Monday, August 31, 2009

Bank Holiday Monday

It's Bank Holiday Monday here, and I'm sitting in my back garden enjoying the sun. Yesterday was cloudy and miserable, and I spent it with tea and the Irishman planning LE HOLIDAY. Today I should be packing but I can't bring myself to be inside.

I've mentioned LE HOLIDAY before in passing, so I should probably spill the detail beans. The Irishman and I are leaving Friday afternoon for 8 days each in Croatia and Italy. Our itinerary is as follows: fly to Dubrovnik, ferry to Korcula, ferry to Hvar, ferry to Split, ferry to Ancona, Italy, train to Bologna, train to Florence, train to Lucca, and depart Pisa. I scheduled everything so that apart from the taxi that will get us from the Dubrovnik Airport to our rented apartment, we'll only travel by ferry boat in Croatia. I'm looking forward to sun, warm temperatures, beaches, ruins, and fresh fish. The Irishman, foodie that he is, hasn't ever traveled to Italy, so I'm excited to introduce him to one of my favorite countries in the world.

Since we're running off on this adventure, we decided to keep Bank Holiday low-key (read: inexpensive). But that didn't prevent us from spending money. The Irishman received money from his parents for his birthday to spend on new RayBan aviator sunglasses, and conned the salesman in the shop to giving us some sort of discount that meant we got a second pair (for me!) super cheap. Between the two of us, we got 2 pairs of sunglasses for £200 with significant savings on both. I'm wearing my new oversized Prada shades as I type.

I also have £200 of award money from my company to spend. I need to spend it by the end of October, and I've decided that it shouldn't be something I NEED (like new running shoes) and more of a treat (like a new handbag!). I've started investigating handbags and who knew they were so bloody pricey. Even a Miu Miu bag is prohibitively expensive. So I've been procrastinating this weekend by trolling the interwebs looking for bargain designer bag websites. Anyone have any recommendations?

So yeah, a lazy long weekend. I should be working on a white paper for work, and any number of other tasks, but the weather today and the freedom from responsibility is really refreshing. I might get on the bike in a bit and go for a spin; having an entire day with nothing to do is really wonderful.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Liberty Prints

Yesterday the Irishman and I went to town to pick up a few necessities for our upcoming mega holiday (my brother has already called me out for calling it a 'holiday' and not a 'vacation'). These included the new Apple OS for him (necessity is open to interpretation here) and bronzer for me (gotta fake the tan before I get it). We were over by Regents Street, and when we passed by Liberty I just had to take a spin through my favorite store.

It just so happens that Liberty has a mini exhibition of their prints displayed on the fourth floor called Liberty Prints Charming. Liberty printed fabric is renowned for its iconic floral graphics, and fashion and interior designers alike have long found inspiration through them. Naturally, Liberty should celebrate this high-style heritage, and is doing so with a lovely meandering display of Liberty print EVERYTHING - upholstery, clothes, accessories, hats, scarves, books, pens, teapots - and short curated exhibits of famous collaborations: Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood, and Chloe to name a few.

Because the Irishman was with me and has little patience for impromptu museum trips, let alone museums about clothes, we didn't stay long, but one doesn't need to stay long; the exhibit is more about celebration than learning, and everyone in London should take a quick spin around Liberty's top floor to remind themselves what a cultural gem and national treasure Liberty really is.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blast from the Past

It's been quite a while since I've written a Week in Review post. When I first moved to London, it seemed like every week was full of new and exciting events to report; but I quickly established a routine and found that there wasn't much for me to write about that was different from the past week.

This week, however, so many events took place that didn't require a full post, but do merit mention. So here we go - the resurrection of the Week in Review!

Monday: the usual, working late. Sigh. But I did find out that my good friend Jon is almost certainly moving to Paris this fall so I get to start planning a long Parisian weekend with him and his lovely girlfriend Alix, full of wine, cheese, and philosophical discussions about life and love. Mais oui!

Tuesday: the usual, part 2, working late. I then sent an email with incorrect information to my boss's boss's boss who used it in a call with my company's CEO. When I discovered my mistake, I sent an email of apology and correction and sat back to wait for my sacking. Instead, I received a really nice email telling me it was okay and that I really deserved my upcoming 2 week holiday. Phew.

Wednesday: I woke up relieved only to find out that Teddy Kennedy passed away. What a sad way to start the day. I really loved Teddy Kennedy, and found him to be an inspirational man. He was, in my estimation, the most human of the Kennedy brothers; he lived a full life, full of triumph and tragedy, rather than dying young and elevated to cultural and political icons. Whether you hated or admired him as a man or politician, you can't deny the indelible mark he left on the American social landscape.

Wednesday I also had an epic journey out to a suburb of London to visit my client's office. To make a long story short, I had to walk from the train station to their HQ (30 minutes - good thing I wasn't wearing heels) and during the walk I sliced my finger open on my broken umbrella. How awful. It ended up okay, though, and I even made it back to London in time for my yoga class.

Thursday: The Irishman's birthday! We had a lovely lovely meal at a restaurant in my neighborhood, Fig. It was our first time there and it was delicious. We'll definitely go back.

Friday: Ugh. Worked really late. Treated myself to a delicious curry and True Blood to make up for it.

And now, it's Bank Holiday Weekend! Saturday Morning Kitchen is back, and I'm spending the weekend packing and preparing for my upcoming holiday. Hurrah!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lockerbie Bomb Suspect Released

I'm sure all of you have already heard the news that the Scottish justice secretary released the only man convicted of the Pan Am 103 bombing on compassionate grounds. The decision is causing quite a stir on both sides of the Atlantic, as the UK, US, and parts of the Scottish government and victims' families all are voicing their contempt and anguish while Libyans gave al Megrahi a hero's welcome. Kenny MacAskill, the sole man responsible for the decision to release the suspected terrorist, is standing his ground.

I am personally unsure of how to feel about this latest development in the bombing that hurled the Western world into shocked understanding of global terrorism. As a person, I am horrified that someone who was a direct participant in the act is being set free. I am enraged that Libyans danced in joy at his return to his homeland. But I also have another side of me, full of tolerance and forgiveness, that understands why this decision was made; this side of me is the hardest to understand.

I graduated from Syracuse University, where the Pan Am 103 tragedy holds an extremely sensitive and emotional significance: thirty-five SU students were on Pan Am 103, returning from a semester abroad right before Christmas in 1989. A scholarship fund was established in their honor, and I was awarded one of the thirty-five annual scholarships my senior year. As a Remembrance Scholar, each of us was asked to learn about the bombing and acts of terrorism, and to participate in campus-wide activities that educated students about tolerance. The program helped me gain a better understanding of the world, people's attitudes and behaviors, and most importantly how to temper my own strong opinion with an openness to others. In this respect, I can completely understand why Mr. MacAskill made the decision to release al-Megrahi.

I can't even imagine the anguish that the parents and loved ones of the thirty-five lost students - as well as the family members of all the victims - must feel at this legal decision. To have the only person responsible for the crime be released well before his sentence is up, to die in peace in his homeland, and have that homeland celebrate his return, must be a fresh tear in an old aching wound. I wouldn't wish that pain on anyone.

There are many in the UK who question al-Megrahi's guilt, however, and anyone who has seen a person die of terminal cancer knows the suffering he will surely experience. Healthcare in Libya cannot possibly rival that in the UK, and sending a guilty man to his certain death in the desert rather than providing hospice in Scotland may be, in some ways, adequate rewards. Had al-Megrahi remained in Scotland, the government would have had to provide essential care and ease his pain and suffering. Let Libya do that now, rather than forcing Scotspeople to comfort the man who assaulted their people and land.

I agree with Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, who are calling al-Megrahi's release and subsequent welcome in Libya "highly objectionable". I agree with the members of Scottish Parliament who reconvened during their recess to question MacAskill about his decision. But I don't blame Scotland, or the UK, or even MacAskill. The Pan Am 103 tragedy has hurt too many people, ruined too many lives, and caused too much heartache to create even more hate in this world.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Crossness Engines

Today I indulged the Irishman's engineering curiosity and accompanied him to a public steaming day for the Crossness Engines. Opened in 1865, the sewage pump station was and still is a feat of Victorian engineering works. Volunteers have been meticulously restoring the steam pumps and the station building itself, and it was recently awarded Grade I historic status. The station is only open to booked guided tours, but every few months there is a public steaming day when the station is open to the general public. The Irishman found out about today's steaming day and really wanted to go; since I force him to accompany me to all sorts of things that he's not really too thrilled about (shopping, art films, dog shows), I figured I could do this one thing with him.

And it was actually really interesting. Gigantic pistons pushing sewage out into the Thames may seem boring, but the fact that the Victorian engineering and infrastructure is still in use today is a testament to the quality and ingenuity of their craft. The Metropolitan Board of Works completed a number of civic engineering projects in London at the height of the Victorian period, and set the global model for innovation in public infrastructure. The Victorians put their stamp on their work by not only making it functional, but also by making it beautiful. The volunteers of the Crossness Engines are lovingly returning the pumping station to its former glory; the photograph above shows their progress. Note how colorful and careful the design of something so utilitarian as a waste removal depot can be.

Of course, the highlight of our visit was the running of the steam pumps. Only 100 people at a time are allowed in the actual engine room (all wearing hardhats!), and we were lucky enough to be inside when the pumps started moving. See below for a video of just how big (and cool) it was.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

Thursday night the Irishman and I had the distinct privilege of seeing Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia at the Duke of Yorks Theatre. I am a huge fan of Tom Stoppard, having read Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead in high school and obviously loved Shakespeare in Love. Arcadia has been open since May, and closes while I'm on holiday, so I was aware I had to get a move on to get the tickets but they were in the £50 per seat range; last week, a colleague sent an all-office email saying she couldn't use her tickets and would sell them at a discount so I jumped at the chance.

Tom Stoppard writes witty plays that are full of wordplay, innuendo, and clever crafting. Arcadia is, I think, one of his most British plays, gently poking fun at English traditions like period costumes, country estates, gardens, and random eccentricities. He centers this cultural exposé on one genteel country home during two significant points of time: a chance visit by Lord Byron while a teenage math prodigy works out the ways of the world, and three modern-day scholars trying to understand their rational roles in an irrational time.

The very practical and left-brained engineer Irishman loved the play, and I was thrilled to be able to see such a wonderful production of it (full of very talented actors) as well as to go to a West End production. It's easy to forget that London has some of the best theatre productions in Europe, because there is so much else going on in the city; after Thursday, I've decided to make it a point to remember.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Today was hard. I felt like I wasn't moving through the day, more like slogging.

The hottest day of the summer, 30°C, and the electricity went out in my office. No power, no lights, no computers, no servers, no printers, no air-con. The project I'm working on hit a critical mass of roadblocks, and between the tension of the work and the heat of the day I was ready to just call it quits.

I went to my yoga class after struggling through the day, looking for centeredness, inspiration, and some zen, and I ended up just going through the motions. My yoga instructor is on holiday and her replacement just wasn't up to par. So even though my body feels lean and limber, my mind is still tied up in knots.

After biking home, I set about a recipe I found to use all of the farmer's market veggies I picked up on Sunday. I wanted something light, tasty, and suited to the weather; I've always loved ratatouille and thought it was time to try my hand at it. Only as per usual, I didn't read the recipe all the way through before I printed it out earlier this morning when the office still had power. So at 9pm I dutifully commenced peeling the tomatoes (!) as well as the red and yellow peppers (!!). 45 minutes later, my zucchini wasn't cooked all the way through and I used too much onion.

Here it is, nearly 11pm, and I'm struggling to finish this blog post. When I'm stuck writing, I always say to myself "what are you trying to say here?" - right now, all I keep thinking is "WHY BOTHER - GO TO BED!"

But I am bothering, even if it is painful, because I'm trying not to succumb to my predilection to moan. On days like today, when everything feels like a struggle, it is so easy for me to slip into a mindset of blaming everything, including myself, for things not turning up roses. So lately I've been trying to ask myself if everything has to be so damn difficult. I'm trying to approach situations differently, and refocus my attitude in order to see that not everything is as bad as it seems. I'm trying not to slip into a funk and keep my cynicism at bay but it's not such an easy task for someone like me. I'll take today's inertia, then, because not really moving is better than taking a step backwards.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is university worth it?

That's what the BBC threw me at 8:08 this morning on BBC Breakfast.

WTF, Beeb? Honestly. I've never seen or heard such a load of BS before.

I always considered Europe, including the UK, to be much more learned, philosophically inclined, and to hold education in much higher regard than the US. Well. I was wrong. According to this morning's show, British students considering higher education will graduate with the highest levels of debt ever. So the news segment interviewed kids and asked them WHETHER THEY THOUGHT UNIVERSITY WAS WORTH IT.

What a dumb question. Of course it's worth it. But nobody at 17 or 18 can accurately answer that. When I was 17 and had to start looking at colleges, I was still of a mindset that I didn't want to go to college at all. I was looking forward to just leaving home and doing my own thing. The thought of studying for four more years was awful. Yet here I am, 6+ years and two degrees worth of higher education later, considering even more.

But even as I do consider another degree, the cost is daunting. According to the BBC spot, the average amount of student debt per graduate from a British university is £23,000. Compare that to the average amount of student debt in the US - $19,999. Even with the decrease in the value of sterling against the dollar, the average British student will owe approximately $18,000 more than the average American student.

The UK seems to value the craftsperson a bit more than the US; craft and non-traditional labor roles seem to be more prevalent in the media and general awareness here and therefore there seem to be more opportunities for students seeking alternative employment. Perhaps the scale of the country makes those in skilled labor (not white-collar) positions more visible, or perhaps I'm just more perceptive due to my non-nativeness. At the same time, the UK has a huge percentage of people who didn't even pass their GCSE's and survive on public assistance.

Whatever the case, the BBC segment focused on students who saw cost as a prohibitive barrier to higher education, and how they planned to overcome it or what they would do with their lives instead. Sadly, those who didn't opt for higher education said they would like to be store managers. There wasn't much more aspiration than that. That might be the key: maybe the whole concept of the worth of education is a direct correlation to how much you want to achieve from it.

So I'm curious: how many of who read my blog attended some form of higher education? And if you did, whether you graduated or not, did you have loans or not? And whatever the case - was it worth it?

Monday, August 17, 2009

U2 at Wembley

On Friday, the Irishman and I trekked out to Wembley Stadium to join 88,000 other fans for the first of U2's London concerts. The concert tickets were my birthday present to the Irishman, who turns 30somethingorother in two weeks. He halfheartedly tried to purchase tickets when they went on sale earlier this year, and when he didn't get them I pounced on the case.

One Ebay scammer, a transcontinental Facebook conference with the Irishman's best friend living in Ohio, and a saving grace on Gumtree and I had two highly sought after General Admission tickets on the pitch at Wembley to surprise him with. Only the cheeky monkey figured out the surprise with a week to go.

Now, I don't pretend to be a U2 fan; it's not that I don't like them, per se, but I've always thought that they jumped the shark around the time I went to college (probably with Pop). But the Irishman is, in fact, Irish, and so is U2, and I've come to find out that U2 is to the Irish as Bruce Springsteen is to New Jerseyites; it doesn't matter if they are critically shit. It's a birthright, and obligation. So, the good and loving girlfriend that I am, I went along for the ride. How bad could it be? Besides, Elbow were the opener and I've been gagging to see them since the beginning of the year.

Well. Let me tell you. U2 is not just a rock concert. It is like being in a music video. The stage ("the Claw") was phenomenal, with a rotating and descending video screen, outer stage surround, and rotating bridges for access. The spaceship on the top lit up and dry ice smoke was artfully released. The thing about U2 is that they are not just rockstars, or popstars - they have mastered the art of entertaining, so every note that Bono belts out is paired perfectly with a pose. My first thought during the first song was to wonder whether it was actually Bono singing, or if it was a music video; the camera work and special effects right there on the stage were as good or better than anything you will see on MTV.

Obviously, it being U2, the show wasn't without any political statements. Bono dedicated "Walk On" to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese political prisoner, and "With or Without You" to Eunice Kennedy Shriver (which was a bit odd to me because I didn't think British people would understand what she did or know who she was). "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was an amazing rendition sung on a bright green stage, and at the end Bono whipped out a Unionjack and the Irish flag tied together. WOOT.

Seven hours later, the Irishman and I straggled out of the stadium sweaty, sore, and absolutely thrilled with the show. I am now completely converted, and will gladly go to any U2 show, and fully intend on stalking Bono and The Edge when I go to Dublin later this year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Underage and Pregnant

NO I'M NOT PREGNANT. Sheesh, people. Calm down. I'm also not underage. I wish!

I'm referring to a TV show here on BBC3 that I'm slightly obsessed with. Probably the more accurate description is that I have a grotesque fascination with it. The show is part of The Adult Season, a collection of shows that aims to portray what life is like for today's British teens. Unfortunately, instead of illuminating the overall reality of the vast majority of teens in the UK, the shows cast lurid spotlights on some of the most depressing teenage stories, and as a result pull back the curtain on the grimmest aspects of British culture.

The titles alone – "Young, Dumb, and Living off Mum" and "Nip and Tuck: My Big Decision" are two of the worst – set the tone for the series. Rather than presenting the challenges that most kids find as they enter adulthood in an increasingly digital and globalized world, the BBC chose to report on today's youth in a trashy gossip mag-style journalistic voice. These shows belong on E! rather than the BBC; juxtapose "Underage and Pregnant" with something revelatory by David Attenborough, and the teens lose out. No wonder they're relegated to BBC3.

I'm not defending the pregnant teens or the kids who drop out of school before their GCSE's; it's a sad fact that the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe, and that the teenage pregnancy rates continue to rise. Strong class divisions continue to striate the UK, and the middle classes and above look down on anyone who doesn't have the means to push their children out of poverty. Unlike Americans, who count striving as an essential part of our DNA, the British tend to be satisfied with their lots in life. You don't see or hear a lot of these kids saying "I want to do better than my parents."

Interestingly, you don't see these parents saying they want their kids to do better - period. The underage girls who "fall pregnant" act as if it is life as usual, like they almost expected to get pregnant young. Abortion doesn't seem to be an option, and if it is the decision to have the child is never discussed. Parents express fear that their daughters won't have the lives they hoped they would, and the parents wish their daughters had made better choices, but these teen pregnancies don't seem as devastating to everyone involved as teen pregnancies did to me growing up in the US.

Watching these kids' lives on display during the Adult Season is like watching a car wreck. You can't peel your eyes away but you don't actually want to watch. That may be the fundamental schism between the US and the UK: in the US, we like to sweep the nation's dirty secrets under the rugs; here, people like to revel in lives of those below them on the social strata so they can pride themselves on not being like them. One gets the distinct sense that the Adult Season is meant for middle class parents to watch with their middle class kids, and pat themselves on their backs in pride at having avoided raising delinquents. Sort of like a retrospective cautionary tale: it could have turned out so much worse.

But what of these poor kids? After the lights of the production crew are turned off, and the BBC reporters leave them alone with their newborns and their plastic surgery scars, who is going to help them? Who is going to parent them? Goodness knows Mother England doesn't want to, and sadly it seems as if their own families aren't responsible either. In the end, the Adult Season is less education and more sad commentary on how, even in this digital 21st century, life in the UK can be so archaic for those unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong place and class.

Bike garden

Chadwell Street, Angel, Islington
August 10, 2009

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Co Cork

A few weeks back, the Irishman and I went on a little trip with big significance: we went to Ireland, to County Cork. For the last 20 years, the Irishman's family has been renting a holiday cottage on the coast in a small hamlet called Oysterhaven. We flew over for a long weekend so that the Irishman could play golf in a family fun tournament, and I could meet his family.

We flew Aer Lingus (of course) after work and landed at 11:30pm, so my first glimpse of the Irish countryside was pitch-black. We drove from Cork to Oysterhaven down narrow country lanes that were bordered on either side by tall hedgerows - we were essentially driving through wooded tunnels. I had to grip my seat tightly and close my eyes when a car came flying towards us (ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD) and pray we wouldn't have the right side of the car sheared off. It was after the first one of those encounters with opposing traffic that the Irishman informed me he forgot to print out the directions - but he assured me he remembered the way. It is at this point that I inform you readers that County Cork, Ireland, does not have street signs. At all.

Once in Oysterhaven (we only made one wrong turn), we were greeted with wine and a peat fire and lovely Dubliners. I met mom, dad, aunt and cousin all within a half hour (after midnight no less) and managed to not be cranky before the Irishman ushered me off to bed. A glass of wine and exhaustion does not make a charming Danielle - he's a pretty smart cookie.

After that rocky start, the rest of the long weekend was lovely and relaxing, full of food, food markets, golf, and awe-inspiring vistas. The Irishman played golf for most of the trip, that being the real reason we were there; his family and their friends set up this fun tournament several years back and take it quite seriously. The course they play on is beautiful, set on a hill with stunning views of the Irish farmland all around. Since I don't play golf I was given the position and title of Official Tournament Photographer and the very important responsibility of documenting the tournament. I took this job quite seriously, including running into the club when a torrential downpour with thunder and lightning interrupted the second nine holes.

Fortunately, the epic storm during The Classic was the only rain that dampened our trip. When I was packing, all of the weather forecasts for Southwest Ireland showed rain and 60°F weather. I was terrified that I was going to be sitting in a tiny cottage with the Irishman's family for four days playing Scrabble and Parchesi while it pissed down. Luckily, the Irish coast is apparently famous for its microclimates; small pockets of independent weather systems that are impossible to predict. Because of these magical environmental conditions, we enjoyed sunshine, beautiful puffy clouds, and temperatures around 75°F.

Our trip wasn't only golf and weather reports, of course. The Irishman's family is full of foodies (now I know where he got it from), which meant we focused a lot on food, cooking, and eating. We went to farmer's markets in Cork and Midleton, and took a side trip out to Ballymaloe - a world famous inn, restaurant, and cooking school. The Irishman's cousin just recently completed a three month intensive course at the cooking school, so we got a private tour of the school which was pretty fantastic. I've never been inside a cooking school, let alone a huge professional kitchen, so I was quite excited for that.

And of course, the eating; one of the real treats of the weekend was 22 of us trooping into the tiny village of Nohoval for dinner at Finder's Inn. The menu is full of fresh fish caught right on the coast, and the restaurant is decorated with eclectic kitchy antiques.

Of course I got to see some sights as well. We tooled around little tiny villages like Ballycotton and the tourist town of Kinsale. Kinsale is adorable, with colored houses and tiny shops and a pretty port with ships and boats.

The Irishman also took me out to The Stack, a huge rock outcropping on the water that he was dumb enough to jump off of in his heady youth. We climbed the cliff to look out over the water, and it was one of them most wonderful, relaxing, and idyllic spots I've ever been lucky enough to experience.

When it was time for us to pack up, say our goodbyes, and make our way to the airport, I was really sad to go. The Irishman's family was lovely and made me feel really welcome, and the Irish countryside was so relaxing and calming. Everywhere I looked I saw something beautiful, and the thought of heading back to a heaving metropolis was almost unbearable. I definitely will go back to Cork soon; I don't think much could keep me away.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bridges in Japan

Image courtesy of Vanessa Pike-Russell

My good friend Spatch (names withheld to protect the not-so-innocent) recently announced she is leaving our company to move to Japan and teach English for a year. My first reaction when she broke the news was "OMFG THAT'S SO COOL." My second reaction was "I'm so proud of you."

It will come as no surprise that I'm a strong advocate of leaving one's home (town, state, country) to experience another culture through full immersion. When Spatch told me about embarking on the adventure of her life, I went on and on about what a great time she will have and how exciting the next year will be and how she will grow and learn so much. Naturally that led me to think about all of the ways I've grown and changed and matured since moving to London, and I decided to devote a blog post to giving young Spatch some words of wisdom for her journey. Fellow expats, feel free to leave comments on your own experiences and any advice you have and I will of course pass them along to her. She is also starting her own blog, so you can follow her travels with me. (Link is coming!)

To preface the object lessons below, I just want to point out that this is what I've learned over the course of all my travels and personal choices over a lot of years. Many of them are based on the last fifteen months in London, but this isn't the first time I threw myself out of my comfort zone. So this list is actually the working sum of a young lifetime of varied and challenging experiences.

1. Everything you know is not true.

Remember that moment in life when a something made you rethink everything you thought was true and constant? Mine was when I realized the Rolling Stones were good - and my dad had always said they were overrated. My personal frame of reference shifted and I discovered that I could have my own opinions, and they didn't have to be the same as anyone elses. Apply that thought to culture, and it means just because you live in a culture where roasted potatoes belong with meat doesn't mean that other cultures don't think potatoes belong with spinach. Or that potatoes don't belong at all. Or what-have-you. The point is, your frame of reference is shaped by your cultural environment, and a different cultural environment will give another person a completely different "normal". So be open to it, and not judgmental. You might learn something.

2. Try it - you might like it!

This is the corollary to number one. There's no point in putting one's self into a new place, with new customs, and stubbornly refusing to embrace them. You may think something is gross, but to someone else it's a delicacy. Okay, you might not like eel (or think you hate it) but guess what - that's a staple Japanese fish - so try it. Once. You don't have to like it. I guess that's rich coming from me who has yet to step foot into a Cockney eel and pie shop, but I promise if I ever do I'll try it. Promise. You do the same, Spatch.

3. Self-humility never hurt anyone.

Again, linked to the first two, but with more of an understanding of geopolitical history. Those of us in the West have a tendency to examine and ultimately denigrate "others" - non-whites, non-Europeans, non-non-non. But no one culture is superior than another. Approach a new culture, and it's customs, with an understanding of history and an acknowledgment that you have no idea how that history is interpreted by that culture's people. Americans are pretty bad at this; we think we're great while having approximately 300 years of history under our belts, and we assume everyone else shares our self-opinion. Be aware that as a Westerner, people may not think that the Empire was so grand, and be open to the discussion. Again, you might learn something.

4. Don't be ashamed to photograph everything.

A less deep one. Create a visual record of your adventures; you'll treasure it forever. But don't forget to also just look at things without the camera lens. Experience it all before recording it.

5. You are a creating a better version of yourself.

I'm serious about this. The time a person spends outside of his or her home culture truly allows their real self to emerge. It's really scary, but also really fantastic. No one from home is there to judge your behavior or emotions, and you're not limited by cultural mores like you once were, and the end result it a more polished and more insightful human being. Be excited to meet yourself at the end.

6. No one will really understand, and that's okay.

The end is scary to think about, because you're still at the beginning! And the end is probably undefined; who knows what will happen over the course of the next year, who you will meet, what you will do, how your life will change. But throughout the process and at the end, you will struggle to help your friends and family at home understand what you experienced. They will read your blog, see your pictures, and Skype with you, but they'll never truly know what your time abroad was like. That's okay too. Just be prepared for it - for your little perfect secret.

7. You'll keep learning things for a long time to come.

Even after the end, you'll be walking through life and you'll realize that things you did and learned while in Japan continue to reverberate. Things will "click" long after you leave Japan, and you'll make connections that weren't apparent at the time. I think that's one of the really wonderful parts about doing what you're doing; you are storing up wisdom to draw from way into your future. Like a bank!

8. No expectations.

Don't do it. Everything that happens from the moment your plane touches down will be that much sweeter. Besides, you have no idea what to expect anyway. Be open to it all.

9. Keep a journal – it's not nerdy.

Just like #4. You'll look back in a decade and read it and remember everything like it was yesterday. You will also learn more, and understand your adventure more deeply, through the process of writing it down. Your blog will definitely help.

10. Remember where you came from.

Finally, Spatchula, be proud of yourself, your family, your home, your country. Living abroad helped me rediscover the wonder of America, and I trust that living in Japan will do the same for you and Britain. You'll appreciate where you came from that much more for having left it.

It's worth pointing out that Spatch is going to a country and immersing herself in a culture that is completely different than anything I've ever had the pleasure to encounter; so while my reflections will invariably resonate with her, she will come away from her adventure with her own nuanced view on what I've shared. I look forward to visiting her in Japan next year and getting her take on it all over some green tea and sake. Adiosu, Spatch!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The joy of the English Summer

I can't believe I'm about to post about London being too hot, but there you have it: I may, finally, be fully assimilated.

The last few days in London have been a veritable heat wave. 27-28°C and 90% humidity, the air has been heavy and oppressive. It really feels like August, and it really feels uncomfortable. I don't know why I'm complaining; this is no different from summer weather in New York, and I like the heat. But this time around I feel like I can't move. Biking to work leaves me bathed in sweat, even though the ride is completely downhill, and I can't do a thing unless the air-con is on full blast. I feel like such a wimp for not being able to tough it out NYC-style.

Maybe I'm whinging so much because just last week the BBC reported that the Met Office revised the forecast for the rest of the summer, basically saying that summer was over. The second half of July was cool and rainy, with a few washed out weekends, and everyone thought that was it - summer, done. How very British of it to come back with a vengeance, especially now that the Autumn fashion collections are hitting the stores.

Yesterday was so hot, that, when given the opportunity to organize my company's weekly Time for Tea afternoon snack, I decided the only way to go was to serve iced tea. I made raspberry iced tea and lemon iced tea, and served them with chocolate chip cookies (store-bought, I'm afraid). I was quite proud of my efforts, but more amused by the fact that all of my British colleagues avoided the iced tea. They could not comprehend the idea of serving tea cold, with ice - it was an idea completely foreign to them and absolutely ridiculous. Forget refreshment - why would one drink tea cold?!

I must not be 100% Britishified afterall.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Spotted: Pearly King

London Underground, Northern Line - Bank branch to High Barnet.
He entered at Old Street.

August 3, 2009