Sunday, December 26, 2010

Audio Assault: Plane Talk

I've come to accept the fact that we Americans (and some more than others) have very distinctive accents and more often than not, very distinctive voices.  Now, as I mentioned before, I work hard to preserve my American accent in London because a) I'm not ashamed to be American and b) I don't wanna sound like Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow AKA sporting the dreaded "transatlantic accent" (although I've been told I have one now - sigh).  But, in the words of my role model and buddy Sarah Palin, gosh darn it, why do the Americans with the most annoying nasal accents SPEAK SO LOUDLY?  WHY MUST EVERYTHING BE IN CAPITALS NO MATTER WHERE THEY ARE?  IS IT BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO BE HEARD?  IS IT BECAUSE IF NO ONE LISTENS TO THEM, THEY'LL HAVE TO BRING IN THE BIG GUNS?  

AN EXEMPLARY INSTANCE OF SUCH BEHAVIOR CAN BE FOUND ON MOST PLANE RIDES CONTAINING TRAVELLING AMERICANS (sorry, once I start with the caps, I just can't stop.  It's quite enjoyable, I must admit).  Example: at the onset of our nine hour plane journey across the Pacific from Tokyo's Narita Airport to Seattle Tacoma International Airport, I was drifting into blissful, guided sleep when BAM!  It hit me.  The verbal diarrhea of some Abercrombie-wearing twenty-something male (and yes, I said "male" because I won't even dignify his presence with the word "guy") two rows behind me to the equally annoying Shanghainese girl engaging him in constant conversation.  "... I mean, Korea is like, like, such an amazing, amazing place, you know, like, I was teaching there and I, look, it's like a very, very male-dominated society and like, women have no say and like, yeah, totally, it can be very frustrating but like ..."

20 minutes later ...

"... and yeah, so my girlfriend is so skinny, I mean she has a six-pack but doesn't work out.  At all.  I mean, I work out and I lift, you know, and I have a six-pack.  I have a six-pack because I work out.  She is like, laid back, gorgeous, funny, I just love her.  She is like, amazing.  You know, some girls, like, can be high-maintenance.  You know?  Like super high maintenance.  She is SO not like that, I mean, she is truly a wonderful person."

4 hours later ...

"... like, I love Chinese food and stuff, but like, don't you get bored eating the same thing every day?  I mean, American food is like, so awesome, because you know, what's special about American food is, listen, you can have pizza.  You can have spaghetti, you can have pasta.  You know?  It's different.  Or you can have a burger.  But like, how do you do it?  How do you not get bored of eating rice every day?  I couldn't do it, I really like, just - man, I just like, couldn't do it."

(And yes, I was so traumatized by his monologue that I remember these snippets distinctly and I believe, very accurately)

Look.  I get it.  I've met some awesome people on planes.  Having a chatty and friendly seat-mate on a long flight is undeniably great and comforting, especially if you're travelling alone (for some people).  But not the kind of verbal diarrhea I and other passengers were subjected to NON-STOP FOR EIGHT HOURS AND THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES.  I MEAN, HE NEVER STOPPED.  THERE WERE NO PAUSES.  IT WAS TRULY AMAZING.  Or as Kim Kardashian says, "amaze."

American accent or not, I, like, can't stand it.  You know?  And British people do it too ... it's just that ... they, like, stop.  At some point.  Americans keep going on and on and on and on ... and on.  AND LOUDLY.  REMEMBER?  ALL CAPS.  I once was sitting in the bulk-head row of a BA flight from Seattle to London and a woman who was eight rows back - yes, eight, because I counted - had a voice that carried like the wind.  It was nasal as heck and I learned all about her new kitchen floor.  Fab.

If you're ever on a plane chatting with a stranger, just remember - I'm not interested in hearing your life story.  AT LEAST NOT IN ALL CAPS.

Photo source

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ooh La Lush!

Lady friends of mine, avert your eyes!  For you just might receive this gorgeously wrapped gift from me at Christmas this year (if you're good, that is).  Isn't this lovely?  Have you ever seen a prettier and/or more creatively wrapped present?  This is courtesy of Lush in Covent Garden Market, y'all.  I was storming towards Space NK for some last minute presents when these in the store window made my head turn instead.
You pick whatever products you'd like to go inside (each are individually bagged and tagged so the recipient knows her bath bomb from her massage bar) and choose the scarf of your liking from a wide variety.  The cashier expertly wraps it for you (in my case, a British-accented LA native - yes, I know, ew, but he was so nice!) and voila - happy fashionable christmas!  The one on the left was made entirely of recycled bottles (how this is possible, I have no idea) so it's SUPER eco-friendly!  And at £3.95 per scarf wrap service, it's not a bad shout, as John would say (though I still don't really know what that means so might have used it incorrectly).
Perfect for the inner (or outer) fashionistas!  (Male friends will not be receiving this, although if you're fabulously gay, you just might!)
As an added bonus, Lush staff are undeniably entertaining (if not a tad too overenthusiastic).  One super faboosh employee broke into a brilliant impromptu dance routine to a Janet Jackson anthem, prompting me to wag my finger at him: "You should be on The X Factor, you know, you so should.  You're amazing."  "Oh thank you," he said, blushing.  "Thank you!!!"  No, thank you.

27 Books Before My 27th Birthday? Not A Chance.

Well, I had the best intentions, and I'd love to say that I did it - but I didn't make it.  Well, at least, I don't think I'm going to.  My birthday is less than two weeks away and there's no way I'll read (I mean, *really* read) 9 books in that time.  Sigh of all sighs.  Grumble.  And I had really wanted to prove the naysayers wrong (John, who scoffed, "That's impossible!" or "You should just read short stories or a really thin book!"  Err ... great idea, but defeats the purpose of my quest).  Oh well.

It was an interesting experiment though, and I learned quite a lot of valuable lessons along the way - I highly encourage everyone to attempt it.  Think about it: out of all of you, who can honestly say, with their hand on their heart, that they read *regularly*?  I just don't think it's possible, with a full time job and a social life, to do so, unless you're motivated by a bookclub (which I have since joined) or a peculiar self-motivational experiment like mine.  Over the course of this experiment, I've read some truly, great books - and some that were ... um ... not-so-great.  I even received my first hate mail on this blog (see my review of Julie/Julia, then subsequent bashing of Cleaving - I had some hardcore Julie Powell fans running after me with spiked clubs and the like), which I was quite proud of, and a lovely, touching letter from a 90-year-old World War II veteran - none of which would have happened without my grand (little) scheme.

At the end of the day (and boy, do I hate that phrase), attempting to read 27 books before my 27th (whoops, I actually typed 17 in there at first!  I wish ...) birthday made me realize how little time I truly devoted to myself.  Time to yourself is always important to have, but not a lot of us have the luxury of curling up with a good book for 2-3 hour chunks of time.  So we find time: we read on our commutes, on our lunch breaks, in waiting rooms and reception areas.  We read books that make us so angry, we throw them (again, refer to Julie/Julia).  Or books that humble us, make us so grateful, that they move us to tears.  We read books that are so-so and we read books that we are practically evangelical about.  We even read trashy books for fun.  That's okay (because books don't judge you - people do).  

So what made the list?  Here they are, in all their 18-titled glory (and with some annotations):

1) To The Nines - by Janet Evanovich (That was my one trashy allowance.  Hey, we all have to start somewhere!  Right?  Right??)

2) Disobedience - by Naomi Alderman (Good effort, but ultimately crap)

3) Then We Came To An End - by Joshua Ferris (Utterly brilliant)

4) The Grass Arena - by John Healy (Touching, harrowing, and yet, amazing)

5) The Road - by Cormac McCarthy (Not bad, for a bestseller main-stream type)

6) The Help - by Kathryn Stockett (Best Oprah endorsed book of the year)

7) Travels With Charley - John Steinbeck (I *hearted* it - yes, I used "heart" as a verb and in the past tense - I didn't study English at Oxford, Mount Holyoke and York for nothing)

8) Julie/Julia - by Julie Powell (Despicable)

9) Cleaving - by Julie Powell (Even more despicable)

10) The Unnamed - by Joshua Ferris (Not as good as the other one)

11) Perfume - by Patrick Suskind (Just ... plain ... weird)

12) For Esme: With Love and Squalor - by J.D. Salinger (Classic beauty)

13) Short Girls - by Bich Minh Nguyen (Too ambitious)

14) Skippy Dies - by Paul Murray (What *should have* won the Man Booker Prize 2010 instead of the awful title in #18)

15) First Light - by Geoffrey Wellum (My hero)

16) Finding Nouf - by Zoe Ferraris (True airport literature - basically crap)

17) Girl In Translation - by Jean Kwok (Thought provoking and relatable from a cultural viewpoint)

18) The Finkler Question - by Howard Jacobson (Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2010 - awful, just awful)

I wish I'd ended on a high note but I'm afraid to say the opposite was true.  Granted, I still do have a week or so to squeeze in one last book, but in case I don't make it, readers, there you have it.  My full and final list.  I think a more realistic goal for next year will be to aim for at least one book per month.  But come on, people, 18 books in 9 months isn't too shabby.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Imogen Heap @ The Royal Albert Hall

Contrary to what you'd might deduce from reading my blog, I actually listen to a lot of music other than classical and on Friday, as a treat to myself, after celebrating a little personal triumph, I bought a ticket to see Imogen Heap perform at The Royal Albert Hall. 

If there was a soundtrack to my life, Imogen Heap would certainly be on it - it's not surprising, however, as she's a Grammy-winning artist who has appeared on numerous soundtracks, including the ever-popular Garden State.  Something about her music really lends itself to that extremely emotive, illustrative quality that is indicative of motion picture soundtracks.

Quite aptly, she opened the first half of her show conducting a full symphony orchestra and choir who performed an original score (complete with movements!) against the backdrop of a series of Planet Earth-esque nature scenes with titles such as "Beauty" and "Grandeur".  For anyone else, this would be an eye-rolling, pretentious act, but because it was Imogen Heap, it was entirely acceptable and endearing.  And it was clear from this orchestration that Imogen knows exactly what she is doing: the textures, layers and transparency with which the music soared accompanied the film perfectly.  Plus, I find myself invariably drawn to musicians who are classically trained - especially those who are as innovative as Imogen, because I'm consistently amazed by their gift in composing.  Classically trained musicians have an innate understanding of music that artists without formal training lack (I know that's controversial, but it's my opinion).

Innovation is one of Imogen's greatest skills; her work with ambient sounds and recordings bring to mind The Books and you never quite know what kind of instrument she'll use next.  The stage resembles a mad scientist's lab, with bells and a triangle hanging from the beautifully carved white tree in the centre, glasses half filled with water to make the familiar sounds you made as a child bored at a grown-up's restaurant that she's cleverly incorporated into the beginning of "First Train Home", keyboards, synthesizers and a multitude of other instruments you can't even see.

It's not difficult to understand why Imogen has won so many awards and garnered the affections of so many music fans.  She gives a lot.  What I mean by "giving" is this: for, in a venue as grand and immense as the Royal Albert Hall, she has the uncanny ability to make you feel like you're the only person in her company and, in fact, quite possibly chilling out in her living room.  She has the habit of chatting to her audience - rapidly digressing and easily distracted, which is at once disarming and also incredibly charming.  And if that doesn't win you over, there's the option on her website to vote, yes vote, for your favorite songs to appear on her set list because, as she explained, "people should hear what they wanted to come and hear."  Isn't that so ... thoughtful?  "I had no idea this song was so popular," she said in her adorable, bumbling way before launching into "Say Goodnight And Go" (one of my favorites).  "I never played it and then it ended up in the top three of the poll almost every time and I thought, 'Oh no!  I'd better play it."  So. Lovely.

But with the loveliness is also an honesty and firmness that is really very refreshing.  Explaining why she doesn't believe in encores, she said, "These are the last two songs that I'm doing with the band and then I'll do a couple more on my own.  I can't stand it when someone goes off and then you know they're coming back on, and you have to clap and wait and I'm just not going to do any of that."

Notable highlights of the evening included "Let Go", (of course) a heart-stopping rendition of "Hide and Seek" as her final song and "Canvas", from her new album, Ellipse, which had a sample of the crackling bonfire she invited her family over to share in.  I love how there's no caginess or cryptic messages in Imogen's music - she's very happy to explain exactly where she was when she wrote a piece of music, what was going through her mind, what the song means and most importantly, what the song means to her.  In that sense, she's extremely generous.  I love her.

If you've not heard Imogen's new album or had the chance to see her live this year, check out the video below of one of my favorite songs off of Ellipse, 'First Train Home':

Photo source

It's Cake Time!: Fireworks (Funfetti) Cupcakes

To celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, I made "fireworks" cupcakes using the Funfetti Udita brought over for me a few months ago* (*to be honest, it was all a bit of coincidence and I had no intention of making these multi-colored treats in celebration of anything.  Truth was, I woke from my three-hour nap yesterday afternoon in desperate need of a cake fix and looked up my favorite chocolate cake recipe.  Deeming the recipe a bit too involved, I decided to rummage the shelves and fridge for a different sweet fix, but to no avail - until I discovered the box of Funfetti at the back.  In fact, I'd never even heard of Funfetti until Mel mentioned it in a comment on this blog a few months agoI was a little disappointed to find out it was simply pre-packaged cake mix with sprinkles inside.  Oh well, cake is cake).

So there you have it.  They're quite tasty, except some unlucky person will have the eggshell cupcake because in my bleary-eyed, post-nap state, I was a bit clumsy with the egg cracking.  Sorry.

Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November: Bonfire Night

So if you've seen the film, V for Vendetta (one of my favorite movies), you'll remember the allusions to Guy Fawkes, the gunpowder plot, and the significance of November 5, 1605.  Or if you studied British or even World history in high school (I didn't - I was one of the lucky few who scraped by having only ever taken Washington State History and AP American History, so by the time I graduated, I had only a vague idea of the two World Wars and not much else.  I know what a Native American longhouse is but can't really recall the details of the Spanish Inquisition.), this will all sound familiar to you.  No?  Refresh your memory here (because I'm too lazy to explain and will also probably get it wrong).

Our time for fireworks is the 4th of July; for the Brits, it's the 5th of November.  And for our "garden" (I use the term "garden" loosely, because the green area behind our flat resembles a small park), it was the 6th of November, as we had a bonfire (pictured above) and a truly fantastic fireworks display last evening.  Thing is, as we live relatively close to quite a few other communal "gardens", it turned into somewhat of a Who Has The Biggest And Best Fireworks Display? competition (I'm pretty sure we won in terms of length and quality).  The other advantage of living near these other gardens is that by the end of the night, you really get three fireworks shows, since they're all viewable either from the street or your flat window, as we saw.  

The Brits like to celebrate with wine (mulled wine, if it's Christmas time) around a bonfire.  And why ever not?  It's big, it's warm and kids love it (under strict parental supervision, of course).  I also love that bonfires have been a traditional means of celebration since 1605, because as you know, I freaking love traditions (I went to Mount Holyoke, after all). 

It was a great feeling last night to see families out and about on the street enjoying the fireworks occurring around the block - I even saw a smattering of police officers filming the displays on their camera phones.  There was an especially friendly atmosphere in our garden, where we chatted with our neighbors and were offered sparklers to wave around with the under-5-year-olds (and there were a lot of those around).

Elsewhere across London and England, there were parties, celebrations and other fireworks going on well into the night - a truly great way to welcome the winter.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Yoga Show @ Olympia

Anyone who knows me knows what a huge role yoga plays in my life - it has such a profound effect that if I skip class even once or twice a week, I notice an invariable change in me that isn't very nice.  As Adeline once accurately described, practicing yoga on a regular basis is like showering inside out - a funny way to think about it, but if (like me) you love showers, you'll understand what I mean.  It makes me calmer, stronger and a heck of a lot happier. 

As well as attending Lauren's class twice a week at Jubilee Hall in Covent Garden, it's always fun and a great experience to learn from other teachers teaching different styles of yoga as well, which is one of the many reasons why I love going to The Yoga Show at London Olympia, which is a three-day event that occurs once a year.  Here, yogis and yoginis of all different levels, shapes and sizes are offered a variety of open, free half-hour classes by well-known (and some not-so-well-known) teachers (last year's favorites of mine included Katy Appleton's and Dylan Ayaloo's classes) as well as longer, paid-for classes, lectures, musical performances, and stalls selling apparel, health foods and other thought-to-be-yogic-related accessories (frankincense, anyone?  No?  Me neither.).

I love having the opportunity to try different classes and experience different methods of teaching because while you might prefer one method or style (as I have come to find after studying with Lauren for nearly two years now), it's always good to change it up and try something new.  Although the classes on the menu this year didn't appeal to me as much as last year, I did have the chance to take a class from Unity Partner Yoga, taught by Sevanti, which I absolutely loved.  I really like the benefits of practicing yoga with a partner and also the beautiful symmetry that is achieved through the poses (see above - that's me in the black top and Lauren in the pink bottoms).  I also enjoyed Sevanti's approach to teaching, which was patient, open and kind - three characteristics that are so important to me when learning from someone I'm not familiar with.

Earlier that morning, I also dipped into Dru Yoga Dance, taught by Nanna Coppens, which, to me, was very much like tai chi combined with yoga - I could see the attraction and benefits there, but it wasn't really for me as I prefer something a bit more structured and physically challenging (I could see my mom loving it, though).  But I'm glad I took this class to try something new and different, as it reminded me to keep an open mind and heart to new experiences.  The teacher was friendly and encouraging and as I looked around the floor, everyone seemed to be smiling and enjoying themselves, which was lovely to see.

And you meet great people too - I randomly met a girl on my way to the show from Earl's Court.  I wasn't completely sure I was going the right way and she helpfully asked, "Are you going to The Yoga Show?  It's this way."  We chatted on the 15-minute walk to Olympia and I learned that she was originally from Guatemala, but lived in California for most of her life and over in London studying accounting and finance at LSEShe was super nice and it's always fun to meet new people.  Though we lost each other at the show itself, we ended up leaving at the same time together without knowing and getting on the same train carriage back - must have been that yogic connection!  After wishing each other well, we continued on our separate journeys and when I got home, I felt like I had just showered inside out.

Photos courtesy of Bindya Solanki, all rights reserved.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Vladimir Ashkenazy Conducts the RCM Symphony Orchestra

It's safe to say that 2010 has reunited me with my childhood classical musician-heros:  Emmanuel Ax, Gil Shaham, and then last Sunday, Vladmir Ashkenazy.  Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I daresay there wouldn't be a single opportunity anywhere in the United States to watch Ashkenazy in concert (granted, he was conducting rather than performing himself) for less than $20.  But on Sunday, I was fortunate enough to watch him do just that for £10.  Look, when it comes down to it, I wouldn't mind paying £30, £40, even £50 to watch Ashkenazy work his magic.  It's worth it.  It just so happened that this particular concert, in the newly refurbished (which delighted in its sparkling and bright infancy) Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall of the Royal College of Music was sold out, but John and I had been lucky enough (due to our wonderful neighbors downstairs who purchased the tickets for us) to nab two seats. 
Like Ax and Shaham, I grew up listening to Ashkenazy.  He, along with Evgeny Kissin, were my particular favorites primarily because of their Chopin recordings, which I listened to on endless loops in my room by myself (loner, much?).  Of course, Kissin appealed to me because of his looks and age (at the time, at least) whereas Ashkenazy, like Ax, was more akin to a trusted and wise grandfather - the David Attenborough of pianistic performance.  So I listened to Kissin when I wanted passion and Ashkenazy when I wanted advice.
Sunday's concert consisted of two of my favorite pieces: the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor op. 54 and the Brahms Symphony No. 1.  I'd never played the Schumann myself, but as it is often paired with the Grieg piano concerto (of which I studied and played the first movement for a competition) on recordings, I became quite familiar with it.  The soloist was Sofya Gulyak, winner of several prestigious awards, most recently, first prize and the Princess Mary Gold Medal at the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition.  Technically, she was flawless, but unfortunately I didn't find anything particularly exciting or inspiring about her playing and she was often overpowered by the orchestra - not in the sense of volume, but by, perhaps unwittingly, their own agility and flair.  I focused my attention on and became decidedly distracted instead, by the concertmistress of the symphony orchestra, who was not only enviably and extremely gifted but devastatingly beautiful.  I never thought it was fair - musicians like Anne-Sophie Mutter, et al, to have beauty, brains and talent.
With the concerto out of the way (I'm so harsh - it's not that I didn't enjoy her performance, I just found it ... a little ... formulaic), I turned my attention to the Brahms symphony, which I hadn't heard since I was very small.  In fact, it sounded so unfamiliar to me that until the ever-popular theme of the fourth movement occurred, I hadn't realized it was a symphony I'd heard before, so one could say that it's a "revived" favorite of mine.  This was the orchestra's opportunity to shine and they surely did just that: Ashkenazy, with his white tufts of hair and slight stature, would repeatedly and broadly smile at the section he was harnessing (I use the word "harness" because I'm sure, given free reign, that they would have ran off like a wild horse - so free, spirited and fiery was this orchestra!), certain of their maturity, their talent and prowess.  LPO and LSO take note: these are the young musicians of the future and musically, they are so much better than you.  For one thing, their ensemble is perfect.  I've been to concerts where the LPO and LSO were so embarrassingly out of sync, I literally put my head in my hands.  For a professional orchestra to play so poorly is abominable.  And for students to show them up?  Well, I wouldn't say it's surprising, but it sure is worse.  
There were so many beautiful points in the Brahms that I developed goosebumps, which John mistook for chill and tried to remedy - but it wasn't the air conditioning in the hall that was making me shiver, rather the undeniable passion these students put into the symphony.  You could feel the excitement in the air, hovering there between notes - it was electric, like the charge in the atmosphere before a storm.  Ashkenazy obviously had a strong influence on this electric feel - in fact, when the glorious first and fourth movements swelled to their greatest crescendos, I was, I'm ashamed to say, nervous for his health.   
Overall, it was a real gem of a concert to attend and again, I do sometimes feel it's far more exciting and fun to watch and hear young musicians perform rather than professional orchestras - the RCM symphony orchestra sure gave them all a run for their money.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cabbie Chat

When I was growing up, my mom taught me to never talk to strangers.  Even now, when I'm back home and heading out to meet a friend at Starbucks, she peers down from the top of the stairs and shouts, jokingly, "Don't talk to strangers!" When I roll my eyes, she says, "I mean it!"
So she'll be terrified to know that I love nothing more than making casual small talk with strangers.  I think it's the American in me.  A couple years ago, John and I were enjoying a lovely winter weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon.  "You know what would make this trip perfect?" I asked John dreamily over a half-pint of shandy (with more Sprite in it than beer) in the cozy, warm pub we were in.  "What?" he asked, somewhat nervously.  "Some good, friendly, local chat," I responded, looking around the room for my victim.  I was disappointed when no one wanted to engage with me, the crazy Asian-American girl.  But the next day when we were taking photos by the River Avon, an older lady walking her dog approached us.  "Lovely, beautiful day, isn't it?" she said cheerfully, dressed like she had just appeared out of a country home catalogue.  "Would you like me to take a photo of you?" she asked.  We gratefully accepted.  "Ah, that's nice," she said.  "Are you visiting Stratford, then?" she asked, still in the same, friendly tone.  "Oh you're from London, how lovely," she said.  "My son lives in London!"  We continued our  little chat for a few minutes more before she headed off with her dog.  "Are you happy now?" asked John.  I nodded, beaming.  I had my fill of friendly, local chat.
Another great opportunity for chatting is with cabbies.  This will horrify my mother - what, with all the stories of girls being kidnapped, murdered or worse after taking a black cab - so of course, common sense (and the sixth sense) is always exercised.  London cabbies are not particularly chatty, although you'd be surprised.  I had some great chat with the cabbie who took me to the hospital for John's suspected swine flu medicine pick-up (he didn't have swine flu, btw, more like man flu) about immigration and the strength/weakness of sterling.  Then there was the time I jumped into a nice Scottish cabbie's car in Edinburgh on my way to meet Adeline.  He wistfully confessed he'd always wanted to visit America, after asking where I was from, but that his wife refused to go because she was convinced that everyone carried a gun and there was too much crime.  I chuckled as I always find it interesting and funny to hear stereotypes about America, just as Americans frequently stereotype Brits (or anyone who doesn't live in The Greatest Country In The World). 
Last night, I had some quite enjoyable, albeit brief, chat with a cabbie from St John's Wood back to Maida Vale.  He asked which end of my road I'd like to be dropped off and after my description, he commented, "Oh, the nicer end, then" (although when he said it, it sounded more like, "Oi, the noicer en' ven", with a proper, East End accent), which led me to gracefully segue into an article I had read in the Guardian that day about the squalor of Notting Hill in the 60s.  "Oi reilly?" he said. "Yeah, srsly," I replied.  We continued on like this for a few minutes until I hopped out and paid my fare.  "It was noice cha'in wiv ya!" he said with a smile.  "Likewise, have a great night," I replied.  I unlocked the door to my flat with a smile on my face.
But seriously - don't talk to strangers.  Only nice ones.

Geoffrey Wellum: First Light - *Update*

Last month, I blogged about Geoffrey Wellum's extraordinary account of his part in the Battle of Britain in a book called First Light.  You might remember that I was so incredibly moved by his story that, having had permission from his editor at Penguin, I wrote him a letter thanking him for his service to his country and his heroic actions.  What I didn't tell you, however, is that I received the above reply, only two days later.  To say it made my day is the understatement of the year.

I saw the envelope on the floor when I returned home that evening and thought the handwriting looked familiar - that is, of a friend's.  When I opened the letter, however, I literally jumped around the flat with joy - this man is a legend!  I was so glad that he received my letter of thanks and thought it was so kind of him to write back.

If you haven't already been persuaded by my previous recommendation, do go and buy it now - or I will be happy to send you a copy.  Without sounding trite, it's a book that will stay with you forever, regardless of your interest in the Second World War or fighter aircraft.

In the meantime, check out my two latest Battle of Britain-related purchases:

Yep, I ordered Ten Fighter Boys (a collection of first-hand accounts taken from ten Spitfire pilots, not all of whom, sadly, lived to see the end of the war) shortly after finishing First LightSpitfire, below, is a coffee-table-type reference book entirely devoted to the Spitfire airplane, which I randomly found at a garden center, of all places (by 'random' I mean I accidentally wandered into the books and gifts section of the center and, upon spying the book, hysterically ran up to John, tapped him on the shoulder and shoved the book into his face with undue excitement before racing to the counter to buy it.  And yes, I searched for Geoffrey Wellum's photo as soon as I got in the car, and yes, he is in it, although not mentioned by name). 

Obsessed much?

What the Pho?: Banh Mi Bay

There is a tradition in my family: before someone (namely, me) gets on a transatlantic flight, we always pop in to Linh Son in Federal Way for a steaming bowl of rare beef pho.   It's not fancy; the entrance is lined with fake, green plants and the vinyl booths squeak as you squeeze in by the windows lit by Linh Son's neon sign, serenaded by old, Vietnamese pop songs.  If anything, it's tacky.  But it's damn good.  And we've been going for years, frequenting the restaurant at least 3-4 times a month.  It's also dirt cheap.  Pho is available in two sizes: medium and large.  We order the same thing, every time.  When someone deviates from their usual, eyebrows are raised, but nothing is said.  "Two number 2As, three number eight mediums and one number seven medium," my dad rattles off to the waitress before we've had a chance to slide our butts into the vinyl booth.  To this day, I have no idea what the dishes we've just ordered are called.  All I know is that the summer rolls are plump, filled to bursting point with vermicelli noodles, thin slices of char siu pork, tiger prawns and a delicious peanut sauce.

To me, pho is comfort food - a lot like chicken noodle soup.  Any anxieties I have before getting on a plane and saying those painful goodbyes to my family are quelled by the delicious, steaming hot bowl of soup noodles in front of me.  On the other days we visit the restaurant, I look forward to hopping straight back into the car and heading for a short shopping trip at the Supermall or Trader Joe's before they close.  

So when meeting Tom and Cristy at Banh Mi Bay in Holborn for dinner, I knew I had to try their pho as a sort of taste test (it passed).

The interior of Banh Mi Bay is everything that Linh Son isn't: chic, trendy, bright and friendly, you might mistake it for a posh cafe or deli in Notting Hill.  They offer a delicious selection of fruit smoothies and a childhood favorite of mine, cold chrysanthemum tea.

To start, we had two orders of summer rolls (one veggie and one meat) and the pork meatball wraps.  Although only half the size of the summer rolls from Linh Son, it's clear that Banh Mi Bay focuses on quality, not quantity: the rolls were stuffed with fresh ingredients and tasted just like a spring (or rather, summer) day.  I could have done with a bit more meat/prawns, however, rather than the vermicelli rice noodles.  The accompanying sauce was also a perfect complement - not too sickly sweet, as some Vietnamese restaurants serve.  The pork meatballs were delightfully fun, as you were presented with mint leaves, grated carrots and vermicelli noodles to make your own wraps.

When it came time to order our main courses, Tom had the utterly yummy Banh Mi (which is made on a freshly baked baguette) while John and Cristy opted for large, delicious bowls of Bun Thit Nuong.  As for my pho, well, it was heartwarming and tasty - everything I could have hoped for.  It stirred up quite a lot of nostalgia for the Vietnamese cuisine I grew up with in the Seattle/Tacoma area and reminded me of home.  I was slightly disappointed to find a wedge of lemon nestled in my beansprouts rather than lime and I think the broth could have used slightly more coriander, but other than that, I had no complaints.  And to top it off, the presence of one of my favorite hot sauces, Sriracha, on the table gave the restaurant real credibility.

At the end of the evening, our £33 (for four people) bill only made the meal all the more enjoyable.  I wish I had discovered Banh Mi Bay earlier to satisfy my pangs of longing for pho, but I predict I'll now be a regular visitor.

Photo source

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sweetcorn: What's Up With That?

As I bit into my Southern Fried Chicken wrap from Boots during lunch today (hey, hey, hey ... don't judge, don't judge!  I dreamed about fried chicken a couple of nights ago ... a big, KFC bucket of fried chicken wings ... so close, yet so far away ...), I noticed that they had changed a few things (not that I've had it more than once - but even if I did, you shouldn't judge me).  First, the packaging was so much more convenient and hygienic:  now you can eat the wrap without virtually touching it!  Genius!  Welcome to the 21st-century, Boots.  Secondly, they've replaced the unhealthy onions, lettuce and mayo combo (mmm ... my favorite, not my co-workers' though, as I breathe my onion-breath-of-fire upon them in the afternoon) and substituted it with a similarly unhealthy concoction of coleslaw, salsa and ... sweetcorn.

I have one thing to say to that: WHY?

Why do Brits insist on ruining perfectly good food items with the persistent inclusion of sweetcorn?  WHY?  Take canned chicken noodle soup, for example (again, not that I eat that stuff, but you know, if I did ... don't judge me).  Once, in my flu-addled state, I stumbled to the nearest Tesco, grabbed a can of chicken noodle soup from the shelf and shuffled, zombie-like, into the line to pay.  Only after I had subjected myself to that second level of hell, did I realize, upon opening the said can of soup into a pot, that it had slices of red bell pepper and ... worst of all ... SWEETCORN.  At the sight of that, I burst into tears.

Tuna and sweetcorn is another popular combination.  Okay, I mean, I get where you're coming from - tuna tastes good with a bit of crunch, which is why most people pair it with cucumber.  Or even celery.  Lettuce!  Why sweetcorn?

Then there's sweetcorn on pizza.   I mean, seriously.  Need I say more?  Didn't think so.  And if you walk up Kilburn High Road on your way to find the nearest KFC, there's a cart selling something called "Magic Corn".  Yes, that's right, Magic Corn.  It comes in flavors like "magic curry" and "magic cheese."  Look, I know what you're thinking.  But I honestly couldn't make it up if I tried.

I'm surprised y'all don't have sweetcorn ice cream.

Photo source

Polpo, Soho

Anyone who knows me knows that delicious and beautifully presented food is the key to making my heart go a-thump-a-thump-thump.  And new clothes.  And more recently, Spitfire fighter planes. 
(But let's just stick with the first one for now.)
So when Tom suggested we meet at Polpo in Soho last night (yeah!  It rhymes!!!), my heart made the requisite a-thump-a-thump-thump - I was in love.  I'd heard good things about Polpo but hadn't yet had the opportunity to try it for myself.  The website describes the restaurant as a "bacaro in Soho" which "takes its inspiration from the osterie and dintorni of Venice".  At this, my (left) eyebrow arched, as that's a lofty statement to make.
But Polpo lives up to its reputation - if not more.  Clearly popular with Londoners (though we had arrived early, the tables quickly filled and the bar area was shoulder-to-shoulder standing room only), it gives the effect of being an intimate, hip little eatery nestled in Hoxton square of East London, rather than its actual location of try-hard Soho.

We ordered a selection of tapas-style dishes: (including one that I was very much looking forward to, the squid ink risotto, which was utterly delicious, sweet and flavorful), melt-in-the-mouth pizzetta blanca, saucy polpette and some really lovely, but simple, vegetarian dishes for the veggie at our table.  And for dessert, I indulged in Tom's recommendation of affrogato al caffe - coffee poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Divine.

While the food is quite rich and I must admit, John and I both woke with slightly sore tummies, it's definitely worth a visit - even if you're just dropping in for a drop of wine and bar snacks.  


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thursday Morning Tube Rant: Get Your Own Damn Reading Material

On the flight over to Toulouse this summer, I felt a pair of eyes glancing surreptitiously over at my InStyle magazine.  It was Tom, who quickly apologized for reading over my shoulder (though I was secretly dying to discuss the new camel A/W trend with him and waiting for him to initiate the conversation - I settled for his opinion on the new Chanel Fantasy Fur boots instead), but I didn't mind.  I enjoy joint-magazine/newspaper reading ... with a friend, that is.

What I really can't stand is opening a newspaper or magazine on the tube and having someone openly and blatantly read the material that I'm holding.  It's rude.  I don't mean the quick glance here and there, I mean, the whole head-turned, shoulders-leaning-into-you type of reading.   Seriously, get your own damn paper!  I then have to refrain from saying something confrontational like, "Do you mind?" and opt for the not-so-subtly, turning my paper away from the prying eyes move and/or shifting my body around to the other side.

"What's wrong with that?" John asked, when I complained about it.  "Today, I read this guy's 'Welcome to Pret-a-Manager' booklet.  You know, the kind they get when they start working there.  It, like, talked about how you should stack the sandwiches, how to make them ..." he trailed off as I stared at him with open-mouthed hostility.   "That's rude," I hissed.  "No, it's not," he insisted.

I spent the rest of my evening wondering how such a polite, well-mannered boy could freely admit to committing such a heinous act against Tube Etiquette.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Things that RAM

I love living in the UK.  Don't get me wrong.  But some things just Really Aggravate Me.  That's RAM.  On the list of things that RAM, is the concept of laundry.  Yes, laundry.  It is, at this very moment, 21:06.  I put the laundry on at 18:30.  That's two and a half hours.  Have I mentioned that we don't have a dryer (it's very rare here and washing machines often double up as dryers ... gone are the days I dove into a fresh pile of warm, newly dried laundry with dryer sheets.  Ah, dryer sheets.  How I miss thee)?

*Slinks off to hang wet sheets on the radiator ... yes, I said radiator ... that's for the next post* 

Photo source

Jean Kwok: Girl In Translation

My mom used to cut out stories like Jean Kwok's from her Chinese magazines and save them for the summers I came home from college.

"Look," she'd say, stuffing a slice of orange in her mouth, while simultaneously jabbing her finger at the glossy page of newsprint. "Look at this woman."

I'd dutifully stare at the picture of the Chinese woman, usually posed in a grand mansion or other luxury penthouse in Hong Kong.

"She was abandoned as a baby. Kidnapped twice. TWICE!" she'd emphasize. "Crawled to a boarded up school on the brink of starvation. And went on to study English at Cambridge, then Harvard medical school and is now a heart surgeon who provides medical aid to refugees from war torn countries. AND she's set up a charity. AND -" and here my mother pauses for dramatic effect. "She's DEAF."

"Mmm ... Wowwww," I murmur, edging out of the room.

She casts a critical eye on me at this point.  "Now, this could be you!" she trills.

'What, you mean I could be deaf?'

"No!" she shouts, bits of orange peel scattering off the paper towel she's carefully folded over her lap. "Look at how much she has been through! And yet, she still managed to achieve so much! So it should be no problem for you, my well-provided-for child, to get into medical or law school.  At Harvard.  Or Yale."  She smiles gleefully as I roll my eyes and am finally allowed to take my leave from her Oprah-lair.

Tale after tale of overcoming adversity was thrown at me. This man lost two arms but made a fortune making greeting cards with a pen in his mouth. This woman's parents were murdered in front of her as a child when they were ambushed by terrorists but is now a highly successful international human rights attorney after graduating from Harvard law.  When I ruined my chances of getting into either medical or law school, those clippings stopped altogether and were never mentioned again.

So it's no surprise that I picked up Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation with a bit of inward rolling of the eyes.  Truth was, I've heard her story before and they failed to move me anymore.  But something about her bio piqued my curiosity: born in Hong Kong, Kwok immigrated to Brooklyn and worked with her family in her sweatshop, before eventually graduating with a bachelor's degree from Harvard and an MFA in fiction from Columbia.  In this case, I was less interested in the end result than her journey.

Although Girl in Translation is labeled "a novel" on the cover rather than "a memoir", it seems quite obvious that Kwok's own experiences of immigration and practical enslavement in a clothing factory informs this semi-autobiographical novel.  Again, throughout, I was more impressed by her story than the prose, which at times, entered into the dreaded cheesy-territory.  But to think that this woman survived the adversity she encountered, having spoken no English when entering the country, to write with such fluidity and grace really - I must admit - struck me with a true sense of awe.

In particular, I was moved by the main character, Kimberly Chang's, relationship to her mother, who accompanied her through this journey through hell and back.  I read the first few chapters with a constant lump in my throat and found it very difficult to extract myself from the book even when I'd stopped reading it.  I felt the devastating sense of helplessness, loneliness and worst of all, humiliation and shame, that was encapsulated in a string of mispronounced English words sneered at by Kimberly's first school teacher.  Or the way mother and daughter huddled together in a roach and rat-infested apartment with no heating in the middle of a New York winter for warmth.  

Although my own parents immigrated to the US under the extreme opposite of circumstances, I could not help but draw upon their seldom-spoken-of stories of integration into American society - it's the idea of being an outsider that really resonated with me, and Kimberly's constant desire to get her and her mother out of the terrible situation they were in, but to be accepted and loved by her new friends and ultimately, country. 

I could especially relate to the familiar Cantonese sayings and slangs that I grew up with and still use, although I found it a bit unnecessary and ineffective, really, for Kwok to literally translate such sayings into English, such as: "Ma studied me, then smiled.  'Silly girl, why are you talking the big words?' She was asking why I was lying." In Cantonese, "talking big words" is the literal translation for "lying" - but I found the continuous translations distracting and even clumsy at times, distracting the reader (especially non-Cantonese speaking readers) from the book.

Despite this and the slightly fairytale ending (which I won't give away, don't worry), I found this novel incredibly sad but equally warm and touching - proof that overcoming adversity isn't always a magazine-printed cliche.

Photo source

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Crockford Bridge Farm: Pick-Your-Own (Psych!)

For the second year in a row, Joe and Jodi, Adrienne and Rob (plus two!), and John and I have been holding a mini reunion of sorts in Weybridge, Surrey.  The first part involves lunch at Sullivan's Wine Bar and the second, a walk and an attempt to "pick our own" pumpkins at Crockford Bridge Farm (I say "attempt" because last year we were told the fields were closed and this year we were told that pumpkins could only be purchased from within the shop - whatEVER!).  The only thing preventing my American attitude from kicking in was the promise of "American goodies" in the farm shop.

A Baby Ruth later, and I was back to being a docile Angloyankophile.  Except for my reaction to those mindblowing prices above.  What I really wanted was a bottle of Aunt Jemima to drown my homemade pancakes - but I simply couldn't justify spending £6.45 on a bottle of syrup that costs less than half of that in the US.  I objected on principle.

But oh, that Mott's looked delicious too.  How I miss applesauce.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Big Bang Theory

Nah, man!  I'm not talking about the thing that kids at my junior high had permission from their parents to "opt out" of in Earth Science class because they found mentions of evolution "offensive" (although I could always touch on that subject later here because I always wondered how those same parents explained "The Land Before Time" to their child - unless, of course, that was banned too.  Look, excuse me, but how can you ban Little Foot?  Heartless.).

No, I'm talking about the great "bangs" versus "fringe" debate.

Still clueless?

Check out this pic of beloved Gaga here.  Besides being bonkers, what would you call that great, sweeping mass of hair across her forehead?  If you say "bangs", then you're American.  "Fringe", British.

I can tell you right now, of all the words that differ from the British vocabulary, I've never found one that warranted more adamant opinions than 'bangs'.

"Mmm ... I think I need to get my bangs trimmed," I said to my (English) colleague, blowing my bangs out of my face.  'Cause, you know, I couldn't see the forest through the trees and all that.

"Your wahhht?" she asked, incredulously.  I sighed and turned to her.  "My fringe.  I need to get my fringe trimmed," I said.   I turned back to my computer.  Silence ensued for a while as we continued our work.  After a few minutes, she emitted a chuckle and shook her head.  "Bangs," she muttered to herself softly. 

"Yes, why do you call them bangs?" asked John suddenly when I made a similar comment to him after arriving home that night.  "It's fringe.  You know, because it's a fringe around your face?  'Bangs' don't even make any sense.  I mean, what is a bang, singular?"  "Well I don't know," I snapped at him.  "It could be called curtains for all I know because right now it's shielding me from you and your relentless questions."  He ignored my attitude.  "Be-yang," he repeated to himself, trying to mimic my accent.  I shot him a death glare.

The next day, I booked myself in for a fringe trim.

Photo source

Friday, October 8, 2010

It's-u Just Next Door!

When I travel back to the States by myself, I like to arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5 early (mostly because I'm a manic, anxiety-ridden traveler) and find myself a nice spot of mid-afternoon lunch to eat (and take my Valium), while taking in my fellow travelers and luxury shops that surround me.  One of my favorite places to perch at is Itsu, a sushi chain in London that is the brainchild of Julian Metcalfe, co-founder of Pret-a-Manger (surprise, surprise - my love for Pret knows no bounds, as you all might know).  I'll admit its motto of "health and happiness" is enough to elicit a groan and eye roll, but they do fantastic, fresh (although John recently had a not-so-fantastically-fresh experience at his nearest Itsu - ruh roh!) sushi boxes that come with a deliciously dressed salad on the side.  Of course, the feeling of satiation barely lasts from the minute I step out of the Itsu box and board the aircraft, but it's worth it for that tiny slice of luxurious heaven.  

So you won't judge me, then, when I say that I stood stock-still in the middle of on-coming traffic on The Strand yesterday (a cab driver kindly jolted me out of my reverie with his horn) as I received the biggest shock of my Thursday morning: strolling down Southampton Row on my way back to the office from Covent Garden, it was there.  Itsu.  Opening just next door.  When I say "opening", I mean builders were still inside painting the walls.  Magical.

I'd better get a bloody good discount.

Photo source

Geoffrey Wellum: First Light

I have just read an extraordinary book and I want you to read it too.
While everyone else was tucked up with the Man Booker Prizer winners of this year, I was biting my nails in suspense reading Geoffrey Wellum's 'First Light'.  If you're wondering how a shallow, self-obsessed 26-year-old American girl whose primary concern after waking every morning is about what to wear came to become rapidly engrossed in a true account of a World War II RAF fighter pilot, then please - read on.  
You see, about a week ago, John and I were fighting over the remote again.  I wanted to watch "Don't Tell The Bride" on ITV (you know, like, where the chavvy hubby's in charge of organizing the wedding and the bride ... you get the picture) or whatever it is and he insisted on a documentary on the Battle of Britain - the first major air campaign to be fought entirely by air forces.  Reluctantly, I allowed the channel to change and busied myself with Facebook.  However, I couldn't help but listen to some of the WWII veterans being interviewed by Colin McGregor  (Ewan McGregor's brother) as they gave first hand accounts into their experiences of war and, more importantly, fighting in the air (I might add that this wasn't my first foray into WWII documentary viewing - a few days earlier, I got sucked into Airbus's anniversary of wartime aircraft and cried copious tears at the men and women involved who were reunited especially for the program).  When Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, DFC's, book, 'First Light', was mentioned, I knew I had to read it.
Of course, John thought I'd gone crazy.  Well, he didn't think I was seriously interested, but when I rushed home from work making a beeline for the book and shushed him when he tried to speak to me, he knew there was something wrong.  "I don't know ... on one hand I feel like I've won the lottery and on the other, I'm finding it all a bit strange," he admitted, as he described my newfound obsession with Spitfires and World War II air tactics to his co-workers.  "Also," he continued worriedly (or so I imagine), "She was really into the World Cup this summer."  His colleagues clapped him on the back (so I imagine) and called him "a lucky guy" (don't think this was imagined).
The problem with discussing this book is that anything I say about it won't do it justice.  I could tell you that it's the story of a "war hero" - which it is, but that term is thrown around so loosely these days, no one takes it seriously.  I could tell you that it's about the journey of a "boy who becomes a man" - which it also is, but then that sounds like some kind of gender identity crisis saccharine-type memoir, which this most certainly is not. 
But I suppose I could tell you that it made my heart beat out of my chest in a way no other book has done; I could tell you that it made me chuckle with a hint of sadness; I could tell you that it made me cry in both the sad and beautiful parts.  In short, I could tell you many things about the way this book made me feel, but none of it would measure up to the admiration and respect I have for this man and his colleagues who served in the war. 
After losing Peter, the best friend he made during training, he describes going out on his own for the first time:  "I remember before I do to say a prayer and have a short talk with Peter.  At least if things go wrong I know he will be waiting for me and then we will both push off in a couple of Harvards [a type of plane] on a formation cross-country to God."  I smiled at that passage, but had to wipe a tear away as well.
And then there's the pride for his craft and his country - simultaneously coupled with humility.  One cannot help but feel a swell of national pride (even if you're not English) and the intense fear, coupled with fascination, he must have felt when faced with enemy planes for the first time.  The following is my favorite quote from the book:
"I look into the far distance, the vast panorama of sky.  There it all is, the whole arena for bloody battle, and there they are, the enemy.  A swarm of gnats on a warm summer evening ... the whole spectacle frightens yet fascinates.  These are the King's enemies.  These are Huns attacking England, our our small country, our island, intent upon invasion and eventual occupation. We are on our own against this Teutonic monster, this arrogant bully, this invader of small nations… I glance round at the ten brave little Spitfires and a strengthened resolve flows into me. Well, there’s not many of us, but we’ll knock the shit out of some of you, at least for as long as we can.”
It's really beautiful stuff.
Please go out and buy it.  Even if you're a shallow, self-obsessed twenty-something American girl.  It's neither sentimental nor heartbreaking.  It's a privilege to read.  And you'll understand why when you do. 
I wrote a letter to Mr. Wellum yesterday after receiving permission to do so from his editor.  In it, I told him how much his book meant to me - this shallow, self-obsessed American girl - and I thanked him for his years of service and dedication to the RAF.  I told him he was a hero.  I don't know if he'll write back - in fact, I doubt it, but I don't mind.  I just wanted him to know - as much as I want you to know.
'First Light' is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin.  It may be purchased directly from the Penguin website, or here.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ixnay the X Factor (NOT!)

This is what John thinks of the X Factor:

Yes, that's the shadow of a pineapple on a contestant's head.  He thought it would be helpful to let me know his feelings about the show - in case they weren't already clear.

The X Factor is like the World Cup for me (albeit I'm less excited and emotionally invested in X Factor, whereas I cried during the North Korea v. Brazil game).  But while there are redeeming qualities about the World Cup (i.e. national pride, international sportsmanship, obligatory Domino's pizza orders washed down with ice cold beer, etc.), there are no such qualities about X Factor.  In fact, X Factor is, if anything, harmful and detrimental to society - I agree with John on that point.  You know that song by the Pussycat Dolls that goes, "When I grow up, I wanna be famous, I wanna be a star, I wanna make movies"?  Okay, well, maybe not.  But for the deluded, lazy, living-on-handouts population out there, the X Factor plants a seed of serious psychotic delusion in their mind: why should I work or get an education when I can be ... FAMOUS???  BY AUDITIONING FOR THIS SHOW, LIKE, YEAH???

"I cnt wate 4 xfactr cos i lv chryl cole n i wnt 2 be jst lyke her wen im grwn up lol shes so amazin," says Daily Mail reader I*M*M*A*S*T*A*R, London (I think this person is aged 10 ... or at least ... I hope so and not like, 21 ... on second thought ...).   Um, okay, honey.  Whatever you say.

"How can you watch this?" John demanded angrily last weekend as he stabbed a pea with his fork.  He never ceases to sigh heavily in disgust or make retching noises when passing the projector screen whenever I'm anxiously tuned in on Saturday and Sunday evenings.  "It's contributing to the DOWNFALL of SOCIETY."  He speaks as if he is CAPITALIZING the IMPORTANT words as he TURNS the PAGES of the ECONOMIST.  Snob.  "You don't UNDERSTTAAAND," I wail.  "Everybody will be talking about this at work on Monday."  I pause.  "Besides ... (and here I pause to give him a withering glare) ... I like it."  And I do.  I mean, I like any kind of "reality" television program: from the indulgent (The Real Housewives series) to the vacuous (The City, The Hills) to the downright dirty (Rock of Love - yes, I went there, I soooo did).  

But the difference between me and other people watching it, perhaps, is that I don't take it seriously.  I don't watch The X Factor and think - "THAT COULD BE ME.  I AM GOING TO PACK MY BAGS AND GO TO THE O2 TO GIVE SIMON A TASTE OF MY RENDITION OF THE BANGLES' 'ETERNAL FLAME' (which is bloody beautiful, by the way) AND IMMA GONNA BE A STARRRRR!!!"  I watch with amusement, fascination, and curiosity.  Who is the coke-snorting prostitute with tarantula mascara parading around in ripped jeans screaming at the audience for deservedly booing her?  I don't know, but I sure am intrigued. 

Look, I spend 90% of my day trying to look and sound intelligent - why can't I have 10% of my day to dumb down and unwind?  "I don't hate The X Factor because I don't find it entertaining," John explained while continuing to methodically chew his dinner, which was really beginning to get on my nerves.  "I hate it on principle."  "Stop judging me and get off your moral high horse," I snapped back in response.  I tried to tell him that I watch it cynically - by cynically, I mean, I don't take it seriously.  I just really enjoy watching the audacity of delusional train wrecks thinking they can be a "star" by singing a really mediocre and possibly completely butchered version of "Just Dance" by Lady Gaga.  That's all.

I will say that his tolerance of my interest in The X Factor has slightly increased ever since he discovered our highly-esteemed friends, Joe and Jodi (who are ultra intelligent, witty, successful, etc.) enjoy watching The X Factor - TOGETHER.  That was a great day for me. 

Until then, let the battle over the TV remote continue. 


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Condiment Commentary

It occurred to me this morning while haphazardly whipping together my own concoction to resemble "Dijonaise" (two parts mayo, one part Colman's mustard, if you're interested) is that there's a serious gap in the UK condiment market that must be addressed.  First of all, Dijonaise.  Why does this not exist?  And Miracle Whip.  Why not?  Two excellent lunch spreads and great alternatives to your standard mustard or mayonaise - and yet, nowhere to be found.

You see, Americans are great at what I like to call "in betweens".  You feel like having something that's somewhere between a milkshake and ice cream?  I think you want a McFlurry, or better yet, a Blizzard.  You want something with the creaminess of mayo in your sandwich punctuated by the tang of mustard without having your sinuses blown off by mustard burn?  You definitely want Dijonaise.

Last week, I was looking forward to a juicy steak when I got home.  "Do you guys, have like, you know, like, a steak sauce?" I asked my co-worker as we were packing up to go home.  She looked at me blankly.  I tried again.  "You know, like, not like Worcestershire sauce, but like, a sauce you put on your plate that you can dip your steak in?"  She just shook her head.  "A1?" I tried helplessly.  "Barbecue sauce?" she suggested, as I looked horrified.  "Barbecue sauce does NOT belong on a steak!" I exclaimed.  Now, I know steaks are delicious on their own or simply seasoned with salt and pepper or some other sauce that takes a saucepan and actual time to make blah blah blah.  But sometimes I just want the smoky and tangy taste of A1, straight out of the bottle.  Is this too much to ask (no, because I could probably buy it online somewhere or bring a bottle back with me next time I'm in the States)?

Instead, in Britain, they have brown sauce.  Brown sauce.  Let me say it one more time, to see if it changes:  brown sauce.  Nope.  "What's that?" I said, pointing to a container full of ... well, brown sauce, as John and I were waiting in a queue for a bacon butty at a local greasy spoon (whoa, whoa, whoa, if that was too much Anglo-lingo for you, whip out your handy Anglo-American dictionary to translate).  "Brown sauce," he replied, anxiously looking ahead at the line.  "I see that," I said irritably.  "But what's it called?"  "Brown sauce," he repeated, getting annoyed.  Certain that he was wrong and just plain ignorant, I asked the lady at the counter when placing my order, "What's this sauce here?"  "Brown sauce," she said.  "What the hell?  What the hell is BROWN SAUCE?!" I screeched.  "Try it," said John, squeezing a generous amount onto my butty (if that sounded dirty, you're still thinking in American English.  Switch over, please).  "Mmm ... it's so ... good!  It's like ... like, a cross between Worcestershire sauce and ketchup!  AWESOME!"

See?  Brits do "in between"s too.  Smiley face.

Photo source

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice: Cinnamon Kitchen

Fans of The Cinnamon Club (as I am) will be thrilled to know that it has a little sister, Cinnamon Kitchen, in East London, so you can also enjoy the delicious and innovative modern Indian cuisine of The Cinnamon Club just a stone's throw from Liverpool Street station - perfect for post-work drinks/dinner and/or business meetings for those of you who work in the City.

Having said that, it seemed the ideal place for me to take John for a spontaneous Thursday night dinner to celebrate a recent success at work.   Booking on Toptable gives you an offer of three courses plus a glass of "summer fizz" for £19 - cheap but certainly not tacky as the majority of tables around us were also ordering from the set menu.

Tucked into the sweet but cool Devonshire Square, the restaurant also features a trendy bar called Anise, where, I was informed, holds a happy hour every evening.  I started off with some deliciously spiced potato cakes with masala peas, while John went with the recommended stir-fried chicken with peppers.  I had food envy at this point as his tender pieces of chicken were perfectly smoky and flavorful.  In addition to our meal, we ordered a side of breads (a variety of naan) served with very interesting chutneys, including a wasabi-pea paste that worked wonderfully well with the sweet tomato and chilli chutney.  For our mains, I chose a beef stew made with fragrant coconut milk served with basmati rice and John tackled sweet and sour pork ribs with garlic mash.  Again, I suffered food envy (although my stew was both comforting and beautifully aromatic) as his mash reminded me of American breakfast potatoes - wonderfully herb-filled and moreish.  Finally, for dessert, John selected the spiced pumpkin creme brulee (perfect for the fall months!) while I was more adventurous and chose the buffalo milk kulfi, dum cooked vermicelli nest.  I appreciated the innovation behind this dessert and it came wonderfully presented, with pieces of crystalized sugar draped on each individual strand of crunchy vermicelli thread, but when it came down to eating it, I felt as though I'd put thousands of pins into my mouth.  Needless to say, I didn't quite finish it.  But John did.

Aside from the overall success of its food, Cinnamon Kitchen boasts the same, high level of service characteristic of its main establishment.  Mid-conversation, a server quietly attended to our table, concerned that the uneven legs were causing the table to rock a bit - to be honest, I hadn't even noticed this, but it is one of those annoying things you quickly accept, I suppose, when sitting down at a table.  He quickly slipped something under the leg to keep the table still and his attention was quite impressive.  Though there is a two-hour turnaround for each table, you're never made to feel rushed and are encouraged to take your time to finish each course.  This is something I truly appreciate when dining out as I loathe being hurried by impatient staff.

As is with most restaurants near the City, the clientele at Cinnamon Kitchen is comprised of mostly after-work city slickers, which doesn't exactly create a relaxing environment, but I'd still highly recommend it - if not for its smart decor and creative dishes, then for its impeccable and friendly service.  Two thumbs up, people.

Photo source
© angloyankophile

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