Friday, 26 January 2007

Angela Merkel: supreme president of Earth?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has really been grabbing the headlines lately, attracting attention for the way she has used German's time at the helm of the EU presidency to revive the rejected EU constitution. She also seems to be laying out an ambitious plan for Europe's future. Her address today in Davos at the World Economic Forum was the latest example. Take a look at this article from The Australian:
The British might say she is the most important female head of state since Maggie Thatcher. But whereas Thatcher changed Britain, Merkel plans to change
the world.
I found this picture of Merkel in a Darth Vader outfit on some German website by the way. I have no idea what the context is, but I think it's hysterical. I'm just getting to know Ms. Merkel really, but I have a feeling she's going to make her mark on Europe in a big way during her time as Germany's leader.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Chav-bashing

It’s freaking cold here! The temperature dropped dramatically on Monday, ending what had been a very mild weather streak the past few weeks. I was actually lulled into thinking that was going to be how it was all the time. I had read that the average temperature here in January is 5 C (42 F), but this week it’s been consistently 0 C (32 F). I guess it snowed overnight because there’s snow on everything this morning.

Whenever the temperature changes I get a cold, so of course I’m now sick. Although this may have something to do with the ridiculous amount of alcohol I drank Saturday night in Cologne. It was fun but made for a miserable plane ride back.

I thought I would write today about this really interesting idea here of “the chav,” a concept which doesn’t have any direct translation in American English but has some close relatives based on regions. Chavs are sort of a euphemism for “the great unwashed,” low-income, ignorant people preoccupied with tacky designer fashions. The defining features of the stereotype include clothing in the Burberry pattern (notably a now-discontinued baseball cap) and other things such as tracksuits, hoodies and sweatpants. Ali G was a caricature of this type of person. Vicky Pollard from Little Britain is another example of such a caricature.

I suppose our analogous terms might be a “Guido,” or in New York, the “bridge and tunnel” crowd. However these terms only apply to people in specific regions of the Northeast. “White trash” might be another comparable example, but this term tends to be applied more to rural populations in the US, rather than chavs who are typically more urban.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

British reality TV

It’s strange, who would have guessed that Celebrity Big Brother, which I became so curious about when I first arrived here, would spark a major international incident! The proportions of this have really gotten huge. Could the end result of all this be, finally, the death of trashy reality TV? I do so want to believe that, but my natural skepticism doubts it.

I’m not sure how much play this is getting in the states, so I’ll briefly recap for you. Big Brother is a huge phenomenon here, with a live TV feed and the inane details of the show plastered across the front pages of the tabloids every morning. This seasons Celebrity Big Brother invited on Jade Goody, a woman who became a “celebrity” (the term is used loosely here) through her appearance on a previous Big Brother. Basically, she became well-known for her outrageous stupidity.

Controversy erupted when Jade and two other contestants started picking on Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood star from India. They said some things that were vaguely racist, such as saying Shilpa should “fuck off home” and saying Shilpa “wants to be white” because she bleaches her upper lip hair. Basically the things that were said were more stupid and ignorant than overtly racist. Well she did call Shilpa “Poppadom,” but I have no idea what that means.

Monday, 22 January 2007

A weekend in Cologne

This weekend I went to Cologne to visit my friend Hale, who is there doing a program with the state department and was having a birthday party Friday night. It was really fun. I went Mark and Vanessa, a Dutch couple who recently moved to London who know Hale from San Diego. We stayed at a hostel right in the city center (next to the Dom) so what was pretty cool.

Hale had the party Friday night at the bar he’s working at, and there was a pretty good turnout. I met a lot of interesting people, including one girl who’s being living and working in Germany for five years. We were swapping stories of the difficulties Americans face getting work visas in Europe, and she told me that next time I enter the US I should be prepared for a thorough grilling. She said every time she comes home they ask her a million questions.

“Why were you in Germany?”
“Studying””Why can’t you study in the US?”
“I preferred to study there”
“Why have you chosen to work there?”
“Because I wanted to”

It’s kind of ridiculous. And this is just to get back in to your own country, which, by the way, is still taxing you even while you work abroad (the only country in the world to do so as far as I'm aware).

Friday, 19 January 2007

What do they teach the Belgians?

Tuesday night I went out for a beer with this Belgian guy I met when I was here in September, Leiven. We were talking about my usual favourite topic of conversation, the EU and European history. He’s pretty strongly anti-US, but I found a lot of his perceptions of the country are just wrong.

I find handling these types of situations to be rather delicate. After all, in correcting their perception and telling them the way it actually is, I don’t want to come off as an arrogant American who thinks he knows everything. But at the same time, it’s not in my nature to look the other way when someone says something that’s factually incorrect.

But this isn’t the point of my story. During the course of the conversation one of the incorrect things he said was that the sinking of the Lusitania by the Germans was what brought the US into World War II (he was so sure of it he even bet money on it, I won £10!). I informed him that it was in fact the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the US into WWII, and that the sinking of the Lusitania was the cause of our entry into WWI. To my astonishment, he wasn’t even aware the US had participated in WWI! We only ended the war for you, you ingrate! But I digress…

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Shilpa shenanigans

Well I would be remiss if I didn’t give you an update on the Big Brother situation. It’s big news here after all! Yesterday's big news (plastered on the front pages of all the papers and leading the news broadcasts) was that there has been a public outcry and allegations of racism against some of the Celebrity Big Brother housemates. Viewers are apparently complaining that three of the British housemates are engaged in “racist bullying” of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty.

Now I don’t have a TV at the moment, but I watched some YouTube clips of the incidents in question and it’s clear no one is being overtly racist, they’re just being stupid, making dumb comments about India, etc. The thing is Shilpa comes off as a saint, and these other girls just look like nasty idiots (the group is led, by the way, by the very Jade Goody I was mentioning in an earlier post). Anyway everyone from Gordon Brown to the head of channel 4 has had some kind of comment on it, and there have been calls for channel 4 to intervene. It’s leading all the Indian newspapers as well apparently. It’s all pretty silly. Shilpa is stunningly attractive and wildly successful in India, so it’s natural that these D-list British celebrities surrounding her are going to be jealous. Still, it’s an interesting phenomenon, this public reaction. And it should be noted that although the show’s ratings were sagging before, they’ve now shot up, leading to even more allegations that channel 4 is “profiting off racism.”

Sunday, 14 January 2007

New flat

At long last I’m in my own flat. Well, my own room at least. So far it seems ok, although it is quite a bit louder outside than I thought it would be. It faces a courtyard, but it’s a courtyard where everyone enters and the noise really echoes. So right now I’m listening to a chorus of slamming doors, door buzzers, a howling dog, and airplanes flying over head. Hopefully once I get a loud fan it will drown out the noise. The planes are really loud flying overhead, I must be under a flight path. Oh, if only I wasn’t so neurotic about outside noise! Maybe I can train myself. At least I didn’t sign any kind of long-term lease, so I can always move if it gets to be too much.

I did make it to Benedict Arnold’s grave yesterday, after a long pilgrimage with Francis. It’s at this random church in Southwest London, nowhere near any tube stops. And it’s just this relatively unextraordinary grave in the cemetery next to it.

Friday, 12 January 2007

First week - made it!

I’ve made it through my first week in London. Work was good, the people in this office seem generally nice. A lot of new people are actually starting this week, so the whole office went out for drinks Wednesday night. It was fun - got to know a lot of people – although after I had had a few the conversation of course veered into politics and I was probably a little too virulent in my rhetoric. But people seemed interested by my take on Europe and the UK, even if they did disagree with it. I think a favorite hobby of mine here is going to be challenging the Brits’ perceptions about the world and their place in it.

Interestingly Tony Blair just gave a big speech on the subject yesterday. Speaking to an audience of defense experts and military personnel in Plymouth, he said Britain faces a choice, continue to participate in international military intervention or cease. He warned of the dangers of the former. But the problem, as many military experts here have pointed out, is that the UK doesn’t have the money to increase its military budget to the degree needed to continue the kind of military intervention its engaged in in the last six years. Britain will shortly be withdrawing 1/3 of its troops from Iraq, and internal government sources are saying by the end of the year they will have withdrawn their entire force there. It is widely understood to be an acknowledgement that the Iraq misadventure has failed.

But in my mind there is an obvious solution here. If Europe were to band together and form a pan-continental army, there would be no need for any country to increase its military budget. In fact, many countries, such as France and the UK, could decrease their military budget. But that’s never even posited here as a legitimate option.

And when I asked my coworkers if they really thought it was a tenable position to be reliant on the US for protection in the 21sy century, they insisted they didn’t need the US’s protection. Oh really? What’s going to protect you? Trident? NATO, they insisted.

I hope that people who don’t know me here don’t think that my harping on the fact that Europe depends on the US for military protection is because of some sort of jingoism. Obviously, readers of my blog will know that it’s not. Still, one of the first things I’ve been struck by here is the naiveté with which many Britons perceive their place in the world, particularly their future place in it. It’s interesting to me. The jist of it is they don’t see military power as being all that important in today’s world. Maybe they’re right, and maybe I'm approaching the issue from an outdated geopolitical perspective. But my gut tells me they’re not. Perhaps I will explore this issue more in the future.

They think about the future in other ways here, certainly. They are, for instance, single-mindedly fascinated by global warming at the moment. Every newspaper on Tuesday morning had an article which started with some variation of “The effects of global warming left New Yorkers sweltering in the heat Monday…” I mean you seriously can’t get away from it. But there’s a lot of frustration too because Britain, and the rest of Europe, is doing so much to reduce its carbon footprint, but in the end it will make no difference if the US, China and India don’t cooperate.

Anyway I’d better head out, I’m hoping to do some proper clubbing tonight, even though it means an agonizingly long trip home on the night bus. I cannot wait to move into my flat on Sunday! Then I can stumble home whenever I want to.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Observing pop culture

I’ve arrived here in the UK just at the start of the fifth season of “Big Brother,” a wildly popular reality series here in the UK which I believe existed in some form at some point in the US but never really caught on.

I’ve written about the show before, me and Pierce were perplexed by it when we visited London two years ago. The premise to the series is similar to many of our reality shows, a group of people is selected to live in a house and have every moment of their lives recorded. Each week the British public decides who they would like to “save” in the house. Whoever gets the least amount of votes has to leave. And the person who’s left wins some sort of cash prize.

Sounds fairly standard right? But here’s where it gets weird. There are not one, but two “live feeds” from the house, two channels that provide two different live broadcasts of whatever is going on in the house at that exact moment, which is usually people sitting around eating or sleeping. And people actually sit around and watch this, riveted!

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Flat hunting

Day three here in the UK, things have gone ok so far. I looked at some flats Friday and Saturday, and have settled on one in a pretty cool area right on the cusp of Clerkenwell and Holborn. There are a ton of bars and restaurants around, so it should pretty much be the polar opposite of Roosevelt Island! It’s a good location because it’s a 15 minute walk to work and a 15 minute walk to SoHo, basically right between the two. So no having to take the tube ever!

I looked at an apartment in the Barbican that was truly amazing. The Barbican is sort of like Roosevelt Island, a planned community with its own stores, a movie theater, arts center, etc. It was a gorgeous 4-bedroom apartment with some amazing modern amenities and a huge balcony. The other rooms were three guys. The only downsides were the room faced a fairly busy street, and it was the kind of deal where it was clear it would be heavily dependent on me getting on with my roommates. This other one in Holborn, on the other hand, is a very big bedroom in a 3-bedroom flat with no living room. So it will be kind of like my studio in Chelsea, sort of like having a studio with a shared kitchen and bathroom. The owner is an older Eastern European guy, and the other renter is a girl about my age who is also a finance journalist, and she seems nice and says she hardly ever sees the older guy. This other apartment also requires no long-term commitment, so I’m free to go at any time. The Barbican one required 6 months.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Land ho!

Well I'm officially here! They let me in and everything. I am now officially a UK legal worker, like a green card holder in the US. I wish the UK cards had some kind of cool color. Alas, they don't.

I narrowly missed catastrophe this morning when I was on my way to JFK Airport in a car service, and sudenly got the urge to check my info to make sure I was indeed taking off at JFK. I came to find out I most definitly was not, my plane was actually leaving from Newark. So I had to scream "Newark!! Turn around!!! It's Newark!!!" and we had to race through the tunnels, through Manhattan, over the NJTP, it was a mess. But, thanksfully, I made it. Thank god I checked otherwise I'd still be in New York tonight!

It's 3am here and I can't sleep. I felt bad that all my tossing and turning for the past 2 hours has been keeping Aaron, who I'm staying with, awake, so I just took an ambien and went into the living room to write a blog while I wait for it to kick in. Jet lag is tough.

Tomorrow hopefully SOMEONE will show me their flatshare, noone has been responding to me. I must not be selling myself very well, is it the American thing? Maybe they don't want to take on a foreigner. Maybe my search radius is just too small, but I really want a flat in Clerkenwell, where my office is. Maybe I just need to have a little patience.