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.