Kimchi Jigae and Mash

Having lived in England for the past nine months, I think I’ve become more British-ish in many ways. I drink tea with milk at least 6 times a day, I get irrationally over-annoyed when someone jumps the checkout line at the grocery store, and I’m somehow O.K. with the fact that it’s already May but the weather is more like what would happen if there were a monsoon season in the Arctic. And although my spelling remains devoutedly American, I have changed in one other, major way: taking on a more literal outlook to the world around me.

Here, I’ve found, if you ask for a little bit of wine at the dinner table, the server will literally give you two drops worth of liquid. If you ask for a big portion of fries, they will stare blankly at you until you point at what you mean or say “chips”, after which they will give you a plate full of fries with no room for anything else, such as vegetables or something not fried. And if a British friend asks you what you want to drink at a bar, Continue reading

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Organ Sounds and the Munchies: A Dilemma

Last week, I found out about an organ recital going on in the chapel at Exeter College starting at 1:10 PM. Given that I had a break from 1 to 2 and that it was on the way to my second class, I decided to stop by, inhale a bit of historic music and hopefully come out of the experience a bit more cultured. But after my initial glee at being able to sit in on an organ recital wore off, I realized that I had left out one crucial factor in my otherwise precise ruminations about whether I should attend the recital or not: that one hour window was also my lunch break.

No problem, the mini-multi-tasker voice inside my head told me, just eat while you’re there. Multi-task!

Logical enough. And so I bought a sandwich, hopped back on my bike and, just outside Exeter College, dismounted and found my way to the 152-year-old chapel.

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

 

With my first step inside, I rammed into a wall of gargantuan, all-encompassing sound. And then, along either side of my straight line of vision to the altar, I encountered a disturbing, zombie apocalypse-esque scene: Continue reading

Childish Things

For the past five years, Out of the Blue — the singing group I’m a part of at Oxford — has raised money for Helen and Douglas House, a local charity and the world’s first hospice for children with life-shortening illnesses. Last weekend, we had the chance to visit both houses and sing a few songs for their current guests, an experience I won’t soon forget.

Their annual fundraising concert at Oxford’s New Theatre is coming up on February 27-29, and Out of the Blue will be performing then as well! You can look up tickets here, if you’re around and want to stop by.

I’ve only suffered through one major tragedy in my life: the loss of a close friend due to a sudden accident just weeks before the day of our university graduation. Some days, I’m grateful that I’ve only had to experience something like that once, but most days, I still ask myself the same, eternal questions: Why Michele? Why then? Why ever? I didn’t realize it at the time, but what helped me the most in coping through it was the community of friends that banded together to support one another: everyday, we would sit together in someone’s living room, eating, listening to music, doing homework or just being together in one another’s presence. That space and sense of community was something precious and invaluable – and that’s exactly what Helen and Douglas House creates and celebrates. It is a place of being together, of mutual support and love expressed in ways explicit and inexplicit: a silent embrace, a gentle cuddle, a smile or a home-cooked meal alongside new and old friends.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over my twenty-two years of life, it’s that we all depend on those around us for the warmth of affirmation and encouragement to get through the trials of life. Continue reading

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue – Chronicles from Winter Tour 2011

Here’s a selection of stories from among the funniest moments of our road trip across England, as well as a few frivolous reflections of an American living (undercover) amongst a bunch of British a cappella singers.

Happy New Year!

Day 1: Let’s not forget about that time at the very wee beginning of tour when, ironically, the British rental car company wouldn’t take the Brit’s driver’s license (i.e. Nick B.’s) but gladly accepted my flimsy, fake ID “issued” by the State of Illinois as proof of driving ability, general maturity, sanity, etc etc. (Just kidding Laurie, it’s a real license.)

Anyway, the blokes at that car rental place clearly think too highly of Americans: although I’ve been driving since I was sixteen, I’ve only manned a manual car twice. Continue reading

The Awkward Tables

Here’s the third of a monthly series of columns I’ll be writing from abroad, as originally published in my hometown paper, the Barrington Courier-Review

Romantic Friday dinners were my favorite in college: at the end of each school week, one of the dining halls on campus would dim the overhead lights, put out dozens of tea candles and hire a pianist to play some generic, swoozy-jazzy tunes while we munched on Ginger-Scallion Stir-Fried Chicken and Apple Tofu Crisp. The weekly event took place in the dining hall that also had the infamous “Awkward Tables,” which were unusually narrow and had seating for at most two people to squish together side-by-side. They were perfect for situations when you didn’t want anyone else to join you, and also for when you wanted to minimize direct eye contact with whomever you were eating. In other words, it was the ideal setting for breaking up with a significant other, confronting a suitemate about their flatulence or talking about touchy-feely things in general — especially on Fridays, when the background music and candlelit glow would have a general soothing effect and help smooth over any ruffled feathers.

The thing is, I never questioned until now why “being emotional” qualified as an activity that best took place surreptitiously at one of the Awkward Tables; it was just a fact that most seemed to accept. (I think part of it’s because our collective societal machoness tells us that talking about feelings is inherently superfluous.) Looking back on my four years as an undergraduate, I realize that the majority of my time spent eating candlelit dinners Continue reading

Seduce Me With Grease

THOUGHTS ON SUCCESSFUL WOOING STRATEGIES

There are three major signs as to whether or not you are living the student life: First, you repair broken plastic hangers with duct tape rather than spend the 99 cents required to buy a new five-pack. Second, the number of times you (don’t) do laundry every semester appalls your mother. Third, you spend most of your waking hours in the same baggy sweater and pair of pajama pants, especially around final exam time. Given these habits, it’s not surprising that most students are notoriously bad at the art of seduction: although we might procrastinate from work by strategizing about how to woo that potential significant other, our grandiose plans often fail, since most people are unimpressed by the clutter of repaired hangers and dirty laundry that epitomize students’ lifestyles.

Even so, in the highly unlikely case that someone out there in the world is strategizing about how to seduce me, I figured it would be helpful to provide step-by-step instructions on how best to do so. To start, I want to make clear that it will take a lot more than an overabundance of papers, books and soiled clothes littered on the floor to faze me. Moreover, I tend to look fondly upon those who share my passion for consuming greasy, salty or otherwise preserved snack foods during stressful times; I have a special spot in my heart for Easy Mac and buffalo chicken pizza Continue reading

Spice Girls Wisdom

Here’s the second of a monthly series of columns I’ll be writing from abroad, as originally published in my hometown paper, the Barrington Courier-Review

I started having trouble sleeping a few weeks ago. I don’t know if it’s late-onset jetlag or something in the water here, but my dreams have been super-vivid, my back and legs ache in the mornings and most times, I wake up expecting to be able to fly or thinking that I own a horse named Padre. (For all you dream interpreters and psychoanalysts out there, make of that what you can and let me know what you conclude.) I’ve since proceeded to rearrange all the furniture in my room according to the basic principles of feng shui and, perhaps most importantly, I’ve replaced my university-provided plastic mattress with a foam one I found on Oxford’s local version of Craigslist. Although my sleeping has gotten better and my dreams less dramatic, the muscle soreness persists. In a recent moment of brilliance, I realized that the aches probably have less to do with feng shui and more to do with the fact that, for the first time in six years, I’ve started riding a bicycle again.Living in Oxford generally requires that you own a bike and that you use it often, because several centuries of history and development have resulted in a bit more urban sprawl than on a lot of American college campuses. Despite constant protest from my legs and thighs, I’ve committed to the way of life here and insist on cycling around town on a colorful, Schwinn-like secondhand road bike that screams “American trying to fit into the local scene.” Continue reading
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High Tea

THOUGHTS ON TEA (and learning how to make friends with British people)

British people are obsessed with at least three things: apologizing to anyone and anything they bump into, glowering at you if you jump a queue and drinking tea.

Frankly, I didn’t know anything about high tea before stepping foot into the United Kingdom a few weeks ago. During college, I had always brewed and chugged whatever kind of tea they had left sitting out in the dining hall just to get through a long night of essay writing and procrastination. Given that I had never paid much attention to what kind of tea I was drinking, I didn’t quite get why people here seemed to be obsessed with the concept of afternoon and high teas: to me, the drink was just a more appealing source of caffeine than Red Bull or instant coffee.

To investigate, I dressed up a little nicer than my American standards would normally allow and ventured into the stodgiest, most expensive looking teahouse-type place I could find in London: Fortnum & Mason. The store, started decades before America even won its independence, gives off the posh air of a Neiman Marcus or Saks, but with dark wood and plush carpets in lieu of the brightly lit shiny surfaces that dominate American department stores. Continue reading

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Hello, British people! (And a goodbye to Chicago hot dogs)

Here’s the first of a monthly series of columns I’ll be writing from abroad, as originally published in my hometown paper, the Barrington Courier-Review

I remember in fifth grade when graphing calculators were the hot thing and everybody had one. It wasn’t that we wanted to do math and crunch numbers; we just wanted to play all of the games you could download onto them – most notably, Tetris. The time-pressure crunch of having to arrange oddly shaped blocks into neat rows proved addictive for many, but I for some reason never got hooked. Instead, I stayed true to my Garfield comics while watching the hardcore Tetris players from afar.But now, as I write these words while looking out onto an English patio in an English townhouse in an English neighborhood in London, what comes back to me most vividly is that game of Tetris. One would think that adjusting to a country where everyone supposedly speaks your native language should be an easy process, especially when that country is the one that birthed you, in a historical sense, just a couple centuries ago. But it’s the little things that add up quickly, just like those blocks in Tetris that would come down onto the screen and were never the right shape and before you knew it you’d have a “GAME OVER” message blinking at you mercilessly. From the credit cards that use a chip and PIN system to British words (aubergine for eggplant, loo for bathroom) and a different sizing system for clothes, things are just (slightly) different here.

And so, when I tell people that I’m “studying abroad” on a Fulbright for the year, their immediate reaction is to ask, “Where?” When I tell them I’m going to be in England, their faces contort into a confused, even sorry expression: Continue reading