Monday, May 25, 2009

Bank Holiday Weekend: Pimms, boules, and pubs

This past weekend was late spring Bank Holiday. And my my my the sun cooperated for ONCE in UK history, giving London 2.5 days of lovely lovely sun. It was 27 deg C on Sunday, a super hot 81 degrees F, perfect weather for an all day boozy picnic in Regent's Park.

I used the picnic as an opportunity to do 2 things I've always wanted to do: buy a set of boules, and try the very British institution that is the Pimms cup. I wanted boules because there is nothing more relaxing than throwing metal balls around in a park on a nice day, and Pimms is the perfect accompaniment to such games (or so I'd heard). I didn't get a chance to have Pimms last year because of the terrible weather we had last summer, and it didn't seem right to have my first Pimms during a downpour. So Saturday, the Irishman and I made a trip to Lillywhites in Piccadilly to seek out the boules (and got an excellent deal), and Sunday we set up shop near the duck pond in Regent's Park to spend the day with friends.

It was only a matter of moments after the blankets were spread on the ground that a glass of Pimms was put in my hand. Pimms is apparently one of those institutions that has endless variants and people like to judge you on what you prefer in your Pimms cup. The Irishman did some research, of course, and we ended up with a whole host of stuff in the bottom of our plastic cups: requisite cucumber and mint, and wildcards strawberries and lemons. We also had tonic, lemonade, and ginger ale and used them in various proportions. The result is a light, sweet, seemingly gentle and very refreshing concoction that is perfect for a hot summers day. I liked mine with ginger ale and tonic to cut the sweetness, but Pimms is frankly good with anything you like in it.

Once the Pimms kicked in, we broke out the boules and of course the boys got official. The set we bought came with the official petanque instructions and the measuring tape, so they put them both to good use.

I'm not sure how long they played, but the heat and the Pimms got to them, and the game ended with no one winning because they forgot who scored what. Understandable, because the best part of the day was lazing in the shade. Post picnic, a pub was in order, and our little group disbanded having marked, officially, the beginning of a British summer. And in true form, today we had sun and right now at 9pm on Monday, it is raining. A fitting end.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Eurovision Finals 2009

Last night, the Irishman made me watch the Eurovision finals. I was a bit suspicious as to why my boyfriend wanted me to watch a pop song contest, but I soon realized that it is a spectacle not to be missed. Back in the US I never watched American Idol and here I couldn't give a toss about X-factor, but there is nothing like watching representatives from 42 countries compete for the title of best Euro-pop performing artist. Clearly I loved the cheese factor of the whole competition, and I think that Azerbaijan was ROBBED - they put on the most Euro-pop-tastic performance of the night. Turkey also put on an impressive harem-pant-Shakira-rip-off.

The best part of the competition is how the winners are decided. Norway was the runaway favorite, with a final score that was the highest in Eurovision history, because of the voting: that's right, every country VOTES. You call in and vote for your favorite (you can't vote for your home country), and then representatives of each country call the show and say (for example) "Riga calling... Latvia gives its highest votes to... "! Crazy!!!!!! They also announce everything in French as well as English so it's a good French refresher course. The whole thing is ridiculous and wacky, with guest stars like Andrew Lloyd Webber playing piano for the UK's entrant Jade and a surprise appearance of Dita von Teese for Germany (which is totally not fair, btw). Next year, I am totally tuning in and hosting a Eurovision party... US friends, you need to be here to witness this spectacle!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

One Year Anniversary

Last Sunday was my one-year anniversary in London. I celebrated it with a lovely home-cooked English breakfast made with ingredients from the Islington Farmer's Market, a shopping trip on Regent's Street (where I picked up a pair of fabulous platform sandals), cocktails in Canonbury and dinner at Sabor on Essex Road.

It's hard to believe it has been a whole year since I arrived in the UK. Simultaneously it feels like yesterday and a million years ago that I packed up all of my worldly possessions and got on a plane and moved here. Sometimes I look back and revisit that moment when I boarded a Virgin Airways flight, and looked out the window as we took off, shut my eyes tight and counted to 10, and I'm surprised that I actually did that. But I did, and I'm so proud of myself; my biggest achievement was not getting on that plane, but everything I accomplished since then.

Sitting here with my cup of tea (natch) and a BBC documentary about the South Pacific islands on TV in the background, I've been rereading Bloody Brill posts from this time last year. I've grown so much as a person since moving to London, in nearly every way. I feel more mature, more poised, more confident, more balanced, and more myself than I have for quite a while. Professionally, I feel like I've learned more in the past year than I have in my entire career. I was just Skyping with an old friend who lives in Brooklyn – I told him that even when I'm unhappy here, I'm happier than I was back in New York.

I've posted a lot about my love of New York City on this blog, and it has not diminished in the slightest. But that love has matured - it is less of an infatuation and more of a fondness and acceptance for the city as it truly is. Leaving New York for another international capital, one with a completely different culture and attitude, gave me an insight into how New York lives and breathes that I never could have understood had I stayed. And leaving also gave me permission to accept that maybe New York isn't the end-all, be-all of urban centers.

Beyond gaining a deeper understanding of New York City, I've also learned more about myself as an American. Living in the UK means having to deal with humor in a completely different way, and I've learned that Americans just can't deal with the searing cruelty of British sarcasm. We're just too earnest - we love what we love and care deeply about everything (mostly ourselves), and anyone who dissects our carefully constructed selves with a rapier sharp wit is not appreciated. I've had to grow a thick skin and gracefully let the jabs fall away. I've noticed that since stopping my protests and annoyance, I've gained a lot more fans. Probably the best compliment I received in the last year was from one of the more sarcastic Brits I've met, who told me I impressed him with my ability to fit into British office culture.

But being earnest isn't bad, and I was reminded of the British reaction to Obama's inauguration earlier this year. What was one of the US's finest moments was quickly derided by Brits, who made callous jokes and mocked our austere pomp and circumstance. It was one moment when I was truly angry at the UK, for allowing their smugness and cynicism to shadow a moment that belonged to so many more people than just Americans. It helped me refocus my perspective of British culture, see the balance between the UK and US, and see another facet of our nations' "special relationship".

I think the most confusing, yet rewarding part of moving to another country is assimilation into the multifaceted behaviors in social rituals. Something as simple as a greeting and complex as buying drinks at the pub are windows into how a population views itself and society; one takes them for granted in one's native culture, but sees them as an outsider in a new land. On the surface, my life in London isn't that much different from my life in New York: I have the same job, work for the same company, live in a neighborhood that has a high proportion of Americans, shop at a farmer's market. But English and American culture differ in subtle but radical ways, so even the shared elements of my US and expat lives are completely different.

Beyond assimilation, my life has changed simply because I have so many opportunities to travel and see the world. I've been to new places like Amsterdam and Spain, and old favorites like Paris. I'll be returning to Italy, where I studied for a summer during college, in September and also exploring Croatia. My proximity to parts of the world I'd never considered visiting has opened my eyes to new and varied experiences that I once thought were beyond my reach.

One of the most poignant aspects of this past year is realizing which of my friends kept in touch and who has drifted away in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind way. I've been pleasantly surprised by those who have made the effort, those who I talk to nearly every day as if I'm just up the road and not across the ocean, and especially those who I've reunited with either virtually or in person. And of course my grandmother makes me proud by regularly reading this blog, Skyping and emailing me. On the other hand, the friends I've made here are some of the best friendships. Even when I'm homesick, I feel comforted and genuinely welcomed into this crazy land by lovely, lovely people.

So I'm embarking on year two... still typing my z's instead of s's and dropping extra u's out of words left and right. It's not been an easy year, but one that I wouldn't exchange for any other experience. My one year anniversary truly was a milestone and an achievement, but I'm definitely looking forward to an even better year two.

PS: Thank you to all the Bloody Brilliant readers. It's really rewarding to know people enjoy the blog. I hope you all keep reading, and if you have any suggestions please do let me know. Cheers!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Franco Manca

Franco Manca is one of the best pizzas I've had in a long time. The dough is made out of a special sourdough that stays chewy and light, instead of hard or cardboard-y. There are only 6 different combinations but you can add additional toppings as you like. The owners are committed to organic and locally sourced materials, even down to the wines. The pizzas are cooked in a specially made brick oven that is in the middle of the restaurant.

I ordered a #1 with olives, the Irishman ordered a #4, and we had a bottle of the house wine. Our bill was £18.50 - a steal for 2 pizzas each the size of a huge plate. The restaurant is located in the Brixton Market, and therefore subject to the hours of the market (open until 5pm and closed on Sundays). Despite these restrictions, Franco Manca is clearly a neighborhood favorite and worth the trip south of the river.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Saturday was the first day of the first Bank Holiday in May. Woot! I had big plans with the Irishman, and we attacked them with a vengeance.

Our plans were located in Brixton, south London, an area known for its Caribbean and African neighborhoods and rock scene. We had tickets to see Doves at the 02 Academy, and decided to make a day of it and visit a few places - namely the Brixton Market and its famous Franco Manca pizza restaurant (see separate post). Of course, the London Underground was helpfully doing repairs on the main tube line into Brixton, so we had the added adventure of negotiating our way to Brixton from nearby Stockwell. How very London.

Brixton is, of all the areas I've explored in London, the closest in attitude, vibe, and atmosphere to New York. It really reminded me of the part of South Brooklyn I lived in - lots of bodegas, groceries, and hardware stores, a multicultural demographic, and a bit of grit. We wandered around the Brixton market for while, noting all of the import shops and butchers (and made plans for returning with shopping lists of ingredients for a few feasts), and then we couldn't wait any longer and went for the food.

Post-pizza, there was a critical rugby game that the Irishman just had to watch. So we found an Irish pub (of course) and spent the rest of the afternoon watching 2 Irish teams battle it out for some spot in some final of some rugby tournament. Then it was off to the O2 Academy for Doves. I've loved Doves for a long time, and it was pretty much a dream come true to see them live. The show was amazing, with great film shorts projected behind the band for most of the songs. They finished with a cover of a Faithless song, and we left thrilled.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day

Today was May Day, the international worker's holiday that people in the US don't celebrate. I didn't really pay too much mind to this until the square outside my office start filling with people around 11AM. Apparently, the house with the red door across from my office is the Marx Memorial Library and hosts the start of the annual May Day march each year. So all of us marketing geniuses, engineering new and more ridiculous ways to further capitalism, stood on the balconies and watched communists and socialists from all over London and the world fight for their belief in a communal society. While annoying, loud, and strange (there was someone dressed as a tree), I was secretly happy to see people stand up for change.