Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hiatus for Karneval!

Hello dear readers,

I will be on hiatus until Tuesday of next week (4th of March) as I will be off partying with German K, Hong Kong P, Irish T, and others in Cologne for Karneval.

I will return with many stories, I have no doubt.

Until then though, I will not be posting.

Talk again when I return, enjoy your lovely time!


Iceland, Iceland, baby

I was going to try a different style of blogging where I focused on the main highlights of the trip, but I found everytime I tried to write entries for it I was mentally blocked. So let's try it the old way but with a different organizational system. Feel free to comment if you have preferences, readers.

Unofficial day 1 saw us landing in Iceland with half an hour to spare to midnight. All of us from London flew from Heathrow on the same flight, with American J coming in several days before to go on a photography tour.

Let's just say a group this big moves slowly. Thus was once again proved in getting off the plane, waiting for people's checked luggage to come in, then picking up the rental car. We'd gotten a 7-seating Mitsubishi Pajero (otherwise renamed "Partyero"). It served our purposes very well, though it was incredibly expensive because we insured it like crazy. Never can tell in close-to-freezing weather like this...the roads were icy and the wind extremely fierce. I am happy with our decision.

We then checked into the apartment that American J had checked in for us (and booked). A gorgeous 3 bedroom apartment right off of the main shopping drag in Reykjavik. It was the most awesome apartment I've stayed in...possibly ever:

Our stuff is strewn everywhere by the time I got around to taking pictures, but it was beautifully furnished with everything you would need: couch, fridge, dining table, fully equipped bathroom...even came with glasses, cutlery, cooking pots and pans, knives, dishware. A really functional apartment.

And it fit our group perfectly, as we'd planned ahead and bought duty-free booze in anticipation of Iceland's expensive food prices (just like the rest of Scandinavia).

We divided easily into friendly pairs - Two and Olive together, Actor and NonSequitor (who are roommates in real life), and American J and I.

There was more than enough space for everyone to feel comfortable and separate from the rest. We spent the most time here of all our accommodations, and I was glad it was so awesome.

It also gave us the perfect venue for our late night games playing, which ramped up the next night. NonSequitor and I had both brought normal playing cards, but the clear winner in group games play was Cards Against Humanity.

Actor had brought his own set, printed from the free PDF online and then handcut. They were a bit shoddy on quality (as far as the cards being the same size and whatnot), but they were perfect for our travels.

We also took full advantage of the complete kitchen, which included making breakfasts two mornings in a row - first it was scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, and toast...the second day was the remaining sausages, hashbrowns, and toast. We also made sandwiches with ham and cheese for some of our longer driving days.

The kitchen was also fully stocked - two types of tea, coffee and filters for the coffee machine, dish washer, cold cereal, plus all the milk and orange juice you could drink (we drank it all...).

I'd have to say all around this was one of the best places we could have rented for our group. Multifunctional and also aesthetically beautiful at the same time.

Even the kitchen appliances were hilarious. Yellow! Like a hilarious bird that electric kettle!

There was even a familiar site - my own nightstand transported to my Reykjavik bedside. Hilarious. Clearly the place was furnished by Ikea. But it did a great job.

They also provided us with little hotel-sized shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion. Man oh man did our group pillage this supply. We were warned to take conditioner for the Blue Lagoon (later part of our trip), so we took our stock from here. It ended up not being necessary though as the Blue Lagoon had its own supply (I'll get to that later).

All in all really satisfied. If you're keen on seeking this place out yourself, it's called Reykjavik Residence. Here is the website.

Anyway, that first night we finally arrived to meet American J around 2am. It takes about 45 minutes to drive from the airport to Reykjavik and Olive needed to practice driving on the right side of the road (literally...since Australia drives on the other side...like the UK).

We arrived hungry but happy to be there, so a group went out for groceries, the groceries we later made breakfast and sandwiches from. Good purchase.

And that was our start into Iceland. No aurora sightings yet, but we were hopeful.

Hello Iceland.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter M...Me!

After viewing an acquaintance's trip to Iceland on Facebook, I got extreme trip-envy. Iceland OMG! Right, seeing the aurora was totally on my bucket list and yet I'd done nothing about it since December 2012 when my girls German K, Hong Kong P, and I were in Tromso, Norway and missed them by one night (still a point of sadness for me, because they saw the best of the season literally the night after we left).

Fool of a Took! I should get on this now, while the sun's polarity is still doing outrageous things and sending more magnetic something something to the earth, making more Northern Lights for everyone.

And so I messaged all the people I had gone on trips with or would like to go on trips with: German K, Hong Kong P, Churches, Two, Olive, Books, and even American J. 

"When can we go to Iceland and who's with me!?" was basically the gist of the message.

I got a surprising response: Two and Olive were on board right away. Two mentioned how she'd just talked to Olive about it that day and now our dreams could come true together! So they were a yes and yes.

American J had mentioned to me previously that if I was ever going to Iceland I should tell her because she'd come no matter what. I didn't really believe her at the time (since many people say these sorts of things), especially since it's so far away for her (coming from San Diego), but when I messaged her the answer I got was immediate: YES, just tell me when and I will be there.

And so we had a starting trip of people going to Iceland. American J and I immediately discussed dates (since hers would be the most difficult) and decided on a weekend at the end of January that would conflict with nothing in the schedule. This was about two months out. It also happened to be a time when there was no moon, which means better chances of catching the aurora.

I passed the dates around and started researching flights (I do this quite frequently, regardless if I have a trip in mind or not - mostly I'm just curious to see how cheap it would be for me to fly to x place and check off my next adventure). Flights were kind of expensive, but this was supposed to be a once in a lifetime type of trip - auroras, dog sledding, weird meats! All the things I want in a trip.

Then I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Churches after the Christmas holidays.

It was incredible. I think I've already blogged about it...but even if I haven't, the general summary is this: most inspiring film I've seen in a long time and Iceland is now a must (it playing a surprisingly large role in the movie). This was the last straw in telling me this trip would be special, something different. I was completely and utterly onboard.

I suppose not so surprisingly was how long it took to plan things. We four started talking and buying flights and soon after Two and Olive's friend Actor wanted in and introduced his roommate, NonSequitor. As soon as we were all buying flights, they were onboard and bought flights with us. So we'd have a group of six.

Groups of six are difficult to plan for, especially when we're all different in our travel planning ways and in different parts of the city (or different time zones). Plus the added value of no one having met everyone in the group (this was the same situation as the Worldly Ladies dinner). It was kinda great because then everyone got to know one another while planning the trip then during.

All in all these were the personality types that emerged:
American J: keen on researching and finding the greatest places for us to stay and things to do.
Actor: keen on researching all the best food and more things for us to do.
NonSequitor: debating back and forth in a funny way about how he'd like to maybe do something or maybe it was too expensive.
Two and Olive: agreeing that everything is cool and they're easy.
Me: booking everything and getting stuff into the day planner we'd set up.

The research that both American J and Actor did was incredible. Our trip was a complete success because they did so much planning and decision-making. After I turned in my graduate school app, I was all for setting down the plans and making them real. We even met for dim sum and coffee after (those of us in London) to sketch out the last details and divide the action points. Got everything done on time and that was that.

And then it was time to leave! Several weeks went by and we were all setting off. Great stuff. The plan was set and we gathered at the airport.

Our Iceland adventure was about to begin. And how magnificent it was.

Friday, February 21, 2014

After all this time, I do love you, Don

Let's see if this works! :)


My mom sent me an article via email several months ago that I only recently got around to reading (this happens sometimes, especially when I'm busy - I get sent articles that people think would be interesting to me, and having the compulsive need to have a zero-unread sum in my inbox all the time, I keep them in my inbox for later reading).

The article, here, outlines London and why it is different than the rest of the UK (or how it's not different, as the case sometimes is).

I've realized that over my 11 months of being here...I have learned to love it. It was a difficult journey for a number of reasons, which I'll outline in just a second, but actually...I do love it here.

This is somewhat of a shock to me, since I had such a vehement dislike of it from the get go. I think a lot of this had to do with high expectations - Helsinki was smooth to integrate into, why would London be any harder, especially when everyone speaks the same language which is my language - English.

Because of these reasons:

  • I already had some connections in London from my friends in Helsinki, but at the end of the day the idea about friendship and connections is different in the UK. Everyone is so busy and interested in being established with a stable group that no one is interested in being your friend. This is in direct contrast to Finland, where all the expats know each other and are open with each other because we're all in the same boat. There is an expectation that you may not stick around for long, but as long as you're here I'll be friendly with you. This is not the case in London - people are busy, have no time for you in their busy schedules, and have usually established friends long ago, which they are extremely loyal to. No room for you, in other words.

  • The dating game is completely different, and strangely, more difficult to understand and play in. In Helsinki it was easy enough for me to find people I wanted to date - the expat community was open and friendly (2% of 500,000 people is enough people to usually find someone you'd like), plus the dating game of Finnish men is fairly simple: I stare at you if I'm interested, and even if I say nothing, I am curious at the least. I will only say something when I'm drunk enough or I've traveled enough not to be afraid of talking to you. Britain is a whole other matter - lots of talking and very very subtle hints, if hints at all. The men here are so afraid of offending you that they say everything they think you want to hear but what they should say. Directness is not honored here; you may never know when someone is interested in you until years later, and by then it is likely too late. Also, long term relationships are only valued by those who are interested in having one with you. Everything else is dismissed as casual. It is not clear which one you are in until the end.

  • Complaining is part of the talking culture as well. They always want things to be better than they are and they will vocalize it. Finns think there is beauty in most things; the appreciation is palpable. Perhaps this makes them less ambitious in many ways, but at least they don't complain about things either.

  • British English and American English are not, in fact, the same thing. They're not even similar. Yes the words are the same but they could mean something completely different. And honestly, most of the time the words aren't even the same. We are literally speaking two different languages. Getting things like "chips, boot, pants, and biscuit" misunderstood actually goes a long way in miscommunication. Sometimes it's funny, most times it's awkward. Imagine talking to someone who is using all words you recognize but they have completely different meanings. 

  • If you are not going along with the culture, it will be pointed out. To you. This is one of the things I struggled with the most - if I wasn't playing along with British culture, it was very obnoxiously pointed out to me that I was doing it wrong. Someone who notices will make you feel embarrassed about it. The shaming is endless. I have learned to live with the fact that I'm interested in compromising and playing along with some things, but definitely not all. Accept me for who I am - I am not from your country, why would you expect me to act as such?
To be honest I could go on for ages about this, and my intent was not to directly compare Finland/Helsinki to London and say that it is better. I merely mean that I had an easier time there because people are direct, only say what they mean, speak American English (instead of British), and don't have many thoughts about immigration that are negative.

But through all that, I have still come to the point where I really enjoy living here in London. The manager that hired me for my current position is Australian and has lived in Helsinki, London, and now lives in San Francisco. He says that though London was one of the hardest to live in from the beginning, it also leaves the biggest impression on you; you'll miss it more than anywhere else you've lived.

I have a feeling he's right. Because my time here has now been transformed to the positive, and though I would be fine with leaving it for the sunny shores of somewhere else (like home in California), I do imagine thinking a smaller scale of life could be both relieving and painful.

And I have survived and come to appreciate this city for these reasons:

  • I finally made good friends who I could count on and feel connected to. This took months and months of socializing and putting in effort to meet like-people. But I did it, and now have a very good established group of friends here in London. It's bigger, more diverse, and more open than my Helsinki crew.

  • I picked up some British Englishcisms but have mostly kept my American accent and vocabulary. I think of it now as being exotic, rather than outcasted.

  • I have found an easier way to explore the activities I am interested in, in a city where information is being blasted at you all the time. I renewed my love of Groupons and local deals which help me discover things I would want to discover. Before I found a system that worked it was just overwhelming and I felt like I was always missing out on things because I would hear about them too late. Needless to say there are endless things to do here in London, assuming you have the money to do them. And now I take advantage of them.

  • This goes for many aspects in my life: I've found a system that works. I know the transportation systems well enough that I can easily figure out how to get where I'm going without mapping every single time. I bring a book with me everytime I know I'm going to be traveling for awhile because things just take time. I have a farmers market near my house that gives me local fresh organic produce and meats and supplement it with small amounts of local grocery shopping. I didn't even bother to do this in Finland. I rediscovered my love of cooking because of it. I've also figured out where to donate my used books and sell my clothes and other unwanted textiles. I have a place to do all the things I really need to do. And can get to them easily.

  • I have a plan and a reason for being here. I moved for my job originally, which was good and dandy, but at the end of the day I started questioning if my job should be the highest priority in my life: dictating where I needed to live or find love or do anything for my future. After applying for grad school, I realized the answer was there all along. I just needed to take hold of it and make it realized, no matter where I was. And now is the time for me to go back to school (while still working). This is something I truly want and am working towards; it's like having a life again that does not solely revolve around my job.

  • I can travel just as easily anywhere I really want to go, and for not so much money. I live right off of the Heathrow Connect train line and think it was one of the best decisions I've made about where I live. Also the buying of my annual rail pass - I'm pretty sure it's made up its monthly fee by giving me discounts everytime I need to go to the airport (which is frequently...I've kept up with traveling about once a month like I did in Finland).

So at the end of the day, I am happy to be here. It gives me a place to plant my hopes and dreams, and allows me to do basically anything I would want to do. The city is my oyster, and I fully intend to explore it and take advantage of everything it has to offer.

I'm glad I've come to this realization sooner rather than later. Thank you Don, for teaching me the hard way, but in a way that I will surely remember for the rest of my life.

I think this is going to work out. :)

Technical difficulties

I posted this morning from my phone but it doesn't seem to have gone through. In the midst of figuring out how to do this correctly, since it doesn't seem to be syncing. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Rediscovering childhood fancies

This past weekend Two and I made plans to get together after we were both too unmotivated and tired to go to the latest Internations event, which kicked off the day before. I fully confess to becoming one with my sofa and not having the interest to go back out. This is the danger of going home first then attempting to go out afterwards. It almost never happens.

So the next day we made plans to have a movie marathon at mine and meet earlier in the afternoon for some museum exploring. I have still never really seen the permanent collections at the V&A (my favorite museum here so far for sure) and Two has a fancy membership there that allows us to get into the paid (and unpaid) collections for free. Booyah.

As we wandered the large halls of room after room of glassware, ceramics, Renaissance sculpture, classical paintings, and other historical oddities of excellence and intrigue, we finally found a section that would have made my younger self squeal with delight. I still did kind of do that:

Hundreds and hundreds...of skeleton keys and their fancy accompanying locks. My god. I was in key heaven. The collection they have here is extensive, beautifully preserved, and incredibly intricate.

I will fully confess to having a complete dork-out in the middle of this section. I could not even comprehend the level of excellence that was around me.

Locks like these were made by students trying to get apprenticeships with locksmiths. These weren't even made to be used! These were like someone's final project before graduation!

They were fabulously intricate. Many of them had themes - looking like facades of the buildings they were intending to go on (cathedrals, government buildings, people's own fancy homes).

And the keys, my goodness. So delicately wrought and with so much design and detail. I fell in love immediately - here I thought my collection of 20+ was decent, but no way. None of my keys even came close to the likes of these.

Lastly Two walked me through the collections until we found this treasure, which she'd seen and was interested in before. This is a special lock that not only hid all of its mechanisms behind the figure of the man (you doff his hat to start opening the mechanism then kick his leg forward to get to the keyhole), but also counted the number of times it had been opened, letting the master know if the goods inside had been tampered with since last locking. When the counter reached 100 the lock would hold fast until it had been reset, which was hidden under yet another part of the man's body.

So incredibly clever. And here we thought our locks with their USB keys were so fancy nowadays, this is way cooler!

But enough gushing about my childhood fancy. I'll certainly have to go back to the V&A now, if only to explore more their older collections of wonders like these.

Another nerdy adventure

It was that time again; two months had passed since the last Nerd Nite and we were all keen to convene together for some learning and excitement. Two and I had even planned well enough where we bought the early bird tickets, a frugal £5 per ticket instead of £6. I urged Two to buy our tickets then because we would be saving a pound. Yes, I was that cheap nerd who wanted a discounted ticket since we were looking ahead. And so it was.

Our night started off with dinner first, as it has started to become custom. Two suggested we eat at the Queen of Hoxton, which was off of Liverpool Street station and on our walk to the Nerd Nite venue (Paperdress Vintage, the same used clothing store where it always meets).

I successfully mapped myself there with ease. It was wonderful, finally not being lost.

I should know by now though that Two and Olive never make it to anything on time, so I should always expect that arriving a solid 10-20 minutes late will still be before them. I have still not taken this into practice though, which is somewhat irritating to me. Next time for sure.

The Queen of Hoxton was not what I expected. I had thought we were going to a pub of some kind with traditional pub eats. No no no. The place I stepped into was a disco-ball lit bar, with seemingly no food menu. Seeing as how Two had suggested this place immediately and said we would have dinner there, I couldn't see where the edible part of this establishment began.

Then we went all the way to the roof and there it was: a teepee with the largest grill I've seen yet.

The floor was covered in wood chips (even though underneath you could tell it was wood laminate, at the very least). The entire place was gloriously cozy and small (as teepees are). Hole in the ceiling for the smoke from the massive grill to go. Wooden tables with little button-mushroom stools for people to sit on. Little stand where you could order food and hot drinks. Very dimly lit. Amazing, in other words.

The pictures don't accurately portray how dark it was in there. I thought it was cozy but Two thought it was too dark. Well, depends what you're looking for, I guess.

The massive grill provided all items on the menu that were available for that day. There were a few daily-available items as well as a special dish just for that day. It being Wednesday our special was venison burgers with red currant sauce. The other items to order were a Norwegian lamb stew and a salmon with dill burger. Not catering too hard to the vegetarians, it seems.

Olive ordered us some hot drinks while I stood in line for food - I was so hungry. Knowing that we'd likely be going out to dinner before hitting Nerd Nite, I purposefully only ate fresh fruit and cold cereal while at work. I was starving, in other words. Needed real sustenance.

So I ordered the venison burger and dressed my buns as I waited for the patty to finish cooking. I smeared on tons of mayo and a hearty blop of red currant sauce. The burgers smelled fantastic. I also noticed sausages grilling that I hadn't noticed on the menu. Not that it would have really stopped me from getting the burger anyhow.

Olive ordered different drinks for each of us, as per request. Two got a hot buttered rum (which I've realized actually does in fact have butter in it...and tastes like fantastic cookies). Olive got an ice cold Heinekein, which I've realized comes in aluminum bottles here instead of glass bottles. I wanted to get a hot pumpkin drink but they were out of it. So I got the gin mulled wine. It was fabulous and warm and tartly sweet. Like it had tons of citrus juice in it. Even when it became not as warm and merely room temperature, it still felt warm going down because of the gin. I like this.

The burger was worth its few minutes of waiting; it was absolutely fabulous. I have no pictures of it, because it's a manual job that requires hands and I was already afraid of sauce falling onto my clothes, but this was definitely the juiciest burger I've had in recent memory. Tender, juicy, soft, extremely flavorful. My mouth is watering just remembering it. The mayo and red current sauce were a perfect complement as well; the fruity tartness and the smooth creaminess. Even without any other embellishments, this was a fantastic burger.

Our next stop was a bar around the corner from Paperdress Vintage called Callooh Callay. Olive and Two had been there before and were happy to introduce me to it. It was awesome.

You walk in and see the sitting areas first, with a mirrored wardrobe in the back. Turns out that mirrored wardrobe door opens and there is seating in the back, which you don't know about unless you've been here before (or you notice that the waitresses disappear behind there every few minutes). We instead sat in the front room, in a bath tub that had been cut in half and fitted with cushions. Interesting place.

I can't find a picture of the bathtub, so that must have been a recent addition. But we were sitting right next to the wardrobe.

The drinks menu was also an impressive thing by itself. I think you can see why:

It was made to look like an oyster card holder with a card inside that folded out into their very extensive boutique cocktail menu. Fabulous. So fabulous in fact, that I took it with me when I left (I think this is normal, considering the menus we got were completely spic and span new).

They had great names also - like Rye Me to the Moon and Glen Will I be Famous? and Quinston Churchill. All to do with their theme and flavors. Wonderful creativity. I ordered the Fernet Me Not. It was gin mixed with prosecco and cucumber.

Saying it was strong is an understatement. Whoooo, that is one hell of a cocktail.

I tried the others' at the table: Glen Will I be Famous and Salt and Vinegar Martini. They were all equally strong. I could feel the alcohol vapors pouring off of me after a few sips. And we only stopped to have the one drink there. Incredible.

I will come back to this place sometime and try more of their delicious menu. Too fabulous to not do so. And so close to our Nerd Nite venue!

We then headed to Nerd Nite, warmed by our drinks. We got there early enough to snag front row seats, which is a difficult thing to do.

We had heard before arriving that two of three speakers had to drop out suddenly due to unforeseen family emergencies. Instead the Nerd Nite crew was going to have the last remaining speaker go, make up one of the presentations with a presentation of their own, and then do a nerdy pub quiz.

Fantastic. I don't know why anyone would give this a miss simply because the other speakers had to back out. But they did the polite thing of saying you could transfer your already-bought ticket to the next Nerd Nite or get a refund. We did neither.

Here were the talks:

Tattoos in the 19th century

This was a fascinating talk given by a recently-doctored woman who studied one of the largest collections of kept tattoos. Apparently there is an archive in one of London's museums that has over 300 preserved human skin tattoos from the 19th century.

It all sounded very dubious - a man named Lavalette sold the collection to a rich man who enjoyed collecting things related to "medicine and human health." Apparently this man was very broad in his definition of what constituted studies towards human health and medicine and this included keeping collections of tattoos from people.

History has shown absolutely no record of anyone named Lavalette, and so the mystery begins. The presenter said this was likely a pseudonym as there are no records, but even so apparently the man sold the collection and was never recorded of again. And due to the fact that the skins had a range of preservation techniques and did not seem to focus on any one set of iconography or theme, the collection was sold and that was that. It seems unlikely that he was a serial killer interested in obtaining people's tattoos - as many people start believing once they hear the beginning of that story.

The speaker described a whole set of tattoos around different subjects - mainly what types of people and occupations these people had sort of determined what kinds of tattoos they would have. For example, sailors typically had nautical themed tattoos - the fouled anchor, nautical creatures, their own name if their bodies were lost at sea and needed to be identified, etc. Here is what that would look like, back in the 1800s:

Likewise there were many studies on tattoos and their relation to criminality. Surprisingly the only other class of people that got tattoos back in the day - other than lower class laborers and criminals, were royalty. Another typical type of tattoo were pilgrimists who went to the holy land and got tattoos saying that they had officially been there. Sort of a souvenir proving how devout you were.

There were a lot of interesting aspects to this talk and it was clear the speaker had tons of knowledge on the subject (which I suppose would make sense, considering she just got her PhD). Fascinating stuff, and unfortunately too much for me to record here. So I'll point you to her blog instead. It is fantastically called Life and 6 Months. You should check it out; it's some pretty cool stuff.

Alan Turing's Childhood

The second, or rather first speaker, was our own MC for Nerd Nite, hastily putting together a subject for a talk. Since she was caught unawares about the cancellation of the two speakers, it was sort of an incomplete presentation, but still interesting nonetheless.

The reason she focused on Turing's childhood instead of what he is more famous for, is actually because she hadn't finished reading the book yet. Hah!

Some interesting things about his childhood - he was actually a terrible student. He'd often drift into thinking about conceptual maths instead of focusing on assignments at hand. This happened so often and he was so into this subject that he was known for being a smelly and unkempt child - and this spread to his work, many of his teachers calling his work "dirty" because he couldn't fully master cleanly using a pen and inkwell.

All of this changed when he started having a crush on a childhood classmate. They became friends and exchanged letters for three years, even after the classmate was accepted to Trinity. Unfortunately disaster struck and the friend was taken down by illness shortly after starting there. To prove to his friend he could do everything his friend always wanted him to achieve, he picked up his game and started putting effort into his school work, receiving high enough marks to go to Trinity College himself and become the man we all know him for today.

Two's comment about this was, "it's so strange how something as specific as this is what brought this genius person to the work we know him for today." The death of a childhood friend.

Nerd Nite's Pub Quiz

We were all pretty amped for the pub quiz by this time. The prize was a round of drinks and tickets to the next Nerd Nite in March.

The quiz itself was split into five sections - comic books, TV shows, internet memes, science, and wildcard. It had questions like these from each:

Comic books - what were the real occupations of these superheroes (Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Catwoman), in 2011 someone did an estimate for how much it would actually cost to be Batman - how much was the estimate (multiple choice), what element has the same name as an iconic rock in comics and how is it different in real life?
Btw the answers are: Superman (journalist/reporter), Spiderman (photographer), Batman (president/CEO of a company), Catwoman (prostitute...apparently). $3.5 million to be Batman in real life. And finally, kryptonite which apparently is not green in real life.

TV shows - these were all audio files of things like people breathing or saying hilarious quotes. Some of the shows I hadn't ever heard of. I'm guessing there was a British bias.

Internet memes - there was a set of pictures shown and you had to correctly state the animal's real name (not the meme name). Pictures of Boo, Maru, and Grumpy Cat were all shown. There were harder ones as well such as "from this popular YouTube video of a dog chasing deer in a park, what is the dog's name?" (the answer is Fenton).

Science - these started out easy enough with "what does EMP mean?" (electro magnetic pulse...I got that one straight away). But then they started getting harder, like what is the element Hg? What is ascorbic acid in common terms (Vitamin C). Name the largest gaseous bodies in our solar system (Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and Mercury). What member of the crow family has the latin name pica pica (the magpie).

Wildcard - this was a mixed bag that my team did terribly in. When was the term "nerd" first used and where (Dr. Seuss' book, 1950). In 1956 what two comic book superheroes were determined to be the most influential (Spiderman and the Hulk). What type of music is played by the band in Star Wars when Han Solo may or may not have shot first (jizz apparently...played on a jizz box).

All in all my team did horribly - so horribly in fact that we got last place and won ourselves free tickets to the next Nerd Nite! So there is some sweetness in losing. :)

And that was the end of another successful Nerd Nite. It's really nice that we'd made this a custom now. We'll see where this all takes us. I feel more knowledgeable already (although clearly this is a falsehood, if our pub quiz results are any indication).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

True to my couponing self

I guess it should have been no surprise to me that once I was back in an English-speaking country, my interest in couponing and deal-finding would escalate once again.

As some of you know, my self in San Diego was completely stuck on coupons and trying new adventures through avenues like Groupon and LivingSocial. I was buying these deals so frequently that my schedule was always packed with something new. It was great. A cheap way to experience the things I'd always been curious about - pole dancing classes, learning to fly a helicopter (and actually flying it myself), learning to fence, murder mystery dinners (I still absolutely love these), skydiving the first time, experiencing scuba diving, getting feathers strung into my hair, getting discounted cakes, restaurants, and even money off goods, like a canvas printed with an artistic interpretation of my DNA.

It was to the point where I used to buy an annual coupon book (called the Entertainment Book) and keep track of my savings. I even brought coupons to corporate lunches where I wasn't paying, just so the company could save money and I would use the coupons I had available. I thought to myself, "well someone should take advantage of this deal, even if it's not me."

Couponing and discounting were a big part of my everyday life. If I was going to eat out or get something for a special occasion, you can bet I almost never paid full price.

I saw it as a game more than anything else. Like beating the system. A sort of superiority thing as well, admittedly: I'd shake my head in disappointment at people who didn't bother doing small amounts of research to save their hard-earned cash. America is after all, a nation in debt.

But when I moved to Finland this all changed: though there was still Groupon, it was all in Finnish, and there was no easy way at the time to translate the deals they were offering. After signing up for the email newsletter and trying to figure out things via the pictures, I gave up. Finland is not a nation of couponers or discounters. Everything is expensive there (except rent and utilities), and I just accepted this.

Admittedly I just made my life as streamline as possible, which included things like dropping my grocery shopping to once every 2-3 weeks, buying alcohol in other countries and having pre-party drinks at my apartment so my girlfriends and I wouldn't have to buy expensive drinks at the bars we were going to, even bringing back food from other countries to save on groceries.

I guess this was my mental way of coping with the fact that discounts didn't exist. Another game to strategize and plan within. The sales that Finland did have were minimal and not very good (like the crazy days/yellow bag sales at Stockmann, which gave customers maybe 5% off normal price...that's not a sale in my opinion).

Anyway, when I moved to London I continued my Finnish way of life until I was comfortable enough to expand on it: I still only grocery shop every 2-3 weeks, but it's been 75% replaced by my shopping at the farmers market. Finland had impressed upon me the need for organic, local food. Made me into a green monster. And almost vegetarian (though I've thought about it enough to realize that I will never be completely vegetarian...it just won't happen).

Hilariously the catalyst to get back into couponing and discount deal-shopping in my life started with Rhinda's wedding. As I explained in my post about the singing classes, I was going to be forced to sing karaoke. So I decided I should get some singing lessons to make myself more comfortable; master something I didn't have in my skill set.

I'd been getting Amazon Local deals in my email for awhile; after ordering my glorious heated mattress pad from them, they started sending me local deals. I'd scanned them a few times previously but nothing caught my eye; I was still too much in the Finnish frame of mind of not spending, saving my money, only spending on things that I really wanted or needed.

So I bought nothing. Until I spotted the singing lessons deal and remembered my promise to myself. I did the appropriate research on classes and travel times, etc, and decided to buy it.

Little did I realize this would open the landslide of interest in myself in finding good deals to more adventures. I've started to scan my Groupon and Amazon Local deal emails with a fervor that has even overpowered my interest in reading my Facebook newsfeed in the mornings. I read deal emails instead.

Two has admitted to me that she has the same fever. Since she's funemployed she has even more time to find good deals, and use them. I now know how she got onto the events-finding search that she does and gives me the benefit from. It's even two-fold advantageous to me because she's only looking for really good money-saving deals, not having a lot of spending cash. Yes and yes.

Well, since finding the singing lessons I've quickly (in the same two week span), also bought myself a massage as celebration for turning in my grad school application, then soon after was considering more adventurous things, like a 12-week consecutive course in learning German. Or a makeup mastering class. And a 1950's photo shoot. And have even considered things like haircuts at various places since I don't know when the next trip to my home city in California will be, where I normally get my haircut by the same guy everytime. There was even some thought put into teeth whitening sessions and krav maga self defense classes. Useful in my life, I thought to myself. So many things I could improve upon!

I've done a good job so far of only buying things I know would benefit my life directly. Singing classes, massage, and the makeup mastering class. That last one was bought because I feel I should probably learn how to put on and wear makeup like an adult, sometime in my life. I'm already into my late 20's...all real girls that I know already know how to do this, even some of the men I'm friends with. I still am tragically behind. Sigh.

But a constant battle goes on inside of me as I look over the emails everyday (several times a day, since they are a constant pour of information) and wonder what kind of awesome adventures could be happening in my life all the time. And for cheaper than their normal retail price.

So here's to returning to my deal-finding self and feeling a little more comfortable in my now-city. I am feeling better about London already. And how things are, despite the stress I feel from work and my grad application.

Thanks Amazon Local and Groupon, for making me feel a little more myself again.

As a side note: I know there are other deal sites and these are not the only ones (e.g. Facebook deals, Google deals, etc). I am holding off with the hope that by limiting my exposure I will also buy less. I feel Two has a good cap on all the real deals going on in the city anyhow (and out of the city, sometimes), so I'll rely on her to point out anything I'm missing. We've already had the intimate conversation where we talk about deals we're interested in, where they overlap, and whether something is really a good deal or not.

I love my friends. And deals.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Submitting my future

It isn't often that you wake up and submit a formal application for the next few years of your life. But that's what I did this last Saturday morning, after finally submitting my graduate school application online.

I was expecting it to feel really relieving, as I'd been spending the few weeks leading up to it writing my personal statement and going over iterations of it every day or other day. It was a lot of work to get all the ducks in a row and yet when it finally came to submitting it, the only thing that happened was I worried whether or not I had turned everything in correctly, despite knowing that I'd checked it at least ten times before hitting "complete."

Well, today is the day that I had that confirmed - after an agonizing wait I received the email that would allow me to follow the progression of my application, now that it's been formally received by the admissions office.

I logged on and checked out the goods...what the deuce!

Dates had been switched around on it. Dates on my passport and dates that I would be unavailable for interviews. What the hell!

I've now sent an email to the admissions office telling them of the mistake (which I can say with full confidence I checked multiple times before submitting). Why are just the dates the things that are wrong? I do agree that the European way of writing dates is not one I was using regularly until I moved to Finland (day, month, year). But still. I couldn't have screwed it up that badly, especially after checking them over and over again.

I'm beginning to seriously think that I am dyslexic. It's possible.

And that I have a slight bit of aspergers - though I have none of the physical symptoms I have started to worry about my ability to hold thoughts in my head and sort things out that are not presented to me in a certain way.

This has made me terrified that I've not submitted my application correctly.

The only thing to do is wait now. They will either allow me to change it or not. They should, according to their text, since it's not gone to the selection committee for my department yet.

Sigh. And here I thought it would be relieving. Instead it's super stressful.

Fingers crossed, future self. I still want this.

[Update from the future: I called the admissions office finally after not receiving a response to my email and lo and behold - they didn't care about any of my dates anyway! Seems that they will check with me before setting up an interview (not just assume that the dates I put down were relevant or correct, I guess) and the passport information is not important unless I'm filing for a student visa, which at the moment I am not.

Booyah future!

Now it's the waiting for my references to send in their letters. Then everything will be really complete.

Fingers still crossed for the future. Still got a couple months to go until I find out.]

Friday, February 14, 2014

First feast back

I finally was able to go to the farmers market and grocery store this last weekend so I didn't need to be surviving on my pantry supplies. Before this happened I literally made spiced couscous and marinara sauce with corn. That's what I ate for the days between returning and the weekend.

So clearly I needed to get me some fresh produce.

I went with usual vigor to the market and picked up - Brussels sprouts, a butternut squash (first of my winter squash purchases!), several beets, free range chicken, tomatoes (I was surprised to still see them this late in the season), and some local pears. Unusual that I've bought fruit but was thinking I should keep up the good habit.

Cooking unfortunately only happened in the middle of the week, since I was too busy that weekend to do anything (I met up with Sweden for a gorgeous walk through Hyde Park and then had to meet up with my group of friends who I am going to Iceland with in a few weeks). Busy weekend.

What did I make?

Gorgeous chicken tikka masala (with added onions) and roasted beets. Simple, nourishing food.

The tikka masala sauce, admittedly, was from a jar and Waitrose, but it did the trick. I didn't even doctor it (though it could have been sweeter). Free range chicken tikka masala. Oh, and over brown rice!

The roasted beets were fabulous and so sweet. I might pick up more of these next time I'm at the market. They were large and loose (meaning they had already had their greens taken off) and stained basically everything they touched as I prepared them. Including my hands.

Luckily the stain didn't last long and I was basically no longer red-handed by the end of the night after washing dishes and showering, etc. Whoo. That would have been weird at work.

Anyway, I just wanted to celebrate my first real cooking session since returning to London. Feels good to be getting back into the swing of things. Healthy homemade food. Week's worth of lunches.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Vocalized embarrassment

I would not say it is a tendency of mine to avoid things that make me feel uncomfortable. I've jumped two feet in when it comes to my fear of heights, extreme sports, and just about anything that forces me to face my fears. I don't believe in continuing to live in fear; there's so much life to explore.

However when it comes to singing in public, even in the form of karaoke, I'm at a loss.

Singing in public is not something I enjoy. In fact, I don't enjoy it so much that the few times my friends have requested I sing outside of a private group (many Korean karaoke places allow you to rent rooms for just you and your friends) or even in a private group...I have felt the need to rely on liquid courage in order to get myself through.

This, naturally, concludes in me throwing away my inhibitions but not usually remembering what happened after a certain point. Let's just say one of the two times I've actually been blackout drunk has been caused by karaoke nervousness.

Clearly something I would need to work on, especially as Rhinda has required all the members in the wedding party to sing karaoke at her wedding. Yes, required. Apparently she is from the type of Asian family that loves karaoke, unlike mine. Hence, karaoke at the wedding, and karaoke for the wedding party.

During the bachelorette festivities in Boston I discussed with the wider group their opinion on such a requirement. Apparently I am not alone in my fear of public singing. In fact, many girls were not looking forward to this particular part of our duties. So Rhinda has allowed that we sing as a group, specifically Katy Perry's "TGIF."

While the song is one that I enjoy, this didn't do much to dampen my fears. Ugh to public singing, especially in front of an audience that actually enjoys karaoke. We're supposed to warm up the floor for her Asian relatives so everyone will get into the party mood. At least she's offering an open bar. Good combination.

I figured though, after some thought, this should be my opportunity to face another fear. Two had been taking singing classes for the past several months and even German K was getting on the bandwagon all the way in Helsinki. Clearly this was my time to strike.

So as 2013 ended I vowed to myself that I would investigate singing lessons once back in London, and take it from there.

Naturally as soon as I was back it was a whirlwind of activity - getting back into work, finishing my still-not-done grad school application (on the final versions of my personal statement, damned thing), shopping for food that I was replete of, and oddly, investigating gyms so I can cut down on costs and become more streamlined for the new year.

So when a deal for singing classes popped up on Amazon Local (Amazon's version of groupon), I jumped on it. They offered Wednesday night classes for adults and the deal guaranteed me a sweet deal on the normal class price. Plus it wasn't even far from my office - about a half an hour bus ride. I also, being super conscious, mapped what my journey back home would be - though it's close to an hour the class ends early enough for me to still make last trains to my train station. Yes.

So I purchased it and immediately contacted them to get myself registered for that Wednesday (I bought the deal on Monday). Yes; I was going to go all the way with this if I was going to have to do it. 

Two assured me that if I didn't like it I could always leave after the first few classes and just consider it an experience worth having. I reassured her that I'm too Asian for that - if I'm going to spend money on something, I am going to damn well do it all the way. No wasting money; especially when I was trying to get more efficient with monthly costs in preparation for my hopefully-soon graduate student life.

I got my class confirmed on Wednesday (and the seven other dates I was allowed because of the deal I bought) and set my sights ahead. Here we go.

The bus route was surprisingly hard to find, making me super glad I left early in order to allow time for getting lost. I will know next time how to get there (and back again after class, which I also botched). But I did make it there just in time, and the academy was surprisingly cute and small:

Naturally I did not take pictures of the place; it was my first time there and I was already nervous enough without thinking about documenting things. Apologies; I will try to take pictures next time I am there.

Anyway, before I knew it it was time for me to start lessons. With 12 other people.

Yes, this was an adult group singing class, much to my dismay but also my excitement (oh good, I can blend into the crowd of better singers, while also getting used to singing in front of people I don't know).

We went around the semi circle introducing ourselves and our reasons for going. Everyone laughed heartily at my reason but they all agreed it was the best reason they'd heard. Yes, I am here because my best friend is getting married and is forcing everyone to sing karaoke at her wedding. I hate singing in front of people, so this is why I am here.

After that we did some warm up lessons - massaging our heads, faces, shoulders, ribs. Getting our bodies warmed up and relaxed for the singing ahead. It surprised me that we did this but it also makes sense - singing could be seen as a sport, something you need to train for like an athlete. It only makes sense that you would want your body warm and comfortable for the exercises ahead.

We then did some vocal lessons - singing various words to the melody of a well-known march (I am blanking on the name at the moment but it reminded me of Flight of the Bumblebee, which it surely wasn't...it's what they play whenever you're trying to express that someone is in a rush and chasing after someone else...I'll figure it out). We sang words like Robin Hood, Little John, Friar Tuck, etc repetitively to this tune. It was a way to warm up our vocal chords and mouths while also trying different notes as a group. It was interesting and not so bad.

Then we moved onto something far more challenging - learning a new jazz song and singing it in a group. Our group had problems with this because the words were somewhat difficult to remember sometimes:

Savoy, the home of sweet romance,
Savoy, will win you at a glance,
Savoy, gives a happy feet a chance, 
to dance.

Your form, just like a clinging vine,
Your lips, so warm and sweet as wine,
Your cheek, so soft and close to mine,

Oh my heart is singing,
while the band is swinging.
Never tiring of romping,
and stomping with you,
at the Savoy.

What joy, a perfect holiday,
Savoy, where we can glide and sway,
Savoy, let me stomp away,
with you.

Apparently a popular 1930's or 1940's American jazz song. I've not heard of it but I haven't heard a lot of music from that era. It is also difficult and yet not difficult to sing because of it's swinging rhythm and range of notes and emphases.

We had to repeat a lot of the sections repetitively to get the words right. And the melody. It's an interesting song. The teacher was right though - it's not hard to remember song lyrics after you've heard them enough times. I still remembered almost the entire thing after a night and some.

It was a good experience - where at first I was so nervous and out of breath that I started to lose my sight (this happens when I do other similar things, like sprinting...which is why I'm much more into the long haul of exercises with prolonged, steady movement instead of quick sprints), I was able to calm myself down enough to sing in front of the others. Maybe not with the most confidence, but at least audible. I concentrated on memorizing the lyrics and getting the intonation right, so it didn't seem as bad as it was before.

After the class I thanked the teacher and thought to myself that this will be significantly easier when I'm singing a song I really know. Confidence was already building, which makes me supremely happy.

It'll be another three weeks before my next class, as next Wednesday is Nerd Nite then the following one I'm in Iceland. But I look forward to it already, and wish that the classes were more than once a week.

What a turnaround, after just one lesson. Really happy about this - facing another fear, and squashing it down.

Whoo whoo!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reading through 2013

It should be no surprise to you now, dear readers, that I read a decent amount per year. I've started to keep track of all the books I read, so I can reference which books I've read when, etc. Thinking through the books I've read at a certain time I can usually recall the memories of what I was feeling during that time. It's sort of like the literary soundtrack of my life. It's wonderful.

Anyway, like last year, I'm going to go over all the books I read from January to December of 2013. I was living in Finland at first, then by March moved to the UK. The books changed accordingly. Funny how that happens.

I'd like to say that I kept with my goal of only reading things of note and reputation, as was my intention for 2013. Though there were no seriously bad books from this past year, I'd have to say you'll see for yourself from my list that I didn't stay with that after Tolstoy.

And so without further ado, a review of the reads of 2013:

1. The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates
A way to start off the year with a bang, I can tell you that. This was about a man who commits suicide by jumping off of Niagara Falls the day after marrying his wife and what she goes through following his death. I'd never read any Oates before and I was curious; I'm glad I put in the time to read one of her books. She's a great writer, though her storylines tend to be on the more somber side. Seems an odd but somehow emotionally good choice as I was touring London for the first time before moving there two months later.

2. Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
I actually picked up this book for £1 after finishing The Falls too early on my London scouting trip. Extremely British, all of this. I finished it while touring through Thailand - while a good book for reading while in London, a very stiffly incongruent choice for Thailand.

3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
A fantastic, meaningful book - one of my favorites from the year. I read most of it in Thailand and finished it back in Helsinki. If you haven't read this one, I suggest reading it - but only at the time when you are receptive to deeper meanings.

4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
One of the last books I picked up from my beloved Arkadia before departing from Finland. The idea was to go back and read classics that I'd somehow missed in my earlier years. Well, this did exactly that. And for the record, this book shouldn't be called Anna Karenina, as it's not about her for most of it. It's instead about Konstantin Levin and his interest in writing a book about farming. Be prepared should you breach this one - it's 800 pages of ponderings on different farming techniques.

5. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Clearly when I stopped reading the deep classics and started with something a little more lighthearted and contemporary. Right book at the right time, that's all I'll say. First time I tried reading through it I got stuck in the Pray section. This time it was smoothing going all the way through.

6. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
The first nonfiction book I read for the year. I met this author when this book first came out as my then-boyfriend (and highschool sweetheart) had gotten a copy from his sister for Christmas. Awkwardly she ignored me and tried to chat up my boyfriend, despite the fact that I was the one asking her questions and handing her the book to sign. Perhaps because of this memory, I didn't enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. It was good to know what could happen to your body should you donate it to science (it's not always what you think they do with cadavers), but I found her humor a bit stale. Glad I read it but glad I gave it away soon after.

7. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
I've read several of Lisa See's books and they're always well-written and fascinating. This one had the added benefit of teaching me about Chinese immigration back in the day, when my family would have first been coming over to America. I learned a lot from this book and was surprised to hear confirmation from my family that relatives of mine went through the same thing.

8. Memory Palace by Hari Kunrzu
The book that started the exhibit I saw at the V&A earlier in the year that so fascinated me. Post-apocalyptic London and the idea of memory keepers. Beautiful and totally worth it. Hard to get copies of this outside of the museum so I'm super impressed it's even acknowledged on Amazon. Must be the kindle edition that is pumping it up. :)

9. Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison
A rather cheesy book I picked up from Arkadia on one of my trades. I knew I was in for a silly read when Cosmopolitan magazine (renowned for its ridiculous but hilarious sex articles in the States) was promoting it as a sultry read. Not the greatest book in the world, but hilarious beach-side entertainment for what it was worth.

10. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young
Surprisingly liberal take on God and the afterlife. A sad read, given the initial storyline, but I'm glad I read it because it changed the way I think about the holy spirit.

11. Diary by Chuck Palahniuk
First book I've read of his, despite being interested in reading the actual Fight Club novel that sparked the fabulous movie. Good and surprising; I didn't expect his books to read like mystery novels, given how Fight Club was portrayed. I am going to look further into his writings.

12. Bad Men by John Connolly
This was a mediocre thriller. I became enamored with this author after reading his The Book of Lost Things several years back. Seems that Lost Things was a fluke and the majority of his books are like this. Would probably be great as a made-for-television movie; just the right thrill, adventure, and cheese.

13. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Surprisingly good storyline, though saddening. This book had a lot more depth than I originally suspected, having spotted it in Target years ago and curious about it ever since. I would recommend this one for those who like historic mysteries and novels.

14. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
I've actually got nothing to say; it was entertaining and light.

15. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
After reading the first book last year, I felt I should finish the trilogy, especially since I had all of them already. Although I think these are great books from the point of entertainment and writing style, I actually don't love the grittiness that comes with this storyline. It's a bit too grotesque for me. There is so much graphic detail in the killing and abuse scenes that it's too visceral.

16. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
Had to finish the trilogy once I started going through this. Good for knowledge when watching the movies (I've seen all the Swedish ones and also the American remake), but again, not one of my favorite series, despite his captivating writing style.

17. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Another book turned into a movie. I have also seen both the Swedish and American versions of this story (they're basically the same movie). The movies were great and the book was also good. Detached in the way Nordic writers tend to be. Definitely worth a read, and an interesting one at that.

18. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
My nominated best book of 2013. Very well-written and one of the first books that has made me rethink life perspectives and choices, especially in relation to having children. Am really interested in seeing the movie (which had a big entrance onto the independent film festival scene), but haven't gotten there yet. If you're fine with stories that have no likable characters and will make you seriously think, this one is one of those.

19. Silent House by Orhan Pamuk
I totally got suckered into this one at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport because I'd finished We Need to Talk About Kevin on the plane over and I had nothing to read on the way back and more dorkily, this author has won a Nobel Prize in Literature at some point in time, which said to me he was significant enough to read. I was at least trying to keep with my goal of noteworthy books by taking this one in. And it was one of the few choices I had in English at the airport (go figure). I thought it was fine; I could see how this author would have written something noteworthy; this book was all about a very particular time in the history of Turkey that I think most authors have overlooked. Something something peek into what life was like then and how complex the culture was, etc etc. Not my bag, but I don't feel cheated having read it.

20. Blankets by Craig Thompson
A beautiful graphic novel about growing up. Surprisingly emotional, which I did not expect. This was given to me (on loan) from JBL; he said I should read it, and I did...in a day. "Raw" is the word I would use to describe it.

21. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
I loved the storyline of this book: scholars realize that a series of murders being committed are inspired by the seven levels of hell in Dante's Inferno. It has all the makings of a book I would love. It was alright though; I should have known that this might slightly let me down as I didn't really enjoy one of this author's other books: The Poe Shadow.

22. Color of the Sea by John Hamamura
Took me while to want to read this book but when I did, it was worth it. A lot like Shanghai Girls but with Japanese immigrants instead of Chinese.

23. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
24. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
25. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
I think it's easy to see why I read these all in succession after seeing "Catching Fire" in theaters, which was awesome and even better than the first movie. I just had to know how it ended, especially after finding out the third book is being split into two movies, so there will be four total. I wasn't going to wait another 3 years to find out what happened. So instead I read all of them in a week. Yes, a week. They're not long by any means but it did involve a lot of reading...especially when you consider the fact that in that week I only had one night where I was actually home after work. Not a lot of sleep, is the main conclusion of that.

This also broke the rule I'd made to myself about seeing movies first and then reading the books, so it's more like books are adding extra detail, rather than movies cutting out/changing essential or noteworthy parts. But oh well, you only live once and I was obsessed with the Hunger Games story once I saw the second movie (yes, that good).

26. Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
27. Fifty Shades Darker by EL James
In my defense I'm reading these for popular knowledge; I want to know why so many people are drawn to them and what all the fuss was about. I have also done this for the Twilight Saga. Every book series deserves its fair chance and I wanted to know what made these so popular.

Two words: sex scenes. They're every other page at least and very explicit. I do admit that they're definitely written from a woman's point of view, in that they do a good job of going into the emotional aspects of sex but...

...the rest of the story is horrible. It's not particularly well-written and the base storyline, when stripped down, is exactly the same as Twilight:
Young girl, insecure, clumsy and inexperienced, meets too-good-to-be-true gorgeous man who is interested in only her. He's rich and powerful and they fall in love, mostly to the detriment of the girl. The girl has worries and doubts, is abused in various ways and feels bad about herself, but because of her feelings, continues with this horrible relationship despite her friends and family telling her it's no good.

What bothers me about this series (and I'm about to finish the third book, leaving no stone unturned) is the apparent choices for female main characters nowadays in mainstream series: on one hand we have the Bella Swans and Anastasia Steeles, and on the other hand we have the Katniss Everdeens. One set is insecure and lacking confidence, always thin and beautiful, who attract the deadly but gorgeous men, and the other set is rough, rugged, brusquely emotionless, yet can take care of herself.

There are many other shades of women in real life; so where are these?

Enough of my ramblings though; overall it was a brilliant year of reads. Nothing stood out as particularly bad (though if I'm forced to choose one it would might be Fifty Shades...maybe).

I'm happy to report that all my read books went to good places afterwards - either donated to my train station library, given to friends and coworkers to borrow (with no deadline), returned to their rightful owners, or left in my California home to be traded at a later date.

So here's to reading even more in 2014! I look forward to getting into the books I received for Christmas and others I've had in my queue. To every book for the right occasion.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Roadtrip lessons muddled over

The next day I dropped German K and Hong Kong P off at the airport. Luckily the goodbye wasn't difficult as we already had plans to see each other in February for Karneval in German K's hometown, Cologne. I love it when goodbyes aren't difficult because you already have plans to see someone again. This is the only way to say goodbye, I think.

As Churches and I settled into a few relaxing days before going back to London, I muddled over the things I'd learned and enjoyed during the roadtrip. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Never be the full-time driver of a roadtrip, no matter how short the individual drives are. It was overwhelming and exhausting and the way I am now, I can't handle that anymore. It would have been better if there was another driver to give me a break or we weren't moving every day.
  2. Never underestimate being prepared for any situation. Though we were lucky and never ran into any difficult situations, it was definitely on my mind when network coverage was so sketchy that we could be stranded at any point in time but we were organized and well-supplied enough to at least make it through a day without needing to worry about starvation, sanitation, electricity, or money. It's a good place to be in when you're out on your own.
  3. California really is one of the most beautiful places I've been, and I've now been quite a few places. There really is nothing like home, but really, I'm from a beautiful place.
  4. Don't mix friends who don't know each other for extended trips. From this trip alone I will not ever be planning a trip with these three friends concurrently. This was disappointing to find out, especially since we're all old enough and traveled enough to be easy going, but we're not.
  5. Everyone has their habits, it's just about finding a way to fit everyone's habits in so they don't conflict. I'm happy to say that mostly with these there were little problems. Hong Kong P and I liked to shower at night, German K and Churches in the morning. No one fussed about needing the bathroom when someone else was in it, they just patiently waited their turn. It was good.
  6. Nothing makes a trip memorable more than the hilarious anecdotes you get from them. 
I learned a lot about myself and my friends on this trip. More than I could have just hanging out with them.

I guess what they say is true; you really want to know if you get along with someone and what is important to them, travel with them.

Roadtrip, completed.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Roadtrip Day 8: Up the coast and back home

We were on our last day of the roadtrip, and for this I had planned to drive up the very scenic Highway 1, stopping first at Hearst Castle, which is not so far away.

Unfortunately when we got there all the tours for that day were fully reserved and booked. Whoops, my bad for not checking the website ahead of time and expecting to be able to get a tour the same day. Man, internet sure does make some things more and yet less convenient.

But whatever; we looked through the telescope at it (it's quite far from the visitor center) and I brought them through a tour of the mansion via the picturesque postcards in the gift shop. We also cruised the free museum/exhibit they have there on the history and study of the antiques Mr. Hearst used in his house.

After that somewhat disappointing stop, we took our time going down Highway 1, enjoying the gorgeous views of the ocean. I really do miss California when I'm in places like these (not that I don't miss California all the time, which is also true).

We stopped at a funny sign for an elephant seal vista point and got to see the blubbers there:

I'd have to say this was a hilarious way to introduce my friends to some of our natural wildlife. Once again I grew up with these animals and terrain so it didn't seem strange to me that we could look at these seals and hear their noises. Their noises sound sort of like burping, as reference.

We watched them for about half an hour, noticing the males fighting in the water in dominance games, and laughing hysterically when seeing the ones who were laying on the beach flick themselves lazily with sand. The very informative sign about them said that scientists don't know the reason they flick sand on themselves, though it may be a stress-relieving technique. Pahaha, blubbers and their stressful lives.

About an hour or two later, we stopped to have lunch at a little spot on the side of the road. This is the definition of beachside cafe - it smelled awkwardly of drying/rotting seaweed and the lone waitress was a little slow. After we got up and paid for our checks we were waiting outside for one of our members to come back from the bathroom and she came up to ask us if we'd like a seat. We'd only left less than 5 minutes before and had been sitting lazing in the sun for a solid hour while slowly eating our salads and sandwiches. Perhaps not all there.

German K, Hong Kong P, and I did however, spot some whales in the distance, as recommended by the name of our cafe. It was cool to see blowholes of water shoot into the air.

I tried to pick up the pace of driving back, mostly because I was anxious to get back home and spend some relaxing time not driving. Unfortunately this didn't really work in my favor since all road ends up being quite windy on the way back. But I did make it, of course, and we only stopped one more time because there was a cool wooden cafe off the side of the road that very loudly proclaimed that it had European espresso. Clearly for the coffee lovers in the car, after drinking all sorts of different grades of coffee on our trip (mostly from the drip coffee makers in our hotel rooms), this was a must-stop.

And then we were back home, fancy free, in my parents' house. We even made it for dinner, which was a lovely simple chow mein with three mushroom miso soup.

I knew we would all sleep deeply that night, finally having our own rooms again and in a quiet, peaceful place (our last hotel room had the misfortune of awkward air conditioning and heating problems, light leaking from the bottom of the door, and a constant turning on and off of the refrigerator...needless to say, none of us slept very well).

Home sweet Californian home.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Roadtrip Day 7: To wine country in Paso!

We took our time getting up the next morning, having a great time in the luxurious separate bedroom. Churches and I had slept fantastically; German K and Hong Kong P on the fold out bed did not. So we got moving pretty quickly and started driving to Paso Robles, our wine country destination.

Eventually we got really hungry so we stopped at a roadside Denny's (America's most well-known diner, I would say) and I got to tell my friends all about the tradition of coming to Denny's after school dances. Oh yes, many a homecoming dance, mixer, and Sadie Hawkins night were concluded in Denny's, one of the few places open 24/7 in my hometown. My sister went to the much-cooler Cardinal Lounge (now extinct, unfortunately) to end her nights out.

The food was mediocre, as it always is, but it was fun showing my friends this side of America. We would otherwise never have stepped in so it was a good opportunity.

We also later down the line stepped into a ridiculously awesome roadside restaurant/shack to use their bathrooms after one of us couldn't hold it any longer. Purchases were required to use the bathroom so a soda, Gatorade, and coffee to go were purchased just in case, not wanting to anger the natives.

And then we reached Paso...on the later end of 2:30pm. All wineries, including my friend Paul's, Sculpterra, closed at 5pm on Fridays, so we quickly sussed out the situation and made our way to his side of town. German K very awesomely volunteered to drive us from the winery to dinner and then back to the hotel again, allowing me to drink with the rest of them at the winery (German K doesn't particularly like wine as it is). So I agreed and we set off.

The experience with Paul was awesome, as it always is. He gave us the full VIP experience by giving us the tastings for free (usually you have to pay for tasting flights), having us taste an additional one that wasn't on the tasting menu (a cabernet sauvignon that is a limited edition), and even showing us the barrel room and thiefing us some of this year's port that is being saved for aging (the bottling is already done, these barrels are being specially kept). Fantastic.

In case you can't tell, Sculpterra is a gorgeous winery with tons of beautiful statues (hence its name). The wine is also superb, especially under the winemaker talents of my friend Paul, and I enjoy coming here every time. It seems I've made it out a solid three times in my life (pretty good if you consider how far it is from any of my places of living and where I could have frequented more).

We ended the night tipsy and happy (minus German K, who remained our faithful designated driver). We scooted downtown for a lovely meal to end our last night together.

What did we have? We couldn't really remember the restaurants that were recommended by Paul and his father by the time we left, so we parked downtown and walked around until we found a place that had an acceptable menu. Didn't take long.

We chose a casual place with a cute warm atmosphere. The food was fabulous. I ordered salmon and it was wonderful. I also had another glass of wine with dinner to celebrate my not being the driver for once, and we had a good, relaxing, laugh-filled meal.

We then went back to the hotel to watch a horrible movie on Lifetime television called "The Husband I Met Online." It was your typical Lifetime movie - beautiful girl who is just trying to find the right man, being aggressively pursued by an insane guy who appears good on paper but who you soon discover murdered his ex-girlfriend and paid off the last girlfriend he savagely beat. Sounds about right, Lifetime television. It was hilarious. I'm almost glad I could show my European girlfriends a slice of bad American tv that wasn't a reality series.

Ahhh, Paso.