Monday, October 27, 2008

English Pub Culture

Ahhh yes, Ye Olde British Tradition- drinking. This weekend Jason and I went for "a night out" together. I mostly went for his benefit, as I have begun to find the pub culture a bit boring. I promise to explain later.

I put "a night out" in quotations because here, a night out is far more specific a term than it is in America. In the States, if you tell someone you are going for a night out it could mean a whole spectrum of things. It could mean that you are going for dinner and a movie or that you are going to get dressed up and see a play or that you and some friends are going to go out and have a rowdy time. The possibilities of what a night out in America can mean are endless.

In England, "a night out" means that you are going to drink in at least one pub and plan on drinking for the duration of the evening. More specifically in Hartlepool, the qualifications for a night out are even more stringent.

First of all, there seems to be an unwritten dress code. It could be an instinctual thing, some kind of genetic code that is only strong in the blue-blooded English and not those of us who have been tainted with German or even (gasp!) Scottish blood. I say this because I obviously always miss the memo. The dress code isn't usually the same from one night to the next, or from one weekend to the next. It is mostly a female thing since most men have two or three "night out" shirts that they rotate. I never seem to get it right but luckily my style is understated enough that my faux pas go unnoticed.

Women always seem to be dressed the same. Saturday night, most of the night-outers were wearing leopard print and/or sequins although there was a sect of people wearing sweater dresses and leggings. There are usually only two or three different variations of outfits and then if you go out the next weekend thinking you are onto the pattern, they have changed the encryption again and everyone is wearing two or three completely different styles.

Secondly, there is a strict itinerary that everyone follows, but everyone takes a different shift. I think it might be something where upon turning 18 the new crop of drinkers is given their itinerary and this remains with them until death.

The intinerary goes like this: You always begin in the same pub and after having no more than two drinks you move on to the next pub. Repeat this until closing time. The order in which you proceed to the pubs is always the same. For this reason a night out in Hartlepool means that even though you never stay in the same place for more than a round or two, you continuously see the same groups of people coming and going. Like clockwork, you see the same groups of people leaving as you enter the pub and then continue to see familiar faces as you finish your round and the next shift arrives and then the whole cycle starts again.

For this reason, I find pub culture in this town very boring. I never meet new people since my group is always on the move, I never get the chance to settle in before moving on to the next place (there are very few tables and chairs in the pubs in which to settle) and I am usually uncomfortable from trekking from "the top end" of town to "the bottom end" while dressed up more than I would like to be. It is normal (but thankfully not mandatory) for women to wear cocktail dresses out, and for the younger and wilder crowd the equivalent of what you would wear to a bachelor or bachelorette party.

Coming from the cozy and quiet "come as you are" pubs of Chicago this all seems like too much trouble for me. I prefer to stroll down the street in a t-shirt and jeans, park myself at the bar and have a lively conversation with my dear friend the bartender. The bartenders here are more like the cashiers at a fast food restaurant. You give them your order which had better be one of the things they see on the touch screen in front of them, they quickly bring it to you, you pay, you walk away drink in hand, end of transaction.

Also, despite the "shaken not stirred" stereotype about the English, in my experience no bartender in England is capable of making a cocktail that doesn't give you the recipe in it's name. Basically, if it isn't a Jack Daniels and Diet Coke or a vodka and Red Bull they can't make it and God save you if you order something else and they actually give it a try. The vast majority of people drink lager, usually Fosters, Carling or Kronenbourg. Second to lager is cider, Strongbow being the most popular but there are several brands. After that are ales which is basically any dark beer like Guinness. Never fear if you prefer a fruity cocktail because Britain's solution for having poorly trained bartenders is to bottle everything under the sun. You can get a wide array of cocktails in a bottle and this fourth category of drinks is called "alchypops". Even though the option is there, drinking a premade screwdriver out of a bottle just doesn't do it for me. That basically covers the options you have when you go out, although I have found there is usually a refrigerator behind the bar stocked with things like Corona and other more "exotic" drinks that are more to my liking.

It isn't all bad because one thing about all the moving around is that you have more opportunity of running into people you know, and we almost always do. Still, the malarkey I described above is precisely what is implied when someone asks if you are going for "a night out", and I am always expected to know what this means and follow suit to fulfill all of the night out qualifications.

Here in England we have turned back our clocks a week early, so for those of you in the Eastern time zone I am only 4 hours ahead and those in the Central time zone I am only 5 hours ahead. Next week when the US follows suit we will be back to the usual, but this week I will enjoy feeling a bit closer to home even if it is just a technicality. Thanks again for reading! More next week when I will be reporting on my first Halloween weekend here!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Best Gig After The Queen

Tonight was my first night singing with the Hartlepool Community Choir. It is a bit of a milestone for me because it is my first excursion into Hartlepooligan society without Jason or any of my in-laws as a chaperon. I was pretty freaked out because I was afraid the choir would be composed of a bunch of lethargic old people. Luckily, the crowd was more the regular enthusiastic multi-generational crowd and everyone was very friendly and made me feel welcome. It was the most socially comfortable I have felt around people in this town, even though their sense of humor was still totally lost on me. That is one of the most difficult things about living here, I feel like I have absolutely no sense of humor. The only jokes I get are the ones that somehow end with "The Queen".

Tonight I also learned my first new English Christmas carol. This is exciting to me because I know literally every Christmas carol in the American repetoire, most of them backwards and forwards. The past two years running my team won the games portion of the company Christmas party solely on my ability to name any Christmas carol in just three notes. Some might even say that Christmas carols are "my thing" because they combine my two favorite things- Christmas and singing. For me, learning a new Christmas Carol was exhilirating, I can't remember the last time I heard a Christmas song that I didn't know. I am glad I will get to know some of the Christmas music standards in the choir because I can't imagine Christmas without being able to sing along to every song on the radio during the holidays.

This weekend I finally made something with pumpkin- pumpkin pancakes. They were delicious and really hit the spot. I found several recipes but modified some to come up with my own recipe and they came out great. Here is my recipe for whole wheat pumpkin pancakes!

Spiced Whole Wheat Pumpkin Pancakes

First I seeded and roasted one medium baking pumpkin for about 35 minutes at 400°F, or until a fork can easily sink into the flesh. I used about half of the baked pumpkin for this recipe. I mashed the flesh with a potato masher and then removed any large or tough chunks that wouldn't mash. I baked the pumpkin the night before so it was completely cooled when I added it to the recipe.

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup baked pumpkin flesh, mashed (or canned pumpkin)
1 cup milk
2 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg). In a separate bowl combine the pumpkin, milk, egg yolks, brown sugar, butter and salt. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients until just blended but still lumpy. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer or whisk until they form soft but not stiff peaks. Gently fold the whites into the batter just until they are combined.

Heat a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high heat or 375°F on an electric griddle. Using a ladel, pour batter on the heated skillet until bubbles form on the surface and then flip them over until they are browned on the bottom.

This recipe makes about 4 "servings", but if you are like me and you really like pancakes its enough for two people. I served the pancakes with butter and cinnamon sugar but they would also be great with butter and warm maple syrup with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a handful of dried cranberries. They are very moist and hearty and great on a cold morning!

I apologize again for the late post, Jason took a couple days off work so he just went back to the base today. We try to spend as much time together as we can when he is home, so I couldn't tear myself away long enough to post. Next week I should be posting again on time.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Autumn in England

I am feeling a bit under the weather today so this post might be a bit short. Its been a rough week, my computer randomly crashed this week and now I am using Jason's laptop. It is a good thing I have been keeping this blog because I have been posting my photos on the internet. Had they not been stored on internet sites I would have lost all of our honeymoon pictures so I am very grateful for internet file storage.

First I should report that I found apple "cider" at the supermarket this week. Sadly it was very disappointing. It was commercially bottled juice so I should have expected what I got but it just wasn't the same. It tasted like regular old apple juice but with appley pulp in it. It was too sweet and didn't have that tang that real fresh apple cider has. Its kind of like when you buy chunky applesauce in a jar. Despite their best efforts, putting chunks of apples in applesauce doesn't make it comparable to homemade. I was right about one thing, though. It is called cloudy apple juice here.

It is a good thing I bought some other fall staples while I was at the store like apples and pumpkins. For the first time in years I made Betty Crocker's apple crisp and it more than made up for the cider let-down. I also bought a baking pumpkin but haven't decided what to make with it yet. I think I might bake it now and then freeze it until I decide what pumpkin treat I want to make. Feel free to post your favorite pumpkin recipes in the comments section of this post if you have any suggestions.

One thing to note is that here in England they don't use the term fall. Most of them know what it is thanks to American TV shows and movies, but here it is strictly called autumn. Possibly because there is nothing significant about the falling of the leaves here. Living here by the sea the sights, smells and other sensations of autumn are sadly absent. The seaside always just smells like the sea. The only indication that the seasons have changed is that the parks service came through and tore all the flowers out of the beds lining the promenade.

I am interested to see what Halloween is like here because although children do go trick-or-treating, this is not a holiday that adults really get into. I suppose Americans have turned Halloween and pretty much every other obscure holiday into an excuse to drink. Here in England they don't really need excuses to drink so I suppose that is the reason they don't make a big deal out of Halloween. We don't have many children in our area here so I don't anticipate that we will get any trick-or-treaters.

Thank you for reading! Hopefully by next week I will be feeling much better and I will be able to write a bit more. Enjoy all of that real apple cider...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bathroom Renovation Project

I don't know if it is appropriate to call it a "renovation" since we haven't done much other than taking the vinyl tiling off the walls and changing the fixtures. The transformation certainly looks like we have done a lot but we have changed the look of our bathroom without replacing the bath/shower unit and ceramic tile surround, sink or toilet. I didn't take a photo of the bathroom before we started but I do have a couple photos that show the vinyl tile wall covering and will give you an idea of the general state of our bathroom before we undertook this project. When I moved in back in August it looked like either an old woman or a bachelor lived in the flat. It was difficult to discern which because Jason had just layered his bachelor style "decorations" over the outdated decor. Below you can see the lovely dolphin toilet seat (Jason's choice) and also the very classy sign he posted above the toilet. I guess he was just worried he would get distracted by the dolphins so he thought he should remind himself. Anyway, those things aside you can see in these photos the vinyl tiling that was covering the walls. The tile wasn't installed very well so it was peeling off and bubbling in many places and the pale pink and green motif went out of style sometime in the last century. I had a feeling that the tiles were hiding something horrendous underneath and as we began to peel them off it revealed about 4 layers of chipping and peeling paint and many large gouges in the plaster. It certainly wasn't the worst situation I have ever seen but it was a lot of work to remove the old wallpaper paste, sand down the rough edges where the paint was chipping off and fill in the gouges. To be honest, when we finished the wall wasn't 100% smooth. Since the paint color I chose was a clay color I thought it would look fine if the wall was uneven or textured in places and I am glad I made that decision because it would have taken us countless hours to get the wall completely smooth. Last weekend Jason and I painted the walls and I spent this week shopping around for bathroom fixtures and we completed the project this weekend. Here is the final result, well at least the completion of Phase I.

As you can see the walls have been painted a clay color. The name of the color is Rum Caramel 4 but I honestly don't think it looks like rum or caramel and I am very familiar with both. The dolphin toilet seat was replaced with a pine toilet seat which coordinates with the pine medicine cabinet. Before we just had a plain unframed mirror bolted to the wall so it is nice to have a good medicine cabinet.

A few years ago for Jason's birthday I gave him this set of three hanging photo frames with photos of Chicago and we thought it went really well with the bathroom decor. Actually, this was the only part of the bathroom that was Jason's idea so I feel I should give him proper credit.

The old bathroom had some very cheap beige plastic fixtures which we replaced with these nice chrome accessories.
We used to have a really ugly wooden cabinet in this corner that was painted pale antique green. We replaced it with this chrome and glass shelving unit and I found some great things at TK Maxx (exactly the same as TJ Maxx except here it is with a "K"). This is my favorite part of the bathroom. I think every woman aspires to have a "spa inspired" bathroom and this is my little spa corner. I found some nice little spa bottles of toiletries, some handmade English soaps, some little sea sponges, a reed infuser and a faux orchid plant (I killed the last live orchid that was left in my care). I think it was the most confusing moment for Jason when I spent a good 20 minutes in the bath product section of TK Maxx sniffing and inspecting an array of soaps and trying to explain to him that these were for display, not for washing your hands.

One thing you may notice is that there are no electrical outlets in the bathroom. This is no freak accident, there are no electrical outlets in any bathrooms in England. I might even go as far as to say that this is the one thing I miss the most about America. I just feel very strange about drying and styling my hair in my bedroom. I haven't adjusted to storing my hair products anywhere else but the bathroom even though it would probably make more sense if I didn't have to walk back and forth from the bathroom to the bedroom with my hair products and hairbrush and clips but I guess old habits die hard.

I am really proud of us because we did all of the work ourselves with minimal arguing and I think we did a quality job. My mother-in-law and my sister-in-law Diane have both been up and they were amazed by the transforation. Eventually Jason would like to replace the toilet, sink and bathtub but I think for now this is something we can definitely live with.

Thanks again for reading everyone! Have a lovely fall, I really miss the Midwestern changing of fall colors and here the leaves just kind of turn brown and fall off the trees so its definitely making me pine for that unmistakable smell of a fall day in Michigan.

I would like to take this moment to apologize to the my male readers for putting you through all that talk of handmade English soaps and hair products.