Monthly Archives: January 2014

Dear England, That’s Not Bacon

Upon moving to England, I discovered a nation that seemed as in love with bacon as I was. Every sandwich at Pret, every burger, ever salad came with bacon. I thought I had discovered my national identity soulmate, until I started buying some of this bacon-laden food, and discovered:

It’s not bacon.

That’s not bacon:

IMG_0991

And neither is that:

This one came with butter...it's like a little heart attack in a bun.

This one came with butter…it’s like a little heart attack in a bun.

Nope, that isn’t bacon either:

This is cheese and bacon on a bagel. Yes, that cheese is shredded and unmelted. Trust me when I say this is not what you would get in New York.

This is cheese and bacon on a bagel. Yes, that cheese is shredded and unmelted. Trust me when I say this is not what you would get in New York.

Oh sure, maybe it’s Canadian bacon, but we all know that’s just a fancy word for ham. Nobody likes Canadian bacon. Nobody.

Bacon is meant to be narrow and strippy, burnt and crispy. It should be dark red/brown, with charcoal black bits. It is supposed to melt in salty ecstasy in your mouth.

It is not supposed to be chewy. It is not supposed to have gobs of fat that taste like, well, fat, and stick in your teeth. It should not be pink like a pig because I don’t want to think about what animal bacon comes from while I eat it.

So England, it’s time to shape up. I love your ravenous, bottomless appetite for fried food, but the point of frying is to create a yummy crunchy texture…why are you constantly soggify-ing your chips with vinegar (more disturbingly, why have I taken up this habit)? Why is your bacon flat and limp and as sad as a cut out tongue?

Let’s solve this crisis, England. This is my only qualm about our long-term relationship, and it’s as heavy and demoralizing as a wet blanket…which is what your bacon tastes like. I know we can do better. And just as soon as I move out of my vegetarian house, I will show you how.

You are almost there, England. Keep on trying.

This was almost bacon, it just needed a little more time to crisp. I ate this with fried pickles, and THEY were crunchy.

This was almost bacon, it just needed a little more time to crisp. I ate this with fried pickles, and THEY were crunchy.

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Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

34×34 #27, The Pub Quiz: A Half P(o)int From Glory

A few months ago I sent a link to my blog to a friend who had expressed mild interest in reading it (don’t tell a writer you want to read their work. They will suck on like a superstrong vacuum hose (that’s Hoover to my many British fans) and refuse to let go). My friend followed through and actually skimmed around my blog, discovering my 34×34. Game and supportive, he suggested we try a pub quiz, item #27 on the list.

Nearly every pub in London has a quiz night, but I had never done one, and had no idea what to expect. Would it be mired in British history? Pregnant with current events? Soaked in obscure and arcane factoids that no one could possibly know? I didn’t do any sort of research to compare the quality or difficulty of different pub quizzes, so I can’t tell you if mine was a representative example. As usual, I dove in without looking, choosing a pub that I like very much in Crouch Hill/Finsbury Park area that has good food (three words: pumpkin amaretto cheesecake) and a sprawling, quaint interior. I believe The Old Dairy was once…well, a working dairy, but don’t quote me on that leap of assumptive logic. The building is ruggedly aged and has nifty relief sculptures on its outer walls, which you can see here.

Obviously, it’s a classy pub, and has thus named its quiz, “Not Just An Udder Quiz.”

Names are important to pub quizzes. I had no idea. I think people exert more effort on cleverly naming their team than on winning the quiz. I honestly can’t remember any of the names at our particular quiz, but I looked up a list of pub quiz team names, just to give you the flavor of what I’m talking about, and I think my favorite on the list was “Halal, Is it Meat You’re Looking for?”

I was not prepared for the crushing pressure to be creative on the spot, so I named us “Three Davids,” after my three best boy writers, which I guess was quirky since there were only two of us, and neither of us was named David. Hilarious, right? I know.

The quiz itself was divided into multiple sections, none of which was an essay, which is where I really excel, so I guess we were doomed before we started. The first part involved a handout to identify pictures of actors…mostly British and I didn’t recognize any of them. There was a section called “39 Steps” which involved questions with multiple part answers, the total of which were supposed to add up to 39. I knew all the states in New England, and the items that the Statue of Liberty holds, and the names of the women in Destiny’s Child. Wheeee! I’m smart.

Then came the part where the MC proffered questions orally, in a variety of categories, and this did not go so well. The questions were just very British, and I clearly haven’t penetrated the culture as much as I had hoped. Nor has my companion, an Irishman whose heart is still in Dublin. The only question I knew was a guess: there was a question about which English city had been named the next “City of Culture.” I have a friend who is from Hull and always talks about what a hole Hull is (say that out loud, please) so I ironically assumed Hull would be the answer…I was right, but we didn’t write that. My Irish buddy chose Newcastle instead. (No offense, Newcastle).

When the scores were tallied, Three Davids came in third to last. Oh, sure, that’s embarrassing, right? Actually it is infuriating, because the team who came in SECOND to last won a GBP30 bar tab. We were a half point off being second to last. A half point! All that un-knowledge for nothing.

Still, the pub quiz gives a purpose to your drinking, which you’re going to do anyway, so why not contextualize it with trivia? Indeed it was a pleasant way to spend an evening, especially with a friend who cared enough about my goals to push me out of my apathy and get something done. A silly, fun, and totally worthwhile thing. To that Irish buddy I say: thank you. It means the world to have a friend who will remind you that you yourself are worth the effort of following through on even the tiniest of dreams.

I look forward to more alcohol drenched quizzes in my future. I just have to come up with a better team name.

And in case you wanted to salivate over that pumpkin amaretto cheesecake…

MMmMmmmm

MMmMmmmm

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

34×34 #2, Part 1: Strasbourg, France

Life is annoyingly all or nothing: this past November, after months of languishing and stressing about money, I finally got a job, but this coincided with some nice dating, a 20,000 word deadline, a study guide for a silly porny novel, organizing a Thanksgiving meal for eight, and preparing to go home to the US for the first time in a year for almost three weeks. Not the time to try to cram in some random travel goals.

Or is it exactly the time to cram in some random travel goals?

In my first year of living in England, I only managed to get to other parts of Europe twice – and once was a re-visit to Amsterdam, a lovely city, one of my favorites, but someplace I had already been. Thus my 34×34 goal to see five new European cities/countries. Of course the travel needs of my book plus constant fretting amount money made this seem like a bit of a dreamy stretch. But when my fellow expat/faux-Mancunian friend RE-expatriated herself to Strasbourg, France for a limited time of four weeks, and I found a Ryanair flight for GBP35 – less than a train ticket to visit her in Manchester – I once again reflected on life happening while you’re busy making other plans.

Obviously, I booked the flight.

Strasbourg cathedral

Strasbourg cathedral

Pretty canals

Pretty canals

Two days after Thanksgiving, fridge still groaning with leftovers, I headed to Stansted for the short flight to Strasbourg. What sold me on making the trip was the fact that it was the first weekend of Strasbourg’s Christmas Market. Some quick internet research informed me Strasbourg has one of the best and biggest holiday markets in the world. My Mancunian and I had meandered through the Manchester Christmas Market last year when I visited her for Thanksgiving, and I thoroughly enjoyed my sausage and mulled wine (though not mead. Never again, mead.) I had bought some Christmas presents and a nice fair trade scarf. If Strasbourg was better than Manchester I was in for a real treat.

I was fortunate enough to be there on the first Sunday of the month, so many of the city’s attractions were free – we were able to visit the Musee des Beaux Arts where I saw a Raphael and a El Greco and a Corregio that I liked very much. We were also able to wander around the Cathedral, which is famous for its enormous astronomical clock. Mostly I just noticed the creepy grim reaper figure within it. We climbed about 330 steps to the cathedral platform, where we had amazing views of the entire city, having lucked into some cold but fair weather.

View from the top of the catheral...

View from the top of the catheral…

Astronomical clock

Astronomical clock

Creepy...

Creepy…

The Christmas Market itself was disappointing. I was expecting local handicrafts with a French and German flavor (Strasbourg being in Alsace-Lorraine, an area of France handed back and forth between Germany and France multiple times in the twentieth century), but mostly what we found was junky trinkets made in China. I bought some silly springy Santa hats for my nieces and nephews, also surely made in China, but otherwise left empty-handed.

The Christmas Market

The Christmas Market

Even my goal of eating my way through the market was underwhelming. I was dying for a soft pretzel, a local specialty, but the one I ate was stale. Ditto the beignet chocolat, a sugary stuffed donut that was cold and filled with little more than pudding. We did get some spaetzle and sauerkraut and sausage that was salty and delicious, but overall, the food left my poor edible heart broken.

Before I ate the pretzel I was so excited.

Before I ate the pretzel I was so excited.

I wanted to love my beignet, I just didn't.

I wanted to love my beignet, I just didn’t.

Okay, yum.

Okay, yum.

However, besides just getting to see a dear friend and catching up, a worthwhile use of GBP35 if ever there was one, as well as drinking a ton of good local Alsatian Rieslings, the entire trip was worth it for the fondue.

Oh fondue, sweet nectar of the gods.

My friend and I went to a well recommended place called Cloche au Fromage, jam-packed with locals at lunchtime. We made a small error by ordering two types of fondue – thinking they would come in individual servings that we could share. Instead, we were faced with two VATS of melted bliss-inducing cheese. We got a basic and one with Munster and herbs and – okay, I’m not a food blogger so all I can say is that one tasted stronger and stinkier, but in the good cheese way. Trust me.

I want it in my face.

I want it in my face.

The fondue was pricey but “all you can eat” – I mistakenly thought I could live up to this challenge. Despite the bottomless pit that is my stomach combined with my inappropriate love of cheese, I couldn’t finish even one pot, let alone ask for more. I think these before and after photos can attest to the harrowing yet worthwhile emotional journey of my experience.

Oh the joy, the triumph...

Oh the joy, the triumph…

and pain of defeat.

and pain of defeat.

Anyway, Strasbourg is a beautiful little city, and I wish I could have explored it more, perhaps in summer when it wouldn’t have been so brutally cold. It was nice to try and recall all the French I learned over a decade ago in school. I was really surprised to find I wanted to speak to merchants and vendors, to see if I could communicate. Since the days of taking Latin I have long feared speaking foreign languages, and have shunned them at every opportunity. I think my experience on the Camino last year made me slightly braver, and more willing to try to speak and understand languages. So hurray for that.

One city down, four to go. I have a lot of travel plans this year, so let’s see what I can make happen.

Oh, and I love this girl by the way. Ever and always a good travel buddy.

Oh, and I love this girl by the way. Ever and always a good travel buddy.

Categories: 34x34, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

34×34 #21: Host a Dinner Party – Expat Thanksgiving Edition

You would think by now I would stop writing the repetitively themed blog, “I had this perfect vision…but reality did not live up to my expectations. (But then it was perfect anyway).”

It’s like, so basic and self-evident, and yet I must learn my lesson over and over and over.

Sisyphus and me, the universe’s bitches.

This past November was the third Thanksgiving in a row I was missing at home, and I didn’t like it. Year one was spent on the boat, eating crummy buffet food, albeit with forty of my nearest and dearest entertainment department family. Last year Thanksgiving was in Manchester, where a deceptive online grocery store misdelivered several crucial elements at the last minute, giving my fellow expat friend and I a unique, if somewhat frustrating, meal. With that friend re-expatriated to France, I didn’t know what I was going to do for Turkey Day this year.

I wanted to host Thanksgiving for the few other Americans I know in London, but I live in a vegetarian flat. As in, I am not allowed to bring meat into the house. Not deli meat, not on takeaway, nothing. But none of my friends has a space to accommodate a group of six or more.

I do. I have an enormous kitchen. And then I found an American grocery store called Partridge’s near Sloane Square. They had French’s Fried Onions and I knew I had to do this.

American foodses in London

American foodses in London

I don’t know if it’s the delicious food or the concept of family and gratitude, but Thanksgiving is a big deal to me, and while none of my fellow Americans seemed overly concerned about the day, I was determined. I negotiated my stubborn landlord/flatmate into allowing me to have people over, as long as the turkey was cooked elsewhere, and none of his kitchenware touched it.

One American friend took charge of the turkey, gravy, and stuffing, another decided to make mashed potatoes, and our Australian friend promised cranberry sauce. That left me to make pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, and butternut squash lasagna.

In my 34×34 vision of hosting a dinner party, I cooked the full multi-course meal – an appetizer, a meat-centered main course, a dessert. Part of the point of this self-challenge was to face my strange distaste – almost fear – of touching raw meat. The reason I can live in a vegetarian house despite not being a vegetarian is that I don’t ever cook meat: I don’t like to touch it, and I don’t really know how to prepare it properly.

So was I cheating by delegating this pivotal portion of the meal to someone else? I mean, quite frankly, it’s the quintessential element – people could live without the butternut squash lasagna, but nobody wanted to do a turkey-less Thanksgiving. Also, because of the kitchenware stipulation, I had to buy paper plates and plastic cutlery to serve the meal. This did not fit into my elegant vision of hosting a dinner party either.

You know what? I’m counting it. Judge me as you must. And just for full disclosure, I cut up some cheese and dumped some crackers on a platter for my appetizer. Sue me.

At the last minute, one of my friends realized she couldn’t make the mashed potatoes because her refrigerator was broken and she had to work all day preceding dinner. Potatoes are as necessary as turkey, so I added them to my schedule. One of my goals with attempting this dinner was to learn how chefs/cooks/my sainted mother time their preparations to set all the food out piping hot at the same moment. There is a real art to cooking a whole meal, and I’ve never mastered it. Things get cold or burn, but nothing is ever ready simultaneously.

Getting down and dirty

Getting down and dirty

My day started at 9am, baking bread, two loaves of pumpkin made separately because I wasn’t sure if I could just double the ingredients and then halve the mixture into two pans – and it was 4am in New Jersey, too early to call my mother.

Pumpkin bread!

Pumpkin bread!

My mother played a prominent role in my day – I called/skyped her at least once an hour, freaking out about what order I should do things in, what ingredients I might be forgetting as I went to the supermarket one last time, how to bake the squash and mash the potatoes and what was the recipe for chocolate chip cookie pie? Really, I know nothing about cooking. My mother must be disappointed in her three children, none of whom took up her great culinary skill and enjoyment. She LIKES spending all day in the kitchen preparing a groaning table’s worth of food for her family.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Anyway, I got through it. Breads were followed by pies, which cooled all day on the counter, teasing me. I prebaked the squash and mashed it, then boiled the potatoes and mashed them – all by hand, because we don’t have a mixer or blender or anything fancy in my house (we only barely have a microwave, after much whining on my part). Everything was going well until one friend apologetically texted that she and her boyfriend would be an hour late – totally throwing off my calculations for getting everything ready simultaneously.

At that point I started drinking wine and eating cheese cubes.

Classy spread

Classy spread

But that’s as dramatic as it gets; everyone eventually arrived, loaded with food and alcohol, all of which was delicious. Everything I made came out perfectly and reasonably hot. No one even touched the chocolate chip cookie pie, so stuffed were they from the meal.

I am my mother’s daughter, wanting to be absolutely sure everyone was gastrointestinally protesting too much food.

Eight of us ate and drank together: 3 Americans, an Aussie, a Lithuanian, a Frenchman, a Brit, and an Italian. Just like the Pilgrims would have wanted.

Mmmm. Food.

Mmmm. Food.

My contribution

My contribution

After my funny little hodgepodge family left and the dishes were washed, I Skyped with my other family in New Jersey. I realized I had done all that work mainly for myself – no one else was nearly as fussed about it, no one was desperate for pumpkin bread and green bean casserole the way I was. But that’s okay. It was worth it for the leftovers alone.

I’m so grateful to my mother for all her help, even from thousands of miles away. We stood in kitchens on opposite sides of the Atlantic, cooking together, and if my meal came out even a fraction as well as hers, I have reason to be proud.

So I accomplished my goal: I brought people together, we broke bread, we laughed, we were thankful. So fuck the turkey. Maybe next year I’ll tackle “cooking meat.”

Fat now.

Fat now.

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

2013: Reframing a Failure

Since I began keeping track of what I was reading in 2010, the number of books I completed each year has steadily increased. My goal for 2012 was 50, and I handily surpassed it with 59. I didn’t think it would be too much of a challenge to pledge to read 75 in 2013.

For ten months of last year I was ahead of schedule according to Goodreads, who calculate my reading stats. At one point I was 8 books ahead, and I thought: I got this. No problem. In the terminology of your typical sports flick, “I couldn’t lose.”

Ah, the hubris. Pride go-eth before the fall, right?

At the beginning of December, I realized I had only read 66 books. I knew I couldn’t read 9 books in December – December! a month when I had 20,000 words due for my Masters, a weekend trip to France and a 2 ½ week trip home for Christmas and all the holiday madness therein – and I knew I was going to fail to achieve my goal. I finished the year with 69 books read.

My immediate react to this was, of course, searing disappointment. How had I squandered that enormous excess of books? It shows what kind of nerd I am that I was humiliated to have come so close and fallen short.

Yes friends, my life is replete with the first-iest of first world problems.

Still, I am just competitive enough (with myself, apparently) to be super annoyed that I failed. And that’s what it felt like: failure. Once again, I had set a goal, and I had failed to check it off my list.

After a dark night of the soul (look, my favorite activity is reading. I don’t have a lot of drama in my life as I sit around with sheafs of paper, so allow me some hyperbole for the sake of the narrative), I had to reframe my failure.

I failed because I was busy. My life started to turn around in October and November. I got a job. I started hanging out with some new friends and good friends more frequently. I started seeking out the strange and wonderful bits and bobs that London has to offer, going to more events, playing in more of the city. Going home to New Jersey for the first time in a year meant there were many people to see, catch up with, laugh with, enjoy. There wasn’t time to read as I soaked up my parents, trying to figure out how I can be more like them.

I was reading less because I was living more. See, now when you look at it that way, it’s not so bad, is it? (You probably didn’t think it was that bad to begin with.)

There is another vital life lesson tied in here. I fell short on this goal because I picked up three books in a row that I didn’t enjoy, but rather than giving up and moving on to something I would like, I hung around in my own version of purgatory, not reading these dull tomes, but not reading anything else either. I think this is important. I think learning to let go is something I’m still figuring out, and the metaphorical resonances in the bigger picture of my life abound. I have to get better at walking away from situations that are unhealthy or make me unhappy. My fear of quitting (which equates to failing in my mind) is definitely something to work on this year.

A friend of mine wrote an excellent blog on managing expectations recently. Her life and mine are different – I aspire to be where she is in my own writing career, and I admire her perseverance in pursuing writing in a way I still don’t, to my further embarrassment – but I understand the sentiment of expecting a great deal from yourself and feeling like you miss the mark even when you give your best. But looking back at 2013, I have to recognize that while nothing major was achieved, I took a lot of small, significant steps forward.

While I was home in NJ, I turned on my American cell phone and noticed the last text I had sent a friend before I left to return to London last December. I told her I had been crying all day, that London was a mistake, that I didn’t want to go back.

I can honestly say right now I don’t even remember feeling that. In the past 12 months I have come to love this city so hard that no matter what else might be making me bluesy, I have learned to maintain my perspective: I am so lucky to be here, and when all else fails, I am so happy to be here. I feel like I belong here, a feeling I have never had before (as frequent readers of this blog know, my search for a sense of home has long haunted me). I am lucky to have made some good friends this year. I’m lucky to have done some nice travelling this year. I am lucky to be pursuing writing, no matter how much work there is still to do on that front – I’m lucky to be writing the book I’m writing, on a topic that I truly love and find fascinating. I’m lucky that after 12 months of not seeing them, I can still go to my family and bask in their unconditional love and support. I’m lucky that I wanted to cry as I left them again, because how many people have that much love in their lives?

2014 makes me anxious for a lot of reasons: I have to finish this book, I have to figure out what my actual career is going to look like. I only have a year left on my visa and I don’t want to leave England. I still would like to feel a little more entrenched in London, less like an outsider. Every time I open my mouth I reveal my foreignness, my unintentionally loud, friendly, brash Americanness.

Still, I am so lucky that this is my set of problems. I am learning to reframe my anxiety as excitement. I want the world, and of course that’s bound to cause disappointment, because who can have the world? But I know I’d rather set a high goal and standard and dream big and fall short than sell myself short and accept too little and be discontent. As Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Here’s to failing better in 2014. I have no expectations for this year, only hope.

Well, I have one expectation.

I’m going to read 75 books this year.

Happy reading and happy living. Here’s to a dream and love and laughter filled year for us all.

A small sampling of the books in my future. There are many, many more not pictured.

A small sampling of the books in my future. There are many, many more not pictured.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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