Category Archives: Expat blogs

The rise of the travel blogger

I probably have just noticed this, because I am a fully employed person who admittedly travels the world, largely for work and occasionally for fun, but there seem to be a large number of bloggers out there who are engaged full time in travel blogging. And I am finding this slightly fascinating. I am not always able to pay my credit card bills in full due to my taking adventurous work trips to interesting places where I can’t quite get my trips fully funded by my work obligations, but where I decide that it’s a good idea to travel regardless because the opportunities are immense in terms of seeing interesting things and traveling to interesting places.

Clearly, there is a sub-set of the (American, or other “western”) population who agrees with me, that travels to interesting places are a mandatory part of our lives and thus this sort of foreign travel needs to be done regardless of the details of the finances. But the people who have no formal jobs and who are virtual nomads, blogging about their adventures? How do they do this? I am not saying that I would give up my day job if offered the opportunity, but I am still fascinated by this phenomenon because there just seems to be so many people out there on this pathway.

I have never made any attempt to “monetize” my blog, nor have I been the type of person who has seeked blog funding or website revenue. But I am truly interested in the stories of those who have. Some of the travel blogs I’ve read have been sadly full of poor grammar and thus clearly not edited by anyone. It’s not like these are words that will make themselves found in future travel guides without substantial effort. Is this still the new frontier for travel writing? Are these blog posts full of grammatical mistakes going to be the edited versions found in the next Lonely Planet edition? Curious bloggers want to know. And those of us with day jobs who happen to be living abroad are remarkably curious (and perhaps slightly jealous?) about those who have made this a nomadic lifestyle.

Vacation, Interrupted

I know I have been quite quiet lately. There is, of course, a good reason. And regular readers of this blog will have been able to guess what happened.

I went to the US for my usual August holiday, to see my friends and family in Minnesota and to go to the beach for the only proper holiday I take in any given year. (And even then I typically work at least 1.5 days per week because, well, that’s the nature of my job, it never stops, not even in a European August.) I managed to completely ruin all of my Minnesota plans by losing my wallet in the Milwaukee airport en route, and thus did not have a car and completely changed where I was staying and what I was doing. This was not all bad, I might add, as it contributed to the great vacation skill acquired on this trip: I learned to knit. But that is a story for another day. What is important for this story is that I was heading to the beach for two weeks of idyllic paradise and relaxation after what had been a somewhat discombobulating Minnesota experience.

Beach day 0: Pack my beach things into my beach friends’ car and drive from the DC area down to the North Carolina Outer Banks. Arrive late morning after an ungodly early start, have a nice beach arrival lunch, pick up the beach house keys and pack in to the beach house. After unloading and settling in, head for a walk (just a mile up the beach and back) and cook dinner.

Beach day 1: Have a nice long walk on the beach (3 miles up the beach and back) and food and etc.

Beach day 2: Have a long day on the beach, swim, surf. Happen to be sitting on the beach when an earthquake happens not far away, and totally feel it. Start to become aware that in addition to the earthquake, there might be hurricane trouble coming.

Beach day 3: Obsessively read weather.com and outer banks websites, knowing that the hurricane is coming. Try to enjoy the beach regardless, have another 6 mile beach walk. Total beach miles to date: 14.

Beach day 4: Awake to an impending sense of doom with regards to the hurricane. Read weather.com obsessively over coffee. Happen to be on the local website the moment the mandatory evacuation order is posted. Change out of PJs and pack out of beach house. Arrive back in DC area in early evening to prepare for hurricane.

(non)Beach day 5: Hurricane preparedness. Buy bottled water and canned goods.

(non)Beach day 6: Hurricane. Play board games and wait out the storm.

(non)Beach day 7: post-Hurricane. Go for a long walk in the sunshine, see many downed tree branches but otherwise feel as though the whole thing had not happened.

(non)Beach day 8: Waiting day. Spend the day working and regularly refreshing the Outer Banks news to see if there would be a resumption to beach 2011. Find out at 3 pm that vacationers will be allowed back at 10 am the following morning.

Beach day 9: Groundhog day. Take beach day 0 and repeat. Pack the car, drive 300 miles, have lunch while waiting for the all-clear to re-enter the beach house, pack in and settle in for a nice evening.

Beach day 10: Back to paradise, right? Except the beaches were closed to swimming due to trees and other debris. Long walk (6 miles) and dinner.

Beach day 11: repeat of beach day 10. Still no swimming, but lots of impressive driftwood, if by driftwood you mean entire trees littered along the beach. Another 6 miles of walking and documenting.

Beach day 12: Finally, some swimming.

Beach day 13: Swimming and another 6 mile walk. BUT time to start packing, as it’s over.

Beach day 14: Pack up and move out.

Total beach miles walked: 32. Not bad given the circumstances. Number of days spent in the Atlantic surf: 3. Pathetic for a two week holiday. Books read: 2. Far below the usual standard, but that’s because I spent four days transiting between DC and North Carolina. Not to mention all of the packing.

Silver lining: I had an adventure and have a story to tell. The beach where I was, in the northern Outer Banks near the Virginia border, was virtually unscathed. We had power at the beach when friends in Baltimore and Boston had none. I worked on my new-found knitting skill, which is, as I mentioned, a story for another day.

Moral of the story: Do not vacation in the outer banks if you are averse to hurricane evacuations. That’s two years in a row for me, Earl in 2010 and Irene in 2011. Earl was better timed, in that it was at the end of my two weeks, while Irene was as inconvenient as possible. But, she says as a scientist can only do, statistically I am unlikely to be this unlucky next year, after two forced evacuations in a row. Yes, the Outer Banks are totally worth the effort, and I will continue to take my holidays there. Hurricanes are just part of the adventure.

I’m back in England now, and the paperwork battles for my visa are now in full swing. This holiday was supposed to be the stress-free vacation before the paperwork storm, and it did not end up like that. First Milwaukee, then Irene. But I’m stuck with the mantra “anything that does not kill you can only make you stronger” and so here I go into the next phase of life. Wish me luck with the paperwork and hopefully my next beach vacation will involve 14 full days of beach bliss.

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!!!

Here we go again: Americanisms

I’m almost out of things to say on the topic of the British obsessions with what they claim to be horrid “Americanisms” and how they are ruining the English language, but there were a few pieces of fantastic commentary out there yesterday debunking this latest, most pathetic effort by the BBC to stir up anti-American sentiment. So here are the links, in a sensible order, for anyone not bored by this and wishing to catch up:

I agreed, and nominated “willy”. I keep meaning to write an entire post on the British male’s obsession with their own genitalia, or at least with talking about their genitalia, but every time I think about sitting down and actually writing such a post I just sigh and move on to do something else. But for the record, “willy” immediately brings to my mind “limp dick”. So British males, when you keep using that word (all over Twitter, for some reason), that’s what you’re making me think about you. You’ve been warned.

In other news, my immigration situation hit a slight snag this week and I’ve spent some time on the phone with two different (British male) immigration lawyers and generally alternating between feeling hopeless about my future and feeling rather Devil-may-care about it. So basically I’m in shock and suffering from crazy visions of the future in rather starkly different scenarios. The bottom line point is a good one, in that the “try to imagine the worst case scenario” involves going back to America (as opposed to some place like Somalia) and perhaps writing that very snarky book about living 5 years in England while living off my savings and trying to find a job. And the best case scenario is that everything goes on just like it is now. So I’m not going to worry. This is not a life-or-death thing, it is a stupid-paperwork-and-bureaucrat thing. And I’m going to just keep telling myself that while I try to get through the next few months with my sanity intact.

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.

Gagged

One problem with blogging rather anonymously is that sometimes it becomes difficult to impossible for me to have anything to say in this venue, when big things are happening in my job, or in some other aspect of my life about which I have chosen not to talk about here. So that’s the first thing on my mind right now, that big things have been going down, they have taken up a ton of my time in recent months, and there is very little I can say about it without giving away some of the details of my life that I have chosen to keep quiet. Let’s just say that this started with my moving house last summer, the first anniversary of which passed just last week. So 13 months of dealing with this thing has been rather annoying, every time I think I’ve sorted it all out something else happens, and I’m hoping for news later today that will let me see if and how this is going to get resolved in the future. And no, this is not something to do with my day job, which is very lovely and hunky-dory at the moment if a bit madcap busy. So there. The least informative update on the life of NFAH as there ever was.

(And don’t forget in the midst of this all I’m working through my permanent residency paperwork, which is another big thing keeping me busy. That’s something that I never really understood about living abroad until I actually did it: there is far more paperwork than if you lived in your home country. Taxes are complicated. Visas are complicated. Banking is complicated. Things that you would not normally think about living in your home country become huge time and energy sinks in a host country. So free time for blogging becomes a figment of your imagination!)

This does bring up an interesting point. I have, in the wake of the scandalous unveiling of a lesbian Syrian blogger as a married American man residing in Scotland, read various posts against anonymous blogging that have made me think about this quite a bit. I understand the point that if you are saying things that have political impact, it’s important to use your own identity. Similarly with science, medicine, and other such topics for which your background and position matter a great deal to your message. You might notice that, although I have a PhD and a Serious Scientific Job, I don’t often say much about the subject of science or medicine. If you know me and know what I do all day, you will also have noticed that I choose not to write much about the sector of the economy in which I work. Occasionally I can’t help myself, but I do actually try hard not to do so and certainly not to try and claim great expertise or authority in the subject since I am not revealing my face or position.

This makes things interesting. And I know people have varying view points on the subject. I don’t actually have a science or work blog, although I do have two Twitter accounts, one in my blog name and one in my real name. Most of the bloggers with whom I interact are using their own names and faces, although some do suppress some details (kids’ names, especially) in the interests of privacy and protection. I happen to know that if you desperately want to know who I am, there are enough identifying details floating around the four years of archives to figure it out, and I know that at least one person has. But I thought it might be worth revisiting the reasons for my standing behind the NFAH curtain. I wanted to talk about expat things without talking about my job. In my world of science, our names are very google-able and I wanted to keep this little expat blog project separate from that.

(As an aside, in the worst job interview I ever had for what turned out to be the worst job I’ve ever had, the person interviewing me had googled my name and came not just upon my various publications and things, but also on the website of my ex-husband all about pinball machines. At this point we had been divorced for five years and I was appalled to have him brought up in the interview!)

I’ve joked on more than one occasion that I have a grand plan that involves writing memoirs of my life in England at some distant point in the future when I’ve perhaps gone back to America (or not–but the memoirs would still be intended for an American audience). This blog is not actually likely to be much help with that, since there ARE so many things that relate to my job and my life over here that have NOT been recorded in any detail. I have tried hard to keep this about US-UK things and expat things, and other general life things that might interest someone who is interested in expat things (like my travels in interesting places like China and Australia). Yes, there are a few places where there are little hints to myself that may trigger my memory, especially in the very rant-y early years when things were a lot more difficult and lonely than they are now. But I’m quite interested in thoughts and feedback about choosing to be or not to be anonymous and pseudonymed in this context. I’ve clearly made my choice, and I’ve tried to explain why my real name is not plastered all over this blog. But I know lots of people have made the opposite choice, and I know plenty of people have negative views of my type of decision.

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.