Monday, 17 August 2009

Reader Mail!!

Without further delay, the responses to questions one fair reader has been burning to ask. My thanks for your submissions, dear groupie. She is of a particularly inquisitive sort, as am I, and I appreciate the insightfulness of this line of questioning. Right, then:

Q: I know the Brits aren’t known for their food, but I think you could do worse there.

Indeed, I could do worse, as I found out at our subpar hotel breakfast buffet in Italy recently. We had to eat out daily in the first six weeks of being here, as we were living in a hotel. Thus, I became intimately familiar with "pub grub." It's a very meaty culture. Bacon is supremely important, and not the "streaky bacon" we Americans are used to, but "proper rashers" -- like canadian bacon in consistency. Perhaps I can chalk this heightened carion emphasis up to Chumley's meat obsession, but I find it endemic. Also, fish is big.

Ahoy! Life saving safety tip: avoid the "Stargazer Pie" at all costs.

There are lots of vegetarians in the UK, so it's easier to find less meaty options anywhere you eat out. Portion sizes are normal... what is normal? No such thing as the "free refill" on drinks. I find the beverage selection enchanting. Yes, enchanting. All my long-time followers will recall my beverage obsession, and I can't seem to get enough of the various fruity cordials that one dilutes with water. They really aren't terribly calorific, either. Chumley showed up with some elderflower cordial the other evening, and despite its herbaceous origins, I found it refreshing.

Ice exists in small quantities. Larger quantities are available on demand. But be too demanding and you stick out as an American. I try to limit my requests for ice to once a week. Now that I can practice the art of home ice-making, I'm much happier.

Vegetables are in ready supply. In fact, Chumley gets bummed if dinner doesn't include the "three veg" part of "meat and three veg." We live in "the Fens" - a term for a swath of formerly swampy, perfectly flat farmland that grows a good deal of the produce for the country. In fact, when on a country road in the Fens, close your eyes, reopen them, ignore you're hopefully driving on the left, and you might as well be in Illinois. I get a kick out of "name that vegetable" - figuring out what's growing in the fields. So far, I've spotted lots and lots of potatoes, leeks, barley, wheat, puny corn, and vast quantities of rapeseed. They use rapeseed to make vegetable oil, and it glows a lovely flourescent yellow en masse. Ah, day-glo agriculture.

The desserts are so much better than America. Really. There is little regard for silly things like calorie counts and fat grams, and you can taste it. Tarts, cakes, ice creams, most likely doused stiffly with cream. In fact, you can use some of the excess cream for your coffee, which leads us to...

Q: And, I know you can get a great cup of tea, but can you say the same for a great cup of coffee?

Coffee is a rarer bird, not nearly as available as the revered "cuppa." I've had it readily offered with dessert (see above, and "ass as big as the Lake District" comment of previous post), and it isn't half bad. They've got the dark empire of Starbucks on the occasional street corner, so all is not lost if you simply must have a frappucino or face imminent system shutdown. I saw french press coffee being served at a tea room, which I find to be a bit earthy.

And for the record, contrary to Chumley's violently held opinion, fruit tea abounds and appears completely legitimate as a form of tea. Chumley is so convinced that fruit tea is tea blasphemy, in fact, that he refers to it as "so-called fruit tea." This is the only country one could have this conversation in, by they way.

Q: I know there are McDonald’s in London … is there a Krispy Kreme?

A Krispy Kreme? By my count, there are 40+. A large store chain called Tesco (think Costo, Meijer, SuperWalMart) carries them at selected pastry counters. I have not done further research (see "Lake District" concerns, ante.)

Q: Do people now ask you to say things just to hear an American accent or is that truly just a British thing?

To a lesser extent, I'm afraid it works in reverse. A little clerk at Boots (a big pharmacy chain) asked me to say "awesome." Apprently, Chumley says that's a word they'd just never use, especially not with the lovely, drawn-out American "AaaaHH" at the beginning. They seem as bemused as we are to hear the little twists of phrase for the same meaning, like "trolley" for "cart", "pot" for "container" (as in yogurt pots), and the U.S. phrase that seems to produce comedy, "stick shift." Shift means move, as in "We've just shifted house, and now we've got to get everything sorted (figured out.)"

Coincidentally, the word "orton" has entered my recent vocabulary. It's a place name. People rarely understand me say it on the first try. In fact, Chumley thinks I ought to audition for cartoon sound effects by saying it over and over: "Orton, orton, orton, orton." In an American accent, it sounds like a blob on the move.

Q: ...about the weather. I know it does lend to beautiful gardens and moist complexions, but do you get tired of the dreariness?

The first thing that struck me from this perspective isn't the rain, it's the coolness. In the middle of July and August, I had formerly been prepared to be baked in a brick over within a few steps of leaving air conditioning. For my own mental stability, I've had to learn how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in my mind. (Is that a James Taylor hit, "Gone to Fahrenheit-a in My Mind?") It probably reaches 72F on any given summer afternoon here. They had a "heat wave" reaching the mid and high eighties upon our arrival, which was downright comical. Ladies passing out at the Royal Orchid Society exhibitions... disaster!

Q: Have you seen the Queen or any of the Royal Family?

Only on television. Or when Chumley puts on his best falsetto, twists a jam jar, and declares, "I declare this jar.... open." I may have seen some very backwater royal, like the Seventeenth Earl of Cheddar, but not known enough to kiss the ring. My brother and sister-in-law were invited to dinner with the Queen, however. Hat selection for the occasion was a pivotal issue. We're thinking of getting tickets for Buckingham Palace this season, but I doubt very much we'll have a sighting. Maybe we'll see a corgie or two. I hear they are foul little dogs...

Q: Do you get a fair amount of US news?

Some, especially with the demise of Jacko and the big national healthcare debate. But not much, so I resort to reading my formerly local papers online. I read People online also, but don't admit to that. I don't read TMZ either. Nope.

Q: And TV? Is it all British stuff or can you watch “American Idol” and “Saturday Night Live”?

I really do enjoy BBC TV, despite how irked I was that we had to initially buy a TV license. That's the cost of no commercials, I'm afraid. They have some wonderful shows on current events, comedians, not terribly old movies, and as I was such a BBC America fan, I get all those series first run. There is rarely crap on TV. We can get by with just aerial - five or six channels? Channel 4 is a bit weird, but how can we fault them. They created "Father Ted." Genius.

I don't know that I've seen "American Idol" or "Saturday Night Live" broadcast here at all. This would explain the completely blank looks Chumley shoots me when I suggest something "needs more cowbell," or wondered aloud whether John Lewis (department store) carried the "Bass-O-Matic." The American show they do carry in the daytime, everyday, is "Murder, She Wrote." I've seen some quality frosty lipgloss on some of those episodes, let me tell you.

Q: What about the radio stations … do you hear what tunes you know and love?

Unlike the BBC, I find BBC radio full of American music. It's divided into Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4, descending from most hip to hip replacement. Some of the rarely played American songs hit farther up the charts here, back in their day, so I'm learning some new old songs also.

The younger stations can be a bit techo-heavy. It was getting me down one day, until I walked into a British Red Cross charity shop and found Madonna's Immaculate Collection used for two pounds. I popped it in my car CD player and serenity was restored.

Thanks again to our gentle interviewer, and please submit your burning cultural questions for future editions of Reader Mail!

1 comment:

Jamie said...

If I may enter into the fruit tea conversation, I agree with Chumley. My Southern parents would contend that "fruit tea" (said through clenched teeth) is not REAL tea. Tea should taste like tea, and not fruit or syrup or anything of the like.

My questions, based on my time in Europe:
1. Do you have screens on the windows?
2. What is reason for the incredible European Screen Shortage? Is the E.U. helping to distribute necessary screens?
3. What is a visit to the doctor like? I have heard that it is necessary to bring several days' rations with you. (Although that is not much different from here.)
4. Is it refreshing to live in a country that does not enjoy Nickelback?

I look forward to hearing more!