Category Archives: whimsy

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.

Schoolgirl Excitement

I have had a most amazing week, and I am sorry that I have not been better at sharing the excitement. But it is in part about my job, about which I choose not to blog. This week has been amazing, and please–Twitter-folk who know about my secret identity, please don’t share it. But the bottom line is that my work life has been a big social media experiment gone good. I’m about to celebrate 50,000 YouTube hits for my work video in just over three days. And that’s amazing. But even better, tomorrow morning I head to Heathrow to fly to Baltimore for a weekend with my sister, and then we fly together to Minneapolis for a long week of celebrations for my father’s x0th birthday. I have more fun things planned for Minneapolis than I have in a while, and for once I am feeling excited about being back “home” and not conflicted in any way. Have I mentioned that my grandmother is now 95 and still kicking arse at Scrabble? It should be fun. I am ready for this trip in a way that I was not ready for trips to Minneapolis in the past. And now I must finish cleaning out my fridge and finish packing. But I’m happy in my British shoes, and happy to be going home to America. Even the inevitable and unfortunate discussions about American politics have not dampened my spirits. Expat life, 2000, former life, 0. Here we go.

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.

Snowmageddon 2012

It snowed last night in England. The sort of snow that I actually quite like, because it takes place at temperatures not too far from freezing, and is thus fun to build snow-people with. And the temperatures not too far from freezing means that while it’s happening, a girl can go outside and enjoy the experience of catching snowflakes on the tongue, a la the Peanuts characters in the Christmas cartoon special. No big deal, right?

Wrong. This is England, so snow is treated as the Snowpocalypse. As of yesterday afternoon, before it was actually snowing, 1/3 of today’s flights at Heathrow airport were cancelled. Warnings were issued. Grocery stores took on that air of menace whereas people were cleaning the shelves.

I am familiar with this phenomenon, because I have also experienced snow in Virginia and in Washington DC, where it is as infrequent and as difficult to manage as in England. There is a lack of infrastructure for dealing with such things that causes any flakes that fall to turn into a major incident. And this amuses me, as a girl from Minnesota where we are far more accustomed to such things.

I have these flashbacks to Minnesota days, in which a prediction of snow came with a great deal of organizing. For one, a “Snow Emergency” was likely to be declared, which meant concerns over which side of the city street on which to park for days after the event. None of which was helped by the requirement that my car be not in my apartment’s car park over an eight hour stretch in order for that to be cleared. The logistical challenge of parking one’s car in three different places after a snow-storm was always taxing. But it reminded me that at least in Minnesota we did something about the snow. As far as I can tell, in England it is just something to talk about.

It stopped snowing overnight, and as such by this evening was a thing of the past. Except for the fact that it all, at this point, is sitting largely where it fell. No effort has been made to clear the car park at my flat, nor has anyone even bothered to shovel the walkways leading into my flat. I can see now that walking to work tomorrow will be a slippery and dangerous challenge.

And here we have the great irony of snow in England. Much talked about, but little acted on. The BBC website this morning was full of stories of people trapped in cars on the major freeways at a dead standstill for hours, and even overnight. But we all knew it was coming, the forecasts were quite clear. Why was anyone out in a car on a motorway, knowing full well that it was coming? And having happened, exactly as predicted, why has no one made any effort to remove the snow? Shovels are not exactly expensive. Ice in the coming days will only be a hazard because no one bothered to move the snow that did fall.

And really, it was not that much. A few inches here, and in temperatures, as noted above, not too far from freezing. As far as I can tell, England collectively loves the drama of the “chaos” caused by a few inches of semi-frozen precipitation. Twitter was, this morning, full of photos of back yards with a light dusting and snow-people having been constructed in public places. But in the grand scheme of things, it was only a hugely dramatic event because people wanted it to be that way. In England, people love to talk about the weather. And the joke is that normally the weather is quite unremarkable. Apparently when it is ever-so-slightly remarkable, the taste for hyperbole overwhelms even the most sensible of persons.

My evidence: the result of “heavy snow” in my neighborhood. It apparently paralyzed all but the mouths and typing fingers of the locals.

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.