Category Archives: shopping

On neighborhoods and the Local

I walked home from work tonight via a route I’ve been meaning to try since I moved into my new digs… it takes me through a very multi-cultural neighborhood and via some foot-paths that are not on the map such that my total trip home is not much changed from the usual 2.3 miles. And I can stop at the M&S food hall on the way and get nice things for dinner.

Good thing one from my perspective, in this adventure, is that I found a great Asian grocery store. And here we meet US/UK language barriers. I say Asian, as an American, and mean China-Japan-Korea. In the UK the term “Oriental” is still PC (not in the US) and “Asian” means Indian or related sub-continental. So let’s re-phrase and be more specific. I found a store that stocks Chinese, Japanese and Korean food items and this (especially the latter) is good. What I still need to find is an ethnic grocer that stocks Indian ingredients, which at the moment I have been getting from Tesco, such as Chapati flour and Besan.

Whew, this expat thing is extremely complicated when you add in the differences in other expat cultures….
But the most interesting part of my journey was the walk down a long street of identical (identikit?) Victorian houses, where each was two floors, had a window and door on the main floor and one window above, was made of brick, and literally numbered in the hundreds down a single street. In the midst of this, I found a pub.

A pub, which is known as a “local,” is not something I’d normally associate with a typically suburban neighborhood full of houses and not what I normally see on my way home. My “local” is not that close to me, but I live in a strange suburban neighborhood on the edge of a shopping complex. Seeing this tiny tucked-away pub in the midst of rows of identical houses was a real eye-opener in the campaign to save the British local pub. I have some thinking to do on this. I suspect, that when I hear about the “Campaign to save the British Pub” that it is this that people are trying to save, not the gastro-pub in the city centre. I suspect, although I cannot know, that the pubs I passed tonight are actually the “locals” of a number of people in the neighborhood. I was interested, and fascinated.

These “locals” are really LOCAL and do not mean the same thing as the “locals” in the city centre. I hope that I can find my more local “Locals” and keep these alive as opposed to the big pubs in my local area….

The toaster that put me over the edge

I have a new toaster. This is a good thing, as the old one was showing signs of age. It was also American, and had to be plugged in to my transformer. So did my stick blender and my hand mixer. All of them are gone now. Along with the new toaster I got this excellent multi-tasker which replaces the stick blender and mixer but also gives me the capabilities of a food processor, a tool that I’ve never owned before. So now there are only a few things left that run on American power, my beloved Kitchenaid stand mixer being one of them, but as that’s only used occasionally I’ve put the transformer away in the closet.


I knew there would come a time when I had acquired many British things and that if I stuck around here long enough, I would start to have this happen. My British possessions would start taking over from my American ones. I saw it happening first in my wardrobe, then in my linen closet, next in my gadgets and electronica, and now amongst my kitchen appliances. Yes I still own things that came over with me when I jumped across the pond, but they are now easily outnumbered by the things I’ve acquired here.


The prospect of the permanent residency application and my lingering feelings of doubt over my long-term future still weigh heavily on my mind. I am lucky to have a good job here and know that in some ways I am extremely lucky compared with my American counterparts, as the job is slightly different in the two countries and I like the British version. Well, mostly. I still don’t know what to do with the next 30 years of my life, but now I know that if I were to move back I would be a lot like I was when I first moved here but in reverse: lots of things with British plugs and a transformer back to 110 V. And do you know what? The British things I have are much nicer than the American things they’ve replaced. My new hand blender/multitasker replaced a couple of bottom-of-the-line Target post-divorce acquisitions. And it matches my new toaster with its gorgeous retro creamy finish. And interestingly enough it’s the first time I’ve ever owned a pop-up toaster: I have converted after a lifetime of toaster-ovens. Because they don’t seem to exist here, at least not at the stores at which I shop. So my new toaster becomes the symbol of my new and very different self after 4.5 years (!) of living overseas. Who saw that coming?

Oh dear me, I’m becoming British

I was standing in the queue at the bus stop in the center of town this evening after work. There is a bus shelter with a little leaning bench, and I had obediently gotten in line behind the guy who was already there, as one does. Out of nowhere came two teenage or college-age students, speaking to each other in rapid-fire Spanish, and wearing the backpacks that identified them as students at one of the local English Language training schools. They walked up to where the bus door would, in a few minutes when it arrived, be located for us to board. I was sitting there fuming to myself, thinking “these foreigners, how dare they ignore the queue.” My how times have changed.

I exited the bus at my local megamart and proceeded to buy everything I needed except the one thing I would not last the evening without: toilet paper. (I have not become sufficiently British to say “loo roll” — yet!) I realized this as I was walking the 3/4 mile home, carrying my two “bags for life” full of everything else I needed (and a few things I didn’t need). I started thinking to myself, “thank goodness I’m in England and there’s another small mart (larger than a convenience store but not a full-sized supermarket) only two blocks from home. If I was in America I’d have to get back in the car and return to the megamart.”

Oh bother.

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.


The problem with being harried and busy is that you can be harried and busy anywhere and everywhere, such that the whole “living in another country” thing fades into the background noise. That’s been the last week for me. I’ve been continuing the process of moving, which really has been a process and not a single event. Setting up new accounts, getting addresses changed on things, it’s one big pile of paperwork. (And somewhere in that big pile I’ve lost my receipt for the hotel I stayed in last month in Newcastle and my reimbursement from work is on the line. Sigh.) Yesterday was all about prepping the old flat for the moving (or “Removals” in Brit-speak) people coming on Wednesday to finalize the packing and moving process. (I really find the word “removals” disturbing, as it seems to imply to me taking things away from one place without putting them back someplace else–I want my stuff to end up being moved to a new location, not just removed from the old one!)

This morning I awoke at 5 am after all of about 3.5 hours of sleep, which was fitful at best. I’ve got further things to do before the move, and then of course the move is conveniently the day before I’m leaving for the US for my annual Outer Banks beach holiday and visit to MN. And there’s that small matter of the day job that is impossible to juggle well with moving, which is itself approximately a full-time activity. I’ve been so harried and frazzled lately that I keep thinking I should bring work to the beach, just because I might actually have time there to think about things more deeply, as opposed to just running screaming from one paperwork crisis to another, as I’ve been doing lately. The big picture, grand thinking thing has really been impossible in 2010, and 2010 is disappearing very quickly. It will be Christmas before you know it (eek!)

The good thing, on my end, is that my new flat is making me very happy. It being flush with modern conveniences, my time is no longer spent bemoaning the British propensity towards two tap sinks and refrigerators sans freezers. I’ve been quite happily cooking up a storm, both due to the ultra-modern kitchen facilities and the enormous Tesco within ten minutes’ walk. I’ve realized over the last few weeks that local opinions on grocery stores are as strong as they are on newspapers, and for some reason (that I don’t really understand) people really love to hate Tesco. I don’t even know where to begin with trying to understand that one. For me, it’s a large and well-stocked “superstore” as it says on the road sign, that happens to be the shop closest to my new digs. So for me, it’s working just fine and I don’t know what more to say about the politics of whether it is or is not PC to admit one shops at Tesco. This is where being foreign is fantastic, I plead ignorance!

When in the US, I’ll likely be “off the grid” for a while, as the beach house I’ve rented the last few years did not have internet access when last I was there (although one could sometimes sponge off the neighbors and pick up a signal at random). I’m sure I’ll be a very happy girl when I return from this trip, as I have the prospect of several months with no travelling lined up, the move will be done and I can continue with the business of settling into the new flat. Until then, I’m continuing to be harried and frazzled and in all likelihood rather sleepless.


There were always going to be some lifestyle adjustments that came along with my move. For, in exchange for the wonderful mod cons that make this place fabulous, I was leaving the very center of town and moving outside the “ring road” into a far more “suburban” region (in spirit if not in name, as officially I’m still “in town”). I’ve been out here just over a week now, although admittedly I twice last week stayed at my old place in the city. Both times after having been out for dinner and finding myself losing energy for the trek. And I also took a taxi to work twice last week when I did stay out at the new digs. I just need to recalibrate my thinking about when I get up versus when I need to be somewhere! It was a 15 minute walk before and now it’s more like 40. And the public transport links are good but with the (1) walk to bus stop, (2) wait at bus stop, (3) ride bus, (4) walk from bus drop-off to office thing, that’s also about a 40 minute endeavor to be on the safe side. So I need to re-orient my thinking and get used to the new timing. The walking distance was always intentional, as I love walking and love the exercise it brings and in the mild English climate it’s quite do-able year round. Living in the city I was not getting enough of a walk in each day, unless I went out to the gym (which is right by my new flat, yay!) purposefully. So things are falling into place but I’m still making adjustments, which was tough given how busy this week was, the fact that I had a head cold, and the fact that I’m out of town part of each of the next two weeks. I know, I know. Believe me, the travel is about to slow down dramatically, but I still have to take the trips that were planned prior to my deciding to take this flat and to try and slow down a bit. But fortunately this has, thus far, been a nice, quiet weekend of unpacking and cooking and generally enjoying the new place, and appreciating the multitude of things available in the enormous Tesco only a few blocks away. I keep buying frozen food just because I can!

Scenes from China, part 3

The scene: The gift shop at the Summer Palace, Beijing. I saw this t-shirt and busted out half snorting and half laughing, and grabbed my camera. My sister says that the girls behind the counter were talking about it, wondering “Why do the foreigners always laugh when they see that shirt?” They clearly had no idea. Too bad I couldn’t think of a young guy with the right sort of frat boy mentality to buy it for.

Dear So-and-So, post-China edition

Dear Chinese taxi drivers,

Some of you were lovely. But overall, riding in your cabs was terrifying. That thing where you swerve into oncoming traffic to try to get ahead a few cars in the queue? Not cool.

Glad to be alive, NFAH

Dear Chinese traffic authorities,

How the heck is it that there is no discernible enforcement of any sort of traffic law in all of China? Speed limits, pedestrian right-of-way, cars driving into oncoming traffic, none of these deserve any attention? Really?

Again, glad to be alive, NFAH

Dear stomach,

We have been back in the UK for nearly 96 hours now. Could you please stop rebelling against this return to normalcy? I know China was full of different and interesting foods and the whole thing was a bit of a shock, but we’re home now. Please start acting like it.

Tired of feeling a bit off, NFAH

Dear Cheese,

After a nearly perfect dairy-free 12 days with my semi-vegan sister in China, I thought I could quit you. It turns out, I was wrong. More mozzarella, please.

I know I’m weak, NFAH

Dear Beijing hotel,

I know I was supposed to be on vacation while I was in China. But the fact that you had no hot water in the shower on the one morning I was to do a half-day or work, that was not cool. Not cool at all.

Still shivering at the memory, NFAH

Dear Chinese silk store,

I can’t help it, I found you irresistible. Now that I’m home, I don’t know where to put all the little silk wallets and iPod cases I bought… any interested readers, speak up! I can bring some to the May expat blogger meet-up!

Drowning in brightly colored prettiness, NFAH

Dear So-and-So, Frantic Friday Edition

Dear World of Work,

You do realize that if you set all of the deadlines for the same week, even if everything does miraculously get done it will not get done well or with the care it normally would have been given, right? And oh yes you can take your Friday close-of-business deadlines and put them somewhere that the sun doesn’t shine, I am not going to bust my gut to give you something that will sit on your desk in an empty office over the weekend. You’ll have it all by Monday morning. And yes I am writing dear so-and-so letters instead of finishing another incremental paper shuffle and I’m aware that I’m doing it.

Never one for arbitrary-ness, especially in paperwork, NFAH

Dear Subconscious,

May I express my displeasure at your having invented a new recurring anxiety dream this week? I already had the whole ‘airport going to miss my plane’ thing and the whole ‘flying-heights-falling’ thing but now the ‘show up to give a lecture/performance/recital unprepared’ thing too? I really did not need this (although interesting how clearly it reflects the current state of things…)

Needs less dreams, more sleep, NFAH

Dear British Schools,

As usual, I find there to be something deeply interesting about the way you react to things–in this case, banning Valentine’s cards to avoid students having hard feelings. As several bloggers in America have noted recently (this from CalifLorna being but an example) the American reaction is to encourage the students to give something to everyone in the class, not to ban the holiday altogether. I think I prefer the inclusive latter solution, although it wouldn’t make for as exciting a headline.

Hearts and cards and chocolates for all, NFAH

Dear Microsoft,

You won this round, I had to break down and buy Office for my laptop after a series of misadventures with Open Office, involving the dropping of greek letters and the refusal to properly pdf anything that had the characters “fi” next to each other in a Times New Roman font. The nice manager in the Apple store disappointedly knew nothing about how to use equations in iWork Pages and playing around made it look like a no-go at least in terms of a short learning curve.

Someday I’ll be able to quit you, but unfortunately so far that day has not arrived, NFAH

Dear Grandma,

It was so good to talk to you this week and to be able to wish you a Happy 93rd birthday! And I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not confessing that I very nearly forgot, and was saved by someone at work making an offhand comment about elderly parents which then got me saying I have a ninety–whoa Grandmother whose birthday is today eek better remember to call her! And no matter how much you try to tell me that you’re not the adventurous type and don’t know how I can live abroad, I will continue to refuse to believe you on the grounds of that whole fantastic 1939 World’s Fair adventure plus that whole bus to the west coast adventure–your 20s were pretty adventurous even by modern standards.

All my love from England, NFAH

Dear Bloggy Friends,

If I’m quiet for a few days, both here and on your blogs, understand it’s because my sister will be here and real people trump people in the computer.

I’ll be back, NFAH