A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Bank Holiday Weekend Well Spent

(c) Flickr/Dee Railer

Thank goodness for a three-day weekend. And even more thank goodness for a sunny London. I've maintained for ages that there's no city better in the world than London on a sunny day -- luckily that's roughly three out of 365 days per year or we'd be even more inundated with tourists than we already are!

So, with the sun at my back, I set off on a bike to the Eastern limits of London: to the Dartford Crossing on Queen Elizabeth II Bridge (pictured above). You can't actually bike across it, but they provide a free shuttle service for those cyclist adventerous enough to make it out that far. (I asked, and apparently they average about 20 cyclists per day).

All in all, a beautiful ride. I was able to catch some friends in East Dulwich for dinner and a pint in a biergarten, and I even managed to get my first (mild) sunburn that I remember getting in London, if you can believe it. A Bank Holiday weekend well spent, indeed!

My FunFact for the weekend (how long has it been since I've had one of those?) is that the M25 - the motorway circling London on the periphery - is not actually continuous. The Dartford Crossing is technically designated as an A-road and not a motorway so that vehicles that might otherwise be banned from crossing the bridge (southbound)/tunnel (northbound) can actually do so. See, you learn something new every day!

2nd May Bank Holiday Route, 24 May 2009
Chocolate Work > Purfleet > Across the QEII Bridge > Dartford > East Dulwich for a pint > Home = 40+ miles

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Riddle me this...

Wow, just noticed that I haven't posted since September 11th... that's a horrible last date to have posted something, so let's go again!

Imagine this scenario:

You go to the bathroom ready to brush your teeth before bed only to find a sink full of water. The plunger/stopper/whatever you want to call it is stuck down. You try the lever at the back of the faucet, but nothing happens. You try from underneath the sink, just to make sure there is nothing wrong with the lever mechanism. Alas, after 30 seconds of hapless wiggling, you get nowhere. That metal plunger is stuck. Like, proper stuck. You try a knife/screwdriver to see if you can pry the stopper free, but to no avail. You can't get enough leverage to jimmy it out.

Using only common household appliances, how do you unstop the drain so that you can brush your teeth?

BN -- This (obviously) just happened to me, and I sorted it in under 15 minutes. I'll give you my solution after I see what you all come up with...

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Thursday, September 11, 2008


One day soon, I will be posting a blog about the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, or so is my hope, as it's played a surprisingly significant role in my London education. In the meantime, I will leave you all with the question posed at last night's comedy night at the RVT:

What's the difference between Sarah Palin and an eggbeater?

As part of the joke competition, they ask the audience to compare a famous person who has been in the news that week to a common household object. I've won three times now, and, although I didn't win last night, did think I managed to come up with some decent punch lines:

a) Nothing. They both make whites stiff.

b) Nothing. They can both whip a 'moose'.


Now, clever doesn't usually win at the RVT, and indeed these didn't. Next time I'll know to put swear words and be obscene.

But in the meanwhile, I thought I'd see if anybody else could come up with something better.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Series of Home

We have entered the epoch of timeless time. At least, this is a key argument put forward by Manual Castells in his seminal, The Network Society. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and biotechnologies have eroded the logic of linear time. We may not be able to physically travel to points past, control the future or exist in multiple place simultaneously, but as technology develops so does our ability to experience disparate places and times.

In the case of the latter, Anthony Giddens refers to it as the 'phantasmagoric' self. Derived from the Greek phantasma, meaning apparition or ghost, the stress is on the second (or third, or nth) life lived through mediated 'distanciation'. I do not live in Colorado, but my figure looms under the surface as I insert myself through telephone calls and emails, bank transactions and votes cast.

What Giddens failed to consider was the reverse: the ghost of place imposing on the present. Of lives lived and imagined that seep into our day-to-day through media and memory.

London has become routine, but this last week+ has seen a confluence of pasts invading my present.

Partly this invasion is the product of masterful cinema. We have been enjoying a biweekly film night chez nous for the last month or so, and the most recent film struck a chord. Last Friday we watched the latest Coen brothers film: No Country for Old Men. Set in Texas in the 1980s, the film, which is eerily quiet, hangs together on its impressive yet understated cinematography. Its imagery is stark but effective and emotive. Indeed, it is so powerful that an otherwise banal scene sent chills down my spine. The shot?

A house sagging in the summer heat. Boxy, 80s-style cars line the street, the curb crumbling away.

It lasted only a few seconds, as it was only an establishing shot, but it was literally enough to make me jump. Something about the house or the cars or the street made me powerfully recall my childhood in Colorado. It was not a specific memory or event that stirred. Perhaps it was an amalgamation of childhood memories and imagined moments that were summed up in that one shot. The crumbling curb.

But that's just one sequence from one life that seems so far from now. We also watched Smoke Signals a few weeks back.  Visions of Walla Walla danced in my head as thunder clouds tumbled in across the rolling blue hills: a vision I look forward to seeing when I return in March for a weekend.

The most invasive moment, however, occurred while I was enjoying the crisp, sunny Sunday afternoon air along the Thames.  Settled on a park bench on the Albert Embankment, I sat reading Atonement by Ian McEwen (an excellent book, and I presume a good movie based on the reviews) when Briony, one of the main characters in the novel, came walking past.  She was a nurse working at St Thomas's during WWII, and at one point she ventures out to navigate the street-signless roads of London towards Clapham.  Narrated in the first person, she walked right past my bench, veered down South Lambeth Road, and commented on the park in front of my house as she passed.  How strange it was to her that there should be people playing tennis while London endured the blitz.

How strange it was to me, our encounter in timeless time and placeless place, as worlds melded and passenger jets buzzed overhead.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Priming the Pump: ODI on... the Davos Question

This week sees the return of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland from the 23-27 January.

The director of the Overseas Development Institute (where I work), Simon Maxwell, is already on his way there to talk money with the best of them. But thanks to an innovative online comms manager (no not me, I'm not that immodest), the ODI also thought it'd try its hand at participative democracy and the 21st century public sphere by attempting to answer 'the Davos question'.

This YouTube-sponsored question asked: "What one thing do you think that countries, companies or individuals must do to make the world a better place in 2008?"

ODI found five of our researchers to express themselves on camera. All of the videos can be found on the ODI website, but I wanted to highlight two in particular.

The first opinion is by ODI Research Fellow Dr. Fletcher Tembo. I bring it to you here because: a) I'm proud of what he has to say, but also b) because I helped him with the script and filmed him. So, for all of you wonder what the heck it is I'm doing these days, here's a good example:

The other is by my friend, ODI Research Officer Pam Muckosy. I knew her through a mutual friend from China and we went to the LSE together. She basically got me my job at the ODI, so I thought the least I could do was to promote her video. Plus, it's brilliant, but we knew that already. ;o)

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Recent Discoveries

A few recent discoveries that have helped me through the week:

  1. Vodafone’s new mobile Internet devices. These snappy USB modems plug right in to give you Internet on your computer whenever, wherever. With speeds up to 7.2mbs (as fast as you can realistically get broadband over a landline in London) and sans the hassle of BT and Orange’s ineptitude, I don’t see what’s stopping people (with perhaps the exception of the somewhat small 3GB monthly fair usage policy…). Of course, I just lost my last post, so maybe I speak a bit too soon.

  2. Robert DeNiro’s character in Stardust. It basically makes the movie. See it if you’re up for a good laugh, and remember, it’s all about reputation.

  3. Yahoo Pipes. A colleague turned me on to this AMAZING service by Yahoo that can help you manipulate incoming RSS feeds to produce your own bespoke feeds. See for example my friends feed that compiles the feeds from all my friends’ blogs and sorts them by most recent post to keep me up-to-date with their news.

  4. Coffee-rubbed salmon. Tonight I decided to take inspiration from a recipe I had seen for a coffee rub for chicken breasts. I added about 2 tablespoons of freshly ground Peet’s coffee (yes I have it imported), ½ teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, ½ teaspoon of garam masala, 1/2 teaspoon of herbs de provence, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. I rubbed it over two fillets of salmon and grilled in the oven for about 20 minutes. Divine!

  5. MiKA. You might recognise their songs from various Ugly Betty promotions (including the Season 2 promo with "Big Girl You Are Beautiful"), but they're so much more. I downloaded Life in Cartoon Motion last week and haven't been able to turn it off. I actually think it's becoming a problem.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Puddle Reflections

Thursday, July 19, 2007

On Global Cities, Nation-States, and the Threats of Terrorism

“On July 27, 2005, Mumbai experienced the highest recorded rainfall in its history: 37 inches of rain in one day. The torrent showed the best and the worst about the city. Hundreds of people drowned. But unlike New Orleans after Katrina hit, there was no widespread breakdown of civic order; though police were absent, the crime rate did not go up.

“That was because Mumbaikars were busy helping one another. Slum dwellers went to the highway and took stranded motorists into their homes and made room for one more person in shacks where the average occupancy is seven adults to a room.

“Volunteers waded through waist-deep water to bring food to the 150,000 people stranded in train stations. Human chains formed to get people out of the floodwaters. Most of the government machinery was absent, but nobody expected otherwise. Mumbaikars helped one another, because they had lost faith in the government helping them.”

Suketu Mehta thus described Mumbai in an article recently republished in the IHT entitled ‘Dirty, crowded, rich and wonderful’. It’s an impressive attempt at describing the indescribable: a city swelling and surging, dynamic and rigid, sometimes appalling yet somehow appealing. A city where "discomfort is an investment.” A city where, despite all the troubles and setbacks, the human spirit thrives.

And cities, it seems, are a recurring theme at the moment. Indeed, Mumbai is one of ten cities currently highlighted in the Tate Modern’s exhibit: Global Cities, which is on show until 27 August 2007. The installations present interesting facts and statistics presented in a variety of ways mixed with artwork, photos, and videos to help bring each of the cities to life. And since this blog is called Fun Facts for whenever, I thought I’d share a few of those stats:

  • In 2007, for the first time, more than 50% of people on Earth live in an urban environment.

  • By 2050, it is predicted that around 75% of the global population will live in cities.

  • Mumbai will overtake Tokyo as the world’s largest city by population by 2050 with an expected population of over 40 million people.

  • In Los Angeles 7% of the population use public transport for their daily commute. In Tokyo, 78% of the population uses public transport.

  • Commutes of up to four hours a day are normal for those in the outlying areas of Sao Paolo.

  • Shanghai adds an average of 29.4 new residents each hour.

  • The GDP of the City of London is equivalent to that of Switzerland/

  • The population densities of four of the cities: Cario- 36,500 people per square kilometer; Mumbai- 34,000 ppl/km2, Mexico City- 5,800 ppl/km2, London- 4,500 ppl/km2

  • 95% of those moving to London since 1995 were born outside the UK

For more stats and facts, check out the Global Cities exhibit’s webpage.

Now consider that last fact: almost all newcomers to London come from outside the UK. And really, it’s the diversity of this place that I love so much although it causes its own problems.

Consider my thoughts from a blog entry I was intending to post the other week but never got around to:

“Drip, drop, gush. Frustration and anger crept into my esprit with every drop of rain.

“Il pleut. And on this 下雨天 dominated by grey skies and gusty winds, the last thing that I wanted to do was leave the house. Alas, I had agreed to a double shift (that’s 10 hours!) at the ‘chocolate factory’, and so I grudgingly trudged out the door. Which isn’t when my problems began, to be sure, but was certainly when they were exacerbated.

“As I’m sure most of you know by this point, on Thursday evening/Friday early morning (29 June 2007), a car loaded with petrol, nails, and a detonator was found outside a London nightclub near Picadilly Circus. A second was also reportedly found later that morning. Luckily police worked to diffuse the bomb before anybody was seriously injured (and it appears that it would have caused a significant number of casualties). Later that weekend, another set of bombers tried to attack at the Glasgow airport.

“‘Insouciance’ was the word the IHT used to describe the general reaction of Londoners, and I couldn’t think of a more apt description. Sure it was a talking point for the last couple of days, but since the bomb didn’t actually explode, it’s almost too hypothetical to feel strongly about. Sure, I was at a nightclub in Leicester Square at the time, but that’s a good 500 meters away from the explosive device, and therefore I was well out of harms way. And anyway, the Valentine’s Day bombings in Manila a couple of years ago was a much closer call for me.”

And yet, that rainy weekend day, after much frustration, it all melted away at the sight of the London Eye on my evening commute home. It was the day of the Gay Pride Parade in London and as such, London was trying to be in a celebratory mood. I, on the other hand, was in a dour mood. It was raining. I had to work. My Internet at home still wasn’t working. Traffic was a nightmare between parts blocked off for investigation into the bombings and the parade wending its way through London’s streets. But on the bus ride home, I turned my head to the left as we crossed over the river to see the London Eye lit up in rainbow colours.

To see that through such crap London could still band together, put a finger up to the world, and celebrate its diversity made me proud to be a Londoner. My incessant internal grumblings simply evaporated at the sight. The weight of an overbearing London ceased, sublimating into the cool night.

My parents were concerned about the almost bombings, but the fact of the matter is that in London we had it lucky.

The following Tuesday, several ‘al-Qaeda’ (supposedly) members attacked a convoy of Spanish tourists in Yemen. For a short IHT article describing what happened, see Survivors describe bombing attack in Yemen as 'an absolute nightmare'.

One of my Dutch friends here in London was engaged to the owner of the travel company that was taking the Spanish tourists to an ancient temple in the region of Marib. He lost two of his friends and colleagues who were driving the cars in the convoy. He lost seven tourists. He was dragged in for questioning by Yemeni police (though ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing).

The families of the Yemeni victims, though, lost not only husbands/sons/brothers but also the main breadwinners in the family, not to mention the cars they drove which were the family’s main source of income.

It is these people and their families about whom we should be concerned—innocent victims of a political crime. Not a focus on the potentiality of the ‘almost’ that is most certainly exaggerated in the media. For example, both free evening London papers lead with a headline like: ‘1700 threatened in terrorist attack’ that Friday, with 1700 the capacity of the club that was targeted. Certainly the club was not at full capacity on a Thursday evening! But what’s the bigger number? What’s the better story?

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Paris or Bust

I don't think I've ever been more exhausted. I spent Monday-Wednesday moving flats and then was up again early the next day for a train to Paris. It's been worth it, and I'm recovering well, but I really don't remember being so physically exhausted in ages! Maybe I'm just getting old...

The really exciting news is that I moved to a great new place in London just one neighbourhood over in Vauxhall. For those of you who don't know London, it's actually only 2 bridges south of parliament on the other side of the river, so really a great location. And the flat is beautiful. It's in an old Victorian apartment building on the top floor with original wooden floors, a huge kitchen, and a view of a park on one side and Victorian chimneys on the other. It's much too expensive, but I don't think I could be more excited...which is good, because I think I'm done moving.

Naively, I thought that I would be able move everything in two trips of two large suitcases and a backpack. It, of course, ended up taking double that. Because it was a close move, I decided to move by actually walking my bags between the flats--what is normally at 10-15-minute walk became 30 minutes at best. And the looks, my god the looks. At least it only started raining on my second to last trip just after I had arrived at my new place. Of course, once there I had to lug everything up four flights of stairs to the top floor. I guess it's better than when I lived in a seventh-floor walk-up in China, but at least then I could pay people to help me move!

All this was on top of cleaning at my old place (which, it turns out, it desperately needed). Under the close guidance of one of my old flatmates we got it spick and span for inspection though. If I never have to clean an oven again in my life, it will be too soon. :o)

And if I didn't have enough to do settling in, I decided to take advantage of the fact that a friend is in Paris for the next couple of days to go and visit. That meant a 5:20AM departure on the Eurostar and the ensuing sleep deprivation.

But it's been worth it really. Yesterday was the Fête de la Musique in downtown Paris, and there were performers of all sorts in every square and on every corner. It was like one giant block party and was really enjoyable. I even stopped to watch some capoeira which made me realise how much I missed participating! Now I'm going to have to find a new club in London, assuming my foot gets better.

Today it was crepes and the Musée D'Orsay (I had never been before! It's a great museum that certainly is worth a stop on any visit to Paris!!) and the monument that was constructed in honour of the deportation of the French Jews during WWII. It's a discrete stone structure that sits on the Isle de la Cité just behind Notre Dame de Paris and is also worth a quick look. The architecture is imposing and the quotes carved on the wall moving.

If all goes well, tomorrow it's off to Giverny, Monet's gardens, which I think is appropriate since we just saw some of the water lily paintings at the Musée D'Orsay today. Then it's back to London on Sunday.

All in all, a busy week. It's been well worth it, but I'm actually quite looking forward to just settling back into a normal rhythm back in London. That and sleeeeeeep!

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Sunday, February 25, 2007


I went and saw Babel (the British have had too much influence on me, I keep calling it bay-bul in my head instead of baa-bul like it should be) tonight after much waiting. I’ve been desperate to see it since it first came out in London during the London Film Festival in October or November but hadn’t had the chance until now. I enjoyed it so very much, though it left me in a mood.

One of the main criticisms I’ve heard of the movie was that the apparently disparate stories that it tries to weave together into one overarching tale had tenuous links at best. And while I agree that the stories could have happened unrelated to each other, it made me appreciate the connections even more. That’s what our globalizing world is all about after all, innit? The small ways in which we are inextricably linked to each other.

I also thought that it made an important point about how people (in this case the Americans were the evil perpetuators, though they are not alone in this I assure you) approach the Other and how that affects those relationships at a fundamental level. ‘We did something wrong because they think we did something wrong’, explained one of the main characters, for example.

Which was possibly why the guy next to me made me so angry. I’m not sure where he’s ‘from’, but he was speaking a mixture of Spanish and English throughout the film. And as if the fact that he was talking throughout the film wasn’t annoying enough, when it came to a part where an older gentleman in the film was freaking out about all the ‘terrorists’ in a Moroccan village, the guy turned to his girlfriend (or whatever), whose hand he kept slurpily kissing throughout the film, and said something like, ‘oh those stupid Americans, they’re always like that, worried about terrorists’. Which I suppose was more or less what I was thinking too, but I was frustrated a) with the fact that he didn’t recognize that he had an American sitting right next to him in the theatre (I was decked out in jeans and a Yale hoodie and everything), but more importantly b) that the guy in the film to whom he was referring had a markedly British accent. I just fumed, thinking, ‘fine, generalize about Americans, but at least do it based on actual Americans, not characters in movies, and especially not British ones!’

The story of the ‘lead’ Japanese character probably attracted me most, and I particularly enjoyed the cuts between her perspective that had no sound and the raucous club around her. And the end really tied it up for me, though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. You’ll just have to go see it to know what I’m talking about.

I know I don’t usually do film reviews here on my blog, but all in all, I would highly recommend this one, and thanks for indulging me this once.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Blogging Backlog

Oh my my my, I've been a bad blogger these past couple of weeks. I suppose it's partly because I've recently gained two new outlets for my world wide webbing pleasure: Facebook, and an online discussion forum for one of my classes.

Facebook is simply one of my new sins, and I'm probably on it much too much. I can update my 'current status', which is a great way to share little thoughts without bothering the blogosphere. I can share random music videos of some of my favorite artists from around the world so that everybody can share in the fun, and I can do all this while keeping tabs on what other people are up to. How fun is that?! So, if you're on Facebook and you haven't already, you should friend me!

As for all of my global frustrations, I'm taking them out on the online discussion forum for my Media and Globalisation class. I'm sure they don't really appreciate my rants either, and I noticed that as one person in a class of at least 50, I had about 10% of the content posts on the forum, so I've decided to try to curtail that for a while. We'll see how long I last.

But in the honour of the good ole' blog, I thought I'd share some randomness with all you non-Facebook folk.

First, I must mention this article that I just saw on the IHT. Apparently Harvard researchers have linked an afternoon nap to lower risk of heart disease. I think I'm going to have to move back to Kunming so I can take me a siesta every lunch, it makes so much more sense than the American system!!

Though speaking of heart disease, I did finally get up the nerve to register with the National Health Service (NHS, the nationalised healthcare system over here in Britain) yesterday. Yes, I made an appointment last week to register (that's how bureaucratic the system is), and finally had an appointment after months of a terribly hurting foot. I went in, and they told me I had excellent blood pressure, and that I had Morton's neuroma on my foot. In other words, my nerve has been pinched between two bones at the joint that connects my middle toe to the rest of my foot. This has caused the nerve ending to become irritated and inflamed, and thus painful. The solution in the US is a simple surgery to cut out the nerve ending, but the doctor here suggested that by the time I got done with all my paperwork etc., that the swelling would probably go down. The doctor instead suggested I try new shoes with an air cushion and not walk as much. Thank you doc, that's very helpful.

And in other health related news, I've now gone 8 days since last ingesting or in any way consuming a chocolate digestive biscuit (cookie). I knew I had a problem when I realised I was spending roughly US$20 a week on the biscuits. More than a week, it's a step in the right direction, innit!

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Purge Anyone?

*Disclaimer: Please note, the following post is not for the faint of heart. If bodily functions gross you out, stop reading now.*

Ok, so every morning at 6:30AM sharp, my upstairs neighbor, um, purges. Vomits, pukes, spews, throws up: call it what you will, it's grosses me out a little each time. It's fairly loud, so even though it is usually finished within a minute, it creates a lasting impression. I was hearing it last week every so often because my schedule was a complete mess--I was busy writing 15,000 words worth of papers to turn in (which I did last Friday. Yay, freedom!). Today however, it was just loud enough that it actually woke me up. Some alarm clock, ay?

My question is, why does s/he do this? I was discussing it with friends the other night, and the first guess was morning sickness. This is a good possibility, especially since I was hearing a screaming baby at about 8 or 8:30 several mornings after I heard the 'purging'. Perhaps, then, a second one is on the way? But why 6:30 exactly then? Is it just because that's right after she gets up every morning?

The next guess is that this person is bulimic. But, I wonder about this one because: a) they've just gotten up, so what has s/he eaten by 6:30AM to throw up? b) I only hear it once every morning at 6:30AM. Certainly, if this person were bulimic, s/he would be throwing up several times throughout the day.

And the final guess was that it was a chronic binge drinker who was just coming home for the night. I doubt this one strongly because s/he purges at 6:30AM almost on the dot every morning. Drunks don't follow schedules to a T.

And so it seems to me that it is part of this person's daily ritual. Right after s/he wakes up, s/he clears him/herself of any remaining food to start the day afresh. It therefore seems to me that this might be more of a cultural thing. My question, then to anybody who's reading this is: have you ever heard of or experienced a culture that this is part of the daily routine? I've been asking around, and so far people don't know, so I thought I'd throw the question to a wider audience. Personally, I vaguely remember one of the characters in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (if I remember his name correctly), an excellent book set in India, doing so, so perhaps it's some regional/ethnic tradition in India?

I probably won't ever know the real answer, but trying to figure out why this person purges at 6:30 every morning is driving me crazy! Any help?

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Sexy Goodness

Beyond being thankful for all my friends, family, and that the turkey came out well, I had one more thing to be thankful for yesterday: my new MacBook finally arrived! I couldn't have been more excited as I had been waiting ages for it to arrive. I ordered it on the 6th of November, just before Apple came out with a new MacBook, and being the kind people that they are, they replaced my order of their suddenly out-of-date computer with their new model. I would have been angry otherwise, but it did mean a horrible delay however when it came time to finally getting my computer. I mean, three weeks, what'd they do, put it on the slow boat from Malaysia (or wherever they manufacture)?!

But now it's here, and it's sooooooo sexy. I love it, love it, love it. It's sleek, compact, has a built-in video camera (with which you can play photo booth, my roommates and I quickly discovered), and the battery lasts like three hours.

Now I need to come up with a good name for it. Usually my computers have male names, but perhaps this one should break that trend? We've had such fun names before as Balthasar and Micarême, but now what? Both of those names were reminiscent of French, as that was the language I was involved with at that time. But now we're getting into Arabic, so I think I should try an Arabic name.

And yet, I can't decide on one so let's try a new fangled approach to this process: an online poll! I've selected ten names and given you their meanings below (Note: the first six are feminine names, the last four are masculine). You have till December 1st to place your vote.

What should I name my computer?
Qubilah - Concord
Habibah - Beloved, sweetheart, darling
Salihah - Correct, agreeable
Mayyadah - To walk with a proud, swinging gait
Khalidah - Immortal
Faridah - Unique, matchless, precious pearl or gem
Irfan - Thankfulness
Shakir - Thankful
Karif - Born in Autumn
Karim - Generous, noble, friendly, precious and distinguished

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Monday, November 20, 2006

BAA is B-A Bad!

Last weekend I was ready for a break. After several days of hard work, I was absolutely exhausted, and so I was happy that I had found RyanAir tickets to Nantes, France on sale at 1p (two cents) each way. Sure there were taxes, but it was still a great deal, and I couldn’t wait to get back to France. I had been away for much too long.

So, after a presentation in one of my seminars at 9AM, I hopped the bus for Liverpool Street Station, and then the train out to Stansted (one of London’s numerous airports).

The trick with RyanAir is that, although they have some good fares, they charge the big bucks for luggage. Since I was only going away for the weekend, I thought I could make due with only a carry-on bag (which is free to take aboard) so I didn’t purchase space below. With that in mind, I packed only the barest of necessities that I might make it through the security checkpoint. I didn’t have access to the Internet, so I didn’t know what the regulations were when I was packing, so I thought to play it safe, I wouldn’t bring anything remotely resembling a liquid. No toothpaste, no deodorant, no nothing.

Later, at school, I checked the BAA (British Airport Association?) website to make sure that I was following all the restrictions. One thing that is very different than in the US is that passengers are only permitted one carry on item, period. But, and I quote from the November 6th update, “other bags, such as handbags, may be carried WITHIN the single item of cabin baggage, not in addition.”

My backpack was barely half full, so I could easily stick my messenger bag inside my backpack. All was good to go.

Indeed my arrival at Stanstead went smoothly. I got off the train, checked in within minutes, and then started queuing for security, which went ok until the x-ray machine.

My bag went through, and the guy called to the person who trolls through everybody’s bags to go through mine. She pulled out my messenger bag, and immediately decided that, although my backpack was underweight, undersize, and contained no questionable items, that I had two bags and therefore had to check one.

I balked and started arguing immediately, pointing out that the website stated clearly that a handbag could be placed inside a carry-on bag. She immediately called her supervisor over and I proceeded to argue. They insisted that I was “wasting their time,” and that “all passengers are allowed one bag,” and that my messenger bag “was not a handbag.” I countered that I had only one bag worth of stuff. After all, how else does one pack items? If I had a camera in a camera bag stuffed inside, would that mean that I had two bags?

They again said that I was wasting their time, and I said that I would like to look at the website with them and that it was irresponsible for them to be disseminating false information on their website.

They escorted me back to the check-in desk to check my bag.

I didn’t have to pay to check this bag for my troubles at least. And when I was talking with the security officer that was escorting me, I said politely: “I’m not trying to cause a fuss. I try very much to be an informed traveller and follow the rules. I checked the website this morning, and it clearly says that a handbag can be placed inside a carry-on bag.” The security officer seemed somewhat sympathetic and said that if I went to the supervisors table, I could pick up a feedback form.

After passing through security I went directly there, and with a slight gleam in my eye asked the supervisor who had been called over before for a feedback form. She forced a smile and presented one to me. The mutual loathing was palpable. It was lovely.

I was early, so I filled out the form front and back with my lengthy complaint, trying to be as restrained as possible. I asked for a response, so I’m hoping to get something soon. If I do, I’ll be sure to post it.

I realize that it’s petty to argue over such a simple thing, but it’s really the principle of the thing. Airport security in this day and age has crossed the line of sanity. Why does it matter if I have a bag inside of a bag instead of just one bag? I was willing to let them spread my underwear out for all to see if they really felt the need to analyze all the contents thereof!

But more importantly, when will people realize that it doesn’t actually stop anything? If the terrorists really wanted to go so far as to hijack a plane, I’m sure that they could find a way to circumvent even the tightest restrictions.

I can carry safety razors, fountain pens, sharpened pencils, and syringes on board, just to name a few items that could easily be used to create a disturbance. I can once again take liquids on board, though notably only in limited quantities. But fine, if a terrorist cell works together, they each carry a small amount of liquid explosive on board.

Our lives are daily filled with risk, and one is much more likely to be a victim of a car accident than of a terrorist attack. Terrorism is a risk that we must live with now, it’s part of our world, and it’s certainly not a new phenomenon.

By instituting absurd and inane security measures that disrupt our daily life, it’s the terrorists that win! I beg, I plea for a re(?)-instatement of sanity in our approach to public security! Does that mean that there should be no security measures at airports? Of course not—that would just be imprudent. But a balance must be reached!

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Post-Modern Moments

Freezing sun, night frost
Rush of buildings thus obscured
Blank panopticon

The luminescence
Is praised on high tippy-toe
Wi-Fi where art thou?

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Monday, October 30, 2006

我真的爱的就是你… (True Love)

Wow, that last post seemed to have hit on a nerve, and has probably produced more responses than even the caparinha post. Some of them were sent as private emails, and I’m asking for permission to post them as comments on my actual blog, so if you’re wondering what I’m reacting to in the following post, wait a day and check the comments of my last post, Typical American.

我真的爱的就是你… (The One I Truly Love is You)

Within a minute of entering the dark karaoke room, I was already off and singing Wang Leehom (one of my favorite American-born Taiwanese, Chinese super-stars). It was test. Well really, the whole evening was a test.

Upon arriving at the LSE, I made a point of signing up for seventy-five billion clubs. I, of course, joined the capoeira club, and then it was on to cultural clubs. I’m an official member of the Chinese Student Scholars Association, the Chinese Society (deceivingly named as it’s actually the Hong Kong Society), the Taiwanese Society, the French society, and the Arabic society. I couldn’t find the American society’s table, though I’m not sure I’m missing anything there.

The LSE is crowded with Chinese students, and so I wanted to take advantage of that fact to keep up with my Chinese (official classes start this week, yay!), but also because I’m really missing China at the moment. Kunming was my home for two years, and it’s an experience I can’t easily forget.

After I lived for a year in France, I was changed. I was no longer American, I had missed too much. I wasn’t exactly French, but I had certainly accepted a French world-view into my psyche. Doubly so after two years in China.

But in France, I could pass as French. Indeed, a wonderful Lebanese LSE student started talking with me the other week and thought I was French. I was flattered.

In China, I was always the 老外 (foreigner), for there, the perception is fairly simple (and this is using Chinese language, I apologize if it doesn’t sound politically correct to the Western ear): yellow skin=Chinese, any other colored skin=not Chinese. So, as my Hong Kongese-American friend, YKC, alluded to, he is considered Chinese because he looks Chinese. He’s also, therefore, expected to speak Chinese (which he happens to be able to do quite well, now, and being raised speaking Cantonese certainly was helpful in that regard, but he is American and his English is perfect). On the other hand, I’m a white guy, so I’m not supposed to understand any Chinese.

I had Chinese-American friends in Kunming who spoke better Chinese than I did, and while I was praised for my amazing Chinese, they were scolded for not being able to. However, it would drive me crazy when I would start speaking Chinese in a group because I could, and the Chinese would ignore me and try to speak to the Chinese-looking person who couldn’t speak Chinese.

My point is, and I think I said this best when I was talking with my dad last week: “I’ll never be Chinese enough for the Chinese.”

And if I wasn’t Chinese enough for the Chinese in China, trying to be Chinese enough to participate in the Chinese diaspora here in London is even more challenging.

As I walked into the CSSA’s Mid-Autumn Festival, one guy asked, “are you sure you’re in the right place?” And yet, I felt so at home there—the party was exactly like any party one could find on a Chinese campus.

When I was in Chinatown on one of my first night’s in town, I was trying to order really spicy food. The waitress replied in broken English, “I don’t know what you mean by spicy.” And so in frustration, I said “我要你们最辣的.” The entire restaurant went silent, and suddenly people from the different tables started shouting questions at me, as if I was some bizarre spectacle they had never witnessed before.

Step right up, step right up for the amazing white guy who speaks Mandarin.

I just felt awkward.

And so last night, I went karaoke-ing with the LSE Taiwanese society. I called the president because I was running late, and he gave me directions in Chinese. I have a hard enough time finding things in London in English, so getting there with Chinese directions was a task. But I made it. Test number 1, passed.

Then the attendants wouldn’t let me in at first. I broke into my Chinese and insisted that I was here to meet friends. They eventually coughed up the room number and I went down to join the rest of the LSErs. Test number 2, passed.

I walked in the room, and they sat me down in front of the computer to order a song. I did, they jumped it in the queue, and suddenly I was there singing before them in Chinese to prove that I belonged. Test number 3, passed…more or less.

But why this need for tests? I suppose that my relations to Taiwan are a bit more tenuous, as I only lived there for three months, but I really do miss it so! Shouldn’t that be good enough of a reason to let me join in club activities?!

When my friend Aaliyah (an American that I know from Kunming) came to the door of the bar, the staff wouldn’t actually let her in. What is this protectionism?

I guess though, that if my Whittie friend, YMC, who is Taiwanese-American isn’t Taiwanese enough for the Taiwanese (and he’s even in the middle of his required civil service stint!) then I have no hope!

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Typical American

Friday, October 20, 2006


It's currently 3:15PM on Friday the 20th of October, and I'm sitting in the park in front of my flat enjoying the BEAUTIFUL weather. I didn't expect to be here now!

You see, my first paper of the school year was due today at 4. And those of you who know me know how I like to push things to the deadline. I was fully expecting to be sitting in the library right now, frantically trying to come up with something to say. I'm happy to report that it was handed in just after noon today though. It's a miracle! I suppose, to be fair, it was only a 1500 word book review--not the most complex paper I've ever written in my life.

The novelty of London, of new places and people, is starting to wear off as the reality of the school year is starting to kick in. I've somehow managed to get really busy, but I'm not so sure when that happened (which is why there have been fewer posts of late). I think it's the reading. The British system is feeling as hands off as the French or Chinese system (though at least we have dedicated seminars here), and I've been finding myself asking why I'm paying so much to simply get told what to go read on my own.

And yet, I've been fairly engrossed. The one really nice feature of our program is that it's very flexible, and so I can focus on things that interest me. They're not offering the class on the Consumer Society this year, which was THE course I came here to take, so I've decided to focus more on globalisation (yes, that's an 's') and the media. Being in London, I find myself everyday confronted with the realities of an "intensification" of international relations. London is a global city, and that's why I love it. Ironically, I'm beginning to think that I should stop learning other languages though. It's so boring understanding the banalities of conversation that seem otherwise exciting when you have no idea what the people are talking about. Maybe I just miss China and having to try to actually think to figure out what was being said to me. It was an everyday challenge...though I suppose I only understand people here half the time as it is, and that's when talking to the native English speakers.

Overall, I have a very mixed view of the LSE at the moment. I'm very impressed with some of my teachers, and find others very lackluster. The newish library pales in comparison to Whitman's Penrose Library. Penrose was so warm and inviting: comfy couches surrounding a fireplace. The LSE library is so very institutional, so cold. The library is designed as a functional space, but to me, the approach to books should be as friends, not as tools. Indeed, all of the facilities at the LSE seem to be quite institutional. As they are right in the heart of London, the LSE is understandably facing a space crunch, but couldn't they add a few padded reading chairs in the hallway? I've learned to take refuge at a cafeteria on the fourth floor that has outdoor seating on top of one of the buildings. Of course, if it's spitting out, I'm screwed.

In addition to reading, I've been slowly progressing down the path of becoming a chocolate-making workshop instructor. I teach my first class next week. If you're interested in finding out more about the company, you can check out their website at MyChocolate.co.uk. And for those of you worried that you missed out on all my fine chocolate-making abilities, don't worry, you didn't. I've started learning the basics now, but the job is more about teaching, about making chocolate entertaining, and that I can do. Plus I get to eat yummy, yummy fudge. Thank god I walk an hour each way to work, otherwise I'm sure I'd be putting on the pounds!

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Mid-Autumn in London

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Un Mégot

Yesterday evening, the rays of the moon pierced me with a profound coldness—a coldness of the heart, the soul, and especially the body. It was an ephemeral trespass, but I shivered nevertheless.

Yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Festival according to the Chinese calendar. It’s the day when people gather to share moon cakes and gaze longingly at the moon, for it’s only on this day that the immortal Chang’E can escape her home on the moon (where she lives with a rabbit) to reunite with her husband Hou Yi. Legend has it that, originally, there were 10 suns that took turns orbiting the Earth. One day they all came out at once, and the Earth became scorched and parched. The Emperor commissioned the most famous archer of the time, Hou Yi, to shoot down nine of the ten suns, which he handily accomplished. He became famous and subsequently drunk with power. He lusted for immortality, and so he coerced a god into giving him a magic potion. Chang’E, not wanting Hou Yi’s cruel ways to endure eternally snuck the potion and floated up to the moon.

But a night of reunion, for me, tonight was not.

It smelled like autumn out. The crispness of the air accentuated t the pungent leaves that had already started falling to the ground. And I had made the mistake of going to see Alan Cumming in Bent—a play about the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. I went for Alan Cumming, an absolutely amazing actor who you might remember as the Emperor from the movie version of Titus or from a host of other movies and Broadway shows. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lighthearted tale of resistance in concentration camps from Cumming, so I ostensibly knew what I was getting into. But, as the person next to me put it: “it’s quite draining…more than I expected.”

At intermission, just after our main character arrives at a concentration camp after having beaten his former lover to death to prove that he wasn’t “bent,” I needed to escape. An important pastime for Londoners during intermission is going outside and chain smoking a couple of cigarettes to tide them over for the next act. Therefore, the remains of cigarettes litter the sidewalks outside most theatres here. I was one of the first ones out the front door, and I was there just in time to catch a scene the made me shiver.

A chic, 30-something woman came striding down the street. She was dressed with a pink scarf over her head like a Russian babushka, a short beige skirt and black leather boots up to her knees. Her left hand was swinging shopping bags as she marched down the street, head down. Right in front of me, she bent down and picked up a mégot (smoking is so foreign a concept to me that I seem to only know the French terminology—the end of a cigarette. Would we just call it the butt?) that was laying on the ground. She casually tucked it into her jacket pocket and continued on her way.

That’s when I shivered.

The play was draining me, and the strongest association I had with someone picking up a cigarette butt came from a book I just finished reading: Balzac et la Petit Tailleuse chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) by Dai SiJie. The book is set on the Mountain of the Eternal Phoenix in the rural SiChuan province of China during the Cultural Revolution. Two young boys, sons of “enemies of the people,” are sent to the mountain to be re-educated by the proletariat. At first, the boys follow the village chief around, glued to his back, scrounging to pick up the leftover mégots that he wantonly leaves behind.

In the book, it seemed to me the final act of desperation, of clinging on to the remains of normalcy (that is, until they discover the books of Balzac). It was something I could just as easily imagine those in the German concentration camps doing.

I burst from the doors of the theatre trying to escape the feelings of ultimate desperation. But there, on the street in front of me I was once again directly confronted with that reality, juxtaposed by the woman’s neat appearance. I felt trapped, and cold. I looked up to the full moon enveloped in a cloudy shroud but saw only ice.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Other People’s Kids Are SOOOO Cute

Walking home from school a couple of days ago across the Jubilee Footbridge (which overlooks the Waterloo Bridge, the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament) I heard, then saw, a little girl walking across the other direction with her mom in tow. She was clearly not a happy camper, but was very much in control of the situation. She was throwing a tantrum as she stormed across the bridge. Her mom must have told her to stop crying, for just as I came within earshot, I heard her whine: “But I don’t wanna stop crying!” She continued on, wailing as she went across the bridge. I could only smile and think to myself, ‘hey, at least she knows what she wants!’

Continuing south, I stopped by my local Tesco to pick up a few chocolate-making supplies (more on that later). While I was standing in the aisle trying to figure out the difference between caster sugar and granulated sugar, a plump Chinese boy came trundling down the aisle, pulling his mother by her basket behind him. He pushed his way in front of me and started calling, “zhege, zhege, zhege, zhege, zhege,” or “this, this, this, this, this, this, this,” (good thing I studied 5+ years of Chinese…) and pointing to some Silver Spoon sugar (which I think has some artificial sweeteners in it, I cannot tell you how many different sugars exist in this country in small, 1 kilo packages. What ever happened to regular granulated sugar?!). One of the packages had ripped open, and sugar had spilled on the stack of pouches. He started sweeping it off into his hands and eating it. His mother tried to bat his hand away and told him not to eat the sugar (in English), but it didn’t seem to stop the kid, as he continued to greedily chomp away on the white crystals.

How cute these kids were. I'm just glad I didn't have to deal with them!

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Video of New Flat

My last post for today, I promise. Having just posted another YouTube film, I thought I'd go all high tech and post a video tour of my new flat in London. Mind you, it's nothing special (neither the flat nor the video), and I sound like a complete arse, but at least it gives you an idea of where I am now...since I'm sure you cared. Notice the desk in the closet. That's my personal favorite...

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Disaster in the Kitchen

Why is it that some of life’s lessons can only be learned the hard way?

No matter how many times I’ve heard the advice “don’t try to serve something you’ve never made before to important guests,” it really takes a disaster to let that message sink in. Stupid malai kofta.

To inaugurate my new London flat, I decided to have a few friends over for dinner yesterday evening. After several calls and several people undecided, I opted for an Indian dinner that would be flexible on how many it could serve. I had paneer (a simple, plain, white Indian cheese used in most of their vegetarian dishes), so I decided on palak (spinach) paneer as one dish. I had potatoes, so malai (cream) kofta (potatoes) seemed an obvious choice too. I even had a tikka masala (a red tomato curry) sauce in my fridge ready to go for a spicy chicken tikka masala. Then, all that was left was a nice biriyani rice (think pilaf) and some naan to round out the meal. Well, and a vegan chocolate/orange cake for dessert of course.

Simple enough, right?

I started with the vegan chocolate cake, and for the first time in a while it came out really well, but that’s what you get with a real oven instead of trying to improvise with a toaster oven. And the palak paneer even came out alright (although I had a terrifying moment when I dumped more than a tablespoon of cumin seeds in the pan by accident at the outset), and the chicken tikka masala was a cinch thanks to the pre-made sauce. My water to rice ratio wasn’t quite right for the biriyani, and it came out a bit mushy, but certainly still edible.

And then came the malai kofta. The dish sounded complex, but still doable. Basically, the recipe is: boil some potatoes, mash them, make them into little balls, stuff something in the center (I chose dried cranberries and cashews for a spin on Kashmiri malai kofta which calls for raisins), deep fry them, and cover them in a creamy sauce.

I made my preparations meticulously. While the potatoes were boiling away, I finely chopped my onion, counted out five black pepper corns, two kernels of green cardamom, two cloves, made a cashew powder and prepared cashews and cranberries for stuffing. After a quick skin and a mash, I started forming the mix into balls and stuffing them with cranberries and cashews.

Just as I had finished that step, guests started arriving; in the end, we were seven in all.

My problem came with the next step: deep frying. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever in my entire life seen my mom deep fry anything. It just wasn’t and isn’t something done in my household, ever. And with the exception of the South where fried pickles seem to be the norm, most American households are probably in a similar situation. Deep frying is the ugly duckling of cooking methods in the US. It is shunned to the nth degree. When talking about it, one practically must turn three times, throw salt over the shoulder, say ten Hail Maries and spit twice just to cleanse the soul. Fair or not, deep frying is perceived as bad as eating a clod of butter.

In China, however, it’s just considered another way to cook things, and so I saw it done on several occasions while I was there. I even tried it by myself a couple of times, both in China and before when I was cooking at Casablanca (the house I lived in my senior year at Whitman), but I had never been super-josu (skilled) at it.

Well, just as all my guests were arriving, I made a fatal mistake: I took all of my carefully prepared potato balls, and I put them all in the gurgling oil at the same time. Instead of turning into golden brown, crispy delicacies, they just disintegrated, turning into a greasy potato, cashew, and cranberry mush. :o( By adding too many at the same time, the oil cooled down too much to be able to fry effectively, and as it was heating back up, the potato balls just mushed into each other. The result was that I was out a dish, and a vegetarian dish at that (which was important as almost half the people coming were of the vegetarian ilk).

Frustrated, I turned to the naan. I have made naan before, and I have made chappati (an even flatter bread than naan) before, but not this particular recipe which came from a cooking class I took with my friend Chesa in Udaipur. I added the flour and an egg, then some water. The recipe called for three cups…by which it must have meant little tiny Indian cups, because I added two, thinking it was more than enough and my batter was still runny. I added flour, and added flour, and added flour until it started to become malleable but then I realized that I didn’t even have a rolling pin and I just gave up.

What a disappointment it all was! It is nearly impossible to have every exploit in the kitchen work out perfectly, and I know I’ve had my share of complete screw ups—the sheer mention of the words “lentil loaf” to any of the former Casa crew will most certainly elicit a round of uproarious laughter. But that was basically in front of family, not at a special event with new friends.

I guess all that I can say at this point is lesson learned. On Saturday both of my new flatmates officially move in and I think they’re expecting me to cook dinner for them (I told them I enjoy cooking and they latched onto that right away). I think spaghetti sounds like a good plan.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Love Lost and Passion Vivante

Absence de Théophile Gautier

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!
Comme une fleur loin du soleil
La fleur de ma vie est fermée
Loin de ton sourire vermeil.

Entre nos cœurs quelle distance !
Tant d’espace entre nos baisers !
O sort amer ! O dure absence !
O grand desires inapaisés !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée !

D’ici là-bas, que de campagnes,
Que de villes et de hameaux,
Que de vallons et de montagnes
A lasser le pied des chevaux !

Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!

Absence by Théophile Gautier

Return, return, my much beloved!
Like a flower far from the sun
The flower of my life is closed
Far from your vermillion smile.

Between our heart what a distance!
So much space between our kisses!
Oh bitter fate! Oh cruel absence!
Oh grand desires unappeased!

Return, return, my much beloved!

From here to there, only countryside,
Only cities and hamlets,
Only valleys and mountains
To tire the feet of the horses!

Return, return, my much beloved!

“Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée.” These were the words that echoed through my head all of last night. Along with two images: two boys hugging and an old man stepping slowly towards the podium.

Yesterday, I was happily surprised to receive two phone calls, one directly following the other, from friends I knew from Kunming who had just arrived in London. One of them, Aaliyah, a brilliant musician, called with the idea of heading to the London Philharmonic Orchestra to hear a well-known mezzo soprano. “It’s in French,” she taunted, “and I thought you’d appreciate that.”

And so I found myself meeting Aaliyah at Waterloo station just past six to walk over to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. When I was in London several years ago, I got lost wandering the streets from Waterloo to the National Theatre (the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the National Theatre are all part of the same South Bank Complex), missing an opera that I was supposed to see. This time, we found it easily with at least half an hour to spare, so we decided to grab a sandwich to go and to people watch along the Thames as we caught up on a summer of being apart.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but walking down a semi-secluded alleyway, we stumbled upon a scene that set the mood for the evening: a boy with red rings around his tear-filled eyes. He was crying, but trying not to. I say boy, but he was probably somewhere from 16–18 years old. Smartly dressed, he was meant to be going out for the evening. It was a Saturday evening afterall. Next to him stood another “boy” about his age in jeans a blue sports coat, trying to be comforting, but failing. The boy in the blue coat shifted awkwardly at being so exposed in public. After we had passed, I turned around to see the boy in the blue sports coat hugging the crying boy.

I can’t say for sure, but it looked to me very much as if the boy in the blue coat was breaking up with the crying one.

Later, as we sat in the concert hall listening to the mezzo-soprano sing the words above (part of a work by Berlioz called “Les nuits d’été,” “The Nights of Summer”), all I could think of was the image of the two boys hugging. I could imagine the words “return, return, my much beloved,” running through the crying boy’s head as he tried to deal with the shock of being dumped.

That was love lost, but there was a more inspiring moment from last night as well. It came as the conductor of the orchestra, Paavo Berglund, took the stage. In a scene that reminded me so much of the old man who I would pass on the way to work every morning (see American Anecdotes Part III, he came on supported by a cane in one hand, and a man in a tuxedo in the other. The man escorted him through the orchestra to the podium where, after some difficulty, he was seated on a rather high rotating chair. After he was settled, he swung around and began wihtout a word.

It seemed obvious. One doesn’t require the use of one’s feet to conduct, so why should that stop him? It was beautiful to see him continue to do what he is passionate about despite the difficulty he faces when doing it. A love not yet lost.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

London: Center of the World

In my experience, Londoners often ask me why I chose to come here. "Simple," I tell them, "because London is the center of the world." They always laugh and think I'm a bit off for thinking such things, but each day I become more convinced.

Take something as basic as airfare. To fly from Denver to Istanbul, Turkey would be horribly expensive. In fact, I doubt there are any direct flights. From London, 30 pounds return. Not bad, ay? And it's the same for other places around Europe, Africa, the middle East, Asia, and even America. Australia is in a price category of its own, but that's always been the case.

But that's just the beginning. I love walking down the street and hearing language upon language. They say there are over 200 languages spoken in London, and just in my experience, I have heard: English (British), English (American), French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish, Hindi, Cantonese, Mandarin, Polish, Italian, German, Dutch, some Scandinavian language, and several other unidentifiable languages. It really seems more diverse than even San Francisco, which just seemed such the height of diversity this summer.

Then there are the infinite opportunities. I've been here just a little over one week now, and so far, I've gone out three times to very different bars and pubs, have seen two wonderful movies, Volver (Almodovar's latest, which is getting great reviews from the critics, but I found predictable, and not as over the top as I would expect of his films), and This Film Has Not Been Rated (a movie about the MPAA's film rating system. The mother of the friend I'm staying with now works for the British equivalent, the BBFC, and so we've had quite interesting discussions about rating films and how it changes with time.), have gone to two museums (the Victoria and Albert for their recent Islamic Art Exhibition, and the Tate Modern for its Kandinsky Exhibition), and the Thames festival (which had live swing dancing lessons right across the Thames from St. Paul's, as well as a puppet show and free flying trapeze lessons). I've even managed to get a haircut from a Turkish Cypriot, and all that on top of finding a place to live--it's been a good week.

I keep looking at all the ads in the tube for different theatre performances, and I've already started making a list. Now I just need my student ID so i can get significantly reduced prices. Then it's off to Avenue Q, Wicked, Spamalot, Mary Poppins, and many more.

I hope my studies don't interfere with all this exploring!

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Forward-thinking Afterthought

As I was busy thinking about British food, I forgot drinks entirely!

Two weekends ago now, I was in Seattle with a group of friends, and I said: "Oh, I can't drink a mojito. That was so 4 years ago!" My friends just balked at the idea of a drink going in and out of fashion, but they do, just like food. Remember when people put sun dried tomatoes in everything?! Well, so then they said that the mojito couldn't be four years ago, some of them there had only heard about it last year. I avoided (then) making comments about how Seattle isn't exactly the center of fame and fashion in the US (fine, yes, it had its moment back in the early 90s with the whole grunge thing, but that really ended when Kurt Cobain put a sawed-off shotgun to his head). In any case, mojitos were popular when I was in France studying abroad--and that, my friends, was four years ago (god I'm old).

But now, I am in the center of all things hip and cool, and thought I'd give all you Americans a heads up on the next 'in' drink. Yes, Brazil is the next Cuba; they've given us Rio, Renaldo, the girl from Ipanema, Brazilian meat skewer restaurants, and my personal favorite, capoeira. Next in line: the caipirinha.

It's a sweet and sour drink made with muddle lime, a dash of cane sugar, lots of ice, and filled with cachaça. What's cachaça you ask? It is a Brazilian liquor made from sugarcane juice.

So, all you Seattle folk, when I see you in four years in Seattle, and you're drinking a caipirinha, and I say "that was so five years ago" (I've been living in China remember, I'm assuming they've been quite the rage for a while here), you can't say I didn't warn ya!


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Po-tay-to, To-mah-to

In the US, when I told people I was headed over to England, one of the first things I would get asked about is the “awful” food. My pocket answer was “Well, I hear the Indian food there is actually quite good,” which was usually accompanied by a smirk.

And I can’t really issue a verdict at the moment, as I still have had a very limited experience with the food here, but so far I’ve had some interesting food-related experiences to share. Nothing as exciting as pigs brain like I had in China, but interesting never the less.

The other evening, I took my friend Kelly out for a lovely dinner in Clapham (south London) at a Mexican restaurant. The food was actually quite nice, and they even had guacamole. Mind you, it wasn’t as good of guac as I was having in California all summer, but it was quite decent considering our locale.

The thing that stuck me about the restaurant, though, was its servers. In the US, a Mexican/Tex-Mex/Cal-Mex place typically has Latino staff. Here, I couldn’t tell where our main server was from, but the others seemed all to be Polish immigrants. Usually, if there seems to be some difficulty communicating at a Mexican restaurant in the US, I break out the little Spanish that I know—and with the food all having Spanish names, it’s not normally a problem of them understanding you. Here, they had given many of the dishes English names (ostensibly so people not too familiar with the food could figure out what they were getting), but when we were having trouble communicating with the staff, it was so frustrating because I couldn’t turn to them and just say what I wanted in Spanish and have them understand. We worked it out, but if anybody know how to say taco salad in Polish, please let me know. I think it would make life a lot easier here!

Other experiences on the food front include a lovely meal prepared mostly by Kelly’s roommate Lil, which included jacket potatoes (I think normal people call them baked potatoes. And what was really weird is that people here say to-mah-to but say po-tay-to, what’s with that? Shouldn’t they be consistent?) that were topped with baked beans flavoured with curry. I thought it was a creative meal until I saw baked beans on a potato at a chain jacket potato restaurant (who knew potatoes would be popular enough for a chain?).

And beyond that, I had my first taste of chips in a bag from a take away fish and chips place yesterday. Added lots of salt and drowned them in vinegar; it was criminally delicious.

As for weird Britishy things, my friend Shan insisted that I try marmite this morning on toast. The only way I can describe it is as a salty/sour yeast spread. The flavour is really quite strong, and its not my favorite, but I could see where they were coming from. In a way, the flavour had overtones of sourdough bread in the US, which I absolutely adore. I say that it usually takes three times of trying something new before really starting to like it, and since I don’t find it completely repulsive, I’m sure that I’ll be spreading on my toast sooner rather than later.

The last food-related story comes from Chinatown. We went there for some cheap chao mian (chow mein/stir-fried noodles) at a place that apparently specializes in rude service. I asked for the spiciest chao mian they had. “Not just spicy, spicy spicy.”

The waiter’s response was simply “What’s spicy spicy? You want spicy, you order the Singapore noodles.”

“Ok, well is that Sichuan spicy because that’s what I mean by spicy spicy.”

“Yeah, it’s spicy.”

“Alright, well I guess I’ll try that.”

They came and plopped down a heaping pile of stir-fried noodles that were quite yellow in color. I took a bite and realized that they were actually flavoured with curry, which I suppose is spicy in its own way, and is certainly very savory, but it’s certainly not what I was looking for.

I guess I’ll just have to learn Cantonese on top of the Polish so I can get what I want here! At least I know the names of proper Indian dishes.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

British Anecdotes, Part 1

Today we went flat-hunting south of the Thames.

*GASP*, “south of the Thames, why would you want to live thea?!” is the usual reaction I get when I tell other Londoners of my plans. It’s always interesting to see what underlying biases run through the currents of people, no matter where they are. And despite the signs by the mayor, Ken Livingston, proudly proclaiming that “WE ARE LONDONERS,” I’m already starting to see the divides in London more clearly.

Of course, I also get “well, London is quite patchy. One street will be excellent, the next quite dodgy,” so who knows what to believe.

Coming into it, I decided that I wanted to approach London with an open mind, going to see flats in neighborhoods that others would pass on without much thought. And so, my approach has been to get on a bus pointed generally in the direction I want to go, and I just observe and try to get a feel for the area and the people.

And today, I fell in love with an eccentric Turkish bakery owner on Walworth Road just south of Elephant & Castle.

We had been off to three different viewings in the area, and finally, around 4:30PM, I decided I needed a break. I was quite tired, and the only think I had had to eat that day was a banana. And so, the second I caught wind of the bakery, my stomach thudded down hard in my gut, and I drew to a quick stop. “Mind if we go in here, then?” I asked my fellow hunters.

I was greeted by a rather rotund, mustachioed Turkish man with a boisterous voice and salt-and-pepper hair. “Seweeet orrrr salty?” were the first words out of his mouth upon our arrival.

“Salty for me,” I replied.

“Den I rec-o-mend dis pastery here. It’s filled with de aubergines [eggplant] and de courgettes [zuchinni] and it’s my favorite. You know, I’m from the Mediterranean, those are our foods.”

I pondered.

“Orrr, you could try dis one, wid spinach and cheese…we also have a spicy vegetarian pizza.”

My interest was suddenly piqued, but I couldn’t decide between them. And so, the three of us decided to each get one and share with each other.

“Ok, grrreat, you want me to heat dis up?” He turned to the microwave without waiting for a response from us.

We sat there chatting about the flats and houses we had seen previously, but he was looking for a conversation.

“You from Australia?” he directed at me.

“No, America actually.”

“Oh. You know, many countries don’t like America right now.”

“Yeah, well many Americans don’t like America right now either,” was the only response I could give him.

The conversation continued, but broke off as other customers came in.

We hadn’t all eaten our full portions and he came back to scold us. Pointing to the last remaining piece he said “aren’ta you the hungry one? It is so de-le-i-cious, you must eat it.”

“Yeah, well, I may be the hungry one, but it’s her piece. She’s not fulfilling her responsibility. Make her eat it!”

Ayesha, a fellow flathunter, obliged and it was on to dessert.

It was an amazingly difficult decision. He had delicious-looking baklava which “the Poles came all the way to London for. See.” He gestured towards a uniformed guard munching on his baklava.

But in the end I settled for a pastry filled with a semolina pudding. The filling reminded me of sweet polenta, and it was really quite excellent.

As we were leaving, he asked us our names. “Jeff,” I said. “Ayesha,” my friend said. “And I’m Alex,” the last in our group replied.

“Ayesha, this is a Muslim name, no? Where you from? Turkey?”





He was shooting off ideas so quickly she couldn’t tell him where she was from.


“Ok, where you from?”

“Malaysia actually, but I’m not Muslim.”

I don’t think he’ll let her back in the store now that she’s crushed his hopes, but I’m now convinced that we have to find a place in the area so that I can make this bakery my local hang out.

Wish me luck!

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The next step: London

Amazingly, for my third consecutive trip to the airport in two months, I have managed to leave my house exactly on time—now we’re not talking Jeff on time (15-30 minutes late), but actual real on time. You can be impressed. I know I am.

And after a few hassles at SFO (one of my bags was over the overweight bag limit, and I couldn’t stuff anything else in my smaller one not to mention that they screwed up my seat assignment) and a 10-hour flight later, I arrived in London.

I sat next to an interesting gentleman on the flight with whom I shared my copies of the International Herald Tribune (best paper ever!). He was of Iranian origin, and was heading back to Iran later that day, but has lived in California for the last 20 years and even graduated from Berkeley. He was an electrical engineer, and I couldn’t help but ask him what he thought of Ahmedinejad (yeah, any thoughts on how the Iranian president’s name is spelled). It was his opinion that Ahmedinejad represented only a small minority of the Iranian population, and that it had come down to a choice of “which guy do I hate least” in the last election.

I don’t know much about that election, but it reminds me a bit of the 2000 French election wherein Chirac went up against the far-right Jean Marie Le Pen (whose brilliant idea is to give all the immigrant families 1000Euros for making it this far, then sending them back on their way) in the second round of elections because Lionel Jospin’s socialist party didn’t bother to get out the vote in the first round. Jospin could have won handily in the second round, but it came down to, who do we hate less: a corrupt Chirac or the really crazy guy?

Perhaps there was something similar in Iran?

In any case, the flight was mostly uneventful. It was the first long-haul flight I was on that had the full self-selected seat-back entertainment. They had lots of interesting choices and so I rewatched part of an Indian movie that I had seen in Mumbai, Rang de Basanti, but this time with English subtitles. It made soooo much more sense! I then switched between Chinese TV, the Simpsons, and Little Britain while I was awake, and interesting music while I was trying to sleep. Heck, they even had an interactive trivia game. All in all, not a bad deal.

London was under beautiful weather yesterday, and jetlagged or not, I took advantage of it to walk around the city a bit. It is raining now, and is supposed to keep doing so for the rest of the week. Welcome to London, I guess. I even made it to the London School of Economics campus for my first time ever. It’s a very interesting mix of classical architecture and modern sleek buildings with a few 50’s-style, post-war buildings tucked into corners. The people I met there have been very friendly and helpful, but I still don’t feel any closer to finding a place to actually live.

And in a rather absurd development, I can’t get an apartment without a phone to call people from, I can’t get a bank account without a local address, and I can’t get a mobile without a bank account… talk about a convoluted catch 22. Luckily, LSE has land lines available for students looking for housing to use. The cycle has to stop somewhere, right?

Rain or shine, I must now go find a place to live. Wish me luck!

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