Category Archives: EU


I’m just under a week from my annual return to my home town, Minneapolis, MN, for a visit. And I’m absolutely gutted that I don’t make these visits last as long as I should. I always visit MSP in August or September in conjunction with my annual proper beach holiday, in which I laze on the North Carolinian Outer Banks and hope that hurricanes will not come. Perhaps nearly five years abroad has made me miss home that much more.

One of the things I love about going “home” is the food. The foodie culture in Minneapolis is amazing, and it’s been changing so much since I lived there. So my trip will be filled with awesome eating and I have a brief trip filled with restaurant reservations. I’m still saddened by the loss of my favorite local restaurant, the no longer in existance Bayport Cookery, but I have plans to try and see and taste as much as I can in my short not-quite-a-week in town. I spent tonight, yes, a Saturday evening, reading restaurant reviews in City Pages dreaming of my days to be spent in the Mill City and near my old haunts.

I was, as readers of this blog would know, in the US last week for work, at a conference in Maine during which I worked like crazy and basically exhausted myself. I returned to an England that seems to be in the midst of an immigration crisis that I have a difficult time explaining or understanding. America has an immigration crisis, but it’s one to do with illegal immigration. Legal immigration is not something you see much about in the US press, except in the context of the success stories: immigrants who have settled in the states and started companies and succeeded. Britain, on the other hand, seems to be in a legal migration crisis where the idea that anyone from anywhere outside the EU might want to live here on a relatively permanent basis is toxic. This goes back to the unfortunate refrain of “British jobs for British workers” that has tainted the spirit here for the last few years.

Being American, and being only a third generation American (both of my grandmothers were first generation Americans and spoke European languages, Norwegian and Dutch) I find this rhetoric confusing and, well, hostile. UK immigration rules are tightening all of the time, and it’s been a constant worry in my years living here. Although I am subject to the rules that were in place when I arrived in this country nearly 5 years ago, it’s hard not to notice that people in my position would be discouraged from even entering the country for work purposes in the new rules being drafted. If they were allowed to come here, it would be temporary as the guidance is meant to refuse rights of permanent residency to new immigrants in jobs.

I spent the better part of this afternoon today on the phone with my favorite expat friend, the only person I know from the US who is, like me, a single, working, expat with a less-than-clear plan for the future based on the difficulties of living abroad and the lack of clarity surrounding long-term plans when you are in this situation. And here is where I become rather jaded. Had I married a Brit, the path would be clear. But as a single woman who happens to have a job working outside the US, it’s a bit muddled. The immigration people seem to be far more at ease about spouses than about people who have a job and thus contribute to the tax base and the economy in general (and without being a burden on the welfare system by definition). This mystifies me, and makes me slightly crazy at times.

I’m excited to be going “home” to Minneapolis and then to the beach, as I will spend three happy weeks in the US being less worried about my future as if I was in the UK. Several people have joked that I should apply for jobs equivalent to mine in Canada, as they do not seem to have the skilled immigrant situation sorted as a “problem” the way the UK does. But I have a great job here in England, that is on paper a contract for many years (until “the retirement age” which could mean forever) but that is only if the UKBA allows me to stay here by ratifying my immigration paperwork. I head “home” with a big question mark over my head and a lot of confusion in my heart. It’s hard to plan for forever in a country that is spending so much time making it clear that I am not wanted. But I love my job here and I have no desire to make a change when it really comes down to it. I’m homesick because I miss the days when I spent zero time worrying about these sorts of things. Of all the expat surprises I was not expecting when I moved abroad, the amount of time spent both worrying about and doing extra paperwork that locals don’t have to do is certainly the biggest. I still maintain that more people should do this and should get the experience of living abroad, but I increasingly understand why a temporary stint is more appealing than my sort of long-term situation. Here’s hoping that the time in the US will give me strength to continue with this battle when I return, and have to face the immigration paperwork with my full attention.

Life in the UK

Have you ever been so caught up in the tedium and details of doing something that the full magnitude of what you are doing does not sink in until hours later? Yeah, that’s me today. I took (and fortunately PASSED!) the UK citizenship test this afternoon. Now I am not actually applying to be a subject of the Queen at this point (I can’t yet) but I did have to pass the test for my application for permanent residency in the UK, which has to be submitted soon. This is just sinking in.

Now I know I have made many long blog posts about my 5-year work visa expiring and the fact that I have to do this, so it’s not like it is a big surprise that I am applying for permanent residency in the UK. My job was made permanent a few months ago, and that was important too. But at the moment, a few hours after the test and now that the details are not as important as they were all week, the magnitude of this is just starting to settle in.

I always go back to the fact that I had not been outside North America (and I’ve still not been to Mexico so that’s just the US and Canada) until I was nearly 25, and I’m now relatively established in England, having lived here nearly 5 years, at the ripe old age of 35. I’m on my third flat in the UK, I basically know how to get around and function in daily life (and let’s not dwell on all of the things that I did not anticipate about trying to navigate daily life in England after having lived 30 years in the US, it’s mostly here on this blog in the archives!) and I know that I would have a difficult time if I moved back to the US now, as I’m quite accustomed to (and quite like) my life in the UK.

Which brings us back to today. It was a long day. After a long week. I booked the “Life in the UK” test for today nearly 3 weeks ago. Last Saturday, not quite a week ago, I spent the entire day learning UK trivia, and I then spent parts of Sunday, a few hours each night that I could this week, and then two hours last night and an hour on the train this morning studying. Now I hate to sound smug about this, but it was a lot of hours to spend memorizing UK demographic statistics for someone with a PhD in Physics and who is a native speaker of the English language. I was, thus, quite glad that I passed, because it would have been rather humiliating to have had the opposite result. It would have also been careless. Because no matter how seemingly silly it was that I had to memorize facts like “there are 5.1 million UK citizens in Scotland” and “1% of UK citizens are Hindu” and “45% of ethnic minorities in the UK live in London” (NB this is not giving away any information about the test itself, this is merely a recounting of the facts in the book that you have to study in order to take the test) I had to put a lot of hours into it. This was a serious test, and it required preparation. And taking the test today was a full-day effort, since I had to travel nearly an hour by train to take it, and the fact that the test is formally only 45 minutes long (or much less) does not prevent the process from taking far longer than that. From the time I left my home this morning to the time I was back in my office this afternoon was 6.5 hours. Yes I had time to do some reading for work during the process, but when a friend told me to devote the entire day, she was giving me really good advice. Losing a work day is not something to take un-seriously, so perhaps that was a good lesson.

I’m glad it’s over, because I have a day job to get back to, not to mention some massive forms to fill out to finish this process of residency application now that I have the “pass” certificate. And I’m sure when that’s over I’ll feel another wave of strangeness over the fact that I’ve actually applied to live in the UK permanently, that I have a job here that is permanent and that I have no plans for any other alternative.

A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

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.

Adult woes and decisions

I awoke this morning in a paralyzing blind panic. For some reason, the fact that I am at a serious crossroads in my life just hit me all at once. Now admittedly part of this panic was clearly initiated by the subconscious, in that I had been dreaming that I was at a bakery and simply could not decide which delectable item to buy. And I also spent a bit of time yesterday chatting with my recently-repatriated sister about the pros and cons of being back in the US. So perhaps it is not such a surprise that I had life decisions on the brain. Plus, as of last weekend I have been in the UK for 4 years, which means my shiny work permit visa with a five year lifetime is fast coming to an end. There is thus paperwork to do. Mounds of paperwork. The very thought of which makes it sound like a really good idea to hightail it back to the US into some job where I have the right to work for life without more paperwork. And where, truth be told, I have a far greater support network than I have now, even after four years of living here. Listening to my sister’s tales of woe after two months in her new job and new city reminded me that after four years I’m really not that much better off in some crucial ways.

Generally speaking, being an immigrant has been harder than I expected. And I could not have predicted how much more uncomfortable it would be under the coalition government that now rules Britannia. I am very much aware of the fact that I am a non-EU citizen. Somehow, all of my other colleagues at work in this status have managed to claim EU citizenship through a relative or spouse, and so I am really alone in my worries about being a foreigner. Although I have been generally in favor of the reforms the new government has been introducing (my American-ness perhaps means that I was shocked to hear that all persons with children get handouts from the government regardless of income just for having children) I really hate the culture of “British jobs for British workers” and feel slightly expendable. This week marks the mammoth spending review in the UK, in which every sector of employment (read: nearly everyone) expects to be hit with cuts that will affect our jobs and our lives. VAT is about to rise, and as such everything we buy is about to become 2.5% more expensive. And I just moved out of work-subsidized housing into the private sector and am literally paying the price.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that I woke up sweating over being a single, employed, non-EU migrant living in the UK. And softly singing The Clash to myself:

Should I stay or should I go now

If I go there will be trouble

If I stay it will be double

The indecision’s killing me

Britain and the Burqa

Two weeks ago, when travelling on the tube in London, I saw a girl wearing a niqab (face covering veil) in person for the first time. (For the pictorial explanation of face-covering veils, such as the niqab and burqa, and headscarves, such as the hijab, the BBC has a great slideshow, linked in this article.) The girl was travelling in a group of three, with two young gentlemen, and they had clearly all been out shopping. They got on the tube and the boys indicated for the girl to sit down while they remained standing close by even though there were free seats on either side of her plus others in the tube car. They rode the tube for only a few stops and all got off together, carrying their high street shopping bags.

The issue of facial veiling has been a hot topic across Europe of late. The grounds for a ban range all the way from public security to women’s rights. France recently passed the first stages of legislation to ban face-covering attire in public, and there has been a pretty serious debate raging in Britain on the same topic. Various voices have called face covering “against the British way of life” while others have said banning face-covering would be “un-British”. Not being British, I have a hard time reading into the nuances of what “British” means in these competing contexts–clearly everyone wants things not to be “un-British” but people are having a hard time defining what exactly that means since the argument is being used on both sides of the debate.

David Mitchell published a rather screechy commentary on the topic today in the Observer. (Seriously, Mr. Mitchell, do you not have an editor there at ye olde Guardian corp. to fix errors of grammar like saying “I should not of done this!” when you mean “I should not have done this!”) His view seems to be that of the “banning the veil would be un-British” sort and he has some pretty harsh commentary for the large (his number) 67% of Brits that support such a ban.

Before I go any farther, let me first comment on the repeated statements from the Tory MP trying to forward veil-banning legislation, that people just don’t cover their faces in public in Britain because it affects their ability to communicate. Without coming down on either side of this debate, I could not help but giggle at the fact that face covering only seems to be extreme in Britain because the climate is so darned mild. Back in Minnesota, come January or thereabouts, all people male and female tend to cover their faces in public due to necessity:

I don’t know why the young dear is not wearing MITTENS, however–normally that would be a requirement when a face-scarf was also required!

Of course, people in Minnesota also routinely wear balaclavas (a.k.a. ski masks) for the same warmth-inducing purposes. And I’m just using Minnesota as an example, there are many other places around the world where people are accustomed to extremely cold weather and where the only exposed skin on display is right around the eyes.

My point overall (and I do have one) is that covering one’s face is not universally considered to be a threatening thing; there are many of us quite accustomed to only being able to see someone’s eyes when they are out and about. And yes, I recognize that it’s different talking about frostbite avoidance and religious modesty. So does the facial veil on a muslim woman make me uncomfortable? Yes, but only in the context of the way it is associated with the separateness of women, such as the episode I described at the beginning of this post, in which the girl was set apart from her male companions and left to sit alone while they chatted to each other. And in this context, just as in many other difficult debates, I think a ban would be too inflammatory, and is the wrong way to bring about positive social change. But it’s going to be an interesting few months watching this one play out here in the UK.

Since my last post…

I last wrote from London, where I was on my way to Horsham to hang with one of my favorite mixed-nationality couples, Mike and Shonagh. Horsham was lovely, and deserves a post of its own when I get around to it. That was Saturday. Then Sunday I spent all day packing. Monday I had a visitor all day at work and then had helpers move the first set of stuff to my new flat. Tuesday I had to go to Germany. Wednesday I had to have an all day work meeting in Germany, and then my return was an absolute nightmare. That will not get its own post as I’m still traumatized and wish to forget the whole thing. Except the part where I made a new friend on the airplane. Which was its own little bit of awesome in what was otherwise the worst day of 2010 so far. But the key bit is that the story of Germany ends with my getting home finally at 3 am. Which then ruined today, because I slept through my 11 am and subsequent meetings, only waking up at 1:30 pm. Oops.

But today was good, because first the proper movers (as opposed to members of my team who happen to own cars that have lots of room for boxes in them) came to do the appraisal of my moving costs, so the final process will be underway shortly, and then I went to the new digs to try and get at least a little bit organized before my Mom/Mum arrives tomorrow from Minnesota. We will be staying at the new place, with its shower.

Because the “real” move hasn’t happened yet, and my hideaway bed/couch is still in the old digs, I shelled out £30 on this:

Knowing my mom, we will fight over who “gets” this as opposed to the real bed. I will never forget the time my over 80 year old grandmother (Mom’s mom) came to visit me in Michigan and absolutely insisted that SHE sleep on the inflatable bed. Now admittedly the other choice was a waterbed (this was NOT my place we were staying at, it was my ex’s parents’) so perhaps that was sensible, but it always makes me smile when I remember it. Because if any one story described my grandmother perfectly, this is it (well, not just that part–the whole visit. Maybe that should be a blog post soon.)

So I wandered around the flat this evening, enjoying these:

The new dishes were my housewarming gift to myself. Because that’s just the kind of girl I am. And so OF COURSE they needed to be washed after coming out of the boxes. Cue new dishwasher. Yay!

The last six months have been absolutely manic and I am really run down at the moment. I’m so pleased that soon I will be nesting in my new flat, spending weeks tweaking the furniture arrangements and what goes where in the kitchen cupboards. Because things like the Germany trip really have been getting to me. I never have time to think any more, it’s always GO GO GO GO GO. Act. Play a role. The role of science diva, except that science diva does not get time to do any science when she’s so busy acting the role of science diva. This must stop.

Mom arrives at Heathrow at noon tomorrow, and we have a jam-packed weekend of fun lined up. Friday night, we will be unpacking boxes and organizing my kitchen, lining shelves in my closets (multiple closets!) and starting to get the place in shape. I know, fun vacation for my Mom! But I have this feeling there will be wine and giggling and that actually she will love it. Saturday we will be at a top secret super-important event, which was the motivation for her trip. Sunday we’re going to see “Legally Blonde” on the West End, because what is more “Mother and Daughter weekend” than that? And Monday she goes back to America and I go back to work, with a 3-day visit from my favorite ex-employee. The next few weeks are going to continue to be busy, with trips to Newcastle and Singapore, before things finally calm down and I get my annual beach holiday/visit to Minnesota trip. And after that, I’ve declared a moratorium on travel and I’m going to hang out in my new flat and that’s it. Because I’m weary and I need to get back to basics. And basics had better involve fewer instances of 2 am Stansted immigration queues and more instances of my feeling calm and happy and productive.

Swiss Cheese

Written from the Basel airport before I got ‘home’ to the UK, thankfully, a few hours ago…

After all of the travel eventfulness of the last few weeks (volcanic ash cloud, BA strike) I was looking forward to a mostly uneventful and brief trip to Switzerland for work. The trip was supposed to happen last month but fell right in the edge of the volcanic ash cloud adventure: it turned out that my flight would have been amongst the first European flights out of the UK if I had taken it, so perhaps I should have just taken the trip last month. But I didn’t, and here I was, hoping for a miracle…

As for my uneventful trip? It sort of happened. The most eventful part, in the end, was the flight out of the UK. I had been scheduled on a 2 pm flight to Geneva, but it (and my return flight) were cancelled. Then the BA strikes were called off, and BA called ME to offer to reinstate my trip. Sure, no problem. They put me on an 11:40 am flight. NB this was Tuesday, the trip was due to be Wed. (the strike was due to start Tuesday before it was called off late Monday). Trek to Heathrow Wed. morning to find that they had overbooked the 11:40 and they wanted me to just wait and see. I was more than mildly annoyed. I called their hotline (the BA toll-free number is now burned on my brain) and they told me to go back up and try again, that there was a snafu in the system. No such luck, actually, but when I asked about the 2 pm flight they said it was not full. I asked if I could just offer to take that one instead of hanging around the Heathrow main doors (outside security, since i had no boarding pass) and it turned out that was not as straightforward as I would have thought. They did, eventually, relent and gave me a boarding pass for 2 pm. I popped through security and went into the lounge to wait a few hours. Now I was on my way, but perhaps understandably nervous about the return flight. They had not been able to get me on anything out of Geneva, so I was due to leave Basel (from where I write this now). They said I should call back on Thursday to see if I could get anything from Geneva, as they were reinstating flights now that the strike was called off.

That would have been fine, except as anyone following this story would know, the courts in Britain upheld a union appeal and the strike was allowed to continue. Fortunately for me, not with immediate effect: it will start Monday. But as a result, no extra Friday evening Geneva flights, although at least they promised me I did have a seat from Basel. I was skeptical, after my arrival at Heathrow Wed. morning but what choice did I have? Regardless, it took over 20 minutes on hold with BA on Thursday night to ascertain all of this, the lines being clogged with the people whose plans for next week were now derailed due to the re-instated strike.

Now I should have known there was a problem with Wednesday’s flight on Tuesday night, when I could not do BA online check-in. Fortunately for me, this morning the online check-in for the Basel flight did work, which gave me confidence to spend two and a bit hours in transit to Basel (instead of the much-closer Geneva). I got to see more of the Swiss countryside from their fabulous, silent, and extremely smooth and comfortable trains, and as far as I can tell a flight intends to take off from here with me on it, in just over an hour.

In the midst of all of this travel chaos, I managed to have a fantastic trip to Switzerland. This country might well, and quickly, take over from Germany as my favorite work travel destination within the continent. As far as I can tell, both have largely excellent public transport and fantastic people working in my field. This was only my second Swiss trip, while I’ve been to Germany on more occasions than I can currently remember. It’s interesting, too–work has never taken me to France, Spain, Belgium, or any part of Scandinavia. Work has once taken me to the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece (Crete), Hungary, Austria and Ireland. (And Scotland, but I never know if that counts.) But work looks likely to take me back to Switzerland again in the future, and I will go enthusiastically.

Part of this enthusiasm can be attributed to my work colleagues here, both of whom worked with me in England for various times (2 years and 6 months) and who returned to Switzerland, where they were before they worked with me. (For completeness, one is Italian, the other is Swiss.) So work with people you know that well (and thus consider ‘professional friends’ as opposed to just colleagues) is always more interesting than work with total strangers or casual work acquaintances. And in this particular case, we’re all close to the same age and stage of career, and thus we have even more in common. This dynamic also means that the work-related socializing is much more fun and relaxing than it would otherwise be when traveling.

So last night we relaxed over a fantastic pot of Gruyere fondue:

and a few interesting beverages, including one that I had never tried before:

We talked about life and careers and immigration and politics and England and Europe and the future and everything else. It was great. These trips, when done right, always leave me with a sense of the possible and of hope for the future. I need this badly, especially when the daily grind is making me lose my perspective on such things. The meetings during the day were extremely productive, my next few weeks are amazingly quiet and I should be able to follow through with the promises I made to get some things done. Which is good for all of us.

So in the end, I leave Basel on a note of great optimism and enthusiasm and with hopes for a return trip to Switzerland in the not-too-distant-future. It was a trip that was good for my soul. But next time, it’s Eurostar and TGV all the way. No more flying to places I can get to by rail. This is supposed to be the beauty of Europe, and I’m not taking advantage of it. It was a close call for a trip this short, but next time I’ll stay a few extra days and see more of this beautiful country.

Greetings from remote western Germany

I never learn. Twice now I’ve had to come to a workshop in Germany immediately after having spent a weekend in Paris. At least last time it was Munich and an easy and familiar trip; I’m in the middle of nowhere right now. Which means this is the second time I’ve agreed to speak at a workshop in Germany in the middle of nowhere (the other time there was no recent Paris trip, though). And random middle of nowhere Germany adventures present me with the rare opportunity to drive in Europe, which is truly a silver lining for me. This one was actually worse than the last one, in that I had to drive about 250 km (see, I really meant REMOTE Germany) instead of 120 km. But it was better because I had miss bossy pants to tell me where to go, so the driving stress was relatively low. (Relatively but not totally, more on that in a minute.) That’s right, for the first time ever I rented a talking GPS unit along with the car, and left myself completely at its mercy to find my hotel.

This only really occurred to me about half way through the trip–the fact that I was being perhaps a bit too trusting. The roads seemed awfully narrow and windy and everything was so very dark around me. Now that I look at the map I can see what must have happened: miss bossy pants took me on the most direct route, which happened to be through the middle of a “Naturpark” instead of staying on the main roads and going way out of my way but on big, well-lit and well-traveled 4+ lane roads, the way Google maps would have had me do. Which is all well and good except that somewhere in the middle of said “Naturpark” it started pouring. So it was winding and dark and hilly and narrow and pissing down. And my rental car was a Citroen, which I had never driven before. And oh yes right in the middle of all of this miss bossy pants started complaining that her batteries were low. I actually had to pull over into a trucker rest stop parking area to sort that one out. Finding (a) the cable, (b) the port to plug the cable in on the GPS unit, and (c) the whatever-you-now-call-the-thing-that-used-to-be-the-cigarette-lighter in the car proved to be too much to do while driving. And of course prior to those three one had to locate the car’s dome light switch. Exciting times. I had a flashback to my Aussie adventure of just over a year ago, when we were out on dirt tracks in the bush in a Hyundai with no extra water and I was sure we were going to end up in some Blair Witch Project-like hopeless situation and be found dead years later. It occurred to me today in said “Naturpark” that perhaps I should not have been doing this drive solo especially at night. But then again, it’s all just part of life’s adventure. And miss bossy pants did do a great job, got me right up to the door of my hotel in 3 hours total, even if I have issues with her route selection given the conditions.

And why was I doing this in the dark, one might reasonably ask. And the answer is that I have a headcold and managed to sleep through my alarm this morning, thus missing my 8 am flight. I was awoken by the car service who normally take me to the airport. But this was 6:30 am, and I was supposed to be picked up at 6. I’ll never know why they waited 30 minutes to ring, as if they had rung earlier I might have made the flight. As it was, even with 10 minutes only to jump into some clothes and grab my previously-packed (thank goodness!) bag, when I got down to the car the driver gave me a less than 10% chance of making it and I gave him some money for his troubles and went back upstairs to try and decide what to do. As tempted as I was to listen to the little shoulder devil and just bag the trip entirely (and not tell anyone, such that I would have three whole days to myself to get work done with no meetings!), the little angel sitting on the other shoulder reminded me that doing things like this was actually my JOB and I should probably get my act together and figure out another way to Germany. A quick browse on showed that there was a direct BA flight from Heathrow at 1:40, which left me about an hour to get organized to leave for the much longer trip (8 am would have been from a much closer airport). Fortunately I was able to use my BA silver status to buy the flight with mostly miles instead of cash, so it was not a huge financial hit and of course I can sail through priority check-in and security for that reason too. So I left London about 6 hours later than planned, which led to me driving through the “Naturpark” in the dark. Not exactly ideal. But fortunately for my return trip on Friday afternoon that should not be necessary. I doubt even I could miss a flight at 7 pm.

Which brings me to my next realization. I wonder if the stress dreams about missing flights will stop now that it’s actually happened? For years I’ve had anxiety dreams tied to running through airports and being stressed out about timing. Once at Gatwick my name was paged on the overhead system to “please report to the gate immediately” but that had been the closest thing to actually missing a flight as I had ever experienced. So maybe the fact that I did miss a flight — and yet the world still went on and things were more or less okay but I recovered — will allow me to stop having those dreams? I used to dream about car crashes quite often, but almost ten years ago I lost loved ones in a crash and I’ve never had the dream since. I guess that’s the thing about anxiety, once something happens you know what to do and how to react and you realize that you can move on. We’ll see about this one. It would be great to stop having airport dreams. I spend enough time in airports awake! But none of this alters the fact that I have been having a harder and harder time waking up in the morning lately, and I need to put some sort of solution in place. The cell phone alarm clocks are proving too easy to ignore. And one of these days there will be more serious consequences to my not having awoken in the morning when I was supposed to. For now, to bed to nurse my head cold, a talk to give tomorrow and a return trip adventure for Friday. Then a blissfully quiet weekend to do as I please, which let’s just guess is going to involve sleeping in…

On Trains and Paris

I just looked down at my watch and realized that although I’ve been back on UK soil (from Paris) for over 24 hours, I have not yet adjusted my watch. I managed to get through the work day–and a busy 12-hour one at that–without ever looking at more than the minute hand. It was practical, as there were meetings at various points throughout the day (o’clock, :15, :30 etc.) and I roughly knew what hour it was from the computer clocks and/or the other physical clocks in the rooms around me. But I shall now change my watch back before I make a big mistake tomorrow. Or I’ll leave it tomorrow since I have to leave for Germany early Wednesday morning. We’ll see. It’s that time of year. Insane European travel phase for me, when the watch changes take place more often than any sane person would like.

I had, as ever, a lovely time in Paris. I am quite enamoured of the fact that I can get there by train. So I have done it several times since I’ve lived in the UK. Plus once to Belgium. But it’s hard to shake the fact that Eurostar is a bit of a mess at the moment. Compared with flying, and this can not be emphasized enough, it is a dream. But I did have a bit of an adventure on my return trip. Some details appear here, although it was not quite the full story. I arrived for my train, about 75 minutes in advance of check-in (always more than enough in the past) and found that they had closed check-in for Eurostar completely, and there was a magnificent queue full of clueless people. The only overhead announcement stated that “due to an earlier security incident, check-in for the 19:13 train (mine) would be delayed” and it took some time to put facts together and realize that the train two earlier than mine still had not left the station. I will never know the truth, but the gossip was that there was an abandoned bag issue that caused security to be shut down temporarily, and departures had been halted completely for some number of minutes. I dutifully joined the queue, as I was instructed to by a young Brit who lives in Paris and hates the French. More on that in a moment.

The queue was by this point spectacular, stretching across the entire Eurostar upper level platform, down the stairs, curling around the Gare du Nord main level, out the door, and back in again, and circling round the platform at ground level. I tried to take photos but they did not do the queue justice. After some time of standing completely still, operations eventually resumed and the queue went from a stand-still to a slow crawl. Where it continued for the better part of 2.5 hours, in my case. The only information coming to us in the queue was from a “telephone game” network of others in the queue repeating what they had heard from others. Those travelling in a party of several (myself excluded) had the luxury of sending someone up the queue to try and figure out what was going on. I relied on the kindness of strangers and Twitter. So we waited. After two hours in the queue, sensible announcements started to come over the PA, but only after a Brit in line next to me had talked to the managers while his wife/partner held the place in line and told us what was really transpiring. We would be loaded onto trains in the order we were placed in the queue, with no regard for original seat assignments, so they could get us through and to London as fast as possible.

For the most part, aside of the information gap, I was quite impressed with how they handled the problem. They clearly had a system in place. I was given a new seat assignment, and an assignment for boarding to the “white” train (as opposed to the yellow or blue one) and once I had this magical sticker, after standing in the queue for 2.5 hours, I proceeded through immigration and security faster than I recall doing at the Paris end previously. (They need to upgrade their facilities a bit to compete with the relative efficiency on the British end, where the facilities at St. Pancras are all new and quite spacious. And who thought I’d ever be complimenting British efficiency on this blog!) I ended up on a differently scheduled train from the one I was supposed to be on, but the schedule had pretty much been thrown out the window by this point and we were all just trying to get back to the UK.

And here’s where I got lucky. By being at the station in Paris at the time I arrived, and by joining the massive queue when I did, I avoided the catastrophe of the train that died outside of London and had to be rescued. That was the train directly after the one I landed on. So my 90 minute delay in arriving started to look good in comparison. I actually wonder if I saw the ‘rescue’ train depart St. Pancras, since there was a completely empty Eurostar train leaving right as we arrived at 22:something, which would be consistent with the stories that went around in the press today.

I’m not going to pretend the experience was pleasant. Being in a 2.5 hour queue was hard on the feet. Being alone meant there was no opportunity to get a drink of water or visit the conveniences. Abandoning my luggage to do so was not an option, since that was the original issue that caused the delay in the first place. At one point I did step out for 10 feet to grab a landing card for UK immigration, but only after securing the services of a friendly co-queue person to watch my bag and know my intentions. I was away for all of 30 seconds, and I can assure you that the queue did not move.

Part of my interest in this occasion was in people-watching the other passengers. Directly in front of me in the queue was a British woman who appeared to be travelling with 5 children under the age of 13, and they caused some chaos. Going up the stairs to the Eurostar platform was a particular adventure, as she maneuvered an empty stroller/pram (MacLaren, of course) while the ~2 year old child ran up and down and occasionally screamed bloody murder. At one point the ~ 8 year old kid tried to (and did) pick up the ~ 2 year old on the stairs, thus risking an early death for both of them or us should we all tumble down. The mother seemed uninterested in the cries of the ~2 year old. The eldest, a young teenager, struggled with two enormous wheeled bags on the stairs. An ~ 10 year old had another. Good Samaritans around me tried to take over, sensing the imminent disaster, but the children were determined to prevail and the mother was disinterested in assistance. I was stunned. I am not a parent, but the risk of grievous bodily harm to the many assembled children seemed higher than I would normally expect to see in this sort of situation, not to mention the potential chaos if one of these little urchins did actually fall down the stairs with the full brunt of their weight + gravity creating inertial loading for the many of us standing down the queue. It was an interesting evening.

Another interesting observation was in the constant disparaging remarks made about the French by the British people around me. I have no strong feelings in this regard. But my experience here in the UK has led me to believe that there is truly a love-hate relationship going: the Brits I meet are either enthusiastic Francophiles, speaking the language and spending every possible spare moment in France, or people who completely detest everything about France, the French, and everything related. I admit, I’m standing from the distance of an American placed in the situation I was in. I would have liked it if the Eurostar staff or the Gare du Nord staff more generally had explained what was going on–but of course, I had my iPhone and turned on Twitter and talked to people around me and that was worth more than 100 PA announcements over the loudspeaker. But I thought the French staff handled the situation quite well, with the exception of the information dissemination. And the Brits in my immediate surrounds who clearly were prejudiced to hating the French already, they were not so generous. I have not heard such bitterly nationist (I hesitate to use the word ‘racist’ in this context even though popular in Euro-speak when referring to countries, especially given the common history of the Normans) thoughts expressed in such clear and direct language in quite a while. Some Brits around me really seemed to have a problem with the French. Which begs the question of why they were there IN FRANCE trying to catch a train for Britain.

In the end, I got home. I was about 2 hours later than intended, but I figure compared with typical flight delays, it is quite worth it to travel by train. My trip back was not too unpleasant, and I’ll head to Paris on the Eurostar again. Probably soon. It’s becoming my favorite ‘Escape from England’ tactic due to the fact that I’m loving trying out my high school 3 years of French on poor unsuspecting waiters in cafes across the city. I had my new camera and thus an excuse to try and do the city justice, which I most certainly did not. But I tried. This trip, I went to the Louvre and inside Notre Dame, both of which were new to me. I loved the former, and could not believe I had waited so long to see it. The museum is worth the price of admission just for the building, even if there were no Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa. The latter, I’ll pass. Notre Dame no longer felt like a church, it was such a tourist trap and I did not enjoy it much. Although I was staying near the Eiffel Tower, I still did not manage to get up onto the highest levels of it, so I have an excuse to go back to Paris yet again, hopefully soon.