27 February 2008

And the Thames flows with honey...

Sometimes I forget about the animosity some people in other parts of the UK feel towards Londoners. I don't really get it, but then again, I have only been briefly outside the capital. This jealousy seems to extend to the Expat community.

Maybe life here is relatively easy compared to other parts of the UK. I don't know. I do know that just because you can probably find anything you want in London, it doesn't mean that it's easy or cheap to get to. London is massive geographically, congested, full of fees if you do drive (congestion charges, parking fees, huge fines if you misinterpret signs and park in the wrong place at the wrong time), and while we have extensive public transport, it's very expensive and not always up and running. Many of the places where people in smaller cities or towns shop routinely lie on the outskirts of London.

Sure we have access to some fabulous places to see and do and wonderful things to buy. It doesn't mean that it's all easy to get to. In a way, it was easier for me to live without a car in my small city in the States than here in London.

I guess a lot of the criticism come from the generalisation that Londoners are very centred upon the capital and don't think about life outside the region. I don't know how much this is the case. I used to hear similar things in New York State about the New York Metropolitan area. Even if it were true, this view often ignores the importance of major financial and commercial centres to the economic health of an entire nation. You may need to invest or focus more on the huge cities if you want to be able to live comfortably in your small town. Of course, if you are ready to reject all forms of dependence on institutionalized capitalism, you probably don't need to worry about places like London. You wouldn't have to worry about the time and financial investment. But I somehow doubt that the people who bitch about this most are freegans (who arguably need traditional capitalism to survive) or off the grid living a simple, barter based lifestyle that is largely self-sufficient.

When I walk out my door, the streets are not paved with gold. The Thames doesn't flow with honey within the limits of London. I can't go down and search for cockles and diamonds on its banks within the Greater London area. I am not bombarded with thousands of choices. Usually it's the same choices over and over repeated every mile or so. Starbucks. Tesco. Nero. Next. Boots. KFC. McDonalds. Sainsburys. Curry's. Repeat with a few variations thrown in. And guess what? None of it is that close to me. I reckon most people in London don't live within a mile of the closest High Street.

Enough ranting from me, I suppose. We had an earthquake here last night. I felt it despite the fact we were 150 miles away. Only one reported casualty, which is good. Just a lot of excitement as earthquakes, particularly those over 5.0 on the Richter Scale are pretty rare here.

26 February 2008

Get your one pound bars of Hershey here...

I am an advocate of adapting to a culture you're in as much as possible. When friends and family from the States ask me if I'd like anything (or if there's something that I miss that I can't get here), I usually draw a blank. That isn't to say that there aren't things I miss, but usually it's fleeting. Since I don't bake traditional grained based food, I can't rue the fact that the ingredients here might perform differently than those from home (although I did make some really odd fudge for Christmas from UK products that came out like a cross between a brownie and fudge). Much of what I love from back home has either been replaced by UK equivalents, isn't a part of my diet, available here, or not an urgent craving.

There are a few things that I do yearn for. I can't eat the tuna here. When I open a can for my husband, I always swear that I will try a bite, but the cultural connection between dark tuna and cat food is too strong. Intellectually I know that it's healthier to eat dark tuna, but I was raised on white. The pickles here are more like our sweet pickles, and while I like those, they have too much sugar in them. The closest thing I could find to a dill pickle was a can of kosher cucumbers in brine. No dill whatsoever.

So Mr. Yumi and I headed to Partridge's, a store which specializes in hard to find food, which includes American foods. When we found the American food section, it was a little disorienting. There was a section of shelves full of things that I have heard other Americans ask for, all for premium prices (for example, I paid over $10 for a big jar of baby dill pickles). But even if I were not off sugars and grains, I doubt I would be tempted by much of it. It wasn't that I am above such food, it's just that it isn't the best we have to offer. There was a shelf of Betty Crocker cake mixes and Goober peanut butter and jelly, but the very best of our food wouldn't have made the trip. Or they can be made from quality ingredients from the UK. But when you strip away all the other foods, you get a view of cheap and highly processed food.

I don't expect people to want to know my culture. "Cultural Imperialism" is a real thing, even if it's a bit more complicated than a pithy phrase. But if we fall into the trap of believing that America is just something you can get in a box or in a McDonald's Happy Meal, we ignore the very real cultural richness of our country. Sometimes it's easier to assume that anything that we have to offer the world is cheap, fast, and full of chemicals. Or that our art is equal to the latest blockbuster out of Hollywood. I have to admit that there was a moment when I looked at the wall of Lucky Charms and Duncan Hines frosting that I felt self loathing.

But then I did what any good American does and bought something. I bought us some canned pumpkin, tuna, ranch dressing, and pickles. We bought "gifts" for our family. But I still felt sad and disoriented.

When people ask me if seeing a McDonald's makes me feel like I am home, I try to explain that apart from the time I worked there, I have probably eaten there less than 150 times in my life. Probably less than 100. By the time I was a full fledged adult, I ate at fast food places a couple of times a year. Of course I am a fat American, but not all fat Americans get that way on Big Macs.
When people complain about the Americanization of culture, what they are complaining about is the commercialization of their culture. Yes, US companies tend to have more money for more chains and imports, and the US franchise signs blink the loudest, but few Americans truly benefit from a Dutch Subway franchise being opened. I doubt much trickles down to the average American from a years worth of American blockbusters. What would other countries' cultures look like to outsiders (or even insiders) if the dominating corporate influence were based in say France, China, Japan, or the UK?

I am an unlikely defender of the US. I am usually a critic. I just wonder how much reflection is actually made when we resort to generalities. This is my version of homesickness, I suppose, an unlikely case of bittersweet yearning tinged with embarrassment and defensiveness.

25 February 2008


I haven't posted in a few days due to a family emergency that is resolving itself, but still took a lot out of us.

Amid all the rushing around, I found a new thing to add to my list of a few of my favourite things. It's not new to many people. It's been popular here for a few years, and it's been a traditional drink in Africa since long before the Afrikaners gave it its name , but I had not tried rooibos (Afrikaners for red bush) tea until a few nights ago. I was expecting it to taste like a strong herb drink, or perhaps very close to black tea, but it really has a nice floral, slightly medicinal taste. Some people think it tastes nutty, but I didn't really pick that up. Of course, the devoted tea drinkers in our family dislike it. It's close enough to a traditional tea to taste odd to them.

After my first few sips, I thought I had found the answer to my "tea drinking problem". The water here is very hard and can smell funny. I still drink a lot of water, but I can understand why I am the only one that drinks much of it straight from the tap. Yet, I am not a big tea drinker. I am really sensitive to tannins (I can't drink most red wines without having strong stomach pains). Once in a while I will have a cup of Darjeeling, green, or white tea. I just am not that into it. I love my coffee, but I cannot replace water with coffee. Buying bottled water is really out of the question.

So, trying not to get my hopes up too much, I looked into what could be the effects of drinking a lot of rooibos. I stumbled upon a very interesting story to a pretty amazing plant.

The Cederberg Mountains aren't hospitable to most plants. It's dry, the soil is poor, and it's hot in the summer. The rooibos plant (a type of legume) thrives here, due in part to its extremely long taproot. However, it seems that rooibos is perfectly adapted to this region, because all attempts to cultivate this plant outside this region have failed.

The Khoisan drank a tea from the needles of the rooibos plant, and when the Dutch settled in the area, they adopted this infusion to avoid the high price of imported black tea. However, its use wasn't very widespread until a Russian immigrant named Benjamin Ginsberg decided to try to market the drink more widely in the region. This eventually lead to the Eleven O'Clock brand of red bush tea.

During his attempts to cultivate the plant, Ginsberg inadvertently lead to the reduction in the size of the seed of the plant, making it very difficult find seeds to replant the crops. The price soon soared to over £80 for a pound of the sand-like seeds. One woman seemed to consistently deliver large quantities of the seeds, and Ginsberg finally convinced her to reveal her source. She had found that ants would take the seeds to their nests, and by breaking into these nests, she could find large quantities of seeds in one place. The seeds are now collected through a mechanical process.

Rooibos has been used in South Africa to treat skin conditions, allergies, colic, and asthma. Due to its high anti-oxidant content, it may be shown to help slow or stop cancer growth. There's a whole laundry list of diseases that may be treated with this plant (depression, headaches, insomnia, urinary system problems, stomach spasms), and as of yet, no adverse effects have been shown.

If you're really used to and attached to black tea, this tea might be a bit hard to adapt to having as a replacement. In South Africa, it's prepared with milk and sweetener (and that's how I make it), but in other parts of the world, it's usually consumed black and with or without sweetener. It has a natural sweetness that might be enough for some people. Overall, I find it to be a nice, comforting drink, and I urge you to give it a try.

21 February 2008

The Daily Mail

I could write about a lot of things today since there's a lot of news that has caught my eye lately, but instead, I'd like to write a review and history of the venerable old publication known as The Daily Mail.

First, for those of you who are reading this outside the UK, British people read papers. I know! Nothing more intellectually stimulating than a good newspaper. It's something that is being mournfully lost in the US, and many of us would love to find a way to sustain the Fourth Estate in the age of 24 hour cable news coverage and easy digital access to online news. Somehow, the UK has managed to hold onto tradition and has many national, regional, and local newspapers.

Not all British papers are created the same. You have "serious-minded" newspapers, often called broadsheets because they used to all be massive in size even though some are now printed in compact or Berliner format, and tabloids. Then there's the so called "middle-market" papers. The Daily Mail is usually placed in this category. The Daily Mail is the second best selling UK newspaper after the tabloid The Sun (which incidentally is owned by Rupert Murdoch).

In the UK, the editorial political leanings are usually open and obvious. For example, The Guardian tends to be Centre-Left, and currently tends to support Labour. The Daily Telegraph tends to be Centre-Right with Tory sympathies. The Daily Mail tends to follow a right-wing editorial stance. For All Intensive Porpoises has a definite left liberal editorial bent and doesn't currently support any political party. Now that that's all out in the open, let's get down to business.

First of all, since its founding in 1896, The Daily Mail has never printed an untrue word. If you read it in the Mail, it must be a fact. Even when they supported the fascists during the periods between the two world wars, they remained true to their readers and to the good of the country. Integrity...it's a word closely associated with this publication.

In recent years, The Daily Mail has managed to balance hard news, advertisements, and bringing the country the news that they want to hear. Currently, you can follow the developments of the Madeleine McCann story almost daily just by glancing at the Mail's front page. It truly is a great service to this little girl to ensure her face is seared into our collective memories and to provide a roadmap to the complicated investigations and salacious developments of this story. Even though people might call The Daily Mail "The Daily Maddy", it's surely all worth it if one person might be able to bring forth the piece of the puzzle to solve this case. The publishers of this paper deserve a medal.

They may also deserve a medal for their coverage of the immigration issue. We are being overrun as a country by benefit sponging Swedes, job stealing Poles, violent and non-conforming Asians, sneaky North Americans, and a whole tide of people with brown faces. While we can't do much as a country about migrants from the EU, and closing benefit loopholes while dealing harshly with the abusers would just deal with most problems brought to attention of Brits in the media, a full scale closure of the borders seems in order. Asylum seekers get set up in posh council flats with tea towels and bog roll supplied while our youth are left to aimlessly wander the streets and cause problems. It's the mere dilution of British values by the unwashed hordes that are causing this problem with crime anyway. By God, thankfully The Daily Mail is there to point it out!

When I talk about immigration with many Mail readers, they gladly point out some polygamist from a Middle Eastern country (I am not sure which because they couldn't name it) was sending benefits to his wives back home or that some classes are being taught in Polish in UK's public schools. It's because of the Mail's diligent ability to point out the failures of the system that we can all easily come to the conclusion that we should scrap the system, even for those exercising their human rights to live with and have normal family lives with a British Citizen. As for the EU migrant worker concern, we'll get to them soon enough, but in the meantime, it's glaringly obvious that the costs of such migration, even if they can't accurately be calculated and offset by any gains by the country for allowing migration and immigration, should be paid for by a totally separate group of people who have little political voice (and probably brown faces). Besides, it's only logical that the way to crack down on illegal immigration is to make it harder to legally immigrate. Like, duh?

The Daily Mail has stood strong in this stance. They opposed Jewish immigration during WWII, and they oppose immigration now.

So, if you want some quality writing about the Bebo suicide cult, the latest news on products that will save your life or make it a lot easier in features that look more like news than advertisement, immigration, degradation of society, and strong Middle English values, check out The Daily Mail's website today.

20 February 2008

Love of learning

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about the love of reading. Related, but not the same, is the love of learning.

I think an illiterate person can have a love of learning, and you might agree. Reading certainly facilitates learning, at least formal learning or the learning of facts and ideas, but even those can be learnt without picking up a book or reading Wikipedia. In fact, there's something to be said for getting your information at least in part from experience, observation, and from other people who haven't formalized what they have to say in writing.

I take my curiosity for granted. I also take the ease at which my curiosity can be sated through technology for granted at times. But there are people who don't like to learn. I wonder, though, if it is just an aversion to the formalized education in their past and not an aversion to intellectual activity. I can say for myself, I hate learning maths and I didn't do so well with some science. As an adult, though, I used mathematics textbooks on their own to try to overcome my ignorance in it. During elementary school, I had a little computer gadget that only taught maths, and I loved that thing. I even get excited at the idea of learning maths. I just end up usually getting put off when I don't understand and the method doesn't adapt to my needs.

But some people won't seek opportunities to learn, or at least obvious ones. I don't tend to think that this is the result of people just being naturally different. I tend to think it's either exposure to some of the methods of formal education itself, social pressure from peers, or the inability for large institutions to adapt to the needs of the individual that causes this.

While my husband and I are figuring out how we want to parent our children, I think about what my duties are to our future kids. One is to provide for their needs and to respect their wants (even if we don't always give into their wants). Another is to provide a moral structure and character building. I don't think this is automatically religious, even though some may disagree with me. After that is to make provisions for an education and to help prepare them for the adult world in appropriate fashion to their age. It seems to me that almost everything else falls under one or more of those broad categories. Safety comes under needs. Multiculturalism falls under education, character building, and preparation for the adult world. Spirituality comes under needs, wants, moral structure, and education. And so on.

But I think two things are often ignored when discussing these duties. We should preserve curiosity and foster a love of reading. I don't think that this is always possible if you leave education totally in the hands of the government.

We probably won't be able to afford to send our kids to one of the more progressive private schools (although there is an Enki preschool near here). We are considering the option of home education, particularly with the resources that are provided in the community and the supports we are planning to both our lives and the lives of any children we may have.

It might seem weird that we are planning this so early, but I guess due to personal reasons, thinking about how we will raise our kids responsibly is vital before we begin to have them. I know the best of intentions can go wrong, and reality is a lot different than plans, but seeing how easily things can go wrong with no reflection or planning as you go based on the latest recommendations, I am glad we're thinking about these things with plenty of time to spare.

19 February 2008

wrong number

I am sorry you rang the wrong number. I am not sorry that you might think somehow, some way you managed to call the States instead of your intended.
If you had allowed me to explain and not sighed and slammed the phone down

(as if I had willed you to misdial or
as if I had picked up the phone before your intended picked up
because we are on some international modern holdout to a party phone line, or
as if I somehow didn't have enough bitchiness in my day,
and willed the circuits to cross,
and ring my phone instead of his or hers...)

If you allowed me to explain, we'd not be going through this. I can only hope you will someday call me back and we can be penpals or solve the world's problems or maybe form an international coalition to support strong telecommunications networks. You can be president. I can settle for vice-president.

But I digress. I really hope you reached your party. I am really sure they were glad to hear from you.

There's nothing like a book...

...to make you feel better. It doesn't have to be a great book either. Just one that you can read and enjoy. For me, it has to be a book, and not online text. It is very hard for me to read things online. At least it is hard for me to read anything that is more than a page or two. It seems to be a different process.

I love the smell and feel of books. When I see one that strikes an interest in me, it feels like a large, undrunk cup of really good coffee. Or a wedge of decadent cake. It's sensual. I am about to tuck into that book (as the Brits say about really good and comforting food).

Right now I am reading _Brick Lane_ by Monica Ali. It reminds me a bit of _Jasmine_ by Bharati Mukherjee. The plots themselves only share the general geographical area from which the protagonists come (even though they are from different countries, religions, and cultures) and an immigrant experience in a Western country. But they have other things in common, such as the sense of fate and (perhaps a more Eastern tendency to) to see your life as a tale rather than a series of events. Both have legends about their protagonists early in the novel. Creation legends.

One of the differences I seem to see right away is that the protagonist of _Jasmine_ (I hesitate to call her Jasmine) had a more fluid identity and Nazneen of _Brick Lane_ seems very rigid in her understanding of herself (despite her resignation to allow fate to take its course). Maybe this sense will change as I get further in the book.

I wish I had brought over _Jasmine_ so I could re-read it after I finished _Brick Lane_, but I think I gave it away before I moved. It's been a few years since I've read it, and I wonder how it would feel now while I am going through my own experience with immigration (albeit to a culture that was the main root of my own culture).

So here I am, reviewing a book I haven't even halfway finished. I guess it is because it's the only media that you can really get into someone's mind. A film might more easily show how someone views the world, but it's more difficult for a film maker to show the thought process around the vision. And it's a more leisurely process, allowing for reflection and comparisons that happen during the process of reading.

I often wonder what makes me a "reader" when others in my family were not. I wonder about this more often now that we are looking to having children. How do I foster a love of reading in my children? Why do I want to? Do I truly see this as more beneficial than say a love of really good film, television (and yes, I believe there is good television), music, or an ability to live fully in the present and learn from our surroundings? Am I an intellectual snob for thinking a book is better than a good conversation?

When I try to read long works online and get restless and frustrated, I think I feel a bit of the things that people who do not tend to read books feel when they are forced to read books. Deep down I know it shouldn't matter if I am reading something off pages bound in a book or something in my browser window, but it does matter to me. It feels more clinical, more glaring, less organic. When I try to reason it out, I realise that none of that makes any sense. I am in love with the process of reading much more than I am in love with the language and art of good prose.

18 February 2008

The brief rundown of an undocumented period

There's really been a lot happening in my life, and unfortunately, I haven't seen to it to document it here. I am not sure why. Perhaps laziness and frustration or even just forgetfulness.

I love England and London. I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it would be like to live here and the people I would meet here. I don't really think it's unusual to have these. I am pretty sure every person I've spoken with from North America has their own preconceptions. I don't even think these can be dispelled through a short visit. I learn more about my new home the longer I am here, and unlearn what I thought I knew about both the country of my birth and the country of my choice.

We've done some sightseeing. I see Big Ben and the London Eye on such a routine basis, it does indeed sometimes become routine. But I still get awed, even by these sights that are now common to me if I stop and reflect for a moment. Or if I see them from a different viewpoint. I think people who have lived here all their lives still get that awe.

When I used to live in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the last American city I lived in, I'd often try to think about what the buildings were like 100 years ago. What the avenues looked like at night before it became lit by street lights. What it felt like to travel from one community to the next well before these smaller settlements became eaten up by the growth of the city and they became just different neighbourhoods (a journey that now takes less than 10 minutes by car). I'd find ruminants of this past in the old wrought iron gates that had spaces for lamps to light the paths and carriageways. Or where there was a stepping stone to mount your horse more easily. Or a boot scraper still embedded to the stoop in the older houses.

If you try to do that in London, it becomes overwhelming. Even when you pick things apart to the place where you can place things in their respective eras, you have to remember that so many times the city was renewed after a great destruction. Yet, you can still visit the Roman wall that dates from almost 2 millennia ago.

So every trip here's an adventure to me. We've done a lot of exploring, but I doubt I will see even a fraction of the UK, even if we live here the rest of our lives.

I'm adjusting to living with an extended family. Christmas was fun, but I felt a bit detached from what was going on. Financial stress in the larger family didn't help things. After the holidays, we decided to readopt a whole foods, no grains, sugars, or starch way of eating, and it's going well. Once we meet our health goals, we may move more towards "Nourishing Traditions" but haven't totally decided.

I miss a lot of my friends and family from the US. It's not even that I saw many of them often. It's just that even calling them is a little difficult due to time zone differences. Dad's also not doing well...even the mention of that makes tears well up. But I am committed to this, and I do not regret my move one bit. I think I was meant to live here, even sticking out so much with my broad accent and, when it comes down to it, yank values. By this I do not mean political conservatism, consumerism, focus on self-interest, or anything else that we like to see as critiques of the US and her citizens in general (believe me, we aren't exclusive owners of those traits, and we didn't invent them). I am talking more along the lines of the hypersensitive sense of justice, expectation of fairness, frankness, and general extroversion. But again, I don't think we own exclusive rights to these things, nor did I realise how powerful the culture we were raised in could be.

I finally got my auto-drip coffee pot. Hot damn, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe whenever I want! I am totally off black tea now. It's funny, I used to drink black or green tea a couple times a week. In fact, I went about 6 months just drinking tea in place of coffee. But somehow, I got so sick of tea (our family drinks it instead of water), that I won't touch it. At least for now anyway. I am a bit addicted to a few Twinings herb teas. Yum.

Smoke-free for about 3 months. I didn't bother writing the date down because I guess I didn't think I'd stick to it.

We're planning a possible trip to another EU country this year. I am really looking forward to it. In the next few weeks, we might take a trip to the coast.