The invasion of the poppies – Remembrance Day in London

Memorial alongside the Thames

Big Ben’s hands struck 11, its chimes cutting through the dead silent air of Westminster. It’s not uncommon to see thousands of people surrounding this London landmark, but very much so to witness the entire square fall silent in unison for 2 minutes. 

This morning, I stood amidst the sea of people, near to the foot of Big Ben, unaware of the fact that just 300 meters away, the Queen herself, was leading the procession of people, laying down a wreath to commemorate Remembrance Day 2012.

Remembrance or Armistice Day (Nov 11th) has been celebrated across many parts of the world since the end of the First World War and in the UK, serves as a day to commemorate servicemen and women killed in war since 1914. 

The Remembrance Poppy

The invasion of the poppies

It all started in mid-October, when I began to notice little red flowers, like the one above, popping up everywhere across London. They came in different forms and sizes: most of time, in paper, and clipped on people’s vests; other times,  plastered on the last car of the tube, on a flag in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and virtually on every single major public figure and reporter in the news.

These flowers, I would come to learn, are known as Remembrance Poppies. Americans first used the symbol in 1920 to commemorate their fallen soldiers during World War I.

While I have never heard of or seen the poppies used in the States, by sheer observance here in London, the flowers are significantly more popular in the UK (and according to Google, also Canada).

Poppy Appeal – Poppy Fascism? 

The poppies owe their popularity perhaps to the Royal British Legion, who sell the paper flowers each year in a campaign to support those who have served the British Armed Forces and their families – known as the Poppy Appeal.

In 2011, a popular news presenter by the name of Jon Snow coined the term “poppy fascism” – sparking a debate about how the poppy appeal had become a social judgment call. News presenters like Mr. Snow, particularly on BBC, are all encouraged to wear poppies running up to the Remembrance Day, and people raised speculations of how the presence or lack of a poppy measured a politician’s or a person’s level of patriotism.

Poppies were also encouraged in workplaces – to which Snow and other critics say represents almost an enforcement of a feeling that should be voluntary, hence the term “poppy fascism”. 

Poppy State of Mind

And yet, the thing about critics like this, in my opinion, is that once they’re thrown into the air, they become this unnecessarily cynical angle to a tradition that is supposedly very simple and not to mention, for a good cause.

 I experienced a good hour of squeezing my way through the hundreds and perhaps, beyond my vision, thousands of people in London, who headed out to Westminster, on a Sunday morning, proudly sporting their poppies, and red-toned accessories,their expressions sombre, and their eyes gazing distantly during the 2 minutes of silence.

For me, there’s no better proof of how much the Remembrance Day means to people here and how it has brought them together. 

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It was so crowded and most of those around were taller than me, so no good pictures of the parade of uniform servicemen and women, and of course, nowhere near to the Queen, but you can read and watch more HERE.

Poppy wreaths at a memorial site alongside the Thames

 

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US Elections Paint British News Red and Blue

Donkey and Elephant Caricature by Donkey Hotey ( http://donkeyhotey.wordpress.com/)
Donkey and Elephant Caricature by Donkey Hotey ( http://donkeyhotey.wordpress.com/)

4 years ago, at this exact time, I remember being in Massachusetts, huddling around a basement TV with half of the campus dorm, clutching our knees in anticipation, as the blues and reds began to spread across the CNN digital map. Never had I imagine, that by the next election, I’d be in London and that interestingly enough, that the spirit of the election would be no less evident in the British media. 

The US Election Night special on BBC just began 2 minutes ago, with a panel of mostly British political experts analyzing the every inch of the polls, British correspondents reporting in from all of the swing states, as well as Washington DC and Chicago. It’s overwhelming.

The US elections, to my surprise, have dominated the headlines, and running order of most popular TV, online and radio programs here on the other side of the Atlantic. Everything from BBC to the free Metro handouts, Obama and Romney’s faces have been plastered to the very front, angles taken to cover the elections as many as the stars in the American flag.

A love/hate relationship? 

For a country and a people who are stereotypically known as being cynical of Americans, constantly accusing their Anglophone counterparts of butchering their prized British English language, the UK, or at least, its media is particularly interested in its former colony’s Presidential elections.

I mean, to be honest, you’d be lucky to see a trace of the Tories or Liberal Dems of the UK in the States’ television. I came home to see my flatmate tuning into the BBC Special: US Election Day, on a live two-way with Washington DC.

She turned to me:

– “I really hope Obama wins
“Why would the UK be so interested in a presidential election an ocean away?”
It’s the US, the British may act like they hate Americans, but they couldn’t be more curious

Meanwhile, Jeremy Paxman on NewsNight (more or less the British equivalent to Larry King on Late Night) stressed that this election is “crucial”  and that whoever would be the next leader could affect the “entire West” . 

So while it may overall still seem that Brits have a hypocritical eye on the Americans (another whole post on my debate against that), the other eye is a highly keen and curious one.

My sense is that, it’s the US, one of the most influential countries in the world, economically the most powerful. Entertainment wise, Hollywood dominates the world. Considering its past relationship with the US, as much as the UK would like to stay aloof, it is still very much eager to be updated with the American lot.

Blue-draped morning too blue? 

4 years ago, as the last swing state turned blue, I thought I was going to go deaf from the screams and screech that a women’s college of 2,100 would render you. I remember looking out the window, to see a girl on a tree, another topless, and a conga line of blue-faced people chanting OBAMA.

Will it be a blue-draped morning again? I won’t get into too much about my political preference for the US , but let’s just say, having been 4 years in Massachusetts, on one of the most liberal campuses of the US, I know not one soul who is voting for Romney. My facebook feed is as blue as a blue jay gets.

Much of the media that I’ve tuned into in the UK have tried to cover both sides, but there is an overall slightly sharper edge on Obama, with more discussion into how the President has or has not lived up to his voters 4 years ago, even celebrity sound bites supporting him. Whether this is because Obama is an incumbent more known to the public or there is a preference towards him can be tossed into the air.

Nevertheless, for me, this election has become less the cause and more the campaign, proven the most expensive amid the US facing still an economic downturn, jobless graduates, the poor still worst off. As hip as Jay Z and Bruce Springsteen gracing the campaign trail, as wonderful for many as a blue-draped morning may be, this whole election has become a collective of expensive stunts and grandiose words uncertain of holding truth, and more importantly, action.

CULINARY SNIPPETS: Sâm Bổ Lượng Dessert Cart- Saigon

My mind turns to the refreshing delights of my days in Saigon…and how I thirst for just a sip of that goodiness right now.

Now, you may have heard of or be like me, have many times over, in your life, turned into an utter fool for “Chè”, not the tea, but the dessert. It could be anything from well-cooked green beans soaked in sugar to a blend of syrup-drowned fruits, nuts and jelly,served either hot or iced. The topic of this much loved dessert would take countless days to cover, since it could be practically any number of combinations of sugar-related dishes in Vietnam.

Sam Bo Luong – this combination does not include all the available ingredients
The Sam Bo Luong Cart on Nguyen Thai Binh Str, Dist1

In Saigon, however, amidst the culinary adventure on which I and my palate fully and ever so often engage and yet fail to fully report on, I discover a genre of ‘chè’  known as ‘sâm bổ lượng”  – Pardon my Vietnamese, linguists out there, but my rough understanding after enjoying this once or twice, is that it’s a ginseng drink that is absolutely scrumptious and healthy, and it gives you a boost on metabolism.

No, it’s not “Redbull” in disguise. From my conversation with the vendor who happens to be of Chinese ancestry, this type of dessert is a Chinese treat brought to the southern metropolis by communities moving southward to settle. Beyond simply cooking different types of fruits and jelly, and letting it candy up and soak in sugar syrup in the case of many types of typical Vietnamese “Chè”, this ginseng refreshment uses ingredients that would be more known to Vietnamese people in a mixture of Chinese traditional medicine such as: ginseng, dried seaweed, ginko nuts pearl  barley, dried dates, dried longans…etc (Below is a sample of some ingredients) .

This makes it all sound so healthy…and my so far-done research of this drink is way too scattered to affirm this…yet my palate and I will attest, the ginseng flavored syrupy broth, coupled with the subtle differences in texture and taste of the ingredients involved, makes this drink definitely a worthwhile delight to try out. I find that it doesn’t have the ‘heaviness’ or ‘overwhelming sugary’ feel of some other types of Chè that includes further extraction of the fruits and beans into the broth. In contrast, it’s light, only slightly sweet, savory in texture, and refreshing in taste. It’d become nothing short of a culinary enigma if I attempt to describe any more.

Some ingredients (*Courtesy of Food For Four)

But, if you ever head over to district 1 in HCMC, a block or two away from Ben Thanh Market, down to Nguyen Thai Binh street during late night….it’s completely deserted, with the exception of this cart. It’s a very eye-catching cart indeed…plastered with what I see as stained-glass paintings (I could be completely off)…

These carts, the owner, in his 50s and a 3rd generation Chinese expat, says are typical for vending desserts and other goodies back in the heyday of the “Cho Lon” – Chinese-populated era of Saigon. His cart dates back to the 1930s, I believe and his family has been in the business since he can barely remember. After the passing of his wife, my friend shares, he had been fully dedicated to perfecting the trade, all from the comforts of this cute little cart, amidst the bustling chaos that is Saigon life.

He’s a journalism story in the making and I have plans to learn more about this man and his cart, of which I’ll share, and yet I digress, as this post is about FOOD…Anyhoo, it’s roughly around 175 Nguyen Thai Binh I think, a cart with aluminum cylinders of brewed delights ready to be mixed in with a range of different ginseng and sugar syrup. I’ve only had the drink several times, not nearly quite enough,  but what I can definitely notice is the clarity and lightness of the broth here compared to the place I tried in District 5 – Chinatown. How I would fly to Saigon just for a glass right now…!!!

PS: updates will be given to fill apparently huge gaps in the knowledge that I have about this delight. From what I know, Sam Bo Luong is but one…as this cart alone features many other types of ‘che” known through names that I fail to register in my head…ones that even include full eggs boiled in sugar (sounds weird yet enticing). For now, just take it from me that Sam Bo Luong is amazingly the best summer refreshment I’ve enjoyed so far, and you should go try it! Enjoy!

Filling in the blank spaces – Coehlo’s “The Witch of Portobello”

To be honest, Coehlo’s “The witch of Portobello” was a disastrous let-down after how much I had enjoyed “the Alchemist”.

Coehlo said he was trying to understand his spiritual side in this book and truthfully, that might have just been its problem. It had too much “sermons” and straight theoretic talk on spirituality and religion, and within the context of such novel about love and finding yourself, many other things would have been of more interest.

On the other hand, it offered ideas which I liked. It was a long story, whose details I would not like to get into, perhaps another time. But the protagonist talked about one particular thing, and that was the idea of ‘blank spaces’, and that we all have them.

People who are missing something in life have many blank spaces, these are the moments between the words that we utter, these are the moments when your thoughts are for a second outside of your mind, these are moments of ‘out of it”s when you’re in the middle of doing something, but you suddenly feel like you’re at a lost…and you don’t know why or maybe you do…but these are the “blank spaces”.

I try to fill these blank spaces with constant things to do and that is because blankness brings in thoughts that I would more often like to block out of my head. And it’s funny because, the protagonist says that the only way to effectively fill the blank spaces is to confront those thoughts, or whatever it was that created that hole, and gap in the first place. But if I were to do so, I wouldn’t even be writing these lines.

And so I continue to work, I continue to read, I continue to write because it helps me to not think about the things that make me feel sad, and alone in the world….and because it helps those blank spaces to go through me more quickly.

My favorite quote in that book because I think it’s true for me and all of us,

“- Q:’Are you happy’

– A:’Yes’

– Q: ‘Do you want more?’

– A:’Yes’

-Q: ‘Then you’re really not happy..?”

And this is exactly where the blank space is –  at our hesitation to answer this last question.

The Tale of the most loyal Dog – Hachiko

Finally built up the courage to watch the original Japanese cinematic depiction of Hachi (Hachikō)- the loyal Akita Inu and one of Japan’s most beloved canine.

A beautifully shot film from 1987.

There is nothing beyond tears to describe into words how profound this is. Here is the link , but be tissue-prepared to meet with the “onion ninja”:

Hachiko Monogatari (The Tale of Hachiko): Vietnamese Sub
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnlJuRjHId4Read Prof. Ueno and Hachiko’s real-life story:
http://www.jpn-miyabi.com/Vol.43/hachiko-1.htmlI only hoped that he had been buried next to his owner instead of being stuffed and mounted in a museum. I haven’t seen the American version, but I doubt it can live up to this, and honestly, see no relevance of Hollywood or Richard Gere to this touching story.

[UK] East End – London’s Street Art Hub

What is it that pops into your mind at the mention of : “London” ?

It might be the iconic Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, the abundant museums, the Thames river, the immobile Queen’s guards, or the many red double-deckers that dot the streets.Quite shamefully, I have yet to truly discover any of these and after 6 weeks of being here, today was the first time, I actually caught a glimpse of Big Ben.

This past weekend, nevertheless, I finally embarked on a touristic attempt : taking a tour. This wasn’t your conventional double decker sight-seeing tour, but an aptly and appealingly named package called “The Alternative London Walking Tour . A 2- hour walk on a pay-what-you-like basis, this tour won’t bring you through the regal city centre  , but instead,  will weave you through the lesser-seen backstreets of London’s East End.

Here boasts one of the most vibrant and diverse street art scenes in the world

It serves as an urban canvas for famous artists like Banksy and Ben Eine. The tour guide (pictured above), a graffiti artist himself, leads our group of 15 through street branches and alleyways off of Brick Lane – the prominent vein of East End.

You might think of street art as the hiphop culture-inspired type of modern graffiti. In Vietnam, I know that many consider it vandalism and the farthest thing from being art. But London’s East End, opening its wall (legally) to the imagination of many, offers so much more than just graffiti and perhaps, even redefines the concept of graffiti altogether. Its walls are plastered with everything from detailed fine-art masterpieces to massive stick figures, using every artistic influences you could possibly think of: spray-paint  cubism, stencil art, …mere scribbles! It is an urban gallery and for me personally, as visually engaging and even at times more exciting than a stroll through an actual museum.

Our artist tour guide noted something very fascinating to me, and that is, East End is an open gallery, in every sense of the word. It’s open to interpretation, it’s open to the simplest to the wildest of ideas, and it’s even open to modification. Once you set your art onto the streets, it’s for the world to ponder on, love, hate and even change.

This neighborhood, the guide shares, owns its bustling and multi-faceted nature to a history dotted with different waves of immigration.The French Huguenots first came in 1650, commencing a lively textile and crafts industry in the area. 200 years later, the industry would be inherited shortly by the Irish and then prominently by Ashkenazi Jews. The end of the World War II era saw the British government opening up its immigration policy as a revival tactic, through which Brick Lane became home to generations of Bangladeshis until now.

Fun fact: Brick Lane is curry capital of the UK, with a total of 52 curry shops on a single street.

The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane is perhaps the most concrete proof of the area’s diverse history, being the only building in the world that has, in its history, been a protestant church, a Wesleyan chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a mosque.

A multi-cultural centre of communities developing and struggling through their settlements in the UK, the streets here in East End, by the 80s amd 90s, had become a space of expression, where generations of people addressed their feelings, discontent or the social challenges they face in society – with the most obvious being issues of racism and discrimination. From being an outlet of social stress, it now has been branded as an artistic venue – where street artists from all over the world, inspired by their urban environments, come to play.

It was an overall visual treat and a tour that, more or less, revealed the backside of London’s portrait – a side less common to the world, you could say. On a side note, it did take place on one of the coldest days I have experienced in London of yet and we had to give up 2/3 of the way after walking  in the painstakingly rainy and humid cold for over an hour.  I’ll save  more on the tour in our next attempt in the spring and also the amazing vintage markets and gastronomical variety in the area for another post. For now, I leave you with some snapshots of East End’s colorful street art. Enjoy!

[UK] Eat your heart out!

***This post contains some notions and photos that may be offensive and downright gross to some. Please be advised!

I mean, really, if you wanted to, you could literally “eat your heart out”.

A cake exhibition of the same name in London this weekend enticed me by the word “cake” alone, but that was well before I knew that along with the “heart”, i could add to the delectable batch, anything from fingers, brains, feces, and oh of course, the occasional STD warts.

Grossed out? Continue to read, you should not – because this is the farthest thing done to the notion of “cakes” from what you could ever possibly fathom: A bakery showcase inspired by human diseases! The above picture is only the beginning, and yes, it’s all EDIBLE. If you can stomach this, then let’s get anatomical *_*!!!

This is definitely where you should be if one lazy Saturday morning, you suddenly have the appetite for some prostate cancer truffles or just fancy a sip of urine sample and quick breakfast with blood marmalade drizzled on toast. The gruesome showcase, in its second year here in London, is the fruit of Miss Cakehead (aka Emma Thomas) – a PR manager known across UK for her provocative food creations.

To top it off, the showcase unraveled in the Pathology Museum of St.Bart’s Hospital – possibly the last place on earth to work up an appetite, considering the endless jars of actual, donated body parts around you. Aptly situated for the theme, you could say, but definitely not the candy my eyes were hoping for.

Once you can get past the squeamish effects of the 2nd or 3rd cupcake adorned with moles, chlamydia, and genital warts, you truly start to appreciate the craftsmanship behind some of these creations – sugar spinning body parts and the most grotesque of diseases into an artform. Beyond the shock of it all, it’s an event aimed to provoke and educate. I would sum the message up as : “You are what you eat“. If eating some chocolate cigarette butts and a blackened lung doesn’t get you to think twice about your next drag,  then well, I guess…you have a pretty tough stomach 😀

And perhaps the most curious bit of all, did I try any?  Because I think to myself everyday, “yummm, syphilis cupcakes!!“, lol. Well, I don’t really have a sweet tooth and I do have a knack for eating with my eyes, so I wasn’t exactly free of all reservations. I did, however, give in to curiosity in the end. All creations were being sold with funds going to charity supporting the treatment and research into the portrayed diseases. You had an anatomical chocolate cake selling at £350 but considering our modest student pockets, we opted for the £3 “fecal samples” and the £2 “kidney” macaron.

Let me just say: sh*t has never tasted so good *_*!

Here are a couple of snaps from the exhibition, I would advise you to not press your nose against this one.

Blood Marmalade – Drizzle as desired!
Chocolate cigarette butts and ash and lung cancer cookie
STD cupcakes – come and get ’em!
mmm…made from white and milk chocolate…<3
Venus vs. Mars : The Pathology of a Breast Cupcake and Prostate Cancer Truffles
Human anatomy chocolate cake, the head alone is £350
Elisa, Marie, and Wendy with Chocolate Fecal Samples and Kidney Macaron

*NOTE: I just found out that an exhibition of the same concept took place in London in early October, but with meat and it was to promote Resident Evil – it was called the Human Flesh Meat Market , Sweeney Todd much? so you can decide if it’s too gruesome before checking it out here! Enjoy!