Saturday, February 28, 2009

Speaking the international language of contempt...with an accent

For as many differences I’ve pointed out, there are twice as many similarities between the United States and the United Kingdom. It just so happens occasionally I get on a path that has a few more of the differences than similarities, and often times that path turns into a full-on highway without exits for like 147 miles. You might have noticed that already. But really, the two countries are comparable in a lot of ways.

One of those ways would be the dumping of unfriendly technology upon a helpless public. We call it an automated phone system. You know what I'm talking about...those despicable recordings that tell you to press one for this, two for that, three if you don’t know something, or four for anything else. It used to be that you could press the ‘0’ and get a person, but they’ve discovered that loophole and patched it up with the stress-relieving, “I’m sorry. That is an invalid entry. Please try your selection again.”

I just have to say that hearing all the menu options with a British accent is not any less stressful than hearing them in an American one.

Anyway…our new house required new utilities: phone, cable, internet, water, gas, electricity, garbage pick-up, etc. I was the lucky girl to make those calls, and anyone from the States who tried to make contact with me during the first month and a half I was here will tell you that I was beyond unlucky with one provider in particular.

British Telecom, or BT, is the single most heinous company (next to US Bank) on the planet, and they hold the power over whether you (as a person in the UK) can have a telephone or internet. It’s as simple as that. They own the line that goes into your house and therefore have control over it, meaning that if you don’t choose them to be your telephone, cable TV and broadband company, then they rent that line to any other telephone, cable or broadband company you choose. Simple, right?
Wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong.
It’s not simple if BT decides that you don’t have their line in your house and to get one installed you must pay them one hundred and twenty-two pounds AND wait almost a month for a technician to show up to do it. Even if you are actually CALLING THEM FROM THE BT LINE. (True story…plus I actually have a giant box in the front yard with the letters BT all over it.)

I all began in December 10th, when after securing a cell phone, I called BT. I spoke to a lovely chap named Andrew, who gave me all the information I needed about the packages and prices and such. I told him I wanted to run it by Husband, to check and see how many international minutes we should get, and to ask whether we needed two, four or eight mb speed on our broadband. (And although I wasn’t going to tell Andrew and look like a total tool, I was also going to ask Husband what the hell an mb is.) We were on the line for almost a half-hour….and apparently that is the amount of minutes $30.00 buys on a pre-paid phone. (It wasn’t 30 dollars, but actually pounds, but since I don’t have the pound symbol on my keyboard I will just describe it: it looks kinda like a wavy capitol L with a squiggly thing in the middle of it. Look it up. Here is that website I keep sending you to…but really, it’s so helpful, no?
http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/money.html )
ANYWAY….I digressed again. Sorry. At the 30 minute mark, there was a beep noise, and then 30 seconds later the call was ended. As a newbie to the world of prepaid cell phones, it took me a few minutes to realize what happened. And then I said a few words that would appear like this if I were a cartoon: *^#!

Fortunately, I had already given Andrew our cell phone number…or, as they say, our “mo-by-ul” number, so he could call me back in 20 minutes, after I talked to Husband. (Incoming calls don’t use up the minutes, so I although I couldn’t dial out, I could still receive calls.) Andrew wanted to make the sale and I wanted to get the whole thing squared away. It was a Wednesday, and I figured (in all my American-ness) that we’d have a phone and internet by Friday. I figured wrong.

I couldn’t call Andrew back without going to the T Mobile store to re-load the phone. The whole reason we had a stupid pre-paid phone was absurd, in my opinion, and made me feel like a drug dealer or terrorist….or at least speculate on how it might feel to be a drug dealer or terrorist. Husband wasn’t keen on letting me near the T Mobile store, either…he didn’t think they wanted to hear my opinion about their ridiculous policy again. (Another story for another time) But even if I wanted to go to the store and re-load, I couldn’t do it because, like everything else around Chester, the store CLOSED AT 5:00. Good for the folks working at the store, bad for Renee.

So I waited for Andrew to call me back…he eventually did, about three days later. However, by that time I was told that there was no BT line in the house, that I had to get a BT line installed in the house, it was going to cost $122, and it couldn’t be scheduled until the end of December. I was determined to NOT pay for anything being installed in this house…there was most certainly a line and it was most certainly a BT one.

The subsequent phone calls to other providers unearthed the monopoly BT has on the whole home communication biz. Absolutely NO ONE can start service of any kind without a BT line installed. Everything coming into your home has to be on a BT line…the provider (in my case, Sky) has to rent the line from British Telecom. So not only was my phone and internet being held hostage by BT, everyone else’s was, too, and all the other service providers are at BT’s mercy as well. It’s like BT has the entire country by the short and curlies.

So after that realization, I bit the bullet and got the installation date set. I was actually looking forward to my big fat “I TOLD YOU SO” moment when the technician was here and had to call in to his lovely colleagues at BT and say, “Uh, yeah, Nigel? Simon here. I’m at job number 3422 and I’m not sure why you sent me here, as there’s already a bloody line in the house.”

The day before the installation, I get a text message from BT telling me that their technicians have determined that a line exists on the premises and to please call customer service for further instructions on how to begin enjoying my BT service. Oh, but I am already enjoying it so.

Every time I called BT I would take notes. I wrote down the date and time, as well as the person’s name with whom I spoke. I’ll spare you the details and give you a synopsis. Here are all my new friends’ names and the date we met.
12/11/2008 – Stacy
12/16/2008 – Helen
12/19/2008 – Annette
12/24/2008 – Raj
12/24/2008 – Emily
12/24/2008 – Sareesh
12/29/2008 – Ruth
1/2/2009 – Chloe (but she’s not really my friend…she hung up on me because she couldn’t understand me. Rag.)
1/2/2009 – Jamie
1/2/2009 – Faye
1/2/2009 – Christine

In addition to the lovely conversations with the lovely customer service representatives at BT, I was also fortunate enough to reach their automated voice recognition system, which is inappropriately named, in my opinion. Rather, it should be called the automated accent recognition system, because the day I tried to use it, my voice was working just fine and yet I got NO WHERE with it.

Here’s where it gets sketchy, because trying to spell how an English accent sounds might not come across correctly. If you want to venture a guess on how an American “faking” an accent sounds, try to sound like the Queen, but throw in a bit of Steve Irwin. (He’s Australian, I know, but to the average American, there’s no difference. Most of you reading this are average Americans.)

So I call BT, and I’m asked to speak an account number. No option to press the keys…gotta speak.

Me: “Three four two, two nine three four.”
BT: “I’m sorry, I did not recognize that account number. Please try again.”
Me: “Three four two, two nine three four.”
BT: “I’m sorry, I did not recognize that account number. Please try again.”
Me: “Three. Four. Two. Two. Nine. Three. Four.”
BT: “I’m sorry, I did not recognize that account number. Please try again.”

I realized then that my accent was what was messing it up. The account number was correct…hell, it had worked when I talked to Stacy, Helen, Annette, Raj, Emily, Sareesh, Ruth, Jamie, Faye and Christine. (Maybe that witch Chloe was behind this!) I decided I’d have to try to “sound” English.

So I did my best to channel Hermione and go for it. I looked around to make sure no one was listening to me…Husband and the boys were downstairs. I walked to the corner farthest from the staircase, turned my back toward the door, hunched over the phone, and spoke softly but clearly. I was confident that I was going to get it to work now.

Me: “Thray, fo-wr, tew, tew, nyyyyn-uh, thray, fo-wr.
BT: “Please hold while your call is connected to the Disabled Services Department.”

Seriously. I got transferred to the department that assists people with disabilities. My attempt at an English accent made me sound…special.

Needless to say, the person who answered my call in that department wasn’t exactly pleased to get me on the line. Apparently he didn’t get the same warm fuzzies from helping an American as he did when he helped a person with a disability.

If only he knew.

Nine things you don't want to hear your sons say

I know, there are way more than nine, but this idea came to me last week while the boys were home for term break. All week. That's nine days in a row, in case you were wondering. And they are in no particular order.

"Ummm, Mom, I know you told me not to (verb), but....."
 
"Smell this."


"Remember when you said that if I told you the truth and didn't lie that I wouldn't be in trouble?"
"I said that you'd be in less trouble."
"Oh. Okay. Nevermind."
 
"Is it normal for my (body part) to (verb)?"

"It tastes like that one thing we found that one time."
 
"You were serious about that?"
 
"But they're still clean. My pants have been on over them all week."


"I think it's dead."


"Don't tell her."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is this some sort of cruel joke????

Call me paranoid, but I'm really feeling like the country of England has read my blog and decided to mess with my head. Look at what I found:

Celebrate Pancake Day 2009!
On 24 February from 11am-2pm, National Trust property Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire will hold a Pancake Fun Day. Enjoy a Pancake Recipe Trail, obstacle course, pancake tossing competition and the obligatory pancake race. The restaurant will turn out lots of lovely pancakes, too ... so make sure you have at least a taste!


Apparently, my search for pancakes could have been satisfied on one day this year. The day before Ash Wednesday is Pancake Day. Everyone gorges themselves pancakes...granted, the pancakes they prepare are not the ones we are accustomed to...here is a link to the recipe for their kind: http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/pancakeday/recipe.html
But still, it is apparent that they appreciate the delight of a pancake nonetheless.

This discovery raises a few questions and observations in my mind. (As things usually do.) In the interest of time and attention spans, I will only pose two of them here. First, when I stumbled around town in December and January, begging for pancakes (and that's clearly exaggerated for effect), why didn't anyone mention this to me? Even if it was something as simple as, "No, me luv. You'll just need to wait until 24 February."

Here is a link to an explanation of this holiday here in the UK:
http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/pancakeday/index.htm
(Let it not be said that I don't share the knowledge. Okay, it's more like I share the links to the knowledge, so point and click.)

My second observation is not so much about pancakes as much as it is about the culture here. Pancake Day is also known as Shrove Tuesday. Even on my most PMS-ish days I never considered that carbs could be a splurge of choice. (Unless you are on Atkins, of course.) It is contemporary tradition in Catholic-dominated cultures to binge on alcohol (and food in general) prior to Ash Wednesday. That's just Mardi Gras...and we all know about that. The genesis of both traditions is that historically, people give up alcohol and other enjoyable things for Lent.

But the thing that confuses me is this: it's not like pancakes are so readily available and massively consumed here...like sacrificing your daily pancake during Lent is a real sign of living your faith. As far as I can tell, the last time most of the folks here had a pancake was last year's Pancake Day.

I'm thinking that they don't celebrate Mardi Gras here the way the US or Brazil celebrates it is not because they dislike a day of drunken debauchery. Who doesn't like a day like that every once in a while? Rather, they are willing to forgo that one day so that they are not bound to the rest of the tradition....the following 40 days of sacrifice. My theory is that Pancake Day is just a red herring. There. I said it.

Here in the UK they don't mess around with the binge before the dry spell because they have no intention of having a dry spell. They drink, they drink often, and they can drink a lot. They are good at it...and trust me, I know. I grew up in a town boasting the world's largest brewery, and in a family where beer was considered one of the major food groups.

There are actually television commercials here, sponsored by the government, regarding how many units (10ml.) of alcohol per week is considered safe to consume, and it lists the dangers of exceeding that amount. Women can get by safely with 14 units. For men it is 21 units. (If you have read Bridget Jones's Diary, you'll recall that she kept totals on her units.) No one should exceed three or four units in a day. Here is a link to an explanation if you are curious: http://www.patient.co.uk/showdoc/23069189/ (Again with the links!)

So, like the observation I made with their driving on the wrong side of the road, here is another example of the 'my island, my rules'-attitude. And you know what? I just LOVE that about them. Seriously.

You may be wondering if I'm going to celebrate Pancake Day...and to be honest, I'm not sure. Despite all my pissing and moaning about things, I really do like it here. I am enjoying all of the new experiences - even the humiliating ones. I love watching the boys enjoy their new surroundings, broadening their horizons, learning in a way not possible through a book. The history is everywhere - not just museums - and it is flippin' PHENOMENAL. I am fascinated with the culture, the sub-cultures, and how little of it I know. Pancake Day would be a great way to experience more of that culture. However, there's this tiny part of me that says there is NO WAY any British pancake could be as good as ones from The Original Hotcake House (Portland) or Uncle Bill's Pancakes (St. Louis). So, if I decide to go to one of the kajillion celebrations, I will go with an open mind and hope for the best. It's not about the pancakes.

Then again, if nothing absurd happens, what will I write about?????

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Size matters

Remember when I said that it seems like everything in England is made smaller than things in the United States?

Well, here is an exception. A very welcomed exception at my house, considering our penchant for PB&J. The bread slice on the left is the usual size of our bread nowadays. The one on the right comes from a loaf that is intentionally smaller in every way, catering to the folks who don't need a lot of bread at once. It is the size of bread in the States. It is the size of bread we were used to. They are both Warburtons, they are both tasty, but the one on the left has come to the game, ready to play. It means business.

We'll never go back to the old size.

And just to give you some perspective on exactly how big the bread really is, here is a shot of the loaf. I've placed it next to a banana and a jar of some spice. The jar is the usual size, just like one from America. See how tall the bread is? It doesn't fit well in the toaster, even if I place the slice in the slot sideways.

Don't get me wrong...I am SO not complaining. No one in my family is...they love it. The only complaining that goes on about the bread is when I run out of it. It's just random, though, that a loaf of bread is so incredibly large while everything else is so much smaller than I'm used to...and I think that's the key:
It's a matter of getting used to it all.

A sign of the times

This was among the candies I received for Valentines Day last week.


The times they are a-changin'

Trying to control when a person sleeps is an exercise in futility. Anyone with children knows that. How many of us tried to get our baby to 'sleep in' by keeping him or her up late the night before? What you end up with is a cranky baby who still wakes up at 5:30am and whose naps are all messed up for the day, as is your sleep.

Additionally, messing with sleep schedules leads to a Pandora's Box of issues one may not have considered before opening the box. It is easy to see how sleep deprivation was used as a torture method...I'll say anything if you'll just let me go to sleep.

My friend Claire once said, "You can mess with my meals, you can mess with my husband, you can mess with my kids, but don't EVER mess with my sleep." Claire is the best mother I have ever known. I consulted her endlessly when Son 1 was a baby. She has raised four phenomenal sons and has a wonderful marriage. Her advice is priceless, and so when I heard her warning about messing with her sleep, I knew I had to take heed. She was only half-kidding. Sleep is critical for everything else falling into place.

I'm a big fan of sleep. Back in Portland it was a standing joke among our friends that I would be the first to call it a night. Our good friends, Geoff and Katrina, were the complete opposite of that. After years and years of working in the restaurant biz, they were accustomed to keeping a bedtime well past midnight. For them, it was nothing to stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 am. Fortunately Husband is able to stay awake and be a fun person, so Geoff and Katrina remained our friends despite my midnight-onset of narcolepsy.

That being said, I was also an early riser every weekday. I would wake up at 4:00 or so and enjoy the hours of solitude before I had to wake the rest of the family. My routine was to get up, go to the kitchen and turn on the radio, which was always on NPR. The BBC World Service was on until about 5:00am, so I'd get the world news first. I'd start my coffee and then I'd listen to Morning Edition as I unloaded the dishwasher, folded laundry, packed lunches, and sometimes prepared stuff for dinner (like browning ground beef, or starting something in the Crockpot.) I need to get into a productive routine like that here.

The last week of October was when we set the date to move. We had about five weeks. There is an eight-hour time difference between Portland and England, and it occurred to me that I could really get a leg up on the time change by moving my wake-up time a bit earlier each day.

One morning when I was up at 3:30, Husband opened his eyes and asked me what the hell I was doing up. I shared my plan with him. His reply: "That's just nuts. Don't do that to yourself." What did he know? I'd show him. By the time we moved, I'd be on the new schedule, and I'd be the one who was able to get the family accustomed to our new time zone. I'd be the pleasant, smiling mommy with a plate of pancakes and sausage, waking the family with the wonderful aroma and gently nudging them into their new schedules. Waking up at 8:00am in England wouldn't feel like waking at midnight if your mom was up and going, showing you how great it was to be awake. Or so I thought.

What I didn't take into account was the fact that I had only five weeks to pack, ten days of which Husband was going to be in England. So I began staying up later, purely out of necessity, to do all the things I had to do before we moved. Suddenly I was getting three hours of sleep a night. The last three nights we were in the US, I slept a total of six hours. I was the kind of tired you don't know exists. Worst of all, my plan to hit the ground running on UK time was down the toilet. Or the loo, if you please.

So after our journey, we arrived in the UK at the beginning of the next day, meaning we left early in the morning on a Wednesday and arrived early in the morning on a Thursday. Our bodies were saying WHAT THE HELL??? We were eating at bizarre times, sleeping (or not) at bizarre times.

We had to live in a hotel for the first week, as our house wasn't ready for us yet. We couldn't check into the hotel until after lunchtime, so we had a few hours to kill. Most importantly, according to Husband, we HAD to stay awake. I knew that he was right. Sleeping now would only perpetuate the misery of jet lag. Muddle through the first day and go to bed at the local time. Easier said than done.

It wasn't the first time I had dealt with the eight-hour time change. In 2004, Husband and I came to the UK for two weeks on vacation. We landed, I hung in there and stayed awake. I adjusted in a day or two. However, the insanity that preceded this arrival was unprecedented. This time we had the children with us, too. As resilient as they are, they can't be yanked about like that without consequences. My biggest concern was that they'd be run down and catch a bug, so I was even more militant about handwashing. Let me just say that is not exactly what an exhausted child longs to hear.

After the horrid, heinous, hideous, hellish experience at the car rental place (described in a post to follow this one) we were all in the car and on our way out of the airport. We had to find something to do that would keep us awake and could cast a positive light on the day. We ended up in town, walking around, having a meal and finding places at which we wanted to get a closer look at a later time The boys were hanging in there, staying awake with the promise of going swimming as soon as we checked into the hotel.

By the time we checked in, things had taken a turn for the worse. We were all SO tired. The boys didn't even want to swim. They actually pleaded for a nap. I was so tired I was twitching. Seriously. I was seeing mini-fireworks in my peripheral vision. It was going to have to be Husband's call, because I was circling the drain and needed to sleep as well.

I'll spare you the subsequent conversation, which started on a contentious note and ended with surrender. In my head, I knew that we were advised to stay awake, but the rest of me was not ready to comply. I'm ashamed to say that I was ready to take the easy road, not necessarily the correct road. Fortunately I didn't have to make the choice. Mother nature worked in our favor and we were able to take a short nap, because once Husband sat down on our comfy hotel bed and turned on the TV, he was a slave to his own instinct to sleep. I was more than willing to go along with that plan, as were the boys.

The hotel staff (Holiday Inn Chester South) were superb. They were aware of our situation and had set-up the room with the boys' beds already arranged and made. So we all had a power nap. It was difficult to wake up from the nap, but the nap certainly made it easier for me to embrace the idea of staying awake for eight more hours and to help the kids do the same.

If I ever get the opportunity to write a book, I'll have a lot more to say about the sleep adjustment. If nothing else, it was a tremendous learning experience. I'll just sum it up by saying that getting adjusted to the new time zone will take a lot longer than you expect. It's apparent to me now why people are so zapped when they return from a trip. It takes that much time, if not more, to adjust.

Taken

Tell me whether you’ve heard one of these phrases:

“She’s taken with him” – meaning the “she” being described has fallen for somebody.

“He is just completely taken with being a father” - meaning the man, having recently become a dad, just loves fatherhood.

And we've all heard in movies that cheesy saying about some so-and-so who “took a lover” which means that a couple has decided to hook up on a regular basis. (I don’t like the word lover, by the way.) I really like the way Liz Gilbert mentions and sort of mocks that saying in her book “Eat Pray Love” (http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/eatpraylove.htm).

But I digress. Where I’m going with this is the contemporary use of the word “taken” coupled with the word “drink.”

”I’ve taken to drinking…” followed by words like regularly, often, daily, frequently, etc. Maybe you’ve seen it in a more foreboding way, like, “Things were going well until he took to the drink.”

In any context, the phrase pretty much means the same thing: events lead a person to start having a drink – or two or three- and having them at times that were previously unlikely, or even inappropriate.

If we were face-to-face right now, you would ask me, “What in the HELL are you getting at, Renee?” I will tell you, I promise. I had to get that stuff out on the table first, though, because when I was ‘writing’ this entry in my head, it was titled “I Have Taken to Drink” and I thought that I was the most clever and brilliant title ever. After further consideration, I decided against using that title for two reasons. Firstly, my whole experiment in drinking lasted all of five days, at best. Not a significant amount of time at all. Secondly, it was incredibly uneventful. I couldn’t come up with more than a blanket statement about the drinking…there were no interesting specifics to substantiate the clever title. It pretty much went like this: By the time evening rolled around, there were so many tiny defeats weighing me down that I felt like I just couldn’t deal. And really, I couldn’t. Coping skills are not my strength…in fact, I can’t claim them as my weakness, either, because that would imply that I actually have coping skills. I don’t.

It began and subsequently ended in the kitchen. Predictably. One night as I was doing my thing in the kitchen, I opened a beer and drank it. It made things a bit more bearable…so if I had two, would things be a lot more bearable? It stung a bit less when I caught myself looking for things I didn’t have anymore. “Where’s that cheese grater…ooops… that’s back in Portland, somewhere… not sure where, though, because I f-ed up the packing of my kitchen.” It was easier to shrug off that atrocious feeling of not having a single second of closure before leaving my friends, my things, my home, my country…. and that it was all MY fault.

I’ve always been a big daydreamer. (No, really.) As an adult the daydreaming has mostly manifested itself as dialogue in my head…you know, like when you make this scenario of how a conversation or an event will play out. Or how you wished it had played out. The one I was having then was a phone conversation, envisioning myself chatting with someone back home about how things were going, and I’d gloss it all over with, “Yes, well, I’ve taken to drink” and then I'd appear to be sophisticated and insightful in my recognition of the presence of drinking in my day. It was going to be effective in painting the picture of how sucky the evenings had become and how clever I had been in remedying said suckiness with a drink or two. After all, I’m in England. Pubs monopolize the street corners here the way Starbucks do in the States. What’s that saying about when in Rome and the Romans?

Maybe you know this already, but adding alcohol to a situation already riddled with ineptitude does not a solution make. It also isn’t good for someone with heinous jetlag. In fact, I think there were only two positives that came from the situation.
First: to Husband, I appeared to be a fun girl once again. (Woo hoo! Renee’s got a buzz!) And second: I think the beers gave ME beer goggles, providing a short respite from my constant cringing over my appearance – namely, the haircut.

Why does it always go back to the hair?

Anyway, if I had to walk away with a lesson learned from the whole thing, I’d say there are two points. First, do not try to drink your problems away. (Yeah, that’s news.) Second, when writing, remember that the story makes the title, not the other way around. Now that I think about it, it’s just like the first day of college and the counsel you probably received from your advisor and from your Comp 101 instructor. In case you forgot.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: locate comfort food

You may recall a certain post of mine regarding pancakes. I was on a mission to get pancakes - whether I made them or had them in a restaurant. Like so many other things here, the word breakfast has a specific meaning that is not as inclusive as the American definition of breakfast.

Breakfast in the states can be many things...cereal, toast, fruit, waffles, pancakes, French toast, eggs, bacon, sausage....just to name the few that immediately come to mind. Well, there are no Denny's here, so I had to go look at other places that served breakfast, and I discovered that there is a specific set of items that defines breakfast in the UK. Here is what Wikipedia says about it:
The full breakfast traditionally comprises several fried foods, usually including bacon and eggs, (vegetarian alternatives exist) and is popular throughout the British Isles and other parts of the English-speaking world. Depending on where it is served, it is called bacon and eggs,[2] a fry, a fry up,[3] The Great British breakfast,[4][5] a full English breakfast, a full Irish breakfast, a full Scottish breakfast, a full Welsh breakfast[6] or an Ulster fry.[7] The complement of the breakfast varies depending on the location and which of these descriptions is used. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full_breakfast


So looking among breakfast places was not going to be the answer. The more illusive the pancakes became, the more I wanted them. I started to feel like the boys' happiness hinged on whether they or not they got to have pancakes in this new home of ours. Like everything would be okay if we just had a pancake. As you can see, I was being very rational.

I discovered that pancakes are not easy to come by. I went to at least five places. One particular cafe had their menu posted outside, and on it I saw 'flapjacks.' The light bulb above my head went on. "Of course!" I thought to myself. "They aren't called pancakes here! That's the problem...I've been looking for the wrong thing!" It was like one of those bop-yourself-in-the-head-coulda-had-a-V8-moments. Maybe hitting myself about the head and neck region as I entered the cafe would have provided an excuse for my stupidity when speaking to the girl who worked there.

So I go bopping in the cafe, thrilled to have solved the pancake puzzle. NOW we would be able to live contently in England! I went up to the counter and started with the questions....how the flapjacks are served? Do you have maple syrup? Are there kid-size orders? Double orders? Are they available to-go? The girl behind the counter stared at me for just the slightest bit longer than is comfortable. She turned her head to her left, raised her hand and pointed to a glass cake plate with a cover...you know, the kind that has the cake up on a platform, under glass.

Instead of seeing a pile of pancakes, however, I was facing something that resembled a darker, healthier and not so tasty-looking rice crispy treat. You know, the kind of fiber-prune-carob-grainy thing your kids see at Whole Foods and then beg you to get it for them and then they take one bite and you've wasted $1.25 because they HATE it. The kind of thing that makes them feel tricked into eating healthy snacks. But I digress.

Apparently flapjacks are rectangular-shaped bars made of oats and other stuff like bran or raisins and honey. They are SO not pancakes. And they TOTALLY are not "served" in any particular way, and they especially do not have syrup or kid sizes. Take a look for yourself. And here's a link to a recipe if you are so inclined.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/database/honeyflapjacks_73203.shtml


I felt like crying. I wish I could say that I rallied and continued on my way to the next place, confident that I'd be successful in finding pancakes. I made it such a big deal in my head...it was like I was going from shop to shop, seeking the antidote my children needed to survive. I wanted to clutch the sides of my head and scream, "I am living in a country devoid of pancakes!" (I should add a disclaimer here that I use the term "country" in the loosest sense, as I have searched for said pancakes inside about a 50 mile radius, at best. But saying "I am living in a country devoid of pancakes" sounds SO much more interesting than "I am living in a 50-mile-wide pancake-less area.")

The pancake mission wasn't without its rewards. I learned a few things about other foods as well. For example, I discovered the British version of 'pigs in a blanket.' It should be called 'Brits under a blanket' ...referring to the blanket that is pulled over your head when you die. Eating their version of pigs in a blanket has to be the fast track to heart failure. A more accurate description is 'pigs in more pig'. When you order 'pigs in a blanket' in the UK you will get a sausage wrapped in bacon. Seriously. So you can imagine look I got from the waiter when I saw 'pigs in a blanket' on a menu and I asked if I could just get the blanket, hold the pig, and the syrup on the side.

I can only imagine what the people who wait on me have to say about the dumb yankee that came into their shop today. I should Google that phrase and take a look at THEIR blogs.

Monday, February 9, 2009

I'd like to buy a vowel, please

After school the other day Son 2 was telling me something about something....and I don't say "something about something" like that because I wasn't being an attentive parent. I really was. At least, I was trying as hard as I possibly could, to not only listen to him but to understand him...and therein lies the problem.

You see, just like an episode of 'My Name is Earl', I've got karma tryin' to tell me something:

Move to another country and expect it to be like Portland , just east? Fool.
Assume it's just a matter of new food and fast drivers? Notta.
Think it won't make its way into your home beyond the teeny-size packages of food? WRONG.

It made its way in via my son's accent. My six year old who spends 6 1/2 hours a day immersed in the language...why was it a surprise? He was trying to tell me something about cards, apparently, but I swear to you that he was saying bibble blobble beee-op kah.

Him: Bibble blobble bee-op kah.
Me: What?
Him: Bibble blobble bee-op kah.
Me: Huh?
Him: (sighing) Bibble blobble bee-op kah.
Me: Uh...
Him: (louder) BEEE OPP KAH!
Me: Oh for Godsake...spell it for me!
Him: KAH. C-A-R-D. KAH. Jeez, mum.
Me: Your card? Well then, why didn't you just say
so?

He rolled his eyes. I get a lot of that lately.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

To drive or not to drive



Did I mention that I am not driving here? Well, I’m not. Or at least not yet. Husband has the dubious honor of doing ALL the driving. I tried last month, when we were in Scotland, and it was not as successful as I had hoped it would be. A number of factors conspire against me, however, and I feel they must be mentioned, in my defense. The first two reasons are obvious. The driver’s side of the car is on the passenger side, which only compounds the confusion of having to drive on the WRONG side of the road.

I’ve been cautious in my choice of words when describing things here, careful to describe anything that is different as just that…different. Never as “wrong.” However, I’m confident in calling the side of the road on which they drive as wrong. In fact, many of them call it the same thing, which I find interesting. I’m told that the genesis of that particular side of the road comes from when they rode in carriages drawn by horses and needed to have their gun ready to shoot at all times. Or something like that…I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I do recall that it sounded more like something out of Texas than England. Anyway, I have to wonder whether they’d still be driving on that side if they weren’t on an island…like if they were actually connected to the rest of Europe with a highway and you had to pull over to the side of the road and do some kind of switch where you’d re-enter the highway (and whatever new country) on the correct side. As it is, to get to Europe with your car you have to go via the Eurotunnel (http://www.eurotunnel.com/ukcP3Main/ukcPassengers/) a.k.a. the “chunnel” (tunnel under the English Channel.) The Eurotunnel has an underground train that is more like a ferry in that you drive your car onto it and when you emerge on the other side (in France) you drive off the train. True story. Look it up.

AS I WAS SAYING….I haven’t been driving, for a number of reasons, one of which is the speed at which they drive. I’ve observed that there are four speeds driven here…there’s the speed they drive when they have like two or three flat tires, which is 'sub-light speed', then there’s the speed at which they go in reverse, also known as 'light speed'. Then there’s the speed they drive through a school zone: ridiculous speed. Lastly there’s the speed they drive the other 95% of the time, through neighborhoods, in cities, on back roads, on the highway (or as they say, ‘motorway’) which is 'ludicrous speed'. (Yes, I used all the speeds featured in Spaceballs…seemed appropriate. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaceballs) In any case, the locals drive WAY too fast for me to be out there trying to figure it all out.

For as insanely fast as they drive, you’d expect to see a bunch of accidents every mile or so. I’m impressed by the lack of fender benders and crashes. They call it a “smash” and apparently they are pretty good at avoiding it.

To further compound the difficulty of not knowing where you are, not being on the correct side of the road, and sitting on the opposite side of the car is the fact that the majority of the information is written not on signs, but on the surface of the road itself. There aren’t many signs. Also, there aren’t many opportunities for stopping, or pulling over, to get your bearings. It is rare to see stoplights, as the intersections are mostly roundabouts, so the respite of a stoplight is hard to come by. Same holds true for pulling over…the roads are narrow and have no real shoulders.

I’m not saying that I won’t drive again, ever. I’m going to do it, I really am. It’s just that I’m still feeling a bit unsure about myself, especially after the debacle I made of moving. (I know, I know…I keep throwing that “moving” thing out there without much explanation. I’m almost finished with a post on that. It was difficult to put into words. It really was one of those “you had to be there” times, although I PROMISE you that you did NOT want to be there. Just ask Katrina and Geoff.)

I have this fear that my inability to drive well will lead to indignation and suddenly I’m The Rude American. I have this image of myself driving like Otto in the movie ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095159/ where he drives all over London on the right side of the road, making all the British people swerve out of HIS way to avoid a head-on collision. After he passes the swerving, honking British driver, Otto leans out the driver’s side window and yells, ‘Asshoooooooolllllllllle!” and continues to drive on. He appears to be self-righteous, but really, he’s just incredibly stupid. The message, however, is still the same: what the hell are you doing driving that direction on this side of the road?????

Here is a clip from You Tube that is called ‘The Best of Otto’. Anyone who has seen the movie knows that there are some hilarious parts that have some serious cursing in them, so I’m putting a disclaimer on the entire clip…it should NOT be viewed within earshot of children. The reason I’m posting the link is to show you the driving scene I’m talking about, which is during the first ten seconds, (and another one occurs during the last minute) so if you are one of my friends that is easily offended by gratuitous cursing, you won’t enjoy the remainder of the clip. If such language doesn’t offend you, then not only should you enjoy the clip, but watch the movie sometime.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mvP5GtIRVA

That being said, I admit that I find it admirable that the men and women of the United Kingdom do not care whether outsiders find their driving to be strange. You have to love that. It’s like, “my island, my rules.”

It's Fancy Talk

Shortly after I posted my cursing faux pas, I was watching tv with the boys, and one of my favorite SpongeBob episodes was on. It is the one called “Sailor Mouth” and it features SpongeBob and Patrick using a word that, unbeknownst to them, is actually a VERY bad curse word. Sound familiar?

Unlike MY fancy talking at the cocktail party (http://reneespassport.blogspot.com/2009/02/somebody-call-folks-at-merriam-webster.html ) THIS whole thing is hilarious. SpongeBob comes across a word written on a dumpster...graffiti. Because he’s so good and wholesome and na├»ve, he doesn’t recognize it as anything but a funny sounding word. So he starts saying it. Instead of the viewer hearing any bad words, though, each time the word is spoken, there’s this sound effect like a dolphin squeaking, or a ship’s horn, or a seagull squawking, or something nautical-like. So as you read the following, imagine the dolphin noise each time you see the symbols for the bad word.

The episode begins with Mr. Krabs telling SpongeBob to take out the trash. Once SpongeBob gets outside, he starts reading the graffiti on the dumpster. He starts reading it all out loud. Here's kind of how it goes as Patrick walks up.




SpongeBob: Hmm.. someone didn't finish this one.
Patrick: That word?
SpongeBob: No, that one!
Patrick: Hmm... #$%%#! Uh, hey! I think I know what that word means. That's one of those sentence enhancers.
SpongeBob: Sentence enhancers?
Patrick: You use them when you want to talk fancy. You just sprinkle it on anything you say, and.. wham-O! You've got yourself a spicy sentence sandwich!
SpongeBob: Oh, I get it! Here, let me try. Umm.. hello Patrick, what #$%#%$^ weather we're having, isn't it?
Patrick: Why, yes it is, SpongeBob. This $%#$^%& day is $%#%^&% lovely!
SpongeBob: How $%#%#%^ right you are, Patrick. Patrick: %$#^$%#.
SpongeBob: %$%#%#%.
Patrick: %#$%^#$.
SpongeBob: You're right, Patrick, my lips are tingling from the spiciness of this conversation!
Patrick: Oh, mine too.

SpongeBob is walking into the Krusty Krab the next day.
SpongeBob: Hello customers, what a #$%#$#$ day we're having!
Fish dining there: Oh, did he just say..
2nd fish dining there: Aye, he did.
SpongeBob: Hi, Patrick, how the $%#% are you?
Patrick: Pretty $%#%#%% good, SpongeBob.
Old man fish: I thought this was a restaurant, not a gutter mouth convention.
SpongeBob taps on the restaurant microphone.
SpongeBob: Attention, customers, today's special is a $%#% Krabby Patty served with in a greasy $%#%$#$ sauce and grilled to %#$@$#% perfection. And don't forget to ask us to $#%# the $#$# fries. It'll be our %#%#%^^ pleasure. Hi Squidward, how the $#$% are ya?
Patrick: Nice $#%%^#% day we're having, isn't it Squidward?
Fish: Let's go somewhere more family-oriented.
Everyone leaves the Krusty Krab.
Sirens wail.
Mr. Krabs: Ah!! The Krusty Krab! She's empty! All hands on deck! Batten the front doors! Brace the cash register! Break out the happy snacks! Squidward, where have all me money paying customers gone?
Squidward: Apparently the two barnacle-mouth brothers just learned a new word, and SpongeBob said it over the intercom.
Mr. K: Well, what was it? What'd he say?
Squidward: Well.. uh.. (whispers to Mr. K the bad word)
Mr. K: AHHHHH!!!! SpongeBob and Friend! Front and center! I think I should make you paint the Krusty Krab for using such language!
SpongeBob: But Mr. Krabs, we were just using our sentence enhancers!
Patrick: Yeah, it's fancy talk.
Mr. K: Fancy? There's nothing fancy about that word!
SpongeBob : You mean #$%#?
Mr. K: Yes, that one! Now quit saying that. It's a bad word.
Both: Bad word?
Mr. K: Yes, that word was number 11. In fact, there are 13 words you shouldn't say.
Squidward: I thought there were 7.
Mr. K: Not when you're a sailor! Ar ar ar!
SpongeBob: Wow, thirteen....
Pat: That's a lot of $%#%#%^ bad words.


So, I think it's fair to say that what I made at the cocktail party wasn't an ass of myself, but rather, I made a spicy sentence sandwich. As my dad always said after I fed him some sort of excuse coupled with a lie: "Uh huh. Yeah. Well, it's your story. Tell it the way you want."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Found: Bisquick's Little Sister

As you may recall from my previous posts, I was coming up empty when searching for pancake mix here in the UK. (I should be more specific...I haven't gone searching all over the island, per se, but rather around the northwest region.)

Anyone who has ever tried to find a good spot in their cabinet for the big-ass box of Bisquick knows that the box borders on treasure-chest size...in fact, a true pancake-loving family like mine actually considers a box of Bisquick to be nothing less than a treasure chest.

In my new neck of the woods, I've finally found the Bisquick treasure chest. But, as the picture shows, it's less of a real treasure chest and more like that little plastic treasure chest you get when you lose a tooth...you know, the one you can wear around your neck.

So, I'm estimating that I'll need at least two of these boxes to cover us for Sunday breakfast.

The Coke can is to give you perspective. (I'm thinking that my perspective might improve if I added some spiced rum to that can.)






 

Somebody call the folks at Merriam Webster

I have learned a few new words, although it was completely accidental and totally humiliating and not the way I would have planned it. If you’ve seen my list of things I like about the UK, you’ll notice that “cursing” is at the top of the list. These people are truly cursing geniuses. I just LOVE hearing them rattle off a list of insults…words like “bugguh” and “wankuh” sound so harmless, you never can tell whether the speaker is pissed or just enthusiastic. In fact, they use curse words in pleasant conversation with one another…for instance, the way we might say, “Get out!” to someone who just told us something unbelievable, they will say something involving a cleverly pronounced word beginning with ‘f’ and it ISN’T considered rude.

There are bad words, though, that are REALLY bad, and no one from the United States is even aware of it until it’s too late, and you are left standing there like a cartoon, with a thought bubble above your head full of symbols like this: *#@!!!!!!!

Apparently, calling your butt a fanny isn't okay...a fanny is actually a bad word for a girl's private parts. So while at the grocery store, when I called out to the boys to "get your fannies over here right now before I come over there and whack them," I wasn't being stared at because I joked about spanking, as I had previously thought. But at least I was anonymous when I said that one. No one at Tesco knew me. The second one was among people I knew – ones I had just met, in fact. It was humiliating because it is SO bad…and when I say bad, I mean that this word was definitely the mother of all vulgarities. It was by far the worst thing I have ever said – and those of you who know me know that I am particularly proud of my command of profanity and my ability to throw it out there. But this…well, this was just plain and simple WRONG.

The second word was “spunk” and what it actually means here - and this is so embarrassing to even type – well, it means, in proper terms, ejaculate. And because of identical spellings, I need to clarify that I mean “ejaculate” as a noun, not in the verb form. Stress the second syllable, not the last. Like say the last syllable with a short ‘a’, not a long one. Are you getting it?

Yeah, and so I was at this lovely cocktail party, enjoying an evening in the beautiful home of a new friend who was generous enough to invite us over for an evening to meet other some families. All of the children were upstairs doing the kid scene with the exception of one little girl who was more interested in the grown-up conversation. She was such a kick…she was like a little adult in a child’s body, wearing these sparkly dress-up high heels, a red and black velvet dress, and carrying a pink and purple plastic handbag with matching bangle bracelets and headband. Even her name was beyond her age…it was Betty. Betty and I were chatting it up for about 20 minutes before her mother said it was time for Betty to go upstairs with the other children.

After Betty left, I told her parents how much I loved talking with Betty, and that I’d love to just put her in my pocket and take her home with me. I complimented them on their cute, spirited little girl who was so much fun, so full of spirit and spunk…that I just loved spunky little girls like Betty.

The room went from cozy and full of conversation to that empty silence where you vaguely hear a cricket chirping in the background. Everyone sort of froze in their places, looking at Betty’s parents and me. I glanced around, wondering what the hell just happened, when my eyes met Husband’s, which were as big as basketballs as he gestured the universal sign for SHUT UP NOW. He was doing the pointer-finger-as-a-knife-across-the-throat gesture. I said, “What? What’d I say?” and he smiled sweetly and replied, “I’ll tell you later.” Like a scene from a sitcom, the party instantly kicked back into motion and moved along. Conversations, sipping wine…I even think the music came back on, all as if nothing happened. You gotta hand it to the British…they are experts at keeping things on an even keel (except at a soccer game, that is, but I digress.)

My question is this: If words considered harmless in the States are profane and insulting in the UK, what else is out there, waiting to ambush me with embarrassment? How many more times will I make an ass (or an arse, as they say here) of myself? (And that’s a rhetorical question…do NOT answer it.)

Fortunately, Betty’s parents were cool, understanding, and well-traveled so they totally "got it" that the whole thing was a language snafu and I really hadn’t intentionally called their six year old daughter a bodily secretion. But oy. Really.

If you have a reliable security program on your computer, go ahead and Google (use this one, the UK version: http://www.google.co.uk/ ) the words "spunk magazine."
Yeah, I know, right????

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I'm SO behind the modern world....

Like, really, I admit that. For example, I am the last person on the planet to join Facebook. They told me so when I joined last night. And judging by the amount of messages in my inbox, they were right.

So now I'm off to see what this Facebook is all about, because I only signed up last night, and apparently it can do so much more for me if I just take the time to fill in all the blanks.