Category Archives: Culture

Criminal or besotted?

Normally I avoid news stories about older men seducing young girls — pedophilia stories give me nightmares — but the recent case of British math teacher Jeremy Forrest, 30, who ran off to France with his 15-year-old student Megan Stammers nabbed my attention. Not because of the creepiness of it all, but because it highlights the gulf between Anglo and Gallic sensibilities.

The British focus on the fact that a teacher ran off with a student, a child in the eyes of the law (I believe the age of consent in the UK is 16). Stammers was cast as the victim, Forrest the manipulative kidnapper. Some papers reported that he’d seduced female students in the past. The case has British police urging David Cameron to continue cross-border arrest and investigation work with the EU, as Forrest was charged on an EU arrest warrant. With that kind of cooperation gone, what will happen when the next British schoolchild is ferried off by a creepy pedophile?

The French, on the other hand, took a laissez faire stand. The age of consent in France is 15. What could be more romantic than a pretty girl running off with her musician boyfriend to the south of France? So there’s 15 years between them … love is blind, they say. He had a wife? Eh, so what? Men will be men. They just didn’t see why the British were making such a fuss.

In the end, Forrest was arrested by the French police and he’s about to be extradited to Britain, but again, his attorney on the Continent  exhibited that classic Gallic attitude: “Jeremy Forrest is in no pervert. This is a story only about love and passion … I believe it will never end. His only crime is to have fallen in love with a 15-year-old, without any recourse to violence or manipulation.” Ah, so this is why Woody Allen loves Paris. It wasn’t the baguettes.

American newspapers that reported on this story took a similar stance as the British, not surprising given our Puritanical background and our hardline position on underage sex, especially when it involves a teacher and a student. We just aren’t very tolerant of that, unless the teacher is a female and the students are 16- and 17-year-old boys — then the attitude seems to be “those lucky lads.”

What do you say? Do you take the Anglo/American position that Jeremy Forrest violated the law or the French position that he was simply following his heart?

An experiment in doing without

This week I decided to give up my car. For the next year, I’m going to do without it and see where it leads.

For years I’ve idly wondered aloud to my husband if we could go from a two-car family to a one-car one. He thought no, and he was probably right. We were living in a town with a deplorable sidewalk situation and a nonexistent biking culture. Getting to the library or the grocery store on a bike was often harrowing.

One of the attractions of our new town is its bike-friendly culture. Still, when we moved here in 2011 I needed the car to drive my son to his school back in our old town. When he got out of school in June and we enrolled him in the local public school, I found I didn’t need my car that much. I had a bike trail to use for grocery shopping and town amenities and two farmstands open year-round within a mile of our home.

A couple weeks ago we found out our beloved Subaru Outback was in worse shape than we thought, $1800 in repairs we needed right away, then $2,000 more in the spring to fix an ongoing emissions problem. The debate became Do we sink major bucks into a 12-year-old car or go out and buy a new (used) car?

That’s a lot of money to sink into an old car, even if it is otherwise in great shape. As for car shopping, I’d rather get a root canal than go car shopping. I’m not exaggerating. I hate almost everything about the experience — the slick salespeople trying to sell me more than I want, the amount of research that we have to put into it (my husband won’t buy a box of toothpicks without doing extensive research on the benefits/drawbacks of flat-end versus round) and the weeks of rigmarole and drama of car-buying in general. If you get a used car, you inherit the past owner’s headaches. When my husband had to buy a car last year, he spent weeks looking for a specific model, got it all checked out by his mechanic, and bought it; within two months, he had to sink a couple thousand into it for something that was missed during his mechanic’s inspection. Don’t get me wrong: I love looking at cars and get all ooo-and-ahhh- at a car show. But buying one? Seriously, rev up that dentist’s drill.

So I’ve decided to go without a car until September 30, 2013. The plan is on October 1st I’m going to reduce my insurance on the car to the bare minimum and store it in the garage. With this type of insurance coverage, I can’t drive the car but I don’t have to drop the registration. If I decide in a couple months I just can’t live without a car, I can put the regular coverage back on, and get it fixed or sell it/buy a new car. I was just too unsure of dropping the insurance and registration, and right now I’m not ready to sell it. If things work out really well with my plan, maybe I will drop the insurance/registration, but baby steps right now.

It’s not like I’m going to be completely car-less. I’ll bike or walk during the week, and if I need a car, I can take my husband’s on the weekends. Or if there’s a day where I absolutely need a car, I can drive him to the commuter station. If I need to pick up Oliver from school during the week, I can call a cab. If I need to get into the city, it’s no big deal: we’ve got MBTA buses that run twice an hour into Cambridge. For longer trips, like visits to my parents in CT, I can always rent a car.

Even though I’m a bit nervous about this, I’m also excited. Since I dislike spending money on fuel costs and believe Americans waste way too many resources with their oversized cars and SUVs and thoughtless driving patterns, it feels like I’m putting my money where my mouth is. Whenever I’ve been to Europe, I’ve looked with envy at the city squares filled with parked bikes and wished I lived in a community like that, where people bike instead of drive. Why wait for that trend to come to U.S. when I can go for it now? I like the idea of putting physical effort into obtaining a thoughtful list of goods I need rather than passively driving to a mall and filling up my trunk with “stuff.” As I age, the more I need physical activity — not just to keep in shape, but to get my head clear — and I need it most in the winter. A bit of Internet research shows that winter biking isn’t all that uncommon, especially around here. On especially wicked cold days, I’ll stay home, just as I do when I have a car. 😉 Lastly, we’ll save a considerable amount of money as a result of this experiment. If I can go without a car for a year, maybe I’ll decide I don’t really  need one. But if the experiment feels like it has to end, I’ll have saved enough money to pay cash for the car I really want — a Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, or some other tiny car with a great safety rating and good gas mileage.

Any advice to share? I’m all ears! (Speaking of which, I’m researching lightweight balaclavas I can wear under my helmet to keep my ears from freezing off.)



Retro video and photos

I spent a good amount of time this morning poring over the photos and videos posted at How to be a Retronaut, which is sort of like a web-based time machine powered by a database of video, photos, documents, recordings, and more. My favorites are the color film of London shot by cinematographer Claude Friese-Greene in 1927. There’s a brief shot of the women bending down to leave flowers at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, which brought me to tears as I was reminded that WWI was only a few short years behind them and their grief was probably cold and fresh. We also know that in just a few years, London would be under raid by the Germans.

Then there are the high definition photos taken around London in the late 40s (love the signage!) And, of course, this opening sequence (above) from “The Prisoner,” filmed in the mid-60s. You’d never see a long opening sequence like this in a television show today! Another series worth checking out are the color photos taken in Paris during the occupation by the Germans. In many ways, Paris looks the same to me today than it did then, except for the fashion and cars (and Nazi soldiers, of course.)

Someday My Prince Will Come (or will he?)

Several weeks ago, a publicist at Penguin Books asked me if I’d be interested in receiving a copy of Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, about a young American woman whose goal, for most of her life, was to marry into the British royal family … specifically, to marry Peter Phillips, Princess Anne’s son. I’m not enamored of the royal family, but I do have to admit, my curiosity was piqued to read about how one goes about snaring a Windsor.

Jerramy Fine, the author, was raised in Colorado mountain country, a place where rodeo, not polo, ruled, and where she spent her first 18 years convinced she’d been switched at birth. Her parents were bona fide hippies, but she imagined her real parents were English aristocrats on vacation in Denver. From her earliest years, Fine was fascinated with England — specifically, the British royals — and when she was six or seven, she saw Peter Phillips’ name in the line of succession and decided he’d be her prince someday, never mind that technically he’s not a prince. Thus began her quest for princessdom.

Ok, let’s stop. I  just don’t get princesses. At. All. Although I loved reading about queens and princesses when I was a child, it was because they tended to get their heads lopped off (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Marie Antoinette), survived awful childhoods (Elizabeth I), or became pawns in intricate political intrigues (Mary Stewart, Jane Grey … both of whom also lost their heads. Literally.)  I’ve never wanted to be one, and instead, fantasized about a life in letters. I don’t like fluffy pink frou-frou. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I spotted a penis on the ultrasound at my four-month pregnancy checkup and thought, “Thank God — no princesses!” Sure, being a princess looks glamorous — lots of designer clothes and jewels, first-class travel, gorgeous digs — but the price for all this seems to be a loss of privacy and a highly restrictive life where you can never just be “normal.” No thanks.

In the first few pages of the book, Fine admits that everyone in her life knew she wanted to be a princess. She never hid or shied away from her intentions. When people told her she was living in a fantasy world, she writes, “My question was this: What’s so wrong with living in a fantasy world? Seriously. What’s so wrong about ignoring the conventions and practicalities of the so-called real world, and actually pursuing your childhood dream? Sometimes I think the ‘real world’ is just a phrase invented by adults to give credibility to the miserable lives they’ve created for themselves. Feel free to call me delusional, but I was someone on this planet who, no matter how silly it seemed, was actually listening to my heart — I trusted it, believed it, and followed it. And in my opinion, there was nothing more ‘real’ in this world than that.”

Hmm. As someone who’d frequently heard growing up I should give up on my dreams of becoming a writer for something more “practical,” I could identify. So I kept reading.

Unlike most girls who dream of becoming a princess, Fine’s desire never waned. All through high school, and even college, she kept a tattered picture of Peter Phillips taped to her mirror, and immersed herself in everything British and royal. Fine brilliantly contrasts her interests with her “real” life … a father with long hair who eventually becomes a cannabis priest, a mother who refused to wear a bra and rails loudly in supermarkets about food additives (my kind of woman), a skateboarding younger brother named Ezra. And it’s hilarious. As well as frustrating because I think we all know the horror of being young and stuck with family who just doesn’t get you.

Fine eventually makes it to England during a junior year abroad program, and sets the wheels in motion to meet her future husband. She makes a few friends in aristocratic circles, actually meets Princess Anne (her future mother-in-law!) at an event, and feels even more certain that the path she’s chosen is the right one. She returns to England as a graduate student, and this is where things get interesting. Fine begins to see that the England in her fantasy life doesn’t quite measure up to the England she’s living. First off, she’s at the London School of Economics, a haven for foreigners, not Brits, so she finds it hard to meet the natives. Then she discovers how very different Brits are from Americans … whereas Americans tend to welcome new friends, the British are far more reserved and prefer to hang out with people they’ve known for ages, interlopers need not apply. Yet Fine does manage to ingratiate herself into an aristocratic Oxford set, and participates in some hi-jinx with British men that further confuse her. During her stay, she experiences some highs and lows in her pursuit of Peter Phillips: she discovers he’s got a girlfriend (low), but she’s American (high), which means there’s hope for her.

Since we know that Peter Phillips ends up marrying a Canadian (and is, in fact, about to become a father and make Queen Elizabeth a great-grandma), we know that Jerramy Fine doesn’t get her prince. Or does she? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I thought Fine’s single-minded pursuit of her prince a little … well, mercenary. When she’s in England, she refuses to hang out with anyone who doesn’t have a British accent; then when she realizes variations in accents are indicative of social class, she becomes even more discriminating. But since the book has a satisfactory ending and I felt that Fine had learned something during her journey, her earlier behavior didn’t bother me. Indeed, what I liked about her was her refreshing honesty. She never hid her intentions from people who were sure to knock her down. And even if you have no interest in royalty or princesses, this memoir has enough commentary on Britain and British life to appeal to most any Anglophile.

Have you read Jerramy Fine’s memoir? What did you think? Add your opinion to the comment section below.

Is it eccentricity that unites Britons?

Yesterday I received notice from British bank First Direct of an amusing survey they’d done of 1,000 Britons that claims one in 10 Brits is an “eccentric” — that is, a person who’s creative, individualistic, and free-spirited — and that more than 32 million Brits exhibit eccentric traits. Famous Britons they deemed eccentric include Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London, above), Stephen Fry (actor/author), Vivienne Westwood (fashion designer), Boy George, Russell Brand, and the Osbournes.

I do tend to think of the British as being more eccentric than Americans; I assume it’s because the long-standing English class system encouraged the (mostly) upper-classes to develop charmingly bizarre personal habits that had to be tolerated by the classes below them. I can’t think of many American eccentrics, maybe because we tend to label anyone who marches to the beat of a different drummer as OCD or simply crazy. I came up with Andy Warhol, Hunter Thompson, J.D. Salinger, Julia Child, Michael Jackson, Pee Wee Herman, and Tim Burton, the latter who now lives in Britain, so go figure. I couldn’t think of one American fashion designer or figure who could be called eccentric, but the UK has (or had) Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, and Isabella Blow. Even Anna Wintour is a little “off.”

This trait is probably why I’m so fond of the British. What about you?

USDA reconsiders ban on haggis

800px-Scotland_HaggisOfficials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are examining the decades-old ban on haggis, Scotland’s national dish. For those of you not in the know, here’s Wikipedia’s description: “Haggis is a dish containing sheep‘s ‘pluck‘ (heartliver and lungs), minced with onionoatmealsuetspices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally simmered in the animal’s stomach for approximately three hours.” The ban was enacted during a breakout of Mad Cow Disease in the late ’80s.

I’m pleading the gastronomic Fifth on this — I resumed my vegetarian diet over a year ago — but in all seriousness, I would happily gobble down some Scottish haggis over a slab of beef procured from a midwestern feedlot.

Why Brits like to talk about the weather

A recent study of 3,000 Britons shows that English weather is their favorite topic of conversation, beating out discussion of football. Reports the Telegraph:

“Researchers found our day to day lives are still characterised by traditional British activities like discussing the weather, enjoying fish and chips and drinking cups of tea.”

When asked to put these cultural traditions in perspective, psychologist David Lewis said, “By differentiating us from other nations they help create a unique identity, reinforcing our confidence in the attitudes and beliefs that make us typically British.”

Hmmm. This seems like a silly little study to me. Of course the Brits love their greasy fish wrapped in newspapers and builder’s tea at 4. It’s like concluding that Americans love baseball, crappy beer, and thinking they’re #1. And I have to quibble with the weather talk. I’ve been all over the world and talked about the weather ad nauseum with Italian waiters, drivers in India, and Norwegian grandmothers. Not to mention here in New England with fellow Yanks, where weather chatter’s taught at the knee.

Wherever you are in the world: do you find yourself chatting about the weather? Or is weather talk an alien concept to you? Add your comments below.