Monthly Archives: September 2007

Fall is in the air

I went for a walk last night and realized that we had switched over from summer to fall without my really noticing. I was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt and a sweatshirt but was still cold, wrapping my hands in the sweatshirt cuffs and breathing in the chilly air. It was also quite dark for just before 8 pm. Lileks noted that Target already has the Christmas decorations out, which makes me simultaneously sad and resigned (12 days of Christmas has become three months of Christmas?) but also homesick–any mention of Target seems to get me these days. I realized last night that I had never properly switched my wardrobe over from winter to summer clothes: summer in England strangely enough did not really require any different attire than winter in England. But as a result my long-sleeved t-shirt collection (all from Target of course) is looking a bit ratty!

On my little “fall is in the air” walk I noticed that there were a large number of people out and about walking around. Particularly interesting was the fact that there were a lot of couples of all ages. Most interesting was the fact that I saw quite a few very affectionate silver-haired couples. There seemed to be a lot of hand-holding and arm-around-shoulders activity. Now this looked different from “home” to me and I was trying to sort out why. Certainly back in the US there’s less walking around in general; unless one is in a major city, the car-driven society dominates. Although I admit it was actually a bit disgusting to be in Bath last weekend and realize that the town center was essentially a carbon-copy of the town center where I live: same shops, same restaurants. In several cases I was shocked to discover that restaurants were chains. But regardless, the “high street” phenomenon does seem to mean that people walk around town here more than I am used to in the US. And it seems that in the US, the city centers are for young people while the older people are out in the ‘burbs. Perhaps that more than anything was why I noticed the silver-haired folks with their affectionate partners so much. Regardless, it was a beautiful thing and certainly made me feel wistful. I used to be really disgusted with public displays of affection, but my tolerance levels seem to be changing. I always felt like it was a possessive thing more than an affectionate thing, but to me, last night, these couples looked affectionate. A girl can only hope to be in that position when the number of silver hairs on my hand increases to that point!

Oh the English and their lines

Headline from Yahoo! News this week:

  • Foreign students in Britain to be schooled in queuing

Apparently the locals are upset by the tendency of foreigners to bunch up at bus stops instead of  standing in an orderly line.  So instead of adapting to them, the Brits will school the foreigners in how to behave here.  Frankly I don’t see it; I don’t find the English to be particularly good at  lines, especially in complicated situations like a cash machine bank with three units.  It would seem obvious to do one of two things: line up directly behind one of the machines (essentially trying your luck with the “who’s done first” game not unlike choosing a line at the grocery store) or else forming one big line and hoping for “first in line takes next available machine” behavior.  In my experience, the queue ends up being some combination of both, which makes for neither.  I frankly hate going to the cash machine when there is going to be a line because you never know what form it will take.  But you can definitely guarantee that as a foreigner, if you do the wrong thing the locals WILL shoot you disparaging glances although not actually say anything.  That’s the classic Brit behavior, quite contained frustration.

Hallelujah redux, on to dark cabaret

We return to my favorite song, Hallelujah, with a fragment of a cover on Youtube from the Dresden Dolls: link here. If it was the whole song, it would probably take over one of the spots on my top five list. For another great DD song, see Coin Operated Boy. I knew this song already somehow, but I don’t actually know how. I was reminded when I was randomly and truly web-surfing last night and I got linked to a DD video which was almost a performance art piece, covering / lip-synching Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, the mega-hit of the summer, and I was intrigued. DD lead singer Amanda Palmer also does an amazing albeit language-strong performance of Radiohead’s Creep standing on top of a bar and performing with a ukulele. What can I say, she’s just truly talented.   I sing low alto and play the piano, but do neither near as well as she can, and the cabaret dark musical theatre performance element of it all is fascinating too. See her Myspace page for more interesting stuff and plans for an upcoming solo CD. If you like dark cabaret (who knew that was its own genre!) the Tiger Lillies are interesting, and they did a very unexpected (Grammy nominated!) collaboration with the Kronos string quartet on a project related to Edward Gorey‘s work. I stumbled on them a few years ago on a now-defunct cable TV channel in the US. What can I say, too much musical theatre as a child seems to turn us to dark cabaret as adults!

“Lust, caution” and my favorite ABC

I just read my first review of Ang Lee’s sexy thriller “Lust, caution” which sounds amazing, I have no idea when it’s coming to the UK but I will go see it as soon as I can.  And not just because it includes my absolute favorite ABC in the cast.  In the meantime, this tantalizing tidbit, almost in passing, although I agree with the word choice:

“A patriotic campus drama group, led by the passionate Kuang Yu Min (the charismatic, American-born Asian pop star Wang Leehom), recruits her to perform in their first stage production.”

Yep, Leehom, my favorite expat entertainer, is charismatic–that’s a really good word for him.  The movie sounds really interesting, though, and the reviewer is also quite keen on Tang Wei.

I am small-talked out

Anyone who knows me well knows that I hate cocktail parties more than anything.  Dinner parties I like (in moderation, of course), but stand-and-mingle events are torture.  I officially hit my tolerance level on the things sometime around 6 pm today.  I was supposed to go to one for a retiring colleague and I actually got as far as the door to where the event was supposed to be, and walked on.  Oh well.  This job has been eating into my down time a bit too much the last few weeks, and I well and truly needed a quiet night in.

So I stopped at Marks and Spencer foodhall for some low-effort things to eat and had the most strange grocery store experience ever.  The clerk rang up my stuff, and then said, “if you spend another one pound fifteen you can have a free gift!”  I was sort of stunned, and did my typical mumbling, “no thanks”…but she was not going to let me get away with it.  She talked me into it.  All of the sudden I had four candy bars at 30p each in my hands and then a free bottle of sparkling wine.  I cannot recall anything like this ever ever happening in the US.  They simply do not give away alcohol in the grocery stores where I’m from!

Truly English grammar

I had a few recent moments of “???” puzzlement over England-English grammar lately (as opposed to my own American-English) so I thought I would put them out there.  Although I’m not sure either of these are quite as pervasive in my daily life as the nonsensical statement “Big Issue Please” which I hear more or less every day, they are still bothering me.

“Female toilet” is a common sign on a restroom door.  What, the toilet itself is female?  It could be “toilet for females” or “females’ toilet” but definitely not just “female toilet”.  I have to admit, I find the use of the word “toilet” to describe the entire restroom also a bit indelicate… there are sinks in there too!

Cream tea” is one that had puzzled me until I actually sampled it this past weekend in Bath.  I had seen signs for “cream tea”  all over and had assumed this meant some sort of special tea served with warm milk or something.  But no, this is just a shorthand for “tea plus scones served with jam and clotted cream” where clotted cream is this bizarre substance that has the consistency of butter but is unsalted and tastes like whipping cream.

The word cream actually got me into trouble just this morning, at Starbucks of all places.  In the US, we frequently say “room for cream” in our coffee even if we really mean skimmed milk or at very worst half and half.  This morning in Starbucks when I said that I ended up with a separate espresso cup of heavy cream on the side of my coffee.  As I have noted before, I have not yet been able to duplicate the consistency of coffee with half and half with any sort of thing I have found in the UK, so this turned out to be a very strange cup of coffee indeed.  I added some of the cream and some skimmed milk in an attempt at half and half but it was just not right.

I’ve only taken showers in Bath

I’ve been uncharacteristically behaving as an American Tourist in Bath, England this weekend. Admittedly, I only had to take a train here since I am a UK resident. I had been to this part of the UK — Bath and the surrounding regions — before, but only for work, and had never sampled the tourist aspects of the town. I had a chance to come back for work this past Friday, and I decided to stay all weekend and explore although by American standards the hotel prices are outrageous. (This was, as my sister noted, a form of a Bridget Jones “mini-break,” a phrase I have never heard here in the UK but agree with completely in spirit–it really was a mini-break for me!)

I actually had quite a scary moment at hotel check-in because I had not brought my passport. I was only coming from elsewhere in the UK but since my credit card is American and still linked to an American address I had a bit of explaining to do… fortunately a quick conversation with the check-in clerk regarding the circumstances did solve the problem. (Note to the idiots that run British banking… your refusal to give UK credit cards to legitimate residents of the country employed legally in the UK on work permits has implications that you’ve never thought of…) But I’ve been bumming around town in my “University of Minnesota” sweatshirt and being my American tourist self, not pretending that I try to live here in the UK. It’s been an interesting few days.

Bath has been brilliant. I cannot even begin to describe the fun I’ve had here and my recommendations for a visit are enthusiastic. Of course, as seems to be the case whenever I travel, the “road less travelled” attractions end up being my favorites. Not only do they cater to my lack of interest in fighting with crowds, but there is typically more to see and learn when one escapes from the guidebook listings of “top 5 things to see while in xx.” I will never get over the fact that I do not know another single soul who has ever been to the “Museum of London” which is my absolute favorite London attraction — easily trumping the Tate modern, the London Eye, the V&A and (gulp) the Science Museum.

I adored the “Building of Bath Museum” which I freely admit is not for everyone, but it does cater to those of us with interests in architecture and engineering. The Roman Baths are interesting but full of people, and one can easily see the complexity of dealing with Roman ruins overbuilt with Georgian nonsense. Note: do not wear low-slung jeans to the Roman Baths. There are a number of places where the only way to see the actual Roman ruins is to crouch down, and I fear I was displaying both undies and even worse at these instances!

I attended the Saturday evensong service at the Bath Abbey, which was definitely an adequate introduction to this building. Unlike other great churches of Europe in which I have toured recently, the interesting aspects of the Bath Abbey are more or less completely visible to the congregation in a service. And for the non-Anglicans in our midst, evensong is a short service of mostly music by the choir, and a great introduction to the formal Anglican attitude towards church services. I remember walking by Westminster Abbey in the years before I lived here and being mystified by this option being listed on the sign, but IMHO it’s the best thing about the Anglican tradition and I’m sure I’m not the only one to think so. They actually don’t want the congregation to sing: the words are in the hymnal but not the tunes! It’s a classic British theme: only for the initiated.

I did not go to any of the sacred Jane Austen sites in Bath although I am quite the Jane Austen fan. I did try the spa water, which tasted to me like Northern Minnesota cabin water. You know, the classic mineral-y taste of well water that we did not realise was a commodity when we drank it as children… I did not have to travel 4000 miles and pay out the nose to drink the water, I could have done it at home. Ah, the marvelous rebranding of un-filtered water! This is Bath so here we are, paying to sip.

The architecture of Bath really is amazing and is worth a few days of wandering. As one of my friends (also an American in the UK) said recently, you almost can’t believe the extent to which an average English street contains an historic building since they have fallen into disrepair in numbers that are difficult to quantify. It’s certainly true that Bath could use a clean up from the industrial revolution… but at the end of the day I’m Minnesotan, and so the state of MN was founded long after Bath was an amazing urban city with architecture (crescents!) and neo-classical elements that are worth seeing.

I have no conclusion other than GO TO BATH! It’s a great UK town to visit and really interesting for reasons other than its proximity to Stonehenge…

Coming out from under the dark cloud

The expat life is occasionally for the birds. I have to confess, the last six weeks or so have been miserable and only this week have I started to feel like myself again. In the middle of that I was home in the US for a week, and I don’t know if that time made me better or made me worse.

I suspect it’s a common problem for expats; living in a new country and functioning under difficult and essentially work-driven conditions is really hard. Many months have gone by — I will in a few short weeks be celebrating a year in the UK — but the month of August and then the early part of September saw me really questioning everything. Questioning the details of my life here, my reasons for coming here, and more generally my priorities in a much broader sense. If a job is worth moving countries for, and the people in your life are worth leaving behind, is that a good thing? Yes you make a new network of people in the new land, but you have to stop working long enough to actually let new people into your world.

I was actually getting to the critical point where my work was suffering because the dark cloud of depression was hanging over me. I had the classic symptoms, procrastinating, not taking pleasure in things I would normally find enjoyable. And the big problem I have when this happened is that it made me push away the friends that I do have here … so I felt even more alone and lost the ability to get out of bed in the mornings.

Just as you can sink into a minor depression without a clear reason, I maintain that you can snap back out of it in an equally obscure set of circumstances. I had a really surreal experience on Sunday, and it seemed to provide the push I needed to start coming up for air and being myself again. A colleague was visiting from the states, and we had dinner (curry!) and a few pints at the pub, and talked about life, the universe and everything. He knows the expat drill well, as he is antipodean, his spouse was European and as a result his kids have three passports (USA for the third one since that’s where they were born). I think that’s just flat out cool, he called his progeny “citizens of the world” and you really have to say that’s true when you are considered a citizen of countries on 3/6 habitable continents on earth. Anyways, he has lived in the UK and lived in the US and had a lot of advice, some of it hard to listen to. I lost my dignity and cried into my curry, but at the end of the day, I actually felt better. I felt less alone, I felt as though my experiences were typical and my problems were not insurmountable.

I still felt terrible about it, about losing my emotional cool and having my professional veneer so perforated by what would normally have been a casual business dinner. But I was lucky and he was so kind. It’s a hard life wherever you go, says Nanci Griffith, and there is no guarantee that my job would be better or my life would be better in any other place. Time to get back to getting up every morning and remembering why I’m here, how much I love what I do, but also recalling that there is more to life than this job.

Velvet and a bicycle

I had to go to a fancy cocktail party tonight.  I was planning, hoping, to actually give in to my female self and wear a dress.  I had the thing on my body, was wearing stockings and exposing more than the usual cleavage (those who know me will know the new dress!) but at 5:15 pm my cell phone rang… and it was my work colleague who explained that there had been a horrible accident on the motorway and driving (he had offered me a ride) was not going to be an option.  However, he had an alternative: he had an extra bicycle I could ride.  The event was, admittedly, not more than a few miles from me and this was a totally acceptable distance to bike and would have been a really long walk.  But I had not yet ventured into the mode of feeling as though I could ride a bicycle in a skirt.

I really felt as though I had no choice here so I changed my clothes.  I switched from a really lovely dress that made me oh so feminine into black satin slacks and my black velvet duster coat, a favorite impulse purchase here last autumn.  I walked to my friend’s place, only a few blocks from mine, and tried the bicycle.  It was good, astonishingly for a loaner it was even a girl bike, but with the “I’m 8 years old”  version of brakes: no hand brakes, but move the pedals backwards to stop.  I recall the precise feeling of first being able to use hand brakes, and to be able to move the pedals backwards at will.  And tonight I was reverting to the pre-8 year old case, but in satin trousers and a velvet duster.  The basket on the front was useful for holding my Kate Spade purse but actually made the thing unstable at slow speeds so was an addition to the challenge of riding.

I had not ever ridden a bike while wearing velvet or satin.  The last (large number of)  times I had been on a bike it had been for quite serious sport: I had a helmet, spandex padded shorts and gloves, and I had been riding 20 or so miles at a time with significant hills and challenges involved.  I had spent quite a lot of time and money at Erik’s bike shop in the Twin Cities but this was a completely different experience.

These “transportation” bikes are much more upright than the sport kind, and they feel funny to ride if you are used to distances and bikes for sport.  The basket in front, admittedly practical, makes them unstable at slow speeds.  More than anything else, I lost my confidence in traffic: I did not feel good going alongside the cars and kept running up against the curb rather than run into the cars.  Perhaps a bit of a logical flaw in my environmentally-sound transport rules.  But then again, I was in satin and velvet and trying to follow a man in a suit on a bicycle.  This was not a normal circumstance.

Doomed for being a monoglot

New research highlighted on the BBC today suggests that people who are bilingual retain mental acuity in old age.   As if I did not already feel badly enough about my English-only skills, now there are actual reasons to suggest that it’s actually more healthy to have expanded one’s language horizons?!?!  Of course, the article does mention other quite sensible things that also appear to fend off dementia, like playing musical instruments and board-games.  All told, it starts to appear quite sensible that my banjo-playing, Scrabble nut nonagenarian grandmother–who speaks Norwegian still on a regular basis–has done all the right things.