Thursday, 24 November 2011

Pining for Pumpkin

I am here to unmask the unsavory American ex-pat practice of pumpkin hoarding.  Why pumpkins as opposed to, say, Talking Elmo, or the next generation Nintendo Wii, you ask?  As a girl who used to live in Morton, Illinois, Pumpkin Capital of the World, I too used to be baffled as to why anyone would stockpile it.  Here's the local lowdown on the lowly squash.

First of all, it's common knowledge that British people don't know what the heck to do with pumpkin.  It's starting to weasel its way into British cuisine among other commonly roasted winter vegetables like butternut squash and sweet potatoes, but the mere thought of putting pumpkin in anything resembling a dessert makes them want to pull their knitted tea cozies over their heads.  It's yet another American import best left to go the way of Pepsi Clear and New Kids on the Block.  Granted, I did lay my hands on a small pumpkin meant only for decor purposes.

It's simply not enough, I say.  I need hardcore canned pumpkin.  I don't want to spend my weekend splitting, scooping and roasting a paltry, petite pumpkin for the whopping cup of pulp I'd get after four hours.  Yes, I am just that lazy.  Things got tricky when I found out too late that the UK grocery store Waitrose carries canned pumpkin as a novelty item.  I arrived much too late.  Word had long gotten out on the ex-pat email chain about the latest canned pumpkin sighting, and my fellow pumpkin pie eaters had stripped the joint bare.  There wasn't a gourd within a twenty-mile radius.  The empty shell of my spiced pumpkin daydreams had been smashed by loud, ice-seeking hoodlums.  No pie, cake, bars, or even pumpkin chili like I used to dish out at the Morton Pumpkin Festival.  I despaired in aisle five.

At home, I get no sympathy.  Pumpkin pie is repulsive to the British.  When I would get my hands on a piece in the U.S., I could use it like Deepwoods Off on poor Chumley.  An American friend was bold enough to make a pie with the canned gold for her English relatives, but it was clear none of them enjoyed her handiwork.  When she gave a blanket dispensation for not finishing their respective slices, half a dozen forks chinked on dessert plates with puffs of relief.  Tea was served to aid in recovery.

Think of those in pumpkin poverty this holiday and raise a piece for me.  Don't forget the Cool-Whip.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Quorn! What's it good for?

If you ask Chumley to answer this question, his reply would be a resounding, "Absolutely nothing!"  It seems we have had a bit of a barney over meat replacement.  Here's my side of the story.

I accidentally ordered Quorn Chili in a restaurant, thinking it would contain little bits of corn.  It sounded interesting. It was officially good, despite the lack of niblets.  As I learned later, Quorn is a meat replacement, or mycoprotien, as it's more properly known.  It's a fungus among us: originally discovered growing in a field in Buckinghamshire in the 1960's and developed into a very successful meat replacement in Europe.  According to its website, it's grown industrially in large vats and bound together with egg white to make it the texture of ground beef.  It's also formed into countless other meatless items: fish-free fingers, chickenless tidbits, and nowhere near the deli slices. 

When I looked up the nutritional information, it was almost unbelievable.  It has no cholesterol, half the calories, and only 3% fat.  Half a million Quorn entrees are eaten in the UK every day.  It blends flavors into whatever it's cooked with, so I decided to put Quorn mince into our next spaghetti bolognese.  Needing to create blind testing conditions, I didn't inform Chumley.  He happily ate it, commented it was good, and was none the wiser.  Just to recreate my study, I did it again with the same result.  The third time, I got the guilts.  After dinner, I confessed.

Chumley looked like he had been poisoned by some rabid eco-terrorist.  It was far worse than when he's been exposed to toxic rhubarb.  (I didn't even mention it being grown in vats - that wouldn't have been therapeutic.)  The fact he had failed to identify it as not meaty on three occasions apparently pulled no weight.  He promptly demanded that I buy more bacon the next time I went shopping.  To get the fungus out of his system, he ate bacon sandwiches for two straight days with a militant determination.  I was sure he would turn to solids.  The pernicious grease was starting to form a permanent slick on all my good skillets.

I've been threatening to make a State Fair blue ribbon recipe out of apples and a can of Spam we were gifted, but I just don't think he can handle that kind of trauma after I damaged his meaty ego.  I just know he would love the chance to regale me with Spam jokes, but it's just too much of a risk.

If you're brave enough to try Quorn and live in the US, look for it at Super Wal-Marts everywhere, or peek in your nearest industrial vat for what I hope is a nice surprise.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Secrets to Living in England

Here are a few quick and simple rules that would make any American's visit to England just that bit more enjoyable, regardless of its duration.

1.  Never turn down a cup of tea.  I know there are times when tea seems like so much bog water and one could really do with a nicely cold can of A&W Diet Root Beer instead, but tea denied is a social opportunity deferred.  English friends won't know what to do with you, or in fact, how to continue any conversation you might have been having up until that point.  Your teeth will lose that unmistakeable brown cast only six cups a day can bring on.  Worse yet, no one will offer you any biscuits or scones to go with your bolshie soda.  So, suck it up literally and pony up for the PG Tips.

2.  Avoid using the term "spastic" at all costs.  Saying that one of your particularly nerdy friends is "such a spaz" in any U.K. company will swiftly get you labeled as a monster who might as well start hurling anti-gay and racial slurs while you are at it.  Calling someone spastic means they have cerebral palsy, and that adjective doesn't carry any of the lighthearted undertones as it does in American English.

3.  You're not in Kansas anymore, so get over it.  It's badly embarrasing to see unenlightened Americans running around, demanding glasses brimming with ice and jars of marshmallow Fluff.  Have some respect for the foreign country you are in, and realize how much American culture has already been stuffed down the rest of the world's throats.  Avoid cramming it full of Twinkies to boot.  Maybe you might get around to appreciating some of their culture if you stopped whining about the unavailability of your own.  (But whatever you do, don't get conned into trying Marmite.  It's not worth it, unless you'd be into licking the bottom of a brewery vat.)

4.  Learn to queue the right way.  Whatever you do, don't start jumping into short lines at the supermarket simply because they've opened a new till lane and you happened to get there first.  Look to see who's been waiting the longest, and make sure they can avail themselves of the opportunity to be served before you.  Being cavalier with queues is a recipe for disaster in the form of sour looks, sharp comments, and possibly being flagged as a problem shopper by staff.  Queue jumping is a fundemental violation of English social order, and you will be treated like the pariah that you are for engaging in it.

5.  For the love of Pete, just give up on callling your mobile your 'cell phone,' and stop feeling mortally wounded when Microsoft Word says you've spelled 'humor' wrong.  Sure you know deep down you're right, just like it's 5 o'clock somewhere.  But that somewhere isn't the UK.  And issuing militantly misspelled notes to the locals will get you branded as dangerously straight off the boat, most likely packing heat.  Console yourself with the fact that you win the language war every time you send an 'email,' as opposed to an 'epost.'  You shouldn't ever start imitating the accent unless you are particularly fond of Dick Van Dyke's performance in "Mary Poppins," which is known to English ears as the all-time worst attempt by an American at putting on a British accent in cinematic history.  Going to this extreme to blend will get you all the respect of a sideshow monkey, without the tips.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Lady

My father-in-law got me a very curious Christmas present. It was a subscription to a weekly magazine called “The Lady.” I had never heard of it before, and before the first issue arrived, I received a letter notifying me of my gift. “It's a funny old magazine,” he explained. “Very English. I hope you'll like it.”

The first issue arrived. The cover model was Dame Maggie Smith. I thumbed through and took in some of the advertising. This particular issue was heavy into chair lifts, retirement properties, baths with accessible marine doors for easy access, and a full-page ad for matronly cotton nightwear featured on the glossy back cover. My heart went out to the target demographic of advertisements by benevolent societies for “gentlepeople” fallen on hard times.

“It's a funny old magazine,” said a co-worker by sheer coincidence, who reminisced about finding an au pair placement while at university by consulting its advertising section. Sure enough, many pages of ads were devoted to most likely obscenely wealthy families looking for cooks, nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, house minders, and a nebulous term called “mother's help.” I imagine this last one is a particularly thankless job when I reflect on all the gross things my mother got stuck doing in my own childhood. Would the job description include extracting small pairs of soiled underwear from the washing machine after they had somehow become stuck in and completely disabled the agitator? The pay didn't seem particularly good, with sometimes the only remuneration being use of a “cozy” cottage on the estate. Some of the ads were very specific about the type of hooligan they were specifically trying to exclude from the applicant pool. “No one under age 45 need apply,” read one, the drafter apparently painfully unaware of a concept called reverse age discrimination.

Despite its fussiness and my urge to place it on a piece of furniture covered with a doily, next to our Queen's silver jubilee Wedgewood plate, I continued to enjoy reading it, if not for the entertainment value. I became rather well-versed in the various forms of stair lift and mobility scooters available. I enjoyed sidebars devoted on where to source the patterns for knitting one's own Royal Wedding action figures, complete with a small fleet of woolen corgis to surround the Queen. The article on England's Best Marmalade contest was light and breezy, as was the fashion feature on what outfits were sleek and stylish to wear to one's second wedding. I was knee-deep into an article on Colin Firth while on the train to Cambridge, with a lady of The Lady's target demographic age sitting directly across from me.

“I have that nightdress!” she said exuberantly, as a flipped the back cover to spy the usual raft of cotton nighties The Lady peddled on a monthly basis. “So comfortable, and great value for money.” I smiled and nodded in agreement to pacify her, while noting the asking price was £79 for something with a pattern I saw on a tea towel, and her certain clinical insanity for thinking that way. The matching robe would only set her back £139. Only people who took their loungewear very seriously would consider paying this king's ransom for what amounted to a wearable tea cozy. I continued to thumb through my copy, all the while catching her occasional pained glances and what looked like a trickle of saliva forming at the outer edge of her mouth. She was either in the throes of jealousy, or passing a gall stone. As the train pulled into Cambridge and I gathered my things, I was compelled to do my Christian duty.

“Would you like my copy?” I offered. Her eyes lit up with megawatt brilliance. “Oh, I couldn't,” she feigned in protest, as if she were asking me to drive her to her next crochet conference in Belgium. Her hand started to twitch in anticipation. “Really, my new issue arrives tomorrow,” I parried, “and the article on Colin Firth is well worth reading.” That comment sealed the deal, and I left a very happy pension-aged English woman in Coach A amused all the way to Stansted Airport.

Monday, 19 September 2011

It's a floating biscuit

Old-time readers will be comforted to know that I have regathered my nerve and joined another water aerobics class, far away from the tatoos and scolding I've had to endure in previous sessions.  See and for earlier trauma.

This might seem completely irrelevant, but my brother and I spent countless fun hours as children fracturing the lyrics of any number of songs, much to the annoyance of our mother with perfectionist tendencies.  She wasn't so bothered the first to twentieth time we sang them, but perhaps we did wear a bit thin.  One of our greatest hits was a fractured version of a Perry Como song some geriatric school music teacher insisted we learn.  The real version went, "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, Save it for a rainy day."  My brother and I were delighted with our reworked version, "Catch a floating biscuit, Put it in your pocket, Save it for a rainy day."

Everyone knows that you can't actually see floating biscuits, but they sure do make themselves known in other ways.  In case you're wondering what exactly is a floating biscuit, let's just call it an ephemeral, usually noxious, olfactory experience brought on by cruciferous vegetables, etc..  True to our lyrics, a floating biscuit would be the ultimate kid weapon.  How wonderful it would be to conjure up a holy stinker on demand, just when you really needed to use it on some kid enemy?  Or your brother?

Today, however, I did see a floating biscuit.  Don't worry, it's not what you're thinking - I didn't spy any suspect bubbles surfacing from any of the class participants.  I wouldn't be surprised, though, as the demographic of the class would suggest that the majority of its participants enjoy prunes and All-Bran.   Instead, our water aerobics "weights" look just like giant blue Bonio dog biscuits:
Weird.  Stranger still is a baffling fake tree at poolside.  I've passed it countless times before without a second glance, but I was amazed to notice just today that its leaves are the exact shape of cannabis.  With the thick coating of dust they have on their plastic leaves, it even looks like gym management is letting it mellow for later harvest.  Maybe membership is down and they need a new revenue stream.  I'm sure the street value would a a couple pounds or so.

Don't worry, the entire pool area is nonsmoking.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Wherever it's from, don't go there

     As I've grown in linguistic ability thanks to being immersed in British English, sometimes I notice that American ad agencies wishing to communicate to the rest of the world ought to get out a little more.  Case in point?  Ocean Spray.  Their lovely, fruity beverages are widely available in the UK, albeit in fewer versions than in the States.  (I do miss all the grapefruit and tangerine permutations, but will happily settle for Light Cranberry Juice Drink.)  Up until the last month or so, they were running those quirky television ads with folksy cranberry farmers hip high in berries.  The commercials always ended with, "Ocean Spray.  Straight from the bog."  Of course, they meant here:
   But in British English, they've just said their products come straight from here:

    Bog is British slang for the toilet.  Chumley couldn't sit through an ad without snickering smugly.  Surely, that's not quite the imagery of fresh, wholesomeness the Ocean Spray people were thinking of.  At least I found a picture of a clean toilet to keep us from poking out our minds' eye.

    I'm happy to report that someone finally dislodged their head from the bog and thought better of their little slogan for use on UK viewers.  It's officially been changed in their UK ads to, "Good taste.  From a good place." 

   And we're all in a better place for it.

Friday, 22 July 2011

In Search of Life in the UK

After twenty-six months of island living, the UK Border Agency, arbiter of imported and deported peoples, makes imported spouses succumb to an entrance exam in order to secure their permanent residency, or “indefinite leave to remain” as they call it. It's called the “Life in the UK” test, and it's used to vet both those who want to become citizens, as well as people like me who just want to hang out on a long-term basis. I was hoping it wasn't like the driving test, and there would be far fewer questions involving sheep.
I reported to my nearest bookstore and found the Official Life in the UK Study Guide, published by the Stationery Office. I read its introductory paragraphs, which crowed that since its introduction in 2007, it had quickly become a national bestseller. I found this claim a bit insincere, in that any foriegner wishing to remain on the island was forced to purchase this book. Maybe my judgement was hasty. Perhaps the government had hired Jeffrey Archer to sex it up a bit, and the book was actually worth reading on its own merits.

Alas, the benefit of my doubt was unwarranted. I had no idea what to expect. I guessed that the test might focus on purely governmental questions, like defining a constitutional democracy and perhaps some pithy factoids like the date the Magna Carta was signed. I saw a few questions on the Church of England, which I also thought were fair game thanks to the clue in the title.

I did not expect, however, the assorted general knowledge questions that may also appear on my electronically generated test. At first I was relieved that the answer to many multiple choice questions on consumer help appeared to be “Consult your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau.” I worked for this entity, and was very familiar with the types of things they helped the population with. However, the test answers suggested people consult Citizens Advice if they were having difficulty finding a dentist. I did not know we provided this service, but I did know of the government's general propensity to use Citizens Advice as a dumping ground for the disgruntled people they didn't have the time, staff, or inclination to help.

The test would be multiple choice and a bit of true false. As I dug deeper into the study guide, it was evident that I would have to digest and cough up statistics on the population of Wales, geography, various countries' patron saints and their feast days and the ethnic demographics of the greater London area if I wanted to pass. I prayed for questions about what profession took care of sick pets and the address of the Prime Minister's house London.  All my English friends heard me read out questions asking for how many members were in Scottish Parliament, and shook their heads with the comment, "God.  I don't think I could pass that test."  I asked them to rephrase in supportive tones.

I was also hoping the words to “God Save the Queen” would not be on the test, as I had never taken the time to learn them. I know the melody. The Americans have ripped it off and renamed it “My Country, 'Tis of Thee.” The only part of the English version I knew was where the word “queen” appeared. I overcompensated here. When it was necessary to sing along, I mouthed along as best I could. My version usually went something like, “Blah, blah, blah, blah-blah, Queen; Blah, blah, blah, blah-blah, Queen; Queen, queen, queen, queen!”

Thankfully, neither that tune or the enigma of a song “Jerusalem” appeared. Since my island arrival, I've read numerous times that the general British population feels “Jerusalem” should be the national anthem. I knew it to be in heavy rotation at various national events, weddings, and football matches. Once, I thought I had seen the glimmer of a tear forming in the corner of Chumley's eye upon its playing.

Frankly, I didn't get it. It was a William Blake poem set to music, that described the green fields of England as the new Jerusalem. The lyric also floated the possibility that Jesus visited England at some point in his life, with most probable spot for his visit Glastonbury. Despite giving the song a chance and not hating its melody, I found its lyrical suggestions completely nuts. Everybody knows Glastonbury is a dairy farm that got famous for hosting the craziest musical festival on the island. It has a lesser stone circle than Stonehenge, but I could hardly see it as any sort of tourist attraction for Palestinians of modest means. If the lyrics are true, the subtext would be the dissapointment Jesus felt about travelling so far for just a few big rocks, artistically arranged. It's also doubtful he would have enjoyed the spectacle of some crazy English people wading through mud to listen to a week's worth of cutting-edge pipe and drum acts nearly two millenia before the invention of Wellies. I think Blake got a bit too jiggy with the opium pipe as he put quill to parchment on this one.

Relieved I would not be asked to recite or interpret either of these anthems, I was caught out by one seemingly simple question that had to do with the UK film rating system. I remember going with Chumley to a modest theater complex. I overheard one of the ushers mention “12a.” I had been to see movies there on a number of occasions before, but never remembered that the theaters were labelled by letter into subtheaters. “Wow. This theater is way bigger than I thought,” I remarked to Chumley, who couldn't understand what I was talking about as usual. I walked past theater 12, but 12a was nowhere to be found. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught an advertising display that read its film was rated 12a, meaning children under the age of 12 must be accompanied by an adult. I pretended that I was looking for the ladies loo, and followed Chumley into the correct auditorium. I have found that feigning a search for something reasonable is a far superior method of dealing with my profoundly stupid blunders than actually owning up to my thought patterns.

As is my habit, I felt the need to assure myself that failing the Life in the UK test would not be an option. I took eighteen practice exams, which took me back to the day before my driving test when I plotted all thirty-one possible test routes on my Peterborough A-Z map. There were twenty-four questions. I could miss six and still pass. I occasionally bungled the Muslim demographic statistics, but felt I could live with the risk that no more than six questions would concern Muslims.

I presented to the test centre, just in time to pay an extra fifteen pounds thanks to someone at UKBA picking up the clue phone and learning that in an age of austerity, prospective immigrants were sitting ducks for further fees on all manner of “services,” including this exam. Ten were scheduled in my group, but only three of us were native English speakers. I saw an Asian man take the chair beside me in the waiting room, firmly gripping his “Life in the UK” study guide in Mandarin. This did not bode well for him, I reasoned to myself, in that unless I had seriously misjudged all the test instructions, the exam would be in English. A flustered-looking Asian girl flew in five minutes before the exam start time, only to presumably learn from Mr. Mandarin that the powers that be would not let her sit the exam unless she paid for it first. She flew out of the room again, and was back looking slightly relieved and bearing what looked like a receipt. It occurred to me that the content of their conversation could be completely different, as I was not a Mandarin speaker. He could have equally told her there was a sale on peaches at Aldi, for all I knew.

Several more non-natives sauntered in at fifteen minutes past start time, and amazingly, the envigilator let them in. I was amused by the term “envigilator,” as it conjured up images of upright citizens running around airports and asking passengers who packed their bags. My mood had migrated into offcially peeved, as I had gotten up extra early and been daunted in finding the test venue's top-secret public car park. Despite the late-comers' countries of origin, clocks translated the world over.

We learned that each of us ten had to be individually ushered into the test room and registered on the UKBA's website by our envigilator. The young woman who registered me was closely supervised by an older woman perched on her shoulder like a geriatric parrot, squawking directions obvious to all but her. We came to the field on the webpage form that asked for my place of birth.

“Springfield, Illinois,” I stated, congratulating myself on staring strong by answering a question I knew.

The woman looked hessitant. I was about ready to start spelling Illinois when she cut in.

“How about I just put in 'Springfield?'”

I shot her my most citrus of looks. “That won't really help much. There are 52 different cities named Springfield in the United States. At least 35 states have one.” Clearly, she didn't really leave the Fens much.

“Oh. Then why don't I just put Illinois?” she parried.

Did this test facility pay a premium per keystrike? I sighed.

“Ah. Now you've narrowed it down to about thirteen million people.”

She gazed back at me with the reception of a snowy television console. Clarification was in order.

“Look, I've filled out enough of these forms before,” I went on, disgusted by the display of administrative laziness. “They want the city and state. That's how Americans identify locations.” I looked to her parrot for help, but she was distracted helping a woman who had never seen a computer mouse before.

“What? You've taken this test before?” she crowed, loud enough for anyone who spoke the English language to swivel their heads and stare at me as the flunkie she and the rest of the room now thought I was. My original point was floating somewhere above her head.

“No! I mean I've filled out enough UK Border Agency forms in my time to know they're going to want the city and state.”

She huffed in half apology, and picked up my passport to enter the passport number into another field.

“Now I need you to verify the information I've typed in is correct,” she recited off a flashcard in her mind. I craned over the computer screen and reached for my passport in her hand. I grasped it, but she pulled it away. “No! I can't let you have that back.”

Incredulous, but shortly thereafter blinded by white rage, I began to feel the surges of adrenaline hit my bloodstream and my pulse pound into my ears. I couldn't use the nearest blunt object, a very sturdy English-manufactured steel hole punch, to bludgeon her about the head and neck because I needed the pass certificate she very unfortunately had the power to generate for me. Funny how simultaneous access to the control and P keys can go directly to some people's heads.

Thankfully, her geriatric parrot rejoined the greivous bodily harm charge in the making and stepped in. “You need to give this woman her passport back right now,” she instructed in a tone that left no room for deviation. “She doesn't know her passport number off the top of her head. No one does!” The correction could have only been made better by the addition of “You Fool!” in Mr. T tones. Her parrot apologetically whispered, “It's her first day.” My trainee sheepishly handed it over, and I retrieved it from her grabby hand with a satisfying snap. Surprisingly, she had gotten everything correct.

I pitied the fool, said no more, and took my place next to a young man in the corner. He looked not quite as disgusted, but willing to count the lint balls under his mouse to pass the time. He was from New Zealand, and we gleefully dished on how absurd this entire test mandate was to those of us who spoke English as a first language.

I felt better and began the test. I was done in five minutes, thinking there was a fair chance I had missed one. I looked around to see everyone else beavering away, and wanting to avoid obvious hubris, I checked my answers to quell the pangs of guilt. At ten minutes, I could take no more and declared myself finished. Instead of being able to leave, I was forced to loiter on the premises for a grand total of three hours. I took the coveted piece of paper stating I had passed, resisting the urge to fold it into a pirate hat to match the eyepatch my envigilator will undoubtedly be precribed once another aggrieved foreigner puts out her eye. They had better get rid of that paper punch.