Tuesday, February 24, 2009

First London gig

Last night I went to my first "gig" since I moved to London. A "gig" is what the hip kids here call a "show", or a concert, and it was at an amazing venue in Camden called the Roundhouse. I saw Fleet Foxes, who I love and who my friend Maureen told me days after I'd moved: "go see Fleet Foxes the minute you have a chance." So I did.

Rachel had a bunch of tickets, so I went with her and two other lovely ladies from work, and it was an amazing show. It's weird how going to something like a concert can instantly transport a person backwards in time, ground her in the present, or inspire his walk to work the next day. Fleet Foxes are American, and from the moment the lead singer opened his mouth I felt a really strong kinship with the music that I had never experienced at a concert before. Usually I'm busy dancing to the beat, but we were seated in the balcony and Fleet Foxes have a lovely folksy quality that can only come from Appalachia and the American West. The melodies, the lyrics, and the voices enveloped me in a warm blanket of Americana, and I loved it.

I thought I might feel homesick after the show, but I didn't; instead I was reassured that no matter where I live, I can still get a feeling of home from the things I love.

Shrove Tuesday

Today is Shrove Tuesday – better known as Pancake Day. You Americans might know it as Mardi Gras. All of the European countries have a tradition for the day before Lent, and in England it involves making pancakes to use up all of your naughty fattening foods before the Lenten season.

I discovered it was Pancake Day in London when I was in Selfridges over the weekend, and saw the display of Aunt Jemima boxes with a sign for Pancake Day on the 24th. But pancakes here are much better; they are thin like crepes, and traditional fillings (besides nutella) are jam, honey, and simple lemon juice and sugar.

The other way I knew it was Pancake Day is when I saw signs for Islington's Pancake Race qualifying heats. There is a funny tradition in England of pancake races; even the two houses of Parliament have a race pitting each house against each other. The races involve running with a pancake in a frying pan and having to flip it 3 times before crossing the finish line (with the pancake in the pan, obviously).

At work, our weekly Wednesday tea party was held a day early and the lovely Rose whipped up a batch of pancakes and a variety of fillings (courtesy of Sainsburys) for us all to enjoy. Five hours later, I'm still stuffed.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Today I ate Weetabix for breakfast. I've heard of this food before, but never tried it; it is synonymous with "healthy gross" on both sides of the Atlantic. But Brits love Weetabix and it was on sale at the grocery store, so I bought a box to try it out.

Now I bought mini-Weetabix, and have been told that this is an inferior type of Weetabix; apparently one only eats the full-size Weetabix and the number you eat is important because only "the hardiest of people" can eat 3. People also claim that the mini ones are sweeter and harder than the big ones, and therefore don't taste as good. I don't know about this.

The best I can do for comparison is shredded wheat - you know how old people like the big ones and the rest of us eat mini-wheats or (even better) frosted mini-wheats? It's like that. Only instead of shredded wheat bundled into little packets, Weetabix is like ground up wheat/grain that has been pressed into a biscuit. When you put milk on it, the whole thing instantaneously becomes mush. British people think this is the best part; I also don't know about this.

I've been told there are several ways to "condiment" the Weetabix: honey, berries, sugar, milk, cream, etc. I'm going to keep experimenting, because it's not BAD but it could be much better. I feel about it like I feel about Marmite: neither positive nor negative, but distinctly like it needs some American ingenuity to make a vast improvement.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

St. Valentin á Paris

Yesterday, the Irishman and I spent Valentine's Day in Paris. Now, spending Valentine's Day in Paris is possibly the most cliched way to celebrate a very ridiculous holiday. But originally, the Irishman was supposed to be in Rome with his family supporting Ireland against Italy in the 6 Nations rugby tournament. Exactly. So since I was going to be single for the day, I decided to embrace the ludicrous and take the Eurostar to Paris for the day. But a month ago, the Irishman's plans changed and he decided to join me in my loisirs á Paris.

Because I booked a cheap ticket on the Eurostar, our departure time was 6:40am from St Pancras. Fortunately I live 10 minutes away from St Pancras, but even still we got up at 4:30am and took a cab to the train station. When I booked my ticket, the outbound ticket was the same price for both economy class and the Leisure Select class so we traveled in style on the way there. We got complimentary breakfast (I photographed it, and stole the little pots of jam), magazines (French Vogue!), and lovely wide seats. The only problem was that three couples thought it would be fine to allow their horrid children to scream, cry, and yell the entire 3 hour journey. Hmph.

Once in Paris we took the Metro to the Marais, and simply explored. The last time I was in Paris, the Marais was not someplace English-speaking people went; it was largely an immigrant neighborhood and somewhat sketchy. Seven years later, it is a hipster hotbed of boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and artisanal food shops. We strolled through its narrow streets and popped into shops and markets, though not in as many shoe shops as I'd like. After a lunch of steak frites for the Irishman, we headed south to the little river islands.

First we crossed to the Ile de St Louis, the smaller of the two islands, and wandered down its main street. Cold in the shade, we went to the quai and walked to the Pont St Louis connecting the small island to the larger Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. From the old church we then wandered through the Latin Quarter and St Germain des Pres back to the Seine so I could see some monuments and the Eiffel Tower. We held out for a while, but finally the cold sent us underground to the Metro and we subwayed back to the Marais and a cafe for wine and des assiettes de fromage et de charcuterie. We wrapped up the day by going to a supermarche and buying cheese, wine, and saucisson to take back to London.

Back on the Eurostar, my tired drunk self passed out while the Irishman grumbled about yet another baby screaming. We arrived back in London 16 hours after we left, cold, tired, but extremely tres bien apres un jour superb á la cité illuminaire. Il y a des photos ici.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Reverse cultural immersion by food

My friend Mark, the Diamond Geezer, loves trying American delicacies. His first were Tootsie Rolls, and from there he asked to move on to the Twinkie. So I brought a package of the snack cakes back with me when I returned from spending Christmas in the US, and last night Mark and James tried them for the very first time.

"Cake on steriods" says it all.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Flying ducks

We have a new client here at work that is a British heritage company. As we discussed its cultural significance, someone mentioned "flying ducks".

Flying ducks are these duck figurines that people used to hang on the wall in their tv rooms in the 1960s and 1970s. They are supposedly "really British". A Google search revealed this that they are now considered "retro decor" and are on sale for £12.95 on Amazon.

I kind of want a set!

Tea & toast

I'm sitting here writing this sipping a cup of tea and munching on buttered toast. People who know me will wonder what the heck has happened to me. I say, cultural immersion through food.

Most nations have elements of their national identity wrapped up in cuisine; western European countries specifically root national pride through bread and beverage. France has all sorts of breads and café; Italy is not the same without pane e cappucino; I've had the best kaffe and pastries of my life in Germany; even the Dutch do it with Douewe Egbert coffee and some doughy bread (but they have to put cheese on it). The English, though, get by with tea and toast. I think the Channel did something to the translation when people went back and forth... England has to be just that different.

Tea and toast is not just for breakfast, but that's really common. You can eat it for elevenses (snack between breakfast and lunch, like I just did), or for tea (but that would be a rubbish tea, you really need something sweet at tea time), and I hear stories of poor youth in college subsisting on it and beans for days on end (the British version of ramen?).

Tea and toast is comfort food then, customizable to every taste. Most people just put butter on the toast, but Americans I know spread it with the pitiful excuse for peanut butter they sell here. Jam is also a possibility, and for 50% of the population there is marmite. No matter how you like it, tea and toast is what you nibble on in times of trouble, or times of joy. I don't think the US has just one food item like it.

It's so iconic here in England that there are contraptions like the Breville toaster/kettle combination pictured above. It retails for £129.99. That is, with today's exchange rate, roughly $190.00 for a machine to make you feel good. And they thought Americans were ridiculous.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

How I learned to love breakfast again (ode to the Full English)

I used to be one of those girls who never ate breakfast. Even though my dad makes amazing breakfasts, I went through one of those teenage periods of "if I eat less food I'll get skinny". Well. It might have helped for a few years, but it ended up leaving me in my mid-20s with a messy metabolism and a need for food in the morning.

In New York, the brunch phenomenon involves breakfasty type foods, but since it's eaten at around noon or 1pm, it isn't quite breakfast. It's more like an homage to breakfast.

Cue my move to England and the English love of morning food. Tea, toast, eggs, several kinds of breakfast meats, Brits love to eat in the morning. I suspect it might have something to do with curing the ailments following the previous night's excesses in the pub, but that's okay because it does the job ably.

My personal favorite is the Full English breakfast. It is only full if it includes: an egg (or 2), bacon, sausage, black pudding, beans, mushrooms, and half a grilled tomato - and some toast. It is a huge, greasy, delightful binge. It alone cured my lack of breakfast eating, and now my only problem is trying to only eat a Full English once in a while instead of twice a weekend so that my metabolism can properly handle it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

London Snow

I just got back from a walk through the snowy streets of London. I went down Upper Street to St John's, thru Smithfield to St Paul's Cathedral (when it started to snow again!), and then to Blackfriars Bridge and Victoria Embankment where I walked west to Hungerford Bridge and up to Covent Garden. There I treated myself the best cup of coffee in London (£2!) at Monmouth Coffee Roasters, popped into some shops (to get warm, of course), and then headed home. On the way home, I got a free taco from the Mexican place Mucho Mas, who had a stand outside on the sidewalk because, as they put it, we all needed free food since we couldn't go to work to earn money!

London was gorgeous in the snow, all soft edges and crunching footsteps. When the grey sky and cold precipitation, it was easy to slide back in time to the Industrial Revolution and imagine yourself part of a time long past - especially as my bum was starting to lose feeling from the cold. There are pictures from this walk, of course - here!


After finally logging into my work email, I received an email from our office's Managing Director informing staff that due to the weather no one is available to even unlock the building! So its a true snow day after all! HURRAH! About to go brew up another pot of coffee!

Biggest snowfall in 18 years

The BBC was calling a Russian weather system that hit southeast England last evening and continued on through this morning an "Extreme Weather Event" - it dropped 20 cm (7.8") of snow on London and the surrounding countryside. Apparently London hasn't had this much snow in 18 years! It's still snowing at 8:25am as I write this and even though my first instinct is to call it a Snow Day (read: under duvet on couch reading with coffee), my work email is being spazzy so I need to go to work. But at least I just need to put on 2 pairs of socks and my new snowboots; travel around London by mass transportation is horrendous. If you thought New Jersey couldn't handle snow, check this out:
- no buses AT ALL
- most Underground lines experiencing SEVERE DELAYS
- major highways closed
- London City and Luton airports closed; Heathrow and Stansted only have 1 runway open, unclear what's going on at Gatwick

People are still walking though, using umbrellas and wearing wellies. Though most might complain, personally I say its long overdue! Apparently, there is another weather system coming over the Channel from France tonight to add to the mess, and potentially more snowing due on Thursday. Picture above is from my bedroom window at 7am this morning.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Year of the Ox

Today was London's Lunar New Year celebration. It really was a big street party, with diverted buses, streets blocked to cars, performance stages and food vendors. The Irishman and I enjoy Chinese food with a vengeance, so we made it a point to visit the festivities and partake in some of the delicacies. First stop on my list was the secret Chinese bun bakery.

When friends Kat and DK visited in December, they introduced me to the wonder and delight of the Chinese bun. Shamefully, even though as a New York resident I was a regular visitor to it's Chinatown, I had never had a Chinese bun before Kat and DK decided to stop for a quick snack while we wandered through London's Chinatown. We inadvertently found one of the best hidden gems in London, The Golden Gate Bakery, full of bins of buns and sweet and savory Chinese street food. Golden Gate Bakery also makes birthday cakes, but those are irrelevant - if you go, you want a £1.30 traditional pork bun or go crazy and get DK's favorite, the chicken curry bun (also £1.30). He felt somewhat traitorous for liking it so much, as it is obviously an Indian curry bun; he justifies liking it so much because he thinks it exemplifies the culinary fusion of cultures that is so prevalent in London. I say, whatever - it tastes good.

So the Irishman and I wandered with the crowds through the Chinatown gates and made it to our bakery destination to pick up two pork buns and a good-luck almond cookie to share. After pulling over and devouring our treats, we continued down to Trafalgar Square to see the stage performances. Despite the arctic temperatures (-1 deg C!), it was a lovely start to the Year of the Ox.

Pictures of the festivities and our treats are here.