Monthly Archives: November 2007

Greetings from Boston

Yesterday was a very long day. I was up at 5 am in the UK to get packed and ready for my trip. I broke down and hired a car service to take me to Heathrow for the first time ever (and now I’ll probably never be able to take the train again… it was worth every penny!) The lines for check-in and security at Heathrow were massive but I made it through and had a reasonably quiet and nice trip. I quite enjoyed watching the movie “No Reservations” since it combined a nice slowly-developing romantic plot with my guilty pleasure affection for serious cooking shows. (Have I mentioned my lust for Gordon Ramsay? They had an episode of the f word on the plane which I watched for the second time just because he’s so fabulous!) Every time I fly Virgin Atlantic I question why I am so silly as to fly any other airline out of London. They are so much better than the others. The food is edible. The planes are new. The only annoying thing was the cloying woman who started every announcement over the plane’s intercom with “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls…” and I really wished she would just shut up.

Having arrived in Boston, I caught a cab to the hotel and started noticing how my life had been reversed. For the first time ever, I was looking at the meter charge in dollars and converting it back to pounds. This from a girl who has looked at every price in pounds and mentally doubled it for the last fourteen months.  I found I was converting to pounds again over dinner and drinks last night — I was stunned at how cheap the food was when I halved the prices.  No wonder the English are so obsessed with how cheap America is!  The final straw was this morning when the prices on the room service menu seemed perfectly reasonable. I have clearly acclimated to England and English life more than I realized. And yes I ordered a big old omelet from room service and it was fabulous. Far superior to an English breakfast. Some things haven’t changed at all.

I love being in Boston at this time of year. I have had the chance to spend quite a lot of time here in the last decade so this town feels almost like home for me. I’m sure the work week will be quite busy, and on Saturday I head to Minneapolis for a more serious opportunity to feel at home. There I’ll be doing things (shoe shopping, haircut, new glasses) that don’t really rely on whether I’m in the US or UK but never seem to find time for given the time constraints of my normal day job. Of course I will be catching up with friends and family as well.

Pounds vs Dollars

Can I just say how lucky I am at the moment?  The pound hit a 26-year record against the US dollar.  Suddenly the fact that I am earning pounds but paying off American debts in dollars is important.  The rate has changed by 20 American cents in the 14 months I have been here… my early cost of living calculations were all for $1.87 to the pound and it’s about $2.07 now.  Between my wage increases after a year on the job and the exchange rate, my salary when converted to dollars is now significantly more than  it was a year ago–a really dramatic change.

In other banking news, I managed to secure a UK credit card.  It wasn’t easy and I’m not going to go public with the details because I don’t really want to reveal any details about the kind people that helped me.

Unfortunately that otherwise good news is slightly ill-timed as I head back to the US in less than 14 hours.  I will be blogging from the other side of the pond for the next few weeks, as I try to establish if the streets of Minnesota really are paved in gold.  It might be hard to tell, depending on the weather.  I’ll keep you posted of course.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks

I was feeling as though something was wrong in my bedroom as I tried to fall asleep last night.  It took some time before I figured it out: it was too light.  They have turned on the Christmas lights on the street outside my flat and suddenly the festive season is upon us.  I’m actually glad the lights are on, they had been going up since before Halloween and seeing them there but not lit was actually starting to bother me.  Last weekend already the shops were total chaos, and a number of Christmas trees have appeared in the last few days in pretty random places (the entrance to Pizza Express?).  So there we have it, the countdown to Christmas has begun.  Light displays, excess consumerism and tacky decorations everywhere.  Although I must confess, the music did get to me on the weekend, I was happily listening to favorite Christmas albums for the first time in 2007, a very naughty five days before Thanksgiving.  Blame England, there is no Pilgrim-based holiday to prevent the Christmas onslaught from starting NOW!

The secret of success?

Story on yahoo! news over the weekend:

What I would like to see is what the size of the pay-off is relative to the investment: I can’t even begin to estimate the costs of years worth of piano lessons, violin lessons and now voice lessons at an ever-increasing cost per week as time has gone on, literally thousands of dollars spent on music books, not to mention in the case of the violin, two instruments, one traditional, one electric.  Oh yes and my digital Kawai piano.   How much higher than average do my earnings actually have to be to balance those costs?  And is the reason for the apparent success the “discipline” learned, as the authors state, or is it more that a certain type of person is more likely to encourage their snot-nosed kid to sit at the piano every week and not give up?  Unclear to me.  Regardless, what is certainly true is that music is my great hobby, the one thing I do for fun most weeks, and here in England it’s been mostly an extremely positive part of my life if occasionally the source of great stress.

A hangover from 1666?

I feel as though the Brits are obsessed with Fire Safety. I never recall the subject having so much importance back home in the US. I don’t know if it’s because a large population are confined to a relatively small island, or if it’s some strange hangover from the great London fire of 1666. Regardless, Fire Safety is an odd thing to feel is haunting your every move.

My very first trip to London involved a fire alarm story. I was literally in the shower with shampoo in my hair on my last morning before leaving when the alarms went off; back then I actually thought that meant something so quick threw a towel around my head, put my pajamas and a sweatshirt back on, and went outside until the fire brigade came and cleared us to return to the building. I had a funny sense of deja vu a few years later when living in my first England apartment and the same thing happened. This time, having spent much time in the UK over several years, I had no intention of going outside with a wet head until… someone from the building managers office came and forced us all out. They were actually going into apartments and counting down each apartment on each floor to make sure all people were accounted for and that all apartments were emptied in the drill; quite an unusually harsh fire drill if you ask me. Even worse, not only did we have to leave the building but had to walk (in pajamas with wet hair and slippers on) across the parking lot to the “fire assembly point” before they let us back in. Quite the event.

In my new apartment, the fire alarm goes off for a few rings every Monday morning at 9 am, and rings many other mornings around that time. I’ve gotten completely blase about it; classic boy-who-cried-wolf scenario could strike at any time. This week on Wed. it was ringing for longer than normal, I actually contemplated leaving the flat (to go to McDonalds for breakfast because the noise was annoying me more than anything else). Once it stopped I disrobed and got into the bath… only for it to start up again twice more during my bath. It was quite the exciting morning, really.

Aside from hyperactive fire alarms, OCD fire drills and even sightings of the fire brigade, I find that there are more reminders of fire safety around here than I have ever seen. For one, I cannot sneeze in my building without running into fire extinguishers. There is one in my kitchen, two in the hallway immediately outside my door and two more just down the hall on … the other side of a “fire door”.

The Brits seem to love fire doors. In both my current and previous apartments, every single room has a fire door with a warning of the terrible things that will happen if the doors are propped open. Which they always are. With those little rubber triangle wedge thingies. That come with the apartment so you can prop the doors open. Because living in an apartment where, once you walk inside the main door, you are in a small foyer/hallway with nothing but more closed doors is really a bit clausterphobic. Thus in my flat you come into a small foyer with three more doors, to a bedroom, bathroom, and main room. The main room then has an additional door between it and the kitchen. Of these four internal doors, only the bathroom door is ever used.

I thought this was just a strange household thing until they started adding doors in my corridor at work. Our building has a fantastic long corridor along the front with probably forty offices per floor, and we are grouped by management division onto the different floors. As such, a wander down the hall gives you the opportunity to chat with colleagues and get things done. Unfortunately they have now added three fire doors to this single corridor on each floor, one on each end before the staircases (perhaps I can understand that) but also one smack in the middle of the hallway. It is this fire door that makes me crazy. Yes, these are very technologically sound fire doors, held open with magnets released in the event of a fire alarm, so no rubber stoppers (not to mention the fact that they might actually be useful!) Regardless, it’s a bit mysterious to me that all the fire doors are made of wood.

The other amusing factoid that I have here arises from the amazing combination of a large number of both fire doors and fire extinguishers. Take one guess as to what heavy object is most frequently propping open the fire doors themselves?

Funny English Food

The trips to my local English grocery store are cracking me up more and more lately.  They have food with names that I simply cannot believe, and in some cases cannot figure out.  I had been quietly gathering ammo but mostly keeping mum on the subject until a work dinner party Monday night at which the subject came up and I broke down and asked, “what on earth IS spotted dick“?  There are others; I think many people know bangers (and mash) but even I was taken aback when last week I saw a box of “faggots” in the store.  A far more complete list of funny British food names is here along with a suggestion that this is the reason for Britain’s bad reputation in the food world, that it’s the names that are problematic, not the food itself.  I’m not sure I buy that; I find the food to be very heavy and remarkably lacking in a certain fresh character I would associate with modern American food (probably more appropriately “California Cuisine”).  I find British food lacking crunch, missing fresh herbs and vegetables, and thus overcooked and overprocessed overall.  Green vegetables are remarkably difficult to find on the menu here (and no, mushy peas do not count).  I also had a craving for a nice brunch last week and went out seeking a garden omelette or something similar only to find that such a thing does not exist.  The veggie version of a full English breakfast is just not very appealing to me–I only like the toast and mushrooms, and occasionally something potato-like and/or vegetarian sausages.  I just happen to not like the tomatoes, the baked beans, I can’t eat eggs that are runny (personal failing) and so overall I eat less than half of what is on the plate.  Thus, to add to my usual longings (Target!  Cheezits!) for my upcoming trip to the US (departure t minus 11 days and counting) I now have to go to Perkins for a garden omelette brunch.

Studying abroad

There was an interesting article in the New York Times this week about the increase in students doing a stint of “study abroad” as part of their American undergraduate degree process.  The article notes that not only are the availability of programs and places to study increasing, but access to this type of travel (particularly over the summer or for short placements) is increasingly being made available to people in fields like science and engineering where it used to be impossible.  I think it’s a really great thing, although I am not sure I could have convinced my parents of the value of such a program at the time–they already complained enough about the cost of normal tuition, room and board!  Adding another chunk onto the cost of my college education would likely not have been seen as a good thing.  Regardless, I think this IS a good thing and I encourage all students to take the opportunity.  You can and probably will work for the rest of your life to help pay off your college experiences so you might as well enjoy the opportunity to travel while you are young.

I did not manage to venture abroad even for a brief visit until graduate school, and of course now I live abroad.  So it’s like a super-extended study abroad program that I’m in, except that I have to try to function like an adult here as well (reminding me again how much easier this is to do as a student than as a grown-up!)  It feels that way sometimes too, especially when I start questioning if this has been a valuable experience but too strange to make permanent.  That said, I found very interesting this quote from the NYT article:

Frederick D. S. Choi, dean of Stern’s undergraduate college, said the trips sensitize students to different cultures and business styles in a way that books cannot.

”They grow up with the confidence that America is the greatest and does everything best,” Mr. Choi said.

”The fact is that the world is full of very astute people, and students have to realize that things are done differently in different parts of the world for good reason,” he added.

Now I read Mr. Choi’s comments with some degree of amusement.   I hate to say it, but in some ways I disagree with the last part especially.  I am all for broadening horizons and exploring the world, but at the end of the day the American economy is quite dominant and whether we all like it or not, America is the only standing superpower.  The thing that makes it work, imperfect as it is, is in my mind the cultural melting pot and assimilation of the way “things are done differently” in the world–in that regard, you would want to send a student around the world to see the origins of all of the things that America has already adopted, taking the best bits of many different cultures, and integrating them into a system that continues to thrive, grow and evolve with market forces.  It’s a very interesting thing.   So I generally agree with Mr. Choi but not without some degree of qualification of what he is saying.  Two years ago I would have claimed the English college education system was far superior to that in America.  I would not say the same thing now after having lived in England.  I’m not sure a semester or summer study abroad program would have been enough for me to have seen that and made that comparison.  I can’t possibly comment since I have not had the opportunity to be here as a student, only as a worker.   But nothing has made me appreciate America as much as stepping outside of it for a while.

November holidays

Today is bonfire night in the UK–fireworks in November.  It’s just wrong.  But fortunately to balance that out, one of my other American expat friends called me today and invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner in a few weeks.  Last year I met American friends in Paris so that’s two years in a row of managing to surround myself with good friends on an otherwise homesick holiday.  It was such a surprise today to get the Thanksgiving invite, and so completely wonderful; I was delighted to accept the invitation,  and the fact that it was made in the first place absolutely brightened my day.    Hopefully so too will the fireworks, due to begin in 30 minutes….

American Happiness and the need to consume

That is the title of a photo essay over on the Mother Jones website right now; the thing about it that made ME the most happy was the gorgeous photograph of Target linked here.  I’m quite sure the folks at MoJo did not mean for that photo to send me into glee and longing instead of feeling superior and sad about consumerism.  Oh well.  I just wanna go to Target.  Going to Target would make me happy.  Yes I’m likely to buy things there but it’s really far simpler, I just wanna go there and see all the pretty things lined up in nice rows…

Music and place

I was completely transported last night to a very different place in space and time by listening to a song. A whole series of them, actually. The extraordinarily talented Missy Higgins has just released a new album, so I was listening to a big Missy Higgins playlist on my computer while web-surfing mindlessly. And all of the sudden it was as though I was driving my much-adored Kia Spectra5 west along interstate 66 heading towards US 29, to go south to Charlottesville, VA. ( I no longer have the car, of course, since I moved to England!) Last night, as I write this now, and when I used to drive that route, listening to Missy found me with tears streaming down my face. I was not very happy at the time of that flashback (probably the first half of 2006); aside from the much-adored car, my life was a bit of a mess. Then again, it’s not as though I’m perfectly happy right now. I almost can’t recall being so overwhelmed with profound sadness as I was last night when I flashed back to listening to Missy Higgins in my car in northern Virginia. I’m not shy about my homesickness when it arises, but this was deeper, this was a questioning of my priorities. I came over here, all alone, for a job. I left behind people that I love and who love me. Was that a really foolish move? When I was in Virginia I felt very alone, although I had people only a few hours away and I really didn’t mind the drive. That was nothing compared to the loneliness of being in England with everyone I love thousands of miles away. Why have I allowed my life to be about my career? Why did that seem so important for so long?

I’ve recently re-connected with a few old high school friends (via Facebook, of all things!) and they’re all in Minnesota. I used to make fun of people who ended up staying in Minnesota, but maybe more than anything, this experience of living in England has made me question myself and my priorities even more–to the extent that I wonder if I’m not the one people should be making fun of. “Stupid girl, she thought jobs and travels and adventures were more important than people, than friends, than loved ones.” Who’s laughing now?