Monday, October 26, 2009

Great South Run

So! I did it! I ran the Great South Run yesterday and finished with a time of 1:37:23, under my goal of 1:40. You can see my full race stats here. The race was in Portsmouth, which meant the Irishman and I got to see his good friend Mike who lives there, and kindly hosted us for a night, as well as Mark and Cam who live in Salisbury. Mike was entered in the race but couldn't run, so Mark took his place. That meant we had supporters cheering us on, and a great crew of people to prep and end with. I know there are some pictures out there of us runners, but I don't have any at the moment. Hopefully soon.

Running is something I have a love-hate relationship with, kind of like writing. I am good at it when I put my mind to it, and when I make room in my life for it. There is nothing better than just lacing up your kicks, walking out the door and jogging until you reach a goal distance. The aftermath is fantastic - you feel toned, limber, and absolutely capable of anything. The only problem is actually putting on those shoes and getting onto the pavement. When I moved to London, I used running as a way to pass the time when I was living out in the middle of no where and didn't know anyone; now running is an activity that I'm trying to discipline myself into so that I can actually devote an hour to myself to think, to work out issues, and to push myself physically beyond my comfort zone. Sometimes I think if I push myself physically, and succeed, I may find it easier to push myself mentally.

So I'm giving myself this week off from the grind, but I'll be back at it this weekend; I have a personal goal of running a half marathon in under 2 hours this spring. Do-able - if I put my mind to it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Due to the incident described below, as well as the fact that I am running the ten-mile Great South Run on Sunday, I decided to go on a mini detox. No alcohol whatsoever from Thursday 8 October until after I finish the race on Sunday. I feel great, although I'd love a glass of red wine, and I think I've lost a ton of weight - not just from my training runs. But what's been most interesting about the whole detox is the reaction people have. I've gone to the pub a few times during this time and celebrated a few peoples' birthdays, and the looks I get are hilarious. People almost universally are shocked to hear I'm not drinking, and when I say I'm detoxing there is mild disapproval. When I say I'm running a 10 mile race, I get a few murmurs of admiration and general "Oh, well okay" which makes me think that if I WASN'T running the race there would be absolutely NO excuse for not drinking. Mind you, this isn't personal - they aren't saying this because I'm a lush (even though I sort of am) - this is just England. People here count drinking as a ritual, a natural part of life, and to remove it from daily routine is virtually unheard of.

As Sunday approaches, I'm growing more and more anxious: partly for the race, and partly for the reintroduction of alcohol into my life. As much as I want the freedom to drink again, I'm actually really enjoying the liberation of not having a life revolving around hangovers and big pub bills. It will be interesting to see how my attitude changes after our big Sunday pub lunch this weekend when I reward myself for my exertion. Hopefully I can figure out a nice balance between custom and overindulgence.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The kindness of strangers

Two weeks back my work project team had a night out, and it went a bit overboard. Not much is collectively remembered past 9:30pm, and I don't really know what I time I got home that night. The next morning, I made it into work (barely) and instead of riding my bike or walking, I treated myself to a bus ride. After disembarking, my stomach wasn't pleased with the water I drank before boarding and I had to take a moment leaning up a tree down the street from my office "to compose myself." As I stood there, holding myself up and lamenting British drinking culture, a woman a few years older than me approached me kindly and asked "Are you okay? Do you need to use a toilet? My office is just around the corner." I was so taken aback by her gesture, and trying to keep the water in my stomach, that I just sort of laughed and thanked her and said "Oh, I'm okay, just had a bit of a rough night last night. My office is just over there." She smiled and walked on, probably having been in a similar situation the day before.

I love this story for two reasons. One, only in the UK would someone leaning up against a tree, trying not to puke, prompt good samaritan-type behavior. Had I been assaulted, or mugged, that woman wouldn't have done anything. Two, if nothing else, the British drinking culture at least binds people together in a collective hangover that everyone can appreciate. Whoever she was, I thank that woman from the bottom of my heart for understanding my situation, and offering me a bit of support.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Americans vs Americans

Last night I was in Clapham, out on the town with some American friends who live south of the river. We were joined by some other American expats that they know, and at one point or another every single one of us said "Man, I hate Americans." We had a lively discussions about which tourists were worst (Germans seem to get a lot of votes), why Americans were so bloody loud, how embarrassing it was to be caught near them on the tube, and essentially "why are they so freaking annoying"?

It's a good question. There were five of us in the group, from all over the US - East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, Montana even. All in our late 20s/early 30s, liberal but just so, with family all over the US, we were all a bit overwhelmed by just how obnoxious Americans act when they leave the US. It makes one think, do we act like that at home, and no one notices because we're en masse, or do we just amplify it by having no social graces on our vacations in foreign lands?

The funny thing is, Americans are awesome. We don't take bs, we don't like waiting in lines, and if our Starbucks coffee is wrong we make the barista make it right. These are all virtuous qualities. But somehow, taken out of their natural environment, they grate on the ears and eyes of those accustomed to other cultures. Most tellingly, Western European cultures, while all different, don't grate on each other at all. Okay the English and the French love to hate one another, but sliding between Italy and France and France and Germany doesn't require that much in a mindset or behavior shift. Somehow the Atlantic Ocean divide gives Americans the freedom to say and do and behave how they like, and that's oh so apparent when they come east.

Thinking about it, I don't want Americans to change their ways. Our brash, opinionated, demanding selves make the US a pretty special place. But I would like to extend one little piece of advice to any American - especially groups of 13 year old girls liable to break out in song at any time - for goodness sake, TONE IT DOWN. English people will love you for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monday, October 5, 2009

More existential London thinking

Whoa, flurry of posts! Sorry about that, kids. I thought I set it for future posting... ah well!

Since the holiday, I've been thinking about life as an expat in London, and whether I really "want" it. I mentioned before about having been here for 1.5 years now and that it's time I start really making my life here. Yes, I've got the Irishman and we have a great relationship (a big change for me!), and great colleagues at work that have migrated to friends. I'm really making an effort this fall to get out and meet people - preferably British people, not fellow expats - and make new friends and develop a social circle of my own. But that is hard, takes time, and every so often when I reflect on myself here I think that actually, I don't think they want me.

I know that's not true. English culture is, well, English, and they hardly welcome anyone that isn't English (that's right, even the Welsh and Scots aren't exactly their favorites) with open arms. But they are pleasant and if you prove yourself to be a genuine, tolerant, and warm person, they do reciprocate with a friendliness that cannot be matched. Sometimes, though, I pass by some English girls linked arm in arm, giggling at whatever joke they've just shared, and I think, actually, I'm not like them. My sense of humor isn't calibrated to British eccentricity, and I'm far too sensitive for the sarcasm.

And if I'm going to do this, really enter into British society and culture and assimilate, I need to change my American mannerisms in an unnatural way. I'm going to have to start adding U's and replace Z's with S's and not call Fall Fall but Autumn. If I do these things to fit in here, I automatically renounce my American pop cultural citizenship: how many people do you know who are mercilessly taunted for affecting an English accent? The first question people asked me when I announced I was moving to London was "will you get an accent?" - like I was going to rush down to a corner shop and pick one up immediately. What if I actually DO pick up the accent?

So what I think I've stumbled upon is the weird grey area in which every expat lands eventually - not quite a native, and no longer a full-fledged member of their own culture. My Irishman is like that; he's spent many years, on and off, in London, a few in Australia, and traveled extensively to the point where the English make fun of him for being Irish, the Irish make fun of him for sounding English, and he isn't really sure he likes either. But in the end, there is a reason why we do this. I have no intention of going back to the US any time soon, and the Irishman flat out refuses to move back to Dublin.

A friend of mine shared with me this blog post about why people like me put myself through this. Apparently, it could be DNA. But I also like to think that it is because doing this - entering the grey area, where nothing is defined and you have to fend for yourself - is actually better, more enriching, and ultimately more valuable than living a life at home where you know there is something out there that's bigger than yourself and the microcosm in which you were born. Seeing, understanding, experiencing it all... not just through movies or books or TV, but through your whole being.

When the grey does get to me, and I feel like saying to myself "what on earth are you DOING here?!?!", I remind myself of that article and the fact that I wholeheartedly believe that doing this, like doing anything challenging, is completely and 100% worth it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Apprentice in Covent Garden

Saturday the Irishman and I were walking through Covent Garden, and we saw something suspicious. Two men in weird bakers outfits were hawking £1 muffins, and they were being filmed. The Irishman investigated, and determined we had happened upon a filming for one of next season's Apprentice challenges.

I don't watch the Apprentice; I think it's sort of dumb, and all of the people seem a bit ridiculous, and it just reminds me a lot of what I do for a living in a really bad way (I am, after all, in marketing). But these guys looked so dumb, and I was so curious, so I bought one.

And guess what: it sucked. It was stale, stodgy, not nice, and frankly was probably mass produced in a factory somewhere and taken out of plastic to be sold to witless suspects like myself. So, lesson learned - trust your instincts, the Apprentice is terrible television, and they're bad bakers too boot.

You're fired, Sir Alan.

On vacations, and post-vacation-letdown-syndrome

Our trip was absolutely amazing. We saw and experienced so many things, together, that were awe-inspiring, funny, not-so-great, and just nice that we both returned to London thinking "Hey. I think you're even cuter than before." Most importantly, though, the Irishman and I both relaxed so much that we were ourselves in truly vibrant, rich, hypercolor: we left our London selves at Gatwick, grey ghosts, and regained our natural splendor on the shores of Croatia and in the bustling Italian food markets. It was a joy to behold and experience.

But holidays end. We were actually ready to go home; two weeks of dragging luggage on and off boats, trains, busses, and through city streets makes one pine a bit for a dresser and one's own bed. But after landing, the reality of routine in London was a bit too much to bear as I sat in the back of queuing taxi outside of London Bridge station. The end of a holiday makes me contemplative, much in the way that New Year's or a sobering news story might; I really felt like on my holiday I was a different person and that returning to London I had to go back to being someone else.

It was a bit of homesickness – the Irishman and I don't live together, so he left me at London Bridge to continue his journey home, and there was no one to great me at my flat on my return. No one to call and say "I'm home! It was great!" And the specter of going back to work in 18 hours reduced me to tears.

I don't know, yet, how to keep the vacation goodness with me post-return. I don't know, yet, how to change my day-to-day life to get it to resemble more of the joy I felt during holiday - and should I? I remember asking my dad once, when I was 5, why we couldn't have Christmas everyday (I feel like this was in reference to him saying we couldn't play the Sesame Street Christmas album anymore). His response was that if you had Christmas everyday, it wouldn't be special anymore - when it only comes once a year, you cherish it more and look forward to it and don't take it for granted. Good response, Phil. But you only live once, no? So shouldn't every day of one's life be full of joy and be carefree and wonderful? And if one's life isn't currently, shouldn't it be fixed - stat?

I say yes. It's been 2 weeks since I returned from vacation, and I'm trying to regain that sense of lightness and exuberance I had as I traipsed around foreign lands. Funny to be writing this in a place that isn't technically my home, but I think it means it actually is. I've lived here now for 1.5 years. It's time to make it my own. I'm not a tourist, I pay taxes, and I need to make a life here that's not based on seeing things I've never seen before. I need to keep my bright-eyed curiosity, and live in London like I lived my holiday: full of joy, wonder, and love.

Lovely Lucca

After nearly a week in two Italian cities, the Irishman and I were pooped. We really looked forward to our visit to Lucca primarily for a chance to relax: city breaks are great, but not the most restful. We wanted food, wine, sleep, and the Italian "dolce vita" full of leisurely walks and not much else.

I had traveled to Lucca during my summer in Florence and remembered it as a sleepy and enchanting town and it hasn't changed a bit. We arrived to find a Lucchese agroturismo fair set up in the main square with wine and olive oil tastings, and a few stands selling delicious sweets native to the area like a special lemon donut and an anise-flavored light biscuit that melted in your mouth. We were in heaven, and it was absolutely wonderful.

It helped that the rain stopped in time for our visit, so we were able to pull out t-shirts and short skirts (well, for me at least) and join the passegiato with dignity. Lucca is not short on good shopping, and I finally spent my £200 work award money on a leather bag so soft it too feels like it might melt in your hands. It didn't attend a passegiata - in fact, this past weekend was its' debut night out!

We also spent one leisurely, warm morning in the sun walking Lucca's walls. The entire circumference is about 4km, and we were joined by runners, walkers, cyclists, dogs, kids, and other tourists. A whole cross-section of Lucca is up on the ramparts and it is one of the best ways to see the town. I noticed a canal from there that I had never seen before! We also spotted some street markets, and had lovely snacks of fresh fruit (peach for me - pesca bianca, my favorite - and an apple for the Irishman).

Lucca was, and still remains, my favorite place in Italy. The Irishman agreed, and we're planning on a villa rental in the hills outside the city for our next Italian adventure. Wine and olive oil, here I come!

Florence, or, Hello I must be going.

From Bologna, we headed down to lovely Florence. After our regional train fiasco earlier in the week, we made sure to schedule our departure on a EuroCity fast train. One hour and €24 later, we arrived in the birthplace of the Renaissance.

I called our stop in Florence a "reunion tour", as I spent the summer after my junior year in college living with a host family and studying art in Florence with my alma mater, Syracuse University. My two closest friends were with me, and I spent seven weeks riding a bike with a pink Minnie Mouse bell all over the city, learning about frescos and Renaissance art and architecture and screen-printing fabric and paper. I think that summer really planted the travel bug in me, and that summer's experiences made me realize that living abroad is something essential to my being. I don't think I'd be sitting here, typing this in London, if it weren't for that magical experience.

And so I knew that returning to Florence would be bittersweet; I knew that it wouldn't be anywhere near how I remembered it. My memories of Florence are hot, golden-tinged, sweaty and ripe with the freedom of a twenty-one year old. But this time around Florence was soggy, humid, grey and dirty and full of girls who suspiciously reminded me of myself and my friends seven years ago. All of the same pieces were there – the Duomo, the Baptistry, Santa Croce, San Lorenzo, even my host family's home and Syracuse's Villa Rossa campus - but the magic and passion were gone.

My mother and I spoke of this at one point; two years ago she traveled to Florence after being away for nearly 30 years. An art historian, in the 1970s she lived off-and-on in Florence for nearly two years and hadn't traveled back since. When she returned from her visit, her one comment about Florence beyond how it had changed was that it was emotionally difficult for her to be there as a tourist - not as a resident. I felt this melancholy to a lesser degree as I strolled the streets with the Irishman, and this sort of grief for not finding the Florence I once had – accepting the fact that Florence now belonged to the loud young American girls in leggings, not me – might have been the biggest let-down of all. She's a fickle lady, Florence; she lets people in on a regular basis to call her home, but once you're gone if you don't continue to shower her with affection you're no longer part of her world.

After one moody afternoon, the Irishman bought me a gelato and I vowed to enjoy the time we were spending in a beautiful city with my gorgeous man. And we did - we ate, we shopped, we took the number 17 bus up to Fiesole and looked out over the city, we got lost in the winding streets down near the Arno, and I even stumbled across Angie's Pub - my local watering hole from my student days. The Irishman inadvertantly offended two American tourists which set us on a giggling fit for days, and I came to love Florence again for being such a lovely town to spend some quality time.

PS - anyone planning to visit Florence, we absolutely loved our hotel The Residenza Johlea. A bit of a hike from the train station and about a 10 minute from the Duomo, our room was massive and the Irishman approved because we had a real shower - not one of those ridiculous hand-held European jobbies. It was a relative bargain at €105 per night for a double with breakfast but they only accept cash.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Beautifully delicious Bologna

Our overnight ferry to Italy was, to say the least, an adventure. We were on a boat with mostly crazy Italians - including a few beer-drinking, sing-along-happy nuns and priests - and some French and Germans thrown in for good measure. We watched two American PhD students battle the onslaught of one of those aging backpacker types, the sort of dude who knows a little bit about everything and anything and is generally an all-around douchebag. We watched a Destiny's Child concert video in the restaurant where every Italian ignored the plentiful NO SMOKING signs and chain-smoked for the entirety of the voyage. And we stepped over backpackers who set up camp in every available corner to kip for the night on the way to our cabins.

I got to spend the night with a Croatian mother and her preteen daughter, and an unrelated Croatian teen. Not bad; they didn't really say anything to me and I high-tailed it out of there when the crew woke us at 6:30 with Amy Winehouse on the radio. The Irishman had 2 large Croatians who grunted at him but went to bed at the civilized time of 9pm, so he fared well too. We landed in Ancona and made it to the main train station only to find out we'd missed the early Eurostar and would have to take a regional train for 2+ hours up to Bologna. Feh. We rode in a sweaty car with stinky people and screaming babies. Feh - welcome to Italy.

We finally arrived to a sunny Italian city, bustling with people and lovely smells. Our hotel, the Albergo delle Drapperie, was helpfully located in the food market area of the city and the Irishman looked like he died and went to heaven when our taxi dropped us off. Our room was ready, so we dropped our bags and went out in search of food and coffee. Two paninis and caffe shakeratos (cold sweet espresso shaken with ice in a martini shaker), we were ready to go and wandered around in wonder at the cheeses, fresh pastas, meats, and produce on display all around us. When the shops and stalls all closed at 1pm for lunch, we went home to nap.

That night we went out on the town and sampled what must be the best kept secret in Italy: in Bologna, the bars give you free food. That's right. There is a little hors d'oeurve buffet if you are a patron, and if you go to the right places you don't even need to eat dinner! We sampled the wares at a few places, and ended up getting a bowl of tagliatelle al ragu at a cafe with a jazz band playing outside. It turns out that we were there for Il Notte Verde - a citywide alfresco music festival - and there were musicians on every street corner.

Sunday most shops and places were closed, so we took the opportunity to wander the city and see the sites; Bologna doesn't have much in the way of grand architectural and artistic "stuff" but we saw Il Due Torre and went into the grand unfinished cathedral, and generally wandered the streets to understand the ancient city.

Monday was our day to shop, but it was also the day the rain came in. We spent it mostly ducking in and out of the fabulous clothing and shoe shops, as well as the food purveyors. We happened upon a big indoor market with food stalls and shops, which was absolutely mindblowing. The food in Italy is just so different; just look below at how they displayed garlic!

We were so inspired by that market that we had to follow it up with a fantastic lunch, and did so at Tamburini (which will be profiled on Eggplant & Aubergine) and followed it up with an even more amazing dinner at a restaurant profiled by the New York Times in one of their 36 Hours segments - La Drogheria Della Rosa. It was absolutely wonderful and if you go to Bologna, do not miss it.

Bologna is beautiful, and I highly recommend it for a city-break or long weekend. There isn't much to do, culture-wise, but it's a pretty city with really nice people and mouth-watering cuisine. We hit our 1-week mark there, and transitioned from simply relaxing to city exploring. I think both myself and the Irishman could have used another week of chilling out, but Italy had so much more for us to eat that we were happy to continue!