Monday, February 28, 2005

British Phrases I'm Picking Up

All of the following have come out of my mouth in the last few days. (And Mom, nice people use these phrases, at work even, so don't fret if they sound off color.)

  • bloody hell
  • bugger, bugger, bugger (best said in threes under your breath, or as a single bugger with emphasis)
  • bits and bobs
  • blimey (draw it out like a horse's neigh for best effect. Kind of the uffda of England)
  • bum (for butt)
  • right chuffed (means really excited or pleased. "Right" and "Proper" are used to suggest very/extreme/perfect/good, kind of your all-around positive modifier)
  • crickey (yes, crickey. Means "wow".)
  • it's in the boot (meaning the car trunk)
  • brilliant (roll the "r" for emphasis, if you wish)
  • keen (as a verb)
  • we're dead chocker (meaning very busy. As with right and proper above, "dead" is also an all-around modifier, and can be used in either positive or negative phrases to emphasize that you're pretty much spot on the definition, hence extreme, for whatever it's modifying. Dead handsome is good. Dead ugly is not.)
  • cuppa
  • prat
  • daft cow
  • tosser
  • punter
  • lads
  • garage (as in the BP next door that's really a mini-mart with gas pumps. If you want to say it right, by the way, it rhymes with carriage)
  • pissing down rain (not as off color as you'd think, Mom)
  • mate
  • Would you get that, love?
  • Bless him
  • you lot
  • me Mum (as in, "Me mum has an antique store back home.")
  • spot on
  • cheeky monkey
  • sorted (as an expression, it can mean "all right, then", but it can also be treated as a verb meaning to finish/resolve)
I'm going to be so annoying the next time you see me.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Weekend off

Yesterday was a sad day, and now I'm going to take the weekend off to reflect. This is the first time I truly wish I were at home, so I could be with someone I love to help them deal with something quite terrible.

I'll be back on Monday. Take care.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Sad news

My friend Tom's nephew, Jacob, enlisted in the Army to help pay for grad school. Since he is an only child, he got a guarantee from the government when he signed up that he would not be sent into a danger zone...the US military has a policy of protecting only sons, and there are lots of peaceful spots where valiant service is required.

Last fall after his return from Korea, Jacob got a letter from President Bush informing him that this policy was being waived for Iraq, and so he was on his way there. Jacob and his mother protested this vehemently, but there was nothing to be done. The White House had changed the policy and taken the time to send the communique on their letterhead.

Jacob arrived in Iraq in January. Jacob died on Tuesday.

I'm not saying this is any worse than any other death in Iraq. And I'm keeping my opinions about this war to myself, since they make no difference. I just want people in my blogosphere to think about this, to think about the effect this is having on mothers of sons and daughters who won't see them ever again, on grandparents whose lovely grandson is no longer here to make them laugh, to make them proud, to make them feel like their legacy is continuing into the next generation. As a nation full of partisanship and news "analysis" and spin-doctoring, it's easy to forget about the profound sadness that lies beyond policy. This isn't just friendly sparring over dinner or for Sunday AM chat shows. It's real life.

But I will ask you...are we really on the right track here? I'm not asking you to change your mind. I'm asking you to answer the question without the help of our red/blue state team spirit.

And now, please give a moment of silence for Jacob.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Breaking Down Stereotypes, One at a Time

Tonight was another BI Social Club event. (Remember Quiz Night from November?) Tonight's plan was bowling. I'd say roughly half the company showed up in teams of 5. We met in the bar and had a pint or two before we started. I was mingling with the folks and, to a one, they all asked me if I was a good bowler. Anyone who's ever bowled with me can tell you that the answer is a resounding no. Let's face it. If my 9 year old nephew can kick my butt, there's a problem with my technique. So I'd confess that I was not just bad but downright awful, and I can't tell you how shocked people were. One person even confessed that the office rumor was that I was some sort of bowling ringer, what since bowling is the national sport of the US. I set him straight and explained that our national sport was actually WATCHING bowling. He seemed to believe me. (I think he thought Kingpin was a documentary.)

So we hit the lanes, and my team did fairly well. I even broke 100 in my first game. (I returned to true form with a 76 in my second.) Every time I approached, I could hear my PE teacher's voice in my head..."Straight wrist. Watch your approach. Don't loop your arm in your backswing! Aw, Mind! Pay attention!" Didn't help any more now than it did then.

But the whole evening made me reflect on the drive home about the number of stupid questions and odd assumptions I've encountered since I got here. Here are just a few of the ridiculous things I've been asked or told in the last few weeks:

  • How big is your car at home? (Much surprise when I owned up to a Mazda 626.)
  • Do you own a gun? (apparently they presume it's mandatory.)
  • Do you have KFC in America? (Yes, they meant Kentucky Fried Chicken.)
  • Are there gangsters in Minnesota? (Came after a discussion about the Godfather)
  • Driving in Milton Keynes must feel normal to you. (This is because Milton Keynes is structured on a grid, which Brits consider very American. Never you mind the ubiquitous roundabouts that people take at 40 miles an hour and the whole driving on the left side of the road business with a steering wheel on the passenger's side of the car.)
  • You used to live in Seattle...doesn't it rain a lot there? (Yes, and you live in England. What's your point?)
  • You should go see Jerry Springer - The Musical. You'll love it. (?)
  • There's a good Mexican restaurant in Stony Stratford.
  • Don't go to Bletchley alone. It's a bit rough. (That's like telling me to avoid Robbinsdale.)
  • And my personal favorite....WHY DID YOU VOTE FOR GEORGE BUSH? (Good question, wrong person to ask.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Winter in England

It's winter today.

Technically it's been winter for months, but for me it's seemed like a really long fall. It's rainy, in the 50's most days, and cloudy/sunny depending upon the hour. Grass is green, and I mentioned the other day that spring arrived with crocuses and daffodils.

Then last night is snowed. It only snowed a couple of inches and it's all gone now that it's evening, but we actually had a bit of an icy commute. It's supposed to snow again tonight with more accumulation, so I expect the same tomorrow.

It's pretty funny, really. My colleagues are giddy with anticipation of snow. If someone looks out the window and they see a flake or two, they yell, "SNOW!" and everyone runs to the window. They cancel their plans for the evening in case it gets icy, and they are all atwitter with joy at the prospect of a white blanket covering all this green. I laugh at them and sound like an old coot with my, "Well, where I come from, we once got three feet of snow on Halloween." And my plaid wool coat is practically a linen jacket compared to the thick down and the wooly hats and mittens my colleagues wear for the 32 - 38F temps we're having. Silly brits...they live in houses that have open keyholes in the garden door, and whose letter slots flap in the gales, with gusts, not just drafts, flying in....you'd think they'd be used to cold.

Now the big worry is that your boiler will go out. It makes the news every broadcast...some poor boiler guy who hasn't had sleep in three days because the family of 5 in Kent needs hot water. Bless him.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Books in the Wild

If you are a reader, this entry is for you. I have discovered an exciting new hobby called BookCrossing.

Here's the premise...we all buy lots of books and read through them and then stick them on a shelf. Maybe we recommend them to a friend and hand them over, or possibly we see them sitting there a few years later and pick them up for a quick read like a conversation with an old friend. If you think of it, you might leave you book behind in a public place for someone to find, but usually books end up in the bottom of your bag, and ultimately you have stacks of books at home that you enjoyed (and some you threw across the room), and your forget about them until you're forced to pack them in a box when you move and you realize you're going to spend an additional $200 on movers due to heavy, bulky book boxes.

WELL. NO MORE!

BookCrossing is a way to make your reading double as a public service. It's an organized group of folks who "Read and Release." Now when you start a book, you register it online to get it an ID. You put the ID and some basic BookCrossing info in the cover, and then when you've read it you leave it anyplace you can. It's important to log onto the website to let it know that you have released a book and where you put it, and maybe even write a review. Why? For tracking...

Eventually, someone comes along and picks that book up. There are lots of notes left behind (by you) encouraging the new reader to sign online to let you know that the book found a new home. The notes also encourage readers to pass the book on when they're through with it so it can continue to see the world and meet interesting new people.

Your reward...you're spreading good (or perhaps bad) literature, essays, poems, and theories throughout the world. You've tagged your book, so you get to follow it's progress as it makes new friends and influences people. And, when you need a new book you can always go hunting...the BookCrossing website shows you when and where books have been released into the wild in your area, so when you don't feeling like heading to a library or a bookstore, you can head into the world to hunt down a recent release from a fellow BookCrosser. (And you don't even need a conceal and carry permit.)

There's a link to the right. Check it out. It's fun.

And Happy Hunting.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

British Advertising

When I was here before Christmas, the airwaves were innundated by stupid "spendSpendSPEND"ads for the holidays. I've been to see festivals at the Walker several times where they play funny and interesting British ads from the previous year, and so I was kind of disappointed when the ads on my tele weren't all that great. Now, however, it seems I've hit the start of advertising season. Half the time I'm not watching TV now...I'm killing time until the ads come on.

Here are some examples of things I've seen so far:
  • There is a very strange ad with people wearing giant wigs that obscure their faces. Instead, they have faces drawn on their very toned stomachs. They dance around the house to a silly song and act happy because they're eating lowfat yogurt. That's weird, but when they bump bellies in some sort of body puppet kiss, I wince.
  • There's one with a little boy dressed as a bank robber (black and white striped shirt, mask) and he's sitting in the back seat of his dad's car saying how he doesn't want to get out...no one will like him and they'll think he's weird. His dad says, "Go on, it'll be fine," so the kid gets out of the car. The dad sighs and looks up and sees an add on the side of a bus stop with a nice looking car, and the price is surprisingly low. We see a look of shock and horror on the dad's face as the voice over says "Peugeot...less expensive than you might think" and then we pan to a shot of the kid as he runs out of the bank with alarms sounding, money flying everywhere, screaming "Drive, Dad! DRIVE!"
  • Two rappers are packing up one guy's grandma's house...she's moving to another apartment. The grandson is thanking his buddy for being so helpful, he really appreciates it, yadda yadda yadda. As he's talking, the grandson goes into another room and while he's gone his buddy finds some perfume. He tries to see what it smells like, but he accidentally sprays it in his face and in desperation grabs the closest cloth he can find to wipe it out of his eyes and nose. So, when the grandson walks in he sees his friend rubbing a pair of his grandma's underpants on his face. "Oh, MAN! That's sick. You really need help, man." (End of ad)

Sunday Morning

I have a Sunday morning routine. I go for a walk...if it's nice out I go about a mile and half for exercise. If it's cold (like today), I just stop at the one-stop to pick up a copy of The Observer and some tomato juice and other necessaries for breakfast/coffee, and then I sit down and read the paper. About 945 or 10, I take my grocery list and I head to the MK Food Centre to do my shopping for the week. (Yes, Milton Keynes has a Food Centre with three main groceries...the NewCity planned ahead; if one store doesn't have something, you are next door to a store that might.)

The store opens at 10, so I'm usually one of the first there. This is my preference, since I hate crowds and REALLY hate crowded grocery stores since I've become a label reader. Anyway, I work my way through the store with my cart, stocking up on whatever I need for my week's recipes, and of course I grab a luxury impulse item or two. I can usually get out of there by 11, home in time for most of the Hollyoaks Omnibus.

I always go in my sneakers, yoga pants, and fleece. Usually I don't shower first, so I have crazy hair (though I picked up a baseball cap this week that helped me out today.) I'm definitely not wearing any makeup. In the US, this sort of attire on a weekend morning would be just fine at pretty much any grocer in town. In fact, you'd be one of the only ones if you were actually dressed up, at least until around noon when the church folk start stopping by. Not so in England. Mind you, no one is in church-going attire. But they've definitely prepared themselves for public viewing. They have hairdos. They are wearing lipstick. They're even in fashionable outfits and high heels. (The women, we're talking here. Men just wear jeans.)

For the life of me, I can't understand this. I feel so inadequate. I just don't see the point of looking all fashionable when all you're doing is picking out clementines and prawns. It's Sunday for pete's sake. It's a day of rest, for both you and your pores.

I'm getting used to British supermarkets. Don't look for tortillas in the cold case. They're in the main mexican aisle with lots of preservatives. If you really want pretzels or peanut butter or salsa, ask someone for "american style"-whatever, and someone will direct you to a very low shelf where they've tucked a little row of familiar products. The package will cost three times what it would at home for 1/3 the amount, but it will provide a bit of comfort. If you really miss home, you can effectively create tater tot hotdish. I've let go of my expectations of sausage and pickles. The versions they have here are catering to British tastebuds, and there is no way I will find something I like here. (I'm now dreaming of Penzey's sausage seasonings, thinking I can mix it with a bit of mince and get something close to my expectations. I fear that shipping spices might have legal problems, though, so I'm checking into it.) If you really want pizza, you are best to just have a cheese/tomato with a thin crust, and you do just as well with the freshcase ones as ordering in. (Unless you call dominos or pizza hut, which is the same bad pizza you get at home.) If you step out of bounds with pizza, you're apt to get tuna and sweetcorn or chicken tikka or something without expecting it, and the sausage will inevitably be cumberland (the local sausage I dislike.)

On the other hand, I've been pleasantly surprised by some of my impulse buys. There are some great Weight Watchers cookies that are ginger snaps with chewy bits of lemon peel, the Apple-sultana "Go-Aheads" are like very thin digestive biscuit cookie sandwiches with a thin layer of dried apple and raisin, with a sprinkling of cinammon sugar on top. And, they sell Skinny Cow ice cream bars here, which I would never have found were it not for an ice cream impulse.

Now that I'm establishing a routine for food, it's making mealtime more enjoyable. I am cooking a lot, trying new recipes, and in a pinch I can whip up something familiar that makes the rest of my unfamiliar life fade away. There's nothing like tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich to remind you of home.

Note to Dad: I come home for lunch everyday. I usually have leftovers or soup, and I read The Guardian until it's time to head back to the office. Not only have I officially become my mother, I'm becoming you, too.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Big Weekend Part 2

So Saturday dawned, and Pam and I had a quick bite for breakfast and caught a train into the city. We bought the cheap fare, which means that we saved £5 but we had to take local service. No problem, really, just means more stops.

The train was empty at Milton Keynes, but down the line it got pretty crowded. At Leighton Buzzard (yes, that's really a town name), three surly laddettes boarded the train. ("Laddette" is a term for hooligan girls who cop attitude and pick fights.) They were pretty rough looking girls, probably 18 or so, and were obviously out from the night before. They sat right behind us, so we could hear their charming conversation. Lots of swearing, some discussion of a friend whose baby was fine but she looked horrible, and other general bad attitude scandal bitching. The conductor came through the train checking tickets, and it turned out the girls didn't have any. He reprimanded them, they called him a wanker. He took their addresses and threatened a fine, they called him a wanker again and gave him a fake ID. He'd walk away, they'd plot his death and badmouth him. He'd come back, and they'd tell him to stop harassing them. Once we hit Watford Junction, he'd called in the troops...a very handsome agent boarded and removed them from the train. Pam and I had quite a laugh at their expense. Eighteen year old girls have lots of ways at their disposal to avoid paying for a train ticket. Calling the conductor a wanker and acting like a ruffian extra from Eastenders doesn't seem prudent.

Once in London, we headed to the Royal Academy of Arts for "TURKS", an exhibit featuring Turkish antiquities. Wow. Spectacular. They had manuscripts and books with gold leaf all over them, they had massive carved doors from a mosque, they had figurines and vases and carpets and jade pitchers and jewelry and all measure of objects illustrating 600 centuries of history. The Turks, man, they did a bit of everything. There was a beautiful cossack from the 1500s that was made of yellow silk on the outside, red silk on the inside, and padding and chain mail between. There was a gigantic signature of a sheik (like a meter high and a meter and a half long) that consisted of giant black lettering that was inlaid with intricate floral drawings. With the rather expensive cost of our tickets we got a free audio tour. I started with the grown up tour, which was interesting in its own right, but when I switched to the kid's tour I stuck with it. It was narrated by a genie and a boy who asked questions. The genie would tell the stories and point out things of interest, and call the kid things like "my little fluffy duckling" or "ignorant cheeky monkey".

After a couple of hours there, we moved on to wander city. Took a big walk, basically...Piccadilly, Chinatown and Soho, Covent Garden, Westminster, making stops for dim sum and coffee when we got tired and hungry. In fact, if we'd been willing to stand in the gales and the rain in Leicester Square, we could have watched celebrities on the red carpet for the BAFTAs (like the Oscars). London is a great place to wander. It's huge, but the streets are small and there's lots to see and everything is really very close together.

Took the train home, made dinner and watched TV. Sunday was a lazy sit-around day. I walked to the one-stop for a paper and some tomato juice, and then Pam made brunch and I made bloody marys. (Made me miss pickles even more, by the way.) The gales continued, so we stayed put and I did laundry. Nice to just sit and chat and read and chat and eat and chat and relax.

Pam went home Monday, and I went to London for a few days. There was a travel industry convention, and I had events to attend. Can I just say one more time how great it was to have Pam here? (Visitors...I appreciate you.) I forget how blessed I am to know such interesting, funny, fun to be around people. Let's face it, I'm odd. Who would guess I'd find such great people who actually appreciate that?

Okay. Events in London. Monday night was the M&IT awards. It was a black tie event, thrown by Meetings and Incentive Travel Magazine. BI had a table, partly because we sponsor part of the event and partly because we were nominated for two awards. BI was represented by their corporate heads, plus four travel folks. My colleague Rachel and I got there late, just as the doors opened for dinner. We slammed our champagne and went in. Sat down for dinner, and then the lights dimmed and music played and we stood up. Not sure what was happening, I asked my table why we were standing. "Royalty," they say. Sure enough, not ten feet away from me walks Princess Anne. Seems M&IT donates charity proceeds from the evening to Save the Children, her pet charity, and so she came to the banquet to thank us. I must admit, it was pretty cool.

We had dinner, we heard speakers. Each course was sponsored by some tourist bureau or hotel, so we'd have to watch a video about them while we ate. I was seated between our MD (Managing Director) and our accountant's wife. I love our accountant and his wife. He is a smart, wacky man with flyaway Einstein hair and slightly awkward social skills, and she is a sensible, kind woman with a dry sense of humor. He has been helpful and friendly in getting financial issues resolved with my stay here, and even bought me a beer on Quiz Night. They are both very British, at least as I expect Brits to be from watching Monty Python. If there really is a Horse and Hound magazine, I bet they subscribe.

Made conversation and laughed quite a bit. Didn't even flinch when the seabass came to the table with skin still on one side. (No head, thank God. Even the princess would have heard me squeal then.) Someone kept filling my wine glass, and I got quite tipsy by the end of the night. Our MD's a good guy, as well...even though he runs BI UK, he's probably around my age, and he's got a great sense of humor. Funny story....we were talking about silly cultural stuff, and he was telling me that one his favourite detectives on TV has been toned down for the BBC...in the book, when people bend over near him, the detective sticks his index finger in their bum and says, "How's that for center?" This was edited out for the screen, but we've agree that it's a shame. In fact it seems like something that should be implemented in everyday life.

BI won both our awards (for best Meeting Agency and best Incentive House), so we even had champagne to celebrate. Lucky for me, as drunk as I was everyone else was more so. In fact, on Tuesday I had much less of a hangover than the others.

Almost caught up...hang in there.

Tuesday day I went to the Confex convention, and did the glad-handing smile and chat thing with suppliers from around the world. Had lunch with a small group at a great Indian restaurant. It was in a townhouse in Kensington, and you had to actually knock on the door to get in. Food was unbelievable. Will take you there if you visit (but it will cost us lots of £). BI threw a shindig to thank our suppliers on Tuesday night, and I was hosting a table. Talked fast and told stories and managed to entertain them through dinner, and it turns out I had 4 winners out of 7 tableguests, so we toasted each other a lot. We didn't get back to MK until 1 AM though, and so it was a pretty horrible day yesterday. I was exhausted.

I have a presentation tomorrow in the Cotswolds, so that means a two hour drive through storybook land, lots of talking and manners, and then two hours back. I am counting the minutes until I walk in the door tomorrow night, change into my yoga pants, and sit down on the couch. Don't think I'll say a word until Saturday.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Big Weekend

Wow. It's been a big week, and there is LOTS to tell. In fact, so much that I don't think that I can get it done in one blog, so check back throughout the week for updates.

Where to start...

Thursday - Monday, my friend Pam was here from Austria. You can see pictures and hear her side of our visit at her site, nerdseyeview.com. I highly recommend her blog...there's even a handy link just to the right of this entry. Pam and I have good wandering energy together. We can move with no agenda and make a day of exploring everything from art to grocery stores. She laughs at all my really dumb jokes, she's my ukulele idol, and she is excellent company.

I can't tell you how much I was anticipating her arrival. See, Pam is married to a kind-hearted handsome Austrian, and since his job keeps him in Cowtown, Austria except when he's on holiday, Pam spends 3 months or so there every winter. This means that, in addition to all of the fundamental things we have in common, we are also both living far from home in foreign lands. We've both been DYING for a chance to share frustrations and secret jokes about our temporary homes. Pretty much from the moment I picked her up at the train station until I dropped her off four days later, we were talking, exploring, eating, or sleeping. Turns out the Austrians haven't mastered laundry or quality temperature control on your shower, either. There are many things to dislike about modern America, but I tell you...there are a lot of things we're doing right, especially if it involves cleaning, hygiene, or electricity. And in like manner, there are some wonderful things to be said about European countries. Somehow, venting with someone who is in the throes of a love/hate relationship with an adopted homeland makes it possible to be honest about both the good and the bad. It did both of us a lot of good to get it out of our system.

But, lest you think all we did was whine about plumbing and appliances, let's move on to exploring part.

Thursday was just dinner....took her to the Indian restaurant in a church in Stony Stratford, and while the setting is unbelievable the food was just so so. If you're next on the guest list, I won't be taking you there.

Friday we slept in a bit, then headed out to Warwick. Warwick is about an hour north of here, and has one of the best medieval castles in England as well as lots of tudor architecture and fun little shops to explore. The drive there is beautiful...windy little roads through the countryside, hedgerows and sheep galore. The best thing about England is that it totally looks like England. If you've ever seen a Merchant Ivory or Jane Austin-based film, or even if you read a picture book about England in elementary school, well, that picture in your head is exactly what England looks like. Close your eyes...picture it...you're practically here. It's quite comforting and very very cool.

As with most castles, Warwick is on a hill so it has a good vantage point of the surrounding area. It's pretty amazing, actually. Once you've walked up from the parking, you enter a little stableyard/coachhouse area with the ticket booth and a little restaurant. It was a cold, rainy day, so once we got our tickets we went into the restaurant for a cuppa and looked at our guidebook to prepare.

Warwick Castle is huge...it's got a dried up moat and a drawbridge and a set of spiky gates that can be dropped to protect you or to gore intruders on their way in. There are blocky looking towers and ramparts around the castle, and you can totally picture medieval knights pouring boiling oil down on surly visitors. It looks like the set for Monty Python's Holy Grail...this place goes back as far as the 11th century. It's absolutely crazy.

Once you're inside, you stand in a big yard. You can work the circle, or you can go chronologically. We elected to start chronologically and went first to the dungeons and torture chamber, which date to the 13th and 14th century. Talk about grisly, nasty and frightening. There were hanging stockades on the wall, and if you figure that most people were probably 5 ft to 5ft5 and looked down the wall, you'll notice that the bricks are worn from rubbing (much like steps that are 600 years old wear into little treads)...and you're still about 4 feet off the floor. There are etchings in the walls that were made by prisoners. There's a hole in a little alcove that's about a yard deep/wide. They used to put people in the hole and never come back for them. Upstairs, they've got a little display of spanish inquisition tools like the rack and a spike boot and a stretchy nasty chair thing. Pam speculated on whether people KNEW how much life sucked, or whether they just figured it had to be this way. It's really quite unsettling.

Oh. And the best part about the Dungeon/Torture chamber area? The sign outside the door that says, "Torture Chamber Unsuitable for Wheelchair Users." (don't believe me? See picture here.)

So then we moved on the the prettier parts of the castle. We did the walk around the ramparts and the towers, which involved something like 600 steps, most of which are tiny and winding in almost dark tower hallways. Smokers and the unfit beware...it'll wind you something fierce, and once you start, you have to finish. That being said, I did just fine and the views are spectacular.

The castle is owned by Madame Toussaud's, which means they've put some interpretive wax figure displays in parts to help you picture everyday life. (Thankfully, they haven't branded the castle literature, though...no Key Arena or Enron Park for the British.) There's a section set in the 14th century area that depicts castle dwellers preparing for battle. There are fake cats with moving tales and fake kids that have creepy disembodied giggles and lots of homely peasants. (There's even a wax horse poo under the backside of the horse in it's battle colors.) I will say though, if MT's interpretations are to be believed, the chin didn't disappear from the British male until at least the 15th century.

There's also a wax vignette in the Victorian chambers, depicting a royal weekend hosted by Daisy, Lady Warwick from the early 20th century. There's a wax version of young Winston Churchill, a wax Vanderbilt woman who married royalty, and a wax Prince of Wales (who was supposedly Daisy's lover) who supposedly was a distant, ineffective father. Not sure the officals know that the interpretive guide near him is speculating that this quality is still present in modern royals, but it's a pretty funny conversation to have mid tour. My favourite character in this section was the giantess/opera singer standing by the grand piano. Her name was Clara Butt, and she was supposedly the big thing of her day (figuratively and literally.) Clara was almost 7 feet tall and, frankly, looks like a man, but I haven't had time to check for the truth on the internet yet.

When we left the castle, we wandered the streets of Warwick. Lots of Tudor houses...not the kind you find in the suburbs that have 8 bedrooms and 5 baths and a great room for fun family times, but the kind that leans because it's been there so damn long. There is an unbelievable hospital in this town that was built by one of Elizabeth I's lovers, Sir Robert Dudley. It was built as a retirement hospital for soldiers and their wives, and is still in use today. We were thinking about taking the tour but were too crabby to pay for another thing, so instead we killed a half an hour with some charming old gents in the visitor center who told us stories and gave us advice. (Both live in the hospital now, and I think they were happy to have pretty young things stop in so they didn't have to talk to each other anymore.) They were making fun of each other and telling jokes, and for a minute we thought they'd ask us around to their side of the counter for tea or something. But once they found out that we were taking the M40 back towards Milton Keynes, they insisted we get on the road. It's mid-term break, and they didn't want us queued up in the traffic.

Stopped at the grocery store on the way home. Pam was gobsmacked by the sheer size of it all, what since her closest grocer of even modest size is an hour away. Here are some pictures of things that made us giggle there. (look at the four bottom pictures)

Okay. I'm exhausted. I'll put the next installment in tomorrow...and there's a real-life royalty encounter coming, so be sure to tune in....

Monday, February 07, 2005

London is just a quick train away...

I live in the middle of the countryside. Well, not exactly. Technically, I live in a giant suburban sprawl, except there's a good 30 miles of countryside between MK and London. The "New City," as MK Radio likes to proclaim. Everything was built within the last 20 years, except of course for the villages that the new build consumed...those still have thatched roof cottages and sheep grazing. But really, if I drive 10 minutes, I can be on a twisty country lane watching hedgerows roll by.

So it's easy to forget that I'm really close to London. So close, in fact, that in 45 minutes, 35 on a fast train, I can be in the heart of things. Or, if I'm fool-hardy enough to take a car, I can sit on the M1 with thousands of other folks stupid enough to drive to London.

In the last three days, I've done both.

My first trip was via auto to Slough, industrial hellhole made popular with middle-managers everywhere as the home of The Office, the BBC's incredibly funny sitcom. If you're a fan, you'll know that Slough is dismal at best (and if you're NOT a fan, this must be because you haven't seen it yet, and you should immediately run to Blockbuster or get to Netflix and order the DVDs for home study.) Our appointment was at 2, so we left about 12:15 to allow time on the motorway. The M1 was appalling. It took us an hour and 15 minutes to go 30 miles. Once we got on the M25, we made it at a fast clip, and by the time we hit the M4 we were right on schedule. As we approached Slough, the otherwise sunny day turned kind of grey/brown and foggy. "Weird weather," says I. "It's not weather, it's Slough," says my colleague. I hate to say it, but he was right. As I've mentioned, it's spring in MK...but in Slough you'd be lucky to find a tree, let alone a crocus. It's all pavement and ugly, dirty glass and metal, and unfriendly crosswalks, and stagnant water, and restaurants called things like "EuroChicken." (We decided they must make them wear berets.) Once inside my client's offices, things were normal again. Very nice, smart people...no David Brents in sight. I will say, though, that when we left our meeting we didn't linger (unlike our stop in Bracknell a few weeks ago, where we hung out in a pub while traffic cleared.) No, we just got back in the car. 2 hours sitting on the motorway is a whole lot better than anything we could find in Slough. On our way out of town, we saw a balcony with a line of clothes drying in the air. Almost simultaneously, my colleague and I speculated on why you'd waste a good washing by putting it in the Slough air....talk about dingy whites.

My next trip was by train, this time to central London. For those of you who don't know a lot about my job, one of the things our industry does well is wine and dine you. Hotels and tourist boards and tour planners want you to know about their product, so they invite you to cocktails and canapes so they can corner you with your mouth full and tell you about their remodel or their new spa or how George Bush just stayed there. (Not a selling point for me, but I suppose somebody likes the idea of it.) I used to go to these in Minneapolis, and now I go to them in London. Last night's was at a Thai restaurant in Fulham. My colleague Mel and I left on a 5pm train to make our way into the city. It was a pretty easy ride, though the tube was rush-hour crowded, and we got there right on time. The suppliers last night were all 5star hotels, the kind that have linen sheets and where celebrities and royalty stay. We worked the room, making small talk and eating fishcakes, and picked up some interesting flowers and foul smelling soap from India before we beat our retreat. I will admit these get a little tiring, what with all the smiling and the hand-shaking and the ooing and ahing. I know it's my job, but there's a point at which I don't care that you hand pour me a milk bath and scent my pillows with lavender. Just give a brochure and let me pass. But the nice thing was that our train tickets required us to travel off-peak, which meant killing an hour before we could go home. So Mel and I stopped in nice Italian deli/restaurant in Kensington and had a great meal before we left. If you're looking for a simple salad, try bitter greens like dandelion and arugula (called rocket here), toss a bit of balsamic and olive oil and salt and pepper and a squirt of lemon, and then add some shaved parmesan. Yum Yum. Our pastas were to die for...soft, pillowy ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta, and thin little fresh noodles tossed with garlic, evoo, and lots of weird mushrooms. Perfectly filling, as it was a bit cold, and made the train home quite comfortable...we were too full to be antsy.

It's kind of fun to be close enough to London to head in for dinner and be home by 11. And it makes it easier to deal with the strange MK vibe and the rural spread surrounding me. If I really need a break, one of the best cities in the world is just down the road, and it could be much much worse...I could be in Slough.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Spring

It's spring here. I went on my walk this morning, and the bulbs are up...crocuses, tulips sprouting everywhere. There are buds on the trees. There is green startingto replace the bare stalks on the rhododendron. The rainy start to the day broke into fluffy clouds against a blue sky. The grass is a lush, green carpet.

It even smells loamy, like the world is coming back to life. And it's only February 6th.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Pancake Tuesday

One of my favorite little treats of my life in Minneapolis was Pancake Tuesday. Basically, it's an Anglican Mardi Gras tradition to eat pancakes for dinner that evening. I always celebrated PT with Karen, Darlene, and occasionally Bev and Bill. Sometimes we'd find some church in the neighbourhood that was serving overdone pancakes to raise money for their youth, but usually we'd just go to the Perkins in Highland. (Note to CPM...I live in England and I have to spell like them at work now, so you're going to have to live with the extra u's and the transposed er/re's for awhile. I'm sick of people making fun of my spelling. Live with it.) While it's always a treat to have pancakes for dinner, when you pair it with a Perkins Mushroom and Cheese omelet, well, it's near perfection as an annual event. This whole Pancake Tuesday was a new thing for me, but I played along because I got to have dinner with people I liked and that dinner consisted of more forbidden carbs than a bowl of pasta with a side of garlic bread.

So imagine my surprise today when I got an "All Users" message announcing that next Tuesday is Pancake Tuesday at WORK...beginning at 1045 there is a pancake brunch for all employees to celebrate Shrove Tuesday.

I don't know which shocked me more...the celebration of a tradition related to a church holiday in the office or the fact that it was THIS one we were celebrating. I keep forgetting that, historically, the UK has never been shy about a state religion. (Unlike the US, which only implemented a state religion a few years ago.) Plus, I suppose pancakes are pretty innocuous...I think even Hindus and Muslims can eat them as long as they're not cooked in lard with a big side of bacon. Vegans can't, but they like to be difficult so they don't count.

But wait. There's more....

This favourite tradition of mine originated in Olney, which is about 10 miles from here. Yes, I am in the veritable cradle of civilization as far as Pancake Tuesday is concerned. Seems an industrious housewife needed to clear her pantry in preparation for Lent, and she came up with the pancake dinner to do so. The idea sold like hotcakes (couldn't resist; sorry), and soon the tradition had spread throughout England. Not surprising. I mean, who can resist a sweet, cakelike confection as dinner? It's only surprising that it's just Anglicans that do this.

So next Tuesday about the time my Midwestern friends get up, I will be just finishing a big plate of cakes drizzled in delicious maple syrup. (I'm not going to trust the English to proper syrup. There's a bottle in the cupboard that I got as a gift in Canada this week, and I'm bringing it as my colonial contribution.) Perhaps I'll even introduce the mushroom cheese omelet as an accompaniment. While I'll miss my Perkins night out with the Girls, this will come awfully close. And you know, you could always have pancakes for dinner yourself, kind of a global feast in spirit, if not in person.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Home Again

I am safely home in Milton Keynes. Had a great flight, and even slept the whole way, so feel pretty close to back on time zone. I had a horrible time at the holidays, which I attribute to age and a bad cold, but this time I seem okay. Made it a whole business day without headache, erratic behaviour, or excessive flakiness.

Got my laptop from work, so now I access to email all the time and all kinds of websites BI blocks. For example, I can now get directions from streetmap.co.uk, thus preventing me from getting lost on my way to new places. I can shop online, I can read blogs and websites that discuss politics and controversial subjects, and I can even choose to download music, if I were to get an ipod someday.

I'm pretty excited about being back. I am now here for the long haul, with no currently scheduled date to return home. (Spring is the best I can say right now for my next visit, inquiring minds.) Can't decide what to do next. It's a big world out there, but it's time to get started looking around.

Some of you have asked me why I haven't done more exploring. Well, what have you done since November 1st? Holiday stuff, work, getting caught up on sleep, maybe a week of flu or a cold that slowed you down...add a trip to Vancouver for 5 days and 4 weeks at home, and you'll see why my only major activities happened when visitors came. Ah, the trials of being a thirty-something professional.

It's time for a trip to Ikea. There's one in the north suburbs of London, and now that I've successfully driven the route (I was in the neighbourhood when I came from Heathrow), it's time for end tables and a coffee table. I have nothing upon which to rest my glass, which, when it contains red wine or other intensely colored liquids, is not a good thing for a klutz like me. Good thing the rug is dark.

I have ordered a digital camera. Photos to arrive soon.

Any suggestions on meeting people? I need to make friends. Last time I did this I was 27 and it was easier then. Plus, I was in Seattle and EVERYBODY needed to make friends because they'd just arrived and were all dewy with enthusiasm for their new lives.


Updates on Christianity

As many of you are aware, I get pretty honked off about right-wing evangelicals and their bigoted crap that gives JC a bad name. I retaliate by making fun of them. Here are a couple of updates for your viewing pleasure.

Remember Spongebob and his love that darest not speak its name? Well, he's welcome at the United Church of Christ.

Oh! And don't forget to worship the Jesus of the Week.