Archive | February, 2011

An unnecessarily long post about St. John’s Wood Tesco Metro

25 Feb

(Yes, I’m blogging about grocery shopping again.)

I’m afraid I might have to stop shopping at Tesco Metro. I enter the store pumped for new groceries and leave in a stressed, frazzled state. That shouldn’t happen while grocery shopping.

For starters, the store itself is stress-inducing. Whoever designed the store did not count on anyone using a shopping cart or there ever being more than five people in the store at once. There are pillars, displays and storage carts in the middle of almost every aisle, making it impossible for more than one cart to fit through at a time. The aisles are so jam-packed that you can never stop to contemplate a purchase. You have to grab the item while still maintaining a steady speed so as to not create a backup. It’s like driving around looking at Christmas lights — you can slow down, but you can’t stop or people will honk. If Tesco insists on offering giant shopping carts in their tiny store, they should install horns on them. Nothing jolts an oblivious aisle-blocking stroller-toting mum like a good honk.

The store designer also did not count on there ever being more than two people in line at each check out (or “more than two people queued up at each till,” if I must Britishize it). If there are more than two customers, they stretch out into the aisles, making it difficult to cross the front of the store or to go down an aisle. No one likes to leave a gap for fear of someone cutting. Yesterday was so bad that I actually would turn my cart around and backtrack down an aisle towards the back of the store just to avoid crossing the lines at the front. Don’t people have better things to do on a Thursday morning than hit up Tesco?

The store is also in a bizarre location. It is called the St. John’s Wood Tesco Metro, but it doesn’t feel like St. John’s Wood. Someone on Twitter described the SJW neighborhood best: “Stunning houses, wealthy Americans, lots of dry cleaners but lacking in pubs.” It is also lacking in grocery stores, likely because all the “rich Americans” use delivery services (my refusal to have my groceries delivered is material for another post). The minute I hit Church Street it’s like I’m in a different ‘hood, a different country almost. There’s always a Middle Eastern-esque street market going on. They have your usual street fair items — fresh fruit and vegetables, jewelry, knock-off handbags and suspiciously cheap clothing. But there are also some really bizarre items, like duvets and small household appliances. It’s weird. “Hey, where’d you get that crock pot?” “Just down the street — literally.” There’s also always a strong incense aroma in the air. This is what I lug my shopping trolley by every time I’m craving Tesco-brand orange-mango juice or mushroom sauce.

I really wish I could commit to a grocery store and become a regular shopper. But there are three different stores within a mile and a half of my flat, and I like things from all of them. I go to Sainsbury’s for most items, but Waitrose has the best salad dressing and croutons. Tesco Metro has better ready-made meals and the mushroom sauce I like to eat with gnocchi. Of course yesterday they were sold out of it. That also contributed to my stress — lugging my shopping trolley over a mile for a certain item to find out it was out of stock. I also went because they were having a 3 for 2 sale on cereal. My family is coming in two weeks so I thought I should stock up on my some breakfast items. I have eight boxes of cereal now. I may have taken that too far.

In short, I wish I could quit you, Tesco Metro, but your prices and mushroom sauce may just keep me coming back. Perhaps I’ll make the journey worth it next time and pick up a nice ¬£1.99 jumper (that’s British for “sweater”) or rice cooker from a street vender.

Intimidating phone numbers

21 Feb

Few things scare an American more than a foreign phone number. I should know — I have one, and it still scares me. I’ve had it for months now and still haven’t memorized it. It’s quite awkward when I call to make a dinner reservation and have to say “Um, hold on…” when they ask for a phone number, then have to frantically look it up in my email.

To Americans, foreign numbers seem to go on for ages. My UK mobile number is 11 digits, only one more than my US cell number, but it might as well be 20. I guess when calling from the US you have to dial 011, the international access code, then 44, the country code, then 20 the London area code, making my 11-digit number 18 digits. But I also think it’s because American numbers are so neat — (555) 555-5555. It doesn’t seem like 10 numbers, it’s three numbers, which are the same for everyone in your city, then three numbers followed by four. That makes it easier to digest than 08456027281, which is the number for Argos direct. I just received a voicemail from them requesting a delivery date for the guest bed I ordered. I was impressed that the man pronounced my last name correctly in his Irish accent, but he rattled off the phone number like he was being charged by the nanosecond. I had to replay the message not once, not twice, but four times in order to take the number down. I noticed most people in Britain do this — they leave their number in a voicemail almost as an afterthought and rattle it off as if you should know it. They don’t pause anywhere, it’s just a string of 11 numbers said as quickly as humanly possible in an accent I’m still working to comprehend. If my voicemail did not have the option to repeat multiple times, I would never be able to call anyone back.

The pickle problem

18 Feb

I love pickles — dill, sweet, spears, chips — all of them. Recently I’ve been having a pickle craving (watching too much “Jersey Shore,” perhaps), so I put “pickles” on my shopping list and went on to check pickle prices at Sainsbury’s. What came up was 19 varieties of this:

That is not a pickled cucumber, I have no idea what that stuff is. So I headed to the store to find whatever-the-English-call-pickled-cucumbers myself. Americans love pickles, but apparently they are not as popular in the UK (like tortilla chips?). I found a small shelf of pickles, all called “gherkins.” Which, of course, made me crave my favorite type of pickle, sweet gherkins. So I bought a giant bottle of these, gherkins in sweet vinegar.

Because that’s what sweet gherkins are, right?

Apparently not. I just ate one. Ever put something in your mouth expecting one taste and you’re hit with another? That’s what happened. I was expecting that sweet turmeric, cinnamony taste, and instead I got a bread-and-butter pickle. Which on my list of favorite pickles, is more towards the bottom. So it seems sweet gherkins are one of those things I’m going to have to look forward to eating only in the states, like Lucky Charms and Taco Bell. (Or I could pay ¬£7.44 and buy them from Amazon, is there anything you don’t sell?)

Just for kicks, I went to this site to see if the English call all pickles “gherkins.” My suspicion was confirmed:

Gherkin – A gherkin is a pickle to you. Not as popular in England as they are in the US.”

I also looked up “pickle,” that mysterious brown condiment that came up in my search. Here is what it said:

Pickle – No such thing in America. Visit any English home and say “bring out the Branston” – they will bring you a jar of brown, lumpy, spicy pickle. It is made from vegetables, spices & vinegar and is quite thick. It is eaten with cold meats, cheeses and pies. There is even a less lumpy version for sarnies! Branston is the name of the market leader in pickle. Don’t visit England without trying it.”

Maybe I should pick some up next time … or not.

The flashing light should have been a warning sign

16 Feb

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a random people encounter.

This evening I was walking home slowly behind a guy wearing a backpack (I’m sorry, “rucksack”) with a flashing red light. I could have passed him, but since I was walking alone at night, I liked having him near, just in case. It was extraordinary quiet; if there were crickets out, I could have heard them. …And then the guy “ripped one” … full blast. The sound echoed and reverberated across the buildings and trees. I wondered why he made no attempt to stifle it or speed up. Then I realized he had headphones on, meaning a.) he had no idea I was walking behind him and b.) he had no idea just how loud his little toot was.

And thus ends my first post about a fart.

Happy Valentine’s Day, or Have Your Sandwich and “Eat It” Too

14 Feb

I was going to post about Valentine’s Day in London, and how these cute kids at recess at the school across from our flat clung to the fence and shouted “Happy Valentine’s Day!” to everyone who walked by, and how the Tube was not so much full of couples going out, but guys carrying bouquets of roses to their sweeties at home. But then something far more exciting happened today.

I was taking the Tube to go meet Stephen for a nice dinner. As I swiped my Oyster card to exit the station, a guy swiped his to come in and then … he wiped out. He completely ate it; he went down on all fours as if someone put a purple banana peel underneath him. His feet nearly slid into mine, almost causing a domino effect. I looked down to see what could have possibly made this 40-some-year-old man take quite a spill.

It was a sandwich.

The poor guy was taken down by a rogue sandwich, like a banana peel on Mario Kart. The guy was embarrassed to death so instead of saying something like “Are you OK?” I believe I said a very American, “Dude! A sandwich! What the heck?!”

And then both of us walked off.

So to all you single (or taken) people out there who think Valentine’s Day couldn’t be worse, it could — you could slip on a sandwich and fall down in a crowded train station.

“Learn a new language naturally!”

11 Feb

In yet another desperate attempt to get my English-speaking mouth to form sounds it isn’t capable of making, I started my Rosetta Stone Chinese lessons again. I studied Chinese for two quarters in college and did several months of Rosetta Stone last summer, but I’ve since slacked off. It sounds so easy in principle — “I will do a couple lessons a day,” I tell myself. “And then I will be fluent in Chinese.” Well, it turns out it is not that easy.

My first problem are the tones. Mandarin Chinese has four tones, meaning “ma” said with four different intonations means four different words, probably more. To the non-Chinese speaker, the tones are hard to distinguish. So I’ve got that problem. The other problem is the sounds themselves. Pinyin, the romanization of the Chinese characters, makes the words a little easier to distinguish, but there are still sounds in Chinese that we can’t spell with 26 letters. For example, the pinyin “he” is not pronounced like the English third person masculine singular pronoun, but rather like “huhhhhh,” like the noise you make when you lift a really heavy box.

My final problem lies with Rosetta Stone itself. The system of teaching is nice, but I can’t understand why they choose to teach words and phrases in the order that they do. So far I have learned how to say “The horse is running,” “I am wearing a suit but not a tie” and “This is a cat.” When am I ever going to use any of those phrases in China? I would guess that most people who are learning a foreign language hope to one day travel to where that language is spoken. With that in mind, I propose Rosetta Stone offer a new “emergency language” lesson. For China, at least, important phrases would include, “Where is the bathroom?” “Do you have a non-squat toilet?” and “May I have a fork instead of chopsticks?” There could also be a lesson about bargaining, in which it could teach you how to say, “That model of the Bird’s Nest is certainly not made of solid gold like you claim, and is worth 50 yuan at best, not 500.” Those kind of phrases are useful in China, none of this “The man and woman are eating sandwiches outside,” crap. Who eats sandwiches outside in China, anyway? “The man and woman are eating cheap noodles from a questionable cart outside,” would be more realistic.

I guess my final problem lies with myself. I can understand when the waitress asks what I want to drink and know how to respond with “bottled water,” but I’m always afraid I will use the incorrect tone and it will come out “monkey blood” or whatever “ping sui” with the wrong tone means. I need to be confident in my rudimentary Chinese. Until I can practice in China for real, I’ll be sitting here telling my computer about the boy eating the apple and the woman running outside.

Quest for tortilla chips part III

8 Feb

Sainsbury’s sells tortilla chips! I bought two bags, just because.

My faith in the United Kingdom has been restored.

Watching the Super Bowl in London

7 Feb

“Well, that was an expat experience!” said the friend who had us over to watch the Super Bowl. It was just after 3 a.m. and the game had just ended. Watching the Super Bowl abroad is something else, especially since it starts at 11 p.m. because of the five-hour time difference. It felt weird gathering around the television with snacks and drinks when most people would be getting to bed. I actually picked the perfect week to be jetlagged — I’ve been going to bed at 3 or 4 a.m. every night since Last Tuesday, so I was well prepared for the Super Bowl.

I was surprised to find BBC 1, a freeview channel even our crappy aerial (antenna) picks up, was broadcasting the game. They used Fox’s coverage, so they had the same announcers and even the spots about Glee being on afterward, even though Glee wasn’t going to be on BBC 1. The thing that made it grossly different from watching it on Fox in the US was … no commercials. It didn’t dawn on me until our friend mentioned it, but I guess it makes sense — all the ads (“adverts”) are for an American audience. So while Fox cuts to a million-dollar ad, BBC 1 cuts to a British dude and Tiki Barber (how did he get that job?!) discussing the game. I think the highlight was when the British dude compared the Steelers’ performance to a recent Manchester United game. Way to put an English spin on the most American game. We couldn’t have that — the Super Bowl is not the Super Bowl unless there are commercials, especially for someone like me who isn’t the biggest football fan. So we devised a complicated system. Our friends have a Slingbox, which allows them to watch American TV over the Internet through their relatives in the US’ TV. The problem with the Slingbox is that the reception was really crappy, especially since the relatives were watching the game too. So we watched the game on BBC 1, but when a commercial break came, we switched to Fox on the Slingbox, then switched back when the game returned. For whatever reason BBC 1 seemed to be five seconds ahead of Fox, perhaps because the British don’t delay for wardrobe malfunctions. The system, though tiring, was working until after the halftime show, when all of a sudden the Fox game was a good 10 minutes behind. We couldn’t figure out what happened, until our friend got an email from his sister saying she paused the game so they could eat. So we went the entire second half without commercials, just British commentary. They said some pretty hilarious stuff that I can’t remember now, I really wish I had been live blogging/tweeting it.

So for those wondering, yes you can — and we did — watch the Super Bowl from England, but it’s not exactly the same as watching it at 6 p.m. in the states.

(An addendum to my previous post on tortilla chips: our friends asked if we could bring some snacks with us. What did they suggest? Tortilla chips and guacamole. I almost laughed when Stephen told me. So last night we went, once again, on a hunt for tortilla chips. Turns out all the places that would sell them — Whole Foods, Tesco Metro, Panzers — closed at 6 p.m. or earlier on Sunday. You can drink any day, any time in London, but you can’t buy groceries after 6 p.m. on Sunday. So we ended up at Tesco Express, the convenience store-like grocer near the Tube. It seems Londoners only like two types of chips — potato chips, which they sell in an obscene amount of flavors and varieties (they had a six pack of “meat” flavored chips, including the new steak flavor. Tempting!), and “maize” snacks, like cheese puffs and onion rings (Funyuns). That’s it — no pretzels and especially no tortilla chips. Of course Tesco Express had no tortilla chips, but what they did have puzzled me — a salsa, guacamole and sour cream dip pack. It was like it was made for Super Bowl parties. But what else are you supposed to eat it with besides tortilla chips? Baby carrots? Pita chips? (Which they also don’t sell.) Why would you sell something like that and not sell tortilla chips? I was tempted to ask an employee, but we decided to give up and settled on Pringles, a variety of potato chips and generic Funyuns. One day I will find tortilla chips in this great city. One day … )

Quest for tortilla chips

4 Feb

Yesterday I learned that you can buy prawn cocktail potato chips — or any other flavo[u]r available — at Tesco Metro, but you cannot buy plain tortilla chips.

I searched all over the store — in the chip aisle, where I thought they would be, and the Mexican aisle, which is really just a shelf with some taco shells and salsa that looks suspiciously like tomato sauce. No tortilla chips. I eventually settled on two jumbo bags of little bags of Doritos that were on sale. They taste the same as in the US, but the flavo[u]rs have different names, like Tangy Cheese instead of Nacho Cheese (or the name I detested, Nacho Cheesier¬† — cheesier than what, the previous Nacho flavor?) and Cool Original instead of Cool Ranch. I got my hopes up with that little blue bag, because the picture shows a plain tortilla chip, no specks of ranch flavoring, and what says “plain chip” more than “original?” But it tasted like Cool Ranch.

When I got home I did some research. Surely tortilla chips exist in the UK. Now that I think about it, I remember buying a little bag of plain tortilla chips at the Tesco Metro in Notting Hill a few months ago. Why didn’t they have those at the store I went to? In my research I found that Tesco makes their own brand of plain chips (actually called chips and not crisps. Interesting):

Check out the mascot! Would Mexicans find that offensive? He’s got a different outfit for each flavor!

Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t find the chips in store — they got pulled from the shelves. But then I read the article I found the image with — the chips actually won an award in 2008 for package design. Who needs to be PC anyway?

I guess I’ll have to continue my quest for plain tortilla chips at another grocery store, and enjoy my Tangy Cheese Doritos in the meantime.