Monthly Archives: May 2009

Pond Parleys

If you have not been over to Pond Parleys this week, I am the guest blogger discussing differences between the educational systems in the US and the UK with Expatmum. It was a really fun thing to do, and a subject dear to my heart. Make sure you stop by and have a read!

Brighton beach memories

No, not Brighton Beach Memoirs, totally the wrong side of the world. I was in Brighton, UK this weekend for the Brighton Festival, which had one of my favorite modern artists, Anish Kapoor, as artistic director and featured one of my favorite jazz bands, The Dave Holland Quintet, headlining a fantastic concert. Brighton was almost too zoo-y for me to enjoy the festival, with a seemingly endless parade of girls in 4 inch skirts and 6 inch heels and their tattooed boy toys. But I managed to enjoy it just the same. Did all the things one does in a different British town, which is to eat at the same restaurants that are in your own neighborhood and shop in the same shops that are on your own high street. But oddly enough for England, the weather was uncharacteristically gorgeous and I ended up sunburnt from long walks on the beach esplanade. Not a bad bank holiday weekend, not bad at all.

Expats and Creativity

Since I travel quite a bit for my job, I like to follow a couple of travel blogs including Gulliver from the Economist. This week Gulliver reported on an article in the main Economist about a link between expat life and creativity. Now I take issue immediately with the statement that follows:

ANECDOTAL evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling abroad. Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link.

I can assure you that no one has proved anything. Some statistical model has been used to show a connection in a small study population in which confounding factors have also been taken into account. That is not proof. (Sorry, geeky science girl hat goes on whenever I see things like this extracted from the academic literature… best not to get me started down that path!) However, it is an intriguing concept. And one of the confounding factors that has supposedly been eliminated in the study was the idea that more creative people choose to be expats in the first place. Not sure if I truly believe the statistical model that says that was clearly excluded, especially based on the small study population. Regardless, the conclusion from the study is something to make an expat smile:

It may be that those critical months or years of turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill not only the ability to “think outside the box” but also the capacity to realize that the box is more than a simple square, more than its simple form, but also a repository of many creative possibilities.

So for all the rants about two-tap sinks, lacking closet space, and bewildering cultural customs, this little adventure might be taking me down the road to self improvement.

I’ve missed my calling

Really, I blame authorblog. It was he who posted this story about a little old lady, past 100, and her use of facebook and twitter. Google around and it turns out this has been all over the recent British news. And I love, love, love it. I’ve followed her on Twitter, and had a great look around her care home’s website, which looks really cozy and like someplace I would love to hang around. Thus, my thinking I missed my calling, I’m spending all day every day with the wrong aged people. See, I adore “little old ladies” especially if they’re feisty, as this Ivy Bean appears to be. And my nonagenarian grandmother certainly is. I had at one point in my life entertained thoughts of being a doctor specializing in geriatric medicine; I suspect I made a better choice for me in that engineering is a bit less emotional, and I doubt I could have handled losing patients that I had grown attached to. But it’s certainly true that I look wistfully in the windows of my local care home when I walk to the gym, as I wonder if perhaps the little old ladies sitting there alone might like company. I’ve always been the girl who would rather hang out with the elderly and who is not so interested in the babies as in the stories about the 30s and 40s.

But hey, Britain has a cure for this: you can register as a volunteer on the “Help the Aged” charity site with the category “befriending”. That is totally the right type of volunteer work for lonely me, even better if I can make a “friend” who can teach me to knit! Fingers crossed that they do need a “befriender” in my area, as I really would love to hang around someone like the fabulous Ivy Bean. In the meantime, I’m trying to convince said nonagenarian grandmother to get on facebook, we could totally play long-distance scrabble (although I know she’ll always win).

Ryanair and equal opportunity

Ryanair, the dominant low-cost carrier in Europe, had a policy for a time where non-EU passported persons had to check-in for flights in person, for a fee, because we were not checking in online. Which we would have done if they had not restricted the online check-in process to persons with an EU passport. Now, apparently, they have dropped this discriminatory practice and have started to charge all fliers for printing out their own boarding pass from the online system. Ridiculous, yes? Ways that Ryanair charges for flights while pretending to be cheap, yes. (Don’t forget, they are the airline contemplating a charge for use of their on-board toilets too.) Is this still cheaper and more convenient than flying a traditional carrier? Sometimes. Is it clearly a cost-benefit ratio balance that only the individual traveller can make and on any single trip? Totally.

Health and Safety and School Uniforms

In the category of “so ridiculous I had to laugh” is this piece from the BBC: “Schools switching to clip-on ties.” It’s one of those things that makes you notice you’re not in Kansas any more: small children, male and female, wearing men’s ties with their school uniforms. Now apparently there is a concern about ties, “catching fire in science lessons, getting trapped in technology equipment or ties getting caught when pupils were running.” The British answer? Switch to clip-on ties instead of traditional knotted ties. Right. As opposed to just saying that ties are not a sensible part of a school uniform (or any uniform, really) and getting rid of them altogether. Added bonus: loss of individuality in the way the ties are knotted, which could be another one of those class signals that we Americans so easily miss. Another example of “health and safety” being used as an excuse for something else? Probably. A really silly thing for a kid to have to wear to school? For sure.

The American, the FOI Act and MPs’ Expenses

For the last eight days in Britain, it has been as though news has completely ceased to exist with one exception: the slowly trickling out details of the expenses claims that House of Commons MPs have made in recent years. Almost no high-ranking official in any party has been spared (although admittedly Labour has taken it hardest) and the claims have been eye-rolling at best, jaw-dropping at worst. It was not, however, until today that I caught wind of the mechanism by which the information had been obtained, or at least part of the story. Some of the details are in today’s Guardian, in a commentary piece written by Heather Brooke, a campaigner for transparency. Look at most stories mentioning her name this week and you will see “London-based journalist and Freedom of Information campaigner… ” and not see “born and raised in America” as part of her bio. And really, you have to dig pretty deep to find information about her at all, an ironic twist in this story.

I was only made aware of her because of an interview I saw with an Associated Press (AP) chief, who was being asked about the reaction to the MP expenses scandal in countries outside Britain, and he noted that the story was big in America because of her roots there. And also that no one in America could believe that (a) this information had been secret in the first place (held close to the Commons on the usual political grounds of “Security” and “Privacy”) and (b) it had taken so long and such extensive efforts for the details to come to light. It was only the case by Brooke, an independent journalist, fighting it all the way to the high court that started to unlock the doors to bogus claims of residency in illogical second homes, husband and wife MPs claiming different residences, evidence of “flipping” properties to avoid capital gains taxes… the list goes on and the details are not so important here. What IS important is transparency, of rules that make sense (more on that in a mo’) and of government officials who do not think that they are above the law.

The AP chief did note that while this had been an interesting story in America, and on front pages of newspapers with international interests on more than one occasion, the reaction in Britain has been (as usual for the British press) completely disproportionate. I have to agree. Seeing interview after interview with Joe-on-the-street types who want to banish all MPs gets old after a while, as does the occasional call for the Queen to disband parliament and take over. Hopefully not in my time here. What has been quite amusing, however, are the non-apologies, along the lines of “I am very sorry that the people in my constituency have been let down by my making perfectly legal expense claims that were approved fully by the fees committee. I see now that I should not have claimed for x.” The classic non-apology; I don’t apologise for what I did, but I do feel badly that you are upset by my actions (please vote for me again). The AP chief also noted that the way the information has been trickling out this week has been a masterful marketing plan on the part of the newspaper(s) (?) doing the leaking, and I have to agree. There’s another big name in the headlines every day, and heads are starting to roll.

Now I admit, I have one additional point on this subject. And yes, it is a matter of personal preference, but I don’t bother to go through the effort of claiming back every single allowable reimburse-able expense that I incur. There’s a tradeoff there for time (and paperwork) versus money that would definitely have led me to not claim some of the items that could have been claimed. (There’s a nice picture-slideshow thing here that shows some of the more silly items.) I like it when there is a sensible per diem benefit for eating in foreign locations, because if I have to turn in the receipts, I’ll probably never get around to it. I’d have to eat at home too, and the burden of paperwork definitely does not become worth my while for a bagel and coffee at Bruegger’s when in the states for a conference. But maybe that’s just me. Sensible rules help, and I’m actually with Gordon Brown (for once!) in suggesting a flat allowance for MPs and not all of this mortgage and second home funny-business.

Now that brings to the forefront a significant difference between me and the MPs, they have staff members who are the ones actually filling out the paperwork. Yes, at the end of the day it is the MPs who have to sign off on the claims (the wording of which has been floating around today) but there is an additional large group of people who have participated in this little bit of creative accounting, and about whom I have heard nothing. Do you really think Clare Short is preparing her own forms for submission to the rules office? Do you think Hazel Blears is the one sending emails to the fees committees to see whether a line item on some claim fits within the letter of the law? Sure, they sign off and thus have something akin to fiduciary responsibility. BUT where are the rest of the parties who participated in this little charade?

British is classy?

To my lovely waiter:

To the nice chap that waited on me at Pizza Express tonight,

Thank you for your prompt service. Thank you for taking my order less than 5 minutes after I sat down. Thank you for brining my glass of chilled white within a few seconds of when I ordered it. Thank you for helping me to get my food fast and clearing it promptly when I was done. Thank you for noticing that I was alone and clearly did not want to dawdle. Thank you for getting me in and out after only 35 minutes in your restaurant.

The 20% tip? No, not because I’m American, as I’m sure you could tell from my Barclay’s debit card that I do live here and thus I’m likely to know the local customs. No, that was for flirting with me even though my lipstick was almost entirely gone and I must have looked haggard after 11 hours in the office. You made my day in the way that sometimes only a nice member of the opposite sex can do.


On class

There have been a few recent articles in the BBC magazine about class, this was the latest one and this was last month’s version. I just finished re-reading Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” (an excellent book) and so I was probably more sensitive to the whole class thing than I would have been had I not just re-read it…

One who has read the Kate Fox book is supposed to be able to identify class differences by word choice, accent, clothes, choice of flower in the garden, the method by which one eats peas, and any number of other things. So far it’s completely escaped me. I have to confess, I don’t really get it. I’ve never been at a dinner where peas were served to see if I could identify clear differences, usually people are only eating mange tout. I never hear words like “serviette” and it seems like everyone I’ve met says “lounge” for living room.

I don’t know that you could make these sorts of “class” distinctions in the US. Or at least I never noticed them. I went to high school with people from a wide range of socio-economic groups, but I never thought of people as being from different classes. Unless you meant the Algebra versus Calculus type of class. My wealthy relatives live in the south and love Nascar. They sound southern because they live in the south, and that sounds different from, say, Boston but it indicates geography, not class. I drove a clunker because my white-collar family was thrifty; my best friend whose father was a butcher had a brand new sports car because she had an inheritance. We went to junior high and high school together and then went off to the same University and same graduate school. There is a wonderful neutralizing effect of state schools and universities in the US; perhaps there’s a bigger difference on the East Coast, but in the midwest (where there is no Ivy League) it all seemed about the same.

At the end of the day, does any of this distinction claimed for the difference between upper-working and lower-middle class in the UK mean anything? Where is the boundary? Kate Fox claims that current monetary status and class in the UK do not go together, and that unlike the US there is no real upward mobility within class. I find the whole concept confusing. And really, unnecessary. Does it not just reinforce these unimportant boundaries to detail them in modern books? Isn’t it time to drop the artificial distinctions and stop worrying about “class”?