Issue 1 - 25 August, 1997
Yes, we were at serious risk of becoming a cob-web (a website that never changes) here.
It's been a long wait, and we appreciate your patience.
Now, we've assembled new chronicles and observations for you, so read on...
The English pub is a unique institution. There is no othere place in the world in the world (well, okay, maybe Ireland) where you can find quite the combination of elements that create a good pub. Yes, there are bars, yes there are local eateries, yes there are places for locals and travelers to gather in a convivial atmosphere; but nowhere does this merge together as well as in a pub. Pity the rest of the world...
Two blocks from our home, the Churchill Arms is one of our "locals"...
A proper pub needs a proper name. Something pompous, reeking of British history or legend, that translates into a visual icon to hang on a signboard outside. The Old Sargent, the Queen Adelide, the Ram, the Speckled Dog, the Seven Stars - all are pubs near my work. There are even "chain pubs" - despised by the locals for being "the McDonald's of pubs" - that have equally fancy names: Pitcher and Piano, Rat and Parott. Occasionally, British wit shows through in a pub name: the Pickled Newt, the Rat and Carrot (which, I suppose, is as close as you can get to a slap at the big chain without being accused of trademark infringement), and, my favorite, the Slug and Lettuce. Mercifully, that last one doesn't have a signboard.
"Arms" is another common naming theme -- Churchill Arms and Kings Arms are two locals. Recently the news had a story about a pub owner who changed the name of his pub to the "Legless Arms" - with an equally tastless signboard to match - but changed it back when amputee advocacy groups got after him.
Most pubs serve food, too. This ranges from British fare, to pubs that are actually well- regarded specialty restaurants in their own right - Italian, Chinese, Mexican, or as in the case of the pub near our home, Thai. The Hop Pole, a pub near work (VERY near -- about 200 feet from our front door -- we've more than half-seriously thought about running voice and Ethernet cabling there) is more traditional, and has the standard hearty British menu - fish, sausages, beans, chips (that's steak fries to the Colonists). A big favorite at the Hop Pole is what we affectionally call the Coronary Platter - a big helping of chips, two eggs, sausages, bacon, and baked beans - makes your arteries scream just reading about it, doesn't it? But lest you think that one always eats like that, remember that in Britain (as in much of Europe) lunch is THE big meal of the day, with supper oftentimes being, er, liquid.
The really unique feature of pubs is the atmosphere they create. Jane has observed that here, one rarely visits people in their homes; more often you meet at a local pub. In many ways, a pub is sort of an extended living room, and the owners try to propagate that image by making their places as inviting and comfortable as possible. Each pub also has a unique decor and feel about it. Our introduction to this came back in January while house- hunting, when we were invited by (at that time) Jane's boss to have dinner at a local pub on the Thames called the Bull's Head. They brought their twelve-year old daughter along (many pubs welcome kids), and as soon as we entered we knew that this was no ordinary bar. A roaring fire banished our chill; the place was quiet, with the strains of muted conversation punctuated by an occasional hearty laugh; and the layout offered a lot of privacy - many dark-panelled nooks and crannies, each holding a table or two. When our food arrived, so did the welcoming committee - a very friendly cat that curled up to each of us in turn, then moved on. (The cat, we were told, actually belongs to the pharmacy across the street, but likes to hang out in the pub in the evening. And, no, it wasn't after our food - it turned down the shrimp I offered - the cat was just being sociable.)
Frequent a pub, and it becomes a part of your social circle. I had only gone to the Hop Pole a half-dozen times (...well, okay, a dozen ... all right, all right, it was more than a dozen, but not by much...) when it got to the point that I wouldn't have to say anything - the barman would just look at me and know the type, and quantity, of beer to draw. Scary stuff, that. Last Friday, though, I really confused them all by deciding to try a new beer...
The old black cab, it ain't what it used to be...
The original blacks are a vanishing breed these days...
Black, that is. Oh, it started innocently enough. They were a proud black fleet when some folks decided to inject a bit of subdued color: a dignified maroon here, a regal blue there, a subdued brown elsewhere. Then some wise guy came up with the idea of renting the whole cab as a rolling billboard, and things just aren't the same anymore...
London hackney cabs (the original "black" cabs, still distinguished now by the shape of the car) are world- renowned for their courtesy, knowledge, and honesty. And they are kept to high standards - the hacks can be spot checked for safety and cleanliness at any time, and fined if they don't measure up.
But most impressive about the London cabs is the driver's knowledge of the city. The advent of the grid plan in laying out a city is a relatively recent invention; London is at least ten times older, and grew rather haphazardly. As a result, you have a street layout that verges on insanity most of the time: many streets only exist for a few blocks; others abruptly change direction; still others change names, as often as five times in a mile. (I'm not exaggerating - I can show you exactly that phenomenon on a map.) All of this requires postal workers, cab drivers, delivery people and others to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the city.
If you're ever in London, you might see people riding around on mopeds, singly or in small herds, with clipboards of maps and papers. They'll stop at an intersection, peer down the side roads, perhaps explore an alley, then continue on their way. These are hack drivers in training. They are preparing for "the knowledge" -- a grueling oral test where they can be asked to identify the best path from any address, to any address. And, they are expected to know traffic patterns, so the "best path" may differ depending on the time of day. That's why no self-respecting cabbie would ever consult a map - they have the whole city imprinted in their head!
All of this results in a wonderful service. We don't use the cabs much, since we live so close to the Underground and buses, but one time, coming back from Victoria Station with a bunch of suitcases, we boarded a hack at the taxi stand outside. Now, we live on one of those "challenging" streets - it exists for a block and a half only. I told the driver the name of our apartment house, and paused a second while a look of concern spread across his face. Then I added the street name. "Ah yes", he said, bursting into a smile, "right then. Off we go!"
There are two things in the UK that, unless I am really careful, will have a severe impact on my waist measurements ... fine English Bitters, and Cadbury Chocolates.
The British are notorious consumers of chocolate. A figure recently quoted in the news put the amount at eight kilograms of chocolate per person, per year. This places them behind the Belgians and Swiss in chocoholism, but not by much. (To put that figure in perspective, it works out to about 20 grams a day. The average chocolate bar here weighs in at about 40-50 grams .)
Doubtless one of the reasons for this love of chocolate is its availability. Every newsagent, no matter how small, will have a rack of chocolate in addition to the newspapers; most every Underground station has, at the very least, a Cadbury vending machine. Chilled, no less - so on a blisteringly hot summer's day (remember, this is England, so "blisteringly hot" is oh, about 80 degrees F.) you can have a nice cool snack. Keeps it from melting all over the place, too. Chocolate works its way into all types of desserts ... an ice cream treat called a "99" is a vanilla soft-ice-cream cone with a "Flake" chocolate bar stuck in the middle. Corporate wars have even erupted over chocolate -- the BBC has threatened to pull all the Cadbury machines off its premises because Cadbury sponsors a competing nighttime soap opera on a commercial channel.
Ah, but it's not just any chocolate that is the subject of this affectation. It's Cadbury chocolates, quite possibly the best chocolate in the world. Cadbury is a family-run British business (unlike the other major chocolate suppliers here: Nestle -Swiss, and Mars - American), and has tailored their product for the British palate. It's sweeter than other brands, and tastes very rich. Despite this, it really isn't excessively high in calories (good thing, that), and comes in portions sized just right for a quick pick-me-up snack. Not that I compulsively check these things out, but the 40-50 gram average bar mentioned before weighs in only at about 200 Calories.
Oh, and the varieties! In the US, the only Cadbury produts you can get easily are the eggs at Easter. Cadbury doesn't aggressively market overseas (pity!) preferring to concentrate on the UK. Well, the eggs are available here, too, but they form just a small part of the entire delicious range. There are several types of pure chocolate: milk, dark, flaky, creamy; and various combinations with nuts, raisins, caramel, crisp rice, nougat... When I first started working here, I tried to get a different Cadbury product every day for my midafternoon snack. A month later, I was still finding new varieties in London. And on our most recent trip away, in Ireland, we found even more untried varieties! Apparently, the Irish division develops unique products suited specifically to local tastes.
They take their chocolate very seriously indeed.
So what are my favorites? Well, I'll tell you, but only if you promise that if you ever come to England, you try them all and decide for yourself. Hey, it's a tough job, but you'll be a better person for it...
Okay, my top three: (3) Picnic Bar: whole peanuts, caramel, with chocolate on the outside.
(2) Fuse: chopped nuts, raisins and crispies in a chocolate fudge.
(1) Flake: a stick of chocolate, but instead of being soft and sticky, it's very brittle, and, well, flaky.
Ah, but all this talk has suddenly made me hungry for something sweet. Excuse me while I nip out to the newsagent...
Because of our convenient location at Europe's doorstep,
we try to visit nearby countries as often as we can - every
month or so. We'll chronicle our visits here...
There's a curious aquatic bird found throughout Europe. It's called a "coot". About the size and shape of a wild duck, it's all black except for a white splotch on its forehead, and has a beak instead of a bill. Coots are noisy, territorial, and aggressive and other waterfowl generally steer well clear of them.
In a pond in Kensington Park near our apartment, I recently saw two coots in their domestic modes: one was noisily defending its nest against a horde of passer- by geese, while its mate was busily paddling around the area, picking up twigs and bits of litter in its beak and depositing them on shore (rather in a huff, I might add).
We saw some coots in Amsterdam, too, in the canals which criss-cross the city. Unlike their British cousins, though, they're much more laid-back, prefering to watch the canal traffic and other birds go by from atop their perch on a floating discarded plastic bag.
And so it is with the Dutch. They don't miss a beat, but do so in a laid-back, unique way. Is your land swampy and prone to flooding? Drain it by building canals, and then use them for transport and commerce. Have a red- light district in your town? Clean it up, make it safe, and turn it into a tourist attraction. Did the draining of a sea cut off a fishing village's livelihood? Turn it into a resort and tourist attraction.
As far as tourist attractions go, there isn't an opportunity that they haven't capitalized on. On two of our five days there, we took organized bus tours - it's a small country, you can drive end to end in two hours, so we figured tour buses would be a compact way to see all the sights. Soon, though, the tours lapsed into a rather predictable pattern: Stop and see a Delft pottery shop - and visit the gift shop. See diamond cutters at work - and visit the gift shop. See a wooden shoemaker practice his craft - and visit the gift shop. See a cheese-making demonstration - and visit the gift shop. Rather mercantile lot, these Dutch...
If you can get over the sales-ey aspect, Amsterdam is quite beautiful. The entire city is built around a network of connected canals, so closely spaced that, in the downtown area, you can't walk more than three blocks without having to cross one. After a few days, you can tell the canals apart, and they each develop individual personalities - some are bustling lanes for freight and passenger traffic, others are posh and upper class with fancy sailing yachts moored along the sides, while still others are havens for rather dilapidated-looking houseboats with cannabis plants growing in pots (a visual pun, no doubt) on the deck. (Yes, I actually saw some. No, I didn't pick samples.) We spent a very pleasant two hours one morning on a "canal bike" (basically a four- person pedal boat) exploring the city at water level. Very highly recommended; we could have spent all day doing that if the seats hadn't been so hard.
The canals have influenced, in one way or another, every aspect of life in the city. The fronts of houses facing the canals are very ornate and individualistic. And, since they were taxed by canal frontage, some of the houses are very narrow indeed. In fact, the narrowest house in Amsterdam is only as wide as its front door. (One must hope that it widens as you go back.)
If the preferred mode of transport is in the water, the preferred method of getting around on dry land has to be by bicycle. Amsterdam is a small city, with a population of 700,000. The estimated population of bicycles in the city is 500,000. And at any given time, it feels like all half million of them are out and bearing down on you as you try to cross the street. Most of the bikes are of the sturdy one-speed foot-braking variety. This is for two reasons: it's totally flat, so you don't need to, or want to, mess with gears; and there's an awful lot of bicycle thievery about. While getting our hair cut in Amsterdam (yes, we got our hair cut in Holland. We love the British, and think they excel in many areas, but find that there are two where they're a tad lacking: plumbing, and haircuts), Jane's stylist was really proud of himself for having bought a bicycle, to replace one that had been stolen, for 10 guilders (about 5 dollars, or 3 pounds). Actually it's more like a rental, since it will undoubtably be stolen, and he'll buy another... One of the funniest scenes was when we were on the pedal-boat in the canals: we turned a corner, and saw a barge dredging the canal under a bridge. Each time the claw went down, it came up with a half dozen bikes, which it added to the substantial pile already on the barge.
Amsterdam is physically small, so if you don't want to risk riding a bike, you can walk most everywhere. The rest of the country is like that, too. On our last full day there, Jane decided to go to a beach, while I went to the museums in town. By train, the beach was a half hour, and six guilders, distant. Unlike Amsterdam, where everyone speaks English, Zanfoort beach was for the natives, with most of the signs in Dutch, but Jane was able to find her way around okay. The beach was very safe and family oriented, and had quite a few topless women. I, on the other hand, just saw a bunch of crummy Rembrandts.
Rembrandt's "Nightwatch" from the Amsterdam Rijkmuseum.
Actually, I don't regret the museum route at all. I spent all my time in the Rijksmuseum, which is the repository of Holland's history. It's really amazing how much stuff they have in European museums. Objectively, it makes sense - the countries have been around for a long time, and have accumulated a large number of artifacts. It's still very impressive, though, and a tiny bit frustrating - you can spend hours in one museum and feel like you've just scratched the surface!
When the weather is good, the locals and tourists take to the street. Sidewalk and open-air cafes abound, and the best ones (the quiet little ones on a canal, usually) fill up rapidly on weekends. With the exception of breakfasts and one dinner, all our meals were taken out of doors. The one image of Amsterdam that I will always remember is sitting at a round table, having a leisurely meal, watching the boats or pedestrians, and enjoying each other's company.
This section will contain observations that are too small to
merit a story of their own.
And ones without pictures. Since we don't have easy access to a scanner or digtal camera,
we'll have to rely on my florid prose (?!) to create mental images...
Being an island at the north end of the Gulf Stream, England's weather is milder and less variable than what we're used to (North Carolina, USA). In the winter the temperature rarely dips below freezing, while in the summer, the daytime highs rarely go above 30 C (86 F). Home air-conditioning is unnecessary here, because, at night, the temperature cools quickly, and there's always a good breeze, so you simply open your windows to cool the place down. A small table fan, while not necessary, makes sleeping comfortable, even with the windows closed.
Everyone gripes about the rain, but in terms of total annual rainfall, London gets less than North Caorolina. It's just that it usually comes in a light drizzle, instead of the frog-strangling downpours we're used to. Jane, who is an avid sun-worshiper, claims that there are fewer sunny days here. I may grant that, but hasten to add that it's not much fewer. I've seen plenty of sun (and have the sunburn to prove it) so far.
One thing the weather is -- extremely variable. There's a wrinkle in the jet stream permanently parked north of Great Britain, that pulls weather systems across the island with amazing rapidity. So, wheras in the US we may get a front through every few days, here the fronts come through every few hours -- it's true that "if you don't like the weather, just wait a while".
"London Fog" is a misnomer - actually it was a photochemical smog caused by fireplaces spewing wood and coal smoke into the air. Since burning of all but clean fuels has been banned, air quality in London (and the number of sunny days) has improved dramatically, and the "fog" has vanished.
Small is Beautiful
We've really learned to appreciate the virtues of efficiency, smallness and multipurpose-ness. Take for example our household appliances: the refirgerator in our kitchen is dorm-size, about 3 cubic ft. capacity, but it suits us just fine. With a wide variety of food stores within an easy walk of our home, there's no need for long-term food storage. Instead of having a big-production, dedicated shopping trip once a week, it's much easier just to pick up what you'll need that night on your way home from work.
Likewise, our clothes washing machine is a marvellously efficient piece of engineering. Smaller than a standard US diswasher, this front-loading workhorse washes and dries, all in the same unit. It can even be programmed to launch the dry cycle automatically, so all you have to do is set it and unload the clothes when it's done. (Now, if they could come up with a folding feature...) The one drawback is that in drying it's not vented to the outside, but condenses the moisture out of the drying air by passing it over pipes chilled with cold water, so it's drawing water even when it's drying (took me a while to get used to that!). The drying is also not terribly efficient, so we use a drying rack in our spare room, and set up our table fan to "blow-dry" the clothes.