Sunday, October 24, 2010

Halloween Hints for Beginners.

Halloween is starting to become bigger here in the UK and I thought I would share some ideas and tips for those who aren't used to doing anything for Halloween. I know the idea of Halloween started on this side of the Atlantic, but believe me, the other side in North America has truly expanded upon the concept.

1. Pumpkin. First, get yourself a pumpkin. Now is a good time to find one, about a week before Halloween. If you wait too close to the date, there are likely only badly-misshapen ones, too small ones or ones that have started to rot and have soft spots. You can get it even earlier as pumpkins store well. Keep it dry and cool and it should be no problem to last until October 31. Choose one that is big enough to get your hand into easily once you open it up for carving.
2. Carving. Carve your pumpkin! I love carving pumpkins and you can really be creative here. But, if you are new to it, it's best to stick to a basic pattern. Rather than write here how to carve a pumpkin into a jack o'lantern, I'll just link to a good article on pumpkin carving for beginners. Tips for carving: Don't try carving your pumpkin more than a couple of days before Halloween, as it will quickly spoil once it is cut. And get yourself a serrated blade to carve the pumpkin with, as it will make your carving MUCH simpler. Here's a complicated one that I did a couple of years ago. I put it here just to show off, please forgive me.
3. Costumes. The Brits seem to think that Halloween costumes need to be scary. I disagree. If we want to look at the tradition of Halloween and costumes to scare away spirits, I think it's just as good to confuse them by not being recognised because you are in costume, rather than scaring them. Especially for little kids, I think it's nicer not to necessarily have something covered in blood and guts and just something exciting for them to wear. Plus, it gives you a lot more room for creativity if you aren't limited to spiders, cats, witches and ghosts. But hey, if you have older kids who want to go for the knife through the head look, I say go for it.
This next point might out me as an old fuddy-duddy, but I think home-made costumes are waaaaaay cooler than store-bought outfits. Maybe it comes from when I was a kid, store costumes were either very expensive (ie, Mom and Dad wouldn't buy it) or really lame. By lame I mean they were a cheap plastic mask of a character and then a even cheaper plastic top similar to a garbage bag in material with more printing of the character.
See what I mean? Do you want your kids to be seen in the 2010's equivalent? No. Make your own costume. Sure, buy bits and pieces to put it together but don't just buy a costume. Last year my daughter wore a red dress and had a mask of Peppa Pig and she looked perfect. This year, she wants to be a hula girl, so it's a skirt made of grass or ribbons (which ever I organise) and a lei and a flower in her hair. Done. Honestly, please leave a comment and ask for an idea if you are stuck rather than buy a costume. I'll do my best to come up with something for you.
Tips for costumes: If you are planning on going trick or treating in the costume, try and make it big enough to fit over a jacket. Not much point putting lots of effort into your costume and then have it covered by your winter parka. Or at least wear enough layers under the costume that you can keep your jacket open in front for people to see it.
4. Trick or Treating. I like trick or treating. When I was a kid I loved going to people's houses and getting the candy, but I also loved showing off my costume and seeing people's reactions. Now I enjoy the kids coming to my door and seeing their costumes. I feel seeing their efforts at dressing up is more than fair reward for a couple of cheap sweets. I don't feel it's begging at all; they entertain me and I give them a sweet in return.
Tips for trick or treating: For anyone less than 13 or so, I would recommend going with an adult. Depending on age, the adult in question can either come up to the door with the child or hang around on the sidewalk, trying not to embarrass the child with their existence. We would usually go around with the other kids who lived near us. It makes life easier for the people you visit too, as they can get a bunch of kids at once rather than one or two every minute. Back in Canada I would go to any house that had its lights on. Here, I would recommend just going to the houses that have jack o'lanterns in their window or on their steps. Since Halloween still isn't done by everyone, there's no need to tick off people by pushing Halloween onto them. So if you are willing to hand out candy to the kids, see points 1 and 2 above!!
The littler the child, the earlier you can start going out. I think that 5:30pm should be the earliest you start, with between 6 and 7:30pm being the ideal time to go. 9pm should be the absolute latest you knock on anyone's door, so plan your strategy from there.
We used to use pillow cases for collecting the treats. Strong, yet light for carrying. Slightly classier than a Tesco bag too.
5. At the end of the evening. Once you are done trick or treating, have an adult go through the candy. There are plenty of urban legends about terrible things people have given out for Halloween, but I don't know of any documented cases. Still, it doesn't hurt to have a quick look over to make sure there aren't any items like a lollipop that has lost its wrapper or a box of raisins that has popped open, both collecting more dust and detritus than is prudent to eat. If you are accepting people for Halloween and you are done for the evening, let people know by putting the light out in your pumpkin, taking it out of the window and turning off your front light.

I hope these tips and ideas will help some of you out there enjoy Halloween here in Britain. Happy Halloween and spooky good time to all!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Red Tape at its Finest - The DVLA

I'm feeling a lot of anger towards the DVLA today. DVLA stands for Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. They are the people who issue UK driver licenses. And they are useless.

I'm finally changing my Canadian license to a UK one. This should have been done a few years ago according to my insurance and they are a bit ticked off it wasn't done before. Ticked off enough to strike me off our car insurance policy until it's changed. So no driving for me until this is all done.

Okay, no big deal, just send in all my paperwork and my Canadian license and my passport. Within 15 working days, I should get my new license back. Of course, there will be the problem that the DVLA say that Canadian licenses don't specify if I can drive a manual transmission, so it will likely say that I'm only allowed to drive an automatic. Never mind the fact that Albertan licenses DO in fact have a classification for people who can only drive an automatic on them, that doesn't count according to the DVLA. I don't know what they want - to have sat with me when I did my test in a tiny manual hatchback that wintery afternoon of 1987? Of course neither of our cars is automatic, just like 84% of the cars on the road in the UK.

So I go and spend loads of money on sending all the documents special delivery and also enclose another prepaid special delivery envelope to get my passport back in (as they send that before the license is ready). This week there was a special delivery for me but I wasn't in to get it. I figured it was my passport but it had to wait until G was back from his business trip so he could chauffeur me over to the main post office in Maidenhead to pick it up.

I went to pick it up today and see that it wasn't just my passport, it was ALL of my documents. Apparently, I forgot to tick one box. The box that asks if I need corrective lenses to read a number plate (license plate) from 20.5 metres away. I left that blank for two reasons. One, on the form, it says if you already have a license, don't bother to fill that out. Their own form says to leave it blank! Two, if they had bothered to look at my Canadian license, they would see that I do have that classification requiring corrective lenses. But noooooooooo, that might mean they would also see that I'm not limited to the classification of driving only an automatic!

What really gets on my nerves, is they ask you for your phone number and email in case there are any "problems" with your paperwork. If this was not a case for contacting me, I don't know what would be?!?!

I am so steaming about this. So bloody blinkered and useless to be unable to contact me to ask me. Instead send it all the way back to me so I can once again pay loads of money to send it to you registered mail and be even longer without the ability to drive safely insured. Twats. Twatty twatty twattery to top all twattery.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

End of Summer Update

I can't believe I haven't posted in 3 months. Twenty lashes with a wet noodle for that. Well, the World Cup came and went, with all 3 teams I was willing to cheer for going out. May, June and July saw absolutely gorgeous weather here in southern England, which makes me not exactly happy with the lousy cold and damp August, but more willing to forgive and forget it. We had a very nice "staycation" for a week here, with day trips to local activities. It was really nice actually, especially since anything longer than a 3 day weekend usually means we are travelling far and away. It was pleasant to not have to pack like we were off to invade Russia, with every piece of equipment under the sun and provisions to feed the invading (colonial, natch) army. Oh, and I should give you a pictorial update of the allotment, including my marvellous pumpkin. Soon, soon.

I should hopefully be posting more in the next month or so. It will be a bit of a departure from my usual Colonial-based posts. I plan to take part in the 6 Items or Less Experiment (part deux) when it gets started here in a couple of weeks. In fact, I'm so keen on this idea, I might not even wait until they officially start it, but as I have a couple of things to get done before the experiment starts, I may indeed wait. More on that in the coming days and weeks...

In the meantime, I will leave you with one passing question more related to regular subject of my blog - understanding cultural differences. This time pop culture.

Why is it one of my favourite UK shows, Dr. Who, only does 12 episodes a season, but all of my favourite US shows, House, Modern Family, Glee, do over 20? Actually, there have been lots of UK "shows" that did a total of 6 episodes. I would call that a long mini-series rather than an actual season run. One of the shows I liked, Sherlock, ran for all of 3 episodes!! You know when they are doing another run? Next year, for 3 more!
Grumble grumble, complain complain.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

General Update

No big news today, just a quick note.

It seems I have missed one of the main events of the Cookham social calendar. Let's Rock the Moor is happening as I type this. I thought it was free in the afternoon, only costing in the evening. This was incorrect and you need tickets for the whole thing. By the time I realised this, they were sold out. It was starting to become embarrassing, with everyone I met asking me if I was going. So, no I didn't go.

The weather has been fantastic this week. Today saw the first use of the paddling pool this season and Mitchell's first ever go in it. I'm very pleased with my 6 pound pool; I didn't think it would last one summer, but this is the start of its third. Both Lena and Mitchell really enjoyed their splash around this afternoon, as you can hopefully tell from these pictures.

Now I have to leave you and get back to the football. Bayern Munich is in the final of the Champions League and I do have a soft spot for them in big games. 1860 is my team of choice for Munich, but you don't see much of them on the international circuit. Which reminds me, I have to decide who to cheer for in the World Cup. Australia, Germany or England?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Election Day

Today is the general election in the United Kingdom. It's the first time EVER that I have been living in a country and allowed to vote in the election, which actually made it a bit exciting for me. In case you are wondering, all Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK are allowed to vote. So both colonials in this house have voted.
I had just moved to Germany when the first election happened in Canada in which I was old enough to vote (the previous one I was 17). Since then, I've not lived in Canada and therefore even the times I voted, it didn't seem to make much impact. Living in Germany as a foreigner, I was not allowed to vote, which really cheesed me off. Taxation without representation! They kindly allowed me to use the roads and public transport and all those other things my taxes went to, but it still felt unfair. So today is quite a remarkable day for me in exercising my part in the democratic process.

I won't tell you who I voted for because part of the great stuff in this democracy is that I don't have to tell you. I will tell you that I found it extremely odd that waving my polling card was enough to ID me at the polling station. What if I had dropped it on the way and someone found it and decided to use it? What if someone had stolen it? Sure, it's only one vote, but it's MY vote and only I should be allowed to use it. Why don't I have to prove who I am?

I was excited as I went out this morning to vote, but it was also coming from other people. There definitely a slight feeling of excitement around. I'm not sure anything will change around here, we are in a pretty solid Conservative seating (hee hee, I'm glad I checked that link and didn't just guess at it, since there is also a Teresa May), but the Liberal Democrats have been gaining momentum so it could be interesting results. And just so he doesn't feel left out, the Labour candidate link too. Whatever the result here and overall in the UK, I am very happy I have finally had the chance to exercise my vote. You may consider it a right, but speaking from experience and from knowledge of the many undemocratic places on the planet, it's most certainly also a privilege. Go out and use it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Taking Part

I have been thinking about the subject of this blog post for a few days now and it's rumbled around long enough that I felt the need to put it down on paper. Well, not paper, on electrons perhaps is more accurate. Please bear with me while I give you some background information.

When I first moved to Munich, I ended up joining a Bavarian oom-pah-pah band. I was a member of the Pullacher Blasmusik, the local wind band for the town of Pullach. It was such a fantastic experience, I could write for hours (and probably bore some of you to tears) about why I enjoyed it so much. I played with them for all 13 years I lived in Munich. They were the only group I actually cried saying goodbye to at the end of our stay in Germany.

The reason I mention this is because if I moved to Munich for the first time today, it would be highly unlikely that I would join them. When I first moved to Munich in 1993, I found the band by putting an ad in the local free ads paper, saying I was looking to join a band. Nowadays, every one would fire up their computers and do a search. And for Germany, English speakers searching the web will probably come across the extremely useful and informative website of Toytown Germany. I am still a member of the forums there and they are goldmine to anyone moving to Germany. Not just for information about the place, but as a friendly place to ask the questions you don't know who else to ask. Like why do Germans stare at me? Or is it strange that I saw a woman in her 70s having beer with her breakfast the other day? And it's a great way as a new expat to meet other expats. Lots of them plan organised events and in Munich, they have even formed the TT Orchestra and Singers.

So if I moved to Munich now, I would probably have joined the TT Orchestra, assuming they would have me. Why? Because they would have been easy to find. Because they would speak English and when I first moved to Germany I didn't speak any German. Because when I first moved, I only planned to stay a year, so an expat band would have been easy to get to know people and less intimidating than joining a German-speaking (or Bavarian speaking!) band. But I am so glad they weren't around and I didn't join them.

Now don't get me wrong please, especially my friends who are in the TT Orchestra. I think you guys are great for forming and you sound like you are really taking off and doing fantastic things. Things I would certainly have enjoyed. But I would have missed out on so many other things by not playing with a local band. I went to Ukraine and France on tours with Pullacher Blasmusik and Pullach representatives. Because of PuBla, as we affectionately called the band, I learnt not just German, but Bavarian. This is a dialect of German that other Germans might not be impressed that I know, but most Bavarians certainly were. Probably the majority of my German friends came via the band. Being in the band gave me a good advantage when I applied for a job offered by the Pullach local authority. I even got together with my husband by convincing him to come along and join the band.

I moved to and stayed in Germany to get to know the country and the language, and playing in an expat band would not have done much towards that goal. I lived in much of an expat bubble as it was, with most of my friends being other people from countries other than Germany. PuBla was my best and strongest connection to the country I actually lived in and I'm forever grateful for having made that connection.

I know not everyone is in a foreign country to be part of that foreign culture. But even if you are there purely for work or for family, I think your experience is improved by trying to take part in the local (no longer foreign) culture. You aren't still at home, so you should try somewhat to make where you are home. Who better to help you feel at home than the people who are from there to do it?

I'm not saying that where ever you are, you should "go native". Be yourself and be proud of where you come from. But also accept you are in a different place now and try and be proud of that place too. You chose to live there so you should enjoy there. You don't have to join a local band to do that, it could be a local sports team, an art group, volunteering at a retirement home, whatever. It could be simply hanging out at the local cafe and starting conversation with the people there. It doesn't matter what it is, just take part in the world around you. Trust me, it's good thing to do.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

See the Light

I blogged a few months ago about how it's dark too early in the evening in the UK and also too bright early in the day. Finally, there is an organised group who agree with me and I am only too happy to lend my little blog space to shout their praises. is a campaign to push British time back one hour, throughout the year. Meaning going onto the equivalent of central European time for all intensive purposes. More people would use and enjoy an extra hour of light in the evenings than get use out of it in the mornings and the organisers (10:10UK) have calculated that nearly half a million tonnes of CO2 would be saved per year by all the lights that wouldn't need to be turned on so early in the evening. Plus, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (I will admit, I laughed at the name the first time too) says it will save 100 lives a year, mainly road accidents that occur in the gloomy evenings driving home from work.

I encourage everyone to sign up to try and get the UK to spring forward another hour. It hardly costs anything, would save money, lives and the planet. Is that a deal or what?

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Game

It's 2 weeks until the 2010 Winter Olympics start in Vancouver, Canada. Thanks to my friend Cristy for showing me this ad which really captures a bit of Canadiana. Even my Canadian friends who aren't sports fans will understand this ad.

For me, this really captures how I sometimes feel about hockey. Nowadays, living away from Canada, I don't get to watch much hockey. I did have a very exciting time a few years ago in 2006 when we went back to Canada for a visit. We were in Vancouver visiting my relatives out there and were supposed to be driving back to Edmonton on the day of the Stanley Cup final (that's the big trophy for winning the league, in case you don't know). The Edmonton Oilers were playing in the final, the first time in well over a decade they were there. Leaving on the day of the final was a problem for me. I was afraid we would be driving somewhere through the mountains, miles from anywhere with reception of the game and that I would miss the FINAL game. Have you ever seen Rainman? When Dustin Hoffman's character, Raymond is afraid he is going to miss Judge Wapner on TV? That was sort of my behaviour. So instead we stayed an extra day on the coast simply so I could see the game. They sadly lost, but I still was happier having seen it than not.

Hockey is the only sport where if the Oilers, my home town team, or Canada are playing, I actually truly care what the result is. I love soccer/football, I think it's a beautiful game and I enjoy watching it. But I don't have a team; G teases me that I cheer for the referee. Which is probably about accurate, I like watching a good game, I'm not interested in the result so much. Sure, I can and do pick a team to cheer for, but it's not like I feel cheering during hockey. Nor is it the same cheering. Hockey is the game that makes me shout at an inanimate TV screen. Hockey is the game that can make me jump up and down in a pub full of people, screaming and pumping my fist. Hockey is the only game where I feel if my team wins, I have won too.

So here's wishing all the Canadian teams good luck in the upcoming Olympics. Along with millions of other Canadians, we will be watching, waiting to be able to shout, "He shoots, he SCOOOOOOOOORES!!!!!!!!!!"

Monday, January 18, 2010

Michelin Star for The Royal Oak

I just noticed that The Royal Oak, Paley Street has received a Michelin Star in today's new Michelin guide. Congratulations to them, that is great news. I'm guessing the reviewer didn't eat there the same day I did, as I had a slightly different review of The Royal Oak, but it pleases me that it seems my experience there was very much a one-off. I'll be happy to go back at some point.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's Gender got to do with it?

(singing the title of this post to a Tina Turner tune...)

Just a short little comment about some of the inherent sexism there is around raising children that I've noticed in the UK. It's all about Mummy. Some many groups for young children and adults to go to are called "Mums and Toddlers" or a variation of that, but not varying on the Mum or Mother bit. Yes, I would agree that mothers are still probably the majority of adults taking children to school, playgroups and classes, but it bugs me. If I was a dad, it would really bug me. There's currently an ad on TV for a margarine where the TV celebrity chef (who by the way, must have sold his soul to advertise for a margarine) tells us how "Mums can collect the tokens" to help with purchasing cooking equipment for schools. Why? Why just Mums? Are Dads considered too incompetent and scatter-brained to be able to collect margarine tokens? Are female parental units the only ones watching that TV ad? I think it's nuts that it gets away with that.

I've currently taken on a leadership position in a group that defines itself using the word Mum in the title. As it most definitely isn't just for mothers, high on my to-do list is to slowly bring about a change in the name. I will still be leaving out a great number of adult carers by changing the Mum to Parent, but at least I will feel we are on the way.

Some may think I'm being petty or silly, but words are powerful things. By naming something with the gender-specific title like "Moms and Tots" or "Dads and Lads", you passively ostracize half of the population, even if that wasn't your intention and even both parents are welcome. I think by using a more inclusive term, people are more likely to feel included. That certainly is my hope at least.