Saturday, December 27, 2008

Boxing Day

Danielle here, writing from the left side of the pond. Boxing Day came and went in my family with nary a mention, but the New York Times printed an article about its roots in British culture as a day of giving. Read it and remember why we should all probably give a bit more this year (and every year!). Also, enjoy the witty comments about British vs American culture!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas to all

And to all a good night!

Continental got me home safe and sound and only 5 minutes behind schedule. I hope everyone has a very Merry and Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

4th Sunday of Advent at Westminster Cathedral

Sunday was the 4th Sunday of Advent, when Mary finds out she's going to be the mother of Jesus, and it was also my late grandfather's birthday. To remember him as well as get in my yearly church obligation (there is no way I will make Midnight Vigil Mass this year after flying for seven hours), I went to church at Westminster Cathedral. Do not confuse this church with Westminster Abbey, the really old Anglican church; this is the seat of the Catholic church in London.

Westminster Cathedral is not that old; I think it was built in the 19th century on the site of a smaller Catholic Church. Since Catholicism is not the state religion of England (like it is in other European nations), it's actually kind of hard to find a Catholic church and this cathedral doesn't have the history or gravitas of the great European houses of worship. Currently it is undergoing major reconstruction and renovation on the interior; there was scaffolding up the inside wall of entrance end of the nave, and there were plywood walkways covering the floor.

The Mass itself was the usual mass, but it was weird to hear the Homily said with an English accent. There were other odd differences in responses, and they had a woman who functioned like a Jewish cantor singing most of the responses to organ music. It was nice, however, to go to a church with pageantry and austerity - even if it was under construction - and see how a big parish acts on behalf of the community.

London Christmas Markets

Are a big sham!

I love a good Christmas market, and in Europe they are really popular. Flights to eastern European cities like Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, and Prague (to name a few) skyrocket during the weeks before Christmas as each city puts out handmade craft and food stalls. Nigella even filmed part of one of her episodes at the Salzburg market!

Of course London tries to get in on the game, with Christmas markets set up in and around its existing markets. But I'm here to tell you that they stink. They're all the same vendors selling the same junk, and the same food. The Irishman and I went to the Cologne Christmas market at Southbank last weekend, and I was highly disappointed in the lack of actual GERMANS that were working the stalls - as well as the lack of GERMAN ITEMS for sale. How does the genuine wooden tie count as a German Christmas craft? The most authentic thing for sale was the bratwurst!

We also stumbled upon the Slow Food Market, which was disappointing as well because it was the same vendors as in Borough Market and Spitalfields. At some point one has to ask, what is the point of having all of these markets, if the people selling in them are all the same? I wonder if there is a market mafia in London, like the street fair people in New York, making millions off of produce and gift markets. If so, then I say FEH and I boycott them all out of principle!

End of an era

The New York Times is reporting on the biggest retail closure in England since, well, I don't know if there has been a bigger bankruptcy than Woolworths. I posted earlier in the year about how much of my home was outfitted courtesy of Woolies and my relocation budget, and, I felt much like some of the people interviewed for the article: Woolies has everything you need - and don't know you need - cheap, and is always there when you do need it. I got hangers, soup bowls, a bill/paper/file folder organizer thing-y, a spoon rest, kitchen rags, a coat rack, orange juicer... and I probably spent no more than £20 on it all. But Woolies was a nightmare, a complete and utter disaster of a store. If I wasn't tripping over little old ladies with their shopping trolleys, I was avoiding 12 year old school kids flirting by the bulk candy. I'm sad to see it go, because when I need a new drying rack for clothes or more hangers, I'm going to have to trek up to IKEA or take my chances at a pound store - neither option being particularly enjoyable. The Woolies in my neighborhood is slated to become a Waitrose, which will be nice for gourmet treats, but nothing compares to a cheap homegood that serves a negligible purpose but makes you feel like you really found a bargain.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What was I thinking?

It is the Friday before Christmas, mid-day, and I'm just about done - stick a fork in me. My clients are all gone for the holidays and after a presentation this afternoon, I'll really have nothing to do. So why am I sticking around until Christmas Eve?! My Christmas shopping is done, I've gained my Christmas weight thanks to beer and treats, and my office is completely devoid of life. I think there are about 10 of us left until the bitter end. So what possessed me to schedule my flight back to the US for CHRISTMAS EVE?

Seriously, I wonder about my sanity.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nigella does Christmas

It is Christmas in London, in case you haven't heard. Even if you've managed to avoid the throngs of shoppers and tourists, the twinkly lights, and ALL OF THE MULLED WINE IN PUBS (wheeee!), you cannot miss that it is Christmas because Nigella is presenting her Christmas kitchen every night on BBC2. And I, personally, love it. I love Nigella, her recipes, her sophisticated cooking utensils, and the fact that she is a full-figured woman who loves to eat and has good hair. Plus, hi, I'd like to look like her when I'm of a certain age.

The Brits, however, don't like Nigella. There was a mean drinking game published in a column in the Guardian on Tuesday after Monday's episode, apparently because Nigella's Christmas cooking show has apparently jumped the shark, in American parlance. The Irishman humphed to himself while Nigella made a drunken Christmas brunch in Tuesday's installment, and I'm fearful as to what will happen during tonight's show!

Frankly, I don't get it. I hear that people think she is over-the-top, completely fake, pretending to be a common person when she's really married to a really rich guy. But you know what? I don't care. I LIKE that she makes her cooking show about excess at the holidays, and presents it like a narrative, and champions over-eating during the holidays, and uses big flowery statements to describe what she's creating. I LIKE hearing that the cranberries she adds to her mince mixture will glisten like garnets. That's the POINT of Christmas - sentiment, cheer, and good food, all overdone to the max.

Maybe I'm just American, bred to enjoy spectacle and over-the-top-ness, but so be it. You'll find me curled up on my couch (with tea with milk and a Dairy Milk advent calendar chocolate) every night for the rest of the week, watching Nigella's Christmas Kitchen, and LOVING IT.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gordon Ramsay, the service in your pub sucked.

Kat and DK are here. WOOT! We had lots of plans for their visit of 8 days, not the least of which was to eat at one of Gordon Ramsay's pubs - The Warrington.

We had reservations for 9pm in the dining room of the pub in Maida Vale. We were all really impressed when we got there, as it was a very elaborately decorated Victorian pub. We were about an hour early for our reservation, so we stayed downstairs for a drink or two before we went upstairs to the dining room. The only thing that would have made the place better was a fire in the fireplace... such a cold night, it would have been perfect! And, while we were there, we saw Mary Portas of GRAZIA and Mary Queen of Shops fame - a celebrity siting!

At 9, we went upstairs and were informed that our table wasn't ready - the diners had finished and were paying the bill, but the hostess couldn't hurry them out. So with a bit of a huff we went back downstairs to the cold bar to wait. About 15 minutes later the hostess came to get us, and we were seated. To be honest, the menu was great and the food (when we got it) was amazing. But the service just went downhill - and it hadn't started out well. Our water glasses weren't refilled, we sat with dirty dishes for what felt like ages, and one of our party had his food come out 10 minutes after everyone else's. By the time we got the dessert menus, we thought we actually would order a third course - but the waitstaff never came over to take our orders, so we just asked for the bill.

I've never asked for the discretionary 12.5% service charge to be removed from a bill, but I did that night. I felt bad for the waiter who actually brought us the bill because he was the only one of the staff who actually seemed to be on the ball and waiting on customers. But I can't just give somebody money who didn't do anything to make our meal better. I also felt bad for Kat and DK - they love Gordon Ramsay and were thrilled to eat food he attached his name to. But he probably should have also made sure to approve the service at the dining room too.

Return to NYC = Twilight Zone

Last week I had a whirlwind business trip to New York for three days. It was absolutely surreal. After a full day of meetings in Amsterdam on Tuesday, I boarded my first British Airways flight to JFK on Wednesday morning. 8+ hours later, I was in New York and in a car stuck in traffic on Park Avenue as tourists choked the sidewalks getting ready for the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. How truly bizarre!

The rest of the week was a whirlwind: dinner with Laura, Jon, and Jeff; reunion with former co-workers; lunch at EAST with Mom and Dad; Belmont Lounge with Dave, Fern (!!!), Rietje, Sam, and Allison; meetings; drinks at the Modern; home. Phew.

Being in New York was really nice, actually: I haven't been away long enough for it to be completely alien. Things still have changed, though - what is this $7.00 for 8 rides Metrocard option? What is going on with the calories on menus? At the same time, though, even as I walked familiar avenues and visited old haunts, it's clear that New York isn't my city anymore. It always will be - I'll always have New York - but London is quickly becoming home. By Friday, I wanted to be in MY bed, in MY apartment, in MY neighborhood. And that was disconcerting unto itself.

Plus, visiting my old office in New York made me really notice the difference between that office and London's office of the same company. I belong to both, and feel at home in both, but can only work for one. While washing dishes the other day it occurred to me that this sentiment is the reality of an expat - feeling at home everywhere, but not having one place to call home. As once moves around the world, one assimilates to each place, picks up a bit and leaves a bit behind.

So what is home? I've been thinking lately that home is where you choose to be - whether it be where you are at the moment, or the place you eventually end up. So far, I'm happy where I've landed, but I really don't think this is it... and I'm excited by that prospect of what lies around the next turn.