Category Archives: culture

Public displays

Not of affection, but of religion. I stumbled on the recent hubbub over an American football player, Tim Tebow, who likes to pray a lot during a game. A fan decided his pose was one for the internet meme world, and started a hilarious website called “Tebowing” where people pose in the same style (like “The Thinker”). Now part of the joke is that you are doing this while everyone else around you is doing their normal thing… like playing a football game, or in the case of the internet meme people, a wide variety of things to various degrees of hilarity.

The problem is, at the moment there is a contingent of the American public and press who are pretty upset about the fact that two players in last week’s opposing side also struck the Tebowing pose when they had managed to get on the right side of defensive plays where Tebow was humiliated. See articles here and here. The quarterback himself seems to be generally in good spirits about the entire thing, and is not the one criticizing the opposing players.

Now I, as I said, find this amusing and was hoping to find a friend to join in the fun and do some photographs in front of major English landmarks to submit to the site. I have a few ideas as to which of my American-in-the-UK friends might be up for this sort of chicanery! But I also have really strong feelings about the entire phenomenon. Whenever religious expression supposedly involves very public actions, I cringe a bit. I consider religion or spirituality to be a very personal thing. I consider prayer, especially, to be a very personal thing. So this kneeling in the end zone thing is something that I would typically consider affectatious and for the benefit of the observers, not related to the spiritual interior of the person putting on the show. But interestingly enough, in America, and especially in American football, this is a widely accepted practice. This is one of those places where I’m more comfortable in my local environment than in my native one. Maybe I really am becoming European.

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As the sixth year starts…

I have been terribly busy. My 5-years-in-the-UK anniversary was two weeks ago today, and it already seems like a distant memory. My job has a fiscal year that starts in October, as perhaps could be inferred from the fact that that’s when I started 5 years ago, and that means the first few weeks of October are always absolute madness.

Because of this, I have not really had much time to think and reflect about my five years here. Some things have become quite normal and commonplace, while some things are as surprising to me as the day I arrived. I thought I might try to make a list. We’ll see how that goes. Feel free to chime in with suggestions. And you can tell that I’m a hobby blogger and not someone worried about a “brand” or “numbers” or anything because although there are posts about most of these things on this site, I am too lazy to try and dig up the appropriate links!

Things that still surprise me after 5 years in England.

  • Two tap sinks. Still totally useless IMHO, especially as a hand washing sink in my lab.
  • The way young girls dress. So much skin!
  • Public drunkenness. Which often leads to public violence and bleeding people in the street. And public urination (typically by drunk men in all three cases).
  • Cars parked facing each other. Cars parked half on the sidewalk.
  • Stephen Fry as a National Treasure. Not unrelated to… the existence of the show QI (which I watch regularly, but don’t know how to explain to people back in the states).
  • The school system. It’s so bloody complicated.
  • The fact that I have been here 5 years, am a scientist, and still have a tough time with temperatures Celsius and metric conversions of recipes.
  • The welfare state. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it.
  • The food. Try being a non-meat eater in a country whose cheffy chefs are in love with offal…
  • The language. I know from my trips back home that I say lots of utterly British things and sound very foreign to my American friends. But I also still struggle in my day-to-day life with words and accents.
  • Customer service. Or the frequent lack thereof.

Overall, I would say I’m rather well acclimated/acclimatized. Most of my appliances now are British plugged. My transformer for US appliances lives in the bottom of a closet for occasional weekend use with the one thing I have not replaced (my beloved Kitchenaid Stand mixer–I know, I should trade with someone who is heading stateside…) My closet is full of clothes acquired here instead of clothes imported from US shopping malls. Well, nearly on that last one. I still seem to occasionally come up with something that I simply cannot find here and must acquire abroad (Eddie Bauer no-iron button-down shirts, I’m looking at you!) I’m on my 4th UK cell/mobile phone and my third flat. My desktop and laptop computers were both bought here, along with much of my furniture. I love not needing to own a car, although I am seriously considering getting a UK driving license to be able to rent and explore this country that I have adopted.

For all of these reasons, I am seldom filled with the rage and frustration that characterized the early days of this blog. It’s kinda fun to go back and read the early posts, to remember where I was and how I felt back then. Life is not perfect–I am still sorely lacking in the area of good friends in my own town, but I suspect part of that is the fact that it’s quite tricky to find other 35 year olds who are childless and happy and thus share common lifestyles with mine. That would be tricky no matter where in the world I was, as I know from discussions with my fab sister both when she was living in China and now that she has repatriated to the US. I have hope that another few years will find me some improvement in that area. But overall, it’s hard to complain. Life lately really has been about day-to-day existence and rather little about being foreign, now that my residence visa is sorted and my job is in full-on crazy mode. I’m not traveling at all this fall, as I was unclear on the visa thing and so I’ve planned a few months of hanging around and enjoying my British life.

And really, I’m not complaining.

Denouement

It’s been an eventful few days. I am happy to say that on Thursday my ILR (permanent residence) visa was printed and placed in my passport. As of Saturday my previous (5-year work permit) visa expired. Sunday marked the 5 year anniversary of my arrival in the UK. And Monday (yesterday) was the day on which I was reunited with my passport containing the new visa and the stress of it all finally lifted.

In retrospect, and one can always be more calm in hindsight, I really got my undies in a bundle over something that was unlikely to be as problematic as I was imagining. I can be a tad dramatic, and somehow I had convinced myself that this was going to be a big fight. People kept telling me things like “even in the worst case scenario you’re likely to be fine” and I focussed on said worst case scenario (having the original application rejected and having to appeal) instead of concentrating on getting the paperwork right the first time. I hired a specialist, in the end, and I calculate now that this process has cost me about £2500, including the fee to get my US passport renewed in expedited fashion back in June (something I should have dealt with months earlier), the costs associated with taking the Life in the UK test, the expedited visa service fee from the UKBA (so as not to have to wait weeks to months to find out the result) and the specialist who prepared all the paperwork and provided me all the information and assistance and frankly hand-holding that I needed to make it through the entire process. And the money, at the moment, does not bother me at all as the relief I felt yesterday afternoon, as I danced up and down the corridors of my office showing my visa to anyone who happened to be around, was worth every penny/pound/whatever.

I kept saying yesterday that I was the happiest girl in all of England. I’m sure it was true. I’m still pretty darned happy today. Celebrations continue tomorrow when I have dinner with another American who recently got her similar visa, although through marriage rather than through employment. I used her books to pass the Life in the UK test and am passing them on to another friend who is getting ready to gear up for her own process.

The fact that my imagination got the better of me becomes apparent when you, gentle readers, hear that at one point in late August/early September, when I was in the US on my annual beach trip experiencing earthquakes and hurricanes, I was threatening to fly back to the UK, to quit my job and pack up my belongings and move in with my sister in Baltimore while looking for a job in the US. Anyone who has had to go through a visa process in which their life as they know it depends on the thing will understand this seemingly irrational train of thoughts. Earlier in the year I had in fact applied for a bunch of jobs back in the US, some far inferior to the one I have here in England, in the hopes that I could escape from Europe before I had to deal with this. None of this is rational. I have discovered over the years that I quite love my job and my life in England EXCEPT when I am actually back in the US, and somehow the prospect of having to deal with the visa just amplified my temporary irrationality. I have, as it happens, the sort of job that many of my colleagues would probably kill for, and as of January it’s permanent. So I needed the visa, and now I have it, and I have an amazing job for life and the ability to stay in this country and work at it and all is good. But clearly you can see from the details I am now revealing that it was a near thing for a while. My good, scientific, common-sense attitude towards life completely deserted me in the last six months whilst this visa thing was hanging over my head.

So now I sit on my couch in England with a new lease on life, a really busy time at work expected for several weeks, and my entire autumn ahead of me with very few plans. I had turned down all travel opportunities for this fall on the grounds that I would not know when I would be free to travel, so now I feel like I should jaunt off to the Continent just because I can. Totally sensible for someone who just spent nearly three months’ rent on a visa, I know. In the end, this entire process was far scarier in my head than it was in real life, and for that I am eternally grateful. England, you are winning me over.

Englishisms

I know I’ve gone quiet lately, and it’s because I’m really occupied with things that I can’t write about. So, so much for that. Nothing to say, move on. I suspect everyone who has had to deal with a residence visa knows how much you really don’t want to talk about the process while it’s ongoing.

I’ve run across a range of British words and phrases this week that have made me think “hmmm…?” so I thought I would post these in a light-hearted post that has nothing to do with the things that are making me crazy right now…

More-ish. The first time I heard this, I assumed it meant “Moorish” and was referring to some aspect of North African culture with which I was not familiar. But it turns out that it is a British word to identify things that are really tasty such that you want “more”. I like it, I’m just not clear on the distinction between “more-ish” and “tasty” or any other word for delicious. There is some subtlety here that I am not comprehending. I liked it better when I thought I just didn’t know enough about North African food to get what sorts of flavors were being discussed.

Cookery. I signed up this week for a course to learn more about baking bread, the science behind it, and how to get better at it. I might then take another course on how to bone a fish and then cook it. (This is part of my new philosophy for the world, in which I am going to take inspiration from my sister and start doing some more interesting things, like taking classes outside of work.) I was amused to realize that where I would use the term “cooking” the Brits would say “cookery”. So I am off to a class in cookery school. Full report to follow.

Plimsolls. I have to admit, I had never heard this word in regular usage, but it showed up in a post by Lynneguist last week, and once I had seen the word, I managed to run across it again–with great confusion of the “I have heard this and don’t know what it means” variety–later in the week. As far as I can tell, the meaning is “cheap tennis shoes” in American, of the sort that would never be used for much outside of fashion in the US but which are apparently the required shoes for gym class in the UK. Interesting. I think if I had been asked to run a mile in these I would have organized some sort of protest, but perhaps British gym classes do not do the same sorts of things as we did in the US in the 80s.

In work. This is an interesting one, as it seems to treat work as a noun that one can exist inside of. I suspect the American equivalent for “having a job” would simply be “working” and, as I am not a linguist, I am interested in how the two forms arose to be so very different. One often hears this in the UK (and Europe more generally) in the context of the phrase “youth unemployment,” a phrase that I have been assured is not on the radar in the US at all right now. Of course, in America we have “in school”, and just to keep things interesting in the UK we have “at Uni” so as to make sure it’s never quite consistent or obvious which words go together.

And a final one, a sign spotted on my walk home tonight: “Garage is in constant use“. I am interested in the use of the word “constant” here. While I can acknowledge that a garage should be in constant use, because it is a place to store things and one is probably always storing things in a garage, the intended meaning was of course that no one should park in front of the garage door because it might need to be used at some point (likely not constantly). I am amused.

I will end this by stating that I am not at all criticizing these Britishisms, as I–now resident in the UK for nearly five years and hoping for more years to come–am merely interested in the language. I get in mild trouble now when I’m back in the US, as I was last month, for the amazing range of British words and pronunciations that I have picked up in the last five years. This has led to an increasing fascination with language, linguists, and other things about which I am not an expert. But for the moment, it provides a very nice distraction from the things I’m worrying about, so I’ll go with it.

Milwaukee

At 9:53 am this morning, the Fedex man arrived at the door to my parents’ house and handed me a box, thus ending the nearly 48-hour saga that has completely dominated my life this week. Let’s step back to Saturday, which was the day I flew from London to the east cost of the US. I stayed overnight and caught a morning flight to Milwaukee, where I had a 90 minute layover before flying on to Minneapolis for my annual August pilgrimage to the land of my youth. I had plans, I had a car to rent, people to see, things to do. But I managed to completely cock it up in Milwaukee.

I have never been to Milwaukee, and I had never flown through Milwaukee either. I took the flight because I could not get a reasonably priced direct flight into Minneapolis (always a problem when Northwest was running the hub there, now near impossible in the age of Delta domination). I could not even get a somewhat unreasonably priced direct into MSP, a direct was going to cost me about the same as my flight to the US from Heathrow. So Milwaukee it was. I stepped off the plane in Milwaukee, headed towards my gate for the transfer to MSP, and saw a cute little sandwich and coffee shop. This being Wisconsin, they were offering grilled cheese sandwiches and I could not resist. I took my wallet out of my laptop bag to pay for the sandwich and an iced coffee, and I sat at a little table to eat. I then walked down to my gate and waited for boarding to be called. When it was, I opened my laptop bag to get my boarding pass out and realized to my absolute horror that my wallet was not there.

Somewhere between buying my grilled cheese an hour earlier and that precise moment, my wallet–containing my drivers license, credit and cash cards, and all my cash money–had gone walkabout in the Milwaukee airport. And I had absolutely no recollection of how it had happened.

I approached the gate agent for the lovely Frontier airlines and expressed my panic, and asked hopefully about a lost-and-found. He was adamant that he could not leave the door because the flight was boarding, but that I should talk to someone at the next gate over. That guy just said he hadn’t seen anything and had I tried the sandwich shop. I walked back down there and looked around, but saw nothing, and had the sinking realization that one potential scenario involved me throwing out the wallet with the remains of the sandwich, which turned out to be not that good. (Seriously, why take a perfect thing like a grilled cheese sandwich and put tomato AND chipotle mayo on it? Ruinous!) By this point it was 20 minutes until my flight was due to leave, so numbly I walked back to the gate, handed my boarding pass to the agent, and got on the plane. If I was going to be anywhere without any money, ID, or cards, better to be in Minneapolis than in Milwaukee, where I know not a soul.

The flight was mercifully short, and I made lists about who to call (credit card companies and bank) and what to do (investigate how to get a replacement drivers license when you have no picture ID on you). Wait, you might ask, where was your passport? I had quite smugly left it on the east coast, locked in a drawer for safekeeping. No need to bring it to Minneapolis where I could lose it. And thus it dawned on me, I would have to get my passport Fedexed to me because I would not be able to board the return flight from Minneapolis back east for my beach holiday with no picture ID. This was getting very messy.

We landed at Minneapolis and I turned on my phone, to see that I had a voicemail message. It was someone from the baggage handling department for Frontier airlines at the Milwaukee airport, and they had something of mine. I started shaking. I got off the plane, sat down at the gate and called him back. And here’s where the story becomes completely incredible. He had my wallet, all credit cards, and he had counted the money: “78 dollars, and oh also some pounds, you’ve been in England lately, have you?” Not a penny was missing. Someone had found my wallet and turned it in to the airport people without even taking a finders fee, which at that point I would have gladly relinquished.

The lovely boy in Milwaukee then arranged to Fedex me the wallet, in a conversation that was more than a little amusing: address? Just look at the drivers license (like all expats, I used my parents’ house as my home base). Payment for the Fedex charge? (since it was clearly my fault and not the airline’s) Dude, you’re holding my credit cards in your hand.

Relieved I started off towards the baggage claim, only to realize that at that moment I was still stuck. With no drivers license and no credit cards, I could not rent a car, and with no cash I could not get a taxi. Dang. But as I said, if you are going to be marooned anywhere and with nothing of importance, do it in your hometown. I was supposed to have dinner with a friend that night and he came and gathered me, bought me dinner, even bought the beers so I would not get carded, and then brought my back to my parents’ house that night, where I have spent the last 48 hours anxiously tracking my Fedex parcel.

I have travelled all over the world, and I have always joked that as long as you have your ID, credit card, and mobile phone nothing can go wrong. This is the first time in all my years that I have blown it with that mantra. And I’m still terribly disturbed that I have no idea how I actually lost my wallet in the first place. My sister, who has joined me in Minneapolis as of last night, thinks the whole thing is hilarious and keeps posting “Milwaukee!” as her status update on facebook. Now that I actually have my wallet back, I can finally chuckle a bit at that one.

But what an ending to the story: in a week that started with riots in London, complete with lots of looting and opportunistic theft, some good Samaritan in the Milwaukee airport was completely and utterly honest and returned my wallet completely intact. I’m utterly Gobsmacked, completely relieved, and more than just a little bit sheepish. Of course, my carefully crafted plans for the week have gone completely awry, as my trip home is already 40% over, I have no car, and did not do any of the things I planned to do yesterday. But oh well. I consider that a small thing in light of what could have been a very messy week. God bless the Midwestern USA!!!

Anglophiles ‘R’ Us?

As the dust settles on my approaching 5th anniversary of living in the UK, and I have to deal with the paperwork of applying for permanent residency, I am faced with the reality of trying to understand how I got here. And I think I might have found an answer, in the form of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (no, stay with me, really!)

I was, I confess, an Anglophile child. My favorite children’s books all took place in London. I recall the kids of “Ballet Shoes” having to walk to the V&A as something I understood long before I knew what the V&A actually was. I was obsessed with “The Secret Garden” and I had no idea what moors were.

So clearly I was a strange child, especially in Minnesota.

But I now suspect it all came to a head in the eighties when I was a primary school student at a school in Northern Virginia at which we, for some inexplicable reason, did a performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera HMS Pinafore as the school play in which I portrayed the character “Josephine”. I was 10.

If you have any reason to doubt this thesis, and I’m sure you do not, I leave you with this:

If that does not instill a sense of English patriotism in you, I don’t know what more to say.

Knowledge is Power. Or at least less fear.

I was home sick today. I’ve had a stomach bug since Saturday. I am trying very hard not to link this to the salad I had, with raw cucumbers on it, when I was having a nice pub lunch outside in the gorgeous sunshine on Friday, with my very good friend and her darling little six month old baby. And yes, it was a Friday, and I was playing a bit of hooky. My job is flexible like that. When you work late into the night many days and all day on the weekend, sometimes you can then have a nice pub lunch on a sunny Friday afternoon when your friend with the baby just happens to have the car. But I digress. So I was not feeling very well this morning, and I knew that this was probably not just the stomach bug, but a combination of the bug and that of the stress I’ve been feeling for the last few weeks over the fact that my visa expires in the second week of October and I have to apply for permanent residency.

The story actually goes back even a little further. A week ago Friday I had dinner with one of my fellow Americans, and she had just received her passport back in the mail with her permanent residence visa. She made a point of ceremoniously handing over her Life in the UK study manual for me to use for my own application process. She also made a point of heckling me for being ridiculous about how big and scary this thing had become in my own head. Sometimes good friends do things like that. They heckle you when you need it.

So I took advantage of being sick in bed this morning with my laptop and my orange juice and I bit the bullet on that thing I’ve been needing to deal with. And I downloaded the forms and the information for this application for residency. And I read them through. And I started making lists (mostly mental at the moment, but I’ll make a check-list soon) of the things I need to gather in support of my application. It’s all fairly benign, as several people have told me (but I refused to listen), and of course I now have information and know what I need to do. It’s slightly logistically complicated, because my US passport also needs to be renewed, and I have to squeeze all sorts of things in this summer where I’ll need my passport. Like taking the Life in the UK test. So it’s not over yet, but at least I know more about what I have to do. I might wake up tomorrow and, for the first time in a while, not feel sick.