Monthly Archives: August 2010

Beach holiday

I’m on my annual beach holiday, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Thus my silence, I’m enjoying the one time a year that I can turn off a bit. And realizing how European I’ve become in loving my two week beach holiday!!!

I’m walking on the beach a great deal and cooking many interesting things. Like things that require Velveeta. And jalape├▒os. God bless America!

The moving day report

My big move today went remarkably well–from one flat to another, from a place that was offered to me to a place that I chose. The movers were professional and efficient. They showed up perfectly on time and wearing uniforms of their company. They were prepared, not just for the move, but had brought their own implements for making tea for their mid-morning break. (! Oh this is when I love you, England.) The whole thing took about 2.5 hours less than had been scheduled. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to see (unless there is an utter disaster when I go to unpack) how this could have gone any better. Which seems remarkable for a moving day. A day when Murphy’s law seems to take over. My (American) (temporary, for a year due to someone else’s maternity leave) secretary whispered to me–when I appeared in the office this afternoon before the close of business when no one expected to hear from me today–“were they British?” We had a laugh in the way expats do. We love it here, we are not slagging off the locals. They were British. But the expectation was probably not that they would be quite as efficient, and, well, as “American-like” as they were. I’ve heard horror stories from around my town. But for the record, I used a local, family run company and one that I chose solely on the basis of the fact that they responded to my request for a quote faster than anyone else, and I kind of didn’t shop around on price, as much as on response time. For me, today, this strategy paid off. They were amazing and if anyone who knows me in my area wants a recommendation for movers, I’m all there. And maybe you do get what you pay for and that is okay.

I have never had full-on professional movers before today. The closest I’d come was when I relocated to the UK, and a moving company handled the overseas shipment and delivery of my goods. But then I had packed the boxes all myself, and in fact things had been in boxes in storage because I didn’t know I was moving to England until I actually did move to England. (I thought I was taking a junior position on the East Coast of the US after travelling in Europe for two months. But I interviewed for my current position early on during that Europe trip and I ended up taking the job in the UK and shipping all my clearly marked “self-packed” boxes through customs.) But the crazy last few weeks with the whole (1) finding the flat and committing to taking it sight-unseen from the US, (2) dealing with my work commitments including trips to Newcastle (UK), Munich and Singapore and (3) preparing for my trip to the US literally tomorrow meant that I needed some professional help.

All other previous moves in my life had involved a rented truck of the U-Haul sort. (I have no idea what the British equivalent even is. I didn’t consider it.) Sometimes I even got to drive the truck, which I think more women should do ­čÖé And these previous moves always featured me doing all of the packing. I can see now how this never could have worked in the current scenario; I did not have the days needed to do the packing that was accomplished by four professionals in four hours. And my wonderful sister was not here to help me! I most certainly did not have the local knowledge needed to figure out how to park a truck (lorry) in the city centre on a one-way street during daylight hours on a busy weekday. Oh yes, in England. There is that. The complications of doing something rather difficult in another country really could have been stressful, if I had not thrown caution to the wind and hired actual professional movers.

The movers cost me almost exactly an additional month’s rent. Add that to the deposit on the flat (1.5 months rent) and all the incidental one-off charges associated with the move, and it was about three months extra of rent that I’ve paid in the last few weeks in order to facilitate this move. And as I sit here in the new place, planning for my suitcase packing and departure for America tomorrow, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. I’ve hit some strange place where, after living in England almost four years, most of which were in some ways rather uncomfortable, I’m completely delighted at the fact that I ate into my savings but got me and all of my worldly possessions out to the new flat with a minimum of fuss on my part.

Even better, I tipped these guys (as far as I can tell) more than they are used to. It was totally in my nature to thank people who did a job well, fast, and orderly. (NB occasionally I tip well when a waiter flirts with me, but that’s a different story.) And there is in this case the instance where tipping is actually fun, as opposed to obligatory: when you really want to reward someone for a job well done. It’s not the same as giving a Boston cab driver more than what reads on the meter but still being berated for not tipping enough (as has happened to me in the US.) I actually wanted to thank these guys for being pleasant to work with and professional and fast. It was utterly voluntary. I was unclear of the etiquette and so played up my American card, and just asked the leader of the moving crew (when I was making out the cheque for the formal cost of the move) if it was okay to tip them. He said something like, “well, you don’t have to but it’s much appreciated” and so I did. Perhaps extravagantly. Call me American. (It took the total from just under a month’s rent to just over, and I am so very OK with that!) Notice how happy I am at how well this all went. Said moving crew leader made a sweet comment about taking the guys out to the pub tonight (especially since they were done at my place at 3 pm!) and I felt happy and at one with the world.

The deeper meaning of this move has not escaped me either. I did not incur that additional three months’ rent worth of charges to have done this temporarily. My several years in work-subsidized but not exactly comfortable housing was very economical. In the last few weeks, I have made a significant investment in my life in England. Not that I claim that I will be here forever, I still don’t have a long-term plan. But I do think now that I will have to start working on that application for permanent residency.

Permanent. Now there’s a scary word.


The problem with being harried and busy is that you can be harried and busy anywhere and everywhere, such that the whole “living in another country” thing fades into the background noise. That’s been the last week for me. I’ve been continuing the process of moving, which really has been a process and not a single event. Setting up new accounts, getting addresses changed on things, it’s one big pile of paperwork. (And somewhere in that big pile I’ve lost my receipt for the hotel I stayed in last month in Newcastle and my reimbursement from work is on the line. Sigh.) Yesterday was all about prepping the old flat for the moving (or “Removals” in Brit-speak) people coming on Wednesday to finalize the packing and moving process. (I really find the word “removals” disturbing, as it seems to imply to me taking things away from one place without putting them back someplace else–I want my stuff to end up being moved to a new location, not just removed from the old one!)

This morning I awoke at 5 am after all of about 3.5 hours of sleep, which was fitful at best. I’ve got further things to do before the move, and then of course the move is conveniently the day before I’m leaving for the US for my annual Outer Banks beach holiday and visit to MN. And there’s that small matter of the day job that is impossible to juggle well with moving, which is itself approximately a full-time activity. I’ve been so harried and frazzled lately that I keep thinking I should bring work to the beach, just because I might actually have time there to think about things more deeply, as opposed to just running screaming from one paperwork crisis to another, as I’ve been doing lately. The big picture, grand thinking thing has really been impossible in 2010, and 2010 is disappearing very quickly. It will be Christmas before you know it (eek!)

The good thing, on my end, is that my new flat is making me very happy. It being flush with modern conveniences, my time is no longer spent bemoaning the British propensity towards two tap sinks and refrigerators sans freezers. I’ve been quite happily cooking up a storm, both due to the ultra-modern kitchen facilities and the enormous Tesco within ten minutes’ walk. I’ve realized over the last few weeks that local opinions on grocery stores are as strong as they are on newspapers, and for some reason (that I don’t really understand) people really love to hate Tesco. I don’t even know where to begin with trying to understand that one. For me, it’s a large and well-stocked “superstore” as it says on the road sign, that happens to be the shop closest to my new digs. So for me, it’s working just fine and I don’t know what more to say about the politics of whether it is or is not PC to admit one shops at Tesco. This is where being foreign is fantastic, I plead ignorance!

When in the US, I’ll likely be “off the grid” for a while, as the beach house I’ve rented the last few years did not have internet access when last I was there (although one could sometimes sponge off the neighbors and pick up a signal at random). I’m sure I’ll be a very happy girl when I return from this trip, as I have the prospect of several months with no travelling lined up, the move will be done and I can continue with the business of settling into the new flat. Until then, I’m continuing to be harried and frazzled and in all likelihood rather sleepless.

Ten years ago

It was, as of a few weeks ago, ten years ago that my grandparents died in a car crash. Ten years ago, that my world ended but didn’t. Ten years ago that I stopped getting phone messages from my beloved grandmother even though we were technically not in the same area code and thus long-distance. I last heard her living voice right before the trip they went on, that ended badly. I went on and kept living, but some of the most important people in my life didn’t continue to be after some date approximately ten years ago. I managed to stay busy in the anniversary of this accident, and I was working and attending conferences in Newcastle and Singapore. And I didn’t let loose and feel the grief until tonight, when it suddenly hit me, without warning. So if I’ve ignored you when I should have been your friend, please forgive me. I’ve been dealing with my own pent-up grief. I can’t believe it’s been ten years, in some ways. And I can’t believe it’s only been ten years in others. I miss them so much. At the time, one of my aunts mentioned that I should keep track, that I would be unlikely to attend a double funeral again in my lifetime. I can be happy that this has not happened again, without wanting to ever be in a place where two people that you love are in coffins at the same time.

Not quite six degrees of Kevin Bacon

As an American working in Engineering in the UK, I am often asked if I was a student at MIT. Although I attended some very good engineering institutions in the US, I was never registered at MIT. It was a childhood dream of mine (geek confession, I had an MIT sweatshirt aged 10 and I thought my life plan was set) but it never happened formally. However, when I was in the last months of finishing my PhD, through a collaboration I had a chance to spend 11 days at MIT. In visiting Singapore, I have found that my life boils down to two, maybe three, degrees of MIT. Not six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Eleven days does not sound like much in terms of building a career. But I have found that, when I attend conferences of the sort that I am at now, in Singapore, the people with whom I hang out are people that I met during those eleven days at MIT. Or, at very worst, people who I met through one person that I met during that time. I can sort my entire professional life into either two or three degrees of separation from MIT.

Clearly those who attend MIT are more likely to exist in my world of research, compared with those people I know from my own undergraduate or graduate days at Big-10 schools in the midwest. I could guess this based simply on the number of my MN high school facebook friends who are still in Minnesota, compared with my work friends who are from everywhere. My MIT friends are from all over the world and have been willing to travel all over the world for employment, which is similar to my own circumstance.

But, I have to admit, I never thought those eleven days at MIT would play such a strong role in my life over five years later. In the end, the collaboration for which I was there did not even yield a publication (critical in my world of science), but just a Master’s thesis. I now enter into collaborations with other universities more aware of the potential results of the long-term benefits from having been associated with each other, although I honestly think MIT is an island unto itself and not following any pattern or mould associated with other engineering institutions.

I have one more very full day of work to do before I leave on the near-midnight flight back to the UK tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed this Singapore trip more than my previous two, if only because I’ve had so many interesting meals with interesting people (all who I know through my MIT connections). I’ve talked on this blog before about professional friends , and the longer I am in my job, the more convinced I am by the need to attend out-of-town events either with someone from my own group or in serious meeting-up-with-professional-friends mode. I’ve had a great time this trip, because I had three different friends (who did not necessarily know each other, despite the MIT connections) to have food and drinks and conversations with. So I leave Singapore knowing that this trip was worth it, and that the worth was mostly in the connections I’ve strengthened through our common interests in science and in which we might all have just managed to mentioned MIT in passing. I have no degrees from MIT, but I do have a strange connection. And I adore my “professional friends” in their second and third degrees of separation from a marvelous institution.

Singapore, Qantas and Indian Food, Oh My!

Greetings from Singapore, where I arrived just over 12 hours ago after a long night not sleeping very well on a Qantas flight due for Sydney. This was entirely the fault of me, who did not remember to bring my travel pillow (that U-shaped thing that goes around your neck and works amazingly well) because of the fact that I was packing from my new place, where most of my things are not. Said pillow was at the old flat. An additional thing that did not make the trip, most frustratingly, was the mobile phone charger for my American phone. It’s back at the old flat also, I know exactly where it is. So I had to, yet again, head off on my first day in a foreign city in search of a mobile phone store to find an appropriate charger. Admittedly, I did not have a second charger for this phone, nor did I have one for the UK (just an American one with an adaptor, since it is my American phone) so it was not an entirely huge waste of money or time (unlike the trip last month in which I bought my umpteenth USB-to-iPod/iPhone adaptor, when I have a drawer full of them).

First things first, I love Singapore. I love that it costs only S$1.90 to get from the airport to the center of town if you know the awesomeness that is the Singapore subway system. I love that there are three different chain restaurants devoted to coffee and toast on my way from my hotel to the convention center. (And admittedly, I love that I have stayed in this hotel before, for a conference in the same convention center, such that I know my way around. This is true in Boston as well, and I admit that I prefer these conferences when I get to be in “familiar” surroundings compared with the stress of going somewhere new and needing to start over.) I love the convergence of cultures here, and the huge variety of food available. I had a local speciality kaya toast for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch and Indian food for dinner, and I have a bag of Aussie snacks (cheese Twisties) in my hotel room. After having been in China a few months ago, I’m feeling much more interested in the local food, and much more bold in trying it on my own, so today on my explorations I found both a Taiwanese restaurant (perhaps of the same chain I visited with my sister in China?) and a hot pot place that I have to try (although I might stick with vegetables…). This year I doubt I’ll repeat my performance from my last trip to Singapore, where I obsessively hung out in a local (i.e. close to the hotel) restaurant with an Italian/Aussie-ish vibe. So far I have not been able to ascertain whether said restaurant still exists, as it was boarded up today–but also much of Singapore was, given the Sunday-ness.

I’m happy to be here, because it’s fun to come back to a place that you’ve visited before. I find this is true the more I travel: I’m happiest to return to Boston, Orlando, Munich, Singapore, the places that I’ve been to on three or more occasions, because these places start to feel like a home-away-from-home. If you are going to have my life, and live out of a suitcase and spend no more than three weeks at “home” at any given time (which is my new calculation for how silly 2010 has been for me–I think this is true and shows how dumb I’ve been!) you should at least enjoy the places where you are spending your time.

The work starts tomorrow, and I should probably have been prepping today instead of dining out and napping, so the next few days will certainly be interesting. I have meetings and talks to give flat out for the next four days, at which point I hit a flight back to the UK at midnight Thursday and have meetings in the UK office planned for Friday. The weekend can not come soon enough…

Flying Qantas to get here made me both happy and sad. I love flying on Qantas, but it was the first time that I had flown with them to get to someplace that was not Australia. So I indulged in my minor Aussie obsession while travelling, reading about interesting Australian art exhibits in the in-plane magazine and listening to the best of modern Aussie music on the headphones on the trip, but I knew full well that I would not quite make it far enough on this trip to actually get to the sunburnt country itself. I don’t know when I’ll be back to visit Australia either, which made for a sad moment or two in transit. Last time I was in Singapore, I was heading to Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney for an adventure of a lifetime (aside from the previous adventure of a lifetime, when I had been there six months earlier).

Travels are funny, that way. This blog makes for a great record of these trips, and when I look back at the archives from my visit to Singapore (and then Australia) a year and a month ago, I have mixed feelings. I’m glad I did what I did then, and on this trip I’m sort of glad that I’m going home to England after a mere four nights in Singapore. Especially with the new flat to settle in to, my wanderlust is perhaps damped a bit at the moment. There are many places I’d like to see, in Asia, Australia, and beyond, but on this trip my overwhelming feeling is one of a desire for home, and in this funny case home is my new flat in the UK, not something in the US at all. Confusing, yet comforting, that my existence has settled down a bit to be based in one country only. The confusing part comes because that home is in England, which is not what I would have expected five years ago.