Birds · British "stuff" · British Birds · Fitting In · Garden · Home · Life · Musings · Nature · UK · Uncategorized

The Bird Watching Diary

They are coming more often now to the backyard. My part in that being dotting more food stations and water around, and replenishing them more often.  They also seem to be moving more in pairs, showing off in a dance sashaying their wings, and singing in unintended chorus that make mornings so much more beautiful.  I will miss this when I go back soon.  But not to worry, hubby is putting cameras inside the bird houses (we have 2) and I will be able to see how they are growing their families. If I often gripe about how Technology has alienated people from one another, I marvel at how close it has brought us to our animal friends. :)  Note:  Magpies, I learn now, are not just black and white.  They have that electric blue stripe from the edge of  wings to tail.  As if they could get prettier.

“The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”  ~ Willie Nelson

"Britishisms" · Accent · Books · British "stuff" · British Television · British Traits · Entertainment · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Lost In Translation · People · UK

Quiz Love

I love British TV and one of my favorite genres is the quiz-themed.  For me, it is relaxing, and at the same, ironically, provides a chance for me get hyped shouting answers at the telly– cathartic when you’re in a country where you have no friends, family or work colleagues to talk to just any time.  My favorites (in order) are:  University Challenge (BBC), Mastermind (BBC), The Chase (ITV) and Eggheads (BBC).

I began to follow a full season of University Challenge (meaning, start to finish) last year. When I was in the US, I would catch it on delayed run on YouTube. I have also introduced a few American friends to it, and they love it.  Which makes me wonder why Quiz shows are not as big or common on American TV, but anyway.  I digress.  University Challenge got a spike (not just in viewership but in social media buzz) largely because of Canadian Eric Monkman and his team mates Justin Yang (also Canadian), Ben Chaudri (who has made “Nominate Chaudri” a popular byline when you need help with answers) and Paul Cosgrove (he of the bemused smile and closing-bracket sitting position) from Wolfson College, Cambridge.  And also the team from Emmanuel College Cambridge led by Bobby Seagull and his baby-faced teammates.  Monkman’s tight-browed intensity and booming voice is a stark contrast to Seagull’s smiley enthusiasm, but they seem to share an endearing lack of arrogance or self consciousness.  And altho neither team won the Championship — that honor went to Oxford’s Balliol College (led by Joey Goldman) — they came out with their own cult following.  The bromance also produced radio stints and a book  (which I must admit I have yet to get a copy, but I will).

So far this year, the show is at the quarter finals level.  My favorite team is Ulster University — if only because, or maybe precisely because, they are so out-of-the-mold of the teams or winners:

  1.  They are from Northern Ireland (largely under represented in UC)
  2.  Their average age is 50 which makes them often more than twice the average age of their opponents (“You’re never too old!”)
  3.  They are a very good, solid, cohesive and fast team
  4.  They are NOT Oxbridge (to point out the obvious)
  5.  Their spirited, excitable and animated expressions when they get a question right or wrong.

They have that underdog quality that makes you just want to root for them, because they represent the quiet and deadly potential, nay power, of the unexpected.  I really hope they win (they lost to St. John’s Cambridge, but still have another shot) or at least go through to the semis.  Go Ulster!

Books · British "stuff" · British Birds · Chicago · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Gadgets · Garden · Gifts · Life · Nature · Photography · UK · Uncategorized

Bird Watching

When I tell friends in the US about the “British things” I like or do when in the UK, I get reactions like eyes widening (or rolling) or raised eyebrows.  Drives home the reality that my lives on either side of the pond are VERY different, and this oftentimes makes my interests on one side of the pond sound quite incredulous to people on the other.  But I always say “vive de difference” as it is always difference, diversity, even incongruence, in life that makes things inviting and fun.  The latest thing I have developed is (get ready for this) BIRDWATCHING.  In Chicago, I don’t get the chance to see the variety of birds that i can when in our little village in the UK.  I can tell you though that at any one time when I look up the sky in the Windy City, I can see at least 3 planes flying northwestward over Lake Michigan, en route to Ohare International.  Mechanized flying things that roar, not quite as graceful as birds and their songs.  And so I started noticing these feathered friends from those daily look-outs from the window by the kitchen sink here in England, and hearing their tweets and calls.  What a refreshing treat.  Not long after my father-in-law gave us a colored poster of common birds (pull out from a Sunday paper) which piqued my curiosity even more. Add on a day at Caernarfon Castle with the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds) selling (and me buying) lapel pins of a host of bird species to raise funds, and the serendipitous £1 find I got from a charity shop (RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds by Simon Harrap) the very next day, and there we have the perfect storm of the birth of a new hobby.

Over Christmas, Hubby bought me a pair of binoculars, specifically, a NIKON PROSTAFF 7s 10×42.  They are not the typical small little things that birdwatchers can thrust into the pockets.  More the type you hang on your neck while you move around. They feel “substantial” — which I like, because they have more the feel that you’re holding a piece of equipment rather than a toy.  The best part of it is that it is lightweight, for all the power it packs in.  IMG_3358

I keep on the window sill the RSPB pocket guide, and a more expansive “Birds of Britain and Europe” by Rob Hume. I like that both books either describe the bird voice/sounds or illustrate their flight pattern.  Both books also provide a cross reference to confusion species or similar species.  I also have a small notebook where I have begun to note down the birds I have seen and where.  For now, I think the most special one I have on the list is the Great-Spotted Woodpecker which honored us with its presence when it came for the bird-feed pellets we have just put out.                                                                                                                            With his bold black wings decorated with little white dots, and a bright red crown and under tail — what a beauty.  We now have 3 feeders in the backyard, and we like to think it has become Blue Tits Central in this little neighborhood.  They fly together, and oftentimes we have finches, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins, starlings, chubby wood pigeons and even the odd pheasants joining in there party.  I am so looking forward to more of these glorious feathered creatures, in number and types, coming over in the spring and summer.

“…I keep looking for one more teacher, only to find that fish learn from the water and birds learn from the sky.” ~ Mark Nepo (author, in “Facing The Lion, Being The Lion, Finding Inner Courage Where It Lives”)

British "stuff" · Entertainment · Life On The Road · Photography · York

Bright Lights

We visited beautiful and historic York on Friday night to catch “Illuminating York“, an annual light and sound festival which alternates among landmarks of the city.  I believe this is the 6th year of the festival.  This year’s son et lumiere piece entitled “Rose” was designed by award winning projection artist Ross Ashton and sound artist Karen Monid.   The lights were played against the South transept of the York Minster where the awesome Rose Window is housed.  I truly enjoyed the visual and audio experience — the loudness of it, the brightness of it, just the hugeness of the experience under clear skies with just-right cool, jacket-hugging weather.  Unfortunately, in our rush to head out to the venue before the rush hour traffic, I’d forgottem to bring my (heavy-duty, literally) tripod.   Which makes taking any nighttime photos a bit of a challenge.  To keep my shots as steady as possible under the circumstances, I had either rested the camera on C’s shoulders or head, or at best, lean one corner of the camera on the ground while tilting the lens upwards.  Many shots came out blurred sadly, but hey.

Below is a collage I’ve put together.  Not all that brilliant, given the limitations.  Caveat:  they’re lightyears away from the beauty of the real deal so it is highly recommended that you catch it next year (or later) if you can.  :)

Illuminating York. York Minster. October 2010.

I’ve shamelessly submitted my pictures to the photography competition of the event.   100 GBP in photography vouchers at stake (you amused?).  Nothing really fancy, but think of the bragging rights for an uber-amateur like me:  yup, priceless.  To my pleasant surprise, I received an email from one of the reps asking for high-res copies of my shots.  I complied with 7 shots, gladly and with all the chutzpah that I can muster.  Even better, the organizers have humored me by putting them up in their official Flickr page, along with seriously beautiful captures.  Now THAT has amused me no end.  Please check it out:

Trust me.  It will be worth your while to see the photos.  Not (just) mine.  But those of the others. ;)

Illuminating York  Website :

Twitter handle:  @illuminateyork

Flickr page :

British "stuff" · British Food · British Traits · Lost In Translation · UK · Uncategorized

Ambivalently Proudly British

“Really rather good”

Originally uploaded by MissChicago

The Brits rarely hardsell anything. They are the masters of underplay and understatement. And even when they must toot their own horn, — what in the cut-throat world of marketing — they seem to be reluctant about going all-out.   I found this packaging on Marks & Spencer’s Rich Team Cream Fingers quite amusing: “Really rather good”. In America, there would be no qualms about something being “ooh oom good” or “finger lickin’ good”. But M&S proudly declare these little sweethearts to be, uhm …. “REALLY RATHER Good”.  “Really rather” sounds like an oxymoronic pair of adjectives that cancel each other out.  But somehow, knowing their British origins, it adds to its charms.  That tendency to false modesty which really translates to “Go on, YOU tell us it’s really good, because we’re not going to!”.

They are proud in their humility.  Proud that they are not proud”.  ~  Robert Burton (British Clergyman) 1574-1640.

"Britishisms" · British "stuff" · Canterbury · Life On The Road · Lost In Translation · Road Signs · Travel · UK

Sign Language

A couple of days ago, while walking down the streets of Canterbury (Kent) towards the center, I found this little sign by the under-serious-renovation St. Mildred’s Church:

Yeah, I too always thought signs best served their purpose when they are very simple notices.  If possible even understandable by older kids.  In the US, this same sign would probably read “Watch Out (or Keep Out).  Falling Debris.”  But this one looked, amusingly, more like a legal document.  “Falling Masonry”?  and “Inclement Weather Conditions”??  As I often tell the hubby, …. “seriously, who talks like that in daily conversation?”  :)

British "stuff" · Christmas · Gifts · Holidays · Shopping

The Hot Water Bottle As Heating System

I first came across it in the Next store in Manchester more than a month ago.  It looked interesting enough — a colorfully knitted, flat-ish, matryoshka-design doll, lying among the “specials” arranged by the entrance to the women’s section.  But when I lifted it, it was heavier than I expected and had a wobbly feel to it.  What on earth is this?  I looked at the tag, and, surprise, surprise …. found out that this knitted “matryoshkha doll” was but a casing that housed a hot water bottle underneath.  Curious, I asked the sales attendant what exactly it was for.  “It’s something you can bring with you to bed to keep your bed warm.”  Oh.  Ok.  How ingenius I thought. 

I would soon find that this in fact is a popular Christmas item in most stores — at least among women and ladies.  (Note:  Hubby didn’t know that these hot water bottles came in “designs”, although he DID confirm that warming beds with hot water bottles was fairly common).  That’s one thing I’ve had to adjust to, coming over to the UK.  I used to gripe a lot about how cold it was/is/can be here in the UK, in response to which the Hubby would often remind me that “It’s not even close to the kind of cold you have in Chicago.”  Which is very true, … and for a while there I couldn’t figure why it just felt colder here in the UK.  THEN IT DAWNED ON ME.  The reason was largely due to the fact that in Chicago, once I get INDOORS of anything — a store, a building, even the bus — there would be heat.  The condo where I live in Chicago has centralized heating (with each condo unit having its own regulator to switch on and off) as part of your monthly association dues.  Over here (UK), you have to knock the heat on and it takes a while for the radiator to get busy.  And you can’t just keep the heat on forever because it is expensive.  So we usually keep it on by the hour and dab to extend the timer if the house isn’t warm enough.  Of course, we DO have a small fireplace which mostly heats just the living room, leaving all other rooms cold.  So the best, most efficient, low-cost and maintenance way to warm your bed?  A water bottle, of course.  :)  Who woulda thunk?   

These loveable little heating systems are found in ALL the major stores.  They come in the guise of dolls, reindeers, cows, — and just as they are, hot water bottles but in their winter coats:

From Next:

From John Lewis:

For a while while searching I had thought TopShop was spared this wonder of a merchandise…. until I looked  underneath at the lower rungs — aha, there you are hiding….

And in that girl-paradise of a store, Accessorize (the stand-alone accessories store of the Monsoon chain):

And even the Charlie-and-Lola series have their own.  I found these in an indie store on Cockburn street in Edinburgh:

There is a  small side story to all this, closer to home:  A few days ago, at the end of an 8-hour overnight flight from Chicago to Manchester, I came home to an house underheated due to the hubby being away on an off-site project.  Extremely tired, I barely made it through the usual post-flight cleaning up routine, and finally dragged myself to bed, ready to plop and bracing myself for the cold bed.  Guess what little surprise I found tucked underneath my blanket, all filled up with hot water? —


British "stuff" · British fashion · Fashion


I read this blog post of an American’s observation on the British gal’s Saturday night attire.  I couldn’t agree with it more, and I just could not stop laughing.  Finally — my sentiments/observations exactly! — and I could not express it as hilariously!

Flashback:  Not too long ago, while in town on Saturday in Manchester (UK), I once commented about how “different” British girls dressed on weekends.  [Note: I was honestly thinking “slutty”, but the diplomatic “different” came out of my mouth.]  My husband (then boyfriend) beamed proudly and said “yeah, women here really fixed themselves nicely when they go out.”  OH.MY.GOD.

"Britishisms" · British "stuff" · Fitting In · Life On The Road · Lost In Translation · Road Signs · UK

Legalese In The Loo

“Separated by a common language” — how often have we heard that screech used to describe the divide between good ol’ Jolly Olde, versus the Colony across the pond.  You know the proverbial usuals —

“MIND THE GAP” instead of “watch your step”;

“TO LET” instead of “For Rent”;

… “TOILET” instead of “rest rooms”

and the list goes on.   I’ve seen a road sign that said —

“BEWARE : These Roads May Tend To Flood During Rain”,

and pointed out to C how “CAUTION – ROADS MAY FLOOD” would’ve made a much smaller signboard.

The uber-nice hotel we stayed in Canterbury brags of “Easy and Quick!” (note exclamation point) access to the Internet. But where’s all that quick-and-easiness that when the textually-challenged guide/instructions tell you this?   —


Yeah! — “24 hours from 12 to 12 unlimited usage”. (or 11 to 11, 10 to 10…. so on :)). Ok, let’s go through the instructions. Step 1, check. Step 2, check. Now, Step 3 — serious stall. “Select ARGUMENT”? — Hmmm, I had to consult the hubby on that one. Might we even draw swords at some point if the argument gets too heated? [Note: To be fair, the hubby confirmed that he, too, was “a bit confused” by the use of the word “argument” here, and that the usage is somewhat questionable.]

And then just last week, at the women’s restrooms at the lobby of the hotel in Falkirk, Scotland, that we stayed in, THIS sign —


“Whilst” is still happily used in everyday conversation. “Licensed Premises”? — ok. “Within sight of an accompanying adult at all times” — yes. Just dig it. This is all “PLEASE KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR KIDS” in legalese. or in English. :)
"Britishisms" · British "stuff" · Fitting In · Lost In Translation · UK

Lost In Translation

Over the weekend, C and I had dinner with Charles and Elizabeth at our favorite local Chinese buffet place, creatively named “The Chinese Buffet”.  Charles was C’s classmate from way-back when they were yay high in primary school, and Elizabeth is Charles’s wife.  I first met the couple when C’s friends threw a “welcome and post-wedding congratulations party” for us in late June.  This dinner was our turn to introduce them to one of our eating haunts before they show us theirs next.

As expected, dinner conversation (and bantering) centered on C and Charles’s childhood and growing up antics, their college escapades, and exaggerated stories about their good friends and worst enemies — the usual and expected he-men legends men try to concoct to impress their wives (hmmm….).  They also traded updates on their other passions (read:  sports) :  C’s motorsports, and Charles’s target shooting.  And so it went, until out of the blue, or what seemed to me like out the blue, the conversation went this lane:

Charles (to C):  So, are you now into property?  (the usual silent “r”– thus pronounced “propeh-tee“)

Me (thinking to myself):  Oh, is Charles selling us real estate?

But as the convo progressed, I found myself losing my way — one of those many moments of panic, now becoming common with me, where I hear English words, I know its English, yet somehow can’t really make sense of any word.  It was only when Elizabeth mentioned “silver needle” and its “exceptional, smooth taste” that I suddenly realized that Charles had asked about “proper tea” (since he observed that C and I were drinking Chinese tea), and not “property” as I mistakenly thought.  I found myself silently amused, feeling slightly silly, and made a mental note to tell Craig about how my ears have (again) played tricks on me with the sleight of a British accent (one of many).

So earlier today, I mentioned this to C.  And this is how the conversation continued:

C  :  What?  “Property”?  No, of course not.  I knew very clearly that he was talking about “proper tea”, you know — “real tea”.

Me:  Yeah, But I thought he was talking about “property”, you know — “realty”.

As they say:  “separated by a common language”.

My favorite window at St. Giles in Edinburgh.  All women, representing from upper left:  Spes (Hope), Fides (Faith), Caritas (Charity), then lower left to right, Veritas (Truth), Justitia (Justice) and Misericordia (Mercy).  Thank God for Latin in all that law school.
SHOW AND TELL AGAIN: My favorite window at St. Giles in Edinburgh. All women, representing from upper left: Spes (Hope), Fides (Faith), Caritas (Charity), then lower left to right, Veritas (Truth), Justitia (Justice) and Misericordia (Mercy). Thank God for Latin in all that law school.