Saturday, March 26, 2011

Veena Malik

Hey, Texpat, that thin thread of comments and posts we've exchanged about how much the world might change if women in oppressed societies were empowered, the proof's name is Veena Malik.  (h/t The Corner)

Jonah has an old article, which I have often referred to friends, about the lack of moderate Muslims wiling to confront more radical Muslims who are the public face of the religion.  He means that there are far too few Veena Maliks.  Sadly some that have come before her have met their end.  May she remain safe and keep alive the hope she inspires.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The British are Definitely Sweeter

After days of pondering the relative sweetness of British food and American food, I have concluded that American food is more intense while British food is sweeter.  Americans prefer strong flavors.  Whether sweet, savory, spicy, fruity, the American version will be more, hence baked beans in the US are sweeter than in the UK.   If, however, Brits choose to flavor a food at all, they tend to sweet.  

This is especially noticeable in food that Americans make spicy. If we would use chili, Brits will use Sweet chili sauce.  They use sweet peppers for most things we would use spicy peppers for--including sushi.  No, I am not kidding.  You might find sweet bell peppers in the middle of your tuna roll.  And the spicy sauce that makes spicy tuna rolls--that is sweet, too.  Yesterday, I bought some Tyrrells "Spicy Coated Peanuts".  They looked like wasabi peanuts.  They aspire to be.  I tasted a mere hint of horseradish before they went sweet in my mouth.  The ingredients: "Peanuts, Wheat Flour, Corn Starch, Sugar, Tapioca Starch, Rice Starch, Salt, Horseradish Powder..."  Not only do Brits put sugar in wasabi, but also it is the third ingredient in the coating--right before tapioca.  Take a peek at places like Eat or Pret, as well.  Many of the sandwiches contain fruit.  Pret has a sweet potato hummus.  In the past few days, both Vilvy and I ate the goat cheese and pepper relish with rocket sandwich.  It tasted like a dessert to us.  There is a similar cream cheese and raspberry chipolte jam concoction currently popular in Texas.  The jam is far more spicy than sweet and it is served as an appetizer, not a meal.  The Texas Embassy serves quesadillas with Thousand Island dressing.  Kettle has two versions of BBQ chips, Smokey Barbecue, a slightly sweeter, less spicy version of BBQ flavoring in the US, and Honey Barbecue, a much sweeter version.  The most commonly found--in my experience the only found, save occasional chorizo on a pizza--non-plain sausage in pubs: pork and apple.  Order a hamburger in a pub, it it likely comes with a sweet tomato or onion relish.  You often have to request things like mustard.   

The good news is the excessive sweetness of the British palate broke me from using sugar in my tea, which is a good thing consider how much tea I consume.  

Xander: "Here's your coffee, brewed from the finest Colombian lighter fluid."
Giles: "Thank you. Horrible."
Xander: "Aren't you Brits supposed to be drinking tea, anyway?"
Giles: "Tea is soothing. I wish to be tense."
--Xander and Giles, before the second Apocalypi in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Children's Television: Introducing Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom

Television and motherhood have a rocky relationship.  I do not like the children watching it, the brain sucker.  In small doses it does help, emphasis on the small.  Television as child distractor obeys the law of diminishing returns: the more they watch, the less it occupies them.   When Christopher Robin and Cupcake were little, I had the upper hand over television.  But when the twins arrived, all the mom advice I saw on 4 under 4 said to get a crock pot and get over any TV aversion.  We also quickly returned to the no-yard, dismal weather land that is London.  Television pressed the advantage.  I succumbed but never took the advice to get over my aversion.  For the past three years, excessive TV quickly triggers short bouts of insanity in me.  (Yasha, Vilvy, and the kids might quibble with that "short" bit.  I have TV issues.)

I have learned to cope in one small way: make sure that your kids watch programs that you can stand watching over and over again.*  Steer clear of anything Dora.  Bob the Builder might grate on you.  (To this day you can probably mess up our sitter Pippi's day by humming the Bob the Builder theme.)  The Wiggles and a certain purple dinosaur also come to mind.

To save your sanity you can go old school with the likes of  Loony Tunes, Peanuts, and The Jetsons.  Besides trips down memory lane, those cartoons also highlight some interesting social changes, which is fun adult entertainment.  There are a few new cartoons that do not send me round the bend; two are British.

First and favorite, The Backyardigans is Canadian and has fun music.  The cartoon is re-dubbed in the UK, so we have gotten used to two different versions. In fact, lots of cartoons are re-dubbed over here.  Bob the Builder is quite proper to my ears. According Lara Lakin, the guy who voices Bob is easily reconisable by Brits as the scoundrel from a popular TV show, so she always "sees" Bob as a scoundrel.   I, myself, had no clue that Bob was from the midwest until I was in a Gymboree one afternoon in Houston.  My friend JJ, who used to work at the BBC says the redubbing is for quota reasons.  If they record British voices, then it counts as a British production even though everything else is done in Canada.  But back to the Backyardigans, this link is to my favorite ghost episode, one with a ragtime theme.  All the adventures have musical themes.  In Looney Tunes style, they use classics of different genres, and add lyrics appropriate to the story.  They have a Indiana Jones style adventure to disco and a shoot out western Broadway style.  The Backyardigans are fun.  

The first British cartoon is Charlie and Lola, a cute show that also has good music.  I made myself a ringtone from this episode.  This bit on Charlie is a step too far, however.  The earlier seasons are better as they eventually tried to teach morals in later seasons.  Set the characters and the world and the morals come. When the writers try to steer stories to morals, everything gets preachy.

As for the second British cartoon, it is my pleasure to introduce to my American friends, Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom, the new cartoon from the Peppa Pig people. Not only is Ben and Holly's better kid wise, it is one of those rare kids' programs that has secret jokes for adults.  When we visited for Christmas, it still did not play that I found.  Now YouTube has enough good videos to give you a sampling.  There is one about Queen Thistle taking the day to visit her sister, and the toddler twins, Daisy and Poppy, wreak havoc in the kingdom.  I was in tears of laughter--though that might be a mom of twins thing.

*Same goes for music too.  Kids songs are ok, but if you want to keep your sanity, expose them to music that you actually like.  Be aware that they listen to the lyrics more than adults do.  Choose wisely and prepare for questions.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Third British Invasion

Since I do not listen to American radio--I am across the Pond after all--I did not know that Mumford and Sons was popular over there.  Actually, I did not know that the were popular over here either.  A friend who was getting a divorce had them on a loop in her car last year (if you listen to the lyrics of Sigh No More, you might notice some themes that would resonate for someone going through a divorce); I liked them and downloaded the album.  Then I caught this from the Times today: Excerpt of Mumford and Sons article hopefully to return when I get a copyright issue sorted out.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Visiting the US Embassy in London

Last week I had to take Christopher Robin and Cupcake to the US embassy to renew their passports. Surprisingly, the visit was pleasant, certainly better than my trip to the Texas Department of Public Safety for a new drivers license about five years ago when someone pickpocketed my wallet shortly after we moved to London.  (The day of the pickpocketing, Yasha missed his flight to Chile, I think, to talk to Barclay's because they wouldn't even let me report my cash card stolen, much less request a new one.  He's the only one they would talk to, and he was about to be on a plane for 12 hours.  The new Barclay's card didn't come for days.  I had to use our Amex, which of course arrived by the next morning, for many of our initial charges, thereby rendering a chunk of our US income to the UK.  But I digress.)

The Embassy building is a prime, and ugly, example of brutalist architecture.  The huge gold eagle on top doesn't help.  I'm partial to our national bird.  This one is garish.  Hopefully the new building will be nicer.  The embassy is moving to Battersea.  We aren't welcome at our current location.  My original May 2007 letter home  on that topic is at the end of this post.  

We arrived at the embassy about 10 minutes before our scheduled appointment time, which wasn't enough time.  Security at the embassy is a few layers deep.  Before you get to the outbuilding where the metal detectors live, you have to register with some embassy worker under a tent, who has a list of the people who have appointments for that day.  That screener also looks through your bags and takes electronics and keys and like--things that they're going to make you leave and security area--and puts them in a baggie.  Then you queue up in order to go through actual security. 

The security outbuilding has warning pictures on the door.  I wish now that I had taken a picture, but my phone was already bagged up and taking pictures of security at the US Embassy is not exactly advisable.  The first picture--I'm not joking--is 'no bombs and guns.'  It is a picture of a firearm and one of those cartoon, round bombs with the little fuse on top, plus a little timer on the side.   Once inside and chatting with some other Americans, we wondered what in the world the diplomats were thinking.  Anybody knows that you can't bring guns or firearms to an embassy.  Anyone who intends to bring guns or bombs to an embassy is not going to be deterred by a cute little warning sign on the front door.   It might have been the dumbest warning I've ever seen, and as an American I'm used to common sense/CYA warnings.  (M&M once told me she loves going to pharmacies in the US read the warning labels on medications.   I told her those warnings are even funnier when you see some of the pharmaceutical television commercials during which they have to do voiceover warnings.  Here's a real one.  Spoofs are popular too.  But, again, I digress.)

Once in security, you must turn in all of your electronics.  That is common procedure in courtrooms, and I should have thought of it before the taxi ride.  I only brought iPods to entertain the children. I thought of it on the taxi ride on the way, but it was of course too late to go back and get nonelectronic entertainment.  Turns out it didn't matter as the waiting room has great toys and Americans are usually up for a chat with a stranger.  

After security you go into the passport office and you take a number. You do have to make an appointment in order to go to the embassy, but that's only to stagger the times the people arrive.  You don't actually have an appointment with an embassy officer at the appointed time.  That probably was the most annoying part of the visit.

Once in the waiting room, it was like being at home, complete with an assortment of Target clothes and gear and swiping and signing when paying for the renewals with a credit card.  (In the UK credit cards have CHIP and pin.  You plug your card into basically a handheld ATM and enter a 4 digit pin at the prompt.)

All in, we were at the embassy for about two hours, which for two children's passports didn't seem so bad, especially considering I had forgotten Yasha's passport to go with his affidavit.  (Both parents have to attend for passport applications for minors.  If one parent cannot attend, you have to have a special notorized form.)  The officer found Yasha's passport in her system, so it wasn't a problem.  

The children had a great time.  The embassy has a good play area in the waiting room.  Cupcake and Christopher Robin played with an assortment of other American kids with British accents.  When we were finished they did not want to go.  I had a nice time as well.  Since the room was full of American expats with little to do but wait, striking up conversations about living in London and various goings on back home was easy.  A sweet 10 year old even gave me some suggestions of book series that Christopher Robin might like.  

This might sound crazy, but our trip to the US Embassy was fun.  

As mentioned above, here is my email home from May 2007 regarding TexMex outside Texas and the location of the US Embassy.  

Yasha took me out to a Mexican restaurant last week. It is always risky eating Mexican outside Texas and certainly the Southwest, but this place had a good rep and, when you live overseas, you develop a cumin deficiency.  Sometimes you just have to risk it.  Anyway, to Café Pacifico we went.  I am not making this up—I could have ordered papaya and lobster quesadillas with mango cream or sweet soy duck quesadillas.  Or perhaps I fancied salmon tacos?  Brie was on the menu somewhere.  Yes, the runny French cheese with the waxy rind.  Those are just the abominations that I could remember.  Yasha had a ‘rita that any “band geek could put to shame.” (Yes, I married a band geek.  My hubby marched in high school and SMU. At least he didn’t go to band camp… “This one time at band camp…”) 
In more important news: the residents of Mayfair have managed to get the US Embassy to move.  It is relocating to Kensington or something.  This article will give you an idea of what happened.  I had no idea this was going on, part of my not seeing anti-Americanism because, as I’m increasingly finding, it is pervasive among elites but not in the general population. (Mayfair is more elite than general population.) By the way, the reference to the Tube with no A/C—it gets incredibly hot down there in the summer.  Most regular folk think that it is an engineering impossibility to bring A/C there.  I didn’t know that there was a way. 
Goodbye, Grosvenor Square

Apparently, the Kensington rumor was just a rumor.  If you are interested, here are some more links: 
There isn't much at Nine Elms.  Perhaps we are less concerned with posh nosh than with security for all involved, embassy personnel and locals.  Considering too, how the residents of Mayfair felt about us, perhaps we were trying not to incur any more ire, which might pressure us to move again.  
Friends in Battersea tell me that there is a lot of tunneling going on in the area.  The rumor swirls around underground escape routes.