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


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!