Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Stylista

It's no secret: I like free stuff.  Who doesn't?  (Ok, with the exception of people who are overly suspicious of free goods or deem themselves "above" taking freebies)  And with the demise of free papers that used to be handed out on the street, such as London Lite and The London Paper (I only liked those because they were 20% (sensationalized) news, 80% celebrity gossip), I find myself reading my free books from work on the tube now, which isn't such a bad thing, if I'm to fulfill my goal of reading 27 books before my 27th birthday this year. 

But I just can't hide my joy at receiving the free Stylist magazine, which started at the end of 2009.  As it's aimed at "affluent career women" (which I am sweetly but constantly reminded of that that's not me, due to the Miu Miu, Prada, and Mulberry bags and shoes splashed on every page), I often get it confused with its paid-for counterpart, Grazia, the fashion glossy I sometimes splurge £1.95 for.

There's nothing that delights me more on Tuesday evenings or Wednesday mornings (when Stylist is handed out) than to grab the thin but chock-full-of-great-eye-candy (eye-candy for me = gorgeous shoes, bags, travel destinations, food and interiors) magazine from its distributor.  In fact, I inwardly laugh at the women who bypass the magazine.  Who would?  Clearly they have no idea what they're missing.

The pages may not be as pretty as your usual glossy and not as thick, but the quality is surely there: this week's issue boasts an exclusive interview with Christian Louboutin and a feature on fashion icon Grace Kelly.  Every issue includes short day-in-the-life-type snippets of a typical high-ranking London career woman describing how she takes her skinny mocha latte and what time the nanny arrives at her Hampstead Heath pad to take care of the children she hardly sees.  There's even a page devoted to love-to-hate-her-young-woman-of-the-moment Dawn Porter and her opinions on everything from marriage to heels.  In short, the magazine is a summary of and glimpse into a life that I don't have - and don't necessarily want.  But still, come every Tuesday/Wednesday, I greedily lap it all up on my train ride home.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

One (Rich) Person's Junk Is Most Likely My Treasure


You know how things can sometimes fall from the sky?  Well, I don't like, love it, love it, but this little beauty was found outside a flat near the dumpsters on Castellain Road, face down with a couple of cigarette butts on top.  Nice.  So we flipped it over, assessed the damage, and decided it could spend some time in our flat before we put it outside our own dumpsters.  The frame is nice, so even if we take the photo out, we can keep the frame for something better.  I'm just not so sure I want something so turbulent above my head while I sleep.  I swear it's been affecting my dreams.  Like, last night, I dreamt I was holding a newborn baby and all of a sudden, it turned into a lamb shank.  Not normal.  I blame it on the picture.

Anyway, this is not the first time John and I have scavenged discarded wares from the inhabitants of our surrounding area.  When we first moved in, he set off for a run, only to buzz the bell two minutes later, sounding breathless.  "What?" I said.  "I (huff) found (huff) these (huff) John Lewis (huff huff) wicker (huff) laundry (huff) baskets (huff) by the (huff) bins (huff) on Lauderdale."  I buzzed him in.  Sure enough, he was carrying two used-but-good-as-new wicker laundry baskets we had just seen in John Lewis a couple of weeks ago.  He was worried about whether or not the owners really meant to throw them out, but considering they were propped up next to the dumpster along with other miscellaneous household goods other had discarded, I was pretty sure it was okay (if you know anyone missing some beloved wicker laundry baskets who have been frantically combing the streets of Maida Vale, do let me know). 

Then there was the IKEA children's table scrawled with at least a year's worth of crayon and magic markers that we decided to adopt as a temporary entry-way mail/keys/etc. table.  It was in good condition and we could have painted it to make it look better, but in the end it was taking up too much room and we left it where we found it (again, but the dumpster outside our door).  Fifteen minutes later, it was gone, off to a new home (possibly with an actual child). 

I think of our serendipitous finds as a neighborhood Freecycle and see nothing wrong with giving something a good home if it's heading to the landfill anyway.  Now all I need is a good sofa-bed ...
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My Stocks Have Been Replenished

Yesterday, Udita came to visit and aside from gracing me with her incredible presence during our fabulous lunch at (where else?) Pret and shopping expedition on Oxford Street, she gave me probably the best presents in the world: things I miss from home (plus a gorgeous necklace from India).  Here's what she bought/brought:


Two S'Mores Pop-Tarts (perfect as I was holding a funeral for the empty box I bought two weeks ago from Plan 9), a box of Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate hot chocolate (also just ran out), Raspberry Lemonade Crystal Light and plenty of deliciously flavored protein bars, which I had requested (don't think you can get Peanut Marshmallow Eclipse Pure Protein here).

And so I'd like to propose a protein toast - to BFFs around the world.  LYLAS!!! xoxoxoxo




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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Eh, Salisbury Schmalisbury

It was probably my fault:  I got too excited, had high expectations and was thoroughly disappointed.  I'm talking about my weekend in Salisbury.

John and I decided to take a break from the rat race and go away for a weekend, just to be anywhere but London.  I suggested Salisbury because, as I recalled from my junior high school trip, it seemed like the perfect place - picturesque, right smack dab in the middle of the countryside, an easy hour and a half journey from London, etc.  To be truthful, thinking about it, I didn't remember much about Salisbury from that trip except that it had a lovely cathedral and I thought, if all else failed, we should at least go and see it.

So we booked a cheap (very cheap) hotel above what turned out to be a pub/bar (which conveniently has a late night on Saturdays so you can hear the bass of Girls Aloud throbbing through your floorboards at 2 a.m.), which was actually okay since we weren't interested in a luxury stay this time around (well, it would have been okay if the room wasn't stuffy and vaguely reminiscent of a remodeled crack den and the fluffy white towels didn't have suspicious stains on them that forced me to squeeze my eyes shut when drying off and the window didn't look out onto a car park where the recycling bins were also located so that my afternoon nap was interrupted three times by someone tipping sackfuls of glass into the bin - but hey, you get what you pay for).  But overall, the city itself lacked any sort of charm or character that others, such as Rye or my beloved York, have.  Instead, the pleasant locals I held in my memory were replaced by chain-smoking chavvy teenage girls wearing the requisite "jeggings" (jeans + leggings for those of you who are fashionably challenged) and imitation Uggs and older versions of them sitting on park benches hacking up a lung.

I will say that Salisbury's one redeeming feature is its beautiful cathedral, which was consecrated in 1258.  I've been in the Notre Dame, the York Minster, Westminster Abbey, among other impressive churches and cathedrals, but Salisbury Cathedral is most definitely my favorite.  Despite its size and stature, there's something incredibly non-intimidating and non-ostentatious about it - not to mention this gorgeous font pictured at right) with Isaiah 43:2 engraved into its edge ("When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you").  Our visit coincided with the Salisbury Music Society's dress rehearsal of Bach's Mass in B minor, which was a real treat to sit in on.  Very rarely do you hear performances of that scale in a setting like Salisbury Cathedral and I felt extremely lucky as I sat listening to the beautiful music filling every crevice of the cathedral.

Upon Chris's suggestion, we dined at The White Hart that evening (I did inquire at the tourist information center for personal restaurant recommendations, but lost my temper when the woman working there who shook her head at me:  "Oh no, no we're not allowed to give personal recommendations, otherwise we would be seen to favour one restaurant over the other."  Ok, ok, why don't you give me a non-personal personal recommendation then?  Jeez.  I was in a bit of a bad mood after that), which was dead as a doorknob since we were one of the two couples dining in the vast, white-tableclothed dining room (backed by easy-listening piped-in music, just in case you're into that ... I always like having a bit of rib-eye steak with James Blunt crooning my ear - NOT).  Still, the food was delicious (I had tender lamb shanks with rosemary au jus and John chose a sirloin steak with bearnaise sauce and fries) and it was unabashedly refreshing to pay non-London prices for a lovely meal out. 

Back we went then, to our revamped crack-den hotel atop a strip night-club, which by now had two burly bouncers at the door.  "At least it's secure," John quipped as my unhappiness threatened to cause a Poltergeist-inspired rampage across our room.

Upon arriving back at our flat this afternoon, John and I both let out a sigh of relief.  "It's not often that you come back from a hotel preferring to sleep at your own place," he said approvingly, surveying the living room.  I looked at the sun streaming into our bay windows and agreed.  Think we'll leave Salisbury alone for now.
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Friday, March 26, 2010

Landscape Vs. Soundscape

I had a really interesting conversation with John's dad on Sunday after the concert about music nationalism, or composers who translate their patriotic feelings into music, such as Grieg, Sibelius, Dvorak, etc.  For me, there are two composers, one English and the other American, who - in my mind - as musicians who have successfully "painted" the English and American landscapes, respectively, in their music: Gerald Finzi and Aaron Copland. 

Whether or not you're a classical music fan, I urge you to listen (even if it's for 30 seconds) to both below - when I'm missing America, I frantically search for a recording of Appalachian Springs or Letter From Home in order to visualize the vastness of America's heartland.  And when I'm in the States and badly missing the pensive English countryside with its grey skies and contrasting green fields dotted with cows and sheep, I turn to Finzi.

So here we have my snapshot (taken out of a moving vehicle) of an English shire that shall remain unnamed, in its wry, moody state:


And Finzi's haunting Romance in E flat Major, Op. 11:



Contrasted by the wild, American prairie (where Laura Ingalls Wilder frolicked, where the deer and the antelope play ... where seldom is heard, a discouraging word ... you know the rest):


And the hopefulness of Copland's Appalachian Springs:



Photo source



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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why I, Angloyankophile, *Heart* Yoga

During my first "official" year in London, I felt lost.  I had a great job, I was making some great friends, and lived in a great flat (albeit in a not-so-great area).  Regardless of all of this greatness, I felt like I was missing something.  So I decided to try a couple of yoga classes being offered at my office after work and went along with a couple of colleagues who had been before.  I liked the teacher and the class, but started getting a bit frustrated a few months later when I didn't feel like I was improving (or rather, had nothing I really wanted to strive towards) and was ... well ... bored.

Then I stumbled upon a Vinyasa Flow Yoga class at the gym I just joined.  Having had two bad experiences with yoga classes under my belt already (another in college - don't ask), I was weary of this one.  To my surprise, it was taught by an American, Lauren, and involved music, which wasn't a good sign for me (yeah, that college yoga class I took?  The instructor had an unhealthy obsession with Zero 7 and Fiona Apple, and not in a good way).  Before the class even started, I hated it already (not exactly the zen-like attitude I should have had, I know, but then again, I've always been more rage, less zen).  Yet as the class progressed, the hatred slowly melted away and I emerged feeling challenged and - dare I say - enjoying it?  Vinyasa flow was not a form of yoga I was familiar with and the flowing (yet strong) movements with which each pose is connected soon began to remind me of the ballet classes I missed so much and spent such a large part of my life perfecting.  And for once, I let go of my stubbornness, my grumbling and negativity, and allowed something wonderful in.

Over the next months that I practiced with Lauren, I began to feel increasingly positive about life - both on and off the mat.  When we reached our arms out and up over our heads to begin a sun salutation, I really felt like I was under the sun, rather than the horrible fluorescent lights of a gym studio.  And the hatred I once had for my body soon gave way to gratitude, which surprised but pleased me.  Instead of seeing my limitations (as ballet always taught me i.e. I wasn't flexible enough, my feet weren't naturally arched enough, the list goes on and on)  I began to appreciate little things instead, like how I was able to fold forward a little further every week in a standing forward bend or the slight indentations that started to appear in my triceps due to weeks of practicing chaturanga.  My constant practice of yoga gave me the courage to find strength within my body, as well as within my self. 

I'm a perfectionist.  And there have been several instances in class, where I admit, I've gotten frustrated with myself and what my body could not do that day - I'll never forget the instance (or instances) I was completely unable to do a headstand, no matter how hard I tried and was close to tears.  Lauren took note of my frustration, patted my arm and simply said, "It's ok, you're ok.  Just not today."  And that's the attitude I've been able to take out of her class as well - that I'm ok, and whatever I can't accomplish in a day, doesn't need to be done.  Of all the things I've learned from Lauren, the lesson of humility has been most important: knowing when to stop, not because of your limits, but maybe because it's just not for you today.  As she has taught time and time again, yoga is a journey and will always be - not a race or a means to an end. 

It's been an amazing transformation and one that I'm immensely thankful for.  To anyone who thinks that yoga is just "humming" (ahem, John) or some quack's New-Age-left-wing invention, I challenge you to take Lauren's flow class and leave unmoved.

Lauren teaches Vinyasa Flow yoga at The Gym at Covent Garden on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings.  Class tuition is free for members and £10 per class for non-members.  I attend religiously. 
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Flat Is Boring


I have absolutely no art in my flat, save a framed photocopy of a sketch by my father which hangs crookedly in the bathroom and a gorgeous piece of metal work from India Udita gave me last year, which hangs at another awkward location in the entry-way. 

This upsets me.

I can't put any hooks up but there are plenty that already exist in the living room and most importantly, in the bedroom, but I've yet to find the right piece.  Can anyone recommend a place for me to buy something affordable yet more original than the usual IKEA/Habitat/John Lewis fare?  I cringe at the thought of another giant sunflower.  I'm thinking there are such places that exist but I think they must exist only in East London or other trendier parts of London.

Thanks.
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And What About Ribena?


What about Ribena, you ask (or rather, what is Ribena)?  A UK transplant to the US commented today on how much he missed Ribena and how grape flavored Gatorade in the States tastes "omg hella gross" (sounds like he's adjusted to American culture just fine).  The blackcurrant concentrated syrup was another staple in my grandma's kitchen in Hong Kong and as kids, my brother and I sipped it (once mixed with water) from childproof plastic mugs in the sticky heat of the Hong Kong summer.  Even today when I bought my Ribena juice box from the office Restaurant downstairs, I experienced little flashbacks to those humid days spent in my grandma's apartment with the windows firmly shut and the air conditioning blasting and the smell of char siu drifting in from the kitchen.

So my adoration of Ribena goes way back and it's yet another drink I think should be offered in the States.  Think the only thing we Americans wouldn't be used to is mixing it with water each time - I know a friend who came over to the UK for a study abroad program and tried making "Ribena shots" for a pre-party.  Unfortunately she didn't know you had to mix it with water first and ... well, the rest is history.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blackcurrant Is The New Cherry

I grew up ignorant of the fact that my beloved Rowntree's Blackcurrant Pastilles, which my mom bought to keep me quiet as an airplane/car snack whenever we visited Hong Kong, came from a confectionary business originally based in York and thus, was one of the many vestiges of British rule in the former colony.  All I knew was that I enjoyed the flavor immensely - not quite grape but similar to a berry.  I'd miss those pastilles whenever I returned home to the US, not for its packaging or chewiness, but rather for the blackcurrant flavor, which doesn't exist in the States.

Imagine my joy then, when I discovered just how ubiquitous blackcurrant is (as a flavor) in the UK: jams, macaroons, sore throat lozenges, squash (a concentrated drink which I will explain in a later post - believe me, it deserves it), blackcurrant is the new cherry, in my book. 

So I've come up with a few ideas that US could take and possibly incorporate blackcurrant into its "flavor scheme", so to speak:

1) Blackcurrant milkshakes - milkshakes a pretty sub par (and quite honestly, disgusting) in the UK.  I propose that places like Frisco Freeze offer blackcurrant on its menu of flavors.

2) Blackcurrant smoothies - similar to milkshakes, chains such as Jamba Juice could make massive blackcurrant smoothies and other juiced goods.

3) Blackcurrant ice cream and popsicles - I'm pretty sure these would fly off the shelves in grocery stores, given the chance.

4) Blackcurrant pie - ok, I'm not proposing that it replace apple pie (let me assure you, nothing is as American as apple pie *eye roll*), but blackcurrant pie would be delicious as a warm summer pie, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

5) Blackcurrant chewing gum - I buy all my crazy flavored gum in the States (watermelon, fruit punch, etc.) so I think Trident should get on the ball and start selling blackcurrant gum.

... and finally ...

6) Blackcurrant Pop Tarts - that would be like my dream come true.  I mean, come on, Kellogg's.  You've done Dutch Apple, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Apple Strudel, Frosted Blueberry, Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon, Frosted Cherry, Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Banana Split, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Frosted Chocolate Fudege, Cinnamon Roll (*DROOL*), Frosted Wild Watermelon (WTF??), Frosted Wild Berry, Frosted Cookies and Cream, Ginger Bread, Wild Tropical Blast (EW?), Hot Fudge Sundae, Frosted Raspberry, S'Mores, Frosted Strawberry, Frosted Strawberry Milkshake, Vanilla Milkshake, Frosted Wildberry, Blueberry Muffin, Cookies 'n Creme and Wild Grape, amongst other discontinued flavors.  So surely Frosted Blackcurrant is on the menu for the near future?  Just a thought, from yours truly.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Orrery


I think John and I officially need a break from dining out for a while because we've been really spoiled for the past couple months, what with our recent jaunts to The Criterion, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, and last night to Orrery (at least we had somewhat of an excuse last night since his dad and Nicole were driving down from Leicester to - very kindly - attend the Royal Orchestral Society concert I was playing in, and ok, The Criterion was for Valentine's but I have no excuse for L'Atelier except for the fact that we - fine, I - just felt like it).  So I'm going to keep this post simple and let the food speak for itself (yes, I took photos of almost all my courses, but nevertheless I did so very discreetly, with "no flash, no flash!").  I will say, however, that perched atop the Conran shop in the heart of Marylebone on a Sunday evening is not a bad place to be.  Like a final hurrah before the dread of Monday morning locks its cold claws into your heart ...


Our first amuse bouche of ginger and carrot soup ... watch out for the foam, it becomes a reoccurring theme and after a few glasses (namely, one bellini and zero sips of wine for me) of wine, the foam begins to resemble things that are not so polite to mention at the dinner table and certainly not at an establishment like The Orrery.


My starter of seafood tortellini in lobster bisque with erm, a prawn on top ala FOAM (although I had serious food envy after John ordered the truffle omelette) which was delicious albeit being a tad on the salty side ...


An impressive (and extremely delectable) main course of poulet fermier with morels and yes, MORE FOAM!   FOAM PARTY!!!


And to finish (well, technically not to finish, since I did have chocolates and espresso after this), a dessert of wild berries frangipane, raspberry sorbet and no foam.  Yes, I know, I was sad too. 

Sob.

The end.
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Très Magnifique: L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

"Are we going where I think we're going for dinner tonight?!" read John's email to me on Friday morning.  "Um ..." I wrote back.  "I've just noticed that it's right next to the Ivy.  I'm sorry, but we're not going to the Ivy, so to avoid embarrassment, maybe we should meet outside somewhere."  But he had figured it out already after Googling the address and was very excited.

As I got my bonus this week (which is a joke amount compared to any other bonus earned outside of publishing, but nevertheless I'm still immensely grateful), I decided to take John out to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which I knew he'd been dying to try (along with Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, which I'm not interested in at all - I appreciate that you can do some creative things with food, but I have no desire to try "pommery grain mustard ice cream", for example) as a surprise.

I'm not gonna lie, the £22 (for two courses, £27 for three - we went for three) set menu offer from Toptable was a deciding factor on where we'd go (I did say I got a publishing bonus, after all) but even so, I was excited to sample the swank interiors of L'Atelier after reading rave reviews of his restaurants in Paris, New York, London (and a first hand review of Tokyo's). 

We weren't disappointed.  Sitting at the counter, we were served with smooth efficiency and able to see the "cogs" of the kitchen, if you will, where the chefs coordinated themselves with precise and almost balletic movements.  The salmon tartar starter was a true explosion of flavors and our mains (haddock for me and confit of duck for John) were equally delicious.  But surprisingly, the best course was possibly the pudding, which consisted of a layered chocolate mousse for me and a selection of six mini tarts/cakes for John, ranging from apple and cinnamon to a lemon flavor so tart we could only each manage a bite.

I wasn't a huge fan of the branding and the constant reminder of where we were dining, which was stamped on everything from the napkins to the sliver of chocolate tucked in my pudding, or the music, which evoked some kind of cheesy mid-late-90's French club music - piped into my ear much like an annoying mosquito you just can't swot.  Still, it was an enjoyable experience and we will probably go back at some point for the tasting menu (£125 pp).

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

It's a Small, Small World (at least, if you went to Mount Holyoke)


I don't believe in coincidences.  No, I believe that things happen for a reason and that's why I still have the spooks thinking about what happened to me on the tube today.

I was heading home on the Bakerloo line from Lillywhites in Piccadilly Circus after buying a couple of squash rackets for me and John (and a tennis racket for myself).  Earlier that morning, he'd told me  we should play squash at his gym sometime and though my mind briefly shot back to my hopelessness during a semester of squash at Mount Holyoke (taught by a stern, 60-something, butch woman who shook her head at me in disgust class after class), I agreed. 

And who should get on at Oxford Circus and sit directly across from me than my squash partner from that dreaded gym class at Mount Holyoke.  As soon as she sat down, I glanced up and thought to myself, 'She looks so familiar ... like my squash partner from MHC.'  But there was no way; especially since I had two squash rackets underneath my feet, it'd be too much of a coincidence.  I didn't want to stare, but as I glanced up again, I noticed the unmistakable MHC class ring - same as mine.  So I leaned over and asked if she went to Mount Holyoke and she instantly remembered my name, as I did hers.  She's been in London for four years now after finishing a degree at LSE and we traded stories for a bit before she got off at Paddington.

It was great to have this "chance" encounter with an MHC alum, but it also reminded me of what a small world it is - and how incredible it is to be at exactly the right place at the right time to see someone you once thought you'd never see again.  I sure miss that place in the photo above.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

"Thank God for the Canadian lady"

TripAdvisor.co.uk is probably the best way to find out what a place is really like before paying your hard-earned money to stay there.  The reviews are plentiful and honest - plus, I like looking at the guest photos on Trip Advisor rather than the photoshopped flattering ones from hotels' websites as they give you a much more unforgiving account of what the room might look like.  While brainstorming ideas for a quick weekend getaway, John and I had a chuckle (more like hysterics) over some of the funnier reviews that have been posted.  Like this one for example, titled 'Thank God for the Canadian lady' (you can read the original here, it's amazing):

"This was to be our get away before moving into our new place. Well, our stay of 4 days would of been a complete disaster had not been for the night staff (Marie) a very friendly Canadian lady. We were greeted by her and made very well aware of all of the emeneties and times for breakfast, including if you would like breakfast in bed. (to which she was repremended for by the owner) although it advertises such service.



Our room was lovely on the second floor, but the heat did not work half of the time, once again Marie to the rescue as she resides in staff housing across the garden. As we had called the manager (Martin) and he just brushed it of as there was not big deal. On our second day we witness what we later found out was the soon be ex-wife of the Manager being chastise by the owner regarding personal problems between her and the soon to be ex-husband in the middle of the open kitchen. Later on that same day we over heard the manager moaning on his mobile to what seemed to be a girlfriend about all their personal lives, that we really did not care to know, this is extremely umprofessional.


Over all it was a great stay, but only because they have the luck of having hired a very lovely and helpfull Canadian lady."

Hope that two-timing manager got his just desserts from his soon-to-be-ex-wife.  Brings on the LOLs.
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Sweat In The City

I was recently interviewed on camera as part of Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation's (WSFF) campaign to get more women in London and across the UK to participate in sports and be more active in general.  In Fall 2008, I applied for and was accepted to the Sweat In The City program, a WSFF initiative which offered a free three-month gym membership to nearly 3,000 women (under 25) across London.  The only catch was that you'd be required to blog about each gym visit and you had to commit to going 3 times a week - not a problem for me since I had no social life to speak of at that time (not saying that I have one now).  I admit it sounds lame, but I was hoping that through this program I'd be able to meet some friends and also shape up, as I wanted to run a 5K in the spring.  But I got more than I bargained for - in a positive way. 

Let me start by saying that I've always liked the British attitude towards fitness, which is much more relaxed, in my opinion, than in America.  Brits are more likely to go away for week-long hikes in the Lake District than spend their after-work hours sweating away in some basement gym in the city.  They (for the most part) also have a healthy attitude towards food and practice good portion control as well as advocate growing their own vegetables, etc. whenever possible.  I think (most) women are of a healthy size here - neither obese nor anorexic, but rather quite literally, heatlhy.  But when I started the program, I quickly realized why it's so important to get more women active and this was further evidenced by a question asked during the interview. 

I think the question was something like, "Why don't you think women exercise more in the UK or are motivated to keep up a regular gym routine?  And do you think sport takes away their femininity?"  I flashed back to about a year ago when I was staring at my arms in the mirror and commented to John, "I want really cut arms."  John looked up from his magazine and frowned, "But not really cut, right?  You don't want to look like a bodybuilder!"  I whipped around and said, "Well, yes, actually, I do want really defined arms - I don't find anything wrong with that."  I knew what he meant: Madonna arms.  And while I definitely do NOT want Madonna's Frankenstein arms, I was hoping to achieve something past flabby bingo-wings.  Zoning back to the interviewer's question, I found myself saying, "Yes, yes I think women in the UK are afraid that atheleticism or a strong body will take away their femininity." 

See, in the US, we have magazines like Self (above) and Shape (right) that are devoted to women's fitness.  There are blogs (such as Fitsugar.com) that give advice on everything from improving yoga postures to interval training ideas.  Fitness in the US can be an obsession.  We idolize female atheletes and women with six-packs and muscular arms and legs.  But never, in this country, have I ever seen a magazine in the newsstands dedicated to women's fitness.  They don't exist.  And it's probably because most British girls and women idolize anorexic "celebrities" like Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole Tweedy.  Celebs who, instead of eating healthily and working out, are afraid of bulking up and prefer to nibble on edamame beans and sip green tea to survive. 

So naturally, WSFF had to come up with a cringe-worthy but clever way of drawing the glossy magazine-clutching young women of London into the realm of sports and fitness, and they came up with the name, Sweat In The City.  I have to say though, that personally, participating in the program was a life-changing experience for me.  I was able to join a great gym in Covent Garden which didn't have the super-competitive element (and overall obnoxiousness) that gyms like Virgin Active and Fitness First have and I found a terrific yoga class that I love.  And since it's so close to my office, I can change at work and just go, so I've got no excuse. 

Six-pack and toned arms, here I come.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chopin Overdose: Artur Pizarro


Chopin is a competition/audition staple.  That's because he ticks all the boxes:  want something moody and pensive?  Check (Nocturnes).  Or perhaps you need to impress a girl (or a judge) and want something a bit more triumphant and technically challenging?  Check (Polonaises).  Or maybe you don't have that much time, but you want to get your point across pretty quickly about what a talented pianist you are.  Check (Etudes).  How about something romantic but good for background music?  Check (Waltzes).  And finally, maybe ... something playful, not serious, for after-dinner drawing room entertainment (and yes, I said "drawing room")?  Check (Mazurkas). 

So very rarely do I have the pleasure of hearing Chopin not being grievously mangled by someone's piano students (not naming any names here) or played with robotic intent at a piano competition.  Last week I had the privilege of seeing Emmanuel Ax in recital and he performed Chopin beautifully, with ease yet humility and with a gentle, almost grandfatherly (maybe it's because I secretly wished he was my grandfather, like the David Attenborough effect) approach. 

Artur Pizarro's Chopin-dedicated concert last night was entirely different from Ax's: unbridled, unrefined, and yes, even cocky.  Not arrogant, not confident, but cocky and even - dare I say - sexy?  (Ew, I did.)  Pizarro finished each piece with a flourish or his head bowed accordingly, but never passed up the opportunity to take two deep and longer-than-neccessary bows.  But I loved it.  His interpretation of Nocturne in C# minor (made famous by Roman Polanski's The Pianist), intentionally sandwiched in the middle of the programme, was enough to make the skin prickle - in a good way.  It made me want to weep.  His secret seemed to be taking great license with the tempo (just below what's acceptable for that piece) and his extraordinary ability to make even notes marked pp ring.  The same tenderness was found in his rendition of the "Farewell" Etude (Op. 10) and yet he was able to attack the "Revolutionary" with such ferocity that you feared a string might snap.  It was truly an outstanding performance on all counts and it seemed the audience (full house) agreed, as they gave him three rounds of applause (followed by his encore of Earl Wild's transcription of the Larghetto from the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21, which I wasn't too keen on, especially since we were all dead tired by then and Larghetto = Lullaby in my book!).

What I haven't told you, however, is that this is the third of NINE concerts Pizarro is playing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth - yes, you read that correctly, he is playing the complete solo works of Chopin.  Have mercy.  Tickets are still available at St John's Smith Square and the last concert is on December 7, 2010, so if you get a chance to go, I'd highly recommend it.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Being Here vs Being There

What would you do if your best friend, your mother, your father, your brother or your sister was very ill?  What if they really needed you to be by their side?  What if you were told they only had hours to live?  And you lived a 10-hour plane ride away?   Or longer?  Would you go numb?  Would you freeze or would you panic?  Would you stay calm and know exactly what to do?  Or would you spend that plane ride with your insides twisted in knots, wishing you were there already, when you had five - no - seven more hours to go before you're actually "there"?

This was the dilemma a friend from New Zealand faced today and it was a sobering thought for me - although I've been fortunate enough so far to not have had this happen (touch wood), I remember the moment my dad called me at college to tell me that my mother, 3,500 miles away, had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and needed to undergo surgery the next day.  I asked if I should/could book a flight home.  He told me no.  He told me she was going to be fine.  But she needs me, I thought.  I spoke to her and she assured me she was fine, but I knew, I knew she was scared.  At least a bit scared.  Because I would be.

She was brave and recovered well.  I was in the middle of finals.  I wanted to go home.  But I didn't.  And I regret it to this day. 

It was my decision to live here, miles and miles away from "home" but even so - even so - I hold back bitterness, resentment, when my friends go home for weekends to see their "mum, 'cos she's feeling poorly" or their "brother, as he just got his A-level results and we're so chuffed for him" or their "dad, 'cos it's his 60th and I've planned a surprise party for him".  I sit with my friends' families, eating dinners with them, drinking wine with them, laughing with them and I think of mine - my dad putting up the Christmas tree early in anticipation of my return last winter, my mom collecting Macy's vouchers to use when I come back, my brother asking me repeatedly, "Jaime, when are you coming home?" - and the bitterness rises up inside of me, like bile, collecting at the back of my throat. 

I remind myself every day to let go of this bitterness, this resentment, as I've chosen, in this moment, to be where I am - regardless of whether or not I return to the States, to New York or Boston or San Francisco or Washington in the near or distant future.  I have no right to feel this anger or resentment.  I try to be grateful for what I have: Skype to speak to my mom everyday, mail order wine service that delivers to my dad's office just in time for Father's Day, and Facebook to keep tabs on my brother. 

But my friend's predicament today has reminded me that this isn't enough - that no matter what, family and friends always come first.  Because they're actually all you've got.

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Loch Fyne

I have a great memory of Guildford, Surrey.  It involved me and Udita getting into a cab from a private hospital where I had a follow-up appointment post-surgery last year and asking the driver, en route to the city centre, if he had any good restaurant suggestions for dinner.  "Well, depends on what you're after," he said, speaking in a broad accent.  "You want nice?  Pricey?"  "Maybe something in the middle," we ventured.  "Ok," he said, pulling up into the main bit. "You like fish?"  "Yeah," I said, half-listening. "Well, there's this little place up the road ..." he said, pointing his finger at the windshield.  "It's called Loch Fyne."  "YES!!!" I squealed.  "THAT'S PERFECT, thankyouSOmuch!" I shouted, as I paid and jumped out of the cab.  He looked confused.  "What, you don't want to hear the rest of the options?"  "Nope!" I said, slamming the cab door.  We practically sprinted up the street and were seated, within minutes, in the serene, wood-beamed restaurant, near the fish counter with fresh bread and wine on the table.  Lovely.

The Loch Fyne chain has a lot of sentimental significance for me as I first discovered it in York with John when we stopped in to have a set lunch one day.  We liked it so much that we returned for dinner a few days later and it's since become a favorite of ours.  That particular Loch Fyne had a window seat that looked directly into my friend Chloe's beautiful Georgian flat, which also held many warm memories of tea-sipping, dissertation complaining, and general friendly chat.  Once, when John and I were having dinner, I texted Chloe to say we were there and she came to the window and waved - it was great (she's a vegetarian, otherwise I would have asked her to join us, I'm not that rude!).  One of my favorite things to order on the menu is the Kinglas smoked salmon sashimi (pictured above) with a dollop (literally, as you can see) of wasabi.  Every morsel is like a little bite of heaven.  And because I was spoiled by the seafood we had growing up in Washington state, I like to know that Loch Fyne only serves sustainable seafood sourced either directly from Loch Fyne or around the British Coast.  Not bad, eh?

Now, I've been to the Loch Fyne in London (Covent Garden, but I suspect the other London locations would have similar settings) but wouldn't recommend it - unless you want to sit cheek by jowl to the person next to you.  The service there is frenzied and the food prepared slap-dash; not a pleasant experience at all.  But if you do get a chance to visit their other locations, say, in Woburn, York, or yes, even Guildford, I'd highly recommend it.  It's a lovely place to take your friends, family or significant other.
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Monday, March 15, 2010

Sutra at Sadler's Wells


Browsing Sadler's Wells 2009-2910 season catalogue last year, I was struck by the imagery in Sutra and convinced that I needed to see it.  Sutra premiered at Sadler's Wells in 2008 to rapturous reviews and returned to the theatre this year (I've also heard from an inside source that it's been sold out at every location it tours).  I usually have an aversion to anything involving "martial arts" or boasting the headline, "featuring monks of the Shaolin Temple" but something about the minimalistic set design (thanks to Turner prize-winning artist Antony Gormley) vaguely reminscent of walking into Muji (sorry, I know how insulting that must be to Gormley) drew me in.  And I was not disappointed.  A beautiful intersection between music and dance, the score was composed by the talented (and quite young) Szymon Brzóska, whose musical influences include Michael Nyman, which is evident throughout the hour-long or so piece and the score is performed live by musicians behind a screen who are lit intermittently by a soft light.  I'm hoping to get my hands on the CD soon. 

The performance itself was breathtaking and I spent most of it with my hand over my mouth open in awe.  More acrobatic and martial arts than dance, the movements of the monks were graceful in their own right and the use of the coffin-sized wood boxes was incredibly clever.  I don't want to give away too much, so check out the clip below.





The wonderful thing about the Sadler's Wells website is that you can see a clip of the show before you book - just a taste and not enough to spoil - but it's enough to either draw you in or let you decide it isn't for you.  Contemporary dance isn't for everyone and as a classically trained ballet dancer I had developed a long-term resistance towards it, but nowadays I gravitate towards performances at Sadler's Wells rather than the Royal Opera House.  I've never seen a performance at Sadler's Wells that didn't blow me away.  I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it's true.  Last year, I was extremely moved by Akram Khan's Bahok, a fascinating and fantastic exploration of issues of identity, belonging and language/communication, but although Bahok really resonated with me, I must say that the imagination behind the choreography of Sutra was absolutely brilliant.  In fact, that was the word John used to describe the show - and he meant it.

I don't know if tickets are still available, but I urge you to go - it's a privilege to see and enjoy. 

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It's Cake Time (again)!


Seems as though someone heard me complain last week.  The warmer and sunnier weather this weekend put me in a terrific mood and to celebrate, I (naturally) baked a cake.  This was the Victoria Sponge I made last night, using the new silicone cake molds (and extra long cooling rack) that John bought me for my birthday last year from John Lewis.  I really wanted to try the cake molds out so the Victoria Sponge seemed like an easy option.  The molds were fantastic and made two, even, halves that were extremely easy to remove (I also love using silicone bakeware because they're super easy to clean and store) and the cooling rack (which is not currently available online) is amazing because you can fit so much on it, which is really handy when you're cooling cake halves or making lots of cookies or cupcakes.  Et voila.
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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rugby and The Rage


Rugby Six Nations was on this afternoon (the photo above was taken at the Guinness Cup Final last year, so don't be misled) and in his usual fashion, John was shouting, jumping, and (occasionally) swearing at the screen.  But instead of plugging in my earphones or using this as an excuse for a shopping trip, I was glued to the screen as well.  That's because I love rugby.

In order to explain why, you've got to know two things about me:

1)  I hate sports.  I was the one who got hit by the basketball in elementary school.  I was always last picked for teams.  I was the one with no hand-eye co-ordination in junior high.  I was the one who the P.E. teacher referred to as, "exceptionally bright in the classroom but talentless in the gym" (he actually meant that as a compliment). 

2)  I especially hate American football - the closest sport to rugby.  I have zero interest in football teams, football scores, football games ... you get the idea.  I hate football culture. 

But there's actually a third thing you need to know ... I have something I call ... The Rage.  I've suffered from The Rage since I was a little girl.  Back then, my mom thought the best thing to do was put me in a room by myself when I had a Rage Attack and tell me to take deep breaths in and out and count to ten.  I pretended it worked then silently seethed inside when I left the room.   Now that I'm older, The Rage is no easier to control.  Even John cowers in the presence of The Rage.  In fact, my temper has gotten me into a lot of trouble before and the only thing stopping from me either getting arrested or hurt has been an increase in my attendance at yoga class and an increase in the number of people who carry concealed knives in London, thus hindering me from starting any fights.

So that's why I love rugby.  I may not be able to express my Rage, but some stocky, 6-foot-something, somewhat attractive (um, Jonny Wilkinson anyone?), testosterone-pumped men can. 


Oh, yes they can. 

I love the scrum, the tackling, good passes, and good kicks.  But what I love most is that exhilaration, the thrill of that one player breaking free and cleverly dodging his way between walls of pure muscle and terror to fly through the air and score a try (I'm pretty sure I've dreamed about scoring a try - when I woke, I was lying face-down with my arms outstretched). I do believe I left the Guinness Cup Final hoarse because I was screaming so loudly (for Leicester Tigers, of course).


Until The Rage subsides, I'll be down at the pub ... err ... I mean, at home.  Watching the rugby.
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Breakfast at Plan 9

Are you an ex-pat American living in London?  Do you miss the boxes of Mac & Cheese you used to eat as snacks in college, Oreo or Apple Strudel flavored Pop-Tarts in the morning, A&W Root Beer with your pizza, Jif peanut butter on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Vlasic dill pickles with your lunch, thick, ice-creamy milkshakes or blueberry and cream-cheese filled French toast?   Plan 9 knows.  That's why they import everything from Babe Ruth candy bars to A&W for you to purchase in their lovely, cosy little cafe located on Castellain Road, Maida Vale.  This is where I drag my sorry self on Saturday or Sunday mornings when I'm feeling a bit homesick and am craving some familiar American-style cooking.  Along with my "Best Little Fry Up" breakfast this morning (which is more English than American, but still, it was delicious), I was very happy to purchase a box of Apple Strudel Pop-Tarts since I've run out.  The tables are well supplied with American magazines and newspapers and there's free wi-fi - for a second, you'd just might forget you were in London and in New York instead.

Although you'll hear a lot of American voices at this tiny cafe, it's a favorite amongst British Maida Valers as well and there's often not enough seating, so you're better off ordering to go (unless you're hangover free and can get there a little earlier).  Along with the fry-up, I've also tried the blueberry cream-cheese stuffed French toast which was excellent and a banana milkshake, which was lovely and thick, just like they make them in the States.  Now if only I can get them to start stocking Swiss Miss hot chocolate ...

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Mothering Sunday

Sunday, March 14th, is "Mothering Sunday" here in the UK - nearly a whole two months earlier than the US Mother's Day.  Although I promise my mom I'd make her a card every year (as I still do for her birthday - seems as though she never grew out of the childhood cards my brother and I made for her, mine always pretty, my brother's humourous) I found myself scanning the shelves of Paperchase for a quick fix this time, choosing a pink cut-out of a baby elephant nestled against its mama elephant, with the words "Happy Mother's Day" embossed below two pink rhinestones.  Saccharine, but sentimental.  Besides, I have two more months to make a "handmade" card for the "real" mother's day.  None of this "You're the Best Mummy in the World" nonsense.  (Sidenote: the elephants remind me of the trauma my mother caused when she put Dumbo into the VCR when I was about six and I sobbed at the part where Dumbo's mom gets put in jail and they link trunks through the bars.  A few weeks later, she tried again with unsuccessful results: to this day, I've never seen Dumbo all the way through.  I've heard they're going to make a musical out of that movie and my six-year-old self sobs in heartbroken anticipation.)

I wear my mother's skinny, brown vintage leather belt almost every day.  During the summer months, I wear it high around my waist over navy blue dresses and white cardigans, in the winter it's hidden underneath the hem of a long cardigan, holding up my jeans.  I don't know why I wear it so religiously, really.  It's not even like it's something special she passed on to me, but rather something I found in her closet and asked if I could keep.  And while it doesn't make me feel closer to her now (Skype chats every morning and night take care of that), it makes me feel closer to her when she was twenty-something, which is when she must have worn it.

The belt is also a constant reminder of the guilt and hate I have of living here, away from her and my family, but also the love and happiness I feel when sharing my (mostly) amazing life here in London with her.  Each time I reach the security gates at Sea Tac airport en route to Heathrow, I turn to take one last look at my mom before taking off my shoes, my bag, my liquids and placing them in the plastic tray.  She is teary-eyed; she looks little.  I want to burn that image into my mind, of what she looks like, how she feels when I hug her, and the way her voice sounds.  Sometimes after I cross security, my eyes wet with tears, I have a sudden panic attack - an overwhelming urge to run through the barriers and hug her one last time before I go, or even better, to stay with her. 

But I can't.  It's like the story she read to me when I was six (everything happened when I was six, I think it was a very difficult age for me!) about the three little pigs.  The story was read to me in Chinese, from a Chinese children's book and I still remember the illustrations.  Whenever my mom got to this part: "And then the three little pigs had to leave home to lead an independent life" I would cry (I was also a major cry-baby, I think I had developmental problems).  "What's wrong?" my mom would ask me.  "I-I-I-don't want to lead an in-in-in-dependent life," I'd howl, stuttering between sobs.  "I d-d-don't want to leeeeavvve youuuuuu," I'd cry.  "Don't be silly," she'd say briskly but gently.  "You will eventually have to leave mommy and daddy, you can't live here your whole life!  Everyone needs to lead an independent life.  Now let's continue on with the story ... otherwise it'll be like Dumbo and you'll never find out what happens to the three little pigs!  Stop being a silly girl now - and stop wasting your tears!" 

Eventually I did get over my separation anxiety - after all, I live in London now.  But I still depend on her for so many things - mostly, her opinion.  I rouse her, half asleep, from her Friday morning slumber to ask, "Mom.  Mom.  I'm in Topshop.  Should I get these skinny jeans or not?"  Or advice: "I cooked this chicken on Saturday, but didn't put it in the freezer.  Do you think I can still eat it?"  Or sympathy (which she has very little of):  "I'm sooooo lonnnneeeeelllllyyyyyyy."  But mostly, I call her to remember what she sounds like and just to hear her voice.

Sometimes I catch my reflection opposite myself on the tube and I almost see my mother looking back at me.  Or when I lose my temper at someone and lash out with a sarcastic retort, it sounds like my mother's voice.  All of this simply reaffirms the fact that I am my mother's daughter, as we all are, our mother's sons and daughters.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Men, Meat, and Crisps - I mean, Chips

Step into any American supermarket and you will be welcomed into chip heaven:  an entire aisle (or sometimes even two) completely dedicated to the deep fried/baked/fat free/full fat potato lunch accompaniment/football-game-watching/party-distraction snack.  I have the perfect photo here in case you're wondering what these aisles look like. 

The UK have no such aisles.  But they do have meat-flavored chips (or crisps, as they're called here) to make up for this shortfall.  That's right, and McCoy's seems to be the biggest manufacturer of such carnivorous endeavours.  You've got "Flame Grilled Steak", which is most common, above, or "Thai Sweet Chicken".  Ever have a craving for "Oriental Ribs" (there's so much wrong with that flavor I'm not even going to go there)?  McCoy's seems to think you do. 

Then you've got Walkers, which is more of an iconic British brand (maybe I should stop using the word "iconic" since it seems like every British brand is "iconic") and boast flavors such as "Smoky Bacon", "Roast Chicken" and "Steak and Onion".  Who needs to eat a meal when you can get a roast chicken (flavor) in the form of a potato chip?  Sorted. 

Ok, so meat flavored chips - a little weird, but tasty and acceptable.  Guaranteed to make you thirstier than a desert-dweller due to the amount of MSG and other nasty preservatives, but good with a pint of bitter (um, not for me, I'm just imagining what it would go with) or a sandwich.  But what's with the "man" theme?  McCoy's website boasts, "MCCOY'S:  MAN CRISPS."  Huh?  So what are women supposed to eat, in following such sexist stereotypes, Chocolate flavored crisps?  Sometimes I grab the Flame Grilled Steak option out of spite, a bit like the Yorkie chocolate bar, whose wrapper contains a female sillhouette (the kind you find on bathroom doors) X-ed out and says, in large letters, IT'S NOT FOR GIRLS.  Way to man-nify your chocolate, Nestle.  It's chocolate.  We're still gonna eat it.  And any chocolate in sight. 

The Walker's site attempts to explain their inspiration behind their "Steak and Onion" flavor:  "In the 15th century the guards at the Tower of London became known as the Beefeaters, mainly because their rations included massive amounts of meat.  Eating up to a pound of meat at every meal, the Beefeaters' heroic consumption of steak became a definining characteristic of the British appetite, leading us to create our popular "Steak 'n' Onion" flavour crisps."  Whoa, whoa, whoa - "heroic consumption of steak"???  Where did the marketing people get this from?  Did they imagine a busty blonde in a revealing red dress, leaning over a white tableclothed table decked with candles at a fancy resturant, accentuating her cleavage with her leaning to say breathily to her extremely-masculine-in-fact-so-masculine-he's-in-no-way-metrosexual date: "Oh my god, the way you demolished that prime rib ... it was so ... heroic.  Can I have your autograph?"

I mean, I get the whole meat + national identity thing, after all, I come from the country that has a television commercial playing Copland's Hoedown with the theme, "Beef, It's What's For Dinner", at the end.  But the meat + manliness association, come on.  What century are we living in now?  Just drop the act.  You know women eat the damn things too.  Even with the occasional pint of bitter.
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's Pimm's-o-Clock (But Not Quite Yet)

It's March.  I'm getting impatient. The weather is showing no signs of warming up, while my friends in the States are bragging of temperatures of up to 60 degrees in places like South Hadley (thanks a lot, Brianne) and New York.  Sigh.

So I'm rebelling.  I'm stocking up on my pastels and other spring-like attire while the days seems to just get colder and cloudier.  I don't care.  Yesterday, I saw frost on the tips of the grass in Embankment gardens on my way to work and it made me angry.  So angry that I thought I would actually get out my bikini and sunbathe at lunch on the grass, just to act out in protest of this freezing cold.  But I didn't.  I just continued on my passive-agresssive technique of browsing pretty summer dresses online and day-dreaming about lunching on the grass and having to take Zyrtec allergy pills every morning (hay-fever sufferer here) again.  How I long for those days.

Looking forward reminds me of one summer libation I can't wait to consume:  Pimm's and lemonade.  (Interjection: "lemonade" in this country actually means Sprite or 7UP.  If you want the tart, refreshing summer drink sold at stands by young children hoping to make some pocket money during their summer breaks in America, you ask for "cloudy lemonade" - don't ask me why) Now, I don't really drink (more on that later).  But something about Pimm's and Sprite, combined with slices of orange, lemon, cucumber, strawberries and a sprig of mint (not to mention some sunshine) makes me insanely happy.  Think it brings back memories of punting in Oxford and just the thought that drinking Pimm's means it's officially summer. 

So even though it's outrageously cold and cloudy outside, maybe I'll start early.  Meet me in the park at Pimm's-o-clock ...

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lost In Translation

As I mentioned in a previous post, I joined the Royal Orchestral Society in January.  What I didn't mention is that it seems as though Brits have an entirely different musical vocabulary to us Americans and it's been really throwing me off. 

It started off with basics:  in the US, we refer to the first chair, first stand violinist as the Concertmaster (or Concertmistress, if you're feeling 21st-century like), you know, the violinist who walks onstage before the conductor and leads the tuning when the lights dim.  Here, they call him/her the Leader.  That took some getting used to (especially since I picture a "Leader" to be the leader of a brass band in a parade or something - Concertmaster sounds so much better).  Then, they refer to "stands" as "desks."  Therefore, for the first rehearsal, I was asked to sit "First Desk, Second Violins" (and I have now demoted myself to Second Stand since I clearly lack any sort of leadership skill needed to lead a pack of already-lacking Seconds). 

However, the most confusing aspects of playing in a British symphony orchestra are the terms used for notes and parts of the instrument.  At last night's rehearsal, the conductor stopped the orchestra in the middle of Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor, stuck his hands in his hair in frustration and let out a yell that sounded something like, "GARRGHGHGGHGHGHHHH!!!"  He then looked wildly at the first and second violins (myself included) and said, "DON'T, don't, DON'T, start at the HEEL of the bow, violins, just DON'T DO IT.  You're putting the accent in the WRONG place when you start at the heel."  I could only deduce that he actually meant the frog of the bow, that is, the part closest to the bow-hand.  However, I was resistant to this language, as I dislike the word "heel" and much prefer "frog", since that's the way I learned it.

A few measures later, he violin-tly (ha ha ha - violin-tly - get it? Sorry, nerdy musician joke, I never tire of those.  Like, "Gone Chopin, be Bach in a Minuet.  HA HA HA!!!) shook his head, dropped his hands and let out the "GAGARRRGHGHGHGGHGHGH!!!" sound again.  What now?  "Strings," he said in a near growl.  "Play the crotchet to its full length.  It's no good shortening it."  I stared at the page.  I saw a quarter note, followed by three sets of sixteenths.  What, I thought to myself, in the world, is a crotchet?  A few GARRRGGGGHGHGHGHHs later, I realized he was referring to the quarter note.  I don't understand this British system ... in America, everything is mathematical, it makes sense.  There are four quarter notes in a whole note.  Divide those up and you've got eighth notes.  Then sixteenths, then thirty-seconds.  Here you've got crotchets, quavers, semiquavers and demisemiquavers.  Can you imagine spluttering out "demisemiquaver" to an orchestra?  Now you tell me which system is easier to remember and learn (and yes, this is one instance in which I will declare the superiority of the American way over the British method - it's not different, it's definitely better). 

I'm having second thoughts about teaching violin lessons on the side now.  I'll have to re-learn music theory and even then I'll probably teach the poor children incorrectly.  Jeez.  And I thought music was like love, a universal language.  Humph. 

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Cruisin'


I miss driving.  When I go home for visits, I always make sure I get a chance to drive - even if it's just to the library or mall, as I miss that freedom of being able to go where you want, when you want, without having to wait and then crowd onto public transportation.  However, I have no desire to drive in the UK.  This may be due to the fact that I cannot drive stick (which John never misses the chance to chide me about:  "So essentially, you drive a go-kart.") but perhaps more so due to the fact that I can't seem to get my head around roundabouts and the narrow streets of England.  Although John's extremely skilled in the driver's seat, I nevertheless resort to gasps as a rogue taxi driver misses us by millimeters or my other favorite option, putting my hands over my eyes.

Driving in London is especially dire, like driving in any other big city.  However, it's often useful if you want to be able to get-up-and-go for weekend trips into the country or big grocery shopping excursions.  And on one, dark and rainy October night when I got into Chris's car, which we were borrowing for a weekend trip to Rye, John handed me a thick road map with the title, "ATLAS OF BRITAIN" and said, nonchalantly, "Unfortunately I don't have the Tom Tom, so you'll have to direct me."  Um, ok.  I flipped to page one.  Wales.  Ok ... wrong country ... I squinted at the following page.  It looked kind of like England in the dark, but said "Isle of Wight."  Maybe that's England's formal name and "England" is just a nickname.  John broke me out of my reverie: "You might want to consult that London A-Z until we get out onto the major motorway," he said, pointing at the glove compartment.  I took out the spiral bound map and looked around at our surroundings.  "Ok, so we're on Vauxhall Bridge Road."  I tried to locate it with my finger on the map, barely able to see in the dark.  "I'm coming up to a light now, should I turn?" John asked.  And that's where I made my first mistake:  I pretended I knew where we were.  "Yes," I said confidently.

Twenty minutes later ...

We had pulled over to the side of the road, somewhere near Lambeth or Elephant and Castle, I don't remember which.  I was on the verge of hysteria and John was faring no better.  We had been around the same roundabout probably three times already.   "Ok," John said, switching on the overhead light.  "We're here," he pointed to a squiggly line.  "And we need to get to the M20, here," he said, pointing to a different squiggly line.  I nodded tearfully.  "So it's fine, you just need to get me on the A23."  I nodded again.  "Ok?" he asked, as he started the car.  "Ok, so we're on Horseferry Road now," I said.  "Don't tell me the name of the street, tell me the A-road," he said.  "Ok, it's A3212," I said. "Now we need to turn at Kennington Road," I said, tracing the path with my finger.  "I need the A-road," he said, through gritted teeth. "Oh yeah, sorry.  It's A23."

We made it in the end, about an hour late.  The journey back was much better.  I successfully directed us all the way back to Chris's garage from Rye.  But the trip only cemented the fact that I never, ever, want to drive in the UK.
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The Brilliance of Robert Dyas and Its Employees


Scene:  Robert Dyas on the Strand, Sunday, 7 March 2010, 11:12 a.m.

ME: (to sales assistant) "Hi, I'm looking for a heater.  Do you have any?"

SA:  "Um ... a what?"

ME:  "A heater.  Like, you know, a convector heater."

SA:  (points to heaters stacked in the corner) "We have some over there."

ME:  (looks at my watch)  "Great.  Listen, I have to go to the gym, but I'll be back in an hour.  Any chance you can hold two of those for me?"

SA:  "Um, but we can only hold items for three days."

ME:  (speaks a little slower)  "I'll be back in an hour.  Do you think you can hold it for me for an hour?  Would that be ok?"

SA: "Yeah, sure."

ME:  "Great, the name is Jaime."

SA:  (stops taking the boxes)  "Ok, so who's coming to pick them up?  You or Jaime?"

ME:  (pause) "I am Jaime.  I'll be back in an hour."

An hour later ...

ME:  (to the same sales assistant)  "Hi, can I get these batteries and ... the two heaters I had on hold?"

SA: (looks at me blankly, unmoving)

ME:  (points behind him)  "Yeah, those two heaters right there?" 

End scene.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Grass Arena

There are only a handful of books that I've read in my life that have truly - hand on my heart - moved me.  The Grass Arena by John Healy is such a book.  In my quest to read 27 books before my 27th birthday this year, I've been reading with a gusto reminiscent of a newly admitted college student supplied with a summer reading list, eager to be the first to raise her hand in class. 

With its opening sentence, "My father didn't look like he would harm anyone," The Grass Arena had me intrigued and was easy to read during my morning and evening commutes.  What really got me, however, was the fact that the author was not only completely "untrained" as a writer (thus making successful novelists whose biographies boast of MFAs, MAs in Creative Writing, etc. look completely amateur and stupid in comparison) but that he had spent most of his life caught up in a vicious cycle of drug and alcohol addiction, crime, homelessness and overall vagrancy - that is, until he was introduced to chess in one of his multiple prison stays and became an extremely successful chess champion who then retreated quietly into the world of writing.  That, in my mind, makes John Healy a hero.  Unlike middle-class writers who share stories of their personal struggles with addiction and sinking to the "lowest of the low", Healy doesn't ask for pity nor does he seem to possess any self-pity.  His recollections of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, the descent into alcoholism and violence, crime and thievery are told in a matter-of-fact and cynical tone which dips in and out of dark humor.  It is as if he is sitting across from you at a table, telling you these stories of horrific violence and the most crippling dejection - stories that often beggar belief. 

I encounter people who live in The Grass Arena every single day: the man foraging in the bins on the Strand at 8:45 a.m. for half eaten food or drink, the men sleeping rough in the doorway of Ryman's on the same street, often with a bottle of alcohol clinking empty next to their heads, or the two men huddling together to keep warm in a park John and I dubbed "Needle Park" in Aldgate East due to its druggie status.  Upon seeing these men, my conscience tells me to volunteer at The Connection at St Martin's or duck into McDonald's or Pret to buy them a proper meal.  And then I read Healy's reactions to both ideas and they turn my naive, ignorant thoughts on their head, especially when he describes a fellow vagrant's begging techniques, saying "[he had] every move worked out - like what you do when some bastard won't give cash, and insists on buying you a meal."

In his afterword to the book, Colin MacCabe comments that, "by the time I had finished reading this extraordinary document I saw the streets of my native city - which until then I had thought so familiar - from a new angle and with a different light that revealed a whole society of which I had only seen isolated individuals ... there can be few who live and work in Central London who have not encountered the inhabitants of The Grass Arena."  I really couldn't have said it any better. 

I won't give away too much, but I urge everyone to buy a copy of the book as soon as possible - it won't change your life, but it will change your mind about the people you pass every day who (barely) live in the Grass Arena.
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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Emanuel Ax And The State of Classical Music in Britain

 

Last night, I had the privilege of seeing Emanuel Ax in recital at the Barbican.  It was, suffice to say, the highlight of my week.  Although I grew up idolizing child prodigies closer to my age like Evgeny Kissin and Joshua Bell, I knew that Ax was one of the greatest authorities in terms of technique and interpretation of a piece and would always reach for a recording of his when working on a new piece, seeking his advice if only by ear.  

Hence my surprise when I saw that tickets were still available for his (mostly) Chopin-filled recital at the Barbican.  I booked two cheapish (£17) but relatively good circle seats for myself and John as soon as possible.  But nothing could have prepared me for the shock when I arrived at the hall ten minutes prior to the performance:

 

Empty seats all around.  Although some stragglers made their way in after the first piece (Chopin, Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61) it was absolutely shocking and indeed shameful, that an artist like Ax hadn't filled the seats - if it had been Carnegie Hall, tickets would have gone in an instant.  Even the Tacoma Symphony commands a full house, regardless of the presence of a celebrity musician such as Ax.  Growing up, I remember listening to Classic KING FM 98.1 and turning it up whenever a concert was announced at Benaroya Hall (home to the Seattle Symphony), wishing I could afford to go, as tickets almost always began at $60.  Here, you can almost always purchase tickets for less than a price of a pizza (around £10-£15) and yet hardly anyone takes advantage of this.  It makes me sad.  

I've spent a lot of time thinking about why this is and I still don't have an answer.  One hypothesis is the possible link between classical music and social class: it seems to me that in England, listening to or enjoying classical music is reserved for the middle to upper classes and that funding is difficult to come by because the government is unwilling to pour money into an "elitist" hobby.  Piano and violin lessons for your child is seen as "posh" whereas in the States, such an upbringing is considered to be the norm.  Social class may also explain the age group of the crowd last night and at most concerts I've attended - 50 and up.  I peered down from the balcony last night and could only see row after row of white-haired ladies and gentlemen, clearly season subscribers.  While this is wonderful, it disappoints me that such recitals and concerts don't attract a younger crowd as well.  And yet this doesn't make sense to me, because the tickets are perfectly affordable compared to the ones in the US.  Well, as long as the opportunities are made available to me, I know I won't take them for granted. 

(The recital was amazing, by the way).


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