Sunday, December 18, 2005

First Prize in the Lottery of Life?

Due to the protracted distractions of multiple visitors, coupled with persistent flu-like symptoms which I'm still hoping are not of the avian-induced variety, the R.A. has been on an unforeseen temporary hiatus.

Fortunately, the material for this week's post more or less delivered itself to my computer screen in the form of some lively ripostes regarding my blog on a thoroughly entertaining British expat forum. Many of the postings demonstrated more about that infamous British "sense of humor" than I could ever hope to articulate myself, so I thought I'd share some of those here.

BritGuyTN: "Did anyone else notive [sic] that this silly tart complained about paying for sewage? is london the only place she has been apart from new york?... another candidate for needing a helmet before leaving the house."

RA: This is the second time I've had the humorous distinction of being called a tart (BritSpeak for promiscuous person), which I have to say is a rather curious choice of insult to hurl at a complete stranger in cyberspace. The previous time was at a cocktail bar when an unseemly drunk man launched himself on me at the coat check and his equally inebriated girlfriend slurred this invective before making a beeline to get sick on the sidewalk. I must admit, it does makes me feel like I've really arrived here, sort of like in the fourth grade at Irving Elementary when Latrelle Jackson would bestow the name 'honky' on only the people he secretly admired.

Rushman: "I was taking it all with a pinch of salt until the stupid [bleep] started knocking the East End. For her information, the "Angel" tube station is not in the East End. It's in [bleeping] Islington...NORTH LONDON. Just the self important ramblings of another American with a crap sense of tradition, history and geography and importantly, a complete stereotypical lack of understanding another culture."

RA: And to think before now I thought we New Yorkers held the torch for being defensive and self-righteous...clearly, it's time to pass the baton.

AntJen: "Sounds like she has already picked up 1 british habit she doesnt realise - moaning about something and not doing anything about it."

RA: Well, short of making like a Brit and just stabbing everyone that annoys me or alternatively drowning my troubles in drink, I opt to use my blog for a therapeutic outlet. Certainly if I could wave a magic wand to single-handedly improve the quality level of things over here and implant a motivation gene in the large percentage of the population that lacks one, I wouldn't hesitate.

While the English are certainly notorious for 'whingeing' amongst themselves, in other parts of the world, people actually complain straight to the source (i.e. the government, the transportation authority, the store manager, the landlord) and this is the impetus for much improvement and innovation. (As a personal aside, I think you'd be amazed how easy it is for foreigners such as myself to get action over here in the Land of Inaction, simply by speaking up and not being satisfied with "it's not possible" or "sometime next month" for an answer.)

Neil: "And how can she be so critical of the tube, when the New York subway is infinitely worse - at least in the tube you have computerised signs telling you when the next train is coming (in NY it can be difficult to know if you're standing on the right platform); and you have an easy to read map; and you can get from one side of town to the other without having to go uptown on one train to then get another one to take you downtown again."

RA: This could be the subject of many a blog in and of itself--suffice it to say that while we don't have fancy computerised screens in NY telling us when the next train is coming, that's generally because our trains actually do RUN so such a system would be an egregious waste of the money that's better spent on maintenance and new subway cars. I think I can speak for most New Yorkers when I say we'd rather be on the move than standing around watching a computer screen tell us when we might be moving.

Things have actually gotten so dire here recently that they've started making Tube announcements letting passengers know when there is "good service" on the trains, as opposed to the old announcements telling us when there's a disruption. No doubt some savvy soul in the head office clued-in to the time (and voice) saving practicalities of this strategy.

BigDavyG: "Its a bit rich that she complains about public traansport [sic] and she seems to be paying $500 for her tv license - looks like someone has her figured for being one of those "dumb americans".

RA: Let's see, I'm not sure what riding public transport and paying for a TV licence have in common, unless you're honestly theorizing that I'm so rich that I actually pay the mandatory TV licence so why should I be stooping to ride public transport?! I don't even know where to go with that one. And yes, of course everyone here knows not paying for the TV licence is only a problem if you get caught--just like shoplifting or illegal cable hookups in the States--but the fact is, it does happen to be the law (and not even one that I agree with), which it appears you're advocating we spendthrift Americans should be breaking.

If, as Cecil Rhodes once observed, "To be born English is to win the first prize in the lottery of life", I think I might do best to pass up this year's lotto jackpot and squander my savings at the craps table.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

God Save the Queen

According to last weekend's paper, Al Qaeda has a new target, and this time it's not the usual suspects such as hapless commuters, sun-seeking tourists, or meddling Western politicians. Instead, the unlikely individual caught in their crosshairs is 79-year old Queen Elizabeth.

While she's definitely made some questionable decisions in life, not the least of which was that unfortunate turquoise ensemble she wore to Ascot Day this year, does this diminutive English septuagenarian really merit being declared 'one of the severest enemies of Islam' by Al Qaeda in their recently released tapes regarding the July bombings?

I've rarely heard the poor woman utter a sentence, let alone voice an opinion, and the monarchy hasn't made or even influenced public policy since the early 18th century. With only figurehead 'powers' to rubber-stamp legislation and church appointments, why waste precious time going after Queenie when surely there are more important targets at hand? Or maybe not. Maybe this last, desperate grasping at straws signals that Osama is finally running out of steam. Well, if all else fails and his foot soldiers can't penetrate the likes of Her Majesty's Secret Service, he can always fall back on softer targets like, say, the Golden Girls, Barbara Bush or Miss Marple.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Trivial Pursuit

Recently, an American friend from Cambridge grad school days announced her intention to apply for British citizenship now that she's been a resident in the country for the requisite five years and intends on remaining here for the foreseeable future.

Of course obtaining citizenship in most countries is no easy task and one must expect to navigate the way through mountains of red tape and reams of paperwork designed to weed out all but the most persistent and optimistic of souls. This is certainly true in Britain, where the rocky road to becoming a citizen is paved with more than a few unique hurdles.

Not the least of these is the anachronistic requirement that applicants take a public verbal oath proclaiming their allegiance to the Queen, thereby becoming 'subjects' of the monarchy. With all due respect to Her Majesty, it seems a bit outlandish that circa 2005, one must pledge allegiance to a figurehead that has had no real power for over 300 years since the implementation of a Constitutional government. (Though since this country revels so much in its past greatness, I suppose this pledge is somewhat fitting within the context.) While admittedly, I find the Royals just as entertaining as the next person, and have in fact become bizarrely obsessed with reading about Henry VIII and his six wives, my fascination stops cold at the prospect of declaring myself a 'subject' of the monarchy, something which I suspect would deter many of the most Anglophilic of would-be applicants.

Meanwhile, prior to this month, not even a basic citizenship test was administered to ensure aspiring citizens were cognizant of key facets of British history and politics. So essentially, applicants need not have known the name of the current Prime Minister as long as they hailed the Queen and could speak the mother tongue.

This perversity finally appeared to catch the eye of someone in the Home Office, perhaps spurred on by the debate over cultural integration in the wake of the 7/7 terror attacks. In any event, as of November 1, a new citizenship test has been belatedly implemented, which all applicants must successfully pass in order to demonstrate "knowledge of life in the UK".

So what exactly constitutes "knowledge of life in the UK" you might ask? Fair question, and the BBC offers a sampling of the invaluable tidbits that one may need to know before becoming a British citizen:

According to "Life in the UK" (the study guide for the test), where does Father Christmas come from?
A: Lapland
B: Iceland
C: The North Pole

According to "Life in the UK", what should you do if you spill someone's pint in the pub?
A: Offer to buy the person another pint
B: Offer to dry their wet shirt with your own
C: Prepare for a fight in the car park

What or who is PG (again, according to the guide)?
A: One of the brand names for the national British drink, tea
B: A Personal Guide, a British-born mentor provided to each immigrant applying for nationality
C: Part of the cinema film classification system

Other gems include "Do many children live in single parent families?" and "Do people tend to live in the cities or in the country?" To say the test is missing some essentials like, um, British history or how to register to vote would be an understatement akin to saying the Titanic was a few lifeboats shy of capacity. Because of these glaring omissions, the new test has already come under fire from many critics. Tony McNulty, the Immigration Minister, defended the decision not to include British history amongst the list of subjects by saying, "This is not a test of someone's ability to be British or a test of their Britishness. It is about looking forward, rather than an assessment of their ability to understand history." Huh?

Are we to understand that becoming a British citizen isn't about understanding what it means to be British?! And how exactly is one supposed to 'look forward' without any context from the past? Most likely the reason the test doesn't strive to ascertain 'Britishness' is because the question of what exactly it means to be British has been stumping everyone over here for years.

So in lieu of trying to answer the unanswerable, successful applicants must instead possess a mental database of trivial information pertaining to such schizophrenic topics as pub etiquette, movie ratings, and a holiday that a significant portion of the country doesn't even celebrate. Indeed, perhaps by very nature of its myopism, the test does after all manage to give applicants a flavor of that elusive Britishness it seeks so desperately to shun.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The More Things Change...

"When it's three o'clock in New York, it's still 1938 in London."--Bette Midler

Truer words were never spoken, Bette, especially when it comes to English legislation. (Well, when it comes to a lot of things here, actually, but nowhere perhaps more poignantly than with British politics.) In England, there's no faster way to ensure that things will remain exactly the same than by enacting a new law to effect change.

This hit home after hearing this week that the conservative Torie party have attempted to derail the start of the new pub licensing hours--due to come to fruition next week--by asking the government to delay their implementation by another seven months. (Mind you, this is a debate whose cobwebs have begat cobwebs it's been dragging on so long, way before the law was even passed in early 2003.) Thankfully, the Tories' last-minute bid failed, but nonetheless, I've come to realize that the new law is going to be a virtual non-event and that the multi-year debate leading up to it is grossly out of proportion to its actual impact.

This is because each individual pub owner must apply to their local borough (neighborhood) council for extended hours, and it's a foregone conclusion that all of the councils in residential areas (read: 99% of London) will reject any bids for later closing times. Witness this week's justifiable fracass over the fact that Tony Blair's local pub has been denied a licensing extension. The Red Lion on Whitehall, yards away from Downing Street, applied for permission to open until 1am on Thursdays to Saturdays (those wild and crazy Brits--they really push the envelope). But the pub was denied on the grounds of "public nuisance" and "public safety". You can bet this precedent is going to pave the way for all local councils to reject the notion of later opening hours, leaving us--and every other Londoner living outside of Soho--(the tourist-clogged, Times Square of London), right back where we started.

No doubt this does not bode well for the contentious new Smoking Ban legislation, which we were so thrilled had FINALLY passed here as of two weeks ago. But our shortlived excitement was quickly extinguished when we learned that naturally, it does not take effect until Spring of 2007, which means 2010 B.S.T. (British Standard Time), by which point we will have either died from secondhand smoke-induced lung cancer or moved back to the States. Similar to the new pub licensing hours, the new smoking ban is riddled with more loopholes than a piece of Swiss cheese. The official term they are using for it is a 'partial ban', which essentially means that smoking will not be allowed anywhere that serves food.

In and of itself, this is at least a giant step in the right direction. Many restaurants here still do not have non-smoking sections (though thankfully more do than when we lived here five years ago) and there are few things more frustrating than eating an exorbitantly priced meal with someone at a neighboring table (who may as well be sitting on your lap given the close proximity of seating arrangements), blowing smoke directly onto your uplifted forkful of filet mignon as they puff away without a care in the world.

So with the ban on smoking in restaurants, at least diners may actually be able to start discerning other flavors besides those of Marlboro and Merit Ultra Light. The eye of the debate, naturally, is centering on the pubs. Most, if not all, serve food, and hence will be forced to either stop doing so or enforce the smoking ban, which owners believe will dramatically reduce business. Many, including the R.A., view this 'partial ban' legislation as yet another example of the government's wishy-washy, easy way out stance on virtually every topic, which is why the laws here serve to do nothing but reinforce the current status quo.

In any case, it's pub staff who will likely be the ones to suffer the most when their owners are allowed to choose smoke over food. This will especially be the case with pubs in poorer neighborhoods who will most definitely choose that option. And with the rampant alcoholism here, do we really want to encourage people to drink without food on their stomach? We all know that no one is going to set aside their beer long enough to make a run for the corner kebab stand, especially when they've only got precious few hours to drink up until 11:00 (unless of course they happen to be in that 10-block radius positively affected by the new licensing laws.)

While NYC has successfully weathered the smoking ban, which everyone was sure would bring the demise of many bars and clubs, one could argue that with England's pub culture, a full ban here would be more difficult to implement. Which is why it's interesting to note that both Ireland and Scotland have imposed full bans (Scotland's takes effect in March), so that argument doesn't hold much water. But I suppose there's no point in getting all worked up about it, since in the end, full or partial, we all know that 2007 will come and go and the new law's 'impact' will be as temporal as, well, a puff of smoke.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Weathering the Differences

In follow-up to my recent posting, A Contradiction in Terms, I've been doing a bit of research to try and get to the bottom of some of the confusing, contradictory and downright non-sensical things about England.

Similiar to how Jane Goodall might go about researching the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild, I've tried to be as scientific as possible, incorporating fieldwork (i.e. personal observation and inquiry) with established doctrine (i.e. literature written by or for British people.) In almost every instance, the latter manages to firmly substantiate my laypersons' point-of-view.

For instance, from the hilariously tongue-in-cheek How to Be British comes this passage about the schizophrenic British sense of temperature control:

"It's 11:15 pm on a cold Friday night in the dead of winter. Two young women in midriff-baring crop-tops and mini-skirts with no tights underneath are strolling along arm in arm. This is an example of our famous British toughness. On the other hand, in summer, you may observe Brits sitting on the beach wearing jackets and pullovers with long woollen socks under their sandals. The important thing to remember is that the British dress to please themselves and to show their independence of fashion, weather, social convention and color theory."

Only the Brits could find a way to spin their bizarre, weather-inappropriate dress so that it's a reflection of an unfettered sense of independence.

From Watching the English, I also learned (albeit too late to salvage many a social encounter), "The worst possible offense committed by foreigners, particularly Americans, is to belittle the English weather. When the summer temperature reaches the high 20's (low 70's Farenheit), and we moan, 'Phew, isn't it hot?', we do not take kindly to visiting Americans scoffing and saying 'Call this hot? This is nothing. You should come to [insert American city] if you want to see hot!'

Apparently, our comparisons represent "a grossly quantitative approach to weather" (if weather isn't quantitative, then what is?) but nonetheless, the English find this approach "coarse and distasteful". It seems they are very patriotic about their weather here, which I guess if you've got to grasp at straws to find something to band together on, will do in a pinch.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

It’s a Jungle Out There...

As promised, for the sake of representing multiple
viewpoints from other eagle-eyed foreign observers
who either live in or have recently visited this fine city,
the following is the first ‘guest post’ on the R.A.,
coming from “Private Dave”.


As a foreigner living and working in London, I liken my stay in this country to a military exercise and so it is that I’ve begun my second tour of duty back in the trenches after having served an interminable 3-year term on my first.

And it really is a jungle out there, not only in terms of navigating traffic on the city’s narrow, congested roads or the G.I. Joe-like maneuvers required to wedge yourself onto impossibly crowded tube trains during rush hour, but also when it comes to making your way along sidewalks and stairwells without sustaining grievous bodily harm. Who knew that walking could be a combat sport?

Perhaps it’s due to the large number of foreigners present, but it seems no matter what side you choose, you invariably choose the WRONG side. Thus in London, as in the military, you have to keep your head up and your shoulders squared, a lesson I’ve learned the hard way after being maliciously sideswiped--and then cursed at--on more than one occasion. Though it’s not unlike the behavior of New York cabbies that seem to spot a pedestrian and then hit the gas, only to slam on the brakes and scream obscenities at the offending victim they nearly ran down, here it’s a more of a stealth attack rather than a direct assault.

Observing this behavior, I’ve become increasingly convinced that some Brits (mainly of the male persuasion) engage in these tactics as a covert form of exercising their pent-up aggression. Suited up in their battle fatigues (usually a colorful checked shirt and dark suit), they appear to outright target unsuspecting victims in their sights like hapless rabbits caught in the crosshairs. It’s just lucky for us they’re only armed with briefcases instead of bayonets nowadays.

Though the weaponry of choice among the infantry divisions may have progressed, unfortunately, the battlefield on the London streets has just as inversely regressed. A recent study determined that traffic in 1899 moved faster here than it does in modern times. Perhaps this was the justification the honorable mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, used to implement the congestion charge for the questionable ‘pleasure’ of driving on his city streets. In any case, it now costs the equivalent of $15 U.S. to drive to work each day, which the U.S. embassy, for one, is refusing to pay.

Thanks to these measures, I will admit that I’ve noticed a difference in my daily commute: I can now move along at a clipping pace of 5.1 mph instead of my old average of 4.2. Nonetheless, I’m sure the money is being well-spent on…hmmm…wait a minute, just where is the money going? Oh yes, they claim public transport. Interesting claim, because last time I checked, the Tube was still a crowded, dirty, malfunctioning relic from the Victorian era. Maybe if they actually did upgrade the Tube, they’d finally stop people from taking to the roads and abandoning public transport in droves.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in the fact that this is a nation so caught up in reveling in past glories that they’ve failed to notice we’re actually residing in the present. No matter what the subject, talk invariably turns to previous successes, even if it’s necessary to travel back in time to Tudor England to find an applicable reference point.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the arena of sports, particularly soccer (or footie, as it’s called here in Blighty). When England plays Germany, the constant chant is "one world cup and two world wars, doo-da, doo-da!" Mind you, the last time they won the World Cup here was in 1966. Despite this, they were still bringing out these aging septuagenarians for quotes on the subject of heroism when England beat Australia in the Ashes cricket tournament for the first time in eighteen years this fall. But winning or losing aside, can you ever imagine the U.S. playing baseball against a team from Japan and the crowd chanting, "85 titles and two big bombs...doo-da doo-da"? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Heroic Traitor?

Today is Guy Fawkes Day, this country's rough equivalent to our Fourth of July, though of course, this being England, it's necessary that the very nature of today's celebrations be wracked with a certain perversity and come couched in a cloud of uncertainty. In fact, rather than equating it to our Independence Day, a better analogy would be a cross between Halloween and if we were to celebrate, say, "Lee Harvey Oswald Day".

You see, the holiday commemorates the night in 1605 when the country's most notorious traitor, Guy Fawkes, and twelve other men snuck 36 kegs of gunpowder into the House of Parliament in order to blow it up, thereby attempting to kill King James and the Prince of Wales. The plan was thwarted, and Guy and his co-conspirators were duly hung. On the night of the foiled plot, November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King and the event has been commemorated every year since with fireworks and the burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Theoretically, these festivities are to celebrate Fawkes' execution, but many of the English themselves seem ambivalent about whether they are indeed celebrating his downfall or in fact honoring his attempt to do away with the government. On the occasions where the holiday has been explained to me, the latter is far more often the reason cited, usually along with a devilish gleam of pride.

In any case, even today's monarchy seems uncertain as to the exact sentiments of their English subjects, because ever since 1605, the reigning monarch only enters Parliament once a year, for "the State Opening of Parliament". Better safe than sorry, apparently.