So much for claims that London would suffer its coldest winter in history.
Yesterday was absolutely beautiful, about 50 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. Check out the awesome light in this photo of Tower Bridge, taken just before sunset. My Army buddy Chris was in town this weekend, which gave me the chance to play tour guide. We took in a bunch of touristy sights I hadn't seen before including Madame Tussaud's (not as cheezy as I thought it would be) and the Imperial War Museum (a MUST see.) Photos TK.
So much for claims that London would suffer its coldest winter in history.
Several weeks ago, a friend sent me a list of questions about life in London. Finally, here are my VERY BELATED answers:
Q: How does the British political party/election system work?
A: Britain has at least a half-dozen active political parties and dozens of smaller ones. But the three main parties are the Labour Party (Prime Minister Tony Blair's ruling party), The Conservative Party (members are known as "Tories") and the Liberal Democrats (aka the "LibDems").
In the UK, national elections are generally held every 5 years. But unlike the US, there is no set date of when an election will be held. Parliament could call for an election at anytime.
Unlike the US, there is no popular vote for a British leader (the Prime Minister). Instead, Brits vote for a local MP, or Member of Parliament, whom they want to represent their interests. The party with the most MPs elected wins control of the government, and the leader of that party generally becomes the new Prime Minister.
(Current situation: The UK's next general election must be held by 2009, unless ordered earlier. Tony Blair's hold on power is quickly eroding, and there is speculation he may resign early before his term is up. Like George W Bush, Blair's poll ratings are falling hard and fast).
Q: What are the bodies of legislature?
Q: There are two houses: The Parliament and the House of Lords. MPs are elected for a specific term. Lords are appointed by the Queen for LIFE, and their lordship is a hereditary title that can be passed on through generations. There have been numerous attempts to revamp or disband the House of Lords altogether, but nothing ever changes.
Q: What's Boxing Day?
A: Dec. 26, the day after Christmas. There are several theories but the one I've heard most is that back in the day, servants and other low-class employees, who were undoubtedly working on Dec 25, would hold their own family Christma scelebrations on Dec. 26. The gifts they gave their own families were often items or food rejected or thrown out by their rich bosses. The items would be BOXED and given to loved ones, hence, BOXING day.
Q: What's Christmas Like for the third biggest minority in the UK? (Americans). Where do they shop? Online? How do they send it back? Where do you buy trees? Do you put lights up? Festooned around Big Ben? Are Rudolf and Frosty big there, too? How's the Egg Nog? Donations to charities; volunteering to help the needy?
A: Christmas here was pretty much the same as it is in America. They have the same Christmas carols and some I've never heard before. One of my favorite sights and sounds was seeing children school groups singing carols outside the Angel tube station on my way to work. Decorations of Santa and Frosty are common, as is Santa in the shopping malls.
Christmas trees (real) are sold in the supermarket, at regular outdoor markets and at temporary stands on streetcorners. You can get fake ones too at department stores, but most people here go for the real deal. Trees are usually sold with a wooden block stand attached on the bottom. You can buy traditional decorations at the same locations but they are pricey! We paid 8 pounds, or almost $15, for a strand of 100 white lights. Most people put Angels on the top of their tree, or nothing at all. Stars topping the tree are much less common.
We didn't try the egg nog. But the common warm drink you will see in nearly ever market stall in winter is Vin Chaud, or warm fruity wine.
As for gifts, online shopping is definately on the rise here (we have Amazon UK). But the biggest location is Oxford Street, which is like New York's Fifth Avenue. All the pricey "High Street" shops are located on Oxford. On certain days, Oxford is closed to traffic and the streets are jam-packed with pedestrians. Mailing items back to the US is NOT cheap. Often the cheapest thing to do for American expats is to order a gift at an American website, and have it shipped directly to the recipient. (we actually sent gifts back with Pineapple Princess's mum in a second empty suicase she brought with her for that purpose!)
Uhh, no, we didn't volunteer. But we did donate to the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. Does that count?
Got UK questions? Send them to the Two Crabs!
"Captain, there be whales here!" --Scotty in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Quite some excitement in London today! A 15-foot-long Northern Bottlenosed Whale somehow made its way into downtown London today. In this photo, you can see the whale swimming past the British Parliment Building (the UK version of the US Capitol, best known for its Big Ben clock tower).
The whale normally lives in deep water in the North Sea. Somehow he made his way a good 50 miles up the Thames River. Nobody is quite sure what the whale is doing in London. Perhaps he heard about the new whale exhibit at the Natural History museum or taking in a show at the West End!
POSTSCRIPT: Despite a valiant rescue attempt, the London Whale died the following day of dehydration.
Yet another reason why there should be a minimum IQ requirement for accessing the Internet:
Typepad, which is the software used to edit and design this blog, keeps track of how and where visitors found this website. Today, somebody accessed this site by going onto Google and searching for the following query: "can u get crabs from a toilet seat". This blog was the second item listed on the results page. Sometimes you just gotta wonder: WTF?!?!
(Above: the Thalys high-speed bullet train, bound from Amsterdam to Paris)
We're back in drizzly but warm London. In a bit of a test, I flew to Amsterdam aboard Easyjet and took the Thalys train back to London. Though flying is faster by about 2 hours, it's not necessarily cheaper once you factor in the costs to get to-and-from the airport; whereas the train gets you from city center to city center. Plus it's nice just being able to stretch your legs, walk to the train cafe car, and enjoy a "Tasty B" as you cruise along the countryside at 150 mph.
Our next trip is a biggie: a week skiing in the Dolomities in Italy in February. After that, unfortunately, I'm heading back to Baghdad for a few weeks.
Pineapple Princess has become obsessed with learning to cook some fabulous new dishes. I've welcomed a new colleague from the states to my office, so I'm no longer trapped alone in the office.
Meanwhile, we've both become obsessed with what could be the dumbest, sleaziest, cheeziest reality show ever: "Celebrity Big Brother." We never watched this show back in the States. But now we can't take our eyes off of it. It's like CRACK! The only real celebrity on the show is Dennis Rodman and anti-war politician George Galloway (best known for being a Saddam Hussein's ass-kisser before the war). All the other contestants are loser nobodies, even by British celebrity standards. The latest Z-lister kicked off was a woman named Faria Alam who was famous for nothing except having shagged the coach of England's football team. She's the Monica Lewinsky of Britain -- famous (or infamous) only for being a mistress.
I'm also embarrased to say I played the European Lottery for the first time in my life. And no, we didn't win. But neither did anyone else. This Friday's jackpot is 85 million euro, or about $104 million! Woo hoo!
The Two Crabs made their first trip to a London multiplex theater on Saturday. We caught a 5:30 show of "Brokeback Mountain" at the Islington VUE theater.
Going to the theater in the UK is an unusual experience. First off, the cost. You think US movie ticket prices are bad? We paid 17 pounds for two adult movie tickets, or $30.09. And there are no matinee prices; it's one price all the time. We then spent another 8 pounds, 50 pence on a large coke and a small bucket of popcorn (no extra butter available, but you do get a choice of salted or unsalted popcorn). Total cost: 25.5 pounds, or $45.15!
It was a nice-enough theater, with stadium seating, big comfy seats with cupholders. And the rows of seats are separated far enough that you don't have to stand up to let somebody get in or out. In fact, the seats do not even fold up like at most U.S. theaters. Screen was rather on the smallish-size compared to the size of the auditorium, but it had a great sound system.
Then the lights dim, followed by: 30 (THIRTY!!) FRICKEN MINUTES OF COMMERCIALS AND PREVIEWS! We've complained many-a-times about the nonsense preshow back home, but this was absolutely ridiculous. The only good part was their commercials were rather funny.
Now comes the show. First let me say that Brokeback Mountain was a WONDERFUL film (Old Scratch/Coconut enjoyed it a little more than Speckled Hen/Pineapple Princess). Definately a best picture Oscar contender, and the acting was superb and it was a beautiful love story that just happened to star two men.
The strangest part about the movie-going experience was how absolutely QUIET and polite the audience was during the show. TOO quiet, in fact. Few people laughed or showed any audible emotion, except for the occasional nose-blowing during a sad scene. At one point during a funny preview commercial, I burst out laughing and then was quickly embarrased by the fact that not one person in the theater was making a noise. There was only one point in the film where where the audience actually showed signs of life, letting out gasps and "oooohhs" -- but I wont tell you when it happened because that would ruin the film. But for the most part, nobody was whispering to their seat-mate. No cell phones ringing. No idiots fumbling with cellophane wrappings. Absolutely nothing except the occasional popcorn cruncher. You could have heard a pin drop.
After the movie, we made our way to our local street market, Chapel Market. There is a woman at this market who sells bootleg DVDs on the sly. She has them in a little wooden box, each DVD going for 5 pounds apiece, or about $8.50. Most of them are current films still playing in theaters. (No, they did not have Brokeback Mountain). You can always find the DVD seller; just look for the crowd huddled around her. She has another guy who works as a spotter. As soon as police or the market manager come down the way, she quickly hauls ass with her box until the coast is clear. Anyway, to make a long story short, we decided to buy a DVD, more out of curiosity than anything else. We picked "King Kong."
Now my past experience with bootleg DVDs is that most of them are shite. Usually blurry, out-of-focus, camera movement, shadows of heads from audiences, etc. Not this time. The "King Kong" bootleg was FLAWLESS. It looked like an original DVD with perfect picture and sound quality. It's as if somebody in the studio had stolen the masters and created a perfect DVD copy! Too bad the same can't be said about the movie: KING KONG SUCKED ASS! I had expected a lot more from Peter Jackson, but this was just shite.
Now I don't want to condone buying pirate or bootleg films but this is exactly the reason why we never go to the theater anymore. If we had spent $45.15 to see King Kong in the theater, I would have been one pissed-off crab. As long as Hollywood keeps churning our crap and selling over-priced tickets to see that crap, piracy will continue.
So on Sunday, we went ice skating at Kew Gardens, the largest of many outdoor rinks set up across London during the winter season. Unfortunately, we had miserable weather but still had a great time. Pineapple Princess, who is quite the ice capade, dragged her own figure skates from Virginia. I had to settle for the rentals, which sucked. Cost for ice skating for one measly hour: 10 pounds per person, or $7.77. As for Kew Gardens, this is one attraction we must visit again during better weather. The gardens and greenhouses are spread out over several hundred acres, and the village of Kew is quite cute and hard to believe this is still part of London.
That brings us to NACHOS! In Kew, we stumbled across a great little pub called The Railway, located naturally next to the train station. Not only are the nachos at Railway the best we've had in London, but they could be the best nachos I have EVER tasted. EVER. NACHOS RULE!
While exploring our city last weekend, we discovered the wonderful Borough Market in south London. It's a food market that sells all sorts of wonderful treats from around the world like fresh-baked bread, French cheese, English hams, venison burgers, Lebanese strawberries, etc. The Two Crabs, who can spot a "Tasty B" (Tasty Beverage, i.e. beer) from a mile away, made a "B" line for the beer vendor who was selling cerveza from around the globe with such names as Spotted Dick Ale and Hell.
And suddenly, there it was. Buried at the bottom row in a tucked-away shelf, was a green 24-ounce bottle with the familiar logo of Sierre Nevada Pale Ale. It may not seem like much, but in all our travels, the Two Crabs have never found a beer we both love as much as Sierra Nevada. Pineapple Princess even made a pilgrimage last year to the Sierre Nevade brewery in Chico, Calif. Needless to say, we bought that bottle of Pale Ale (3 pounds, or $5.31), along with two 12-ounce bottles of Sierre Nevada Celebration Ale (1 pound, 50 pence apiece, or $2.65). Mmmm, mmmm! Our first taste of the sweet nectar of the Sierre Neveada gods in four months. Hopefully not the last.
Ten years ago this month, I deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Maryland Army National Guard, in support of Operation Joint Endeavor. More than 20,000 U.S. troops, along with thousands of foreign troops, were sent to Bosnia as peacekeepers to enforce the terms of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the Bosnia war. The peacekeeping force was known as IFOR, or Implementation Force.
Bosnia seems a million light years away now. But looking at world events today, there's a lot of "lessons-learned" -- to use an Army term -- that we could take from Bosnia.
For the most part, Bosnia has been a success of how diplomacy, backed by military might, can bring peace, stability and democracy to a war-torn country. Most U.S. troops left in late 2004; a handful of about 150 remain to hunt for war criminals.
It's not perfect. Bosnia is still a country divided by ethnic strife between the three major ethnic groups: Muslims, Croats and Serbs. Until recently, the country had separate three presidents, governments and military forces -- one for each ethnic group. The controversial break up of Yugoslovia along ethnic lines was known as "Balkanization."
But things are looking up. Bosnia is now in the process of dissolving the Dayton Peace Accord and replacing it with a modern, European model of democracy -- a single government under one leader who represents all citizens. Bosnia has been at relative peace for a decade.
Could the same plan work for Iraq? Highly doubtful. Some have argued that Iraq is already on the bring of civil war and it would be better to just break up the country into three parts along the three ethnic groups: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. But unlike Bosnia, Iraq is blessed with natural resources: oil. If Iraq were "Balkanized", the minority Sunnis would be the losers because their are of Iraq has no natural resources.a single country made up of three ethnic groups who don't get along, and probably never will. What's the answer? That's the $64,000 question. Only time will tell.
Click below to access The Bosnia Buddha, (http://members.aol.com/apstyle/bosnia.html)
my first-ever blog which chronicled my experiences in Bosnia. Note that this site is no longer maintained.