Sunday, November 13, 2005

Take away the chips

It's true that many US folk know English folk call French fries chips. Now I'm here to tell you that isn't quite true. The English call French fries, get this, French fries! Maybe occasionally they're called pommes frites. What the English call chips is what Americans call steak fries. That is, they're big and fat and soggy, not thin and crispy like French fries. And French fries do exist here, just check out any golden arches and you'll get the same French fries that you get in the States. Whenever we get an order of chips (usually while at MIL's), I'm always picking out the scrumps, the little crunchy bits and pieces at the bottom of the paper container. Because I like my fried potatoes crunchy, otherwise, what's the point of frying them?

It's also true that fish and chips come wrapped in newspaper, but only sort of. It's paper like newspaper might be printed on, but nothing has been printed on it. Pretty much everything you can buy at a fish and chip shop comes wrapped in this sort of paper. And that can mean meat pies, deep fried sausages, deep fried patties (meat and veggie), deep fried mushrooms, deep fried Mars(Milky Way) bars, and Chinese food.

Chinese food?

Yes, Chinese food. Many fish and chip places are run by Chinese, so they sell Chinese food as well as traditional English take-away(take-out) food. And, just like in the US, there are Chinese dishes specific to England. In general, I find the Chinese take-away in the Bristol area pales in comparison to that of the San Francisco Bay Area (which isn't surprising). And with every Chinese food dish, they give you a choice of rice or chips. Yep, get your Chop Suey with chips. I find the combination a bit weird. But then, people here eat their chips with all sorts of weird condiments, most commonly malt vinegar, and not uncommonly mild curry sauce. Curry? In a Chinese fish and chip shop? Yes, Chinese style curry. It's milder than Indian curry, and I expect there's some soy sauce in it somewhere, but I don't know for sure. They do also use ketchup(tomato sauce) with their chips here. Oh yes, and salt. If you ever go into a fish and chip shop and they ask if you want salt on your chips, just say no. It winds up being more like chips with your salt. You can feel your blood pressure rise with each bite.

All sorts of main dishes come with chips - take the kebab houses. The primary dish at a kebab house is doner kebab(gyro in the US - I believe doner kebab is the Turkish name and gyro is the Greek name, but Greek and Turkish readers are welcome to correct me here). But loads of other dishes are served at kebab houses: shish kebab, hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza. And all can come with a side of chips. That is, you can get pizza and chips and nobody would bat an eye. Carbo-loading is de rigeur, I guess.

So basically, you can get chips with anything. And late into the night, too. Most of these sorts of take-away places are open until 11PM, or midnight at the weekend. In some places they're open even later. Pubs traditionally stop serving at 11PM, and the thing to do is to go from the pub to the take-away and get some serious munchies. I'm afraid I have fallen victim to the hot Indian curry at midnight shenanigans. And believe me you live to regret that. Indian curry here is very hot. I can eat some hot stuff, but I cannot eat a vindaloo, not even with loads of pilau rice and lager(fizzy beer). I can barely eat a small amount of madras. These are spice heat levels, that is, mild, medium, madras, and vindaloo. They're probably regional designations, but I think vindaloo is vindaloo all over England. When Richard and I went for a curry (you can also "go for an Indian" here, in fact there's a spoof skit that an Indian comedy troupe did called "Going for an English") in California, he would tell the waiter, "I want it hot, really hot, as hot as you can make it" and he'd still get something that I could eat - the gringo vindaloo.

But back to chips, so the question is, what are chips here? They are crisps, and potato crisps come in the most unusual flavors, too. Like cheese and onion, or roast chicken, or prawn cocktail (incidentally, actual prawn cocktails are served with a sort of French or Russian dressing here, not red sauce, which is a huge disappointment. And the prawns, that is, shrimp, are small. What they call king prawns here would probably be thrown back in the Gulf [of Mexico]), or Thai sweet chilli (yes they spell chili with 2 l's, and I find it most disturbing). At first I appreciated the flavors, but now I find them too artificial tasting, so I just stick to ready salted (why not just salted, why the ready? Are there salted ones that aren't ready?)

The way they've taken to the potato here, you'd never know it was a native American food. But there are lots of things that cross borders successfully. The most popular dish in England used to be chicken tikka masala a couple of years ago. It is now Thai green curry.

Another thought to leave you with: one night when we were getting Chinese at one of these Chinese food and fish and chip places, Richard was thinking back to his childhood, remarking that there was one Chinese family in the area, and they ran the local Chinese fish and chip take-away. He turned to me and said, "Imagine going to Beijing and opening a fish and chip shop with no other English or American or foreign families for miles around." Just imagine.


Bonfire night

When you move to another country, you discover all the truisms and beliefs instilled in you by your own country. Take for example my recent visit for a health check by a nurse at the local surgery (clinic; I'll blog about the National Health Service later). I asked about mammograms, as in the US it is recommended that I get one annually. The nurse said that in the UK, an annual mammogram isn't recommended until the age of 50 (which I am not). My initial reaction is a sort of panic - what will happen if I don't get an annual mammogram? How can I be protected against an advancing breast cancer? But then, reason takes over and I think, well, hundreds of thousands of women in the UK have this same level of care. Of course, then I think, funny how amongst the people we know or have known in England, there are 6 in the UK who have had it. Versus in the US, where I only know one person (a relative) who has had it. Coincidence?

In any case, the English way of doing things is naturally different, and it challenges my idea of what the right thing to do is. One of the English holidays is Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, which celebrates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. People used to have great big bonfires, but those are now understandably banned. In their place are fireworks. And I mean anyone over 16 can go to any corner store and buy enough firepower to blow off a finger or two. Yes, any drunken yobbo can set off a firework and have it shooting into a neighbor's window. You can have magnificent fireworks displays in the "privacy" of your own backyard. And you can pay to see a fireworks display at a local school, where the firecrackers are so close the booms actually hurt your ears.

The firecrackers started going off in September. I'd hear a boom here and there, which sometimes sounded like a gunshot (a sound I'm sure most people in the UK aren't familiar with except on the TV). My husband assured me each time that it was a firework. As Bonfire Night approached, the noises became more frequent. By the time the weekend of Bonfire Night arrived, they were coming thick and fast. On Friday, the 4th, we went to a local high school, and paid dearly to get in (14 pounds for 2 adults and 2 children). Unbeknownst to us there was a little carnival set up on the school grounds, with arcades and rides and food vendors. It wasn't too cold, but as we were waiting for the fireworks to start, it began to rain. What made it worse is that they delayed the start to get people to spend more money. The fireworks show was not as grand as the municipal fireworks you get in the States, but it was a heckuvalot closer, and therefore much louder. What's more, we didn't have to get there early, find a spot, try and entertain ourselves in the dark until the distant show started, and then spend an hour trying to get through the traffic to go home. We just stood in the field and watched, then went home. We ran into some friends (and face it, we don't even know that many people yet), so it seemed more intimate and community spirited.

I can't remember which night, but one of the weekend nights (or maybe a couple of them), we stood in the attic with our heads poking out of the attic window. The attic window affords a great view, as it is essentially the 3rd floor (2nd floor in English terms) of a house on one of the higher spots in the Bristol area. From our vantage point, we could see fireworks going off all over the city, from just over the row of houses across the street, to way off in the distance near the Severn Bridge (quite a ways away). It was the most amazing thing to see. Then on Bonfire Night, we got together with our neighbors and lit a bunch of cheap fireworks in their backyard (back garden). Our 3-year-old held some sparklers. Even I lit one of the firecrackers. Sparks showered all over our neighbor's wooden fence and deck (it was drizzling rain at the time, too). These were not the bottle rockets of my youth, oh no. There were exploding flowers, Catherine wheels, green dragons, screamers, boomers, I don't even know what they're all called. The air was thick with smoke - all over the city, you could see the smoke, and smell it too.

All this is quite overwhelming for someone who grew up in the US and saw firecrackers restricted, then further restricted, until finally the average person just couldn't get a hold of any. I remember driving out to the rural areas in Texas, where there'd be a wooden shack by the side of the road with FIREWORKS in big bold letters. Eventually it was illegal to set them off anywhere where someone else might see them, basically, unless you had some special license. And when we could buy them, they were much simpler, not the sophisticated colorful displays you can buy in the local newsagents (sort of like a 7-11, only with a larger selection of newspapers and magazines) here. I was appalled, worrying about the fire risk and wondering if all the hospitals gear up for injuries on the nights surrounding Bonfire Night. There is still the occasional boom in the distance (or not so distance) even now. I was in a store the other day which advertised fireworks "for New Year". Isn't it a problem? Aren't there fires? Don't drunken idiots set them off in each others' faces? Apparently not enough to worry the government. My mum-in-law did complain about the noise, saying it should be restricted to one night only. One of our English friends said that in France, there's not even an age restriction for buying fireworks. Mind boggling.

But thinking through it logically, houses here are generally not made of wood. Shingles are tile or slate. The ground is typically very wet this time of year, and as I mentioned, it was raining during the weekend. Richard said the only time you ever heard of a fire was when a rocket shot into someone's window. As for the injuries, I haven't done much research on that. I suppose they happen, but I didn't see anything in the news.

And so, I guess fireworks aren't all bad and damaging. It depends on where you are, the quality of the fireworks, the common sense of the person setting them off. It was pointed out that for all the restricting of fireworks in the US, you can still buy a firearm. So I guess it's all relative.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Getting comfortable

I have drafts of other blogs I plan to write, but I'm not inspired to work on any of them right now. Instead, this is the explanation, and possibly the excuse, for not writing them more frequently.

Having never moved internationally before (welllll, I sort of did when I went to study in Germany, but that was for a short period of time with a known ending), I can't say as I know what to expect in terms of how long it takes to get used to the whole situation. Many people ask me if we're settling in, and it's really hard to say.

You see, at this stage of the game, we're not yet in our own home. Most of our things are in boxes. We're living in a house where there is exactly one table (unless you count the attic, which is cold, but where Richard has set up an office of sorts). This table is where we eat, prepare food, do crafts, write, and work on the laptop if we don't want it on our laps. When there are 4 people, and it is a relatively small table, that's high usage.

Bottom line is that I'm not accomplishing that much and don't feel like I'm getting anywhere. I am a little reluctant to start establishing community ties here, only to move a ways away. By the same token, certain things must happen, and should happen before I find there's no time once I start working. Things like finding the doctor we want, registering Lauren for pre-school, taking Lauren to swimming lessons, possibly taking some courses. It would help to know when it is we will get jobs and move, but becoming a psychic is not on my list of things to do. Perhaps I should go see one.

Some folks might thrive in this sort of environment, where you can't find what you want and you know you have just the thing "in a box somewhere". Where to get anything you have to move several other objects out of the way, because we're so packed in here. Where you hesitate to buy something as simple as a can of food, wondering where you'll put it when you get home. Where you're always sidling by and stepping over toys. And sharing the table. Richard gives me a hard time, saying I should go work in the attic, but that's not all that comfortable for me either. It's his setup, not mine. If I want to do something to a machine, I have to ask, and it always seems like he's never there to ask when I need to.

I think I don't mind moving around, so long as I have the opportunity to set up my own space. But until we have a home of our own, that's not a possibility. So I pitch around, trying to figure out what to do next, wanting to make a phone call but noticing it's the wrong time of day (lunch break or after 5PM for local stuff, middle of the night for overseas stuff). And to make matters worse, my Palm ran out of battery life, the last desktop sync I had seems to be corrupted, but I can't be sure because I can't get the desktop software to run (don't have a machine to run it on that I'm able to really play with), and the later Palm desktop software doesn't read the old format files. So I don't really have people's addresses and phone numbers. It's all very disconnecting.

That is why I haven't really blogged much. Don't get me wrong, I'm not plunging into the depths of depression, I'm more out of sorts or out of sync. But there's so much to discover that I'm not at all bored or depressed. I've been able to spend loads of time with my daughter, which is great. I've read many books. I've completed some knitting projects. I'm getting in better shape, and taking on a new exercise discipline in addition to trying to improve my Pilates. I've gotten to know a few people. We done a little travel and sightseeing. And most importantly, we haven't all shredded each other into little bitty bits, which would have been my fear had someone told me that we'd still be living with my mother-in-law 4 months after arriving.

So, no, I guess we are not settled in, and I don't expect we will until we get a place of our own. And keep those emails coming.