Monthly Archives: March 2014

Gym rats

Fitness equipment or torture device? Unclear to me. Possibly both.

Fitness equipment or torture device? Possibly both.

Something weird has happened to me since I returned to the US. I started going to this room full of equipment and sweaty people called… the gym. And the oddest thing is, not only do I go frequently, but I actually enjoy it. How twisted is that? What has become of me? I’ve become a fit masochist.

Going to the gym strikes me as a particularly American thing to do. Of course there are gyms in other countries (I briefly flirted with the gym in London, for example, before standing it up for so many dates that I finally broke it off for good). And there are plenty of countries where fitness is an integral part of the national culture – Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavia spring to mind.

But in the US, I feel like “going to the gym” is more than something you just do on occasion, or even do regularly; it’s an institution.  Like buying a house or getting married, everyone seems to be doing it (or at least trying to do it, even if they end up defaulting on their monthly payments or suffering a separation).

For many people, it’s a lifestyle.  I’ve been going to the gym several times a week, which I think would qualify me as a “regular,” but somehow I still seem to be the least integrated person there. There is a whole slew of equipment there which I see people employing with ease and familiarity, like they’re using it for the thousand-and-first time, and there I am, fearing a fall off the back of the treadmill.

I find it ironic, because Americans have the reputation of being fat and out of shape, and indeed many of them are. But at the other end of the extremely polarized population are the fitness freaks, making up for the plump ones with their total lack of body fat. It’s as though the “normal” segment of the population, which doesn’t work out but isn’t overweight, just doesn’t exist. Or they exist, but just aren’t as numerous as they are in Europe, where I felt I knew more people who were fit without being gym-goers.

I presume this is because a lot of the “natural” fitness, which comes from engaging in the sample act of living, has been artificially cut out of daily life in the US. While Americans are driving, Europeans are walking or cycling. While Americans are taking escalators or elevators, Europeans are taking the stairs. While Americans are having their groceries home delivered, Europeans are carrying those heavy bags home. And while Americans are sweating in a windowless room on a stationary machine, Europeans are at home enjoying a glass of wine.

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Shssshhh!

Where is the mute button?

Where is the mute button?

I remember when I used to live in Edinburgh I would commute to work on the bus. There was one couple that often ended up on the same bus as me in the mornings. They would talk with each other for the whole ride into town.

The thing was, I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. I mean, I could barely make out any snippets of their conversations. One time I even sat directly next to them, but I still couldn’t manage to eavesdrop. Not because I couldn’t decipher their Scottish accents, but because they spoke with each other so quietly and softly.

When I lived in London several years later, I ended up dating and moving in with a mild-mannered British guy for a while. He was very soft spoken. A lot of times I just couldn’t catch what he was saying and I would have to ask him to repeat himself. I never got used to it, even though we were together for 1.5 years. I can’t count the number of times were were out together at a restaurant, sat across from each other at the dinner table, and he’d tell me something (probably something sweet and loving) and I’d say “What?” and he would mumble it again and I’d say “What?” and lean forward to catch it. It ruined the moment.

Of course there are the drunken louts yelling on their way home on a Friday night, but for the most part, I found British people to be very quiet. Not so for the Americans. (Surprise.) This has taken some getting used to. I constantly have to restrain my urge to shush people.

I was in a café the other day, trying to work, and a guy sitting behind me was talking on the phone SO loudly that I could no longer concentrate on my work. I wondered if he was on a long distance call on a bad phone line and had to yell to be understood. When I turned around to give him the evil eye, I realized he wasn’t on the phone, but was talking to his friend who was sat immediately across from him at the table! (Who, poor guy, wasn’t saying anything at all, but just quietly listening to this booming megaphone.) I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from telling the guy how utterly needless it was to speak at such a volume to someone sat two feet away from you. I wanted to reason with him and show him the fallacy of his ways.

Of course, Americans are hardly the only people in the world that are loud. I can tell you that Liberians are plenty loud, especially when they are arguing; Tunisians are hardly quiet, particularly when they are on the phone; and Somalis are, well, just loud all the time. Many other Europeans have the reputation of being loud (the Italians are the first that come to mind). But if someone is speaking loudly in a foreign language that you don’t know or understand, you just kind of block it out. But when it’s your own language, you can’t help but listen and follow the conversation. And resist the urge to snap, “Shut up!”

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It don’t matter if you’re black or white

Racial harmony in a biscuit.

Racial harmony in a biscuit.

The last place I lived in the US before my nearly decade-long absence was New York City, in 2004. Besides pizza by the slice, and bagels (which deserve their own post soon), the one typical New York City food that I remember and love is the (quite literally named) “black and white cookie.”

Actually, it is the “black and white” part that is literal, not the “cookie” part, because it is in fact more of a cake than a cookie. The base is soft and cakey and made from a batter. It is then of course iced with a fondant frosting, one half white (vanilla) and one half black (chocolate). The other distinguishing feature of these cookies is that they are over-sized (even by American standards).

These cookies are a New York City deli classic, but I also grew up with them in Connecticut, and I was delighted to spot them here in Washington D.C., too. I haven’t seen them in other parts of the US (and certainly not abroad… it doesn’t seem to have spread internationally like red velvet cake).  Regardless of where you are eating the black and white cookie, the eternal dilemma remains how to eat it… vanilla first? Or chocolate first?

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That was so horrible, I’ll have another one for free

I went for dinner the other evening at a southeast Asian fast food place where “build your own bowl.” You pick noodles, white rice, or brown rice as the base and then select from a variety of meat, tofu, vegetables, sauces, and toppings of your choice. Except – the server very apologetically informed me – they happened to be out of noodles. And – she hesitated before delivering this next statement to me, and I was worried she might be about to confess her guilt in committing some serious crime – they were also out of white rice. So, the current “choice” customers faced was brown rice, or… brown rice.

Mind you, the chefs in the back were busily working  away at cooking more noodles and more white rice as we spoke. But, the crisis was that noodles and white rice were not immediately available to customers. I thought about the many meals in Africa I ate where my only “choice” on the menu was rice and chicken or rice and fish.  But before I could even get my words out to tell her how little I was bothered, and how I was perfectly happy to eat brown rice (even though it was in fact my third choice), she was already re-apologizing as she handed me a “free bowl” card so I wouldn’t have to pay for my meal on my next visit.

So I worked my way down the assembly line and “built my own bowl” (on a brown rice base, of course). When I got the to cashier at the end, he handed me yet another “free bowl” card as I paid him for my brown rice bowl. Such is the American focus on customer service, and the degree to which American consumers are spoiled by choice, that I got TWO free meals to compensate for the inconvenience and indignity of being forced to eat brown rice against my will. Oh, the horror.

I remember how we used to rent VHS video tapes from Blockbuster when I was growing up (yes, I was born in the 1980s). Occasionally a cassette that we would rent would be old and wouldn’t play on our VCR. Whenever that happened, my mother would always complain vocally to Blockbuster. Each time, they would give her a free pass and she would rent the next video for free. It seems that nowadays you don’t even need to kick up much of a fuss to get a freebie.

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Down the drain

Just chuck it all in there.

Just chuck it all in there.

I was doing the washing up at my friends’ place the other day after they cooked me a delicious matzo ball soup for dinner. It was actually the first time I’d ever eaten matzo balls, and I can tell you they are very tasty. I can also tell you that matzoh meal dumplings make for a very messy soup pot.

So there I was, scrubbing away like the good house guest that I was, disbursing chunks of matzoh meal into my hosts’ sink. Ugh, I’m going to have to gather all this wet lumpy knaidel in my bare hands and dump it in the trash can. Yuck.

And then I spotted the light switch on the wall next to the sink. Or rather, the switch… FOR THE GARBAGE DISPOSAL! I could just shove all this junk down the sink drain and “insinkerate” it. Woohoo! (I might have gotten a bit overly excited and run it longer than was necessary.)

I had totally forgotten about this ultimate convenience of the American kitchen: a garbage disposal unit built into the sink that you can activate with the flip of a switch. No need to ever again sully your pretty little fingers by scraping gross grub out of the drain.

I have spotted “insinkerators” in some newer build apartments in London, and in houses in New Zealand, but they seem much more common in the US than anywhere else I’ve been. America is, after all, the land of convenience.

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The green holiday

Authentic color.

Authentic Irish food.

I went to my local bagel place the other day for my regular bagel and cream cheese. As I was waiting in line, I scanned the baskets of bagels of various flavors to make my pick. What will it be today… an onion bagel, a poppy-seed bagel, or maybe a raisin bagel? Wait, what on earth are those neon green ones? Is that a new flavor? What could it possibly be?

And then I remembered: it is Saint Patrick’s Day. And those are St. Patrick’s Day bagels. With the traditional Irish flavor of… green food coloring.

Yes, this is a real thing in the US: dyeing food green for St. Patrick’s Day. No, really. I’m not making this up. Beer is similarly morphed into a bright green color using food dye. Some cities even dye entire rivers green for the holiday, a well spent use of municipal funds. Today I saw a girl with green highlights in her hair, but I didn’t dare ask her if she had died it especially for St. Paddy’s Day.

It is as though the St. Patrick’s Day “holiday” has been distilled down to the color green, in the same way that Valentine’s Day has co-opted the color red, Halloween is represented by orange and black, and red and green are the colors of the birth of Jesus Christ. But, perhaps in the case of St. Patrick’s Day, it makes sense for the holiday to be so focused on the color, because after all, what American has the foggiest idea who St. Patrick is? And what are we celebrating about him? His love of green bagels and beer?

Well, it turns out St. Patrick was a 5th century Christian missionary born in Roman Britain around A.D. 390. He wasn’t even Irish. He did live in Ireland, working tirelessly to convert the Irish to Christianity until his death on March 17th, A.D. 461 (well, no one is entirely sure about when he died, since he was mostly forgotten immediately after his death, but March 17th is the date that is generally agreed).

So this is the man the Irish are celebrating. Or are they? A bit of historical research reveals that St. Patrick’s Day is basically a holiday invented by Irish Americans. The first celebrations for St. Patrick were recorded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1737. And the first St. Patrick’s Day parades were held in New York in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the British army in the US Revolutionary War marched through the streets to reconnect with their Irish roots. Today, New York City has the largest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world. Until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s day was nothing more than a minor religious holiday in Ireland (now it is a national holiday). Would any Irish readers like to comment on if/how St. Patrick’s day is celebrated in Ireland?

At the café today, I sat next to a guy who was chatting with his friend about the café’s offering of pastries and ice cream. He said, “Maybe I should get something green flavored for St. Patrick’s day. They have pistachio flavored ice cream. Pistachio is green.” Mind you, this guy was also wearing a green tie and a green ribbon medallion saying “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” So maybe “real” Irish people do eat green food on St. Patrick’s Day.

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Wifi here, wifi there, wifi everywhere

Worldwide wifi zone.

Worldwide wifi zone.

I remember when I first got back to the west from Liberia, I used to go into cafés with my laptop and, before buying a coffee, ask the waitress or clerk if they had wireless internet at the café. My inquiry would usually solicit some strange looks, sometimes a giggle, and always the answer yes.

I soon realized that I didn’t need to ask because it was basically assumed that every café has wireless.  I was comparing this to Monrovia (where I lived for the past 2 years), a city in which only a limited number of of cafés and restaurants had internet internet access (and everyone knew which ones those were).

When I left the US, internet was a thing you did in certain fixed places, like in your house or at the office. Now the internet has clearly become a thing that you do everywhere (and all the time). Whenever I connect in a public place, be it a café or an airport or a library, there are always a dozen or more connections to choose from; I usually have to ask not only for the password, but also which network to connect to. Multiple wireless networks?! Incredible.

I am, by the way, currently writing this post from a café (and no, I didn’t ask about the wireless when I came in; I save myself that embarrassment now).

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