Category Archives: drink

No Joke

My work dinners and related events often end up sounding like the start of a joke. I give you, for example, last night:

Two Irishmen, a Brit and an American walked into the Bar at Jamie’s Italian and ordered mojitos. The Brit said…

(Aside 1: Mojitos because it was unusually hot here. I hesitate to say “unseasonably” because it is the dead of summer, but it is sort of un-Britishly. Aside 2: my lovely Irish companions happen to have been female, is there no gender neutral term for Irish persons?)

Tonight it was even hotter, and we had a group pub outing planned. My group is always a sort of mini-UN in terms of countries represented, but we had the addition tonight of two people visiting from Glasgow, both of whom happened to also be American. This seemed to cause a bit of a reaction in the two Brits present (for completeness, the others attending were from the East Asian contingent, one from Thailand and one from Malaysia). One of the Brits in particular started riffing on the stereotypes that one country has about the people from another. I believe this was originally all directed at perceptions of the French, but don’t quote me on that.

Now I have to note at this point that the two Americans visiting from Glasgow were very different in their experiences: one was a long-termer like me, and the other a recent arrival. It was the recent arrival who ended up actually supplying the punchline to the story, at some point after one of the two Brits had left. The conversation was much longer than I can record here, and there was much more self-defending and other-bashing than I could possibly get across. The Aussies were particularly hard-hit by the slagging off. But, as usual for a former colony of a once great empire, the biggest rivalries were the US-UK ones. And it went something like this.

Recent Arrival Glasgow-based American: But what are some examples of British food?

Me: Spotted dick.

RAGA: (chokes and sputters)

Brit: It’s a sponge with raisins in it. Not at all nice.

Other Glasgow-based American: But pudding doesn’t mean the same thing here at all.

Me: Yes, it’s just dessert.

Brit: Really it’s in the vegetable section where the UK-US word differences get interesting.

(Discussion continues regarding courgettes, aubergines, swedes, etc. Food topic continues and somehow we end up discussing dinner time in Spain.)

Someone (I don’t recall): Yeah they eat dinner at 8 pm or something, don’t they?

Me (having just been there in January): No, more like 10.

Brit: Why do Americans eat so early? By 9:00 the restaurants are empty.

Me: Well, where I come from (the midwest) we’re on East Coast time for business purposes, so everything ends up being earlier in clock times. My parents are often at work at 7 am.

RAGA: Oh you’re from Minnesota? I’m from Texas.

Me: Same time zone.

OGA: At least you’re from same states where they change for daylight savings with the rest of the country, I’m from Arizona where they refuse to change and it confuses everyone.

Brit: What? They just don’t change right there?

Me: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Indiana is that way too, I went to university in Michigan and it was always confusing as to whether Indiana was on our time (Eastern time zone) or on Chicago time (Central) depending on the season.

Brit: That’s nuts.

OGA: Well, it’s a big country. The entire UK is, what, the size of Pennsylvania?

RAGA: Yeah, well, at least we HAVE different time zones!

Yeah, I’m still–several hours later–needing to not have a beverage in my mouth at the moment that I think of that delivery lest I start squirting said beverage out of my nostrils. Maybe you had to be there, but there was something about a looooong conversation of you-vs-us and cultural stereotypes culminating in a defense of American greatness over Britain because of the fact that we were big enough to need time zones that just completely cracked me up.

My new local

One thing that changed when I moved from the centre of town to the periphery is that I no longer had a local pub within a few blocks of home. Today I had the chance to visit the pub that is my new local.

My friend Chris was in town today. Chris is the ultimate example of what I have found to be true of my British friends: every single one of my British friends have either lived abroad, are married to a foreigner, or both. Chris has lived abroad in both Europe and Asia, and thus in places where the language is foreign in addition to the culture. Chris has lived in my town (although that is not the case at the moment) and so has local knowledge that has been very useful to me. So in many ways I have felt as though Chris has taken me as a charity case to try and introduce me to local culture while understanding deeply how difficult it is to be a stranger in a strange land.

So Chris and I went for dinner today to what is, by geographical definitions, my new local–the pub closest to my current flat and thus a place that I should be frequenting according to British culture. I had not, in the seven months living here, managed to get there even though I knew I should. Aside from it being my local, it’s relatively well-known and well-regarded in these parts for having very good food. Interestingly enough, the food is all Thai and thus not what is normally associated with a British pub, although a quick search on Google indicates that this is not all that unusual in these parts. The place was, on entering, a classic British pub–you ordered at the bar and there was a wide range of cask ales and the like available. The (Thai) food was amazing and the place was hopping, a sure sign of a thriving pub. I’ll be back again.

I’m left to reflect on so many aspects of expat life after the experience. We traded off buying rounds of pints and so I had to belly up to the bar and do my part. I’ve taken my work team to pub nights close to work quite regularly, but have tended to front the money and expect someone else to handle the barkeep. I need to step up on this one and start behaving like the residents of this country in which I have been living for (gasp!) four and a half years. I’ve read plenty on the rituals of British pub etiquette, especially in the wonderful book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, a text that has become like a textbook in my time here. I’ve been here long enough to no longer have an excuse of not understanding the local traditions.

I also need to spend more time in my local. The food is excellent, and I’ve been depriving myself of it by not having had the guts to venture into it over the last half a year. This is particularly galling now that I know that the pub does Thai take-out as well as table service, since I so often complain of the lack of good fresh, vegetable-filled and interesting quick food in my local town. (My usual cry is for the addition of (a) a bagel place, like Bruegger’s or Einstein’s and (b) a quick-fresh food place like Noodles in the US.) This pub is on my way home from work and thus should become a regular stop-off on busy nights when I am too tired to cook healthy food after a long day in the office. Lessons learned. And most important of all, I should spend more time with the locals and in my local.

Random wrap-up from Philly

Well, NFAH, you might ask, where have you been for the last two weeks, and what are you now doing in Philadelphia international airport? Good question. The last two weeks have been insanely busy. I have been in the US, which is normally somewhat relaxing for me but this trip has been about work more than play. I have been doing the sorts of meetings that involve three meals in restaurants a day with colleagues, which means that the day starts early and finishes late and has basically no free time at any point in between in which to write on my blog or do anything more complicated than update my facebook status or perhaps send out a tweet. You can tell how busy I have been when you hear that I had been here for 9 days before I managed to make it to Target. Entirely my own fault, as ever–no one is holding a gun to my head and telling me I have to do all of this, but I still have the young person’s attitude towards taking career-building opportunities that means that I subject myself to stupid things. My bad.

Week one I was on the Michigan upper peninsula, someplace I had never visited even though I lived in Michigan for 5 years when at University. (And we interrupt this narrative to yell GO SPARTANS! since my alma matter just made it into the final 4 in the basketball tourney.) I was quite startled to realize that I had known my friend there for 17 years, which makes me old. Since we met in college. Sigh. But the UP was gorgeous, the weather was unseasonably warm and there was approximately no snow.

Spring was definitely springing during this entire trip. The weather was volatile, as it can be near the equinox, and there were many buds on trees and signs of interesting wildlife.

I also had a fun time on the weekend last weekend, between my two main work trips, to go to Toys ‘R’ Us and browse. Anyone who has been to my apartment knows that I have a weakness for Lego models of cars, but this time I found something even more cool: an entire display of classic Meccano toys/building sets. Meccano was a British invention as of 1901, and although the company has changed hands a few times (and is now allied with the US Erector set brand) not much has changed about these toys. They require real tools to put together, and this set had no plastic parts at all. It had such a vintage engineering feel about it–I was in heaven. This little guy is making his way back to the UK in my suitcase, and I have grand plans for my more leisurely beach trip planned for the US in August: I’m going to get one of the bigger sets and spend time doing lots of Meccano building. Hooray!

But back to the randomly in Philly thing. I held my nerve with the BA strike. I kept my flight on BA from the Baltimore-Washington area to Heathrow even though I knew it could be strike affected. I checked regularly when the updates were being posted on BA’s website. I checked in online last night at 6:45 pm for a flight due to leave at 6:40 tonight. And…. I awoke this morning to a text message from BA that my flight was cancelled and I should call to rebook. I had slept in, thinking all was well with the world, and so it was now mid-morning and there was not another flight out of either international airport in the area until tomorrow. And I, as you might recall, only have 48 hours or so in the UK before I must fly out to China (assuming that BA flight actually goes… watch this space!) So I agreed to the rebooking out of Philadelphia, which is about 2.5 hours from DC, and found a kind-hearted friend willing to bring me up here. I thus had a whirlwind tour of the I-95 corridor this afternoon, and arrived in Philly many, many hours before my flight so as not to inconvenience my kind friend with the car too much.

So here I sit in the BA lounge with free Wi-fi and my last glass of California Chardonnay for a while, finally having the time to update my blog. So apologies for my absence, but I fear this will be the continuing trend for the next few weeks as the Great Firewall of China is unlikely to allow me through. I might try to post by email which may or may not work. But I swear come the 12th of April I will be back in communication patterns that are far more normal for me. And I will have a heck of a lot of photos and stories from that grand adventure, due to start with my departure (BA-willing) on Wednesday mid-day. Fingers crossed…

This year’s party effort

Following up on the success of last year’s Christmas party for my group from work, I did it again. A few things were different. First, the gauntlet had been laid down over the bake-off, so as you saw earlier this week I made Krumkake. Let’s just say they were a hit. I have 9 cookies remaining, after having made literally dozens. Given the fact that there were 10 people at this little soiree, and I did not have any once I started seeing how popular they were, I think the team averaged 4-5 eaten cookies each! Second, I also cooked something hot in addition to providing cheese and crackers (all American ones, Triscuits, Club and Saltines, from my cracker bounty!) and nibblies. When I was in the US last summer with one of my colleagues, she had remarked after several different hot dips at restaurants that she loved them and did not remember having seen them on British menus nearly as often as they appeared in American restaurants. So I made (what I thought was) an enormous vat of crab and artichoke dip (think three packages of cream cheese and four containers of crab meat to get the scope of the scale of this thing) and I swear they left nothing behind, the entire thing went–and quickly! Finally, in addition to my contribution to the bake-off, one of the temporary visitors to the group offered to make and bring a Tiramisu. We nearly polished that off too. (I swear, I am am not a slave driver and I have no idea why they were all so hungry!) The best, though, was when people discovered that the hollow centers of the Krumkake were the perfect place to put the Tiramisu. Like me, my team is largely made up of expats and so clearly this sort of fusion had broad appeal!

Photos of the before and after:

(The dip was not out of the oven, nor had the Tiramisu arrived yet).

The Christmas miracle was that I ended up with more and better wine than I started with. Aside from a few generous creatures bringing a bottle each, one of the gang found an import wine merchant that had oaky Californian Chardonnay and brought me 6 bottles! Enjoying a lovely glass now… Happy Friday Night!

Midwestern Mash-up

It was always going to be a good idea. I had a massive deadline for 4 pm today, probably the most serious deadline I’ve faced in my professional career. Coincidentally, I had been trying to schedule with one of my Minnesotan-in-England friends a pub meet-up with a couple of other midwestern girls. The only trouble for me was going to be staying awake, after the 4 pm deadline and a 4-5 pm meeting, I was dragging at 5:30 and unclear how I would make it to the pub for 8:30. Fortunately I persisted with wakefulness and managed to go. And oh what I would have been missing had I not stayed awake.

The round up is this: I’m native Minnesotan but went to college in Michigan. My Minnesota friend is actually a transplanted southerner. The two new acquaintances were a Michigander who went to college in Wisconsin and a Wisconsinite who moved to Minnesota around age 10. And here we all were doing girls’ night in a British pub. Can you see all the conversation possibilities? Yes, it worked. Awesome. Throw into the mix that I’m having dinner tomorrow with another friend who’s actually from Illinois, and I’ve managed to cover a pretty large proportion of the midwest in a short period of time.

It’s a good question, though, why it’s such fun to hang with fellow midwesterners (I mean, not just other American women but specifically American women from the heartland) in England. Perhaps an even better question is why are so many midwestern American women in my local town? And how is it that they are all such interesting women, with interesting careers, opinions and experiences such that in all cases I’ve definitely wanted to see them again? Soon! Does this reveal something intrinsic about midwesterners, or just about the midwesterners who happen to move to England? And where are the British girls with equivalently interesting careers, opinions and experiences? How have I been here for three years and not met them, but I’ve met a whole gaggle (technical term) of midwesterners in the past few months?

Coffee

Apparently, and I say apparently because I have no personal knowledge, Starbucks is marketing a new instant coffee called “Via” which is, clearly to those of us living in the UK, pure evil. Instant coffee = not an excuse for real coffee. Stop now. England is already full of people who do not know the taste of real coffee or the difference between real coffee and instant, so we do not need to play this game. Coffee? Yes, I’m a coffee nut and I’ll have a real coffee every time.

I’ll have my beer to go

Some things about the English pub system are just too good for words. I have mentioned previously how, at the end of the night, when a pub closed down they gave us plastic cups to take our remaining beer away with us, so as not to waste it even though it was closing time. That was funny. But today I think I had an experience that was even one better. My very favorite British friend was in town, and he suggested we go get a pint before dinner. Now I believe he said something about getting the pint and going out to sit on the grass, but I was not really paying attention to the details, as I was not 100% sure which pub he was even talking about when we set out. But we got to the pub, which was directly across from a large park (with plenty of grass to sit in) and it turns out that when ordering our beer, we were asked if we wanted it to drink in or take away. That’s right, folks, the beer is available for take-out, as it’s expected that you’ll grab it and dash to the park across the street. Even better, if you bring the empty plastic glasses back when ordering a second round, you get a discount. I leave you with the image of my take-out beer, safely out of the pub and in the park across the street. This is truly an amazing country.

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Plastic pint glasses?

I could not help but chuckle and roll my eyes simultaneously when I stumbled on this article about calls for plastic pint glasses in Britain.

Plans are afoot in Britain to replace the classic pint glass with one made out of plastic.

The government’s idea is that by introducing shatter-proof plastic vessels it will help address the increasing problem of beer drinkers using pint glasses as weapons in their local pubs.

Needless to say the plan has gone down about as well as a warm beer served, well, in a plastic cup.

There have been cries about how the proposed plastic vessels will substantially affect the quality of the amber nectar being drunk.

Others claim it’s yet another example of the government’s attempts to transform Britain into a “nanny state”.

The last point is a good one, although sometimes you wonder if a nanny is needed when you see statistics like this one, also from the article:

The motivation behind the push for the new model comes from official figures showing that 5,500 people are attacked with glasses and bottles in England and Wales each year.

I do not know what to do about Britain’s binge drinking culture, or the associated violence. I experienced some of this for the first time a few months ago, when on a sunny afternoon I had to walk out of my way to avoid a drunk guy who was covered in blood and fighting with another guy. It just made me sad. And a little frightened. One of the things I loved about England when I first moved there was the ability to walk down the street at night alone without feeling as frightened as I would have in the US. But that’s no longer true, especially when you take the pub closing times into account.

It is my last full day in America until December, something which has made me surprisingly melancholy. I think I spent too long in the states this trip–I’ve acclimated myself back to American ways and now I anticipate a tough transition back to British life. That said, I am tired of living out of a suitcase, something which I have been doing for most of the days since late June. I have no travel planned until mid-December, and for that I am increasingly grateful. I also look forward to getting back into a normal routine after all this time on the road. I woke up yesterday afternoon, napping after returning very early from the beach (to avoid beach traffic) and had absolutely no idea where I was. That makes sense, as this trip has seen me in New Hampshire, Boston, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and last but most certainly not least, Minnesota. No wonder I had no idea where I was! And that’s after a summer that also included Singapore, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. Time to go “home” to England and stay there for a while.

Bits and bobs

a.k.a. odds-n-ends in the states!

Brits have chocolate eggs for Easter while Americans have chocolate bunnies. I can’t imagine how it could possibly be satisfying to not have the ears to bite off! Also, apparently there has been an environmental call-out over the amount of chocolate egg packaging material, and today’s BBC magazine site had a whole article on the perfect environmentally-friendly egg package.

Earlier this week there was an article with ten key points on how to get served in a pub which seemed like making a complicated mountain over a mole-hill (although of course the academic study of British pub culture is part of the reason Kate Fox is famous…). I did chuckle over the whole paradox of Brits normally being queue-happy and how perfectly this contrasts, thus proving why being an expat is impossibly difficult in any country–the exceptions prove the rules. Regardless, if the pub is that busy, I’m probably at home, never having been one to like crowds and thus not a girl found in busy bars on weekend nights. I’ll also not get over the idea of buying a drink for the bartender instead of leaving a tip. But some of the new technology things sounded intriguing, space-age computerized pub technology to contrast the Victorian interiors?

Easter Parade from the brilliant 1948 Fred Astaire-Judy Garland movie of the same name:

I never, ever get tired of this movie, Holiday Inn or White Christmas not to mention a whole bunch of other oldies but goodies. These classic holiday musicals are timeless–if you haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend it!

Two small bits of admin, I’ve updated the Expat Blogs page but if you know of others I’ve missed (or if I’ve missed or mis-handled yours) please do leave a comment… especially for US/UK blogs out there. Also, a quick note on my twitter fiasco. I tried to join twitter a few months ago (time flies!) and ended up with the truncated name “notfromaroundhe” which I hated; last week I deleted the account and replaced it with “notfrmroundhere” which is slightly less worse. I then tried to install the twitterific app on my iPhone only to have my phone freeze and die due to some problem with the iPhone app store, which I think now was because my US credit card was frozen after I tried to use it to buy a plane ticket last week and had it declined. (Seriously, now my ever-reliable US card is not working? My luck with credit cards and banking is not so good…) So although I do intend to start tweeting, I’m still just trying to get it all organized. Talked to the credit people yesterday and now have to have another go with the app store. Ah, modern technology! So at the moment I’m mostly status-updating on facebook but eventually hope to obtain nirvana by getting that to read twitter too… it’s a technological challenge that I may or may not be up for!!!

Seriously? A bar in a health-club?

I did actually manage to get out and do something I had been threatening to do, and joined a gym today.  Yay!  Although I walk to work, it has not been enough to keep me from putting on a few pounds since moving to England (and I have no idea how many pounds, since I’ve been weighed only in kilos lately!)   After my activity-filled beach holiday including the beach triathlon, I was feeling strongly motivated to keep the exercise level up.  So today I joined the most amazing gym I have ever seen.  Which gave me already one shock, since I thought we Americans were the health-club mavens, not the English!  What’s so amazing about this place?  Well, it’s huge and the equipment is all brand new.  There are 23 treadmills in a vast room with rows of other fantastic cardio equipment and 6 huge flat screen televisions–bring your headphones, they plug directly into the treadmills.  Plus the full weight room is duplicated with the second set ‘for ladies only’.  Classes, a huge swimming pool, a spa, the whole thing.  If I start to get organized, I can get my nails done after I work out and thus multi-task in the best possible way.  And when I added it all up, it’s barely more per month than I paid in rural Michigan over ten years ago, in a club that was nice for the area but nothing to write home about. Although come to think of it, I was probably remembering the Michigan monthly charge for two people, I was married at the time.  Regardless, this place is brilliant.  Some friends of mine here–actual English people!–were the ones who suggested this particular place since they are members, and so I met them there today to see the place and sign over my money.  After the deed was done and all had done at least some sweating, we met back in the little brasserie affiliated with the place to have some lunch.  And this was when I had my “we are NOT in Kansas anymore” moment–they serve beer there.  In a health club.  Yes they serve fresh juices and smoothies and other things like that, but they also serve nachos and beer.  This is not what one would find in a US health club dining establishment, right?  I’m not just mis-remembering?  Beer and nachos are not normal culinary options for an exercise establishment?