Monthly Archives: September 2010

Finger Food

On walking home from work rather late the last few nights (for various reasons, including both work and not-work) I’ve come across refugees from our local “parked in the market square food truck” where you can get a burger and some chips/fries along with that burger. In each case, the person with the styrofoam food tray has been eating said fries/chips with a plastic or wood (I’m not sure) two-tined “fry fork” to allow them to pick up the fries/chips without having to touch them directly. I’m puzzled. As I often am.

Finger food in America is a well-established genre and a take-out burger and chips/fries would definitely qualify. In the US last month I had pizza (Papa John’s, of course) on more than one occasion. Eaten with the hands, whether in triangle cuts or square cuts. And even worse, at the beach I had crab and lobster, things that come in nice US restaurants with bibs and tools for finger food extraction.

So my question now has to do with finger food. We have the obvious differences between Britain and the US in terms of silverware etiquette, with forks in the right hand in the US and in the left hand here in the UK. Knives at the ready all the time in the UK and only when needed in the US. I’ve watched people here in the UK try to eat burgers with silverware, the whole fries/chips thing, and the entire spectacle of Pizza Express or the like where people saw away at UK pizzas with a butter knife, clearly hoping to avoid using the fingers in this process. So I ask, with an open mind and a truly confused heart, what is the issue with finger food in the UK? Why are sandwich quarters okay but other edible food is not? I’m literally starving here. Although admittedly I cannot imagine my British friends wearing a Red Lobster bib nor can I see them picking up a slice of pizza to hold. There are sandwiches, dastardly sandwiches here a plenty, and this is not a taboo in terms of eating in public, but aside from the sandwich there seems to be some breech of etiquette associated with ever eating food with one’s fingers here in England. What exactly is the problem with eating food with your fingers?

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On returning to England in September

I am back in England now, I have been spending a great deal of time unpacking boxes. In addition to the great fun of a flat full of boxes to unpack, I returned to a few interesting additional adventures; a dead boiler on arrival that required a serviceman’s visit, thus delaying my chance to have a warm shower directly after the transatlantic flight by many hours. A front door key that seems to be harder to turn than it was before I left and makes me fear getting locked out. (I’m now carrying both sets of flat keys around just in case, making it look as though I was a janitor.) An overnight work trip to Nottingham right at the point at which I would have given just about anything I own in order to not have to be away from “home” for yet another night.

There is a chill in the air, which caused me to spontaneously purchase butternut squash yesterday even though I had no firm plans of what to do with it. I’m thinking it might be a squash soup kind of day today. It definitely feels like a squash soup kind of day. Night is coming earlier. I have the windows all closed and I’m wearing a sweatshirt. And socks. I practically did not wear socks all summer. I do miss the fall colors of America, though. My living room is done up with a decor centered on red maple leaves. Well, when it is fully unpacked and decorated, that is. Which I should be doing now, instead of procrastinating writing a blog entry with very little content. Or maybe making soup. That would be far more fun than unpacking more boxes.

Last full day in MN

I finished off my Minneapolis trip for 2010 with which might have been the perfect day. I started off the morning going shopping with my Mom/Mum (I think in my confused state it comes out somewhere in-between in terms of the vowels) and bought her an early (by a month) birthday present of a smart phone. She was not on the carrier of the iPhone, so it’s an Android HTC touch thing, but it’s way cool. We set up her Gmail account and played with the new toy, all for the princely sum of $99 plus a few random taxes and fees. Now she can stay updated with both her out-of-town daughters, the recently repatriated sister-o’-mine who is still over 1000 miles away, and of course me many thousands of miles away.

After the shopping (which included other things as well) and the lunch (Oh Noodles and Co., can you please follow Chipotle’s example and set up shop in England so I can have a sandwich-free lunch alternative?) we spent a few happy hours sorting through old boxes in the basement of my parents’ place. Since my sister and I have been such vagabonds, there are many boxes of our things mixed in with stuff that got packed up from the parental abode after a fire in their basement many years ago. I grabbed a bag full of things that I want now, marked other things as “discard,” “donate,” or “keep” and found all sorts of lovely surprises, like a pair of Sapphire earrings that I thought had been lost in the trans-Atlantic shuffle. We even managed to stumble on the box of photographs of my dear grandparents (her parents, who died in a car crash just over ten years ago) mostly from the 1930s and boy was that fun to sift through.

I continued my day with a return visit to my best friend’s hospital bedside, where she is recovering from a C-section and has a bouncing baby boy at her side. I got to hold the darling little one, which was a real treat that I was not necessarily expecting, my trip being timed optimistically to catch them but with the knowledge that it could all be different than it ended up actually being. Now that I think about it, I’ve never actually had the honor to visit such a person-who-means-so-much-to-me in the hospital having just given birth, so the entire experience was particularly poignant if slightly confusing to me (the sole solo operator in a room full of mommies or mommies-to-be) since I had no idea how to join in the conversation about the benefits of nipple shields for nursing. Okay I need to add a sentence to close this paragraph to take away from that being the last image of my hospital visits to see darling baby over the last two days. Darling baby was nearly 10 pounds and was quite the load to hold, but I did not pay any attention to how tired my arms were since he was so sweet and it was great to see my friend feeling better since yesterday when the C-section surgery was too recent to be comfortable. Baby is cute and his name is adorable and I was so pleased that my timing worked out well and I got to deliver my crocheted baby blanket to its rightful owner (the baby, obviously) in person.

I left the hospital to head for the home of my nonagenarian grandmother, who is clearly older than she was the last trip when I saw her, just over a year ago, but still the same grandmother I remember. I got to spend many hours with her this trip and they were many minutes of heaven all strung together. Our family is blessed many times over in that another family member (my aunt, grandma’s daughter) lives with her and allows her to stay in the home that she and my grandfather built not long after World War II. (Or in Brit-speak, “The War”) Grandma may be losing some short-term memory, but her recall of the 1940s is exceptional and I heard stories this trip that I had not heard before. I even taught her to use my digital camera, so she could take a photo of me with my lovely aunt (her care-giver) after I insisted on some photos taken by my aunt of me with grammy (which she hated, because she says she “looks old”). In the midst of the reminiscing, I got a photo of my late grandfather as a 9th grader and a photo of my great-grandfather’s (grandmother’s dad’s) diploma, which I did not realize was hanging in the upstairs hallway all along. I even had a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner there at Grandma’s, although now it was my aunt who made it and not my Grammy herself.

For the first time in a very long time, I leave this place–Minneapolis–in peace. I did not escape to another midwestern city to do some work. I did not even take up the offer of a local work colleague to drop by since I was in town. I spent the entire time that I was here doing family and friend things along with a few crucial errands (new glasses being the most important, but new cowboy boots being a close second). I listened to Country Music K102 in my rental car during my entire trip, a station that I never would have touched when I lived here but which resonates with me now that I’m gone. In previous years, I’ve come here out of obligation in some degree, but now I think I will come back out of love. I feel like I have finally escaped the shackles of this place being associated with my past and my childhood and I could just enjoy it for what it was, including some sense of past that never really grew to be too overwhelmingly much. Maybe my experience of living abroad for nearly four years has started to calm the negative feelings of this place and is letting me really sink into it and enjoy it. This was the least planned trip I’ve ever had to MN, in part because I was waiting for baby news from my dear friend I did not plan much and I just let the trip happen. I can go back to England a happy girl, and look forward to future visits even knowing that they cannot, will not, be the same as this excellent trip has been.

Minnesota update

I still owe you the MN State Fair photos, and I’m sure they’ll be coming at some point soon. But for now, I have a few observations to make about my time in Minneapolis thus far. In contrast to the last two times I’ve visited, in August of 2008 and 2009, I’m not feeling bittersweet at all. I’m just feeling sweet, and strangely at peace. I’m staying on my own this year, in a rented and serviced studio flat in my old neighborhood–not far from where I lived when I was a PhD student here. There is a very good reason for this: in the last few years, I’ve always stayed with my best friend in order to stay close to the center of town (i.e. downtown Minneapolis). But she’s otherwise occupied this week: I spent nearly three hours today at the hospital visiting her and her newborn son, who arrived late last night. This was, of course, the reason for this year’s timing (September instead of August) in that I was hoping to catch the opportunity to meet the baby, and that worked out well. I’ll get to see him again tomorrow when I visit her again, and perhaps even Friday morning before I have to go.

What else have I been up to? (Aside from the obvious–Minnesota State Fair–that is?) Two dinners with my parents. Two pairs of new glasses at the place that I continue to frequent for such things, even though I have lived overseas for nearly four years. This purchase includes the first time I’ve had to buy two pairs with different corrections, one for general use and one optimized for computing and reading, since I am starting to have just the smallest need for reading glasses. No bifocals yet, thank goodness, but two pairs of specs with slightly different prescriptions for slightly different purposes. I’m surprisingly at ease with this little aging-related development. I’m not sure why.

In addition to spending time with my friend and the new baby, I got to have dinner with another good friend and her sweet four and a half year old daughter. I spent all afternoon yesterday with my nonagenarian grandmother, who at 93 was content to spend the afternoon hanging out but also debating US immigration policy, border fences, legal versus illegal immigration, motherhood when working or staying at home, and the relative interestingness of the things made by a variety of Food Network chefs. (We watched Giada De Laurentiis mostly, and my grandmother does not think that her husband is good enough for her.)

I shopped at Target (it’s so fall-like here I needed long-sleeved tees and socks), Eddie Bauer and bought some new Clinique stuff at Macy’s. At which point the Macy’s sales clerk — in the shopping mall in which I bought my back-to-school clothes in junior high and high school — asked me where I was from, because she could not decipher my accent. I was aghast. I thought my friends had been teasing me about the whole “starting to sound British” thing. But the salesgirl thought it was quite sensible when I said I was from MN but had been living in England. My mother later confirmed that she’s been catching little things that sounded a bit different, both when she visited me in the UK in July and now on this trip. I’ve been desperately hoping that I was not sounding (or acting) like the hilarious character played by Jennifer Coolidge in Friends, who supposedly moved back from London with a fake accent and lots of implanted British vocabulary. I know, that having remembered this clip on this trip, that I’ve been overcompensating and defensive.

I also had my nails done today, when I was waiting for my glasses to be done and after I had already spent plenty of money at Bauer and Macy’s. It was an okay manicure for a walk-in mall job on a random Wednesday afternoon, but to my mortification I managed to forget where I was and tipped $2 for a $16 manicure, which would be generous in the UK but not probably sufficient in the US (especially in these “tough economic times”).

All of this is fine, it just shows the typical expat confusion after more than a couple of years abroad. But it gets worse. I’ve got a rental car here, as you would expect. I’ve been driving around my own neighborhood, and having trouble recalling exactly where I’m going. I’ve had to stick to main routes instead of the insider back-roads routes that I took when I lived here and really knew where I was going. But it gets worse. I have, on more than one occasion — and startling because I do NOT drive in the UK — gotten confused over which side of the road I was supposed to be driving on.

pause for effect

I blame the Americans. They seem to be adding (AmE) traffic circles/(BrE) roundabouts at an alarming rate. And I arrive at these things and can’t remember which way I’m supposed to go around. And when on a quiet side-street in a residential neighborhood with no other cars, I can’t seem to always remember where I’m supposed to be driving, and I end up crawling along the center. This is the re-wiring of my brain, from American to British, that I find most disturbing. Just observing people driving on the “wrong” side of the road has changed me, even though I spend a great deal of time in the US and only ever drive in the US and similar right-side-of-the-road places such as Germany. (I did once drive in Australia, but I doubt that one experience can be blamed for this current lapse.)

Overall, my summary is as follows. I’m happier in Minneapolis than I have been on my last few visits. I also seem to be a bit more converted to my life in England than I had realized. I’m defensive and awkward about this when it comes to dealing with my MN peeps. I also have been railing against it by doing things like buying a pair of proper cowboy boots and some new boot cut jeans. And listening to American country radio ad nauseum in my poor, confused car.

Running up the Eastern Seaboard

Let’s see, when last I wrote here I was blissfully in North Carolina, along the Outer Banks, having a beach holiday. And then along came Hurricane Earl. The first week of the holiday, Hurricane Danielle had been a threat. But that threat had diminished and aside from some rough surf leading to a few “no swimming” red flag days along the beaches, there was really nothing interesting there. But Earl decided to head straight for the Outer Banks and with a vengeance. I stayed at the same beach house this year as I had the last two years, but this year brought new owners since last summer, and with them, many improvements to what was already a great house. Internet access proved to be the most important one (a gas grill was also appreciated, as was a huge flat screen TV). I started obsessing over weather.com’s Hurricane Central site, checking it every few hours, as it became clear that this was NOT GOOD. On Wednesday morning of beach week 2, with the news looking bad, I decided to evacuate on Thursday morning. This was a mere 48 hours before I would have had to leave as per my planned end of two weeks beach holiday (check-out by 10 am Saturday morning), so not too disappointing really. My view was that by the time the hurricane was due to pass (Friday mid-day) I would have been done beach-ing anyways, and would have been packing up with no more fun to be had. So I spent Wednesday alternating between beach things and packing/cleaning things, and readied myself for the trip northwards and inland into Virginia leaving early Thursday morning.

This was the beach Wednesday, at which point you could see how the phrase “the calm before the storm” originated: there was absolutely NO sign of a hurricane barreling straight at us in this photo!

The self-imposed evacuation all went smoothly and by mid-day Thursday I was having lunch and a glass of wine safely away from OBX, at which point I checked weather.com for an update and found that they had called a mandatory evacuation that morning, three hours after my departure. I felt vindicated. My ruthless plan had resulted in my not being stuck in epic traffic once the evacuation was called, starting from three hours after I left the islands.

I now had an extra forty-eight hours before my planned departure for Minnesota and my near-annual visit to the State Fair. I did now have time for some very useful and much needed errands, including such painful things like dealing with an American Bank Account that was every bit as frustrating as the experiences I had with my British Bankers on first moving to the UK. Side-note-story: Basically, when I moved abroad I left small balances (~$100) in both checking and savings accounts in the US at two different banks (from the two parts of the country that I lived before moving abroad, since there were not banks in common in the two places at the time), and apparently one of them (Bank of America) was deducting regular fees for “account maintenance” even though the account was dormant (my other bank, Wells Fargo, has not done this) and kept doing so until the count was just over $30 in deficit, at which point they contacted me to threaten collection. I only received notice of this earlier this year, when my dad brought a pile of American mail over when he visited me, and frankly I don’t get much in the way of useful American mail at the folks’ house any more. So I had to clear the accounts and sort out the deficit balance, which it turns out was more than covered by the savings partition OF THE SAME ACCOUNT so I ended up with cash in hand but no longer have an existing account in case I ever move back to the US (which was why I left the account in the first place, thinking I might be back some day and it was silly to close them and then disappear). SIGH. Other expats be warned, be careful what the fine print on your bank accounts sayeth and do not expect the bank to do anything sensible!!! /endrant

Where was I? Oh yes, moving up the Eastern Seaboard with extra time on my hands. With the free Saturday (during which I should have been just leaving the beach, and after spending Friday with the Very Fun Bankers et al.) I got to go up to Baltimore to visit my newly-repatriated sister who is just settling in to her new job there. She has a fabulous new place not far off the waterfront in a funky-cool part of town with lots of little indy shops and restaurants and jazz bars and the like. I spent a great day with her walking around and taking in the sites, without having remembered to bring my camera up for the day so I shall have to return for photos at another time. But certainly a day of sister time in Baltimore was worth the pain of the hurricane, right?

Sunday I awoke and flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the “family time” leg of my trip. Having dinner with my folks Sunday night was sort of odd, after having had lunch with my sister the previous day in Baltimore. But hey, it’s all part of the wonderful modern world. But I started to fade during dinner, perhaps as a result of having just done the North Carolina-Virginia-Maryland-Virginia-Minnesota dance over the course of only four days. I had a good night’s sleep and awoke early this morning full of excitement over today’s trip to the Minnesota State Fair, but that is truly a subject for another post.