Monday, March 30, 2009

Ships at Sea

We had terrible weather last week. Please save your "at least you didn't get two inches of snow" stories. We are talking four days straight of gale force winds rocking my home here people! I opened the window once to take a photo of the sea and it felt like I was being punched in the face by an invisible man. I didn't get much sleep last week and now that the weather has calmed down I am finally catching up on sleep and getting back to normal so this is going to be a shorter post than usual. Also I am making oven baked fish and chips at the moment so when the timer goes off I am done writing.

This week I spent a lot of time watching the ships coming in and out of Teesport. I have noticed over this past week that some of the larger vessels, tankers specifically, have been met by an escort of tug boats. I don't see this a lot, the tugs operate mostly just on the river when the ships have already pulled into the mouth. The last time I saw tugs actually come out into the sea to meet a ship was when Le Clemenceau was towed in, but I have seen it twice this week. There a few reasons I can think of, one being that with many environmentalists' scopes trained on Teesport just waiting for the tiniest slip up at the docks they are being especially careful about any vessels coming in that are carrying any type of hazardous material. 

Anyway, back to the topic. When I saw one of these ships being towed in I was curious about it, and I could read the name on the side so naturally I Googled it. Then I found this great website where I can track all of the marine traffic coming in and out of Teesport.

This map is powered by Google Maps so you can zoom in and out and explore just like on Google Maps. If you click on any of the colored markers it will show you all kinds of details about the vessel. Its been fun looking out my window with my binoculars and checking out the different ships coming in and out of the port. Well, fish and chips are done. Thats all I've got for this week! The TV review series will definitely be back next week. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

God Save the Queen

Over the past several months I have learned a lot about Britain's patriotic songs. One thing about singing in choirs is that patriotic songs often make a great finale for performances in the community. Just as my involvment in American choral groups means I know the words to The Star Spangled Banner and can also sing many other American patriotic songs, I have had to learn the British patriotic songs for the two choirs I have joined in Hartlepool.

Many Americans think that The Star Spangled Banner should be replaced by America The Beautiful as the US National Anthem, and Britain is no different. God Save the Queen is performed at sporting events, but it fails to stir the hearts of the British and most prefer the song Land of Hope and Glory and believe it should replace God Save the Queen as the British National Anthem.

The good thing about British Patriotic songs is that the tunes are all familiar to me. God Save the Queen is set to the tune of My Country Tis of Thee (or probably vice versa, but this is from my perspective) and Land of Hope and Glory is set to the tune of Pomp & Circumstance known as the Graduation March to most Americans. 

There are also two other well known patriotic songs, Jerusalem which is a hymn set to a famous William Blake poem and Rule Britannia which also has a familiar tune. I like Jerusalem, but I can't actually bring myself to sing Rule Britannia because I can't get past the imagery it conjures. Play the clip below and see what images come to mind, and I am sure you will agree that this is a song that just doesn't need words (the distinctive chorus starts at 0:35). 

Rule Britannia is a song which is most distinctive in its instrumental version. It is often used in TV shows and movies when the setting switches to London and clips of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and Tower Bridge are shown to immediately switch the minds of viewers to this new locale. Just like Hail to the Chief always conjures images of the US President, Rule Britannia always conjures images of London tourist landmarks for me and I can't manage to sing this song because I can't seem to get over the stigma that the song actually has words.

There is one thing that struck me as I read and learned the words to these patriotic songs and it made me appreciate America's songs much more. One thing about British patriotic songs is that they were mostly written during the time of Imperialism and the days when the sun never set over the British Empire. Lyrics like "Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set. God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet." from Land of Hope and Glory reflect a time of colonialism and divine right that don't seem very relevant to modern Britain.

Many Americans don't take the time to learn or understand the words to The Star Spangled Banner but I do think they are important and still relevant to modern America. I suppose if the USA had a history that spanned more than a couple centuries we might have some more archaic patriotic songs, but The Star Spangled Banner is representative of a major turning point in American history and an event that would forever shape the North American continent and the world. Even if Americans don't know what ramparts are, I still think The Star Spangled Banner is a good choice for our national anthem. 

In the end I suppose it doesn't matter how relevant the British patriotic songs are, people really love singing them and take so much pride in them and I guess that is what really counts. 

This week's British TV Review:

Horne & Corden

BBC Photo

Horne & Corden is a spin-off sketch comedy show on BBC 3. The comedy duo James Corden and Matthew Horne come from a very successful sitcom Gavin & Stacy and this new sketch comedy show was much anticipated, but I think it fell a bit flat. As I watched the show there were some moments that amused me but nothing that made me laugh out loud. The sketches were a bit too short and by the time I caught onto what was going on with the characters the sketch was over and they had already moved onto the next segment. 

Something about British comedy either really works or fails to deliver and so much British comedy revolves around cross-dressing, nudity, swearing, drinking and bodily functions.  It could be the legacy of great comedy acts like Benny Hill and Monty Python that make generation after generation of British comedians follow this formula but after you have seen the originals do it so well, a show like Horne & Corden just seems like something I have seen before.

I believe Horne & Corden were hoping to mirror the success of the show Little Britain, another male comedy duo who have made an amazing career out of the same type of sketch comedy. I guess when it comes down to it, some comedians do better sticking with sitcoms and playing one character really well and others like the Little Britain duo can handle the quick wit that is necessary for writing characters that work in a sketch comedy format.

It wasn't terrible, and there were a couple sketches that amused me but for the most part the sketches left me scratching my head and wondering what part I was supposed to laugh at.

If you want to judge Horne & Corden for yourself the first two episodes are available on the BBC iPlayer. Please be warned there is some strong language.

Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

I was curious to find out whether the English celebrated St. Patrick's Day with the same gusto as Americans. Americans tend to adopt any holiday that would allow them to partake in cultural drinking, regardless of how much the holiday is celebrated in its region of origin. The Irish and the English don't have the best history so I thought there was a chance that the English wouldn't celebrate St. Patrick's Day at all, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they do celebrate. I think Americans take it MUCH more seriously, but still the English do have their own St. Paddy's fun.

This weekend I went with my friends Nikki and Sara to a local music venue, its actually pretty much the only bar in town that has live music. There was a fantastic Irish band on and it was such a great time. It really struck me as I enjoyed the music how much traditional Irish music resembles Bluegrass. Banjo, check. Fiddle, check. Boot stomping rhythm, check. I have heard other American bands who do a lot of Irish covers but this was the best Irish band I have heard to date. (Although they were a local group, so I am sure if I went to Ireland I could probably hear better but this was close enough for me.)

I feel like fewer things are new to me these days, in the first months of this blog I had a hard time narrowing down what new thing to talk about that week and now I feel I really have to dig deep so I am going to start a new "series" to keep things fresh. I watch a lot of TV, and although most of the shows on British TV are American, there are are plenty of domestic programs I can watch but I haven't been very adventurous lately because there are just so many familiar American shows to choose from. So I am going to try to watch one new British TV show every week and I will write a little synopsis and review here. A lot of shows are available online on network websites like BBC and ITV so if the show is available online I will make a note of it in my review in case you are interested and want to check it out on their website.

For my first review, I will ease you into British TV with a brand new franchise of an American series...

Law & Order: UK

This is a brand new series, and I think it followed the proven Law & Order format very well except it wasn't as corny as the American L&O shows can often be. Pretty much, cookie cutter Law & Order but with wigs in the courtroom.

The first show was good, it was a case that dealt with a baby who was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. I won't give away the details but I think it was a good place to start because it addressed a lot of very relevant issues.

The only point of contention I have with the show is the name. All of its precedents have pretty specific descriptive names like "Special Victims Unit" and "Criminal Intent" but this one is a really vague "UK" which I think is a bit broad since it is limited to London.

I don't think I will watch it religiously, Law & Order and a lot of the other crime dramas are the kinds of shows you can turn on any time and follow without knowing a lot of background so if it happens to be on, I will watch it but I won't be marking my calendar to tune in.

This show is available on the ITV Player

Monday, March 9, 2009

First Impressions

I apologize I didn't write anything last week, whenever Jason is home it is never quiet. In fact, there is usually something noisy in every room. The TV is always on in the living room, and either the radio or the iPod dock is usually on in the kitchen or the bathroom and there is usually a King of Queens DVD playing in the bedroom. It makes it hard to sit down and write something with so many distractions everywhere. During the week when he is gone, there are days where I don't turn on the TV all day. More often than not its pretty quiet around here when its just me.

The one very good thing Jason and I did while he was home was nail down the details for my parents' visit coming up in April. I am really excited because my parents have never visited England before and don't know anything about where I live. I have been trying this week to remember my first impressions when I arrived in Britain, and here are just a few I remember...

"Wow, its hillier than I thought."

This was the first thing I thought. It was customarily a very cloudy day when my plane was landing in Manchester and the first thing I noticed when my plane descended under the clouds was how hilly the terrain was.

The next thing I thought was "That is a lot of sheep". The first living things I saw when my plane was making its final descent were thousands of sheep dotting the hills surrounding Manchester. The English often make jokes about the Welsh and their sheep, but England seems to have sheep everywhere you look so I can't imagine there can be that many more in Wales. Those who live in glass houses...

Believe it or not, the "wrong side of the road" thing didn't throw me for too much of loop because everything is completely switched around so it feels the same in many ways. What did confuse me was the zig zag lines on the side of the road. It looked like the painting machine had a major malfunction, but this actually means that you can't park in or block the area.

photo from Flickr

On the way to Hartlepool we stopped at a Little Chef, which is a chain of roadside cafes, and I was surprised by the selection of condiments including brown sauce (a delicious blend of malt vinegar and ketchup) salad cream (still haven't figured out the difference between salad cream and mayo, but apparently there is one) malt vinegar, English mustard (a very spicy mustard that will instantly clear your sinuses) and French mustard, and of course ketchup and mayonnaise.

photo from Flickr

I was also really surprised by how different the tea is. I don't know what it is about American tea but it is weak and flavorless compared to English tea. American tea takes several minutes to brew and is still weaker than a cup of English tea that has brewed for barely a minute. The color and consistency of English tea is a richer and more reddish-brown than American tea and appears to be more like the concentrated consistency of coffee so it makes sense that most English drink their tea with milk. English tea without milk would be a bit too strong, but American tea with milk would just taste like milky water. I have no idea what makes it different but there is a definitive difference between them. I have heard this could also have to do with the water in England being much harder, but I don't see how they would change the tea so much.

Another thing that surprised and really amused me was that the Ford Fiesta is still very much in production here. The Fiesta had a short life in North America, where compact cars don't dominate the market, but it has been a popular car in Europe since the mid 70s and has remained popular ever since. Every time I would see a shiny new Ford Fiesta I would laugh hysterically. Now I have had to get used to seeing the Fiesta everywhere, especially since my father-in-law drives one.

The 2008 Ford Fiesta
photo from

I don't know what my parents will think when they first come here, their experience will probably be much different from mine and they will probably pick up on things I haven't thought about for a long time. I am sure my dad will be curious to pop the hood of some of the cars and check out the 1.4 litre engines. My mom will probably enjoy things like the horse drawn carts that clip-clop past our road here every day at about 10am (this isn't a joke, I am dead serious). She will surely enjoy the daffodils that should be blooming everywhere and kind of grow wild in these parts. Maybe they will pick up on things I have never noticed, but I am really excited for them to experience England for the first time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

No post this week

Jason is home for the next few days so I will just be doing my Anglotopia post on Wednesday instead of both blogs this week. Sorry, I promise a good long post next week!