Category Archives: friendship

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.

My new local

One thing that changed when I moved from the centre of town to the periphery is that I no longer had a local pub within a few blocks of home. Today I had the chance to visit the pub that is my new local.

My friend Chris was in town today. Chris is the ultimate example of what I have found to be true of my British friends: every single one of my British friends have either lived abroad, are married to a foreigner, or both. Chris has lived abroad in both Europe and Asia, and thus in places where the language is foreign in addition to the culture. Chris has lived in my town (although that is not the case at the moment) and so has local knowledge that has been very useful to me. So in many ways I have felt as though Chris has taken me as a charity case to try and introduce me to local culture while understanding deeply how difficult it is to be a stranger in a strange land.

So Chris and I went for dinner today to what is, by geographical definitions, my new local–the pub closest to my current flat and thus a place that I should be frequenting according to British culture. I had not, in the seven months living here, managed to get there even though I knew I should. Aside from it being my local, it’s relatively well-known and well-regarded in these parts for having very good food. Interestingly enough, the food is all Thai and thus not what is normally associated with a British pub, although a quick search on Google indicates that this is not all that unusual in these parts. The place was, on entering, a classic British pub–you ordered at the bar and there was a wide range of cask ales and the like available. The (Thai) food was amazing and the place was hopping, a sure sign of a thriving pub. I’ll be back again.

I’m left to reflect on so many aspects of expat life after the experience. We traded off buying rounds of pints and so I had to belly up to the bar and do my part. I’ve taken my work team to pub nights close to work quite regularly, but have tended to front the money and expect someone else to handle the barkeep. I need to step up on this one and start behaving like the residents of this country in which I have been living for (gasp!) four and a half years. I’ve read plenty on the rituals of British pub etiquette, especially in the wonderful book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, a text that has become like a textbook in my time here. I’ve been here long enough to no longer have an excuse of not understanding the local traditions.

I also need to spend more time in my local. The food is excellent, and I’ve been depriving myself of it by not having had the guts to venture into it over the last half a year. This is particularly galling now that I know that the pub does Thai take-out as well as table service, since I so often complain of the lack of good fresh, vegetable-filled and interesting quick food in my local town. (My usual cry is for the addition of (a) a bagel place, like Bruegger’s or Einstein’s and (b) a quick-fresh food place like Noodles in the US.) This pub is on my way home from work and thus should become a regular stop-off on busy nights when I am too tired to cook healthy food after a long day in the office. Lessons learned. And most important of all, I should spend more time with the locals and in my local.

Let them eat cake!

Birthday cake, that is.

Yesterday was my birthday. For the first time, on my fifth birthday in England, I managed to do something fun on my birthday with new friends that I’ve made since living here. The common theme was Americans: I had both bloggers and work colleagues that just happened to be American, and several of them brought their British partners as well. My dear friend came down on Saturday to help me with the party prep, and that turned out to be both fun and a total Godsend when it came to acquiring all the groceries and cooking. I don’t know how I thought I was going to do it all myself. We made chili and guacamole and the cake and set out a tex-mex feast for my wonderful friends. By last night I was exhausted, a feeling which ran straight through to this morning (at which point I cancelled the few meetings I had and took a much-needed rest day). Having the party at my own place was important to me for several reasons. First, several people travelled quite a distance to attend. Meeting up in a restaurant just didn’t feel like it sufficiently expressed my gratitude at their willingness to attend. Second, I really like my new digs and I was really excited to show off what I’ve done with the place now that I’m unpacked and settled. And third, I had promised myself that I was now going to start acting more adult-like and do some grown-up entertaining now that I AM more settled.

It was great fun and I’m really glad I did it, although it was a hella lot of work. Note to self, perhaps go smaller next time and have a small dinner party instead of throwing a larger bash with numbers in the double digits! But I wouldn’t take a minute of it back–I felt so loved and so grateful to have new friends, friends that are really starting to change my views about my life in England and my longer-term future. But now, back to my regularly scheduled life.

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.

Update from Bean-town

I made it to Boston, managed to spend the first 24 hours sitting in my hotel room working on the things that needed to be done for the work-thing I’m attending, made it through one of those epic 14 hour days yesterday doing all the work things that required the preparation, and now I’m sitting in my hotel room trying to figure out what to do next. (Blog, obviously!) I have the rest of the week “free” in that my contributions to the conference are done and my time is my own to schedule, instead of it being scheduled for me by circumstances. So I shall be taking advantage of this opportunity to learn some new things and meet with some people and generally try and remember where I was and what I was doing before I got so busy with the prep work for this trip.

Being back in America, it’s becoming increasingly clear how culturally confused I am. I keep forgetting which way the cars should be coming from when I am standing at a crosswalk. I have been getting teased by old friends about my use of words like “Mum” and expressions that to my ear don’t sound particularly strange. People keep joking about whether I’ll acquire an accent. People also seem to have assumed that I’ve settled in for the long haul and have no intentions of moving back. On that one I stay silent, since really I still have no idea what I’ll do in the long term and I’ve placed that entire question into the “too hard basket” in order to focus on other things.

I have not attended this meeting for the last few years, so several people have not recognized me straight away–the thing where my hair has been getting more curly as I’ve gotten older and now is quite long is extremely confusing to people used to my having short and straight hair. I swear this is one of the professional challenges associated with being a girl: the average male does not change as much in appearance from year to year as the average female. Of course, I also worry that the last four and a bit years of expat life have aged me rather dramatically and that no one wants to say this to my face!

Tomorrow one of my very best friends will be flying in from Colorado to join me in Boston… we have justified this little jaunt with some rather flimsy work-related excuses but mostly we are peers who have the same sort of difficult job and we need time to commiserate and strategize. Preferably over wine. Then on the weekend it’s back to England, back to life, back to reality, back to work, and back to what sounds to be a frozen tundra with snow. Should be interesting.

You can take the girls out of America…

but you can’t take the American out of the girls. I had been i-chatting with Kat this week and we realized that we both had some shopping to do on the weekend–she for shoes for her girls, and me for fall/winter clothes for work. So we made up a plan for her to come gather me, from the outskirts of my market town, and to go into town and do our shopping. I thus got to catch up with Kat in between our shopping missions, which was great because it had been ages since I’d seen her. The funny thing about friends made via blogs and Twitter and the like is that even though I had not seen her in a while, we were not exactly out of date. So hanging out is just fun, not about catching up with details. She also brought her lovely daughters, who are my adopted nieces.

Navigating the English shopping mall’s multi-story car park in Kat’s vehicle is an adventure in and of itself. She has a very brightly colored SUV brought over from America, which means it has the driver on the left (as it bloody well should be!) But this is England so the ticket machines to get into and out of the parking deck are on the right-hand side of the car. This means that I have a little job to do when sitting in the passenger seat, one that prevents Kat from having to crawl across or even around the car to deal with the ticket machines. And that challenge surmounted, we go on to attempt to park an American SUV in a car park optimized for tiny little VW Polos and the like. Amusement all around.

Having finished our shopping, we decided to go to McDonald’s for an early dinner. I know, I know, I already said you can’t take the American out of the girls. And her daughters are particularly big fans. We had intended to go in to eat, but the parking lot was inexplicably full. We thus decided to go through the drive-through and go back to my flat, which is about two blocks from McD’s. (And although I’ve in this strategically located flat since July, I had not been there even once yet, I swear!) And here’s where I become amused: at the McD’s drive-through here in England they did not have one of those microphone things into which you yell your order. No siree. They had two boys, standing outside in the pouring rain in fluorescent jackets, taking your order by walking up to your car window, asking what you wished for and then punching it into one of those little hand-held computers with a stylus. I for one was relieved, because I thought at first that as the passenger person on the right, I would have to relate the entire order into the microphone thingy myself, thus potentially making myself responsible if there was a slight cheeseburger disaster with one of Kat’s girls. In the end, we got back to my place after collecting all the food and the jerks got the kids’ cheeseburgers right and shorted us adults one of our packets of fries. Oh well. All in a fun day out being super American and all of that.

Last full day in MN

I finished off my Minneapolis trip for 2010 with which might have been the perfect day. I started off the morning going shopping with my Mom/Mum (I think in my confused state it comes out somewhere in-between in terms of the vowels) and bought her an early (by a month) birthday present of a smart phone. She was not on the carrier of the iPhone, so it’s an Android HTC touch thing, but it’s way cool. We set up her Gmail account and played with the new toy, all for the princely sum of $99 plus a few random taxes and fees. Now she can stay updated with both her out-of-town daughters, the recently repatriated sister-o’-mine who is still over 1000 miles away, and of course me many thousands of miles away.

After the shopping (which included other things as well) and the lunch (Oh Noodles and Co., can you please follow Chipotle’s example and set up shop in England so I can have a sandwich-free lunch alternative?) we spent a few happy hours sorting through old boxes in the basement of my parents’ place. Since my sister and I have been such vagabonds, there are many boxes of our things mixed in with stuff that got packed up from the parental abode after a fire in their basement many years ago. I grabbed a bag full of things that I want now, marked other things as “discard,” “donate,” or “keep” and found all sorts of lovely surprises, like a pair of Sapphire earrings that I thought had been lost in the trans-Atlantic shuffle. We even managed to stumble on the box of photographs of my dear grandparents (her parents, who died in a car crash just over ten years ago) mostly from the 1930s and boy was that fun to sift through.

I continued my day with a return visit to my best friend’s hospital bedside, where she is recovering from a C-section and has a bouncing baby boy at her side. I got to hold the darling little one, which was a real treat that I was not necessarily expecting, my trip being timed optimistically to catch them but with the knowledge that it could all be different than it ended up actually being. Now that I think about it, I’ve never actually had the honor to visit such a person-who-means-so-much-to-me in the hospital having just given birth, so the entire experience was particularly poignant if slightly confusing to me (the sole solo operator in a room full of mommies or mommies-to-be) since I had no idea how to join in the conversation about the benefits of nipple shields for nursing. Okay I need to add a sentence to close this paragraph to take away from that being the last image of my hospital visits to see darling baby over the last two days. Darling baby was nearly 10 pounds and was quite the load to hold, but I did not pay any attention to how tired my arms were since he was so sweet and it was great to see my friend feeling better since yesterday when the C-section surgery was too recent to be comfortable. Baby is cute and his name is adorable and I was so pleased that my timing worked out well and I got to deliver my crocheted baby blanket to its rightful owner (the baby, obviously) in person.

I left the hospital to head for the home of my nonagenarian grandmother, who is clearly older than she was the last trip when I saw her, just over a year ago, but still the same grandmother I remember. I got to spend many hours with her this trip and they were many minutes of heaven all strung together. Our family is blessed many times over in that another family member (my aunt, grandma’s daughter) lives with her and allows her to stay in the home that she and my grandfather built not long after World War II. (Or in Brit-speak, “The War”) Grandma may be losing some short-term memory, but her recall of the 1940s is exceptional and I heard stories this trip that I had not heard before. I even taught her to use my digital camera, so she could take a photo of me with my lovely aunt (her care-giver) after I insisted on some photos taken by my aunt of me with grammy (which she hated, because she says she “looks old”). In the midst of the reminiscing, I got a photo of my late grandfather as a 9th grader and a photo of my great-grandfather’s (grandmother’s dad’s) diploma, which I did not realize was hanging in the upstairs hallway all along. I even had a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner there at Grandma’s, although now it was my aunt who made it and not my Grammy herself.

For the first time in a very long time, I leave this place–Minneapolis–in peace. I did not escape to another midwestern city to do some work. I did not even take up the offer of a local work colleague to drop by since I was in town. I spent the entire time that I was here doing family and friend things along with a few crucial errands (new glasses being the most important, but new cowboy boots being a close second). I listened to Country Music K102 in my rental car during my entire trip, a station that I never would have touched when I lived here but which resonates with me now that I’m gone. In previous years, I’ve come here out of obligation in some degree, but now I think I will come back out of love. I feel like I have finally escaped the shackles of this place being associated with my past and my childhood and I could just enjoy it for what it was, including some sense of past that never really grew to be too overwhelmingly much. Maybe my experience of living abroad for nearly four years has started to calm the negative feelings of this place and is letting me really sink into it and enjoy it. This was the least planned trip I’ve ever had to MN, in part because I was waiting for baby news from my dear friend I did not plan much and I just let the trip happen. I can go back to England a happy girl, and look forward to future visits even knowing that they cannot, will not, be the same as this excellent trip has been.