Monthly Archives: July 2009

And this is why I live in the city

I have been out in the wilderness of New England this week, experiencing what has (to me) become fondly known as “science summer camp for grown-ups” — a conference at a remote location, where a medium (100 to somewhat less than 200) people camp out in college student dormitory rooms together and spend a week immersed in a single topic of scientific inquiry. The brilliant thing about this format is that the science bits are in the morning and evening thus leaving the afternoons free for other forms of entertainment. Which sounds lovely, except that this week has been more of an adventure than I bargained for.

The science bits were great, I should start with that. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself and written more than 20 pages of A4 notes. Which is amazing in and of itself–I’m sufficiently old and jaded that I don’t often have that much to write down. One of the afternoon social events was brilliant, it was a beer tasting at a local swanky brew-pub complete with a hilarious brewmaster with a sharp wit, an English degree, and lots of audience participation. There were lots of shot-glass-sized beers to drink, and everyone left happy but not sloppy. But Tuesday we went hiking, and had a spectacular time. Except it was hard going. And I’m clearly not as young as I used to be.

Step back, the group was two of us “senior” colleagues (at all of mid-thirty-something) and two very junior (young twenties) colleagues. We older folks (ugh) were scrambling to keep up with the two youngsters. And it was not pretty. I got my foot caught in a gap in the rocks and I’m pretty sure my left pinky toe is busted (again… it’s happened many times before) and my compatriot experienced some sort of bout of food poisoning and was rushing down from the summit while I was limping. I was literally doing the bridal half-step except leading with my right foot every time I had to descend vertically, such that the pressure would not be on the left pinky toe. Fun. But the views at the top were awesome.


I thought this particular hike (fun and picturesque as it was) was but a distant memory, until I woke up this morning, aware that what I thought was just a mosquito bite on my leg was actually sort of strange in shape and appearance, looking nothing like a normal mosquito bite on closer examination. Fast forward a few hours, and the thing just kept growing and growing, until it was about 3″ across by the last scientific session of the evening. At that point, I had noticed steady growth in the thing over the last few hours especially (not to mention the itching) and realized I had to do something about it. So I left the last scientific session of the evening mid-way and went to the tiny-town New England ER because I had the background to realize it might be serious, and at least worth a look by someone more qualified than me in the medical milieu. I spent a lovely hour as the only patient in the ER of a tiny town New England hospital, chatting with the lovely doctor, who happens to have a son studying for a PhD in my field. I could have predicted what the doctor would recommend (broad-spectrum antibiotics for a longer-than-usual time) which he did, but at least it was a pleasant medical experience.

I now have to get up early in the morning to get an antibiotics prescription filled in the local pharmacy before heading out to my next meetings in Boston. I have a disgusting bulls-eye rash on my right shin, and I can scare people with it. There’s a medical bill careening towards my parents’ house in Minneapolis, because that was the easiest way to handle the emergency non-resident healthcare scenario. I was happy, I was treated. I had a triage EMT, a nice nurse and a chatty MD. I got a first dose of anti-biotics and a prescription for 2 more weeks, which is a big deal when faced with this sort of skin penetrating rash. But I have no idea what it cost, and I will be eagerly anticipating the numbers. I did not need as much time as they gave me, or as much high-level effort as they gave me. I have an obvious rash with an obvious cause.

Immigration rules

Not, as in, immigration is awesome, but more as in immigration means there are a whole new set of rules out there. I’m coming up on my 3rd anniversary in the UK and it would probably not be as easy for me to move here now as it was 3 years ago (and that’s not saying it was easy…) Read today’s blog post by Mary Beard about how the new rules might affect British higher education. And do comment, would you have made it under the new rules? I’m probably close to eligible, although the “cash in the bank” rule might have been a problem. Still would be now, and yet I’ve managed to live here without ever having gone overdrawn. And I want to know who chose the arbitrary figures of GBP800 for 3 months as being a significant stock of cash sufficient for migration to another country for a job. Strange. But seriously, the climate in the UK for overseas workers seems to be changing quickly, has anyone else noticed it???

Travel, packing, anxiety, uncertainty

I’ve managed to combine doing enough laundry, and buying enough new stuff, that I should be able to assemble a reasonable wardrobe for my latest trip, to the states from tomorrow. (Note the excellent post here on the curious practice of Americans abroad suddenly adopting “the states” as a name for the USA, something which I most certainly never said when I lived there!) As usual, I’ve set myself an impossible packing dilemma by making my trip multi-tasking and diverse. My last trip was a good example of this, needing to simultaneously prepare for summer in Singapore and winter in Canberra. Now at least I have summer the whole time, but I have a combination of work and play planned, which requires me to have appropriate clothes for both. Sigh. Thank goodness for Target. Since the work part of my trip is first, my plan is to overload on work clothes and fill in the casual caps with Target and other inexpensive local staples. Should be interesting.

I accepted an invitation (collective groan! more travel!) to give a seminar at a distinguished university in the states in March of next year. (I swear, I WILL stop accepting all of these invites someday, when I wise up and learn not to travel so much!) And for some reason, this particular seminar has featured heavily in my recent set of anxiety-filled dreams. In my dreams, about a half-dozen in the last few weeks, the seminar has been set for 11 am and I end up looking at my watch and seeing it’s some time past 11 and I’m not at the seminar as I should be. Last night’s version was particularly odd, as it had me in Australia at the designated time, which means I most certainly could not have made it under any circumstances. Dreams often don’t make sense, right? But it’s odd that something 8 months away is causing such consternation now. And even odder given that my normal anxiety dream is about missing an airplane flight, and always involves a labyrinthine set of airport corridors, and normally that’s the dream I’d be having, given that at this time tomorrow I should be sitting in a window seat heading towards Boston. And it’s not like I’m dreading the seminar, I’m actually really excited because I have two good friends at said institution, the one who invited me and another close colleague. So I’m not sure what’s going on in my head with this one.

These two weeks in the office, since my return from Sydney, have been productive and even a bit social (thus the relative quietness on the blog front). Admittedly the “social” things are mostly work related, such as the dinner I’ll be going to tonight when I should be at home calmly packing and organizing. And the dinners the last two nights with various work colleagues. All for a reason. The notable exception to this pattern was a visit last weekend by Mike (Postcards from Across the Pond) and his wife, which was purely social and totally enjoyable. I should have expected this, since Mike’s book remains my favorite of all the expat books I’ve read in the last few years. Invariably, when I meet up with other expats I am queried about my long-term plans–apparently this whole “single girl moves to England for a job” situation must look highly unstable as a long-term plan 🙂 I’m aware that most expats over here either have a local partner or a transported American partner, and I don’t. My social network still revolves heavily around friends back in the US. And I don’t know what the long-term plans are, or even should be. Sometimes that uncertainty weighs heavily on my mind, and sometimes I just go about my life and remember the reasons I’m here and on evaluating all the options I recall that this is the right place for me to be for a while, if not forever. Lately I’ve been experiencing more of the former than the latter, probably because all the travel has me a bit shaken up. I start to wonder if my constant trips out of England are telling me something about how I feel about being in England. And other times I just think I’m taking opportunities for both work and pleasure that are just coincidentally good opportunities and far away. I have no answers. And for today, I have no more time to contemplate the possibilities. The fridge will not clean itself out and the clothes will not self-assemble in my case.

All the single ladies…

… and gents. And those who travel for work solo. And anyone else who wants to chime in. Dine alone in restaurants or not? I do it all the time, both at home and on the road. But I’ve been interested and surprised on more than one occasion to end up chatting with friends who say they have never done it. Never, like never ever? It never occurred to me not to do it. Yes I sometimes bring something to read, most often something for work but when travelling sometimes a local guidebook. And sometimes I don’t read, I just sit back and people watch. Always good when you get a table with a view of passing traffic, but even just the people in the restaurant can be interesting to watch. I even recall the first time I did things alone post-divorce, first meal out, first solo movie, solo concert. It just never would occur to me to not do any of those things if I was not with people. But I’m now intrigued and interested to hear what people think, am I an extreme outlier on this one?

Dear So-and-so take 3

My third go at the dear so-and-so format started by Kat at 3bedroombungalow. And first in a few weeks since my travels took precedence!

Dear White Van Driver/Electrician,

Really, does a hand-written sign in the window of your van, stating “Working inside building at xx Street” with your mobile number allow you to park in handicapped spots? I’m glad that you’re working, especially in this economy, but you do know that parking in this area is extremely limited, and that rare spot might be needed by someone who is actually handicapped? Find another spot and carry your £$%&* toolbox a few extra meters like the rest of us.

Disgusted, NFAH

Dear Guy Whose Meeting I had to Postpone Yesterday because I Had My Own Work To Do,

Do you really think sending me abusive emails is going to make me want to drop everything and reschedule with you? You do realize that helping you is NOT part of my job description, it’s a favor (and an amazing time sink) that I do for a respected colleague. So that makes you a hobby. Not my job. So stop being such a jerk or I’ll just mysteriously never have time in my diary for you again.

K! Bai, NFAH

Dear British Weather Forcasters,

Your statement about there being heavy rains today was part of the dry, British understatement-based humor, eh?

Damp, NFAH

Dear New Person in the Flat Above Me,

First of all, welcome. There had been no one above me for a while, which I now notice because of how blissfully quiet it used to be, and what a stark contrast it has been to this week when there has clearly been someone above me. But in particular, can I draw attention to your strange habit of doing some sort of repetitive exercises at 7:10 in the morning, that result in a series of rhythmic thumps on my ceiling, directly above my bed? Not appreciated. Although I have been out the door earlier than usual this week, I really already have a much more pleasant sounding alarm clock. Find a new spot to do your calisthenics, okay?

Thanks in advance, NFAH

Dear Grocery Store Check-out Girl,

Thanks for being so pleasant. And I’m going to learn to take it as a compliment that people like you still keep insisting on asking for my ID, even though my days of being under 18 are over 15 years ago. I’m learning to carry my ID all the time in this crazy country. But your revealing your age to set aside your equally-youthful appearance was a bonus.

Best from the sisterhood, NFAH

Dear Grammy,

I should really try to explain blogging to you, although after talking to you yesterday when you were so perplexed that I count rent a car in MN from England, perhaps it’s just too much. But I hope you’re counting down, I’ll be there in MN in just over 3 weeks to play (and lose at) Scrabble!

Love from your Adoring Granddaughter, NFAH

And so it goes

Came home from Australia Sunday in part because I had a workshop to attend Tuesday-Wednesday, which means I once again did the “give three talks in three weeks on three continents” thing, which I had done once before–in fact, the last time I went to Singapore, two years ago. That time it was US-UK-Singapore, this time it was Singapore-Australia-UK. In either case, giving the third talk on that much jet lag is a b*tch. But it went okay and it’s over now and today I spent the day holed up in my flat editing the last half of my soon-to-be-released book. I had gotten quite a bit of it done while on the road, and sent in the first few sets of corrections from Singapore, but then my fun times in Oz interrupted me and I did not get back to it until now. So I told myself that if I cancelled the few meetings I had today and did nothing but that, it would be a day well spent. Hooray. Done. At 9 something pm with breaks during the day to check the cricket scores.

Most amusing thing about the workshop here at “home” was the delightful woman I met. She was a retired researcher in her 90s (!) who had spent time at Yale in the 40s and 50s (!) and then made her research career here in the UK. Anyone who knows me well at all will know that OF COURSE this was the person I would end up talking to. I am soooooo much about the chatting with older ladies. (In fact, it inspired me to call my own nonagenarian grandmother today in one of my editing breaks.) And she was delightful in the way that I find older ladies to be delightful. Full of stories about being a young and female researcher in the days when that was not so very common. Full of sympathy when I confessed that I’d had a tough time socially (bloggers aside, although I did not tell her that) since coming to the UK. She actually said, “I apologise to you on behalf of my country” which was so very sweet.

The funniest thing was when she all the sudden looked at me and said, “I cannot believe the way these girls today dress for a professional meeting.” I giggled, and said something about how I hoped she did not mean me. (I was in a black trouser suit with a demure top.) She said, “Yes, I knew I could say that to you because you were not one of them.” I cracked up. Yes, it’s summer, and as such, there was a fair bit of flesh on display by the females in the audience, even those presenting at the workshop. I told her that I didn’t think it would fly in the states, that it seemed to me to be a uniquely British thing. I was, of course, secretly delighted at having my opinions on the subject confirmed by a local.

Normal day in the office tomorrow, then the weekend to catch up on the rest of the laundry and other domestic chores. I’ve been so bad lately about getting groceries that I’ve even been getting used to drinking black coffee when I’m out of milk. This has GOT to stop. But, as usual, I cannot complain about my adventures, both here and abroad.

Fickle me…

I changed my mind, my last Sydney photo was not so bad when downloaded:


Amazingly, if you look closely you can see at least two groups doing the bridge climb. I had no idea it was so popular…

And now back to my regularly-scheduled life…

I arrived “home” in the UK this morning without incident. Long-ish line at immigration, but baggage in place (a good thing, since I realized at the midway point in Bangkok that my house-keys were in my checked luggage) and a nice driver to pick me up and take me home, via the remarkably quiet early Sunday morning M-25. But back up about 24 hours (I’m not sure anymore what the time change and the travel time actually add up to, so bear with me…)

My last morning in Sydney, I hit the “Museum of Sydney” which was okay, but made better by (a) being across the street from my hotel and (b) having both a great bookshop and cafe. I partook of both. Books on the Harbour Bridge from the shop, and brunch in the cafe. Typical Aussie moment: sitting in the cafe, a bloke comes in and says, “G’day mate, you still on brekky?” I’ll miss that accent and that lingo now that I’m back in England! After that I took a stroll through the botanic gardens, both along the waterfront and deeper in the gardens. I tried hard to get the iconic Sydney shot, the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge in the background (all my previous photos were from the area between the two landmarks) but the lighting was poor and I’m not going to post my sub-standard efforts. It was a nice morning, and with my having arranged late check-out with the hotel, I had a leisurely morning and early afternoon before making my way to the Sydney airport around 1:30.

I went to the Qantas counter to check in, and had a most amusing agent. He took my passport, and looked at the photo and then me, said, “your hair is much longer now.” True, my passport photo was taken in my post-divorce very short hair phase. I’m back to my more normal shoulder-length locks at the moment. “It’s much more attractive now,” he said. I giggled. What more can you do? He pulled up my reservation, looked up, and said, “Oooh, DOCTOR” which again made me giggle. I doubt very much he was being flirtatious, just Australian. And I loved it.

Spent my last Aussie dollars on silly souvenirs, a Sydney hoodie and an opal pendant with a boomerang. Enjoyed the long ride home. Read a complete book on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, picked up at the Museum store that morning. When finished, watched anything that resembled a cooking show, to the extent that the French onion soup bubbling away on my cooktop right now is the recipe I watched on the plane this morning. When I went to Australia at Christmas time I watched cooking shows on the way there, and then made quiche every day for a week in my rented flat. This time I was staying in hotels so I waited to watch cooking shows until I was on the way home, and now I’ve got both the soup going and a sponge for ciabatta bread. I love being inspired by cooking shows. I swear, if and when I give up science, it’s cooking that I will turn to.

Just think, 5 years ago I had not been to Europe. I’ve lived here almost three years. Two years ago I had never been to Asia (Singapore) and a year ago I had never been to Australia. And the best part? Now that I’ve been to Singapore twice and Australia twice (and plan to go back whenever possible) it’s time to start planning my next adventure. On the table: China, Japan, South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, and I just had an invite to go with a friend to Machu Picchu. Lots of thinking to do before I decide what to do next. Lots of logistics to arrange and work schedules to work around. But hey, this is the reward I get for the ridiculous hours I work. Childless, divorced, currently lacking in hobbies and only averaging a trip or two to the gym per week (although my post-trip resolve says that has GOT to change). A bit of travel is pretty much all I get for fun these days. And when living out of a suitcase becomes your definition of fun… look out!

But we are truly back to my regular life, at least for the next few weeks. And that means a job in England, cooking as much as possible, and following the Ashes. Book reviews from the trip to follow. But now, having made it awake past 7 pm, I’m over and out.

Final Aussie Update

Yes, that’s right, I have to head back to reality tomorrow. Reality meaning England, a full-time job, all of that. I did actually work most of this two week trip, but the last two days in Sydney have been almost pure goofing off. And I’m having a hard time remembering when, if ever, I’ve been on a solo, purely tourist adventure in the 8 years since my divorce. Sure, I have a day here and there to amuse myself when I’m on work travel, but this little 3-night stay in Sydney was different. And so I decided to make the most of it.

First stop, the Museum of Contemporary Art, located right by my hotel at Circular Quay, Sydney. The MCA is free, and as an added bonus I was the only person who wanted a guided tour (also free) when it was offered, so I had a fantastic, personal experience looking at the extremely powerful (and sometimes disturbing) photographs of Ricky Maynard.

mca from ferry

Next, I took a ferry over to Darling Harbour to go to the world-renowned Sydney aquarium. You get pretty nice views from the ferry, and the harbour-front was lovely. I was not, however, one of the people trying to take photos of the fish and associated aquatic animals through the glass/plastic. So no fishy photos for me.


bridge opera from ferry

darling harbour

town side from Darling

After grabbing some food post-aquarium (is no one else disturbed by the fact that they serve fish and chips in the aquarium cafe?) I then caught the Sydney tower at dusk.


from tower

Today, I had big plans, a reservation to do the “Bridge Climb” up to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. See the tiny people in this photo? Basically just little bumps on the top of the bridge?


Yeah, it’s not something you would even notice if you weren’t told to look, but both day and night, groups of 14 with a guide leave every 10 minutes to climb to the top of the bridge. Once you know to look, they are even easier to see at night, since they wear hats with lights on them. Little groups of lights moving up and down the bridge arches appear after dark. Regardless of whether you can make them out in this photo, it’s still how I spent the better part of my last day in Australia.

They ask you to set aside 3.5 hours for the trip, plus getting there well in advance. So it really did take up the majority of my day. I went for an early lunch, carbo-loaded, and then arrived at the base about 30 minutes before my 2 pm booking. It’s a remarkably efficient operation, as one would guess from the fact that literally millions of people have done the climb in the last decade or so. Your group is called in, you fill out information sheets and sign the waiver to let you go. In my case, your shoes are inspected and deemed unsuitable (I did not have my trainers with me, just my Keens, so I was issued a pair of trainers for the trip). You have to blow a breathalyzer test to prove you are sober. Then you get issued a jumpsuit for the climb, and start to suit up with a whole range of other gear. The jumpsuit has tons of metal loops on which to hook things. For example, since I wear glasses, I had to put them on a lanyard and attach them to my suit. It makes sense, you’re above 8 lanes of car traffic plus two train lines, so it’s of the utmost importance that nothing gets dropped! You have to wear a climbing belt, which attaches you to a wire line for the entire climb. But you also carry so much other stuff, extra jackets (fleece for warmth, and a shell for rain) in pouches, a radio and headset to hear the climb leader, hats, mittens, a hankie, a whole get-up. What you’re not allowed to bring comprises a long list, though. You can’t take your camera, but they take photos of you at various points on the climb (I bought two!). No watches. Soft hair binders recommended for girls but no bobby pins or barettes. In fact, you have to go through a metal detector to prove you’re not smuggling anything to the top. You leave your personal stuff in a locker, with a key (as you might expect) on a lanyard around your neck for the climb.

After getting all the gear on, you practice climbing with all the gear, on a little mock-up of the sorts of catwalks that you’ll be climbing on. Then you’re off. The actual climb was mostly stairs and ramps, and in most places it was designed to be not too steep. There were also frequent breaks for commentary and information from the tour guide, such that it was not so difficult or physically taxing that it would have required someone to be very athletic, although being generally fit and healthy is a definite advantage. I learned lots of great stuff and my geeky engineering self was in heaven. We were also particularly lucky, in that there were some extremely scattered showers in the area, which meant that our view from the top included a fabulous rainbow, arching over the Opera House.

I don’t know what more to say. There are two different routes to the top, and my big plan is now to come back and do the other climb, at night, next time fate takes me to Sydney. So that maybe I can see more of this.
opera night

Aussie update 3: arrival in Sydney

I arrived in Sydney yesterday just past noon, after road-tripping up from Canberra with my “professional friend” with whom I had been workshopping. I had taken some advice from an Aussie on where to stay, and I have to say my friend gave me fantastic advice, I’m 1.5 blocks from the Circular Quay train and ferry station, which puts all of Sydney in my front yard. Especially including the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. I have to admit, I was absolutely gobsmacked to see these things in person. I was rendered speechless. I don’t know that any other architectural icon in any other city has had such an effect on me. Much more to come soon, I’ve had the camera out with a vengeance!

Sydney bridge