Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Turn of phrase

Overheard tonight during a pictionary-type round in the game of Cranium (UK edition):

"Stubble! Time! Oh, I've got it -- six o'clock stubble!"

Poor chap, he was really stunned to find out how close he'd come to the actual phrase. Whoever classifies British English, Irish English, Scotch English and US English as the same language should spend more time over here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

For the birds

Ugh. I am as brain-dead as can be after finishing my paper edits yesterday. Bad timing, but what can you do?

I think I'll attribute what happened this week to my general brain-death. I mentioned that I've been feeding the birds in my backyard, which now include a pair of English robins (so ridiculously adorable that I want to introduce them as an invasive species), a pair of blackbirds, a flock of racous dunnocks (sort of like sparrows), a couple of collared doves, an elephantine woodpigeon, and an assorted variety of small chickadee-like birds.

In the past, I've been able to walk through town to the local pet store, but I learned last week that it relocated to miles outside Cambridge. Since I have no interest in riding my bike through any more of this perilous shire than I must unless absolutely necessary, I decided to shop online. Before too long, I found a great place with high-energy winter feed and robin-specific blends. (I know, I'm a serious ecogeek, but what can you do?)

I typically go through a five pound bag of seed in six weeks, so I ordered what I thought worked out to about 15 pounds of food, just to avoid constant restocking. It arrived Tuesday, and I went to pick it up from the porter's lodge, a sort of front desk where college officials keep track of packages and the like.

That's when they told me it was too big for the lodge.

I looked outside the lodge and spotted a giant box resting on the floor. It was approximately the size of my desktop. "That can't be mine," I said, disregarding the fact that none of the other students would have ordered anything from CJ's WildBird Foods unless they really enjoyed seed for breakfast.

The porter shrugged. "It 'as your name on it."

I turned around and walked across college to the MCR, aka the graduate lounge. "Quick," I said to my friend and flatmate, Anna, "How many kilograms in a pound?"

"Two point five," she said. "No, wait, I think it's the other way around."

Oh shite.

So yes, with a brilliant reversed calculation, I've acquired something in the neighborhood of 35 pounds of bloody birdseed. It's taking up most of the kitchen counter on one side of the room, and I have no clue how I'm going to get rid of it by the time I leave. It doesn't help that the birds are skeptical of the new gourmet menu and have been turning their beaks up until today. Normally, that wouldn't matter -- but I have a wheelbarrow-sized lot of birdseed to toss, and two days without a peck suddenly becomes a crisis.

Bloody birds. I should have tried cultivating flowers. Or just used a calculator. Stupid meaningless conversions I thought I'd never use...this wouldn't happen if the world could just decide on one way to weigh things!

Sunday, February 19, 2006


In the past three days, I've logged approximately 25-30 hours writing a paper. Consequently, my brain is pretty much beyond revival...which is why it seems like a perfect time to think of British foods I'll genuinely miss when I leave (no, really, they do exist):

1. Hobnobs. The best freaking cookies in the world. Except they're biscuits. Cookie isn't really a word here.

2. Hovis Digestives. While the name is off-putting, to say the least, these little breadloaf-shaped gems are like graham crackers, but slightly less sweet and infinitely more satisfying. Alas, they only come in variety packs of crackers (something to do with the fact that they're categorized as digestive biscuits), so I'm forced to buy giant cracker boxes for five freaking Hovis' (Not sure what the plural is: Hovii?).

3. Earl Grey Tea. I can't even tell you how good it is here. I may have to have the local tea shop ship its own kind to the States, because everything else just seems inferior now.

4. Good Guinness. Apparently, it's even better in Ireland - but it's pretty nice here.

5. Fish and chips with malt vinegar. The one meal that consistently rises above expectations. Although I'm starting to weird out the neighborhood pub with my propensity for using half a bottle of malt vinegar per meal.

6. Sticky toffee pudding. 800,000 calories, 2462 grams of fat, and worth every seam-splitting lick of the spoon.

7. Brie and tomato sandwiches...although they get a little old after the newness wears off and you realize they're one of two or three, tops, vegetarian options in most sandwich places.

8. No, there's really no eight. Seven's all I can muster so far, but I have to admit it's seven more than I anticipated finding. I realize that technically two of them are not food, but Guinness definitely has more calories than a Hovis, and I'd probably subsist off Earl Grey if I could just find a way.

I'd post the number of foods I miss, but it would just make me cry. ;-)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Under the microscope

This morning, I rolled out of bed for a weekly acupuncture appointment after a long night of television viewing, as I am in denial about the paper deadline lurking in the middle of next week. (I'm writing about multiscalar networks in climate change governance, which is about as coherent to you as it is to me...right now, my running outline is two pages of gibberish followed by rambling "Oh no! Oh hell! How am I going to write another 3000 words??" panic that I apparently decided to compose in lieu of actual work.)

Anyway, after staying up in a state of paralysis-inducing panic, I had just enough time this morning to slip into my clothes, pull my UW beanie over my mad-scientist morning hair, and race down the hill to the office.

Within a few blocks, I couldn't help but notice that every male in Cambridge appeared to be staring at me. This was particularly odd because England's version of attractive apparently is 180 degrees opposite of me. Words used to describe me here: "weird," "you know, sort of, freaky?" and "unique." These gems come straight from the mouths of friends, the same ones who've seen my passport photo and driver's license (taken all of six months ago) and gush, "Wow, you look so young and pretty there!" I don't even want to know what I look like now: old and haggish? As far as I can determine, the only thing different about my appearance now is a pierced eyebrow, which is not exactly a trait of the aging has-been.

Anyway, I was almost feeling flattered and wondering if I ought to leave the house every day in a semi-disheveled state of barely-awakeness, but then I noticed that every woman in Cambridge was also looking at me. Quizzically. They all seemed to have a question on their lips that they didn't have time to voice before we passed each other.

As soon as I saw the acupuncturist, everything became clear. I started to take off my hat and he said, "Aw, c'mon, I need a picture of you in that! D'you know it says 'Dawgs' on your head? Did they misspell it on purpose?"

I'd forgotten a cardinal rule of Cambridge: no one knows what a mascot is. People walk around in subtly-cocked berets or fluffy dead-animal wrappings (seriously, one of the most popular women's items here is a scarf that looks like forty round balls of rabbit fur strung together)...but no one wears anything that says "Ducks" or "Yankees" or "Huskies." Let alone "Dawgs."

I tried explaining mascots to him, but the whole thing about difference between the UW Huskies and the actual physical mascot Husky didn't make sense. Really, I shouldn't have tried describing the Stanford Cardinal and their redwood tree.

The great thing about acupuncture is that you lie on one of those tables with the round pad where your head rests and your face slips through so you can breathe...which means you finish the session with nice oblong lines running the length and width of your face from where you rested on the seams, like a shirt you left folded in the closet too long and forgot to iron. On the way home, even more people stared at me. C'mon, wouldn't you want to gape at the creased-face girl with the misspelled word emblazoned across her forehead?

Ecogrrl in England: why fit in when you can stand out? Or something...

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Good morning, sunshine

Ah, February, the coldest and most unpredictable month in England, and the time when all of us fall ill for one reason or another...so of course, I'm down with a cold -- not too bad, but just enough for me to feel like sleeping in today...except, at about 5:30 am, this small brown songbird perched on the fence outside my backyard and started singing the same tune, over and over, for about three and a half hours. I tried throwing socks at the window to scare it off, but it quickly figured out that there's some sort of wonderful transparent barricade between my projectiles and its perch and continued singing unabated.

The only time it ever stops singing is when it's down on the ground foraging for the food I stupidly started leaving out before winter, thinking it might keep the poor birds from starving as suggested by the local bird society. Well, they sure aren't hungry now. They're at war. The backyard is a virtual battlezone of blackbirds, robins, wrens, sparrows, pigeons, wood doves, chickadees, squirrels, and god knows what else. My favorite bird's been bullied into hiding by a pack of voracious dun-colored pipsqueaks who are skilled in the art of chasing bigger birds away. As it's the middle of winter and they've come to depend on the food, I just have to tolerate the early morning cacaphony -- and I did, until this stinking brown bird showed up and started its incessant mating call or wakeup chant or battle cry or whatever the hell it is.

Back to bed for me -- think I'll read under the covers today, at least until my awful three-hour statistics course this afternoon. On a happy note, I'm going to Trinity Ball! Let the hype begin...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Having a ball

Y'know, I was always under the impression that balls had gone out of fashion with corsets, carriages and Rhett Butler...

Here, however, May Balls might actually be the biggest deal of the year. All of the wealthy colleges have them -- and to give you a sense of just how big these blowouts can be, Trinity supposedly spends £1 million annually on theirs, which covers the live fireworks show, the big-name bands (this group called the Rolling Stones played there a few years ago...maybe you've heard of them?), and the extravagant five-course meals, followed by breakfast and boat trips down the River Cam. There are also a couple of uber-snotty colleges who hold tiny little soirees that are white tie formal. That means top hat and tails, folks. No one actually wants to attend these, apart from the oldest of old-boys and members of the colleges themselves...Then again, they do truck in their own ferris wheel so you can soar above Cambridge all night swilling champagne and frisbeeing your tophat into the courtyard of the neighboring college.

Consequently, every one of Cambridge's 14,000 or so students is champing at the bit to snatch up tickets. Herein lie the problems I face:

1. My college, while lovely, is poor.
2. It does not have a ball. It has a spring garden party, which is sort of like a ball without the lush spendings, gourmet food, a-list bands or customized fireworks.
3. Tickets to the big balls (Trinity, John's, Clare's, Caius -- all the colleges on the river) are reserved first for college members.
4. This reservation policy usually leaves about 40 tickets for the countless hordes from less financially endowed colleges at which to throw themselves, en masse, in a ritual that tends to involve: waiting until midnight for disclosure of the secret ticket selling location; sprinting in your pants (that's underwear here) across a frigid campus in February, elbowing aside anyone who looks like they might be headed to the same place; clustering together in a seething horde for about eight to twelve hours; filling out a form which then goes into a lottery from which you may, just may be a lucky winner.
5. If you are a lucky winner, yours is the privelege to shell out £300 or so for a pair of tickets to all-night debauchary. I don't even want to think about what £300 could purchase back home. Crap. Just did.

So, what's a girl to do? Well, obviously bribe every semi-acquaintance at the big name colleges, offering to pay even more than £300 for tickets. A friend from the BIG party offers to find her tickets, but no guarantee. Then she runs into the problem of a slightly less-big-name college with a damn fine reputation taking pity on her plea ("It's my first wedding anniversary that weekend and we're only in Cambridge for a year and I'll also give you the rights to my middle name and my firstborn...").

Only in Cambridge would I ever experience a dilemma like this. Go for the five-star party I'd never attend in any other part of my life? Or hold out for the six-star party on the river?

I almost want to take a shower now...feel so...posh wannabe.

In my defense, these things did make Time magazine's "top 10 parties in the world." Not going would be equivalent to visiting France and scoffing at the prospect of seeing the Eiffel Tower. Hell, worse: the Eiffel Tower doesn't offer fireworks and free champagne.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Striking a blow for Rosalind Franklin

In the center of Cambridge, just past King's College where the bar's being repainted "Soviet red" in homage to its socialist past, there's a winding side road that takes you past one of the city's biggest bars, where Watson and Crick killed off many brain cells celebrating the discovery of the DNA double helix.

This bar offers a nice assortment of British brews, as well as your standard pub fare: fish and chips, burgers, baps (sort of like a burger but with much better fillings, like brie and mushroom). You can place your order, pick up your table number, and traipse off to a snug corner in one of their many low-lit rooms, where you can idle away a half pint or so until the food arrives.

Unless, of course, they neglect to provide your table number, don't bother telling you it's important, and forget about you for over an hour. Until the kitchen closes.

We'd tried flagging a few waittresses down when we realized we'd been at the bar long enough to watch a full shift of pre-funking collegiates rotate through the building, but most of the blonde, Slavic-accented employees just leaned in close and said, "Yeah, it's coming. We're very busy." Finally, I chased someone down when I heard him calling what should have been our table number, only to discover it was a full two table numbers later: our order'd already been cooked, called and chucked into a bin.

Twenty minutes and many more apologies later, we finally received our fish and chips. An interesting note: in Britain, fish and chips usually consists of one large, batter-encrusted slab o'fish, rather than the palm-sized pieces we're used to back home. Nevertheless, we consumed the entire thing in about five minues and finally managed to get out the door...but on the way, I managed to shatter a window in this historical bar which is older than the city of my birth. The entry was packed, so we kept close to one side as we squeezed between patrons. Without even thinking about the wall of tiny glass blocks next to me, I pulled my purse strap over my head and heard a terrific "crack!"

Somehow, I failed to associate the sound of glass splintering with the unexpected pain in my elbow until I heard a girl gasp and a guy say, "Did that girl just do that?" I whirled around in a panic, but the gasping lass quickly rearranged her features into a harmless smile and said, "Ah, nah, nothing, it wasn't you, go on!" Methinks she's broken a few windows herself staggering around Cambridge...or she's a fellow sympathetic klutz with no sense of physical space.

Last week, I snuck back into the bar to see whether I'd actually inflicted any damage, and there at eye level was a glass block pane, spiderwebbed into four neat fissures.

Rosalind Franklin, in case you're wondering, was denied recognition for her part in the DNA discovery because she didn't fully trust her male colleagues, and they didn't like her antisocial behavior. She spent the rest of a too-brief life knowing she was entirely correct in her misgivings. Given the angle and velocity I needed to crack a window that high, I'm thinking I subconsciously rebelled to help Rosalind leave her mark on what's forever known as Watson and Crick's bar. That one's for you, dark lady. Take that, boys!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I love Keith Olbermann

I don't know, I personally think the guy gives Jon Stewart a run for his money...and Keith's the only cable news anchor who actually covered the very legitimate problems with the 2004 election. He's great.

Watch this one all the way through, and then feel for poor CNN's Paula Zahn, who really doesn't deserve to be ridiculed by O'Reilly:


The perks of globalization

Finding Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough in the local Sainsbury's. MMMmmmmmm.... suddenly, working on papers within arms-reach of my freezer doesn't seem like such a dismal prospect.