Archive | March, 2011

All right, the vehicle is reversing!

31 Mar

I am slowly learning the proper English usages of “All right.” Apparently it doesn’t always mean the same in America.

For instance, our porter is always greeting me with either “You all right?” Or just “All right?” The first few times I thought he was genuinely concerned about my well-being. My default facial expression is rather gloomy, leading to various teachers and homeless men over the years encouraging me to smile and cheer up, even when I’m feeling happy inside. So I thought Paul was just being extra considerate of his residents’ feelings. That was until I checked this site again and found that “All right?” just means “Hello, how are you.” It says the proper response is to say “All right?” back. I think I’ll just stick with “Yeah, how are you?” for now.

I went to get my hair colo[u]red in London for the first time today. I could write about how it was impersonal and made me miss my Kentucky stylist even more, but I already wrote about that in my Chicago entry, so I’ll focus instead on the use of “all right.” My colourist didn’t use “all right” in the same sense that Paul does, but she used it a lot. Every time she had to step away should would ask my permission. “I need to go get more foil, is that all right?” and “I’ve got to check on another colour, is that all right?” The receptionist did it too. They had complimentary drinks like tea and juice, but I just wanted water. “We have normal water, is that all right?” she asked. It was more the use of “all right” that I’m used to, but it was odd that they all kept using it. If I were in their shoes I would probably just say, “I need to get more foil, be right back.” Or maybe “I’ve got to check on another color now, OK?” I wonder if anyone ever objects and says no, it’s not alright.

And on a completely different note, I wanted to mention something funny I encountered on my walk to the Tube this morning. I can’t believe it was the first time I encountered it, and it happened twice on the way there. You know that annoying beeping noise that trucks or motorized shopping carts in Wal-Mart make when reversing? Well trucks in the UK don’t make that noise. Instead they exclaim loudly, “Attention! This vehicle is reversing!” –over and over again until the truck goes back into drive. I kid you not. It comes out of some loudspeaker on the vehicle. I actually started laughing out loud when I first heard it because it’s so ridiculous. And then I encountered another reversing vehicle a block up and I almost lost it. Apparently I’m not the only one, it has its own Facebook page (And please tell me the British word for garbage truck is “dustbin van.”)

Full English what now?

28 Mar

I have to admit, one of my favo[u]rite parts of being in England is getting to eat Walkers crisps. Americans think salt & vinegar or dill pickle-flavo[u]red chips are wild, but the British take crisps to a whole new level of crazy. For my very first meal deal back in September I got bacon-flavoured crisps. They tasted like … bacon. I have yet to try prawn cocktail, but I imagine it tastes like those shrimp crackers you get at Thai restaurants. When we were buying snacks for our Super Bowl get-together, I was tempted to get the meat value pack of crisps — that’s right, a whole bag full of six little bags of three different types of meat-flavored chips — but we weren’t sure if our American friends had jumped on the crazy crisp bandwagon like I have. (Are you annoyed yet by my interchanging of flavor/flavour and crisp/chip? I haven’t fully converted to Britishisms)

Today while buying my sandwich meal deal at Tesco Express I saw a new flavour of crisps — “full English fry up.” I think it struck my fancy because I had absolutely no idea what it meant. It did not have the words “chili con carne” like the other new flavour, and it had a picture of a guy with a frying pan, and I like fried stuff, so I got it. It wasn’t until I tasted the crisps that I realized full English fry up is probably another term for a full English breakfast, because my chips tasted just like bacon and eggs. They were good, but bizarre. The other bizarre thing is that they won’t leave me. I ate lunch eight hours ago, have since had a snack and dinner and am currently chewing mint gum, but I am still having full English fry up crisp burps. (Too much information, I’m sorry). Suddenly I don’t like full English fry up as much anymore.

Weather, language barriers part II, and luggage allowances

25 Mar

Rome -- like all cities -- is significantly less fun in the rain.

I’m currently sitting on the balcony in my new cheapo Argos camping chair. This is the first time I’ve ever come out onto our balcony. Spring has finally come to London, and not a day too soon. I never realized how much the weather affected my mood until I moved to a city where it’s cloudy and rainy 80 percent of the time. Chicago had its bitter cold and snowy winters, but it still had sunlight and blue skies. I actually saw an ad in a pharmacy window the other day for vitamin D supplements, claiming that people don’t get enough vitamin D because of the “dreary UK weather.” I’d believe that. I’d also believe that a good number of people here have SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Thankfully it’s finally sunny now and the rain is not supposed to come back until late next week.

I never got a chance to write about my family’s visit. I think they had an enjoyable time. My brother came to London and Paris a few years ago on a class trip, but I believe this was the first time my parents ever visited a foreign language-speaking country (Cozumel, Mexico on a cruise ship does not count). I’ve deducted that there are three ways to approach a foreign language in a foreign land, and my family embodies all of them.

When my brother came to Paris with his school group, his guide instructed them to only speak French. He learned the necessary phrases to get by, like “hello,” thank you” and “I would like ham and cheese.” He tried as best as he could to refrain from using English, even if he had to result to sign language (which he’s currently studying in college). When we had to buy train tickets, we pushed him to the front and he was able to complete the transaction with his broken French. We were all impressed. I think my brother was actually upset when he realized most people in Paris speak English, or at least enough to give an American tourist what he wants. We walked into a restaurant, my brother told the waiter “Party of four,” in French, then the waiter came to our table with our menus and said, “Hey guys, what’s up?” So much for pretending to be European.

My dad, however, tried the other extreme — speak English and only English and hope for the best. Because we were in two mega touristy cities — Paris and Rome — it worked out pretty well for him. It gave us away as American tourists right away, but it also got us food and hotel accommodations. When my brother’s broken French and sign language didn’t work, my dad would go over and say, “Four tickets, please,” blowing my brother’s cover.

My mom, on the other hand, tried to avoid the situation all together, not speaking French or English and encouraging one of us to handle the situation.

I like to think I’m a mixture of all three schools of thought. Like my brother, I want to look like a local and speak the language, but like my mom, I get embarrassed, so like my dad, I end up speaking English. I feel more comfortable with Italian than French, so I was able to order dinner in Italian, though it wasn’t very encouraging when the waiter responded, “OK, mushroom pizza for you” to my “pizza ai funghi.”

There were instances, though, when we weren’t speaking but a waiter or ticket seller would automatically address us in English. “How did they know?” my brother would ask, and we would all ponder it. Was it the way we dressed? We weren’t wearing NFL jerseys, baseball hats or anything else stereotypically American. Was it the way we carried ourselves? Our facial structure? Are there ways to tell someone’s nationality just by looking at them? I can’t help but wonder.

The trip went pretty smoothly so I don’t have too many anecdotes. It rained the entire two days we were in Rome, which put a damper on things. I was in Rome five years ago in the summer and it was beautiful, but now my family will always associate Rome with that disgusting wet sock feeling we experienced tromping around the Vatican Museum. They did throw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so maybe they’ll have a chance to go back when it’s sunny.

We took Ryan Air, a budget airline similar to easyJet, from Rome to London. We bought our baggage allowance online in an attempt to save money at the gate. I also got the bright idea that the three of them should share one suitcase, not realizing that my brother wears a lot of heavy hoodies and my mom would pack more shoes than days traveled. Needless to say their one suitcase was hefty, but it wasn’t a problem until it was time to head back to London. We put the bag on the scale and it read 25 kg — that’s 55 lbs. In the US the weight limit is usually 50 lbs, so it would have been overweight there, but Ryanair’s cheapo weight limit is 15 kg — 33 lbs. The bag was 10 kg over so I asked the woman what the fee was, thinking it’d be £20 and we’d just suck it up. “£20,” she said. “…per kilo overweight.” That would cost us £200, more than the plane tickets for five of us cost. Checking a bag cost £15 — if we weren’t at a tiny airport, we could have bought a new suitcase and checked it. But that wasn’t an option, so we did what we could — we moved over to the side and started shoving hoodies, belts and shoes into our carry-ons and my checked suitcase, which was already 14 kg. I’m sure we weren’t the first travelers to have to do this, since 15 kg is a ridiculously low weight limit. I’m still not entirely sure how we made it, but we did, and saved ourselves £200. It’s just an easy way for the airline to make a quick buck, because as my brother so wisely pointed out, “What does it matter, the weight is still on the plane!”

In the future I’ll remember that it’s cheaper to check two smaller bags than to bring a jumbo suitcase.

I don’t see the connection, Amazon

24 Mar

I got this email just now from Amazon:

Since when do South Park fans love acrobatic yoga? Is Amazon trying to hint that I should get off my couch, do some exercise and stop having South Park marathons? That isn’t happening anytime soon, but good try, Amazon. Good try.

Photogenically challenged

22 Mar

European vacation passportsToday I had to do something I’ve been dreading — I had to get a passport photo taken. It’s not for a passport — I get to keep that bad photo for another four years — it’s for a Chinese visa. They don’t put a photo on the visa, so I can’t figure out why they need a passport photo, but I know better than to show up at the consulate without all the necessary items, so I went in search of a place that would take my picture this morning. I ended up at a little shop that sells mainly magazines and cigarettes, at least that’s what everyone in line around me was buying. The guy said four photos are £5, which sounded like a great deal, so I went for it. I put extra effort into doing my hair and makeup this morning just for this stupid photo. I was ready. I stood in front of the white screen and gave a half smile. Since it was digital, the guy showed me the photo. It was bad. I politely asked him to take another. He did. It was worse. But at this point customers were lining up for their newspapers and cigarettes, so I told him it was fine, because, honestly, we would have been there all day if I wanted a good photo.

That’s because I’m photogenically challenged. Majority of photos of me turn out bad. Not “OMG I look so bad, but really I look good and I’m just fishing for compliments” bad, more “Dear god how is it even possible to make that face?” bad. It’s a condition I’ve been struggling with for most of my life. I like to think I’m not bad looking, I may even be above average looking, but something happens with the click of the shutter that makes it all go to hell. To cope with this disorder I invented the Renee Face several years ago (see here). I figured if I was going to look stupid, I might as well look stupid on purpose. But I can’t make the Renee Face in a passport photo, or at least I’m too embarrassed to try (although Clark Griswold got away with it), so I had to attempt a closed-mouth smile (I can’t teeth-show smile properly, another disorder of mine) and ended up with what looks like a mug shot for meth use — even with my nice hair and makeup. So tomorrow I will take my visa application, passport and photo to the Chinese consulate and hope that they do not discriminate against the unphotogenic.

I’m back, and still blogging about grocery shopping

21 Mar

Every day this past week I have come home to my flat or hotel room thinking, “This is it. Tomorrow I am going to wake up and have no feeling or control in my legs and feet.” Is that possible? Can your body refuse to function until it gets a day off? If so, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet. The family eurotrip has come to an end. It was fun, but exhausting — not just playing host/travel agent/tour guide for eight days, but walking at least five miles each of those eight days, two of which in soaking wet socks and shoes (the worst feeling ever). Yesterday, the day my family left, I took as my vacation from the vacation, and never left the flat. But today I could ignore the empty refrigerator and cabinets no longer and trekked to Sainbury’s, where I proceeded to buy one of everything — or at least it felt that way on my walk home. I had to stop several times on my way to adjust my trolley and bags. It was by far the most groceries I had ever attempted to carry, and my body wasn’t recovered enough for it. Several times I thought about hailing a taxi, but somehow I made it through. The porter, seeing me struggling at the front door, graciously helped me lug my purchases upstairs and could not believe I had walked all the way to Sainsbury’s and back. I couldn’t either. And once I got inside I did the unthinkable — I started researching grocery delivery services. Apparently it’s only £4 to have Sainsbury’s deliver. The weather is getting nicer now and I like the exercise, but I may have to bite the delivery bullet once in awhile to maintain the feeling in my arms and legs.

Language barriers

11 Mar

You know who I am insanely jealous of? Bi- tri- and quadrilingual people. I know English. That’s it. Sometimes I really wish my family had passed on the languages of our ancestors, although I guess that would mean I would speak Czech and Swedish, which would probably only help me if I decided to visit Prague or Stockholm. Switzerland has four — four! — official languages, none of which are English. Most people who live there are at least bilingual and majority of them probably know French, German and English. Even though English isn’t an official language, we discovered most people spoke it and we could get around the country with only minor issues.

I don’t have much experience with language barriers, and like a typical American, it makes me uncomfortable. The only foreign country I seem to frequent is China, where I always have Stephen as a translator. Plus, I stand out as a foreigner in China, so hotel employees automatically address me in English. But in Switzerland — or any other part of Europe — I look like I could be a local. That’s when I encounter a problem Stephen and I don’t agree on.

When you check into a hotel and the clerk greets you with “Bonjour,” what is the appropriate response? “Bonjour,” or “Hello?” Stephen always says “Bonjour,” because he thinks it’s polite. I can understand that, but it’s also deceiving. The clerk then beings speaking French and the “I have no idea what you are saying” panic look washes over our faces. To avoid that, I always respond with “Hello,” so they know I want the conversation to take place in English. I guess it’s the American “You come to my country, speak English! I go to your country, speak English!” way. Stephen is very good at pretending he understands other languages. That got us in trouble at the chocolate factory.

I don’t really know how to describe the Cailler chocolate factory experience other than that it felt like the beginning of a ride at Disney or Universal, where before you get on they take you through various rooms and tell you stories and show you images to get you immersed in the theme. They had groups go through every four minutes. When it was our turn, they lead us into an elevator and then shut the door. It was relatively dark and suddenly a dramatic voice over began — in German. Why? Because for whatever reason we ignored the clear “English available upon request” sign. When we were lead into the elevator the employee said something to Stephen in French which was probably along the lines of, “I know you guys are probably American because I heard you laughing stupidly about South Park jokes, but this tour is going to be in German, are you cool with that?” And Stephen just gave a very convincing nod. And that’s how we ended up hearing the dramatic story of chocolate — from the cacao bean in Africa to the French revolution to François-Louis Cailler, entirely in German. At least they had English signs once we got through the “ride” part and were in the factory. We didn’t learn as much as we could have about the history of chocolate, but we did learn an important lesson about the negative effects of smiling and nodding when spoken to in a foreign language.

And speaking of foreign languages, my family is coming to visit tomorrow. We’re doing a whirlwind tour of London, Paris and Rome. The downside is I will likely not be able to update much over the next 10 days, but I’m sure my family gallivanting around Europe will provide for some entertaining blog material in the future.

A long post about our Switzerland holiday

9 Mar

EasyJet should probably make their name more visible on their planes.

This past weekend Stephen and I had a well overdue get-out-of-London holiday. We ventured to Switzerland, land of cheese, chocolate, watches and army knives. It was also our first experience with a budget airline, which is like Megabus in the sky. You only get one piece of hand luggage and have to pay extra for everything — checked bags, food, newspapers — in other words, it’s like flying on an American airline except your plane ticket is really cheap (the cheapest expense of your trip, if you’re headed to Switzerland).

Since EasyJet is a budget airline, it only flies out of middle-of-nowhere London airports. I think it took us longer to get to Luton airport than it took to fly from London to Zurich. We thought we had plenty of time then ended up sprinting out of security for fear of the gate closing, only to find out a gate hadn’t been announced yet. Since EasyJet is no-frills, there are no seat assignments. You’ve seen how anxious people get to get on the airplane when they have an assigned seat, so imagine what it’s like when they don’t. It’s absolute chaos. China should never do open seating because people will die. Literally. We were at the head of the pack when we reached the gate, but then they made Stephen put his carry-on suitcase into the metal will-it-fit test. It did not fit. This is where EasyJet makes some easy money. If you check your bag online, it’s £9. If you check it at the desk at the airport, it’s £20. If you wait until you get to the gate, believing it to be the right size and it’s not, they charge you £30. They also make you wait until everyone has boarded the plane before you can pay for it. So I moved onto the holding area (I can’t call it a gate, there are no chairs or anything, just a big open space with dividers to separate the speedy pass people from the hoi polloi), while Stephen had to wait to pay and be the very last person to board. In the holding area, what started as a organized queue turned into pandemonium when the woman told us to move to the far side of the room so everyone could fit. People started pushing and scrambling to get the closest to the door. “Here we go,” said the guy behind me as the woman got ready to remove the divider and let us outside to board the plane. I felt like I was at the opening of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. “Run, Forest, run!” said the guy behind me as we all made a mad dash to the door. I managed to stay ahead of the pack and secured a window seat and had to continually tell people I was saving the seat next to me. EasyJet also seems to be perpetually 30 minutes behind, so the time you’re scheduled to take off is really when they begin boarding. I guess you get what you pay for. What matters is we eventually got there.

I made a rookie travel mistake on the trip: I went in with expectations. Several of my friends have visited Switzerland and went on about its jigsaw-puzzle-box beauty. We flew into Zurich and then planned to drive to Geneva, visit the auto show, then drive back to Zurich, stopping at Cailler chocolate factory on the way back. When I imagined the scenic drive between the two cities, I saw this in my head:


But in reality, A-1 was a lot of this:

Actual photo I took on the drive

We could have been driving from Cincinnati to Charleston or Shanghai to Nantong. I was expecting snow-capped Alps, but instead there were a lot of tree-covered mountains, which are the worst type of mountains. We also had high hopes for Geneva. This city at the “foot of the Alps,” with the third-highest quality of life of any city in the world (Zurich is #2), had to be pretty awesome. Instead, to quote Stephen, it looked like 1972 China. Neither one of us were alive in 1972, but I know what he meant. There were a lot of old dirty buildings — the nasty, run-down old, not the historic landmark tourist spot old. Switzerland was letting us down. Plus, it was expensive. Geneva is the fifth most expensive city in the world and Zurich is #8. A Swiss franc is roughly equal to a US dollar. We got Japanese udon soup for dinner, a dish that usually costs around $5 to $8, some dumplings and water and a Coke and our bill was 80 francs. Nothing like a trip to Switzerland to make London seem affordable!

Just as we were about to curse the Swiss and their tree-mountains and 28 franc hamburgers, things got better. The Geneva Auto Show was spectacular — I have never seen so many cars and people in one place, and Stephen got to see world premiers of all his favorite exotic cars. We went into the historic center of Geneva to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where we got a beautiful view of the lake and city, which suddenly looked a lot less like 1972 China. Then we took a different interstate to the chocolate factory and I was able to see actual snow-covered mountains, which I unsuccessfully tried to photograph at 140 km an hour. And the chocolate factory was amazing. They had unlimited samples at the end, which I took full advantage of as my “lunch.” So in short (even though this entry has been anything but), we ended up having a great time in Switzerland, despite the outrageous food prices and lack of postcard scenery. I guess we need to head to Lucerne or smaller Alp villages to get the real prize-worthy snapshots, although we’d probably have language issues (which is material for my next post).

A post about my washing machine

3 Mar

Awhile back I complained about the washer-dryer combo unit in our temporary housing. Then when we finally moved into our flat I was met without something different — a lone washing machine integrated in the kitchen. I made the mistake of assuming it was a combo unit because it seemed that was what all apartments had. And then I tried to use it. It seems all appliances in the UK were created like IKEA instructions — just symbols and numbers, no English. This wouldn’t be a problem if I understood what the symbols meant, but both our washer and oven did not come with instruction manuals, meaning I’ve been employing the trial and error method. I’ve figured out the washer for the most part, but was a little more weary about trial and error with the oven, so after too many cold curly fries, I googled a manual. I’m getting sidetracked though, this post is about my washer, not my oven.

The first time I tried to use the machine I kept looking for the dryer symbol. There wasn’t one. We were blessed with a washing machine, but no dryer. We were not happy about this, so in true American fashion we made a big stink. We complained to the landlord, the building manager, the porter, the estate agent — everyone. I remember the estate agent giving me a polite lecture about how it is rather common for British households not to have dryers, unlike in the US. I could tell he was doing everything he could to bite his tongue and not call me a spoiled American. I admit in this instance I did act rather spoiled. I tried washing clothes and hanging them to dry, but when I could hit Stephen with his dried sock and actually inflict some pain, we realized it was time to get a dryer (and fabric softener).

So the landlord caved and bought us a condenser dryer. I have no idea how it works, but it does. It requires no ventilation, I just have to empty a big container of water after every load. It’s easy because the dryer is in the bathroom, right next to the sink. Yes — the washing machine is in the kitchen and the dryer is in the bathroom. It was the only place we could fit it.

It’s nice having a washer and dryer in-unit. In Chicago I hated lugging my clothes to the bottom floor and paying $1.75 in quarters per load so much that I would pack my laundry in my jumbo suitcase and take it 300 miles on the Megabus to Cincinnati and do it at my parent’s house. In the last year I think I only paid to do laundry in my building a handful of times.

Of course having our own washer and dryer is not without complaints. For one, it takes forever. One load on the warm cycle takes over 2 1/2 hours to complete — 2 1/2 hours! That’s not including drying, which takes an hour and a half. But a load on the cooler cycle takes only an hour and a half. Why the extra hour for hotter water? I’m also using the term “cooler” relatively. Instead of having the “hot,” “warm” and “cold” temperature settings I’m used to, our washer has temperatures — 90, 60, 40 and 30 degrees Celsius. Using my handy conversion app, that translates to 194, 140, 104 and 86 F. That is really hot!  I feel like 90, 60, 40 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit seems more appropriate, but there is a clear degrees C on the machine. Doesn’t 86 degrees F seem a little warm for a washer’s coldest setting? It could explain why the white towel I threw in with the darks isn’t so bright anymore.

And since I’m blabbering about water temperature, let me throw in one last thing. The water in our flat is ridiculously hot. In the US it seems more common not to get a shower hot enough, but here the shower water is often too hot and the temperature knob is, of course, not clearly marked. I’ve seen smoke coming out of the kitchen tap when I turn on only the hot water. One of these days I’m going to burn myself and have to explain to people that it happened while washing my hands.

Question/deep thought of the day

1 Mar

Half the fun of living here is learning about the different words for things. For instance, whenever we would say “mail,” they say “post.” So you go to the post office to post your letter, then the postman delivers your post (which in our case comes through a slot near the front door and never fails to startle me. The first time it happened I was convinced someone was breaking into our flat).

“Post” instead of “mail.” That makes sense. But then how do you explain this:

British post is delivered by Royal Mail, and US mail is delivered by the United States Postal Service.