Archive | November, 2010

Snow, salt and shopping

30 Nov

Today I woke up to snow on the ground. Normally snow in London would be an exciting thing — I don’t have to drive in it, after all. But for some inexplicable reason I got it into my head that I was to go shopping today. I don’t know why I was so insistent about it — I could have gone tomorrow, when it is not supposed to snow, or maybe next week sometime. But I really wanted to go today. I tried to convince myself that the Tube and stores would be less crowded because of the weather, just like an amusement park is less crowded when there’s a thunderstorm (and for good reason…)

So I put on my big winter coat — the one with the hood that restricts my peripheral vision — and my snow boots I thought I’d only need in Chicago. And I was off.

The minute I stepped outside my building I dropped my glove into a pile of snow and salt. Not a good start to the outing. In London they use an orangish brown type of salt. When I saw it all over the sidewalks yesterday I wasn’t quite sure what it was. It looked almost like the pine shavings janitors put on cafeteria “accidents.” For a minute I thought there had been some carnie food-ferris wheel bad mix “accidents” from the fayre, but it was just salt. It confused me because it was not snowing at the time and had not snowed yet. It seems Londoners are very proactive about their ice prevention, applying the salt before the snow comes. In Cincinnati they are proactive about snow too, often calling off work or school before the snow comes (and then sometimes it never comes. But I’m getting sidetracked).

I trudged along, stepping in salt and slush because I was wearing boots and could. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. And then the wind turned and the snow started blowing directly into my face. I then cursed the Tube stop for being so far away from my flat. But there was no turning back now — I was going shopping.

I took the Bakerloo line for the first time. Only in London can you have a train line that ends in -loo. I still giggle when I hear it and start coming up with immature jokes (“What do you call the toilet at the Baker Street station?” “The Bakerloo!”   …I need to get out more. Or get more sleep.) This was about 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and the train was PACKED. Don’t people work anymore? Or want to stay inside when it snows? I guess I was crazy to think snow would keep the tourists from shopping.

Despite the weather, I had a relatively successful shopping trip. I bought some Christmas presents and a few things for myself (you know, as a reward for being a trooper through the snow). I must have spent an hour in a certain store looking for a certain present for a certain someone (don’t want to give details since they’re a reader) to no avail, but was able to find something else for them at a different store. I also spent an unnecessary amount of time wandering around that store because I do not understand the British floor system. I looked up at the big directory and it said what I was looking for was on the first floor. So I wandered back and forth on the ground floor and could not find it. I kept going back to the sign to make sure I read it right. On the fourth read I realized I came in on floor zero and had to take the escalator up to get to the first floor. It made as much sense as taking the escalator up to Filene’s Basement.

At another store my total came to £23. I have written previously about my hatred of British coins and constant quest to rid my wallet of them, so I decided instead of paying with a £20 note and three £1 coins, I would give her eight £1 coins and a £20 note so I could get a fiver back. (I love that they call £5 note “fivers” and £10 notes “tenners.”) The cashier looked at me. “This is too much!” she said. “I know,” I replied, and told her I was trying to rid my heavy wallet of coins and wanted a bill in return.

“I don’t want to give you change,” she said. I laughed, but could not tell if she was joking or not. She then started muttering about coins and I couldn’t tell if she was agreeing with me for wanting to get rid of coins, or angry that the coins were now her problem. It was a really strange interaction and I just wanted to get my purchases and go.

The snow had thankfully stopped by the time I got outside and I took the Tube back. I was crossing the final street before my apartment, thinking to myself how well things had gone considering the conditions, when I almost got hit by a car. My lack of peripheral vision caused by my hood and forgetfulness about what side of the road people drive on is not a good combination. From now on I’m taking off my hood and looking both ways when I come to an intersection, even if it makes me look like an ignorant American.

Fayre happenstance

29 Nov

Yesterday we unintentionally found ourselves in the middle of the St. John’s Wood Christmas Fayre (love the spelling!) on our way to lunch. It was the strangest thing. On the high street normally filled with British people smoking on the sidewalk and Americans running around with their Starbucks cups, there were rides and clowns and carnie food. It was like a full blown church festival, except there was Christmas music playing. And it was cold. Really cold. Eating cotton candy on a mini ferris wheel loses its appeal when there’s a biting wind chill. That’s probably why we Americans hold our Christmas fairs indoors and our big fairs in the summer, when it’s hot enough to melt the cotton candy to your face, but at least you don’t have to eat it with gloves on.

I think my favorite (I’m sorry, “favourite”) part was the kiddie car ride blasting “You Sexy Thing” by the British group Hot Chocolate and drowning out “Feliz Navidad” over the loud speakers (“I believe in miracles / Where you from? / You sexy thing” — that song. On a kid’s ride.)

When all else fails, strike

26 Nov

This morning I got an email from Transport for London letting me know about an upcoming Tube strike. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. It seems like the RMT and TSSA unions call a strike about once a month. Each time I get an email about it. I admit I’ve never been part of a union and don’t claim to be an expert on striking, but I always thought the purpose of a strike is to refuse to work until you get something you want (usually a pay raise). It seems like the idea is to strike without notice so that the business can’t function and the employer has no choice but to concede just so you go back to work and the business can go on making money. But for the RMT it’s almost like a strike is a built in holiday. Why else would you do it on a monthly basis? And to give enough warning that they can send an email about it and operate extra buses and boats? It’s baffling. I’m still trying to figure out how not showing up for work proves that your job is worth not cutting. (Apparently that’s what they’re striking over, the potential cut of ticket office jobs).

The funny thing is, this is the second time the strike has fallen on a day I intend to go shopping. Going shopping is one of the few reasons I need to ride the Tube. And they had to pick Monday. Happy Christmas to you too, RMT.

Fancy a trolley?

23 Nov

(We’re back in London now after two weeks in China.)

I took my new shopping cart (I’m sorry, “trolley”) out for a spin this afternoon. The only time I ever miss driving is grocery shopping time. Our flat is in a nice area, but there are absolutely no grocery stores nearby. Tesco Metro is one mile one way, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s a mile the other way. There’s a Tesco Express a half mile away, but it is more like a convenience store and only good for bananas, water and the £2 sandwich meal deal. Ever since I realized I’d be lugging groceries a mile I tried to convince Stephen we needed a wheeling shopping cart/trolley.

“Those are only for old people!” he told me.

In Chicago the popular shopping carts were entirely metal. Here they are almost like a backpack (“rucksack”) on wheels.  A couple weeks ago we bought some groceries at Waitrose then bought some lamps at Argos. After walking less than a block with the goods, suddenly the carts weren’t just for old people and we bought one on the way home.

Today was my first time using the trolley on my own. Since we bought it and immediately filled it, I haven’t yet had the experience of wheeling it empty to the store. It was awkward. I felt stupid wheeling the empty cart, so I tried various ways of carrying it. The handle is too narrow to swing on my arm, so I just kind of slipped it on my hand and lifted it up. But that quickly got too heavy and I switched to wheeling. But then the pavement got rough and I again went to carrying it. I bet I was fun to watch.

While we were living in Notting Hill we got spoiled by the Tesco Metro a block down the street. Stephen loved their chicken curry and I liked their mushroom pasta. The Tesco Express carries neither of those so I had to walk 1.3 miles to the Tesco Metro today. 1.3 miles doesn’t seem like far, but it is when it’s cold and you’re lugging a cart. It feels even longer when the cart is full.

When I arrived I was faced with a problem — what was I supposed to do with my cart? I couldn’t wheel it while carrying a basket. So I put it inside my shopping cart. As I wandered through the tight aisles I realized almost every person in the store had a little trolley like mine. Some were carrying it empty with their food in a basket, while others put their food directly in their cart. When I went to check out I realized that those who didn’t want to carry their cart through the store simply left it up front. It was kind of funny to see all the different colored trolleys up there. It reminded me of all the strollers parked outside the Scooby-Doo ride at Kings Island.

“These must be really good,” the checkout lady said as she scanned my stacks of curry and pasta. I felt like some pathetic single girl who doesn’t cook. I like to think I am capable of cooking, I just don’t like the hassle. Why make my own curry or mushroom pasta when Tesco’s is so cheap and so good?

I packed the bag of my trolley to the brim and carried the rest of my groceries in my panda tote, then began the long journey home. I now have sore arms and legs and can understand why grocery delivery services are so popular here.

China Impressions: Airport security

17 Nov

Yesterday we had the pleasure of flying domestically in China. It’s never a pleasant experience, but yesterday was better than previous times — the flight was only delayed 40 minutes. Chinese airports are always full of pandemonium, from the complete lack of queues (see that, I used the British term!) to the muffled announcements those who understand Chinese can’t even make out. But I’ve written about Chinese domestic travel before. The one thing I forgot to touch on is security. The Chinese don’t seem to care whether your liquids are in a little bag or if you take off your shoes. However, it seems they are convinced every traveler has explosives or weapons attached to their body. The few times I’ve had a pat down in a US airport they usually brush your arms and legs and wave a wand around you. In China they get up close and personal. They wave the wand while simultaneously touching you everywhere — and I mean everywhere. There will be no underwear bomber on China Air.

Don’t touch my junk guy should never travel to China.

China Impressions: Dining, Take 2

12 Nov

As I mentioned in a previous post about Chinese dining, sometimes it’s nice not to have to make any ordering decisions. In the past, I’ve managed to find a few dishes on the table that I like. Last night was a little different.

We arrived late to dinner with some of Stephen’s associates last night (thanks, Beijing traffic!) so there was already food on the table when we arrived. Directly in front of me were a plate of cucumbers in a soy sauce and a plate of tiny shrimp. In the usual Chinese style, the shrimp still had their shells, heads and tails. Prospects were not looking good. A duck dish arrived and the waitress placed it on the opposite end of the table. One of our dinner companions gave me a heaping helping on my plate, but once I had finished it, I had no way to communicate “I want more!” without interrupting their conversation or standing up and reaching across the table. So I ate the cucumbers. I don’t even like cucumbers. But at the time they were much better than the spicy beef, ambiguous seafood dish or smelly green vegetables. I took a break, hoping for better food to arrive, but knew it was a bad idea. I knew conversation would lull in a minute and everyone would look up and question why I wasn’t eating anything. So I went for the shrimp.

I have yet to master how to eat a shrimp that hasn’t been peeled. Besides my whole not eating food with eyeballs still attached policy, I also stay away from them because I have no idea how to properly consume them. I held the little guy’s bug-eyed head steady with my chopsticks and tried to peel off his tail and shell. It was so tiny that when I removed one leg, half of his body came with it. I struggled with his tail and suddenly his head shot off. I did a quick look around the table and restaurant to see if anyone had noticed the airborne shrimp head. Luckily everyone was too into their conversations and unrecognizable seafood. I had visions of the waitress tripping on my shrimp head as she tried to fill my glass. No more shrimp for me.

Amidst my shrimp struggling I noticed a large group of white tourists walk in. Suddenly I was not the only white person around . I’m assuming they were part of a tour group, as the wait staff immediately brought them pre-determined dishes. I watched from afar as they all ate fried rice with forks. One of the women launched into an uproarious laughing fit as only an overweight white woman can. The entire restaurant turned to look at her. I envied their English conversations, but was glad I was at my small Chinese-speaking table. I may not have the “real” China experience with my five-star hotel and sit-down toilets, but at least I can eat with chopsticks and stomach more than fried rice.

Pass the cucumbers.

Culture! History! Waiguo ren!

10 Nov

I visited the Forbidden City a year ago, but got caught up in a rain storm and barely made it through the first few gates. So today we decided to give it another go. (I’m in China now, by the way).

It seems no matter what time of year or day you visit, the Forbidden City is always packed with tourists. A few of them are westerns like me, but most of them are bussed in from the rural areas of China. They excitedly wait near their flag-toting guide, wearing matching hats, taking in all the history and sights. Today, I was one of those sights.

Being a tall, white, quasi-blond in China, I’m used to standing out a bit. But in Beijing and Shanghai white people are nothing special. In the Forbidden City, they are almost considered part of the attraction. I can see the brochures they hand out to the rural Chinese — “Visit the Forbidden City! See old fancy buildings! See emperor’s garden! See white people!”

Last time I visited I caught several tourists trying to slyly photograph or video tape me. Today a group actually approached Stephen and I and asked him in Chinese if they could take their picture with me. It was flattering, but also a tad awkward. I can see them showing their family their photos when they return home: “Here I am in front of Tianenman Square. And here we are in front of the first gate of the Forbidden City. And look, it’s me with a waiguo ren!”

The joke’s on them when they realize how unphotogenic I am. It’s creepy to think they’re carrying around a photo of me on their camera, even worse that it’s likely a bad photo.

If anyone approached me on the street anywhere else and asked to be photographed with me, it would be really weird. But in the Forbidden City, it’s commonplace. It happened to most of my white friends that have visited and I came to almost expect it. Stephen thinks it’ll be another 10 years before white people stop being such a spectacle there.

Today was actually a nice day (for Beijing standards–the sun was peaking through the polluted sky) so we managed to walk the entire length of the city. The last time Stephen had done it he was young, so he overestimated how long it would take. We got through in less than an hour. We only stopped occasionally to read signs or take photos. Stephen approached a group of teens and asked one of them in Chinese if they could take our photo. The guy gave him the same face I give the waiters that speak to me in Chinese. “Uh.. I don’t speak…” he muttered. Stephen then asked him in English and everyone shared a laugh. The guy was Korean and a great photographer–he pranced around the area trying to get the best shot while his friends laughed at him. It must be hard to be Asian but not Chinese in China. I can imagine myself giving the blank “Uh… I don’t speak…” face if I ever travel outside the UK in Europe. I’m looking forward to it.

“We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks”

8 Nov

I believe I’ve ranted before about different countries and their different outlets and electricity voltage, but it still irks me. Yesterday night we had an “incident.”

We are almost fully moved into the flat now. Last night Stephen was putting the finishing touches on the living room set up. He’s a technology junkie, so we have the TV, stereo, PS3 and computer that all need to be plugged in. Since they are all from the US, they need a transformer to convert the UK’s 220V into usable US 110V. We’ve been using the transformers to charge various other electronics and they’ve worked great. In fact, we already had the TV and PS3 plugged into one and everything was swell. But since Stephen set up the surround sound system, he wanted to replace the US power strip we had plugged into the transformer with a better one so we could plug more stuff in. So he made me shut off the TV and unplug everything while he made the switch. We turned everything off and he plugged the new power strip into the transformer.


“Ahhh! What the crap just happened?” I screamed. Stephen looked puzzled. He shook the power strip. “This is definitely fried,” he said. We couldn’t figure out what had happened, the transformer had been working fine before. So instead of being the intelligent people we are and trying to detect the problem, we simply tried it again with another transformer and another outlet.

More blue sparks.

I screamed like a little girl.

220V could easily kill you and I was not about to rush Stephen to hospital (note the absence of “the”) or watch our building burn down with an electrical fire.

It was then we realized that none of the outlets in the entire flat were working. The refrigerator was no longer on and my computer stopped charging. Uh oh. It was then Stephen finally had his light bulb moment.

“I forgot to turn the transformer on,” he said. So both times 220V were rushing into the 110V power strips, frying them. We called Ted the building manager who told us where to find the circuit breaker and how to turn the power back on. Luckily the only casualties of the incident were the two US power strips.

Lesson of the day: always turn the transformer on. And think twice about moving all your US electronics overseas.

Faucet? Bathtub? Blimey!

1 Nov

For being as obscenely overpriced as it is, our flat seems to have a lot of things wrong with it. Luckily we have Ted, who is some kind of building manager/handyman/stereotypical friendly old British dude.

Last week I gave Ted a long list of repairs that needed to be made, and today he brought a crew of four people to make them—a plumber, electrician and two curtain repairers. I had five British guys in my flat at one time. They seem to repair together in the building often, as they all knew each other and spoke to each other in what I can only describe as Britishese. When I listened closely I could understand parts of what they were saying (one of them actually said, “Blimey!”), but if I didn’t struggle they might as well have been speaking Spanish.

Just as I was fascinated by their odd use of English, they were fascinated by mine.

“The faucet in the master bathroom shower is really hard to turn,” I told Ted. He told the plumber the problem. “The tap is stuck?” The plumber asked. “Oh, I’m sorry, you call it a ‘faucet,’ right?” the plumber joked.

“Yeah, that’s actually what she said, ‘faucet’!” Ted said with a laugh, as if hearing a real live American use the word “faucet” in everyday conversation was the highlight of his day.

I also told the plumber that the bathtub was clogged.

“Ha ha—‘bathtub,’” the plumber repeated in a fake American faintly-midwestern accent. Apparently bathtub is also a strictly American term.

The plumber was full of jokes.

“What do you have here, a dance studio?” he asked about our completely empty bedroom. Our complete lack of furniture has been the butt of many jokes this week. I admit the wood floor does resemble a dance studio.

As he was about to leave the plumber noticed the box for our 55 inch TV. It arrived in the air freight but since we have no TV stand or cable, we haven’t unpacked it yet.

“Oh man, I might have to come back and rob you,” he said. “Look at this, it’s an LED!”

“Yeah, that’s what I have,” Ted said.

“No, you probably have an LCD, this is an LED! It just came out!” the plumber went on. “And you have Wii too? Can we get it out and have a go?” He joked.

Living in a flat with broken curtains, a broken door handle (see Trapped in the Bathroom), a clogged tub and shower that killed my hand when I tried to turn it on was no fun, but at least getting it fixed was.