Old Trafford, Manchester

Manchester United Old Trafford

It’s The Small Things: Fish and Chips

I’m going back to the UK for the Summer Holidays. So when I recently called home, my mother asked what I wanted to eat when I arrived. I instantaneously answered with “Fish and Chips”. Whether it be sitting in the garden of our family house back when I was a kid, or in the pub before an away football game, I have fond and delicious memories of eating them. In Japan, it’s not uncommon to find a rather underwhelming offering in Irish Pubs. But for a nation that slaps tempura batter on everything from prawns to asparagus, it’s strange that they’ve yet to understand the beautiful romance between the potato and white fish. That’s not to say the Japanese have no idea about the dish. On the contrary, if there’s one thing that Japanese people know about the UK aside from the Queen, Peter Rabbit and David Beckham, it’s “Fish and Chips”.

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My High School Experience

Across Japan, junior high school third graders have started their three years of high school education. And with all this talk about the students entering an important part of their lives, I got back to thinking about my high school days. England’s educational system is structurally different from the likes of America and Japan as you can tell from the table below;

England’s Education System

Grade

School

Age

Nursery

Nursery

3

Reception

Reception

4

Year 1-6

Primary School

5-11

Year 7-11

Secondary School

11-16

Year 12-13

Sixth Form / College

16-18

Anyway my “high school days” found me at a completely new school, surrounded by new teachers and new classmates. Those stressful two years were a nightmare of examinations, coursework and social toxicity. After five years of studying at my secondary school, making close friends and building an attachment to my teachers, I found myself unable to study the subjects I wanted to at a Sixth Form level. My parents were also deterred by the school’s underwhelming test averages and university prospects. Thus we decided that it would be best if I changed schools for my A-Levels. And so it was decided that I would go into private education for two years.

I was overweight, my GCSE grades (Year 11) weren’t as high as everyone else’s, and I didn’t drive to school in a Mercedes. Though these never presented a direct problem for myself, I could tell that there was a divide between those students that were overly-privileged and those who weren’t. My friend was constantly ridiculed for being sponsored to study at the school, as his parents couldn’t afford the fees. And this underlying fact that a private school meant money, was ever present in every facet of school life. BMW cars, Swiss watches and lines of coke in the bathroom definitely didn’t make me feel comfortable. This even stretched to the school’s financial dealings. The Sixth Form building had been funded by some gentlemen whose name I can’t recall. Anyway, he had returned to the school for a visit and had witnessed an impromptu water fight. We got a prompt scolding from the principal who stated that “we should be ashamed” for losing funding for the school’s future projects. None us really gave a f**k.

What particularly stands out was that Sixth Form was a period of adult themes and hurried “maturity”. This wasn’t the group of classmates that discussed The Simpsons or the weekend football scores. Instead sex, booze, calculus and rugby were common topics of conversation. A confusing mix for me. I’d never had sex, drunk booze, studied calculus or even watched a game of rugby before entering high school. Talking about sex was always an incredibly nervous experience as an overweight individual. My innocent minded couldn’t grasp the terminology or justification for bragging about it. Under-age drinking was prevalent throughout the school. In fact the school grounds were surrounded by two pubs, one in particular was the “drinking hole” for many students. I’d never touched a beer or a shot of vodka before and the peer pressure was incredibly persistent, even on school trips.

In terms of actually studying. My teachers were a mixed bag, all possessing unique personalities and foreign teaching styles to what I was used to. I had two history teachers. I always looked forward to my English History lessons purely because of the teacher. She was kind and understanding. Lessons wouldn’t be a lecture, but a discussion of opinions and ideas. Meanwhile, I loathed studying about Bismark and the Russian Tsars. Not only was it uninteresting but our teacher was an traditionalist and eccentric who had studied at Oxford University, something he was overly proud to remind us of. I loathed going to his lessons or handing in homework for the fear of being ridiculed.

In the end all that mattered was that I got the grades I needed to go to the university. I made some friends, enjoyed studying some of the material, but I never felt any connection to the school. I hated the over-privileged atmosphere of under-age drinking, drugs and pampering that was ever present. The phrase “you are an ambassador of this school” was thrown around by the principal, but it wasn’t something I was proud to be associated with. I was very fortunate to have been brought up in a family and I’m grateful that my parents were willing to invest in my education to that degree. But my high school experience wasn’t something I’d like to repeat.

It’s The Small Things: Mince Pies

The Christmas banners are already up in shop windows and in department stores, much to my frustration. Meanwhile the smell of artificial pumpkin spice and over-sweetened cream hangs in the air of shopping arcades and offices. I have to say, Japan really goes full-on with the decorations for every festival and season. Pumpkins in October, Cherry Blossom in Spring and Santa in December. Yet many don’t understand or know the “Nativity Story” behind it all. And if they do, they ask me how Santa Claus fits into the birth of Jesus. Anyway I digress, back home in England the smell of brandy, dry fruits and baked pasty is a delightful one that conjures up one image;  the humble mince pie.

Mince Pies are a staple of Christmas in Great Britain, and have been since its origins in the European Crusades during the thirteenth century. The trading/ pillaging of exotic spices, fruits and foreign cooking were brought back home. To which, in true British culinary style, we baked them into pies. Originally, mince pies actually had meat in them. Whether it was a leg of lamb, or a cow tongue, the combinations of spices and fruit have remained the same. Interestingly, during the English Civil War and the rise of the Puritans, they were banned along with the celebration of Christmas for being too Catholic and fun.

Nowadays the meat has been dropped and mince pies have firmly become sweet, baked goods. The filling of “mincemeat” is a combination of dry fruits, brandy, sugar and spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg). During my second year of secondary school (junior high), we made our own in Design Technology/ Home Economics class. Unfortunately some students hadn’t understood the difference between minced meat (ground beef) and mincemeat, which caused some problems during the lesson. Meanwhile the pastry is a basic shortcrust variety using flour, plenty of butter, sugar and eggs. It’s all rather simple, which perfectly highlights British baking in general. Brandy Cream (brandy, cream and sugar) is the traditional condiment to a mince pie, but I’ve never been a big fan of the combination. Instead a cup of hot tea will suffice.

Finding mince pies in Japan has been an impossible feat. I’ve checked import stores, foreign-run bakeries, and “English cafes” with little success. It seems that Japan has adopted Christmas Stollen (from Germany) as the foreign, seasonal sweet of choice during Christmas. Therefore, I’ve been reduced to asking my mum to send a box of them from homeThey’ll usually tide me over for a week. Then the cravings kick in. However my girlfriend and I are going to attempt to make them this Christmas. It’ll be interesting to see how they turn out. Fingers crossed.