Category Archives: childhood

On dragons and bunnies

It’s my birthday. And I discovered this week that a fellow blogger suffers from the same humiliation as I do: having been born prematurely in January of 1976, and thus contrary to what you would think based on years of education via placemats in Chinese restaurants, I am a rabbit, not a dragon. Sigh. Read all about it via @unbravegirl here. And just for her, here’s a picture of my couch.

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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.

Scrooged

I’ve been struggling for more than a week over my feelings about Christmas. I have not done the big family Christmas back in Minnesota since I moved abroad, and I know my family find this a bit strange. I would argue that someone would have to be insane to fly in or out of Minnesota in December voluntarily, but clearly many people do so that argument does not exactly carry a great deal of weight. It is a big change, because there was a time when I was the big Christmas kid. I loved Christmas well into adulthood and everyone knew it. I had a full service of Christmas dishes for 8 people. I had decorations. I had sweaters. I played the music incessantly. I decorated every available surface.

And then it stopped. I sort of know what happened. Christmas itself played a huge role in the break-up of my marriage. And at the time of that big meltdown, that was the same Christmas, 2000, when I had just dealt with the deaths of 3/4 of my beloved grandparents in a six month time-frame. The magic left that year and I’ve never gotten it back.

I try. I have an annual holiday party for my team at work, and I force myself to put up lights and to decorate a bit and to do a bit of Christmas-themed cooking or baking. I buy new Christmas music on iTunes every year and listen to it a bit. But I just cannot seem to recover the joy and happiness that the whole season used to bring me.

And I don’t try and force it any more. Christmas is mostly about the little ones, and I am resolutely child-free. The big family Christmas back at home would involve many of the offspring of my own generation of cousins, and I really don’t feel much up for that. I quite like being an adult and being at holiday meals that are more like posh dinner parties with nice wine and nice food. (I did cook my traditional from-scratch green bean casserole as usual, from fresh–not canned–green beans and with a home-made mushroom-cream sauce instead of mushroom soup from a can…) I feel mostly at peace with my “Bah, humbug” attitude towards the holidays and my choice to spend them away from Minnesota and largely ignoring the past when I was the Christmas kid. But I did have a good cry this week when I read this blog post about Christmas. At least I realized I was not the only one to be struggling to get through this week.

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.

Random wrap-up from Philly

Well, NFAH, you might ask, where have you been for the last two weeks, and what are you now doing in Philadelphia international airport? Good question. The last two weeks have been insanely busy. I have been in the US, which is normally somewhat relaxing for me but this trip has been about work more than play. I have been doing the sorts of meetings that involve three meals in restaurants a day with colleagues, which means that the day starts early and finishes late and has basically no free time at any point in between in which to write on my blog or do anything more complicated than update my facebook status or perhaps send out a tweet. You can tell how busy I have been when you hear that I had been here for 9 days before I managed to make it to Target. Entirely my own fault, as ever–no one is holding a gun to my head and telling me I have to do all of this, but I still have the young person’s attitude towards taking career-building opportunities that means that I subject myself to stupid things. My bad.

Week one I was on the Michigan upper peninsula, someplace I had never visited even though I lived in Michigan for 5 years when at University. (And we interrupt this narrative to yell GO SPARTANS! since my alma matter just made it into the final 4 in the basketball tourney.) I was quite startled to realize that I had known my friend there for 17 years, which makes me old. Since we met in college. Sigh. But the UP was gorgeous, the weather was unseasonably warm and there was approximately no snow.

Spring was definitely springing during this entire trip. The weather was volatile, as it can be near the equinox, and there were many buds on trees and signs of interesting wildlife.

I also had a fun time on the weekend last weekend, between my two main work trips, to go to Toys ‘R’ Us and browse. Anyone who has been to my apartment knows that I have a weakness for Lego models of cars, but this time I found something even more cool: an entire display of classic Meccano toys/building sets. Meccano was a British invention as of 1901, and although the company has changed hands a few times (and is now allied with the US Erector set brand) not much has changed about these toys. They require real tools to put together, and this set had no plastic parts at all. It had such a vintage engineering feel about it–I was in heaven. This little guy is making his way back to the UK in my suitcase, and I have grand plans for my more leisurely beach trip planned for the US in August: I’m going to get one of the bigger sets and spend time doing lots of Meccano building. Hooray!

But back to the randomly in Philly thing. I held my nerve with the BA strike. I kept my flight on BA from the Baltimore-Washington area to Heathrow even though I knew it could be strike affected. I checked regularly when the updates were being posted on BA’s website. I checked in online last night at 6:45 pm for a flight due to leave at 6:40 tonight. And…. I awoke this morning to a text message from BA that my flight was cancelled and I should call to rebook. I had slept in, thinking all was well with the world, and so it was now mid-morning and there was not another flight out of either international airport in the area until tomorrow. And I, as you might recall, only have 48 hours or so in the UK before I must fly out to China (assuming that BA flight actually goes… watch this space!) So I agreed to the rebooking out of Philadelphia, which is about 2.5 hours from DC, and found a kind-hearted friend willing to bring me up here. I thus had a whirlwind tour of the I-95 corridor this afternoon, and arrived in Philly many, many hours before my flight so as not to inconvenience my kind friend with the car too much.

So here I sit in the BA lounge with free Wi-fi and my last glass of California Chardonnay for a while, finally having the time to update my blog. So apologies for my absence, but I fear this will be the continuing trend for the next few weeks as the Great Firewall of China is unlikely to allow me through. I might try to post by email which may or may not work. But I swear come the 12th of April I will be back in communication patterns that are far more normal for me. And I will have a heck of a lot of photos and stories from that grand adventure, due to start with my departure (BA-willing) on Wednesday mid-day. Fingers crossed…

On visitors and visiting

My sister left mid-day, and aside from the fact that my kitchen looks like it was hit by Minnesota tornados, and the fact that I have photos to prove it, it’s like she was never here. Which is sad. I have so much fun with her–she’s the only person who has religiously visited me every year that I’ve lived here, 4 visits total. I generally hate this feature of departing houseguests–it’s a bit tough at times organizing your normal busy life around them, but it’s so empty when they leave. It’s really one of the funny things about 21st century travel. I am still amazed when I get on an airplane in one place and leave the plane in a completely different place, and I’m still fascinated when people come to visit and show up for a while before disappearing again. The last few weeks have been quite exciting for that particular feeling, since Dad was here only a few weeks ago and now my sister’s been as well. Welcome to the wonderful world of “if you’re an American expat in Europe, expect a deluge of visitors in Feb. when tickets are cheap, and none in the summer.” Not that the British summer is all “Beach Blanket Bingo” or anything. I don’t exactly blame them.

The big news is the China plan’s starting to come together, so I’m lucky in that I’ll see my sister again very soon. I will fly out to Shanghai in about 6 weeks for my first ever China visit, which will be a last hurrah for her before she repatriates to the US this summer (at least for now, I have a feeling she’ll feel the lure of expat life again some time). Sis and I spent many hours with the guidebook, a handy printed table I made with the dates of my visit, and maps a-plenty trying to figure out how much of this amazing country I’ll be able to see in 12 days. My goal was to be sure to catch the obvious “must see” places but still add a few interesting destinations that she had not yet seen. I’ll keep you posted. There will be photos. The trip will be shorter than my maiden Australia voyage (already over a year ago, shocking!) so I don’t know if I’ll manage to beat my record of over 1000 photos on a single trip, but I’ll try 🙂 Memory’s cheap and my new camera rules.

A highlight of my sister’s visit was actually another blog-friend-meet-up with Kat from 3 bedroom bungalow–Kat and I have discovered that there is a neutral location between our two towns of residence that is relatively easy to reach for both of us. I’m half tempted to move there. In my newly-adopted role as Aunt to Kat’s kids, I feel like it would benefit us all if I was closer to them. So my sister got to see that I have actual flesh-and-bones friends in the UK, and I got to spend time with my sister AND Kat AND Kat’s little ones all in one cathedral-packed afternoon, which also included a playground as shown here. Who misses the exuberance of childhood when you see this photo?

On being an ‘Auntie’

When I was a child of about 9 years old, I met the person who was the adoptive ‘Uncle’ through my formative years. He was called that to me, ‘Uncle Dave’ and he was a work friend of my father’s. I was a budding engineer, thus illustrating that I knew very early what my job in the future was going to be. He was a PhD mathematician, and I know he was put into my direct path by my father to encourage me to stay with maths and to pursue this technical stuff as a career. He and his wife were childless by choice, as am I, and we developed a special relationship that lasted well into my late 20s before circumstances drove us apart. There was a special thing when I was a kid, whereas we as a family used to go out with Uncle Dave and his wife, always for pizza. An interesting factoid that will be important later. On the back of a napkin, Uncle Dave explained to child-me the concept of a “googol” which was not a search engine, but a number–10 raised to the power of 100. A very large number. And there was a “googol plex” or 10 raised to the power of a googol. Again, a very large number. But not infinity. And we spent time discussing the concept of infinity in pizza joints across America as people moved and things changed. (And now the search engine behemoth’s headquarters is called the Googleplex, which is not an accident but a geeky play on words found amusing by those of us who find such things amusing.)

In the early days, before I called him ‘Uncle’ and before I freely acknowledged how important he was to me, I called him my mentor. When email was new in the early nineties, and I was at University, Uncle Dave and I re-connected and he continued to be my mentor, but our fondness for each other developed and we had a true friendship that continued up to about the time that I moved to the UK, or just after. It was a completely intellectual meeting of the minds and it mattered a great deal to me. Unfortunately I think the last time we communicated much was a few years ago now. By that time, I had a PhD degree of my own and an exciting new job and a physical distance from much of what I left behind in the US. For various reasons, we’ve drifted apart completely and have not been in touch in recent years; he nears (if is not already at) the retirement age, and I’ve been remarkably busy and distracted trying to forge this career of mine. I’m sad about this loss of communication with someone who was a factor in my life for literally 20 years, but also strangely philosophical. Sometimes a person appears in your life to play a key role and then drifts out again. Life is complicated, and unpredictable. But when people ask how I ended up where I am, both literally and figuratively, one of the answers is always ‘Uncle’ Dave, who I credit as a mentor and a friend, not to mention a special person who was there for me, listening to me when I was yet a child and continuing to discuss the world with me when I was struggling with adulthood and the realities of grown-up life.

I feel a strange sense of history repeating itself, but now with me potentially in the ‘Auntie’ role. I’ve become quite attached to fellow expat blogger Kat‘s kids (the kids are known as Lala and Kiki, in internet anonymity terms). When I think about it, it’s the closest attachment I’ve had to any small children since I was babysitting in junior high school, literally 20 years ago. Coincidentally, we’ve had pizza most of the times that we’ve all been together, including two outings to kid-friendly Pizza Express (although the kids don’t get why there is so much sauce and so little cheese on the pizza here compared with American pizza) and a Domino’s delivery up at Kat’s place. Although being with them does not encourage any maternal feelings in me, I connect with these kiddos in a way that I never could have imagined. My ‘Uncle Dave’ knew that I was struggling with the realization that I had no desire to bear my own children but he always told me how fun it was to be an ‘Uncle’ and to watch the development of young minds–and that I should not discount the importance of children in my life even if I did not wish to have my own kids. I don’t think I quite understood what he was saying until now. And I’m really enjoying it. And I’m really hoping that I get to be a part of Kiki’s and Lala’s lives for another 19 or so years (at least!) and in the way that my Uncle Dave was a part of 20 of my formative years.