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. 

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