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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Spreekt u Engles?

So finally got to take a quick trip out of the country, my first since living in the UK.  Now that I have experienced how easy it is to travel from London I think I'm going to be hooked! :)

Amsterdam was a beautiful city.  So many things to see and so much history to explore.  I've never been much of a museum person.  I will take in museums that have something of particular interest to me but I've never really been the type to go piece by piece through an entire museum taking in every display.  After looking at the most common tourist spots in the city, I did decide to visit two while I was in Amsterdam.  The first was the Anne Frank museum which turned out was just around the corner from my hotel.  I had decided to get up early as this weekend was a bank holiday here and the city seemed to be very crowded with tourists. I got to the museum just before it was scheduled to open only to find that there was already a queue (English for line ha ha) to the end of the building outside.  It was one of my only 'must see' sights for my visit to Amsterdam so I jumped in the queue and waited my turn to buy a ticket.  The tour actually takes you through the front office of Anne's father's business and then takes you through to the secret annex where eight people hid from the Nazis for just under two years.   I think Anne's story always touched me because I was an pre-teen girl when I first read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' and remembered really relating to her and thinking how terrifying that must have been for her and her family.  The family had built a movable bookcase in front of the door to the annex to hide the back apartment of the home and from the day they went into hiding never came out until they were discovered in 1944.  It was amazing to see the apartment and the reality of how the families staying there lived for almost two years.  The windows all had blackout curtains on them to ensure they weren't seen moving in the apartment from the outside so the rooms were very dark and small.  While there are no furnishing in the rooms today there are models showing how they fit the eight people into the few small rooms. On the walls in Anne's room, you can see where she glued magazine and post card photos of film stars from the time to decorate her small space.  On one of the walls you can see where the two young girls had drawn pencil lines on the wall to track their growth over the two years they were caged in the small space.  Everything there were small reminders that while life was stifled, it did go on for the family while they hid from the atrocities outside.  It was a bit like being in a church or a memorial as everyone touring were very quiet and somber walking through each of the rooms.  Anne and her sister died in a concentration camp just one month before the liberation.  Only Anne's father Otto survived of the eight people who were in hiding in the secret annex.  If you haven't read the book before, I would highly recommend it.  With the vision of their secret annex fresh in my mind, I do planning on reading the book again for my own reminder and benefit. 

I also went to the Van Gogh museum.  I had remembered in my freshman art class at university the story of the tortured Van Gogh cutting off a piece of his own ear and putting in the mail to one of his love interests.  If you know me at all, then you know I have always been fascinated by the macabre things in life and this was no different.  I recognised several of the paintings so it was amazing to stand in arms reach of some of the most iconic pieces of art of our time.  I'm by no means an art critic but I did enjoy his style of painting and how what seemed like a chaotic series of small brush strokes melded together to really show the life of the scenes he was depicting.  His style was very unique to the time when he was painting and as the museum is ordered chronologically, it was interesting to see how his style changed at different stages of his life and how the topics and colours of his pieces changed depending on his mental state.

I don't think I could post about Amsterdam without talking about the obvious things that people typically visit for.  So aside from the unique architecture and gorgeous canals running throughout the city, there is of course the coffee shops and red light district.  I think because I was a woman travelling alone, I did avoid these for the most part but it is worth mentioning how open the use of soft drugs and the sex trade are within the city.  I think I was contact high most of the days when I was strolling through the central districts of Amsterdam.  Coffee shops are the only place where small portions of soft drugs like hash can be bought and consumed for personal use.  It is not uncommon to see someone smoking while walking down the street and while I was told it's frowned upon, its not really something that the police focus on.  I didn't visit the Red Light district at night just because I felt like it would be swarming with seedy men and I didn't really think I'd feel safe being a single woman down there alone but I did walk through during the day just to get a feel for it.  It was interesting as there were women standing in the windows who were barely dressed, waving to men to come in and see them.  I guess it does stand to reason that morality and how you look at these things is a cultural construct and while we may be uncomfortable with the display of something that we were taught was wrong, its not universally believed to be so.

Enough of Amsterdam already!! Let's talk about chocolate and waffles!! :) I did take a day trip into Belgium as well.  I had the choice of a few different cities and chose to go to Ghent and Bruges because they were the smaller cities with more of the medieval city center that I find so charming.  We first visited Ghent which was a very small village which didn't seem to have as many tourist and a very small quaint city center.  I only had an hour and a half so I strolled around the many shops, bought my obligatory piece of Belgium lace and then went straight into the cafe known for their Belgium waffles.  I've never been a huge waffle fan if I'm being honest but it was pretty amazing.  I had mine with strawberries and cream and the waffle was definitely fresh and kind of just melted in my mouth.  I'm sure it was a billion calories but if you ever visit, just go for it - so worth it!  

 We then went on to Bruges, a slightly larger city with an amazing city center of old medieval buildings.   It was so much fun just wandering through the cobblestone streets and every other shop was a chocolate store so who am I to complain.  It was amazing seeing all the chocolate treats and the smell of chocolate seem to almost be a part of the city landscape.  I did sample a piece of chocolate from one of the shops with a cup of coffee in one of the small parks.  I also had a traditional Belgium meal of mussels and frites (fries) with mayonnaise.  It was a yummy dinner before heading back the three hour bus ride to Amsterdam. 

My last day in Amsterdam I decided for it to be a relaxing day. I slept in that morning in my teeny tiny bed and when I finally did venture out I went down to the flower market to explore.  I sat out at one of the canal side cafes enjoyed a coffee and a salad and read for an hour or two.   I enjoyed the slow pace of the day.  It seems that the Dutch culture supports this pace as they never seemed in a hurry to rush me off.  The Dutch in general seemed like a very happy welcoming people.  The city was also streaming with cyclist, I don't know the hard facts but it seemed like there were more people with bicycles in the city then in cars!  I also liked the fact that I didn't feel so 'tall' as there were several women far taller then me there.  I loved the Dutch language as well, so different from any other.  I didn't pick much up on my visit because as with most European cities, everyone I encountered did speak English.  It seems a diservice to American children that they only learn one language (just barely)  when it is common place all across Europe that they are often fluent in at least one other language then their native tongue.   

I really did enjoy my visit to the Netherlands and Belgium and now that I've been bit by the travel bug, I'm hoping this is just the first in many trips to come!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I'm not Canadian!!!

I wonder how much me being an American really is a novelty some times.  I clearly stand out the second I begin speaking and while Brits are very astute at sizing up other Brits by their accent and figuring out very quickly what area someone is from based on small differences in the way they talk, they have no clue when it comes to American accents. We spent an entire night in the pub once with them trying to teach me the subtle differences in British accents depending on where someone grew up but I have to admit it never really sank in.  It could be due in part to the large amounts of lager that I had consumed but I digress... I can't even really tell the difference between a Welsh accent which is a ghastly mistake by their standards!

In much the same way, they have no idea the differences between American accents.  While I could pretty quickly delve out what region another American is from, I sometimes think that they only associate Americans with either very thick east coast or southern accents.  The rest of us are apparently Canadian.  I have now been mistook for being Canadian on four different occasions because my accent is so 'flat'.  I guess the Colorado accent doesn't really have anything distinctive to make it stand out and it's not as if I could pick out another Coloradan here if they were to walk up to me out of the blue - but Canadian? 

I actually find that most of them don't even know where Colorado is geographically within the US.  Most of them know the big coastal cities like NYC, Orlando and San Francisco but then kind of look at me confused when I try to explain where Colorado is relative to the coasts.  But really that makes perfect since, doesn't it?  It's not like I could have told you where Sussex was as compared to Yorkshire before moving here and the US is geographically far more spread out then the UK is really.  Why would they care where Denver, Colorado is?  It's not really a vacation spot for most Brits :)

So now I guess all I have to decide is do I continue to correct people or should I just go with being Canadian when I meet new people.  It could be fun, eh?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fun with English Cuisine ..

So one of the first questions I get from home when asked how I'm finding it here is 'How is the food?'.   All in all the every day food you'd find in the grocery store is going to be the same type of stuff you'd find in the States, although the brands are different or you may find different variety.  I do like that there are a lot of specialty shops within the neighbourhoods, so you can get fresh breads, cheeses, meats, seafood or fruits/veggies from a small local shop.  There is also a great range of ethnic foods to choose from and much of it is very authentic and very well made.  Excellent Indian food, great pizzas and kebabs!

While I will say there are some odd combinations of ingredients, I guess its all down to your tastes really.  So I say, don't knock it 'till ya try it!  I have included some traditional English dishes here for your perusal, tell me what you think:

Toad in the Hole: This is a traditional English dish of sausages and Yorkshire pudding (which is a type of pastry bread bowl) usually served with vegetables and gravy.  You can find the recipe here:

Toad in the hole British sausage in batter mix served in...

Cheese & Pickle Sandwich: This is just what it sounds like and is a very common selection on any Pub menu.  It consists of a slice of thick cheddar cheese with either pickles or pickled onions.  This is one of the Brits favourite sandwich selections.

Fish & Chips : You can't have a list of British food without including fish and chips!  This is definitely a common choice both within the pubs and restaurants but also at many of the take away spots.   This is typically Cod fish fried into a big greasy mess and served with a huge helping of chips (or fries).  In my opinion you have been short changed if your order doesn't also come with a good helping of green mushy peas (which is basically green peas mushed up to look like a green version of mashed potatoes). 

Sunday Roast : Traditional meal served at lunchtime or in the afternoon on Sunday, not unlike any families Sunday dinner.  In the traditional sense it usually consists of some form of roasted meat, roasted potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, gravy and vegetables. It's not necessarily a specific meal but you hear the term a lot and this makes up the general components.

Traditional English Breakfast : Eggs, bacon, sausage, fried bread and wait for it .... baked beans. 

Bangers and Mash : Bangers are sausages, so this is basically sausages with mashed potatoes. 

The Pasty: This is a flaky pastry filled with different ingredients of meat, veggies, cheese and gravy depending on your tastes.  It comes out looking like a flaky calzone and is actually quite tasty.  

Chip Sandwich:  This is basically a sandwich that is made from putting chips (french fries) into a bread roll with either ketchup, brown sauce or just plain butter.  I've never had one but sounds like a carb load huh?

Sausage Rolls: Basically a flaky pastry wrapped around a sausage, coated with egg and baked.  Its a savory food that is easy to grab and go and you'll see them quite often at take-away places.

Spotted Dick: This is a dessert with pieces of dried fruit, usually served with custard - don't ask me about the name!

Pimms: Typical English summer drink.  Pimms is usually served with pieces of various fresh fruits and lemonade but there are lots of varieties of how it can be prepared.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Time to get going ...

As of today I have been in the UK for three months. I can hardly believe that it has already been that long.  In some ways, it feels like I have been here forever and in other ways it feels like I just got here yesterday.  

I have now settled into my flat, had my first weekend holiday on my own and had my first visitor from the states.  Finally this is feeling more like my home.  I am starting to adjust but still have more to learn.  It was really interesting having my good friend out for a visit because she was able to observe all the differences that I have been seeing over the past few months myself.   Meeting people here is more difficult because it seems the people aren't quite as open to striking up conversations with strangers as they are back home.  I think I'm often seen as strange when I go out with friends here since I will approach people at random and just start talking.  I do need to venture out more to meet people outside of work because the excuse of 'I'm just getting settled' really isn't going too fly much longer.

I have also experienced my first major bout of home sickness.  My grandfather fell ill a few weeks ago and has subsequently passed away.  It has been really hard to be away from my family during this time.   I knew that these things were likely to happen while I was away but wasn't sure how I'd handle them.  It just wasn't going to be reasonable for me to go home to be with my family but I do miss them terribly and hope they know that my thoughts and prayers are with them.  I just have to find my own ways to pay tribute and remember my grandpa from here so that I can in some small way feel like I'm part of the bigger picture back home during this time.  I will definitely be ready for my trip home come July.

I also came to the realization the other day that I really hadn't done any traveling in Europe since I'd moved here and now the year is nearly half over!  Both with business and personal travel throughout England I have been very fortunate to see many of the major cities here (London, Bath, Brighton, York, Manchester, etc.) but I haven't gotten to take advantage of the travel experiences that are right at my doorstep beyond England. 

London: Big Ben / Parliment

Bright Pier

Bath: Pulteney Bridge

So that I don't let this chance pass me by, I have set a goal for myself to travel to (at least) five other countries before the end of this year.  This actually really shouldn't be a stretch as many major European cities are so easy to get to from London.  I can easily get to Edinburgh, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Munich, or Marrakesh all within just a few hours from here.    

To jump start my goal I have booked a long weekend at the end of May to Amsterdam.  I have never been to the Netherlands and have wanted to go for quite some time.  I will have three full days in the city to explore so I may even choose to take a day trip to Antwerp and Brussels so I can check Belgium off my list as well (see how I work it, two countries with one trip!).  I have heard wonderful things about the city and canals so I'm excited to take my camera and share lots of pictures!

I'd really like to take a full week to explore Greece perhaps this fall and would love to take a two week photo safari to Africa early next year but I will take baby steps for now.  Thanks for catching up with my blog and I promise to try to update more frequently.