Friday, July 29, 2005

In Which Our Heroine Realizes She's Behind her Deadlines

I am late in sending out my book review. Consequently I sent the following e-mail to my editor:
"Dear Mike,
It is amazing the whooshing sound deadlines make as they fly by. I will have my review to you by Monday or my name isn't Anne ****. Yours sincerely, Katrina Postakovich."

I think he understands.

Friday, July 22, 2005

In Which Our Heroine Joins the Pop Masses

My official joining into UK pop culture occurred a couple of weeks ago, when I walked into Waterstones (how I love that bookstore), put my £2 down on the counter and said to the clerk "I'm here to join the madness please and pre-order my copy of Harry Potter and the Whatever It Is This Time."

"Certainly, madam." The clerk was obviously quite used to the mass madness. Which was good, seeing as he had a big badge on his shirt counting down the days to the launch of Harry Potter and the Hound of the Baskervilles or whatever it was.

Filled out a form with my name, address and whether I wanted an adult printing or a childrens's printing, took my receipt and left without even knowing the price of the book, as Waterstone's had yet to determine what they would sell it for. All they knew at that point was that it would be less than the cover price, and that there would be a free second book ("Lion Boy" by Zissou Corder, if anyone cares) to go with it. Quite a marketing strategy if you can swing it "you've put a deposit on it, but we don't know what we're going to charge you yet. Mwahahaha!"

The countdown was quite a topic for a long time, with store displays in all the shops, news reports on who was selling the book for a loss to get customers in the shops, etc etc. And then the bombs went off on the Tube and no one seemed to care as much for a week or so. But by the time the launch came round, it was a rallying escape point for Londoners and a convenient excuse to show that they could relax a bit. Plans were still altered, however, when they moved the launch from Kings Cross Station (the station itself is re-opened, but it was felt that it would be quite tasteless to have a celebration above while they are still bringing up wreckage from underneath) to Oxford Street where people started camping out the night before to be into the shop at midnight to get their copies of the book.

Joined the masses I may have, but it was obviously just provisional membership as there was no way on the face of this earth I was going to be in a book store at midnight for a book launch. Well, ok, maybe someday when it is *my* book, sure. But not until then. Instead, as Friday came, a few plans were thrown together to go up to Nottingham to hang out with my friend Sarah and her parents for an evening.

I shocked her father. Not in my usual way of stating something that I really ought not to have said(that happens rather too much), but rather that after spending all this time in England I was not familiar with the works of Flanders and Swan. A trip to town the next day was in order.

And so we went. Flanders & Swan proved a bit tricky, but was eventually tracked down, and of course the now launched Harry Potter copies, sold to us by people who were forced to wear t-shirts with "Muggle" in big letters on the back. We made our way round the new sights of Nottingham (the tram, the sky mirror, things like that) did bits of shopping and eventually retreated back to the house for a cup of tea while Flanders and Swan sang away on the CD player about "The Bold Hippopotamus", and why the English are superior to all others. (Chorus: The English, the English, the English are best, I wouldnt' give tuppence for all of the rest.). Rather tongue in cheek, I hasten to add.

Back to the university to revisit halcyon days by wandering round the lake and then an attempt was made to catch a train, which after a 90 minute wait with no news, no instructions, and no train, we finally got word (via a totally different train) that it was cancelled. We attempted to make a dash to the pub but there was no room. Giving up (and facing a very early train the next morning) home was good and Gin and Bitter Lemon was even better.

Sunday trains. Ah. So much fun. To get to St. Albans in time for Matins (where I'd arranged to meet Sarah and Tati, who were visiting, and we were all going to watch Neil's daughter sing in the choir) I had to be on a 7:30 a.m. bus from Loughborough, change to train at Leicester, get different train at Bedford, hop off at St Albans. Every person on any of these modes of transport had their copy of Harry Potter and was reading it feverishly, as though it was some kind of requirement for being on the train at that hour. And yet, it all worked, even to the extent that having met up with S&T, when I heard a voice go "Do you need directions?" while my immediate thought was it was some exceptionally dodgy male preying on tourists, turning around to view revealed Neil, who while exceptional and male is most definitely not dodgy, and a tourist's friend (if they knew him, which thankfully for Neil they don't as a rule).

The thing about English choirs is that they're just unbelievable. I mean, you sit there and watch this incredible sound come out and you cannot match it up to the teeny kids you're seeing. This was no exception. If I had that kind of lung capacity, I'd be a much better rower. And if I could sing like that......well, I don't know what. I just wish I could sing like that. Amazing. They retire the kids out at 14, which is part of what the service we saw was about - kicking three of them out with a book, a cheque for services rendered, and then a party at the Dean of the Abbey's house. "As befits the ladies of the choir" he said "they will be bungee jumping in my back garden." He wasn't kidding either.

It is all just too English for words, the whole time. Even Harry Potter didn't get left out of church as Neil's non-singing daughter had her copy with her to read before and after the service. She's hoping evil's going to win in the end on that one. Impressive for someone who'd just sat through an hour of religious choir music, I thought.

But when it was over, it was back to the work week, back to the grind, and now back to the bombs. Still, the English are taking it with black humor and stiff upper lips. My friend Deborah has declared that these bombs (since no one has been killed) were by Very Dumb Terrorists who don't know how to connect the brown wire. She is laying the blame entirely at the feet of the comprehensive educational system, and calling for the return of compulsary national service.

The bombs do keep going off though, and every morning there's another security scare where large bits of London get sealed off. Everyone is on guard, and taking luggage on trains of anything larger than a handbag is liable to get you severe stares, not to mention glares as everyone is so wedged on with lines still out of service that bags take up too much room. And the lines get stopped during the rush hour all the time, which means that the buses get overcrowded, etc. People are turning more to bikes all the time which is a good thing I think, but the daily hassle and fear is hard to put up with.

I've turned to rowing. I'm finally out on the water, which is brilliant fun. At first it was a bit unnerving as I would go to the boathouse and no one would speak to me. This isn't rude - it is just English. The assumption is that you know someone and they will talk to you but it is rude to just start talking to someone you don't know. This bothered me as even though I knew what was going on, it was still rather excluding. But once in the boat and introduced, everyone couldnt be nicer. You have to kind of band togethre to fight the tides of the Thames (there's maybe a 15 foot rise and fall at Putney where we row, and it is a wet launch every day), and the debris which after the rains is like nothing I've ever seen. The damage caused to a blade by a floating fire extinguisher is pretty impressive.

There's a party at the boat house on Saturday. For some reason it is an 80s themed party (costume/themed parties are popular here) and I can't figure out what to where, although the friendly girls have invited me to the boat pre-party at their place before heading over and there will be plenty of prep time. Suggestions on a postcard please!


Thursday, July 14, 2005

In Which Our Heroine Gets Back to Her Love

I finally went rowing. Having at long last been introduced to people, they were incredibly friendly. The boat was rigged for someone much smaller and this was pretty bad - zero connection on the front end, which of course led to zippo at the finish, which when rowing feet out made for lots of joy. And right near the end the gal behind me caught a massive crab which sent an oar handle into my back, which is coming up nicely in pretty colours. The water conditions could best be described as Force Nine gale, plus the wake of HMS Plymouth.

I loved every freaking minute of it.

I am now covered in Germolene for blisters, taking asprin for the bruise and walking a little funny, as I ache in weird spots due to the boat not fitting. Happy happy joy joy.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

What a Difference a Day Makes

Greetings to all from the newly reopened front for terrorism. I say newly reopened because a) London is indeed back in business, and also of course because b) London has been through this before on a longer but smaller scale when the IRA used to shut down the Tube at its whim. The IRA though gave warnings beforehand.

The biggest unreported news for me though is the sheer contrast of the day before and the day after. On July 6, at 12:46 in the afternoon, the 2012 Olympic games were awarded to London. This was something that in the run up had completely gripped the nation. Every bit of commentary and gossip was analyzed after six weeks ago reports came out showing that London was now neck and neck with the long time favorite of Paris. It is pretty widely believed (and certainly reported by the tabloid press here) that the day before, Paris lost the eventual vote by declaring in front of some Scandinavian voters that you couldn't trust the English because their food was only superlative to Finland. Consequently, the day of the sixth dawned to more tabloid headlines extolling both the virtues of British cuisine, and the boorishness of Jacques Chirac.

I had my friends Sarah and Tati (they're sisters) making their first visit to England at this point. They really only had one day in London at that point, as they arrived the night before and were flying out the morning of the 7th to a wedding in Poland, but were eager to explore and be joyous coincidence landed in Trafalgar Square (where the victory party was to be held if London won) about two minutes before the announcement. Sarah's photos show crowds of happy people, confetti, a military flyover by the Red Arrows, and a general sense of jubilation.

Both Sarah and Tati had had a great day, and were very enthused about how nice everyone was, how helpful people were, and the cleanliness, history, just plain everything about how London was grand.

The next day, of course, tried to change all that.

At a certain level, it was a day like any other day. I did the morning rituals and strolled to the Tube stop, where it was hot and steamy. An announcement was made that "due to a small fire, the Piccadilly line at Kings Cross station is currently closed." This explained why five trains went by before there was room to shove onto one, as everyone a couple stops up would have hopped off the Piccadilly line to change to the Victoria line (that I was on) to still get off at Kings Cross. Except that once wedged in like a kipper in oil, the doors shut and they announced that this train was now not going to open its doors at Kings Cross either. People were annoyed, but no one was terribly worried. The London tube system is massive, the trains run during peak times at a rate of one per minute, and stuff does happen. It is inconvenient, but that's about it really. I didn't care so long as I finally got to work. I'd been taking the bus the last couple of days, which instead of getting me in 15 minutes early got me in five minutes late which I felt was unacceptable. But I was now running late again. I made it, had the normal sort of "gosh, my commute was annoying this morning" grump at Ali who sits opposite me, and then she had her normal sort of grump, saying there'd been some sort of fire at Aldgate. That seemed odd, I told her, since there was also one at King's Cross. About that moment, Jim phoned in asking me how I'd come to work as Highbury/Islington station was now shut (where we both come from). I told him the thing from Kings Cross must be affecting it.

At that point, Ali and I both started looking on the net, but there wasn't much. When Jim phoned a bit later saying that his walk to the next tube station revealed that all of Zones one and two were shut for trains, it was obvious that something was up. He couldn't get a bus as they were all crammed with people coming off the trains, so he was going to walk. We began to get worried and went back to the net.

Pictures started coming through, along with the first reports that it was not what they initially thought (a power surge causing explosions) but rather bombs going off. Then the report came in of a bomb going off on a bus as well. It was very similar to 9/11 - watching events unfold around you and not knowing what to do or what was coming next. With cell phones shut down across the city as a security precaution (in case the bombs were rigged to phones, and also to deny the bombers a way to communicate easily), it was hard to know who was ok and who wasn't. The streets of London became eerily deserted very quickly.

By this point, I got a call on the business line from Sarah and Tati, who had just made it to Paddington by bus after their tube station shut, and when they arrived there, the bus driver ordered everyone off, saying that zone 1 was now shut to buses as well. They, and the others around them, had no idea what was going on, and they'd missed their flight, so they rang. I debated whether or not telling them was just going to scare them, erred on the side of "knowledge is good" and stressed that Heathrow is about the safest building in Britain. They wound up flying standby, but the miracle is they got there at all as they got on the last Heathrow express before *that* was shut as well.

The next hours were spent pretty much in lockdown in the office, along with the rest of London. With no subway, trains or buses, the only ways out of the city were by foot, bike and taxi. But the police were advising people to stay indoors for safety. We had no idea how long we'd be there, but I did manage to get out to go next door for sandwiches. By the time Jim arrived, we just did what British people do in such times of stress and anxiety.

We made a pot of tea, and we ate a lot of cookies to go with it.

It was all we could do, really. I had notified my family and friends in the US that I was safe, but they were yet to wake up at this point (apart from one friend, bless, who'd had insomnia, e-mailed back and forth with me while I was a raving loon and managed to get me my doctor's phone number. I need to send him something to say thank you. Like a Lotus Elan.)

Eventually, the buses started running again, but lots of people walked home anyway. I grabbed a bus (and a number 30 bus at that) but it should be noted that no one wants to sit on the top of them any more.

London is back in business anyway, and people have coped admirably. They admit they dont' want to be on the tube and the buses, so what did they do? Driving in costs £8 a day, plus parking, so that's not so much of an option. Staying at home isn't an option either. So London, en masse, went out and bought bikes. They sold 5,000 of them in two days, and they're very evident on the roads. Bike commuting is a popular thing here anyway, but it is a very noticable increase this week. According to Charles (a partner here in the office, who cycles to work every morning) it is even more noticable if you are on a bike. "Don't know where they're going, and they're all in my way." says Charles. But he is helping them out, as is everyone else. The CCTV cameras and forensics have already led to arrests, and the realisation that this was native born Britons that did this, not some scary outsider force. While this scares people, it has also made them resolute that this sort of thing will not be tolerated from one or more of their own.

The big story of yesterday was that the US military wouldn't allow its 12,000 personnel into London at the same time Bush was pledging "cooperation." As this escalated into the PR fiasco it should have been, they backed down quickly. Of course, no one kept out the tourists. They were back in force the very next day. As well as on Sunday, when 200.000 people gathered in St. James for a commemoration of the end of the Second World War. It is truly amazing how as a city London has refused to shut, bow, or consider knuckling under. There are changes - the bikes on the streets, the way everyone stops with a bit of alarm if anything with a siren goes by, the palpable tension if a train stops in a tunnel unannounced, and I've started carrying my gym bag unzipped so people can see inside. (I'm not the only one to start doing this.) But the more there are changes, the more the changes are aimed at keeping things the same.

Sarah and Tati are back tomorrow for a few more days. Nerves and all, I think they'll hardly notice the difference. And I think that's wonderful.


Friday, July 01, 2005

The Differences in Culture Between Americans and the English

These are key differences, as the failure to understand can cause insult on all sides.

The office Christmas Party:
English: Only considered successful if someone, hopefully not you, faxes or e-mails their resignation in the next morning rather than be seen in the office ever again. Clients are invited, and are considered to be entertained if you ply them with copious amounts of champagne. Frequently black tie.
American: Only considered successful if employer will spring for more than one drink. Guests are not invited, and the real party is when everyone leaves the employer's do to go somewhere else and actually enjoy themselves without boss watching. To appear to be having a good time means that you cannot at any moment be stopped and asked for advice which could then be billed to a client, and therefore is seen as poor form.

English: Plimsoles are black and can be used for casual wear with jeans and things. White sneakers are for sport, and should not be worn outside as may then scuff up squash court.
American: Status symbol. (Men) White sneakers are not to be laced, should weigh five pounds each and be as large as humanly possible. Worn with white socks, and under all types of casual clothing, whether or not they clash. (Women) Not as big, but worn to look as if about to burst into a run at any given moment, despite the fact that the furthest the wearer runs is to the car if they're late for work.

English. Tea. Can't make coffee to save their lives, and don't particularly feel the need to try. Complain vociferously that when they travel abroad they can't get a decent cup of tea anywhere that wasn't once part of the Commonwealth, and they are correct.
American: Coffee. Can't make tea to save their lives, and don't particularly feel the need to try. Complain vociferously when they travel abroad they can't get a decent cup of tea anywhere, thus showing they've never been to Southern Europe, South America, Antartica or Canada.

English: Topless women on third page of most popular newspaper, with attributed thoughtful quote on today's top story that you know they never made. After the watershed hour of 10pm, anything goes on telly. Contraception free on NHS, as is abortion. Considers Americans to be promiscuous.
American: Janet Jackson's nipple during Super Bowl causes uproar. Contraception must be paid for, ditto abortion (which on practical level is difficult to obtain in some states at all). Abstinence only sex education. "Ring thing" wait til marriage movement popular. Considers the English to be prudish.

New York Yankees Hats:
American: Shows loyalty to highly overpaid team currently languishing near bottom of American League East. To start discussion, mention new found "Curse of A-Rod."
English: Shows marketing savvy of Major League Baseball to people who've never watched a baseball game in their lives, but know that NY stands for New York. To start discussion, ask them if they've ever seen a game. When they say no, inform of current bottom dweller status, and offer to replace with proper Red Sox hats for winners.

English: Wonder aloud why World Series is so named, when only America participates. Excel at sports they invented, such as rugby, cricket, fives, and badminton, which is a professional sport in the UK. Also known to excel at watersports, as befits island nation. Many sports events are upper class social events involving dress codes and royal attendence, such as Ascot, the Grand National and the Epsom Derby (horse racing), Henley (rowing), the Boat Race (no dress code required, but broadcast on telly), Cowes Week (sailing), and gardening (Chelsea Flower Show). Queen enters horses in many races, and is known to enjoy betting on the ponies.

American: Wonder what on earth are the rules to cricket and rugby, aren't they just forms of baseball and football (meaning: American football, not soccer-known-in-rest-of-world-as-football)? Have never heard of fives. Know that World Series has players from all over the world, predominantly South America and Japan, it is just that teams are owned by Americans, rather like Manchester United, which is soon to be relocated to Manchester, NH. Excel at sports they invented, such as baseball, football and basketball. Most popular sport to watch is NASCAR racing. Most sporting events are seen as opportunity for everyone to go and watch regardless of class, but this is rapidly being overtaken by the opportunity for everyone to go and watch on TV since corporate boxes are the way to go at the sporting arenas and your average person now cannot afford tickets. President used to own major league baseball team, has T-ball field on Presidential lawn, and enjoys photo ops with winners but not losers of major tournaments.

American: Fast food predominates. One mega meal can provide entire days recommended caloric intake, and is cheaper than fresh fruit and veg. Considers English food bland and overcooked, but has never eaten it. Portions humongous. Eating out cheap and frequent.

English: Spicy food of former colonies predominates (Hong Kong Chinese, Indian, etc.) along with roasted hunk of meat and veg. Fast food considerably more expensive than fruit and veg. One mega meal equivalent to small size meal in America. Portions small. Eating out event which requires making reservation to guarantee table.

American: Petrol is cheaper than milk, so why not make your car the size of your house and live in it? Cup holders and fast food drive throughs mean that you don't ever have to leave your car except for the call of nature, which comes in handy when driving across, say, North Dakota and there's nothing for miles and miles. Road signage variable at the best of times, and if you don't know how to get where you're going, you didn't really want to get there in the first place.

English: Stop every two hours for a cup of tea. Cup holders non-existent. Roads good and fast, and radio set up to interrupt broadcast if there is a travel alert so you can take a different road around the trouble. Economy matters, since petrol costs per litre what a gallon costs in America. And besides, if you take the train, you can eat and drink on it, which you would never do in your car unless you're common.

Road Directions
American (well, New England): unofficial motto: "Can't get there from here." So accurate, they spoofed it on Saturday Night Live as a game show. One way systems and lack of signage make every trip to the shops an adventure as you never know where you might wind up. Spring brings pothole season. The spotting of the first hubcap flying off the car in front of you is much like seeing the first robin.

English: will conduct extortionately long discussions on which is the fastest route from A to B, and the cleanliness of the Happy Eater rest stops along the way. The discussions on directions are held at cocktail parties, thus increasing alcohol consumption for everyone listening as they try to cope.
In Which Our Heroine Hops to Vla Vla Land
One of the great things about being in London is that it is so close to the rest of Europe, at least in relation to America not being particularly close to Europe geographically (if at all in any other way). All of which allowed me to conspire over the last few weeks to actually head off to a friend's surprise baby shower.

In Amsterdam.

Just one of those things people do, you know. My friend (Marieke)'s sister (Annelise) had organised a rather excellent event, but knew that Marieke had friends all over the world from both her studying in the US and the fact that the Dutch do get a bit peripatetic. To include everyone, Annelise e-mailed all the foreigners, and asked them to e-mail a baby picture and a recent picture so that Marieke could match them up. I wound up being a bit slack on this as baby pictures had to be dug out, what with my mother moving house (kudos to Grandma for a bit of search and retrieve, and a very good quality scanning job on short notice, although she did in fact meet Marieke many years ago so that helps), When Annelise e-mailed me to politely say "where are the photos?" I said "oops, sorry, Mom's just moved house and can't find anything, and I just moved to London two days ago so I can't find anything either." Upon finding out that I was so close, conspiracy of great nature ensued. Marieke's husband bought me a ticket to Amsterdam for the party and it was all sent via e-mail. And as Annelise and I coordinated stuff, the one thing that wound up lacking was actually corresponding with Marieke, who would occasionally send these notes saying "Um, I haven't heard from you, are you all right? You seem a bit quiet at the moment!"

Not to worry, not to worry. A bag was packed, a bear was purchased (along with Yorkie bars and salt & vinegar chips for Marc and Annelise!) and courtesy of the whole "check in and print your boarding pass the day before you leave for the airport" concept, I whipped in and was in Amsterdam easily. I was pressed into service decorating anything above waist level, and then popped out to the shops to get some vla for the next morning (it is a custardy type thing. And tasty. It is also fun to say, as you sound like a vampire. Vla! I vant to suck your blood! Vla!) and stay there until Marieke got home so that first she could be surprised by her party and then I could surprise her with me.

The first problem that struck me was in the market. I can pronounce words in Dutch, as Marieke taught me to read outloud. The problem is that my actual vocabulary reflects how I learned to read, which was from reading aloud from Miffy books. Miffy ( is actually a Dutch artist's creation named Nijnte and with all the books written in rhyming couplets, this helps learn the sounds of words. It also left me with a vocabulary not terribly suited to wandering around Amsterdam looking for vla, as I know such handy phrases as "Hij is een stoute rups. Hij at van de mooie bloem!" which conveniently translates to "He is a naughty caterpillar. He ate a beautiful flower!"

There are very few naughty caterpillars in the local shops in Amsterdam. In fact, there are very few caterpillars at all, regardless of behavioural standards.

Never mind. I knew where the shop was, I remembered where the vla was in the shop, I had some Euros, this was going to be easy. And indeed it was until the nice gentleman in front of me in the line turned and seeing I was just holding my little vla container, immediately said something terribly complex in lots of Dutch words, none of which seemed to be "caterpillar." Suddenly reimersed in that year when I didn't understand a word that I was spoken to me, and couldn't communicate back, I actually started to have a full on panic attack and hyperventilate. The nice Dutch man promptly said something else not involving caterpillars or naughtiness so far as I could tell, and I finally managed to gasp out "I don't speak Dutch." hoping all the while he wouldnt' think I had just escaped from the local mental institution.

Being Dutch, he promptly responded to me in perfect English with "is that all you have? Why don't you go ahead of me?" Crisis averted. I was equally handled with kid gloves by the teenage chap behind the till, who also addressed me in full English, asked if I had a card, counted out my change, and told me to have a nice weekend. All very kind of them, but I did feel a bit stupid.

But back for the surprise. It did occur to me that two surprises in 15 minutes might not be the best thing to do to a woman who was seven months pregnant, but there was nothing for it now but to go through the door. All was well, Marieke was happy and the party went off without a hitch. Except that I didn't understand anything that was said. To give me something to do, I read the little quiz cards. Marieke got asked questions, and if she got four answers right, she got to open a present. I read out the questions, and then she gave an answer and there was a bit of discussion. After four, I said "Ok, now you get to open a present. Huzzah!"

That was when she told me that in fact she'd gotten all the last questions wrong, so no presents for her. Sometimes, it does indeed help to understand things.

Silly silly Anne.

Lovely evening out biking through Amsterdam (yes, even at seven months pregnant - I love the Dutch way of biking everywhere!) and noshing on Indonesian food but unfortunately the next day meant a 7 am take off at the airport, so it was all too short. I've vowed to brush up on my Dutch before le bebe is born for my next visit, but I think that that age, he'll understand me perfectly anyway!

More later. So much work on at the moment. The things a gal does for an income.