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September 2007

Random musings

Apprentice Blushing "Get off your Jacksy and get me another pint" Whale and Mr. Crab were shopping last week in Chapel Market, our local street market n Angel Islington, when we were accosted by a group of young women in red aprons begging for us to buy their fish. That's right, fish.  That's when we noticed that the girls were surrounded by two camera crews and several producer-types holding clipboards.  Turns out, they were filming a challenge for the next edition of "The Apprentice UK."  The challenge apparently involved setting up a fishmonger market stall. Unfortunately, the few fish available were overpriced, underweight and pathetic-looking compared to the seafood available at the nearby professional fishmonger, Angel Fisheries.  One contestant pleaded for me to buy a £20 lobster (that's $40!!) and offered to throw in a free grubby piece of cod. No thanks.  I took this quick snap on my camera phone, and was about to take another when I was shooed away by one of the young producers who looked like she was about 14 years old.   After I put the camera away, another group of contestants came out, this time all men wearing blue aprons. We didn't stick around to see who won. But it definitely wasn't the fish.

After a gorgeous start to September, autumn (Brits don't say "fall") has finally arrived. It is now downright crisp. Blushing Whale, who has clearly been de-sensitized to cold weather from all his years in Los Angeles, is already wearing a coat and hat.  So has Mrs. Crab, but she's always been overly sensitive to cold weather.  Mr. Crab has actually had to wear real shoes (no more Tevas) and long-sleeve shirts.  It was only 58F when Whale and I went to the British Museum this morning. When we came out a few hours later, it seemed like the temperature had dropped by about 10 degrees!  I had to go to the museum to do a bit of research for my upcoming trip to Mexico. But we also hit the Greece room to see the magnificent marble sculptures that were stolen removed from the Parthenon to London by Lord Elgin in 1801. In a few weeks, we'll be in Athens to see the real thing. 

One of the few American TV channels we receive in London is ABC1, a network that airs old episodes of ABC shows like "8 Simple Rules," "Ellen," "Hope & Faith," "Home Improvement," and most recently, "Commander in Chief" and "Ghost Whisperer."  This afternoon, ABC Television ceased transmission of ABC1 on all UK cable and satellite providers. Bastards!  The only remaining American channel we get is CNN, which is actually CNN International. We also get Five US, which airs American shows such as "CSI" (which stars Archie Kao, an old classmate of ours from George Mason University!).  Five US also shows odd crap shows like "The Fall Guy" and "Joey." The saving grace is its overnight programming: Five US shows American baseball and football games.

Uhhh, I'm out of things to say...

Review: The Sports Cafe, London

Sports_cafe_logo_sized Last night, Mr. Crab and Blushing Whale took the double-decker bus down to The Sports Cafe to watch the Washington Redskins take on the New York Giants.  The Sports Cafe is located in Piccadilly Circus, London's equivalent to New York's Times Square.  The Sports Cafe is one of the few places in London that shows American sports live, including "American Football."   

Consequently, Sports Cafe has a virtual monopoly on American expat sports fans and have clearly taken advantage of that fact.  How else can they get away with charging $20.15 for nachos?  I kid you not: £9.95 for a small plate of decent -- but not great -- nachos. Or how about £3.50 ($7.09 USD) for a pint of beer! Want to splurge and get a platter of ribs? That will be $30. 

To add insult to injury, the service blows. The restaurant is seriously understaffed.  We ordered chicken nachos and waited nearly an hour for our order to arrive. When it finally appeared, they were beef nachos!   By that point we were so hungry we ate them anyway.

The nice thing about the Sports Cafe is its size. The place is huge. Two floors, five bars and about 12 pool tables (American pool tables, not those weird British snooker game or kid-sized pool tables).  There are dozens of large plasma TV screens scattered around the venue, and several large projection screens. We arrived at gametime (9:15pm London time) and had no trouble finding a seat.

Despite its negativities, the Sports Cafe does have one strong characteristic that will probably bring us back: American sports nuts. The bar was full of American expats, most of them young college students studying abroad for a semester. Unfortunately, they were mostly Giants fans wearing NY Giants, Yankees and Mets jerseys. We Redskins fans were a small but loyal group.  When the Skins scored, the fans stood and sang in unison: "Hail to the Redskins, Hail Victory..."

Sadly, it wasn't to be. The Redskins choked in the second half, blowing a 17-3 lead. 


Thames Festival: The good, the bad & the Chavs


Last week, Mr. Crab's mate Blushing Whale arrived in London for a nearly three-month European vacation. Mr. Crab and Blushing Whale go way WAY back, to late deadline nights at the Broadside, the student newspaper of George Mason University.

What better way to introduce a visitor to London than to attend the Mayor's Thames Festival, one of the largest of London's many public street festival?  The party on Sunday stretched for early two miles along the South Bank of the River Thames from Tower Bridge to the London Eye, featuring tens of thousands of revelers, hundreds of food and shop vendors and about a dozen live music stages.  Of the three Thames Festivals the Two Crabs have attended, this was the best by far. 

It was a perfect day for a festival, partly sunny and 70 degrees. The Two Crabs and Blushing Whale were joined by friends "Miss San Fran" and "Miss Sri Lanka."  We spent all day at the festival, eating lots of junk food like burritos, chicken satay and Argentinean steak. Blushing Whale also shelled out some pocket shrapnel on finger puppets.  We made it about three quarters of the way around the festival path before we decided to grab a bench and wait for the evening fireworks.

Here's where things got ugly.

Shortly before the fireworks, Mr. Crab and Blushing Whale were momentarily distracted by a passing Hare Krishna parade. We left the bench to join the dancing circle, leaving Mrs. Crab and Miss San Fran on the bench.  In our absence, a couple and their two children aged about 5 and 10 sat on the bench, practically pushing Mrs. Crab off the bench.  The man and woman, each holding a can of cheap bere, were total CHAVS.

CHAV (From Wikipedia): Chav is a derogatory slang term in popular usage throughout the UK. It refers to a subculture stereotype of a person who is uneducated, uncultured and prone to antisocial or immoral behaviour. The label is typically, though not exclusively, applied to teenagers and young adults of white working-class or lower-middle class origin.

Mrs. Crab politely told the couple that the seat was taken. Out of nowhere, Mrs. Chav launched a nasty, racist, unprovked diatribe. The conversation, paraphrased:

Mrs. CHAV: "We're British. We can sit where we want to. You're not British. You don't even speak fucking English."

Mrs. Crab: "I speak English. And I live here."

Mrs. CHAV: "You don't speak proper English. You're some fucking immigrant..."

At this point, me (Mr. Crab) and Blushing Whale returned to the bench, momentarily phased by this dialogue.

Mr. CHAV to me: "You got a fucking problem mate?"

Me: "Huh? We're just here to enjoy the festival."

Mrs. CHAV, continuing spewing her venom in slurred speech: "That's what's fucking wrong with this fucking country. Too many fucking immigrants. We don't want you here. Go back to your own country. We don't want any fucking Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Pakis, Irish..."  (Note that she never said American).

Mr. CHAV, standing up and facing me: "I'll kick your fucking teeth in."

That's when Mr. Chav threw his ENTIRE CAN OF BEER on my chest, spilling beer all over me.  At this point I was ready to rumble but the guy was clearly drunk, probably on drugs and was a good foot taller than me. I just stood my ground while his Chav woman kept yelling something indistinguishable.

Me: "That's it. I'm calling the police."  I whipped out my cellphone, half expecting the guy to take a swing at me. Instead, like a proper chav, he began to walk away.

The Chavs kept yelling various choice profanities at us as they left. We sat back down on the bench and suddenly, THUMP. The Chavs THREW ANOTHER CAN OF BEER ON MY HEAD.  I must say, the guy had pretty good aim for a drunk as he was a good 20 feet away!

During this whole incident, the couple's older boy was pleading for his chav parents/guardians to walk away and leave us alone. I actually felt sorry for the kid, who, ironically, appeared to be of mixed racial background.

In hindsight, I must say that I was especially disappointed that nobody came to our aid. There were at least three dozen people within our immediate vicinity, including about six paramedics manning the first aid booth next to our bench! Everybody just stared like they were watching an episode of Binge Britain, the BBC reality show that follows drunk idiots like our Chavs.

The whole incident left us a bit shaken. In two years of living in London, we've never faced such unprovoked hatred and threats of violence. I felt sad and embarrassed that this incident was one of Blushing Whale's first impressions of London.  I certainly hope this was a "one-off" (Brit slang for 'one-time') London experience.  Miss Sri Lanka put us at ease by saying that we would laugh off the incident later, and she was right. 

What's really sad is that those Chavs probably woke up this morning with a killer hangover and no recollection of their actions and, worse, no remorse.

Once upon a time in Mexico...

From Mr. Crab:

Mexico_flag_large Just when I was about to give up my fledgling freelance writing career, this week I landed a lucrative contract from a major travel guide publisher.  The assignment: to backpack across Mexico. It's a tough job but somebody has to do it!  Actually, it's not as glamorous as it sounds. I'll be responsible for visiting, exploring, researching and writing a 45-page chapter covering a 250-mile long stretch of Mexico's West Coast, including Acapulco and a city I've always wanted to visit -- Zihuatanejo!  I'm actually quite nervous about the job because I've got a lot of ground to cover in only a few short weeks.

Speaking of Mexico, a new Mexican restaurant has just opened in our neighborhood. It's called "Mucho Mas" on Upper Street in Angel Islington. They serve up quite tasty burritos, tacos and salads. Another blogger described it as akin to Chipotle. That's a favorable comparison. The steak tacos are especially nice. It's good, but not great. Of course, being Mexican, I have much higher standards than most. I judge all Mexican food on my mother's cooking.

Img_0144_2 Overall, London's Mexican food scene sucks. You simply cannot find REAL Mexican food scene in this town. Most of what passes for Mexican cuisine in London -- and much of Europe -- is absolutely rubbish. We've been to some dumps that make Taco Bell look like a 3-star Michelin rated restaurant. And the majority of "Mexican" food in London is actually Tex-Mex, which is NOT the same thing. Some are just dreadful (i.e. Desperado's on Upper Street).  Helpful hint: If you walk into a Mexican restaurant and you see sombreros and maracas hanging from the ceiling, paintings of banditos and Pancho Villa on the wall or waitresses wearing frilly white dresses with bandoleers, RUN AWAY.

821439 Bottom line: If you want good Mexican food in London, you've got to make it yourself. Which is why the only Mexican place I can recommend in London is They are a vendor in London's famous foodie Borough Market, selling Mexican cooking supplies like dried chilies, tortillas, and best of all, ingredients for making mole.  Mole (pronounced MOHL-eh) is Mexico's quintessential dish, though unheard of by most Brits, or even most Americans outside of the Southwest USA. It varies by region, but it's basically a thick rich sauce made of chocolate, chilies and spices and poured over turkey or chicken. Yum!  If mole is not on the menu, it ain't a traditional Mexican restaurant!

Viva Mexico!

Putting your money where your mouth is

LONDON - Thinking of a night out in London? Don't forget your wallet.                                                 

London is the most expensive dining capital in the world, restaurant rating company Zagat said Tuesday.

The average meal in London costs just over $79, beating out Paris, at nearly $72 and Tokyo, at just over $71, according to the company's survey of 5,300 Londoners.

That makes eating out in the British capital more than twice as expensive as New York, where the average meal costs $39.

The prices include drinks and tips.

Time Out's London food editor Guy Dimond said the Zagat survey was likely skewed toward high-end restaurants, but said the city's booming economy has pushed prices up across the board.

London is already the world's second-costliest city, according to a survey published by Mercer Human Resource in June. Moscow was rated as the world's most expensive, while New York, which served as the survey's base, ranked 15th.

--Associated Press

Remembering 9/11

Img_0110This morning, I hung an American flag out the window of our London flat. It's an annual vigil I've followed since the morning of September 11, 2001.

Where were you on 9/11?  For our generation, it is undoubtedly the one moment in time that will collectively bind us together for the rest of our lives.

Eighty-one percent of all Americans say the 9/11 attacks were the most significant historical event in their lifetimes, according to a new Zogby poll. It's even higher for those of us who were physically closer to the attacks: 90% of East Coast residents agree with that statement, compared to 75% on the West Coast of the United States of America.

For our parents, it was the death of President Kennedy. For their parents, it was Pearl Harbor.  And for the rest of our lives, we will continue to quiz new friends and colleagues about their whereabouts on that morning in September.

Sometimes the stories are funny, like the person who did not find out about the attacks until several days later because they were on a camping trip. Or the friend who was called at 5am in Calfornia and told not to report to work, went back to sleep and was oblivious to the reason for the office closure until they woke up later that afternoon. Sometimes they are sad. Sometimes there is a personal connection. Sometimes they are lies, like the U.S. soldier I once interviewed in Afghanistan who told me of his "best friend" who died in the World Trade Center (the "friend" was not on the list of casualties). There is no right or wrong answer.  But they are all fascinating stories that provide a glimpse into our collective memory.

I (Mr. Crab) was at the Pentagon parking lot when the plane hit the south side of the building. The fireball and mushroom cloud over the Pentagon, the smell of burning jet fuel, the screams and prayers of a woman carried by her colleagues, the Army officer stumbling out with dust and blood covering his crisp uniform -- these images are still burned in my mind.

Six years on, the memory of 9/11 still seems like yesterday to me. And that's one memory I wish i could forget.

London's Scottish festival


The Two Crabs attended The London Gathering, an annual festival celebrating all things Scottish including bagpipers, kilts and haggis. The headline act was Sandi Thom, best known for her hit single, "I wish I was a punk rock girl (with flowers in my hair)". 

Unlike most London festivals, The London Gathering actually charged an admission. A very EXPENSIVE admission: £35 per person, or about $70!  But luckily we didn't pay a penny because I WON tickets on the Scotland Tourism Bureau website!  Probably because of the cost, the festival was practically empty, attended by only a few hundred people at most. But for us, it was great because we had the run of the place, and could stand right up against the stage.

The best act of the day, by far, was Clan Wallace, a band combining traditional bagpipes and Scottish customes with rock music.  The festival was held inside London's beautiful Temple Gardens, familiar to "Da Vinci Code" fans as the site of the Temple Church built by the Knights of the Templar. 

I used the day to play with my Canon 30D and the new 300mm zoom lens, mainly focusing on shooting people pictures and candids rather than the usual festival photos. Click on the Flickr icon for more photos!

1. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 2. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 3. Sandi Thom, "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 4. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 5. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 6. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 7. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 8. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 9. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 10. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 11. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 12. Sandi Thom at "The London Gathering" Scottish festival, 13. "The London Gathering" Scottish festival14. Not available15. Not available16. Not available

London hometown news of the day

Ap_mccann2_070907_ms_3 Several weeks ago, I wrote a politically-incorrect blog about how sick I was of hearing about Madeleine McCann, the little four-year-old girl who disappeared from a Portugal hotel room while her British parents were out drinking and cavorting at the resort restaurant.

The worldwide media coverage has been unbelievable, and outrageous to say the least. Celebrities including David Beckham and J.K. Rowling appeared in television public service announcements pleading for information on behalf of Maddy. Her picture is plastered in every airport, train station and bus station in Europe. The smallest piece of information has been overblown into practically daily front-page stories in the British tabloids. 

In my blog, I predicted, rightly as it turns out, that the parents would eventually be implicated in her disappearance (contrary to media and parental hysteria, kidnappings of children are actually quite rare, and kidnappings by strangers are even rarer).  Today, Portuguese police announced that Maddy's mother, Kate McCann, was now their No. 1 suspect.

I hate to tell you "I told you so", but, I told you so!

So with that out of the way, let's turn to other London news from today's Islington Tribune, a weekly little freebie distributed in the London Borough of Islington.  These are ACTUAL stories from today's paper. I am NOT making this up!

Today's lead story:
Streets of Angel Set to Smell Heavenly
Page 1
The streets of Angel will soon be smelling of roses udner a plan to wash pavements with a fragrant detergent, writes Peter Gruner.
Two mobile pavement washing machines will go into action next month to tackle unpleasant odours -- particular (sic) those created by boozey revelers -- with the smell of roses.

Jake the Police  Dog Smokes out Tobacco Ring
Page 2
A sniffer dog has helped police smash a lucrative counterfeit tobacco ring in a national first.
Jake, a German Shephered, hauled in a batch of 2,000 fake cigarettes that were being sold by organized cartels of failed Iraqi asylum seakers in the Nag's Head area on Saturday.

'Turn down the noise' plea by karaoke club neighbors
Page 4
Growing conflict between high-spirited karaoke fans and residents in Clerkenwell who year for a decent night's sleep erupted in fury this week.
Neighbours accused the management of Murphis karaoke club in Clerkenwell Road of being deaf to their complaints about singing -- or attempts at it -- and loud music into the early hours.

Page 4: Fork Threat
Police are hunting a robber who threatened a teacher witha  kitchen fork before stealing her handbag on Sunday.

And a few more memorable headlines:

--Old people's home opens

--Cashback delight for shopper who dropped purse in street: Owner bowled over by honest of passer-by who returned missing £200

--Fish shop damaged by fire

Now I remember why I enjoy covering and reading hometown news more than the big stories!

The Angel of Angel

Img_6821 One of the simple joys of living in London are the sheer number of street festivals.

Practically every spring and summer weekend, one can find a London festival celebrating everything from Chinese New Year to Indian Bollywood dancing. The best-known of these is probably the August Notting Hill Carnival, which attracts more than 1 million people. Most of the festivals are free, providing cheap entertainment in London --- as long as you avoid the overpriced food and beer vendors.

When we first moved to London two years ago (damn has it been that long?) the very first festival we attended was this little neighborhood gathering called the Angel Canal Festival.  It's basically a celebration of Regent's Canal, which runs through our neighborhood, Angel-Islington.  We missed it last year but didn't make that mistake again on Sunday.

By London festival standards, the Angel Canal Festival is small, but it still features your standard attractions like live music, a carnival ("fun fair" in Brit-Speak), a community yard sale ("table top sale" in Brit-Speak), book vendors, historical displays, a children's area, an unusual exhibit of live owls and falcons, and this odd costumed character like this Angel of Angel who glided down the sidewalk, apparently on a Segway. My favorite attraction are the parades of Pearly Kings and Queens. They are a British tradition at festivals, comprised of older men and women wearing black suits and dresses that are covered head-to-toe in mother-of-pearl button and stitched in intricate designs. 

The Two Crabs' favorite London festival takes place Sept. 15-16:  The Mayor's Thames Festival.  It's one of the largest festivals of the year, a celebration of the River Thames which divides London (figuratively and literally). The festival is nearly two-miles long, running along the South Bank of the River Thames from Tower Bridge to the London Eye.  It culminates Sunday night with an  evening illuminated parade and fireworks display. It's also a sad day because it marks the end of the London summer festival season.  But we're psyched that our buddy Blushing Whale is arriving just in time to take part in the festivities!

Welcome to London. Now BUGGER OFF!

Londontube The Two Crabs have returned to London after a three-week (too) long vacation in Baltimore-Washington area. Our first dilemma? London's Tube engineers decided this would be a good week to go on strike.

ALL but three lines of the London Underground system have been brought to a standstill.  Hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of commuters had to find a new way to work today. The buses are jam-packed. The streets are clogged with traffic. Even the sidewalks are packed with more pedestrians than usual.

It's no coincidence that the union picked today to launch their three-day strike.  This is the first week of school in London. Children, teachers and staff rely on the Tube to get to school (With the exception of handicapped kids, most students take public transportation to school). Mrs. Crab's usual 25 minute commute turned into a 65 minute ordeal involving a mile-plus walk to catch the 277 bus for the long ride to work.

Today's Evening Standard newspaper had a front-page picture of union boss Bob Crow under the headline: "This is the man responsible for London's chaos". 

The London Underground strike is scheduled to last through Thursday. Even worse:  Another 72-hour strike is set to begin Sept. 10...the day before my buddy "Blushing Whale" arrives from Washington for a long stay in Europe! 

Maybe somebody can explain to me the logic behind union strikes conducted by a few that affect many...cuz I just don't get it.