Monthly Archives: January 2011

Let them eat cake!

Birthday cake, that is.

Yesterday was my birthday. For the first time, on my fifth birthday in England, I managed to do something fun on my birthday with new friends that I’ve made since living here. The common theme was Americans: I had both bloggers and work colleagues that just happened to be American, and several of them brought their British partners as well. My dear friend came down on Saturday to help me with the party prep, and that turned out to be both fun and a total Godsend when it came to acquiring all the groceries and cooking. I don’t know how I thought I was going to do it all myself. We made chili and guacamole and the cake and set out a tex-mex feast for my wonderful friends. By last night I was exhausted, a feeling which ran straight through to this morning (at which point I cancelled the few meetings I had and took a much-needed rest day). Having the party at my own place was important to me for several reasons. First, several people travelled quite a distance to attend. Meeting up in a restaurant just didn’t feel like it sufficiently expressed my gratitude at their willingness to attend. Second, I really like my new digs and I was really excited to show off what I’ve done with the place now that I’m unpacked and settled. And third, I had promised myself that I was now going to start acting more adult-like and do some grown-up entertaining now that I AM more settled.

It was great fun and I’m really glad I did it, although it was a hella lot of work. Note to self, perhaps go smaller next time and have a small dinner party instead of throwing a larger bash with numbers in the double digits! But I wouldn’t take a minute of it back–I felt so loved and so grateful to have new friends, friends that are really starting to change my views about my life in England and my longer-term future. But now, back to my regularly scheduled life.

Oh dear me, I’m becoming British

I was standing in the queue at the bus stop in the center of town this evening after work. There is a bus shelter with a little leaning bench, and I had obediently gotten in line behind the guy who was already there, as one does. Out of nowhere came two teenage or college-age students, speaking to each other in rapid-fire Spanish, and wearing the backpacks that identified them as students at one of the local English Language training schools. They walked up to where the bus door would, in a few minutes when it arrived, be located for us to board. I was sitting there fuming to myself, thinking “these foreigners, how dare they ignore the queue.” My how times have changed.

I exited the bus at my local megamart and proceeded to buy everything I needed except the one thing I would not last the evening without: toilet paper. (I have not become sufficiently British to say “loo roll” — yet!) I realized this as I was walking the 3/4 mile home, carrying my two “bags for life” full of everything else I needed (and a few things I didn’t need). I started thinking to myself, “thank goodness I’m in England and there’s another small mart (larger than a convenience store but not a full-sized supermarket) only two blocks from home. If I was in America I’d have to get back in the car and return to the megamart.”

Oh bother.

Sisters take on the world…

I am, in the understated form of British English, rather tired. In American English, I’m utterly exhausted. My sister left a few hours ago, after our latest whirlwind adventure: a long weekend in warm and sunny Barcelona. I had always wanted to go, to see the works of the great architect Antoni Gaudi. And this is one of the great features of living in England, it is very easy to take a long weekend in rather interesting places, flying reasonably inexpensively on European discount airlines and checking out a different culture for a few days without breaking the bank.

My sister is, of course, a former expat and her experiences have made my occasional troubles in England seem rather trivial. She’s lived in both Taiwan and China, far more culturally and linguistically challenging than anything I’ve experienced. She is also the visiting rock star of my nearly four and a half years in England, as this was her fifth trip here to visit me since I moved here. After the first year, in which I had to acquaint her with my local circumstances of life in England, we’ve taken advantage of her visits to explore a bit. The second year she visited, we took a day trip to Dublin just because we could: an early flight in the morning and a late flight back the same night. The following year we took the Eurostar to Brussels for a brief overnight trip. Last year we stayed close to home (i.e. my English home) since she was here only weeks before I was joining her at her then home in China for an epic two week adventure.

This year, in a few weeks in fact, I will be celebrating a birthday that ends in a 5, so I’ve been feeling quite celebratory. It was in this mode that I booked our longest European adventure yet: three nights and three full days in Barcelona. She arrived in England on Wednesday, which was itself quite a miracle given that she had to transfer through Chicago in a snowstorm Tuesday night. We left for Barcelona on Thursday after some shopping and sushi on Wednesday night. We were in Barcelona until late last night, arriving back at my place at nearly midnight on a Sunday. Fortunately I had taken today (Monday) off as well, and she stuck around for a pub lunch and more shopping before taking off this evening to see some other friends of hers in London before going back to her new home in Baltimore on Wednesday.

It’s funny how the whole concept of “family” changes when you live far away, and especially when you have lived on a different continent from everyone you knew and loved before. I know that as an expat I’m super lucky that my sister has also had this experience, because we can understand each other in a way that we never could have had we not shared these experiences. As the only two children in the family and both females separated by barely more than two years, you might realize that we had some interesting experiences growing up… both good and less good. But as adults, it’s been a great deal of fun. We’re practically the last two standing in that we are both unmarried and have no children, not to mention the fact that we both have PhDs and rather taxing jobs. Basically we are the last people we know who like to do the things we like to do rather than talk about diapers/nappies and breastfeeding and potty training. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I can assure you that when you’re not in that place it’s a bit hard going when everyone else around you is! We have also both turned into foodies and love to eat and cook, so when we get to see each other there is always an opportunity for interesting culinary experiences, whether we dine out or are cooking in. This trip it was all dining out since we were mostly abroad and overall very busy.

We’ve decided, after these last few adventures, that we need to keep doing this and to keep scaling up our plans. We think we just about have our parents convinced that Mexico would be a great place to take a family vacation–something we have not done since I was in high school almost 20 years ago, if I remember correctly. We are also in the preliminary stages of planning a sisterly foodie and wine tasting trip to Argentina. I once received a book (a gift from sis, obviously) called “No friend like a sister” and I think when it comes to our recent adventures there is no truer statement. We find ourselves in the fortunate position of having a lot in common with each other at a time when we both find we have little in common with many of those around us, and in this we celebrate by taking on the world, one tasty country at a time.

Directions… NOT Resolutions

I don’t do resolutions in honor of any new year, and I am not about to start. But on looking back at 2010, where you could consider “harried” the single best word to describe me, it occurred to me that I might wish to aim in a few directions away from what caused me to spend so much of 2010 in such an uncomfortable fashion. (I should note that in addition to all of the places I listed as having been for work in 2010, I was also–for “fun”–in Brighton and Horsham UK, in Paris, and in Baltimore, Minneapolis and in the Outer Banks of North Carolina within the US.) So clearly travelling too much is a problem, and I am working on that one. Aside from a trip to Spain next week with my sister (come on, it’s an early celebration of my upcoming 35th birthday and involves Gaudi, my favorite architect ever) I have nothing planned until April, and after that trip nothing planned until the summer. So one direction for 2011 is to stop travelling as much. No jollies to Australasia unless something in December maybe comes good but that’s a long shot. Fewer trips over to the continent. Fewer nights away from home. Or something like that. Now that I have a shower in my flat I can no longer use travel as the excuse to get a good shower. Ahhhh England.

Twice in 2010 I nearly fainted because I let my blood sugar drop to dangerous lows when I skipped breakfast to get to work and had to do something that required a “performance” and thus energy. I have never fainted, and I had never nearly fainted before. I’ve been playing dangerous games with food for years; I’m a carbohydrate addict (thus my obsessions with American junk-food crackers like Cheez-its) and my distaste for sweet things means I sometimes struggle with eating healthy things like sweet fruits. I also live alone and thus eat whatever I want, whenever I feel like it, which sounds fun but after awhile can build some rather undisciplined habits. I will not confess what my typical breakfast was for much of this year but UK people will understand when I say the brand name on the packet was “Walkers”. (Don’t judge me!) So 2011 is the year I will take control of what passes across my lips and start eating better.

I don’t diet. I could stand to lose some weight, but dieting is deprivation which leads to bingeing and eating disorders. What I am going to do is two-fold: to adjust the blood sugar problem by watching the intake of high glycemic-index foods, and to try and follow the “is it food” rule when shopping and only buy actual food.

For part one I am cutting only two things out of my diet, but people who know me will get that these are two of the things that I eat muchly, so this will be interesting. I will avoid white bread/flour and white potatoes. Wheat or other nutty bread is fine and often tastes better anyways. Corn chips are allowed, and they are great with hummus which has about the lowest glycemic index of any food around. Sweet potatoes are fine, and I recently made a perfectly passable celeriac puree that was actually better than mashed potatoes (!) And I can’t get good crackers here in the UK anyways. So that’s thing one.

Thing two is more interesting. If you have not read Michael Pollan’s “In defense of food,” I highly recommend that you do. I picked it up, ironically enough, in Singapore in the summer of 2009 and read it cover to cover in one sitting. Living in hotels grants one that sort of time and freedom. His argument was excellent, that much of what we eat is NOT actually food, but is chemically engineered and over-processed. (While the natural white potato cannot claim that, refined white flour certainly can!) I’ve spent the last year and a bit since reading the book growing increasingly influenced by it. At the beach this year, when I cooked I started giving everything I made a “food score” from 0-10 where 0 was something highly processed and with lots of artificial ingredients and a 10 was something with only real natural food in it. And it does not have to be just fresh veg to qualify: corn chips, which make it in my new guidelines as an acceptable snack food (especially with hummus!) contain, I kid you not, corn/maize, oil and salt. That’s true of the Tostitos I had at the beach when I discovered this, and the generic Tesco chips I bought this weekend. So coming in a package does not necessarily make something get a low “food” score, but having lots of ingredients that you can’t pronounce, does. Now I run into slight trouble here as a former strict vegetarian, in that I have a taste for soya-based processed artificial meat products. I’ve been eating less and less of them as (a) the availability in the UK is total crap (aside from if you visit lucky Kat on the base) and (b) I switched to being a pescetarian and eat fish now, which is real food. So I’m working on it.

Given the fact that I moved and now walk 2.3 miles to work, the combination of that, less travel (and thus less hotel room service and restaurant meals) and this set of new eating guidelines might be a positive step in terms of my weight, but that’s not why I’m doing it and it’s not how I’m judging myself. I spent some time quite by accident the other day reading some musings from Lesley Kinzel about focussing on weight loss versus on being healthy and I think she has a really good point. The story about the overweight girl who the ER docs didn’t believe had an eating disorder was particularly poignant.

But these are guidelines and guidelines only. In a crisis, I’ll eat a crisp. If I’m at a work dinner and a white bread roll is the only thing on offer, I’ll probably have a bite. I’m quite pragmatic that way. One of my group members at work keeps bringing up–in total disbelief–the fact that I ate some fois gras in early 2010 in a social situation in which rejecting it would have been very awkward. But what I am not going to do any more is consider that coffee and Walkers is an appropriate breakfast, or that packaged food of any sort is an acceptable substitute for actual food. And the food I eat is going to be tasty, and I’m going to be documenting it on my new food blog with my sister.

I’m also going to try to get myself better organized to go to the gym, or else quit my gym membership and rely on the walk. I haven’t decided which is better, just that the need for regular exercise–again, for my sanity, not necessarily for my weight–is too important to keep ignoring. My walks to work really allow me to clear my head and it’s about the only time I have to think without any distractions, these days.

Watch this space and let’s hope for a less harried NFAH in 2011. Because I don’t think I could survive another one like this one.

Some days…

…it feels really difficult to be a proud American. No matter what your political views, a gunman targeting a politician is a tragedy. It’s been difficult watching from afar as the rhetoric in American politics has gotten more violent, and it’s really unclear why this is the case and what supposed good it is meant to do.

I was a student in Michigan when the link between Timothy McVeigh and the Michigan Militia was being probed after the Oklahoma City bombing. What I heard then sounds an awful lot like what I’ve been reading this morning in the quotes from “right-to-bear-arms” types speaking of forming independent militias to rise up against the government. It’s scary stuff. And unnecessary in a democracy. Our right to vote should take care of that, as it just did with the changeover in House leadership with the last election.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I don’t see how the American obsession with guns is not a big part of the problem. It is just way too easy to kill lots of people in a very short period of time. But now I have a second plank in my platform to reform America: enough with the violent rhetoric. I’m over the complete right to free speech and favor a more European-style approach that allows persecution for speech inciting violence. I like this quote on the subject:

Mr Miliband also said: “We have profound commitment to freedom of speech but there is no freedom to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre and there is no freedom to stir up hate, religious and racial hatred, according to the laws of the land.”

This was uttered in the context of anti-Muslim extremism, but it works equally well if you replace “religious and racial hatred” with “political party and anti-government hatred”. So my overall view on this sunny Sunday afternoon is very well articulated in this video from Keith Olbermann last night: it’s time to both put the guns away and stop with the gun and other violent metaphors in politics.

Dear So-and-so, it’s been a while

I’ve been missing out on all the ranty fun but I’m back!!!

Dear Tesco,

Your signs are wrong. You do not need to see “ID” to buy alcohol, you need to see proof of age. The fact that such proof is often on a document that identifies a person is irrelevant, you don’t care what my name is but only when I was born.

Yes I know I’m being picky but still, NFAH

Dear Tesco,

Further to that last message, in your parking lot there is a strange aberration. When the pedestrian/bike path has to cross the vehicular traffic lane, the markings switch from pedestrians-left-bikes-right to pedestrians-right-bikes-left. Crossing over the pedestrians and bikes at a busy store and in the middle of the car lanes seems like a bad idea to me, but whatever.

I still shop there, NFAH

Dear Previous Occupants of my Current Flat,

When I moved in, the landlady gave me two names and forwarding addresses for previous occupants. I was rather confused, as I couldn’t understand why I would have to redirect your mail/post. I came to find out that in the UK, the Royal Mail does not forward your mail for free the way the USPS does, and you have to pay a nominal fee (roughly £40 for a year) for forwarding service. That was interesting in itself. The UK post rules appear even more interesting, in that one is (apparently, I am no lawyer) not allowed to just chuck post for previous occupants in the mail but must forward it or return it to sender. I hadn’t chucked it away but piling it in a corner to deal with later when I got an email forwarded from my landlady several months into my living here, from a previous tenant asking about why some post had not been forwarded. I ended up getting my secretary to help me with making return to sender labels because I was receiving vast amounts of post that was seemingly important, like things from the NHS with “confidential” stamps on it, and I did not want to get into trouble from not having forwarded it. But it has also become clear that there were far more than 2 (more like 5) people living here or receiving post at this address and I only had names and addresses for two.

Fascinated by the vagaries of UK snail-mail laws when surely most important communication is done electronically these days, NFAH

Dear sister,

I can’t wait for you to arrive and for us to have our fun little annual trip together. Will we be able to find Korean food in Spain? And will we be able to find a good weekend brunch with great bloody marys?

Love, NFAH

New year, new blah blah blah…

New year’s holidays are always strange ones in my own mind, as the coming of January is for me personally very important–it’s the month of my birthday. For various reasons, particularly in high school and at University, my birthday was a particularly big event because I had gotten ahead of the normal age group at school and so I was the last one to be able to drive, vote, drink, etc. But of course, I’m now of the age where I’m a little bit more apprehensive of the ticking over of the years, especially when they go by as fast as 2010 did, and this year my birthday is divisible by 5 so a bit scary. Not as scary as when it’s divisible by 10, but still a milestone.

So 2010, why did it zip by in such a rush? Well, there are the lines of evidence on my CV in the form of the trips I took for work. America: Texas, Michigan, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts. UK: Nottingham, Newcastle, Southampton, Leicester. Plus Germany, China, Switzerland, Singapore, France, Italy. I think that’s most of them. It’s certainly more than one trip a month, which is why I am facing 2011 with a resolution to travel less.

I’m also aware these days of the fact that I’m relatively established in the UK after more than four years in residence. I moved this past summer, out of corporate housing and into a private rental, so my home feels more like home although the move itself just about knocked me out in the midst of everything else.

My job is getting more and more demanding, right at a point when I very much would like a much-needed break. The break is coming, as I have leave from certain administrative tasks from mid-March to October, but I have to get through the first few months of this year before that little break starts. And I’ve essentially doomed myself to writing full-time over that “break” by having signed a second book contract. My first book is just out (and no it’s not anything readers of this blog might be interested in, it being a rather dry technical tome) and I’m sort of questioning my sanity in jumping into another project so soon, but opportunities arose and I rose to the challenge. We’ll see how this goes.

But the biggest questions for me are the ones I’ve hinted at previously on this blog: 2011 is set to be the year of the big future decision cross-roads. My five year visa for working in the UK expires in October, and as such if I wish to remain I have to embark on a painful process of paperwork requesting the permission to remain from the UK government. There are a few aspects of this that are not straightforward, from my perspective, although I’ve been told over and over again that I should not encounter any grave difficulties throughout the process. But I do feel as though there is a significant emotional barrier to overcome. I know that requesting permanent residency does not actually require me to remain resident in the UK permanently. But I also know that I originally looked at the five year visa as a maximum period for living abroad, not a stepping stone towards greater lifestyle change of becoming permanently European. Do I know what’s going to happen, or where I’ll be in a year’s time? Nope. No clue. At the moment all options are open as they bloody well should be.

Things could change or (more likely) things could remain the same. But it will be interesting to look back in a year’s time and see where I end up. Happy 2011, everyone.