Category Archives: family

Long time…

I’ve been back to being super busy at work, which always interferes with my ability to sit down in a disciplined manner and rant about England and the English. Oh that and Twitter. It seems that nearly 6 years into this little adventure, I can get a lot of rant out of my system in a mere 140 characters.

And I’ve been working out. Which is a bit of a shocker. I have a gym to whom I pay money each month even though I have not been there in a few years. Oops. I joined in 2008 ahead of my inaugural trip to Australia and I was good about it for another year after that and then I wasn’t any more. And I kept convincing myself that I was going to get back into it, which is why I didn’t just quit. But now I need to, as I found Jillian Michaels when I was back in the US over Easter.

Being away from the US for almost six years, and not being much of a fan of so-called reality TV, I had missed the whole Jillian phenomenon. I can recall having seen the occasional American person complain about how difficult her breakthrough workout DVD (“the 30 day shred”) was on Twitter but I wasn’t really paying attention. And then I was at my sister’s house, and sitting on her couch with my iPad, and my sister asked if I minded if she do this 20 minute workout. So I watched it and was fascinated. For a week in Minnesota with my sister, we dutifully tromped down into the basement with a couple of pairs of my Mom’s hand-weights (more on that in a minute*) and did the 20 minutes of hard work. I was hooked. I bought it on iTunes and vowed to make it through 30 days.

That trip was busy and I was doing work things after Minnesota, so I didn’t get back into it straight away. On returning to England, I had to locate a set of dumbbells, which meant I went into the local sporting goods megamart for the first time ever. (I have been being my usual self, and still tending to buy things like quality working out shoes while in the US…) And of course I had to pick all the weights up and try to guess how heavy they were, since they were marked in kg. (I know, as a scientist I should have that conversion memorized, but I don’t. I’m getting better at Celsius temperatures, though! Only took 5.7 years!)

I’m on a roll now–I’m not going to jinx myself by admitting how many days in a row I’ve managed, but it’s been quite a few. And no matter how crappy I feel or how long my day was at work, it’s remarkably easy to find 20 minutes to do this intense and intensely brutal workout. (Although that said, that may just be the 20 minutes of blogging time that I’ve been eating into…) And Jillian Michaels is remarkably motivating in a way that I’m not used to in terms of fitness DVD instructors. Believe me, I’ve tried them all over the years. I’ve had Jane Fondas, Denise Austins, former supermodels; I’ve tried The Firm, step aerobics, yoga, latin dance, intense cardio, intense leg lifts, ballet. Admittedly these are all American, I’ve not ever tried any British fitness options. But regardless, somehow this one is different and in a really good way.

Hopefully, in some future number of days, I’ll be able to announce that it’s worked and I’ve made it through 30 days and plan to keep going. And maybe there will be some nice side benefit, like a decreased jeans size just as swimsuit season approaches. But for the moment, more than anything I’m just loving the routine of forcing myself to do something active like lift heavy** objects over my head while simultaneously doing leg lunges.

* I got my mom off osteoporosis meds and onto a weightlifting regime a few years ago. (There is good science in this, believe me–this is my area.) She now has the nicest arms I’ve ever seen on a mom-type person. I’m only a tiny bit jealous because a few more years of Jillian and I’m sure I’ll look the same.

** 1 kg. The girls in the video do 5 lbs. I’m close, right?

I almost forgot to mention this: I am personally against the whole concept of for-fun bloggers doing sponsored posts that read like real posts until you get to the end. This is entirely about me and my constant battle with the bulge and in no way, shape, or form did any one give me any money or swag in order to advertise this particular exercise DVD! I hate that I feel the need to write this disclaimer but I wanted to make it abundantly clear what I’m up to.

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.

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!!!

Homesick…

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.

Back from the US in time for the wedding hoopla…

(Fun fact: spell-check just corrected my errant typing of “hooplah” to the clearly far more sensible “hoopla”…)

Ah April, I hardly knew ye. I have now returned from my four weeks in the US, which was divided just over half work and just under half fun. That said, some of the work was actually pretty fun, so I can’t really complain about it. It was a total whirlwind, in part because I travelled all over the country, visiting South (Miami) and North (Boston), East (New York City) and West (Las Vegas). Not to mention points in-between, including three fabulous days at the Grand Canyon.

Somehow no one in our nuclear family (parents, sister and me) had ever seen the Grand Canyon, whereas we had all been to the Great Wall of China and we’ve all spent time in major European capitals–for a group of reasonably well-travelled people, we have missed huge sections of our own country. So the highlight of the trip for me was the hilarious “family vacation” done approximately eighteen years since the last time we had a family vacation (in my last year at home and in high school). We rented an SUV and drove out to the canyon from Vegas, taking in a few amazing foodie stops (Nobu before the Canyon and Mesa Grill after the canyon and before leaving Las Vegas). We played CDs of old road-trip music from the era of the last family vacation, including ABBA and our home-made “Monster Ballads” mix made up of classic slow songs from hair metal bands. We all commented on why it was that we could remember the lyrics to all of this music from several decades ago, but struggle to remember things that we really need to remember these days.

Now I should point out that my family, growing up, was not what you would call “outdoorsy” and so a visit to a National Park to do some hiking was a bit of a departure for us. I admit to being part of the driving force for this, as I have spent more and more time doing such things in the last decade. We are all keen walkers and so “hiking” was not really that much of a departure, although the 10% average grade on the vertical ascents up the canyon walls were pretty intense. Overall in two big hikes we did 9 miles and just over 3000 ft down and back up again. It was awesome. If anything, it made me want to turn around and go back and do more canyon hiking ASAP.

After the trip, I bought and devoured the Ken Burns National Parks documentary set. If ever there was a reason to feel proud to be an American, that is definitely a good one.

As usual, I took a few hundred photos and am struggling to sort through them for the best ones, but I didn’t mind this one at all:

And now, gearing up for 48 hours of mass royal wedding hysteria. I did not come back to the UK on purpose to be “on time” for the wedding, it just happened that my US trip’s logical conclusion fell early this week. Returning “home” to a few days of work and a long weekend with two bank holidays also seemed like a good idea in terms of beating jet-lag. But as for the wedding itself… So much great commentary has been written that I hardly know where to begin. I suspect that should be the subject of another post…

Stick a fork in me, I’m done!

The last few weeks have been an endurance test for me… by the time I got to mid-afternoon today I was completely shot. My job is difficult even in the best of circumstances, but when it decides to really force me into a corner it can be remarkably difficult. That’s fine, I knew that when I signed up for this life. But I can still be happy when I see a bit of a break coming up on the horizon. As of late this afternoon, things are supposed to be easier for me for the next six months, as I’ve been stripped of some of my administrative responsibilities until October and allowed time to think and reflect and hopefully to get things done.

This is much needed for reasons that I will not bother to go into and bore whatever few readers I have left after a couple of months of near silence. I am back-logged on laundry. There are few clean dishes in my kitchen. The bathroom is a disgrace and needs cleaning badly. The sheets need changing on the bed. These are the usual things that fall down when all-day work takes over and work moves from all-day to all-day and all night long. I desperately need a wife. These are the days when living alone and having no one with whom to share the household tasks really starts to grate on me. So maybe I need to break down and hire a cleaner. We’ll see.

But I will survive. I have the next ten days to recoup and recover. And then I’m off to the states for a few weeks of R&R; mostly to do with work but with a strange little family vacation thrown in. When my mother visited last summer, we discussed the family dynamic a great deal and I suggested that we should all hang out somewhere that is not Minnesota. As a result, we have crazy family vacation planned–the parentals and the two grown daughters, both in our thirties, both with PhD degrees and tough jobs but no husbands and certainly no kids, and we’re all heading together to Las Vegas for foodie adventures and to visit the Grand Canyon, which none of us have seen. In the same US trip, I (being me) am visiting a number of places for work (Denver, Boston, NYC, Miami) so it will not exactly be a relaxing trip overall but it should be a good one. And when I return from this trip I have a nearly-blank calendar for May, which is precisely what I need right now.

The schedule of work things that I am going to do while in the states is a good indication of the internal struggle that I am constantly facing between relaxing and trying to advance my career. It’s not an easy balance to make. I am keen to take interesting opportunities for interactions with others in my field and I do not easily or readily slow down. But I’ve been doing too much of this, and not enough quiet and considered working. When I was a PhD student, I had a very memorable Russian professor who cornered me in his office once and yelled at me that I had potential but I was not concentrating. I feel like the last 18 months have really been the picture of this problem, that I have been functioning and getting things done and mostly keeping people happy (mostly, not perfectly) but never shutting the world out to concentrate on any one thing, and I am getting excited now to think about what might happen if I actually concentrated on something for a while.

There have been times in the past when I have done so. When I was finishing my PhD in the US and was getting frustrated by the job market, I did in fact really buckle down and focus on fixing the biggest gap in my CV and this got me to where I am today. It’s time now to do this again, to stop rushing from mad crisis to mad crisis and from deadline to deadline and to seriously concentrate on the next big task at hand. I know I can do it. I just need to stop faffing about and to spend some time on the tough stuff until I can break it and start to make forward progress. It’s not going to be easy, but it is potentially going to be fun. Watch this space.

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.