Saturday, July 19, 2008

Towering Toblerone

I am very, very excited. Really excited. And very disappointed. A rollercoaster, you could say. If I was a bit younger I could blame it on hormones; a bit older, on old age. Instead, I'll blame it on my inner child.
You see, I've found The World's Biggest Toblerone. Sadly not in Oxford, but while I was on holiday. This beauty weighs in at 4.5kg and is a proper chocolate bar with 12 triangles; not some funky packaging just containing lots of normal Toblerones. It's available in selected places in Europe - in my case, I saw it on sale in a mountain resort in Switzerland. I can't quite see a mountaineer grabbing his lightweight 500g triangle from his bag, or a skiier stopping for a nibble, but hey, it certainly appealed to me! Sadly, it cost 95 Swiss Francs, which is nearly 50 quid. And my friends were only joking when they said they'd split it.
So here I am, back in the land of normal-sized Toblerones, full of regrets. Incidentally, a little-known fact: the mountain on the side of a Toblerone packet has a bear standing up in the blank part. Apparently it was part of the original design but hardly anyone noticed it!
I'm on a campaign to get this Toblerone in Oxford now. There are lots of them around, so no excuses. It's too specialist for any old supermarket; would probably fill all of Hot Chocology and isn't Thorntons own brand, so no good there. No, I think it could go well in Maison Blanc, although that's quite tempting enough as it is. Perhaps it should be in some obscure corner shop that gains a legendary reputation and is sought out by Toblerone fans Oxford-wide, like the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Still, there's only one way to find out...spread the word and join the campaign!

'Snot on

I've got a cold. Bleurgh. In summer. Urgh. It's bad. [Insert rhyming onomatopoeia for feeling GROTTY]. It is utterly ridiculous to have the sniffles in mid-summer, let alone Man Flu. And I most definitely have the latter. I know, I know, technically I'm not allowed to have Man Flu, being of the other species. Still, I think I've put up with enough bouts to justify a case of my own.

Oxford is rubbish for having a cold. If I venture outside to any of my usual comfort spots, I look like I have extreme hayfever. No jogging, no picnics, not even any moping on a graveyard bench trying to look artistic. There is a pharmacy across the road from me, where I'm sure the staff recognise me a mile off just from my sniff. They keep reassuring me there is no miracle cure, but I'm sure it's a conspiracy... The shops are too hot, the streets too full of tourists. England in general is pretty rubbish at dealing with the heat, so there's not even any air con to ease my itching eyes. I feel too self-righteous to inflict my snorting and sniffing on a cinema or theatre full of people, having been annoyed by similar actions myself, and I really don't feel like being cultural and looking round museums or sightseeing when I know I won't appreciate it through streaming eyes, nose and bunged up ears.

Okay, enough of moaning. I guess there's always Youtube...


Okay, enough is enough. Why is there not a single decent chippie in Oxford? I'm not talking about people who work with wood and whistle as they work; I'm talking about that lard-loving British institution of the good old fish'n'chippie. I like them all: fresh, seaside offerings, Chinese takeaway combos with the whole family working behind the bar, and the village local with the same old boy muttering behind the counter who was there when you were a kid, and your dad was a kid, and your granddad was a kid...

But what I don't like is Oxford's attempt. Fair enough, Oxford's not the fish'n'chippiest of towns, but its surrounding villages have made a good effort and tourists and students would happily guzzle greasy chips covered in newspaper print and some deep-fried delights.

Oxford chip shops fall into one or more of the Bad Categories of fish and chips:

- Trying to be too posh - greasy lumps of potato just aren't sophisticated. They're meant to be hoovered up from the paper and shovelled into hungry mouths with grubby fingers, not poked at with a posh little fork.

- Trying to be healthy - the whole point of fish'n'chips is to be decadent and forget about the usual calorie-counting. Fish and chip shops should never have seen a salad, let alone try to sell soggy lettuce.

- Actually being a kebab van - kebab vans sell kebabs, burgers and fries. Fine in their own right, but definitely not to be confused with proper chip shop offerings.

- Actually being a greasy fast food shop, even if not a chain - fish and chips means just that: battered fish, chips, mushy peas and maybe a couple of sausages and pies. Baked beans and curry sauce are acceptable. I'll let chicken nuggets slip through as they're pretty yummy, but burgers, jacket potatoes and skinny fries are completely unacceptable.

The fast food places in Cowley fall under many of these categories. The chippie off the high street is at least trying, but still far too touristy, and Posh Fish just can't quite cut it with expensive prices, too much variation and too many staff. Still, it will do for those late-weekend cravings.

In the meantime, the search must go on...

Knife Life

I've just got back from a holiday (I wonder how much longer I can keep saying that without sounding like I'm in denial at being back in the Real World...) to the news of yet more stabbings in the grimy inner cities of the UK. Except it's not just the grimy inner cities; apparently the problem is nationwide. Wary as I am of media fear-mongering, this does make me feel slightly concerned. Are all those nice, middle-class, blazered children wandering round the sweet shops and parks of Oxford on weekday afternoons actually knife-wielding potential murderers? Are those lovely child actors in the local theatre productions actually producing a double act? What about those angelic choirboys who sing the Lord's praises from Magdalen tower on May morning? Surely the statistics can't apply to them as well?

In general, Oxford doesn't seem too bad for crime. I'm sure someone will come along and correct me now, but violent crime seems to be limited to the odd attack on a canal towpath, the not-so-odd sexual attack on Cowley Road (okay, so that's a problem), and fights with bouncers at Filth. Despite all the community bulletins about carrying personal alarms, never going out alone, etc etc that hark back to Victorian times, I rarely feel at risk in Oxford. Perhaps that's because I cycle, and I cycle fast, so I can generally escape any potential danger, if I notice it at all. Perhaps it's because I'm usually back home before all the trouble starts - Oxford at midnight on a Friday night is still full of hustle and bustle. Or perhaps I just don't go to the dodgy areas, if there are any.

Sod's law says I'm now going to get mugged, but for the meantime I'll stick to being uber paranoid that someone will steal my bike lock (undoubtedly worth more than my battered bike) or that I'll leave all the food I just bought on the till as I merrily leave the supermarket.

Atrocious Attacks

Question: What was the second biggest cause of death amongst British soldiers in World War One?

Answer: Ticks.

Okay, I might have made that up, but I know it did cause a far higher number of deaths than expected. Soldiers commited suicide from the sheer annoyingness of the infuriating, irritating, blasted things.

Why this topic all of a sudden?
I have been bitten. On the souls of my feet, on my toes, on my fingers, on my ear, on my armpit, in places that few humans, let alone insects should see.
Now, some of this happened on holiday in Florence. But that's okay; it's one of the expected damages of going on holiday. When people ask me about the unattractive red blotches (and oh, they are red and blotchy) forming complex constellations on my legs, I can tell them 'Oh, they must be from Florence, darling', with that wonderful 'I've just been on holiday' look of superiority. You've got to make the most of it before your supposedly in-awe friend replies with 'Oh yes, they were awful in Barbados too, but my skin's just too good to attract them'.

Anyway, holidays aside, I have also been bitten in Oxford. I don't know quite when or where it happened, but the suspects are:
- University Parks while eating ice cream
- Town while trying to get into Sainsburys
- The canal while jogging
- Cornmarket Street while listening to Duelling Banjos
- Iffley while at a barbecue

All perfectly reasonable ways to spend a summer evening or weekend, and all now activities of high suspicion.

I'll keep you updated on my investigations, but watch out for these notorious gangs which swarm the streets in the evening, attacking indiscriminately and viciously, with long-lasting effects...

Variety Violations?

There was an article in the news today with political correctness gone mad. Apparently pre-school children are to be told off for making derogatory comments about spicy food, as this is a form of racism. Now, call me backward-thinking if you like, but in my experience if you give a young child some food that they're not used to, then they are highly likely - almost definite, in fact - to say 'yuk' and pull a face. Give most adults new food and they will do the same. I'm not talking about a variation on a theme here: petit pois instead of garden peas; raspberry jam instead of strawberry jam; I'm talking about a completely different sort of food.

For the average British child brought up on fish fingers, Turkey dinosaurs, jacket potatoes and roast dinners, a curry or an onion bhaji will assault their taste buds and cause a reaction. They might soon grow to like it, but initially they'll protest.

For the average British child brought up on rice, curry and naan, put a plate of beans on toast in front of them and they too will shout 'yuk' and protest.

Neither is being racist and neither should be told off or they will learn that it is bad to have a non-standard opinion of something, and that trying new things should be avoided if there is a chance of a negative reaction.

When they're older, they will learn that eating out in restaurants and trying new food is fun. Since living in Oxford, I have eaten the following sorts of food:

Chinese (a lot)
English (fish'n'chips and gastro and proper pub grub - The Gardeners Arms is my favourite)
French: Chez Gaston crepes are the best.
Thai - Chiang Mai is totally justified in its amazing reputation.

And probably an awful lot more that I can't think of. I still don't really like Polish food, and I'll still always stick to korma when having Indian food, but it's exciting having a bit of variety. And if I don't like something, I will consider it part of the wonderful variety of human taste.
So there.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tent Tribulations

As the current economic whoopsie carries on, I've been thinking about saving money. Inevitably, this has led me to create a huge list of things I want, rather than the productive list of costcutting attempts that I was aiming for.

I'm a bit of an outdoors bunny, so near the top of my list is a new tent. I've looked round Cotswold Camping, the North Face shop in Bicester and even Go Outdoors, which is a big step for a camping snob like myself. There's a terrifying range, but nothing quite right. It's either big, budget jobbies where you can sleep the whole family plus pets in the back garden, but to be avoided in anything other than sunshine; or heavy duty expedition beasts that can survive an avalanche without waking you up; or lightweight backpacking tents which will fit about a toenail in before you burst out feeling claustrophobic.

This all got me thinking about the future and how we might all end up living in tents when the housing market here goes haywire. I'd like to stake out a spot out on Port Meadow, wake up to gorgeous sunrises and birdsong. Then again, it's a bit bumpy and prone to flooding. Maybe Cornmarket Street - party until sunrise, then grab a pastie and sit in my tent serenaded by bagpipe music from that busker. I'd probably get targetted by charity collectors though...maybe I should just set up camp in an Oxford college. Busy academics would barely notice me, students would see me as a novelty item, and eventually film directors and news reporters would be queuing up to have me as a hallmark of Oxford genuinity, along with the bikes, the books and the V-neck jumpers.

Goggling at Glasses

I've been looking for new glasses. Mine are what you might call 'retro', 'vintage', 'classic'. They're more of the secretary or librarian school than off the catwalk, but they do the job, and hey, it's not like I have to look at them. Still, they're starting to go a tad flaky round the edges and contact lenses make me look like I'm been smoking something pretty strong when I've been glued to the computer for several hours.

This all running through my mind, I popped into Specsavers to have a look at the frames. You know the sort that are fashionable at the moment: big, dark frames, quite rectangular, there to be noticed and, unfortunately, completely and utterly incompatible with my head. The assistant was very helpful and tried all sorts on me, shaking her head in despair and slight astonishment that I could be so incredibly unsuited to them. She tried her best, but to no avail. Frameless glasses were suggested, and Specsavers in Oxford at least have a pretty good range of them. But aren't they flimsy! My specs go through a fair amount of abuse, so I'm reluctant to spend £150 on some pretty things that can only be seen if you look at the right angle.

The assistant reassured me that they had a two for one offer on, so if I wasn't sure, I could get two frames for different occasions. Fantastic - two frames that don't suit me.

I tried kids' frames, designer frames, value frames, even some grannyish glasses, all to no end.

I think I'll just stick with blinking fuzzily at anything more than a few metres away - who needs to see all the cracks and blemishes when the softly blurred outlines are so much prettier anyway!