Category Archives: entertainment

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.

Public displays

Not of affection, but of religion. I stumbled on the recent hubbub over an American football player, Tim Tebow, who likes to pray a lot during a game. A fan decided his pose was one for the internet meme world, and started a hilarious website called “Tebowing” where people pose in the same style (like “The Thinker”). Now part of the joke is that you are doing this while everyone else around you is doing their normal thing… like playing a football game, or in the case of the internet meme people, a wide variety of things to various degrees of hilarity.

The problem is, at the moment there is a contingent of the American public and press who are pretty upset about the fact that two players in last week’s opposing side also struck the Tebowing pose when they had managed to get on the right side of defensive plays where Tebow was humiliated. See articles here and here. The quarterback himself seems to be generally in good spirits about the entire thing, and is not the one criticizing the opposing players.

Now I, as I said, find this amusing and was hoping to find a friend to join in the fun and do some photographs in front of major English landmarks to submit to the site. I have a few ideas as to which of my American-in-the-UK friends might be up for this sort of chicanery! But I also have really strong feelings about the entire phenomenon. Whenever religious expression supposedly involves very public actions, I cringe a bit. I consider religion or spirituality to be a very personal thing. I consider prayer, especially, to be a very personal thing. So this kneeling in the end zone thing is something that I would typically consider affectatious and for the benefit of the observers, not related to the spiritual interior of the person putting on the show. But interestingly enough, in America, and especially in American football, this is a widely accepted practice. This is one of those places where I’m more comfortable in my local environment than in my native one. Maybe I really am becoming European.

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.

A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

MasterChef, or the interesting thing that happened before everyone went gaga over the wedding

When I arrived back from the US early last week, I was arriving just in time to settle in with my iPad and watch the 3-night MasterChef finals while I tried (and failed) to get myself back on UK time. (I’m still not. 8 days in and my typical bedtime is still 3 am. This is not good.) I had seen every episode up until the point at which I left for the US, and I watched the results from afar each week that I was gone, scouring Twitter archives with the MasterChef hash tag to try and see who had been booted out. Why had I become so obsessed? Well, aside from the fact that I’m a big-time foodie on the side, who loves cooking and eating, one of the contestants was American. And not just American, but midwestern, from Wisconsin. Right next door. I don’t share most of my family’s hatred of all things Wisconsin (I still find that one odd) and as an expat I feel like it’s extra super important to be all midwest supportive, given that most locals here in Europe don’t know about the midwest at all. I’ve commented about this before.

In the early weeks of MasterChef, the voiceover constantly mentioned Tim’s American-ness. It was annoying. But as the competition went on, and it became clear that he was really talented, and they showed bits of his life with his British wife, they turned it down a notch. And the unthinkable eventually happened. He won. I cried. I know. Utterly ridiculous. Blame the jetlag.

The press went nuts. My favorite article attributed him as being both from Wisconsin and also Canadian. (Clearly the person who wrote that had not been watching the show…) I was riding up the lift one afternoon last week after the big finale, and mentioned how excited I was about the entire thing. Now it’s important to the story that my two team-members in the lift with me happened to be one Brit, quite local to where I am, and one very proud South African. So I asked if they had been watching it, and expressed my excitement, and made a joke about how I was sure that no one would ever allow the American to win MasterChef.

Now this was a flippant comment, obviously, but it was rooted in nearly five years of experience. “Britishness” is very popular right now. I’ve written about it quite a lot before, because as much as the Brits will claim they are not like Americans in being publicly effusive about anything, “The Great British _____” (fill in the blank with any number of things) is a phrase I hear everywhere. And nowhere is proud Britishness more evident in my daily life than in the food culture. Stickers with Union flags on items all over my local grocery store. “Best of British” written on everything (a phrase whose grammar I still can’t parse). And nowhere is this more obvious than in the cooking shows on the BBC. I thought of developing a drinking game in which you drink every time a food programme goes on and on about British produce and British meat and British everything, but I realized I’d end up terribly soused and probably without a job.

One of the other three MasterChef finalists was a classic “modern British” guy with all of the nose-to-tail specialties that make me (vegetarian-turned-grudgingly-pescetarian) wince. Root vegetables all the time, fresh green vegetables almost never. Now I’m not criticizing that bit per se, I’ve come to love root veg purees and things (especially now that I’m barred from eating my beloved mashed potatoes). But for all of these reasons, and because the third finalist was also foreign (Italian), I was absolutely sure I knew who was going to win and I was not very happy about it. I didn’t just like the American because he was American, I liked him because he was talented. He made me think about food. He renewed my recent interest in learning more about Japanese cooking. He probably played a part in my visit to Nobu in Las Vegas last month. (But that’s a story for another day…)

So I was genuinely surprised and excited that the American won MasterChef, and I was really mostly innocent in expressing this to my two team members. But what interested me the most was the reactions. My South African colleague got it immediately, and agreed enthusiastically with my assessment of how unlikely this result was. My British colleague did not seem to share my amusement at the story, as far as I can tell. (And this was not the first time I’d worried that I’d pissed him off either; the whole story of how affirmative action has played out in the UK always has me worried when dealing with British males.)

So it was an interesting day, and I’m still excited that the American managed a win in this difficult contest, and more than ever I’ve realized how cautious I need to be when I talk about these things in public, especially when I’m in danger of offending my local colleagues.

Let them eat cake!

Birthday cake, that is.

Yesterday was my birthday. For the first time, on my fifth birthday in England, I managed to do something fun on my birthday with new friends that I’ve made since living here. The common theme was Americans: I had both bloggers and work colleagues that just happened to be American, and several of them brought their British partners as well. My dear friend came down on Saturday to help me with the party prep, and that turned out to be both fun and a total Godsend when it came to acquiring all the groceries and cooking. I don’t know how I thought I was going to do it all myself. We made chili and guacamole and the cake and set out a tex-mex feast for my wonderful friends. By last night I was exhausted, a feeling which ran straight through to this morning (at which point I cancelled the few meetings I had and took a much-needed rest day). Having the party at my own place was important to me for several reasons. First, several people travelled quite a distance to attend. Meeting up in a restaurant just didn’t feel like it sufficiently expressed my gratitude at their willingness to attend. Second, I really like my new digs and I was really excited to show off what I’ve done with the place now that I’m unpacked and settled. And third, I had promised myself that I was now going to start acting more adult-like and do some grown-up entertaining now that I AM more settled.

It was great fun and I’m really glad I did it, although it was a hella lot of work. Note to self, perhaps go smaller next time and have a small dinner party instead of throwing a larger bash with numbers in the double digits! But I wouldn’t take a minute of it back–I felt so loved and so grateful to have new friends, friends that are really starting to change my views about my life in England and my longer-term future. But now, back to my regularly scheduled life.

How England has changed me, part 72

I had never been to a “black tie” event before I moved to England. I now go to about a half dozen a year. And this has required a significant change in my wardrobe. These are all additions, tucked back in the depths of my wardrobe/closet for most of the year, but I need to have clothes available for such occasions. When I first moved here, I focussed on more traditional attire–I now have several ankle-length ball gowns. But I’m a tomboy, an engineer/physicist who wears trousers (BrE)/pants (AmE) [blame @lynneguist for my language-based notation] all of the time. So I’ve been searching for a way to be both comfortable and appropriately dressed at said occasions.

When I was in China earlier this year, I had the chance to drool around the Shanghai (Xintiandi) store of Shanghai Tang, one of the premiere Chinese fashion brands. I was in love. Interesting clothes, beautifully made, and distinctive compared to what I normally see when I try to shop for things to wear to fancy occasions. I bought a top, which was the single most expensive piece of clothing I have ever had and I hope you agree with me that it was worth it:

Black, of course. Just as in the photo.

Tonight it made its debut, at the black tie dinner I had to attend for work. I wore it slightly open at the top, with a sequined silky tank underneath and plain black trousers. I jazzed it up with chunky gold and semi-precious stone jewelry. I am not a super fashionista, but I have to admit that I felt special in this ensemble, and far more comfortable than I’ve ever been wearing a ball gown at a dinner thing. Shanghai Tang, you have my loyalty and given what I see in your online catalog, I’ll be back for more.