Sunday, April 30, 2006

Chipotle, revisited

Reunited, and it feels so good!

No, I am not talking about the song by Peaches and Herb. I am talking about stuffing a big fat Chipotle burrito in my face during our recent stint in the States.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

As our regular readers know, I am obsessed with Chipotle. Mmmmmmmmmmm. The silver bullet to end my cravings. Or are they just beginning?

Other things I missed about the States

Chipotle wasn't the only thing I missed about the States. In no particular order, here are some other things:

1. People. This includes family and friends, which are in short or no supply here (thus far).

2. Mrs. W's mother's cooking. Mmmmmmm. Stuffed shells...

3. An abundance of trash cans. You won't find many on the streets here, what with the Irish Republican Army's habit of dropping bombs in them and all.

4. Driving. Yes, it's annoying to hit traffic and try to find a parking spot, but there's something uniquely American about hitting the freeway with the windows down and the radio blaring Bon Jovi (or something like that).

5. Shops that are open past 6 p.m. Because you never know when you might need a toilet bowl brush or a strapless bra.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sacre Coeur, the Dark Side

While Sacre Coeur is a beautiful monument in Paris, I have to raise a certain point. The Wikipedia entry on it notes that
It was built, as contemporaries put it, "pour expier les crimes des communards" ("to expiate the crimes of the Communards") and is therefore a controversial monument.

It gets better.
(D)uring the Commune of 1871, hundreds of Communards hid in the chalk mines of the butte Montmartre, and were forever imprisoned inside when the government troops dynamited the exits.

The communards buried alive in Montmartre were the "criminals?"

Toys in the Attic ...

... or maybe just stems and seeds.

Let me first tell the backstory on this.

Because we still owned a car in the United State (unable to sell it before I left for reasons that are just a little too complicated to go into) the Werbenmanjensens needed to trip down I-95 to Maryland, where our car was being held by our neighbors. To go into the old neighborhood was an out-of-body experience by itself, so we might have some observations on that later. In any case, we learned something delightful about the house we owned for three years.

The woman who sold the house to us was the original owner. She and her ex-husband had divorced rather bitterly sometime after buying the house, although I'm not quite clear on the timeline. Whatever the timeline, the husband "left in kind of a hurry," as our neighbor put it over drinks and dinner on Sunday night.

Now, when we owned the house, we were two people with lots of space, which meant storage of our goods was rather easy. Can't find space for some stuff? Hey, there's an unused room in the basement! So we never actually went up into the attic. That's not technically true. I went up there twice: Once during the inspection and another time that resulted in a hole through the ceiling of a bedroom. I never noticed anything up there.

So we learn that our buyers had somebody by to do some work that involved the attic. The workers found a box up there, labeled with our seller's husband's name. Inside were some clothes ... and a little marijuana.

Yes, you heard me right: Marijuana. Wacky weed. Grass, tea, mary jane, weed, pot, etc.

In our attic.

For three years.

As somebody quickly pointed out, it's lucky the movers never went up there, given their propensity to pack stuff we meant to throw away. Who knows what would have happened when that reached customs ...

Things you don't see in London...

... but that you might see in a service plaza on I-95 in Maryland: An obese, hairy-backed man in a tank top and shorts.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Fugeddaboudit ...

The Werbenmanjensens are in New Jersey for a family affair for a few days. Perhaps we'll offer some observations about coming back to America after a long time away.

But perhaps not ...

Friday, April 21, 2006

An important question

I've been kind of silent on the Paris trip thus far. But that's because I've been wrestling with an important question, and I finally decided that maybe I should just pose it to you readers out there.

Is it worse to be seen in Paris wearing a Penn State sweatshirt, or a shirt that says "Paris, France" on it? Hmmmmm....

Light blogging coming up

For reasons that will be obvious later, there will be some light blogging this weekend. Please consider this an invitation to use the comments board as an open thread.

OK, to encourage discussion, I will pose the following question:

Outside of the Werbenmanjensen flat, the biggest attraction for me in London is _______.

Happy 80th Birthday, Elizabeth II

While I can hear the Beeb newschannel giving deferential coverage to the Queen's birthday celebration, I prefer to commemorate it this way:

(NOTE: Dial-up users probably shouldn't click if they want to use their computers today).

You can sing along, if you'd like:

god save the queen
the facist regime
they made you a moron
potential h-bomb
god save the queen
she aint no human being
there is no future
in englands dreaming
don't be told what you want
don't be told what you need
there's no future no future
no future for you
god save the queen
we mean it man
we love our queen
god saves
god save the queen
'cos tourists are money
our figure head
is not what she seems
oh god save history
god save your mad parade
oh lord god have mercy
all crimes are paid
when there's no future
how can there be sin
we're the flowers in the dustbin
we're the poison in the human machine
we're the future you're future
god save the queen
we mean it man
we love our queen
god saves
god save the queen
we mean it man
and there is no future
in englands dreaming
no future no future
no future for you
no future no future
no future no future for me
no future no future
no future for you
no future no future for you

(I watched the whole thing hoping Johnny Rotten would spit the beer on somebody, anybody: The cameraman, Sid, Glenn Matlock, but no.)

The Mines of Moria

Long ago, back in the murky memory of my early days in London, I wrote about getting lost deep below the streets of London while trying to transfer from one Tube line to another. Thanks to London Geezer, I now know why it's so easy to get lost in the Monument/Bank stations, the two closest stations in our temporary apartment in the Square Mile. Below is a three-dimensional schematic of the two stations (which are more than a quarter mile apart) and their connecting corridors.

Image hosting by Photobucket

The D.C. Metro was definitely designed with simplicity in mind, if you compare it to this.

ADDED: Larger version of that diagram is here.

Friday Viewblogging, Paris edition

Image hosting by Photobucket

Twilight view of the city from the Sacre Coeur steps.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Impressions of the Impressionists, or Mo' Monet!

I'm the only person in the Western World who hates the impressionists. I will admit up front that statement is designed as an attention-grabber in that I don't really hate the impressionists. I simply hate the cultural context into which the impressionists have grown. That context is this: The typical conversation I have with other casual art fans (I number myself among them) usually consists of how they love the impressionists, but don't "get" the abstract art of the 20th century.

That context fails to take into account a few things. First of all, the impressionists were the abstract artists of their time. They were often sneered at by the critics and the public of their time. Furthermore, by breaking away from portraiture, by developing new painting techniques, by painting in the outdoors, by separating color from shape--in essence, becoming the first artists to paint "outside the lines"--they unleashed some creative forces that naturally made it possible for the expressionist, cubist, surrealist and other forms of abstraction to thrive in the 20th century.

That's a long way of introducing some impressions I took away after Mrs. W and I visited the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, in which I came to realize that the impressionist ouevre contains some of the most perfect paintings in the history of art. This was my first opportunity to see such a condensed exhibition of their works--I'd seen many parts of the Monet "Haystacks" series and Seurat's "Le Grande Jatte" at the Chicago Art Institute, for example--and getting such an exposure to them has deepened my appreciation for what the impressionists accomplished. ("Look, over there, it's the cover of my college French textbook. And over there is the back cover!").

When one looks closely at a Monet, for example, the use of color to signify shape, light and shadow in the form of paint blobs is simply astounding. It wasn't an outrageously famous work like "Water Lilies" ...
Image hosting by Photobucket
... that astounded me. It was not a particularly famous piece--I don't even remember its name, to be honest--but the painting was of a lake, with a house and a sailboat on the shore. In the painting, everything is rendered so perfectly--down to the way the reflections of the house and sailboat rippled with the waves in the lake--that I simply couldn't stop looking at it. I wanted to know how they could do that without outlines, without mixing the pure hues of the oil paint.

I still wish that the impressionist-loving, abstraction-hating art fans appreciated the links between the schools. I'm still frustrated by the attitude. But I now realize the adoration of the impressionists is more than deserved.

Random Paris photoblog

Image hosting by Photobucket
To your left and right, cheesy souvenir stands. Straight ahead, Sacre Coeur.

Image hosting by Photobucket
Imagine my relief!

Image hosting by Photobucket
L'Arc de Triomphe, snapped from the safety of a pedestrian island on the Champs Elysees.


This is my response to any question about the weather in London. "Is it going to rain today?" "Prob'ly." "Is it going to be sunny today?" "Prob'ly." Is it going to be cloudy today?" "Prob'ly." Because every day seems to be a mix of sun and clouds, with a little sprinkle thrown in--nothing much, maybe a fraction of a millimeter.

I used to read the weather forecasts in the States religiously, trying to plan a schedule of outdoor activities around the weather. Bicycling in a heavy downpour is no fun. But here, I just take my bike outside and make sure I have a rain jacket with me.

It's prob'ly easier this way.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Best Bureaucracy You Can Find, Part III

Thursday, before the four-day holiday weekend began, I went to my first appointment at the National Health Service's neighborhood clinic (earlier installments in this saga are here and here). I was to go in for a screening appointment with a nurse practitioners, but the receptionists in the office had suggested I call day-of and see if a doctor also could squeeze me in so I could get a new prescription issued. They found a place for me in a doctor's schedule. So first I saw the NP, who did the standard height, weight, blood pressure, medical history, family history, and vice checks. When that was done, I had about an hour to kill until the doctor's appointment (I could have walked back home, but that would have been pointless--so I read Cornwall Today magazine instead). The doctor called me before my scheduled appointment time. The first thing she did was call up my medical record on a computer screen--yes, the much-derided British medical system has the Holy Grail of the U.S. health care system, the electronic medical record. I handed her my U.S. history on that antiquated form of recording information, pen and paper. She quickly wrote up a prescription for me and sent me on my way, instructing me to drop off my U.S. medical record at the front desk so they could scan it in to my electronic record here. At the front desk, I waited awkwardly for them to tell me what I owed.

Nada. No money changed hands.

Today, I took my scrip up to the chemist, who gave me my prescription (in efficient blister pack form, not loose pills in a bottle) in 10 minutes. Total bill? Six pounds, 65 pence.

The NHS has been somewhat embattled lately, but as someone with a more intimate knowledge of the U.S. health care system, I can tell you right now I'm picking the Brits over the Yanks any day. The big NHS deficit the members of Parliament complain of amounts to US$24.12 per person in England and Wales. That's a pittance compared to the deficits run by the U.S. public coverage programs.

The most comparable program in the states is Medicare. While Medicare's hospital insurance program is self-funded through payroll taxes, its supplementary medical insurance program, Part B, is funded by general income tax revenue and beneficiary premiums. When originally envisioned, Part B was to be half funded by the taxpayer and half funded by beneficiary contributions. In reality, however, the beneficiary share has shrunk to just 25 percent, so the Medicare deficit could be said to be 25 percent of Part B spending, which was $138.3 billion in 2004. One quarter of that is $34.6 billion.

Distributed over the whole of the U.S. population of 295.7 million people, that deficit is US$117 per person--four times the per-person deficit for the England/Wales health care system. Given that Medicare Part B covers only its beneficiaries, however, the comparative per-person deficit is really much higher: spread over Medicare Part B's enrollment of 39.7 million, the deficit is US$872.

The English don't know how good they have it. It may have some serious problems of its own, but it covers everybody and so far has delivered for me when I need it.

Labels: ,

Random Parisian photo Wednesday

Image hosting by Photobucket

Sacre Coeur in a breezy rain

After kicking around monumental Paris Saturday afternoon, we decided to hoof it up to Montmartre, the fin-de-siecle artist neighborhood and home to Sacre Coeur basilica, on the highest point in Paris. We walked around the neighborhood, which has its share of cheesy souvenir stands (although the cheesiness didn't stop me from buying a beret--yes, another beret, but I got this one in Paris!) and cafes dealing in the anglophone trade. I practiced my childlike French a bit with the waiter at a place that fancied itself a jazz cafe, which did have a bossa nova guitar duo playing--but at a thankfully low jazz cafe volume. We walked back to the Sacre Couer grounds, hoping to walk down through the gardens below, but found the gates closed. When I turned around, I got this view.

Thankfully, the French Metro runs a funicular from the top to the bottom.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

French Kiss

We apologize for the light posting since Friday. The Werbenmanjensens went to Paris via the Chunnel and Eurostar over the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) and spent Monday at Ikea again. We hope to resume a regular posting schedule today, with some photos and notes from Paris, some leftover photos from Glasgow, and commentary on the National Health Service.

Note: I will not be posting anything about Ikea. That's Mrs. W's beat.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Walkin' in the rain

A co-worker invited me to meet her for a guided walk called Hidden London this morning. We met at The Monument, an imposing structure erected to commemorate the rebuilding of the city after the great fire of 1666 (not, as our guide pointed out, to commemorate the fire, because who'd want to do that?). It rained pretty much the entire time we were out, and it was kind of cold, but it seemed to underscore the theme of the tour quite appropriately.

Our guide took us up a narrow lane near the old fish market, which at one time employed Sir Michael Caine and George Orwell as fish porters. (Charming, no?) The lane also illustrated how closed and cramped old London was -- and how easily disease would spread because people would just toss waste out the window into the open sewer running down the street. This is where we think the British expression loo came from, because people (if they were nice) would shout out "Gardez l'eau" ("Watch out for the water") before they threw the waste out.

The tour also included several churches (almost all of which were closed) including St. Clement's and St. James Garlickhithe, and some that were destroyed in the Blitz and are now just paved over squares. I also learned the origin and meaning of the term, "at sixes and sevens," which to my dismay is NOT in the English to American Dictionary. It refers to a couple of guilds who would always argue over which was the sixth guild to be founded. So the Lord Mayor decreed that they would alternate years; one year one would be six, and the next it would be seven. In the current lexicon, it means to be in a quandary.

By the time I got back to the flat, it was sunny and warm. Figures! But I highly recommend a two-hour walking tour from this group.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Camilla: You've come a long way, baby!

Now, a certain Fatslug the Impetuous asked me to supply some photographic evidence that Camilla looked lovely at yesterday's passing out parade. And so I submit this recent photo taken for Charles and Camilla's first wedding anniversary by Mario Testino, who has done work for the royals before. (See photos of Prince William and his late mother.

It's a small image, yes, but you get the idea. It looked better blown up on the front page of the Guardian, trust me. And be honest: she's looked a lot worse. Even when she was younger. But she still can't hold a candle to Diana, IMHO.


Earlier, Mrs. Werbenmanjensen referred to UK TV as "poxy" (whatever that means--I'll assume from context that it's not positive). I'm going to take this opportunity to point out, however, that our cable package has about a dozen cartoon networks, so not a single moment of the day goes by in which Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends or SpongeBob SquarePants isn't on.

I just thought I'd point that out.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Harry passes out

As your royal correspondent and professor of English as a second language, I am delighted to wear both hats as I type this post.

Prince Harry had his passing out parade today. Now, when I first saw this on the BBC, I thought he'd been spotted at some pub or lap-dancing club again. But no. A passing out parade is what you have for your graduation from a military academy; you're "passing out" of the academy and into the world of warfare. (Although when I heard what the training was like, I would have done the other kind of passing out a long time ago!) Harry passed out in front of his grandmother, who appeared to be wearing the same outfit she sported to open the new Welsh Assembly. Camilla, other than donning a silly hat, looked lovely. She's really blossoming, that one.

The passing out parade dominated live TV today, and was shown on Sky News and BBC. The commentators noted that Prince William is attending the same military academy that Harry just passed out from. This means Harry ranks ahead of Wills in the military, although who's ahead in line for the throne, hmmm? Harry also apparently wants to go to a military hot spot. Perhaps Cindy Sheehan should call him?

The Best Bureaucracy You Can Find, Part II

Yesterday, I walked to the doctor's office I was supposed to go to in the first place. I went to the window and told the receptionists why I was there. They asked me for proof of address--fortunately for me, I had a bank statement in my bag--and then gave me two mercifully short forms. I filled them out and gave them back. On the spot, they made a screening appointment for me for tomorrow and handed me a container for a urine sample. I asked about my prescription. They told me to call after 1 p.m. tomorrow and they'd make an appointment to discuss this with a doctor before my screening.

How many times can you do that with an American doctor? Maybe this will be OK after all.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Free Association Tuesday

Image hosting by Photobucket

Image hosting by Photobucket

The connection on this one is a bit obscure, but readers of this blog, and perhaps Big Dead Place, might be able to make the connection.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Monday Scooterblogging Redux

Image hosting by Photobucket

So I saw the owner of this scooter the other day. I said, "Cool scooter, man." He shrugged and said, "It's just a scooter."

Sports of Attrition

This weekend saw two sporting events--nay, spectacles--in which the number of entrants and the number of finishers is a small fraction of the number of starters.

First, my neighbors informed me Saturday morning that one's English experience isn't complete unless one bets on the Grand National hunt race. Lest you think this is an ordinary horse race, think again. In fact, think National Velvet. This event makes anything in the Triple Crown look like a Saturday trot--four and a half miles, thirty fences to jump, some with ditches that must also be hurdled. In fact, the Kentucky Derby is boring by comparison.

This is a typical photo from the Grand National:

Image hosting by Photobucket

(This was from two years ago)

Forty horses entered, and nine finished. In fact, something like 10 percent of the field fell at the first fence, giving you an idea of just how hard it is. I did watch it. It's kind of like watching a car crash--you just can't take your eyes off of it. I didn't, however, get up to the local bookie in time to make a bet.

(It's also a very cruel event that should be ended, along with horse racing in general. Mrs. Werbenmanjensen couldn't watch, it looked so dangerous. The Grand National routinely results in horses being killed after they suffer injuries on the dangerous course, although only one was killed this year.)

Sunday was the Paris Roubaix cycling race, known variously as "The Hell of the North," "the Queen of the Classics," and simply as "La Pascale" because it tends to take place around Easter (and is part of the adage "Jamais un cloche ne gagne la Pascale" -- the Easter race is never won by a tramp). The race is won on the rough cobbled roads of northern France--close to 33 miles of the 160 mile race run on cobbles, 27 separate cobbled sections in all. In wet years, this is a typical image from late in the race ...

Image hosting by Photobucket

... as is this.
Image hosting by Photobucket

This year was dry, so the images looked much more like this ...

Image hosting by Photobucket

... although the dry cobbles didn't keep 82 of the 194 starters from dropping out.

It's said that Paris-Roubaix doesn't really start until the first stretch of cobbles. The mad rush to be at the front before the road narrows almost inevitably causes a crash, and everybody caught behind is almost surely out of the race.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Meet Jordan

Some people are really famous here, who are unknown in America. Like Robbie Williams. Or Jordan.

Who is Jordan? I asked myself at the news agent, where her face was plastered on the covers of such gossip magazines as Heat and Hello!. To my credit, I didn't purchase a copy to find out. I asked someone, who explained to me that Jordan is famous for being on a reality show here. Yes, friends, reality TV is even more of a plague here than in the States. Why? Because most programs here ain't that good. They even import episodes of the A-Team to boost the quality of the programming here. Ah, I love it when a plan comes together.

And as I've noted before, there are a number of musical acts you'd never know in the States if you walked into them. So when I was recently browsing the UK version of iTunes in search of some new songs, I couldn't help notice that Ricky Gervais had 4 of the top 5 selling albums. Who is he? Google reveals he's that dude from the original "The Office." Which was copied by the U.S. Wait, wasn't I just saying UK TV was poxy? Oops...

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Best Bureaucracy You Can Find

I want to stay positive about my adoptive land, but there are times when I know deep in my heart where the Monty Python players got much of their material about contemporary British life 35 to 40 years ago, and one can guess that little has changed. My experience with the Vogon Galactic Bank being a shining example (although I now have a debit card in my hands), and today's absurd experience with the National Health Service being another.

I have a medical condition that is easily maintained through a very inexpensive drug that has been on the market for decades. If I get a proper dosage, all is fine. If I don't, there's a risk to my health, and, frankly, a potential public safety hazard. Thus, it's good for me to get my medication. And to get my medication, I need to be signed up with NHS.

I've had a healthy supply of my medication, but it's now looking like we're down to a month's supply, so this is something that needs to be taken care of soon. But as an American, it's really hard to know where to start. However, the NHS has an 800 number. A very nice gentleman tells me that I need to register with my nearest doctor, and all will be taken care of. And conveniently, the NHS web site has a way of searching for your nearest doctor by postcode. The web site is revelatory: It tells me there's one about a half mile away down the hill, and there's one six-tenths of a mile away in the opposite direction, up the hill. But the instructions were explicit–the nearest doctor.

So I walk in the automatic sliding glass front doors of the practice and am greeted by a receptionist. I tell her I'm there to register. She asks me where I live, and I respond.
"Is that in N19 or N6?" she asks.
"N6," I respond.
"Oh, we only take patients in N19. You need to go to ..."
"Yeah, I know where it is."

I wheel about and turn to leave through the automatic doors. The doors don't open--even though a sign on the glass says, "Automatic door." I'm confused. Then I see to the left, on the wall, a sign that says, "Push button to open door." Um, that's not an automatic door if I need to push a button to open it. Even the egresses have bureaucracy.

So, the interesting thing about this whole affair is that I actually entered my postcode and according to the instructions I was given, went to the nearest doctor. It would seem to me that if the enrollment is postcode driven, that entering one's postcode would direct one to the right doctor--but I assume far too much in a country that invented and perfected bureaucracy.

Labels: ,

Friday Viewblogging

Image hosting by Photobucket

Looking up the Clyde in Glasgow.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Independence in all but name

The Scots have a colorful (and tragic) history of fighting the domination of the English that ended, more or less, with the butchery that was the Battle of Culloden, in which tired, hungry, and somewhat unenthusiastic Scotsmen armed with swords, at best, took on England's best, armed with bayonet-fixed firearms. So it was with some surprise that upon giving a 20 pound note with the likeness of the Queen on it to a cashier for my first purchase in Glasgow's Central train station (a local map book), the 10 pound note I got as change looked like this:

Image hosting by Photobucket

When the typical 10 pound note I see in London looks like this:

Image hosting by Photobucket

It would be as if the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis began issuing a five-dollar bill with a likeness of Sterling Price rather than Abraham Lincoln.

Now, if I understand it correctly, the Scots have their own Parliament (and yet send members to the British Parliament in London, while the English have no separate Parliament of their own). The Scots also run their National Health Service, their rails, and many other aspects of their domestic governance, get to issue distinctive currency, and yet don't raise an army. It's not quite a federal system, in that not every country within the United Kingdom has separate representation at different levels akin to Congress and state legislatures in the United States. It sure looks an awful lot like independence to me.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Style notes

It's been noted by some of our commenters (recently in comments here) that some of our posts include English spellings (such as "humour" and so forth). I have been adhering to American spellings, if only because that's reflexively what ends up on the screen when I start typing a word. This is a problem, however, because every publication needs to hold to consistent spelling, grammar and punctuation style. So I believe this situation necessitates the first-ever meeting of the Americans Amuck style committee.

Given that I have tended to adhere to American spellings, I will argue for such.

Mrs. W, given that she seems to waver toward English spellings, will argue for that alternative.

Chairing the meeting will be a nice bottle of Bordeaux.

Whoever's still awake after three hours wins.

Glasgow weather ...

Sleet is currently peppering the window of my hotel room ....

Come to Glasgow, see Neil Sedaka ....

The venue housing my conference is the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Center, which also hosts concerts. From the schedule, I see that they're hosting Neil Sedaka (I thought--nay wished--he was dead), Celtic Tiger (starring Michael Flatley, everybody's dancing fake Irishman from Chicago's South Side), Moody Blues (doing their bad poetry while looking like James Doohan) and an Evening with Art Garfunkel (second prize: a Whole Day with Art Garfunkel). On the other hand, Mrs. W's new musical obsession, the Kaiser Chiefs, are also playing here soon. Perhaps it's worth the trip? The bartenders at the hotel tell me an advanced ticket on Megabus from London to Glasgow costs but three quid.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

I saw dead people... the British Museum. More mummies than you can shake a stick at. Unfortuately for me, this was the first thing I decided to do after eating lunch. I do not recommend this.

Because I got off the tube at Goodge Street, I ended up entering the museum from the back (north) side. The first thing I noticed is that I wasn't searched and I didn't have to step through a metal detector, which is common practice in Washington DC area museums. Then again, they don't have copies of the Constitution in the British Museum, cuz, well, the UK doesn't have one.

The security guard who sold me the map (for 2 pounds; admission is free) warned me that I couldn't see everything in a day, and boy was he right. So I decided to prioritize: First, King Tut. Except that he wasn't there. Apparently he is the one archeological discovery the Brits returned to the country they raided it from. So instead I got to see all the other mummies, which prompted me to ask: Is there anything the ancient Egyptians DIDN'T mummify? I saw dead cats, crocodiles, falcons, baboons. It was a bit much.

Then I turned a corner to an exhihit titled "Sex and Humour." (Yes, I realize I am using British spelling there. That's how they write things on signs here.) Now, I know this is a family blog, so let me just say that the ancient Egyptians, like many of us in modern times, were very concerned about fertility -- even in the afterlife. And they included, uh, symbols of this in their tombs. And just as I stepped closer to read about the symbols, I was hemmed in by four teenage boys, speaking (I think) Italian. I am pretty sure my elbow is in one of their photos. In fact, I made a lot of cameo appearances in a lot of photos and videos; I will be HUGE in Japan and France, I'm tellling you.

I did get to see another artifact of great fame: the Rosetta Stone. And I was kind of disappointed in it. It's not that big, it's dimly lit, and you have to fight your way through throngs of people and cameras to even see it. After Egypt, I hit a special exhibit on money that was very cool to an amateur coin collector like me. Then I browsed the Greco-Roman sculpture, including busts of Marcus Aurelius, Augustus and his wife Livia, and statuettes of the 12 Olympian gods.

By that time I was pretty knackered. But I couldn't leave without a visit to the gift shop. In the same way there isn't anything the Egyptians wouldn't mummify, there isn't anything the British Museum won't slap hieroglyphics on and sell. Coffee mugs, postcards, stationery, t-shirts. Great collections of books -- on everything from Byzantium to Arctic clothing. You can even buy a copy of the Book of the Dead, in case you haven't had enough of the dead.

Hooping It Up

Image hosting by Photobucket

These are the famous "hoops," the home kit of the Glasgow Celtic Football Club (soccer), which is as distinctive a design in the world of sports as the Yankee pinstripes or the Dallas Cowboys star. I can't say that I follow them closely, if only because the primary sports news we get in London is of the English Premier League (Arsenal is the neighborhood team), and Celtic plays in the Scottish league (where it is running away with the championship this year) and you can only watch Celtic matches if you pay for their special cable channel (which we could get in London, but I'm not willing to pay for that). But I admit to feeling a special affinity for Celtic. I have some Scottish heritage, plus I'm Catholic, and Celtic is the team of the Catholics--founded by them, and supported by them. So the first thing I did after dropping my bags in my hotel room was to hike downtown to Celtic's retail store and buy a long-sleeve replica sweater.

Now, this being Great Britain, to have a team that was founded and supported by one religion over another is a formula for strife, and there's been no shortage of it. In fact, I think it's the rivalry with the crosstown Premier League team, Rangers, the team of the Protestants, that has left the world with the infamous "Scottish soccer hooligan" image. It's a hatred that goes far deeper than a White Sox fan's disdain for the Cubs or the Red Sox fans' feelings toward the Yankees. Wikipedia notes, diplomatically,
In the context of Scottish football, sectarianism is beyond the control of any individual football club. It is a much wider issue, rooted in social, cultural, historical and religious circumstances. Nevertheless, both Celtic and Rangers accept that they have a problem with sectarianism. Both sides of the Old Firm admit that a proportion of their supporters have been, and continue to be, guilty of perpetuating sectarian beliefs and cultural intolerance.

That may be understating the issue a bit. A more blunt web site (probably written by a Glaswegian) puts it:
On your visit to Glasgow it is probable that you will be confronted by some sort of Rangers/Celtic rivalry, be it the blood and violence of a match day or the simple sectarian chanting of one ned to another. No matter what form it takes, it is essential to have at least a little knowledge of this rivalry.

There is a major sectarian factor involved with this rivalry. Rangers are the Protestant team and Celtic are the Catholic team (yes, I know there are technicalities surrounding this but do you think the people using it as an excuse to batter each other have and knowledge of these technicalities? No, so shut it). This has deep historical roots, which I can't be bothered explaining right now but basically what it means is that the fans of both clubs have a good reason to beat the crap out of each other at every opportunity.

If you ever have the misfortune of being in Glasgow on a match day, it is advisable to stay indoors for that whole day since it is likely outside you'll find some extremely disgruntled fans of the losing team looking for a fight or some extremely drunk and happy fans of the winning team...looking for a fight.

How can you spot these people? Well it isn't too hard. All celtic fans will be carrying Irish flags and wearing green, and all Ranger fans will be carrying Union flags or Red Hand of Ulster flags and wearing blue. Both sets of fans will generally be carrying buckfast and some may be carrying knives or screw-drivers or hammers. If you see any large groups of these people it is advisable to steer clear of them.

On non match days the only real perpetrators of sectarian violence are the neds who will swan around the city centre wearing either a Rangers top or a Celtic top looking for another ned with the opposing team's top on, and call him either a 'fenian bastard' or an 'orange prick' before embarking on some knife crime. If you see any of these people, it is best to let them go about their business and view from afar. They are a novelty to observe but shouldn't be approached.

At a very nice party in Phoenix about 17 months ago I was discussing this rivalry with a guest who had been to a Celtic-Rangers match. To stem the violence, the Glasgow authorities have imposed such measures as separate entrances and separate sections for Rangers and Celtic fans. Where the sections meet, the fans are kept separated by a tall chain link fence and a police phalanx.

Thus, I will not be wearing my new purchase outside until I get back to London. I really don't want to find out if any of the neopunk layabouts who gave me a hard time yesterday are also yobbo splitters.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Home alone

While Smitty's in Glasgow, I'm home alone! So what did I do? I went shopping!

Earlier, I shared with you my Chipotle obsession. Now, I am developing a sorta clothing obsession. Honestly, I haven't been this interested in what I was wearing since I started high school, and I won't say when that was. And I thank you for not speculating!

I have discovered Jigsaw, where I met a very nice saleswoman who decided to dress me up in all sorts of outfits. It was almost like shopping with a friend who wasn't afraid to tell you your bottom looked fat in a certain cut of pants. We all need more friends like that.

Well, then I had to do some online shopping, now that we have our iTunes up and running again. I love iTunes, can I just say that? Now I own some some songs by award-winning bands mentioned in a previous post. In the words of the Kaiser Chiefs, I predict a riot!

Notes on Scotland

The Scots, or at least the Glaswegians, are nothing if not a blunt people. While I was wandering the business district shortly after my arrival, a teenage girl, one of several hanging about the entrance to a building, turns to ask me a question that was indecipherable to me (accent issues). I shook my head as if to tell her I didn't understand the question, and she immediately invited me to commit a specific natural act--however, I was to do it somewhere else.

Later, I went for a run along the Clyde River. Now, there seem to be a lot of black-clad teens hanging about the Glasgow city center--I wouldn't call them goths, because there wasn't a trenchcoat or a Robert Smith lookalike to be seen anywhere. They struck me as more latter-day punks. In any case, as I ran along the river in my shorts, with 50-degree winds buffeting me, I came upon a group of such teens gathered around a bench. One gestured to me with his cigarette, "Well, there's a fay piece o' meat coming along." I chuckled and waved. I passed another such group of black-clad girls, and they began hooting and hollering "Seee-ck-see!" At this point, I was coming up on a group of at least 20 similarly clad teens. I'd had quite enough, so I crossed the bridge to the other side of the river before I got to them. I don't mind my masculinity being challenged--it's just I could do without the comments in general. Why give them an opportunity?

In any case, runners in Glasgow must be a rarity. Wherever Shettleston is in Glasgow, I'm guessing a person who exercises regularly is quite the rarity, and the rest of Glasgow isn't doing so well either.

Speaking of smokers ...
Scotland has just imposed a ban on smoking in pubs, following its rather backward-facing neighbor, Ireland (which only got around to legalizing divorce in 1995) in the smoking ban. England and Wales are to follow suit soon (Parliament approved the ban, although I don't know when it's to take effect). Smokers still come to bars. The only difference is they stand outside to smoke, and nonsmokers don't go home smelling like ashtrays.

I heard my first bagpipes two hours after arriving, returning to my hotel after a shopping expedition (more on that later). The player was standing on the pedestrian bridge over the Clyde leading from my hotel to the science center. I'm always moved by bagpipes, but when the player boffs Scotland the Brave, I can't really offer any applause.


Work has taken me to Glasgow for a few days. I decided to take the train, reasoning that getting to Heathrow, getting through security, etc. etc. and then getting back to my hotel in Glasgow were at least as time consuming as the time I spent on the train. Well, it sort of worked out. Turns out there's some major engineering work on the rails in Northern England, so today I couldn't take a direct route from the capital of the United Kingdom to the major industrial city of Scotland. Instead, I went on a seven-and-a-half hour odyssey via York, Newcastle and Edinburgh--which is like going from Washington to New York by way of Pittsburgh, Erie, and Schenectady.

But in any case, the train, as it always does, gave me a chance to watch the scenery roll by. I was raised in the country, but have lived in cities and suburbs for nearly 20 years now. I always feel like I can take deeper breaths once I leave city pavement behind, even if it's watching countryside whiz by at 100 miles per hour. I didn't want to get into the cliches of sun-dappled fields, showers sweeping over rolling green hills, narrow tracks snaking through hedgerows, or spring lambs scampering in pastures--but you just can't help it. This is a beautiful country--not better or worse than American, just distinctive.

North of Doncaster (and even in York's train station), I began seeing the guys with the binoculars around their necks, scribbling in notebooks--the infamous trainspotters. I switched at York for a route that would take me through Newcastle (via a diversion to Stockton, a town of boarded-up townhouses and rusting cranes that makes Newark look like the Cote d'Azur). The train was pretty packed at this point, and getting even more packed by the stop, almost as bad as the Tube at rush hour, with fans heading to a Newcastle United game. Newcastle reminded me a bit of Peoria or Trenton--an industrial river town about a century past its zenith. After Newcastle, the train hugged the coast, more or less, providing us with scenic vistas of Berwick-on-Tweed and Alnmouth (a little cluster of quaint houses at what must be the mouth of the Aln river). Finally, we crossed the border into Scotland. It was at that point I realized that I'd forgotten how indescribably beautiful Scotland is--indescribable, in that I find it hard to find words that describe it adequately. Our track took us on a clifftop route, where we could see the North Sea crashing into rocky outcrops on one side, and the other side with views of pastures and hillocks.

Turning west after Edinburgh, the train passes through slightly more populous areas, but always with a flavor of Appalachia, which must be why the Scots felt so at home when they arrived in places like Virginia and North Carolina. (These are the Lowlands, mind you). Sometimes I wonder about the lyric devotion of so many to such a land. When I'm here, though, I don't question at all.