Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Oxford - Et in Arcadia Ego?

After graduating, I came to England. I had got a job as lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford. The appointment ("tenure") was for 2 years. These two years turned out to be the happiest of my life - after Oxford, nothing ever really lives up to it, you just get used to things because you have to... But that's not what I'm writing about.

I was about 100 years younger than the youngest don there, so whilst officially part of the Senior Common Room (all the teaching staff of a college), my social life happened in the MCR (i.e. the graduate students). I still saw a lot of my colleagues though, mainly at the daily High Table dinner where you wear a gown, Grace is said in Latin, and you make formal conversation over not so good food.

You'd expect an Oxford college to be a hub of academic internationalism. Researchers from all over the world mingling for multinational exchanges. But this wasn't the case at all. I was the only foreigner and one of only two women. Conversation with me at High Table was laboured - Rhine cruises were remembered, and war reminscences (possibly not their own, their fathers'?) offered with the tough duck à l'orange. Narvik featured heavily. It wasn't easy to chime in, I had never been on a Rhine cruise "That must have been so lovely!" and Narvik meant nothing to me "That must have been... terrible!"

Over in the MCR, it was the polar opposite - the graduate students came from all over the world, fee-paying Americans, Japanese, Nigerians, Dutch. In fact I only remember one British national there. It was lively, fun, international - one got to know people and learnt an awful lot.

It struck me, that living in Britain, my life is still organised along those lines: The international background through family, friends, travel, and media. And on the other side there's Britain. Yes, there may be a whole multicultural aspect to it, but that SCR-Britain prevails. British reality is still mono-lingual, awkward with foreigners, still treating "abroad" with polite suspicion. It still chews on that tough duck. Proudly chewing, but inward-looking, and increasingly marginalised.

*)On the photo, the window of my room, second floor on the left hand side, is just about visible.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Pretentious Foodie

You know the type... the one who urges you to book into El Bulli before it closes "I can put in a good word for you, and tell Ferran to give you the chicken skins as an ante-starter, they're absolutely divine..." He's been to more Michelin starred restaurants than you've had cheeseburgers and can tell you the difference between a Hollandaise and a Bearnaise with a slight sneer at your ignorance.

I would classify myself as VERY interested in food/cooking/nutrition etc. but I feel dreadfully put off by all those bores who want to tell you what's what. The best bagel in New York? Salt beef in East London? Borschtsch in Moscow? Yeah, please just go away, I prefer to find out for myself.
Another most irritating characteristic of the Pretentious Foodie (PF) is his (they are mostly male, funnily enough) prediliction to call perfectly ordinary ingredients or dishes by their foreign names.

I'm not of the "Call a spade a spade"-brigade, but I bristle at people who - with a thick English accent - happily talk about "
prosciutto", "petit pois", or "moules". The Pretentious Foodie does not realise he just sounds like a provincial sea-side hotel in the Fifties. I recently read about a trade union leader who rather than having sandwiches, asked for "goujons de sole" -so very genteel. But my personal favourite in the PF stakes is calling "steak and chips" steak frites - how very sophisticated. Not.

What next? Call a baked potato
un pomme de terre au four? I've often wondered why food of all things attracts such a lot of pretentious types. I mean, okay - music, or literature... but food??

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Intercultural Icons -The Pizza and The Pub

Whatever country you choose to go in the world - two things are certain: You will most certainly find an Irish Pub there and you will find some pizza. Why is that? What makes them so ubiquitously popular? How do they manage to cross borders so easily - why does everybody from Japan to Chile love a slice of tomato-y dough or a good sing along and a glass of the black stuff?

And that's precisely not the point: it isn' about what you actually get. Instead, it's about what everybody associates with them. Pizza - that means Italian homecooking at its best. Simple, tasty, unfussy. And in an Irish pub you can be sure of congeniality, great vibe, craic.

So you become part of a concept you secretly adore. There is no exclusion, no snobbishness about either. Everybody can share, everybody likes what you like, and everybody is happy. So really, it's about a community you're "biting" into - the simple lost world of homeliness and comfort.

Ireland and Italy with their metoynmic offerings - have managed what other countries struggle with. They've exported their national symbols and in turn got people to associate those very values with their nations. Maybe not everything in Ireland is that congenial, maybe Italy in reality isn't that homely and comforting... But so what?

I am full of admiration that some countries manage to spread such joie de vivre, such a feeling of togetherness and shared value on an international, and poly-cultural scene - and with so little effort!

Oh and Happy up-coming St.Patrick's Day!