Apropos of nothing

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

This is a catch-all posts that lets me cross a few items off my “Blog About This” list.  These are small things I’ve noticed that are odd or interesting or annoying, but also things that even I can’t churn out a whole blog post about.  So let’s launch another new tag for the sidebar and dive in.

On the Dickensian nature of locks and keys:

When I started work way back last September, I was issued a set of keys.  These are my keys:

I’m not kidding.  I have three skeleton keys on my ring for work (and one that goes with my keys for home).  These are not ancient keys passed down for generations that fit locks installed sometime when Victoria was still on the throne.  These are keys that were freshly cut for me, to open recently-manufactured locks installed in normal, modern doors.  And no one finds this strange.  I have certainly encountered more familiar keys, but they are no more common than this crazy Ebenezer Scrooge variety.

And padlocks? Many of them are equally charming / baffling / annoying.   Yes, you can get the kind of padlocks we North Americans are all familiar with: a heavy-duty rectangular body with the spring-loaded u-shaped thingy that pops up and open when you turn the key and can be snapped shut even if there’s no key present.  However, a significant percentage of the padlocks I’ve encountered over here have been like this:

First you have to slide over the little flap to reveal a big keyhole-shaped keyhole.  Then you insert a skeleton key which always fits very loosely and requires much wiggling to settle in properly.  Then you turn - which direction is anyone’s guess.  If you’ve chosen the right direction, the main bit flops away from the u-shaped bit in an unenthusiastic way that clearly indicates nothing as advanced as a spring is involved.  To close the lock you have to hold the whole thing shut with one hand, shove aside the little flap, insert the key again, wiggle wiggle wiggle, turn, no no turn the OTHER way, no no keep the thing held shut WHILE you’re turning, no no no… the OTHER OTHER way… and so on.  I mean honestly, what am I , Bob Cratchit?  The next thing you know I’ll be having to ask for an extra shovel-full of coal to make a spark of heat while I scratch away with my quill pen…

On the impenetrable nature of oven dial labeling:

So if locks and keys are so Olde Worlde then why is the oven so complicated that I – a reasonably experience home cook – have absolutely no idea how to turn it on in any kind of predictable way? I mean what am I to make of this?:

Oven Dial
It seems that these symbols indicate different combinations of top element, fan, and bottom element.  So how come when I turn it to top bar – empty space – bottom bar, I can still hear a fan?  Is the fan always on?  Does that mean when you turn it to top bar – asterisk – bottom bar, the fan goes on more?  And if top bar – asterisk – bottom bar is the equivalent of “all engines on full” why does it take 30 or 40 minutes to cook a lousy frozen pizza when the same process took about 16 minutes in my primitive Winnipeg-based oven that only had a temperature dial?

And what about all those other symbols? Like that one at about one o’clock on the dial: “European Union Symbol Surrounding Black Snowflake”.  Maybe it’s a setting for producing EU-compliant licorice-flavoured Baked Alaska?  Then there’s the one at about 2:30 that looks a bit like a Tim Hortons sour cream glazed donut - that could be promising.  But what about five o’clock, that when rotated into the active position at the top of the dial appears to be tiny triangles suspended over, or perhaps falling into the symbol for the fan?  Huh?  I’m sure there was once a manual for the device that explained all these hieroglyphics, but it departed the house long before I arrived, so all I ever do is turn the thing to the setting I think of as “Full Whack” and hope for the best.
Oh, and it’s not even called the oven here, it’s called the cooker.  And it’s not topped with a stove, or even a range.  The bit on top with the burners? That’s the hob.

(Interesting cooker-related side note: Over here “grill” means “apply intense heat from above”, not “cook over an open flame / BBQ-like thing or otherwise apply intense heat from below".  Grilling something here means putting it under the grill, which is the top element in the oven – what we’d call the broiler.  So a grilled cheese sandwich doesn’t exist here, or at least not as we know it.)

On the parallel universe nature of stationery products:

Standard loose paper over here is not 8-1/2” x 11”.  It’s A4.  In fact, much of the rest of the world except North America uses the A(something) system for paper sizes (technically called the International paper size standard ISO 216, and “based on a single aspect ratio of the square root of 2”…whatever…).  A4 is slightly taller and slightly narrower than 8-1/2” x 11”, which seemed weird at first but now feels totally normal.  Now when I encounter a rare letter-sized sheet it seems oddly squat.

And you know the bog-standard three-ring binder?  No such thing over here.  Binders here have two rings, or sometimes four, but never three. 

And Liquid Paper is called Tipp-ex.  But just like Liquid Paper, it’s become a generic noun and a verb too.  At home, you liquid paper a mistake. Here, you tippex it.

And a ballpoint pen is a biro (“BUY-roe”).

And scotch tape is sellotape.

It’s like the whole universe of stationery in North American and UK  diverged very very slightly a hundred years ago, resulting in a completely familiar yet subtley different parallel system.  I mean it’s not like we’re writing with syringes of squid ink on 3D spherical pages bound into concentric onion-layered note-globes and housed in giant filing vaults shaped like gumball machines.  The differences are subtle but noticeable.

On the magical nature of the Belisha Beacon:

A Belisha Beacon (“buh-LEE-shuh”) is a particular type of pedestrian crossing marked by tall black-and-white striped poles topped with flashing yellow globes.  They’re named after Leslie Hore-Belisha, who introduced them in 1934 as Minister of Transport.  Belisha Beacons are the ultimate in road crossings because they require no action on the part of the pedestrian.  You don’t have to wait for a light or push a button or anything; they’re always on and the lights are always flashing.  All you do is step out into the street and any vehicles are required to stop.  And amazingly, they pretty much always do. 

Here is a rare triple-barreled Belisha Beacon in my old Arsenal stomping grounds.  Three crossings, meeting at a centre island.  Watch how the car just automatically stops for the guy!


I might write more about pedestrian crossings in general some time, if only because there are so many different kinds and they have the BEST names: zebra crossing, pelican crossing, penguin crossing - even toucan and pegasus crossings. (Apparently it’s a zoo out there.)

Oh, and you know how traffic lights at home start green, then go yellow, then red, then back to green?  Here, they start green, then go yellow, then red, then yellow again, then back to green.  This gives drivers stopped at a red light the chance to rev up and get primed for the green light, so as to save precious nanoseconds on start-up (as opposed to North American drivers, who have to watch the lights in the other direction to achieve the same goal).

And finally, apropos of kind of everything:

On the nature of life in general as related to This Time Last Year:

On this day last year, May 31, 2010, I boarded a plane in San Francisco and flew home to Winnipeg after being away for 351 days and circumnavigating the globe.  An entire year has passed since my big trip ended and just like that year I can’t believe how quickly this one has gone by.  In some ways I feel like I’ve done so much less this year.  I mean I haven’t ridden an elephant in the last twelve months, or run on the Great Wall of China, or even spent the night wandering the Duty Free shopping concourse of the Dubai Airport.  I’m such a slacker.

Then again I have managed to set myself up in a completely new country, starting from scratch.  I came over nine months ago with a small-ish wheelie suitcase and a resume full of Canadian experience and Canadian references.  Now I’ve got a room full of stuff, and a proper full-time job in my chosen field, and real professional contacts that I’ve earned, and friends and routines and running routes and favourite tv shows and a working knowledge of the London bus system.  It’s all not nearly as exotic as an elephant ride, but it’s much more real, and more meaningful.  And when I think about it, I’m quietly proud of how far I’ve come.

Now what about next year?


Anonymous said...

Woo hoo! Love your take on the little things that distinguish life on THAT side of the pond. And congrats on your 1-year homecoming-but-ready-to-take-the-next-step anniversary! How the time flies....Stay well & keep blogging!

Viviane-MTL said...

Thank you for making me laugh out loud. So very glad to hear your thoughts.

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