The End of the Lane

It has been an interesting 10.5 months here in the UK but, in 12 more days, my stay will be over. The computers will have to be packed up soon, so this is my last post from Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom. My thanks to you, gentle reader, if you’ve been among my silent audience all this time.
It has been a rewarding experience. It may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but British culture is quite a bit different from the US culture and, to my benefit, I’ve been here long enough to appreciate the subtleties that one just doesn’t see during a 1-2 week tourist visit. I’ve grown accustomed to them, too, so I’m braced for my return to the US and will post some of my post-repatriation impressions here.
Being an ex-pat is an interesting experience. Of all those friends who vowed to take advantage of the opportunity and come visit me, not a one did. I discovered who among them is a good email correspondent and who’s not. My appreciation of Federal Express and the US and Royal mail services grew. I came to appreciate the 1-pound coin and now think the US should do away with its $1 bill. I learned to walk carefully in a land where pedestrians do not have the right-of-way and learned to drive on the "other" side of the road. I became engrossed in watching rugby and learned to love traditional ale. I learned what it is to be utterly on my own for nearly a year, with no friends and no social life. I spent many weekends speaking to no one who wasn’t taking my order.
The people here are generally friendly, pleasant, and relaxed. Life is less hectic and less stressful. Their opinion of the US, despite George Bush, is quite good. Manners are valued and almost everyone on the other side of a sales counter from me, in stores tiny and large, addressed me as “Sir”. They take their free medical care as a given and cannot understand why we have such a kooky system.
On the other hand, the drinking culture here is out of control and dangerous. Public drinking is not illegal, and youth binge drinking is a serious and pervasive problem. Discarded drink cans and the smell of urine is common on Saturday and Sunday mornings in town. The laws allow police to take action only after a serious crime has been committed; excessive drinking is very often involved. CCTV cameras, 4.2 million of them, watch everything and everyone in England but seem most useful in solving, not preventing or deterring, crime.
I took in a lot of great places and sights – museum exhibits, theatre performances, historic sites, awesome art, and more. I took advantage of the greatest, free entertainment institution in the world, the Public Library, and read 62 books while here. I read the London Times and the Independent – both fine newspapers. I played the EuroMillions lottery every week and won nothing, but enjoyed comparing notes with the father and son who run my local news agent shop.
So, I’m now boxing up my stuff and preparing all those customs forms and will soon fly home. I’ll have one last night in London to take measure and reflect on my Life in the UK; the next day I’ll start the next chapter.

Rugby More Civilized Than Football?

January-like weather has arrived in Reading and it’s bitterly cold. Last Sunday I attended a rugby match and watched very fine performances from both our local London Irish team and the terrific Saracens team from nearby Watford. Our team won after a hard-fought contest. The day started with serious rain coming down, cleared up to be nice and sunny though cool for kickoff and, as we left the stadium, finished up with a serious storm and more rain. 
The day before, Saturday, I happened to go up to Pub Row for a late lunch. There was a football (soccer) match scheduled for mid-afternoon and the preparations at the pubs were rather interesting. As I have reported before, Friar Street in central Reading has several blocks that are just cheek-to-jowl pubs. When I arrived at O’Neills, there were two bouncers on duty (at 1:30pm) and they were checking IDs. You either had to have something with a Reading address on it or season tickets for the Reading Footbal Club, in order to be allowed into the pub! They were kind enough to let me in on the basis of my library card.
This is the means used to prevent violence in the pubs when supporters (fans) from different football clubs mix. I also noted about 40 police officers on foot and half a dozen more on horseback patrolling the area. Apparently our local team was playing a team from Southampton; a kind of “blood feud” adversary. It appears that fans of the visiting team have a habit of coming to town, flooding the pubs, and causing trouble. One interesting sight: the police horses wear mini plexiglass windshields over their eyes. They were huge, beautiful animals, with the saddle seat at about the top of my head – just over 6’.
Why is it that the “finesse” sport – soccer – has fans that are so much more violent and vicious than the relatively civilized fans of the “violent” sport – rugby? At our rugby match, I sat with several Saracens supporters nearby, we all applauded good play by either team, and we rode back to town on the shuttle bus together without so much as a good-natured insult being exchanged. The whole business is wonderfully incongruous.

Weekend in Dublin

I’m just back from a lovely weekend in Dublin. I flew over on Aer Lingus on Saturday morning and came back Sunday afternoon. I was lucky: the weather was almost as welcoming as the wonderful Irish people.
Unbeknownst to me, I chose a weekend with a major international rugby match (Ireland vs. New Zealand) going on and also Fall Graduation at Trinity College. So, the plane was packed and the downtown area in Dublin was lively. 
My first stop was a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, a “museum” built into an old Guinness warehouse. The dramatization of the history of Guinness and how its four ingredients become pints of “Black Gold” is a bit of stretch but worth the visit. Naturally, there’s a gift shop with more Guinness-labeled goods than you can believe, and your stroll through retired barrels and vats and vintage brewery machinery takes up most of your time. But the highlight of the tour is taking in a wonderful 360-degree view of Dublin from the top of the building… while you sip your complimentary pint of Guinness. And, I have to admit, it really does taste better in Dublin. Sadly, the variety I have become fond of, Guinness Red, is only available in the UK, but I made do with the original.
Then a stroll through the pedestrian shopping area along Grafton Street, a visit to Trinity College, and a peaceful tour through St. Stephens Green (a Victorian park) used up the rest of the afternoon. Dublin is a city of 1.5 million and 60% of them are under 30, so the place has a hip, young feel to it and lots of energy.
At 5:00pm I went to O’Donohughes Pub to see the rugby match on TV and take in some traditional Irish music. The tiny place was packed, Guinness flowed like water, and the Irish took a licking from the astonishing New Zealand team, losing 3-22. The Irish music was uneven and a bit of a disappointment but the general experience was lots of fun, nonetheless. The night wore on and more and more people jammed into the place; I finally called it a night when I just couldn’t face drinking another drop of Guinness and it seemed too crowded for me.
This morning the elevator door opened for me to get on and there were four of the New Zealand players! The five of us made a tight squeeze on the elevator and I only took up about 5% of the space. The world champion team was staying at my hotel and I got a good look at them over breakfast. Impressive!
I was back at Heathrow by 3:00pm Sunday and, sure, the door-to-door time invested in getting to Dublin was probably not worth it, but I was able to use frequent-flyer and –sleeper miles so the cost was low and I’m quite glad I made the effort. I’m sure I felt the spirit of my Irish ancestors on my mom’s side approving.

Remembrance Day

Ceremonies were held throughout Europe today to mark the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
In the US, we call it Veterans Day and honor participants of all wars. Here in the UK, it’s known as Remembrance Day and is specifically about WWI. Almost everyone here wore cloth poppy flowers on their lapels as a symbol of remembrance. I don’t know if it’s the proximity of the battlefields, the relatively large ratios of the dead to their total populations, or a greater sense of history, but Brits and Europeans take these events and anniversaries much more seriously than Americans do.
Most Americans probably have no idea that the Armistice Treaty, ending WWI, was signed in the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Britain held a two-minute silence at 11 am this morning to remember those who were killed. Bells tolled around the country and businesses closed their doors (even banks) for those two minutes.
Of the five million men and women who served, only four British veterans are still alive today. The oldest, Henry Allingham, is 112 years old. This will almost certainly be the last significant anniversary that any of those who fought in the First World War will mark. There’s just one American veteran left, aged 107 and living in West Virginia.
Why do we call it Veterans Day in America? It’s a truly American story: in 1953, an Emporia, Kansas, shoe store owner named Al King had the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans, not just those who served in World War I. He got his Congressman to pitch in and the next thing you know, we had ourselves another national holiday, and the WWI veterans had their day of remembrance diluted.
Today, the average American "celebrates" Veterans Day as just another generic holiday, with little fanfare. I think the Brits do it so much better.

Obama Win Big News Here

The U.S. Presidential Election has been followed here with keen interest. Due to the time difference (ahead of the East Coast by 5 hours), I had to wait until I woke up this morning to see the results on the Internet, and I was delighted.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Brits covered the campaign in detail, far better than we cover their politics. All 9 major newspapers at the newsagent’s this morning had full-page, front page stories with color photos and banner headlines about Obama’s historic win. He is clearly favored by the Brits and Europeans, too.
Throughout the day, British acquaintances were congratulating me on having a new president, which I thought was pretty cool. The news reported that hundreds of American expats crowded the Chicago Rib Shack in London into the wee hours celebrating the election results. I celebrated in my own way with a pint at lunchtime in our new President’s honor.
Now, how many of you know who Gordon Brown is?

Bonfire Night

I‘m sitting here listening to the fireworks. Tonight, November 5th, is Bonfire Night here, is also known as Fireworks Night or Guy Fawkes Night. It’s a British tradition dating back to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which aimed to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I.
Firework festivities take place throughout London’s boroughs tonight. They Brits say it’s great fun to wrap up warm and head out to enjoy spectacular fireworks, huge bonfires, delicious refreshments and great entertainment. Small-time neighborhood fireworks enthusiasts are also shooting off rockets and such, some just across the street.
What started all this? In 1605, Roman Catholic conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot wanted to restore civil rights to members of their religion. The plot was set for the State Opening of Parliament in 1605 as all the members of the House of Commons and Lords, as well as the King, would be present at that time. Gunpowder was hidden in a vault beneath the House of Lords, ready to blow up Parliament, and everyone inside.
The plot was foiled when an anonymous letter, sent to the Catholic Lord Monteagle, warning him not to attend the opening, raised suspicions. A search party was dispatched, and found Guy Fawkes preparing to light the fuse on 5 November. He was arrested and tortured until he named his fellow plotters. Catholic Emancipation only came 200 years later.
To this day, it is customary for the cellars in the Houses of Parliament to be searched by the Yeoman of the Guard before each State Opening of Parliament. So, the anniversary of Fawkes’ arrest is celebrated each year with fireworks and bonfires. Here’s a handy ditty as a reminder:
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
Now, don’t go gettng any ideas about the basement of the U.S. Capitol!

A Night at the Opera

I decided to have a weekend in town and went into London last Saturday. I spent the night at the Hilton (on my frequent-flyer miles) and went to see the English National Opera company perform Verdi’s Aida, at the London Coleseum.
But first, I had a light dinner at the Embassy of Texas. Yes, this is a "cantina" right off Trafalgar Square that serves nachos, ribs, and Lone Star beer, with Clay Aiken, Rascal Flats, and Clint Black on the jukebox. Not a real cowboy in sight, nor any hats or boots, but the atmosphere and food were still pretty good.
Despite the name, the London Coleseum turned out not to be a convention center or ice skating rink, but a 102-year old, 2000-seat, very ornate opera house. The largest performance space in London, said an usher, though I imagine the Covent Garden Opera House would contest that. I had a good seat and the singers and orchestra were great. The production design was weird, though, (over)done by some aging fashion designer, to the point of distraction. The lighting was nothing special, just adequate, but overall it was an enjoyable performance nonetheless. I’m not sure if I like Italian opera sung in English – seems like some of the beauty was lost.
I slept like a rock at the Hilton, got up late, had the deluxe breakfast at the hotel, then took the train back to Reading in time to go to a great professional Rugby match. That about covered the cultural spectrum. So it was a great weekend, all in all.

A Day in The Life

Some of you have asked about daily life here, so here’s a review of Saturday (yesterday):
I got up, had breakfast, wrote a few emails, showered and dressed, and then hopped into my leased Peugeot 207. I drove south on the A33 to Madejski Stadium to buy a rugby ticket for next weekend. However, Saturday’s Reading Football Club match was being televised and so had a late kickoff time of 5:00 pm, which meant the ticket office delayed their opening, and so I was too early.
Back in the car, through the roundabouts (they are ubiquitous: I went through 30 of them on this day) and up the A33 to the Reading-Caversham border at the Kennet River and the Leaderboard Golf Center, where I hit 75 balls on the driving range for 45-minutes. Many straight and long, I might add.
Then back along the Kennet across town to Staples for a few supplies and a lunchtime stop at McDonald’s next door. I haven’t been in a Mickey D’s since my arrival here last February, so this was a bit of an exploration. Gone are the traditional big menu signs, replaced by big sexy photos of their top selling items like the venerable Big Mac and something new to me called the "M". Is this the case in the US, too? The trusty double-cheeseburger was still available, however, and I ordered one, along with a "small" drink. To my surprise, the drink really was small, only about eight ounces. The burger tasted just like any I’ve had over the years but the wrapper contained detailed nutrition info in 11 languages! Who knew there were 450 kCals in a single double-cheeseburger?
Then I hopped back in the car, retraced my route around the edges of central Reading in increasing traffic volume, down the A33 again, and back to Madejski Stadium, by which time the ticket office was open. After buying my ticket, I came back up into Reading and to my parking spot out back of my building.
At home, I spent a few hours doing laundry and some web research for weekends in London. Then I walked down the hill to the central pedestrianized area of Reading and my favorite news agaent (convenience store) on Duke Street. I picked up a copy of The Independent newspaper and walked across the pedestrian mall to one of my favorite brew pubs, Zero Degrees. There I spent 90 minutes having a couple of pints of their excellent Black Lager and reading the paper.
Finally, I headed home, stopping into Marks & Spencer on the way for a few grocery items. Then I walked back up the hill, inspected construction progress on the new Tesco Express grocery store on the corner, and arrived back at my flat about 5:30 pm.
There you have it, a typical weekend day in The Life.

Review: Burn After Reading

With a colder, cloudy, blustery day on tap, I decided to take in the new Coen brothers movie, Burn After Reading, at the local cinema. For those who don’t care to wade through the rest of this review, my verdict is: wait for it on DVD.
After paying my $15, I settled into my seat, put in my earplugs as a defense against the teeth-rattling volume, and endured the plague of 20 commercials that led up to the film (the commercials starting at the advertised show time). With a cast including Clooney, Pitt, McDormand, and Malkovich, my hopes were high that the Coens’ take on the CIA would be fun.
And it was fun seeing all of the D.C. locations that I know so well; better still, the scenes were shot during a lovely fall last year. I give nothing away by saying that the story involves multiple couples, CIA analysts, State Department security, adultery galore, Internet dating, Russians, and the Coens’ signature mistaken identities leading to violent mistakes. The plot was full of twists and sardonic humor and the actors did their best with the material given them.
However, the story just wasn’t that interesting nor was it very funny. There were a few lines and a few situations that drew some chuckles out of the thinking members of the audience but, overall, this one is not funny enough to match Fargo, nor dark enough to rival No Country For Old Men.
No writer or director hits home runs on every outing and Burn After Reading will just go into the Coens’ “mildy interesting” column rather than adding another tick to their column of formidable successes. So it goes. But I’m still a Coen brothers fan and now I’m waiting for their next movie.

Banker Greed Knows No International Boundaries

Some of you have asked me to comment on how the worldwide financial crisis is affecting life here in England.
Bank bailouts and prop-ups have been going on here, too, and the local employees of some failed American companies have not fared well at all. For example, when Lehman went under, its upper management was guaranteed their nice golden parachutes to the tune of multi-millions, while their 5,000 UK employees were shown the door.
The failure of several large Icelandic banks threatens to have serious effects here. Some 300,000 Brits had their money in these banks and, worse yet, hundreds of local Councils (city and county governments) "loaned" a lot of money to these banks on the promise of double-digit investment returns. The banks have folded, the Icelandic government has nationalized several of them, and there’s no word yet about the money invested or kept on account there. Where the Councils are concerned, this could have an adverse effect on everything from child care services to road repairs.
On a day-to-day basis, I’m not personally affected at all. In general, prices have not jumped (beyond their usual insanely expensive levels) nor has there been a visible flood of the unemployed. Businesses are clearly taking a conservative approach to spending now, however, and this may be "the calm before the storm", based on the comments I hear from local acquaintances.
The exchange rate has been affected, too, with the British Pound dropping to only 1.69 US dollars. This, of course, is a good thing for me as I am paid in US dollars, but the papers here are wailing that the Pound’s decline has made England the "poor sister" of Europe. What does that make the US, with its moribund currency, I wonder?