24 September 2010

Setecientos

"Welcome to the 700th post! (and the 100th this year) We are reporting to you live from the southernmost point of Europe, and, although the blog has been neglected, Ellies sun tan has not!" 
Okay, so I'm pretty much still pale and pasty, but, oh the sun.  How glorious.  I am currently in Tarifa, Spain, one of the most beautiful and charming places I've ever been. Can we say house hunters international?  I am utilizing the hostel internet, and can look off of the terrace in front of me....and see Africa.  I'll be up close by tomorrow evening for which I am stoked!   The beach is amazing and goes on for miles with crystal clear blue water and a rash of kite surfers.  Tarifa is where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic meet which among other things, makes it windy.  There are literally hundreds of wind turbines in the hills behind the city, which is clearly awesome.  I can't imagine that Tarifa emits any carbon. 
It's been a fab couple of weeks, firstly in France, trying 10+ types of cheeses, and other generally awesome foods.  When a meal consists of tiny frying pans of cheese, heated by a strange tabletop appliance, then poured over potatoes and ham, I dont know what else one could possible need.  We also visited a champagne maker in Reims which was very interesting.  I didn't know making champagne was such a complicated and dangerous process.  I mean, after the very first unreinforced bottles of champagne exploded, I admire those determined to make it work. Good decision.
On my last day there my friend took me to fontainebleau, where world class bouldering can be had.  It's basically an area where over time, huge boulders were carved out of the earth, which many people enjoy climbing.  I am about as far as one can get from an expert in bouldering, but I conquered a few of the easy ones which consisted of walking with style. But what a cool place.  Some of these boulders were crazy big and the climbers crazy good.
From France I took an overnight train to Barcelona which was an interesting experience. I was in a crappy reclining seat, which was not too bad, until the person in front of me reclined as well.  Then they were basically in my lap.  Despite that, it was still as fun and romantic and interesting as I expected.  Sleep was patchy and when I arrived I felt as though I was jet-lagged without having flown.  Luckily, an afternoon siesta is more or less required in Spain.
Barcelona is big and touristy and full of energy throughout the day and night.  Gaudi is pretty awesome and can be seen on practically every corner.  I visited la Segrada Familia, his magnum opus of sorts.  It is wacky and cool and hopefully will be finished in my lifetime.  I am curious to see the finished product.  
I met up with a woman from Vermont who was dangerously open to suggestion so she came with me to Madrid, even braving the overnight bus which trust me, is not nearly as fun as the train.  And by not nearly a much fun, I mean almost no fun.  But it gets you places without having to pay for accommodation.  Madrid has a great feel and has what became two days worth of fantastic art museums.  The Prado, Thyssean, and Renia Sofia, are all wonderful in their own ways, with art spanning pretty much every era since painting was conceived. 
Anyway, those are the basics of the last two weeks.  I just wanted to give the blog a little love before what I imagine will be a fortnight of silence until I am back from Morocco.  Thanks for reading (even if not all 700 posts), I hope to update more soon!

18 September 2010

España

A short update to match the last.  I am here in Barcelona after a long and strange day.  Longer update to follow for sure.  Highlights are: churches! strange meats! champagne making! world class bouldering! overnight trains! waiting! taking the metro! and, more strange meats!  Can you hardly wait to read all about it!?  But first, a siesta. Here are some upsideown question marks to tie you over.  ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿

15 September 2010

France

The first leg of the wild ass plan within a wild ass plan is here in France.  I am on an EU keyboard which is discouraging me to write with its out of order keys.  But just a short entry to say I am here and having a wonderful time visiting charming cities and eating new foods including horse, fois gras, blood sasuage, and a few other meats I don`t want to think about.  Plenty of wine, sweets, and pastries too!
Paris tomorrow and on to Barcelona Friday night.  Oh, here is a selection of useful keys on this lappy.
é è ç à ^ £ ¤ µ ù § °  qs zell qs ,isplqced a,w,x, q, and m.  Weirdos. Here`s a € for good measure.

09 September 2010

Maybe it's a British Thing Pt. 9

Roundup!

What's with having to press a button to get out of a building. I’m pretty sure this is just to make foreigners (or just me) look stupid.

Charitably funded air ambulances are simply a brilliant idea. The thought of not having to pay taxes toward them, and that insurance companies would not be billed $10,000 every time I flew someone at work is simply heart-warming.  Support your local air ambulance!

I love that everyone here has the same ring tone. It is particularly amusing on the train when the Nokia do-do-do-do starts and everyone looks around while patting their pockets or digging through their purses. Hilarious. Even better is the confident person who immediately says 'it can't be me' and does nothing. It always turns out that it's their phone that is ringing. And it always turns out that that person is me.

Things would be a lot easier for foreigners if they didn't use A4 size paper here. It's off by just enough that I cannot easily frame anything I've acquired here. Not even my diploma.

There is a national obsession with health and safety. And I thought the US were bad. Once I was at the grocery store and put my basket down along the edge of the aisle so that I could more easily go into one of my shopping trances where I obsessively compare prices, sizes, and flavors. An employee came up to me.
“Is that you're basket?”
“Oh, yeah, don't put it all back.” (lonely chuckle)
“That's fine, but do you think you could pick it up?”
“Um, sure, but why?”
“Well, someone could trip over it.”
Trip over it? Someone would really have to go out of their way to do that but whatev.
“Um, okay.” I made for the basket, then slowly backed away when she left.

Oh, and three words:  talking caution sign.  Really? I am sorry that our litigious society has creeped over the pond. 

Why does everything in my city center close at 5? It's like a ghost town by 5:30, just tumble-weeds, litter, and the occasional group of drunk teens. It seems to me that they could make a lot more money by staying open in the evening. Before 5, you wouldn't believe that there is an economic crisis going on. It is bustling here every day of the week, but I guess everyone turns into a pumpkin every evening.

Could we follow the UK example and open more open markets at home? Every city I've visited here has a market. Every day. And they don't just sell fresh fruit and veg, freshly cut meats, fish, and locally farmed eggs. They sell clothes, and textiles, party supplies, and all manner of weird stuff. No one even goes to the weekly farmers market at home and why? Access to fresh and cheap fruit and veg has been great here.

Can the US start calling the ground floor the ground floor too?  It just makes more sense.  

Oh, and how could I forget: England needs more pop tarts. And while I'm thinking of it, they could do with some Toaster Strudles too.  Thanks.

Maybe it's a British Thing Pt. 8

I really want to get maybe, 1000 of my closest friends together and put them in a queue to nowhere through an English city center. I just want to see if people will join a random line with no discernible beginning or destination. Every few minutes, the person at the 'front' could move up a few steps, and all will follow, but really they are waiting for nothing. I hypothesise that this would work. People would join the queue, then feel too silly after a few minutes to ask just what they were queuing for. How long could that go on? UK sociologists: a challenge.
But the British queuing thing is true, and most Brits will admit to it. It makes things very orderly, which I enjoy. It is mostly clearly seen at the cash machine where everyone is very respectful of PIN protection. I have only seen queue confusion at the market where the politeness will make anyone crazy with unending 'You go' 'No, you go.' 'Really, you were here first.' 'Are you sure?' etc.
Queuing at the pub is yet another art lost on me. This is another place where the queue isn't totally clear and I have a knack for not getting noticed. It seems that at the pub is the only time that Britons are oblivious to each other in a queue. It becomes more of a mass and people just want their beers. “Oh no, don't mind me. I just enjoy standing here, looking expectantly at the taps and dying of thirst. You go ahead. It looks like your need is greater.” In true British fashion, I am reluctant to be pushy and merely sigh loudly and clear my throat when someone threatens to get in front of me.
Getting in lines seems like a very quirky cultural characteristic. Why do they form queues, how did it become a thing? Maybe it's something to do with all those bleak years of rationing. Thank God there's plenty of chocolate to go around these days.

07 September 2010

Maybe it's a British Thing Pt. 7

Few things reveal cultural differences and distinctions more than alcoholic beverages and their consumption. There is nothing more British than a pint of real ale. Real ale is a phenomenon to me, each with a different taste, color, and origin. There are so many, most pubs have a couple standard options and a rotation of several others.  When I go to the pub, I just pick one at random and hope for the best. This tact hasn't let me down!
I guess I can clarify that a 'real ale' or cask ale uses traditional ingredients, is fermented in the same container it is dispensed from, and no CO2 is added. This mostly means that each brew tastes distinctive and it doesn't come out of a regular tap, but has to be manually pumped from the cask. They are brewed all over the country (and world) and each brewery has its own flavors and secret recipes. Basically, a lager, is a lager, is a lager, as I was wisely told, and a cask ale is always different and usually always good. There are actual national regulations and specifications for real ale that are too complicated for me to describe/understand. But CAMRA would be happy to give you the details.

Going to the pub here is very cultural and it is said that more business is conducted after hours in the pub than at any other time. There are also unspoken rules about round buying which I clearly don't understand. When I went with classmates, someone would buy, and I would feebly pat my pockets as they forbade me to pay. I could never quite figure out the pattern and I know that I owe several people a round (or two).
If it's a pub that serves food, something that I really enjoy is that you order at the bar, pay, they bring out the food, you eat it and leave. There's no tipping, awkward serving, or bill paying confusion. It's like brushing your teeth before showering. Somehow it feels like you've saved time and energy.

Real ale isn't the only thing to drink in pubs. Regular taps usually exist, and something that I really like is a shandy, which is half beer, half lemonade. Before you vomit, know that lemonade in this country does not involve lemons at all, but is more like lemon flavored soda. Trust me, a shandy is a nice, refreshing drink, perfect for the designated drivers. Pimms and lemonade is also a nice drink. Summer this year lasted about a week, and in that week, I am sure lots of it was consumed. If it is over 30 degrees C, all self respecting Britons are melting in the heat and sipping some Pimms to recover.
I guess it's a bit universal that people drink, and no surprise that some people drink too much. But here, it's really a thing. I mean, the London Ambulance Service had to adopt the use of an actual drunk bus for special occasions (Fridays).  I think that's kind of telling, but perhaps I should refrain from comment considering I can't remember the last time I was even in remote need of a booze bus.
But I think the singing deserves mention. I've never lived in such a close proximity to a city center as I do now. This yields, virtually every night, groups of drunk people parading by, singing loudly, shouting, or getting into fights. Why is this? What is it about the drink that drains British youth of all reservation, making them sing loudly and proudly while wandering down the middle of the street?
Either way: pubs? We Americans need them. But real ale? We need that more. Oh, and Guinness on tap, wood panelling, and bi-monthly traditional music do not a pub make

Cov Love

Like all transitional phases of life, the last few days here in Cov have been strange and great and sad at the same time.  The next few days will be handing in my thesis, packing all my stuff into suitcases, stocking up on my favorite candy and tea, eating at the best restaurants in town, and hanging with friends that I will soon have to leave for some time.

I had my last service at the cathedral on Sunday which was very nice and peaceful.  Later, a couple of friends and I finally went to Cadbury World to check out how Britain's favorite chocolate is made.  This is completely worth it, if you can get tons of discounts on entry like we did.  It's pretty camp and silly, but has a fair balance of stuff for kids and adults. After the history of chocolate and Cadbury's, at a very brief point we actually saw some factory action where the bars were being put into wrappers.  What I found interesting is that they are very insistent about not taking photos in that area.  What am I going to do, sell their 'secrets' to Hershey's?  I'm pretty sure that Hershey's has the 'putting the chocolate in wrappers' thing pretty down by now.
They also have a very wacky ride that was more like 'it's a small world' than anything having to do with making chocolate.  Samples were aplenty which really sets it apart from the Hershey factory. I mean, what do you get there these days?  A kiss? At one point we got to pick our favorite candy and then they poured melted chocolate on it.  Amazing.  That alone was worth admission.
There was a disappointing and distinct lack of bargains in their store.  I am sure that more mistakes are made than they are letting on, and I would happily have bought them all.  Although, you can get some different products there, which I guess is nice for the connoisseur. 

Yesterday I spent a few hours formatting and organising my thesis.  I am sure there is an easier way to make a table of contents than by hand, but whatever.  I nervously printed it out and then payed the exorbitant amount of money to have it bound into a fancy book.  Seriously, it's extortion.  But they don't give you much choice.
Tomorrow I will pick it up, give it a once over, and hand it in.  That is pretty exciting, although finishing the whole thing felt very anti-climactic.  It wasn't like I went to a fancy hotel and the vandalised the room to declare that I was finished.  I sort of said what I wanted, checked the word count, added a little more, and once I had enough, stopped.  I ended with about 14,500. 

I also printed out my tickets and itinerary which was all very comforting. As long as I can get everything I need in my backpack, I will feel very confident starting this chapter of the wild ass plan. 

I will take extra moments this week to wander through the city center, extra time to enjoy the company I have, and extra consideration to keeping in touch in the future.  Having friends in different states is one thing, having friends in different continents is quite another.

03 September 2010

Carnival On

I started last weekend by hitting the Brick Lane Sunday market in London. This was pretty cool, but I felt not hipster enough. Most of the market was overpriced new clothes, but more so, overpriced vintage clothes. Outside of that there was some awesome street food to be had, which frankly interests me way more than clothes of any era. I had an awesome Japanese 'rice thingy' and a Thai pumpkin curry which I plan to attempt to replicate when I get home. The Sunday market spreads to the street where tiny yard sales take place right on the pavement set in 'Banglatown' where there are about a million curry houses as well as cool foreign grocery stores and sweet shops. I stopped in to the Brick Lane Beigel Bake because when the queue for a place doubles back and out the door, it is almost always worth standing in. Here you can watch them bake the bagels and then buy one for 20p. A true London bargain.
In the evening, I took in a free organ concert at Westminster Abbey. It's great just to get into that place for free and when it was over, I was not the only one with the wise idea to loiter, everyone was wandering around, taking it in, and driving the ushers mad.

The next day I headed to Notting Hill carnival. This was the most insane event I have witnessed. At this two day street carnival to celebrate Caribbean culture and music, over a million people come out to watch the parade, dance in the street, and drink lots and lots of Red Stripe. I stepped off the tube at 10am and the smell of the open grills cooking up jerk chicken, fried plantains, and sweet corn on the cob was already in the air.
I wrongly assumed that I could find a good place to camp out for a couple of hours and watch the parade. You know, sit on the curb, watch a marching band go by and be on my way. How wrong I was! If you camp out to watch the entire Notting Hill carnival parade, you will be very tired and hungry! It started around 11 and was still going on when I left around 4. Over 60 entrants participated this year. I started watching near the judging area, which was nice as all of the bands stopped to perform and dance and do whatever they were doing.
The crowds gathered, the bands about burst my ear drums, and the costumes were amazing, but after about 2 hours I realized that it could go on forever and I hadn't had any jerk chicken yet. So I gave up my viewing spot and joined the swell, wandering down the (I'm sure once peaceful) streets of Notting Hill, now lined with delicious food stalls and on every corner a block party. Huge speakers were set up blasting calypso, soca, or samba music. In some places the base felt as though it was vibrating the street and with my every step it resonated through my whole body from foot to head. You could say it was loud. But it was really a nice atmosphere. People were, admittedly, getting drunker by the second, but mostly happily dancing in the street, eating Caribbean foods, and being generally good natured.
I saw about a thousand cops and only one incident where a fight must have broken out and the next thing I knew two cops were dragging this unconscious guy through the crowd and literally laid him down in front of me. Ah, drunk people, how I miss you!
The rest of the day I wandered through the streets seeing what I could see. The smoke from the open grills filled the air, random whistles and horns broke through the thumping music, and people were dancing like crazy. I had never seen so much public drinking, blatant pot smoking, and trash in the street in my life. And I've never seen so many people. It was a little scary how many people were there, but I had been properly warned and carried only my camera and a change purse in a zipped pocket.
Meanwhile, the parade was still winding its way through town. After it left the judging area, it just sort of became a mobile party, providing entertainment to the crowd, making little progress, dancing through thousands of people.

That's some people!
Once I'd had enough of the crowd and the loudness I headed out, though my exit strategy was kind of flawed. Actually, I guess it worked out as well as it could have, but I underestimated the size of the crowd and of Notting Hill. It took a long time to walk back to my hostel to get my stuff, but it was easier than fighting public transport. I was more than happy to get on the train home and enjoy its quiet and calm.