Friday, May 14, 2010

Last Night in London

Wow. I simply can't believe it, yet I am happy to believe it--I'm leaving tomorrow! In about 12 hours, to be exact. Time has both gone slowly here (I feel like I've been gone forever, and barely remember what my apartment looks like or what it's like to drive a car!) and also, naturally, very very fast. I'm super sentimental by nature so of course the last few days I've done a lot of reminiscing about what it was like my first day here--dropped off by a cab, met at the door by Sylvia, and transported into my cozy room. Now, some 100+ days later, the cozy room is packed up, my bags are full to the brim, and the car returns in the morning to whisk me away to Heathrow, then Atlanta, then Tampa. I can hardly believe it!

This semester has been one of the most challenging, rewarding, and amazing experiences of my life. It has been a doozy in many, many ways, for sure--Sylvia's stroke, the volcano/ruined spring break, and lots of late nights and early mornings and long days with little sleep. I've been stressed, angry, worried, frustrated, exhausted and yes, sad many times this semester. Yet at the same time, I think it's probably sort of like pregnancy/childbirth--at the end of the day, that stuff all falls away and I *will* remember the fun, funny, and fantastic experiences I have had instead. To think that my 'class' experiences were doing things like going to the British Museum or Stonehenge or Tate Modern, or to think that I saw amazing places like Bath, Oxford, York, and Paris (ooo, yes, I went to Paris for ONE DAY last weekend, it was wonderful...that may have to come at a later entry!) and got PAID to do so, still seems to be a coup on my part! I have had lots of work (and STILL have grading to take home with me, joy) and lots of 'other' types of work (kitchen duty and cleaning, buying food, conflict management, disciplinarian, psychiatrist, etc.) here that have kept me busy beyond belief. But it has been extraordinary, and I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to do this, at this point in my life. I always thought I had the best job in the world when I was ON campus--and this was just icing on that cake!

Aw, obviously I am waxing too sentimental here (what has happened to my biting wit and sarcasm? Sheesh). I do have some other posts in me that will have to come back Stateside (sorry, not as original, but time is running out!), but on the Tube today I started jotting down a list of things I won't (and WILL) miss about London that I thought you'd maybe enjoy (or, if you don't enjoy it, feel free to jump to another blog now ;)

Things I WON'T miss about London:

--Bland food, and potatoes at just about every.single.meal.
--Queuing--with 8 million people, there are lines for everything! And lots of waiting.
--The crazy expense--seeing prices that seem a little high in dollars, then remembering they are in Pounds Sterling...take it times 1.6 or so, baby, and that's the real price. Ouch.
--Small grocery stores that don't have carts, and clerks that are annoyed when you buy a lot (huh?)
--Drunk 18 year old kids on the Tube
--The fact that NO ONE talks on the Tube...I like to chat, yo!
--The fact that the Brits don't get too excited about ANYTHING...except for soccer, of course.
--Expensive soda (though it's helped me mostly kick my Diet Coke habit!)
--Bad, bad US movies on BBC late at night (things like Mermaids, with Cher and Winona Ryder. Yuck. or that Demi Moore movie where she lives on the coast in Scotland...huh? Is that even a real movie?)
--Stylish dressers--they make me look bad!
--Having your life ruled by an Icelandic volcano
--Living with 18 college students 24/7!

Things I WILL miss about London, for sure: everything! I grew up in Iowa, hello? The idea of walking to about 10 coffee shops within 5 min, or the fact that there are truly world class museums, theatre, and shopping all within about a 10-15 radius of here still astounds me. I get now why people live in NYC--it's truly amazing to have access to the best of the best. And I simply LOVE walking everywhere, and having just about anything I need with an easy walk on foot. I'd give up my car any day, for real, if only!
--Tied to that is the amazing public transportation here. I totally get why people outside the USA look down on us--having your own car, to drive often with just yourself in it seems to be so indulgent. The Tube and bus and rail system here are simply amazing. And come in handy when you want to go to the pubs as well!
--The actually GOOD food of England: chicken curry, goat cheese, chocolate, and CRUMPETS. Crumpets are simply the single thing I will miss the most back home--I believe they are to be found back in the USA, but not this brand (Warburton's) I've come to love. Their crumpets are squishy and perfect, and I eat one every morning...until now. :(
--Really good beer
--The amazing gardens and parks here
--Fun words like 'stone' and 'alight' used in everyday language (I still laugh every time people talk about their weight in 'stones''s just too adorable!)
--Queuing--I'll give it to the Brits--I hate waiting in line, and so do they probably, but man, they are the best line-makers ever. It's the most orderly place I've ever seen.
--The wonderful, fantabulous, and delicious prepped food section at the grocery stores here (I ramble on about this in one of my first entries!) makes eating so easy, relatively fun, and the idea of going back to eating frozen, microwaved Lean Cuisines at work everyday makes me want to gag. Boo.
--Speaking of food (again)...I love the lax attitude about bringing your own food and drink places here. You can literally eat and drink just about anywhere in public here--including the theatre! They sell little cartons of ice cream at intermission, for crying out loud! It's just so great never to have to worry about you chowing down when you feel like it, or bringing your own yum food from the grocery store because there's little point in going to many of the restaurants here! That is definitely something I wish I could import to the States...
--British Politics--we were here for a historic election and it was great, particularly thanks to Muir Morton, our politics adjunct professor who got us the hookup to tour Parliament THREE different times (once for a formal tour, once for debates, once for the Speaker's Apartments, which are just some amazing state rooms on the Thames, no biggie). While I'm pretty sure I'm not too down with the Tories taking over power here, it was amazing to see what a multiple party system looks like (3 big parties, but several smaller ones) AND what civilized political discourse looks like as well.
--Stylish dressers! I never, ever get tired of watching the people of London kick ass in terms of fashion here (and yes, there are still leggings galore).
--The BBC--with the small faux pas of the stupid US movies aside, the BBC rocks--their news is perfection, and the no commercials thing just rocks. Love.
--Watching soccer fans in general is a great way to spend an afternoon (if you don't mind really loud guys with face paint cheering and/or wanting to kick other people's asses)
--And with 18 students 24/7 :)

Off on the plane tomorrow, I will be back again with another post or two on Paris, our last week here, and any and all Griswold-style adventures that happen on the way home tomorrow....see you on the other side (of the Atlantic, that is!)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Random Observations Part III

So soon I will post some pics and info about my slew of daytrips over the Gigantic Failure of Spring Break 2010. But first, I have had a list of Random Observations running in my head for a while now, so I'm going to jot those down first!

1. Adorable Language Use: So obviously, as the originator of our mother tongue, there are some fun/funny/delightful phrases and words I love to see and hear in use over here. While some of you with better vocabs may have heard some of this before, it was new to me and these things make me smile every time!

Alight: to depart? get off a train. As in "Please alight here for Leicester Square". I like this idea of 'alighting'. It sounds so, I don't know, sprite or something. Like you just hop off the train with little air in your step.

"Deal with": I find this in use often and it makes me laugh. Like, when you ATM at the bank, the little screen says "We are dealing with your request. Please hold" or 'We will deal with you next'. To me it just sounds funny, like "Crap, we have DEAL with you...again?"

Scheme: not a new word either, of course, but I love this too. Here they often use it in place of 'program' or something. Like, "The student travel card scheme provides students with discounted public transportation around London". I love that this sounds so...sneaky.

"Fell pregnant": this cracks me up when I see it in Hello! or OK! celebrity gossip mags (yes, the Brits are obsessed with stars and their babies as well). The phrasing here is "Yes, last year when I fell pregnant I gained a ton of weight" or something like that. I like 'fell pregnant' because it reminds me of 'falling ill' (I guess not too far off course, right?) but also it conjures up an image of a pregnant woman falling down. And we all know, of course, that watching people fall down is always funny. Which leads me to...

2. The British are obsessed with preventing people from falling down.
Obviously the 'mind the gap' is one of these moments. But I've started to notice that these types of things are everywhere. "Mind the stairs", "Mind your head" (saw that in a short doorway once), "Don't take the stairs if they are too hard for you", etc. etc. I also read this article once about how a street was turned into a pedestrian zone, and people in the area were FREAKING OUT because they were worried about people falling and tripping on the curbs! I guess this attention to detail and worry about people falling down is cute and polite, in a way. Yet oddly, no one in Britain seems to care much about running into you (which, yes, still happens to me pretty much every single day, no matter if I veer to the left or right...)

3. Let's prevent people from shopping.
So I love these little moments here and there when something over here flies in the face of good ol' fashioned capitalism. Case in point is the Tube station for Camden Market. Now Camden market is an awesome and crazy place--a mix of street market and real stores, many of the punk and goth variety. It gets really nuts on the weekends, gets super crowded with tons of shoppers. So I loved the fact that on Sundays, the Camden Market tube station CLOSES DOWN completely, because it's trying to prevent overcrowding. Like, can you imagine a mall in the USA literally turning you away (or blocking your car from the parking lot) because "Oh no, it's just too crowded in there"?) I mean, it's a MARKETPLACE for crying out loud. And yet, here are the Brits, trying to prevent to many people tripping on each other's toes and, probably, falling on curbs and into gaps.

4. No Standing O's...ever.
For all their politeness, the British just don't get too excited about anything, or heap too much praise. Case in point was my experience at the Boat Races that I mentioned earlier--for the biggest college sporting event of the year, by the end there was literally like a golf clap--and people were even drunk! It's amazing. Well anyway, I've gone to almost 20 plays here (yes, I know, I'm broke) and I swear I don't know what it takes, but the Brits will.not.give.a.standing.ovation. Like, EVER. I saw Mark Rylance in 'Jerusalem', an AMAZING play and wonderful performance, literally the DAY AFTER he won the equivalent of the Tony Award (its the Olivier Award here) for Best Actor. I was sure that there would be all kinds of clapping and big hurrah at the show I was at. I was absolutely riveted by his performance for over three hours, it was fantastic, and when it was done, I JUMPED off my chair for a standing O. If there was ever a worthy moment for one, this was it! I was sure I was not alone...until I looked around. Of course, everyone was nicely, politely clapping, nothing else. It left me feeling like Julia Roberts in that scene in Pretty Woman, when they're at the polo match and she's 'whoop whoop'ing Arsenio Hall-style. Yeah, that was me--and still IS me half the time because I've seen so many great shows!

5. If people aren't wearing fabulous boots or expensive leather shoes here, they are wearing Converse All-Stars. Now, I have had several pairs of Chuck's in my day and like them, but they are all over the place here. I'm coming to realize that London everyday fashion right now is so circa early Phoebe from Friends or something.

6. Okay, I don't mean to sound all un-PC or xenophobic or something, but seriously--do Spanish people (particularly young people) ALWAYS travel in packs? Like, seriously, at any given time at a major museum or landmark (or street, for that matter) in London, I'm constantly running into packs of Spanish speaking kids, probably around the age of my 'kids' here. What the hell? They are everywhere! Am I just running into the same group over and over again (maybe people are saying that about my group as well "Dammit! Why do I keep running into this group of loud American students that talk ALL the time and take up so much space?") Yeah, it's likely.

7. This last observation is not so much random as it is to be totally true: after three months in a smallish house, 18 college students start to want to kill each other. Which makes me want to plug my ears, sing "Mary had a little lamb" over and over, and go to my 'happy place'. (yes, I have started counting down the days--only about 14 more to go!)

Over the upcoming weekend I plan to post more about my day trips and some photos and whatnot. Til then, I'll continue to observe and report on this semi-weird place...which is becoming not so weird at all (just in time for me to leave, of course!)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

From Tipping Point to Tipping Over...

Ah, looking back on my last post I was so excited--I could finally get my photos up (and I'm planning to go back and put up some more photos in the earlier entries as well soon), I had finally taken the time to blog, Spring Break Week was coming up, and best of all, Carrie was soon to arrive. The 'tipping point' was basically that: things are looking up! And then, I basically got completely knocked down, once again.

Because of that stupid Icelandic volcano.

Carrie was due to arrive Friday morning, April 16th...basically 24 hours after ALL the UK airports were closed down indefinitely. Her flight was probably one of the first ones canceled (which was good, I suppose, I'm glad she didn't get trapped in the air, sent back to MN, or flown to Dubai or something) and she was rescheduled for Sunday night/arrive Monday morning. Now, of course, at that time we're thinking, "Hey, no biggie, that sucks, we'll probably miss out on going to Spain, but whatever, we'll just hang in London...surely the ash cloud will go away in the coming hours...RIGHT?" Um, as we all know...NO. IT DID NOT. The UNPRECEDENTED ASH CLOUD OVER ICELAND CLOSED HEATHROW AND ALL UK AIRPORTS FOR ALMOST SIX DAYS. I could not, not believe this. Carrie even tried to re-book once her Sunday night flight got canceled, and Delta basically told her no, they were not rebooking anyone for the UK anytime soon...and could they fly her anywhere else in the world she wants to go? Um, no, Carrie didn't want to go anywhere else in the world besides Europe. So, she took the refund while they were still offering it, and we cried tears of sadness through the computer on Gmail chat.

To say this was a disappointment of a HUGE magnitude for me is the understatement of the year.

I was near catatonic for days, as I was just so depressed. Carrie and I had been talking about her visiting me over here for basically a whole year; plans had been made, we were to go to Spain (a trip that was canceled out as well, but fortunately, I should be getting a full refund from Expedia for it--amazingly lucky), and we were to have a solid week of fun just hanging out and being tourists. Carrie loves English history and medieval stuff more than most people I know (I can't tell you how many times she made me watch that dumb movie 'Ever After' with her in college that's set in the Middle Age England) and we had lots of ideas of what we would check out. While we were both initially bummed at the idea of not getting to Spain (ha! if only that had been the extent of our travel problems!), it didn't really matter as long as she got here. We live way further apart in the USA than we would like anyway, and it's rare to get this much uninterrupted time with her, so to me, that's the real loss here. We yelled at the volcano. We cried over chat. We cursed the air, airlines, our timing (if only she had flown in ONE DAY EARLIER), everything, but it didn't matter. She didn't make it here, and it sucked.

(Needless to say, we will obviously plan some sort of alternative trip ASAP. Going more than six months without getting to see Carrie sort of makes me crazy and feel totally abnormal).

So, that was one issue. Combined with my personal frustration/sadness/total letdown was the frustration/sadness/total letdown/general panic of the majority of MY STUDENTS who, also, were to leave on Spring Break! While a few had train travel only, and got out on their trips, the majority had some sort of flying involved (including four girls who had found this awesome deal for a weeklong cruise in the Canary Islands, set to leave Friday 4/16 also), and that all went into chaos as well. There was a lot of re-booking, lots of tearful calls home to parents asking for help/more money (many are getting refunds, but of course, they take up to 30 days to process, so...), and a total revamping of plans. With all this chaos, Eckerd and I went back and forth and finally decided that keeping the house open as a backup was the right thing to do for the students, since so many had to remake plans or lost them altogether.

I agreed to this thinking there would be only about 3 people here all week. There ended up being about 10 instead. So much for a 'break' for me...

We ended up having a lot more around because of a few issues: A) some students had family arrivals due to come mid-week, and while one girl did get her parents here by Thursday, the rest all eventually had canceled flights; B) many of the students that ended up here really did try to get out to Paris or other places by bus/ferry/train...only to find those modes of transport completely booked solid and/or astronomically expensive now.

SO, yeah. It's been an interesting week. Fortunately, given the fact that several still did get out on trips (I had six take a boat to Amsterdam), and those here did a lot of day trips, it has been quite mellow around the house for me, which was good. I wouldn't say I feel totally revived and refreshed, and I'm still harboring major bitterness toward this stupid volcano and all of Iceland in general (I mean, what does Iceland even offer the world? Bjork and volcanic ash, apparently), it has been a bit of break at least, with no meals to supervise and no teaching this week.

That is the update for now. In the meanwhile, to try to ease the pain, I did go on many daytrips myself this week, and had some lovely times, even though I was traveling on my own and wishing Carrie was around the whole time. My friends Margie and Chris and their cute kids arrived up from Switzerland (we had planned for them to come up when Carrie was here, and they were able to come anyway) so I'm tooling around with them this weekend. At least they were able to come too, and be a bright spot in this whole Spring Break meltdown.

ASAP, I'll post more with my pics of Wimbledon, Windsor Castle, Brighton, and York.

In the meanwhile, I would stay as far away from me as possible--because as this semester has proven, I'm one unlucky gal. :( We have to assume, right, that the bad karma has GOT to be over soon enough, and soon enough, I'll be back on a plane to the USA and happy to be home again?

Unless, of course, that 'other volcano' in Iceland decides to wake up and spew more ash our way...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tipping Point

So yeah, I'm late on posting another entry, I'm sorry, I suck, yadda yadda, you all know the drill by now. My Midwestern people-pleasing guilt is in full force.

I can.not.believe that it is practically mid-April at this point. If you want time to go super super fast, move abroad and live with 18 college students (it's also a good way to get gray hair fast). We are down to just 4 'normal' weeks left in the house, plus our official Spring Break is NEXT WEEK. I can hardly wait--Carrie arrives on Friday morning to hang out with me here for about 9 days (til Sunday April 25th). I convinced her that I just HAD to get out of town if she came to visit over my break, so she was game enough to go along with my idea to get us to Barcelona, Spain, for four days next week! That's right, it's a trip-within-a-trip for Carrie and a little getaway for me, since break times are the only times I can leave the house overnight. Carrie and I have been talking about going to Spain for years, and so it's very exciting that it's actually happening. During our Grand European Tour of 2001 (something like 9 countries in 4 weeks), Carrie and I didn't quite get to Spain and everyone was always talking about Barcelona and how fun it was. Granted, now we are in our thirties and aren't on the Lush Tour of 2001 anymore, I hope it is still fun. My hunch says it will be, and probably sunnier and warmer too. So, fun stuff ahead.

Looking back on the last couple of weeks, it's been another whirlwind of activity. I got to spend some time with Leslie, a UNI friend-of-a-friend and spent a lovely Sunday up at Hampstead Heath, a HUGE park with a big hill that overlooks the entire city; went to see Macbeth in a weird modern staging but came away impressed overall; went to Tate Modern again and had a lovely guided tour (by students) of the Southbank area, which is way cooler than I expected; and best of all, was visited by my friend Julie for Easter weekend!

Having Julie here was great. London is an entirely different place for me when I have a playmate my own age to go around with (and someone who I don't have to grade at the end of the term), and just as it was when Chris was here, we had a great time. Since Jules had been here before, we skipped a lot of the mega touristy stuff and focused on the mildly touristy things, which often involved shopping. We went to four markets total (Camden, with all the cool punk stuff; Portobello Road--the cool market in Notting Hill that makes me wish I was rich and liked antiques; Spitafields, which just has a great atomosphere and also makes me wish I were rich; and Petticoat Lane, the one place in London where you actually CAN feel rich, because everything there is ridiculously cheap. This is mostly a clothing market, which of course means I love it, and since I've been there twice I've gotten cute jeans for 5 pounds (roughly $7.50) and several shirts for 1 pound each ($1.50...granted, they are plain t-shirts and whatnot, but still, IN PRINCIPLE, I had to buy them). Julie and I were also able to locate a God Save the Queen Sex Pistols t-shirt for me for 5 pounds, and a Clash t-shirt for her for the same. Not that either one of us really listens to those bands, but I freaking love the iconic Sex Pistols image of the queen for the album (if I can figure out a way to attach an image on this post, will do so below) that I don't care. I'm psyched. I can look like a rock 'n roll badass now.

Anywho, Julie and I had a delightful Easter in that we decided that rather than getting some lame-o Easter roast beef or something, that we were going to shell out and do 'Afternoon Tea' British style. Now, one would think that this is no big deal, but I'm here to tell you Americanites, it IS a big freaking deal (with a big freakin' price--our formal tea cost 15 pounds/23 dollars...and it was a cheap one for sure). Getting the damn tea was another story. After stopping by two museums and having drama in each one (let's just say that the museums are NUTSO on Easter Sunday) we thought, screw it, let's shell out and go to do tea at Harrods (for 21 pounds each). We were on a mission. We walk and walk, and get to Harrods only to find a batch of tourists all standing in front of Harrods, perplexed because it was closed. On Easter Sunday. Well, duh. And yet, I was pissed and confused. First of all, surprisingly most tourist sights were open on Easter, so really we could do any number of things, and wouldn't it be to Harrods benefit to be open too? To serve us tea, dammit? As if their employees need a holiday! (j/k, of course). But seriously, Harrods is owned by Mohammad al Fayed (father if Dodi, and apparently the future father-in-law of Diana if things had gone differently in Paris in 1997)...who I am pretty darn sure is MUSLIM. Hello, what are you doing on Easter anyway, Mohammad? Julie and I wanted our tea, sorry. Bitchiness ensues.

So dejected and sad since it was Julie's last day in town/last chance for high tea, we were just about to go to McDonalds or something instead when we practically walked right up to a storefront called 'The Tea Room'. It was red and fancy, and had afternoon tea for 15 pounds. Done! So we went, and even though there were several tables open on the main floor, somehow Julie and I get seated in the empty basement. Well, to be fair, there was a Spanish-speaking family there with some very loud children, but they left soon after...apparently we got the special 'American' room for our tea, which got to be more funny than anything. Anyway, the point is, Afternoon Tea is the bomb (da bomb? is that how you say it?). So it comes with your own teapot (I should hope so, for 23 freaking dollars) and then this lovely little rack of plates with small sandwiches (with the crusts cut off!) and little scones and this delicious clotted cream that tastes like whipped butter. We ate and ate and drank and then found out we got to pick out a monster dessert. Julie got some delish cheesecake and I of course went for a slice of chocolate cake the size of Montana. We ate so much I was seriously bloated when we walked out of the crazy Tea Room, but it was worth it. Afternoon tea is no joke, people...don't eat beforehand, and be ready to be there for a couple of hours. I found myself wishing I had been wearing a dress and some gloves to boot.

So that was a terrific weekend with Julie, and last week was fun/crazy as well...Last Tuesday I went to see the Cuban National Ballet (uh, put that under the category of 'things not seen in America') which was terrific. Then Thursday we had the trip to Stonehenge and Bath with students--it was cool to go again, mostly because it wasn't so GOD AWFUL COLD like it was when Chris and I were there, and it was fun to see them enjoy it so much.

This last weekend was pretty low key as I'm trying to get my ducks in a row for break, and to get ready for the transition back to Sylvia, our normal cook/house manager, and her return. Today was Chris the Cook's last day and I was sad--in tears even. He was so sweet, bringing me little presents every single day (usually in the form of tasty Greek food, though he brought me a wine key once which was pretty cool). I had a couple pics taken of him and me and printed them out, and plan to send a postcard from Eckerd as soon as I'm back. He was certainly a bright spot and I'm lucky to have gotten to know him while I was here.

And so, that has me waxing philosophic a bit, leading me to the title of this post--the tipping point. It's amazing how the energy and psyche of everyone (students and me) has changed in the last week or so. Two weeks ago, I thought people were going to kill each other--they are sick of each other, of the close quarters, of the food, of the chilly weather. And then...the sun is out longer, the temps warmer, the city is coming to life, and the realization that time is ticking away VERY fast has hit all of us. Suddenly, people have energy again, and folks are more on the go than ever, including me. Considering I've been here a solid 10 weeks, I still have a huge 'bucket list' of things I want to do yet in London that is going to take some serious strategy to complete. And as much as I will be so happy to be back in my normal life, my normal living situation, and back in the land of big pops (sodas, to translate to all you non-Midwestern types) and ice and customer service, I will miss things about London so very much.

I think it was finally in the last week or so that I've truly started to 'feel' like a Londoner. I know my way around, have been to many neighborhoods by now, though it's still amazing to me what surprises I find just when I think I know an area. That's the true joy of getting to live in such a big city, at least for me. Coming from Iowa and only really living in smallish cities (or big-ish ones like Minneapolis and Tampa Bay, which are large but not pedestrian at all), it's so much fun to have so MUCH available, almost all the time, right at your fingertips. I'm already dreading going back to FL where I have to drive miles to the nearest coffee shop, or where I simply have to drive at all and can't take the Tube on the 'Jubilee' or 'Bakerloo' lines (my two favorite subway line names here). I'll miss being asked for directions about 20 times per day from all kinds of people and tourists and being able to answer them easily and well (yep, I'm still the Direction Queen of London). I will miss having awesome museums and theatre at my fingertips, though my pocketbook will be happy for a rest after all the shows I've booked for myself (I think I'll have seen a total of about 20 plays/musicals/performances in my time here, which is more than one per week the week alone after Spring Break, I have three). I'll miss the daily joys of figuring out the bus lines (yes, sadly, this is a joy for me) and listening to charming disembodied voices telling me to Mind the Gap. (As you can see, what it really comes down to is a love affair with public transportation, apparently...)

On the other hand, I think I have had a bit of a tipping point personally as well. My whole life I have been full of wanderlust, wanting to go, go, go all the time, and constantly plotting my next trip in my head while in the middle of another. I definitely will always be a traveler, but I'm also finding that the idea of home, and making a home, and being AT HOME, sounds pretty darn amazing as well. Is this maturity? Growing old? Crap. A lot of this may come from the fact that in the last week or so, there seems to be a rush of bad news circulating about with people in my world--including the sudden loss of a friend's father, to the tragic, tragic suicide of an old friend from Northern Iowa (hadn't talked to her in several years, but this shocking news still makes my head spin and eyes fill with tears to think about it) and various illnesses of other folks as well. I think that while the news is horrible and hard to deal with while I am away from my normal support system, it is a good wake-up call for me: Karen, stop bitching about dishes and loud students. You live in London, for crying out loud, and get to amazing things on a daily basis, and guess what, life is short. Not to sound like an after-school special, but it's true. I think the tipping point has come where I'm really, really walking around the city, milking it for all it's worth, with my eyes wide open (also in part so I can continue to try to not run into people constantly...the human bumper car thing still continues).

Anyway, I'll leave you at this for now. I promise that my randomness and sarcasm will return in my next post, which will also likely be full of stories from Carrie's visit, if not before. Til then, friends...thanks for reading.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What's Been Going On, And Why My New Name is 'Karen, the Direction Queen of London'

Hello strangers!

I vowed to myself I would NOT go a full month before updating this blog again. And here I am, with two days to spare--plenty of time! I'm always in at the buzzer. :) Anyway, for the growing crowd of you who have been waiting patiently for my latest post (oh, I know you have!) my sincere apologies. It IS really ridiculous to think that since almost 4 weeks have passed, that means that over 1/4th of my time here (15 weeks) has gone by since I have been back here. Yikes. My goal is to bring you all up-to-date in a practical manner (therefore, no time for fun or jokes. Nope. None for you!) and then I will work harder to do more periodic ramblings, since we all know I'm at my best when off on a tangent.

The last, well, month, has been mildly insane yet generally pretty good. The short news is that Sylvia is *still* recovering, which is a good thing. She sounds well and has been a couple times to make some food orders (thank god...with no large grocery stores nearby and certainly no Sam's club, shopping for this crew is a mild nightmare in the central city) and check on things, etc. We keep missing each other, though, so I have not seen her for almost 6 weeks now. Chris, our 78 year-old cook from Cyprus who brings me special Greek food, has been here, and that is certainly a relief. He'll be back next week too, marking him officially here longer than Sylvia has been here this semester, which is kind of weird. I'm just rolling with it (what else can I do?) but at least now we have a routine down with the 'new' cook. And I get freshly made dolmades every other day. It's a win-win, if you ask me.

I have come to the conclusion that my experience here is largely bipolar. On one hand, the issues with Sylvia and the general day-to-day grind of living with 18 students (we had a case of food poisoning, for instance, that was scary, as well as the usual colds/forgetfulness/roommate drama, etc.) has been stressful and keeps me busy. On the other, just when I think I'm at the breaking point, I go and do something amazing, or we have an amazing field trip or side trip, or even just a moment (meeting James Earl Jones was one of those) that makes me so grateful to be here and love London even more. It's a roller coaster, highs and lows--let's just hope the whole thing doesn't turn ME bipolar in the process!

So, a short (well, we all know 'short' is relative with me) update on what I've been up to...

First week of March was 'Excursion Week' for the kids (they had to do a week long trip and a research project in the British Isles somewhere, while I got the week off) and my boyfriend Chris came for the week. It was GREAT to have him here, it had been a solid 6 weeks since I left, and we were able to hang out relatively stress free and do a little side traveling to boot (break week is my only time to leave the house overnight, so I was really needing a getaway). We decided to stick within England and did a little side trip to Oxford and Bath, and did plenty of sightseeing as well both there and back in London. Oxford was a great college town, but Bath is really something else. The actual Roman Baths were really interesting/cool, but the architecture there is the crown jewel. The majority of the town is all built from this light coloured limestone (oh yeah, I'm going with British spellings now) in the 1700s, and it's gorgeous. The place was the sort of country/style hangout for royals and the rich of London, and it shows. It also is close to Stonehenge, so Chris and I did a day trip to both Stonehenge and this quaint little village of Lacock, where all kinds of Harry Potter movies were made (or something like that). Stonehenge was really interesting...I thought I would feel something more there though, I don't know, more *awe* or something. But instead, all I really felt was was as cold there as I've EVER been. Poor Chris, we were both freezing our arses off, and the wind there was ICE COLD...but at least we saw the stones in a field, that no one seems to know anything about! (the audio guide was handy, but about every other sentence was like 'No one really knows the mysteries of Stonehenge...' well, fine then, what are you good for?). All in all, it was a great visit and I was sad to see him go, though Chris was probably relieved not to be Clark-W-Griswolded around London/England any longer (I tend to get a bit ambitious when I travel, what can I say?!)

In the time since Chris left (two weeks almost), I had two other friends from home come through town for random reasons, which was great in that it got me out and about (found some decent restaurants, OMG finally!) and my friend Dena and I saw the musical Billy Elliot, which was simply wonderful. I LOVE musicals so much and now I think I'm converted to loving those that involve fantastic dance sequences done by adorable boys as well.

This week was also epic in terms of amazing things. On Monday I went to see the play 'Jerusalem', starring Mark Rylance, who won a US Tony award in 2008, and won the Olivier Acting Award LAST SUNDAY for this role (I saw him in it the NEXT DAY). I don't say this lightly--it was probably the best play I've ever seen, and his performance was a tour de force if there ever was one. The play is a contemporary one, set in small town England, and Rylance's character is scary/fascinating/ruthless/sinister/pathetic and grandiose all at the same time. I love characters like that, who you want to hate but just can't. Fantastic! I then went on Wednesday to 'Waiting for Godot' with Ian McKellen--make that Sir Ian McKellen, and he too was amazing (strange play, but still really fun). Thursday the whole group and I went to Hampton Court, which was basically one of Henry VIII's pleasure palaces--sounds like there was a ton of partying and eating to be had there (typical feasts were for 600-1000 brown nosers). It was a really HUGE and very cool palace--too bad we aren't quite into spring yet fully here, but a great day trip nonetheless.

Finally, today some students and I went to The British Music Experience in the O2 complex (a big entertainment center, reminded me of the Mall of America plus a concert arena, which of course made me miss home!). While I haven't been to the Experience Music Project in Seattle, this was pretty fun, tons of interactive exhibits, and reminded me that at the end of the day I am a huge fan of UK musicians at the end of the day (I had nearly forgotten about my childhood love affair with Duran Duran! I love you John Taylor!).

While most weeks won't quite be like this, this one has to be pretty darn impressive--and gives you the sense too that I'm trying to pack in a lot before I go. While we are only at the halfway point right now (blows my mind), and it sometimes feels like I've been here forever, I know the next weeks will just fly by. My friend Julie arrives for a long Easter weekend next Thursday, then in a couple weeks after that we have break again and Carrie comes for about a 9 day visit. We're going to Paris or Barcelona as a mini side trip, but can't quite decide...(trust me, I am aware that these are the types of 'decisions' most people can only dream to have!). So I think both the students and I are getting keenly aware that the clock is ticking and it's time to make sure we pack in what we want before it's back to reality.

So, that's the update for now. Oh yes, the title of this post. So, I mentioned this to Chris, Dena, and my other friend Chris, and all can confirm this fact: I am the Direction Queen of London. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I often get asked for directions. Well, it is still the case--and now I have witnesses! Just after I told Dena about this, I kid you not, about THREE people asked me for directions within the next hour or so. Today I got asked about FOUR times between home and my field trip to Greenwich. The best part is that now I can actually tell people directions with relative certainty that I know where I'm going. It's quite funny to me actually, like I walk around wondering if someone slapped a paper with 'Ask Me For Directions' half the time and I just am missing it?! But what can I say--I guess there must be something about me that signals a keen sense of direction (which, I must admit, I do have). I suppose if Abe Froman is the Sausage King of Chicago (please tell me you get this reference) then I can be Karen, Direction Queen of London, can I not???

Anyway, that's it for now as I get ready to try to get to bed at a halfway decent hour and spend tomorrow grading. I normally would probably try to pack in something, but tomorrow is a work day only because I'm seeing Peter Gabriel LIVE on Sunday night at the O2 arena. Such is the life. Better enjoy it while it lasts...

More irreverence coming soon. For now...GO UNI PANTHERS!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why I have been MIA: The Incident (aka "Karen's Worst Nightmare Comes True")


Not that I was doing super awesome on posting very frequently, but in case you were wondering, yep, I'm still alive and kicking, but barely. I had started my 'random observations' post over a week ago and was chipping away at it--finally finished it up and posted it tonight, see below. I was midway through and then things, well, kind of fell apart over here last week. Here's the scoop....

So last Monday I went along with the Art History class to the National Gallery--it was wonderful to be going around there with someone who knows what's she is talking about! I got so much out of it I'm hoping to get to tag along to all the gallery talks in the future. I got home around 3pm--and since dinner is daily at 5pm here, Sylvia is nearly always here at this time. Last week--not so much. Lots of food prepared (a baked lasagna, some stew on the stove, etc.), but no Sylvia. Almost as if on cue she called me--she was 'feeling weird' and took herself to the hospital "but hoped to be back by 5pm" (which I knew wasn't happening). I warmed the lasagna and pulled together dinner, no problem, but it was all a bit weird and I was worried. I found out only after dinner that she had a 'small stroke' and was being kept overnight for tests.

My first thought, of course, was "Holy Crap! I hope she is OK!"

My second thought, of course, was "Holy Crap! What the HELL am I going to do??!!"

Sylvia has been the cook and on-site house manager here for something like 12-14 years, and has this place down pat. Not only does she order all the food and cook our dinners, but she also handles finances, calling repair people, etc. etc. Fortunately, I had been here enough weeks to be able to pretty much 'get' what she does and how she does it, but of course, I don't know everything...AND, I'm here to do a totally different type of job. So...

..Sylvia underwent more tests. She was having some vision problems, but seemed in better spirits when I talked to her Weds. I haven't talked to her since, but have been working with/through Diane in our Int'l Ed office, trying to figure out how to steer the ship (er, keep the ship from sinking entirely) for the time being until we know more information about Sylvia's long term health issues. Thank goodness the students leave on 'Excursion Week' break starting this coming weekend. For now, we have a temporary cook coming in this week, though I am still doing grocery shopping and some quick food prep (like the breakfast stuff, which is easy/continental).

Now, for obvious reasons, this is bad. Very bad. I mean, of course it's bad--it's a ton of responsibility on top of my already many responsibilities, and having 18 hungry college students is not a mob you want to face. We skated through dinners early last week, thanks to Sylvia's previous prep (no idea why/how she managed to get 3 dinners prepped total, as if she knew?), one night of pizza ordering, and one taco night that I must say turned out great. I'm having students help whenever possible (what better time to learn how to cook, right?) and they have been pretty understanding/sympathetic (like how dinner was almost 2 hours late the other night, because I had NO IDEA it took so long to cook a roast...fortunately, ask anyone--it turned out great though!).

No, what makes this my TOTAL nightmare is, and many of you know this already, is that I am NOT the world's most intuitive cook. For as much as I obviously love food, cooking it is not my forte (eating it clearly IS!). I mean, TWICE in the last year or so I have almost burnt my house down by leaving something flammable on my flat panel stove at home. I have burnt the hell out of things as simple as microwave popcorn and frozen pizza. I have never really enjoyed cooking, either. I think it must be the perfectionist in me--fear of failure, something. I don't like to experiment with cooking and get really freaked out when trying to cook something that doesn't come in a box with simple, clear instructions (and even then, I manage to mess that stuff up half the time as well). So the idea of cooking FOR MYSELF is bad enough, let alone 18 sometimes picky and always hungry college students was very, very overwhelming. I mean, gauging food amounts is really tough--one night, too much pizza by far, the next night, ran out of half the stuff, that kind of thing. This is why, on top of it all, this is my WORST nightmare come true. And why I have barely slept this week and spent a lot of time wondering 'why me?' (dumb question--why NOT me? But still...sigh).

So, yeah. Sylvia's health matters are still unclear. The future is unclear, other than Chris the Temporary Cook who will come and get us through til next week's break. Beyond that, I'm not sure--but should be the end of my meals, from what I understand.

On the bright side, I did have some highlights this week. On Monday my student Shelby and I went to Avenue Q, which I had been wanting to see forever, and laughed our butts off. On Weds I joined the Theatre class to 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' with James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad--great show, despite the fact that JEJ's character was pretty much a horrible man. But he was amazing. Some students convinced me to stay on and wait at the stage door, and I'm SO glad I did. Phylicia (we're on a first name basis, obviously) was gracious and very pretty in person, and signed programs gamely. But James Earl Jones? It was raining, so he went directly to his car. I thought for sure he'd drive away, but no. Instead, he sat in his car, while his assistant (who we later came to know was his son, Flynn!) held an umbrella for those in line, and signed the programs for EVERY LAST PERSON waiting in line. Two guys ahead of me had like 6 pieces of Star Wars Darth Vader pics and he signed them as well. When it was my turn, he asked where I was from (I said Iowa with a laugh...then realized, DUH KAREN, YOU COULD HAVE TALKED ABOUT 'FIELD OF DREAMS' WITH HIM!...but I forgot), couldn't believe I was a teacher not a student (why thanks, James Earl!) and asked where I went to school, what I taught, etc. Couldn't be nicer. The guy had a conversation with me! He was amazing, so humble and sweet, kind. We're totally BFFs these days. My students were bummed we didn't bring him back to the house, but I figure, hey, the show is running through April, there's still time. JEJ and I are like family at this point.

On Thursday of this week we also took a boat down the Thames to Greenwich, the Home of Time (I just made that up, though I think it could be in the running for the town slogan, wouldn't you think?). We straddled the Prime Meridian and got to check out the Eastern Hemisphere for a while, good times. I loved the museum there at the National Observatory but that's likely because I'm obsessed with maps and whatnot, so Greenwich was a delight for the maps-for-fun nerd in me.

Forgive me, but I'm tired, and ready to try to squeeze out 7 hours of sleep instead of my usual 5-6. It's been a bit rough, but we survived, and we're all still managing to have tons of fun in London. I have had my moments, certainly, but for now, I can still say I am so lucky to have had this experience. Just pray/send good karma/eat a fortune cookie for me that things start to get normal relatively soon...

Out to buy my chef's hat. 'Til next time...

Random Observations Part II (of many)

Wow—here I am, another week past since my last post. I think I had this assumption that I would blog really, really regularly (like nearly every day) but I guess I was wrong on that one. Thanks to my chronic tiredness (see previous posts) I think when I find some downtime I just want to sleep…or watch BBC. So, sorry. I’ll try to be a bit better on posting more frequently. And yeah, I’m still struggling with the photo issues. I think I figured out how to upload them, but my internet connection is so unreliable and slow, it seems to hate the pics. So, on to Facebook they go. I think most of you have access to my FB and can oogle and comment about them at will. For those of you who do not ‘do’ Facebook (hi Mom and Dad) and want pics, just let me know, I’ll figure out another way.

Anyway, onto more fun and important things, like my next installment of Random Observations! I know you’ve all been waiting.

1. Observation One was worthy of a full blog post in and of itself. Somehow, I guess I thought I mentioned my Super Bowl experience here, but apparently I did not (I must have gotten that mixed up with a Facebook status update or something). Anyway, of course I HAD to watch the Super Bowl here when in London. As an avid football fan and media scholar, I was really excited to see the great American TV spectacle from the British perspective (I also am a huge fan of the city of New Orleans, so that was a bonus as well). The students strategized about this for about a week. They were so excited but of course, not only was the Super Bowl on a Sunday night, but also didn’t start until 11:30pm here, making for one late night football game. Well, they eventually found a bar that was going to stay open for the event (I will say I saw/heard of very few places that were hosting any sort of Super Bowl affair…I kept my eyes peeled for signs when I walked across the city and only saw ones for the OTHER type of football that is, oh you know, just a little bit popular around here).

Anyway, the Super Bowl here was kind of a hoot, and generally, just very weird. First off, you realize how much time is devoted to the commercials when you are watching BBC and there are NO COMMERCIALS. So, basically, about every 2 minutes they would cut to the commentators, who were two American guys that were probably some sort of washed up NFL players, and then some British rugby commentators that just looked COMPLETELY uncomfortable. Poor guys. I mean, they had all this time to fill and just seemed really perplexed, kind of annoyed, and really, really wishing they were with their mates at a pub watching any other sporting event but this one. The Washed Up NFL Dudes did their best too, but I swear they kept showing things like Peyton Manning’s high school football videos and such. As you can imagine, then, for multiple reasons, I really missed those commercials. Though I have heard since that all really missed commercial-wise were ones of men dropping their pants…???

2. My second noteworthy observation is the fact that I keep running into people here. No, not like running into people like “Hey, long lost neighbor Kristen!” but, literally, running into people. This undoubtedly has to do with the question of whether you go towards the right or left when confronting an oncoming person (which happens all the time here, as you can imagine, in this busy walking city). Ok, so fine. What’s the big deal, Karen? Just go towards the left, right? (er…correct?). Yeah, I do that. And inevitably, I still manage to bump into people. So I thought, “Hmm, maybe like pounds (lbs) or the concept of miles, maybe some things in Britain are like the States” and started shifting to the right whenever someone was coming up in oncoming traffic. Nope. Same deal. So I don’t know what to do! In the Tube stations and whatnot, when faced with a big staircase, you do go to left. But you can’t go TOO far to the left in case there’s that busy person trying to pass you (on the left). So it’s this little game of how far to the left do you go. Maybe this little dance plays out in real life too, I don’t get it. I DO know that, for crying out loud, it really does feel like I’m dancing with other Londoners half the time…as I try to waltz my way around them as I walk down the street. I know that may sound like a poetic image, but trust me, it’s not nearly as graceful as it sounds. Maybe 'human bumper cars' is more like it.

3. Along those same lines, I am starting to learn that people who run in as the elevator doors are closing or hold up the Tube because they try to squeeze on at the last minute are GOING TO A SPECIAL RESERVED PLACE IN HELL. Yeah. They really piss me off.

4. The British do measure certain things in pounds (like lbs. pounds, not The Pound Sterling, which kicks the American Dollar’s ass every single day) and what not, but weight is often referred to as ‘stones’. I finally found out from Sylvia that 1 stone=14lbs. Now, considering the Brits penchant for all things in 12s (you know, 12 inches in a foot, 12 oz in a pound…oh wait, that’s 16 I think…well, whatever, 14 can’t be divided by 4 so it’s just weird, ok?) I find the 14lb thing to be really, really random (hmmm…maybe I will have some sort of ‘Random Awards’ by the end of this semester. If so, this little nugget is up for nomination), but I also like it. I mean, doesn’t everyone sound lighter if you say “Yes, I only weigh 10 stones” (haha, if only)? Who wouldn’t want to say that? But then, 14 lbs is a big range for your weight . I’m still deciphering how people describe this. I mean, say you’re 147lbs…14 and a half stones, right? No problem. But what about someone who weighs…143lbs=14 and .21 stones? I mean, what the hell right? One of my students suggested that maybe ‘stones’ are like weight classes in boxing/wrestling, and I like that idea too. I mean, it gives you a 14 lb leeway before you have to move up or down a stone, right? (thinking of my wrestler friends from high school—hopefully going up or down a stone does not require one to binge eat or wear about a million layers of clothing in hopes of sweating it all off…ew). Anyway, my new weight goal is to lose 14lbs here (exactly) so I can say I “lost a stone.” Of course, then again, I could just go to the park and find some rock and ‘lose’ it, allowing me to utter the same phrase with no dieting. Yeah. Better idea.

5. So diet concept moves me in to my favorite subject, food. Cripes, this could be a whole post category in and of itself. My new food-related observations are as follows:

--Only twice now have I had a meal here where I was like “Wow, that was soooo good.” The first was Punjab, the kick-ass Indian place that I would go to every day if they didn’t charge 3# just for the rice alone (that’s about 5 bucks. For rice. Yeah.) The second meal that was really pretty darn good was…

--Stars and Stripes Pizza. Yeah, we ordered pizza last week for the house from one of the handy pizza places nearby, and low and behold, it came from Stars and Stripes. I haven’t felt this patriotic when ordering pizza in a long time. I swear, they practically had a photo of Sarah Palin on the pizza box. Anyway, it was actually really quite good. NYC style thin crust, good amount of cheese, tasty overall. They will be hearing from me again soon with another order. Like, perhaps, the minute I am done with this post.

--I know fish ‘n chips is supposed to be eaten with malt vinegar. And I actually LIKE malt vinegar, but being that I like All Things That Are Fattening, apparently, I like tartar sauce even more. Not to be found at the grocery around here at all. If it didn't come from here, the worldwide headquarters of Fish 'N Chips, then where DID it come from? Annoyed.

--The goat cheese thing continues to kill me (in a good way). I’ll give it to the British—they really know how to do dairy. And custards. There are custards and mousse galore, it is AMAZING.

--When you eat a lot of goat cheese, like I do, you need a vehicle for them, which sends me to the 'biscuits' aisle. Now, for the uninformed, biscuits=crackers here. But biscuits are more than what we think of as crackers--in fact, I had no idea that the range of what counts as a 'cracker' could be so large, but it is here. Move over Ritz, Triscuits, and Saltines...the Brits have you beat. So there are a gazillion different types of sweat crackers, some with fruits and special creams and etc. (closer to what we think of as cookies, for sure), then of course the lovely water crackers (thin with little favor, but perfect for holding my cheese) and what are called 'cream crackers', which are thicker and richer but not necessarily good in my option. My favorite is the whole category (that takes up, like, shelves and shelves) of what are called 'digestives'. Now, if they have these in the States I sure haven't seen them before. I finally got some today of the fruity and oat variety (vs. the plain kind and/or the chocolate kind) and they are goooooodddd. Really thick, really mealy, and really satisfying. I suppose they also are probably like 100 calories a cracker or something, they are so dense, but whatever, I'm sold. Sign me up.

--did everyone else know that Cadbury is British? As in, the Cadbury EGG that is so fabulous and prevalent around Easter (i.e. NOW?). Yeah, basically one is bombarded with Cadbury eggs upon arrival to any store ever. I love them. It's going to be a rough month til Easter is over.

--I LOVE CRUMPETS. Crumpets and chicken curry are the gold stars of the British food world, I’m convinced. I finally tried one the other day and now I’m obsessed. You know, I always say that if you don’t like the texture of a food, you’ll just never like it (for me, this is water chestnuts. I HATE the texture of water chestnuts, and no, I don’t care that they come in tasty Chinese food, they totally freaks me out). Well, in this case, the texture of crumpets are SO INCREDIBLY AWESOME they are perfect. Basically a crumpet is kind of like an English muffin. Think of an English muffin cut in half, then plumped up to be thicker and full of holes, not unlike a sponge. Then imagine a ton of butter seeping into those holes, some extra jam on top…voila. Breakfast heaven. I mean, they are just so cute and spongy…if I could, I would make a gigantic round bed made out of a crumpet. I can guarantee I’d sleep like a log (and have built-in breakfast to boot!).

[this is as far as I got before 'the incident' happened...see post above]