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A bit of charity

December 3rd, 2009

Natasha realized the she forgot to mention one other thing she misses from England in her little essay.

It is not an obvious point either: Charity shops.

Where we lived in Southeast London, seemingly every other town had at least one of these, selling everything from second-hand clothes to souvenirs to books and CDs. What’s one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, indeed. We bought various and sundry from such shops; for instance, a good portion of my model house collection or the good-as-new gym pants that Becky has since been beating the crap out of for a couple of years now. Just browsing such a shop very nearly approximates going to a flee market, which is something we always find interesting and worthwhile.

We donated as well. A pair of nice shoes that did not exactly fit and was nonreturnable could probably be sold on eBay, but there is an obvious level of satisfaction of seeing them priced at £20 in the charity shop window one day, gone the next day, and knowing that the proceeds benefited a specific cause. A few other accessories and articles of clothing hopefully also found new owners and contributed to some good things along the way.

There is no doubt that people do sell their old stuff on eBay in the UK. Occurrences of “garage sales”, though, were almost undetectable in our experience in the three years there. People instead donate what they no longer need or use, and not in the form of depositing old clothes into a dumpster-like collection box. Rather, they go to a local charity shop, more likely than not staffed with volunteers who reside within the same community, which helps make the shop an ever more trustworthy channel.

If this concept exists in the States, it is barely noticeable. We know of one charity shop within driving distance from our residence in New Jersey, but Natasha has never been much impressed with their inventory. A friend in North Carolina says that she also knows of a similar shop where she lives. Instead, we see garage sales all over the place; you get the feeling of [nearly] giving your stuff away from those, I suppose, even feeling “charitable” in the process.

Anyhow, this is not a big expat insight in any shape of form, just one of those subtle little differences of living in a different country that we suddenly recall with fondness…

European living

A getaway to Brussels

May 5th, 2009
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Two and a half years of living in England, and we finally braved the concept of taking a day-trip to the continent.

From a certain point of view, it was a last-ditch effort to save the short tradition of spending the Early Spring Bank Holiday weekend on the mainland (specifically, in Paris). This year, for a combination of reasons, we had decided not to plan any trips for the three-day weekend. But suddenly, several days ago Natasha came up with a “crazy” idea: Why don’t we hop on the Eurotunnel train in the morning, drive a couple of hours to Brussels, and spend a day there with an emphasis on the Mini-Europe Park, which we so inadequately breezed through a year go.

We are people of action, as I’m fond to say; it did not take us long to conclude that it was a splendid idea and put the wheels in motion by procuring rather cheap Eurotunnel tickets. And yesterday, our very first intraday trip to a foreign country was effected to the general satisfaction.

It did not go all that smoothly, on account of the road construction along the usually fast motorway connecting Calais with Brussels. As we were approaching an hour of being stuck in a barely moving traffic, we changed our plans a bit and turned off for a lunch in Brugge, which was quite nice on its own merits, if not exactly raising to our expectation of a meal in Brussels’ Îlot Sacré. We then took some pretty back roads to go around the motorway traffic, and arrived in Brussels with plenty of time for a detailed exploration of Mini-Europe, but not enough time to do anything else in the city.

Still, we came back happy that we did it. Aside from being out and about, it was a true adventure that emphasized the main reason we came to live in Europe, while giving us a chance to properly recognize how many things and places we’ve seen in our relatively short time here – models of various landmarks that we had visited on our travels greeted us every step of the way in Mini-Europe. Photographic evidence of that is to follow eventually.

And yet, we probably will not make another trip like that again. As I pondered somewhere on this blog in the past, London is far from an ideal base for continental forays. Getting over the strip of water called the English Channel requires dependency on a mode of public transport which, aside from airport hassle or departure delays, also adds plenty of dead waiting time to your door-to-door travel. By my humble estimate, under ideal conditions, our door-to-door trip to a Brussels city-center destination could be made in 3 hours 15 minutes via getting on a plane, 3:30 by train, or 3:50 by car. Account for an hour difference between British time and continental time, most keenly felt in the morning, and you end up with just 6-8 hours of non-travel-time in your day. Our preferred mode of transport let us down considerably yesterday, but no matter what we chose or how well it could go, we’d spent roughly the same time traveling as we would enjoying our destination. For a single traveler – or a couple without children – the trade-off (and the requisite cost) might be acceptable, but for a family with kids, the reward does not truly justify the effort or the expense.

We had to try it, though.

European living, Travel

Eating out, at discount

March 1st, 2009

On one hand, we like going out, if not every week, then at least a few times a month. On the other hand, as much as I enjoy personally stimulating the economy, some cutbacks in non-essential expenses are clearly needed.

A service such as TopTable helps with that. Beyond rewards points that you earn for making your meal reservations through its system, it invariably offers great discount at a large range of eateries. You cannot get those discounts if you book directly with the establishment of your choice.

In recent weeks, we had a couple of 50% discounts – yes, that’s half the price off a prix-fixe meal or the total bill – at quite trendy and popular restaurants. Last night, we celebrated the birthday of our friend Pasha at a popular Spanish eatery in Soho. Reservations were made by Natasha, at the friends’ request. Booking through TopTable, she procured a 25% discount off the price of their set meal. For a party of 16 people, that came to a pretty sizable number in the end.

TopTable covers all major cities in Britain, with London being the obvious focus, but also 15 major cities in France, and 25 major destinations elsewhere in Europe. Plus Marrakesh and New York City1. Definitely something to take advantage of for those who go out often.

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1 We used to use Open Table in NYC, but I don’t recall it offering discounts, just the rewards points. It probably has the bigger variety of NYC restaurants than TopTable. Or not.

European living

Going to markets

February 16th, 2009
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Kimmy was participating in a grand show with her dance school, which shaped up as a day-long exercise, with two final rehearsals and then two performances crammed into a single Sunday. After dropping her off at the venue in the morning (we later went to the evening show – it was really nice), Natasha and Becky were looking for things to do. Sunday market in Eltham offered them an opportunity to have some fun for a couple of hours.

Various markets have gotten a passing mention elsewhere in this blog. Natasha, if she were to perform her own “what I’ll miss when I go back to America” exercise, would probably place the markets near the top of the list. I have to at least allow that market-going is a pleasurable activity that is practically unknown in the States.

I’m sure somewhere in the vast expanse of the US, food and crafts markets may play a relatively prominent role, but in my neck of Northeastern woods, you only get farmers markets that are nothing but glorified grocery stores, plus an occasional flea market or a something that is tied to a special occasion. A regularly held market that sells produce, delicacies, meats, fish, sweets, articles of clothing, accessories, crafts, possibly antiques and bric-a-brac, etc, all under a single roof or, more often, in a single open space, is not something that I am familiar with in the US.

In Europe, such markets are found in many quarters. Some big, some small. Some open daily, others on a less frequent schedule. Some are popular tourist destinations, while many are tucked away from the prime tourist locations and have a much more intimate and local feel. The UK is not as exuberant with the market culture as contries such as France or Germany, but there are still plenty of them here.

Even when you are not looking to buy anything, browsing a market and checking out what’s on offer is a delightful activity. There may be some basic uniformity in the stalls configuration, but presentation is clearly limited only by the sellers’ imagination, and the resulting visual palette is nothing short of arresting. Wherever meats, cheeses or delicacies are sold, tastings are freely offered. Many vendors, when given an opportunity, engage a prospective customer in friendly banter, discussing or demonstrating their products, putting forward their expertise in a specific field as means of advertizing their wares, or simply aiming to establish a friendly rapport via the true and tried method of “where’re you from? – oh, I’ve been there once”.

To tell you the truth, it is nearly impossible to come away from a market without buying at least something, especially after you tried a few different types of spicy meats, several varieties of cheese, and a couple of brands of olive oil. It’s impulse buying at its best!

I’m pretty sure that you can make a meal out of various tastings available at the larger markets, but if you are hungry, there are always several stands that offer prepared food, from bratwurst to paella. Replenish your energy reserves – and dive right back into browsing.

As could have been expected, Natasha and Becky made a small contribution to the economic recovery on this latest visit, bringing home assorted foodstuffs and seemingly inexhaustible supply of impressions about the things that they looked at. With the half-term upon us – finding us staying put for the first time since we came to the UK – they are likely to work trips to other markets in the city into the program for the week.

European living

What I’ll miss

October 7th, 2008
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It seems a bit premature to start ruminating on this subject – after all, we are not going back to the US as yet. But Jeri asked the question, and I figured I’d give it a try.

So, what will I miss of England and Europe once I eventually repatriate?

Would I be too predictable if I started with ease of European travel? I mentioned on many occasions that one of the primary reasons for our relocation to the UK was our desire for active exploration of Europe, a proposition that is not exactly viable when living Stateside, for obvious reasons of distances and expenses. We’ve done a large amount of traveling in the last couple of years and we’ve left tons of destinations still undiscovered. I don’t want to get into an analysis of whether we exploited our situation to the fullest. What I do know is that there have been periods of time when we were going on one trip or another literally every other week. And we made weekend-long jaunts to places in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, UK proper in a fairly painless manner in terms of time and expense. Back in the States, I will again be restricted to at most two trips to Europe every year. Oh, well.

Can I now appear completely wacky in stating that I will miss British weather? Yes, yes, I know, “the weather is dreadful” is a constant refrain in my narratives throughout this blog. Yet, of all the basic unpleasantness the weather can throw at me, I probably tolerate extreme heat the least. Despite the fact that British summer did not seem to happen at all for the last couple of years (not counting a couple of really nice weeks each April, as it were), I’d take the intermittently rainy and mostly cool summer months in London over scorching summer temperatures in New Jersey every day of the week – and twice on weekends.

Sometime a year ago, I posted a quick-hit list of what I thought England did better than the US. The handful of things on that list will undoubtedly be missed. Especially, I think, the pin-and-chip credit card approach.

And… I can’t really think of much else.

Foodstuffs? Maybe if we lived in France or Italy or Spain or Belgium, but not very much in England. You can get an excellent choice of continental delicacies at select markets, but it isn’t an everyday happenstance.

Café culture? Yes, I truly enjoy it. But, again, it’s not exactly a British phenomenon – Brits enjoy pubs much more, – so I cannot claim it to be part of my everyday life.

Less politicized society? Er… let’s leave it at that – maybe a topic for another post. Maybe.

An incomprehensible rarity of a police car waiting around the bend to catch you in the act of going over the speed limit? Should I be admitting that I’ll miss that? Especially, since the alternative is the evil speed cameras.

Top-flight live football on TV several times a week?

I’m afraid I’m reaching again…

European living

Cultural adjustments (Q&A, part 3)

October 2nd, 2008

There was still one question from Jeri – who graciously saved me from an embarrassment of having an “ask me a question” day without hearing a single question – that I neglected to address thus far.

What were the hardest cultural adjustments for you and your family when you moved to the UK?

The quick answer for this is I don’t think that British and Americans are drastically different culturally. Nor were we entirely new to some of the European features of living when we came over. There was hardly anything that can be pinpointed as a big cultural adjustment.

There were plenty of things that I would call everyday trifles that were – and still are – inconvenient to bear with. I explored quite a few of them in the past, in articles filed under That’s England category, starting with the things we take for granted in the US. They bother us occasionally – or provide reasons for ridicule. We learned to accept them and pay them little mind.

A few examples are below the fold.
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European living, That's England

Jabbing at America

May 20th, 2008
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I have just finished reading Merde Happens, which is the third installment in Stephen Clarke’s series about a young Englishman’s experiences with foreign cultures. Unlike the first two installments, A Year in the Merde and Merde Actually (I skipped over the latter by pure coincidence of it not being sold at the Eurostar terminal bookshop when I was in need of a new book), this book is not about France, but about good ol’ U. S. of A. instead.

Our protagonist, Paul West, an Englishman who now permanently lives in Paris, finds himself in a dire financial situation related to his tearoom business. In order to get the money he needs, he signs up for a wackily-organized campaign in the States to promote UK as a tourist destination. He takes his French girlfriend along for the trip, and proceeds by car, train and plane from New York to Boston and back, then to Miami, New Orleans and Las Vegas, ending up in Los Angeles, all the while getting in and out of silly, sticky, and occasionally downright dangerous, circumstance.

I wasn’t planning to write a review at all. While the author continues to exhibit considerable wit and mastery of comical situations, the plot gets too ludicrous for my taste, the situations too grotesque and the jabs towards American culture too gratuitous. The latter, however, are based on outsider observations that echo my own “reverse” observations of Britain through the eyes of an American.

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Books, European living

Parking at the pump

March 5th, 2008

I have written in the past about things that I wish were in England like in the States and about things that are seemingly better here. The truth of the matter is, none of those evoke strong emotions from me one way or the other. There is one that does, though, and recently it kind of inaugurated a short and as-yet-unofficial What I hate about Europe list.

I am talking about “pay inside” approach to car refueling.

In New Jersey, with its blanket full serve mode, you always pay at the pump, whether the attendant takes your credit card to a booth to run it through or simply inserts it into the pump’s credit card reader. I drove – and certainly bought gas – in at least fifteen other states, with many self-serve stations, and I do not recall a case where the pump would not be equipped with a credit card reader.
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European living

What England Does Better

August 31st, 2007
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I frequently rant about things that we do not like in England (the last obvious example of that was the driving license treatise), and even wrote a post once about things that we took for granted in the States. But occasionally, we come across a concept that makes us think, Why don’t they do it in the US? It’s long overdue on my part to collate some of those into a post. So, here goes a list of some things that we like on this side of the pond.
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European living, That's England

Things we take for granted

November 21st, 2006

Taking a break from describing events of our life, I want to let a bit nostalgia in and recite some things that we so gotten used to in America that we never considered their importance. Without further ado, here are some things that we clearly took for granted in the great US of A.
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European living, That's England