Sunday, August 29, 2010

No Worries, No Problem

It has been two weeks since taking the ex-pat plunge and I couldn't be happier. Perhaps because I speak the language (more or less) or because of my years spent watching Mr. Belvedere but I feel right at home among the English. That being said, there are, of course, the occasional cultural differences that tend to crop up. For example, I've observed that the English don't use the term, "You're welcome." Instead they prefer the more casual, "No worries," or even the more casual, "Sure." It can take one aback at first but when you stop and consider that all pleasantries are just that, pleasantries, and as such somewhat frivolous, there is something to be admired about this straightforwardness. Whatever there is to admire in their direct manner of verbal communication is, however, negated by the cryptic designs of their washing machines.

My washer, or as I like to call her "Candy" (that is actually the name of the model, Candy Aquamatic 1000T) is the most complicated machine known to man. I'd like to tell you that what she lacks in convenience she makes up in efficiency but that would be a "massive" (the Brits use this word like Rhode Islanders use "wicked") lie. Candy is the R2D2 of washing machines, the runt of the litter. Apparently her makers (ancient Druids) decided to forgo the traditional directions and emblems that one typically finds on machines of her make, in favor of more creative pictograms, many of which resemble the Lucky Charm's marshmallows.
Rainbows for your coloreds, hearts for delicates, and blue diamonds for the clothes that you wore in 1975 but are looking to phase out [1]. When I moved to London someone here gave me what I initially thought was peculiar advice, "Think of it as a third world country and you'll avoid disappointment." Staring at Candy, I now understand. In fact, now that I think of it, why is it that my shower goes cold after 10 minutes? Do the Brits not rinse, lather, repeat? And why is it that I can't even fit Hervè Villechaize's remains into my fridge? And why is Marmaduke still playing in movie theaters (theatres) here? Wouldn't the English have enough sense to 'just pass' on that one after having already seen the intellectual damage it has caused? And why is it that I can't have a normal staircase instead of the twisting, metallic, staircase of death that I currently have? Do the Brits wish to deter midnight snacking from aforemetioned Hervè Villechaize-sized fridges? Is that how they stay so slim? And why is that I have to pay 26 pounds a month in order to obtain a "license" to watch T.V. (with no cable)? I don't even need a license to make another human being, nevermind to watch the BBC. And why is it... Why is it... Why is that I'm complaining?[2] I get to live in an amazingly culturally rich country that has, for centuries, been the home of kings and queens, poets and scholars, and for a brief time, Jim Henson.
No hot water you say?
No worries.

[1] Blue diamond marshmallows were replaced in the late 90's in favor of the more 21st century-looking Leprechaun hats.
[2] And why is it that I'm sounding more and more like a Sagat song from 1994? Man... FUNK DAT!

Monday, August 23, 2010

British Birthday

Today I turned 30 and apparently my body has gotten the memo. My head seems to sport an unusual amount of gray, my back throbs appropriately according to the weather, and my morning runs have been less than spectacular... but I still have my eyes. And today those baby browns saw some London treasures with a different perspective.

The day began with a morning run around Primrose Hill. For those of you who are looking to see the London skyline but don't want to pay the budget breaking 17 pounds for the London Eye, check out the panorama atop Primrose Hill. It'll make you feel just like Maria from the Sound of Music.

After a quick shower, we packed a lunch consisting of Borough Market prosciutto, pesto, and bread and headed to the Maida Vale tube station, pitstopping at the adjacent 'Bucks for some coffee fuel. It is a quick, yet sweaty, 15 minute ride to Trafalgar square where we pause to picnic, Jess sharing a bit of trivia about Nelson's column which, "May or not be true."

With lunch disposed of, we enter the museum and are pleasantly surprised and pleased by the lax security at the National Gallery. No queuing, no bag checks, no problem.

It being my birthday, I make the executive decision to head straight for Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, a painting I've been waiting for years to see. You can never, of course, head "straight" for anything in a museum such as the National Gallery. There are too many treasures along the way to not stop and smell the roses. Titian's Allegory of Prudence, also a personal favorite, seems an appropriate image for the day. The handsome painting depicts three heads: an aging Titian, his middle-aged son Orazio, and young cousin Marco Vecellio, representing the Three Ages of Man. The Latin inscription atop reads, "From the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future action." Is there a "Your turning 30" birthday message in there? If so I choose to ignore it.

We spill through a few more rooms, dozens of I-died-in-my-30's paintings of Christ litter the wall... Eventually, we trade out the golden Gothic works for some more somber, darker, Baroque ones. We check out the Rembrandt Self- Potraits, the first of which depicts a younger Rembrandt seen at the height of his career, cloaked in the vestments of success and brimming with youthful confidence. One can hear the cheery beats of Men at Work playing in the background, "Ain't nothing gonna break my stride, nobody gonna slow me down..."

The second self-portrait, painted almost thirty years later, is much more of a psychological portrait of the Old Master, his face now wearing the heavy mask of age. The crisp brushstrokes of his earlier years now more emotional, more painterly. His stare more reflective more... more... depressing.

(In case you were wondering, we did finally make it to Van Eyck's iconic work. It is so intricately painted I want to take it home to study it in more depth later. Apparently you aren't allowed to says the not-so pleasant lady in the blue sports coat who patrols the room).

Last but not least we decide to check out a fascinating special exhibition: Fake's, Mistakes, and Discoveries. The bulk of the show deals with paintings that had, at one point in time, been attributed to the work of an Old Master, only to be proven/discovered later that they are forgeries or genuine contemporary imitations. So here we sit, in a room full of paintings that used to hang in the gallery's permanent collection-- formerly the best of the best. Originally estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars how far their stars have fallen. "Rembrandt's," "Botticelli's," "Holbein's," no longer. There they hang, an art historical freak show, gawked at by the passersby who hold them in derision...

Why is that lady staring at me? Quit staring! Nothing to see here lady, move along.
My God, even these basement dwellers know about my birthday. Cut the shit National Gallery. What are you my mom? I don't need any more of your melancholic life lessons.

With the dusk setting in we decide to drink (normally I'd say, "Go for a drink" but tonight that might be an understatement), so we head over to the OXO bar and restaurant. Perched on the 8th floor veranda overlooking the Thames, St. Paul's dome seemingly so close you could reach out and touch it, we dine on grilled octopus, chorizo, and dumplings, while reflecting on life over libations. Ahh... where does the time go? I think about my friends and family at home, it is five hours earlier for most of them. To be five hours younger again. I can still remember 5 hours ago, the sun was still up and a much younger me was excited to start celebrating a birthday...

*It should be noted that this day wasn't nearly as depressing as I make it out to be. It was actually fun ;)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Boo Boo

Before having settled in London, I was under the mistaken impression that London was as neon, cluttered, sticky, and fast paced a city as its American cousins. After all, it is a large, international city, a veritable haven for globe-trotting tourists. Toss in the 8 million non-English speaking residents, and London is truly a cultural melting pot (Of course, as if on cue, a very, very, very large breasted Eastern European woman has sat down next to me and is exchanging information with a local in what appears to be some very shady dealing... did I mention she has large breasts?) Unlike New York, however, while having its fair share of urban sprawl, London is hardly a concrete jungle. The northwest neighborhoods that rest on the periphery of the downtown area, or what locals refer to as "The City," can be something of a suburban oasis.

What has impressed me most thus far, are the beautifully manicured parks, the likes of which do not exist in the United States (at least not in any urban centers). Yawning stretches of grass, meticulously cared for rose gardens, and flowing fountains, are but a few Regents park's hallmarks, located a mere 5 minute walk from my house. With so much green space I wonder if I am actually in the same city where people pay over 20 pounds to pinch the ass of a wax replica of Brad Pitt.

After a full day of enjoying the resplendent architecture and relaxed culture of my "quaint" neighborhood, I sit down to enjoy some traditional pub fare. The wood-hewn interior of the Salt House Pub is warm and inviting, a prime piece of people watching real estate. The menu, which includes the traditional pub staples of burgers and fish and chips, also boasts an assortment of unconventional selections. Chicken liver patè, grilled chorizo, and seasoned scallops are all well-portioned and offered at reasonable rates. I leave with a full stomach and better yet, a reasonably filled wallet.

The evening stroll home is perfectly pleasant, the unpredictable English weather having cooled (Tip: is useless for predicting the weather here. You are better off reading the entrails of a slaughtered lamb). Making the final turn towards home, I am greeted by the silhouette of a well dressed local (not all that unusual, as the English have made me feel like I've spent my entire life dressing like John the Baptist). Immediately, however, I am struck by how familiar this face is. Could it be... the thin mustache and goatee, the full lips, the I-spent-hours-on-my-just-got-out-of-bed-super-chic-hair... It is! I'm looking directly into the face of Henry VIII, or at least Showtime's "more glitz -less girth" version of him. Jonathan Rhys Meyers of Tudor's fame is walking down my alley, his dog Boo Boo in tow.
"May I pet him?" I ask.
"Sure," he quips. I wonder if he thinks I'm going to tear out a lock of his hair (curiously enough I'm wondering the same thing).
"What kind of dog is he?" I say in my best "I-have-no-idea-you-are-a-celebrity-and-I'm-just-making-casual-conversation" voice.
"He is a chihuahua, pug mix," Meyers proudly chirps.
This clichè of a celebrity dog is easily the most unattractive animal I have ever seen but I smile anyway. After telling me several times that the very skittish Boo Boo is typically more friendly, I thank him and allow him to resume his evening stroll. Several short quick steps later he turns the corner and disappears. Once again I stand alone in the narrow alley, marinating in my surreal encounter with celebrity.
The next morning I wake up and decide to stroll down to the nearest Starbuck's coffee (there are more Starbuck's in London than I've ever seen anywhere else) for some writing. In the light of day my alley looks very different, more... ordinary. I look down and see a small petrified turd resting on the pavement. Boo Boo's? I like to think so.
What a charming city.

Monday, August 9, 2010

American Import

Remember that dangling chad from a few blog posts ago, that Bueller in absentia? Well for those with weak stomachs, worry no more, a flat has been secured. Actually a house, to be more specific, near the famous Abbey Road studios and crosswalk. The latter of which will most assuredly be the subject matter of a digitally captured moment wherein I imitate, with my three closest friends, the iconic Beatle's album cover-- my own piece of rock n' roll kitsch. That being said, while there are few Brits as recognizable to Americans as the shaggy haired quartet... how many young Americans actually think of John, Paul, George, and Ringo as BEING British? It is no secret that Americans have a tendency to misappropriate cultural phenomena or perhaps more accurately, to conveniently forget their origins. And given that there is an entire generation of Beatle's "fans" who have yet to experience the simple joys of driving a car or completing tax forms, the question of cultural ownership remains.

Since 1776 when a young, upstart nation, severed its political umbilical chord from the motherland, how many ideas/celebrities/events have we unapologetically lifted from our English brethren?
Here is what I've come up with so far:
1) Cadbury Easter Eggs- Now you know why you could never place that Bunny's accent.
2) The Office- Before there was Michael Scott there was David Brent. Which makes you wonder, why the name change? Would the name David not work for American audiences?
3) Robin Hood- Disney, animated Fox love, and Kevin Costner- slap a Made in the USA sticker on it.
4) James Bond- Ironically only 2 out of the 6 actors to play James Bond were English. We're just waiting for the James Bond: Blowing Shit Up version starring Vin Diesel to officially call him our own.
5) Bulldogs- English, American, French, it doesn't matter. Unless it is wearing a bowler hat, it is American. We also have the rights to cute underbites in general.
6) A Christmas Carol- Once the Muppets got involved, we owned it. Sorry mid-19th century England but you still have coal, factories, and cholera to call your own.

Please feel free to add...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

I Speak English Good

"Where is the bathroom?"
"The elevator goes up."
"I play soccer."

For the better part of 29 years I have operated under the faulty assumption that I speak English fluently. It is precisely this false sense of security that will be tested upon my arrival in London, where I will no doubt be introduced to a host of new and confusing English words. But just like several of my mid-90's novelty T-shirts, I possess "No Fear," having spent several weeks preparing for my assimilation into British culture. Here are some terms that may be helpful when preparing for your next trip across the pond:

Chaps (n. pl)- A group of young men who may or may not be wearing assless leather pants.

Hob (n)- The stovetop of choice in Tolkien's Shire.

David Beckham (v)- to look good in one’s underwear.

Gazunked (v) - F#%!D!

Platform 9 and 3/4 (prop. n.)- where Prince Harry disappears to after he is photographed wearing a Nazi Halloween costume.

*Queue (v)- When John Delancey waits in line.

Windscreen (n)- the noise one makes with their mouth when trying to disguise a fart.

Jumper (n)- a suicidal sweater.

Barmy (prop. n.)- a purple dinosaur who is OUT OF HIS MIND!

Biggie (n)- An iconic rapper’s poo.

**Tickety-boo (n)- when life is going well for Julie Andrews.


*See also- Star Trek nerd

** In the United States, however, saying Tickety-boo is a sure fire way of alerting someone that something is seriously, seriously, wrong