Monday, September 27, 2010


I love lattes.

I love those caffeinated delicacies. The intermingling of cream and coffee, like two Norwegians making violent love on black satin sheets, my own softcore coffee porn. And if lattes are my porn than Starbucks is my brothel, with over 17,000 locations in 49 countries across the world, including England.

For the most part, traveling east for 6 hours has very little effect on this homogenous chain coffeehouse. One finds the same strange naked mermaid logo, the same trendy music (listening to the Shaft theme song right now...Shut your mouth), and the same nonsensical sizes (how can a tall be a small?). Oh, and if you cared, the coffee tastes pretty much the same. The only major difference I can discern between a US Starbucks and a UK Starbucks is the clutter. British 'Bucks are unbelievably dirty. I know what you are thinking, here we go again. First he complained about the washing machine, then the toilet, and now this. Allow me, however, to explain myself. I used the adverb "unbelievably" because it is just that, beyond belief. I have found London to be one of the cleanest cities I have ever visited, especially in comparison to its American compatriots. The tube is so well kept it could be Joan Crawford's closet (NO WIRE HANGERS!). This is all the more impressive given the fact that there are no trash bins ANYWHERE in the entire underground network. The streets are also well-cared for. Every day I pass my local street sweeper, a charming man, who takes great pride in maintaining his little bit of sidewalk magic. Lastly, the Brits themselves are a remarkably sharp-looking people, so well-dressed I feel as though I'm walking onto the set of a movie every time I leave my flat (which given my recent Jonathan Rhys Meyer and Ewan McGregor sightings may actually be true). So why then, are their Starbucks so woefully cluttered?

Two observations:
1) The English prefer their coffee in mugs as opposed to disposable cups. This is no doubt a "high tea" holdover, which while more charming and environmentally friendly, is also more cumbersome.
2) The English have no concept of what it means to dispose of their coffee trash, leading to tables littered with khaki stained mugs, muffin wrappers, and straws.
All this leads me to my recent outrage. Here I sit in a quaint little Starbucks, dutifully working on a small hightop table. I've come well equipped today: laptop, books, legal pad, pens. I'm ready to write. It is the early afternoon and the place is hopping, only one small, hightop table is unoccupied and predictably, it is covered in trash. An attractive (and well-dressed) older couple (60's) has just strolled in and are looking for a place to sit. They spot the disheveled table adjacent to me and think Shakespearean thoughts: To sit or not to sit, that is the question. I assume their daily constitution must have been exceptionally tiring, as they elect to make themselves at home amongst the trash. Eventually the woman begins tidying up. Her one hand sweeps away the golden crumbs, the remnants of some long forgotten stale pastry while the other scoops up the orphaned mugs. But what to do with the trash?

Outrage in 3...2...1

She puts it on my TABLE! With my defenses down, she casually slid the third party rubbish onto the ledge of my table. My poor, humble work space, a target area no larger than the size of the one that destroyed the Death Star and she bullseye-d it. Oddly enough, this isn't the first time this has happened to me while in London. A few weeks in to my stay, while sitting with friends at a pub, the same thing happened-- our table having become the place for other people's refuse. I want to give some lengthy discourse about how this behavior is political in its origins: Capitalist versus Socialist tendencies: The Coffeehouse, but I'm not sure if it would be true. The entire phenomenon is like Popeye's love for Olive Oyl -- simply inexplicable (although in truth this may not be an apt analogy as Popeye was a sailor and God knows those randy sailors will take whatever they can get).

Moral of the story:
Next time you are looking for coffee porn, bring protection.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Aplomb-ing problem.

In and around 800 BCE the first sewers appeared in Europe. Five hundred years later aqueducts followed, and by 43 CE plumbing had officially arrived in the British Isles. This means that plumbing in England predates the discovery of America by approximately 1400 years. Further still, it predates my arrival here in London by two millennia. Why then, is every toilet flush some medieval experience?

If you can't picture it, allow me.

After having finished using the facilities, I must first heartily push down on a lever, which more closely resembles in both its mass and design an academy award. The torque required to pull Oscar down is astonishing and bares little resemblance to the dainty taps its American cousins receive. Finally, however, after much struggle the lever genuflects and the deluge commences. What initially begins as a low rumble, slowly builds to a fervor: Pipes rattle, the toilet lid coyly flips, and gallons of rushing water pour forth mercilessly drowning Myrtle the Turd-le, who, in the face of the unrelenting tide, naturally acquiesces. WOOOSH! SLUSH! CRACK! The surging waves of water artfully blend together, a spectacle worthy of the Bellagio.

At last a familiar percolating gurgle tells me the deed is done. But what's this? Like Narcissus I peer over the porcelain lip and stare hypnotically into the shallow waters. Could it be? It couldn't possibly...
Much to my surprise and dismay Myrtle sits with a certain aplomb, a toy treasure chest resting at the bottom of my fish bowl-- taunting me. I crank the Bessemer processed lever several more exhausting times but the strained loo responds indifferently, she apparently doesn't do curtain calls.

Resigned to my fate, I begrudgingly tip my cap, close the lid, and sing "God Bless America" for the next half hour.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Q-Tips for Travel

"You can go with this or you can go with that..."-- Q-tip.

My preparation for moving to London largely consisted of packing one suitcase (the night before) and reading copious amounts of guide book literature. While some travel books were a bit dry, many of them were quite helpful and contained similar "Do this not that" lists, created to help one avoid expensive or disappointing tourist traps.

One month in, having accumulated a significant mass of experiences already, I thought I would put my own spin on the London "Do this not that" guide, one I will continue to update throughout the year.

1) Avoid the London Eye.
Given the tremendously long queues and the inflated price (17 pounds) it is a lot of aggravation for the somewhat boring views of the London skyline. Instead take a hike up to any of London's more pleasing summits. Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath offer spectacular views of the city at the right price-- free.

2) Skip the Notting Hill Carnival.
Don't let the Notting Hill name fool you, you definitely won't find Hugh Grant here (unless he is on one of his late night cruises for sexual chocolate). Billed as Europe's largest street fair, the Notting Hill Carnival is exceptionally loud and somewhat dirty, while the uninspired floats and dancing that mark the parade aren't quite up to the likes of Bourbon Street. The food vendors do get a thumbs up but you can only savor the curried goat for so long before it starts getting old. Try the Thames Festival instead. Efficiently organized, family friendly, with a terrific ambience, the Thames Festival is a fantastically laid back celebration. Dine on the Southwark bridge as boats parade by or just show up for the late night fireworks on the river.

3) Don't pay to enter St. Paul's cathedral.
Instead, see Wren's baroque masterpiece for free by attending one of the daily Evensong services. The service lasts for one hour** and features sublime choir singing. Get there early and sit in the choir of the church under the same glittering mosaics that Di and Charles were married under.
The same Evensong services are held in Westminster Abbey (also free).
** Although if you linger in the back of the church you can leave whenever you like and not get stuck next to a flatulent Spanish couple. Guess that is why they call them Pews! insert rimshot)

4) Take it to GO.
Most cafes and lunch shops offer you the option of dining in or take away service. Take away is always significantly cheaper, being sometimes a pound less per item (Even Starbucks has this crazy policy. A chocolate chip cookie on a plate will cost you 2.10 whereas it is 1.60 in a bag). Take your food instead to one of the many perfectly manicured parks London has to offer.

5) Make it a Pub not a Bar.
Probably not a distinction you often times make, yet there is a significant difference between pub and bar culture. Pub food, atmosphere, and service are all very charming and decidedly more British in their sensibilities. Bars, however, are really just that-- bars, replete with swankily dressed hipsters cruising for fresh meat. How can you tell the difference? It's like porn, you'll know it when you see it.

6) Laptop over License.
Living in London but are missing the latest episodes of the "Bachelor Pad"? Ditch the pricey television license you're required to purchase to simply watch TV (sans cable!). Instead, download hotspot shield for your laptop. This free program masks your IP address allowing you to access American websites like Hulu and (Not that I would ever do such a thing...). Another option is Slingbox. Have a parent or friend at home with an extra TV? If you answered yes, slingbox might be for you. The downside is the one time $200 fee but on the upside, it allows you to access all of your co-conspirator's cable programs. If they have DVR you can even record programs and watch them the next day.

"I think I'll go with this 'cuz this is where it's at." -- Q-Tip

To be continued...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Product "Placement"

My plughole is clogged.

Sorry, this isn't some sort of seedy backseat Taxi Cab confession, it's an actual problem. The drain (plughole) in my kitchen sink is stopped up and given that I have no dishwasher this is quite the situation. I've never been what one might call handy, so it's off to the local grocer in search of the English equivalent to Drain-o.

Grocery shopping is always an interesting experience because it is one of the few times I remember I'm not in the United States. Sure, in essence all the products are the same: fruits, vegetables, cereal. The packaging, however, is what interests me. In England, "Mr. Clean" defers to "Mr. Muscle," "Cheerios" gives way to "Crunchy Nuts," and Arugula masquerades as its flashier alter-ego "Rocket." These subtle variations on the same theme are both funny and unsettling, kind of like the Care Bears and the Care Bear Cousins. For those of you who might not remember, the Care Bears were a happy lot of multi-colored bears who through some unusual birthmarks on their stomachs vanquished evil through the force of their combined kindness, punctuated by their famous line of "Care Bears stare!" Sounds ridiculous I know, but it was cute and kids liked it. After awhile, I guess the Care Bear stock began to drop and in stepped the Care Bear Cousins. I'm not really sure of the Cousins' origins, as all I can remember is that they weren't bears. The leap from bears to other furry mammals may not seem like too big of a stretch but I recall it being quite alarming. Instead of the Care Bears, whom I generally accepted were born into a race of do-gooding bruins (species Ursidae Cura), the Cousins seemed more like cheap knock-offs, more akin to the awkwardly spliced creations of Dr. Moreau's island. In short, British products = Care Bear Cousins. This isn't to say products made in the UK are inferior, just different (to me), in that bizarro world kind of way. I'm sure the British would be equally puzzled by a cleaning product whose spokesman is an overly muscled, seemingly cheery, eunuch. This cross-cultural-perception-thing being a two way street, has lead to the recent discovery of one American product sure to bewilder (if not insult) our British Brethren-- the fanny pack.

The fanny pack, friend of the uber-tourist, companion to the severely diabetic, and bane of fashion aficionados everywhere. Much like slap bracelets and hyper-color shirts the fanny pack had its hay day in the early 90's but has somehow managed to linger around. The actual term "fanny pack" is generic, referring to any number of waist bags on the market that can be worn with the pouch slung over your ass or "fanny." It is an annoying yet relatively innocuous product. So what could the English possibly have against them?

It's all in the packaging.

You see the term "fanny," a word often taught to American youngsters in lieu of other more vulgar expressions, does not mean "bum/buttocks" in the Queen's English; rather it refers to a woman's intimate parts, her mons veneris if you will. OK, fanny means vagina and "fanny pack"... well, use your imagination.

Oh the learning experience. Perhaps this is what Samuel Johnson meant when he penned, "By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show." And show the world can, from plughole to fanny in fact.

Next week's lesson: Prince Albert, monarch or unadvisable fashion statement?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lost and Found

For reasons unknown to me, I have been experiencing a tremendous amount of good fortune. Perhaps it is random chance, or karma [1], or even my somewhat close proximity to those "fortuitous" Irish [2], but lately my luck has been truly remarkable. In three weeks I have found a fully loaded wallet, an unclaimed five pound note, and not one but TWO Blackberry cellphones. In another 3 weeks I'll have enough money and equipment to start my own psychic hotline service ("Call me now!"). I assume serendipty doesn't want to seven-out just yet because today has yielded another lucky breakthrough.

I've been considering the possibility of living and working abroad for the past few years now and while London certainly lives up to the hype, it is not the ex-pat experience I dreamed about in years past. I suppose my thoughts always gravitated towards somewhere more..."ethnic." You know, a country where it is mandatory to smoke tiny cigarettes and walk around with a loaf of bread tucked under your arm. A place where working in the afternoon is optional and eating four hour long dinners is a way of life. Don't get me wrong, London boasts a very diverse population, like how the cast of all-Indian baristas [3] at my local Starbuck's pronounce my order, "One Grand-ay wa-nee-la latte." In the end though, the British are still more Jets than Sharks (see photos A&B below for further evidence). Living in England, however, has certainly stoked my interest in extending my ex-pat experience to encompass a year or two of continental European-living. To that end, I have started looking into the process of obtaining my Italian citizenship.

Obtaining dual citizenship in a foreign country can be a hassle if not next to impossible, but obtaining Italian citizenship can be a relatively simple process pending the right conditions.My citizenship plan of attack sounds like something you'd find on the menu of a good steakhouse -- jure sanguis-- and I'll have the baked potato with that passport. Jure Sanguis literally translates to "through the blood," and is offered to anyone who can prove that they have legitimate rights to citizenship through their Italian heritage. Unfortunately, there are several frustrating conditions that must be met in order to obtain citizenship, and given some of the obstacles in my way, I can only do what most people reserve for their therapist's office -- blame my father.

Usually when most people ask me if my parents are Italian I simply say, "Yes." It is just easier that way. Sort of like when you say "Fine" when people ask how you are doing. It's just easier than explaining how miserable you actually are (unless of course you are a TRULY happy person, which would mean that we probably aren't friends). The fact of the matter is that only my father was born in Italy. My mother was actually born in Rhode Island, with her mother being born in Italy and her father being born in the United States. Of course none of this really matters in life, as it doesn't change the fact that I am still from a VERY Italian family. It does, however, matter in the game of "become that citizen!" The problem is when my father came to this country in 1956 at the tender age of 16, he did what most immigrants did, he became an American citizen. This may have been all well and good for him (maybe he even got a tiny flag pin out of it) but it leaves me, well, kind of screwed. See, when my father became a citizen he, in effect, renounced his rights to Italian citizenship and mine too...

Oh wait, this is a blog about "luck" isn't it? So when am I going to wrap this up and tell you why I'm just so friggin' lucky?A: Now.

With my father throwing up the red citizenship stop sign, I looked to my mother. Remember, Mama Mazzenga was born here and her Italian mother had, like my father, become an American citizen long before she was born, but what about Gramps? Well as mentioned, Grandpa was born in the US and died very young (when my mother was only 9) so I don't actually know a lot about my grandfather outside of the fact that I am the sole heir of his adorable dimples. So the question begs, was my Grandfather's father (my Great grandfather) an American citizen at the time of grandfather's birth? Tough question right? I mean this goes back a bit. This could take years of research, thousands of dollars, and require me to sleep with several high ranking government officials. It couldn't possibly be found on the internet, right?
Internet- 1
Millions of Years Before- Suck it

After having finally succumbed to the pressure of providing my credit card number (you need this for their free 14 day trial), I found Great grandad and family in a document from the 1930 census. It reads something like this:
Age: 40
Marital Status: Married
Place of Birth: Italy
Date of Immigration: 1907
Naturalization: AL

AL! AL! My pal AL! Italian government, start warming up that baked potato. For those of you who may not know "AL," allow me to introduce him. AL stands for alien. This means that in 1930, 18 years after my grandfather was born, my great grandfather was STILL an Italian citizen, which means my grandfather was entitled to that citizenship... which means my mother is also entitled... which means her children are also entitled.

The swell of excitement almost uncontainable, I rush to call the family and tell them, "Great grandpa was an alien! Now I can get citizenship au jus! I mean jure sanguis!"
There is, however, one issue remaining...
Which blackberry do I use?

[1] A few months ago I started saying "No thank you," to telemarketers before hanging up
[2] What the hell makes the Irish so lucky anyway? Horrible famine, years of civil war, one in ten people are estimated to be alcoholic, and Notre Dame football hasn't won a championship in 22 years.
[2] "cast/caste" pun intended.

Photo A: Former Prime Minister Tony Blair

Photo B: Former Jets' leader Riff