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Friday, July 30, 2010

Time to Define Seeing the Elephant/Cornerstone #1A

To those who found my first cornerstone post, Time to Define Seeing the Elephant, a little daunting, I have just one thing to say: Lend me a tenor! (No, not a tenner, though that would be nice.) I'm talking about the play by Ken Ludwig that was revived on Broadway this spring under the direction of Stanley Tucci.

For some audience members, the highlight of Lend Me a Tenor is the epilogue. It recounts, in roughly 90 seconds — and zero spoken words — the action you’ve just spent two-and-a-half hours watching. As one critic put it, this "lightning-quick version" serves as the "breathless icing on an already hilarious cake."

Now the blogging medium is such that I can't do zero words, let alone extreme hilarity. But I can at least offer several breathless alternatives that might go down a little easier. Take your pick among the:
1) Reader's Digest version (C'mon now: just 229 words!)
2) Twitter version (Even better: 115 characters!)
3) Movie trailer version (For those who live in a visual world...)
4) Crib notes version (It's all in the labels.)

Reader's Digest Version (229 words)

What is the "theme" of the blog, sort of "adventures of expats and former expats"? No, not exactly, especially if we're using "expat" in a very limited sense to mean a person who is sent to a country through his or her place of work. Rather, this blog is interested in recording observations about what makes people uproot themselves from their native lands. I want to dig down and ask: what made you, unlike most of the other people you grew up with, a candidate for detaching yourself from your native identity to try your luck in a far-off place?

You don't have to be like the 19th-century farmer who went in search of pachyderms at the circus, though that might not be a bad idea as elephants are remarkable creatures. But you do have to go in hopes of broadening your horizons to include sights as exotic as an elephant, and be willing to run the risk of disappointment ("wrinkles and all"). More often than not, however, the experience of "seeing the elephant" fosters tolerance, and even affection, for the culture you are immersed in.

We who have seen the elephant should never forget how privileged we are to travel by choice. And once you've seen an elephant or two, it no longer matters where you physically live: it becomes a state of mind that you carry around.

Twitter Version (115 characters)

Adventurers travel to see exotic sights, or "elephants." They come home again as philosophers.

Movie Trailer Version


A YOUNG WOMAN stands at the entrance to the airport security gates with her MOTHER and FATHER. She is dressed in jeans and a tee shirt that says "Elephant or Bust."

Oh, why can't you just go to the zoo?

Ma, do we have to go through this again?

Take care, baby. Come back in one piece!

And so begins a classic adventure of Seeing the Elephant.


The dawn of a new day… in a new place…

An ELEPHANT lumbers into the field. Then the YOUNG WOMAN appears, wearing a sun hat and sunglasses and carrying a backpack. 

As she approaches the elephant, she tears off her hat and glasses and hurls her backpack to the ground.

Oh my God, oh my God, an elephant? I've been on the road forever, just to see you!

How do I measure up? Worth the journey?

The Young Woman circles the animal, taking in its ears, tusks, trunk, sides, tail.

But our young heroine must now face three difficult questions, beginning with: Is the grass any greener?

Actually, you're a little wrinkly.

She squats down on the ground next to the elephant, running her hand through the grass.

But the grass here, it really is greener. By the way, do you creatures eat anything besides roots?

Second: Can she get to know and love the elephant, wrinkles and all? 


Six BLIND MEN surround an elephant as a WISE MAN looks on. The Young Woman enters as each of the blind men is touching a different part of the beast — the side, the tusk, the trunk, the knee, the ear, and the swinging tail — and arguing about what they think the elephant looks like.

Is it a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, or a rope? It is all and none of these things...

Now what are they wittering on about?

And third: Can she defy Thomas Wolfe and go home again?


The Young Woman sits on sofa in her parents' house

The Elephant is also in the room, visible only to the Young Woman.

The girl's father comes in, picks up the remote control and switches on a video of Walt Disney's Dumbo.

Hey, does that make you feel at home?

The girl's mother comes in carrying a tray with cups of tea. The Young Woman reaches into her backpack and takes out a box, offering it to her dad.

I brought something back for you guys. It's tree bark. I hope you like it.

Thanks. ... What you might call an acquired taste?

The elephant trumpets in laughter, and the girl glances back at him. He quietens down.

How long are you staying this time, dear?

As the narrator speaks, majestic images of elephants fill the screen.

How long indeed?

Noise of an elephant matriarch trumpeting.

Coming soon to a theater near you.

The end.

Crib Notes Version

As the Japanese realized some time ago, it's all in the labels!

Blind Man's Tale: An instance where you as a long-term expat feel compelled to defend something about your adopted culture to the folks back home, knowing full well they'll think you're deranged and suspect you've "gone native." {Origin} The South Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Cornerstones: Posts that explain the blog's key concepts, including the etymology of "seeing the elephant."

Dumbo Culture: Observations having to do with the popular culture in your adopted country. In some cases, can also apply to your native country, especially when experiencing the Rip Van Winkle syndrome.

Elephant Seeker Interviews: Fun Q&As with people who have left their native lands or places in search of broader horizons.

Elephant Seekers of Old: 19th-century adventurers, with whom the idiom "seeing the elephant" originated. Most were traveling West to participate in the U.S.-Mexican War or to join the California Gold Rush.

Elephantry: The practice of joining the military as a way of seeing the world, with a secondary meaning of seeing action in battle. Notably, soldiers in the U.S. Civil War often said they were "going to see the elephant." {Origin} The branch of the army that uses war elephants.

Feed Time: New foods or food experiences that come from extensive travel, considered by most expats to be a key fringe benefit.

Fearless Leaders: Expats who transcend the typical expat life. They go abroad, immerse themselves in other cultures, learn languages, tell entertaining or informative stories to people back home, and then come home again to write bestsellers, become talking heads, etc. They are the exceptions that prove the rule "You can't go home again."

Grass Really Is Greener: Stuff about your adopted culture that you really like and have come to prefer over your own.

Rejoining the Herd: Trying to go home again after a long period abroad and confronting the inevitable counter-culture shock.

Treasured White Elephant: Something you've collected on your travels that's in bad (questionable) taste but you cherish it anyway because it reminds you of those days. You know that if you displayed the item in your house back home, no one would get it — but that only makes you cherish it the more.

Wrinkles and All: Instances where you come face to face with the ugly, less-than-salubrious sides of your adopted culture(s) and are confronted with a fundamental decision about whether you can compromise your core values.

Why Do Elephants Paint Their Toes Yellow? Any observation having to do with new styles or fashions — often lending new meaning to the word "outlandish." Can be in your adopted or native country (the latter usually after a long absence).

PLEASE NOTE: This blog also has geographical labels, which thus far include:
Africa | Australia | China | France | Japan | UK

#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Encyclopedic version
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat

Question: Would anyone like to propose a tagline for this blog? As we say in Japanese, onegaishimasu. Also, please feel free to make suggestions about the labels. They are not set in stone... Thanks!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant"/Cornerstone #1

I've developed a new test for friendship. A true friend is someone who gives you brutally honest feedback upon receiving a link to your blog. One friend that I contacted this week passed with flying colors. She wrote back: What is the "theme" of the blog, sort of "adventures of expats and former expats"?

My friend's uncertainty was a wake-up call. I realized it's was time to deliver what's known in the biz as a cornerstone post, addressing the blog's major themes. Check out the rest of the series:

#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat

SEE ALSO: Three-part series exploring the etymology of the "Seen the Elephant" expression: 50 Ways to See an Elephant, Parts I, II, and III.

#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant"

So, back to my friend's Q: is this a blog for expat stories? The answer is, no, not exactly, especially if we're using "expat" in a very limited sense to mean a person who is sent to a country through his or her place of work. The term "expat" implies that you have a career job (versus just picking up whatever work you can get) and that you intend to go back to your home country.

For me, these are rather tedious distinctions and not what this blog is about.

I'm aware of a certain irony in this position given that I've been an expat in my day — and on the strength of that affiliation, have joined several expat blogging groups. It's just that I'm wary of overusing a word that tends to conjure up a negative picture of the sort of people who:
  • Go into a siege mentality, "circle the wagons" and say: "Right, it's just us now." I'm sure you know the kind of expats I mean, the ones who live in a colony or compound, or socialize as if they do.
  • Enjoy slagging off the former homeland: e.g., "Is that what they call a train service?"
  • Become obsessed with the negatives of their new home country: e.g., "Don't like the police here, and can't get any decent ham."
  • Can no longer spell English words.
  • Are inclined to excessive alcohol consumption.
Now, I like to see pink elephants as much as the next expat, but again, that's not what this blog is about. (By pink elephants, by the way, I don't mean Sarah Palin's posse of women; poor choice of idiom on her part!)

Rather, this blog is interested in recording (mostly) sober observations about what makes people uproot themselves from their native lands. Candidates for seeing the elephant can range from people on lavish expat packages to those who join the military and travel to distant lands. Notably, soldiers in the U.S. Civil War would use the expression "seeing the elephant" to describe the experience of seeing combat for the first time.

I am not, however, interested in the pedestrian observation that despite our vastly different backgrounds, we elephant seekers share a yearning for a better job, change of scene, adventure, blah, blah, blah. I want to dig down and ask: what made you, unlike most of the other people you grew up with, a candidate for detaching yourself from your native identity to try your luck in a far-off place?

In my interviews with elephant seekers, each one has told me a different story. Beth Lang, for instance, said that it was an overwhelming love of the French language, dating all the way back to high school, that propels her need to travel every year to France and French-speaking Africa. She finances this peripatetic life by teaching French to college students and consulting for French-speaking African embassies, in between trips.

For Kym Hamer, by contrast, language was hardly an incentive to pack up and leave her home in Melbourne, Australia, for a new life in London. She can speak the Queen's English just fine — if you can forgive a few pronunciation quirks not to mention her rather country-bumpkinish habit of fossicking on people's desks. What drew Kym to the UK was not language but the history everywhere she looked as well as, rather surprisingly, the weather. She loves snow! (Fortunately, the London climate has been more than obliging these past few winters.)

As for David Hufford, both he and I were among the many foreigners who flocked to Tokyo at the height of Japan's bubble economy in hopes of working for Japanese companies. During the 19th century, it was common for Americans who were heading West to find gold to say they were "seeing the elephant." You might say that David and I were modern equivalents of 19th-century gold rushers. And, like our earlier counterparts, for the most part we failed to strike it rich. We quickly discovered that much greater profits for far less labor were to be found in other activities such as teaching English or becoming a foreign tarento.

A few more points to note:

1) Quality, not quantity. There are no set rules about the journey's length; what counts is how you approach it. That said, for most of us, it will require a prolonged stay in the adopted country (or countries), of which a significant minority will opt to become "lifers" in that place.

2) Broader horizons. Though the journey need not be to another country — it could also be to another coast, or to a big city — it entails broadening one's horizons in a literal sense, through travel. Recall the story of the farmer who tried to go and see the elephant only to get knocked unconscious by the circus parade, led by the elephant. That was extremely unfortunate, but the farmer still deserves credit for making the effort to journey by wagon as far as the town hosting the circus, a feat in and of itself.

3) A serious elephant fetish, metaphorically speaking. You don't have to be like the farmer and go in search of pachyderms, though that might not be a bad idea. Elephants are known for their terrible tempers — to anyone who has been following the news, the name Baby Louie should speak volumes — but on the whole I would contend they are lovely animals: intelligent, complex, and in need of our protection. (Perhaps Baby Louie attacked his trainer because he was bored?) But you do have to go in hopes of broadening your horizons to include sights as exotic as an elephant, and be willing to run the risk of disappointment (what I like to call, "wrinkles and all"). A case in point is that of Emperor Charlemagne, who, as explained in a previous post, became obsessed with obtaining an elephant. We can imagine he was less than thrilled when, upon its arrival from Baghdad, the creature pulled down the stone stable that had been specially built for its home. (I wonder if Abul Abbas was an ancestor of Baby Louie?) More often than not, however, the experience of "seeing the elephant" fosters tolerance, and even affection, for the culture you are immersed in.  Two quick stories from my own travels should help to illustrate how this works:
  1. I went to Japan and didn't see an elephant but saw a whale ... on a plate ... being served as a main course! To this day, I don't approve of eating whale. (I'd like to think it's because I refused to compromise my core values — only I suspect it's as much because I didn't care for the flavor.) Nevertheless, I've been known to defend this Japanese culinary preference, pointing out that eating whale is not all that different from eating other mammals. I call this a Blind Man's Tale — referring, of course, to that old chestnut from India, about the blind men and the elephant.
  2. I went to Japan and didn't see an elephant but met Hello Kitty. As explained in one of my very first posts, I have developed an inordinate fondness for the famed Sanrio cat and have accorded her the status of a Treasured White Elephant in my life.
Well, I've wittered on for long enough, and besides it's almost 5:00 p.m., time for making a G&T, a bad habit I picked up during my misspent years with other expats. Let me wrap this up with two concluding thoughts:

1) It remains a sad reality that the vast majority of the world's uprooted cross international borders because of civil wars, violence or persecution (even greater numbers of people are internally displaced by such forces). We who have seen the elephant should never forget how privileged we are to travel by choice.

2) Once you've seen an elephant or two, it no longer matters where you physically live: it becomes a state of mind that you carry around, a kind of elephant in the room. For some, this may be a burden — I'm thinking of soldiers who have traveled to the front and seen action and now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Whereas for others, it can be a source of enlightenment. I'm remembering my conversation with Beth Lang again. She sailed through the Monica Lewinsky scandal convinced it was no big deal as compared to the peccadilloes of France's political leaders. For still others, seeing the elephant can be a source of endless delight. David Hufford may seem an unlikely candidate for this since he no longer views Japan through rose-colored glasses. Yet he admits it can never be summer again for him unless he can partake in the sublime Japanese meal of unagi (grilled eel) and cold beer. For some things, the grass really is greener, and on a beastly hot summer's day, it doesn't get any greener than that.

Questions: Will the real elephant seekers please stand up? Have I told you enough to identify who they are through this post? And have I been too hard on the expats among us — do you feel betrayed? If so, I don't know what I was thinking, I may have been drinking?! And now it only remains to say thanks to Amelia for inspiring this post — and to everyone else, cheers!

#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" (Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions)
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant"
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Melbourne Girl Gives London a Burl, Comes Up a Doozey

This Australian sales and marketing expert, now a London expat, says that while the UK has its drawbacks — it doesn't offer the outdoor life and many of the natives are whingers — there are attractions a plenty, including, strangely enough, the weather.

Where are you from Down Under? I was born in Brisbane, then moved to Cairns when I was 9. Eighteen months later, Mum, my sister and I moved to Melbourne — so I consider myself a Melbourne girl.

What brought a Melbourne girl to London originally? A fling! Long story — really crap on arrival ... but hey, it got me here!

How long have you been in the UK at this point? Six-and-a-half years. 

As a kid, did you think you would ever leave Australia and make your home in another country? Dreamed about it but not as anything I ever actually thought I'd do.

Really? I was under the impression that many antipodeans emigrate to the UK. They see it as some kind of rite of passage. I didn't think about it like that. When I first got to London, I picked up a book called Australian Expats: Stories from Abroad, which charts 33 Australian expat journeys. The Foreword opens with a quote from Auden: "... To be free is often to be lonely." The editors point out that despite the loneliness of being an outsider, "to be free is also to be enriched, humbled, exhilarated, enchanted, challenged..." The desire to be free really was — and still is — a powerful motivator for me.

I'm in awe of your Auden (no pun intended) quoting ability. Where did you do your education?  Australia. I actually did two degrees at the same time. I applied to one of the first two-degree curricula offered at Monash University in Melbourne. I earned a business degree (Marketing) and an arts degree (Psychology).

It's refreshing to see a truly Renaissance person making her way up the corporate ladder, something that's also in evidence on your very entertaining blog, Gidday from the UK. What is your day job nowadays? I'm on contract for Associated News Limited, part of Daily Mail General Trust, a business that is privately owned by Lord Rothermere. I'm the sales coordinator for, a network of community-based Web sites. I've been there nine months.

Have you always worked for English companies, or is this something new?  I've worked for three companies before this and, come to think of it, all are of English heritage but were bought up relatively recently by overseas interests: Tetley Tea, now owned by the Tata Group, which is headquartered in Mumbai; Interpet, bought by the U.S. company Central Garden & Pet just before I joined; and Alpha Group, bought by the Italian-based Autogrill while I was there.

The U.S. and the U.K. are said to be separated by a common language. Is the same true of Australia and Britain? The problem for Australians in Britain is that we presume to speak the same language and have a similar culture — after all, Australia is still part of the Commonwealth. So when the inevitable miscommunications happen, they are more of a shock than if you were learning a completely different language and culture. Australians have a tendency to say what they think, and that can get you into some sticky situations.  It's been one of the biggest challenges for me, particularly in managing staff.

The United States may have broken away from Britain and become a republic, but I sense that my experience of London overlaps yours in some crucial ways. I would wager, for instance, that you are over-scrutinized by the natives on your use of the Queen's English. I'm sure you can relate to the trouble I've had with the word "pants." English people say "pants" to mean underpants, but for us Australians and you Americans, "pants" means trousers. You know you're an Australian living in London when you mention your "pants are wet" — because you stepped in a puddle — and everyone gives you weird looks.

Plus Oz has its own patois. I once told someone at work I had been for a fossick on their desk, and they looked horrified until I told them that it meant rummage around!

We haven't even broached the issue of Australian pronunciation. Another minefield. My boyfriend is English. Some time ago, I mentioned to him I was going to Sainsbury's to buy charcoal chicken (I think you call it rotisserie chicken in the U.S.). He thought I'd said "chuckle" chicken. We still have a good chuckle, as it were, about that. Australians tend to put equal emphasis on their syllables, whereas the English put the emphasis on the first syllable and then let the rest of the word fade a bit: e.g., South-Wark versus Suth-ock. (I'm referring, by the way, to Southwark, a borough in South London that is home to the famed Borough Market.)

But at least you don't have the constant ear-bashing, as I did, about the misguided policies of the government back home. Actually, do people in England even know that Australia now has its first woman PM? Ha! Not until I tell them. And given she's just announced a General Election, it may not be for long!

What would you say is the key difference on how Aussies look at life compared to Brits? Australians are MUCH more outdoorsy. They may not be necessarily sporty but we have this whole thing about fresh air. I love to go outdoors even in the dead of winter. English people have this annoying habit in winter of turning the indoor heating up to tropical levels and then walking around in tee shirts. I feel like saying, "Put a bl**dy jumper on, you twit ... saves money and the environment!"

Interesting. I feel the same way about Americans in New York Citythey seem much more wasteful of energy than citizens of other developed countries. So can you trace your roots back to Britain is that something Aussies like to do? My stepmum's from Ramsgate and still has various relations there. Mum's dad was Irish and descended from Bernadette Devlin, who was the first woman in Irish parliament. I should also mention that Dad is Dutch, so I enjoy popping over to Amsterdam and exploring the restaurant scene in hopes of finding the "home cooking" my Oma used to make. Bit of a mixed breed I am, as are most Australians.

After six years, would you say you've become anglicized? I don't know whether I'm anglicized, but my life is very different over here. In Melbourne I was always out and about with friends at the ballet/theatre/dinner/parties and never really considered myself a "home person." But here in London, I treasure my weekends at home. Maybe it's a combination of living here and reaching this age and stage of life.

How did you come to settling in Kingston-upon-Thames? I went flat hunting about a year after I arrived. I had been in a group share and really craved my own space. I knew when the letting agent was driving me up the hill in Kingston that I wanted to move in, even if the flat was  a hovel. The flat is quite small, but for me it is a haven, not a hovel. Kingston is also where I met my boyfriend, Jeremy. We chatted on each other's doorsteps for about three months before becoming a couple.

Besides Jeremy, have you gotten to know other British people well? Until I started working, my friends were mainly Australian and to this day my two closest (one of whom I met a week after I got here) are Aussies. But I have a mix of friends.

Has your relationship with Jeremy brought you any closer to English people and culture? Having an English partner (he has two teenage kids) has definitely increased my exposure to English ideas and attitudes. I don't always think about it, but then someone comes to visit from Australia and I notice how much my perspectives have shifted. Jeremy, by the way, is no stranger to Australia. His aunt and uncle emigrated there about 40 years ago, so he has Australian cousins. I would also say that despite his English roots, that man o' mine does a mean BBQ!

When did you start up your blog and for what purpose? I started Gidday from the UK almost exactly two years ago. I saw it as a way for family and friends to get to know the everyday stuff in my life as opposed to the "highlights package" I would deliver in sporadic phone calls. I usually post twice a week: there's an auto-email that goes to 10 of my family and close Aussie friends (who find "following" a significant challenge!). When I started, I found it cathartic and realized that I hadn't written anything that wasn't for business since I'd left school to go to uni. I loved writing in school, and didn't realize how much I missed it.

Do you still keep in close touch with friends in Australia? Not all of them. Distance is difficult, though I think if friendships are strong, they can be sustained. Mum and her partner have just been over to visit. We did some touristy things: Brighton, London Eye, Harrods. We also just hung out. For my mum, hanging out in my life and seeing what I love (and don't love) is the best way of coping with my being so far away. It helps her "see me," she says.

After a while, it can become harder to share things with folks back home. There's this e-mail I got from an Aussie friend: You Know You Are an Australian Living in London When… The answers range from "You catch yourself complaining, then cut yourself off, afraid you’re becoming 'one of them,'" to "You can walk into your kitchen, bedroom and bathroom by pivoting on one foot." That is absolutely so true. It really sums it up. Only those who've done it — i.e., moved to another country, what you have called seeing the elephant — "get" the challenges and the upsets that make up the expat experience.

Could you ever go back to Australia to live, now that you've made this kind of leap? I can't imagine living anywhere other than London, and I never thought I'd say that of anywhere. I love the cultural and political diversity, the history everywhere one looks, and having four proper seasons each year. That it has snowed seriously in the last couple of years thrills me, although autumn remains my favorite time of year. And nothing can beat the sense of celebration on a glorious English summer's day, as I'm sure you remember. I also think public transport over here is fab — you can get yourself absolutely anywhere with a bit of creativity. In Australia if you don't live close to "town," you really need a car.

Wait, doesn't Melbourne have four seasons? No snow though!

How does the food in London compare? Besides being more expensive... I don't eat red meat so traditional English food is a bit lost on me. I miss good Chinese food and I do think Australia has a real edge on lighter cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese and seafood. That said, Indian food in London has been a real joy to explore. I have also liked trying Caribbean and Moroccan food here, which we don't get at all in Australia. You are right about the £££. For that reason, I've taught myself to cook and even to make things from scratch. My latest triumph was taking a glut of onions (I get an organic veggies box delivered every week) and turning it into this amazing relish ... yummo!

So I have to ask: have you seen any elephants? There was an elephant parade in London recently, to raise money for saving the Asian elephant, which is on the brink of extinction. There were these huge, brightly painted elephant sculptures in Trafalgar Square, outside the Victoria and Albert Museum, in Green Park, and near the Tower of London, where I took my mum (that's where this photo is from). I've also driven through Elephant and Castle on the way to Islington to visit friends a few years back — but  I don't suppose that counts?

It does, it does! I take it that your various elephant sightings, metaphorical and otherwise, have more than made up for the trials, tribulations and hardships you've experienced on your journey. Yes, life has a richness for me now. To use yet another adage: "You know you're an Australian living in London when..." — wait for it! — "you used to think the grass is greener back home but now realize the grass is greener wherever you are now."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

An American Woman's Conversion to Football Fandom/Part II

NOTE: I'd like to extend a special welcome to followers of Pond Parleys, which published a version of this 2-part post on 7/11/10 (or 11/7/10). Pond Parleys explores the allegedly special relationship between the UK and USA. 

Am I looking forward to the World Cup championship game between the Netherlands and Spain? And how! Did I ever think I'd be writing this? Not in a million years! Herewith, the second part of the unlikely tale of how I came to join the ranks of football fans the world over. As explained in Part I, Why I Never Liked Football Whilst Living in England, I never paid much attention to the sport despite nearly a decade of exposure; on the contrary, I developed an abhorrence for it.

In Part II of my tale, I have settled back in the United States, the 2010 World Cup is upon us, and I find myself uncharacteristically drawn to this high-profile game, like never before.

PART II: How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup

I can't pinpoint the precise moment when it happened — or the precise reason, for that matter, especially as football still has all the same drawbacks I noted before: goals are few and far between, the fans are predominantly male, and jingoism reigns, particularly between the English and the Germans.

All I know is that my conversion took place as a result of my no longer seeing the elephant. Ironically, even though the UK is considered the cradle of the game (the English have been kicking balls competitively since at least 1314), it wasn't until I returned to living in the States that I felt comfortable giving the sport a chance. Though I have yet to make any fellow converts among my compatriots, I've got my pitch prepared (no pun intended). My top three reasons for fanning football are:

1) It's the World Cup, stupid. Living in England, I couldn't see the World Cup forest from the local English football club trees. But once you see the forest, there can be no turning back. Watching the very best players in the world compete, even a hardened skeptic like me begins to see why they call it The Beautiful Game. All that talk about poetry and magic, Spain's choreography and the marvels the Dutch team — it's not just drivel. (Of course, following the World Cup also represents a minimal commitment to the sport, since it happens just once in four years. It has yet to be seen whether I maintain my dedication to the sport during the interval.)

2) It's a much-needed distraction. Where do I start: the economy, the oil spill, the war in Afghanistan, the heat wave plaguing the East Coast. When the news is consistently rotten, there's nothing like a soaring soccer ball to lift the spirits, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of seeing a team, and a nation, carry off the trophy. And how thrilling for a European team to win outside Europe (a first!) and for that team to be taking its very first drink from the cup. Cheers and more cheers!

3) It's way better than the Olympics. If you are the kind of person who has been there and done that and seen the elephant, then chances are you are a hybrid of nationalities, which makes you an ideal supporter of international sporting events. You're game to throw your support behind almost any athlete or team as long as they're the world's best (and aren't cheaters). The Olympics provides many such events, but that's the problem: there's too much choice. There are mainstream sports like soccer (men's and women's), but then there are also strangely compelling fringe sports like curling and synchronized swimming.

The FIFA World Cup, by contrast, is a singular occasion. There can be no bigger stage, literally as well as figuratively, than the vast pitch on which this ultimate sporting drama takes place.

*  *  *

The other day when I was watching one of the semifinal matches, and the TV cameras were taking an aerial shot of the pitch, I suddenly thought to myself, that's what it must be like to be an alien surveying the Planet Earth. (Thanks to the buzzing of the vuvuzela, it's not so far-fetched to imagine cruising along inside a flying saucer.)

And do you know, I believe that if I were an alien, I would find the World Cup more riveting than anything else than the planet has to offer — certainly more than the spectacle surrounding the basketball player LeBron James (my goodness, how parochial!) or the vision of Roger Federer bombing out of Wimbledon (tennis, now that's an acquired taste!). But this sport, it's something else: on the one hand, it's simple and basic (hey, anyone can kick a ball); on the other, it's extremely diverting. Did that bald guy just make a goal with his head? And how is it that some of these earthlings have developed the talent of using their feet as though they were hands — now that's something worth beaming home about!

Stay tuned for Part III, to appear in time for Brazil 2014, in which I will attempt to bend the case for football still more, stressing its potential for opening up intergalactic communication and fostering truly universal harmony.


Do I sound like a true convert?

Are there any more reasons I should have in my arsenal? (Hahaha, couldn't resist!)

Last but not least, Spain or Holland? The writer of this blog is pleased to join arms, as it were, with a distant cousin of the pachyderm, a cephalopod who goes by the name of Pulpo Paul, in declaring: Viva España! (If you don't believe me about the cousin thing, then I urge you to take a close look at the proboscis pictured above, which for all the world looks like an octopus's tentacle — it functions like one, too.)

Friday, July 9, 2010

An American Woman's Conversion to Football Fandom/Part I

NOTE: I'd like to extend a special welcome to followers of Pond Parleys, which published a version of this 2-part post on 7/11/10 (or 11/7/10). Pond Parleys explores the allegedly special relationship between the UK and USA. 

Netherlands or Spain? I'm mulling it over. But first I need to contemplate how I underwent a transmogrification from someone who paid no attention to someone who actually cares: from football skeptic to fledgling football fan.

In America, of course, we call it soccer. But I'm content to say "football." If there's one thing I learned from living in England for nearly ten years, it's to use the English language with precision (in which case, shouldn't it be "foot-and-head ball"?!).

Anyway, it's too hot on the East Coast to do much thinking, or as one East Village bar posted on its door: "It's too hot to think, so let's drink!" So, herewith, an attempt to tell the rather twisted tale of conversion to football fandom, though perhaps it's more typical than I'd imagined? Part I today, and Part II — How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup — tomorrow.

PART I: Why I Never Liked Football Whilst Living in England

This little tale of mine begins on a dark and stormy night in the latter years of the 20th century. I am living in football-mad England but am rapidly developing an aversion to the sport, squandering my first real opportunity to see it played at a professional level.

Chalk it up to my contrarian nature. I'm not one to throw myself into chanting, banner waving, and other tribal behaviors before I've had a chance to study and make an appraisal. And it did not take me long to find things I was less than enamored of, including:

1) The game itself — the endless running up and down the pitch with hardly any scoring. I can't tell you how many times I got up to make a cup of tea, or dozed off, just as the one goal of the match was being made.

2) The fans — mostly male, many of them yobbos (at least that was the term in my day, I guess they are now called chavs?) and hooligans, not exactly the most appealing lot to a young American woman.

3) The jingoistic tabloid coverage — particularly when it comes to England playing Germany. I happened to be living in London in 2006, when these archest of rivals competed in the semifinals of the European finals at Wembley Stadium. The British mass-circulation paper The Daily Mirror ran a front-page headline "Achtung! Surrender!" over a photo of two England stars wearing World War II helmets. Just before England met Germany in this year's World Cup, John F. Burns, the London bureau chief for the New York Times wrote an article contending that such "rib-poking" has provided catharsis for the two nations over the years. Who am I to contradict Burns? He certainly knows English culture better than I do. It's just that I keep thinking about the late historian Howard Zinn and what he said about harmless pride becoming an "arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves." Yellow Red card!

It's perhaps worth noting that of all the reasons I came up with not to like football, none of them included the argument that has surfaced recently in right-wing circles in the United States, which is that football is collectivist and carries the threat of socializing Americans' taste in sports.

If I had to dig a little deeper into my reasons for not liking the game, I think it probably had to do with what drew me to try living in England in the first place. The moment they entered a football stadium, normally reserved English people would unleash emotions I didn't know they had, and it wasn't a pretty sight.

As an expat, I had a choice: keep skating along the surface, or else try and go closer to the beating heart of my adopted culture and see what makes it tick. But I had traveled to England in hopes of having romance and adventure — what I like to call seeing the elephant. Observing violent male bonding rituals wasn't on the agenda. (And I'm sure it didn't help that my arrival in England coincided with football hooliganism reaching new levels of hysteria.)

So I gave football a miss and moved on to cricket...which I didn't take to either, but that's another blog post (and a half).

Coming Soon: Part II — How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup, and This Blog Picks a Favorite!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Queen Is Coming! The Queen Is Coming!

I know, I know. We fought the American Revolution to get rid of the monarchy. But I can still get excited about Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Manhattan later today, can't I?

Things weren't always this good between me and the queen. I lived in Britain while Princess Diana was still alive, which wasn't the queen's finest hour. Indeed, the way I felt about the queen then was akin to how I later came to feel about Dick Cheney. No, she wasn't the British answer to Darth Vader, but I detected she was a control freak, who liked to pull strings from behind the scenes. Later, when the nation turned against her in the wake of Diana's death — a moment captured so well by Stephen Frears in his film, The Queen  — I wasn't at all surprised. Caught off guard, she had shown her true colors, and there would be no more Trooping the Colour by her guardsmen.

Well, more fool me. Your Majesty, you easily weathered that storm. Not only did you win back the affections of many of you subjects but you've won me over.

To what do I owe this volte-face? I think it dates from the period when I lived in Japan, another small island nation with a monarchy.

Living in Japan taught me:

1) The value of stoicism.
By that I don't mean stiff upper lip, which in my experience can come across as emotionally cold, dismissive, and snarky. Rather, I mean gaman — the Japanese word for people who display forbearance and poise in the face of adverse circumstances beyond their control. Now that's a quality I can admire, and even the most ardent anti-monarchist must concede that Elizabeth II has it in spades hearts. As a New York Times put it in an article announcing her impending arrival in the Big Apple:
Although the queen arrives in the summer’s worst heat wave, she is not the wilting kind. The dark hair has gone white and the shoulders are a bit rounded with age now, but her step is still lively and the face engaged on a reception line or at a garden party as she shakes another hundred hands and speaks with simple dignity.
2) Respect for the aged.
Japanese have an expression for talented older people: Living National Treasures. It's a meme we Westerners would do well to adopt — the idea that people who have made an art of what they do over time can't easily be replaced and so should be celebrated while they're still alive. Still going strong at 84, the queen has perfected the art of meeting-and-greeting and making small talk, in a way that may never be surpassed.

If I were to write a play about the queen, I might put her on stage with the 77-year-old comedienne Joan Rivers, who, too, merits Living National Treasure status. Both Rivers and the British monarch are experiencing career revivals after having had many an annus horribilis and being subject to popular misconceptions, such as the idea that they are mean spirited and heartless. (Rivers won Celebrity Apprentice last year, and now there is a film out about her life.)

But there is also a sense in which they could be each other's alter egos. According to Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote a profile of Rivers for New York Magazine, Rivers lives in a style fit for a queen, replete with live-in butler and stiff dinner parties with finger bowls. By the same token, I have this hunch that the queen would relish being Rivers for a day, telling people to their faces she's ambivalent about feminism and detests whining and victimhood and laziness.

(Ultimately, however, the queen has the edge on Rivers as far as national treasures go: her face is etched with the patina of age, a mark of far superior value.)

3) An appreciation for the fact that Britain doesn't have an Imperial Household Agency.
I was living in Tokyo when Crown Prince Naruhito married Masako Owada. I vividly recall many people expressing their concern about how this brilliant young woman would fare at the hands of the Imperial Household Agency, the government agency in charge of state matters concerning Japan's imperial family. A stickler for protocol, the agency had bullied Masako-san's mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, into having a nervous breakdown when she first entered the palace. Michiko-san lost the ability to speak for several months and hasn't been the same since. But maybe Masako-san, the popular thinking went, was more of her own person and could resist the brow-beating?

Well, around eight years ago, Masako-san largely disappeared from the public eye, reportedly due to emotional disorders caused by pressures to produce a male heir and adjust to life in the Imperial Family. Ben Hills is an Australian journalist who has published a book about the princess's plight. He reports she has been suffering from shingles and deep depression and calls her a "prisoner" of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Compared to what is going on in Japan, life in Britain's Royal Family seems positively touchy feely.  (That Kate should count her blessings!)

Queen Elizabeth's great-great-great grandmother Queen Victoria is a kind of patron saint to those of us who are inclined to chase after elephants. She got through her long reign by dint of her vibrant personality and wicked sense of humor — much more our style! That said, if all goes well Elizabeth will soon match her famous ancestor as the only other monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne. Long live the queen! 

Question: Does my change of heart make sense, or have I gone completely bonkers?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

In Which...Rip Van Winkle Tries to Do 4th of July, and Ends Up Caviling

Since coming back to the United States, I've had a hard time throwing myself into the spirit of 4th of July celebrations. It's not because I'm less patriotic; quite the contrary (see point #1 below). So can you just put it down to my being a caviling, "been there, done that, seen the elephant" type? You decide.

Here are my three main gripes:

1) Loss of the "Independence Day" aspect of the holiday. Every year, there is some kind of poll showing that Americans have forgotten the origins of this event that led to the birth of our nation, and I am freshly aghast. In the 2010 version, just over a quarter of those polled didn't know from whom we declared our independence — and some actually speculated it was from Japan or China. Goodness, in 1776 Japan was in a period of self-imposed isolation, while China was in the midst of the Qing Dynasty — a time of territorial expansion, true, but not as far as North America. (That said, China probably supplied the tea that the colonists threw into the Boston harbor.)

2) Fireworks. Fireworks are for oohing and awing, not for finding fault. So I feel a bit mean in saying that I am almost always disappointed by fireworks in this country. I believe I've been spoiled by watching ohanabi over Tokyo's Sumida River, the largest fireworks festival in Japan. Every July, rival pyrotechnic groups compete, each trying to outdo the last. Now I'm far from an aficionado of pyrotechnics, but it doesn't take much knowledge to realize that these groups have taken fireworks to a whole new level. The colors and patterns are spectacular of course, but so is the sense of playfulness. This was the first time I'd ever seen fireworks forming shapes: not only smiley faces but also sad ones, hearts, mickey mouses, cats, planets, kanji characters and even manga characters (e.g., Doremon and Pikachu).

3) Barbecues. I was and remain relieved to be back in the land that invented the barbecue after living for so long in the UK, where people are fond of their "barbeys" but the weather prevents barbecuing from becoming a way of life. My only quibble is that I wish people in the U.S. could be more adventurous with ingredients. I noticed that New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman had a column this week exhorting Americans to expand their grilling repertoire. Amen to that. I much prefer English sausages to hot dogs, for example. As British cookery Delia Smith writes, "the humble British banger is quite transformed with a smoky, crispy barbecued skin." It's worth noting, too, that Brits excel at picnic food. Again, as Smith puts it: "The number one requirement for food in the open air is that it should have lots of gutsy flavor." Personally, I owe her a king's ransom for introducing me to the joys of making potato salad with new potatoes and no mayonnaise, just vinaigrette dressing — so much tastier and healthier than what passes for potato salad here.

Question: I'd like to hear from others who have tried repatriating: have you found traditional holidays disappointing?

Friday, July 2, 2010

I Dream of English Cream and Gooseberry Fool

It's a stunningly beautiful day in New York City, and ESPN has transported me to the emerald lawns of Wimbledon for the men's semi-finals. Now I just need a punnet of strawberries and cream and some Pimms for the picture to be complete.

Actually, that's not quite right. I never acquired the taste for Pimms during my years of living in England, and the one time I had strawberries at Wimbledon I thought they were vastly overpriced. (This year I understand the price has gone up by 25p, the first hike in five years. Not good.)

Thus this post will be an ode not to Wimbledon but to the joys of English cream, which for me remains the one redeeming feature of this traditional Wimbledon fare.

Just think, I went to England years ago to see the elephant, and ended up being enchanted by Guernsey and Jersey cows.

Seriously, the Brits taught me an important culinary lesson:
fresh cream + fresh berries = sublime — or as Marie Rayner, a Canadian who lives in England and blogs about how much she loves English food, puts it, scrumdiddlyumptious.

Some cultures have fruits with cream, but the Brits have cream with fruits! Japanese, by contrast, don't get what it means to do dairy — which is probably why they have the world's longest life expectancy (sigh!).  Likewise, the U.S. is sorely dairy challenged. Ours is the land of mostly homogenized milk.

So on this Wimbledon men's semifinals day, I'd like to pay tribute to England for exposing me to:

1) A world where cream can come in more forms than you can shake a mixer at: whipping cream, single cream, double cream, extra thick double cream, Devonshire cream, Cornish clotted cream, thick 'n' creamy yogurt...

2) The joys of berries and cream, including not only strawberries and cream but also gooseberry fool. To their credit, the English figured out how to transform spiky, hard tart green fruit introduced from Holland in the 15th century, into a food fit for gods. Their secret? Add sugar and fresh cream!

But don't just take my word for it. Catherine Ross, an Englishwoman who lives in California and keeps a blog, Albion Cooks, names gooseberry fool as one of her top five foods everyone should try in their lifetimes. I am happy to recommend her recipe — with just three annotations:
* Instead of putting the gooseberry mixture through a sieve (which sounds too much like hard work!), you could mash with a fork or, for a smoother texture, puree in a blender or food processor.
* It's crucial to lightly fold in the gooseberry mixture, leaving visible streaks of berries and cream.
* The taste is even more enhanced if you sprinkle crushed ginger cookies (aka biscuits) on the top. North Americans might wish to use Anna's Ginger Thins, which are made in Canada, to a Swedish recipe, 0 transfat. (I know, it's almost as ironic as ordering a diet coke with a Big Mac, but with a dessert that is mostly cream, there's no need for anything heavier.)

Question: Is this obsession with English cream and the goosegog perfectly understandable, or have I gone OTT (of the milk)?