Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Caving to the Season

In the US people spend a large portion of December whining about how long the Christmas shopping season lasts. Thanksgiving is the last Thursday in November and on the very next day the shops, malls and streets are filled with Bing Crosby crooning, Christmas trees and the requisite non-denominational snowflakes. This continues for four weeks at a frenetic pace with no escape from tinned carols and glitter. By the week before Christmas the whining about the music, advertisements and general madness has also reached a fever pitch. All this to say, "Hey, Americans, chill out. Christmas lasts for months, here!"

Dear me, the ads started in September. Truly, it all kicks off before Halloween. Granted, Halloween here is nothing like the event it is in North America, but the English also have Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes) on November 5th, but still, they just can't wait.

The ads themselves are priceless because from the very start, they have been promising the same, amazing offer: delivery by Christmas! Really? You mean, if I order an ordinary item at the end or September or beginning of October, I can have it delivered within 12 weeks? What service in this country. My other half can't contain his laughter whenever he sees one. You could walk a sofa most places in this country with a trolly and 12 weeks.

Even the weather contributed to the humour, because we had a heat wave in October and there were full news stories on the BBC on how this was terrible because shops had to pull their Christmas themed stock. Damn, now they'll never move all those Christmas crackers. Honestly, who buys Christmas crackers two moths ahead of time?

What about the Kookaburra as an alternative to turkey?
Now, to be fair, I've always thought that US Thanksgiving is a bit too close to Christmas for comfort. I think the Canadians have a much better system with Thanksgiving in early October. That way, you have time to get rid of the turkey leftovers before you start in on another major feast. Of course the food issue can be solved by not having turkey at Christmas. I know that probably caused shock, horror and in some extreme cases, disowning of me, across Ireland. There is the rare case of the goose for Christmas dinner in Ireland, but generally, it's simply sacrilege to even consider abandoning the mighty turkey on December 25th. Interesting, as the turkey is a distinctly American bird.

Americans, however, seem to be much more flexible on the subject of Yuletide vittles. They are happy with roasts, legs of lamb and slabs of ham and they have no problem having turkey twice in a month. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin had it right when he championed the turkey as the national bird of the US, it is clearly beloved.

All of that whining just to set up the confession:

This weekend, we caved. We gave up, gave in and purchased a fake tree. Sorry, I think the politically correct term these days is "artificial," an artificial tree. A pine to be specific. We splurged on the £9.99 specimen available at Argos. And let me tell you, the directions alone are entertaining enough to justify the price.

Sadly, I can't reprint them exactly here for copyright reasons, but the general gist was "If you put up this tree and it looks a bit crap, it's not because you bought the cheapest tree in the United Kingdom, it's not because it has glue dripped all over it, causing some of the branches to be fused together and it's not because it doesn't have enough branches and has been designed in a manner that can only result in it looking pathetic and diseased. It's because you're crap at shaping trees. We can't believe you haven't mastered that talent yet. You really ought to get on that. We made the tree look brilliant, like an entire forest, if we're honest, so clearly the problem is you."

With directions as detailed as these, you might suspect that they give all the information you might want about this tree but they don't. To date, we have had two additional surprises! The first was that this particular model of genuine artificial pine actually loses its needles, just like the real things and the second is that it produces a distinct odour. Unfortunately, this odour bears much more of a resemblance to rubber and various chemicals than to a fresh pine scent, but nevertheless, you take the extras you can get for £9.99.

We also tried mulled wine. Verdict? My aunt does it far better. Mine was vile. Pretty much untouchable and this is coming from folks with slightly less than the most refined palates.

That is indeed a stocking hung above a picture on the wall
Ah well, with some carols on the computer and disgusting holiday drinks in hand we strung the artificial pine with LED lights, switched out the tea towels and hung the stockings on some pre-existing and awkwardly placed nails on the wall and officially welcomed the Christmas season to our little London flat. Sure, we might be two months behind the rest of the country, but we're there, now. It's not even December, yet, so we still have a good month of celebration in front of us while the rest of Britain moans and tries not to get violent over the displays of holiday cheer. Really is there anything more irritating?

Now you'll have to excuse me, I need to warm up. I have to be ready to annoy all the other commuters by humming carols for the next few weeks. They're already sick of them, but I'm just getting started.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Jumanji!

As my dedicated readers will know, I am currently facing my first driving test in well over a decade. I am, naturally, panicking. For the record and for those of you who have never had the pleasure of being in the car with me: I am an excellent driver. No accidents, no tickets and only a couple of white knuckle moments. The issue is purely having to take the practical test. As I've said before, my concern is failing a driving test with plenty of experience and a spotless record. Mind you, I say this having, since my last post on the topic, passed the written test with an excellent score. Oh, really, don't I deserve to toot my own horn on that just a little?

Our June trip to Wales didn't do any favours for my confidence. Before I go any further, I want to remind you that I have driven all over the world and been driven in Peru, where driving is a full contact sport. The roads aren't any narrower in Wales than they are in Ireland, but they have this really frightening policy of posting how many people have died on whatever particular road your currently navigating.


It was late, pitch black, really foggy and we were utterly and completely lost. I'd be clutching the steering wheel, trying to peer through the fog, eyes open for cars, cliffs and sheep, when suddenly a large sign would flash into view. Not ten feet from the front bumper would be an enormous placard announcing that 64 people had died on that road. Brilliant. That's really relaxing me. How comforting to know. All it did was make me mentally add 2 to the total while asking my other half if this road was more or less likely to bring an end to us than the last one. Needless to say, he loved the romantic evening drive.


Now, many of you may be thinking that the biggest issue might be switching sides of the road as I took that first driving test in the US. I assure you, it is not. I am most worried about the ridiculously complex system of road markings in this country. I do not at all understand why there are so many different signs, lines and names. Honestly, there are at least four types of lines on the road that mean no parking. Why do we need so many? Does it really matter if it's no parking because you're approaching a regular pedestrian or a school crossing? In case you're wondering, that's a white zig-zag line versus a yellow zig-zag line.

What really cracks me up, though are the pedestrian crossings, themselves. They're all named after animals. It's a veritable menagerie out there. You have the standard zebra crossing, of course, but then there's also the toucan crossing and, I kid you not, the pelican crossing. You'd want to be careful, who knows what else could be on these crazy British roads. One moment you're calmly walking in a toucan crossing when suddenly a rhino rounds the corner. Everyone knows rhinos are colourblind, so of course he runs the light and that leaves you in a crumpled heap wondering if you should have gone for the pelican crossing instead.


Still no date for the practical test. I think some lessons might be in order, first. Hopefully, they'll cover wildlife.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Out of Town and Out of Ideas

OK, so I cheated. That's not a real blog title, it's actually our trivia team name. Also, by trivia "team" I mean me and my other half. Except for recently when we welcomed a third foreigner to our team, our science ringer and my dear friend, M. She was a star and helped us to continue our reign as last place team. It's a record that we are defending valiantly.
Contrary to popular belief, this is Tower Bridge not London Bridge. Shock! Surprise! Disappointment.

That, however was not even close to the highlight of her 10-day trip. We hit all the major tourist sites, plus a couple of Harry Potter locations, because since 2000, what is a trip to London without a stop at platform 9 3/4? When I was here all those years ago the kind folks at King's Cross Station set up a trolley half through a wall with a Platform 9 3/4 sign above it. We took many a goofy picture on our way to Hogwarts. Unfortunately, due to station renovations, the trolley and sign are now against a fake brick wall in a little temporary room outside the station. Not quite the same feeling, but there was still a queue to take a photo.

Beefeater tour guide at the Tower of London
We also spent a blustery and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon exploring the Tower of London and having a walk through the City of London. Had a brilliant tour through the Tower by a Yeoman Warder - you know them as Beefeaters. He was full of good stories and witty to boot. Other obligatory stops included photo opp for Tower Bridge - that's the one you probably think of when you hear "London Bridge" ie the pretty one - and the real London Bridge, which is markedly less impressive. We of course, took the natural fleeing-dementors photo on the Milennium Bridge. We also saw the Globe, St. Paul's (pre-occupation), Fleet Street and everything in between. Now, granted, we saw a little more than we had planned because I couldn't find the nearest tube station, but it was still lots of fun.

Having been on the London Eye twice in the last few months, I can honestly say, it's a brilliant tourist attraction. 30 minutes floating above London is worth £16. I'm even getting good at pointing out the more obscure London landmarks, so much so that the other people in the pod are starting to listen to me. I managed to suppress the urge to disseminate a little misinformation, but I can't say I wasn't tempted. However my inner tour guide won the battle. I wonder if the Beefeater tour guides at the Tower of London ever make things up.

Yes, that is a baboon made of wire at the Tower of London.
We also saw Wicked, "the best musical of the decade!" Interestingly, it's across the street from Billy Elliot, "the best musical of the decade!" You just can't trust any advertising these days. The lament of the 99 percent?

Our highlight day was a trip to Bath, so named for its baths. Not particularly nice porcelain varieties, mind you, but the ancient, get naked with members of the general public, Roman type. I'd been to see them 10 years ago and they're just as interesting today. I do have to mention, however, that the queue goes from two people to one hundred in a matter of seconds when the Saturday morning train from London arrives. We beat the crowds - travel triumph. Of complete luck, admittedly.

We loved the baths, the Jane Austin Museum and the lovely weather in such a beautiful city. Bath is worth a day trip for any London visitors, not just because of the standard tourist attractions of the Roman ruins, Austin and the Royal Crescent, but because it is an architecturally gorgeous city. The cobblestone streets lined with bath stone buildings are a easy place to while away a day of leisurely wandering. They also have some pretty impressive shopping options if that's your bent. Most impressive for me, however was that they have an all new shopping area and designed the buildings both to look modern, but also to blend with the older architecture, utilising similar designs and bath stone. It's not often that cities put that kind of effort into making new buildings fit with the old. Now whether any of it goes with the Romoan architecture is an entirely different question.
Roman Baths in Bath. Not sure how keen I am to swim in that.

Overall, a wonderful two weeks with M. Did I mention that she cooks? Oh, does she ever. Not only did we have the pleasure of her company, but we ate like royalty. No downside to that! She even left her buttermilk pancake recipe (much requested, rarely bequeathed) and brought real New England maple syrup. Naturally, we haven't made them once since she left.

I did make Rice Krispie treats, yesterday, though, and they are a callin'.

See you all on the flip side. Just don't expect pancakes.

Monday, 7 November 2011

In Defense of Oktoberfest

Before we went to Oktoberfest we were warned by numerous people that Munich was ruined by the yearly influx of raucous, drunken tourists. Well it's one of our favourite cities in the world and we love a nice German beer, so we decided to risk it. Someone has to take hits like this for the greater good of travel writing. Luckily, you all have me.

As you know, we showed up, felt silly and out of place and so went to purchase some leather shorts and a traditional Bavarian purple checkered dress, which we wore with our running and hiking shoes. That should solve the feeling daft issue. Day two was dynamite, the whole experience was, including the inappropriate footwear. That, in particular, endeared us to several Germans over the following days.

Paulaner tent, shockingly early on Friday
 Oktoberfest, or (as you all now know) Wiesn, is a massive festival that has a lot in common with the county fairs you find in the US. It has rides and food stalls and a plethora of junky toys for sale. Of course Oktoberfest also has enormous "tents" that serve copious amounts of beer. Now I know many of you will be sceptical that I have put the word tents in quotation marks, because, really, not much is more irritating than those people who go around putting air quotation marks around words that really don't require or need them. However, Oktoberfest tents are unlike any tents I've ever encountered. And that includes the tents at Namtso Lake in Tibet, which housed cafes and restaurants. Oktoberfest tents are the granpappies of all tents. instead of your standard two-man tent or wedding marquis, these tents hold hundreds upon hundreds of people and have second story balconies. The vastness of these tents probably contributes to Oktoberfest's bad reputation, as they can feel overwhelming and finding a spot at a table takes a willingness to be rejected by people from around the world. When we did find places to squeeze in, though, we met people from all around the world and had a great time.

Having been to Germany twice now, I can say confidently that we met more Germans, had longer conversations with them and learned more about Germany and German culture during one week of Oktoberfest, than we did in the 2 weeks we had previously spent there. A liter of beer takes a while to drink so there's plenty of time for chat. Or, at least it ought to take a while. Especially as Oktoberfest beer is brewed to have a higher alcohol content. There's a price to be paid by those who don't take care and the walking dead were all over the streets every morning and evening, for that matter.

The tents open early in the morning and on the weekends there are few seats left by lunchtime. this can make for some very tipsy people by early afternoon. However, it's worth noting these folks as they tend to make a dash for the exits and an early beds around 5pm, leaving some spaces at the tables for those who don't start drinking at 11am.
And that's not even the most we saw someone carrying!
Now, before everyone gets the idea that Oktoberfest really is just weeks of gratuitous drinking, let me assure you that it's actually a family event. That being said, I'm not sure I can honestly recommend bringing kids into the tents. Each tent is run by one individual brewery and they do have different atmospheres. The most internationally well-known, Hoffbrauhaus, naturally draws tourists almost exclusively, while the smaller tents tend to have more Germans and, during the day, cater to the lunch and one beer crowd.

All the tents have rousing Bavarian bands, servers (both male and female, contrary to popular belief) toting up to 12 or 14 enormous glass steins holding a full litre of beer, and vast kitchens to feed the thousands of hungry party-goers. The sheer amount of food and drink is staggering, but, still, they churn out cold beers and surprisingly good eats for the mass production approach.

Brilliant view of most of Weisn from the Ferris Wheel
The Ferris wheel provides amazing views over the fairgrounds and all the way to the soaring spires of the old city. There are kid areas, beautiful outdoor bier gardens and lots of games with crappy prizes. There are also lots of places for food without having to brave the tents.

All in all, we're giving Oktoberfest two steins up! To say that it ruins Munich and that you can't see Munich is like saying your can't see the real New Orleans during Mardis Gras. Oh, you've heard that, have you? Well, that's another defence for another day!

Prost!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Unforgivable Blogging Behaviour and Lederhosen

Yes, I know. Shame, shame, shame on me. Not to worry, plenty of self flagellation has occurred and you, my loyal (and not so loyal) readers, have been avenged. 6 weeks of silence? Such behaviour is unforgivable in the blog world and I am duly chastised.

In my defence (cue the excuses, please), I've been very busy. Mainly, I have been feeling quite sorry for myself, drinking lots of tea and wondering how one throat can cause so much pain and for so long. I think I have a permanent impression of my body worn into the couch. The tea industry, both caffeinated and non, has, however, been booming. Nothing like cold season to boost a lagging economy.

I have also had the great pleasure of foreign company. My very good friend of many, many years – so many, we wore biker shorts and danced to New Kids on the Block together – the first time – flew all the way from the US to London just to visit us. Although, I think the various high street retailers also appreciated her visit.

Before I get to that, though, there’s Oktoberfest, or Weisn to those in the know and we are now in the know. We flew to Munich at the end of September with the express purpose of indulging in several of our favourite things: the beautiful city of Munich, giant pretzels, sausages and, of course, beer.
We visited Munich during the world trip of 2007 and loved everything about the city. Initially, I hadn’t been so keen on going to Germany. I thought it was too popular and wouldn’t be exciting enough. In searching for that “real” traveller experience, I was sure we weren’t going to find it in Germany.  I was wrong (again). It’s a fantastic country! We met loads of friendly people, ate great food, saw beautiful and exciting cities, and learned a lot.
Interesting fact of the day: You can purchase a day travel card in Munich that affords free travel in all of Bavaria. That includes Salzburg. I wonder how the Austrians feel about their city being co-opted by a German transport network.
After that trip we decided that, one way or another, we would be back for Oktoberfest. This year was the year. We booked everything a year in advance and then waited like kids waiting for Christmas. Twelve months, one transatlantic move and one Easy Jet flight later, we unfolded ourselves from the tiny seats and were ready for the festival to beat all festivals.
Everything was just as we had remembered. German trains still ran perfectly on time, Munich was still a wonderful blend of modern city and historic buildings and pedestrians still waited until they got the green light before crossing the street. Well, it was almost the same. It has to be said that there was an awful lot of lederhosen.

Welcome to Oktoberfest!
We had expected Oktoberfest to be a real tourist affair with very few Germans attending, but when we arrived to the fairgrounds on Thursday afternoon, we were definitely in the minority. Almost all the men were in lederhosen and the women in dirndls, that’s the traditional dress. We found a seat in the Hoffbrauhaus tent where you could tell the tourists by their jeans, their chants of “USA! USA!” and the fact that they were standing up on the benches to chug litres of beer to the cheers of the entire tent. It was 2pm.
That hour was enough to convince us that traditional garb would be essential to our Weisn experience. Off we trooped to a store that sells authentic clothing and was packed with people from every country except Germany. One hour and a rather large ATM withdrawal later we emerged with a bag of clothes that established us as “real” festival goers.
My other half had a lovely pair of leather shorts with suspenders and an embroidered flap on the front, a green checked cotton shirt, a pair of high, thick socks and a green cap with a feather in it. He decided against the traditional shoes as he reckoned he’d never wear them again. The lederhosen (that’s the shorts) seem of excellent quality, which is great because I foresee him getting a lot of wear out of them over the coming year. The overall effect was actually quite dashing, even without the shoes, and markedly less like Peter Pan than you might be envisioning.
I ended up with a purple checked dress (a drindl), the fluffiest white shirt I’ve ever owned and a deep purple apron. I’ll have to see how it goes with my pumps, but I’m thinking it might pass for business casual. I didn’t get shoes either. I suspect it was mainly because husband dearest can’t imagine a fate worse than shoe shopping with me, as opposed to me never having occasion to wear a pair of plain black shoes again. Unfortunately, while his dark green hiking shoes looked alright my white and pink running shoes didn’t really fit with the traditional Bavarian image I was otherwise sporting. Of course, I was very comfortable and they were great for that 10 minute walk from the hotel to Oktoberfest, but our feet definitely feature in a couple of German’s holiday photos. Look, honey, those people spent all that money on leather shorts and fluffy shirts and then wore sneakers! Hahaha! Naturally, I’m not quoting, but if you imagine that in German, you get the idea.
I’ll leave it at that for today, but, rest assured, I am back and will have more exciting descriptions of Oktoberfest fun for you. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I’m falling way behind on feeling sorry for myself. There must be a blanket and a mug of tea around here somewhere.

Monday, 12 September 2011

You Can Go Back

Ten years ago, I stepped off a plane in Gatwick Airport for what was to be an incredible experience. I was 18-years-old, wide eyed and ready for life in a castle. Oh, yes, I was headed for a year abroad in a castle. Do you remember what else happened the fall of 2001? Probably not, if you're over 30 and didn't have a child under 16 at the time - the first Harry Potter film opened! I flew 3,000 miles on a fluke that turned out to be the best decision of my life. Lets face it, very few of the decisions anyone makes at 18-years-old can ever be classed as the "best of their life, " but this one was.

Life at the Queen's University International Study Centre was amazing. It introduced me to some fantastic people, both classmates and instructors, it afforded me the opportunity to travel like very few people ever can (I went to France for a history class - it was mandatory) and it let me live my Harry Potter fantasy. The ISC, now called the Bader International Study Centre, really is located in a castle and is nestled in the bucolic landscape of beautiful East Sussex. Herstmonceux Castle was first noted in the Domesday Book in 1086 as a mansion and was crenelated in 1441 making it a castle, though not one that ever saw any defensive action.

In 1777, the owners, who had inherited the castle, thought to themselves, you know, we're not really digging the idea of restoring this old castle. What could we do instead? Well, their architect, Samuel Wyatt had a cracking idea. Why not dismantle the castle and use the bricks to build a massive, modern mansion down the road? Then you can have both a toasty, new, flashy house and a romantic ruin.

Well, this just seemed like a brilliant idea so that's exactly what they did. They left the exterior walls standing, while demolishing the majority of the interior. Nothing says romance like demolishing a perfectly good and historically important castle.

Fortunately for me and many others, in 1913 restoration began on the castle, which made it, once again a habitable building. 1992 is really the crucial year for the BISC, however, as it was the year that Alfred Bader happened to see a castle for sale. He turned to his lovely wife, Isabel, and asked her, What do you think of buying a castle? Her immediate response was to tell him, That's far too many rooms to hoover. And thus, with one woman's desire to avoid hoovering, a fantastic opportunity for me and many others was born. Alfred bought the castle anyway and gave it to his alma mater, Queen's University of Kingston, Ontario, Canada as an international study centre.

Last weekend we went back to the castle, to the moment I knew I never wanted to stop traveling, to the year I met my husband. Oh, and we brought the in-laws. My family came in hoards when I was there, including both my grannies, but my fella's parents had never seen where we met. We had the most wonderful weather to wander through the gardens and getting wonderful weather in this part of the world is no small stroke of luck. It was odd having to pay for a tour of the building and grounds where we used to live, but worth it to be able to see it again, a decade later.

Unlike visiting my old elementary school, which seemed so much smaller, nothing seemed very different at the castle. It was and always will be one of the homes I've made for myself in this world. One of the little spaces that has opened itself to me, shared its secrets with me and, in turn, heard mine.

I'm reading The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, right now, and in it she describes the walls of an old English mansion as "ancient walls that sing the distant hours." No matter the renovations and modernizations that Herstmonceux Castle has suffered, the walls that have stood for over half a century still whisper and sing to me. They whisper of the ghosts, the Grey Lady and the Headless Drummer, they sing of the children who have run through the halls and the great arc of history they've seen, and they whisper to me of my own not so distant or dramatic past.

So, it turns out: you can go back and you can bring your in-laws with you.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

My Tragic Flaw

On Monday we braved the warnings of all sorts of people and headed to the Notting Hill Carnival. No, nothing to do with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. It is a celebration of everything Caribbean. And by "everything Caribbean" I mean Red Stripe, jerk chicken, music and pot.

We had heard all manner of warnings on the news about pick pockets and gangs planning more riotous behavior, a friend here told us how a policeman was killed by a machete at the carnival in recent years and getting off the tube at Notting Hill we were greeted by enormous signs warning us to mind our belongings and beware of pickpockets. Before we went we empty our pockets of all non-essentials, but suddenly I was wondering just how valuable my Oystercard would be considered by the raving mad thieves that were no doubt over running the event.

As we approached the carnival parade route there were police everywhere, over two dozen on one block alone, but no trouble. The worst we saw all afternoon were four teenage boys getting tickets for something that didn't seem too serious. Neither they nor the officers appeared too put out about the situation. The police seemed mainly there to provide tourist information. And boy, were they helpful about pointing you in the right direction. I'm not sure if everyone was just mellow because of all the pot being smoked, but it seemed like everyone was just out to enjoy the sunshine, the long weekend and the various Caribbean products for sale.

It was definitely a celebration and I think it's great to celebrate Afro-Caribbean culture in London, which has a cultural influence. Thanks, colonialism. It certainly has as much cultural value as St. Patrick's Day parades and green beer. The one thing I really didn't understand, though, was that while some people were draped in various Caribbean flags and lots of people had whistles on lanyards with the names and colours and names of different island nations there were white girls everywhere with little flower garlands in their hair. Did they get confused by the marijuana and think it was a hippie festival or are the garlands a white Caribbean tradition? I don't remember anything like that on my visits there.

A friend of mine from university once said to me, "Everyone has a tragic flaw and yours is your love of parades." Granted, at the time we were standing on the side of the road in -30C weather and in the dark and she's Australian so it wasn't entirely unwarranted. Or untrue. I do love parades, but I think I can do without the Notting Hill Carnival parade. It was unbelievably slow (one group of performers had time to eat lunch while standing in front of us) and had almost no live music. Just a lot of people standing around, some of them in costumes of varying quality and copious amounts of incredibly loud music.

The music was so loud it made me wonder whether that was the reason that a lot of shops and some houses were boarded up with plywood or had their windows taped up. Maybe it gets crazier later at night, but everything was scheduled to end by 7pm anyhow, so I doubt we missed that much. We did get to see a very impressive show who's plywood had been covered in one enormous piece of artwork. It wasn't your standard graffiti, so it could have been commissioned by the shop. Either way, it was nice to have artwork over the signs of fear. A little ironic perhaps to have what can be vandalism brightening up the boarded up shops?

Despite the sub par parade and the horrible whistles and horns - I guess the vuvuzela made it out of South Africa - it was a very nice afternoon. The police seemed to have excellent control, the organizers did a good job with crowd flow and control. Even getting there and away by tube was surprisingly pretty painless. The only major downside is the issue of toilets, we saw fewer than twenty portable toilets all afternoon and all of them had at least thirty people waiting in a queue. That's at least a 45 minute wait if each person in front of you gets in and out in less than a minute an a half. In an attempt to alleviate the public urination that apparently plagues the carnival they had temporary public urinals set up. If you've never seen one of these (we hadn't until Monday) they're plastic X shaped stands where four men can all have a pee with a modicum of privacy. At least as much privacy as you can get when you and three other fellas are peeing on the same plastic stand in a row of twenty stand in the middle of the street next to a high rise residential building with 1,000,000 people attending the same event as you.

Will we go next year? We'll see, but if we do, we'll know not to listen to the people who tell us how dangerous it is. Not a single machete in sight, no wild, raucous crowds, no rioters, no over abundance of pickpockets, just a lot of high people with jerk sauce smeared all over their faces and whistles for countries they've never even visited. If we go, though,  I'll definitely bring the camera, if only to capture to awkwardness of public urinals.


**I'll be away from Blogger until next week, so fear not, I haven't forgotten you, I'm just out gathering more experiences and composing amazing posts to keep you entertained, or more likely just helping you waste time when Facebook is banned at work. Enjoy the weekend!**

Friday, 26 August 2011

Earthquake!

Just before 7pm on Tuesday I got the email that everyone dreams of getting from their spouse who's abroad.

Think there was just an earthquake here.

What? First of all, when you're advising your wife of a life threatening situation in which you currently find yourself it is customary to end said advisory with "I love you." Or really anything in that vein. Not my fella. He's more the facts guy.

I, naturally, immediately conjure up images of the sky scraper he's in swaying violently and the reclaimed land of Boston's financial district liquifying and the building sinking into the Atlantic. Then I read the message one more time and catch the all important word: think. Right, well, if he only thinks it's an earthquake and has the email access to notify me, it's unlikely he's currently swimming for the newly defined Massachusetts shoreline.

It reminded me of my first earthquake. I was living in Peru at the time with a lovely family and was upstairs talking to my then boyfriend (now husband) on the phone. Suddenly, there was a low roaring sound, unlike any sound I've heard. It explains stories of angry gods or beasts under the ground causing them. The rumbling roar rises from the ground until it is all encompassing and penetrates to the very fiber of your body. Meanwhile, all around me everything was shaking, the two story house was swaying and my Peruvian 'grandmother' was shouting up to me in a panicked screech, "Terremoto! Terremoto! Terremoto!!!" Yep, got it, earthquake. My poor fella on the phone, though, got a bit of a shock when I told him why there was shouting on my end. Think he would have learned his lesson. Maybe the email was just his version of payback.

Back in Boston, it all came out that there was in fact an earthquake. The epicenter of the 5.8 on the Richter Scale quake was down in Virginia, just over 500 miles away. Fortunately, there don't seem to be any injuries or major damage (even to the nuclear power plants in the area).

Very fortunate as they're all now battening down the hatchets in preparation for Hurricane Irene who is barreling up the east coast of the US, having already wreaked havoc down in the Caribbean. Quite the week if you happen to live in that corner of the world.

Meanwhile some Londoners in Notting Hill are battening down the hatches from something else that comes from the Caribbean: Carnival! Some people are very concerned that this weekend's two day party and celebration of Caribbean culture will provide an opportunity for more rioting. The Met is putting 10,000 officers on the streets where the party will be and an additional 4,000 throughout the rest of the city. I say, enjoy the jerk chicken and take it as it comes!

On the plus side, you can all now understand "earthquake" in another language.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Blog, Tweet and Facebook Status Update for Your Rights

Today the British government is considering the possibility of shutting down social networking sites during times of "violence, disorder and criminality." Should the BBC also stay home? Maybe we should all close our blinds and not look outside. Definitely, we should all have to turn off our cameras and, naturally, mobile phones are off limits. I'm sure there are some autocratic regimes out there who could suggest some other ways of controlling the population.

Anyone who has read this blog before, knows that I am staunchly against this so called political protests that seemed focused on stealing designer duds and expensive electronics. However, I am also a rabid defender of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Of course, it is wrong to incite violence, but there's a grey area between political protest and incitement. Who do we want making that distinction? I am confident I don't want police and politicians making that call in the height of panic and imposing a blanket silence order on the internet. Would this little blog be banned given my first hand accounts of living in London during the riots? I hardly think it's incendiary, but it's also not a glowing endorsement of British government, policing and the establishment in general. I bet Colonel Ghaddafi would be behind the proposal.

Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin of the Metropolitan Police said last week that "the legality of that [shutting down social networking sites] is very questionable and additionally it is also a very useful intelligence asset."

David Cameron said in parliament today that he's looking into it to see if it would be "right" to shut down social media websites when they're being used to incite "violence, disorder and criminality."

This afternoon Nick Clegg told the BBC, "We're not going to become like Iran or China. We're not going to start suddenly cutting people off. As it happened thos social media sites were also quite useful for the police to communicate with people and they're also quite useful for people to communicate with each other to avoid trouble. So there's another side to the story. And we will proceed with this with great, great deal of care. We won't do anything sort of preemptive."

Spokeswoman for civil rights group Liberty even concurred saying that there's nothing to show that social networking caused the trouble, but we can see the benefits in policing & prosecuting.

What's clearly being missed by all of these people is that it's not the positive side of social media that should save it, it's the belief in freedom of speech and freedom of communication and should save it. Even if kids are out there doing damage to private property, I still have a right to write. I have a right to provide my account and you have a right to read it. We need to fight for our rights because they are our rights, not because on the whole they do more positive than negative primarily because often the true valuation of actions can only be made in hindsight. Buildings can be rebuilt, shops can be restocked, but if we forfeit our basic rights they won't be as easy to recover.

Also, I encourage everyone to listen very carefully to the politicians and decision makers. It is easy to be swept away by fear, but we must keep level heads. David Cameron is considering whether to shut down websites when they are being used to incite "violence, disorder and criminality."
Violence - OK, I'm against violence.
Criminality - Well, I want a definition of this. Does this mean if someone scrawls anti-government graffiti that David can impose a blanket ban of facebook links to a photo of it? It's criminal, but it's hardly the same as encouraging people to set a building on fire in Clapham Junction.
Disorder - I'm down with disorder. Protests are essential to a healthy democracy. I want to be able to protests decisions with which I disagree and I want to be able to post on this social media site that I strongly object to David Cameron's use of language that clearly endangers the right of the people of the United Kingdom to protest. I don't burn buildings, I don't attack people on the street, but if I march in a rally, it could probably be classed as "disorder."

So listen up. Britain has the opportunity here to be a leader and to show that it is a progressive country, but it's the responsibility of all who live here to listen to the policy makers and to make sure that they're listening to us and representing us. Don't let them spin this into something that diminishes our rights.

Meanwhile the Metropolitan Police say: Please go to our website & check our flicker account!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Denoument

I apologize for the extreme delay in posting. If I'm honest, it's because this piece is one of the hardest I've written. Sitting in London, watching the news, reading the papers, it's difficult to balance the reality of what happened last week with rational thought and compassion. The civil rights of many were violated, but that's nothing new so who's right and who's wrong? And, more importantly, where do we go from here?

After some very hectic and tense days across the country, England seems to be breathing again. People aren't  waiting to find hooligans knocking down their garden walls in search of bricks to use as weapons. Shops are keeping their regular hours and people in restaurants and pubs aren't wondering if they'll be robbed before they can order another g&t.

Unfortunately, we also seem to have returned to the social status quo. Gangs are being blamed for the rioting, entire swaths of society have been called "sick" by the prime minister and the government is calling on the Los Angeles police department for assistance in handling gang violence. Interesting. Do they know that LA has terrible race tensions and gang wars? I'm not convinced that they're the shining example of diversity and peaceful living.

Meanwhile, middle class England has returned to their jobs, their weekend city breaks and their glasses of Pimm's. They scurry past council estates, not noticing the kids sitting around with nothing to do and no where to go on their six weeks summer holidays. These are the kids we should be training to be future leaders of their own communities. These are the kids that will make positive change, but we have to enable them to develop skills to help themselves. Anyone who has ever worked in community development will tell you that the change has to come from empowerment within communities, not from politicians or other outsiders.

No doubt, these empty conversations will continue for some time, with little social or political action. However sentences are being handed out to some perpetrators. The courts seem to intent on handing down tough sentences. So tough, that human rights groups are up in arms. Low income families being threatened with eviction from government housing because their teen was an idiot one night last night. Jail sentences for dumb kids who posted stupid messages on facebook inciting riots that never happened. Now, I don't know the full story - most people commenting on it don't - so I feel unqualified to pass final judgement on these situations, but I do feel that the solution can't possibly be kicking people when they're down. Surely each of these cases ought to be judged on its own merits and placed in its own context. A blanket judgment that all families with any member who had anything to do with rioting will be made homeless. Does that really solve a problem?

What about the family of five whose eldest child at fourteen was swept away by mob mentality? This child is doing well at school, has never been in trouble before, has no gang ties and has an involved, albeit single, mom (maybe she's a widow, maybe there isn't a deadbeat dad). Maybe this boy received a flurry of messages one night last week and sneaked out the house when mom was putting the younger kids to bed. He didn't go out intending to burn down a building and make other families homeless. He didn't even consider consequences like that because he's a fourteen-year-old boy and they don't consider consequences. None of them, not even the wealthy ones. Mom can't go out after him because she's got four younger kids at home to take care of so she calls and texts him all night long telling him to come home and not to do anything stupid.

Maybe he robs an i-phone 4, because who doesn't want one? Mom can't afford it, but there it is, right there, in his buddy's hand and all he has to do is take it. There's no police so he does. Woops, he forgot about CCTV cameras. Busted. Now, because they live in a council house they're being evicted. He's missing school because he has to serve a sentence so he'll be behind next year and lose interest, even if he doesn't drop out he still has a criminal record so he can't get a job. For the rest of his life he has to tell every employer that he was really dumb, one night when he was a kid. Long after the i-phone has gone the way of the A-track. Meanwhile, Mom gets evicted because her son was involved in the looting. What chance do we give her other four kids now that they're homeless. Do we really reckon they're going to get A*s in their A levels and go to Oxford?

None of this is to say that the looters, regardless of age, shouldn't be punished. Of course, they should, but we need to think carefully about how we proceed from here. Just because the public is crying out for something doesn't mean it's right or that we should do it. Knee jerk reactions don't help. Didn't we learn that last week?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Silence In the Morning

I think it's a good sign if the police are back giving directions to tourists!
We all woke up this morning, took our showers and life goes on. Rumour has it that five pubs were under attack with both the tills and the patrons robbed and that a Tesco's was also hit. The neighbour who told me this didn't know which pubs had the trouble and I had a cycle by the Tesco's  today, which was open for business and didn't look any worse the wear. Another rumour states that there was rioting at Victoria Shopping Centre and the sirens were going constantly for most of the night, but it seems like the police had a pretty good handle on it all. Who really knows, it all seems like mash of rumors and guess work. There's still a heavier than normal police presence, but it's nothing like last night. Fewer than a dozen officers in Victoria Station at lunch time , but still out and about. Hopefully, they got a bit of a rest during the day, today, before getting called back in for the night shift.

Police van in central London
Meanwhile, thugs reigned in Manchester. The rumours are that professional criminals were organizing the kids who were looting and generally leading police on what looked like a wild goose chase. There have been claims that the rioters had scouts on BMX bikes riding around to find locations without police to which to lead the rioters who were on foot. They would allegedly start looting one shot, then move on when the police showed up, only to circle back through side streets.

Sadly, three men died this morning in Birmingham when they were run over by a car. They died on the street in full view of neighbors and rioters. They were three young men in their early twenties who were, according to their families, trying to protect their property from looters.

The news today is picking up on the "real message" behind the riots. Now, while I think it's probably premature to make sweeping generalizations about the cause of this behaviour, it's certainly something that needs to be addressed. This blog entry worries me, though. To validate what has been happening here as genuine political protest is dangerous and counter productive. While it is, of course, regrettable that their 2,000 person march to Scotland Yard didn't garner the media attention they wanted and may well have deserved, the next step is not stealing televisions and setting buildings on fire.

I'm a supporter of demonstrations and even of civil disobedience, but I am not a supporter of burning down people's homes and stealing people's livelihoods. This isn't even on the level of the ANC in South Africa who attacked government installations to protest apartheid. They made efforts not to do violence. I just can't see that stealing high priced goods and burning buildings that contain both shops and flats is effective, appropriate and/or genuine political protest.

None of this is to say that there shouldn't be more opportunities, support and services for youths of all economic backgrounds. Of course we need to not only have these discussions but also improve our investments in all parts of our society, however, this is not the way to achieve those goals. They are giving a bad name to the youth of the UK and perpetuating what seems to be a terrible class war that is being waged.

There will be a lot more on all of this from all sorts of people over the coming days, weeks and, if we are lucky, months and years. So, I shall leave it at that for now and wait for more information before making any further judgements.

The 5pm update: Most shops and restaurants were still open, but there were markedly more people actually in the restaurants. Pubs, seemed as popular as ever. Sainsbury's manager told me that they would be "playing it by ear" tonight, but that they would definitely be closed by 10pm, instead of their usual 11pm closing time. People still seem cautious, but in much better form tonight. I think we're all hoping that last night's crackdown will have taken the wind out of the trouble makers' sails.

The police force, however, had been beefed up again as the evening rush hour set in. There were vans of police everywhere and at least a dozen officers just in the main area of Victoria Station.

Here's to another night on the edge.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London is burning and all the world's aTwitter

Beginning late Saturday night, London has been ravaged by rioting and violence. It appears to have stemmed from the shooting of a man named Mark Duggan by police. The main problem being reported is that's all the credible information that has been disseminated. There are rumors that he was a drug dealer and the founder of a gang, and rumors that he was a dedicated family man. There are rumors that he instigated a shoot out with police and rumors that he only had a replica gun and police just gunned him down. Meanwhile, it's August, people are on holidays and we've even had a couple of very hot days and nights. Saturday night wasn't one of them, unless yours was one of the flats, businesses or vehicles set ablaze.

Shockingly, it seems that the majority of the trouble makers are children. Many young teenagers (15 and under), but also people are reporting kids as young as 10. They are looting shops and now, setting fire to buildings. People are being made homeless and one 26-year-old man has died of gunshot wounds, while an elderly man has been hospitalized after he was knocked down during a riot.


I had my first dentist appointment today and he said he lives close to Croyden where he said there was trouble just at the end of his road. A friend of his had just gone into his house last night when he looked out his window to see a group of kids surround a moving BMW. They brought it to a halt, dragged the driver out of the car and drove away.

Sainsbury's closed at 5pm tonight



Police presence at Victoria Station 5pm


Police vans instead of taxis at Victoria
The Metropolitan Police say they have 16,000 police on the streets tonight and some of them are walking beats all around Victoria, which is under threat of attack tonight. They are talking to people and shop owners and generally just making themselves seen. As of 5pm pretty much every shop was closing, the bank was closing and even some of the restaurants and cafes. Even the Marks & Spencers in Victoria Station had locked its doors to the street and was only allowing customers in from the station, which had at least a dozen officers walking around inside. Outside the station were police vans replacing the usual taxis and at least 7 or 8 groups of officers standing around. It was a strange atmosphere of rush hour in a ghost town. Thousands of people leaving work, but no shops open. A mix of anger, nervousness and just getting on with life. Naturally, the pubs that were still open were filled with people who had been let out of work early. Nothing messes with the English desire for a good gin and tonic or pint, I guess.


One of the major organizing tools that the youths are using are social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. There are also claims that virtual invitations have been going out via text message and the Black Berry Messaging system. Come on down to your local riot. Free stuff and general mayhem. Not an exact quotation, naturally, as I have not been privy to such an invitation, but that's my understanding of what's going around. In an attempt to take back the city other residents have been using the same methods to call for cleanups. Today in Clapham Junction there was a major cleanup that has apparently gone viral on YouTube.
Commuters and dozens of police at Victoria Station

See photos of the riots here.


It's despicable behaviour and one has to wonder what the parents of these children are thinking and doing. No doubt some of these kids were in trouble and uncontrollable before now, but according to the BBC several of them made court appearances today and were upstanding citizens before the last couple of days. One would hope that parents would keep their kids indoors, if for no other reason than their own safety.


The riots are now spreading with violence and crime last night in Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol. Oh, and breaking news: Riots in Manchester city centre. Clearly not a political protest. This is just people rioting for rioting's sake.



Interestingly, there are people complaining about the mayor's plan to flood the streets with five times the usual amount of police officers. They reckon that the issues are bigger than rioting and that because we can't possibly sustain a level of 16,000 officers on the streets at all time, we should be addressing the larger issues instead. Really? I'm not sure that we can solve the alienated youth problem today, so perhaps we should stop the rioting while addressing the big problems. Seems like this is a situation where we ought to be prioritizing, not waxing philosophical.


In the meantime, though, we batten down the hatches and thank the 16,000 police who are at work tonight.

Here we go for another night in The Lord of the Flies.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Making a New Life

Today I really feel like I'm settling in to life in London. I applied for a drivers license, found out my fee status for university in the fall and am finally getting my food processor. It's real, it's official. We live in London. We are Londoners, now. Well, maybe let's not go that far, so soon.

I'm terrified about the driving license. My beloved 1996 Toyota Corolla is a manual car (I miss you, little car!), I've been driving for over 10 years and I drive on both sides of the road - though not generally in the same trip - but I'm still shaking in my boots. Not so much that I'd have an accident or do something terrible during the exam, but more that I'll be watching all these little teenagers triumphantly waving their "pass" papers and I'll be slumped in the corner with a "fail" for some silly mistake.

In fact, what's really getting my blood pressure up is the "show me/tell me" section of the exam. Apparently the examiner will ask two of these questions, such as, "show me how you'd check the oil level" and "tell me how you'd check that the steering is working." Oil level - check. Provided it's in the same spot as my Corolla! I feel pretty confident that I could find it, just generally, but under pressure, who knows what I could do. Also, tell you how I know the steering is working? Well either the car turns when I turn the wheel or I sit there helplessly flailing while the car continues to sail on. I guess that's when the emergency stop comes in?

Anyhow, I know I shouldn't be stressing about this, because my dad did a great job teaching me the basics of cars, because I have taken car of a 15-year-old car for many years and mainly because I don't even have the provisional license yet and I'm going to take lessons, so it's really not an issue yet. As my mother would say in an exasperated voice, "Really, Sinead, cross that bridge when you come to it." Hopefully, I manage to cross it on the right side of the road, with appropriate mirror checking and within the speed limit.

As I walked back from picking up my new and sure to be delightful food processor a woman asked me for directions to Harrods. Balancing my enormous box on one knee and hanging on to another bag with one hand, I was fairly clear that I had absolutely no idea how to get her there, but she produced a map of London nonetheless. After pointing out where we were on the map (I was confident on that much), I told her to "walk straight, then turn right and it should be on your left. The poor woman is probably still wandering around Kensington, hours later. I'm not quite a Londoner, yet.

Now, my first official act as an almost Londoner: Go searching for all my best food processor/hand blender recipes. Yum.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Countdowns and Down for the Count

It has been a shockingly long time since my last post, so apologies for that. Since then, we have seen a great many changes, including Rebekah Brooks and the Murdochs being called to account for this outrageous phone hacking scandal. I'm thrilled that they're being made to answer for their actions and lack of actions, but it all seems a little trite and perhaps the news it's generating is a little too "good." They are key players in an ongoing criminal investigation, so, naturally, the members of parliament questioning them didn't want to compromise any facet of that. Instead, we got hard hitting inqueries such as, "What happened?" and "Do you bear any responsibility?"

Now don't get me wrong, I laughed as hard as the next viewer when Rupert Murdoch passed the buck down the chain. I'm not responsible, the people I trusted and the people they trusted are responsible. As though trusting someone relieves you of responsibility in your job. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Paul Stephenson said when he resigned, "As commissioner, I carry ultimately responsibility for the position we find ourselves in."

He didn't blame it on the people he trusted.

Rupert, Rebekah and James are somehow not responsible for any of the major problems that occurred on their watch and put huge sums of money in their pockets. They say that the business is too big for them to know anything. Indeed. Sounds a lot like "too big to fail" to me. If it's too big to manage, that's just what we call "too big."

No other business owner would get away with rampant illegal activity in their business by saying that they just can't keep up with everything that goes on in the business. As owner, as CEO that's your job. Oh, also Rupert, this didn't come out of left field, you were in court in 2006 for hacking the phones of members of the royal household. Not exactly a hidden activity.

Seeing the public's reaction to Rupert was fascinating, though. I think people expected the big bad wolf to walk in, but instead they got something closer to Little Red Riding Hood's granny. He was frail, he seemed a bit dothery and it's just a difficult to really conjure up scathing hatred for a little old man you would normally help cross a busy street.

People really seemed to think that he would look and act like a nasty movie villain. Why? He's eighty years old and a businessman. I don't think he's really up for hand-to-hand contact with Superman anymore, if he ever was. Rupert isn't the guy who challenges you to fisticuffs to prove how tough he is, he knows his power and he knows how to use it. His power is money and media. More effective than fists any day. Although, his wife was pretty scrappy when someone attempted to smash him in the face with a plate of shaving cream. Who doesn't love the old pie-in-the-face routine? Oh, Wendi doesn't and she'll show you just how distasteful it is. Watch out for a slap from those well manicured hands. All this to say that I don't think the Murdoch empire is quite as down for the count as my title might suggest.

In other news, only 365 days until the London Olympics 2010! The excitement is killing me. The party is due to kick off tonight in Trafalgar Square when IOC president, Jacques Rogge, invites the athletes of the world to gather in London one year from today.

Do you think he'll advise them to be extra careful about what their voice mails say? Seems prudent.

I'll be back online soon to give you the thrilling run down of how things go tonight. People are apparently already gathering in the square. Only hours to go until there are only hundreds of days to go. You may commence waiting with bated breath.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Big Day!

The excitement is just killing me today. Not only are we moving, but the last Harry Potter film premiered last night in London and Kate and Wills will open the Calgary Stampede. If the rumors are to be believed, they may even wear cowboy hats while doing this! I for one, believe this wild rumor; I heard that Kate left a voicemail for Wills about it.

The News of the World is shutting down due to this phone hacking scandal. Allegedly, a private investigator for the paper hacked the mobile phone accounts of possibly thousands of people, including a murdered teenager, victims of the 7/7 bombings here in London and soldiers killed in action. A bit of a morbid fascination.

As bad as this massive invasion of privacy is, and I do believe it's terrible, what worse is that the people who stand to suffer today mostly had nothing to do with the hacking. The BBC reported this morning that The News of the World employed over 200 people, all of whom are waking up to the news that they seem to be out of a job. Meanwhile, the editor under whose leadership this scandal occurred, Rebekah Brooks, appears poised to keep her high paying executive position within the parent company of News International. In fact, she seems to have played a major role in the decision to close the paper. If that's not an indictment of our times, I'm not sure what is.

So, while I'm thrilled that moving day is finally here, there is a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

Although, when I think of the fashion statement that Kate, sorry, the Duchess of Cambridge will no doubt make today, my faith in the world is a little restored. At least there's still some fluffy, mindless news in the world.

I wonder how much air time that will get on Fox News today. I expect we'll be seeing a great deal of evidence of Rupert Murdoch's passion for fashion.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A True English Experience

Tomorrow we are moving house and I'm ready. It's been a long time coming and it finally looks like it's going to come through. It was a learning experience renting a flat in London, though. Most specifically, we learned a word that in any other circumstances I would have loved: gazumping. It just rolls off the tongue. Unfortunately, it also rolled us right out of a lovely little flat after the landlord had accepted our offer. He decided he'd just prefer to get more money. Instead of saying that to us and letting us decide if we wanted to raise our offer, he held our deposit and kept changing the move-in date and delaying signing the paperwork. When we finally said "enough" he had said that we could move in until 6 weeks after the original date, but he'd let us know for certain a couple of days before the date. Insanity. However, we've found a bigger, cheaper unit in a better location, so karma or whatever it is is smiling on us. Take that, landlord.

Moral of the story? Gazumping is a delightful linguistic construct, but a rather miserable experience.

Tomorrow is the big day, though, so today was a busy day getting ready. Unfortunately, it was due to rain all day. When I saw that it wasn't raining this morning I set out immediately, hoping to be back indoors before it started. Maybe it would hold off until late afternoon?

No such luck.

No sooner was I on a bridge crossing the Thames than the skies opened and it absolutely deluged. Sideways. Oh, English rain, how I've missed you. It's been almost ten years since I last experienced the uncanny ability of English rain from all directions. It falls downwards, sideways, upwards and any other direction of which you can conceive, plus a few more. My little umbrella and water resistant (a laughable designation in this part of the world) jacket struggled valiantly, but by the time I had made it home hours later, I was soaked to the bone.

For a time I was impressed because my new waterproof shoes seemed to be keeping my feet dry, but alas, it did not last. To be fair, I'm not sure that they leaked, it's equally likely that my feet were wet due to the water pouring down my legs. The shoes certainly didn't seem to be letting any water out.

Naturally, the sun is splitting the stones right now. A gorgeous evening.

Perfect for drying shoes.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Of Maple Leafs and Long Queues

Perhaps I should say "long lines?" Now that's a culture conundrum. Is a queue still a "queue" if it's made of Canadians waiting for that most Canadian of institutions, Tim Hortons? Somehow, it just felt a lot more like a "line."

Oh, yes, my loyal readers (all two of you), Timmy's was in London. Amidst the hustle and bustle of a gorgeous summer day in the Big Smoke there were flashes of red everywhere on Friday. Canadians were out in force with their flags, maple leafs (again, this just feels more right than "maple leaves"), hockey jerseys and all manner of Roots gear. Nowhere were they more apparent than in Trafalgar Square. London has the largest Canada celebration outside of Canada and, on this 144th birthday, Canadians and London were in it to party!

I took a walk to Trafalgar and arrived at about 2:45 in the afternoon to find the party in full swing. The two enormous bars were serving Sleeman's Honey Brown and Canadian, people were snacking on bison burgers, buffalo wings (actually American) and psuedo-poutine. I say "psuedo" because it was made with grated cheese not cheese curds, which, as any good Canadian will attest, is just cheating. And if you talk to anyone from Quebec they'll insist that the cheese curd squeaks. If it doesn't squeak, it's not worthy of the name "poutine." However, the crowning glory, as evidenced by the enormous line, was the (cue the choir of Canadian angels) Tim Horton's tent. Oh yes, real Timmy's coffee and donuts.

The glorious Tim Hortons tent
How far away I actually was at the end of the line
I joined the hoards and began the wait. About five minutes in, some event workers walked by wheeling a basketball hoop. The English guy in line in front of me asked the Canadian girl he was with, "Why do they have basketball? That's not Canadian!" She triumphantly and a little smugly, if I'm honest, said, "Actually, it is! The guy who invented it was Canadian. I can't remember his name. Neville...something like that. He was Canadian anyway!"

Now, as you all know I have a compulsion to share obscure pieces of trivia so I couldn't help blurting out, "Naismith. The inventor of basketball was named James Naismith." They were a little surprised that I just burst into their conversation, I think, but she was thrilled to have some back up. I didn't like to burst her Canadian bubble, so I left out the part about James having invented it in Springfield, Massachusetts. Not sure what that means about the sport of basketball. Is it Canadian or American? To look at the Raptors, you'd have to say American, but surely they can't have that much of an influence on the entire sport. Basketball seems to me like a child of an immigrant; born in America, but Canadian too. Naismith was a native of Almonte, Ontario (a suburb of Ottawa, today) and received his Bachelors of Education from my dear McGill University.

"But" as Dr. Carroll used to say, "I digress." I got talking to the couple after that fail safe icebreaker. **Note to the non-Canadian readers: Should you ever travel to Canada or just wish to make friends with any Canadian, you would do well to learn some of the many talented people the country has produced. They just love a good game of "Oh, s/he/they're Canadian!" And they particularly love it if people generally think that person is American.** Again, I digress. They were two very nice people and had a very, very important piece of information for me. Canadians, listen up. This is, in fact, so important and exciting that it deserves its own paragraph.

There is a REAL Tim Horton's in London.

I kid you not. It's apparently, on Regency next to a Sainsbury's or in that general location. Joy abounds.

Joy also abounded when about an hour later I was at the head of the line. Gladly paid 6.50 for five donuts and one small coffee - not quite the same pricing structure as in Canada, but still, with that line, they really could have fleeced us!

After a hurried goodbye to my line buddies I scurried off through the streets of London with my cup of Timmy's coffee and backpack filled with donuts. I could tell the Canadians that I passed by the way they gave themselves whiplash doing a double take at my little brown cup as I speed walked past them. As other people paused to take pictures on the Mall, at St. James' Palace and Buckingham Palace, I was taking the largest, quickest steps I could without scalding myself or, more importantly, wasting a drop of that dark brown nectar so loved by Canadians, especially my own Canadian.

One text later and my Canadian met me in the lobby of his building where he collected his coffee and chose some donuts (only enough for one person, otherwise he'd have to share!). A delightful afternoon snack and just as much fun, if a bit stale, on Saturday morning!

All in all, a great Canada Day! You just can't beat a little Timmy's and that oh so evident Canadian national pride. The type of pride and inspires them to wrap themselves in flags, wear t-shirts that say nothing but "eh?," eat fake poutine and, of course, queue for an hour for overpriced coffee and donuts, just because it's Timmy's.

Happy Canada Day - hope you all celebrated in true Canadian form. I'm sure Donald Sutherland did.
**Bet you didn't know he's Canadian!**