Monthly Archives: September 2009

Social Media and the Expat Life

I had a visitor over the summer, right before I left for America, with whom I had a lovely walk in the sunshine and a nice dinner before he succumbed to jetlag and went to bed early, leaving me to pack for my trip. We had an interesting discussion about expat life and the role of social media. I should preface this by saying that he’s an expat several times over, living now in a third country (and continent) from the one in which he was born and another in which he has lived. When it comes to social media and friends “in the computer” I’m a fan, he was not. I rely on my facebook and twitter peeps and bloggy friends to provide me with some structure. Although, as he noted, if the people are all in the computer, are they real people? Do you end up feeling MORE lonely instead of LESS since you don’t have the human connection that comes with “real” people in your life?

It was an interesting question, and one that I have pondered on more than one occasion since that discussion. Do I think of myself as lonely? I obviously have plenty of time to myself, and spend a great deal of that time sitting in front of the computer communicating with strangers. But I’m ready with my rebuttal now, a few months after the fact. Because the people stuck in my computer have, on more than one occasion, transmogrified into real people. In the last six months or so, I have met up with Kat from 3bedroombungalow, Mike from Postcards from Across the Pond (and Pond Parleys) and, most recently, Michelloui from Mid-Atlantic English. All American expats, all living here in the UK, all blogging about our collective experiences. And people who I can now consider friends “in real life” because they have crawled out of the computer and into the restaurants in my neighborhood. Pretty cool, that. So I will keep justifying my hours spent on social media, and thank my lucky stars for the fantastic friends I’ve met through this computer screen.

Shock contest win

I am almost infamous for entering contests and never winning, but much to my surprise today, my fortunes appear to be turning. I have won a contest over at “Smitten by Britain,” a blog written by an American Anglophile with a history (and child!) from her time here in Blighty. (Note, I know that I need to add a category to my popular “Expat blogs” page with anglophiles in the US and vice versa… will do soon, work permitting, I promise!) Visit Smitten’s blog or follow her on twitter at @smittnbybritain–she has the same affliction as I do, as “on twitter notfrmroundhere” instead of NotFromAroundHere”– in that we are not allowed our full names due to character restrictions and thus have to delete vowels. Regardless, I now have to provide a list of crackers (savory snack biscuits, not anything else) that I want to have shipped over from the states as part of the winning entry for this contest. My obvious choices are anything in the Cheez-it family and Wheat Thins and Triscuits. Better Cheddars would do, as would just about anything in the cracker family. But I will think long and hard before I compile the final list since it’s such a blessing to get food from home. Bisquick, anyone?

Living in a Nanny State, Literally!

The big news around Britain in the last 24 hours has been a crack-down by Ofsted, the government department that looks out for kids, on “reciprocal childcare agreements” or people trading off watching each others’ kids when two mothers both are working part-time. Better to quote the article to explain:

England’s Children’s Minister is reviewing the case of two police officers told they were breaking the law, caring for each other’s children.

Ofsted said the arrangement contravened the Childcare Act because it lasted for longer than two hours a day, and constituted receiving “a reward”.

It said the women would have to be registered as childminders.

Now this rankles for several reasons. It comes immediately on the heels of the furore over whether people would have to be registered in the “vetting and barring” scheme meant to prevent pedophiles from having access to children–the official policy came down that the rules applied to people like cub scout carpool drivers, thus causing most parents to have to be registered if they did anything other than ferry their own brood around town. Now we have a similar issue with trading off babysitting, where a person would be required to be registered as a “childminder” and have a criminal background check. More importantly, it defies logic by not allowing parents to choose what is best for their own children, but to leave this to the government.

All of these recent perhaps well-meaning but overzealous laws leave me mighty glad that I don’t have children, and tending towards a view of staying away from people who have them–the legal requirements associated with being in the same car or the same room are clearly becoming too stringent. But it does sort of refine my view of the phrase “nanny state” when the government starts trying to tell you that you cannot ask a friend to watch your kids or drive them around without government interference, and the risk that your friend is breaking a completely over-the-top interpretation of the law. Or perhaps we’ve got a set of lawmakers, and laws, who are determined to keep women in the home minding their own children and not out running the country. Just saying.

And yes, I said interpretation, the word this morning is that the government might be investigating the particular wording that caused Ofsted to “bust” these perps (ironically, both female COPS) for their shared childcare arrangement. There’s even a petition that you can sign online if you’re a Brit by birth or residence, the link is here in case you’re interested.

Update: further reading on the BBC identifies a tantalizing piece of information as concerns Ofsted’s motivations for policing this issue:

Registered childminders must pay an annual fee of £103 to Ofsted.

Got it. We now have a situation that perfectly parallels the heavy-handed enforcement of the TV license rules, except now it’s for your kids. Maybe that’s the next step, a required childbearing license?

Good things about England v1

I have lived in the UK for nearly three years. I spent a great deal of time this summer abroad. When I returned to the UK from five weeks in America, I was not prepared for the culture shock, and I did not enjoy my first week back–even after three years here, I was feeling “comfortable” in the US and “uncomfortable” in the UK. But one of my “facebook friends” asked about the things I enjoyed here in the UK, the things that I missed after being away. I may not have been prepared to answer that question at the time, but I feel as though I can now detail the things that I truly love about living in the UK. My hope is to detail these in a series of posts starting now.

Buskers. Musicians. Mostly professional musicians, probably. In Minneapolis, where I hang my heart, the local street musician scene normally amounted to a guy with a saxophone playing bad “smooth jazz” standards on the street. In the UK, at least in the places where I’ve been, the street musicians are amazing. Recording contracts even come out of UK busking. Recording contracts for opera singers. In my local neighborhood, I have seen groups of buskers doing 8-part harmony. With dance moves. And CDs for sale. I have seen people singing opera, celtic fiddling, playing guitar, I have been awoken on more than one occasion by an accordion playing outside my window. I have seen fully supported 6-piece rock bands (with generators and full electrics), and tribes of people dressed as indigenous Americans making music .

There’s a dark side of this of course, not all of the buskers are doing it for fun. There are a lot of homeless people in my neighborhood. There is a toothless guy with a guitar who sings the same two Oasis songs on perpetual repeat. There is the apparently homeless girl with a dog who plays a plastic flute and is really not making music at the level of most of the others. But fortunately in my neighborhood these are the exceptions and not the rules.

The best thing about the busking phenomenon is the element of surprise. I have been walking around town near Christmas-time and happened upon a full brass band playing standard carols. Lately I’ve been encountering an accordion player with a trumpeter playing Mexican-sounding mariachi band standards and it has made me smile. So my first “good thing about England” is the culture that allows for, and even encourages, massively talented people to play music on the sidewalks. I’m pretty sure the locals, unlike the Americans, would notice if Joshua Bell was playing on the street.

Ordinary world?

Came in from a rainy Thursday
On the avenue
Thought I heard you talking softly

I turned on the lights, the TV
And the radio
Still I can’t escape the ghost of you

What has happened to it all?
Crazy, some are saying
Where is the life that I recognize?
Gone away

But I won’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive

We all have them, ghosts in our past.  And no matter how things have changed, how we all move on, it’s hard not to stop and have a good cry for the past when big things change, even if you’re not really actually sad about the end result and you definitely don’t wish for any other outcome.  So tonight, conveniently Friday night, I will raise a glass to my ex-husband and his new wife.  Cheers.

Robert Frost

When I was on my extended trip to the US, I got to go to New Hampshire for the first time. On driving back towards Boston after the conference, I saw a sign for the Robert Frost farm, and I exclaimed, “Ah, Robert Frost” at which point my young colleague asked, “Who is that?” Frost is, in fact, my very favorite poet, mostly because I’m one of those old-school people who think poems should rhyme and Frost write beautifully lyrical poetry where the rhyming schemes are often quite complicated and interesting. While many people love and admire “The Road Not Taken” or “Acquainted with the Night” (which appears in the Amanda Palmer song Astronaut, making her even more my hero than she already was) my personal favorite has always been “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I can recite it by heart, in part because the cleverness of the rhyme helps one to remember which section comes next. So imagine my amusement when I was reading a “Get Fuzzy” anthology later in this same American trip and I came across Darby Conley’s take on it, as narrated by Bucky Katt. (Apologies for the random spam comments after the poem in that link; I simply cannot figure out a way to search for the original comic on the official Get Fuzzy archives website so this is taken from a blog!) Rhyming scheme maintained, but an, ahem, slightly different flavor to the whole thing. Regardless, it remains true, I must leave this blog and get back to work, there are plenty of “reptiles to throw before I sleep”…

Dear so-and-so, Back in Britain edition

Dear British girls,

You look silly enough when you wear those footless tights as though they were actually a suitable replacement for trousers, but can I just say how much goofier they look when you pair them with cowboy boots or Uggs?

Your voice of fashion reason, NFAH

Dear British boys,

I know you must think your overgrown messy hairstyles are cute, and somehow rock-star chic, but they actually just look messy and overgrown.

Get a haircut (and boy do I sound old), NFAH

Dear repairman,

While I was delighted to discover that the cleaners had noted the burned out lightbulb in my kitchen, I was mortified to find you in my flat changing the bulb on a Friday afternoon when the dishes weren’t done and the place was generally just a tip. Now you know the truth about how I really live when I don’t think anyone will be entering my flat…

I’ll try to do better, NFAH

Dear Kat and Kiki,

Thanks for taking time out from the bungalow to visit me for lunch. Sorry if I looked slightly panicked when asked where in town we could eat that was kid friendly–just not a question I’ve had before! But hooray for the waitress that didn’t flinch when Kiki finished her soda and immediately handed the glass over, saying “all done!” Priceless.

I forgot to give you your magnets from Singapore and Australia, so I’ll have to see you again soon, NFAH

Bits and bobs revisited

I’ve done this before when I had a bunch of random US-UK tabs open in my browser window. In the spirit of the game, I will leave them in the random order they’re in, and not edit the order to group things on common topics, hopefully creating an interesting non-pattern.

There we have it, bits and bobs for a crazy Thursday. I took my team to the pub tonight to introduce a few new recruits, and it turns out that if you count passports, birthplaces, long-time residence locations and birthplaces of parents, we are a mini-United Nations with all 6 inhabited continents represented, most more than once, and a remarkably complicated set of allegiances. This I love about my line of work. Although it just reinforces my relatively new prejudice that I get along best with people who have also been expats or closely allied with expats…

Just an ordinary day

I had one of those wonderful days today, when a person can forget that they are living abroad and just work and live. I spent more than two hours with my (?current pc-terminology?) PA/secretary filing things in my office, trying to get the piles of paper down to a manageable level. I don’t think much of what I did today translated into cross-cultural distinctions, and for that I was glad. Some days I’m quite happy to live my life without a constant burden of expat-ness. It’s the funny thing that happens after one has been abroad for a period of time. I guess we adjust and start to see the world differently but don’t notice it as much.

The most shocking part of my day was in going out for dinner (too over-worked to be bothered with cooking) and finding myself seated next to a table of American tourists. I stopped at a restaurant on my way home from work, a place that I have been to on more than one occasion but perhaps not frequently. My overheard conversations from the Americans were telling, “We went to Windsor today,” and perhaps the most important part of this is the fact that I do not feel myself a tourist in my town. I bristle at the American accents a bit, especially when the holders feel the need to pontificate on the royals. It’s a phenomenon that I never saw coming, my needing to fit in gaged against the American tourists visiting. I want to dissociate myself from them regardless of our shared accent. I see now why some of my fellow expats have adopted a middle-of-the-road accent. I have no idea how conscious this decision was, but it is certainly true that my American friends in the UK sound intermediate. I wonder how I sound now too. I had been convinced that any perceived accent I had acquired (supposedly) was the view of my family and friends back home, but now I wonder if I’m actually changing the way I deal with language, and in the accent and not just the word choice (as I have previously claimed). Have I actually started to change my vowels to fit with the local accent? Only those around me can tell. But how do I perceive such a change in myself? Only time will tell. I’m starting to suspect that my defense of “word choice only has changed” is falling on deaf ears and for good reason.

Keep calm and carry on

The title of this post is a classic British-ism, and I think it’s one that is particularly good when it comes to advice to expats. If I had to summarize my experiences as a nearly 3-year resident of Britain, particularly as concerns my job, it would be this, to note this difference in attitude between my British work colleagues and American colleagues in previous jobs. I have mentioned before that the locals do not seem to have any experience in the American art of “venting“. I have been surprised on a number of occasions how the things I’ve said when “venting” have come back to me, perhaps not to “haunt” me per se, but certainly to make me aware that my toss-aside comments have been taken seriously and noted in some large record of my time spent working in England. And I’m not sure how to fix this one. I would never advise a young colleague not to “vent” about their frustrations and experiences, but I would certainly advise him or her that these “vents” will remain on their record and be taken seriously in a way that I would not have expected based on my prior work experiences in America.

I’m not quite sure what the problem is. I don’t know if my colleagues bristle at the implied criticism at the way things are done here, or if my speaking up is generally considered to be “too much” … I do know that as a personal foible I tend to relate too much detail about things when confronted with general assemblies, but I am interested in the fact that these details are apparently retained in some master list of things I have said. Regardless, it does create a situation where I try to watch every word I utter, sometimes with great personal difficulty as my typical “get it out there” behavior is suppressed. It’s one of the many and varied, albeit interesting, culture differences that I could only define as “subtle” and not something I expected to experience on my transition from US to UK life.