Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Supermarket Trip

Need to take a minute to post on the supermarkets after my trip there tonight, as they were one of the first things that stuck out to me when I got here.

Well, the majority of the supermarkets are reasonably small, 'express' sized supermarkets. There are probably 3 or 4 really big supermarkets. The small ones have an appalling selection of foods. I happen to live about a 15 minute walk from a nice big one, so that's where I have started going. Tesco's, it's called.

So, first things first.

-There is an extreme lack of fresh food. I'm talking produce, vegetables, meat, and fish.
-An incredibly high percentage of the foods are packaged.

If I want to buy tomatoes, they are not usually loose (only at the BIG market is there a small selection of loose, regular old tomatoes). Then, most times, they sell tomatoes in a plastic tin. Sometimes the tin is then covered in the outside in plastic. This is a theme that is repeated ALL over the produce and vegetable aisle. Everything is covered in plastic. Plastic here, plastic there. When you can get loose items, it is of the staples. Today, I got a few loose basic tomatoes, some loose red onions, even loose garlic and loose avocados. There is no such thing as a giant pile of potatoes, a giant pile of apples, a giant pile of anything. Even when loose, they come individually tagged and in crates. But the amount of plastic seen in the fruits and vegetable sections is overwhelming. In the express stores, forget about buying anything that is not packaged. On the bright side, at least some of the supermarkets charge you 10 pence for a plastic bag.

Another oddity is that produce that can be ripened on the counter usually comes unripened. I suppose this is because nearly all the produce is imported and it increases the shelf life if they pick it early. Usually, the plastic wrap will say where it is from. My cheery tomatoes are from Morocco. My asparagus is from Peru. My red pepper is from Italy. My orange is from South Africa. Surprisingly, my green onions and broccoli are from Scotland. One thing you CAN get from Scotlan in bulk, for very cheap, of course, is white potatoes.

I recently read an article that, not surprisingly, most of the surface of the UK has been converted for agricultural use. So, of course, there is an extreme lack of fruits and vegetables, and what they have is mostly imported. The article also said that there really are only about 6 varieties of apples that they grow in the UK. I think that surprised me.

Then, there is a big freezer section, 2 or 3 rows. The baked bean section is great, it is HUGE, the largest I have ever seen my entire life. Lots of human gases must be produced from such a high baked bean consumption. Then, say you are looking for black beans... first you need to look for baked beans. Then slide over 3 or 4 columns and you are in the 'pulse' section, where all the other 'beans' are. Next time I am lost I'll remember to ask the clerk 'Can you please direct me to the pulse section please?'

The breakfast sausage section is massive. You can get them in the traditional form, or squares. And they are CHEAP. Large selection of bacon, too.

Forget about much fresh meat, as in, the butcher just cut it 'fresh'. Just go straight to the refrigerated aisle and pick up a packet. I guess if you want good, fresh meat, go to a butcher.

The selection of frozen and refrigerated prepared foods is massive. All sorts of meat pies. Haggis. Things you couldn't even think of.

On the other hand, I started a trend of buying a few new, random food items each week. If you can't tell from the food blogs, I'm having a lot of fun doing this. There are many things I haven't seen before, which is great, except my heart probably doesn't like, for example, today's combination of pork pies, Haggis, Irn Bru, and Mulligatawny soup that I picked up... it'll just have to work a little harder until I leave:

Irn Bru. A Super Scottish drink they claim cures hangovers. Loaded up with caffeine and sugar. Tasted like any other energy drink. They say it competes with Coke and Pepsi here:

MacsWeen Haggis. George said it was pretty good Haggis, even for being sold in the supermarket, so I went for it:

Mulligatawny soup. Never seen it in a US supermarket (probably wasn't looking). Wikipedia tells me its some Indian-British originated soup with curry flavorings.

'Melton Mowbray Pork Pies'. Sounds like a heart attack and artery clogger. I reckon I'll have a go (reckon that it might be my new favorite word, by the way). Melton Mowbray is a city in England famous for its pies (NOT fruit pies!)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Foods in Scotland, Part 2

...and it continues...

-The scotch pie. Actually, it is just referred to simply as a 'pie' here. As in 'Hey Jimbo, let's go grab a pie for lunch.' Commonly bought at your local pie shop (which is basically a bakery). Filled with minced meat. Personally, not bad. Not the greatest thing in the world, though. Comfort food.

-Steak Pie with Chips. Just cut up pieces of beef, in some amazing sauce, really really tender as well. The most delicious thing I have eaten here so far. I'm not a big fan of fries, but they tasted better when dipped in the sauce from the meat.

I elected not to purchase them out of fear for my well being, but indeed it is hot dogs in a can:

Walkers Chips. Prawn Cocktail. Roasted Chicken. Worcester Sauce. English Roast Beef. The list goes on. I tried the prawn one, Worcester sauce, and chicken ones, and they were all way too strong tasting (and in a bad way as well). I don't really want to eat chicken chicken, I want to eat potato chips.

Fish and Chips. Not sure why the are so popular in the UK, but I won't be buying them very often if at all. Large chunk of white fish deep fried. Nothing too special about that.

Scotch Egg. Admittedly, these are ok. By ok, I mean I might buy another one sometime before I leave, just for the heck of it. You can eat them hot or cold. I bought them at the supermarket. It is a hard boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, breaded, then deep fried. I could never think of that combination on my own. I might even try to experiment and make some on my own.

Beef Burger. This was a burger, breaded, and deep fried. Of course, it was served with chips. I loaded the chips up with brown sauce. Admittedly, it was edible. Bought at a chip shop. I guess a chip shop might be considered fast food.

This is just a sausage (can you see it in there?!?!?!). Covered in cheese. Again, loaded up with chips. Actually, this was Eduardo's. I can not attest to the taste of this dish, but I am sure the picture may serve justice:

Really enjoying the culinary experience that is the UK, nonetheless. Trying to keep my arteries unclogged at the same time. Stay tuned for more food blogs, there are certainly a lot of unknown delicacies remaining to eat here...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Back to Reality...

Well, first week of classes is officially over! What a week indeed.

In fact, it was quite a good first week. This year, I must say I have become accustomed to a bit of a leisurely life, travelling around alot, meeting people, learning and seeing plenty of not so necessarily career related things, and having generally a bit of a agenda-less time of reference since leaving UL. I still maintain it is something everyone should be able to experience at some point or another. But I've been looking forward to changing it up a bit, having a goal to focus on, and something to put my mind and energy to.

If I had only one expectation of the program, academically, it was that it was not going to be easy (but nothing worthwhile ever comes easy right? ahhh how cliche). I say this for three reasons. One, I haven't been a student for 3.5 years. I have forgotten a lot of the academic knowledge I learned in school, knowledge which in addition, I did not use a whole lot of at UL. Two, my mentality is not necessarily in 'student-mode'. And third, simply that I expected the classes to be difficult. I suppose I had a bit of a sneak peek at some of the upcoming academic material as a few UL colleagues are/were getting masters in fire safety at US Universities.

For the most part, my expectations were met based on what I have seen in the first week. I have had no problem getting into student mode, essentially studying my ass off. I attribute that in part to the fact that working for 3 years gave me a greater appreciation for learning, classes, etc, and I really want to put forth the effort to absorb the knowledge, learn it well, and not waste my time. I also feel almost that I need to put a good 40 hours plus extra in anyways (in reality it will be much more), as I did working normally.

Regarding the first and third points, well, at least two of the four classes are quite challenging, and this is compounded in parts by the fact that a few of them have pre-requisites that I (and some of the other Erasmus students), have not been exposed to. All that really amounts to is that I have to work doubly hard to cover material that I already should have known.

Let me explain further. One class, Finite Element Method, is a primarily civil engineering based course, for 4th or 5th year undergraduates. Well, I am a mechanical engineer. Most of the students have taken a course before Finite Element Method, and on the first day of classes, we were basically expected to know what was covered in that course. So basically, I spent hours and hours studying Mon-Thurs, checking reference books out at the library, and trying to learn the material of one semester in a matter of days. Of course, we did approach the professor about this as a group, and due to our special circumstances, he gave us 8 or so Erasmus students a 2.5 hour personal crash course on the stuff. It helped alot, but it will still be a bit of an uphill battle.

Other than that, the classes seem interesting. This semester will probably dictate whether I am interested in doing my thesis on something related to structures and fire, which is the specialty at Edinburgh. One class, as I mentioned, is Finite Element Method. In a sense that is explainable to all, it deals with simulating, through computer models (a program), what happens to a structure (for example, a building), or a part (for example, the bumper of your car), when 'something' happens to it (for example, simulating the effect of a car crash on a bumper and how the bumper changes shape as a result of the crash, or simulating how the heat of a fire might affect a wall or column in a building). There is a computer program we will be using, some mathematics (differential equations hooray!), and it is generally much more detailed and complicated than I have described above:

The second class is Fire Dynamics. This class is basically the science of fire and how fire behaves (yes, it does behave! Hopefully not naughty though...ok, commence tomato throwing at once). It uses a lot of chemistry, thermodynamics, heat transfer, differential equations, and other engineering disciplines. Admittedly, I haven't used a lot of that stuff in awhile, so I will have to spend some time (the real question is how much, haha) refreshing myself.

A third class, a bit of an odd class, is the Philosophy of Structures. This is another civil engineering class. Basically, thinking about how structures (such as bridges and buildings) behave when something happens (like an earthquake or fire), and thus also philosophies of designing the structures in light of possible events. It is not a class that is big on numbers and calculations.

The last class is Engineering Management. For me, I have taken a few similar classes, did some related training at UL, and, well, managed projects at UL. It is another word-heavy class. One lecture a week and an examination in December with 3 questions worth 100% of the final grade. Cost, Time, Quality, Sustainability, all those buzz words that you associate with management are all there.

So a few observations. The classes are bigger than I was expecting. Mainly because most of them are actually filled with undergraduates. The management class had 210 people! The others have had between about 40 and 80 or 90 students. Much different from my background at Bradley, where I felt like I could actually talk to a professor in a smaller classroom. Teachers don't really take many questions in class (actually, people don't really ask questions during a lecture, I should say...). I kind of had an impression the classes would be smaller since it is a post grad degree, but, there are 24,000 students at this school, so that kind of eliminates that possibility I suppose. Also, the marking system here is much different than my experience in the US. Almost all of the grades in each class is basically your score on the final exam. I will consider myself a bit of a test dummy on educational quality of US vs. European Universities. Check back in in 3 months and then next June for an update.

I am also I suppose a bit surprised at how heavily the class load is weighted to structural/civil engineering. But that's the specialty here, and it is what it is. I'm here to learn.

So it is going to be a lot of work. A lot of studying. Of course, as long as the subjects stay interesting, all should be fine. Anyways, it was all expected to begin with, and is now coming to fruition. In the meantime, hopefully I have a little time to enjoy Edinburgh!

In conclusion, I present to you a few things that just should not exist!

I didn't have the heart to purchase hot dogs that come in a can, but here they are in all their glory (barf!):

I did take a stab at these and must say, I will not be a returning customer. Final conclusions are that all animal products should not appear as flavors in chips (prawns, chickens, steak, fish, etc, and trust me, they have all these flavors here):

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A bit on the City

Usually when I meet a new person here, one of the first questions they ask is 'Do you like Edinburgh'.

It's actually a hard question to answer. It's been just over a few weeks here, so I still have plenty of time to explore and get to know the city and formulate my opinion. But, I can't usually unequivocally and emphatically answer 'YES', to that question. So far, I like the city, but am certainly not enamored with it.

Possibly because it is a little familiar. The foods are different, but not in a strange or exotic way. Of course, they speak English, of which I understand 80-90% of the time (I find myself having to ask people to repeat themselves sometimes). The city is a mixture of new and old. Mainly, the center of the city is very historical, but once you get outside of that, It is all fairly new.

After the first few days here, though, I thought that it was not a very diverse city. But my opinion is changing after a few weeks and learning more about the city. If I walk down any random street here, it is true, chances are I will not see a black person or a hispanic person. And that is something that is very different from the bay area or Chicago. However, there are a large amounts of people from India, Bangladesh, the Middle East, Poland, China, and Southeast Asia. The thing about the diversity here, and I think this is how it should be, is that everyone together makes up the society as a whole. There is no China town, little italy, SF mission district, Chicago Devon St, etc. Everyone, on the surface at least, is part of society. That implies learning English, not living together in blocks and communities, and generally being part of the 'normal' culture (adapting). While Chicago is probably one of the most diverse cities in the US and even world, the fact is it seems that there is a neighborhood pecifically set aside for every race, and when everyone just withdraws to their own mini country within a country, it really isn't actually that diverse. So anyways, I think the spread of diversity here is less than in the US, but the integration is much better. I'd like to look into why that is cause I can't really say (immigration laws & programs, how housing is structured, attitudes towards illegals, borders, etc).

Let's see.....I have decided I am not a huge fan of the beer here. The average Scottish beer is better than the average US beer (taking budweiser as the 'average' American beer'). In that regard, it is because they have a bit more flavor. But I went to a beer festival the other day with Brecht and Karliss, and was actually really disappointed...but that is mainly because I am simply not used to the beer style. I felt like all the beers were flat. In fact, one of the brewers said they don't carbonate the beers very much. So that leads to very little foam, not many bubbles, and a thin, almost watery flavor in my opinion. They were also not very cold. Not sure if that is normal or not, though. Anyways, at the moment, I'm not a huge fan of the general beer style.

Friday night I went to a traditional Scottish dance called a Ceilidh (pronounced 'kay-lee'). Basically, a band played very upbeat, traditional folk dance music, and led people through the steps to many different dances. I think it equates to something like line dancing on super steroids. Anyways, there were about 300 people in the hall. There were people of all ages as well (though as it was hosted near the University, there were a bit more people in their 20s). Anyways, basically, you have partner dances and group dances. In some of the group dances, everyone ends up dancing with everyone. It is very fast paced, not much stopping, and even sometimes in groups the men end up lifting the women up (which leads to an extremely sweaty, stinky room after only a few dances). Occasionally, it can be hard to follow the guy shouting the steps on the microphone over the band, but here, many people did not know what they were doing, so I fit right in. Of course, only about 10 or 15 men were wearing kilts, so you can tell the % who were actually Scottish. The high tempo of the dances really created and environment where everyone was having fun, everyone was dancing with everyone (no machisimo), and it would be hard for someone to not enjoy themselves. I myself had a blast, and anyone reading this knows from a few blogs before I STUNK to the nth power at the Tango and Samba.

Last dance took about 20 minutes (women on one side, guys on the other. Each partner goes down the gauntlet and goes in a circle with arm interlaced around each man or woman. Quite the sweat fest):

Pair dance:

Edinburgh is generally a very safe city. I live about a 35 minute walk from the city center, and have had no problems walking home at night on occasion (George told me it is very safe anyways). There is a neighborhood north of the city called Leith, near the waterfront, that seems to have a reputation for not being the safest place at night, but that seems to be about it. But if I don't want to walk home, the bus service is really good. It is 1.20 pounds per ride (something like $1.80). Plus, they are double deckers, so that's just good fun being able to walk up a set of stairs on a moving bus.

Since George is a walking encyclopedia on UK history, I'll have to post a blog sometime on history. I find it pretty interesting. As well as the relationship of Scotland to England and Scotland to the UK in terms of governance. When talking about history here, it's impossible not to talk about religion, so need to write about that (if only for my own memory). Plus, more food blogs. Prawn Cocktail, Worchester Sauce, and Roasted Chicken flavored potato chips anyone?

Other than t

Brecht (Belgium) and Karliss (Lativa), having our first Fish and Chips:

A picnic just outside/above the city with Hernan (Argentina), his wife, Karliss, and roomate Eduardo (Mexico City). Good Spanish practice!:

Having Chinese food at our place with Eduardo and George before watching Manchester United play the Rangers (a Glasgow team).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Scotland Highland Games

This past weekend, I went with Brecht to a day of Highland games, a distinctly Scottish event.

We took the train 2 hours from Edinburgh central to the tiny town of Pitlochry, Scotland. The town itself is not much to speak of, small, lots of souvenir shopping on the main street. It is, however, in the highlands, and therefore surrounded by large hills/small mountains...very green and picturesque setting.

Although there are also highland games all over the US & other countries, here in Scotland, the Highland games are held in a different small town every weekend for 3 or 4 months or so, from Mayish to mid September. In fact, although they are local events and have local participants, it is also part of a series of Highland Games, and even administered by a group, the Scottish Highland Games Association.

Another seemingly obvious but not so obvious thing is in fact the games only take place in the highlands. Edinburgh, Glasgow, and most of south eastern Scotland are lowlands, so they do not have highland games. Makes sense, but you have to consider the geography of Scotland when you think about it.

The other thing I learned was a bit of history regarding the games. During English occupation, they would not let the Scots train with weapons. So they discretely trained by using the games for this purpose. Honing skills with axes and other weapons.

So anyways, the games were really interesting. Lot's of manly events, despite the kilt-wearing. It really felt like a track and field competition in the US, with various events taking place simultaneously in different parts of the field. Events included:

Log toss. Three different really tall logs of different diameters. Pick it up, flip it over, try to get it to flip over enough so the top end lands on the ground and then rolls over. If it goes less than 180 degrees (and the top side does not land on the ground), you lose:

Stone Throw/Shotput. Throw palm sized stone from ear, with a nice wind up in the process:

Bicycling. Various lengths and sprints. All on the muddy grass:

Running. Lots of sprints, longer events, and even a team even where they handed off the baton (what do they call that again? I forgot).

Tug of War. Hilarious. It went on all day, there were 7 teams. Sometimes the tug of war would go on for 10 or 15 minutes, all the guys just kind of resting there while putting their weight into it. They even had coaches yelling out. Lots of grunting. Big guys. Very funny.

My favorite picture.

Long Hammer throw. Hammer with really long wooden handle:

Ball and Chain throw:

Weight toss. 56 lb weight which at the highest setting gets tossed over a 15'8" bar. They kept saying the equivalent to throwing a 7 lb baby over a 2 story double decker bus.

this would constitute a failure:

Bagpiping. Lots of bagpiping. They had 21 bands play individually throughout the day. Then, at the end, all 21 played together in a procession. They bands had drummers as well. It was really impressive.

The look of kilted dejection:

Then Dougie Maclean played. I had never heard of him, but apparently he is one of Scotlands more famous musicians. And everyone knew the words to the songs he played.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Alcohol in Scotland

I had a bit of a preconceived notion before arriving of Scotland having a bit of a drinking culture. Although, I am not sure that is quite the case at the moment.

I think that in the past, this may have been more true. Of course, it has always had a bit of a pub culture, where the pub serves as a social center. But nowadays, even the pub is declining. Especially in the last 5 years, after smoking was banned in pubs, the rate of pub closures has been immense. In addition, 20 or 30 years ago, less alcohol was sold in grocery stores, if any at all. In fact, I was told that if you wanted to buy a 6 pack of beer, you would even be able to pick it up from the pub on the way home. Grocery and liquor stores were not really the main venue for selling alcohol. Nowadays though, people are more apt to just go to the grocery store and buy a 4 pack for 1 pound a pint can, as opposed to 3 pounds per pint at the bar. So in addition to the smoking, the price and availability seem to have led to many pubs closing.

However it seems like they are really trying to curb consumption here. For example, alcohol is only sold between 10am and 10pm (7 days a week). I am pretty sure that in most parts of the US policies are a bit more liberal, save for the remaining blue laws states (although, I'm just guessing, really).

A recent issue that was in the big Scottish newspaper (aptly named 'Scotsman') for 3 days straight after I arrived, was a 45 pence tax on the sale of alcohol at grocery stores. Now, the tax is also pro-rated on the type of alcohol. For example, beers are taxed less, but hard ciders are taxed more (cider being popular here). The reason being, 16 and 17 year olds (the drinking age is 18), tend to go and buy cider at the grocery store, as it has a high gravity and is cheaper than beer. However, the public overwhelmingly thinks this tax is silly. And they seem to have every right to, as the tax revenues go straight to the grocery stores! How silly! A noble idea, but when the profits go straight to the grocery store, that makes no sense.

The other thing I suppose I was a bit suprised about is the hours the pubs are open. All pubs close at 11 or 12 during the week and 1 on the weekends. There are casino's which are open until 4am. Of course in the US it is usually 2 or even 4. I don't really think that stops people though from getting their fix. I haven't figured it out, but it appears they just shift their habits earlier (which really suprises me, contrary to most of continental Europe and even South America schedules).

On the other hand, a few nights ago, I met another student Brecht, and George, my landlord, at the local pub. We were only there about 2 hours tops, from 9-11. In that time span, George had 4 or 5 pints. That's quite a bit, especially in such a short time. Now, he is 62, and does this at least a few times a week. He did not really leave drunk, was a bit jolly, and I saw him nice and chipper the next morning at 8 am. It was an old man's pub, and there were plenty of others doing the same.

I suppose I've drawn no real conclusions here, only observations at this point, haha. More time needed.

One of the big beers in Scotland. Tastes a bit like Guiness but lighter (a bit more watery if you ask me).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Inchcolm Island

The other day I took a day trip with Brecht, another one of the program's students from Belgium, to a nearby city, South Queensferry, as well as a boat ride to an island in the Firth (inlet) of Forth.

South Queensferry, a 40 minute ride on a local bus from Edinburgh, is noted for having two parallel bridges spanning the gap between the shores. One bridge was built in the 1960s. The other, the more famous one, was built in the 1890s. The bridge looks as it does because when the previous bridge collapsed in the 1880s, in response they built a bridge that was incredibly overdesigned. Thus, it looks very bulky and even medieval-like in my opinion.

The forth bridge:

You can see both bridges here:

Now the bridge is just used for trains:

South Queensferry (a puny little town really):

After a stroll around South Queensferry, we took a 45 minute ferry ride to one of the islands in the bay (there are 4 or 5), this one called Inchcolm. They dropped us off and let us explore the island for a few hours.

Inchcolm was first said to be the residence of a hermit in the 12th century. He built a stone structure for shelter, which was then used as a foundation for a larger abbey which resided there for centuries. The abbey was subjected to various attacks by English throughout the years. The abbey was incredibly well preserved due to the simple fact that it was not easily accessible, and it supposed to be the best preserved old abbey in Scotland. You can really tell they knew what they were doing when they built it, as it seems not only really sturdy, but even with open windows, each room shelters from the wind perfectly. The daily life of someone living there said that they prayed at 430am, 7am, noon, 3pm, 6pm, and before bedtime at 830pm. Damn. The island was mentioned in MacBeth.

Anyways, during WWII they built on the island some structures as well as some gun cannons. It was interesting to see grass on top of all the buildings, which was definitely to prevent planes flying overhead from detecting anything. There is also a tunnel, which was probably designed as a shelter. If there were any planes flying into this part of the UK, the island was probably the first thing they would fly over before reaching the mainland.

Part of the island, and the abbey, from the boat:

Walking up to the abbey:

Incredibly narrow stairwell between tower, mid level, and basement:

They must have been really short people (that, or we're really tall, but that's probably called evolution):

From the tower:

Gun Station:

Buildings disguised with grass covered roofs:

Gun Station: