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.

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On dragons and bunnies

It’s my birthday. And I discovered this week that a fellow blogger suffers from the same humiliation as I do: having been born prematurely in January of 1976, and thus contrary to what you would think based on years of education via placemats in Chinese restaurants, I am a rabbit, not a dragon. Sigh. Read all about it via @unbravegirl here. And just for her, here’s a picture of my couch.

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.

Christmas carnage

Tonight was my annual Christmas party for my group/team from work. It was the fourth consecutive year that I’ve managed to do this, to invite all of my crew, and their partners, to my home for food, wine, and general festivities. The affair has grown, since its inception, from a simple wine-and-cheese party, with me providing all of the nosh, to a deluxe pot-luck. Thank goodness I’ve moved into a larger flat, because I had 14 adults, plus a baby, plus me, in my living room tonight. My crew is quite international, and it was a delight to have Thai fish cakes cooked by someone from Thailand, along with Gluhwein made by a Brit with a German girlfriend, loads of British classics like mince pies and biscuits and cheese, and my own contribution–Dutch doughnuts according to my late grandmother’s own recipe. In previous years, when I had an Italian in the group, we discovered the beauty of tiramisu packed as a filling into my Norwegian grandmother’s Krumkake. I always make a hot crab dip (not necessarily adhering to this recipe at all!) and the local Brits love it, as they don’t seem to have this sort of recipe in their standard repertoire. I’m now dealing with the kitchen carnage, which is significant, but this annual party reminds me of why I love my life in England so much.

My accent. It’s a-changin’

This week I became acutely aware of the fact that I’ve been losing my North American vowels. I knew previously that I had adapted to UK vocabulary and perhaps even grammar, and that because of this I was starting to sound “foreign” to my friends and family in the US. But now I’m pretty sure that I also have started to neutralize my accent in response to the local pronunciation. Think to-may-to, to-mah-to. I’m not yet at the point of saying “bawth” and not “bath” but I’m somewhere in-between. And every time I hear myself doing it, I’m surprised. I am from Minnesota, but the south, Twin Cities area, and I’ve never had the “Fargo” accent. But it’s clear that the twang-y letter A is the first thing to go after you’ve lived in the land of RP for a while.

The Thanksgiving aftermath

I was so excited about Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was the event that was going to kick off a long weekend filled with some fun adventures, not to mention starting off the holiday season proper. I am a true American, and I refuse to break out the Christmas music or decorations until Thanksgiving dinner is done. I spent Tofurkey day at work, as one does when living in a country where this is not a national holiday, and rushed out of the office and off to the dinner, organized by a mixed couple (he’s British, she’s American) who happen to be good friends of mine here. They also happen to have a little one, a bouncing baby boy who is about to turn toddler by hitting a year old this week. This might prove important in this mixed up tale.

Thanksgiving dinner was decent, it was catered by a local outfit and there were twenty-some people there, perhaps ten or so Americans and the people who tolerate them and their funny holiday traditions. The main dishes were better than the attempt at pumpkin pie, which was sweet, creamy, and served with berries and mango puree. And thus completely disgusting. The non-turkey main dish was a nut roast which was dry and uninspiring, but I decided to use my “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and assume that the gravy in boats was only onion gravy and thus would be good on my nut roast and mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes and green beans were additional accompaniments, and all was well. So we had a Thursday night success.

Friday morning I was off to central London, where I was meeting up with a number of friends for some foodie weekend events and some culture. The plan, which went well on the Friday, was for a pub lunch, shopping on Oxford Street, and dinner at a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant. (There are five Indian restaurants with one Michelin star in London, and I have now been to three, so only two more to go. Delicious every one so far.) So a Friday success as well. Now we take a turn for the worse.

Saturday morning I awoke at about 9 am and ran to the bathroom to evacuate the contents of my stomach. (I know, TMI, apologies for the mental image.) I then spent the next 6 hours unable to swallow even a sip of plain water. Mid-afternoon I managed to get my hands on a bottle of that British cure-all, Lucozade, which I think of as Pedialyte for grown-ups and I managed to get a few sips into my system. By nightfall, I had also eaten four plain biscuits. As an expat, I was musing that evening on the fact that instead of ginger ale and saltine crackers, I was on Lucozade and water crackers, but in the end as it all worked, it was as good as could be. I will never know what caused my illness, whether it was a bug contracted from the baby who functions as a germ incubator given that he spends days at nursery, or some sort of food-borne illness from the Tofurkey day dinner. What I do know is that it was not anything I ate on Friday, as my dining companion ate every single thing I did over the entire day and never showed any signs of illness. Thursday night was the culprit, for certain–three other diners from that evening ended up in the same place as me on the weekend.

Saturday was thus a complete disaster. I had to cancel all planned cultural and dining events, including something I had been looking forward to for several months– a planned expat meet up for dinner. I was, in the end, paying the princely sums associated with a hotel in central London in order to spend the day entirely indoors and miserable. The weather was appropriately grey and gloomy, but it was still extremely disappointing.

Sunday morning dawned, and I was intending to head back to my town earlier rather than later. But I managed to convince one of my friends to help me try and salvage the weekend by doing something cultural, and we headed for the British Museum. I had never managed to visit, and it was amazing. I was a bit weak, having not managed to eat much in over 36 hours, but it was quite enjoyable in the end.

So I headed back to my town after a really mixed long weekend. There were a few glimmers of greatness and a few moments of pure hell all wrapped into a few short days. On returning home, I set about putting out the fairy lights and Christmas decorations, and put the Christmas music on constant replay. The only way forward is to stop worrying about Thanksgiving and the aftermath, and to focus on the next few weeks of holiday magic. What can I say? You win some, you lose some. This was certainly a mixed weekend.

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.