Sunday, May 29, 2011

I love Lake Alice, Gainesville, Florida

I love this place!  Ever since my first visit back in 2007, right through to the present day I have found Lake Alice, Gainesville, Florida to be a great place to visit.  It is amazing that such a beauty spot with its diverse wildlife could be incorporated within the grounds of the university in Gainesville.  Of course, the University of Florida is one of the reasons that Lake Alice is so wonderful, they manage to keep that difficult balance between keeping the place tidy and maintained and taking care of the animal life, but at the same time allowing the wildness to do its own thing.

Over the years I have managed to capture some great shots of Lake Alice and its animal life.

Lake Alice, Gainesville FL, in the daytime
Lake alice, Gainesville FL, in the evening

At the southwest end of Lake Alice is the Baughman Center, it’s kind of a secular all purpose functions building.  At one point, Abby and I toyed with the idea of having some sort of wedding event there.

The Baughman Center on the southwest bank

I love the wildlife that you find at Lake Alice.  There are some big old turtles there.

Big turtle at Lake Alice, Gainesville.  They have such funny little faces with long snouts!

Plenty of bird life.

Heron from a distance at Lake Alice
This bird was behaving peculiarly, I don't know what was up with him!

 Bats who occupy the bat houses, which are built and maintained by the University of Florida.  The bats emerge at sundown each evening and it’s a great sight to see.

The Bat Houses near Lake Alice - I have tried on numerous occasions to get a good photo of the bats emerging at sundown, but it is difficult as obviously the light conditions are poor and the bats move very fast, so all I end up with is a blurry swarm that looks more like a mist or cloud than bats!

But my favourite, of course, is the alligators (see more of my alligator pictures).  Abby (my wife) and I count how many that we see, each time that we visit.

The first alligator I ever saw at Lake Alice, Gainesville, FL.  You may recognize it as I used the image on the banner at the top of this blog (with a little help from Mr Photoshop!)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

One big palmetto bug (American cockroach), two baby alligators and one old turtle

I found this monster big palmetto bug* (American cockroach) in the bath after an intense storm.  I think it must of crawled up through the plughole and was already dying.  A similar thing happened several months ago in the middle of Winter.  I cannot believe how big the insect life gets in Florida!  Still, I would rather have a big palmetto bug to deal with rather than a snake or a giant spider!  I keep seeing snakes when I go running, but I never have my camera with me, so have not got any photos yet.

My love affair with water dwelling reptiles continues.  I managed to snap (no pun intended!) two baby alligators last weekend when we visited Lake Alice, Gainesville, Florida.

When they are born, the baby alligators are stripy and it takes some time before they lose their markings.  The one below is old enough to be independent but you can still see its markings.  It is the tannin in the water from the trees that stains the alligators dark grey as they get older.

At one point, a large old turtle crawled out of the water and sat not far from the baby alligator.  It was a bizarre sight as turtles are one of the main foods that alligators eat (the reason that an alligator’s bite is so powerful, far stronger than a crocodile’s, is so that he can crack open turtle shells).  For a moment it looked like a blood bath might take place, but I guess the old turtle in this case considered himself to be too big to be bothered by a baby alligator.  I am glad he was right!

*I have since discovered that this bug isn't actually a palmetto (although many people mistakenly call them that here in Florida)!  It is just a very big American cockroach!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Musings on British and American food differences

Food is an emotive topic and different people have such different tastes and preferences.  On top of that, trying to compare the food culture of two countries in a thousand words is, frankly, impossible.  But I will do my best and maybe revisit certain elements of this subject area at a later date.  Anyway, here are my personal musings on British and American food differences.

British Food Culture

English cuisine used to be considered as crap when I was growing up in the 1970s and rightly so.  In short, it was a national joke.  It had a reputation for being bland and greasy, badly prepared and badly presented.  Sometimes it didn’t taste of anything at all and you had to smother your pile of mushy, overcooked vegetables with tomato ketchup and brown sauce just to give your palette something to detect.

But then something weird happened in the 90s, the  British fell in love with  food.  But it wasn’t our own food.  We realized that we could steal it from other people.  There had always been (well, for a long time) Indian, Italian and Chinese restaurants, but now we started stealing the entire world’s cuisine, be it Thai, French, Japanese, Spanish, Lebanese, etc.  Now British food is great, though technically it isn’t really British food anymore.

The rising standard of living and influences from continental Europe also helped, I reckon.  With more people traveling abroad I think it raised expectations and the EU pushed Britain in the right direction methinks (more on that later).

Giant red crab legs - yummy!

American Food

If you go in an American supermarket, you won’t see a great deal of difference to what you see in the UK.  Of course, down here in Florida, there is more of a Cuban, Caribbean and Mexican influence, say, with the food.  But the same regional and local variations can happen in Britain, though not as extreme (for instance when I worked in the Moor Allerton area of Leeds, the supermarkets had large kosher sections to reflect the Jewish community there).  I think the variety’s much greater in the USA however because of the larger and more diverse population clusters of immigrants from different countries.  That means it is only ever possible to talk about American food in a general sense, as the variance is huge across this big country. 

For the sake of argument, I am trying to focus this post on the staple and classic American foods (although it is a stereotype that Americans live off burgers, fries, pizza, pancakes, and lots of deep fried food, many Americans do actually live like that, certainly down here in the South).

One general element of American food culture which I would say is subtly different is that in the sliding scale of cheapness vs quality, Americans in general place more value on cheapness than the British, as far as I can see.  This can be problematic for me as I am more of a quality person.  Some of the food (normally, but not exclusively the low price stuff) in the USA really is bad with all sorts of sweeteners and chemicals added to bolster what is in essence a bad product (I am thinking about things such as bread).  The attitude in the US tends to be that food producers and stores should be free do whatever they like and people should be allowed to eat whatever they want (even if it’s poisoning them and there weren’t any clear guidelines on the label). 

I really think that the EU helped to make British food better in the UK because we were forced to adopt the higher standards of the continentals and some of the practices that happen in the USA in terms of additives, inadequate labeling of ingredients etc. were banned in Europe and the UK some time ago.  (On a side but related note, I think that the country that values quality most in its culture, out of all the ones I’ve visited, is probably Germany and that’s one reason I suspect that they do so well with manufacturing exports and Britain and America do relatively badly).

There are exceptions to the cheapness/quality thing, of course.  For example, Americans have always placed a higher value on quality coffee than the Brits.

Broiled lobster tail and salad - yummy!

British Foods I miss

Not much I really.  I did have a craving for good old fish and chips the other day.  We ate some battered fish and oven chips, but it’s not quite the same (though healthier!)

I also miss all the cheap Indian food that you get in British cities.  Plus all the cheap Indian restaurants.  There are far less Indian restaurants here and you have to search a bit more to buy ingredients for curries and when you do find things, they aren’t cheap.

Weirdly, some of the Chinese dishes have different names here, even though they are still in Chinese!  And they don’t have prawn crackers or fried seaweed!

As I mentioned in my comments on the previous blog, there is a big supermarket here which has, in the ethnic section between Indian and Chinese, an area of British food.  Stuff like tinned treacle pudding, baked beans, Jaffa Cakes, Tate and Lyle syrup etc. I guess I know it’s there if I ever feel the urge.

Things I like about the food here

I love the Cuban, Caribbean, Mexican food here.  Although you can get it in the UK, all the ingredients are fresh here and the meals more authentic.

I must admit I have grown fond of American pancakes.

Florida is a grower’s paradise, so there is lots of great local food, especially citrus fruit, vegetables, sea food that is locally grown and fresh.

Generally speaking I am eating lighter foods here because some of the typical English food I ate back home just seems too heavy and stodgy here in the hot Florida climate.  I guess will have to wait until the short Florida Winter to eat some of the typical English food.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bacon Butties and Brown Sauce (Funny British and American English Differences Part Seven and a Half)

You may have noticed that I avoided blogging about the Royal Wedding.  I did actually get up at 5am to watch it on the day and found it great fun, despite me being a royal skeptic!  I do by nature have a strong contrarian streak in me and in many ways I felt averse to joining the general throng and chattering about Kate’s dress and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eyebrows immediately after the union.  However, now that things have moved on and everyone in the blogosphere is talking about where and when they were when they heard that Bin Laden was killed, I feel it is safe to return to the Royal Wedding, albeit in an indirect way, and talk about some funny British and American English differences that cropped up on the day of the big occasion.

95% of British and American language and culture is pretty much the same in my estimation.  However, from time to time, misunderstandings can and do occur.  The afternoon after the Royal Wedding was one such funny example.  It started when my wife was confused by a particular English custom and that led on to an extended bout of bafflement that went from types of condiment to terms for arterial roads.

“What’s a bacon butty?” she asked me first.

When I enquired why she was asking, she explained to me that the BBC news had just reported that some British Royal Wedding partiers living abroad were eating ‘bacon butties’ to celebrate the royal betrothal.

“It’s basically just a bacon sandwich,” I said.  “Fried streaky bacon served between two slices of bread.”

“So why is it called a butty?”

“All sandwiches can be called butties in Britain.  I guess it’s because of the butter that goes on the bread.”

She looked shocked.  “You put butter on your bread in a sandwich!”

“Yes, why?  What’s wrong with that?  Don’t you do that in the States?”

“No, we use mayonnaise.”  She paused for a moment and frowned.  “So, what’s ‘brown sauce’?  The BBC said that people were putting it in their bacon butties to celebrate the Royal Wedding?”

“Brown sauce is, urm, brown and sort of spicy.  The most popular brand is called HP.  It’s named after the Houses of Parliament for some reason.”

“Is it like A1 sauce?”

“What’s A1 sauce?”

“It’s what some people put in their burgers here.  A1 means ‘top class’ - you must have the same expression in England?”

“Yes, we do,” I said.  “But when English people say ‘A1’, they are usually referring to a big road that runs from London to Leeds.”

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Introduction to Gainesville Florida

For those of you who don’t know, since December last year I have been living in Gainesville, Florida, a college town in north central FloridaGainesville FL is famous for its large university and the University of Florida Gators College Football team.  It also has a strong musical heritage and boasts Bo Diddley, Tom Petty and Stephen Stills as its creative offspring.  The strange but interesting Phoenix family also reside here.

Gainesville Politics and culture

Gainesville is a liberal oasis in a redneck sea.  If you enjoy eating in trendy little ethnic café restaurants and being served by vegetarian lesbian gothic wannabe rockstars, then this is the place for you.  In British terms, it is not a million miles away from places like Headingley in Leeds, or Brighton on the south coast.  (Don’t get me wrong, I do actually like the vibrancy and open-mindedness that young people can bring to a place.  If you ever put me in a redneck backwater or bible belt town, I would probably shrivel up and die.)

Things to do in Gainesville Florida

If you ever tire of eating in the trendy little ethnic café restaurants, you can watch the bats emerging from their bat houses at dusk beside Lake Alice in the grounds of the University of Florida (there used to be only one bat house, but that became so overcrowded that all the crap from the excessive bat population ate through the floor - so now there are two rather splendid bat buildings, one with a refurbished floor and the other wholly brand new).

Bat Houses
Or you can drink margaritas and eat tapas at Emiliano’s Restaurant.

Or maybe you would prefer to look for alligators at Lake Alice (I saw ten of them one morning, including a particularly impressive 12 footer!).

Alligator on the move at Lake Alice

Or chill out and enjoy the freshwater springs at Rum Island

Rum Island

Or if you want to experience some culture (haha!) you could try attending one of David Maas’ poetry events at the Laboratory Bar.

Plus, you might also want to pay a visit to the Harn Museum of Art.

One thing that I have not done, but would like to experience, is to attend a Florida Gators football game.

The Weather in Gainesville FL

The weather in Gainesville varies from being very hot to being extremely hot, depending on the time of year.  There were rumors of a snow flurry last Christmas, but I never saw anything and I am still waiting to see the photographic evidence.  Hurricanes are rare in this part of Florida, but now and then there are dramatic tropical storms that knock the power out for several hours and bring down trees.

Animal life in Gainesville

Animal life is varied and includes alligators, snakes, vultures, raccoons, armadillos, and yappy little dogs owned by ladies with oversized posteriors.


Well, that’s about it, as far as my introduction to Gainesville Florida goes.  I would recommend the place to anyone.  Especially, if you buy me a beer.