Monthly Archives: May 2010

Expat blogger meet-up round-up

The posts are now all in, and my comrades from the expat blog meet up have spoken:

Perhaps more interesting than the posts themselves (sorry, gang!) is the comments, including those we wrote to each other after the event. But the best and most thought-provoking was from Michelloui on Mike’s blog:

It was a fun day and I must admit it was only as I was writing my post about the day that I realised how well we all got on immediately. There weren’t any silent awkward moments, and it was all just friendly and fun. Is that because we’re American (Have a Nice Day!) or because we were all just a self selecting group of friendly people?

A very good question. We span quite the age range, we’re in the UK for a range of different reasons, and yet we could chat like we’d all been friends for decades. That is probably the most interesting result of the meet-up. Yes we can talk about American foods that we miss and all of the usual expat stuff, but we’ve also been following each others’ antics for months to years in the strange online world that is the blogosphere. So we meet in person, and we are all fast friends.

I think I was the best placed in this regard, as I had met everyone but Nappy Valley Housewife before the day. And this brings me to my final point. How on earth did I get so bold so as to spend so much time meeting up with bloggers in person? Given my comments in my post about a bad experience in this regard, it’s amazing that I’ve perservered with this live-meeting, risk-of-people-not-liking-me thing. This is probably the biggest change in me due to my move abroad, and it’s still somewhat surprising and shocking when I think about it too much. Perhaps it’s the easy public transport links in the UK. Saying “hey, let’s meet up” is not so stressful. It’s not a big country, so we’re all not that distant when it comes down to it. Perhaps it’s my being somewhat lonely in my job-centered UK existence, that makes me crave the company of other human beings with whom I seem to have at least a chance of a common ground based on blog posts. Whatever it is, I have to say that I’ve been really much more bold than my shy typical self would allow for in this whole blogger meet-up thing. And for that, I thank England. Moving abroad definitely changed me in this way. Before I came here, I moved across the country in the US and did not make the sorts of human connections that have resulted from this silly little late-night time-wasting hobby of mine that is blogging/twitter/whatever. Although my online persona is formally anonymous, I jump at the chance to get to know people and to form more real bonds with people who I have “met” through this medium. (Note to Iota from the last post’s comment: you do know me better than an average blog reader because we’ve ‘talked’ a great deal over email!)

Living abroad has changed me. I think this is a good thing. I hope more people get the chance, in this globalized society, to experience this type of overseas adventure.

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In person and in writing

I shall link to the other expat bloggers’ views from our meet-up on Saturday soon. But before I do, I have to stop and think a bit about something that was written this morning by my good friend Michelloui:

NFAH’s sometimes spiky writing about her experiences and observations in the UK might make you think of a cynical, intelligent, workaholic who loves music and jet setting and making friends with other expats. In the tangible world she is a warm, kind, intelligent woman with zero pretentions and a real interest in other people. She also has a genuine enjoyment of her life in Britain. She has a fun sense of humour with a great sense of irony….

It’s always a bit of a wake-up call to see what others say about you when you’ve met. And anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning (and I don’t think there are any commenters left from the early days) would know that there was once upon a time another person with whom I met, and with whom I ended up falling out over a comment about my personality. I was shocked by it at the time, and in retrospect I’m still a bit confused by the whole thing.

Blogs are a funny thing. In my case, I started the blog to write about my observations about living abroad. It was a huge step for me, coming from the midwest of the US, and I was honestly and genuinely surprised by what I found here. I love it here, and I have a wonderful job and a mostly wonderful existence (made even more wonderful by the friendships I have developed with other expat bloggers). I came into this experience with very few pre-conceived notions about what it would be like living abroad, and sometimes I have found it wonderful and sometimes I have found it frustrating. It comes perhaps as no surprise that the frustrations have seen more press in this blog than the positive things. I’m an officially single (divorced) person living alone abroad for work reasons, which (as far as I can tell) is a rather unusual circumstance amongst the greater expat blog community.

My blog posts have, at times, thus really emphasized my frustrations. My credit card woes. My irritation at two tap sinks. It’s been a vent for my irritation and frustration and general snarky-ness. I admit it. I have no problem with admitting it. But I’ve been very surprised to read the responses of others to my views, which have been in general very different from what I intended when I wrote any particular thing.

I hate to think that my blog persona is one of anger or unhappiness. Thus my sensitivity at any comments that even hint at the possibility. I’ll soon be celebrating 4 years in this fine country, and for that I am extremely grateful. I more or less love it here, or I would have moved back to the US when I had the chance (at 1.3 years, for the record). I absolutely hate the idea that people who meet me in person would think that I was negative overall, and not get that my musings were both out of frustration at times but also tongue-firmly-in-cheek at other times. Sure I find Britain to be lacking in certain things, but also I know that America is lacking in many things. I hope that I (as an expat) am open to all of these views and clearly I’m here for a reason.

Every time I’ve been so frustrated that I’ve thought about moving ‘home’ to the US it’s been easy to reason why that was a bad idea. I hope that the locals don’t feel too bad about my staying here and continuing to enjoy the work that I do here. Being an expat is a rough thing that I never considered as a young person, I moved here at 30. And it’s been one hell of a learning experience since I arrived. I’m looking forward to celebrating four years abroad in the fall and somewhat shocked that I’ve made nearly four years. I feel as though, in some ways, I’m clearly established here and I have no real recourse to move in the future.

Brits, I love your country. I’ve been frustrated moving abroad. I’ve found some things about your locals that are like the things I would criticize in my own country if they were there. But don’t read too much into my frustrations. On the whole, this blog is my vent and I’m a relatively happy and healthy person who has a great life on a day-to-day basis. And I really don’t know what I would do if someone made me leave Europe for the US.

On friendship

I can honestly say that when I started this blog, all about my life as an expat in the UK, it never occurred to me that I would end up making real-life friends because of it. For starters, I am semi-anonymous in my writing, for a variety of reasons. For another, I had hoped that I would meet wonderful people through work and other things and end up with a huge network of friends in my immediate vicinity. The latter has been a little bit true, I’ve met some great friends here through work (mostly the trailing spouses of work colleagues, since I am a rare female in a man’s world) and I’ve been so glad for that. But it’s not been nearly enough. And I’ve been so fortunate to meet some amazing people that I would never have met if not for this blog.

Today we had an expat bloggers’ meet-up, thanks to the organizational prowess of Michelloui of Mid-Atlantic English who I’ve met on a couple of occasions now. I got to see, again, my good friend Kat, of 3 bedroom bungalow. I got to see Mike, from Postcards from across the pond, and his lovely wife. I’ve met them once before in a really lovely afternoon spent touring my town. I got to meet a new blogger, Nappy Valley Housewife. It was a really fun afternoon, even though I was half asleep still after my adventures with BA and Switzerland.

The great thing about fellow expat bloggers, and the people that love them, is that we have common ground. It’s the friendship equivalent of e-Harmony, where people are supposedly matched for love by a questionnaire about their lives and preferences. (NB I’ve taken the e-Harmony test and found that I cannot be matched by them, as I am one of the less than 10% of people who are not suited to their algorithm. It makes one think…) We are all from different parts of the US, we are all in the UK for different reasons and we’ve been here for different numbers of years. But there are underlying similarities that come from our background and which give us common ground upon which to establish real friendships.

It’s awesome, from my view. The people that I know in my computer, the virtual friends, have been transitioning into real friends. I have a new social network of people in the UK that I can relate to and with whom I can commiserate on the things that make me both happy and unhappy in this foreign existence. Making new friends as a mid-thirties person is tough. And that’s true even if you’re in your home country. As an expat, it’s even more difficult. Meeting friends is worth a great deal and although I never expected it, the people I’ve met through this blog have been amongst the best friends I’ve had the chance to meet in a long time.

Swiss Cheese

Written from the Basel airport before I got ‘home’ to the UK, thankfully, a few hours ago…

After all of the travel eventfulness of the last few weeks (volcanic ash cloud, BA strike) I was looking forward to a mostly uneventful and brief trip to Switzerland for work. The trip was supposed to happen last month but fell right in the edge of the volcanic ash cloud adventure: it turned out that my flight would have been amongst the first European flights out of the UK if I had taken it, so perhaps I should have just taken the trip last month. But I didn’t, and here I was, hoping for a miracle…

As for my uneventful trip? It sort of happened. The most eventful part, in the end, was the flight out of the UK. I had been scheduled on a 2 pm flight to Geneva, but it (and my return flight) were cancelled. Then the BA strikes were called off, and BA called ME to offer to reinstate my trip. Sure, no problem. They put me on an 11:40 am flight. NB this was Tuesday, the trip was due to be Wed. (the strike was due to start Tuesday before it was called off late Monday). Trek to Heathrow Wed. morning to find that they had overbooked the 11:40 and they wanted me to just wait and see. I was more than mildly annoyed. I called their hotline (the BA toll-free number is now burned on my brain) and they told me to go back up and try again, that there was a snafu in the system. No such luck, actually, but when I asked about the 2 pm flight they said it was not full. I asked if I could just offer to take that one instead of hanging around the Heathrow main doors (outside security, since i had no boarding pass) and it turned out that was not as straightforward as I would have thought. They did, eventually, relent and gave me a boarding pass for 2 pm. I popped through security and went into the lounge to wait a few hours. Now I was on my way, but perhaps understandably nervous about the return flight. They had not been able to get me on anything out of Geneva, so I was due to leave Basel (from where I write this now). They said I should call back on Thursday to see if I could get anything from Geneva, as they were reinstating flights now that the strike was called off.

That would have been fine, except as anyone following this story would know, the courts in Britain upheld a union appeal and the strike was allowed to continue. Fortunately for me, not with immediate effect: it will start Monday. But as a result, no extra Friday evening Geneva flights, although at least they promised me I did have a seat from Basel. I was skeptical, after my arrival at Heathrow Wed. morning but what choice did I have? Regardless, it took over 20 minutes on hold with BA on Thursday night to ascertain all of this, the lines being clogged with the people whose plans for next week were now derailed due to the re-instated strike.

Now I should have known there was a problem with Wednesday’s flight on Tuesday night, when I could not do BA online check-in. Fortunately for me, this morning the online check-in for the Basel flight did work, which gave me confidence to spend two and a bit hours in transit to Basel (instead of the much-closer Geneva). I got to see more of the Swiss countryside from their fabulous, silent, and extremely smooth and comfortable trains, and as far as I can tell a flight intends to take off from here with me on it, in just over an hour.

In the midst of all of this travel chaos, I managed to have a fantastic trip to Switzerland. This country might well, and quickly, take over from Germany as my favorite work travel destination within the continent. As far as I can tell, both have largely excellent public transport and fantastic people working in my field. This was only my second Swiss trip, while I’ve been to Germany on more occasions than I can currently remember. It’s interesting, too–work has never taken me to France, Spain, Belgium, or any part of Scandinavia. Work has once taken me to the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece (Crete), Hungary, Austria and Ireland. (And Scotland, but I never know if that counts.) But work looks likely to take me back to Switzerland again in the future, and I will go enthusiastically.

Part of this enthusiasm can be attributed to my work colleagues here, both of whom worked with me in England for various times (2 years and 6 months) and who returned to Switzerland, where they were before they worked with me. (For completeness, one is Italian, the other is Swiss.) So work with people you know that well (and thus consider ‘professional friends’ as opposed to just colleagues) is always more interesting than work with total strangers or casual work acquaintances. And in this particular case, we’re all close to the same age and stage of career, and thus we have even more in common. This dynamic also means that the work-related socializing is much more fun and relaxing than it would otherwise be when traveling.

So last night we relaxed over a fantastic pot of Gruyere fondue:

and a few interesting beverages, including one that I had never tried before:

We talked about life and careers and immigration and politics and England and Europe and the future and everything else. It was great. These trips, when done right, always leave me with a sense of the possible and of hope for the future. I need this badly, especially when the daily grind is making me lose my perspective on such things. The meetings during the day were extremely productive, my next few weeks are amazingly quiet and I should be able to follow through with the promises I made to get some things done. Which is good for all of us.

So in the end, I leave Basel on a note of great optimism and enthusiasm and with hopes for a return trip to Switzerland in the not-too-distant-future. It was a trip that was good for my soul. But next time, it’s Eurostar and TGV all the way. No more flying to places I can get to by rail. This is supposed to be the beauty of Europe, and I’m not taking advantage of it. It was a close call for a trip this short, but next time I’ll stay a few extra days and see more of this beautiful country.

Silly o’clock

I’m up at 4:30 am, and it’s absolutely light out. Like middle of the morning light out. This is not an hour I normally see. And apparently in England, silly o’clock is associated with total daylight. Who knew. I realized long ago that the far north location here was associated with long daylight hours. It’s sometimes light until 11 pm here, which is quite a bit later than I was accustomed to, even in the far north reaches of Minnesota. But this early morning daylight thing is truly new, especially since I normally work slightly shifted hours, starting at 10 or so am and not leaving the office until 7 or 8 pm, instead of ‘first thing in the morning’ to 5 pm in the truly midwestern sense.

So why am I up today at silly o’clock, you ask? Blame the lethal combination of the volcano gods, who close British airspace periodically these days, and the BA on-again, off-again strike. In this instance, the strike is the culprit for my particular pain. And it’s a hard one to take. There is a quote on the BBC website, from a member of the cabin crew, who says,

“BA is now run by accountants.”

Um, yes, that is because BA is a business. Not a charity, not a social welfare programme, but a business. So when this flight attendant says,

“But we have families, mortgages and bills to pay – we cannot afford to lose £7,000 a year.”

It’s a bit tough for me to take. The British economy is a mess right now. We’re all just holding on by the skin of our teeth. I feel lucky to still have a job, and I can’t guarantee that that will be the case in a few months’ time.

But for the moment, I have a job, and my job involves travel. I have to go places and talk to people about my work in order for me to be viable in my field. I need to fly off to Geneva for an extremely brief but critical visit with a former colleague who is trying to find a permanent job after having worked with me for two years in a non-permanent situation. I will be giving a lecture in exchange for the visit, and I will be spending some time discussing our mutual interests while I’m there. It’s the sort of visit that is de rigueur for my profession, but it’s not always easy or fun.

So here I am at silly o’clock getting ready to leave for the airport. I had a flight booked for mid-afternoon today, but it was cancelled in the prelude to the BA strike. The strike was halted by a court order, and I was re-booked on a flight for the morning instead of mid-afternoon. I have no idea how that works, since my original flight is going still this afternoon. But I’m going early and so I’m up at silly o’clock.

My return flight is not guaranteed. I’m currently booked for a different departure city in Switzerland than the one in which I will arrive, because the availability is limited until the BA schedule is fully announced for the rest of the week. BA is in court with the unions, and a decision is due tomorrow morning and so who knows what will happen when the court decision comes through. I could be stranded on the continent, and I’ve been researching the possibilities in case the flight does not go. The trains will be expensive and take ages, but might be an option. There may be other flights on other airlines but anything I do will be expensive and painful. But perhaps necessary. So we’ll see. It’s a bit of a gamble to go at all, but I’m going. Here goes the adventure.

The worst part of this is that we have a fantastic expat meet-up scheduled for Saturday mid-day, and so if I get stranded I will miss something more important than my usual Saturday deep and intense lie-in (I’m capable of sleeping past 1 pm, which probably seems shocking to the early morning types in the readership of this blog). I can only hope that does not happen, and my weekend will get off to a truly good start with an easy trip back from the continent and a fun gathering with friends.

‘Sploring England

I had a good friend in town, and said friend decided to rent a car over the weekend. This allowed me to tour southern England in a way that I have not otherwise had the chance to do. I went back to the Brighton/Hove area:

Toured the Seven Sisters, which stand in for the White Cliffs of Dover in many movies:

There were sheep there.

And in Arundel, there is a castle.

Election Levity

However you feel about Marmite, this puts Britain’s election into focus in a way nothing else can…