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Beets and other happenings

A whole new religion is being born, and Natasha is its prophet. The cult’s mantra is Happiness is when you have beets!

It all started when my parents were still here. Both Natasha and my mom are famous for their borsch, even though their recipes are different. My mom wanted to make hers for us. One little problem – we could not find beets anywhere.

For those readers who are not intimately familiar with Russian cuisine, borsch is, in essence, a beet soup, with a variety of additional ingredients depending on the specific recipe. But the main ingredient is indispensable, and it has to be not pre-processed, in order to give enough juice for the soup.

We went to grocery stores and supermarkets, near and far, and could not find single one selling beets. At a couple of large-chain stores, upon inquiring, we were advised that beets have been discontinued. Obviously, there are not too many crazy Russians with borsch cravings in the greater London area…

In the end, we made do with some marinated beets, and mother did her best to compensate for that shortcoming. The soup came out quite good, but the feeling of incomplete satisfaction lingered.

So, Natasha made it her goal to find the elusive product. After several days of searching, she somewhat accidentally made her way to the Lewisham Center, a big mall that is quite close to us (in fact, it is on my way to/from work), but is not located in an area that is high on our list to hang out at. There is a farmers market within its confines. While perusing the stalls, Natasha came across a single vendor who does sell beets. Cue triumphant music here! A person truly requires very little to make oneself happy in a foreign land.

So, Mom, when you come again, we’ll get you the right stuff. And in the meantime, I have to persuade my lovely wife to make her borsch while it is still cold outside. You see, we have a very little fridge in this rented house. A big pot has no chance of fitting in…

In her expeditions, Natasha came across another curiosity.

Police seems to be fairly non-existent on English roads, and several people intimated to me that being stopped for speeding – or any other transgression – is an event bordering on exceptional. I have not seen any such occasion myself. Natasha, however, encountered a large sting operation on the major road near us.

Several police offices, armed with hand-held radars – according to our fearless explorer, it looks like somebody is aiming a handgun at you, – check all passing cars. The key to the operation is that the policemen work together as an assembly line. Some operate the radars, others wave the offenders to the curb, yet others actually write tickets. Stupid American cops always go it alone, and for every speeding car that they stop, there are a few dozen swooshing by, while the officer takes his time to check the plates and produce a ticket. Not these guys. Nobody would get past them. A team work, if there ever was one!

Natasha was not stopped and she has no recollection whether she was above the limit when the radar gun was trained on her. Therefore, I cannot comment on how much slack you get in this situation, but I suspect anything above 5 miles over the limit would cause a ticket. I definitely have seen a couple of times notorious speed limit cameras flash at the car in front of me, which was probably going 45 in a 40 mph zone…

Talking about speeds, on Thursday, the winds around London blew at 70-80 mph. My office is on the 4th floor (it is called the third floor here) of a 17-story building. I literally felt it rocking under the gusts. Quite disconcerting, I must say.

Continuing with the transgressions tangent, I have also talked in the past about ticket control system in London. In a nutshell, all subway stations and many major train stations are equipped with entry/exit gates that can only be opened with a valid ticket, and are much harder to violate than NYC’s turnstiles. Outlying train stations, however, as well as all stations on the Docklands Light Railway that I use for my commute do not have any barriers. I have a monthly pass but I have never needed to take it out of the wallet. For the first couple of months, I regularly wondered why I buy tickets at all, as nobody ever made an attempt to check if I had one. I actually thought that on the packed trains that I normally travel, nobody would ever have the balls to attempt ticket control.

That started to change sometime in December. On the DLR, the useless customer service agent, i.e. the conductor, – these trains are fully automated and can travel without human involvement – now frequently decides to pretend that he is earning his pay and starts moving around and bumping into people while requesting display of tickets. On the commuter trains, there are no conductors, but the entry to the platform at the Lewisham station is occasionally blocked by several transit policemen. The jam that it creates!! Here goes my packed-train theory. Still, no way around it: Everybody reaches into a pocket, produces a ticket and only then trickles through…

Finishing today with a bit of the good, the bad and the ugly. Kimmy fell in the school courtyard and then complained about the pain in her hand. The school did not think to notify either of us, even though when Natasha was picking her up, the teacher mentioned that she was crying in pain for a couple of hours. They went to a nearby hospital. X-rays showed a broken wrist, and the poor girl is now wearing a cast. That’s the bad and the ugly for you.

Where is the good? you ask. Well, our second experience with the socialist medicine was not too bad. The trip to the emergency room lasted less than two and a half hours including driving. That is about the length of time that you spend just waiting to be discharged after all medical work on you has been completed at the Raritan Medical Center ER. The attention was prompt, despite quite a number of people there, and apparently very thorough. And, of course, there is no payment or insurance forms to be filled out. I know that I will probably pay for the privilege tenfold in taxes, but it is still a heartwarming feeling to walk out of an establishment not having dispensed any of your hard-earned cash. For the moment, at least…

Posted in Chronicles, Expat Archive