A REQUEST 06/30/2008
 

i have a request:

will a British person out there reading this PLEASE write in and post a proper explanation for why British people mock and despise America and Americans to such a great extent?

i really need to know, because it's making me fucking sick.

please, British readers, grow some balls and tell everyone what your big problems is.

 
 

Pimm's No. 1 Cup


guess what:  i have nothing bad to say today.

most of you will probably be pleased to find that today's entry has to do with something i think is great about England -- surprise surprise -- and that thing is the national practice of "Sunday Lunch."

for those of you who don't know, Sunday Lunch is exactly what the name says.  every Sunday in Great Britain various pubs, restaurants and families everywhere prepare a huge meal (generally eaten at lunchtime) consisting of roast beef with accompaniments such as Yorkshire pudding, gravy, mushy peas, mashed swede (or turnip), carrots and roasted potatoes.  it's gloriously delicious -- and when you have it in a pub, it's also amazingly affordable.

anyway, the roots of the Sunday Lunch have been traced back to the Yorkshire area of England, which may be why the Yorkshire pudding is such a necessary element of the lunch.  originally it probably came about because families could put the roasting food in the oven to cook while the family went off to church, thereby having their afternoon meal almost ready when they got home.  nowadays it's just a lovely tradition.

i had the pleasure of enjoying a Sunday Lunch at The Red Lion pub in Barnes yesterday and found two more things about British food and drink to love:

the first was a drink called "Pimm's No. 1 Cup."  the history of the drink dates back to the 1840s.  it's perfect for a summer day and i hear the British drink it by the gallon when it's warm outside.  just so you know (since i didn't know), Pimm's is a liquor that comes in gin- and vodka-based variants.  a Pimm's No. 1 uses the gin-based version.  it's made by mixing one part Pimm's with 2-3 parts lemonade and a mixture of mint leaves, chopped lemons, oranges, cucumbers and sometimes strawberries (a British sangria, if you will).  i had the pleasure of sharing a pitcher of it over Sunday Lunch yesterday and i found it the closest thing to summer in a glass i've ever tasted...

the other delicious new thing came during the dessert portion of Sunday Lunch.  it was "Sticky Toffee Pudding" and it's the sweetest, goopiest treat i've tasted in a long time.  it's a dense, single-portion cake completely covered in a warm, sticky toffee sauce that soaks into the spongey cake and pools around the bottom.  you get it with a small cup of vanilla ice cream and it's pretty much perfect for any person with a sweet tooth (like me).

i think the practice of Sunday Lunch, whether you do it at home or in a pub, is perfectly charming.  i think it would be nice if there was something like that in America.  you know, sort-of like having Christmas dinner every Sunday of the year. 

anyway, i thought the Sunday offerings were so pleasant i had to write about them.  and i think i'll be having another Pimm's No. 1 as soon as i possibly can. 

i suggest you try the same.

 
FISHY JUICE 06/28/2008
 

My metaphorical self-portrait.


the people who run the grocery shops and convenience stores of London are some of the worst shysters i've encountered.  in an earlier blog i wrote about how i make a lot of mistakes -- and two of those mistakes had to do with buying goods and getting confused due to shopkeeper's lies (or should i say "lack of specificity on price signage").  today's case in point was me simply trying to buy some frigging orange juice at the shop around the corner. 

i walked to the juice section and found very little "real" fruit juices for sale.  the section had clearly been wiped clean or maybe not yet stocked for the day.  in fact, there was only one type of juice carton on the shelf.  it was Tropicana.  fine.  the sign on the shelf in front of it said "Tropicana 2 for £3" -- which i thought was a good deal.  there were only two cartons left on the whole shelf, so i picked them both up and headed for the line, which, of course, was long.  i stood in line waiting for the insanely slow Indian woman to ring up newspapers and snack foods and eventually got to the cash register.  at which point she rang up my juice.  and (drum roll, please) it was NOT two for £3. 

i said to her (calmly and quietly, as i have learned to do here in this city that is not mine) that they were on sale two for £3.  she said in her thick accent:  "No."  so i said:  "There's a sign right there on the shelf that says it.  right there.  two for £3."  and she said "No.  That is for ANOTHER kind of Tropicana juice."

well FUCK ME.

being a terribly principled consumer, i picked up my two cartons of Tropicana juice, put them back on the shelf and found some apple juice instead.  it wasn't the kind of juice i went in to buy, but at least it wasn't being falsely advertised as "on sale."  i returned to the still-long line and waited, again, to pay for my juice.  and it's important for me to point out that my problem isn't the difference of a few nickels and dimes (or pence, as is the case over here) -- i simply didn't want to pay for falsely advertised items -- it's the principle of the thing.

as i left the shop i once again felt like a stranger in a strange land.  even worse, that little, tiny experience added to my growing feeling that i have to be constantly on my toes here, lest i get taken by some shady asshole.  i now feel that i live in a country with no consumer rights.  a place where even large retailers lie, a place where nothing is handled or repaired on time, a place where there is no truth in advertising and a place where everyone cheats and no one bats an eye.

if i sound like a fish out of water today, that's because i AM. 

and every time i try to dive in, some jerk-off behind a counter fishes me back out.

 
 

The United States Supreme Court


i don't know a ton about what's going on in the courts of the United States these days, but now that i live in London i get most of my U.S. news from miscellaneous internet sources.  today, on the well-respected BBC World News online, i read a U.S. sub-headline that shocked and dismayed me.  it was:

"The US Supreme Court has struck down a law that would have allowed the execution of someone convicted of raping a child."

umm...  excuse me?

now, i know most people have VERY strong opinions about whether or not the death penalty is "cruel and unusual" punishment.  i also know that the United States is often looked down on by the international community for even allowing the death penalty to exist -- no matter how heinous the crime.  i know there are people who believe the worst punishment is not to be executed, but rather to be sentenced to a lifetime behind the bars of a prison without possibility of parole.  further, i know that there is more than religious beliefs and party politics at play when people take their positions on this issue -- and yes, i know there is something to be said for the possibility of rehabilitation (though let's get real:  how many rapists and murderers are "rehabilitated" in prison?).

for the record, i am on the fence regarding the death penalty.

why?

well, let's see...  do i believe executing one man for a heinous crime eliminates the possibility of that crime being committed again in the future?  no.  do i believe that imposing the death penalty is an invasion of basic of human rights?  i'm not sure.  do i believe that two wrongs make a right?  sometimes.

in this particular case we are talking about how to punish a man for raping a CHILD in Louisiana.

the article i read today said:  'Citing the 45 states who had imposed bans on execution for child rape, Justice Kennedy wrote in his opinion that "there is a national consensus against capital punishment for the crime of child rape."'

pardon me, Justice Kennedy, but no one has ever asked ME what i thought about how to punish a child rapist.

the article continued:  'Writing on behalf of the minority of justices who opposed the decision, Justice Samuel Alito said: "The harm that is caused to the victims and to society at large by the worst child rapists is grave.  It is the judgment of the Louisiana lawmakers and those in an increasing number of other states that these harms justify the death penalty."

and i say amen to that, brother.

to those of you who are resolutely against the death penalty i ask:  if you were the parent of a young child, and a man came along and RAPED your child, would you sit in the courtroom and argue for that man's right to life?  might you swing the way of the Louisiana state lawmakers and decide his heinous crime deserved the death penalty?  would you truthfully want to live your life knowing that your hard-earned tax dollars were paying for your child's rapist to have shelter and three square meals a day for the rest of his life?

and yes, i know that some statistics claim that the cost of seeing a death penalty case through to the end exceed the cost of keeping a prisoner in jail for the rest of his life, but MONEY probably shouldn't be the deciding factor.

if the anti-death penalty argument comes down to the violation of basic human rights, i ask:  who is protecting the child's basic human right to not be RAPED?

obviously i have not studied law, and there's a ton of stuff i do not know, but i'm not here trying to make any big statements.  i just want to say that the world is not easily read in black and white -- there is much gray in between.  perhaps there are some cases where the death penalty WOULD be a fitting punishment for a crime other than murder.  if you ask the family of the raped child i'm sure they'd say that death is a fair punishment for the man convicted of raping their family member.

so maybe there should be a little more room for the consideration of gray area under the law.  perhaps murder is not the only crime that should qualify for the death penalty.  dare i suggest, perhaps, that the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" needs some re-tooling?

and if i suggest it, does that make me un-American?

 
PLACE YER BETS 06/24/2008
 

One of the legal bookmakers on London's high streets.


when i took my first few walks down the main street (or "high street" as it's called here) in my new neighborhood i was, of course, struck by many interesting things.  one of these things i noticed, but haven't written about yet, is the gambling/bookmaking houses.  or rather, the large NUMBER of gambling outfits located within walking distance of my flat.  on one street (King Street for those keeping track) i pass Caesar's World, Shoppers Amusements, Paddy Power bookmaker, Ladbroke's and William Hill bookmaker.  that's five of them in a two-block radius. 

these gambling/betting outfits exist because they are, in fact, LEGAL in England.  this came as a surprise to me, since inside America the only legalized gambling is located inside the cavernous casinos of Las Vegas or Atlantic City or the various Native American casinos dotting the country.  this means that when i hear the word "bookmaker" i quickly envision a large, Italian-American man who works behind the counter of a deli or bar, who also sells imported electronics off the backs of trucks in the alley and takes sports bets over the phone or in the back room. 

you know who i mean -- there's a variation of this man in every American crime drama produced.

well, in London these men don't exist.  in London these men operate legally and lucratively in large, well advertised businesses with extensive websites, expensive signs and trails of (mostly male) customers moving in and out of the places at all times of the day.  some outfits (like William Hill) are actually traded on the London Stock Exchange.  and they don't just take bets on sporting events either.  they have quite an interesting range of offerings.  one spot i looked into, Paddy Power bookmaker, calculates odds and takes bets on everything from who the next American President will be to who will win the reality show "Big Brother" to where the Dow Jones Industrial Average will close on a given day.  no kidding. 

some of these places look a bit...  how shall i say...  "shady."  but some of them look like a young man's fun-house.  slots, bingo, poker, betting -- what more could they want?   all perfectly legal, and open all day.

i will admit that my household currently has a meager wager on who will win the UEFA Euro 2008 football championship in Basel.  i will also admit that we have a tiny amount riding on who will be America's next president, though no one walked into one of those high street bookmaker shops to place the bets.  ours were done quietly online where the whole thing is easier, faster and far less creepy.

no matter how "legal" certain things are, some things will always seem a tad unsavory to me.  bookmaking is a good example.  probably because i know that the reason so many of these businesses exist is because they are lucrative, and they are lucrative because men and women consistently and reliably lose their hard-earned money on shitty bets and bad luck.

why does England view legalized gambling so differently than America?  i'm not sure, and i'm not well-informed enough to speculate. 

what i DO know is that i won't complain if Russia wins the Euro 2008 Cup.

;-)

 
TINY VOICES 06/19/2008
 

A bit of the Hammersmith Bridge taken from our side of the Thames.


i spend a lot of time writing about how confused i feel living in London and about how different things are here, so today i thought i'd give it a brief rest.

today i took a late morning walk along the River Thames outside my flat.  i walked down to the nearest bridge for getting across the Thames -- the Hammersmith Bridge -- which i adore.  the Hammersmith Bridge is an enormous wrought iron bridge that was built in 1887.  it's painted all over in green and gold, which is probably why i dig it so much, and it's got a rough history:  the IRA has tried to blow it up three times (unsuccessfully in 1939 and 1996 and successfully in 2000).

you have to appreciate something that resilient.

i took a few pictures of the bridge, which was a lot harder than it sounds -- and unfortunately they didn't turn out so great -- then i strolled home. 

on the rather short walk from the base of the Hammersmith bridge to my flat there are five pubs.  yes, five.  i find this a little amusing and a lot convenient considering almost all of them serve good food in addition to drink (something American bars do NOT usually offer).  there's The Old City Arms, Blue Anchor, Rutland Arms, The Dove and Old Ship -- with Old Ship being right in my backyard.  then there's The Black Lion, which i love, but that's on the further side of my flat's building so i didn't pass it today...

ANYway, on the walk home something unexpected caught my ear.  i was passing the open window of a small school classroom, and inside there was a chorus of kids singing in unison to a piano.  it was the most beautiful sound to hear, there in the quiet of a weekday morning walk -- the view of the Thames at low tide, a cool breeze, blue patches of sky above and the voices of little children singing filling the air. 

i wished at that moment that i could take a picture of a sound. 

it was glorious.

 
 

And this version of "tipping" is something completely different.  Or so I learned today.


... that is the question.

ever since my first trip to London i've struggled with how and where to "tip" in England -- when to tip, who expects a tip, who you should never tip and how much to tip if i DO tip are constantly on my mind now that i live here.  this is because it turns out that whether or not one needs to tip a person for a miscellaneous service is very different from what it is in the States.  and different further depending on what part of America you come from.  you see, i spent the last 10 years living in Los Angeles, California where you tip everyone for everything whether they're parking your car, opening a door for you or delivering you a surprise vase of flowers.  in LA it is a rare occasion that you get ANYthing without a tip involved.  living in LA means you need a constant stream of 1- and 5-dollar bills in your wallet for all the different people you may encounter throughout the day who expect a tip.

then i discovered London.  a place where you can walk up to a bar, order a £7 pint of beer and actually pay £7 even (not eight or nine, as you would in American bars including tip).  in fact, it's not just bartenders who don't get tipped here.  in a lot of restaurants you can't leave a tip for the waiter or waitress if you try.  i recall one particularly good Spanish restaurant where the experience was so lovely i wanted to leave a tip -- even though it's not customary.  when i paid for the meal i paid by credit card, and there was no place to add a tip.  i then asked someone who worked there how i could add a tip and he replied that there was no way to do such a thing.  i felt obliged to scrape the bottom of my purse for loose pounds in an effort to leave a decent tip.  it just didn't feel right to NOT tip.

it was around then that an Englishman explained to me that servers in England get paid a much higher wage for their work than their counterparts in America, therefore they don't rely on tips from customers.  in fact, if you DO leave a tip people look at you weird and the server will probably awkwardly pick up your money and drop it in a pocket with a confused look on their face.  and all of this confuses me because SOME of the restaurants i go to in London add a "service charge" at the bottom of the bill, and it's not optional. 

i would normally say that the "service charge" is the same thing as leaving a tip, except for two important things:  the service charge is non-negotiable and has nothing to do with how good your service was, and second, the service charge isn't the same amount as a normal tip would be.  in America you generally leave 20% of your bill as a tip.  some slightly frugal people may tip 15%, but it's safe to say that the only time a person leaves no tip at all is if the server or food was unbearably bad or unpleasant.  so the "service charge" thing in England is just confusing.  not all places have one, and the ones that DO have it don't add enough for it to equal an American 15-20% tip anyway.

so what do i do?  i rely on whomever i'm sharing the table with to explain to me what is right.  i have no clue how to reward a good server if tipping is not customary.  and that gives rise to a new question:  if the servers don't rely on tips to make their money, what motivation do they have to PROVIDE good service?

the answer is:  there is no such thing as "good customer service" in England.

but English customer service is a whole other blog -- and not a complimentary one at that -- so i'll just stop here.

 
 

2400 grams of chopped tomato.


i make a lot of mistakes.

recently i was shopping in Sainsbury's (my local grocery store) and i bought a 4-can pack of tuna fish.  the tuna cans were stacked on an end cap with a giant "SALE" sign indicating that John West tuna chunks were on sale for £2.59.  a pretty good price, i thought, and so i put one 4-pack in my basket.  at checkout i watched the register display and saw my tuna ring up at £3.99.  i asked the cashier about the sale price and she said i'd have to pay, and then go talk to the help desk about it.  which i did.  at the help desk they weren't sure of the sale.  i thought this was odd considering the large size of the display, but whatever.  when a stockboy came up and saw the tuna he immediately said:  "Ahh, only the tuna in BRINE is on sale -- you've got the tuna in SPRING WATER." 

i was frustrated by this because i'm a savvy shopper.  i stared at the frigging sale sign (and at the tuna display) before i picked up my purchase, and the end cap was FULL of 4-packs of "tuna in water" all mixed in with the "tuna in brine."  had i been in America i would have pointed out that the store is falsely advertising a sale by loading the sale display with cans that are not on sale, and by not specifying the type of tuna on sale ON the sale sign.  but i am not in America.  i am in London, England, and i've learned already that people are different here.  they don't give a shit about the customer and they certainly don't give a shit about truth in sale signage.  my comments would have fallen on deaf ears in this case -- and possibly have drawn unwanted attention to me -- so i just said "i'll keep the tuna in water" and walked away. 

who the hell wants tuna packed in BRINE anyway?  could they come up with a more disgusting way to say that the tuna's packed in salt-saturated preservative water?  in America tuna is packed either in fish oil or spring water.  and to me, that sounds a lot...  well...  a lot more like something you EAT.

a day or two after the tuna mistake i was in the local convenience store (a large BP gas -- or "petrol" -- station).  this is very close to my front door and i use it for random stuff like candy bars, chips or beer.  on the occasion i'm referring to here, i was there for beer.  Stella Artois to be specific.  i had bought Stella in this store several times and knew where it was and how much it cost.  when i got to the beer section i saw a big "SALE" sign with the Stella Artois logo on it -- £8.00 for two packs (in England a lot of beer is sold in packs of four cans).  this was a very good sale.  so i grabbed two four-packs (what's with me and the four-packs?) and headed for the line -- or the "cue," as they call it here. 

when i got to the counter the register man said i owed £13.  i pointed toward the big sale sign and said:  "oh, the sign there says Stella's two for £8."  and he said:  "no, not this size -- has to be the other size."  and i thought:  "i didn't even SEE two sizes of Stella over there.  it was just one big pile of beer."  but, being in London (and knowing there were people waiting behind me), i uncharacteristically said:  "OK," and paid the man his £13.  inside it really burned me up that i had just been tricked by sale tactics for the second time in two days, but then, i suppose you have to be shady if you want to be as huge as BP or Sainsbury's.

last night i made my first grocery store DELIVERY order online. 

now, normally i am not the type of person to use such a service, but when you don't own a car and the walk to the grocery store means you can only carry two bags of stuff, you start looking for alternative methods of getting things home.  the food selection online was excellent but i ran into a problem:  everything was listed in METRIC SYSTEM units, so i couldn't tell from the listing just how big that chunk of cheddar cheese was, or how small the bag of cashew nuts was (250 grams, for the record).  being given 60 minutes to complete my order, i rushed to try and do conversions on my computer.  quick:  how many 500 kilogram packs of minced beef do i need to equal two pounds?  it was frustrating, but i got it done.

today, the order arrived.  and well, i made some slight mis-calculations.  for example, i now have enough chopped tomato to have my own personal chili cook-off.  i also have enough fusilli pasta, sauce and ground beef to feed the Brady Bunch.  twice.

but that's OK.  it's only food.

and while i'm on the subject of food, can ANYONE out there explain to me why i can't find decent RANCH DRESSING in England? 

i need to know.

 
METRIC SCHMETRIC 06/12/2008
 

An illustration of how much sense the metric system makes to me.


i was always scared of the metric system.

back when i was in elementary and middle school, teachers spent a chapter or portion of the school year teaching me and my fellow students about... THE METRIC SYSTEM.  i remember being totally bewildered by the new calculations and units i was supposed to learn, but worse than that, i remember being told that the United States was soon going to adopt the metric system as its standard (as Europe had already done), and i was scared shitless -- because while i was a darn good student, i never understood the Metric System.

well, it turned out that America DIDN'T convert to the metric system as previously warned -- the distance of my work commute was to be measured in miles for many years (not in kilometers), and the smoked turkey i bought at the local deli was to be measured in pounds all my life (not in kilograms).  and i was glad.  when you fail a chapter of study that teachers swear you need to know, you hope like crazy that they're wrong -- that you'll never actually need to know it in real life.

well, they weren't wrong.  not exactly.  you see, as most of you are aware, i have moved to England.  and guess what:  they follow the f-ing metric system here.  in fact, i looked it up and it happens to be that as of 2007, only three countries in the WORLD (the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar/Burma) had not mandated the metric system upon their populations.  i bet that surprises a few of the Americans out there, eh?  i know it surprised me...

being 5 feet and three inches tall means nothing to people here.  my height, if taken, would be in centimeters, and i have no idea how many centimeters tall i am.  if i were buying gas (or "petrol") for a car, i would not be buying it per gallon -- i'd be buying it by the liter.  in fact, it's not even LEGAL to buy and sell goods by the pound, gallon or ounce here -- and we can thank the European Union for THAT little gem.

when i pull out an American family recipe that calls for "one pound" of ground beef, i now have to remember that that actually means i need .454 kilograms of meat.  if i need a 12-ounce can of kidney beans for chili, i have to know that i actually need 340.2 grams of beans.  if the store is a mile from my flat, it's actually 1.61 kilometers away.

and frankly, that's a giant pain in my ass.

metric conversions are all well and good if i'm sitting at home at my Mac, where all i have to do is press the F12 key to get a metric system converter, but when i'm out in the field (AKA the grocery store) i'm pretty much fucked.

it was wisely suggested to me before i left the States that i not think about metric units as some fraction of the American units and just start learning the metric units.  i know this was sound advice, but it doesn't help me much in these early months of trying to buy groceries and housewares.

what's my point?  i don't really have one.  but if somewhere out there one of my childhood teachers is reading this, they can rest assured that they did not lie when they said i was going to NEED to know the metric system one day. 

they were right.

and also?  today we had a high of 63 degrees Fahrenheit in London.  except in London it's not "63 degrees Fahrenheit" -- it's 17.222 degrees Celsius. 

but don't even get me started on THAT.

 
CAUSE OF DEATH 06/11/2008
 

Some of the dolphins stranded in Cornwall.


i'm not sure how widely England's local news stories are reported in the States, but in case anyone out there didn't hear, i wanna talk briefly about something that happened on Monday in southwest England.

around the area known as Cornwall, over 40 dolphins beached themselves on shore in four locations.  reporters called it a "mass stranding" of marine life, and the worst one to be found in the UK in almost 30 years.  experts on the scene worked day and night trying to coax the surviving dolphins back into the sea, but they were unsuccessful and 26 dolphins died on the beach. 

the dolphins examined were all in good physical condition and were well-fed.  there was nothing to suggest they had stranded themselves due to illness or poor health.  the whole thing is particularly curious because the dolphins weren't in the same exact location, but spread over four different sites.  what made these animals do it?  there are lots of theories...

one story suggested that because the stranding occurred at the same time of day in all four locations, perhaps a Navy exercise or disturbance spooked the dolphins and they fled ashore in response.  another suggests they could have been fleeing a large predator such as a whale.  why a dolphin would see land as a safe haven i do not know.  you'd think they'd view land as the ultimate enemy...

my own thoughts wander to an old episode of The Simpsons (a Treehouse of Horror story called "The Night of the Dolphin") where Lisa Simpson sets a captive dolphin named Snorky free, only to find that Snorky is actually the king of all dolphins, and now that he's free, he can lead the dolphin population onto land, where they will "take back" the land they say the humans stole from them.  it's classic Simpsons, and it plays on the often noted fact that dolphins are highly intelligent, advanced creatures.

comedy aside, the dolphin story made me think a little bit about just how intelligent dolphins may be.  if marine life experts can't explain the mass stranding episode with facts and figures, where else might we go for an explanation?  could it be that perhaps dolphins are indeed so complex in their intelligence that they could feel depression or madness and orchestrate a mass-suicide?

animals who have their intelligence compared to that of humans, as dolphins do, may face some adverse conditions.  the complexities of the human brain have brought countless mental defects and disorders onto man.  advanced brain function comes at a high price.  so, could it be that dolphins are starting to suffer the same fate as humans?  could there be a dolphin version of Jim Jones in their midst?  was the mass-stranding actually a dolphin version of Jonestown or perhaps Heaven's Gate?

no one knows.  but if it could be that dolphins' brains are susceptible to the same confusion and sadness as humans, well then, i feel really, really bad for the dolphins.