Monthly Archives: October 2008

Gourmet Sporks

When I was served food on the Eurostar train this past weekend, I realized that something was quite striking about the place settings. When I opened the packaged cutlery-in-napkin item, getting at least six pieces of flatware in the process, the spoons looked remarkably familiar to me. I then realized why: they had an imprint on them identifying them as “Robert Welch for Eurostar”. From my recollection they looked sort of like this. And why was this familiar to me? Because I had, in fact, splurged on a set of new Robert Welch Radford cutlery on my expativersary. (No one guessed what it was!) When I bought it, I did not know Robert Welch from Adam. I had set about finding a set of fish knives, since I was entertaining the thought of doing some entertaining with a little dinner party, and since I’m a pescetarian living in England it seemed like a nice thing to have. I found the fish knives at John Lewis and was completely infatuated with the weight and balance of them, to the point that I decided to rid myself of the shackles of my fussy flowery (and suited me at the time) wedding gift Oneida flowery flatware (this is not exactly it but similar) and splurge on something that suits me more now, for the sole purpose of my dinner party hosting in the future. And because I like it. I may very well donate the Oneida to a charity shop now that I have gotten used to how nice it is to be independent and buy cutlery outside of a bridal event. And besides, this new line has more items of silverware than I have ever seen–how could an American resist the opportunity to drop almost $50US for a set of 6 matching Robert Welch Radford sporks gift-boxed to match my specialized fish knives and other new cutlery?

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An Expat in Paris

I had the chance this weekend to briefly visit a friend of mine from back home–she moved to Paris just over six months ago to take an amazing job.  She is thus my only expat friend from the states who is not related to me (since my sister in China is both a friend and a relative).  Really, I feel lucky to have both a friend and a sister who are embarking on these new lives in other countries, it makes me feel not-so-alone when we are all in this experience together.

I took the Eurostar train over to Paris, which is great fun.  Hello, you can take a train off an island and get between London and Paris in only a few hours with a great view out the window?  As I was traveling on the train, I could not remember why I had only done this once before in my more than two years in the UK.

My first trip to Paris was as a tourist.  I was new to the UK, and I had met friends from the states on the Thanksgiving weekend nearly two years ago.  One of them was Paris-familiar, and both of us had taken French in high school, so we did okay and had a good time seeing the classic sites.

This trip was totally different–I was with a (newly assimilating)  local, hanging out in her neighborhood and seeing Paris in a totally different light.   We did the fun and day-to-day things that you do when you live somewhere–we went to the apartment of another friend of hers where we were to await the delivery of a mattress (since the friend was out of town).   We hung out in cafes in real neighborhoods, not tourist areas.  We spent most of our time enjoying life with Paris in the background, instead of enjoying Paris with life on hold.  We got lucky with the Parisian weather–it was sunny and warm during the day and cool but clear in the evening.

We enjoyed the weather.  We shopped.  We walked along the Seine.  We laughed.  We cried.  We talked about life, love and happiness.   We worked on our French.  Sometimes with better results than others.  We ate.  And we ate well, this being Paris.  Onion soup, cheese plates, salads, cafe creme, little cafes on every corner.  That thing where you can walk into a boulangerie and step up to a fromagerie  and get bread and cheese to take home and eat for brunch.  And when you’re with a local, there is a home to go to and drink coffee and eat.  It’s amazing.

It’s also interesting how the expat experience translates.  France, England, it doesn’t matter–the basics of relocating from the US to Europe are surprisingly similar.  Europe is so clearly not the US, and the differences between European countries pale in comparison with the difference between Europe and America.  The troubles that you face when being an expat, especially at first, are something that transcends the details of location.  We both benefitted from the comparison of silly little annoyances in our own lives, and from the commiseration that comes with shared experience.

At the end of the day, this was a great weekend for me.  I don’t have friends here in England as great as the friends I have from home, and it was amazing to be myself, my unguarded, completely American self, for many hours on end and to know that there’s another person just a short train ride away who shares my experiences.  I also feel lucky to be reminded that love is such a great and broad thing, a thing that encompasses family, romance, and perhaps most importantly, friendships.

Paris, je t’aime.

In my email inbox from a Brit living in America

A Message from the Queen

To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty
Queen Elizabeth II

In light of your failure in recent years to nominate competent candidates
for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give
notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately.  (You
should look up ‘revocation’ in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over
all states, commonwealths, and territories (except Kansas, which she does
not fancy).

Your new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, will appoint a Governor for America
without the need for further elections.

Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire may be circulated
next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown dependency, the following rules
are introduced with immediate effect:

———————–

1. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘colour,’ ‘favour,’
‘labour’ and ‘neighbour.’ Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’
without skipping half the letters, and
the suffix ‘-ize’ will be replaced by the suffix ‘-ise.’ Generally, you will
be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels.  (look up
‘vocabulary’).

————————

2. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as
”like’ and ‘you know’ is an unacceptable and inefficient form of
communication. There is no such thing as U.S. English. We will let Microsoft
know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take
into account the reinstated letter ‘u” and the elimination of ‘-ize.’

——————-

3. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.

—————–

4. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers, or
therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that
you’re not quite ready to be independent.  Guns should only be used for
shooting grouse. If you can’t sort things out without suing someone or
speaking to a therapist,then you’re not ready to shoot grouse.

———————-

5. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more
dangerous than a vegetable peeler. Although a permit will be required if you
wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.

———————-

6. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start
driving on the left side with immediate effect. At the same time, you will
go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion
tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the
British sense of humour.

——————–

7. The former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been
calling gasoline) of roughly $10/US gallon. Get used to it.

——————-

8. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are
not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are
properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and
dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.

——————-

9. The cold, tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer
at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer,
and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as
Lager. South African beer is also acceptable, as they are pound for pound
the greatest sporting nation on earth and it can only be due to the beer.
They are also part of the British Commonwealth – see what it did for them.
American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine, so that all
can be sold without risk of further confusion.

———————

10. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good
guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English
characters. Watching Andie Macdowell attempt English dialogue in Four
Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one’s ears removed
with a cheese grater.

———————

11. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of
proper football; you call it soccer. Those of you brave enough will, in
time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American
football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or
wearing full kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancies).

———————

12. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an
event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of
America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware there is a world beyond your
borders, your error is understandable. You will learn cricket, and we will
let you face the South Africans first to take the sting out of their
deliveries.

——————–

13. You must tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us mad.

—————–

14. An internal revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty’s
Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies
due (backdated to 1776).

—————

15. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 p.m. with proper cups, with saucers,
and never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; plus
strawberries (with cream) when in season.

God Save the Queen!

PS: Only share this with friends who have a good sense of humour
(NOT humor)!

Sudafed in my head

If there is one thing worse for general mood than living alone in a foreign country, it is living alone in a foreign country with a head cold. Everyone around me has had one in the last week, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up with one as well. Yesterday I could feel it coming on from early in the day, so I stopped at Superdrug on my way home before running to yet another work dinner event. (Wait, you ask, Superdrug and not Boots? Yes, I say, they were open a full thirty minutes later. Much like the randomness in any one store’s closing times on a given day, stores in the same block or shopping mall seem to have a wide range of inconsistent closing times.) I looked at all the cold medicine tablets (I found “Lemsip” to be absolutely disgusting so we won’t go there again) and found the inferior new kind of Sudafed. But out of the corner of my eye I noticed that in the back, behind the counter where the pharmacy is, they had other boxes of Sudafed. I casually strolled back there, at which point I proceeded to become my least articulate and most agitated American self:

Me: (sounding like something out of a bad western movie) What do you have to do to get the real Sudafed around here?

Clerk: (laughing) Just ask.

Me: Sudafed, please!

Clerk: Is this for your own personal use?

Me: Yes.

Clerk: Do you promise to take the medicine as instructed, and to only use the medicine for its intended decongesting purpose?

Me: Yes. I don’t suppose I can get two boxes?

Clerk: No. It’s limited to one

Now let me note that this is a box of 12 pills, and only the 4-6 hour sort, so by tomorrow I’m likely to have to go back for a repeat performance of this little TSA-like question and answer session (it so reminded me of the “Did you pack your bags yourself? Has anyone unknown to you given you something to bring onboard the aircraft?” routine.) If I knew then what I know now, I would go back to my 20-something self and tell her to buy three boxes of the 12-hour Sudafed every time she was at Target. I hoarded the stuff when the new rules of limited Sudafed access came around. Minnesota was early at adopting the restrictions due to the strong presence of meth out in the rural parts of the state. But I swear, I have tried everything, EVERYTHING else that they make for colds and nothing else works. Without Sudafed I’m a zombie. With it I’m sufficiently okay to have even gone to the gym tonight. No, I did not do a heavy cardio workout, but I did lift free weights and some mild cardio. Thanks, Sudafed, and thanks to Superdrug for that little amusing scene, soon to be repeated if I am going to get through this week.

The expat crossroads

Last night at a work function I had the chance to chat with someone who was UK born and educated, who had spent some large number of years in the US, and who had repatriated recently–returned to the UK in a very senior job. I was very interested when I and others asked “Why come back?” and the response could be summarized as “it’s over in the US, they’re on the decline and the UK is back on the rise.” Now I’m not sure I agree with that assessment completely–bearing in mind that as usual with me, this was a technical/science-y discussion (having nothing to do with global finance, for example). I do agree that in science America has slowed, leaving the door open for other countries (although I, like many others, probably would have noted China as the likely next source of technical moxy, not the UK!) But I do not see the investment occurring here (in England) that would be needed to take things to the next level. Perhaps it is because I am an early adopter in my timing of arriving in the UK. Maybe in five years the science climate here will be so bright that I have to wear shades. But I believe one thing is holding the UK back, and that is–simply put–money. There is just not the investment in science education that there is in the US. The educational climate in general favors old-fashioned solo pen-and-paper examinations, not hands-on labs, group projects and computers, and from what I read (although I have no children in the education system here) science education in schools has been dying a slow death. Something is VERY wrong when a University can’t manage to keep it’s physics department running! Physics is the foundation of all of science, if you lose that then what is left? This is probably part of the greater problem, that there is not a huge reserve of (in the US often state-derived) funds for building shiny new buildings and laboratories at the Universities. There is not the venture capital associated with spinning off potentially risky but potentially lucrative tech start-up companies. And there is definitely an attitude of “Britishness” in not seeming to want to compete with the Americans and be too aggressive in pursuing these things.

The reason these things are on my mind right now, is because I find myself frequently standing at the expat crossroads. I’ve been here more than two years, and thus can’t be accused of not giving it a fair shot. I recently had another one of those phone calls from the states where someone dangles an “opportunity” in front of my nose. On the one hand, a friend at work stated that I must not be really settled here if the possibility of a return to the land of my birth continues to tempt me. The fact that I listen to the details instead of shutting it down immediately is, I guess, somehow telling. That said, the idea of starting from scratch somewhere else is really unappealing right now. It’s taken more than two years to get to the position I’m in now, in terms of productivity, and with any move comes so much “start-up” in both the personal and professional sense that I simply can’t face it. Perhaps some time it will come to pass that an offer does look good enough to lure me into repatriation, or perhaps I’ll really settle in here and decide I cannot dream of moving. Who knows. But I feel as though it might be like this for most expats, an exercise in ever standing at the crossroads between paths forward in the country of residence and the country of origin.

Americans criticizing Brits

I occasionally take some flak for my criticism of the locals and their traditions, but I invite anyone who thinks I am critical to have a go at the new book “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British” by Sarah Lyall. Some of it I have found very informative, like the chapter on the reform of the House of Lords, which was well researched and full of amusing commentary. But some of the other chapters are remarkably harsh to the point of being downright vitriolic. The writing is quite good, as one perhaps might expect given the author’s status as a London-based writer for the NY Times. A few interesting tidbits, excerpted from a review:

“We look to the future; they look to the past,” she writes. “We run for election; they stand for it. We noisily and proudly proclaim our Americanness; they shuffle their feet and apologize for their Britishness.”

Her analysis on this subject is the best I have read yet, because it attacks the reasons behind the attitude. And I did laugh out loud when she commented on Britain as a “formerly industrialized nation” particularly given my past complaints about the lacking engineering culture here in the UK.

“Brits,” she explains, “are supposed to pretend that achievement comes without effort; boasting is the height of poor manners. It makes you seem aggressive, ambitious, self-regarding, puffed up — verging on American.”

I’d say as an American expat working in Britain this is potentially the biggest minefield I’ve encountered. The path to success in the states is paved with shameless self-promotion. This is probably the path to career suicide in the UK.

But the tone of the book is best summarized in a much more biting review:

In the 19th century, Britain ruled a global empire while its aristocratic leaders swaggered around boasting that great nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

In the 21st century, Britain has no empire and needs all the friends it can get.

The Anglo Files will not encourage many to sign up. Sarah Lyall’s “Field Guide” leaves you in no doubt of why the British lost their empire while simultaneously raising questions about how upper-class twits could have acquired one in the first place.

Personally I found it funny in places but overall a bit too harsh. The first few chapters made for very difficult reading, and I did not find most of it as helpful or explanatory as the Kate Fox classic “Watching the English”. There are many books on moving to the UK from the US, and this is probably mid-way down my list of suggestions, but not at all a necessary “field guide” so much as a bitter ‘memoir’ of the author’s personal frustrations.

Worst place to be an expat?

Britain, apparently. How ironic for this information to come to light on my expat-iversary. Oops.