Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Rare White Christmas in the UK

FRIDAY 2 WEEKS AGO: It's much warmer today than it has been, meaning I don't feel inclined to wrap my scarf three times (or thrice, as the Brits say) around my neck or prance about like a hyperactive goat in order to keep from turning to ice while waiting for the bus. It's still cold, of course, and the nearby park is still a snowy wonderland and cars are still abandoned on the main road. But it is a useful respite when drivers can reunite with their cars and good citizens can dig out their recycling bins to dispose of the bottles, tins, and papers cluttering their kitchen floors. It's supposed to be very cold again in a few days, but one must take advantage of what one can take advantage of when one can -- if one is so inclined, that is. If one happens to be an expert procrastinator then there's always next spring...and other rooms in the house.

Lunch is simple today: the wonderful Wensleydale and cranberry cheese from the West Yorkshire cheese stall in the Christmas market, encased in a chewy seedy grainy Sainsbury breadcake. It's a perfect holiday sandwich. To the left of me in the Winter Garden a man nibbles on what look like leftover holiday snacks, and the man on my right is eating a pasta salad. It's like a party in the Winter Garden, except with no wine or punch or gin and tonics or crisps or music or funny hats.

THE FOLLOWING WEDNESDAY: Lunch on this post-general-anaesthetic blur of a day is Yorkshire Blue Cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and just a hint of cayenne on a white breadcake. The cheese is very much like Stilton, except seeing as how it's from further north I decided to forego my usual Jamaican chutney in favour of a little Euro-izing.

THURSDAY: Snow is threatening again, flakes flurrying in moments between rain and sleet. Much of Scotland is still dealing with the first snow that started in late November. It surprises me that the northernmost chunk of the UK can grind to a halt because of a heavy snowfall, when the northern parts of the USA expect snow and treat it as a part of winter life. Take Chicago, for example. At a latitude of 42 degrees North, which is 9 degrees south of London, Chicago's typical winter involves 38 inches (94 centimetres) of snow falling anywhere from October to May, so the city is well prepared to deal with it. Even the natives of Seattle, only 5 degrees further north, seem to be a snow-hardy lot.

When I first moved to the UK I was expecting snowy winters, especially as London is 4 degrees closer to the North Pole than Seattle -- and my current home of Sheffield is another 2 degrees closer still. So why does Royal Mail come to a grinding halt with a mere 8 inches of snow?

THE NEXT THURSDAY: It's the eve of Christmas Eve, it's 2 days after the Winter Solstice, there are still piles of snow from the November fall that are so frozen and dirty they appear to be petrifying, and the sky is attempting to snow again. For some reason the shoe shops don't have any sensible boots for snow, as if all of us Sheffielders are interested in stumbling and sliding around on the holiday ice on slick and ridiculously altitudinous heels. Sorry if I'm rambling a bit, but the family to one side of me in the Winter Garden are making way too much noise while the mutterings of the man on the other side is increasing in volume.

All I want for Christmas is for everybody to quit talking all the time, all at once. Whatever happened to quiet contemplation? Whatever happened to quiet conversation? Whatever happened to quiet?

I have to admit that even though I've lived in climates with snow for the past 2 decades, this is probably the first white Christmas I can remember. There may well have been others, but this one is already cementing itself in my memory because of all the white-Christmas accoutrements I see everyday: kiosks selling roast chestnuts, jackfrost nipping at my nose, the current year's fashion of furry boots and knit ski caps, and the unbelievably massive fake Christmas tree in Fargate advertising "Santa's Grotto" -- which is surprising to me because Brits usually refer to Santa as "Father Christmas". Nando's, the Caribbean chicken restaurant chain (the UK's more interesting answer to America's El Pollo Loco) is advertising its turkeyless Christmas, yuletide carols are being sung at back doors by tone-deaf young blokes hoping for a tip, and Pakistani taxi drivers are dressed up like Inuit taxi drivers.

Although I don't celebrate Christmas myself, I do have to admit it's all a bit Christmassy. I'm just sad I missed the lunar eclipse on the Winter Solstice.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Palm Trees In The Snow and Other Surrealities

THURSDAY: I'm eating my lunch while I'm working today. As the snow is over a foot high outside, I am part of the university library's "skeleton staff", one of the handful who could make the long trek from home. I considered not coming, but as one of my huskies needed to return a library book, I hitched up the dogs and sledged my way through the tundra and the drifts, avoiding the drifters along the way no matter how charming they seemed with their denim jackets, cowboy hats, and folksy manners. (Don't worry, it's only snow-related delirium).

As the book sorter churns and chugs away, sucking the books down its conveyor belts and hurling them into bins like a dystopian book-destroying Fordian monster, I'm curled up around my Stilton sandwich, drying my soaked stocking feet in the flames of the hot papaya chutney that garnishes the Stilton. It will be a short day and soon I'll need to start the trek back home. I've got some nuts in my rucksack in case I get stranded along the way. And I can always huddle up with the dogs to stay warm.

FRIDAY: Only in England could I find myself sitting in a giant glass dome, bundled up in fleecy layers, shivering under palm trees and spinning ceiling fans. The tropical plants look charming in that eccentric Victorian-British-Garden sort of way against the backdrop of snow. This is Sheffield's Winter Garden in its intended form.

Lunch is a vegetarian pepperoni and cream cheese sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes, spring onion, and red pepper, and my fruit is slices of apple, satsuma, and blackberries. It's like a cold pizza and a very confused salad.

THE FOLLOWING MONDAY: Today I'm trying not to wolf my sandwich down, as I was very late to work because I spent 45 minutes waiting for a bus that never came. The trampled snow is becoming icy and nothing is guaranteed. My washing machine flooded the kitchen floor this morning, I saw what appeared to be a dead woman on the icy pavement, my staff card has just snapped, and life is becoming very stressed and strange.

But my sandwich is good: Tesco jalapeño and red pepper houmus with a smearing of "quesito" -- a cheese spread surprisingly from Germany and reminiscent of white Velveeta -- on a very fresh brown breadcake. It deserves tasting, so I'm taking my time. The library and the books and the students can all wait.

TUESDAY: Today day started off on a better note. I left the house intending to walk (or crawl, as the trampled snow is turning to black ice). But when I noticed the group of people at the bus stop I learned a bus had been by five minutes earlier, so I decided to wait. And sure enough, another bus came along well before I had turned into an ice queen. And I actually got to work on time.

It was a much more settling experience than yesterday's Blue Velvet-style eeriness. My sandwich today is feta with some Jamie Oliver basil pesto and sun-dried tomato. I must admit I'm disappointed with Jamie, because his prepared pesto just isn't as good as most jarred pestos I've tried. Obviously, freshly-made is far superior, and I'm sure if he had prepared it from scratch in my kitchen it would have been very fine.

I've always though of snow as a silent phenomenon because it makes no sound when it falls, changing a landscape overnight like a stealth weather front. But at this point the snow has become quite noisy, especially when giant chunks of ice decide to jettison themselves down off the angled rooftops of these Yorkshire stone terrace houses. One can only hope that every crash, scrape, and KABOOM! is simply the natural thawing of the ice and snow as opposed to one's house gradually collapsing under the weight.

Or maybe it's small animals scurrying around in the crawl spaces. After all, it is quite cold outside...

Saturday 20 November 2010

Inundations of Food and Drink

TUESDAY: It's a cheesy week. Yesterday's lunch in the midst of chaos was Stilton and hot papaya chutney, and today it's Maasdam with stone ground mustard with real ale (in the mustard, not poured over the sandwich) with red pepper and spring onion, and my fruit consists of strawberries and slices of clementine and pear. It's a miracle I managed to slip away for my lunch break, as two of us have been retrieving books for students Argos-style. This is not because my dream of an Argos-style library -- where only staff members are allowed in the aisles of books -- has come true. But more on that in a minute.

I was chatting the other day with a young English friend about the common British desire for wetness in one's food. I tend to like my food on the dry side, eschewing the need for gravy on my savoury pies and roasted vegetables. I even go so far as to use the minimum trickle of milk on my cereal in order to keep it from going soggy. I deplore soggy. I do like dressing on my salad, but in a sensible quantity that complements rather than conquers. We both agreed that we can appreciate the occasional "water feature" in our meal. But neither of us wants an inundation.

What a coincidence it was when I arrived at work the next day to discover there had been an inundation. Due to burst pipes in the ceilings, books were drenched and the carpets were soaked on two floors. As a result the book collection is roped off on one floor, preventing students access, until the problem is fixed and the area is deemed no longer floodable.

A few years ago it was for the same university that I worked on a research contract about the Sheffield Flood of 1864. A year after that contract ended I witnessed the Sheffield Flood of 2007. And now it's the Adsetts Flood of 2010. Perhaps I should dig out my old Red Cross Swimmer's Card -- achieved when I passed the advanced test at the impressive age of eight -- and have "Flood Survivor" added to my qualification.

THURSDAY: It's Day 4 of this superbuzzing Wonder Woman week. Yesterday afternoon the flooded floor was officially re-opened to students, the ribbons cut by the Mayor of Level 3. The Queen couldn't make it, nor could Charles or William and Kate, and sadly there was no champagne. I'll have to check the local newspapers later.

My sandwich is smoked Applewood cheddar on a wheat breadcake with chopped red pepper, spring onion, and two sliced cocktail olives. And it's mighty good: the cheddar is very mature but not over-smoked, and the olives are happy to make an appearance, seeing as how it's been months and months since they've been called out to grace any martinis. These are economically pinched times, sadly devoid of any trace of Bombay Sapphire or Absolut. Perhaps a Christmas treat will be in order...

Returning to the subject of food inundations, I suppose, although I'm definitely a "wet" where alcohol is concerned, you could call me a "dry" when speaking of meals. I do like sauces, especially on my pasta and rice, but in moderation so I can still recognise the tagliatelle or the couscous. And we did have gravy in the States, most notably the essential eponymous gravy on the Thanksgiving turkey, and even country (properly pronounced "cun-trah") gravy on baking powder biscuits that some breakfast cafes were proud to serve as an option to toast. But I don't recall any dessert ever being drowned in anything as liquid as custard or evaporated milk -- only ice cream or pleasantly puffy whipped cream. I do remember that when I left Southern California to move to Seattle, leaving behind my favourite chile relleno burrito venue, I was excited when I finally found two Mexican restaurants in Seattle that had chile relleno burritos on their menus, only to be disappointed when they served them on a plate covered with ranchero sauce. It's a textural thing: one must hold their chile relleno burrito in their hands and bite into it, not cut it with a knife and fork. It's just wrong.

FRIDAY: Lunch on this TGIF-style Friday is hard-boiled egg mixed with diced mature cheddar, Dijon mustard, yogurt, and capers and caper vinegar. lots of paprika, and crunchy bits. When I learned the Queen was in fact in Sheffield yesterday to open a new motor neurone centre I realised we should have delayed the reopening of Level 3 by one day so she could have popped in and cut the tape. I know she has a busy schedule, but it would have made the reopening special. And considering we now have to put up with the gradually increasing stench of book mildew and fetid carpet mould, it would give us something to be proud of as we sneeze, cough, sputter, and gag our way through our working days.

I think the university should provide SARS-style face masks for those of us working in this toxic environment. To honour Children in Need, perhaps they could be decorated with animal noses and whiskers. If the staff all looked like furry little animals, the students would be less likely to think they'd entered a contamination zone.

Sunday 14 November 2010

The Vanishing Twist-Tie and Rhyming Cheese

MONDAY: While the rain, wind, and cold rage outside, I'm sitting in a very quiet and empty staff room eating a sandwich with avocado, Pyrenees cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes on a past-its-best rustic cheese roll. It's a chewy but pleasant combination.

THURSDAY: The rain continues, the students are rioting over tuition fee increases, and the First buses to Walkley are getting more random every day. Is it Mars doing a tango with Venus while Jupiter trines nearby, seething with jealousy? Or is it all to do with the economy, rain included? It seems like a waste of water to me, all those rivers running down the pavement. We should be collecting this water so we can save it for, um, a rainy day? Hmmm...

This morning the rare twistie -- aka twist-tie -- I use to seal my muesli bag finally broke, leaving me wit the realisation that I now have no more of these amazingly useful little bits of wire. I don't really know what happened to twisties, as I had a whole drawerful in my kitchen when I lived in Seattle, back when common grocery items like bread wrappers were secured with them. Nowadays one has to grapple with that sticky plastic strip that loses its stick almost immediately after the bread wrapper has been opened for the first time, and with those ridiculous plastic tabs with the cut-out in the centre that always break in half. I've become used to using rubber bands to close things now. But certain bags and wrappers still beg to be properly closed with a twistie. Manufacturers still seem to think twist ties are good for keeping electrical cables tidy. Does this mean I have to start buying unneeded electrical appliances regularly just to have my twisties?

FRIDAY: I'm in the Winter Garden before work, watching a scantily clad family group pose under the fan palms while the very serious photographer bunches them together and orders them to smile. Two of them, a woman and a man, are holding hands. Is it a wedding in process? After they leave another dressed-up group arrives. This time it's two parents photographing their son in his graduation cap and gown. What's coming next -- a supermodel shoot? Or perhaps a new boy band video in the making?

Lunch is more of the Pyrenees cheese with just a small bit of sun-dried tomato, red pepper, and spring onion, and a sprinkling of thyme. It's very pleasant on this cold and windy day. I like this cheese. In fact, I could say that this Pyrenees cheese is the bee's knees. But I won't. Oops, too late...

I apologise ahead of time, but I now have the urge to see how far I can go with the rhyme. Let's see...as my Pyrenees cheese continues to please, as I sit under the trees away from the freeze and shoot the breeze about the increase in fees, the man next to me emits a sneeze, then a wheeze, and his knees seize and I suspect he's filled with quease and ill at ease. And the woman over there agrees as she jingles her keys, and she's teasing the bees hovering over the sleazy peas...oh jeeze, all right, I'll cease!

(I obviously have nothing else to say right now...)

Saturday 30 October 2010

American Things I Still Do After 11 Years In Britain

WEDNESDAY: Because it's very cold outside, and the Winter Garden has suddenly become overpopulated with children's school groups -- not to mention the usual lunchtime congregations of office workers and OAPs -- I've been eating my lunch this week on the only inside benches available: the ones in the Millennium Galleries lobby. Yesterday I ate my haloumi sandwich inches away from the greeting cards in the museum gift shop, and today I'm under the skylight shade of sculptor Johnny White's cutlery dog tree, officially called "Barking Up The Right Tree". Not far away is a newspaper board for the Restless Times, today's headline reading WOMEN TO BE RECRUITED AS BUS CONDUCTORS. As this is part of the "Restless Times" art exhibit, featuring British art from 1914 to 1945, there's no need to worry about a social regression.

The only thing I have to worry about is my benchmate who has started to sniff loudly and toxically, as if any minute he'll cough and sneeze his autumn cold or flu germs in my direction. I'll have to start humming loudly to drown it out -- oh, thank god, another chattering herd of sprogs is approaching.

My lunch is a gentle-on-the-stomach tuna sandwich made with yogurt, capers and caper vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, cumin, and thyme. Fruit is all orange -- satsuma, black plum, and peach -- suggesting plenty of protective vitamins. And the school group currently passing by is teenaged and chattering away in Spanish. May sunshine fruit and Spanish keep the viral wolves at bay. ¡Vete! ¡Vete!

I realised the other day that after 11 years of living in the UK, whenever somebody sneezes I still respond with "Gezundheit!" As I never hear Brits use the term so popular in America, I do consciously try to say either nothing or the very British "Bless you", also used in America. But having grown up in the land of Freedom To Not Worship I do resent having to use an expression with such religious connotations. So I usually say nothing. But the occasional "Gezundheit!" still escapes fairly regularly, even though nobody ever thanks me for the sentiment.

Another adjustment I still haven't made in all these years is saying "Ta" for "Thank You". Saying the extremely British "Sorry" for "Excuse Me" (or "Ouch! Watch where you're going, you clutz!") and "Cheers" for "Thanks" both come second-nature to me, and of course "Thank You" is always easy to say. But although I occasionally text "Ta", simply because it's one-third the length of "Thanks" to type, I can't utter it vocally. If somebody in a shop gives me change I must say "Thanks" or "Cheers" because I'd feel like a total fool saying "Ta" in my American accent. I may as well say "Doodoo" or "Titty" for the way it makes me feel.

So to my British friends, all I can say is "Sorry" -- and get off my foot, thank you very much!

FRIDAY: I'm in the University Atrium today, sitting at a quiet table on Level 4 with a peek-a-boo view of the Park Hill Flats. I'm eating another tuna sandwich as slowly as I can in an attempt to stay as relaxed as I can. Stress is having its way with my stomach, and although life is getting more stressful every day with no relief in sight, I must be kind to my stomach. There, there...

If I were writing this in America I'd be inclined to go into the details of my stomach's woes. But as this is Britain I shall stick to the local standards. In other words, I won't replying honestly to the question "How Are You?" -- or the more common "You all right?" This is another British phrase with which I've never felt very comfortable. When somebody says hello followed by a cheerful "You all right?" the custom is to smile back and say a cheerfully automatic "Yeah!" Regardless of how you are feeling, never reply with the truth, even if you're lying in a pool of blood with a dagger projecting from your abdomen. "You all right?" is the same as the American "How are you", only in America one might be inclined to reply with either a sarcastic "I've been better, thanks" or perhaps a more traumatic "AAAGGGGHHHEEEEIIIIHHH!" But here in England, although it would probably be acceptable to ask the passerby if they might be so helpful as to give 999 a ring, it would be considered tediously invasive to go into any detail as to why you might need the emergency services -- and, of course, why you aren't disposed at the moment to phone them yourself.

I freely admit I've failed to adopt this British art of understatement. I suppose it's because that having been brought up American, I obviously identify to some extent with Woody Allen. After all, most urban Americans, regardless of whether they're Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, or Jedi, will admit to having grown up with a Jewish mother. And complaining about what ails you is just part of the national identity.

Still, I'm going to try my hardest to avoid telling you all about my bad stomach...

NEXT MONDAY: I'm sitting in the University library cafe nibbling very slowly on a sandwich with leftover sautéed basa and prawns and salad. It's a very simple sandwich; but as I promised not to talk about my bad stomach I'll leave it at that.

THURSDAY: What a lovely sandwich for a ridiculous day crowded to bursting with people and tasks. It's a mixture of blue cheese brie and smoked Bavarian on a ciabatta roll -- my sandwich, that is, not the day. It's plain and simple, like a view of the Blue Alps. It's surprisingly good, like having a leisurely French picnic next to a roaring bonfire. Très bon!

Sunday 17 October 2010

Power Fairies, Pigeons, and Nicknames

TUESDAY: Lunch today is eaten with cold hands because autumn has arrived. Yes, fall has fallen with a huge bang. It's October and I'm wearing three layers and boots. Somehow my blue brie sandwich seems inappropriate. I can't explain why; perhaps it's the realisation that those rich orange October sunsets will be cheering me up very soon.

Any cheering up is most welcome, as life is bitter at the moment. Even though I did win that new job, it's still only part-time and not enough money to survive on. Our local Royal Mail sorting office is screws up royally (pardon the pun), with not only important documents and credit cards remaining undelivered but also some art supplies I ordered in the hopes of generating a little extra income with some jewellery making. Meanwhile I dive further into my overdraft with every pint of milk I buy, every daily newspaper I pay for, every loaf of bread. My social life is on hold, any entertainment which requires money is postponed, and life just isn't very fun to write about at the moment.

So what a surprise to suddenly receive in today's post a cheque for £160 from a previous utility supplier, with no explanation at all. Do good fairies work for the power companies?

THURSDAY: I recognise this pigeon parading around at my feet. I've only just sat down, on the only spare half-bench in the Winter Garden on this chilly day, and he's already waiting for me to "accidentally" drop a bite of my sandwich. It's goat cheese today, with pine nuts, spring onion, red pepper, and sun-dried tomatoes. I assume he's mostly interested in the bread. Oops, there goes a bit...how clumsy I am. And how sad it is that I have to put on this act in this don't-feed-the-pigeons climate. I'm sorry, but if pigeons are clever enough to find their way inside this glass building popular with human lunch eaters, then I feel they deserve a small reward here and there. (That bit'll be nice, with a pine nut clinging to it. "Oops!")

I can't help wondering why British nicknames are more appealing than American nicknames. Take the name Charles, for example. Although "Chuck" is sometimes used, especially when casually referring to the Prince of Wales, it's mostly an American appellation. And whereas "Charlie" is used in both places, "Chaz" is uniquely British. I think I'd much prefer to be called Chaz than Chuck. On the same line, if my name happened to be Deborah, I'd much prefer the British "Debs" to the American "Debbie". And having known an American Gary for many years, I never realised until I moved to the UK that I could have called him "Gazz". Whether he would have liked that remains to be seen. But there are no American nicknames for Gary, except for perhaps the extremely casual "Gare".

Why do I not know any British Bills? They all seem to be called Will or William, sometimes Billy, but never Bill. And I've never met a British Hank or Hal or Beth.

On the other hand, why are there so many Daves and Pauls in England? And why are there so many Steves in both the UK and America? Back when I was in a band I wrote a song called "Too Many Steves". We never performed it, which is probably a good thing in case it offended any of the Steves in the audience, potentially clearing out the venue.

But I digress, as always...

Saturday 9 October 2010

Job Interview Hoops, The Price of Food and Clothes, Wide Streets, and Palm Trees

FRIDAY: Lunch is being wolfed down in the staff room today because I'm ravenous. I've spent the past two hours going through yet another job interview. It's not that the job is that complicated: it's pretty much what I do now as Library Scum, only with slightly better pay. But the labours one has to endure are just getting absurd.

If I'd been interviewed for this same job four years ago, I could have just sat there and sold myself as the right person for the job. Nowadays one must first jump through a row of flaming hoops, then tapdance across a highwire while juggling chainsaws, then bungee jump into an active volcano, and finally create a PowerPoint presentation about what one has gained from this obstacle course that one can apply to the position of Pot Washer or, in this case, Library Scum II.

So the sandwich that just vanished down my gullet was an odd one: extra mature cheddar with sun-dried tomatoes and basil pesto on a very chewy sunflower rustic roll. I think it was the torrential rain outside that inspired my sandwich making this morning.

If I can break out of this brain-addled postmodern "It's-All-About-Interviewing-For-A-Job" state of mind, I can move on to the second chapter of my post-holiday report, What Is Different About Those Crazy American States These Days. A big thing I noticed during my recent visit was the disparity of the cost of things as compared to the cost of the same things in the UK.

Even though the British pound is currently worth around $1.50, a £5.00 lunch will cost you around $10.00. Obviously the average American sandwich is big enough to feed two people like myself, but I resent having to pay $10.00 for twice the food I want. And although I'm pleased that one can now get a decent pint of ale nearly anywhere in America, I was a bit shocked that the typical price of a pint was $6.00. And that was for a 16-ounce American pint; the Imperial pints I bought were more like $8.00. I did run into a couple of places where one could get an American pint for $4.00, but these seemed few and far between. So eating and drinking out are a bit expensive.

Clothes, however, are relatively cheap in the US. For instance, a pair of Levis 501 jeans would cost you around £45.00 in the UK but only £18.00 in the US. And a particular puffer coat at Gap USA currently costs $89.60, while the same exact coat at Gap UK costs £89.50. And a simple pair of slippers I got at an American Sears for $10.00 would have been £10.00 if I'd bought the same pair at Debenhams in the UK. So if you're off to America, buy some clothes while you're there.

Another thing I noticed about America is not a change but rather my own newly developed understanding of how Brits view American streets. They are quite wide. Even my mother's quiet little suburban residential street is so wide I imagine on a smoggy day it's difficult to make out the houses on the opposite side. Driving down her street I felt as if there was enough room for 3 more cars beside me. And when crossing a nearby major boulevard on foot, I felt I should have packed a sandwich for the journey, not to mention a bottle of water, as it can get very hot in Southern California.

THE NEXT TUESDAY: I'm sitting in the Winter Garden nibbling my tasteful basil pesto sandwich and thinking about the similarities between cinematography and earring design. This is a constructive project of my own, and a much better subject to dwell on than wondering if I got the job or not.

This brings me to my next American impression. When one grows up somewhere one tends to take the local flora, fauna, and architecture for granted. For instance, my Sheffield-native friends often seem completely oblivious to the wonderful Yorkshire stone buildings and vibrantly green hills surrounding them; whereas growing up in a single-story 1950s stucco house on a flat barren (and very wide) street, I am constantly impressed by my Yorkshire surroundings.

So I've reached a point in my expatriated life where I can now see what impresses foreigners visiting Southern California. And palm trees have got to be way up there on the list. If you live in Florida or the tropics or on a Pacific island, they might pass by unnoticed. But to a Brit they stand out in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area landscape like bizarre curved wind turbines with clusters of arched green blades. And they're everywhere you look, as plentiful as espresso bars in Seattle and Big Issue vendors in Sheffield City Centre. Everywhere you look, palm trees line the avenues and dot the terrains, and you almost expect to see camels and pyramids as well. Even my mother has two tall palm trees framing her front door.

The only place I've ever seen palm trees in the UK are in Victorian greenhouses and winter gardens. Oh, and in the gardens of Stromness in Orkney. But trees aren't native to the Orkney Islands, so that's their excuse.

Saturday 25 September 2010

American Cell Phones, American Voice Mail, and the Phasing Out of Money

WEDNESDAY: No, I haven't died, and I haven't fallen down the stairs again or been run over by another bus. I've just been away on a rare holiday. I considered keeping up on my blog while I was away, reporting on my non-sandwich lunches consumed thousands of miles away from Sheffield while being inspired by holiday-type subjects. But most of my holiday was spent in Internet-free zones.

Where on earth, you might wonder, could this be? The Antarctic? A tiny uninhabited Pacific island? On the shores of the Sea of Tranquillity on the lunar surface? Nope. It was, er..,Southern California and Seattle. Strange but true...

It was probably mostly choice on my part that I didn't find many opportunities to log on while I was away. I was too busy doing other things, like having a holiday and stuff. You know, those things we used to do before the Internet.

But this week I'm back in Sheffield, back at work, back eating my Wensleydale, pesto, and sun-dried tomato sandwich in the Winter Garden. And I can use this time to reflect on the things I learned about America in 2010.

It's a different place from when I used to live there in the previous century. It's even changed from my last visit three years ago, especially in the area of electronic technology.

For one thing, some Americans are finally learning to send text messages on their mobiles. Well, one American is, anyway: my friend Barb. All of the other mobile phone users I encountered were still speaking into their phones, often at deafening volumes, even if only to say, "We'll be there in five minutes". What is the point? When I'm in a public place I'd much prefer to hear the tap-tap-tapping of a dozen sets of fingers than a dozen loud simultaneous monologues, all directed at little pieces of plastic. Perhaps stopping the invasive din of phone conversations in public hasn't caught on yet because public spaces are so much bigger than in the UK.

But American phone technology has passed by the UK in one respect: everybody seems to have Caller ID, so land lines are just like mobiles in that respect. And I was extremely impressed when my friend Barb and I were watching TV at her house, and a message suddenly appeared in the corner of the TV screen saying my mother was phoning at that moment. Is that way cool or what? Or at least way frightening?

On the down side, American voice mail has become even more infuriating than the UK version. First of all, the recorded voice gives you not just 3 or 4 button options to press, the last being for "all other enquiries". When I phoned the airlines to change a detail of my return flight, I was offered 10 options, and not one of them directed me to either where I wanted to go or to a Miscellaneous Enquiries option. So I repeated my call and pressed a random number and then more random numbers, eventually reaching a female voice that seemed to care. But it was a recorded female voice, and I was asked to speak my answers.

"What is your reservation locator number?" the recorded voice said.

"A-T-V-S-J-T," I replied.

"You said 'X-R-U-W-N-O'. Is that correct?"


"I'm sorry. Please repeat the number."


"You said 'Are-Ex-Oh-You-Why-Em'. Is that correct?"

"No, it isn't, you f***ing bitch! Can I please talk to a human being?!"

A young male voice, seemingly live, finally replied, and I was able to change my reservation. But only after a major battle with a female robot.

THURSDAY: I'm back in the Winter Garden, and I've got a very busy houmus sandwich. I say busy because it's with cracked peppercorn cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, red pepper, spring onion, dried parsley, and cayenne. And all of these ingredients are getting on just fine and having a wonderful time in my sandwich. I can almost taste the laughter. It makes me want to hold my sandwich up to my ear and see if I can hear the conversation. But I won't, because there are already enough scary people in the Winter Garden today.

There is a trend in the UK toward phasing out cheques. I suppose it's because so many people use cash and credit cards and direct debits and deposits for their monetary transactions that writing cheques for goods and services is becoming a paper-wasting anachronism. I'll admit I write maybe one cheque every year or two, and it's almost always to pay for a takeaway because they don't take cards and the local cash machine happens to be broken.

In the US, however, they seem to be phasing out actual cash. Although I was fortunate enough, thanks to frequent flyer miles, to fly across America in First Class, I did notice that in the Economy section of my flights, even though everything costs money now including pillows and blankets, they don't accept cash -- only cards. Even in Boston Airport, in the pub where I popped in for a between-connection pint, there was a sign announcing proudly, "We accept cash." Wow. You mean I can actually pay for my pint using currency? Isn't that a bit risky?

Pulling out a 10-dollar bill I handed it over to the barmaid. And she gave me some dollar bills in return, and even a couple of coins. Considering we weren't in an episode of Star Trek, it just seemed so natural.

If America does phase out the use of cash, what are people going to throw into fountains? Their debit cards? And how will people make random decisions? By flipping a credit card? Oh, wait -- there's an iPhone coin-flipping app we can use when we no longer have the real thing. And considering all of the other available iPhone apps -- such as virtual playable guitars and drums, a virtual flickable cigarette lighter, virtual rollable dice, virtual tug-of-war, virtual fireworks, a virtual whoopee cushion, virtual bubble-wrap popping, a virtual fireplace, and a virtual tanning bed -- not to mention virtual-life communities on the Internet, we can gradually phase out real life altogether. And then we won't need any form of money.

I'd better order my Star Trek uniform soon...

Saturday 17 July 2010

Mad weather, aggressive birds and lifts, human waste potential, and bliss

WEDNESDAY: It's been a schizophrenic week. It's not just the fact that the stress of the expansive budget cuts and the realisation that I may be forced financially to move into a cave and live on lichen has made me a bit crazy and out of sorts. The weather has also been schizophrenic, as evidenced by the fact that when I got on the bus only 15 minutes ago the windy sky was darkly dripping with the threat of thunderstorms, and here I am sitting in the Winter Garden eating my lunch, having removed my jacket, my shoes, and my socks because it suddenly became a brightly sunny and hot day.

And my sandwich is schizophrenic as well, made up of whatever leftovers haven't gone bad yet. My avocado, smoked Austrian cheese, and sun-dried tomato sandwich is like a Mexican skier who has moved to Genoa in order to be closer to the Alps. And my fruit, a result of my own purchases and whatever I could get free at work, features apples and pears of winter doing a dos-à-dos with raspberries and apricots of summer. And in a few minutes I'll report to my job, where I will be using my talents and experience designing a poster on the computer while being paid library-scum birdfeed for the effort.

So everything is schizophrenic, everything is a result of chaos, and the next time I hear somebody comment that something isn't "normal" I'm going to scream, "Well, of course nothing is normal! On a rotating planet in a moving universe, there is no such thing as a straight line, much less a perpendicular one!"

(Sorry, just had to rant about something irrelevant.)

THURSDAY: Sprinting through town with a frantically traumatised expression on my face is a great alibi for knocking aside the "Hi, could I have a few minutes of your time?" clipboard brandishers. "Sorry -- I'M ACTUALLY IN A HURRY!" I snapped today as I sped past in turbo-charged fifth gear. With all the ambling and moseying pedestrians with a collection of shopping bags in one hand and dripping ice creams in the other, why do these marketers and fundraisers pick instead on the cheetahs racing across the plains in pursuit of their daily bread?

(I realise I'm madly mixing metaphors, but I do like the image of a herd of rustic Italian loaves grazing in a pasture.)

And I was in a hurry. I was desperate, before work, to find a circle template. And because I didn't stop to listen to someone's spiel, only to finally tell them I couldn't afford to donate anything, I did find my circle template. What a successful day!

THE FOLLOWING THURSDAY: After donning more layers because of a suddenly cooler weekend, I awoke Monday morning to a warm and impressively muggy day. So I switched back to summer wear. As I stood at the bus stop a bird shat on my new straw trilby. Later on I was nearly trapped in a lift, as the female voice repeated conflicting warnings ("Doors opening. Doors closing. Doors opening. Doors closing. Doors opening. Doors closing. Mind the doors. Exterminate!") The week has progressed with this schizophrenic theme, each day promising weather that is contradictory to all the forecasts and each minor experience promising unexpected results. That's why I'm sitting in the Winter Garden, eating my Normandy Brie sandwich with peach slices and raspberries, the bottoms of my feet nice and dry but the tops completely soaked. I don't really know what to expect next.

This morning I read that an abandoned bomb shelter in Helsinki has been converted to a database centre that heats the city. Water is pumped through pipes to cool the computer servers, and the resulting hot water flows out to heat 500 homes.

This is a brilliant use of otherwise wasted resources. So why not expand on this ecologically and economically beneficial idea? Perhaps the hot air produced in legislative chambers could also be used to heat water that would then heat homes, while the carbon dioxide-rich air could be circulated into commercial greenhouses and back as oxygen-refreshed air to fuel the speakers. And just think of all that wasted methane produced by belches and other methods in all the conference and meeting rooms of the world, as the attendees slurp cup after cup of gas-forming instant coffee and tea and chomp away on fatty, salty, and sugary snacks. Why continue to waste this rich source of gas? Let's power our vehicles with it! Save the earth by taking advantage of human potential.

FRIDAY: I'm having a slice of Mediterranean vegetable and mozzarella pizza at the Clearly Food Kitchen, formerly Alfie + Bella. I'm upstairs by myself, gazing out the window onto the Sheffield Hallam University students, with my Tramlines schedule in front of me, planning my weekend of live music, and I'm about to go check out the Emilie Taylor exhibition of Sheffield-inspired pottery at the Yorkshire Artspace before going to work for 2 hours. Then it's home and off to Tramlines. I have nothing to complain about today. Bliss...

Sunday 11 July 2010

Whatever You Do, Don't Make Eye Contact

THURSDAY: It must have something to do with pheromones. I awoke this morning to the most personally devastating news to come out of George Osborne's nuclear war of a budget. As part-time low-paid University Library Scum I still have a job, although the secrets of what the autumn term will bring -- meaning Over There, Across That Mid-September Line -- are currently being guarded as if any leak of a conjecture will suck all of the oxygen off the planet. But as of this week many of my friends, including those closest to me, are either losing their jobs or in extreme danger of losing their jobs, the danger breathing down the back of their necks as they scramble past all the dire headlines and dodge the budget-slashing cannonballs.

Several of these friends, including the one I live with, work in a field that helps improve the lives of those with substance abuse problems, learning disabilities, and mental and physical problems. But that field has been axed down to the bare minimum, with entire organisations losing their contracts. So who cares about a few people who can't be "normal" like the rest of us? Just put 'em all on benefits; and if they don't die from neglect, abuse, or overdosing -- or, of course, benefits cuts -- they can damn well get out there and get a job like the rest of us. All it takes is proving you're a far better choice than the other 7,500 applicants for the same position.

So it was in this bitterly sarcastic and pessimistic mood that I alit from the bus and made the mistake of walking down the pedestrian shopping street of Fargate. Like sharks smelling blood they emerged, everywhere, every couple of feet, lunging at me with "Hi, how are you today? Have you heard of the Frog Protection Society?" or "Hi, do you have a few moments to answer a survey?" or "Hello there! Love those earrings! Don't worry, I'm not going to keep you too long…", etc. My pace accelerated to a mini-sprint as I dodged through the obstacle course of smiling clipboard holders, remembering a survival skill I had learned years ago at all the Seattle Center festivals: always wear dark glasses, stare straight ahead, and whatever you do don't make eye contact! It may sound harsh, but when you're stressed out about your exponentially dwindling finances, the last thing in the world you need is a charming, grinning, healthy young person making you feel guilty for not giving up food for a week in order to provide a village with clean water for a year.

THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY: As I had an appointment in Broomhill this morning, I'm now sitting in Weston Park having a Wensleydale and cranberry sandwich on a sunflower seed breadcake from the sandwich shop just down the road. I'm sitting on the grass in the shade, being watched over by a wreath-waving figure of Liberty and two bronze WWI soldiers, all part of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment War Memorial. The setting reminds me of picnic lunches I've experienced in scenic cemeteries, specifically Mountain View in Oakland, Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, and Golders Green in London. As it's a warm and sunny but pleasantly breezy day, there are many other people here, students and hospital workers and OAPs and people of leisure, sitting on benches or sprawled on the grass, throwing frisbees or chatting or reading or eating their lunch or simply enjoying a peaceful moment.

Ah, yes, and now another memory comes to mind from years ago when I was in university, when I had at least an hour between lectures on a particularly pleasant day (in Southern California this means "big billowy white and grey clouds in a blue sky" as opposed to "the usual cloudless brown haze"). There was nothing better than staking out my own plot of shady grass, and my pastime of choice was studying my Russian lesson. (Call me crazy, but I've always found learning foreign languages fun!)

Invariably a student I didn't know would stroll up, smiling, and comment on what a beautiful day it was, and I'd concur. And then they would say something like, "Have you spoken to Jesus recently?" To which I would respond with either a sarcastic retort or a quick heartfelt request for them to bugger off and go bother somebody else. One time, however, I was at the end of my stress rope, and I tore into the poor naïve soul, telling him that it had been a beautiful day until he came along and destroyed the idyllic sanctity of my Russian-conjugation meditation with his arrogant assumption that everybody else in the world should stop thinking for themselves and swallow his particular religion hook, line, and sinker.

I never saw that particular student again. I suspect he may have abandoned his studies and joined a monastery.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Being American in Britain during the World Cup, Spanish Dancers, and Art in Squash Courts

MONDAY: I'm sitting in the Winter Garden again enjoying some peace and quiet, interrupted only by a faint rumble of voices and the bladder-stimulating splash of at least 2 water features. I have a very special treat for lunch today: homemade feta, created by my friend Albert, famous for Albert's Pies at the Nottingham House. Not as dry and salty as your typical feta, it more closely resembles haloumi and is absolutely gorgeous, made with love a very short distance from my own front door. I was a bit worried this morning when I realised the crusty roll I hastily bought yesterday is actually a cheese roll. But not to worry: the cheddar in the bread is very mild so the feta still shines through. Although I've added a tiny bit of red pepper and spring onion, this feta can easily stand on its own, as if it's a Greek version of my nostalgically favourite sandwich Camembert which consists of nothing more than a good French Camembert on a buttered baguette.

TUESDAY: It's another Winter Garden lunch on an unusually cold June day. I'm wearing 3 layers and thinking of my mother, undoubtedly withering away in Southern California heat and wishing it were still winter. Ah, well, no pun intended, but everything's relative.

Including the time. My Bay Area friend Mistah Rick has just told me how one of his favourite Oakland pubs is opening early in the morning to show the World Cup matches from South Africa. I remember one of my local pubs doing the same thing during the last World Cup that took place in Japan and Korea. Although the idea of having a pint at 9:00am is decadently intriguing, I'm afraid my own personal sun doesn't cross over the yardarm until noon -- with the exception of champagne brunches, of course. But I don't experience those very often these days.

The first 2010 World Cup match I watched was England v. USA last Saturday night. After spending the afternoon at the Peace In The Park festival at the Ponderosa, encamped between 2 drumming circles for the last 2 hours, I was feeling quite burned out on drums; so the nonstop drone of the vuvuzelas only heightened my sense of inner short-circuiting.

As I watched the match, my head feeling like a large bottle filled to capacity with mosquitoes, I admit I was quite relieved by the outcome: UK nil, USA nil. I realise this is a bit selfish, but it means I won't have to endure a fresh round of stupid questions and comments by my British acquaintances asking me how I feel because a.) my team, USA, won, or b.) my team, USA, lost. I mean, I live in the UK, I'm American, I love Mexican food as well as cask ale, and as far as I'm concerned I'm both American and British. So I'd be happy for either side to win. But I won't go on about that because some people just don't get it...

WEDNESDAY: As it's a sunny breezy day I'm spending today's lunch in Tudor Square, sitting on some inset seating in one of the new planters, with the Crucible Theatre on my right, the Winter Garden on my left, the Lyceum behind me, and a view of the top of the Sheffield Wheel to the front of me peeking out behind Starbucks. And some sort of distant live music. Is there a concert in the Peace Gardens? Or is it someone's portable stereo? As I enjoy the view and the sounds I'm eating my second Albert's Feta sandwich for the week.

I've just gone inside the Winter Garden in search of the music source, and now I'm sitting on a bench under the palm fronts and glass ceiling watching a bevy of Spanish dancers. How thoughtful of them to have provided me with some lunchtime entertainment. I have no idea who they are and what part of Spain they're from, because there are elements of bellydancing as well. Oh dear, the recorded music has been miscued and the girls are angry…

THE FOLLOWING MONDAY: Lunch on this warm sunny Summer Solstice is an orange Orkney cheddar with red onion, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh thyme in a brown breadcake. The cheese, although not very sharp, is very flavoursome. Dining on Orkney cheese makes me think of the 8-mile walk I took across the Orkney main island almost exactly 3 years ago with two friends, where we reached the most northernmost point I've been on this planet: the village of Twatt.

In a much shorter feet-related feat, yesterday I walked/sprinted/sprang 5K in Sheffield's Race For Life to raise money for cancer research. I did this with the 10 other members of the Cobden View Girls, all of us wearing pink ruffly knickers as we battled our way through over 6000 other pink females. I've never dived between so many bodies and bounded over so many prams in my life. At least we raised a good chunk of money.

THURSDAY: Today's lunch is at a secluded table in the university's atrium, with a view towards the building I had been told was Ponds Forge but isn't. I spent a half hour this morning searching for Ponds Forge, an extremely out-of-the-way sports and conference centre, but I'm glad I finally found it because I was there to see the Sheffield College Creative Exhibition 2010. Unable to find the exhibit of a friend whom I had come to see, I was about to leave when I ran into Josh, who took me over to his out-of-the-way exhibit wall in this out-of-the-way exhibit hall. As a young photographer who wants to become a successful photographer, he was pretty pissed off about the lack of exposure, if you pardon yet another pun, for this exhibit. (I learned later that this exhibit room is normally used for squash courts.)

After the trek back to the University I have just enough time to eat my lunch, an oddly precarious sandwich consisting of very dry and solid hazelnut tofu and sun-dried tomatoes glued to a sesame seed bagel with a bit of nontoxic cream cheese. My fruit is a gorgeous sunset of peach, strawberry, apricot, and peace/apricot hybrid slices. It looks loaded with Vitamin A, the better to help me view my art.

Friday 11 June 2010

Meetingspeak, Food Festivals, and Rebellious Eating

MONDAY: Lunch today is cheddar, tapenade, and sun-dried tomato on a very tall, very whole-grainy, and very seedy Somerfield roll. I intentionally chose cheddar because it was less likely to crumble up or squidge out the sides as I forcefully shoved down the sandwich box lid on this statuesque roll. When I just now opened the box I expected my sandwich to come leaping out like a jack-in-the-box. But fortunately it didn't. And it's yummy and wonderfully chewy.

THURSDAY: Today's sandwich is my typical basil tofu with slices of my first peach of the season and well as some pear, satsuma, and some surprisingly delicious blueberries. Summer seems to have suddenly arrived, and I'm looking forward to the berries, peaches, nectarines, and melons of the season. What more can I say?

Ah yes, there is more I can say. A couple of days ago I endured -- er, attended -- a staff meeting. Now, nearly everybody who works for a company or organisation experiences the seemingly useless ritual of the staff meeting. I remember the regular staff meetings held for our group when I worked as a software developer in California. Everybody took along notepads and pens, and some attendees actually jotted down notes, although many of us used the opportunity to hone our drawing and cartooning skills. When we had weekly morning staff meetings I quickly developed a hatred for the smell of microwave popcorn. I wasn't personally offended by the donuts and other cold snacks that would often be laid out for the attendees; but there was always some food-obsessed employee who thought that saturating the already stuffy air with the stench of ersatz-flavoured popcorn would be an excellent idea, not realising that some of us had only recently finished our breakfasts and had no desire to be assaulted by the smell of food.

But the main aspect of staff meetings I remember is the unique lingo: Meetingspeak, as some call it. In 1980s Los Angeles we would often "put the whole ball of wax on the back burner" so that we could "run it up the flagpole" in a future "time-frame". A few years on with a new manager we learned how to "identify the players", making sure that we stopped when "our plates were full".

Times and buzzwords change. I can't vouch for what they're doing these days at American staff meetings, but here in England we are busy turning nouns into verbs. For instance, everybody is into "evidencing", whether they have a job, are trying to get a job, or are still in university. And it doesn't matter if you're a book shelver, a secretary, a marketing professional, a psychiatrist, a quantity surveyor, or a politician: at some point in your job you'll be expected to perform the act of evidencing.

And if you're all finished evidencing you can always action a few things. Just think of all the things available at your desk that you could action. You could start by actioning up the PC and doing a little spreadsheeting, and then perhaps you could do some Powerpointing. Or you could keep it simple and stapler some pages together and then file-cabinet them. And after you've communicationed a couple of colleagues you could take a few minutes out for some coffeebreaking and relaxationing.

There's really not much pointness in communicationing or languageing anymore.

FOLLOWING WEDNESDAY: Lunch is experimental: some Pié de Angloy, a lovely creamy yellow Normandy cheese, with sliced baby beetroot in sweet chilli marinade (which was languishing in the fridge), with chopped spring onion, fresh thyme, and lots of fresh ground black pepper and paprika. I know it's another schizophrenic combination of spices, but it is good, like a Russian picnic in Paris -- or perhaps a French picnic in Moscow.

THURSDAY: I just want to mention another good sandwich, with lots and lots of avocado spread with a bit of olive tapenade, lots of fresh thyme, and thin slices of really sharp cheddar with spring onion. A little leaf would be good, too. I'm calling this the Michelangelo.

THE FRIDAY FOLLOWING THE FOLLOWING WEEK: As this is the first week of my summer break, when I'm working only three afternoons a week, the settings of my lunches will be varied. Today I am sitting on the grass in the Peace Gardens among throngs of other people enjoying the Sheffield Food Festival. I'm eating a slice of spinach and feta pie purchased at a stall. It's tasty but it would have been nicer heated rather than cold. And, of course, nothing can compare with my own spanakopeta, or "spanky" as a friend calls it.

It's a sunny day, sunglassed children are playing in the pools, and I'm starting to realise that my new straw trilby is not going to protect my back from the sun. I'm surrounded by people eating burgers, curries, Caribbean dishes, Chinese ice cream, and Italian pastries and sipping on smoothies, milkshakes, and beer. It reminds me a bit of the Bite of Seattle, except for the advantage of being able to drink one's beer and margarita outside the restriction of beer gardens. Ah, but it's still got a long way to go to match Seattle's festival. For one thing, there are very few restaurants involved, and there is no live music. It needs at least six different stages with music starting at noon and continuing until midnight. And, of course, a Russian stall selling smoked salmon piroshkies and a seafood stall selling barbecued pesto salmon wouldn't go amiss…

THE WEDNESDAY FOLLOWING THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY: As I just mentioned, this summer I'm enjoying eating my packed lunch in pleasant city centre settings before arriving at work. On warm sunny days I have the choice of the Peace Gardens, St Paul's Square, a shady spot of lawn by the Sheffield Cathedral, or even one of the fountainside tables in front of the train station. And when it's cold and/or damp my choice spot is on a bench inside the Winter Garden. Today, unfortunately, everybody else seems to have come up with the same idea, as the benches are all full up, and the only tables are reserved for Zooby's customers.

So here I am in the Sheffield Hallam University Atrium, sitting at a quiet table in the Cutting Edge café, consciously ignoring the sign next to my head that asks patrons not to consume their own food and drink at these tables. In an act of rebellion I openly brandish my extremely garlicky baba ghanouj and cream cheese sandwich made in my own kitchen as if to say, "Take that, you catering curmudgeons! I shall stand my ground and fight to the death for my right to consume my own strawberries!"

Besides, it's the summer break and the place isn't exactly buzzing with customers.

I will admit I'm a bit of a food rebel at times. Although I'd never foist the stench of a hot greasy meal on my fellow bus passengers I will happily much away on nuts or raisins on my homeward journey. A friend recently told me that eating anything is forbidden on the buses; but I think she misinterpreted the pictogram of the international "No" circle surrounding a steaming kebab. My raw cashews are never even remotely steaming, and my flame raisins are far from flaming.

So I shall continue to boldly nibble my snack like a rebel-rousing squirrel. Viven Los Anarcardos!

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