Thursday, September 28, 2006

Great British Grub

As you know, we popped back across the pond for a month, straddling July and August. Although the US boasts some culinary delights of its own, we were nevertheless hankering after some good ol' British grub that is hard to find here. We used our month in Britain well -- to get a fix for as many of our cravings as possible. Here's Mark's take on it:

One of the real pleasures of returning to the UK over the summer was to taste again all sorts of food and drink that we had been missing while in the USA. In the weeks and months ahead of our summer trip, we would often discuss what British foods we were most looking forward to, making a mental list. Emily would often ask if we could get some McVities Digestives when we were shopping in Kroger (@ $3.00 a packet in the UK import section) and I would always have to say, "Wait till we get to England".

Black Pudding
Black Pudding
There was no question about what I was most looking forward to -- black pudding. You cannot get hold of black pudding in the States for love or money. Actually we once had a bit in an Irish pub in Cary, but that's the only time, and it was not great black pudding. For those who have not tried it, black pudding is a large, thick black sausage, made in part from pig's blood and fat (not terribly kosher). Happily, we found ourselves in the black pudding capital of the world for one week of our stay, when we went on holiday to Bishop's Castle in Shropshire. There was a local black pudding there which was absolutely superb and I think we must have bought four or five during the week we were there. In fact there was a nice (but expensive) family butcher there too that made the best local back bacon one could imagine. It's not possible to get back bacon where we live -- there are shelves and shelves of streaky, some even in odd flavours like maple, but no back bacon in sight. And, of course, there were some first class British sausages, thick, meaty, tasty and not the diddy, salty and fatty things we get here.

Emily did get her digestive biscuits and we all enjoyed some good Cadbury's chocolate (which is available here, but licensed to Hersheys, or imported from England at four times the price). One surprise treat was British squash -- orange squash, blackcurrant squash etc. -- we hadn't realized how much we had missed those. [Explanation for Americans: squash is fruit-flavoured drink concentrates that one dilutes before drinking. We especially missed Robinson's Lemon Barley Water. (Ed.)] I don't think I had realized either just how much I had been missing a good English hand-pulled pint of real ale. One real highlight was sitting outside an old pub called The Tinner's Arms in Zennor during our week in Cornwall, and then in Shropshire to pick up regular pitchers of the locally brewed ales from the local pub in Bishop's Castle.

Steak and Kidney Pie
Steak & Kidney Pie
I should also mention, of course, fish and chips. We had it twice during our month's visit, and each time the key thing -- for us -- was the curry sauce -- tops it off wonderfully. [Although sea-food restaurants around here tend to deep-fry everything -- from white fish to oysters and serve them with some variety or other of fried potato, we craved proper batter and chip-shop style chips (Ed.)] We had a great Chinese takeaway too when in Peterborough, a great Indian takeaway in Shropshire, a nice Indian meal out in Birmingham, where Balti is the local dish, and a great meal at Pizza Express in London with my brother Jonathan on Lauren's birthday. Come to think of it, we also had three pub meals and on all three occasions I had steak and kidney pie, one of my favourite dishes. [In the UK, pie can be almost anything that involves pastry and an oven. Click here to watch the Geico Gecko AdvertThis means that pies can be savoury (eg. steak and gravy) or sweet (eg. apple). Hence the Geico gecko's love of "pie and chips", which translated is savoury pie with fries (Ed.)] And in Cornwall we had a cream tea, which was even more delicious than I had remembered.

On top of these, we had many fantastic meals made for us while touring the country. Viola and I are lucky in both having Mums who are brilliant cooks, and family and friends who are also great cooks. And happily, everyone we know enjoys a glass of wine (or two) as much as we do. It's amazing that we did not put any weight on while in the UK, not least given the huge amount of cheese we consumed too (a new favourite: Haloumi; an old favourite: Blue Dovedale). [Good, reasonably priced cheese is scarce in our part of NC (Ed.)] What is less surprising is that I had some serious indigestion problems while in England!

NC Barbecue, Rice and Hush Puppies
BBQ, Rice & Hush Puppies
I do not, of course, want to suggest that there are not wonderful things to be had here. Now back in America, there are many American treats to enjoy. I love what is called "barbecue", which in North Carolina means a kind of pulled pork [pulled off the bone -- has a shredded texture (Ed.)] in some delicious spices, and not what Brits and Aussies mean by barbecue [Here, barbecue is pulled pork, to grill is to barbecue and broiling is grilling (Ed.)]. Viola recently posted on our growing love of sushi. And it is great that we can get fresh fish and seafood locally. We have a seafood market locally with the extraordinary name "Jezebel's Salty Fare" and on our wedding anniversary, I cooked a dish with some local squid and prawns (the latter always called "shrimp" here, even if enormous). We are also big fans of Bojangles, which is a southern "chicken 'n' biscuit" place, but we can't go there too often because it is very, very fattening.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

New Favicon

I've added a favicon to the blog, courtesy of I hope you like it.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Fish and Chips
Fish 'n' Chips
Ask nine out of ten British people (especially in Birmingham) and they will tell you how much they love their curry. Curry has become just as British as fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Here in the US (or at least in our part of the US), Indian/Pakistani cuisine does not seem to have taken off to such an extent. What has taken off is Chinese and (understandably, due to the geographical proximity) Mexican cuisine. Eat as much as you like (or can?) Chinese buffets are everywhere. One seems to be pretty much the same as another in decor and dishes. Some also incorporate a Mongolian grill and a sushi bar.

In the UK, love of sushi has started to take off in recent years with it becoming available in supermarkets and with sushi bars opening up in shopping malls. Japanese restaurants are still few and far between, though, and rather expensive.

Here in the US, however, Japanese cuisine seems to be a staple. Many of Emily and Lauren's friends at school love their sushi. When we were living in England, Mark and I loved our sushi but didn't have it very often. Now that we are living in America, Mark and I are now massively into sushi, sashimi, tempura and any Japanese food that we've tried thus far. We haven't tried it on the children yet, but Lauren loves rice and seaweed so it shouldn't be too hard to convert her.

James Bond in You Only Live Twice
James Bond
We even have a favourite Japanese restaurant -- Kuki (where we took Mark's aunt and cousin). Walking into it, one feels like one's walked onto the set of a James Bond film or an episode Dangerman (Secret Agent in the US).

We tend to go at lunchtime. This is because we once went in an evening and found that the prices are a bit steep. Add the cost of babysitting and it really piles up. They do, however, have a very reasonably priced lunch menu and we save on babysitting because the girls are at school.

On entry, a young lad greets us and we choose where we'd like to sit. It's always the same young lad and he always brings us our hot mugs of green tea without even asking us what we'd like (because we always have green tea). He's from South Korea, but has lived in the US for a number of years. Sashimi
While he's bringing our food or topping up our green tea ("Harry hot ups" as Mark's Dad would say), he tells us a bit about South Korea and its culture. He also seems to have a huge passion for football (soccer), so often has a bit of a chat about that too. On our last visit, he and Mark discussed the addition of the South Korean striker, Seol Ki-Hyeon to the Reading squad and the waiter talked about the current state of South Korean football.

They also do the most delicious green tea ice-cream, but unfortunately I seldom have enough appetite for a sweet course.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Year in America

Today is our one-year anniversary. We have now been in the USA for an entire year. I didn't start my blog until the November, but Mark documented our move in his blog:

September 20, 2005
Travel diary 1: Leaving Birmingham
September 21, 2005
Travel Diary 2: At London Gatwick
September 22, 2005
Travel Diary 3: Arrival in North Carolina
Travel Diary 4: Waking up in America
September 23, 2005
Travel Diary 5: Finding my Office
September 26, 2005
Travel Diary 6: Supersize Me!
September 28, 2005
Another day, another hotel
Sunday, May 14, 2006
A Brit at Duke: Reflections of an Alien Professor
September 21, 2006
A Year in America
A year ago yesterday we were still in Birmingham (England). The removal men played tetris with all our earthly belongings so that they could fit them into a 20ft container. We gave or threw away anything that was not going with us (including a few items at the last minute because the container was not big enough for everything that we intended to take). Then we bundled ourselves into our hired car (as we no longer had our own car) and our neighbour waved goodbye as we drove to the airport. After a night in the travel lodge, we flew to America; the whole time with a feeling of excitement and adventure, but hoping that we were doing the right thing.

At first, although some things were uphill struggles, others were blessings. We had to move (extended-stay) hotels twice in one week, but then were able to settle on one that we could stay in for the next three weeks. After spending a month in hotels and sleeping on a fold-out couch because the children had the beds, we finally moved into the house that we were intending to buy. This was on the same day that our container arrived, so it could be delivered straight to the house and didn't need to go into storage (one of the blessings).

Here in the US (or at least in NC), when one buys a house, one sets a closing (=completion) date at the beginning of the process, when one makes the offer. If one cannot close on that date, one has to renegotiate a new date and/or can move into the property and pay rent to the sellers until closing. This means that the buyer can move house and the seller is relieved of the burden of having two mortgages to pay.

Our House
Unfortunately our mortgage application had been turned down several times because our international credit check turned out to not be worth the paper it was written on, never mind the amount that we'd paid for it. In addition, our house sale in England hadn't yet completed. By the time we moved into the house (to rent), we had already missed three closing dates. By this stage our sellers were irate and told us that they wanted us to vacate within two days.

That's when we said to one another that we had made a mistake and that perhaps we should cut our losses, rent a property for as long as it takes to organize moving back to England, then return home. We even found a property that was vacant and that we could move into for the interim. But in the end the sellers realized that they didn't have a leg to stand on (after we pointed out to them the wording of the contract), so backed off; the mortgage was underwritten; and cash-flow problems started to resolve themselves.

It doesn't seem that long ago that Mark and I stood in the kitchen of this house deliberating about whether we'd made the wrong decision, but here we are a year later with a house, two cars, good schools for the girls and a job for Mark that he enjoys; and we know that it was the right decision.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Emily's First (American) Football Match

After school today, Emily went to watch her school's American football team play against another local middle school's team. The photos and video are all courtesy of Emily. The photos are all of the team, but the video is of the cheerleaders (although no matter how many times I watch it, I can't make out what they're saying).

Click here to watch the cheerleaders videoEmily's School's American Football TeamEmily's School's American Football TeamEmily's School's American Football Team

Beta Blogger

Recently, I decided to make the switch from Blogger to Beta Blogger. The lure was the ability to add labels to posts. This is a feature that I've been mimicking by having a drop-down menu in my sidebar called "Series Archive" but this has been far from ideal.

Unfortunately, once you've made the move to Beta Blogger, there's no going back.

To be able to use the labelling feature of Beta Blogger, one has to "customize" one's template (i.e. choose a template, then re-customize it to resemble what you had before). I don't mind doing this, but the problem was that the line height of the text varied between paragraphs for no reason that I could make out.

Problem with Beta Blogger Screenshot
Here's what Blogger have to say about it:

There are general formatting issues in various places throughout the application. These are mostly just cosmetic and nothing to worry about in terms of functionality. — latest update on Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Blogger: Known Issues

I gather from this that "just cosmetic" issues are not top priority.

I resorted to reverting to my old template. (Although one can't revert to the tried and tested alpha version of blogger, one can upload the old template). Unfortunately, though, all of the old template's functionality is not available in Beta Blogger. The "Previous Posts" section only lists the twelve most recent posts. Previously, one could click on a post and the twelve "Previous Posts" listed would be relative to the post being viewed. The search box also fails to find older posts.

Now that I'm using my old template on Beta Blogger, the only way to access older posts is via the "Main Archive" drop-down menu. This only shows posts by month, without the option of viewing individual entries.

Beta Blogger does have better archiving options -- one can have a list, a drop-down box or a hierarchical structure. Although nice, it is not very customizable, so they need to work on that a bit more too.

So, if you're wondering what's wrong with my blog at the moment, it's teething problems with Beta Blogger. Hopefully, the problems will get ironed out eventually. I apologise for this and if I could go back, I would.

By the way, if you have any input into my Beta Blogger problems (i.e. if there's something I can do to sort out the text line spacing without having to wait for Blogger's support team), please let me know.

October 10.2006

I'm outlining the problem with the line spacing and possible solutions for posterity, in the hope that it may be of help to anyone else who has had this same problem. This problem and solution is specific to the various incarnations of the Minima template only.

The problem is that when one types one's post into blogger, carriage returns are interpreted as breaks, not paragraphs. This means that the entire post is treated by the browser as one big paragraph. My problem was that I had been using div tags to float images with their captions underneath. This use of div tags within the mega-paragraph that forms the post would break the mega-paragraph and the styles would no longer apply.

The style for the post body is defined by a div tag with "class='post-body'". The line spacing for the mega-paragraph is defined in the style sheet by "'post p'".

Solutions are:
  1. Go to each div tag and change it to "span" (very time-consuming and boring)
  2. Encase each paragraph in p tags (also very time-consuming and boring)
  3. Make the "post p" style apply to "post-body" by changing the style sheet line ".post p {" to read something like ".post-body, .post p {".
There are also lots of things with beta blogger templates that do my head in, so I'll have to have a bit of a think before I decide to ditch my "classic" template.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

More Things to See

Ashley Jensen and Ricky Gervais
Jensen and Gervais
We watched the first episode in the new series of Extras last Thursday night. It has just started airing on BBC2, in the UK. It was very good and featured Orlando Bloom (who was very funny -- loving himself and jibing at Johnny Depp), Liza Tarbuck and Keith Chegwin. Still, it hasn't managed to knock my favourite episode (the Kate Winslett one) off its pedistal.

There are also a few well-reviewed films coming up that may be worth watching:

The Queen

A low budget dramatisation about the interactions between Buckingham Palace and Westminster in the aftermath of Princess Diana's untimely demise.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat visits the US and goes in search of Pamela Anderson. I like Borat, but he can be a bit rude and the film has been rated R (18 in the UK), so I'm not sure about this one. My prediction is that it'll probably be good, but also rude, crude and very cringe-worthy.

An Inconvenient Truth

Mark Kermode describes this as "a powerpoint presentation", not a movie. It is a lecture on global warming given by Al Gore. The way I see it, if I start watching it expecting a glorified powerpoint presentation, not The Day After Tomorrow, then I'm not going to be disappointed. Mark Kermode also said that the film preaches to the converted, but, as I've said before, there's a whole gulf between knowing something and doing something about it, so perhaps this film will encourage those of us who are able to make lifestyle changes that help the environment to do so.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


TransAmerica is another excellent film that we watched recently. It is a road-movie about a transexual whose operation is imminent discovering that she's a father and having to travel across America with her son.

The film stars Felicity Huffman. Even though I've seen her in other things (mainly Desperate Housewives) and even though I know full well that she's a woman, she plays the part so well that I am convinced that she is a pre-op transexual.

I thought that it was a good portrayal of a transexual waiting for an operation, but as I've only ever known one person who has changed sex, I wondered what the "transexual community" might have thought of the film, so I did a little googling. I couldn't find that many transexual people who had seen it or anything that was particularly quotable, but generally those who had seen it seemed to like it. Let me know if you think differently.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Girl in the Cafe

Mark and I recently watched the film, The Girl in the Cafe -- a 2005 Richard Curtis film. We loved the film right from the opening seconds right through to the end. It sported brilliant performances from both Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald.

Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation
The backdrop of the story is a fictional G8 Summit hosted in Reykjavik, Iceland and the story is a romance between Nighy and MacDonald. On this level, the film does what Lost in Translation tried and failed to do -- be heartwarming and engaging from beginning to end and depicting a relationship between an older business man and younger woman without coming across as a bit sleazy. For the most part, I quite liked Lost in Translation, but this film is far its superior.

The Girl in the Cafe
The Girl in the Cafe
The real emphasis of the film is not the love story, but the Make Poverty History message -- that on average once every three seconds a child dies due to extreme poverty and that the leaders of the richest countries of the world have the power to do something about it.

I'd like to be able to say that this film has motivated me to try and get more involved with issues of social conscience; and that, as far as I'm concerned, Richard Curtis's mission is accomplished. I am, however, a realist. I realise that there is a huge gaping chasm between empathising with a cause and actually doing something about it and I don't want to speak too soon. However, I think that I will go as far as to say that I will investigate the matter further by looking into what may be going on in my area. Watch this space.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

I Wish I'd Looked After Me Teeth

Oh, I wish I'd looked after me teeth,
And spotted the perils beneath,
All the toffees I chewed,
And the sweet sticky food,
Oh, I wish I'd looked after me teeth.
Pam Ayres

Steve Martin as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors
A Trip to the Dentist
In the USA, almost everyone pays for almost everything and most people have a whole array of insurance policies to cover almost everything that one can think of. This includes medicine and dentistry. The UK has the NHS, which, despite its problems, makes me proud to be British. In the UK, we would pay about £13 each for a scale and polish for the adults and, as one would expect, it was always free for the children. The government payed the rest. The bill for our family trip to the dentist, for a similar amount of treament, in the USA was about $1500 plus an extra $500 or so of treatment that would most probably not have been prioritised by a UK dentist. Of this $2000, we had to part with $130 and the dental insurance policy covered the rest. The great thing about the NHS is that medical treatment is completely free and dental treatment is almost free for anyone regardless of socioeconomic status.

Austin Powers -- A Brit with bad teeth
A Brit with Bad Teeth
However, my recent State-side trip to the dentist has highlighted something that one can see in this and in other aspects of American life that is rarer in British life. This is the relationship between service providers and their recipients: that if one is paying for something up-front, one is likely to demand and therefore to receive a better quality of service. This is great for those who can afford it or have an employer who can afford it, but is less great for those who are less fortunate.

The USA seems to run on this principle. At the dentist, our initial "oral evaluation" was far more thorough than anything that I have ever experienced in the UK, with an emphisis on prophylactic treatment. In addition, the dentists/hygenists themselves are more polite and friendly. They realise that one can always take one's custom elsewhere, which is less easy to do in the UK.

While we're on the topic of teeth, what is the going rate for teeth at the moment?

When in England, our tooth fairy always used to give £1 per tooth. On the odd occasion, he'd forget to do his job, so we would have to negotiate compensation for his lateness to the tune of a 100% per tooth markup. Since moving to the US, the rate has been $1 per tooth, with the same penalty for lateness. However, we recently found out that Emily's friend's tooth fairy pays $5 per tooth. In addition, we were recentlyLarry David
Larry David
watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (one of the funniest programmes ever) wherein Susie's daughter, Sammi, has lost her last baby tooth and Susie is trying to put a $5 bill under her pillow (with disastrous consequences resulting from Larry using the upstairs loo very noisily whilst wearing very squeaky shoes). Is our tooth fairy particularly stingy? Should we be negotiating a better deal for our kids while they still have baby teeth to lose?

Friday, September 08, 2006

New Labour Implosion

Tony Blair
Tony Blair
Over the past few days, it's all been kicking off in UK politics. Someone had pressed the self-destruct button on New Labour. Thankfully, they have a few years to try and recover a little dignity in time for the next General Election.

Let's settle the matter with a googlefight.

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown
Well, as of now, Gordon wins by a good 10,000,000 or so. So, I'm afraid Tony that your time has now come to move over.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Labor Day

Labor Day Flag
Labor Day Flag
Yesterday was Labor Day (labour to Brits). Labor Day is a public holiday that each year falls on the first Monday of September. Everyone in the country, except for Duke University staff and students, gets the day off work. Why? I hear you ask. What does Labor Day celebrate? Even Americans don't seem to know the answer to this question. When asked, the answer is simply that one gets the day off work -- 'nough said.

A quick google search later and I think that I may have the general gist, although it really was a quick google search. If you want to enlighten me further, or provide a better expanation of what Labor Day is, just drop in a comment.

It seems that Labor Day started with a parade in New York City, in 1882. The first parade was a protest march against the introduction of the eight hour working day. It was organised by the Central Labor Union, a trade union affiliated to a secret society that was an offshoot from the freemasons -- the Knights of Labor. Turnout to the march was in defiance of employers, who docked a day's pay from workers who attended. From there, the march became an annual event and spread to other areas. There was growing political pressure to designate this day a national holiday.

Then, in 1893, the American Railway Union called a strike over pay cuts and high rents that lasted through most of the following year as well. The strike and the union was crushed when President Cleveland declared the strike illegal and sent in 12,000 troops to break it up, resulting in two deaths. There was much criticism of President Cleveland's handling of the strike and 1894 was an election year. This gave those campaigning for a national holiday the fuel they needed and Labor Day was born. It was not enough to win Cleveland the election, though.

The lingering question is:

Is Labor Day a celebration of the working man; or is it an appeasement of the working man in the aftermath of a fatal blow to trade unionism in the USA; or third, has any such meaning been lost to its being relegated to just a celebration that marks the end of summer?

Here's a tongue-in-cheek brief history:

1882: The first Labor Day Parade occurs in the United States. Organized by the Knights of Labor, the event has a loose affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. Hilarity ensues.

1884: In an election year, Grover Cleveland makes Labor Day a national holiday. Surprisingly, the creation of a majority of the public cares little about fails to help re-elect the President.

1920: Hallmark's Labor Day greeting cards fail to sell. Following this year, it is decided within the company that they will be better off creating holidays.

1966: Jerry Lewis begins his annual telethon to battle Muscular Dystrophy, which recently celebrated forty years of mediocre programming and lack of a cure.

1978: For the first time Labor Day is confused by a U.S. citizen as Memorial Day, a practice common for many to this day.

1980: A teacher in Madison Wisconsin's play, "The First Labor Day," fails to inspire in its goal to teach "“the true meaning”" behind the holiday.

1989: The first year Labor Day is looked at as less of a celebration of the working man and more of an excuse for the working man to get that much more intoxicated.
Luke Allen Hackney, The Banana Peel
First Labor Day Parade
The History of Labor Day
The Origins of Labor Day
Labor Day

The Doctor Returns to Sci-Fi

The second series of Dr Who is due to begin on the SciFi channel on the 29th of September, 8pm ET. And what an excellent series -- especially the final episode. Needless to say, we'll be watching the whole lot again.

The spin-off series Torchwood should be starting on BBC3 some time in October too. This is purportedly aimed at adults. There are also rumours of other spin-offs that are aimed at children -- Sarah Jane Investigates and another attempt at a K-9 spin-off.

I'm also looking forward to this year's Christmas special -- The Runaway Bride, mainly because it's starring the very talented and funny Catherine Tate.

September 15, 2006

The BBC have confirmed plans to air a one hour special of Sarah Jane Investigates in early 2007, followed by a series later in the year.