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…

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