Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Patriotism Expanded

I’m having a bit of an identity crisis these days. It’s not that I don’t know who I am, but that I struggle to identify myself to others. Now before you start rolling your eyes at how angsty this sounds, don’t worry. I’m not about to go all ‘I’m misunderstood, just like vampires’ on you. I’m talking about that pesky thing we call nationality, and the even peskier idea of ‘home’.

“Where are you from?” I get asked this question a lot lately, meeting friends of friends and networking at parties. The first answer is still quite easy, though not necessarily definitive of how I feel. I try to respond honestly with the only nationality I hold, not the ones I secretly covet.

“I’m from Canada.” Saying this rarely appeases them. They ask me to name a city, and that’s where I usually blank. Yes, anyone who knows me knows I was born in Calgary. I went to primary and secondary school there. I can practically see my family rolling their eyes as they read this. But actually, when you factor in the years I spent as a tot in Montréal, and the fact that I left home at 18 to attend university out East, and then abroad, my time in Calgary only amounts to about 15 years. That’s a little over half my life, and it doesn’t define me anymore.

When I lived in France, I used to tell people I was from Montréal. It was just easier than explaining the whole Garderie Chez Picotine in Montréal/ French immersion in Calgary / language genius thing. Sometimes it didn't even feel like a lie. I had always wanted to be francophone.

It doesn't surprise me that I took such a liking to France. After all, the Vieux Quartier of Montréal (with its very French façade) was lodged somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory. My mother was born in Vancouver and only spent the first 3 years of her life there. But even after 40 years in Calgary, she never felt at home there, and always dreamed of moving out to the coast. This is obviously a common phenomenon. In her book 'Ni d'Ève ni d'Adam', Amélie Nothomb (a Belgian author) writes about her young childhood in Japan, and how, upon returning to the land of the rising sun as an adult, she finally felt at home. There's something about those first few years of life that bonds people with their surroundings.

The same thing happens with languages. Countless anthropologists and sociologists will tell you that language is a huge part of identity. It is possible to adopt a new 'personality' when you learn a new language. I have experienced this firsthand, though I had no idea until my parents pointed it out to me. In French my voice becomes slightly more expressive, and I instantly adopt an air of being unimpressed with everyone and everything until they can prove me otherwise. Hmmm... though this could just be an exaggeration of my regular personality. When I speak Portuguese I am bubbly, gregarious, flirty, and way more outgoing than my usual hermit tendencies permit.

I saw the same thing with my Korean students too. Even though I had no idea what they were saying when they spoke Korean (my genius with language, it seems, did not extend to Asian languages), I could tell by their expressions and body language that they were different kids in Korean than they were in English. It was fascinating to see how an outgoing kid in my English class was suddenly the quiet one with his friends in the hallway. In my English class, the boys and girls tended to be equally loud (and equally troublesome), but in Korean the girls talked quietly in the hallway, while the boys yelled over each other to be heard.

I doubt I'll ever be able to settle on one language, or a single idea of home. And who says I need to, anyway? I am suddenly reminded of a recent Alanis Morissette song called 'Citizen of the Planet'. "Then I move across the sea, to European bliss, to language of poets. As I cut the cord of home I kiss my mother's mother and look to the horizon... Then I fly back to my nest, I fly back with my nuclear but everything is different. So I wait, my yearn for home is broadened, patriotism expanded by callings from beyond."

Monday, November 29, 2010

In the Shadow of War

- Photo of the North/South Korea Joint Security Area taken by Michael.

As tensions between North and South Korea escalate, I am reminded of my time there (in S. Korea, of course). Despite the fact that I found teaching to be extremely draining, the kids did manage to crack me up on a daily basis. I loved how they insisted on trying to explain Korean current events. Kids being kids, of course, ‘current events’ mostly had to do with Kim Yuna (gold medal figure skater) and some actor called ‘Flower Boy’. To this day I’m still not sure who Flower Boy was, but if he’s ever successful abroad, I suggest he change his stage name to something slightly… less flowery.

However, sometimes the little ones piled in to class yelling ‘Teacher, Pyongyang!” followed by a stream of Korean. These were the days you knew that North Korea had pulled some dumbass stunt, and you were reminded of just how close to the border Seoul really is. In class discussions with the older students, they were usually able to explain what had transpired, their expressions bemused rather than frightened. I remember asking them (for the sake of prolonging my hold on their waning attention) why they thought North Korea did these things, but they just shrugged. It didn’t really matter to them, they had grown up in the shadow of the conflict. And while not immune to it, they certainly weren’t going to stop living their lives.

Anyone who has lived in Seoul will agree that for the most part you wouldn’t even know there was a country less than a 3-hour drive away bent on your destruction. It hasn’t stopped South Koreans from working hard for their families, and drinking copious amounts of soju with colleagues. If anyone deserves the ‘keep calm and carry on’ award, it’s South Korea.

Despite the fact that my students gave me the Asian death flu on more than one occasion, I sometimes miss them. I hope that perhaps there will be a peaceful end to the conflict within their lifetime.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cutting Class

A good Canadian expat friend told me recently about a run-in she’d had with a stranger here in London. I’m not sure what she did to upset him, but he ended the altercation by calling her ‘middle class’. She said she’d felt very insulted. “Well,” I said, “I guess that could be insulting. I mean, I’d have pegged you at upper middle class, actually.”

“No,” she replied, “you don’t get it. When people here say ‘middle class’, what they really mean is Tory/Conservative. He was basically calling me a snob.” Um... whaaa?

“So let me get this straight,” I said, trying to make sense of it all. “He decided, based on how you dressed and how you spoke, that you were little miss hoity-toity. But then his best zinger to that was ‘middle class’?”

“Yes, exactly.” At that point I had to change the subject to force my brain to stop chanting ‘does not compute… does not compute’.

I don't get why people here say 'middle class' when they really mean 'upper class'... I mean, if people with tons of money, education, and conservative values are middle class, and people with not much money, little education, and social values are ‘working class’, then where does that leave someone like me – who has plenty of education, but not a lot of money, and a mix of socially liberal and somewhat fiscally conservative values? According to the British class system, I don’t exist.

Also, according to Suzanne Moore's latest article in the Guardian, if you have good, classic taste, and don't dress like a) a hooker, or b) someone who's colour blind/ insane enough to follow every London fashion trend, then you must be Conservative. She uses this theory to attack Kate Middleton's elegant dress sense. Yes, she dresses conservatively, and yes, this is probably expected of her. But last time I checked, lots of people in this world also dress conservatively - bankers, flight attendants, professors, bus drivers, politicians, and even journalists - yet there's no way these very different people fit into the same political category.

Ms. Moore is pretending to rage against the system, but is in actual fact participating in a long-standing British tradition of forcing people into one of two boxes. Here, you're either poor or rich, educated or uneducated, conservative or liberal. There is no in-between. This is reflected in the vast display of wealth versus those living in near poverty. Congratulations, Britain! You are now well on your way to having the same disparity and inequality as Brazil and Mexico.

For the record, classic style isn't Conservative, it's French. And the Brits are just jealous because they can't pull it off.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Undesirables

Well, it’s been quite an eventful week around the world. Tanks full of police officers specially trained for urban combat have been rolling into Rio’s favelas. Here in London, students are turning out en masse to protest the government’s proposed increase in tuition fees. Apparently they’ve been doing such a good job that they’ve received praise from French students… c’est un miracle!

Neither of these events affects us directly, as none of my friends in Rio live anywhere near the targeted favelas. Michael is forced to pay international student tuition, which may actually (for undergrads anyway) be lowered. I think it’s ridiculous to lower international tuition, in the hopes of attracting more of the best and the brightest from overseas, while at the same time systematically dismantling immigration. What good does it do to bring us to the UK if we can’t stay afterwards? That being said, if PM Cameron is reading this, please also consider lowering post-graduate international tuition. Many thanks!

I can’t help but get the nagging feeling that the immigration thing is only going to get worse in future. This is mostly because I just attended an ‘end of publication’ party for a wonderful Brazilian magazine. Its editor in chief is moving back to Brazil, and though the party itself was excellent, it was obviously very emotional for everyone (even me, and I only met these lovely people 2 weeks ago!). The following evening, I attended yet another goodbye party* for a Brazilian who, after many years in the UK, is moving back home. Is it just me, or does this smack of a bad omen?

All the foreigners I know here are very desirable immigrants, but they’re starting to get the feeling they’re not wanted. At the end of Michael’s programme we’ll hold three UK degrees between the two of us… but who knows if we’ll be able to use them to contribute to UK society? I guess it’s never too early to begin thinking of where to go next.

*Also Johanna K's birthday party :)

Friday, November 26, 2010

You Know You're an Expat When...

1) You go home for a visit and bring an empty suitcase to load up on all those over-the-counter drugs you can't find in your adopted country.
2) You have more than one clock on your computer to keep track of all those pesky time zones.
3) You are annoyed by any friend or family member who doesn't yet have skype. It's FREE, people!
4) You see a mouse or a cockroach in a restaurant and it doesn't even turn your stomach.
5) You maliciously call your parents to remind them they live in a frozen wasteland (whereas you just live in a damp, grey wasteland).
6) You become irrationally angry the week there's no new episode of the Rick Mercer Report: how else will you get your news?
7) You watch your nieces and nephews grow up via webcam.
8) You develop traveller's amnesia: everywhere you go reminds you of somewhere else.
9) You secretly like Europop.
10) You no longer receive real presents... everyone just sends a cheque.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Christmas Miracle

Okay, I know I was just writing about Thanksgiving yesterday, but since we live in London, there’s no evidence of any holiday except for Christmas. Actually, I take that back… last week we were at my favourite Indian restaurant, getting unusually subpar food and service. It was exceptionally busy for a Tuesday night, and we eventually figured out it was because of Eid (the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, for all you other pasties out there). Other than that night, however, you can’t go anywhere in London without bumping into Christmas.

It all seems very premature, but I have to confess I love it. I am even shamelessly listening to Christmas music as I write this. It’s not even advent, and I find myself whistling Christmas Time is Here by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Part of it’s my upbringing, as my family always went all out for the holidays. By this I don’t mean excessive amounts of spending (though I certainly never remember Santa being stingy with the toys), but rather good food and music.

Also, nothing says Christmas like the annual Christmas tree argument. It used to just involve annoyance with each other for leaving it too late, driving around to multiple tree stands, and coming home with something totally overpriced and unsuitably tall. My father would then have to saw off the bottom part of the trunk, taking care not to maim himself… and this was the FUN PART. We'd then wrestle with the finicky Canadian Tire Christmas tree stand, and once up, would argue over the exact positioning of the lights. The tension usually started off with my father muttering 'sh*t' under his breath, and escalated to full blown 'this effing goddamn piece of sh*t!' Ah, it brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it. Since moving to Vancouver Island, my parents have started going to the local Christmas tree farm to cut their own, which adds in the element of fighting over which tree to choose, followed by trying to remember where it was when they go back to collect it.

This is the awesome action I'm missing out on, people! So you can see why I was a bit despondent at the thought of our Cratchit Christmas this year, with no money to spend on such frivolous things as decorations. But never fear, today I discovered the bestest present ever. My mother, it turns out, bought us some Christmas decorations, complete with fairy lights to untangle and a mini tree to argue over setting up. I'm sure my husband thinks I’m a big baby overly enthusiastic about this, but I don't care. Our tiny flat will be festive this season, and we can argue like a normal family, the way Christmas was meant to be.

*Thanks to Mom and Dad for the decorations! They are fab!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gobble Gobble!

Apparently it’s American Thanksgiving this weekend and nobody told me. By ‘nobody’, of course, I mean my husband. This doesn’t really surprise me, as he’s not huge on the holidays that involve the consumption of mass amounts of delicious food (see this post). I, on the other hand, love a good excuse for a feast. If it includes a vast array of dishes, excessive baking, and the loosening of belts afterwards, you can count me in!

Still, the idea of American Thanksgiving has always perplexed me. Growing up, we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving, which exists a) technically to give thanks for the harvest, b) so we can have a day off in October and c) to make all those autumn dishes we want to enjoy IN AUTUMN, before the country plunges into 6 months of winter and darkness and despair… and oh look I’ve digressed again. My experience of Michael's holiday is limited to Thanksgiving themed episodes of my favourite American TV shows.

From these shows I learned some very interesting things, namely that small children dress up as pilgrims (who from what I can tell were early evangelicals with really bad fashion sense). Also, Thanksgiving is THE family holiday, and if Danny doesn't get home for it he will be devastated and his daughters will hate him and his life will never be the same. Okay, so I watched a lot of Full House when I was little... you know you thought Uncle Jesse was hot too! American Thanksgiving is about pretending to give thanks to the First Nations, and being in total denial about the fact that most of them were killed off with small pox infected blankets (okay, so we stuck ours on reserves and turned them into second-class citizens, but at least we don't have a holiday for it).

A typical Thanksgiving (at my house) would consist of : 1) a turkey (to be named after a politician) 2) mashed potatoes 3) dressing/stuffing 4) mashed turnips 5) some other side vegetable 6) cranberry sauce 7) gravy 8) pumpkin pie. A typical American Thanksgiving dinner (on TV) consists of all the above, plus something called sweet-potato pie, which as far as I can tell is exactly what it sounds like, plus copious amounts of extra sugar and sometimes marshmallows.

Despite the fact that sweet-potato pie sounds like the grossest thing ever, I have to admit the menu's not all that different. And I'd make the big feast this weekend if my arteries didn't start clogging at the thought of two such massive meals (Thanksgiving and Christmas) less than a month apart. How do they do it? They must have enormous... appetites. Seriously, though, I just don't have the energy to make a feast this weekend. I hope my husband can forgive me. I really don't want to end up as the villain in a bad Thanksgiving special.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Stuff British People Like

Continued from my previous post:

11) Peeling off almost all their clothes to sunbathe the minute the sun appears and the temperature rises above 17C.

12) Lobster red sunburns (this applies only to Brits with pasty white skin).

13) The word 'brilliant' to mean 'wonderful' or 'great'... sadly not used to actually describe this blog author as having mensa level intelligence.

14) Travelling abroad, with delicious local specialties on offer, only to spend the whole time longing for pub food (this applies mainly to a bunch of Brits I met in Argentina).

15) Professing their superiority to Americans, then...

16) Sucking up to America (don't laugh, Canada, this applies to you too!)

17) Using the word 'Asian' to describe anyone from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This one I find particularly funny because, to me, an Asian is someone from Korea, China or Japan (occasionally Vietnam, Thailand). However, I suppose India is technically in Asia...

18) The ongoing debate about whether or not to join the single currency.

19) The ongoing debate about immigration.

20) Tiny hats at weddings.

21) Gigantic hats at Ascot.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hot Pot Horrors

Last night was a bit of a disaster. I had intended to make a delicious chicken and black bean hotpot with rice. I often made this sort of saucy stir-fry when we lived in Korea, mostly because a) the ingredients were easily found and b) if I made enough rice to go with it, the sauce helped stretch it into leftovers. In case you can’t tell, I am the one who does all the cooking, which sounds like a hardship but isn’t when you realise that Michael does most of the dishes, and all of the cleaning and laundry. I definitely get the better deal! Also, I love food and live to eat whereas he’d be happy eating dirt if he learned it was nutritious and full of fibre.

But back to last night… We’d gone shopping together for the ingredients (how romantic!) and in an effort to save some cash (see ‘fretting over money’ in my last post) I bought chicken from the ‘reduced to clear’ section. I know I know, I shouldn't have done it, but the date said to eat it by Nov. 21, and it was the 21st so I figured it wasn't a problem. I took the ingredients home and made the hot pot. It smelled delicious. I tasted a piece of baby corn. Mmm... so good! I tasted a snow pea and it was yummy. I tasted a bit of chicken...mmm?...no, wait, something's not right... oh, ugh! It had gone slightly rancid, and I had foolishly refused to listen to my intuition when I was cutting it up.

I was forced to throw the whole thing out and, in a fit of paranoia, clean everything in the kitchen with antibacterial wipes. We went out for pizza instead, courtesy of my generous parents who took pity on us, and I spent the whole night wondering if I had given myself food poisoning. Luckily, I didn't serve any of it to Michael, which should convince him I'm not looking to bump him off anytime soon. Turns out love isn't 'never having to say you're sorry', it's 'not giving your partner salmonella'.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One Year

Today is our 1 year anniversary, though you wouldn’t know it by how we’ve spent our day. The highlights so far have included a) being able to sleep in, and b) going grocery shopping for the Asian chicken and black bean hot pot I am making tonight. But we don’t mind that it’s a low-key event because we have wonderful anniversary plans 2 weeks from now. We’re going to Paris!

Paris, the city of light, the city of love… what more could a couple ask for? Michael’s never been, and I am slightly nervous about their introduction. I doubt he’ll suffer the fate of so many ill-equipped American tourists because he’ll have a great arsenal against anglo-discrimination. He has me, and I’m about as snooty as they come, plus I speak fluent français and know the city decently well. Still, I am anxious for him to love Paris as much as I do.

I read somewhere that the first year of marriage is supposed to be the hardest, but I’m not entirely convinced of that. Other than deciding which country to live in, what our career plans were, and fretting over anything having to do with money (who doesn’t?), I’d say our first year was a breeze. Then again, perhaps that statistic has more to do with couples who don’t live together prior to getting married. In any case, I’m looking forward to another great year, filled with travel, fun and friendship.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

More Things Expats Love

Going Home For a Visit

Expats love returning to their country of origin for a visit because it gives them the chance to tell everyone at home how much better life is abroad. Feeling superior about their foreign way of life is high on the Expat’s list of priorities. They feel that everyone should be jealous of their nomadic lifestyle, but not to the point of actually moving abroad (because then the Expat would no longer be special and superior to those back home).

If your Expat friend or relative is visiting, be prepared to listen to constant criticism of the ‘way things are done here’. It’s natural to be upset, but try to be patient and indulge them when they say things like, ‘I can’t believe there are so many cars! Can’t we just walk to the store? Oh no, wait, we can’t because this stupid city is made up entirely of box-like subdivisions.’ They’ll try to convince you to eat Nutella instead of peanut butter, and tell you that you wasted your money when you paid 20$ for a pair of Havianas that you could have bought for 3$ in Brazil. They’ll accuse you of never having tried real, unpasteurized cheese.

Take a deep breath, smile, and remember that the few days after the Expat returns to their adopted home will be fraught with tension. The Expat will probably be drowning in more foreign bureaucracy. They'll wish their flat had real central heating, or perhaps they will simply long for a bottle of maple syrup that doesn't cost 8£. They'll probably even miss you, and this is your best revenge.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Things Expats Love

Blending in while standing out.

Expats love to think of themselves as truly French or Brazilian (or insert nationality of adopted country here). They spend many years working hard on fitting in, on learning the language, and on adapting the mannerisms of the locals. They eat local food, dress like the people in their city, and do their best never to be noticed.

This is problematic for an Expat because they also love to stand out. They enjoy the thrill it gives them to be the exotic one in the room. Remember, the Expat grew up looking and talking like everyone around them and this never got them any attention at parties. Suddenly the Expat has a hook, and standing out is the perfect icebreaker if the Expat wants to make friends (and all Expats do).

These two conflicting Expat desires can cause a lot of anxiety for the Expat. If you should happen upon one, proceed with caution. Approach the Expat slowly and initiate conversation. Even if someone has pointed out the Expat and mentioned the Expat's nationality, it is rude to immediately launch into dialogue in the Expat's language. While many Expats appreciate you can speak their language, they prefer not to be thought of as incapable of speaking yours.

Once you've introduced yourself, ask the Expat about life in your common city. Where do they live? Where do they shop? You may then ask them where they are from. Most Expats love talking about where they come from, even if they seldom identify with their country of origin. You may then turn the conversation back to the city you have in common. Ask them if they like where they are living, and if they've had a chance to travel to surrounding areas.

If you have followed this advice, you have now secured the Expat's good opinion. You are free to maintain a friendship with the Expat.

NB: For Expats who encounter other Expats, the formula is the same except you won't need to proceed with as much caution at first. Expats who encounter other Expats of the same nationality: do not squeal and declare 'ME TOO!' when you find out you hold the same passport. Just because you share a nationality does not mean you have anything else in common.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Waffle

Tonight I am going to the opening of a chic new waffle bar, Wafflemeister, in Portobello Road. I got invited because it turns out I know influential people. Or at least influential in the waffle world. It should be good times, and I am excited to try their delicious-looking secret recipe – especially their new ‘savoury’ waffles, which I imagine to be somewhat like savoury crêpes, minus the mess.

I have always been more of a waffle fan than a pancake fan. I make an exception for my dad’s yogurt pancakes, but otherwise I prefer the crisp brown outside and soft sweet inside of a waffle. If Michael and I had been the sort of normal couple who gets married and receives kitchen gadgets, a waffle maker would have been first on my list. Sadly, we move around too much to actually own anything nice, but a girl can dream.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Royally Pumped!

Well, it’s official. Prince William and Kate Middleton are engaged! I know many of my British friends are taking a stoic ‘too cool for school’ approach, having decided not to care, but I am very excited. Which obviously makes me a huge immigrant nerd, but I don’t care. It’s going to be the wedding of the century. Literally.

One of my friends actually met Wills, back when he was attending the University of St. Andrews and she was there on exchange. And by met, I mean he stood behind her in line once. Or something like that. You’ll have to ask her. I’m sure she tells it much better than I do.

As a Canadian I was never really sure what to make of the Princes, aside from feeling awful for little boys who lost their mother. I mean, the Queen is technically the Queen of Canada. And everybody loved the Queen Mum, but are the Princes 'Princes of Canada?'. I don't know and I no longer care. They can be my princes too (though I can't bring myself to find Harry attractive because, although he's very handsome, he bears a striking resemblance to my cousin).

The media here have been poised to pounce on this engagement for years. They even brutally named her 'Waity Katy', suggesting that somehow she was just hanging around waiting for him to propose. Even the Queen claims it took too long (or so I saw in a headline of a paper someone else was reading on the bus). I think it is to their credit that the couple waited. He needed to choose a wife with care, and she needed to know what she was getting into before they could BOTH make that huge decision. I bet many women already feel like their mother-in-law acts like queen of the castle when she visits*... but in this case it's no joke.

I bet the wedding industry is just foaming at the mouth and chomping at the bit with competitive bids for caterers, planners, bakers etc. Mostly I'm just trying to imagine what kind of gown she'll wear. Somehow I doubt she'll shop at Kleinfeld's of 'Say Yes to the Dress' fame. I bet she'll look nice no matter what, and not a bit like a 'commoner'.

*Not me, though. I lucked out in that department.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

No More 'Cow'gary

Calgary* conservatives now have a new reason to get bent out of shape these days (like they even needed one!). With their new, impossibly cool, Muslim (gasp!) Mayor, the city apparently just ‘isn’t the same’. Nossiree! Calgary ain’t no rodeo no more! Them people be edumacated… and them womenfolk is becoming all uppity, probably demanding equal pay for equal work next!

Sarcasm aside, this CBC article now states that the Punjabi Writers Association of Calgary wants Punjabi taught in schools. You’d think all conservative hell hath broken loose. Here is an actual reaction to this article, taken from a source on facebook: “I knew it wouldn't be long until we started to see stuff like this - the two official languages in Canada are English and French. If you want to learn either of these two languages then by all means, knock yourself out. If you want to get an education in Punjabi then go to a country where Punjabi is an official language!!! It would be like going to India and demanding a French immersion curriculum! Geez what is happening to this great country of ours?!?!”

We’ll ignore the fact that this person, had he been 30 years older, would probably have been one of the ones vehemently protesting French education when it was introduced (and no doubt denying its official language status). Instead, it is glaringly obvious that the individual didn’t read beyond the first line of the article. If he had, he would have realised that a) the association wants to introduce Punjabi ‘as a language alternative’, meaning a 2nd language with no immersion curriculum, and b) there are already five language options available for students required to learn a second language. It isn't just limited to French. French Immersion students are not required to learn an additional language, but many choose to do so

I think introducing Punjabi in schools is a wonderful idea, so long as the schools have the funding. But last I heard they didn't. Why? Oh yes, education funds were slashed time and time again by the Provincial Conservative government. I think it's time we take this change in Calgary and move it up a level. I can't say it in Punjabi, but I can say it in 4 different languages... which is probably 3 (and a half) more than all those who claim the city 'ain't what it used to be'.

*For my international readers: I was born and (for the most part) raised in Calgary, Canada, which is why I still follow what goes on there.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Stuff British People Like

A Canadian friend of mine lives with her British boyfriend here in London. As such, she’s had much more exposure to British culture than I’ve had, and often provides me with valuable insights on a weekly basis. The other day she remarked on the difference in simple, every-day expressions. “Did you know the British don’t let their tea steep?” she asked.

“What are you talking about? Of course they do. That’s the whole point of tea. They’re some of the world’s biggest tea drinkers.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “but they don’t actually say ‘steep’. They say ‘brew’.”

“But that’s ridiculous! You don’t let a tea bag brew in constantly boiling water. And you can’t brew tea like you brew beer, either. Weird.”

“Right? I thought so too!” she replied, glad to have her expat view validated. “I mean after all those years of drinking Tim Horton’s’ ‘Steeped Tea’, I come here and find out I’ve been saying it all wrong.” I rolled my eyes.

“Timmy Ho’s is wrong too. ‘Steeped tea’ is redundant. If you’re selling tea as a beverage, it’s always steeped. Gah! Again, it’s the whole point of drinking tea.”

Abnormal frustration over linguistic quibbles aside, it got me thinking about stuff British people like that I will never understand:

1) Marmite - a yeast extract spread for toast. Mmm.. tastes like toe jam!

2) Cold toast - toast that's grown cold and THEN buttered. Shudder.

3) Mushy peas.

4) Saying 'vye-a' when the word 'via' is clearly Latin and should be pronounced 'vee-a'.

5) Obsession with the Royal Family.

6) Hating the French.

7) Secretly wanting to be French and then hating themselves for it.

8) Keeping their buildings draughty and frigid ON PURPOSE.

9) Thinking that wet, windy, cold weather is 'invigorating'.

10) Feeding pigeons. You don't see people in New York feeding the rats, do you?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fireworks and Nostalgie

The fireworks last night were fantastic, and it was a perfect evening for them. We got down to the river around quarter after four and found a spot right on the bank. We were treated to performances by a Zulu band, and also some lovely classical music. We couldn’t actually see the performers, and since it was the Lord Mayor’s show, I spent several minutes imagining Boris Johnson doing an interpretive dance with his bike. Then I found out that the Lord Mayor is only the mayor for the City of London (not the greater metropolis), and that it wasn’t Boris’ show at all. The finale with the fireworks was great, though it would have been better if there hadn’t been a giant tree branch in the way. Oh well.

Michael and I went to these very same fireworks three years ago, right when we first started dating. It was one of those magical nights when you realise you’re falling in love with your new city (and maybe even the cute guy who’s keeping you warm). This year’s fireworks were wonderful, and the atmosphere along the banks of the Thames reminded me of how great this city can be. But it wasn't exactly like that night from three years ago.

I think everyone, to a certain extent, tries to recreate special moments like these. But none try harder than serial expats and hard-core travellers. We all know that special moment, the moment a new city or country becomes officially 'ours'. And we spend our whole lives (and a considerable amount of money) trying to chase that high. We move again and again, each time savouring the moment when we see our new city's famous landmark for the first time through residential eyes, when we become recognised at the market, or discover a secret café around the corner. Sometimes we forget why we live abroad, only to have the city seduce us again when we least expect it.

As both a serial expat and avid traveller, I have many wonderful memories of discovery all over the world. I've seen the iridescent blue butterflies in Rio de Janeiro, New Year's Eve in Prague's Old Square, and the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. But when asked to think of the one time more dear to me than all the others, there's no doubt in my mind where it takes place. France was my very first time abroad as an adult, and I was besotted with my life in Strasbourg. Of course, who wouldn't be? I had very few responsibilities, I had no worries, and I arrived already fluent in the language. I think anyone who has done a year abroad for school knows how wonderfully intoxicating (ha! get it?) the lifestyle can be, and how impossible it is to recreate. Just like your first love, it's not meant to last. France was mine.

I have been back to France only once since I left in 2004, and it was to Toulouse, a city I'd never visited before. It was nice to explore without having to worry about how it related to my year abroad. Also, there was no need to get possessive and jealous, which I tend to be with regards to Strasbourg (hey, all those uncouth tourists can just go find somewhere else, okay?). One day I hope to take my husband to Strasbourg, but I know the city will be different than the one I loved seven years ago. It will no doubt look the same, but I have changed, and when it comes to my beloved city, I will always think of it as the final city of my carefree youth. In Strasbourg I am forever 20 years old, and the world is full of possibilities.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Quick Update

Today we are going to see the Lord Mayor’s Show. Well, actually just the fireworks. I am a little pooped from some debauchery last night – not actual debauchery, more like ‘staying out past 10pm’. Nevertheless we’re heading out with the rest of London to enjoy a great light display courtesy of all those taxes we pay.

I will definitely be taking some photos, so check back tomorrow and maybe you will see them. Sorry for keeping this so brief, but I am not a fan of the 'stream of consciousness' blog. If you need entertainment, you can check out the fine comics of my friend, Katie Beaton. Or, if you're looking to get your latin fix, try Canarioca or Non-Cents-Ical.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Living in a city synonymous with rain, you’d think I’d be more prepared for it. Today was one of those typical rainy London days, the kind that paints everything a slick coat of dark grey, including my mood. I don't know whose bright idea it was to make this a business capital because there's nothing less conducive to shiny business attire than London weather. The tiny sidewalks, crowded enough when it's dry, become hazardous with the scramble of bodies trying to find space for both themselves and their umbrellas. Not that umbrellas are much help anyway. Forget Chicago, I'm petitioning to rename London the 'Windy City' because of its gales. Sadly, it's not like you can wear your goretex jacket and be done with it. Do this and you'll instantly be recognised as a foreigner. There is always the option of a chic London Fog or Burberry trench coat, but who can afford those except for bankers with GIANT UMBRELLAS?

So why did I even bother leaving the flat today? Well, I had a meeting with the editor of a Brazilian publication that I've wanted to be involved in for pretty much forever (but never could because it was very UK specific and I wasn't living here at the time). He was very nice (as almost all Brazilians are), and told me I'd be a real asset... if only they weren't stopping the publication due to a number of factors (the major one being the cost of producing it). Ugh, just my luck! But it started me thinking... what if other cultural publications in multicultural cities are suffering the same fate? It's difficult even in good economic times to cater to a niche market, and I know of a similar example with a Portuguese publication in Canada who had to move from a monthly to 'special edition' magazine.

When I originally applied for my Master's programme in Latin American Studies, the region was being touted as the next up-and-coming market with powerhouse Brazil leading the way. And perhaps in terms of overseas investment this is still the case. But many Latino-specific companies and organizations are having a hard time making a go of it abroad. Brazilians especially are returning to their country in droves, lured by the prospect of opportunities with the coming World Cup and Olympic Games*. If Latin America is the future, the future is still a ways off.

So where does this leave the remaining Latinos and Latino-philes like me? Do we branch out to include other ethnic communities, hoping a wider audience and cross-promotion will save us? Or do we narrow our focus and hope to ride it out? On one hand, we can offer something that no one save a small community will want, but at least we are tapping into that community. On the other hand, we can offer something for everyone... that no one will really want because it's not specific enough to their wants and needs. 'Every-Culture-Other-Than-British-White-People Magazine' doesn't exactly have a ring to it, and you might as well just buy the Guardian.

Which reminds me: why hasn't the Guardian hired me yet?

*Special thanks to Gi for this insider info.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest We Forget

Today is Remembrance Day (for those of you not in the Commonwealth) and with it comes sombre reflection and silence. It is a day for those who have fought in the wars, both past and ongoing. I am normally quite the pacifist and quick to condemn military action on the whole, but I am grateful to those individuals who have served my country and those who continue to serve. So I’m afraid you’ll find no wit or snark in my blog today. Instead, I will tell you a little of my family history and encourage you to share yours.

This is a photo of my great-great-uncle Arthur who was killed in 1917. He was my great-grandmother's only brother. He had been a schoolteacher in Saskatchewan, and was at Queen's University studying to become a doctor. He was 20 years old. He was originally listed as ‘missing in action’ when his plane went down (I think, though I haven’t been able to check because my mother is not awake yet to confirm this). This was the only notice given to the family, and his mother and sister died without ever knowing where his body lay. Fast forward to 2004 and with the marvel of the internet, my mother found his grave in this cemetery in Belgium. Nobody in our family has ever been to visit the grave, but I intend to make the trip sometime in the next couple of years.

Lieut. Thomas Arthur Metheral, Royal Flying Corps, 1896-1917

Howarth Lancaster Wolfe, 1920-2006

My grandfather served in WWII with the Canadian Navy. He originally wanted to join the airforce (all the cool enlisted got to be in the airforce), but I guess he didn't really have the aptitude because they told him, 'We'll call you when Hitler gets to the Rockies'. So the Navy it was. According to my mom, 'He was a radio operator in the Canadian Navy and served on a minesweeper, HMCS Quinte. During his time in the navy, he learned to translate Morse code and to tie dandy knots. He also acquired the ability to sleep through anything, and a fondness for overproof rum.' His ship never entered international waters, but in those days people on the East Coast of Canada really thought they might be attacked, so it was almost as dangerous as going to Europe.

My grandmother's three brothers also went off to war in Europe, and luckily all three of them came home safely (which certainly wasn't expected).

I'm sure many families have stories like these, so in the spirit of Remembrance Day, feel free to share yours in the comments section.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cultural Chameleons

Sometimes I feel as though my husband and I are struggling to find a happy medium in the world. We lived in South Korea for a year, in an effort to stay together without having to get married too early on in our relationship. It worked (look! we’re still together and married now!) but I wasn’t happy in Korea. Part of my unhappiness stemmed from always being sick, but another part was due entirely to the fact that in Korea I would always be the foreigner. There was no way I could ever blend in, not in language (which I could have learned if I’d wanted to because I am kind of a genius with languages) and certainly not in looks. I looked different from the front, from the back, and from the side. As you may have guessed from my blog moniker, I am blonde. I am the sort of blonde that prompts Canadians to ask if I am Scandinavian, and Scandinavians to ask where on earth I got such blonde hair. In Korea I was frequently asked if I was Russian – not exactly a flattering comparison when you realise how many Russian prostitutes are living in Itaewon.

I used to receive my share of stares in Brazil, but they were the sort of looks that made me feel like a goddess. I looked a bit different from other Brazilian women, but I usually got away with blending in once I opened my mouth and spoke in perfect, fluent Portuguese, complete with Carioca accent. Despite a certain racism (disguised as classism) in Brazil, the country is actually very accepting of immigrants. In Brazil, if you speak the language, party hardy, and have a warm heart, you too can be Brazilian. This was not the case with Korea, a country in which you are never Korean unless you are born to Korean parents, even if you have lived there your whole life and consider yourself as such.

Still, why was this even a problem for me? I mean, I was obviously foreign, so why did being labeled as a foreigner bother me so much? It didn't seem to be a problem for my husband, who later explained that Americans are terrible at blending in to other cultures, so they just accept that they'll always be singled out and get on with their role as 'the American'. But I never wanted to be singled out as 'the Canadian', even from the time I set foot in France, my first time living abroad.

In France, my style became less casual and more elegant (minus some of the horribly tarty outfits I wore to the bar). My once québecois accent blended with the strasbourgeois and parisian accents of my French friends, creating a whole new mélange. With my blonde hair, I looked like I might come from the Alsace region (though it certainly suggested German rather than French descent). Towards the end of my year abroad, my bon patois had diminished considerably, leaving an indistinguishable French accent in its place. Because no one was able to pin my accent down to one region I was often asked if I was Swiss, and sometimes I even said yes, though I drew the line at braiding my hair 'Heidi style'.

Here in London, one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, I am on my way to blending in. I wear my M&S tights, and cute little outfits. Though I don't take as many risks with fashion as Londoners (partly because I can't afford it, and partly because I don't have the right sort of figure to carry off trendy pieces), I feel like I almost look the part. And then I open my mouth and the truth comes out. My chameleon-like linguistic skills are not, it seems, able to do anything about my midwestern North American accent. Because we spoke English at home, even living in Montréal, my parents' accents have been imprinted on to mine, and nothing will shake them. At the most my accent has transformed to become more like my husband's, which means everyone now thinks I'm from Michigan. Which wouldn't be a problem if I were IN Michigan (I'd blend right in!), but I'm not. I'm in London and I feel terribly un-posh. I envy those with hybrid British accents, or even plain old European or Latin accents. My good Brazilian friend has been dating a South African for years and now has the most beautiful Brazilian-South African-British accent. It's so unfair!

Oh well, things could be worse. At least the sight of my face doesn't make little old Korean ladies crash their bikes anymore.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Saying 'I do' to Jump the Queue

It's really cold out today, and all I want to do is curl up with a good book and forget about my daily blog duty. But alas, I am unable to escape my computer's look of disapproval - yes, my computer mocks me... doesn't yours? Anyway, while I was checking to see if there was a new episode of the Rick Mercer Report, which is one of the few CBC programs I can watch abroad, I came across this article on marriages of convenience. Basically, if you haven't the time to read the whole thing, Immigration Canada is seeing more and more marriages of convenience (where someone marries a Canadian citizen to gain access to the country), and it's become a growing problem.

This really makes me mad! I think it's a horrible thing to convince someone you love them (often the Canadian spouse is duped) and then leave them as soon as you gain entry. And it's even more horrible when Canadians enter into 'business marriages' and receive money for marrying a foreigner looking to gain entry. There's a good chance that after my husband finishes his PhD, we'll go back to Canada, and he'll have to go through the immigration process - a process that has now become so complicated, he'll have to get a police background check from every country he's lived in for the last 10 years (which is a lot for nomads like us). If these people continue to cheat the system, it makes it harder on everyone, because the government refuses to single out target countries for a more in-depth immigration process. Nope, we all have to jump into the same bureaucratic merde, despite the fact that Michael grew up a stone's throw from the Canadian border.

Now before any of you accuse me of being unsympathetic to immigrants, I want to say that I welcome any family-class immigrant who comes to Canada legally and without intent to cheat the system. I really am one of those Canadians who thinks Canada should become even more multicultural. But I firmly believe that anyone who comes to Canada on a family-class visa, and then subsequently dumps their spouse deserves to be deported. It's not the same as trying to claim refugee status and it shouldn't be treated as such.

I get especially mad on behalf of people who have worked so hard and waited so long to get their Canadian residency and citizenship. Many of these people are highly skilled migrants who are forced to work low-wage jobs while waiting for degrees to be accredited and for employers to value their international experience. Add to that the culture shock, unexpected maple syrup overdoses, and the horrible horrible winter, and it's not easy being an immigrant.

I know marriages break up, and some people fall out of love. Perhaps you've had many great years of marriage and things just didn't work in the end, but Canada is your home now. That's fine. I don't mind if you stay. But don't trick me into marrying you so you can jump the queue. Besides, I'm already married to a foreigner... and we're both quite happy as expats for now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Your Nationalism's Showing

I realise I've been poking fun at my husband's nationality a lot lately. I know it's time to spread the snark around a little, but I couldn't help myself the past couple of days and when you've finished reading this you'll see why. As a Canadian, it's practically embedded our national psyche. Why? Well, back in 1776 (which is an important date in history if you're British, American or... actually that's all really), the American revolution said 'adios'* to Britain, forming it's own country with eagles flying free, and flags flying free, and people living free, and animals running free, and Amerindians dying of smallpox (but hey, they did it freely right?). And when that happened, the Northern part of North America split in two. Most people learn it in very simple terms: George Washington and Co. vs.** The Loyalists.

But it wasn't really that simple, because Washington and his cronies weren't really all that nice. Not everyone wanted to join them and the revolutionaries freely*** persecuted anyone who wasn't exactly keen on their plan for world domination creating a free land, many of whom weren't even British and certainly weren't loyal to the Crown. These people of varied European descent just didn't like Washington and many of them were punished for it. **** Eventually many of these anti-revolutionaries fled North so they wouldn't be forced to join the freedom.

So what Washington essentially achieved was a separation between people who wanted to be American and people who didn't. Which is where the part about my national psyche comes in, and why even though I am married to one, have lovely American in-laws, and have met very few Americans I didn't like... I just don't ever want to be one.

But all this is just background to SPREADING THE SNARK, because this whole idea of not being American has been taken way too far by Canadians, and has led to one of many fallacies of Canadian identity. I'd like to take this opportunity to make fun of my own people now.

Will Ferguson writes that the motto of Canadians (if we had one, which we don't unless it's 'please pass me another cold one!') is 1) Keeping the Americans OUT 2) Keeping the French IN and 3) Trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear. I think it goes further than this, though.

FALLACIES OF CANADIAN IDENTITY (or Lies Canadians Tell Themselves, Each Other, and the Rest of the World)

1) Tim Horton's Coffee is actually good. I don't know what all the high end coffee chains are doing in Canada because apparently Canadians can't tell good coffee from bad. Timmy Ho's has become some sort of symbol of Canadian identity even though it serves fatty sugary doughnuts and coffee that tastes like it came from the Sidney Tar Ponds. I refuse to identify with this, so please stop telling foreigners it's 'SO CANADIAN'. It's not. They have one in Trenton, Michigan.

2) Canadians are nice. Really? I don't think so. I think this is just something we say to ourselves when we feel bad for ...

3) Crapping on Americans and pretending we're better, even though we secretly love them and have been watching their television programming for years. Come on! You know you wish we were the focus of international attention like that. Just admit it already... they are so cool with their Obama-drama and tea baggers! Our last interesting anglo politician was Mulroney, and that's only because Canadians were glued to the drama of 'it can't get any worse... can it? Yikes, it just did!'. And while we're on the subject of falsely telling Americans how much better we are, we didn't exactly, entirely...

4) Win the war of 1812. Actually, it was kind of a stalemate. In the end, the British troops kept them out (see Ferguson's mottos above), but no land was really gained on either side, so no one really won. And yes, it's kind of cool that we burnt the White House to the ground, but try gloating about it anywhere in DC and they'll have you arrested. Moving on...

5) Hockey is our national sport. Wrong. Yes yes, I KNOW everyone knows that Lacrosse is actually our national sport. What I really mean to say is: hockey is not MY national sport. I don't care about hockey, so please don't lump me in with you when you tell foreigners how 'everyone in Canada watches hockey'. Everyone in Canada does NOT watch hockey. In fact, it's best not to talk to foreigners if you've believed any of the fallacies 1 through 5.

Well, I can think of many more but since it's NaBlo, you'll only have to wait a whole day read them.

*Wait, they had Mexican immigrants back then?
** I think this is where the 'us vs. them' mentality came from.
*** There's that word again.
**** Here I'd like to point out that I got most of this information from Will Ferguson's book of humorous political and historical essays entitled 'Why I Hate Canadians'. And yes, Michael, Ferguson DID check his factual information.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Delicious Day

This morning my husband took me out for a McDonald's breakfast, which he hardly ever does because he claims it is not very healthy (hey come on! I order my sausage n' egg muffin with no egg and no cheese!). This is a sure sign he is becoming less and less American by rejecting the ceremonial food of his people. But he's right, it's not very healthy, which I why I was so glad that my latest recipe club assignment (think book club, but with cooking) was full of delicious veggies.

Today I am cooking up a storm, which is why this post will not be very long. I have already made the tabouleh salad, and we're having it with zucchini and chickpea fritters (frittered in healthy olive oil... heh heh), and sweet potato falafels. Mmmm... are you jealous yet? Not to worry, you can see most of the recipes here. And if I get really ambitious, I might make something sweet and delicious to finish it off.

I'm not really sure where this one domestic trait came from, but I really love to cook. I probably take after my father, but I'm not quite as keen as he is to make insanely complicated recipes (usually involving long periods of brining or marinating), which he then follows to the letter even if it means he has to make 8 different trips to 8 different grocery stores to get the EXACT ingredients they call for. I'm a bit more slap-dash because, let's face it, I'm not exactly detail-oriented (unless you count writing/grammar). Today I forgot the feta for the fritters, so I scooped in a couple of spoonfuls of yoghurt. I'm sure it'll be fine. And if not, well, McDo's is still right down the street.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tropical Sueños

Today is the kind of day that makes me love London. It's sunny, but not hot, and not too windy either. Unfortunately, there is a certain chill in the air that reminds me winter is coming, and soon we will be plunged into darkness, howling winds, and freezing cold rain which will have the immediate effect of rendering our days full of despair... not that I'm bitter about it or anything. Our flat is heated quite nicely for the moment, and since we don't have to pay heating bills (yay for heat included!), I don't have to worry about what it will cost me to be comfortable in my own little home.

Still, I wish we had the money to fly to Cuba or Brazil, or somewhere warm for Christmas break. Oh, did I say Cuba? That's right, we couldn't. My husband only has an American passport, so it is FORBIDDEN. Which I find hilarious because the US is a nation of people insisting they have all sorts of freedoms (except for freedom FROM gun toting lunatics because they have no gun control, and don't even get me started on the whole thing), but they are not allowed to go and sun themselves on one of the Caribbean's most beautiful islands.

Ah well, more Cuba for the rest of us, I suppose. In all my travels, Cuba was one of the best trips I've ever taken. A friend and I spent three weeks travelling around the island, from Havana to Santiago, to Baracoa, to Trinidad (a city on the South coast). We stayed in casas particulares, bed and breakfasts run by locals, as opposed to staying at a resort and I wouldn't change a thing.

Okay, maybe I would change ONE thing. When some petty thieves made off with my purse (I'd smartly kept all passports, money etc. at the casa), I didn't really need to chase after them. I mean, it's not like they actually got away with anything. Except I liked that purse and I was mad at them for stealing it and my judgement may have been somewhat impaired by several mojitos. And when I went to give chase, I should not have kicked off my Havaiana flip flops because even though it allowed me to run faster and ALMOST CATCH THEM... I never found those flip flops again. Some other opportunistic soul had swiped them by the time I'd returned.

Maybe one day I'll return to Cuba and find my Havaianas. I'm willing to bet whoever took my shoes is still wearing them. I suppose they probably needed them more than I did.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Beer and Bonfires

It's bonfire night again in London, though really it's more like bonfire weekend... why stop the party tonight, right? As its name suggests, the holiday is rampant with bonfires and fireworks. These fires and fireworks are carried out to symbolise some bloke (oooh! look at me saying 'bloke' like I'm a local) who tried to blow up parliament and assassinate the king lo these many years ago. I think the British were originally encouraged to light bonfires to celebrate the king's escape, but now they see them as an opportunity to hold their politicians accountable, often tossing effigies of their most hated rulers into the flames.

Also, as with anything here, Guy Fawkes provided his countrymen with an opportunity to get royally drunk in his name. If only they could pronounce it. Ugh, I don't understand why anyone would name their child 'Guy', only to pronounce it 'Gaaaiiiiii'. Doing so makes everyone think of the word 'guy' (meaning young man, or random man - i.e. 'that guy over there is burning a Margaret Thatcher doll'). Sure, why not just name your kid 'Man' or 'Bloke' or 'Heyyou'? Francophones (and almostbutnotquite francophones like me) are the only people who seem to pronounce it properly. It should be pronounced 'Ghee', though not spelled that way because ghee is a clarified butter used in Indian cuisine. My refusal to pronounce his name the British way has earned me some odd looks, but I persist. Yes, I AM one of those annoying people who pronounce foreign words (and names) the way they are intended to be said, accent and all. It was probably the reason he was taken to trial, poor Guy. I bet a witness said 'some Guy tried to blow up parliament', and his fate was sealed.

On the other hand, who am I to turn down a party? We may go to the bonfire tomorrow, and if we do I will let you know how it turned out. I just hope they don't throw me into the fire because they think I'm French.

Coming soon: my obsession with all things français.