Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Culinary Repertoire

When I first applied to Sussex University, I discovered that my room and board did not include a money-stealing meal plan scheme. In effect, I would be forced to buy and prepare my own food. This could have turned out in one of three ways: either I would get extremely lazy and buy only pre-processed foods; I would prepare eat the plainest, simplest foods possible; or I would learn to cook. The results have been a combination of all three possibilities: I do buy a good deal of pre-processed foods, but actually many less than I ate in the States (I was just unaware of how much pre-processed food I ate there before I came over here). I also eat a lot of plain food (rice with soy sauce, steamed vegetables, tuna from the can, chickpeas with salt, etc.), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I like plain foods.

Also, I have become a better cook. I say this not only because what I have made for myself and others actually does taste better, but also because I can cook without recipes (successfully, that is) more capably now than ever before. That is a sign of improvement, in my opinion. I can also make a few more dishes than I could before, and because I have made them successfully several times with makeshift ingredients, I consider my “cooking repertoire” to have expanded. Here is a small list of my new “specialty” dishes:

  • Ratatouille—a slightly spicy vegetable dish made of eggplant (i.e. “aubergine,” as the English term is), zucchini (i.e. “courgette”), peppers, and tomatoes; served over rice
  • Stir fry—made with whatever I happen to have, best with broccoli, cabbage, peppers, garlic, ginger, and (if I have it) chicken
  • Indian Chickpeas—a spicy chickpea-tomato dish
  • Curry Cabbage—exactly how it sounds: cabbage with a dressing of lemon juice, curry powder, and salt; sometimes served with onions
  • Curry Rice—basmati rice boiled with curry powder
  • Fruit Salad—with fresh and canned fruits, this can be particularly yummy
  • Salsa—I make this myself and then eat it with pita bread (which, needless to say, I do not bake myself)
  • Pasta Sauce—vegetarian-style thanks to the influence of my friend Fluf; made with soya mince that you’d never know was not meat!
  • Chicken Noodle Soup—I can’t claim this recipe as my own, but I’ve made it successfully and even taught it to a friend (Angela), so I feel justified in including it

    See what a repertoire I’ve built up? Unfortunately, I’ve had no opportunity to do any baking here (too difficult having to buy a sack full of flour for just a cup’s worth, unreliable ovens, etc), but I look forward to resuming that activity when I return home. Thus, if you’re ever hungry and want to test my newfound culinary abilities, just ring me up and make a dinner date!

  • Monday, May 28, 2007

    Old School

    Angela, her friend Sha, and I watched Save the Last Dance tonight. I had already seen this movie several years ago, when it first came out (in 2001, I believe). However, seeing it again brought back fond memories, not only of seeing and enjoying the movie the first time, but of my high school experiences, as well. One of the features that made the film so enjoyable the first time I saw it was its correspondence to real life. The high school it portrayed was very similar the high school I attended (although mine had a significantly greater white population), and many of the experiences were very accurately portrayed. For instance, the way Sarah (Julia Stiles) has trouble dancing is exactly the way most white people have trouble dancing, while black people seem to have an “innate” sense of rhythm and affinity for hip-hop dancing. When she first tries to dance at Steps (the club her friend Chenille takes her to), she attempts to move her body from her shoulders. Successful hip-hop movements must start with the hips. I learned this early on from attending junior high and high school dances (although I am not particularly successful at applying this knowledge), and it was amusing to recognize Sarah’s development as a dancer in this way.

    Another similarity was the crowdedness and chaos of the school. I never recognized it as such when I attended it—although I did acknowledge and complain about our zoo-like hallways. Everything area of the school was noisy, with kids jostling each other, from the hallways to the lunchroom. Sha wanted to know if we had “locker rooms like that” where I went to high school during a gym locker room scene. I hadn’t considered the locker rooms significant or unusual at all, but apparently they don’t have those in Singapore. “Yes,” I told her, “ours were just like that.”

    And, of course, the interracial factors were very true to life. While most people don’t cross racial boundaries (black or white), those few who do have very assertive personalities (like Chenille) and usually somehow “integrate” into the opposite culture. (For instance, Derek tended to dress more “white” than his black counterparts, and Sarah had to learn to talk the “hard core” language of the company she kept.) It was very eye-opening to watch this movie and think of the high school chapter of my life “in retrospect.”

    Rain in London

    Today was supposed to be my good-duty day. I went to London specifically to buy Amy (my sister) an England sweatshirt (because she was did not decide until after she left what she wanted for her “souvenier”). Apparently, all of our nice weather was used up in April, because the temperature here has returned to the 50s, and it has been raining cats and dogs for the past several weeks. Thus, of course, it was raining today as I set off to catch my National Express bus to London.

    Obviously I took an umbrella with me, but this did not prevent everything I was carrying in my bag/purse from getting wet. This wouldn’t have been so bad, had I not borrowed and brought along someone else’s novel (Naked by David Sedaris, borrowed from Angela) to read. The entire perimeter of the book got completely wet and is not drying in that ever-wrinkly fashion of soggy paper.

    I intended to go to Camden market to buy the sweatshirt, because I knew I’d get a good price and there would be a good selection of the kind of zip-up hoodies Amy wanted there. Unfortunately, I happened to walk around Buckingham Palace at the exact time they were changing the guard. This means that the place was swamped with tourists: Germans scrambling for the best view, Chinese with their camcorders, parents herding children every which ways, and police people (women, too) in their neon yellow vests, trying to direct it all from horseback. Thus delayed, I tried to circle around this mob and be on my way. As you may predict, this only succeeded in getting me completely lost. I had arrived in London at 11 a.m. By 1 p.m., I had only reached Oxford Circus (approximately halfway between the Victoria coach station where I had arrived and my destination).

    Rather than risk getting further lost and perhaps missing my bus back to Brighton (scheduled to leave Victoria at 5 p.m.), I decided to look around the shops in Oxford Circus for the sweatshirt. I found a few promising items at souvenier shops, and after much contemplation, returned to one I had encountered earlier in my search to buy the sweatshirt. Not more than two minutes after I had made my purchase—which, by the way, cost me five pounds more than my parents had given me to buy the souvenier—I wandered into another shop and found the exact same sweatshirt for nearly fifteen pounds less. That’s thirty dollars!

    To further my bad luck, the spokes on my umbrella proceeded to snap one after the other until it was literally impossible to even open the thing. At that point in time, it was not raining very hard, so I chucked the useless instrument in a nearby rubbish bin and continued browsing the jam-packed stores. I managed to successfully navigate my way back to Victoria coach station and arrived back in Brighton at seven-odd in the evening. Unfortunately, by this time it was absolutely pouring, and—because I am trying to conserve my last few pounds here for food and other necessities—I was forced to walk the mile back from Poole Valley Station to Holland House in the rain.

    By this time in the evening, I was starving, so I hurried into the kitchen to make myself some dinner. What greeted me, but puddles on the floor from a leaky refrigerator and a sink full of grimy water, soggy bits of people’s leftover dinner, and unwashed dishes. Needless to say, I worked around this to prepare my curry and even received some leftover rice from the ever-generous Fluf.

    The final straw happened approximately twenty minutes ago. I decided to go to Tesco Express (a grocery mart located conveniently around the corner from our residence) to get myself some much-deserved dessert. Because it was raining, I was ultra-aware of how slippery the marble steps would be leading down from our front door. Tenatively, I placed one flip-flopped foot (because my sneakers were inside my room, hopefully dripping dry) on the step, and what happened? Out went my foot, and down the steps I flew, to land heavily on the right-hand side of my lower back. What made this fall worse was that because I was only going around the corner, I was holding my keys and my wallet in my hands. Both proceeded to fly from my grasp, and although I managed to find my wallet fairly quickly, my keys were nowhere to be seen.

    Luckily, after much searching in the rain and darkness, I managed to recover the keys. (They were sitting by a gutter in a pile of cigarette ashes.) Tesco Express didn’t have the kind of caramel-filled Cadbury’s chocolate I like best, so I returned to Holland House empty-handed and tremendously sore.

    What a day.

    Saturday, May 26, 2007

    Coaching Alex

    I had my first “coaching” experience a few swimming sessions ago. It was empowering.

    I wrote once about Alex, the kid who cannot (or simply does not) do flipturns. When writing about him, I suggested but did not confirm the fact that he was faster than me. He is.

    We were swimming a session at King Alfred, and he was in my lane with two other kids about his age (thirteen or so). I was leading the lane, and the other two were working hard to keep up, but Alex was just goofing off—swimming with no arms in the middle of the lane, taking long breaks while we completed the sets, etc. Finally, I was fed up, not only with his lack of effort, but with the lack of attention the coach was paying him. I am accustomed to coaches paying attention to everyone in the water (at least a little), and letting this kid get away with doing virtually no work would never have been acceptable at home. How would he ever develop self-discipline or get any faster if no one ever reprimanded him. Thus, I took it upon myself to motivate him to do some work.

    The last set of the evening was four one hundreds (i.e. four lengths without stopping) sprint. Before we began, I told Alex that because he was faster than me, he should go first. He said, “no thanks,” so I told him we could make a deal. I’d go first, he would go second, and for every hundred in which he “caught” me, he could do one fewer hundreds. Essentially, this meant that if he caught me on the first two hundreds, he could skip the last two. He agreed, and we began the set. Needless to say, he did not catch me on the two hundreds, and so in order to keep him motivated, I made another deal. He still had to go second, but as long as he stayed ahead of the girl who was going third—which I was positive he could do—he could do whatever he wanted for the last one. “Basically, as long as you don’t let her catch you, you can not swim for the last one,” I told him. “Which is virtually what you’ve been doing all practice, anyway.” He stayed ahead of her, and I let him skip the last hundred, pleased that I had made him actually try for 300 meters of that set.

    The next time we attended a session together, we ended up in the same lane again, but this time with just the two of us. As usual, he wasn’t making any effort at all during the practice, so on the sprint set (five one hundreds) at the end of practice, I yelled at him for not trying. He said he was “saving his energy” and would try on the last one. I told him that he had better beat me on the last hundred, because I hated people who slacked only to go fast at the end. If he beat me, though, I’d forgive him. He did. I told him that next time, he’d have to beat me on two of the hundreds.

    These experiences all led up to my moment of greatest pride: We attended one more session together, and when Alex got into the lane next to me and I nodded hello, he looked squarely at me and said, “I’m going to work this time.”

    Thursday, May 24, 2007

    Celebratory Blake

    I am finished!
    My final final (exam, that is) was this morning: English Literature 1740-1830. The exam was held in a large room with rows of desks lined up military-style, each desk possessing an exam and an answer booklet with the student’s candidate number written on it. Of course, like all procedures at Sussex, this procedure was unnecessarily complicated and had not been explained to me ahead of time. Thus, unaware that I would need my candidate number, I had to rush off and find out what it was (although, as it turns out, it was written on my student ID card all along) in order that I could take the exam. This mini-crisis notwithstanding, I finished my three essays in a record time of 2½ hours and was the first student to walk out of the exam room. Hopefully that was a good sign, as I have never been the first to finish an exam in all of the time I have studied at Rochester.

    In honor of finishing this course—and because I can now happily forget all of the names and dates I memorized “just in case” I needed them for an essay—I will include some of my favorite quotes from the coursework. I particularly liked William Blake’s poetry, because he used it to examine the morals and beliefs of the time period. In one particular poem, “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake suggests that Heaven may actually be a “hell of rationality and rules,” whereas Hell may actually be a “heaven of sensuality.” His poetry builds throughout the piece to argue that Heaven coincides with energy, and anything thwarting that energy is bad. The following excerpts are taken from a subset of this poem, The Proverbs of Hell, (from which I quoted once before, in an earlier post):

  • Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
  • He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
  • The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
  • The pride of the peacock is the glory of God./The lust of the goat is the bounty of God./The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God./The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
  • To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
  • Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

    Other Blake quotes that are worth pondering:

  • The vision of Christ that thou dost see/is my vision’s greatest enemy.
  • Every night and every morn/Some to misery are born;/Every morn and every night/Some are born to sweet delight./Some are born to sweet delight,/Some are born to endless night.
  • Monday, May 21, 2007

    Consumerism: US vs UK

    A question Angela asked me today made me realize one gigantic difference between shopping in the UK and the US. To put it in a slogan, "the UK specializes; the US economizes."
    We were in my room talking, and she noticed my various medication bottles on top of my dresser. The caps all say “Giant Eagle” on them, and she wanted to know what “Giant Eagle” was. At first, I told her that it was a grocery store, but then she looked at me oddly and I realized that this reply made absolutely no sense, considering that the medications are in prescription bottles—not ones you can buy over-the-counter at any ordinary grocery store. Thus, I had to explain how, in the US, it is normal to have pharmacy counters inside grocery stores. (Maybe for convenience sake…so you can get your prescription filled while you grocery shop?)

    The more I thought about it, the more I realized that in the US, we don’t really have independent pharmacies in the sense that the word “pharmacy” implies. Pharmacies here in the UK are tiny little room-like stores with one main counter where you can get your prescription filled and maybe a half-aisle or two containing deodorant, aspirin, hand cream, and other various toiletries. In the US, even stores that are considered “pharmacies” end up selling goods that have nothing to do with physical wellness. Eckerd and CVS are considered pharmacies (or “drug stores”—a vile name for a store, the more I consider it) and certainly sell a toiletries as well as fulfill prescriptions; yet they also sell a good variety of groceries, school supplies, electronics, and even household appliances.

    It is like every shop in the US has meshed into the common category of “store,” selling things that are not ordinarily associated the “label” for that type of store. Here in the UK, shops are very specialized: you go to a clothing shop for clothes, an accessories shop for jewelry or hair items, a shoe store for shoes, a pharmacy for medications, an athletic shop for sports attire and equipment, a photography store for photo developing, etc. In the US, you can find hair ties in a grocery store, shoes in a clothing shop, photo-developing services in a pharmacy, and pretty much every other bizarre combination you can think of. There is almost no such thing as an “all-purpose” store in the UK (aside from Alsa, which is apparently owned by Wal-Mart, anway). In the US, we have more all-purpose stores than we could possibly ever use: the old ones like K-Mart and Hillside, and the new ones like Wal-Mart, Target, and even Wegman’s.

    The only thing they sell in grocery stores here that wouldn’t be sold in grocery stores in the US is alcohol. Alcohol is also as easily available in convenience stores and news-shops as soft drinks, juices, potato chips, or candy. Then again, the bars and pubs here close at midnight, so to keep up with the European demand for alcohol, these stores almost have to sell alcohol. It’s just about the only area in which American consumerism probably couldn’t keep up.

    Sunday, May 20, 2007

    On Having Readers

    Being motivated to write requires an intricate set of circumstances. First, one needs to come up with Inspiration, or a Good Idea. Good Ideas really just have to occur; you cannot force them into existence, no matter how hard you think about a subject. Sometimes, you will just mentally blink and they will appear right before you, as a complete picture in your mind that you merely need to sketch out with words as fast as possible, before that pictures fades. Other times, Good Ideas will waft through your mind, and you have to catch them and piece them together, like trying to recreate a matured dandelion: a puzzle of pollen particles that you know can wind up being something cohesive and beautiful, if only you can catch all of them and place them correctly.

    However, simply finding the motivation to write down Good Ideas when they come—in whatever form they arrive—might actually be the hardest part. Doing this interrupts your day, because Good Ideas rarely arrive when you are sitting at your computer, wanting to write something witty or profound or at least mildly interesting to someone other than yourself. You have to capture the Ideas and maintain them in your mind until you create a pocket of time in which you can sit down to flesh them out. All of this takes a good deal of concentration and energy, and without some sort of purpose, some sort of reason for doing this, the effort never seems worthwhile.

    This is where Readers come in. Personally, if I do not have readers, I will not write. I need responses to my writing to encourage me to continue, or even to just begin. I have discovered this to be true in every area of my “writing life”: not only would I not write performance pieces (such as stories, poems, etc.), but I would not write anything at all if I thought no one would ever read it. Usually, I only write creatively when I am prompted in a class—and then I know a teacher and probably some of my classmates will read and respond to my work, whether with constructive criticism, a grade, or just a passing comment. Then, I write letters because I am sending them to someone who will read them—and write me a letter of response! I even keep journals for the sole purpose that someday (perhaps after I die, perhaps before), someone (perhaps my children, perhaps my best friends) will find and read them and know “the intimate me.”

    In effect, blogging has given me a great opportunity. By posting my writing on the internet, I can give anyone I like (who has a computer and Internet, of course) access to my writing. Then, not only can they read my writing, but they can respond to it, as well. I cannot describe the joy I feel every time someone writes to me (either posting a comment on this blog, or therwise) about something I have written. They took the time to read my writing! They thought about it! Maybe they liked it! Thus, I am encouraged to write, knowing that my Readers will check this website, seeking a new “installment.” It makes me feel “in demand” and gives me a reason to continue writing: someone wants to hear what I have to say!

    This is the most inspiring feeling of all, and one I know everyone wishes to experience: feeling wanted.

    I hope you are enjoying everything I have written. Thank you for motivating me—without you, I could not call myself a Writer.

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    Recent Reading

    If on a Winter’s Night (Italo Calvino): This is the most self-conscious novel I have ever read. The way the story it told continually makes the reader aware that he/she is reading a novel throughout the story, or the many plotlines that are begun and re-begun and woven together to form the semblance of a story. This is certainly the only novel I have ever read of its kind, and worth reading if just to have had the experience of reading a book that refuses to suspend disbelief in such a deliberate way.
  • A Day Called Hope (Gareth O’Callaghan): Superficially, this book is the author’s first-person account of his battle with depression. However, the fact that he writes it himself actually detracts from the book, in my opinion, as he ends up writing it more as his own personal “guide” for how to overcome depression. The problem is that the basis for this book, if it is to be read as a guide, is that because this program of health and happiness works for him, it should work for anybody. While he does make some good points regarding depression, he tends to make too many universal claims, ignoring the fact that depression is actually a very individualized condition and every sufferer may not show the same symptoms or respond well to the same sorts of treatment. I also found his attempts to make the book chronological while instructional tedious. “Just pick a format,” I wanted to shout at him. “Either write an autobiographical account of your struggle, or write a self-help book. Stop trying to do both!”
  • Saving Fish From Drowning (Amy Tan): Despite this novel being written by one of my favorite authors, I am currently being disappointed in her latest work. It is narrated by a dead character, but this added viewpoint seems somewhat unnecessary, and I have spent two thirds of the novel (what I have read thus far) waiting to find out why Amy Tan has chosen Bibi (the dead narrator) to tell the story rather than just making the narrator omniscient. Also, the story is set in Burma (now called Mayanmar, as I learned through my reading) and focuses on a group of Americans, as opposed to Tan’s usual tendency to write about China and its native inhabitants. In short, if you want a good representation of Amy Tan’s best writing, I’d stick to The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, or even The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Those novels best encapsulate her style and make use of her cultural knowledge.
  • Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    English-isms thus far

  • bugger : Fluf once told me what this word literally means, but all I remember is the gist of his definition, which is that it deals with a person who has sex. The English have adapted it, much like we have adapted the word “fuck,” to fulfill all linguistic categories and a variety of meanings. To say “bugger” by itself is akin to saying “drat” or “darn it” when frustrated. (Oh, bugger. I forgot get milk at the store.) To call someone a bugger is to insult them mildly, as if you were calling them a “jerk” or a “rascal.” (You bugger!) *I haven’t quite figured out the precise meaning of the verb form of bugger, as it is less common, but I know it is possible to use the word in this manner. (I’ll bugger you!)
  • plaster: The American equivalent of Band-Aid. I don’t believe they sell that brand here, so if you are bleeding for death, you must ask for a plaster or else no one will offer you any form of adhesive. Do you have a plaster? I’ve just cut myself.
  • mate: The most common meaning of this word is friend. (I’m going out with my mates tonight.) The word could mean “significant other,” but the English usually use the more specified term “partner” for this sort of relationship. Nevertheless, “mate” can be degraded, in a sense, to a looser relationship between two people, showing one’s gratification or good will toward the other. (Thanks for the tip, mate.
  • fancy: This can generally mean “to like” or “to appreciate” (Do you fancy that dress?), or it can mean to have a romantic crush on a person (I think you roommate fancies James.)
  • candy floss: The English name for what Americans refer to as “cotton candy.” Really, we should just compromise and both call it what it is: sugar fluff. (I’m getting candy floss when we go to the carnival tomorrow.)
  • pants (vs trousers vs knickers): In England, “pants” and “knickers” mean the same thing—what Americans would term “panties” or “underpants.” (He saw me in my knickers!) Alternatively, the word “trousers,” which we would consider old-fashioned, is what they use for the American term “pants.” (That boy’s pants are showing; he should pull up his trousers.)
  • jumper: I have referred to this one before; it means what Americans would call “sweater.” (It was so cold today, I wore my new jumper.)
  • toilet: This is how you say “bathroom” or “restroom” in England. (I need to use the toilet.) In reality, it makes a good deal more sense, because when you say this in a restaurant, for instance, you certainly don’t intend to take a bath, nor do you intend to rest. In fact, there is probably no bath inside the room where you will be going. There will, however, be a toilet, and that is probably what you need to use. An acceptable alternative to “toilet” is “loo,” although this form is found less frequently in print (on signs, etc.).
  • dodgy: If you are from Rochester, you would recognize this word as meaning “sketchy.” Otherwise, if referring to a person, it means “suspicious” or “untrustworthy.” (That man looks awfully dodgy.) If referring to a place or thing, “dodgy” means “seedy” or “run-down” or “broken.” (That club looks dodgy. Let’s find another one.)
  • jelly: This is the English word for Jell-O. Again, like with Band-Aid, Americans—for some reason—insist upon using the name brand to refer to the noun. Here, they say “jelly” to mean “gelatin dessert” and “jam” to represent the fruit mush that you spread on toast. (I made some jelly today; it’s in the fridge.)
  • flapjack: Unlike the American definition meaning “pancake,” the English definition of this word refers to a food appears and tastes something like extra-gooey granola bars. To eat it, you simply cut yourself a slice from what looks like one large pan of uncut granola bars. (I think I’ll buy some flapjack from Tesco today for a snack.)
  • trainers: Americans sometimes argue whether to call this particular style of shoes “sneakers” or “tennis shoes.” The English call them trainers, a rather appropriate term, I think, because these are the shoes you wear when you train athletically. (I need some new trainers before I start running again; my old ones gave me shin splints.)
  • wicked: This word is akin to calling something “amazing” or “awesome.” (You’re coming to my party? Wicked.) However, it also has another more general use, which is to fill in for the word “very.” (That bag is wicked cool.)
  • purse: Not to be mistaken for “handbag,” which is how Americans use it, interchangeably. This word specifically means “women’s wallet,” the larger kind usually including a change purse and multiple slots for credit cards, etc. This item can be fit into a handbag, but one term cannot be substituted for the other. (I’m terrified of losing my purse on trips, because I always have to carry so much cash in it.)
  • uni: Short for “university.” (I’m going to uni today.) Not to be confused with “college,” which for the British is the level of school Americans would equate with high school.
  • Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    What Shocked Me in Greece

    Athens may be a city that has been deteriorating for over two thousand years, but it is modern in most of the ways that count here and now in the modern world. For instance, it’s the advertisements like I saw there that give people self-esteem problems these days. Activists in America gets in an uproar about how unrealistically skinny models are and how sexually charged advertisements can be. Obviously, none of these soapbox standers have ever been to Athens. By my judgment, Europe has completely different standards for its models, by which women must have visible cheekbones and hipbones, men must have a six-pack at minimum, and both must be either Greek-style brown or albino-style fair skinned to qualify for the job. Concerning the sex, allow me to present an example of one of the provocative advertisements I saw.

    Now, the first phenomenon I found surprising in Greece, it may be loosely related to this intensely sexual advertising trend. Kim and Angela (my two traveling companions for this trip) and I stayed in Hotel Lozanni, accommodations that resembled a hostel more than a hotel, with its bunkbeds, shared bathrooms, and cold showers. Kim had picked this hotel/hostel without really researching its precise location within Athens, so when we arrived, we found it several long streets away from the city center, but located within a very city-like area. Dragging my suitcase after my two companions—they were carrying backpacks, which did not require maneuvering over curbs and around puddles—I noticed that some of the women in Athens sure liked to dress outlandishly. One of the women I passed had fantastically sparkly eye makeup on and a nearly neon black-and-pink-striped dress with black stiletto boots. Another was wearing a skin-tight lycra mini-dress in a bright shade of lime green, which contrasted with her obnoxiously blue eyeshadow, and of course, stilettos. In my opinion, she also certainly didn’t need to be wearing so much black eyeliner and mascara, because she was a platinum blond.

    That first night we arrived, I didn’t pay much attention to these women, as we were trying to find our bearings in a new city. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but stare the next day when saw those exact same girls posing on the corner a block away from our hotel—at 5pm in the evening. Broad daylight does wonders for recognizing hookers. When we emerged at 7pm to find a place for dinner, they had multiplied. Angela and I counted fifteen on our walk to and from the restaurant, and after careful study over the next few days, concluded that if we donned some heels and makeup and hiked up our skirt (or shorts, in my case), we could easily be mistake for having joined the ranks. Seriously.

    During the day, as Kim, Angela, and I perused the various Greek shops, I began to notice another astonishing trend: Athens has more mink coat stores than I had ever seen anywhere in my entire life. How did I know they were mink coat stores, you ask, when I couldn’t read Greek? Well, for one, why would so many stores strictly sell tons of random expensive-looking and similar-looking fur coats in a city as hot as Athens? But what about animal rights? you protest. Doesn’t anyone care about those poor creatures being butchered just so some hoity-toity lady can walk around in furry pelts? My response is this: why would so many stores go to such lengths to sell fakes? And expensive fakes, at that. I wouldn’t spend over 700 Euros for a fake fur coat, would you?

    The third shock of the trip came inside our hotel. It could have been the fact that our TV remote control didn’t work and that I was the only one tall enough to push the power button on it (which means we did not watch almost any TV)—but that wouldn’t be much of a surprise, because could you have seen what sort of a place this was, you would have been surprised we had a television set at all much less a remote control, even if it didn’t work. The third shock could have been the fact that we had an air conditioner, but this would mean that it worked, which would not be entirely true. It, too had, a remote control needed to operate properly. However, this remote was not included with the room—as the hotel only had one to control all of the rooms in the place—so we had to go down to the front desk, get the remote, have the attendant turn on our specific room’s a/c, go upstairs, adjust it with the remote, return the remote to the front desk, and go back upstairs to wait until our room reached a reasonable temperature. And all of this with our room on the 3rd floor and no lift. Cheers.

    So the actual third shock of the trip was one of the desk attendants (receptionists? check-in people? What do you call them when they are all men?). I would never have considered his blue eyes “shocking”—merely surprising, to find on a Greek guy—except for the fuss Angela made over them. We were barely out of the lobby when she started swooning over the banister. From then on, he was “desk guy,” and she spent the ten minutes before and after we saw him gushing over how good-looking he was and how she wanted a picture of him. He was somewhat handsome, in a striking way caused by the contrast of his pale blue eyes and tan complexion. Therefore, in an effort to strike up conversation, I managed to make a fool out of myself three times: once when trying to figure out whether to call him a receptionist or desk person or whatever, once when giving him a half bottle of wine that Kim and Angela failed to finish, and once when asking his name (for Angela’s sake, of course). He told me his name was Caesar. At first, I thought he was joking. When I made some sort of tentative response, he said, “Yes, call me Julius Caesar.” Now I took him at his word, and replied, “Really? So your first name is Julius?” He looked a bit amused and corrected me. “No no, just Caesar.” What a sucker I am.

    To conclude, if you need a “quickie,” that one coat that will make you feel part of upper class society, or the experience of knowing someone who was named after a salad (or perhaps his mother was thinking of the historic ruler, you never know), the streets of Athens are at your service. Just be wary of the intense sun and perverted old men in parks.

    Sunday, May 13, 2007

    Dancing in London

    There is something about dance that is more captivating than any other art form. When I was in London with my family, we encountered two very different forms of dance, and both equally entranced me. Looking down from the very top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, there was a rectangle of green grass far below. On that area of lawn, a group of boys were gathered, performing acrobatic tricks and various hip-hop maneuvers. From the cultural education I received at Woodland Hills High School (particularly thanks to an individual named Chase), I immediately recognized these individuals as break-dancers who appeared to be either warming up or practicing. I am incredibly fascinated with break-dancing and all it entails: how people can control their bodies in such precise ways so as to “pop,” ripple, flex, bounce, spin, balance and flip, all in rhythm to contemporary music. The moves require strength, coordination, and flexibility way beyond my abilities, and perhaps this is why I admire these dancers so much. However, this does not explain why I am so enthralled by watching them—after all, I cannot hit a home run or putt a golf ball into the hole from ten meters away, but I wouldn’t be nearly so fascinated by watching these feats. Quickness cannot explain it, because I don’t care for NASCAR racing, nor can technical knowledge of dancing, because I actually know very little about the true art of break-dancing. Yet, I could have stood at the top of St. Paul’s for at least another hour watching those boys, rather than walked back down and tried to interest myself in more concrete arches and stained glass Jesus portraits.

    The same goes for ballet. On our tour of the Royal Opera House, we had the opportunity to see a ballet practice in session in one of the practice rooms. I barely heard what our guide was saying about the cross-beams composing the floor in order to absorb impact as I concentrated on the dancers inside. They were all so thin, but so strong. The thinnest one was the obvious “prima ballerina,” who was the palest of the three women. She was blond and pale-skinned and wore the most traditional outfit which included a black wrap dance skirt and leotard with leggings. She also wore an obvious amount of makeup, but despite the amount of work the dancers were obviously putting into the practice, not a bit of sweat appeared through her mask of makeup. Indeed, none of the dancers seemed to sweat at all. It seemed almost supernatural.

    The prima ballerina’s partner seemed the most unconventional of the four men in the room. He wore a light purple bandana folded several times and wrapped around his forehead to hold back his nearly-shoulder-length hair. Then, he wore blue sweatpants that were torn to reveal gray-blue tights underneath and a worn, thin green T-shirt.

    The most graceful of all the dancers in the room appeared to be the male understudy, who remained in the far back left-hand corner of the room throughout the practice. He wore all black and mimicked the movements of one of the secondary male dancers throughout the practice, but with gentler movements and more of a fluidness and ease of motion. Whenever that dancer had to lift his partner, the understudy would stop, shuffle his feet a bit in mimicry, and watch intently. However, he was never given the opportunity to step in and practice with a partner. I was disappointed at this, because I would have liked to see if lifting a woman’s weight would have compromised his grace. He impressed me so much; I have never seen a man dance more softly than a woman, but his movements were more graceful than even those of the prima ballerina.

    I would have liked to stay and watched that ballet practice all day long. Yet, this is not because I ever wanted to be a ballerina. On the contrary, I was terrible at ballet when I was a child—completely inflexible, not particularly graceful, and too tremendously tall. I suppose dancing in general is just more interesting to watch than other art forms because it is performance art that gratifies many senses, transforms as we observe it, and is almost interpersonal in its manner of communication. Unlike music or visual art, dance usually allows us to see the dancers’ faces and to interpret intentions and emotions in their body language. Meanwhile, we can be impressed by the physical feats they are performing, rather than something that has already been performed (visual art) or something of which we need more specified knowledge to fully appreciate (music).

    Maybe that is why some people are so self-conscious about dancing in public. They are afraid to reveal themselves so openly. They are afraid to be seen.

    Monday, May 7, 2007

    Approaching Adulthood

    At first, I was incredibly excited at the prospect of my family coming to visit me for a long weekend here in my new “home” abroad. I have not seen them—or anyone else from “home home”—in over four months, and pictures and words never do justice to a place. I could show them around, give them a taste of the experience I have had living here! I also decided that Brighton would get a little boring after about a day, considering this was their vacation, and that we should go to London for the weekend. That would be fun, particularly because I haven’t explored the city much, myself.

    However, as the time grew nearer, my feelings began to change from eager anticipation to apprehension and anxiety. I had tried to plan everything as well as I could, but what if something went askew? What if someone didn’t like what was on the itinerary? What if someone got sick? What if there was bad weather?

    In retrospect, I think I wanted to use this trip as proof to show my family that I am indeed growing up; that I can make successful travel arrangements and have things run smoothly. After all, I have navigated numerous foreign cities with Angela successfully, and I just had to deal with English-speaking London and Brighton with my family!

    Unfortunately, things did not go quite as well as I had planned. First, I told my family the wrong time to catch the bus to London. This resulted in my knocking on the door of their bed and breakfast at 7:30 a.m. in the morning in order to wake up my sister (luckily, my parents were already awake) and hurry them along so that we could catch our 8:45 bus rather than the 10 a.m. one which, the night before, I had claimed we would be riding.

    My next mistake was to take us the wrong direct on the Tube. This wouldn’t have been nearly so bad except for the fact that we were trying to get to our hotel and were carting our luggage along with us. My mother’s retort to this would be that I successfully navigated the Tube many more times on this trip to get us to our various destinations, and one mistake is only one mistake. Still, I’ve never gone the wrong direction on transportation before, even in a foreign country. It was embarrassing.

    Then I had managed to neglect the fact that the Globe Theatre is an open air theater. Fortunately I had gotten us seats, which meant we were under cover, but the entire theater is still outside, so all three-and-a-half hours of Othello were filled with rubbing hands and huddling bodies.

    The absolute icing on the cake came when we returned to Brighton. In London, I had purchased a new purse in order to replace the one I had bought for traveling, because that one had nearly completely come apart at the seams. (Or, rather, my dad bought it for me. Yay for parents!) Once my family checked into their new hotel and I began unloading my sister’s belongings from my backpack—I had been carrying some of her things to and from London so that we did not all have to carry luggage—I suddenly realized that I had not seen a certain item in my new purse when I was removing other things. Hurriedly, I looked in the pocket where it should have been, and then inspected all the other pockets. I then proceeded to empty my old purse, and then my entire backpack. Just as I suspected: my second camera battery was missing. I must have left it in the opulent comforter folds at the Chaucery Royal Hotel back in London when I was switching purses.

    On all of my other trips, I have never lost anything before. And now, in front of my family, who I wanted to badly to impress, I managed to not only mix up departure plans, get us lost, and make us mis-dress for an outdoor performance, but I even lost a very expensive camera battery. So much for demonstrating my passage into adulthood.

    When exactly will I be considered an “adult”? My dad still claims he “still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.” Haha. But when does the world make the transition in considering a person an “adult” versus a kid? Even adults attend school, so the distinction cannot be “adult vs. student.” I am quite certain it is an age difference or some sense of maturity; I am just not sure how this is determined. Would I be an adult if I dressed in a business suit and held a job behind a desk? But then what about “adults” who work at grocery stores check-out counters or in gymnasiums? Will I be an adult once I begin renting my own living accommodations? But I have friends my own age who already do this, and I know adults who still live with their parents. No, the distinction must be age-related, and I assume responsibility-related, as well. Hence why now that I am a legal adult in all senses (except for freely renting a car—alas, I must wait until 25 for that commodity), I feel I must begin to assume as much responsibility for my life as possible, whether in the administrative (i.e. scheduling), monetary, or social senses.

    And then sometimes, I just want to curl up on a couch and watch Disney movies all day so I can pretend I’m eight years old again. Doesn’t everyone feel that way?

    Wednesday, May 2, 2007

    Tea the English Way, Coffee the French Way

    The English drink their tea with milk. Always. When I asked for mine specifically with no milk, I received a look similar to when I ask for tap water in a foreign café/restaurant/bar. “You want it black?” they replied skeptically.

    While the English drink their tea milky, the French drink their coffee black. Angela could not find coffee with cream anywhere in Lille. The shop where she ordered coffee actually told her they had no cream.

    Welcome to the American way, where you can have your tea and coffee however you please.

    Dog Poop and Skinny Girls

    As insulting as it may seem to cultures and countries, Angela and I have decided that once you travel to a few cities, they all begin to seem very much the same. Had someone dropped us into Paris, and had we had no knowledge of the difference between the French and Spanish languages, we may immediately have believed we were in the city centers of Madrid or Barcelona or, if we did not know English, even London. All of these cities have the obvious rows of colorful shops, lots of flower shops, cafes, basic public transportation, and much-too-similar tourist attractions: museums, cathedrals, historic monuments, and parks.

    However, when we made this observation, both of us were tired, sore, grouchy, and annoyed at having been ditched by our French friend Melanie the previous night when there seems to be nothing to do in her tiny hometown, Lille. To be fair to Paris and even to France as a country, people, and culture, it does possess several striking features that differentiate it from other places.

  • Paris has much wider streets than either London or Madrid. It is probably more comparable to Barcelona, but with fewer alleyways. Of course, this is considering the fact that we did not stay in Paris; we stayed in Lille, and so we did not have the opportunity to become familiar with all the nooks and crannies of the city. However, even Lille seemed to have generally wider streets than the typical “alleyway”, and this is considering even the fact that we stayed in the dodgiest of areas. (For those of you from Pittsburgh, I would say we stayed in the “East Liberty” of Lille.)
  • France is really dirty. Not in the metaphorical sense, but literally. I have never had so much dirt blown into my eyes, anywhere. Not in New York City, not in Madrid, not even in Arizona, where there was all that dusty dirt everywhere. I think it comes from the fact that they do not clean up their sidewalks. They do not employ people to clean them—as they did in Spain, where you could find people in neon vests at every corner, wheeling trash buggies and spearing or sweeping rubbish off of the ground—nor do they clean the walks themselves—attested to by the fact that there are small crusty nodules of dog poop on the sidewalk every ten meters or so.
  • Girls in France are really skinny. It is not a stereotype; it is fact. Angela bought a jar of mussels, but she needed a utensil to eat them, so we went to McDonald’s and bought McFlurries. Then, we sat in the second floor dining room and watched people on the street below while we ate our “meal” (me: brioche, apple, tap water, McFlurry, her: croissant, preserved mussels, apple juice, McFlurry). Yes, we really were that bored with Lille and what there was to do there (i.e. nothing easily accessible by broke, foreign, English-speaking students), but it was also massively entertaining to analyze the crowds that passed below without worrying that we were offending anyone, since virtually no one in Lille spoke English. We discussed men, women, children, their clothing, their actions, and their body types at full volume with no regard for who might sit down at the tables beside us. And after two hours of this type of analysis, we came to one very miraculous yet definite conclusion: French women are skinny.
  • Our second conclusion: males should not wear skinny-leg jeans. Skinny boys are not attractive, and skinny-leg jeans just make them look skinnier than they already are. Whoever started this trend should be removed from the fashion industry.
  • France seems intent upon being more chic than either Spain or England. I do not say this because I went expecting this stereotype to be true, either. The traditional architecture is more ornate and detailed than that which I saw in Spain or England. Compare cathedrals for instance: the Notre Dame blows any Spanish cathedral away ten times over for the intricacy of its carvings and statues, never mind any English churches. Spain certainly had its own style of ornament for buildings, but it was more “robust” and, for lack of a better description, less “hoity-toity.” English traditional architecture, by comparison, is just plain plain.
  • Another way in which France maintains its chic status is in its eateries. The cafes are ritzier, with wineglasses crisscrossed over the tables that are unoccupied and napkins folded quaintly at each place setting—and this is at nearly all of the outdoor cafes we passed, not just the occasional one or two. Obviously the French have fast food chains (how else would we have stayed within our budget and comfort zone without Subway or McDonald’s?), but what they do not seem to have is buffets, which both English and Spanish cities most certainly provided in some variety. Combined, these observations would imply that the French take their eating very seriously: they intend to appreciate every bite they eat. They had better, for what they pay.
  • And as for the differences in food, here are the most popular/originally “French” foods (by what I could gather from my time spent there): olives, cheese, wine, and mussles. They seriously had a café that appeared to serve meals of only steamed mussles and side dishes, and in the supermarkets, they had a cheese deli with a greater variety than Americans enjoy when buying sandwich lunchmeat. They also have more varieties of olives than I have seen in a long time, although I assume when I go to Greece I will see more; and as for wine, well, let us just say that their wine lists usually supersede their menus, and their supermarket dedicates more than two isles to the beverage.
  • Tuesday, May 1, 2007

    France: Free Bathrooms

    I am becoming a champion of finding free bathrooms. Americans wouldn’t think of that as being any great skill, but travel to enough foreign cities, and you’ll come to value you it as one of the greatest asset a traveler can possess. Brainstorming in Paris for where we might not have to spend one Euro to relieve our bladders, Angela and I resorted to a failsafe we had stumbled across in Spain: department stores. El Cortes Ingles had always had free toilets, and luckily, the one department store we located on the streets of Paris did, too.

    We happily made use of this commodity for a second purpose, as well: to refill our water bottles. I don’t know what it is with French people and bottled water, but the guy in Subway (the sandwich shop we resorted to once we realized that we would otherwise have had to spend exorbitant amounts of money on foodstuffs we wouldn’t recognize) looked at me even more strangely than any of the Spaniards had when I tried to indicate that I wanted a glass of tap water, not his bottle of Evian. Then, the selection of bottled waters in Carrefour—the supermarket in Lille—was just incredible, all in stylish gooseneck bottles of every imaginable color . . . . it almost rivaled their wine selection!

    Returning to my discussion of one-Euro bathrooms: I am quite offended that I, as a human being and world citizen, should have to pay to use a bathroom, particularly in a place where I purchased a ticket (such as a train or bus station). As a female, I have particular needs throughout certain period of the month—no pun intended—and to be forced to pay just to avoid potential disaster and humiliation while my male counterparts get away with simply holding their bladders is discriminatory.

    Providing free, safe, clean public restrooms is a public service that should be provided by these companies. They are already charging such exorbitant prices for their services (€67 to go to Paris by train from Lille, which is only an hour away within France) that such a commodity should not be too much to ask. Furthermore, such a service could certainly be supported by the government, which should have its citizens’ health and well-being in mind. These institutions should not be making money off of people’s natural bodily functions, especially when the restroom facilities they do keep are usually so poorly maintained. Most of them smell, are dimly lit, and are so open to the outside that they maintain very little sense of privacy.

    On a happier note, my return trip from France was brightened by a random act of kindness. Upon arriving at the Victoria rail station, I was in urgent need of a restroom. Usually Eurostar provides free restrooms to its passengers, but apparently this is only to passengers boarding the Eurostar; passengers disembarking are expected to fend for themselves. Therefore, I found myself in the general station, urgently following “toilet, this way” signs. When we finally found one, it was operated by a 20p turnstile. Having returned from France, I had only Euros in change. Luckily there was a change machine beside the bathroom, but equally unluckily, it only offered change for one pound coins, not for five/ten/twenty pound notes, which was all I had. I was beginning to panic, because the need to get inside the bathroom was becoming increasingly urgent. Shops generally do not agree to give change unless you purchase something, and I did not relish the idea of being forced to spend even more money just to get inside the bathroom. Besides, spending more money would mean wasting more time, and this could cause quite a problem in my less-than-conducive situation…. Suddenly, a girl standing next to Angela who had been counting her change asked how much we needed. We turned simultaneously and said, “Twenty p.” She handed over the coin. I gushed thanks and offered her Euros in exchange, but she shook her head and replied that she understood, she had been in my position. Gratefully, I left my luggage with Angela and dashed down the steps. Thank goodness for kind people.

    This could have all been avoided, however, had the bathroom been free.

    Apparently, charging for bathroom usage is illegal in America. At least we got something right.