Sunday, October 29, 2006


Since I've been in the US I've been a subscriber to Freecycle. It's a non-profit organization of mailing lists all over the world, designed to keep unwanted items out of landfills for just a bit longer.

It's very "one man's trash is another man's treasure" in its design. I have an item that I no longer desire and offer it on the mailing list. Someone else asks me for it and I arrange for them to come and collect it, thus keeping it in use for a little longer. We've been gifted some wonderful items this way, and have given some of our own.

It's a really great idea and I encourage everyone to subscribe to their local chapter and join in the fun. I'm all for doing my bit to ease the burden on landfills, even just a little.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Food, glorious food

Following on the food theme, I am being spoiled rotton by cheap supermarket prices here. LA is one of the most expensive cities in the US (I am pulling that fact out of my ass, so there) but when compared to the prices I was used to in London, it's a bargain.

Part of the savings come from the fact that the US is so large, and has such a varied climate. All kinds of produce and meat can be raised and harvested, transported cheaply and passed on to the consumer with little effort.

Our regular grocery stop, Albertsons, is fairly basic. Not as well-stocked as an average Tesco or Sainsburys, but with all the basics and a large, cheap meat section. The deals they have are amazing to my British wallet; 10 items for $10, 24 cans of soda for $4, fresh pineapple for 99¢ a pound ... things that are unheard of even in the best of supermarket sales where I grew up.

And then there's Trader Joe's. I adore Traders, when I am brave enough to face the crowds it draws. Traders is a little like Waitrose or Marks and Spencer in that most of their food is organic, healthy and a quite posh. What they have over the aforementioned stores is that it's also cheap, and the people who work there are quite lovely. I've yet to meet a grumpy worker in our local store, and they're always ready to chat and joke with us at the checkout.

Of course, my favorite place to go grocery hunting is Mitsuwa, my local Japanese grocery. What they lack in sales and bargains they make up for in quality of fresh produce and the sheer joy of poking around foreign food. The import prices are very good and there's something childishly gleeful about browsing the isles and filling my basket.

Despite all these wonderful bargains and the quality of foods available to me here, I still miss my English grub. Walker's crisps, GOOD cheddar (none of this orange crap that passes for cheese here), Branston's pickle, Heinz Salad Cream, HP Sauce, custard creams, Jammy Dodgers and rich tea biscuits. And don't get me started on fish and chips with mushy peas.

Still, you win some you lose some. Being a budding cook, I have to say the quality and price of ingredients here makes me utterly joyful. And besides, I can always take a weekend trip to Tudor House at Santa Monica to get my OXO cubes.

Bag lady

We do most of our food shopping at Albertons, a West coast chain of supermarkets. A while back when we were watching the cashier beep our items through the scanner, I casually picked up a bag and started putting groceries in the cart.

"How helpful, we should hire you!"

I blinked. "Sorry?"

The cashier grinned, "we should hire you, we need good baggers like you! You make my job easier"

And then I remembered that here, you don't bag your own groceries. Or rather, you don't have to, as someone will come along and do it for you. It all feels rather lazy to me, and sometimes I just grab a bag and start bagging for myself, much to the surprise of the cashiers.

I quite like the set-up I saw in Germany, in places like real. There are no wads of plastic bags waiting for you at the check out. You have to bring your own bags -- canvas, plastic, whatever you like -- and bag all your items yourself. Very eco-friendly, a lot of stores would benefit from introducing this policy.

I wonder how it works in other countries?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Shall we dance?

As the title of this blog suggests, I am a native born Brit, English to be precise (well, half Irish, but now I'm just getting picky). Most English speaking cultures tend to be pretty similar due to their shared ancestry, but one of the things I have found myself coming up against again and again is the lack of ... well, Englishness here.

In England, we communicate through an elaborate dance of body language, gestures, grunts and assumptions. We have our little rituals and unspoken messages, and everyone understands them. We know that if we have an electrician checking the wiring, we must offer them a cup of tea. We know that we must change the subject if our conversation partner begins to look even slightly uncomfortable. We know when and how to form orderly queues, and we know that we are expected to take only our share and nothing more and to keep things "fair".

Speaking of queueing, George Mikes once said, "An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one." He is absolutely right, and my friends here find it hilarious how twitchy and passive aggressively snippy I get when I see someone threatening to queue jump.

It's little social cues like this that don't exist here, and that trips me up more often than not. I am always secretly horrified when guests stomp around in dirty boots or kick them off in the middle of the floor, then head to our fridge to poke around and grab a soda without asking. I mean, I would never say anything -- that would be far too un-English -- and if I minded that much, I wouldn't invite them over. It just makes my inner Englishman petulantly wibble his stiff upper lip. How you behave at home and how you behave when a guest are two very different things in England, and the line is much more blurred here.

There is a tendency to be far less withdrawn and more openly critical here, which is both a blessing and a curse. If someone thinks something they will say it, sugar coating or not. But I still find myself looking for hidden messages and reading between the lines, forgetting that it doesn't really work like that in the US. It works in England because everyone does it, almost entirely subconsciously. Here? I am a dancer alone, and that is both amusing and frustrating to those I keep trying to tango with.

Is it easier with everyone saying what they think? Perhaps in theory. But I wonder if I shall ever get used to this upfront, unashamed honesty. Sometimes I long for my complex, silent, polite social waltz.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Driver's mis-education

As a born and bred Londoner, I never bothered to learn to drive. A lot of expense to go to when the London Underground did a very nice job of ferrying me to and from work for less hassle and cost.

Here in Los Angeles, it's a little different. The only public transport is a slow, unreliable bus system that doesn't go to half the places I want to, so as soon as I got my green card, learning to drive was high up on the priority list.

Driver's Education is a popular course here at high schools where students get to drive in a dual-controlled car as basic practice for their test, and to get their learner's permit. I've not heard of a similar scheme in the UK, but it strikes me as a great way to get kids learning to drive. Personally, I'd have liked to have gotten the practice in that early without having to figure out how to pay for lessons.

I'm being taught by my partner, which is working out well for the both of us, and am scheduled for my test soon. The rules of the road are slightly different here than what I was used to seeing in England; there are less roundabouts for one! The biggest difference for me has to be in the size of the roads; in London, I'm used to seeing Victorian roads built for horse carriages, not three lane streets. And of course, the "right turn on red" rule, which says that even if the light is red, you can take a right turn when the road is clear, so long as there are no signs prohibiting it. Madness!

And let's face it, LA drivers are not known for their skills. There are a lot of people yapping on cell phones while they drive, ignoring pedestrians, cutting people off, refusing to let you merge ... The list is endless. Back when I was still learning how to turn, I had a soccer mom in an SUV come up behind me. I put on my left turn indicator, but before I could make the turn she lurched out and overtook me on the left side. I was so amazed I just sat there and watched her. As I learned that day, being a defensive driver in LA can really save your ass sometimes.

So wish me luck, people. In ten days time, I may be holding my very first driver's license!