Monthly Archives: May 2008

you know you’re in England when…

… the auto-fill feature on your e-mail client brings up three choices for the first name “Duncan.”  For the record it also brings up three for “Graham” although for some reason I think Duncan is funnier.  And I swear I never, ever knew a Duncan in the states.

Brash ‘n’ sassy

Yesterday I ran up again my arch-nemesis, the English Gentleman. I am a straight-talking, midwestern sort of girl. I am aggressive, hard-working and I want to be a leader. My youth and straight-forward nature make me the antithesis of everything the English Gentleman holds dear. I think it’s this part in particular that makes the English Gentleman become upset around me:

[He] need[s] to cultivate impeccable manners, an implacable expression and a strong sense of fair play.

I think the English Gentleman would say that my straight-talking violates “impeccable manners” especially if I point out something that is slightly uncomfortable. (“England is ten years behind the US in this area, where is the acknowledgment of the current state-of-the-art worldwide?”) I definitely lack an “implacable expression” being accused at times of having a “child-like enthusiasm” and being “perhaps even overly passionate” about the things I hold dear. Hopefully I would never be accused of violating fair play, but it is true that I find the English to be remarkably self-effacing when it comes to their accomplishments.

I worry that the presence in the room of an English Gentleman actually makes me worse. I fear that I bristle at the concept and become even more young, more female, and most critically, more American. This worry, that my job progression will become halted by my inability to act more like an English Gentleman, is still to me the most difficult part of life on these shores.

The bug saga continues, or my first brush with the NHS

I have ranted in the past about my hatred of the English screen-less windows and the flying insect infestation that results.  There has been some progress on my apartment (I do promise I will get to that eventually) and one aspect was that finally putting up curtains–translucent sheers–in my living room has actually deterred the flies enough that I have not yet resorted to the less attractive fly screens.  But a few weeks ago, before the curtains and before the weather was as cool and rainy as it has been now, I did have the windows open and I did have flying insects.  And I can prove it.  Because today I, naturally a huge sceptic of the medical profession in general and of the over-medicalization of society more specifically, had to break down and sample the UK’s loathed socialized medical system, the NHS.  I have insect bites on my leg that caused a huge allergic reaction and they have not gone away.  After a good friend of mine got very sick with Lyme disease last year, I have been a little spooked by the long-term bug bite thing so I broke down and walked into a “surgery” half-way between my home and office.  I sheepishly explained that I had been in the country for 20 months but had never “registered” with a doctor and the kind receptionist guessed that perhaps I had an urgent-ish concern that drove my into their office.  Now the amazing thing I find is that in my particular practice, this is totally usual: only 40% of appointments are ever pre-booked so it truly is a drop-in clinic.  This I must admit, I totally love.  (Maybe not as much as Yael loves housecalls, but close!)  So I did my medical history paperwork and saw a nurse within 30 minutes.  Good news: I have no worries about the bug bites, but I was putting the wrong creme on them and now I have a new one to help calm the itching and resolve the bites.  No Lyme disease.  The bad news: my blood pressure was high.  For gracious sakes, I’m 32 years old.  A little over my ideal weight perhaps (okay, definitely–although I love the low numbers that result from being weighed in kg instead of lb!) but still!  I was very, very nervous over the whole I-hate-doctors thing and the dealing-with-the-NHS thing but I’m still now on the blood pressure watchlist, as a potential “pre-hypertension” candidate.   Warning to all potential expats: living abroad may be harmful to your health.  And their medical system may or may not be able to cope!

Ode to my new coffee maker

There is no way for this not to sound like a paid promotion–I am in love with my new coffee maker and I want to tell the world.  I had been developing coffee maker envy for more than a few months, as not one but two of my friends sang the praises of the Nespresso system.  I hated the idea of excess packaging, although I had been using individual coffee pods in my Senseo for years, and actually the Nespresso pods are recyclable…  my Senseo machine has been leaking nasty brown water onto my counter top, and this past weekend as part of a huge apartment overhaul (more on that in another post) I broke down and bought a Nespresso machine.  The swing factor was not the coffee maker itself, but the cool toy that came with the coffee maker: the Aeroccino.   This thing is pure brilliance.  I had a proper espresso machine once upon a time, with the wand that used steam to froth milk and was impossible to clean, and required a second pressurized run of the espresso maker itself.  It quickly became too much of a burden to use for home and I became a compulsive Starbucks drinker for my daily latte.  (Or Caribou when in Minnesota!)    But this little Aeroccino pitcher is easy to use and easy to clean.  Instructions read like those for a tea kettle except you pour in milk, not water.  It sets on a little base that is plugged into the wall, and you push a button on the front.  Hot frothy milk due to a magnetic motor drive and all in about a minute.  Two different frothers for cap. vs. latte in terms of foam amount.   I have only had Starbucks once in 5 days of owning the thing, and that was only because the coffee machine shipped with an insufficient starter supply of coffee, and since it was a bank holiday Monday my coffee shipment was delayed.  This morning all is well in the coffee world in my very organized flat, and my only incentive to hit Starbucks is to chat up the American baristas when I get homesick.  And as for the waste associated with individually packaged coffee pods, well, I’m sticking that in the same “necessary evil” category as love miles.

The SATC Movie: Thank goodness I live in England!

I went to see the Sex and the City movie this afternoon, yes afternoon, it’s been wild time at work lately and I decided a 3:00 matinee was in order.  And for some odd reason, the movie started today here in England but it won’t start until Friday in the states.  So for once I got a HUGE advantage out of living here in the UK!  Also for some amusing reason it got rated totally different here than anywhere, while it’s R in the states and 18+ in Canada, its only 15+ here even though it has all the usual hallmarks of SATC including plenty of nudity.  Whatever.  I loved the movie, I laughed, I cried.  It was the first time I did a movie solo here in England, I’ve gone alone in the US but mostly when I was freshly divorced and not at all recently.   It was also the first time I bought a movie ticket online and picked it up at the theatre, which is a totally cool innovation.  I was, however, disappointed in my popcorn and will have to get some when next I’m in the states.  I used to work in movie theatres so I have a real taste for nasty yummy popcorn with buttery stuff on it, but here they don’t do that.  First of all they offer you a choice of sweet or salty popcorn, and it’s really dry.  Oh well.  At least the movie is great.

Royal weddings

So last weekend Pres. Bush’s daughter got married, and this weekend we had a royal wedding here in the UK.  Now admittedly it was a pretty far-down-the-line royal wedding, but still it’s always worth a look at the amazing architectural features that the Brits consider hats for weddings.  It’s such a relief that you can rent (“hire“) these amazing objects at dedicated hat hire outlets.   The best ones, however, are the “fascinators” –see this lovely site for “bespoke headware for all occasions”!   (Some sentences really do give away the immense cultural and linguistic differences between England and America and that has to be one of them!)  It brings to mind the tragic character played by Winona Ryder in one of my favorite bad movies, Autumn in New York.   They had a great May-December romance and she made fascinators.  I just didn’t know that’s what they were at the time, or that they existed outside of that movie.  How naive I was back then.

There’s something fishy here…

I was reading the Economist over coffee this morning, and saw an add for a position at Imperial College along with the words “The #5 University in the World” (THES 2007). I was pretty sure I knew most of who was in the top 20 for world university rankings, and Imperial College is not even on the list. They come in at #23. Curious, I found the rankings according to THES which turned out to be the “Times Higher Education Supplement” published by one of the UK newspapers. These rankings are more than just a little bit fishy in terms of being UK centric. There are 19 UK institutions on the list overall, and three in the top 5 (Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial). In contrast, the mainstream list has 11 UK institutions, with Cambridge in the top 5 but Oxford at 10. Included on the THES list but absent from the mainstream list are such fine institutions as the “University of Warwick”.  (Unscientific poll: people in the US, have you ever heard of it?)  This one stuck out for me particularly, because an acquaintance of mine has just accepted a job there and I had no idea whether that was a good thing–I think I looked a bit blank and then tried to do the delayed “oh wow! Good for you!” thing. Oops. But come on, this is exactly the sort of grandstanding that makes it really difficult to take the English seriously at times. Complete and utter self-indulgence, these rankings. And this from people who have never heard of the University of Minnesota (33 on the mainstream list, shockingly absent from the THES one). Interestingly enough, the Economist itself quotes the mainstream numbers, not the THES ones. It has been suggested that UK Universities should not use the THES numbers because they are clearly flawed, and with that position I have to agree. Here’s a fantastic statistic to support the ridiculousness of the THES rankings AND the decline of UK higher education (from the article linked in the last sentence and by a professor at the above-mentioned Warwick):

Over the last 20 years, the US has been awarded 126 Nobel Prizes compared to Britain’s nine.

When expat life is just life

I am just barely keeping up right now. I’ve had a long week, a lot to do, and have a lot of work stacked up for doing on the weekend. As such, I have had very little to say in the line of amusing expat anecdotes about life in Britain. Some days I actually see this as a small victory: my life is just my life right now, my job is my busy job, and the fact that it is in a foreign land goes oddly unnoticed. There are little reminders, the spell-checker on my office computer picks up words that I spell in “American” instead of “English”. When I have telephone conferences, on the other end of the phone I hear Scottish and Welsh, not “southern” or “Boston” accents. But this is definitely one of those weeks when I feel settled and happy here (except for the stressful and busy parts!)

Perhaps it helps that I have comfortable furniture in my flat now. Perhaps my new wardrobes and kitchen cabinets are making me happy. Perhaps my expat friends are keeping me sane without my thinking consciously about it. Who knows. But some weeks expat life is just life full stop. And when that happens, when living in a foreign country is not a total distraction and central to your mind, well that’s a very good thing.

Oh dear

Today I was in a building (associated with work) that I had never been in before, and as sometimes happens I visited the ladies room. I am not kidding, there were two black and white cartoons, word-free signs in the stall, one showing the person sitting on the toilet (not unlike the first panel of this), and the other showing how to throw toilet paper in the toilet. I realize that I live in a very multicultural place, and in my own building for work there are signs with words discussing the dire consequences of treating the toilets differently than they are intended to be treated. But it was still a bit much. I was feeling utterly ridiculous about the sad state of humankind until I saw this from diamond geezer. It really is true, the British authorities in some way or another really do think we are all morons. And people say America has a litigious culture? Surely in a land with all this ridiculous signage (none of which I saw in the states) the “over the top” element is far worse…

Oh happy day!

Anyone following the developments as I’ve tried to adapt my English flat to my American self will be glad to see the latest arrivals, as of this morning:

That’s right, no more sitting on the floor for me, I have a new love-seat that has the huge advantage of also being a sofa-bed (should anyone care to visit!).  Also, as of yesterday I also have a new pantry cupboard in the kitchen:

This was to address the odd circumstance of there being no “upper cupboards” in my kitchen–there were only cupboards below the counter-tops.  The stove is just to the right of this new cupboard, so my food and spices and things can go away instead of sitting out on the counter.  All of this combined with my new wardrobes and other recent acquisitions means that I have now finally got an apartment that is far more functional than when I moved here.  I admit it’s not all terribly decorative; the sofa is something that belongs in a basement, not in my living room with my Delft and teacup collections, but at the end of the day it was function I was after more than style.  This was my clear favorite of the sofa-beds in John Lewis, and quite frankly I was feeling too old to get another futon.