A Travellerspoint blog

February 2009

New Chapter: In Which I Single-Handedly Gentrify Kings Cross

A few notes on my up-and-coming new home.

sunny 9 °C

The TV show starts with a black screen as a voice comes on and says, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime, and the Crown Prosecution Service who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." It is the first episode of Law and Order: UK. The series is created by Dick Wolf, who created all the various Law and Order series filmed in America. This new series is the first one to be set outside of New York.

The premier episode is entitled "Care," and it is a remake of an original NYC Law and Order. A baby is found dead at a hospital. The police detectives soon learn that the mother brought the baby to the hospital after finding it dead in her flat in Kings Cross. Turns out that the landlord and her silent partner and heavy broke the gas heater, causing the baby to die. They wanted the woman out of her flat so they could convert the building into high priced lofts.

In the episode, the two detectives are walking along Euston Road in front of Kings Cross rail station as they discuss how the area is being gentrified, and while it is good that the drug dealer and prostitutes aren't in the area any more, all the new, well-off tenants moving into the area are causing rents to go up and pushing the less fortunate tenants out. "Where are they supposed to live?" asks the one detective.

Kings_Cross_Station.jpg

Ladies and gentlemen, I am that gentrifying force.

I just moved into an upmarket loft in Kings Cross, in what I believe is a converted warehouse, though it could be a purpose built building made to look like a converted warehouse, I'm not entirely sure. Either way, my high priced rent and need for gastro-pubs is no doubt destroying the character of this place, the same character that attracted me to it in the first place.

Ah well, what can I do? I'll stay here until my rich urban habits have turned the place into a bland, soul-less neighbourhood, and then move onto the next place. Just you watch, I'll probably move down to Elephant and Castle in a few years and destroy the grit and character of that place.

In the meantime, let me tell you a little bit about my new place. Kings Cross is an area of North London centred around Kings Cross station, partly in the borough of Camden and partly in borough of Islington. I live in the part in Islington. The area is named for a status of King George V that was erected in 1830 at the corners of Pentonville, Euston and Gray's Inn roads. The statue was widely hated, and so it was torn down in 1845, however the area retained the name of Kings Cross.

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Prior to the statue, the area was known as Battle Bridge for a bridge crossing the River Fleet at this point. The River Fleet no longer bubbles along above ground - it was covered over in the 1700 and 1800s, today draining out from a cement tunnel into the Thames under the Blackfriars Bridge. Two streets over from where I live, though, you can still find the name Battle Bridge. It is the name of a basin on the Regents Canal where today the London Canal Museum stands.

I have not written Kings Cross with an apostrophe in the name. While it would be most accurate to write King's Cross as the place is named after a single King, convention has the name written without the apostrophe most times, so I will adopt that convention as well. The rail station, though, is usually written with the apostrophe. I have no explaination.

The area is well connected to transit. Kings Cross-St. Pancras tube station has 7 different tube lines running through it, including the Piccadilly line out to Heathrow Airport. King's Cross train station sits right beside St. Pancras train station, and Euston station is just down the road a few blocks. From those three stations I can catch a train to pretty much anywhere North of London, right up into Scotland. Additionally, I can grab the Eurostar to Paris and Brussels from St. Pancras, and will soon be able to take a high speed train down to Dover.

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King's Cross Station is undergoing a massive renovation to provide a nicer station with a more train platforms. The train shed roof is going to be refurbished so it looked much nicer than the current, grungy look it sports today.

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The area between King's Cross Station and St. Pancras stations are also being developed. The site, called Kings Cross Central, is 65 areas of disused land, but will soon be high end apartments, offices and shopping. It is one of the biggest brown field developments in all of Europe.

While the area is definitely being gentrified, it still has some run-down areas. Nothing too scary, but a few places that look like they could use a fresh coat of paint and some Windex.

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The area that I am in is a lot of old warehouses that served boats running along the Regent's Canal, one of the primary ways that goods were moved around London before trucks. Many of the old warehouses have been converted into living space or office blocks now. Most of these conversions still have a warehouse-feel, though, which I think it kind of nice.

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I'm not a fan, but I know many are, so I shall now point out that in addition to being featured on Law and Order: UK, King's Cross rail station features in the Harry Potter books as the place where young wizards catch a train to go to Hogwart's school. The magical gateway to the train is in a column between platforms 9 and 10, called Platform 9 3/4.

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I hate to burst the bubble of those who are huge Pot-heads (err, is that the right term?), but no such place exists. When writing the book, J.K. Rowling got confused about the layout of the station, thinking that platforms 9 and 10 were in the main part of the station. In fact, they are not. They are in a separate, smaller part off to the left of the station. Further, Platform 9 and Platform 10 are not connected, but rather have two sets of tracks between them.

To honour the mention in the books, however, King's Cross station have put the sign on the wall and the cart half-way through the wall, though. Not on the station platform, mind you, but rather in a walk-way that leads out from the station. In addition to not actually being able to put the tribute between 9 and 10 due to the fact they are not connected, it also keeps folks from wandering down the platforms and getting in the way of busy commuters.

So, that's a few short notes about my new home. I am no longer a docklands boy. I am now a KGXer, (KGX being the code for the station on the train schedules).

Hello Kings Cross, let the gentrification begin.

Posted by GregW 08:31 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

Swallowing Their Words

Thoughts on clarity in speech from the perspective of non-English speakers.

overcast 4 °C

Last Thursday, I took a train from Sheffield to Birmingham to meet up with some co-workers for dinner. The train between the two cities, when running direct, is very quick, taking just a few minutes over an hour.

As the evening turns into night, though, the direct trains stop running, and you need to change trains in Derby to get back to Sheffield. I had originally planned to get back on the 21:03 back to Sheffield, which is the last direct train, but by quarter to nine we hadn't even received our main course, so it became obvious to me I was going to be taking a longer trip back.

A few after dinner drinks and I ended up catching the last train heading towards Sheffield, arriving into Derby at midnight. I got off the train and looked up at the train board, seeing what I knew but was hoping wasn't true. The train from Derby to Sheffield wasn't until 00:50, almost an hour from my arrival. All the shops in the station were closed, so I wandered out of the station and decided I would take advantage of my hour in Derby.

Firstly, I should point out that the city name is pronounced DAR-BEE, not DER-BEE. I don't know why, but it is. English very rarely makes much sense, as I was soon to learn... but let's not jump ahead.

Walking out of the station, I surveyed the scene. It didn't look very impressive. Outside the station I could see a few restaurants and pubs, but they were shut down for the night. The only thing open was the Bubble Spa, with a brightly lit store-front with all the windows covered. A spa with paper covered windows open at midnight. I guess there is always the possibility that someone has a late night nail emergency, but I figured it was more likely that the spa was featuring services above and beyond pedicures and exfoliations. I was looking for something different than a full-release happy ending though - treatments for my stress in a pint glass.

I wandered a few blocks away and found a pub that was open. I walked in. Like most pubs, it was long and thin. Like most pubs, the front room was filled with a few tables, some chairs and a bar with draught taps. Unlike most pubs, the back was filled with a dance floor, DJ booth and flashing lights.

"Is this a pub, or is it a dance club," I wondered. I looked around and decided that it didn't matter, as neither the traditional pub nor the dance floor had a single patron. I took a seat at the bar.

A bartender came out from the back room. "Hello there," he said, slight hint of an accent in his voice.

I gestured at the dance floor. "I guess all the dancers must be in the toilet," I joked. The bartender looked at me with a confused look on his face. "Never mind," I said. "I'll have a pint of Carling."

The bartender poured the beer, and with no other customers, we started chatting. He was from Poland, and he picked up pretty quickly that I wasn't from England. "Are you American," he asked.

"No, I am Canadian," I said.

"You must work for Bombardier," he exclaimed. I don't, but it was a good guess. Bombardier is a Canadian company that makes, among other things, trains, and they have a huge presence in Derby, their UK headquarters.

I told him that I didn't work for Bombardier, but rather am a consultant. The bartender told me how he wanted to move to Canada. "I'd really like to move to America, but I think it is easier for me to get to Canada," he said. "I have cousins who live in America."

"Where? I've worked a lot of places in America," I said. That spurred a whole conversation on cities in America. He wanted to get my impression on places he was thinking of moving. California, I told him, was nice but expensive. Florida is good if you can find work, and a lot cheaper than California. As someone in the service industry, Florida is certainly a good choice.

During our conversation, another bartender came out, this one a girl from Russia. She joined the conversation here and there, especially when we were discussing the weather in the UK (they both wondered why I would want to move to the UK, as it was cold and grey all the time) and terrorism threats in the USA (The Russian and I agreed that the USA was no safer nor no more dangerous than other places).

Apropos of nothing, the male bartender said, "you are easy to understand. It is hard to understand people from England when they speak."

"They swallow their words," said the female Russian bartender.

"Swallow their words?" I asked.

"Yeah, they don't finish what they say," the Polish bartender said. "They say half a word then stop. Americans and Canadians speak more clearly."

This wasn't, in fact, the first time I had heard this. A few people who have English as a second language have told me that same thing - I am easier to understand than English people. In some ways, I think it is because many people learn English by watching American TV shows, and thus become used to the American accent. Then again, sometimes I find myself struggling with an English accent, especially when they start speaking quickly.

Just then, another customer walked into the bar and took a seat. "Mate, can I 'ave a pint of Carling," he asked. I listened closely and noticed that in fact, they Russian was right. The last consonant tended to be clipped. It wasn't that the sound wasn't there, just that it was short and quick, like the last sound was spoken at double speed. Add to this the British tendency to abbreviate many words (veg for vegetable, goss for a gossip magazine, brill for brilliant, champy for Champagne), and I can understand how someone could think that the Brits are swallowing their words.

The Brit at the end of the bar continued to swallow his words, clipping the end sounds off them, and also slurring as his words as this obviously wasn't his first pub of the day. He talked at the bartenders, who looked at him confused. I looked at my watch and realized I had to go to catch my train.

"Good luck," I said to the Polish bartender, both wishing him luck in his future dream of living in America, and also in his current problem of understanding the swallowed words coming out of his latest customer.

Posted by GregW 13:11 Archived in England Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (1)

I'm not the Stig. Perhaps I am Captain Slow, though...

How my first experience driving in London demonstrated my Top Gear Personality type.

sunny 11 °C

I moved yesterday from Isle of Dogs to a flat near King's Cross Station in Islington. It's a nice place, right on the Regent's Canal. In fact, my room looks out over the canal, and as I type this, I can look out my window and see ducks swimming down the canal. The water is so smooth that the ducks swimming create a visible and long wake.

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To move, I rented a car. I don't have a lot of stuff, but it would have taken more than one trip on the tube, and with the typical weekend shut downs for scheduled maintenance, the trip would have required 3 trains, with 2 changes involving some significant stairs.

While the car made the most sense, I was quite scared with the whole concept. I've never driven in the UK, and only once driven in a car with the steering wheel on the right, and that was on the rather laid-back and traffic free island of Tobago. The car on Tobago was an automatic, and my drive in the UK would be manual. I'm fine with driving a manual car, but I'd never done it when I would have to shift with my left and not my right hand.

I picked up my car from Alamo. It was a Nissan Note, a car I had never even heard of before. It definitely did not look like a North American car.

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Most of the cars I see here don't look very North American. They are tend to be smaller, taller with wheels all pushed out to the very corners of the vehicle. The hatchback is king here - probably half the cars on the road have 5 doors.

Despite gripping the wheel with whiteknuckles and shallow breath, I actually settled into driving quite quickly. Shifting with the left hand wasn't at all weird. Despite fears I would constantly be turning into the wrong lane and face oncoming, angry and possibly deadly traffic, I found cornering fine, mostly because you are taking concious action when turning. It was when I wasn't thinking on the straight bits that I would find myself drifting to my left, mostly so that my position on the road would be to the left of the lane. Other than once when my mirror clipped a plastic barrier, though, it didn't cause any problems.

The scariest thing had nothing to do with the side of the road I was on, but rather the fact that London roads are small and narrow. Especially when you have a white panel van beside you, looming over you and casting you in it's shadow, things can get hairy. I would usually just ease off the gas a bit and let the panel van get in front of me, giving me a little breathing room.

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Good Christian driving, as James May might say. Letting someone in is something that Captain Slow might do, but not a move for The Stig.

If you are a boy and live in the UK, as I am (a boy) and I do (live in the UK), you will know how the people mentioned in the last paragraph are, and you probably know what happens on Sunday nights at seven on the BBC 2. You will know that Sundays at seven are when BBC 2 shows Top Gear.

Top Gear is a motoring program. Like motoring programs in Canada or the USA, they review new cars. Unlike motoring programs that I have seen in Canada or the USA, they do it in a very different way, for example seeing if you can get away from baddies by driving the car through a mall, or storming a beach with the Royal Marines. (If you haven't seen these clips - go to the BBC site, or find them on Youtube in not in the UK. I would post links to the videos on Youtube, but they tend to get deleted quickly due to copyright infringement issues).

As an aside, I originally would have thought that Top Gear wouldn't appeal to a female demographic, but I have been quite amazed by the number of girls here in the UK who watch the program. I won't go so far as to say that the somewhat childish program about cars has appeal across both genders, because perhaps there is something about the class of women I know that makes them more likely to like boys acting silly in cars.

The show is hosted by three automotive journalists. Jeremy Clarkson writes for the Times, and is considered by most the leader of pack when it comes to the Top Gear trio. Richard Hammond writes for the Mirror, and is the pretty boy of the pack. James May, automotive columnist for the Telegraph, is the bookish, fuddy-duddy of the gang. Clarkson, known as Jezza, and Hammond (sometimes known as the Hamster, but not too often - more often he is teased about his hair and his teeth (which may or may not have had work done on them)) call May “Captain Slow” for both his cautious driving style and the fact that he owns a Fiat Panda.

Often, though, they just want to see how fast the car can go. In these cases, the “tame racing driver” presumably tranquillised after the Monaco Grand prix and transported to Top Gear’s offices at the Dunsfold Aerodrome, takes over the driving and drives the car around the Top Gear test track. The driver, known only as The Stig, is a figure of much mystery here in the UK. His identity is a highly guarded secret, and is the ninth most asked question on the internet. Number one was “Am I pregnant?” Even had a video of the potential conception moment been posted on the web (which it quite possibly could be), I don’t think Google can answer that.

There have been rumours posted on the internet, most recently regarding Bristol-based racer Ben Collins being the driver, but nothing has been confirmed. All I know is that I am not The Stig, so let me confirm that now for the Internet. That’s 1 down, only 6,760,033,985 other potential candidates out there.

Since arriving in London, I have watched as much of Top Gear as I can, which is a whole lot of Top Gear. Not only does the BBC show the show, but it appears in reruns on another station (called, strangely, Dave) about 6 times a day.

One of the parts of the show I like the best is when they travel some place exotic. This often takes the form of a race, where two of the hosts, in some form of presumably fast transport, race against the other host in a car. Often Clarkson drives the car, with Hammond and May taking some other form of transport. Past races have included Clarkson driving from Alba to London while May flew his private plane; May and Hammond on the Shinkansen bullet train racing across Japan while Jezza drove a Nissan; Clarkson driving the long way around to Oslo while Hammond and May took the train, a ferry, more trains and finally a speed boat to try and beat Clarkson; and Clarkson and May driving a car to the North Pole, while Hammond tried to beat them using a dog sled.

Besides of the obvious comic value of these races (that Clarkson seems to win disproportionately), it is also great to see the exotic locations through which the races pass, some of which I have visited, and some of which are on my list of places to see.

They also do cheap car challenges, where they go some place and try and buy a car for some amount of money, and then do an epic drive. The most recent series of Top Gear concluded with May, Clarkson and Hammond being given 15 million đồng to purchase a vehicle tin Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. It soon became clear to the boys that the amount of money they had wouldn’t buy a car, but could buy a motorcycle. Hammond and May, both bikers, loved the challenge. Clarkson, who thinks of motorcycling as akin to loading a gun and shooting it at oneself repeatedly, was not amused. However, they all ended up getting their bikes and setting off on a 1000 mile journey from Ho Chi Minh to Ha Long Bay. Along the way, they obviously had to fed themselves. May and Clarkson happily ate the Vietnamese cuisine, while Hammond seemed to starve himself until he could find a bowl of Rice Krispies.

I think all of us boys in the UK who sit around and watch BBC 2 on Sundays at seven probably like to think about which of the hosts we are most like. Am I like Clarkson, the witty, acerbic A-type leader with definitive black and white opinions? Am I the good-looking, bass-guitar playing dashing Richard Hammond? Am I the mysterious, never seen, fast as stink Stig?

The answer for me to those questions is a big no.

I have noted that Captain Slow and I seem to share a number of traits. I’m a little bit dorky, a little brainy, not very flashy with a penchant for arcane interests. I don’t think I would have much hope of beating anybody in a car race in London, given the cautious, Christian driving, Captain slow approach I took yesterday to the white panel van problem.

That being said, though, I'm not so sad to find out that I am Captain Slow. After all, he was happy eating the local food and drinking in the local history, and in one case the local drink of vodka and snake blood. I like to think that I am the same type of guy - who will take the chances, try and understand the history and psyche of a place to get a deeper more meaningful experience from it. Even if that means I lose more car races than I win.

So, you can't call me The Stig, but I will take the title of Captain Slow.

Slow.jpg

Posted by GregW 02:57 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Full on Fun at Half Term

Sheffield comes alive with rides, music and food to entertain the kiddies on their school break.

This week is half-term up in Sheffield, which is a late winter school break for the children. It is like the March Break I used to have back in Canada, but with less March and more February.

To entertain the little kiddies (thus keeping the parents sane) and keep the older ones occupied so they don't turn into ASBO hoodies, Sheffield has put up a bunch of carnival rides in the city centre, with rides in Orchard Square, the Peace Garden, Barker's Pool and outside town hall.

I work right by the city centre, and the building we work in seems to be heated by the power of 1,000 fusion reactors, so we all keep the windows open. As such, I have spent the week at work listening to the sound of rock music blasting from speakers and kids screaming with delight at the rides. I can't complain, though. After all, my own six-month long half-term break just ended a month ago.

Here's some photos from the carnival, as well as some shots of Sheffield's city centre at night.

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The Sheffield Town Hall clock tower with some of the rides underneath

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Tickets! Get your Tickets! Tickets!

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Busy shoppers rush by the rides. Come on, folks, stop and have some fun!

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Spinning! Lots of screaming from this one.

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Burgers, hot dogs, fish and chips. Just don't go on the rides right after eating.

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The youngest even get a fun airplane ride right by town hall.

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The fountains in the Peace Garden, with the town hall in the background.

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Green space in the Peace Garden, taken last week, when there was still some snow on the ground. Luckily for the kids on half-term, the weather this week is much nicer, with temperatures almost up to 10 C late in the week.

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Town hall with wrought-iron fence.

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Stainless steel balls, covered with running water and lit up from underneath by neon lights. Millennium Square.

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Millennium Square again, with more of the balls visible. You can see the Winter Garden greenhouse in the background. I'll write more on that in a future entry.

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Spinning round and round on the Sizzler.

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Working on loading up the Sizzler.

Posted by GregW 13:30 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged events Comments (1)

How to Eat Like A Brit...

...or why I am lazy with my knife

overcast 5 °C

The most British sounding thing yet said to me since arriving in the United Kingdom was said over breakfast. It was this.

"You are lazy with the knife."

The comment was made back in November, just a couple weeks before I headed over to Arizona for my 2 month long project in Phoenix. I was invited out to breakfast by one of my flatmates, Pete. He had a girl visiting him from San Diego, California, and the three of us, along with another flatmate Chris, went out to eat.

I ordered the full English breakfast, which is oft known here as a "fry-up." The full English breakfast includes eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, toast and tomatoes. At least, the one that I ordered had those things. Technically, a full English breakfast should include blood sausage, however many places seem not to include the blood sausage any more. Apparently the thought of oatmeal and pig's blood isn't even appetising to the Brits anymore.

As an aside, or rather a second aside seeing as the whole blood-sausage-thing wasn't really pertinent to the story, Bacon here is different than in North America. Bacon, as we know it in North America, known here as "streaky bacon." Streaky bacon comes from the belly of a pig, comes in thin strips and is heavily veined with fat. British bacon, on the other hand, is back bacon, coming from the loin of the pig. It is claimed that this is the same as "Canadian bacon," though I've had both Canadian bacon and bacon here in the UK, and Canadian bacon always tastes more like ham to me. I think it is because Canadian bacon is usually trimmed into a circle with no fat, whereas British bacon is left as an oblong piece of meat and fat. The long and short of the bacon discussion is this - I miss streaky bacon.

Back to that breakfast in early November, I was eating my eggs, sausage and bacon when Chris said to Pete's visitor that she was, "quite lazy with the knife. Is that an American thing? I notice that Greg is quite lazy with the knife as well."

I looked up from a bite of sausage and said, "wha?", probably spewing bits of sausage from my mouth.

"You are lazy with your knife," Chris repeated.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"You tend not to use your knife, smashing food into bits with your fork instead of cutting it with into proper pieces with your knife," Chris explained.

I looked down at my plate. He was right. Other than the sausage, I wasn't using my knife for anything. The eggs and bacon I was using the side of my fork to tear apart. Even the sausage, which required the knife, I had cut into little bits right at the start of the meal, and was now just picking up the pre-cut pieces.

It wasn't always like this for me. After all, I came from a good British background and so I learned as a child how to eat like a proper British person. Over the years, though, living as a bachelor and spending a lot of time in the USA, I've adopted American eating habits.

Since that breakfast and getting called to task for it, I have tried, when possible, to eat more like a Brit, and be less lazy with my knife.

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So, how do you eat like a Brit?

First, you need to ensure that your elbows don't touch the table. After years of working in the United States, I tend now to eat with my elbows planted firmly on the table. My fork and knife stab downwards from there, kind of like Jason from Friday the 13th stabbing at young campers in the forest.

In Britain, you need to hold your elbows off the table, almost like you are about to break into the chicken dance. Elbows out, arms parallel to the table.

The knife goes into your right hand, the fork in the left. You cut your food by holding it down with your fork while slicing with the knife. Once you have sliced off a bite sized portion, you put the knife down, switch your fork over to your right hand before bringing the food to the mouth.

Once you finish chewing, you put down your fork to take a sip of your drink. Then you can pick up back the fork and the knife and move on to your next bite.

That is how you eat like a Brit.

...or, more correctly, that is how I was taught as a child to eat like a proper British person. Looking around, though, I am not sure that is how British folks really eat any more. In my examining how others eat, I have made some observations.

Brits do eat slower and more deliberately than North Americans. They aren't lazy with their knifes, they do properly cut their food, rather than tearing it apart with the fork. No more, though, is the restriction against elbows on the table hold. I'm fine with that, because it's always nice to lean against something. If the British are going to make me be less lazy with my knife, than at least I can be a little lazy with my elbows.

No more, either do folks switch their forks from their left to their right hands. As a kid, it always struck me as being as waste of energy. After all, my left hand is as good as my right to bring food up to my mouth. So the fact that the Brits have caught on to this, and now no longer switch forks between hands makes sense. It shows they are able to learn and make improvements. It is the same spirit of innovation that brought about the industrial revolution, the Spitfire, the flush toilet and curry as a late night snack food. Okay, that last one was more a transfer of an existing food to a drunken, late night snack, but still, it is impressive.

There is, though, one problem with not switching the fork over to my right hand. My right hand is more coordinated than my left, and thus there are times when my clumsy left hand winds up dropping food on my shirt. In those cases, using my stronger hand probably would have made more sense. Ah well, I am a North American, after all. Occasionally I need to eat like a slob, otherwise I'll shatter the finely-crafted feeling of superiority that the Brits have developed over us North Americans and our lazy knifes.

Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged food Comments (1)

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