it would be faster and cheaper to fly, but that's not as the point) and two nights at a hostel in Tarifa, Spain. Excited! I've paid for my organized trip, and got my ebay new-to-me tiny sleeping bag which will happily fit in my laughably small backpack.

The bike and I have been enjoying the weather, although it has developed an amusing tick where the handlebars no longer control the steering, sending me plowing into trees and bushes. I tried to tighten them, but it didn't exactly work. Medical tape will be my next solution. It's already ghetto.

If you want to stay sane, never listen to the Wicked soundtrack. It will never leave your brain!

I had a pretty low key birthday, as it will get progressively low key until it ends in a '0' again. (which is alarmingly soon, actually). We went to the gym (what is wrong with me?!) had a delish buffet lunch and saw Inception which was actually really cool, and not that confusing. Oh, and flowers magically appeared in my room again. I'm so happy when that happens!

09 August 2010

Maybe it's a British Thing Pt. 4

Breakfast can be a great time in the UK. I have raved about the 'full English' before and have now experienced its many variations including but not limited to blood pudding, fried toast, potato scone, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, baked beans, but always including the staples of fried egg, rasher of bacon, and sausages. How to go wrong? Add a little porridge with sugar and cream: dream breakfast.

On the colder side of breakfast, the UK have extremely boring cereals. Granted, Weetabix, Alpen, and Crunchy Nut, aren't bad, but simply can't compare to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Corn Pops, and the mother of all breakfast cereals: Lucky Charms. It is an urban myth that Lucky Charms was banned here due to its lack of nutrition and contribution to poor oral health. Though it is true that it can only be found in speciality shops at a ludicrously inflated price.

Speaking of cereal, can anyone justify UHT milk? I swear I'd never seen this 'ultra high temperature' treated milk before I got here. It sits benignly in the baking aisle, its high temp pasteurization eliminates the need for refrigeration, extending its shelf life to over six months, while driving down the cost; what's not to love? Um, room temperature milk, for one. When compared to the Euro market, the UK hardly consume any of this milk at all, but I read an interesting article on how this milk can save the world by reducing the size of refrigerated sections in grocery stores thus saving energy. Okay, good luck with that.

Speaking of room temperature products, what's up with the eggs here? Maybe I am overly cautious about egg preservation, but I kind of thought that refrigerating them was requisite.

Something I love about food here is that you know exactly where it comes from. Every egg has a code on it that lets you know if it's free range or cage, its country, and the code of the farm that sold it. You can even put this code into a website and track how far your egg came to get to your plate! I bought a head of lettuce and it said the exact farm it came from too. Meat is proudly British, and dairy products are from domestic farms, all of which is actually reassuring and makes this country feel a bit more like a community, in a way.

When one is away from the familiar, the yearning for it becomes very strong. By now, I am quite acclimated to my environment and rarely crave the things that I can only get at home. It is only because it's not here that I want it, and I know that as soon as I get home I will be needing a Cadbury double-decker like nobody's business.
Speaking of Cadbury: great stuff. We need more of it, but it comprises only a tiny percentage of the snacking selection in this country, which truly rivals ours. And that's not a dig, but an observation that I am more than guilty of taking advantage of.
I recognize that UK chocolate is a wonder of modern cocoa processing, but still long for some Reece Cups. Though Jonathan Ross dismissed Hershey's, comparing it to licking a stick of butter, nothing is worse than some of the fake chocolate I've had here. (I'm looking at you, Advent calendar) So, like tea, I stick to the good stuff. Given the British attitude toward American Chocolate, you can imagine the sheer terror that ripped through the country when Kraft bought Cadbury's earlier this year.

To finish, here are some suggestions for some intercontinental sharing.
The UK need:
slurpees, jet-puffed marshmallows, grape jelly, pancakes, Taco Bell, fudge stripe cookies, Hershey products, self serve soda fountains, pretzels, ranch dressing, and Chick-fil-a.
Things the US need:
revels, more Cadbury products, tea, real ales, Galaxy chocolate, pasties (with a long 'a'), digestive biscuits, lemonade (- lemons), British cheeses (all of them), heintz baked beans, Tunnocks teacakes, and of course, orange Kit-Kats.

They can keep mushy peas marmite, hp sauce, and salad cream.

08 August 2010

Maybe it's a British Thing Pt. 3

If you're in the UK and find yourself wondering; cookies are biscuits, biscuits are scones (kind of), chips are crisps, fries are chips, and crackers are also biscuits (or explosives).

To go along with most of those things, let me emphasize the importance of tea. Sure, we in the US have southern sweet tea that is so sweet you could pour it over pancakes, but it doesn't fulfill the cultural necessities of a good cuppa.
It's not necessarily the taste that keeps people coming back, although it is good. Firstly, it's the process of making it. Sharing with a friend, extending the conversation while waiting for the kettle to boil, and the tea to cool. Not to mention the exciting, jet taking off sound the kettle makes when 220 volts boil the water in seconds. Then there's the methodical nature of the brew: how long the bag stays in, how much milk to add, sugar? no sugar? milk first or last? biscuits? to dip, or not to dip? All of these things define the self-proclaimed tea purists. And I've become one! Like abandoning lager, I've actually found myself foregoing a cup of substandard brew.

Tea is also a comfort. A cup of tea is what to do in a crisis, the civilized cigarette break, how to relax, and how to wake up. Any time of day or year, with a warm mug between your hands, all is right with the world. And although I didn't buy the 1600 bags from Costco, I have consumed over 400 cups here in my room alone. I am carefully considering how I pack just to see how many teabags I can get back. I know that I will willingly pay way more than their worth to have PG Tips at home. The guy at the British import store, charging $5 for a 49p box of tea; cheeky bastard.

01 August 2010

Maybe it's a British Thing Pt. 2

Back when horses were the best form of transport, carrying a sword was not seen as dangerous and eccentric, and most normal people were right handed, people started to chose a side. To drive on.
I can say with no historical fact or reference, and based mostly on the 5th grader who edited wikipedia, that the UK started to drive on the left because they wanted to be friendly and shake right hands, or wanted to be able to draw their swords without any interference when riding past each other. Reasons for driving on the right are even more fraught with inaccuracy and range from Napoleon's left handedness, to reduce fights among marching armies, and just plain to get back at the UK as one last act of defiance. I prefer the Napoleon idea, especially has France later owned a large chunk of the US and Canada, and maybe it just filtered through all of North America. Who knows?! But back to the point. I mean, to the point in the first place.
They drive on the left here, which takes some getting used to. After many hours of walking, driving, riding in cars, crossing the street, and riding the bike, I'm pretty well acclimated to this UK quirk. It's cool. But I know I'm going to be very confused when I go back to driving. Fortunately, at my work it's kind of okay to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Other than the 'other' side of the road, there are some good things about the UK driving system. Firstly, they have almost no stop signs. This is that utopian society that I have long dreamt of, where no one really needs to ever come to a complete stop. They don't need the 'left turn on red after stop' rule because there aren't any stop signs! Brilliant.

Far less brilliant and fraught with danger and uncertainty are roundabouts. Mini roundabouts might as well not even exist- does anyone bother driving around them? And then, the roundabouts get bigger. 4, 5, 11 exits; it's ridiculous! And with almost as many lanes, does anyone actually know what's going on, or is everyone just feeling their way around, hoping to find the right exit without dying. There is so much indicating and yielding and fist shaking, it's just too much. I love the ones that have clearly gotten out of control, so much that they had to put traffic signals at each exit. Just look at this picture of Swindon's 'magic roundabout.' I rest my case.

The UK is also full of narrow, winding roads, lined by a stone wall hidden by a hedge with passing places only one every three miles. These roads would be great fun if there was a guarantee of no oncoming traffic, and no campervans. Sadly, there is oncoming traffic and always at the wrong time. Just widen the roads for God's sake. Less people would die, and there would be far less pee stains on rental car seats.

At home if I see livestock on the road, I make an effort to contact the farmer so that he can save his loose cow from almost imminent death. But here, the public is welcomed onto pastures for an up-close tour of the country. It's like a UK safari. If you stop and dangle some hay out of the window, there will be sheep crawling all over your Land Rover. People should capitalise on this stuff.

Oh, and kudos to everyone here because they all drive manual. (If you're curious, everything in cars here is the same as American cars, just on the other side. The gearbox is the same layout, the pedals in the same order, even the key goes in on the right.) Automatic cars are alien to them and I even talked to an ambulanceman who turned his nose up at automatic ambulances. Seriously, I could do with less things to think about when driving an ambulance and I don't even want to imagine the kind of ride I'd get if our ambulances were manual.

So, UK driving is okay with me. I can't complain too much- they don't have 4-way stops here, cannot proceed through a red light because they're turning, or any of the other weirdness of the US. Who am I to say they're wrong?