August 7, 2011

London HQ - Ramsay Hall


With a couple of weeks under the belt, I was starting to get used to the lifestyle of Ramsay hall student living. Some new things were getting more familiar such as laundry, earplugs at night, an indoor swimming pool, biking London and the daily trips back and forth to KCL or UCL.

The lifestyle of college halls is somewhat different to what you get back home. Every weekday, I wake to the smell of a hot breakfast as hordes of drowsy uni students proceed to the dining hall at the latest possible moment to collect their rightful prize. The dining hall servery production line is the primary source of nourishment with your daily serving of bacon, eggs, beans and hash browns. While this might sound ideal and a dream come true for some, the novelty wears off rather quickly when you realize the bacon is normally a day or two old recycled from previous days leftovers and when the powdered scrambled eggs always take the prime time towards the end of the week when stocks are getting low. Luckily that is not all that is on offer to the residents of Ramsay hall.
With a full complement of your typical sugary breakfast cereals and a super sweetened porridge, you could be assured that hunger wouldn't be an issue. I opted for Weetabix, muesli and yoghurt with dried fruit while some of the girls in particular vowed never to engage in the oily goodness of the hot meals (except maybe on the odd heavy night out).

The regular morning wake up is accompanied by the short sleepwalk down the corridor to the bathroom block shared over the floor with about 30 people. With 3 showers and 3 toilets for the men, it has never been a problem to get a shower in the morning. The push button design triggers for the showers bug you a lot with the water constantly cutting out after 20 seconds at the most but I guess the shower dance including pirouets to strike the switch to the 3BPM rhythm of the shower is something you get an instinct for.

For a catered hall, Ramsay has some pretty good kitchen facilities. By that I mean that we have stoves/ovens, toasters, fridges and microwaves. This appliance set-up is standard around the hall from what I hear with each kitchen being shared by about 12-18 people. From what I've heard of other halls, this is not always the case with some other catered halls having only a little tea break kitchen available for residents. After a couple of weeks some of us started leaving communal items in the kitchen such as a kettle. The first sort of gripe you form with the kitchens is with the fridge as certainly around freshers week or other clubbing central nights, students will often come back hungry and drunk looking for a tasty treat to send them to sleep. The fridge gets raided in our kitchen a bit more often because we share ours with the first floor of Paris (the neighbouring block) as well as being close to the stairwell. Most Saturday mornings early on in the term were started by walking into the kitchen and witnessing some strange things, such as opening the fridge and seeing that someone had taken somebody's block of cheese, unwrapped it, taken a big stereotypical bite of this cheddar block then left it out on one of the shelves ready for the owner to return. A couple of Saturday mornings I too was victim to the infamous New York milk thief, having to eat my weetbix in the way that no one should ever have to. After a couple of other thefts from my bag resulting in a lunchless Thomas, I headed to Sainsbury's and go myself one of those small 6 bottle wine bags as a bag i could lock up, hopefully deterring the miscreant from my bad and directing them onto other less fortunate shoppers.

After finding my bag slashed and lying on the kitchen counter with the rusty blade lying nearby, I resolutely bought another bottle bag the same day to reclaim my security. It took another couple of weeks before I was walking up the stairs to the New York first floor and lo and behold, as I ascended I saw my groceries bag on the lonesome roof of the ground floor having been thrown out of the kitchen window! I saw this with both shock and also a great deal of laughter as I imagined the drunkard wandering in to the kitchen to find my bag full of nothing but tomatoes and rocket leaves, throwing it out of the open kitchen window in rage. After spending a good 20 minutes with the help of one of the cleaners, trying to hook my bag with the vacuum cleaner head and save it from the inaccessible roof from the window, something dawned upon me.

Generally when the typical Ramsay hall party-goer arrives back home, there are two possible thoughts running through the mind: Firstly the urge for greasy food in hangover recovery mode or secondly, the urge to find more alcohol having run out of money or having found Tescos closed at midnight. I also realised that my bag while padlocked also very distinctly appears as a 6 bottle cooler bag, generally used to hold said ether. Put the two together and naturally, this person investigates the fridge to find food, sees printed bottles and thinks: "This bag must have been locked for a reason... Because it has alcohol in it of course!". Wrong, but of course it takes a slashed bag to figure that one out.

So following my experience in locked wine bag logic, I achieved the current solution both out of the resistance to get another new bag and also out of the understanding that by that time, notices had started to emerge in the kitchens from the warden stating that theft was occurring and that disciplinary action would be taken. Since then my half slashed, locked wine bag has retained its place in the fridge. I haven't used the lock for months and just use the slashed side to grab my food. While a communal hall and kitchen works for the most part, one of the only things I find I would have liked to have to myself would have been a fridge (and even better a little freezer compartment for cooked food).

Besides my experiences with the fridges, using the kitchen has been great when they've been clean. One would quickly realize that after Friday night parties and no cleaners over the weekend, cooking on a Sunday evening is not the nicest experience. When people fill they're room bin the bags generally stack up along the wall inside the kitchen to the point where it gets harder to open the door. During holidays, this goes double. This being said, I have now cooked many meals over the weekends in our kitchens following my trek out to IKEA.

When you are a student and only staying for one year but you still want to cook, you want to get a cheap set up and where does that take you? IKEA has a special place in my heart with its Swedish styles, meatball lunches and ridiculous prices. Having been in and out of the kitchen and having made my shopping list, I took the long tube and bus ride (it took 1.5 hours each way after travelling to and then waiting for the shuttle bus service from the Stonebridge park tube station) to IKEA Wembly. I stormed through the familiar layout with kitchens in mind and found myself a wok for £2.44(I mean what can't you cook with a wok?), a set of 4 knives and block for £2.65, a set of 3 non-stick saucepans and cutting boards, can opener, sorting boxes and wooden spoons. IKEA really is the place to get all of this stuff but it isn't somewhere you want to go back to when you realize you've forgotten something. It is quite far out from central London and I haven't been back since despite my cravings for Annas Pepparkakor.

Ramsay Hall serves dinners every weekday with the exceptions of a couple of weeks over Christmas, Easter and some long weekends/bank holidays. The format is pretty standardised with soup, a choice of 2-3 mains, one vegetarian option, 'vegetable of the day', desert and salad. Dinner is served between 5-7pm with massive surges of people arriving on each hour. The quality of the food varies from day to day but on the whole, compared to other halls it is one of the best. You will become accustomed to the sugar and oil that permeates most dishes but it seems that style of food is dining hall custom. There have been a couple of themed events including a Chinese buffet style evening and of course the customary full roast Christmas dinner. These evenings break the monotony of the daily dining hall routine and always bring out the good side of people. It was amazing to see the Christmas cheer of everyone as students could celebrate away from home and in the company of their closest within the hall.

Over weekends and during the hall breaks where the dining staff take a break, residents are faced with two options: To cook or not to cook. Most will default to the easy option around the corner. The Court 4 pound burger and pint is a pretty popular option and the ridiculous value makes it easy to get over the food quality and cover it with the taste of beer or cider. It take less than 5 minutes to get to a host of fast food vendors on Tottenham court road such as Subway, Japanese Kitchen, Wasabi, Eat or Itsu. If you can be bothered walking for an extra 5 minutes, you will be on Goodge street. At the intersection there with Charlotte street, Ramsay hall is this close to one of the most popular restaurant districts in London. Charlotte street hosts a vast array of flavours but I think it certainly is dominated by the Italian variety, especially chain types such as Zizzi, Pizza Express and Spaghetti house. A student haunt around here is Icco, With bright red signs on the window boasting their 4 pound take away margherita pizza, you can always see traces of these boxes in student garbage as you walk down Charlotte street past the neighbouring Astor hall.

Some will try to be cheap by eating nothing but spaghetti and sauce or noodles all weekend or by picking up a 2 pound Tesco meal deal on the way home. I chose the final route for my culinary adventures. That being said, with a rather primitive kitchen that is never particularly pleasant to use and with nothing but a thin wok and a pot, one has to be quite selective with what can be tackled at home.

I do not know how many toasted ham and cheese sandwiches I have made this year (at least 50) but I think I can safely say I have mastered it. It all began with the bewildering trip as you walk into the Sainsbury's supermarket just around the corner. I didn't really anticipate just how lost I would be when going shopping in a new country where I to embark on a completely new lifestyle. I wondered up and down the isles, contemplating what I would need for those weekends, lunches and just those other necessary room based chores. I spent 10 minutes doing stupid things like comparing washing liquids and powders for the laundry just to settle on Ariel because it said colour and had my girlfriend's name. Even if I knew what mum uses at home, I didn't know why or what the UK equivalent was. These just aren't the things you think about and you only realize that fact when you give it a try. There were more instances of this as I tried to introduce student economy to a healthy diet. I didn't want to settle for the daily noodle or microwave meal so I quickly derived a standard shopping basket with wholegrain bread, grated cheddar cheese, ham, tomatoes and rocket leaves. This would complement my Sainsbury's 10 pound sandwich toaster giving the lunch time standard I have become rather familiar with. I guess the reason why I've been discussing how I went to buy groceries one day since it sort of represents what I had to do a number of times in the first months. This process of going out to do something you thought was simple, realizing your original solution in the context of home doesn't work then having to re-evaluate a new way comes up more than once. The best part is the optimization where you can start from scratch and try and make the best way forward as you can.

I had a wok and I was darned well going to use it so I hit one of these road blocks: What can I cook in a work with relatively cheap ingredients (it should be cheaper than just going to Subway or Wasabi) that will give a good feed and can be kept in a fridge that is susceptible to being left open or straight out robbed by other residents. I tried out a recipe for a red lentil dahl from home. I'd done it once before at home but the prototype is always the least efficient and time consuming and I spent almost 2 hours slaving away in the kitchen for my big wok load of brown slop for a good 2 dinners on the weekend and 2 lunches through the week. This model was copied later on as I tried a couple of other recipes that also avoided fresh meat in the fridge such as a salami and olive based Mediterranean risotto. Some techniques were refined like leaving preparation to be done in the room at my desk, chopping onions, tomatoes, garlic and ginger. The smells that filled my room on occasion were pungent especially when the window restricters and general poor circulation would leave that garlic odour to stick around for a couple of days.

The day came when my sandwich toaster had toasted its last meal and my 10 pound investment died, shorting out the kitchen circuit breakers after 10 seconds of operation. With this loss though came new light as I borrowed a friend's frying pan in attempt to salvage lunch. This was a revolution with my new sandwiches having a lighter, crispier crust cooked on the easily cleanable non-stick pan. However mundane, the time I had spent cleaning the cheese from the hinge of that sandwich toaster... Another revelation was found when cooking up a filling red lentil based spaghetti sauce having just had more food stocks stolen. Failures have kept on leading to better and more innovative and creative solutions.

One thing that is impossible to avoid at Ramsay hall is the inevitable series of fire alarms that will disturb your study, your sleep, your dinner or worst of all your shower at the most unlikely of times. The fire regulations in this country are extreme and hence there are smoke detectors, fire doors and fire extinguishers everywhere around Ramsay. There are cooking fires, liberal deodorant sprayers and smokers in this building who all contribute to the wonderful community inspiring occasion that is the fire alarm evacuation. The dreaded claxon will go off about once every 2 weeks on average whether you are at home or not. While you would like to think these occasions may be legitimate, I have not once seen evidence of the fire brigade engaging in any extinguishing while in the building making our building possibly their most hated false alarm destination. As the term went on, you could see the number of people responding to these alarms, people sometimes just lock the door, bear with the noise and move on. The boy who cried wolf... A call out fee apparently gets deducted collectively from our deposits each time they come around which only gets annoying when you see drunk people you've never seen before in your corridor, fighting each other with CO2 fire extinguishers. Shortly afterwards you hear the alarm and confirmed by posters the following day, they have gone to the basement afterward on their raid though the corridors and have gone and hit one of the fire alarm buttons.

There are some really stupid and quite frankly violent people at Ramsay. This conclusion was finally reached on the last day of exams for most of the med students and D-day for our kitchen. Around 11pm that Friday, there was a rumbling along the upper floors and soon afterwards the running and yelling of a couple of people rung through the corridor once more but on our level. None of us think much of it and most of the time I will have my headphones on so the sound is mostly dissipated. It was only when I came into the kitchen 20 minutes later that I witnessed the aftermath. There was trash all over from the bin that had been emptied onto the floor, there was soil scattered all over from Leyla's pot plant. Yogurt from the fridge has been smeared all over the sink fittings and worst of all, the microwave had been taken. After contacting the warden and security, they asked me for any info I had which was really nonexistent since everyone really just sits tight when people are rampaging.

The following morning, I realised that my unopened 2L bottle of milk was missing from the fridge so assuming it had been taken the previous night, I went out to the reception to get the UHT milk from the vending machine for breakfast. It was only when I came up the stairs that unrealised that my milk was actually lying on the inaccessible ledge outside the kitchen window. It was way out of reach but what stuck me then was that the microwave was lying directly below the kitchen window, door hanging snapped in a fatigued acceptance of its end of life. Other remnants of the kitchen were found around the courtyard later including the smashed fragments of the plastic kettle.

While this act was rather shocking, it was understandable given that cocktail of first year traits at Ramsay and the time of release following the end of exams. The badly represented students in London have often nurtured an early drinking life, have just become able to buy cheap Tescos alcohol and have moved away from home or boarding school, away from rules. There are many nearby clubs, student parties and no one really owns anything apart from what is in their own rooms. The hall's way of keeping people from vandalizing the place is to hold their bond money over the fire. Since there are only a couple of CCTV cameras in the corridors, when something happens, not much can be done to catch the culprit and the bill will be taken up be the bond pool of all of the residents instead.

Besides all of these rather dark comments on some of the residents, I've had a great time at Ramsay Hall. The way the place brings so many students together in one melting pot of personalities. You meet people at the dining hall, in the kitchens and just out on the corridor. The way that so many students of similar age and inclination are crammed into one hall makes it so exciting. You get to hear stories from all of these different people from different parts of the world and even without going to their homelands, you feel you get some of their culture just from being around them. It is such a great thing to be a part of and despite the lousy showers, messy kitchens and fire alarms at odd hours. Maybe I will have another chance to come to such a busy place once more.

Having been away for a good month now, I miss the people I would see from day to day. I've never lived away from home before Ramsay Hall and miss that way of social habitation. The way events can spontaneously materialize when two or more have an idea is truly unique and having lived in London for the last year, I know now how London can be such a centre of innovation as all global cities are. The excitement of a city so full of culture and concentrated activity is something I will miss. While I now enjoy the calmness of Perth, granting a break from a hectic London, I'm sure I will go back once more to embrace the big city again.

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