Saturday, October 31, 2009

London: One Year Later

A few weekends ago Lily and I celebrated our first year of marriage in Paris and this weekend I found myself celebrating another anniversary. As of Friday, 30 October, I have lived in London for exactly one year. Just about one year ago, I was sharing a drink with a group of English doctors at the onboard bar of Virgin Atlantic Flight 020 from San Francisco bound for London Heathrow. This would be the first of many since “pints” to be shared with the Brits in the coming year and they kindly provided me with some decent insight on what I could soon expect in my new home. They were right about a lot of things, but nothing could have truly prepared me for the upcoming year.

About a year ago I spent my first weekend in London acclimatizing to the cold weather and getting acquainted with my new surroundings, overwhelmed by the massive scale and dense variety of this remarkable city. When I think about it, things are very different from this time last year, from minute details like the weather to significant personal circumstances. Last year I arrived to frost and snow flurries, but this year I roamed around London on Halloween without needing an extra layer, as it's unseasonably warm for autumn. Furthermore, a year ago I was living temporarily in Canary Wharf, not Clapham, which was a completely different experience in itself. Most significantly of course, this time last year, Lily hadn’t joined me yet and now she is obviously here and fully settled.

When people ask me whether my year here has gone by quickly or slowly, I’m honestly not sure. Overall, it felt like a quick year, but there are specific events and moments that feel like they occurred a long time ago. The year has been a whirlwind of major events; Lily and I got married, we moved to London and Lily completed her masters at Berkeley. In between these major milestones we have each learned the ins and outs of London, developed into new professional roles, connected with old friends we thought we’d lost contact with here in Europe, made new friends who enrich our lives and share in our experiences, traveled well, and have been fortunate enough to host 25 of our old cherished friends and family here in London. It’s been a packed year full of interesting stories, exciting challenges and unexpected opportunities, all of which have positively contributed to our personal growth, both individually and as a couple. I won’t make this long because you can clearly read about a lot of this from former posts, but in retrospect, it's a year I’ll always appreciate and I treasure every memory of every moment of it.


Friday, October 30, 2009

October: A Month in Review

What a month we had at Casa di Lily & Keenan! It has been an awesome month with lots of friends in town from California, great company of London-based friends, delicious dinners, fun happy hour drinks, and to top it off -- the weather has been amazing! I love autumn in London especially the vibrant colours! So, here is a month in review in numbers:

Four: Friends who stayed with us this month
This includes one Ph.D. student, one college roommate and her new husband, and one lady on her post-bar trip. It’s been great fun having you all here in London.

Our "adopted" UC student:

Stroll through Camden and dinner at Tayyab:

One: Wedding Anniversary
We celebrated one year of marriage in Paris!

Two: Missed weddings in October; one in NC and one in CA
Congratulations to the happy couples! We were able to congratulate one happy couple in person in London two days after their wedding!

Newly-weds in London:

Three: Family members' birthdays
My older sister on the 5th, my mother on the 12th, and Keenan’s nephew on the 23rd.

One: Trip to the Kentish countryside
This was a long overdue trip out to the beautiful English countryside to meet little Edward, our friends’ 10 month-old son who is of course adorable.

Little Edward:

One: Oktoberfest (in London)
We didn’t make it Munich for Oktoberfest this year (maybe next year?), so we attended an Oktoberfest bash at the Bavarian Beerhouse in London. Good fun!

One: Missed babyshower in San Francisco
The first of our close friends are expecting in January 2010 , although I think Baby K will be arriving in December. So exciting for the parents-to-be! We can’t wait to him!

One: Year living as Londoner
30th October is Keenan’s one year in London. Time sure flies -- one year!!

One: Halloween celebration in London
Halloween landed on a Saturday this year! See the photo below – no explanation required! I spent Halloween in Italy!

Zombie Party:

And not to mention…countless laughter, Kodak moments, and probably far too many calories and pints for our own good!

Great friends is priceless.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Treaty of Lisbon: Why It's Important

Although I am not a British citizen or a citizen of the European Union and I can't vote in either national or continental elections, I do enjoy the rights and privileges of living and working in the United Kingdom and Europe, which is why the Treaty of Lisbon is of particular interest to me. Moreover I've always been interested in political philosophy in practice, and the European experiment is perhaps one of the most interesting case studies of supranational federalism to date. Therefore, if fully ratified, the Lisbon Treaty could be remembered as one of the most significant political developments since the end of the Second World War.

The paradox of the European Union has always been that it was born out of a desire for economic integration as a deterrent to conflict, but member states have historically been hesitant to take it much further than that, sometimes even leaning towards the paranoiac tendency of unbalanced “euroscepticism”. The most significant success of the European Union is the single market which allows for the free circulation of goods, capital, people and services within the EU (currently all 27 EU member countries are in the European single market and Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein also participate although they are not “officially” in the EU). Understandably, attempts at deeper integration have met nervous reactions in various member states, fearing that yielding certain aspects of state governance to a supranational body would lead to an eventual loss of national autonomy. However, the truth is that, up to this point, the European Union has been bound together by not much more than a number of treaties and agreements, most significant of which are economic, and it has lacked a consistent centralized administrative core uniting the various objectives. Under their current model, successful economic expansion and global competitiveness is unsustainable. From my point of view and in light of their combined economic might, the members of the European Union should consent to a more prominent, visible, and permanent structure of rules, powers and duties of government in order to succeed both collectively as a union and independently as individual autonomous nations.

The formation of an effective democratic governing body should be founded on a well-drafted and dynamic constitution agreed to and written by all member parties, having acknowledged and addressed the major unique interests of each state and establishing a system of resolution for unforeseen conflicts between signatories.

After failing ratification in 2005 the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe ("TCE") was by all accounts, a disappointing setback in the long process towards European political cooperation, which is why there is a second attempt at a continent-wide system of administration, the Treaty of Lisbon. According to Europa, the official administrative website of the European Union, the purpose of the Lisbon Treaty is fourfold, providing “the Union with the legal framework and tools necessary to meet future challenges and to respond to citizens’ demands”. As outlined on their website the primary goals of ratification will be to create a more democratic and transparent Europe, make Europe more efficient, secure Europe as a place of rights, values, freedom and solidarity, and to present Europe as a global actor on the stage.

As you can see, these stated goals are at first vague and are largely qualitative, but the Lisbon Treaty itself is a dense 272 page document which creates numerous permanent structures that would streamline existing, incomplete institutions, thereby filling in a lot of gaps that have caused confusion over the last decade. I admit, I haven’t read the entire text, but I do understand its overarching aim. Proponents of the treaty argue that it will improve the efficiency of the enlarged bloc of 27 nations and establish a permanent foundation for future expansion, but opponents argue that it is part of a larger federalist agenda to usurp sovereignty from the individual member states and to elevate it to a multi-national "super-state". In reality, I believe there are valid claims to each view that must be considered, but that the latter is a bit excessive in its paranoia.

The most significant change would involve creating an elected executive political head of the European Council for a term of two and half years, replacing the current six month presidency rotation between member states which has been largely symbolic up to this point. It would also create a new post streamlining the jobs of the current foreign affairs and external affairs commissioners in order to provide the EU with a more permanent and coherent diplomatic role in international relations; a sort of Secretary of State or Foreign Minister for the European Union. Additional statutes would revise voting distribution and weight among member states and build new powers into existing institutions such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice. Comprehensively, these efforts are aimed at making Europe a distinct global player capable of representing all members’ joint economic interests.

In reality, the grand European experiment is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Upon achieving economic supremacy as a single market, progress on all other issues has stagnated significantly. Europe lacks a common, cooperative approach to foreign policy, security, and external negotiation and recognition as a single political body. This is hard to believe when considering the following. The population of the European Union, as of 2009, stands at approximately 500 million people. The European Union is the number one donor of aid to the developing world and the single largest economy, having overtaken the United States in the last several years. It is also the largest trading partner to the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and the largest exporter and importer of goods and services. The euro, the currency of 16 member states and still growing, has become a dominant world currency, edging ever closer to the pound sterling and having already passed the US dollar as a strong and stable reserve currency. When you consider that Europe has become an economic leader in a world facing the universal challenges of global financial instability, international terrorism, and climate change, it seems absurd and shortsighted that they lack a coordinated diplomatic and security effort to protect their economic interests.

The problem it faces currently is as follows. The Lisbon Treaty has reached the final hurdle to achieving success, requiring one more ratification process in the Czech Republic after having been ratified by the other remaining members delaying a signature, Ireland and Poland. If the Czech Republic refuses to ratify the treaty, it risks being entirely unraveled at the last stage in the same way as its predecessor, the Constitution of Europe. Alternatively, if President Klaus of the Czech Republic simply stalls the ratification by requesting unique opt-out privileges, it will most certainly delay the process, running the risk to be prolonged until the parliamentary elections in the UK for which the Tories and David Cameron are anticipated to sweep the votes and unseat the Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. President Klaus has specified a desire to opt-out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights imbedded within the Treaty which he fears could lead to Germans who were expelled after World War II returning to make property claims. If this occurs, Mr. Cameron and the eurosceptics in his party would have the time and ability to call a national referendum on the Treaty, thereby reversing the ratification of the previous administration and rebooting this cycle all over again. The Lisbon Treaty therefore will be remembered as having failed ultimately as a result of the Conservative Party in Britain's reluctance towards deeper integration with an effective assist by President Klaus of the Czech Republic. This will become the second failed attempt in the last decade to improve the institutions and efficiency of the union and could start a trend of continental complacency towards future development and expansion as the large countries of the "pro-Europe" camp, France and Germany, become more disillusioned with the prospects for success.

The EU summit in Brussels at the end of this month was anticipated to be a celebration of unanimous ratification, and official implementation was meant to commence. In fact the expectation was to appoint the first European Council president, ironically enough the leading frontrunner being former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, as well as the first foreign minister. Instead, a legislative tussle in a small central European member state risks that this saga will last well into the New Year with its destiny uncertain at best, especially if the Tories take over the parliament in Britain in 2010 and another wave of anti-integration sentiment spreads across one of the EU’s most important member states.

In my opinion the fear that the EU is becoming a "United States of Europe" and that member states will lose national sovereignty is an irrational one. Each country has their own unique complexities and problems that a federal European central government would not be able to address, yet alone fully understand. However, the establishment of more permanent, transparent, and democratic institutions within the framework of the European Union should be addressed so that long term economic interests are protected. Exactly how each of these objectives are met is unclear at the moment, but it is worthy of consideration and requires diligent debate and discussion. I do not believe that any single nation in the EU is capable of becoming a serious international player on its own. They face the same shared challenges; a risky oil dependency on Russia, the threat of terrorism and homegrown religious fundamentalism, declining birth rates, waves of illegal immigration, and questionable stability in their own backyard in the Caucasus, Western Balkans, and the Middle East. To abandon the immense diplomatic potential and geo-political power of a more federal Europe comprised of autonomous member states before it ever becomes a possibility would be a tragic and lazy resignation to mediocrity and an acceptance that these challenges cannot be solved collectively.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

We celebrated our first wedding anniversary last Friday! I can’t believe it’s been year since we got married at San Francisco City Hall. What a year it has been: one marriage, one MCP graduation, and a move across the pond -- talk about one very eventful year!
Keenan and I kept to the tradition of giving a specific gift on a specific anniversary year, so to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, we gave each other paper as anniversary gifts. Yes, paper. And yes, you’ve guessed it – we got paper train tickets on board the Eurostar to Paris!

Ah, beautiful Paris. I love cities! I can’t help it -- I’m an urban planner by training. Perhaps no other city has been theorized, (de)constructed, studied, and (re)studied in modern history than the French capital Paris. In my class The City: Theories and Methods of Urban Studies, I must have read a dozen texts on Paris including Paris Spleen and Les Yeux des Pauvres, both poems by Charles Baudelaire; Paris, Capital of Modernity by David Harvey; The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin, among others (my planner friends can add to this list). We’ve both been to Paris in the past, but not together, so I was excited to see Paris in a new light, and with Keenan of course.
Ah, beautiful Paris – how I adore thee. There are many ways to enjoy Paris – you can eat your way through the Paris, max out your credit card along Champ Elysées, or spend your entire weekend in the Louvre. Ah, beautiful Paris – how I adore thee. But for me, the best part of Paris is the city itself. When in Paris, you can’t help but to be a flâneur­, a term borrowed from Baudelaire to mean “one who walks the city in order to experience it,” and this was exactly what we did the entire weekend; we enjoyed Paris as Paris was meant to be enjoyed.

The train ride from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord was quick and easy. The Eurostar is simply brilliant. We pulled into Paris in the morning and made our way to Montmatre (where Amelie was filmed) for brunch of croque monsieur and omelette. It’s a really artsy neighborhood and fun place to people watch. We dropped off our bags at the hotel near Arc de Triomphe and started exploring the beautiful City of Lights. We spent most of Saturday on the Left Bank and took a long walk from the Eiffel Tour, along the Sienne River, to the classically Parisian neighborhood of St. Germain-des-Pres and then to the Latin Quarter, the intellectual quarter of Paris and home to France’s oldest university, Le Sorbonne.

Keenan and I had a wonderful meal at L’Epigramme (Metro: Odeon, 6e), one of many exquisite Parisian bistrots. This bistro was not terribly expensive; it was 30 Euros for a three-course meal. Small, quaint, and a hidden gem in a very desirable neighborhood. We had a surreal encounter during dinner at L’Epigramme. Keenan made reference to a nice elderly couple seated next to us in a restaurant; they were the couple who also inquired about our scallops and foie gras in his last post. Well, we started small talk in “typical American fashion” with this older couple, and it turned out that the gentlemen was the former boss of the current CEO of Keenan’s company. Yikes! Better be on our A game! We looked him up on the web later, and opps, we better hoped we were on our A+ + game. Not only does he run a successful boutique investment firm, but he was also former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development for NYC under Mayor Koch. How surreal!

The next morning, we had a strange craving for Vietnamese pho. My sister mentioned a place in Chinatown (14th e) with bright purple fluorescent lights called Pho Banh Cuon 14, so we went and got our pho fix. I expected my pho to be spectacular judging by the long queue, but I was disappointed…I still like my Stockton Blvd pho in Sacramento better. After lunch, we strolled through Le Marais district, the Old Jewish Quarter, Paris’ gay district, and a hip neighborhood full of urbanites. We liked the Marais district quite a bit and will definitely stay here on our next trip to Paris. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the Right Bank around the Louvre, Place de Concorde, and the Champ Elysee – very touristy, I know! I can’t help it; I haven’t been to Paris since 2004. Keenan was here five months ago on business, so he was perfectly okay sipping café au lait or red wine in a hip bar in Le Marais. We had an early dinner and headed to Gare du Nord to catch the last train back to home sweet home London. We had a lovely weekend in Paris. Already looking forward to our next trip!

Thank you all for the wonderful anniversary wishes! Cheers to many more!
Love, L + K

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The English and I Speak the Same Language

By nature I’d say that I’m a cynical person. This is different from having a pessimistic outlook towards life because a healthy dose of cynicism allows me to approach the world critically with cautious humor in a non-threatening manner. It can be dangerous because this is oftentimes misinterpreted by others as negativity instead of the commentary it’s intended as. Either that or I drastically overestimate my ability for effective comic delivery which is entirely within the realm of possibility. For this reason, I feel right at home in Britain.

George Bernard Shaw stated that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”, a claim I agree with, but owing to our different world views rather than America’s strange linguistic mutation of a shared language.

Before arriving in the UK several of my American friends asked how I would cope with English humor, something most Americans don’t understand outside of Monty Python. Generally, the English have a dry, sarcastic, ironic and mostly self-deprecating approach to comedy, but our difference in humor is indicative of a much broader mentality rift between the cynicism of the UK and the positivity bias of the US. Put simply, the Yanks are Pollyannas while the Brits are Debbie-downers.

This phenomenon extends beyond the realm of comedy and permeates the British disposition towards life in general. These different approaches each have their own merits and pitfalls. An obvious and daily example of this is the difference in the way each country presents the news. In America I became accustomed to the dramatic musical openings that accompanied major breaking news stories and the subtle editorial styles imbedded in all the major news networks. Think the sensationalism of Fox News, any of the garbage produced by MSNBC, and more recently and disappointingly, CNN in trying to remain competitive in the era of “infotainment”. In Britain however, basic news reporting is much less spectacular and far less opinionated. American news reporting might be more entertaining, but the British leave the theatrics for the stage. Although Britain admittedly has its fair share of free, trashy tabloid papers in the morning with plenty of celebrity gossip and local interest stories, their television and legitimate newspaper reporting is superior, emphasizing a more global approach to information. I never did think I should derive a feeling of entertainment while watching a program about a natural disaster, violent conflict, or terrorist attack. For this reason I find news in the UK to be much more intelligible and amazingly, informative.

Another key difference in mentality is what I would call the “commonality seeking” tendency of Americans between one another, a warm and friendly approach to strangers which occurs especially on holiday or while traveling on business. You know the scenarios; the pleasant woman next to you on the plane asking where you’re from or where you’re headed, the elderly couple seated at the next table inquiring about your scallops. This is unique among Americans and not something that would be typical among the British, although it can occur rarely and there is some regional variation in this. Generally in Britain, for a stranger to initiate an interaction that involves sharing information about your meal, your purpose for travel, or your destination could oftentimes be misinterpreted as rude, if not outright strange. This is especially true in a city as large and fast-paced as London, so it is even more noticeable here. This isn’t meant to imply that the British are unfriendly people or that Americans are always friendly, but rather that the British simply have an added “barrier to entry” in their interactions with strangers that Americans do not. Because the British have regular contact with Americans, especially in London, they have become accustomed to this (borrowing a term from an English acquaintance) “typical American fashion” and accept it when they do encounter it. However, I would still hesitate to ask the table of English people next to me how the stew is that evening or ask the guy at the pub which team he is rooting for. Again, it’s not that they are unfriendly people; it’s just a different approach. Perhaps if you continue to see the same person at your local pub frequently, the layers can be stripped away and conversation may ensue, but do not force it.

There are plenty more examples I could write about which highlight the fundamental differences between a Yank and a Brit, many of which are better suited for future posts, but I will end on this note. I haven’t had to change my approach too drastically since arriving in the UK. I do speak more quietly than I used to in order to avoid bringing myself unnecessary attention and I do naturally form a queue even in circumstances when it isn’t required, but I haven’t had to alter my dry, if sometimes dark sense of humour. In Britain, finally, I have the liberty to point out life’s absurdities, complain about the mundane, act exaggeratedly melancholy, and make fun of myself without being told to “cheer up” or that “it isn’t that bad”. Of course “it isn’t that bad” and strangely, I am quite “cheerful”, but cynicism sure is funny, at least to me and the Brits!


Monday, October 05, 2009

"Pubism" as a Way of Life

The tradition of the public house dates to the early taverns established two thousand years ago by the occupying Romans along the Thames in what is now the City of London. Public houses were established primarily as inns that served as resting posts for travelers completing the journey from mainland Europe to the island of Britain. As the population and economy of the city expanded, these inns became public meeting spots for labourers of various classes to gather, seek mutual cooperation within their communities, and of course drink beer. Even then it seems this city was the welcoming host to drunk foreigners with commerce and trade on their minds; not much has changed in that sense. These taverns increased in popularity and as their numbers grew during the middle ages the public house was solidified as a cornerstone of the community. Londoners have loved their ale for millennia.

Prince of Wales, Clapham Old Town:

When people conjure images of the England of their imagination, a few things typically come to mind; rain, afternoon tea, crumpets, Big Ben, Georgian row houses, and the famously manicured gardens. To this list I would add the traditional public house, more commonly known as the “pub”. I love pubs. I love them for so many reasons, but I am in love with them in England more than anywhere else in the world. A real pub in England is original, cannot be replicated, and stands the test of time. Because I really enjoy the real pubs of the English countryside, I would tend to think that in London, pubs are at their best in the tucked away corners of local neighborhoods.

The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead Heath:

In England the pub is so much more than just a place to drink beer and its been that way since their inception.. A pub is a reading room, a debate hall, an intimate meet-up spot, a self-reflection center, a place to catch a game, and occasionally, if you’re out and about and have already had a few pints, a convenient toilet stop. Think of the English pub as an adaptive multi-purpose center with limitless possibilities, and you’re the site coordinator. There are a few things that the pub is not. The pub is not meant to be a night club or a swanky cocktail lounge. It can certainly have elements of these, especially these days as "gastro-pubs" and "posh pubs" are increasing in their numbers. To the purist however, a genuine pub is unpretentious, casual, and relaxed; a place to unwind, decompress, and catch-up with others, or more importantly yourself, especially in a city as massive and hectic as London. In England, pub-ism is a way of life and we are all pub-ists.

The Tim Bobbin (Keenan's "local") at the end of our street:

Every pub-ist has a "local", their special pub that is always the default destination; a lazy Saturday afternoon with the newspaper, a rainy Thursday evening with friends, a quick and cozy pint on the way home from a hectic day of work, the neighborhood refuge on a random snow day. A local is not a place to cause trouble or become beligerent, but a place for families to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon together, a spot for old mates to have a few pints over good conversation, and a place for a relaxing retiree to read the Sunday Times on his way home from walking the dog. At your local you see your neighbors and know what's happening in your community; there is a cordiality and awareness of one another that without it might leave people alienated and detached from the happenings of their surroundings.

Pub in Shoreditch/Brick Lane:

Of course there are plenty of other drinking establishments in London, but do not be confused, these are not pubs. The hours of operation for drinking establishments in London are as numerous and varied as the city landscape itself. As a general rule of thumb, most pubs close at 11 pm, but 24 hour licenses (licenses that allow the venue to remain open and sell alcohol anytime, day or night) are becoming increasingly popular with pubs. Traditionally, night clubs and lounges have usually remained on some version of the 24 hour license, closing down anywhere from 5 am to 7 am, with pubs usually shutting their doors at 11 pm. However, I've noticed recently that a lot of the pubs around Clapham have extended their hours on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays to 2 am to compete with the continuous opening of new and trendy establishments. I'm not sure if this is indicative of a further evolution in the long history of the nature of pubs, but it does demonstrate the ongoing demand for late night alternatives to the club or lounge in London. At the end of the day I still prefer the pub.

The Rose & Crown, Clapham Old Town: