Category Archives: midwest

Schoolgirl Excitement

I have had a most amazing week, and I am sorry that I have not been better at sharing the excitement. But it is in part about my job, about which I choose not to blog. This week has been amazing, and please–Twitter-folk who know about my secret identity, please don’t share it. But the bottom line is that my work life has been a big social media experiment gone good. I’m about to celebrate 50,000 YouTube hits for my work video in just over three days. And that’s amazing. But even better, tomorrow morning I head to Heathrow to fly to Baltimore for a weekend with my sister, and then we fly together to Minneapolis for a long week of celebrations for my father’s x0th birthday. I have more fun things planned for Minneapolis than I have in a while, and for once I am feeling excited about being back “home” and not conflicted in any way. Have I mentioned that my grandmother is now 95 and still kicking arse at Scrabble? It should be fun. I am ready for this trip in a way that I was not ready for trips to Minneapolis in the past. And now I must finish cleaning out my fridge and finish packing. But I’m happy in my British shoes, and happy to be going home to America. Even the inevitable and unfortunate discussions about American politics have not dampened my spirits. Expat life, 2000, former life, 0. Here we go.

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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!!!

The perfect storm

Last weekend there was a huge snowstorm in my home town of Minneapolis. This was newsworthy mostly for the fact that the Metrodome roof caved in, causing all of my friends in the UK to think of Minneapolis, which they had never really heard of before, as the place where large engineering objects fall apart unexpectedly–first the bridge, now the dome. (If you haven’t seen the snow-dome-collapse viral video on youtube it’s highly recommended…) The Minnesota Vikings had to play a “home” game in Detroit last Monday, and they are playing their final home game of the year tomorrow at the University of Minnesota football stadium, which is open-air and thus had to be shoveled out this week by an army of volunteers.

Yesterday, there was a snowstorm in Britain. NB I did not say a “huge” snowstorm. Where I am we only saw an inch, maybe an inch and a half. The official snow total at Heathrow airport was 9 cm. So a few inches. Minnesota, in contrast, got 17 inches in their storm. At Heathrow, temperatures after the snowfall “plummeted” to -5C/23F. In Minnesota, temperatures really did plummet as windchills got down to -40F (I can’t find the actual low temperature but you get the point). The airport serving the Twin Cities, MSP, actually closed for a few hours for one of the few times in recent memory. British airports mostly all closed down, including Heathrow and Gatwick. But that was yesterday. This morning I woke up to the news that Heathrow was still closed. And in the last few hours it’s become clear that this might take quite some time to sort out. Gatwick is apparently up and running, but Heathrow–the British Airways flagship airport with the brand new 5th Terminal–is not. Hmmm.

As a frequent traveller, and someone who takes frequent trips on BA out of Heathrow, I’ve been watching this with a great deal of interest. As of yesterday it was clear that the actual runway was not the problem, which is in stark contrast to the MSP closure. The Heathrow website has had variations on this message posted all day:

This morning, we listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and reluctantly judged that while Heathrow’s northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight led to a significant build up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires parts of the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.

So let’s recap, the snow cleared out late yesterday afternoon, the runway is clear, but not a single gate at Heathrow is in use or can be used. Heathrow now seems to be saying that delays and cancellations will last well into the week. Apparently 200,000 people were due to go through Heathrow today. Via Twitter I just saw that over a hundred flights have landed at Gatwick and over a hundred flights have departed Gatwick. Wait a minute….

I admit it: I simply find it implausible that they could not have cleared out even a single gate at Heathrow and started to try and move a few flights in and out, assuming what they say about the runway is correct. (And I believe it is: why would Gatwick’s runway be able to function when Heathrow a mere 44 miles away could not?) Something else is going on. And I want to know what it is. Did BAA and/or BA decide that the only way to avoid melee was to make everyone suffer equally by canceling all flights? Do they really not have the equipment and know-how to resume partial operations more than 24 hours after a relatively minor snow storm? I’ve seen excuses flying around all day on Twitter about how the UK does not normally get weather like this and thus is not prepared when it comes, but that sounds a little hollow in my ears since the last major snowstorm here was… two weeks ago. And last year the country was crippled for weeks by snow. You can say what you like about this being unusual, but apparently this is the third year in a row of this type of weather, are the bosses running operations at Heathrow just hoping after each storm that it’s the last for a while, so they don’t have to get the proper equipment for dealing with snow and cold weather? Weather patterns shift. There was a time (Victorian times, to be precise) when you could ice skate on the Thames. Perhaps this IS normal English winter weather and the previous mild years were the anomaly. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that the climate here is tropical and to work on snow and winter preparedness, which are clearly things that can be done because of the simple proof-by-existence of airports that function in the winter in places like Minnesota. Yes, that might cost money. But so too must being one of the world’s busiest airports and being closed for several days the week of Christmas.

It will be interesting to watch this play out in the next few days. I have several friends due to travel trans-Atlantically tomorrow, and my fingers are crossed for them. I’ve been watching travel sagas playing out on Twitter today, where a popular move appeared to be taking the Eurostar to Paris for much better odds of taking off from there. Should we take bets on whether they get a reasonable set of Heathrow flights back to normal before Christmas? (I’m guessing not, if they could not do anything at all today.) Do we find BA to be the most beleaguered airline of 2010? (Most definitely: between the cabin crew strikes, the volcano and this…) Do we have serious qualms about a country in which the flagship airport housing the flagship national carrier in a flagship brand-new terminal has such problems with a few inches of snow and temperatures barely below freezing? (Yes, duh.) Do we wonder what’s really going on here? (Super-duh.) Stay tuned for updates in the soap opera saga that is winter in Britain, where apparently after each snowfall clears up, amnesia sets in such that no lessons are learned for the next time the white stuff starts coming out of the sky.

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.

Running up the Eastern Seaboard

Let’s see, when last I wrote here I was blissfully in North Carolina, along the Outer Banks, having a beach holiday. And then along came Hurricane Earl. The first week of the holiday, Hurricane Danielle had been a threat. But that threat had diminished and aside from some rough surf leading to a few “no swimming” red flag days along the beaches, there was really nothing interesting there. But Earl decided to head straight for the Outer Banks and with a vengeance. I stayed at the same beach house this year as I had the last two years, but this year brought new owners since last summer, and with them, many improvements to what was already a great house. Internet access proved to be the most important one (a gas grill was also appreciated, as was a huge flat screen TV). I started obsessing over weather.com’s Hurricane Central site, checking it every few hours, as it became clear that this was NOT GOOD. On Wednesday morning of beach week 2, with the news looking bad, I decided to evacuate on Thursday morning. This was a mere 48 hours before I would have had to leave as per my planned end of two weeks beach holiday (check-out by 10 am Saturday morning), so not too disappointing really. My view was that by the time the hurricane was due to pass (Friday mid-day) I would have been done beach-ing anyways, and would have been packing up with no more fun to be had. So I spent Wednesday alternating between beach things and packing/cleaning things, and readied myself for the trip northwards and inland into Virginia leaving early Thursday morning.

This was the beach Wednesday, at which point you could see how the phrase “the calm before the storm” originated: there was absolutely NO sign of a hurricane barreling straight at us in this photo!

The self-imposed evacuation all went smoothly and by mid-day Thursday I was having lunch and a glass of wine safely away from OBX, at which point I checked weather.com for an update and found that they had called a mandatory evacuation that morning, three hours after my departure. I felt vindicated. My ruthless plan had resulted in my not being stuck in epic traffic once the evacuation was called, starting from three hours after I left the islands.

I now had an extra forty-eight hours before my planned departure for Minnesota and my near-annual visit to the State Fair. I did now have time for some very useful and much needed errands, including such painful things like dealing with an American Bank Account that was every bit as frustrating as the experiences I had with my British Bankers on first moving to the UK. Side-note-story: Basically, when I moved abroad I left small balances (~$100) in both checking and savings accounts in the US at two different banks (from the two parts of the country that I lived before moving abroad, since there were not banks in common in the two places at the time), and apparently one of them (Bank of America) was deducting regular fees for “account maintenance” even though the account was dormant (my other bank, Wells Fargo, has not done this) and kept doing so until the count was just over $30 in deficit, at which point they contacted me to threaten collection. I only received notice of this earlier this year, when my dad brought a pile of American mail over when he visited me, and frankly I don’t get much in the way of useful American mail at the folks’ house any more. So I had to clear the accounts and sort out the deficit balance, which it turns out was more than covered by the savings partition OF THE SAME ACCOUNT so I ended up with cash in hand but no longer have an existing account in case I ever move back to the US (which was why I left the account in the first place, thinking I might be back some day and it was silly to close them and then disappear). SIGH. Other expats be warned, be careful what the fine print on your bank accounts sayeth and do not expect the bank to do anything sensible!!! /endrant

Where was I? Oh yes, moving up the Eastern Seaboard with extra time on my hands. With the free Saturday (during which I should have been just leaving the beach, and after spending Friday with the Very Fun Bankers et al.) I got to go up to Baltimore to visit my newly-repatriated sister who is just settling in to her new job there. She has a fabulous new place not far off the waterfront in a funky-cool part of town with lots of little indy shops and restaurants and jazz bars and the like. I spent a great day with her walking around and taking in the sites, without having remembered to bring my camera up for the day so I shall have to return for photos at another time. But certainly a day of sister time in Baltimore was worth the pain of the hurricane, right?

Sunday I awoke and flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the “family time” leg of my trip. Having dinner with my folks Sunday night was sort of odd, after having had lunch with my sister the previous day in Baltimore. But hey, it’s all part of the wonderful modern world. But I started to fade during dinner, perhaps as a result of having just done the North Carolina-Virginia-Maryland-Virginia-Minnesota dance over the course of only four days. I had a good night’s sleep and awoke early this morning full of excitement over today’s trip to the Minnesota State Fair, but that is truly a subject for another post.

Ten years ago

It was, as of a few weeks ago, ten years ago that my grandparents died in a car crash. Ten years ago, that my world ended but didn’t. Ten years ago that I stopped getting phone messages from my beloved grandmother even though we were technically not in the same area code and thus long-distance. I last heard her living voice right before the trip they went on, that ended badly. I went on and kept living, but some of the most important people in my life didn’t continue to be after some date approximately ten years ago. I managed to stay busy in the anniversary of this accident, and I was working and attending conferences in Newcastle and Singapore. And I didn’t let loose and feel the grief until tonight, when it suddenly hit me, without warning. So if I’ve ignored you when I should have been your friend, please forgive me. I’ve been dealing with my own pent-up grief. I can’t believe it’s been ten years, in some ways. And I can’t believe it’s only been ten years in others. I miss them so much. At the time, one of my aunts mentioned that I should keep track, that I would be unlikely to attend a double funeral again in my lifetime. I can be happy that this has not happened again, without wanting to ever be in a place where two people that you love are in coffins at the same time.

Random wrap-up from Philly

Well, NFAH, you might ask, where have you been for the last two weeks, and what are you now doing in Philadelphia international airport? Good question. The last two weeks have been insanely busy. I have been in the US, which is normally somewhat relaxing for me but this trip has been about work more than play. I have been doing the sorts of meetings that involve three meals in restaurants a day with colleagues, which means that the day starts early and finishes late and has basically no free time at any point in between in which to write on my blog or do anything more complicated than update my facebook status or perhaps send out a tweet. You can tell how busy I have been when you hear that I had been here for 9 days before I managed to make it to Target. Entirely my own fault, as ever–no one is holding a gun to my head and telling me I have to do all of this, but I still have the young person’s attitude towards taking career-building opportunities that means that I subject myself to stupid things. My bad.

Week one I was on the Michigan upper peninsula, someplace I had never visited even though I lived in Michigan for 5 years when at University. (And we interrupt this narrative to yell GO SPARTANS! since my alma matter just made it into the final 4 in the basketball tourney.) I was quite startled to realize that I had known my friend there for 17 years, which makes me old. Since we met in college. Sigh. But the UP was gorgeous, the weather was unseasonably warm and there was approximately no snow.

Spring was definitely springing during this entire trip. The weather was volatile, as it can be near the equinox, and there were many buds on trees and signs of interesting wildlife.

I also had a fun time on the weekend last weekend, between my two main work trips, to go to Toys ‘R’ Us and browse. Anyone who has been to my apartment knows that I have a weakness for Lego models of cars, but this time I found something even more cool: an entire display of classic Meccano toys/building sets. Meccano was a British invention as of 1901, and although the company has changed hands a few times (and is now allied with the US Erector set brand) not much has changed about these toys. They require real tools to put together, and this set had no plastic parts at all. It had such a vintage engineering feel about it–I was in heaven. This little guy is making his way back to the UK in my suitcase, and I have grand plans for my more leisurely beach trip planned for the US in August: I’m going to get one of the bigger sets and spend time doing lots of Meccano building. Hooray!

But back to the randomly in Philly thing. I held my nerve with the BA strike. I kept my flight on BA from the Baltimore-Washington area to Heathrow even though I knew it could be strike affected. I checked regularly when the updates were being posted on BA’s website. I checked in online last night at 6:45 pm for a flight due to leave at 6:40 tonight. And…. I awoke this morning to a text message from BA that my flight was cancelled and I should call to rebook. I had slept in, thinking all was well with the world, and so it was now mid-morning and there was not another flight out of either international airport in the area until tomorrow. And I, as you might recall, only have 48 hours or so in the UK before I must fly out to China (assuming that BA flight actually goes… watch this space!) So I agreed to the rebooking out of Philadelphia, which is about 2.5 hours from DC, and found a kind-hearted friend willing to bring me up here. I thus had a whirlwind tour of the I-95 corridor this afternoon, and arrived in Philly many, many hours before my flight so as not to inconvenience my kind friend with the car too much.

So here I sit in the BA lounge with free Wi-fi and my last glass of California Chardonnay for a while, finally having the time to update my blog. So apologies for my absence, but I fear this will be the continuing trend for the next few weeks as the Great Firewall of China is unlikely to allow me through. I might try to post by email which may or may not work. But I swear come the 12th of April I will be back in communication patterns that are far more normal for me. And I will have a heck of a lot of photos and stories from that grand adventure, due to start with my departure (BA-willing) on Wednesday mid-day. Fingers crossed…