Category Archives: culture

Long time…

I’ve been back to being super busy at work, which always interferes with my ability to sit down in a disciplined manner and rant about England and the English. Oh that and Twitter. It seems that nearly 6 years into this little adventure, I can get a lot of rant out of my system in a mere 140 characters.

And I’ve been working out. Which is a bit of a shocker. I have a gym to whom I pay money each month even though I have not been there in a few years. Oops. I joined in 2008 ahead of my inaugural trip to Australia and I was good about it for another year after that and then I wasn’t any more. And I kept convincing myself that I was going to get back into it, which is why I didn’t just quit. But now I need to, as I found Jillian Michaels when I was back in the US over Easter.

Being away from the US for almost six years, and not being much of a fan of so-called reality TV, I had missed the whole Jillian phenomenon. I can recall having seen the occasional American person complain about how difficult her breakthrough workout DVD (“the 30 day shred”) was on Twitter but I wasn’t really paying attention. And then I was at my sister’s house, and sitting on her couch with my iPad, and my sister asked if I minded if she do this 20 minute workout. So I watched it and was fascinated. For a week in Minnesota with my sister, we dutifully tromped down into the basement with a couple of pairs of my Mom’s hand-weights (more on that in a minute*) and did the 20 minutes of hard work. I was hooked. I bought it on iTunes and vowed to make it through 30 days.

That trip was busy and I was doing work things after Minnesota, so I didn’t get back into it straight away. On returning to England, I had to locate a set of dumbbells, which meant I went into the local sporting goods megamart for the first time ever. (I have been being my usual self, and still tending to buy things like quality working out shoes while in the US…) And of course I had to pick all the weights up and try to guess how heavy they were, since they were marked in kg. (I know, as a scientist I should have that conversion memorized, but I don’t. I’m getting better at Celsius temperatures, though! Only took 5.7 years!)

I’m on a roll now–I’m not going to jinx myself by admitting how many days in a row I’ve managed, but it’s been quite a few. And no matter how crappy I feel or how long my day was at work, it’s remarkably easy to find 20 minutes to do this intense and intensely brutal workout. (Although that said, that may just be the 20 minutes of blogging time that I’ve been eating into…) And Jillian Michaels is remarkably motivating in a way that I’m not used to in terms of fitness DVD instructors. Believe me, I’ve tried them all over the years. I’ve had Jane Fondas, Denise Austins, former supermodels; I’ve tried The Firm, step aerobics, yoga, latin dance, intense cardio, intense leg lifts, ballet. Admittedly these are all American, I’ve not ever tried any British fitness options. But regardless, somehow this one is different and in a really good way.

Hopefully, in some future number of days, I’ll be able to announce that it’s worked and I’ve made it through 30 days and plan to keep going. And maybe there will be some nice side benefit, like a decreased jeans size just as swimsuit season approaches. But for the moment, more than anything I’m just loving the routine of forcing myself to do something active like lift heavy** objects over my head while simultaneously doing leg lunges.

* I got my mom off osteoporosis meds and onto a weightlifting regime a few years ago. (There is good science in this, believe me–this is my area.) She now has the nicest arms I’ve ever seen on a mom-type person. I’m only a tiny bit jealous because a few more years of Jillian and I’m sure I’ll look the same.

** 1 kg. The girls in the video do 5 lbs. I’m close, right?

I almost forgot to mention this: I am personally against the whole concept of for-fun bloggers doing sponsored posts that read like real posts until you get to the end. This is entirely about me and my constant battle with the bulge and in no way, shape, or form did any one give me any money or swag in order to advertise this particular exercise DVD! I hate that I feel the need to write this disclaimer but I wanted to make it abundantly clear what I’m up to.

Oh to be in England now that April’s here!

Well, I am, actually. I am in England and it’s April. But that’s a recent update. I was in the US for the first ten days of this month, and I could not wait to get back.

Apparently 5.5 years in England are enough to make a girl sufficiently European that three weeks in the US was just a bit too much. Or maybe this year’s presidential election really IS nastier than in previous years. And perhaps partisan politics HAS reached a new low.

Things that became too much for me, in no particular order:

  • Irrationally blaming Obama for fuel prices (which are, of course, elevated all over the globe due to crude prices)
  • Unbelievable sexism.
    Santorum may be out of the race, but he succeeded at making it cool to riff on 1950s Leave it to Beaver stereotypes.

  • People thinking that universal healthcare was evil, and that they somehow had a RIGHT to NOT have access to affordable health care (link should be to USA Today article but I read it on my iPad and can’t find the link in the millions of articles I read on healthcare reform in the last month…)
  • People using the whole “how to lie with statistics” thing in shameful ways
  • Every time I tried to point any of these things out to a Republican, they responded with something along the lines of “OH Yeah, well, Obama did x in the 2008 campaign” as though it was a playground battle and deflection from the issues was the real game.

I am clearly no longer as American as I once was. Because these things really bother me and I can’t seem to let them go. And I would consider myself to be not terribly political, but the politics in the US right now pits left vs right in a way that I don’t really understand.

Britain’s class obsession

Britain has a rather strange obsession with labeling things according to “class”. Before I moved here, I had never thought very much about the fact that I was “middle class” growing up, in that I had a certain set of white-collar parents and a suburban home. I most certainly would not have used the c-word in order to describe or define myself. It does not surprise me, however, given the local obsession with class, that there is a new BBC 3-part special about class and culture. I tried to watch the first part tonight, and gave up rather quickly but felt that it defined a certain part of the local ethos that I, as a foreigner, would never quite understand.

The bit of the program(me) that I watched was chock full of stereotypes. This class did this, while this other class did that. It was largely historical in its gaze, and was looking at classes in the past and how they had changed in the 20th century. But it was the broad-brush stereotyping that I found a bit disturbing. These people did this and those people, on the other hand, did that. A quote from the above-linked TV review might help here:

While his latest documentary is in many ways an objective piece of social history, Bragg does steer us towards a conclusion. Orwell was wrong when he said the middle class would eventually sink into the working class, he argues, because the working class has risen and risen.

Again, he doesn’t need to spell it out, but he is an example of this. After all, here he is with traces of the North still detectable in his voice, presenting a programme on the BBC. Yet when the BBC was founded in the Twenties its voice was that of the south, specifically the public school-educated south.

Bragg describes himself as a class mongrel. His parents were working class but he ended up in the House of Lords, thanks to his grammar school, which got him into Oxford, which in turn got him into what he calls “the media class”. Yet not only does Bragg bring his formidable learning to the subject of class, he is also willing to examine his own prejudices about it.

An American would not be surprised by the fact that someone managed to shift from a modest background into the higher echelons of politics, we would celebrate it as the model of upward mobility that defines America. (Not that I am saying anything positive about modern American politics, that is a different blog post.) But ideas like, “he made it big in spite of his northern accent” are more surprising, as well as the general attitude towards being “northern” which seems to be a significant barrier to progress here.

The funny thing that seems to me to be a problem in Britain right now is the constant class chatter. All of the love for Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs seems to me to be centered on a certain nostalgia for a time when class boundaries were more clear. I feel like the new BBC documentary on class is worsening the situation for the next generation, by being nostalgic about the ages in which class may (or may not) have followed broad-brush stereotypes that were easy for people to assign and digest. More than anything, I feel like the obsession with class in Britain would necessarily diminish if people would just STOP TALKING ABOUT IT SO MUCH. By continuing with the discussion, and by continuing to portray the differences in “period dramas” we are just keeping alive an idea which no longer makes any sense in terms of trying to divide up the modern people into mass stereotypes. Time for this to end, and for the British electorate to be considered as a bunch of people, not a bunch of classes.

The rise of the travel blogger

I probably have just noticed this, because I am a fully employed person who admittedly travels the world, largely for work and occasionally for fun, but there seem to be a large number of bloggers out there who are engaged full time in travel blogging. And I am finding this slightly fascinating. I am not always able to pay my credit card bills in full due to my taking adventurous work trips to interesting places where I can’t quite get my trips fully funded by my work obligations, but where I decide that it’s a good idea to travel regardless because the opportunities are immense in terms of seeing interesting things and traveling to interesting places.

Clearly, there is a sub-set of the (American, or other “western”) population who agrees with me, that travels to interesting places are a mandatory part of our lives and thus this sort of foreign travel needs to be done regardless of the details of the finances. But the people who have no formal jobs and who are virtual nomads, blogging about their adventures? How do they do this? I am not saying that I would give up my day job if offered the opportunity, but I am still fascinated by this phenomenon because there just seems to be so many people out there on this pathway.

I have never made any attempt to “monetize” my blog, nor have I been the type of person who has seeked blog funding or website revenue. But I am truly interested in the stories of those who have. Some of the travel blogs I’ve read have been sadly full of poor grammar and thus clearly not edited by anyone. It’s not like these are words that will make themselves found in future travel guides without substantial effort. Is this still the new frontier for travel writing? Are these blog posts full of grammatical mistakes going to be the edited versions found in the next Lonely Planet edition? Curious bloggers want to know. And those of us with day jobs who happen to be living abroad are remarkably curious (and perhaps slightly jealous?) about those who have made this a nomadic lifestyle.

The BBC

I live in England, and as such, I am familiar with the typical programming of the BBC. I have learned to love strange formats of television that have no US equivalent, such as the “panel show” that is “QI” which has, as far as I can tell, no point. It has a scoring rule that is completely hidden from the viewer, and which often results in negative scores for most of the three comedian guests who appear on the show (Alan Davies appears regularly and almost always loses, a result that would be difficult for the average American to understand.)

But that said, and as much as the BBC often produces quality programming, it also produces a LOT of CRAP. I have been suffering from insomnia of late, and have been watching things on the BBC iPlayer that make me want to crawl into a small hole and hide from my peers. I love Masterchef. They cook for real chefs, often in difficult circumstances. But I do not love Celebrity Mastermind. Seriously, there is a TV program(me) in which a dude asks questions of people for two minutes and that is all. They tally scores after several people try to answer questions and that is that. Really, England? This is compelling television?

I have a new thought, which is that Americans who claim to love Downton Abbey should have to sit through at least 4 hours of typical BBC programming for every hour of historical drama that they love. See how they do with a marathon of “Homes Under the Hammer” or “Only Connect” or “Countdown“.

And there is a special place in hell for those who produce “Room 101“, Britain. Just, no.

Customer Service

I thought it was so simple. I moved out of my central town flat in a pedestrianized area almost 18 months ago (!) and within a few months realized (thanks to fab fellow expat Kat–hi Kat!) that I could now get pizza delivered by my local Domino’s pizza franchise. AND I could order pizza over the internet, thus ensuring that I did not have to talk on the telephone, something which I really do not like doing, especially when ordering things is involved. I was always under the delusion that ordering things over the internet was far superior, because nothing could ever go wrong with the details as they were typed in instead of relayed by voice, with all the trouble this could bring given my foreign accent. How wrong I was.

Now, we must have a slight diversion to discuss the excellence that is the UK post code system. While the US zip codes are 5 digits long and divided between 300 million people, in the UK the post codes are 6 (or more) digits and divided between a mere 60 million people. And they involve letters in addition to numbers, which gives us even more fine division in the UK post code system compared with 5 digit numerical US zip codes. I live on a small street, with two other buildings of flats and less than a dozen semidetached houses. The fact that the post codes are so finely divided is thus quite interesting: the houses on my street have a post code that differs from mine in the last (alphanumeric) digit. This means that my 6-digit post code is only for the 12 flats in my building. Which I happen to know, because I have accidentally received mail/post in recent months for the house at number X, Our Street, whereas my address is X, Building Name, Our Street, with a different post code. So the system is not perfect in execution, but in design, it is quite good.

So when I order pizza online, as I often have in the past, and as with many UK websites, I put in my post code, and a drop-down list appears with the 12 addresses of the flats in my building, in the form X, Building Name, Our Street, and I select my house number and expect the pizza to come to my house. Most of the time, this works. A few weeks before Christmas, however, I encountered a failure of this system. I ordered pizza, and about 40 minutes later, got a mobile phone call from a Domino’s driver who claimed that he could not find my flat. (Even though, if you put my post code into Google Maps you end up in my tiny street because this post code is ONLY FOR MY BUILDING!) I gave him directions. He called back ten minutes later. I gave him directions again. My pizza eventually arrived, and it was cold. I was not happy.

This brings us to tonight. I ordered pizza, with the confirmation from the Domino’s UK website coming through at 7:43 pm. My phone was inadvertently set to vibrate, so I did not notice when someone called at 8:22 pm, and again, and again a few minutes later. At 8:38 pm, I had retrieved my phone and realized I had been getting phone calls from an unknown mobile number, so when a local number rang through I answered it. It was someone at my local Domino’s franchise, wondering why I had not answered my phone. I pointed out that it had only rung nearly 40 minutes after the pizza was ordered, at which point the pizza would have been cold, and that by now the pizza was most certainly cold. The person at Domino’s claimed that my address had not come through the system, and that they did not have my full address details, including my street name. Now this is where I get angry, because, as was pointed out earlier, my post code is for my building only, and if there were any questions about the street name, it could be obtained via Google Maps. Not to mention the fact that I only selected my address from a drop-down box on their website after entering my post code, such that the information was all clearly in their system. And oh, do the drivers not have phones with Google Maps?

This is where it gets a bit ugly, and I get into a yelling argument with my local Domino’s franchise person, who wanted me to give him directions to my house at this point, for delivery of a pizza that had now been ordered an hour ago. The pizza person insisted that the pizza would still be hot if delivered, and I suggested that without touching it, they could not be sure. I asked, in what seemed to me to be a reasonable request, that a new pizza be made for me and delivered. This required quite a lot of discussion and me raising my voice yet again. And in the end, the Domino’s guy agreed to send me a new pizza and then hung up on me. The good news is that the pizza did arrive, at 9:02 pm and thus nearly 80 minutes after being ordered. But I am not such a fan of the Domino’s UK customer service at this point. And I can’t imagine such a scenario playing out in the US, where Domino’s delivers within 30 minutes and has for years, even from before the age of Google Maps. I just cannot figure out how the local franchise made pizza delivery so difficult. If it’s your job to deliver hot food, don’t you look to see where you are going?

I’ll stop whining now. I got my pizza, and it was good. If late. And I got to experience yet another “Wow, customer service in the UK is still not what I expect” moment, which reinforces all of my American prejudices, not that I actually wanted that to happen (now that I am quite happily ensconced here in the UK and mostly adapted).

On a less rant-y note, Happy New Year and here's hoping for a 2012 that is great for us all.

It’s time for poppies

One thing about being sick, you get the chance to get caught up on television watching. I have been binging on BBC iPlayer documentaries recently as a general principle, but being sick meant I expanded my watching into other genres such as comedy and variety. So it was in this, pathetically sick, mode that I found myself watching Johnny Depp on the Graham Norton show the other day. And Johnny came out wearing a paper poppy, and I was annoyed. As annoyed as I was a few years ago when I was in a choir that happened to be singing at a service on 11/11, and a person with a box full of poppies came around and affixed one to every member of the choir, lest the chapel dare be seen on the day without the ritual red fake flower on every chest.

Now let me be clear, before the trolls start screaming: I am a granddaughter of a veteran of WWII, a good friend of an injured Viet Nam vet, and I generally believe in the importance of respect for our veterans. I have even been known to buy a poppy from a sweet elderly man in the local shopping mall, and then put it in my bag “to affix to my lapel later”. So I give ££ to the campaign yearly, sometimes buying two poppies (I am a sucker for cute elderly people collecting money for good causes) but I do object to the compulsory nature of wearing the thing. It’s in television where I first noticed it, and thus the Johnny Depp comments. Some producer back behind the scenes of the show has a stash of poppies ready to affix to the clothes of all celebrities, because this is the time of year when you can not appear on the telly without one–just as the choir members could not sing in the chapel without one. Newscasters, political figures, all sheep-like in this display of poppy pride. Johnny Depp is not even British; this is not his traditional observation for the 11th November (which is Veterans Day in the US as well) but something forced upon visitors by the locals. When something gets to this point of cultural compulsion, it is no longer a serious piece of symbolism. It’s a decoration lacking in deep regard.

I am, of course, not the only person to feel this way, and I was reminded of this when an eloquent article on the subject found its way across my twitter feed yesterday. And yes, we are back to the second glamorous part of being sick: not only do I catch up on television, but I spend far longer than usual dinging around on the internet social networking sites. Yay me. The excitement, it’s never ending. And hey, I have time to blog as well! Too bad about the cough… but seriously… I’m sure there’s no turning back on this one, no politician or newscaster wants to become the one who refused to wear the poppy. No one wants to speak out about how perhaps we might re-consider the value of the symbol by removing its ubiquity. I will continue to carry out my own little protest, and continue to donate to a number of lovely vets in the shopping mall near my home but not wear the poppy on my lapel.