Monthly Archives: November 2008

Brit news round-up v.2

I’ve literally worked 20 hours this weekend–ten each on Saturday and Sunday–and knocked off an insane number of things that needed to be done. I never understand what makes it such that I can wake up on Friday morning and feel uncreative and unproductive and generally useless, but I can then work all weekend long in a quite happy state of mind. The strange beast that is creativity somehow doesn’t act very productive when I am feeling duress, as when the politics at work have taken over. And although perhaps some people working at home are not as productive, I sometimes find that I am more-so.

Today I have a Brit news round-up, of things that amused me in the local press when I checked it over my coffee twelve hours ago:

Any one of these could make me speechless. (Speachless for Malia!)

American Dairy

I had another expat shock today when I decided that, craving pancakes, I needed to make them. Part of my recent obsession with baking. I opened up my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook from the states (a wedding shower gift more than 13 years ago and more convenient than the Joy of Cooking due to its ring binder-lay flat-ness)and realized that I had never seen buttermilk in the UK. Add this to my list of things that are not here, including half-and-half for coffee and American cheeses. I can buy single cream, double cream and even, now that it’s near Christmas, brandy-flavored cream, but there are other things that I can’t get here and would use if I could.

Writing and Blogging

It’s amazing that I enjoy blogging, given that I spend so much of my time writing. The last two days have been very long days of technical writing, trying to finish a technical book, a book chapter, and other monographs prior to Christmas. The sad truth of technical careers is that you only get to do the technical stuff full-time when you’re a student (or maybe a post-doc) while the “real job” consists mostly of writing. I have found that I have to bribe myself with something in order to really work on the hardest parts of this, the boring editing and sorting out references and things. Today it has been DVDs of “The Secret Life of Us“. I’ve gotten two book chapters for two different books completely done in ten hours of writing today with the DVDs playing in the background (and I’ve seen most of these before, so it’s the perfect brainless background “music”). But it does strike me as funny that at the end of ten hours of writing I’d start to write on this blog.

In other news, it is truly turning towards Christmas here in England. I ran out to the store tonight and the floutist who busks on my corner was playing Greensleeves.

Our non-traditional T-day dinner

I sat in my office last night as the time approached 7 pm, not sure if I had the energy to venture out to another town for the expat Thanksgiving gathering. Fortunately I had arranged to cab-share with another American colleague, and so although we were both stuck working late (and in the end arrived at the dinner almost an hour later than planned) we did manage to drag ourselves there. We had a small (7) gathering of Americans and a few other non-Brits gathered around a table. It was Chinese takeout that ended up being the dinner, preceded by some lovely cheese and crackers and all accompanied by nice wine. I ate way too much (nothing unusual for Thanksgiving there!) and had to reject the offers of an apple tart with ice cream for dessert. In the end, I was so glad to have gone, had a great time, and felt as though we definitely captured the spirit of the day. Home late and to bed, and up again this morning to work instead of to hang ornaments on a tree–what I would most certainly be doing in the states. The thing about Thanksgiving in a foreign country is that the meal is in the evening instead of afternoon, there is no Cowboys or Lions game on the telly, and certainly there’s not the chance for a massive lie-in the following day.

My Thanksgiving fortune cookie (what? you didn’t have one?) had an interesting message.

How to succeed? Try hard enough.

It could just be the poor grammar that sometimes is found in fortune cookies, or it could be that the message is trying to tell me something. “Try hard enough” implies “but not too hard” for my read of it–I’ve certainly had a tendency to suffer burn-out at my job here when I’m trying to do too much. At the moment I’ve been juggling trying to finish a book I’m editing with everything else, and it’s been clear that I am not superhuman and I can’t actually work non-stop. I need to learn to “try hard enough” by not taking on so much in the first place–my bad tendency is to only notice it when it’s too late, when I’m overloaded and I implode. I’m learning and I’ll be working on this as we head towards 2009. Work should never be so hard that you consider skipping Thanksgiving dinner with the best friends you’ve got in a foreign land.

Perfect for tofurkey day

This was the sight that greeted me when I left my flat to head for work this morning:


I have seen these guys before, they play music and try to sell CDs on the streetcorner. Normally I just shake my head and wonder if the locals are puzzled by the Native American garb, but this morning, in honor of Pilgrims and Indians, it just seemed perfect. Now if only I could get my hands on a tofurkey… we gave up on a traditional meal and the Americans in my inner circle have agreed to congregate and order either pizza or Chinese.

Review: Rules, Britannia

I have gobbled up the books on living in the UK for American expats, and the latest was no exception. My only beef with these books is why did I not find them BEFORE I moved here and did the trial by fire thing instead!

Rules, Britannia” is a very good book in terms of information. There is a great deal of detail here that I have learned in two years of UK existence but that I could have learned from the book. It is encyclopedic in nature, being mostly bulleted lists instead of narrative prose, so it forms the ideal reference text to any person facing this sort of challenge in terms of moving. The book has a very different appeal than “Watching the English” which is one of my other bibles for life in Britain, but I’m glad to add “Rules, Britannia” to my recommendation list.

Non-British words of the day

Today I had my administrative staff in stitches (again, after the “pants with pockets” debacle of a while back). I ran up to their office to get some thumbtacks to post some posters on a cork-board. I asked for thumbtacks, and got a blank look. “Thumbtacks?” I said again. I pointed at the board hanging above the desk with colorful pushpins. Laughter. Apparently there is no such word as “thumbtacks” in Brit-speak, and it was thought that I was celebrating the new VAT reduction by requesting a tax on their thumbs.

Earlier by about two hours, I had a young Scottish student in my office asking why there was no “tick mark” in Microsoft Office’s clip art. I thought for a second, and realized, well, Microsoft is an American company, and thus would have them down as “check” marks. Sure enough, a search on “check” brought up what was needed. Imagine my surprise on arriving home tonight to find that Brit’ Gal had posted “Tick” as her British word of the day!

License Fees and the BBC

I don’t have a television here in the UK. This is not the first time I’ve lived for a long time without a TV, I didn’t have one through much of graduate school. My flat here is small and there is no obvious place for one. But I admit that part of my lack of a TV is due to the “license fee” — a tax that has to be paid every year in order to support the BBC. It’s just under 150 pounds per year, which is less than $250 now but was over $300 this summer when the exchange rate was worse. My visitors from the US have always been amazed to hear of this, as it had never occurred to them that it costs money to get even the most basic channels, since you can normally get a handful of free-to-air channels in the US.

The issue of the license fee has been in the press a lot recently after a few comedians got in trouble over their BBC radio skit of a few weeks ago–this was judged to be offensive. Storm in a teacup, I thought, but it is England so the teacup is taken seriously. And since I don’t own a radio, and haven’t for donkey’s years, I didn’t hear the original broadcast. There have been, apparently, an increasing number of people here in the UK calling for boycotts of the license fee. I enjoyed this opinion piece in the Guardian today about the fee rebels. In the age of TiVo it all seems so silly–use advertisements on television and let people skip them. Or watch things on YouTube or DVDs. Wait, that’s the problem, right? TV is facing the “new media” problems of newspapers a few years back. How to compete with the internet on top of everything else?

When I first lived here, I got nasty-grams in the mail quite regularly at my original apartment, calling for me to pay the fee. Since I did not have a TV and thus could have lived with their inspection of my flat, I was not fussed. But it did seem like a very complicated thing. I have since heard of flat-sharers amongst my friends here who have gotten in trouble since the TV was purchased by one person and the fee paid by someone else with a different name. Linking the TV fee to a name seems like a blunt approach to me, surely it should be associated with the TV itself! I know when you buy a TV here you are given strict instructions about paying the fee, and I believe that TV sellers have to report somehow on who has bought a TV so these fees can be chased down.

I’m not sure what the answer is. The funny thing is that my time in Britain has shown me how little original television of British origin actually airs here. All of two series of “Gavin and Stacey” would be only half of a single American TV season, as I tried to explain to this week’s visitor. I watch TV at the health club when working out, and am more likely to watch “Friends”, “CSI”, “Simpsons” reruns or music videos from primarily American artists on the big screens. I do watch the BBC news channel when nothing else is on, but that can get remarkably tedious–especially when the channel devotes thirty minutes of in-depth coverage to the above-mentioned comedy/taste scandal. Surely there is a better model for the provision of basic television services, especially when the internet has made information accessible to everyone?

Heading towards skinny jeans

Friday, since I had the day mostly clear of work meetings due to my visitor, and since she was sick and sleeping, I headed to the gym in the morning and had my first major victory. From my last measured weight to where I am now, I’ve lost 3.5 kg or nearly 8 lbs. (Or just over half a stone for any Brits reading this.) Given the fact that my last measured weight occurred a few months before I joined the gym in Sept., at the infamous NHS visit in May, I’ve probably lost a bit more than that. I should have weighed myself when I joined the gym, but at that point I really didn’t want to know! I’m back wearing several things (jeans and trousers especially) that I used to wear but had gotten too big for, or wearing for the first time things that I had bought without trying on and then discovered they didn’t fit. Certainly I’m down one jeans size from my worst over the summer. I pulled my “skinny jeans” out of the closet tonight post-bath post-workout and I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there. Another month or two, maybe? With Christmas I can see that progress may be slowed, but I’m quite pleased that progress has been so good given the whole chaotic-busy-at-work thing. So far, I’ve managed to do the thing where you join a gym and actually go regularly. And the best part is that unlike work, if you put in the time at the gym, you will get results. No politics, no maneuvering, no unexpected failures due to circumstances beyond your control. Calories burned is proportional to time spent working out and level of sweat produced during that time. And I’m loving the results! Hopefully my blood pressure is also coming down…

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

Go oft awry.

My dear friend since junior high arrived from Minnesota on Thursday morning feeling not great. She proceeded to feel less and less great as the trip progressed. Many of the fun things we had planned got set aside, although that was fine–I was glad to have a friend here and felt horrid that she felt so horrible. We did manage a few hours of quite good shopping and some nice meals, but in general I’d say the trip was a bit of a bust. We were due to be in central London tonight on the town, but I’ve left her sleeping in the hotel room there in W1 and come home since there was not going to be any “on the town” and she’ll be on her way to the airport by 8:30 am 😦

Speaking of shopping, I’ve discovered something important and profound. Having female friends is expensive. Specifically, going shopping with female friends is expensive. I’ve had three shopping outings in the last month–one in Paris with a fellow expat who I know from my Virginia days, one here with my gym-buddy and one here with my visiting (and sadly, sickly) friend from Minnesota. And in each case, I bought things. All nice things, good things, and useful things. Things for work, things for dress, and of course things for feet. But things that cost money nonetheless. I have spent more money on shopping in clothes in the last month than I probably had in the previous six… although one could perhaps argue that my tired work wardrobe really did need sprucing up, and that the upcoming black tie Christmas dinner did require a new party frock. The thing is, I wouldn’t take any of it back as depleted as my bank balance is–neither the clothes (togs in the local lingo) or the time spent with friends.