Wednesday 23 November 2011

Why Do People Travel with Blinders On?

TUESDAY: Today's sandwich is another cheese treat. I was out duck hunting this weekend -- searching for stencilled ducks on the fronts of cask ale pubs, that is. And in the countertop fridge at the Fat Cat in Kelham Island, along with the usual pork pies made with Kelham Island Bitter, there was a lone package of cheese made with Kelham Island Pale Rider from the Staffordshire Cheese Company. Naturally I had to have it.

And my sandwich is simple: Kelham Island Beer Cheese with a bit of chopped red pepper and spring onion and a sprinkling of dried thyme. The beer is cheddar-ish, only with the wonderfully sharp taste of curd soaked in ale, and the texture is moist and sticky, almost like Stilton. It's a joy, and I agree with the landlady: it would be gorgeous with biscuits.

Although I usually try to write about my American take on British life, there is something on my mind that relates not only to all expats but also to all international travellers. A young British friend is currently spending a year travelling around the world, with her first few months spent in South America. Because this person is intelligent and has travelled to distant lands before, I was hoping to see photographs of interesting places and people and to read about the unique cultures and features of these new places. Sadly all that has appeared on this person's Facebook page are photos of herself smiling happily at the camera with her very British-looking grinning companions, all having the time of their lives in the sun. Considering that before she left she'd already uploaded over a thousand photos, most of her and her friends all smiling and having the time of their lives in the sun, one can't tell she's journeyed any further than perhaps Cornwall.

What a total disappointment. I'm reminded of a couple of British friends who have travelled the world, and how I always get that sickened feeling in my stomach when I hear about their recent exotic holiday spent by the swimming pool of a Brit-populated hotel enclave, reading books they could read at home and being excited to find the hotel stocks their British newspaper, when outside the walls the daily life of a foreign culture offers its rare and intriguing finds and discoveries. The same thing occurs with a lot of Brits I've met who holiday solely in Spain -- not to seek out the medieval towns or Moorish architecture or the Pyrenees landscapes, but to lie by a similar pool surrounded by like-minded Brits.

Why spend all that time and money travelling to a foreign country when one can pursue the activities one plans to pursue at home instead? When I lived in America and travelled to Europe, the last people in the world I wanted to hang out with were fellow Americans. In fact, if I found myself on a train in Belgium or Italy that happened to be carrying a group of loud Americans, I always kept my mouth shut and found myself a nice quiet carriage where I could sit peacefully with the local commuters as well as other lone foreigners like myself. And here I would have the opportunity to write about the amazing sites I was photographing, the people I was meeting and observing, the customs I was learning, and the unique experiences I was having, far away from not only America but from its newspapers, TV programs, and cuisine. I was in that country because I wanted to experience that country. Why else would I be there?

Now that I live in Britain I still feel basically the same way. Although my original intention of moving to another country was because I felt myself a citizen of the world and not a flag-waving American, I have gradually come to realise that I am still an American living in Britain, and my accent and personal history will never change. But I wear my foreign experience, naivety, and accent well, I think, amusing my British friends with my occasional lapses of knowledge and slips of the tongue. But I eat Marmite and chip butties and I read the Guardian every day and I always talk to total strangers in pubs and I thank the bus driver when I debark, even if he or she drives like a homicidal asshole, and I do all those British things because I'm a British resident.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Scalene Triangles, Pet Vacs, Semis, and the Hollywood Bowl

FRIDAY: This week has featured some nice sandwiches, most notably the leftover basa (aka Vietnamese river cobbler) fillet and Philadelphia cream cheese with sun-dried tomatoes. Because I just picked up some nice French cheese from this season's global market for next week's pique-niques, I decided today to have some more of the excellent Wensleydale before it goes bad. My bread is a big crusty triangular wheat roll with sesame and poppy seeds. The problem I had this morning was when I discovered that the 2 sides of my scalene sandwich were longer than each side of my square sandwich box, presenting a bit of a mathematical conundrum. I considered the problem for a bit, positioning the knife in various positions atop my sandwich. When I finally decided that a single cut would prove challenging at best and impossible at worst, and that the sandwich probably needed 2 cuts minimum to solve the geometric mystery in front of me, I ditched the box and used a plastic bag. Problem solved.

This morning I noticed an ad in the Guardian selling vacuum cleaners at John Lewis. I was intrigued by the Miele S6220 Cat and Dog Vacuum Cleaner. My own vacuum cleaner has a special attachment to remove dog and cat hair from carpeting, and this is how it's described in the instruction manual. But an actual vacuum cleaner for cats and dogs seems like a rather bizarre innovation. Even my late cat Wesley, the mellowest and most philosophical puss I ever knew, would surely have objected if I'd ever tried to use a vacuum cleaner on him. Surely a brush would be a better choice, even for the woolliest and sheddingmost of pets. If this had been an American ad, it would probably be called a Vacuum Cleaner with Special Attachment for Removing Pet Hair From Carpeting, or something equally wordy and unpoetic.

I wonder if Miele also make hamster shampooers and budgie mops.

MONDAY: Today I have my first sandwich of the French cheeses I bought last week: some very yellow Normandy camembert with chopped red pepper and coarsely ground black pepper on a fresh wholemeal breadcake. Simple yet perfect.

The other day I heard a snatch of my favourite symphony by my favourite composer, Beethoven's Ninth. Instantly I was propelled back to my Los Angeles days when I used to see the LA Philharmonic perform its summertime concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. The concerts were basically a large communal picnic with entertainment, with the casually dressed crowd bringing their bulging picnic baskets and copious bottles of wine to nibble and sip as the sun slowly set over the outdoor amphitheatre while the orchestra tuned up for its stirring performance. This was something I looked forward to every summer.

And then it occurred to me that, in the UK, "Hollywood Bowl" conjures up a completely different image, because it refers to a national chain of ten-pin bowling alleys. Whether it was named after the Hollywood Bowl in California I can't say, although I don't think anybody has every actually bowled in the amphitheatre. I do remember at one concert when I accidentally knocked over our bottle of wine which went rolling loudly down each tier of the concrete seats, eventually coming to a stop when it smashed into the back of the bottom tier, splashing its redness all over the back of the beige trousers of a man sitting in the front row. It was a most embarrassing "strike", not to mention a waste of a fine merlot.

After the horrific crash on the M5 this past weekend which resulted in a fireball of cars and trucks, I e-mailed an American friend about the accident. As I am an American living in Britain, not only do I try my best to speak only British English here, but I also try to translate back into American English for my American friends and family. Because most Americans don't know what an "artic" is (short for articulated lorry), I described the accident as involving 37 vehicles including 7 semis, which is what Americans call them (short for "semi-trailer truck"). Suddenly I had the image of 5 semi-detached houses -- 2 lots of 2, obviously, with another one ripped from its neighbour -- lying crushed and flaming in the middle of the motorway.

I suppose anything's possible these days…

Saturday 15 October 2011

Living in the Po-Mo Cloud

FRIDAY: Lunch after a round of table tennis is a very thin sandwich with Gorgonzola and sun-roasted tomatoes. All of my sandwiches are very thin at the moment because of stomach problems. It's the stress of Po-Mo life, I think: the failing economy, the lack of challenging work, and gradually learning that living globally without constant headaches is apparently only for the rich. Somehow I have to phone my American bank this weekend by tricking their computerised voice-activated system because I don't have a 5-digit US zip code.

I recently read in the Guardian that postmodernism began on the 15th of July 1972 with the demolition of the Pruitt Igue housing scheme in St Louis, Missouri, signalling the end of the "modern" world. It was around this year that I, like many of my SoCal peers within 2 years of my age, temporarily abandoned pop music and retreated into eclecticism: jazz, blues, Western swing, Tin Pan Alley, jugband music, Dr Demento, Throbbing Gristle, Balkan and Ukrainian folk music, and anything that wasn't "pop". Had I, too, become postmodern?

Life at this moment is definitely postmodern, with everybody contactable every minute of every day by mobile phone, while seemingly sociable people are rendered unable to communicate because of the earphones permanently lodged in their ears that are tuned to the audio effect of digital 0s and 1s instead of the 3D analogue life that surrounds them. I identify with Tacita Dean, a British film artist based in Berlin whose current exhibit has opened in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. In the Guardian she said she's not a Luddite but she mourns the death of film as a medium, as it has been taken over by the Ons and Offs of digital video.

A few years ago when I was designing websites for a living, it suddenly occurred to me in an alarming flash of understanding that I was spending my hours creating and get paid for nothingness. I was making beautiful graphics and animations and even sounds in some instances -- but where were they ending up? Where is my own CoffeeBeer website? Where is this blog? Stephen Fry recently said that Apple's iCloud is located on a mountainside in North Carolina. Is my current Po-Mo blog that you are now reading located somewhere in the Andes? Is my Double Shot Buzz column buried on the bottom of the Mariana Trench? Is Pint Pleasures orbiting around the Earth in a small computer satellite left behind by the Space Shuttle crew? Is any of this really relevant, seeing as how everything you are currently reading and I am constantly writing, photographing, and uploading is nothing more than a mixture of 0s and 1s streamed by And gates and Or gates?

Although my adult life has been largely occupied with computer-related work and activities, I still prefer to hear my music in 3 dimensions, eg. coming at me in soundwaves that move through the physical atmosphere rather than piped directly into my head from little white buds. And I've always very much preferred to talk to someone in 3-dimensional person rather than on the phone. But I also have to admit that if I'm not multitasking at any given moment I feel as though I'm failing to live. And at this point my entire social diary is stored on my mobile phone.

How sad is that? Poor Po-Mo Me…

Wednesday 28 September 2011

My Trader Joe's Joy, and the Disappointment of So-Called Tortilla Chips

FRIDAY: It's been over a week since I've written anything at lunch because I've been engrossed in a book. And strangely enough for me, it's a novel. I don't normally read novels, as I've never got over my post-university craving to constantly learn from my reading, not that it's made me any wiser. But to keep myself grounded I allow some fiction every now and then, as long as it's good quality classic stuff. And The New Confessions by William Boyd is definitely a modern classic, written so realistically that it's easy to mistake it for an amazing autobiography.

My lunch is vegetarian Italian sausage and cream cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and red peppers in a crusty sunflower seed baguette: a novel sandwich, I must say. As I'm going out this evening directly from work I'm travelling light today, so no 450-page novel. Instead I'm going to write about a source of pride and joy followed by one of disappointment. A year ago when I visited America my dear friend Kimmer gave me, as a goodbye present, a Trader Joe's tote bag containing a small jar of Marmite and a packet of Sen-Sens. The jar of Marmite, a staple of mine, has been consumed by now; and the Sen-Sens, a nostalgic taste of olfactory magic, as well as a pop-culture icon, are still lying unopened and on display next to my classic Photo On Car, purchased years ago in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. But the Trader Joe's tote bag -- a gorgeously super soft and comfortable canvas bag printed in my favourite colours, red and black -- was until about a month ago lying forgotten on a bedroom shelf. I've only just started using it, stashing it folded up in my backpack or handbag to use for post-work and pre-pub shopping. And I have to admit, with a tiny bit of embarrassment, that I've fallen in love with it. For one thing, if I have nothing more to carry than a bottle of wine, it cushions the bottle so I don't have to live in fear of knocking a plastic bag over onto the pavement, possibly breaking the bottle and creating a huge mess, not to mention wasting good wine. And when I'm waiting for the bus and I've bought more than I intended, there is plenty of room for everything without things flopping around and without the big heavy macho items squashing the delicate little items under their heavy boots. And the handle is so luxuriously soft and comfortable to hold. And the bag says TRADER JOE'S in gorgeous red and black.

Trader Joe's is definitely one of the plus sides of being an American on the Pacific Coast. After all these years of its existence, it is still a fine, fine establishment and concept with a wonderful selection of reasonably priced and often excellent quality food and drink products. Every time I come back from the US to the UK, or an American friend or relative comes to visit, I always purchase or put in a request for a jar of Trader Joe's unsalted almond butter and perhaps a packet of their handmade corn tortillas -- two items I still cannot find in the UK.

This brings me to my other item of discussion. Recently I was surprised and very excited to spot a brand new product being featured at Marks & Spencer: tortilla chips that do not have wheat flour as an ingredient. Up to now I had pretty much given up on ever finding real tortilla chips in this country, eg. made of cornmeal, water, salt, and often lime. This is why I avoid anything made with so-called "corn" tortillas, because not only does the addition of wheat make them tasteless but it also imparts the texture of cardboard.

So I went back to Marks & Spencer another day, fully intending to treat myself to some non-cardboard tortilla chips. On the display was a variety of flavoured tortilla chips such as Nacho Cheese (flavoured with "Nacho Cheese seasonings"), Chorizo and Red Pepper (flavoured with "Chorizo and Red Pepper seasonings"), Mediterranean Black and Green Olive (flavoured with "Mediterranean Black and Green Olive seasonings"), and several other flavours -- but not one packet of the "Lightly Salted" (flavoured, I hope, with a bit of salt and not "Lightly Salted seasonings"). I didn't fancy some sort of overly salted -- and probably sweetened as well -- "seasonings" on my tortilla chips. I wanted plain and simple tortilla chips. So why were they out of the plain style? Could there have been a rush on that flavour? I doubt it seriously -- they probably just didn't stock very many of the plain ones. Must every British food be either seasoned with special "seasonings" or drowned in gravy or sweetened with sugar?

Sorry to be so grumpy, but I do so miss my Mexican food. It's only natural.

Monday 12 September 2011

Olfactory Highs and Lows and the Travesty of Sweet Pizza

MONDAY: I can't believe how gorgeously delicious my lunch is today. I've got a houmus and cream cheese sandwich with chopped spring onion and chopped red pepper -- nothing unusual for me, except that the houmus is made with black-eyed beans instead of chickpeas and flavoured with basil. It's unbelievably good. And the cream cheese is proper Philadelphia. I suppose houmus is like pesto, in that there is no reason one can't make it with beans other than chickpeas and flavourings other than just tahini, garlic, and lemon. I used to make not only basil pesto but pesto with dill and almonds and pesto with thyme and walnuts. What a joy this is -- I'm so glad I picked it up off the Reduced shelf.

THE FOLLOWING THURSDAY: As I've been going to work only two days a week this month, it's been a slow time for writing my blogs. Now that I'm back to working 5 days next week, I'm sure I'll have more to write about. Today, as I nibble a simple Stilton sandwich with hot lime chutney -- accompanied by red pepper and radish slices and Minneola and nectarine slices, as well as raspberries -- I need to quickly add to my previous rant about British food being obsessed with sweetness. Last week I had a Co-Op Stonebaked Roasted Vegetable Pizza that wasn't bad for a store-bought pizza except for one thing: a distinct and somewhat unpleasant sweetness in every bite I took. When I fished the box out of the recycling and read the lists of ingredients I was appalled. Under both "pizza sauce" and "sweet chilli sauce", sugar was the second ingredient; and under "roasted vegetables" and "rust", sugar was also a main ingredient.

Is that sick or what? Who in the world wants a sweet pizza? Mind you, I'm living in the country that loves pineapple pizza…

THE NEXT MONDAY: I'm back to working 5 days a week. I've just finished a book on postmodernity in which I've discovered that everything I do -- other than my University job -- is postmodern.

My sandwich is a JC traditional, however: basil marinated tofu and cream cheese. Fruit is another exciting combination of raspberries, blueberries, nectarines, and one lone lychee for a perfumed dessert. The perfume of the lychee reminds me of the incense cones of my childhood, first discovered at a shop in the magical Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax in Hollywood. Most people think of a "farmers' market" as smelling like fresh vegetables, with rows of just-picked produce and possibly some homemade cheeses and jams. But the magic smells I remember in the Hollywood Farmers Market were the moulded-plastic smell of the fascinating toy stall with its plastic Klik-Klak Blocks and Duncan whistling spintops, caves full of scarves scented with sandalwood, garlicky falafel vendors, and of course the smell of stardom, as the market was located in the shadow of the massive CBS building. One never forgets childhood smells: our collie's lovely warm fur, my mom's hot apple pies, the caramel corn counter in Zody's, that unique aroma of Yardley's lipgloss, and of course the inside of my mother's handbag, a bouquet of spearmint gum, lipstick, keys, and fresh white tissues.

And here I am smelling the very un-British smells of palm trees and banana plants -- blended, of course, with the British smell of packaged cakes and egg mayo sandwiches mixed with that global smell of take-away coffee.

But there is something I smell in Sheffield that I never smelled in my home town of Long Beach, California: the smell of stone-built history.

WEDNESDAY: My sandwich is vegetarian sage and marjoram sausages with cream cheese, Dijon mustard, and the usual chopped vegetables. It's not bad, although the sausage would be nicer if it were hot -- but there are no cooking facilities in the Winter Garden. Continuing on the subject of olfactory joys, I experienced the opposite yesterday on my way home from work. As I was walking past the Town Hall passing the group of protesters waving "Save Our NHS" placards, I was suddenly pelted on the head and shoulders by a boxful of ballistic chips. It's bad enough being pelted by greasy chips, especially at the end of a working day, but the insult was accentuated by the fact that the chips were soaked in vinegar, splashing me with Eau de Vinaigre de Malt. I have a friend who finds the smell of malt vinegar uncontrollably emetic; and I was tempted to run over to the youths who unintentionally caught me in their boisterous crossfire and vomit all over their shoes.

But I didn't. I extracted a leftover swine-flu-era bottle of antibacterial hand wash from my rucksack and doused some on my jacket and hair, creating a new perfume to spices up my bus ride home: antibacterial malt vinegar.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Inland Seasides, Seagulls, and the Japanese Invasion

TUESDAY: Once again it's Friday of my current 2-day work schedule, and I'm eating a sandwich with extra mature cheddar and gorgeously creamy avocado, seasoned with the obligatory cumin and New Mexico chilli powder. After a short period of warm humid weather we're suddenly having a preview of autumn, and I'm back to wearing long sleeves and socks.

This is why I'm particularly amused by the month-long "Sheffield by the Seaside" festival that just started in the Peace Gardens. As a former seaside dweller -- and I'm referring to my entire life before I moved to Sheffield -- I find this concept extremely amusing, as the nearest seaside is over 70 miles away. Certainly the city can dump a truckload of sand to create a beach and provide some water in the form of an inflatable pool, and they can erect kiosks selling candy floss, ice lollies, Sheffield rock, sausage rolls, and sushi. And the rides that have popped up are de rigueur.

But will they import a flock of seagulls to provide the necessary seaside soundtrack? If I'm supposed to believe I'm back by the sea, not only do I want to hear that wonderful haunting sound of seagulls flying over the Belmont Pier or circling around the Space Needle or surfing the air currents above the Folkestone Leas, but I want to share my chips with them. I'm reminded of Ivar's chain of fish and chips cafes in Seattle, particularly the one overlooking Elliott Bay, where signs actually urge patrons to share their food with the ever-present gulls.

This is an integral part of seaside life. I'd love to see the Yorkshire inlanders quit complaining about pigeon poop when they see what seagulls can muster. In my book, you haven't lived unless you've been shat upon by a seagull at least once.

A ride constructed temporarily near the Sheffield-By-The-Seaside site sends me back to my childhood every time I walk past it. On summer holidays my family would often visit my mother's home town of Seaside, Oregon, with its main drag full of rides, razor clam stands, and salt-water taffy shops. And my favourite ride was what we Americans call bumper cars. On my way to work I stop momentarily and watch the bumper cars, remembering how I'd squeal with delight when I'd ram into the back of my brother's car. Oddly the Brits call these cars dodgems, which implies a more defensive manner of driving. To be fair, I don't think we American kids were actually supposed to drive as aggressively and offensively as we could; but what good is a "bumper car" if you don't bump? And the bumpier the better.

Back to the sushi stand. I have to admit I've never seen a sushi stand at any of the English seasides I've visited, although I haven't been to Folkestone, Brighton, Hastings, Bridlington, Whitby, or Scarborough for some time. Like the seemingly sudden explosion of excellent cask ale pubs, Sheffield seems to be experiencing an equally sudden and welcome Japanese invasion, with sushi bars popping up all over, including those that deliver. So when is the Greek invasion coming, bringing more than just one Greek deli and at least a couple of good Greek restaurants, and possibly a Greek festival, with Greek folk dancing and spanakopeta and gyros and Roditis and Retsina and Greek coffees? Having grown up in California with its Greek communities and restaurants, I would be very happy to see some of this come to Sheffield. And I know a few locals who would welcome it as well.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Reading, Writing, and Visas for Clones

WEDNESDAY: What a week. I've spent the morning talking to pub owners and writing an article while making a lasagne, and here I am in the Winter Garden before work trying to prep for yet another job interview. Once again it's my current job, only just a little bit better. I realise it's pointless making notes about what I obviously do in my job every day, especially while eating such a tasty sandwich. So I'd rather write about my sandwich. It's Cornish brie with basil pesto and sun-blackened tomatoes, and it's really very yummy. Meanwhile a workmate is texting and calling me on my mobile, and I've just noticed I'm surrounded by an art display. Zit-zit-zit, too much stimulation! I just saw a man walk by holding a butterfly net, a woman in heels is pulling a massively huge suitcase on wheels, and there are an inordinate number of people racing about in electric wheelchairs. It must be the annual Sheffield Art Wheelchair Giant Suitcase Butterfly Festival with Regular Mobile Updates, catered by Lasagne Writers of South Yorkshire.

THE FOLLOWING TUESDAY: I'm calling today's sandwich the Mediterratica, because it's another mixture of leftover cheeses, this time a half sandwich worth of Feta and a half of Camembert. I've got them in a checkerboard pattern with basil pesto, fresh basil, and chopped red pepper. So it's a Mediterranean erratic mixture which tastes as if it was intentional. A pigeon is watching me intently, knowing I'm a sucker for "accidentally" dropping crumbs of food. I'm sorry, I like animals, and the occasional dribble of a piece of bread is what they depend on. So there.

TUESDAY 2 OR MAYBE 3 WEEKS LATER: As I'm working only 2 days a week this month, today is the Friday of my working week, although I will be working on my own business on Wednesdays and Thursdays. For the duration of the summer Friday is reserved for table tennis, so considering I'm not playing it today it's not really anything like my current Fridays. But never mind…

I haven't written much lately because I've been trying to spend more time reading. After all, if one doesn't read, one cannot really justify one's ability to write. Currently I'm reading 3 books, all on loan from the library where I work -- and all renewed several times because life is busy and I don't have much free time in which to read. The optimum times for reading books are when I'm eating my lunch and not writing this blog, not writing a review or an article, not working on a job application, and not attempting to catch up with the pile of miscellaneous newspaper and magazine articles I've set aside to read; and also in the evenings before going to bed.

Last night I fully intended to retreat upstairs to read about postmodernism, but I was distracted by turkeys. Intrigued by "My Life As Turkey", the BBC broadcast of Joe Hutto's account of becoming mother to 16 wild turkeys for 18 months, I ended up watching the whole program, the entire lifespan of Hutto's baby turkeys from hatching to becoming independent adults setting out on their own. Although this sounds like an excuse for not reading, it was actually a fascinating and very unique documentary.

And here I am eating my lunch and not reading again. But it's because I'm writing this blog right now. After all, I can't read and write at the same time, much as I wish I could. If I had my druthers I'd clone myself so I could read, write, design art, play table tennis, explore pubs and coffeehouses, redesign my website, learn C++ and C#, play keyboards in a band, play my mandolin, clean house, travel the world, work my hours at the library, and take care of my mother in California all at the same time.

But then there's the problem of my permanent residency visa. If I leave the country for more than 2 years I need to fill in some paperwork so that I don't lose my visa. If there were 20 of me, and one of those went to live in California, would I be required to fill out the paperwork for one-twentieth of Me? Or would 1/20 of Me be required to fill out a form if 1/20 of Me were going to be out of the country for 2 X 1/20 years?

This is getting a bit confusing. I think I'd better get to work now…

Thursday 7 July 2011

Junk Food Horror and National Obesity

FRIDAY: It's not that I have anything against the University cleaners -- in fact I quite like them and always say hello. But because they have decided to start taking their group break at the same time I have my lunch break, I have moved from the normally quiet Staff Room across the library and into the din of the café. Because I'm trying to absorb an especially demanding section of my book on intellectual property, I find the general cacophony of the buzzing of cafe fridges mixed with several different conversations easier to deal with than five cleaners joining into one debate about pensions, holidays, and television. When I lived on a hillside in Seattle overlooking the vibrant city centre and Lake Union, I found it much easier to sleep through the early morning cosmopolitan symphony of train whistles, ferry horns, drawbridge horns, circling seagulls, flapping skeins of Canadian geese, muffled I-5 and I-99 traffic than it was to sleep through a single drunk person sitting on the steps outside expounding at 2am about life and betrayed love.

Sorry, I'm just an overworked grumpy woman these days.

My sandwich is mature cheddar with red onion, English mustard, and sliced olives on a cheese and onion rustic roll, with peach, pineapple, and apple slices. It's quite civilised and soothes that coolant roar.

THE NEXT WEDNESDAY: What a lovely way to start lunch: I spilled my water all over my crotch thanks to lack of sleep because I was worrying about money because the University neglected to pay me for all of the extra hours at which I've been slaving away to make ends meet. So not only am I skint, too skint to buy an espresso to keep myself awake, but I have a sopping wet crotch. And I forgot to put my tuna sandwich in the fridge, so I'm hoping it doesn't poison me.

THURSDAY: There's not much to talk about this week, but I have invented two lovely sandwiches. The Cheshire Cat is made with Cheshire cheese with chopped red pepper, spring onion, thin shavings of courgette, and tarragon. And today the Cosmopolitan is a mixture of the last of the Dulce Latte with the last bit of Cheshire and spring onion and roasted red pepper. I pity the poor lunchers munching on lesser sarnies.

THE FOLLOWING MONDAY: Lunch on this hot steamy day is pesto-topped houmus and black pepper cream cheese on a brown breadcake seasoned with fresh basil and black and cayenne pepper and finished with a layer of mixed sprouts. They're English sprouts, for those of you who may think I'm dangerously careless -- they are not from the German sprout farm in the news recently as being the source of the E coli epidemic. Mind you, I still don't eat cucumbers, but that's merely because I don't like them.

Speaking of food from other countries brings me to a shocking photo in last week's Guardian. It was taken at the San Diego County Fair in California and showed a junk food stand to shame all junk food stands. The chocolate-covered bacon was bad enough, and the deep-fried quesadillas seemed a bit superfluous. (Aren't they already called chimichangas?) The truly revolting menu item, the largest mentioned on the sign, was deep-fried butter. My stomach is lurching in horror as I write this. It makes The Human Centipede seem as benign as a brass band concert. I honestly don't know if I can sleep anymore now that I know somebody, somewhere in the world, is not only making and selling deep-fried butter, but that people -- my fellow Californians -- must be actually buying it and eating it.

I must give credit to the photographer for including only one fat person in the photo. I feel as though I spend half of my social time convincing my British friends that I am not the only skinny American in the world. Because of the sensational newspapers that too many Brits read, along with the skewed views of America presented by the "Top Gear" boys and Louis Theroux' oddball documentaries, many of my British friends think the average American rolls around at 28 stone and lives on 6-pound cheeseburgers and 16-egg omelettes. Certainly the current statistic that 1 in every 3 Americans is obese is shocking -- but according to the NHS, 1 in every 4 Brits is obese. So this country isn't that far behind. I've lived in the UK for over a decade now, and I've seen portions in British restaurants increase in size. Not only that, but video games, Internet browsing, and TV are just as popular in the UK as they are in America.

So put that fork down, turn off that giant flat-screen TV, and quit complaining about fat Americans! (There. I've said it. I'm not so grumpy now.)

Thursday 16 June 2011

Bus Failure and Symmetry Amidst a Month of Sandwiches

THURSDAY: Lunch on this sparsely staffed day is a refreshing sandwich starring Saint Paulin cheese from Normandy, bought at a magnificent cheese shop in Chesterfield, with basil pesto, sun-dried tomato, and chopped pointy red pepper on a whole wheat bakery breadcake. Ooh-la-la buon delicioso!

FRIDAY: Running, running, being paid for running, running...and on this physically active day, running to keep up with the production line, I've got a sandwich I'm naming The Wag. Not only is it a waggledance of a sandwich, and definitely not a footballer's wife or girlfriend, but I was laughing as I compiled it this morning: a bit of Roulée, thin slivers of gruyere, and chopped red pepper and spring onion, a sliced chestnut mushroom, and fresh parsley, And it's surprisingly good.

THE FOLLOWING THURSDAY: As a reward for speeding at Mach 6, or perhaps Warp 2, I've just finished a delightful feta sandwich with basil pesto, spring onion, and red pepper, while I read a book on innovation. Why gaze at Metro with its sensationally reported news bites while grazing on an ordinary shop-bought sandwich? I want to learn! I want to taste! I want to be smarter and eat tasty, innovative food. Modular innovation is what I'm talking about: the eating process is the same (bite, chew, swallow, digest) but the components are much more exciting.

THE FRIDAY A WEEK LATER: Good god, is life busy. I don't know whether I'm coming or going anymore. I've enjoyed this week's sandwiches, especially compared to the free lunch I had on Tuesday at a seminar in the Sheffield Cathedral, where I experienced the most tasteless quiche I've ever encountered. Quasiquiche.

On Wednesday I had a Stilton sandwich on a very crusty roll with spicy lime chutney. And today I've got an encore of gruyere and Roulée on a sunflower seed roll with roasted red peppers. Yum. It's really not difficult at all to make a very tasty lunch.

In the midst of another Icelandic volcano erupting, this time much more pronounceable, I'm worried that the discovery that electrons are perfect spheres may disprove supersymmetry. I just hope the folks at the Large Hadron Collider find the Higgs boson so that string theory can finally be validated. But enough about mundane things -- I'm once again going to talk about buses.

THE WEDNESDAY FOLLOWING ANOTHER WEEK: I've just had a 4-day weekend where I realised I was too burned out to do most of the fun stuff I had planned. Is that sad or what? At least I got a bit of tedious work done.

My sandwich is exciting: a multigrain Sainsbury bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese with onion and chives, and a few capers. I've also got a cherry tomato, some tiny carrot sticks, and fruit consisting of cherries, black grapes, satsuma, and nectarine. Yes, it's spring!

Often I'm late to work because either I missed my bus by a minute or the bus never shows up. A couple of Mondays ago my bus did show up, 5 minutes late -- but it was being towed by a large towtruck. So I had to wait for the next bus and was late to work. Four days later my bus showed up on time. When it stopped at the next 2 stops the door rattled loudly like metal scraping against metal. At the third stop the door fell off -- so we all had to get off and wait for the next bus. So I was late again.

I don't remember many bus incidents in my years in California, except for the occasional scary bus driver late at night which inspired me to write some lyrics for my band. In Seattle, aside from a rare tragedy where a psychotic passenger shot the driver as the bus had just crossed over the Aurora Bridge, sending bus and passengers tumbling off the bridge and onto houses and apartment buildings below -- I don't remember any major problems with buses. There was only the occasional disconnection of an insulated shoe from the overhead power cables on the electric trolleys, but this was quickly remedied by the driver stopping, hopping off, and reconnecting the shoe by manipulating the pole attached to the top of the trolley. Since I've lived in Sheffield I have 1.) been on a bus when it was sideswiped by a Supertram; 2.) been on a bus when it crushed a parked car; 3.) been knocked down and run over by a bus, and now 4.) been on a bus when the door fell off. To borrow from an American saying, at least I get a bang for my buck. But when one is simply trying to get to work on time, the thought of being fired from a cannon and parachuting into one's workplace sounds safer and more reliable.

I won't even start on the accident-prone Supertram, as I hardly ever ride it myself.

SOME FRIDAY: Today's lunch is a leftover delight: a small bit of smoked salmon with a slightly larger bit of leftover grilled basa, a wonderful Vietnamese fish also called river cobbler in the UK. The fishies lie on top of cream cheese with onion and chives and are decked with chopped spring onion, chopped red pepper, and a bit of leaf. Along with a selection of late spring fruit (satsuma, grapes, and nectarines), I've got a lovely vine tomato and a baby carrot. With the German e coli scare in the news, no way am I giving up my raw vegetables and sandwiches. Just wash them well and deal with it. life is a risk, and raw vegetables make me happy. So there.

ANOTHER THURSDAY: As I watch my life speed away I must rush to keep up with my lunches before the sun burns out. Today's it's the second tuna sandwich of the week, with my lovely mayonnaise-less tuna flavoured with capers, cumin, and yogurt and held onto the sandwich with onion and chive cream cheese. Tomorrow I have a free lunch, thanks to the clearing out yesterday of the University library cafe fridge by the catering manager because all of the sandwiches and salads had reached the magic Use By date. Will I die if I eat the Ploughman's baguette 2 days past its Use By date? I hardly think so, and I'm doing my tiny part for the planet by not letting one perfectly good Ploughman's baguette go to waste while billions of people on this planet go hungry. Besides, it's, well, a free lunch. In the current economic climate it's common sense to take advantage of anything free.

This morning the only unoccupied row of seats on my bus was the very last one at the rear, so I sat in the middle of the row to take advantage of the leg room. As I looked around me I noticed the two people sitting on each side of the row in front of me were occupying the aisle seats, leaving the window seats empty. The row in front of them was also occupied by only one person on each side, this time seated in the window seats. And as I continued a survey of the rest of the seats I realised my own unconscious middle positioning was no accident, as I had simply kept the perfect symmetry of this bus. At the next stop a woman boarded and walked down the aisle toward me. But before I could shift over to the right, leaving her a mirror-image seat to my left, she had seated herself next to one of the window-seat occupiers, therefore breaking the symmetry. For a moment I was annoyed; but then I remembered that evolution wouldn't happen if it weren't for symmetry-breaking, as demonstrated by the growth of frogs from the egg through the tadpole stage.

But in the case of this bus, it was devolving, not evolving: another old rattletrap bumping and grinding along until its final journey to the scrapyard. I mean, if it was evolving, it might sprout wings or flippers or grow turbo jets -- or at least develop the ingenious ability to keep to its route schedule so its fares aren't always late to work.

No chance: it was simply a temporary mutation of symmetry that went unnoticed in the grand scheme of transportation development.

Thursday 12 May 2011

A Week of Mobile Phone Rage

WEDNESDAY: Lunch is my regional American version of a prawn sandwich, with the prawns mixed with a small spoonful of mayonnaise, a squeeze of tomato purée, a dollop of grated horseradish, a few drops of Tabasco sauce, some fresh thyme, and a few drops of lemon juice, all in a wheat breadcake with some mixed leaf. It's like the British expats I stayed with once in New Orleans. It's a bit of Fat Wednesday on the Baja coast. Fruit is slices of the most gorgeous mango I've come across in ages, along with satsuma, fresh pineapple, and pear slices. And I've got two vine-ripened cherry tomatoes as well. Yee-haw!

WEDNESDAY 2 WEEKS LATER: I've had a week off for the University's spring break. I could have had two weeks off, but extra hours were offered and I need whatever bits and pieces of money I can get my hands on in order to survive these inflationary times. Lunch today is Stilton and hot papaya chutney on a seeded bap from Marks & Spencers, with cherry tomatoes and a tiny carrot on the side. Fruit features bits of satsuma, plum, apple, cantaloupe, and grapes.

Because I've only just returned to a university library full of hordes of students, all trying to return their truckloads of books at the same time, it's difficult to think. There has been plenty of news lately to write about: the wedding of Will and Kate, overly commented on by both my British and my American Facebook friends (and no, I never saw the Sputnik hat); the freak torrential rain and hailstorm the western side of Sheffield experienced on a balmy sunny Saturday, with hailstones the size of golfballs threatening to shatter all the Velux windows; the tornadoes in the American South and New York State; and, of course, the killing and ocean disposal of Osama Bin Laden.

So I think I'll just write about my recent week of phone rage.

FRIDAY: And whaddya know? Somehow it got to be Friday. And I'm having a Groundhog Day sandwich, eg. what I had yesterday: smoked salmon and cream cheese with capers on a seeded bap. This is because I've suddenly got a ton of smoked salmon to go through singlehandedly. For variety I added some chopped spring onion and a little dill on today's in order to vary the taste and flavour so I don't get tricked into thinking it's still yesterday. It's quite nice, even without the essential bagel.

The week before my spring break I experienced a string of mobile-phone-related "incidents". One morning, on my bus ride to work, a young lady sat facing me. I watched as she inserted her earphones and proceeded to tune into Internet radio on her phone, at which point she sat back, entranced and oblivious to the fact that the loud girlie dance music she was blasting into her ears was also blasting loudly out of her phone's speaker. When I leaned forward and tapped her gently on the knee she looked at me nervously. "Your speaker is on," I said, smiling gently. "I know!" she replied and resumed staring straight ahead, bombarding her eardrums. Since I really didn't want to spend my pre-work reverie listening to loud rubbish I got up and moved to another seat.

That evening, while I was waiting for my bus home, another young woman stood next to me, apparently talking loudly to herself. I quickly realised she was having a conversation on her hands-free kit, earphones in ears while she held her mobile by her side. As the bus arrived she suddenly yelled in my ear, "I LOVE YOU! BYE!" On the bus she sat across from me, pushed some buttons on her phone, and proceeded to talk loudly to the air. "WHAT?" she yelled, staring at the back of another passenger's head. "WHAT? I CAN'T HEAR YOU! You keep phoning but I CAN'T HEAR YOU! I SAID I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" I watched, amazed, as she continued to hold her mobile firmly in her lap while holding the earphone cord up to her mouth and yelling, "I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" I shook my head, wondering why she couldn't consider the original intention of the mobile phone and just unplug the damn earphones and hold the phone up to her ear.

A couple of days later I was sitting in the staff area in the middle of one of the library's collections, working quietly by myself and enjoying my temporary solitude. A male student suddenly appeared who was having a long and quite loud conversation on his mobile with a mate. It wasn't just that he was speaking with that irritating lisp that tho many Englith thudenth thpeak with and that driveth me inthane, but it was his damn pacing. Each time he'd disappear, taking his boring conversation thankfully away with him, I'd hear that Doppler effect of his return as he would pace back into MY personal space and bombard my thoughts with his inane chatter about hith perthonal life. I finally stood up angrily, said out loud, "I can't stand this anymore!" and went off for a break.

When I returned he was gone. Then I moved down into an aisle of books and began working. My nerves were still quite taut, so I couldn't help being irritated by an occasional BEEP! I walked around, trying to figure out where this random but constant BEEP! was coming from. I finally decided it had to be coming from a female student who was sitting at a table at the end of the aisle I was working in. She was looking straight ahead at her computer -- and then I spotted the mobile phone in front of her. She seemed to be having a very long text conversation with somebody in short spurts, perhaps texting each individual sentence she read on the screen, and it was her phone's text alert that was gradually turning me into a raving lunatic. I considered running down the aisle, grabbing her mobile, running up to Level 6, and dropping the phone down the centre stairs, watching delightedly as it tumbled to Level 2, smashing in a million pieces.

But then I thought about Health & Safety and decided it would be a better idea to take another break.

Saturday 16 April 2011

The Increasing Velocity of Time and Stumbling Over History

WEDNESDAY: I know I keep going on about my lunches, but I've been distracted from the main purpose of my blog because I've been completely absorbed during my lunch half-hour in a book. It's A Popular History of Sheffield by J. Edward Vickers. It's not because of the writing style, especially Mr Vickers' irritating habit of ending all of his interesting facts with exclamation points! And as the book was written in 1978 it's not completely up to date.

But because I've been living in a historic city, not to mention a historic country, I've become much more interested in history itself than I ever was. More on that in a minute.

My sandwich today is crawdad tails and avocado with horseradish, sun-dried tomatoes, and the tiniest touch of mayonnaise. It's mighty fine, like a stroll through the Garden District of New Orleans, or a barge cruise through the Bayou with green moss hanging from the trees. Fruit is a colourful mix of clementine, kiwi, apple, and mango. Hot diggity dawg!

TUESDAY: Oops, it's the following Tuesday -- funny how time slips away. Everybody I know has noticed that time seems to be going by faster than ever before. And the age of the observer seems irrelevant, as friends from the age of 25 through 63 have noticed the same thing. I think it's probably the 21st Century, with an overabundance of information everywhere constantly blasted into one's face and not enough time to assimilate even a fraction of it. Or else the earth is spinning faster, which is always possible...

My sandwich today is Normandy Camembert with a touch of Danish blue cheese, pine nuts, red pepper and spring onion, basil, cayenne, and black pepper. It's a European Union of a sandwich.

Returning to the subject of history: I've blogged before about how history is much more interesting and relevant when one lives in a castle-ruin-strewn country like England as opposed to where I grew up in a 1950s suburban Southern California enclave. But while I've been reading this history of Sheffield I keep physically stumbling upon the same history I'm reading about. For instance, after my friend Trevor and I walked along the Sheffield and Tinsley Canal out to Attercliffe and Carbrook Hall, the very next week I happened to read about the history of Carbrook Hall and about the industrial days of the canal. And a couple of weekends ago, after making a brief visit to the Walkabout in town to see the huge crowd of India fans cheering on the cricket, I read about what this giant Aussie pub had once been: a Methodist chapel that John Wesley himself had come to Sheffield to set up. On a recent night I saw a ballet at the Lyceum Theatre in Tudor Square, and the next day I was at work eating a sardine sandwich, fully expecting that I was about to read about the history of the beautiful Edwardian theatre, as well as the recent history of the building in which I work.

Not only am I living in a historic city, but I keep bumping into its history even when I'm not looking for it.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Viewing Cheese Differently

THURSDAY: Lunch is haloumi with a thin smear of pesto-topped houmus, with spring onion, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil on a white breadcake. This is the mirror image of my houmus sandwich with a few slivers of haloumi, as with my small appetite one or the other main ingredient has to star. Having equal amounts of haloumi and houmus just sounds like too much.

Fruit is like a blazing sunset, with Spanish tangerine slices, apple slices, and a chunk of blood red pomegranate, deliciously and dangerously juicy. I say dangerous because of the likelihood of dotting my clothes with bright red dots.

FRIDAY: My sandwich today is Cheshire cheese with chopped spring onion, red pepper, fresh coriander leaf, and fresh pea shoots. It's simple and crumbily delicious. I haven't had Cheshire cheese for ages.

This current experience with Cheshire cheese differs radically from my initial encounter years ago, when I'd visited the UK only a couple of times as an Anglophiliac. Back then I became excited about any British cheese I could buy and consume in Southern California. Having grown up on cheddar cheese -- specifically Tillamook cheddar, which is still produced in the town of Tillamook on the Oregon coast -- the idea of English cheddar didn't excite me nearly as much as those British cheeses that had no American equivalents. Stilton, of course, was the first one I discovered, as it's a completely different experience from the usual blue cheese crumbled into a salad that I was used to. And then there was Cheshire cheese, which looked like cheddar and tasted slightly like cheddar but didn't melt like cheddar. As I tended to use cheddar in a mostly melted form, as in Mexican food and the classic Southern California grilled cheese sandwich, I bought Cheshire cheese only to have with crackers, along with perhaps some Stilton and some brie. The named appealed to me as well, as the only association I had with the term Cheshire was as a charming cat created by Lewis Carroll.

This current chunk of Cheshire cheese is the first I've had since those California days. And as a Yorkshire resident I now associate Cheshire with the far side of Manchester, and as the county bordering Liverpool and containing the historical but famously posh city of Chester. And with my more sophisticatedly British-cheese-experienced tongue I realise it's a wonderful sandwich cheese, with the crumbly texture and masculine dryness of Wensleydale and Lancashire cheese but with the flavour of cheddar. It's a typical Northwest cheese, as Cheshire is next to Lancashire and not far from Wensleydale. I won't bother using it in my weekend quesadillas, but I will certainly more fully explore the sandwich possibilities.

Since I moved to the UK eleven years ago I have met and become well acquainted with many more cheeses such as Derby, Huntsman, blue goat's cheese (made with a mixture of blue cheese and goat's cheese -- it's not from blue goats), smoked Stilton, and rustic Normandy Camembert, not to mention St Andre. At the French cheese stall of Sheffield's Continental Market, not to mention the cheese shop at the Chesterfield Market, there are dozens of other cheeses I have yet to try. The world is my cheeseboard...

And then there is haloumi, which I buy regularly for sandwiches. I was surprised to discover haloumi is very difficult to find on the Pacific Coast where Greek and Middle Eastern food is very popular. Everybody seems to use Kasseri instead; and when a friend and I finally found some haloumi in a cheese shop in Seattle's Pike Place Market, it was outrageously expensive.

So I will continue to gorge on Mexican food whenever I visit the States, knowing that when I return home to the UK I can treat myself to as much haloumi as I like. This is just one of the perks of being bicultural.

Monday 28 February 2011

Proper Recycling Containers and Improper Sushi

FRIDAY: Lunch on this stimulatingly creative Friday is a bit exciting: smoky Cheddar with a sliced pepperoncini pepper, two sliced green olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh coriander leaf. And it's muy bueno! If it could have been in a proper corn tortilla and heated instead of in a white breadcake it would be even better. But it is a nice juicy chewy savoury smoky picante surprise. Fruit is a glorious mixture of satsuma, Sharon fruit (persimmon), grapes, and apple, with a lychee for dessert. Ooh-la-la, ooh-mama!

For some mysterious reason our street was omitted last week for the biweekly recycling bin pick-up. A neighbour phoned the Council and was told it was because our street was inaccessible that day for the bin lorry, which to all of us sounded like your proverbial crock of shit. So now we're having to wait another two weeks for a pick-up.

The only real worry for my household is the paper receptacle, because we do buy a daily newspaper among other things and it's only a small crate. The cans and bottles are no problem, because the larger wheelie bin is for those, and in another 2 weeks, although it's bound to be quite heavy, it won't be more than half full.

I'm happy we finally have kerbside recycling, but I don't think the Sheffield recyclers have thought it through very well. When I first moved to the green-green city of Seattle back in 1990, they were well into kerbside recycling. For a decade I lived on the South Side of the Washington Ship Canal that had the better of the city's two recycling arrangements. Although our pickup was only once a month we had a huge covered wheelie bin for paper, cardboard, tin cans, aluminium, and #1 and #2 plastics. And the bottles went into a separate crate. Meanwhile my mother in Southern California has had one massive wheelie bin in which she puts everything recyclable, and that's wheeled from her garage down the driveway to the kerb to be picked up once a week.

The problem with Sheffield's system is not so much that they can't take everything -- eg. no plastic other than drinks bottles -- because obviously that's a cost issue. The problem is in their choice of what goes into what container. The little soft plastic shower caps that stretch over the paper crates fail miserably at keeping the paper dry during heavy rainstorms, which we tend to have a lot of in Yorkshire. And dumping the first load of bottles into the tall bin after it's been emptied is such a cacophonic experience it will wake the dead across the Pennines in Manchester. Although I used to enjoy hurling glass bottles into the public recycling bins, delighting at the sound of breaking glass, in my own back garden on a peaceful morning the sound is about as comforting as a multi-car collision or a building collapsing.

Why not have us put the glass into the crate and the other recyclables into the bin? It makes a hell of a lot more sense to me. But what do I know? I've only been recycling for the past 40 years.

WEDNESDAY: Lunch is lovely: some chevre on a white breadcake with pine nuts, a chopped Kalamata olive, sun-dried tomatoes, a bit of spring onion and red pepper, fresh basil, and fresh ground black pepper. It's a Mediterranean festival: absolutely scrumptious.

Last night I experienced something extremely disturbing. Obviously life is disturbing at the moment. The Middle East and North Africa have erupted, with citizens demonstrating, often with horridly violent results, in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain, where Formula 1's grand prix has just been cancelled, and all of this while a British firm is at the Abu Dhabi Arms Fair selling crowd control weapons to Libya. Meanwhile an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand has had disastrous results, with an estimated 148 reported dead so far and buildings toppled and roads collapsed, while Australia is still reeling from the recent floods and cyclone. And in the wake of the student demos in Britain in reaction to the rise in tuition fees while jobs and benefits are being slashed by the coalition government's machetes, the banks are avoiding paying taxes and continue to reward their executives with lush bonuses.

Obviously what disturbed me last night will seem trivial compared to the disturbing global news reports we watch, read, and hear every day. But perhaps we need to focus on the smaller everyday atrocities that we might actually have the power to do something about. In a world that can build container ships big enough to carry 860,000,000 bananas at one time, why in the world would anybody produce and sell, much less think up in the first place, a product such as tuna mayonnaise sushi?

In Seattle we occasionally bought those small supermarket pack of maki-zushi (aka sushi rolls) to share for lunch. Not only would they contain California rolls, which were usually crab meat and cucumber or courgette wrapped in rice and seaweed, but also the Seattle version, which was filled with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and avocado. The pack would also include samples of soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger slices. This would make a lovely lunch for two as a pleasant change from our usual pesto pizza, calamari tacos, falafel, spanakopeta, and the like.

But the crab and the smoked salmon were simple and undressed, nothing like tinned tuna, and the raw vegetable, rice, and seaweed was all the dressing needed, aside from perhaps a dash of soy sauce, a tiny smear of wasabi, and a slice of ginger. I'm sorry, but mayonnaise has no place in a maki-zushi, much less in a presentation of food claiming to be slightly Japanese. I nearly gagged when I bit into the roll to discover the filling tasted like your average supermarket pre-wrapped tuna mayo sandwich. It wasn't even imaginative tuna mayo like I would make. It was truly awful. I was shocked and dismayed. And it was from Tesco, who should have known better.

I was told by a friend that one can get proper California rolls in pre-made packets in Sheffield; but when I Googled "California rolls" and "Sheffield" all of my results included the word mayonnaise. I do hope my friend wasn't just telling me this to stop me packing my bags and booking a one-way flight to America. I do sincerely hope he's right. I shall keep looking, and hoping...

Monday 21 February 2011

The Rules of Ish

WEDNESDAY: I'm eating another eclectic sandwich I have been looking forward to all morning: smoked Cheddar with Waitrose smoky aubergine dip on a Co-Op sunflower seed roll with spring onion, chopped red pepper, chopped green olives, and fresh coriander leaf. It's the UN all in one sandwich, and it's very smoky. It's a wonderfully smoky United Nations, like the UN building on fire. Delicious!

THURSDAY: Today I've got a new tofu from Waitrose: smoked tofu with sesame seeds and almonds. To stay with the Far Eastern theme I've added some coriander leaf and a bit of cayenne-pepper heat, a la Thai cuisine, with the usual vegetable accoutrements. It's a bit of a Japanese Thai marriage in my mouth. Open, Sesame!

THE FOLLOWING WEDNESDAY: I've got smoky cheddar with sun-dried tomatoes and olives today, and more fresh coriander leaf. I can't believe how perfectly smoke-like this cheddar is. Many "smoked" cheese one buys are only a bit smoky and more salty than anything. You could call them smoky-ish.

Ish-ness is a uniquely British concept. When used as a suffix it's more immediately understandable, as in "I'll be there noon-ish". It becomes a bit more abstract and sometimes mysterious when it's used alone, as in "Are you all right?" "Ish." In this context it can be construed to be a contraction of "Yes, I'm all right -ish" which means "Yes, I'm all right, I think, but perhaps not entirely -- and maybe not very all right at all." Or take the question "Are you coming to the party tonight?" If a person is indeed coming to the party they might say "Yes, definitely" or "Is the Pope Catholic?" But if they reply with "Ish" they mean "Yes, I think so -- I mean it would probably be fun. It depends on if I can get away from work/if I can get my laundry done/if I don't suddenly come up with prior commitments/if I don't fall asleep in my chair. I'm probably not that bothered, actually, but I'll see if I feel like it."

The other day I was involved in an argument about the rules of ish. One friend texted saying he would meet us at the pub at "5:50-ish". At 6:03 he texted again saying he would be "5 minutes-ish". Upon his arrival my other friend claimed that he had broken the laws of ish-ness because he was not allowed to do any other ish inside of an existing ish. When I learned he had taken the 52 bus from town to the pub, I submitted that because the 52 route that time of day is an especially ishy route (because the time it takes to travel from town to the pub can be variable in the extreme), nested ishes are permissible in such cases.

Obviously in nested ishes each succeeding generation of ish becomes more subjective and less credible, with a great-great-great-great grandchild ish being negligibly believable.

And so it continues, this debate about the Rules of Ish and the potentially complicated process of amending an existing ish.

Is this why Ishi was discovered in the mountains of Northern California in 1911, still living an ancient Native American lifestyle?

Sunday 6 February 2011

On Being an Expat in a Facebook World

WEDNESDAY: Lunch today is some gorgeous Waitrose houmus with toasted pine nuts and whole chick peas with Primula, spring onion, and red pepper on a fresh wheat breadcake. This is my first work lunch this week, as I was off for two days with a bit of an achy chest and a wonderfully sexy but irritatingly scratching hoarse voice. I can finally speak again, as the hoarse has gone out to pasture.

This weekend I successfully completed my birthday week after starting celebrations on the previous Sunday. Although I believe everyone should celebrate their birthday for at least a week, it's even more important when one's birthday falls on a Monday like mine has this year. In that case, the two surrounding weekends definitely count.

THURSDAY: Lunch is a Things That Need Finishing sandwich: a bit of olive marinated tofu with some Waitrose aubergine mayonnaise on a white breadcake, with spring onion, red pepper, black and Cayenne pepper, and fresh basil. One might call it a Greco-Japanese concoction, sort of a Samurai Parthenon. But then again one might not.

Although I received only two tiny birthday presents this year, and only three physical birthday cards, I received Facebook birthday greetings from lots of people including local friends and workmates, American friends, and distant cousins. Obviously this is because if one has their birthday on their Facebook profile, then all of one's Facebook friends who opt in to birthday reminders (which is undoubtedly a default setting), then receiving all those Facebook greetings is no surprise and merely indicative of how many of one's Facebook "friends" happen to be logged into Facebook on the day of one's birthday or even the day after.

It's like a card that's passed around in an office on a circulation list: it's so easy to say "Happy Birthday -- Have a great day - x" and feel like you've made somebody's day without having to go through the effort of buying a card or a present and without having to remember a date.

And to think that not so long ago we didn't even have e-mail. My god, how did we survive?

Obviously Facebook has its life-negating aspects, such as providing a public platform for people to post their level of boredom, their lack of sleep, their disappointment that there's nothing good on telly tonight, or their suicide notes. But the fact that in the mornings before work, when I quickly log onto my computer to check my e-mail, I have found myself chatting several times with a British friend who lives in India whom I haven't physically seen or spoken to for 15 years, or that I can see how an American friend's travels through the UK are going on a daily basis as she uploads her photos, show how truly amazing this Facebook phenomenon can be. When one moves to another country and lives so far away from one's family and old friends, the ability to connect instantly brings a bit of magic into one's life.

And if I want to be left alone in my foreign reverie, the solution is so simple: just don't turn on the computer.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Vat v. Sales Tax and the Myth of Genealogy

MONDAY: Lunch on this dull damp start of the work week is goat cheese with sun-dried tomatoes, chopped red pepper and spring onion, black pepper, cayenne, and basil leaves on a bakery-fresh white breadcake. Fruit is mango and apple slices and red and white grapes. It's a bright spot in an otherwise monotonous day.

THURSDAY: Lunch on another dull damp day, with my job exactly the same as yesterday and the day before and the day before, is tuna with yogurt, capers and caper vinegar, chopped onion and red pepper, and pasilla chilli powder, cayenne, and a slight overdose of cumin on a whole wheat breadcake. Sometimes one needs a heavy dose of cumin. Fruit is ordinary clementine and kiwi slices and extraordinary mango chunks and a lychee. Oddly enough I think a Bloody Mary would be the perfect accompanying beverage.

As the price of everything goes up, including food, I'm relieved that I look so forward to my own home-prepared sandwiches. Considering the coalition government is pruning jobs, services, and access to education while increasing the cost of living, it's not a surprise that they've raised VAT from 17.5% to 20%. As in America, this British version of what Americans know as sales tax doesn't affect most foodstuffs. But there are a few oddities to which VAT is added, including chocolates, crisps, ice cream, frozen desserts, pork scratchings, and soft drinks; and there is a reduced VAT on prepared cakes, crackers, and biscuits. Because VAT, as opposed to US sales tax, is included in the price of the item and not added on later, all we'll notice in the supermarket is the 2.5% increase in the price of ice cream, cheese and onion crisps, and Coke, as well as a slight increase in the price of our McVities Dark Chocolate Digestives.

In contrast, in my birth state of California, the sales tax is currently 8.25% statewide, and 9.75% in my home county of Los Angeles, for which all edible items are exempt except for ready-to-eat hot food and vitamins. In my second home of Seattle, Washington, the sales tax is 6.5% statewide, with an addition 3% added on in Seattle. There are a few states like Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Delaware, and New Hampshire that have no sales tax, so calculating how much one's grocery shop is going to cost is as easy as it is in the UK. But in a city like Chicago, with a whopping sales tax of 10.25%, one must always allow for that extra to be added on the final total. Eating out in restaurants is even more confusing, as one is supposed to calculate the tip before the sales tax is added; but this often doesn't happen, which is an advantage for the waitstaff but a disadvantage for the paying patrons.

It's a lot easier dining out in the UK, where tips for waitstaff are always appreciated but not set in blood. Of course, if there is an organised group, a 15% service charge is often added to the final bill. Still, one doesn't need to pull out their trigonometric calculator at the end of a meal, as I've experienced with a couple of American friends.

THE FOLLOWING MONDAY: It's a Wensleydale-and-smoked-Bavarian-cheese-on-a-rustic-cheese-roll sort of day. It's dull and mild and moist again, my job is exactly the same, and the only difference I can see in comparison to last Monday is the fact that the world, including myself, is a week older. My birthday is in a week, so I'll have the shock of suddenly being a year older. It's a misconception, this "year older" idea, as I'll simply be a day older than I was the previous day.

The same assumption comes with genealogy. The fact is that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather who carried my surname was only one of my 128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents who all probably had unique surnames. So I'm really not any more Mitchell than I am any of the other 127 surnames, and that's only going back seven generations. If I went back 20 generations I'd be dealing with 2,097,151 other surnames.

It's a good thing I don't have to remember them all whenever I fill in a form.

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