Category Archives: technology

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.

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Singapore, Qantas and Indian Food, Oh My!

Greetings from Singapore, where I arrived just over 12 hours ago after a long night not sleeping very well on a Qantas flight due for Sydney. This was entirely the fault of me, who did not remember to bring my travel pillow (that U-shaped thing that goes around your neck and works amazingly well) because of the fact that I was packing from my new place, where most of my things are not. Said pillow was at the old flat. An additional thing that did not make the trip, most frustratingly, was the mobile phone charger for my American phone. It’s back at the old flat also, I know exactly where it is. So I had to, yet again, head off on my first day in a foreign city in search of a mobile phone store to find an appropriate charger. Admittedly, I did not have a second charger for this phone, nor did I have one for the UK (just an American one with an adaptor, since it is my American phone) so it was not an entirely huge waste of money or time (unlike the trip last month in which I bought my umpteenth USB-to-iPod/iPhone adaptor, when I have a drawer full of them).

First things first, I love Singapore. I love that it costs only S$1.90 to get from the airport to the center of town if you know the awesomeness that is the Singapore subway system. I love that there are three different chain restaurants devoted to coffee and toast on my way from my hotel to the convention center. (And admittedly, I love that I have stayed in this hotel before, for a conference in the same convention center, such that I know my way around. This is true in Boston as well, and I admit that I prefer these conferences when I get to be in “familiar” surroundings compared with the stress of going somewhere new and needing to start over.) I love the convergence of cultures here, and the huge variety of food available. I had a local speciality kaya toast for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch and Indian food for dinner, and I have a bag of Aussie snacks (cheese Twisties) in my hotel room. After having been in China a few months ago, I’m feeling much more interested in the local food, and much more bold in trying it on my own, so today on my explorations I found both a Taiwanese restaurant (perhaps of the same chain I visited with my sister in China?) and a hot pot place that I have to try (although I might stick with vegetables…). This year I doubt I’ll repeat my performance from my last trip to Singapore, where I obsessively hung out in a local (i.e. close to the hotel) restaurant with an Italian/Aussie-ish vibe. So far I have not been able to ascertain whether said restaurant still exists, as it was boarded up today–but also much of Singapore was, given the Sunday-ness.

I’m happy to be here, because it’s fun to come back to a place that you’ve visited before. I find this is true the more I travel: I’m happiest to return to Boston, Orlando, Munich, Singapore, the places that I’ve been to on three or more occasions, because these places start to feel like a home-away-from-home. If you are going to have my life, and live out of a suitcase and spend no more than three weeks at “home” at any given time (which is my new calculation for how silly 2010 has been for me–I think this is true and shows how dumb I’ve been!) you should at least enjoy the places where you are spending your time.

The work starts tomorrow, and I should probably have been prepping today instead of dining out and napping, so the next few days will certainly be interesting. I have meetings and talks to give flat out for the next four days, at which point I hit a flight back to the UK at midnight Thursday and have meetings in the UK office planned for Friday. The weekend can not come soon enough…

Flying Qantas to get here made me both happy and sad. I love flying on Qantas, but it was the first time that I had flown with them to get to someplace that was not Australia. So I indulged in my minor Aussie obsession while travelling, reading about interesting Australian art exhibits in the in-plane magazine and listening to the best of modern Aussie music on the headphones on the trip, but I knew full well that I would not quite make it far enough on this trip to actually get to the sunburnt country itself. I don’t know when I’ll be back to visit Australia either, which made for a sad moment or two in transit. Last time I was in Singapore, I was heading to Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney for an adventure of a lifetime (aside from the previous adventure of a lifetime, when I had been there six months earlier).

Travels are funny, that way. This blog makes for a great record of these trips, and when I look back at the archives from my visit to Singapore (and then Australia) a year and a month ago, I have mixed feelings. I’m glad I did what I did then, and on this trip I’m sort of glad that I’m going home to England after a mere four nights in Singapore. Especially with the new flat to settle in to, my wanderlust is perhaps damped a bit at the moment. There are many places I’d like to see, in Asia, Australia, and beyond, but on this trip my overwhelming feeling is one of a desire for home, and in this funny case home is my new flat in the UK, not something in the US at all. Confusing, yet comforting, that my existence has settled down a bit to be based in one country only. The confusing part comes because that home is in England, which is not what I would have expected five years ago.

A bit of London randomness, I admit

NFAH is coming at you tonight from very central London, in a neighborhood in which I have never spent any time but which is conveniently located for the combination of what I had to do today (meeting in SW7) and what I get to do tomorrow (visit Mike, from Postcards from Across the Pond, and his better-ha ha!-half Shonagh in their town south of London). So I’m camped right by the train station that will take me to Horsham in the morning, and experiencing a bit of London tourist fatigue. Riding the tube in the heat is rough. Riding the tube in the heat with a huge group of Greek and/or Italian (take your pick) immature teenagers is brutal.

It has been one wicked week. That’s my first bit of randomness. I had dinners for work two of the first three nights that I was back in the UK, and by Thursday morning when my alarm went off, I thought I was not going to make it. I had meetings and a workshop and all sorts of other things to do, and it was bloody hard. This morning, miraculously, I woke up before my alarm and feeling fine. Exactly as predicted: a 5 hour time difference and five days to get back to normal. Interesting.

I took this ad photo in the tube station this afternoon:

OK, I’ve ranted before about the British tendency to drop words, but this is ridiculous. “Every little helps” huh????? “Every little bit helps” would make sense. “Every little help” might make sense. But this does NOT make sense.

London in the summer, scene of ten thousand fashion crimes. Did you know tube tops were back? I can assure you it’s not pretty.

My day got totally messed up when I realized on the train into central London-town that I did not have my cell phone charger cable and I had already drained my battery by 1/3 answering work emails (thinking I was being all efficient and things). Thus I had to take a trip to the Apple Store off Oxford Street, after my meetings were done, in order to get one. I had never been in the flagship London store, and my goodness I will not go back. What a mess. Note to Apple: I am pleased you are having such success but the release dates for the iPad and iPhone 4 were a wee bit too close together for my comfort level when trying to buy a stupid phone charger cable. And note to self: stop forgetting to pack the darned things, this is the THIRD time since you’ve lived in the UK that you have had to go scrounging for a new cable, this time in London, once in Germany and once in the US. Ridiculous! I now have so many of the things that there should be one available to leave in every single piece of luggage and/or computer bag-type things that I have. Grrrr.

The guy in front of me in line at said Apple store bought three iPads. THREE.

Beware, my fellow bloggers, we apparently develop computer skills when we do this, assuming that we do more than just write the posts using the graphical interface and a standard blog template with no customizing. Have I mentioned that I am now the webmaster for a work-related organization, based on my (minimal) knowledge of using WordPress as a CMS? It was when I started talking about “search engine optimization” at the meeting today that I realized that it was all downhill from here.

Thank goodness my hotel has a ceiling fan, and a powerful one at that. But, of course, no air conditioning. Great weekend to be at a hotel in London, when it’s actually pretending to be summer. And oh the displacement activity when I should be at home packing for my big move.

Happy Friday, everyone.

Scenes from China, part 2

The scene: China as a shiny disco nightclub.

Typical night-time scenes from China (Shanghai around East Nanjing Road, Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district, Nanjing near the Confucius Temple):

Dear So-and-So, About to be a weary traveller edition

Dear person who was pounding on my door this morning and kept trying to enter my flat with the master key even though the chain lock was clearly engaged,

Seriously. You did that to deliver a cardboard recycling bin. You so could have left the $%£*^& thing outside the door.

Needing my beauty sleep, NFAH


Dear UK tax authorities,

This thing where you randomly assigned the start of the year to start some time mid-April is remarkably inconvenient for expats from sensible countries where the year starts on 1 Jan. And of course, I should not expect that there is anything so modern as an online system for me to sort through my pay stubs for the past year, it’s paper and my calculator all the way.

Tax time is the most annoying and time-consuming time of year, NFAH


Dear Car Service,

I promise I will not sleep through my alarm tomorrow, and thus not waste your driver’s time and efforts like I did on the aborted first attempt at the Germany trip two weeks ago. And fortunately for me you’re picking me up tomorrow at 10:30, not 6 am!

Gettting giddy to get to America, even though it’s work all the way and followed by the China adventure with no time to deal with jet lag, NFAH


On Trains and Paris

I just looked down at my watch and realized that although I’ve been back on UK soil (from Paris) for over 24 hours, I have not yet adjusted my watch. I managed to get through the work day–and a busy 12-hour one at that–without ever looking at more than the minute hand. It was practical, as there were meetings at various points throughout the day (o’clock, :15, :30 etc.) and I roughly knew what hour it was from the computer clocks and/or the other physical clocks in the rooms around me. But I shall now change my watch back before I make a big mistake tomorrow. Or I’ll leave it tomorrow since I have to leave for Germany early Wednesday morning. We’ll see. It’s that time of year. Insane European travel phase for me, when the watch changes take place more often than any sane person would like.

I had, as ever, a lovely time in Paris. I am quite enamoured of the fact that I can get there by train. So I have done it several times since I’ve lived in the UK. Plus once to Belgium. But it’s hard to shake the fact that Eurostar is a bit of a mess at the moment. Compared with flying, and this can not be emphasized enough, it is a dream. But I did have a bit of an adventure on my return trip. Some details appear here, although it was not quite the full story. I arrived for my train, about 75 minutes in advance of check-in (always more than enough in the past) and found that they had closed check-in for Eurostar completely, and there was a magnificent queue full of clueless people. The only overhead announcement stated that “due to an earlier security incident, check-in for the 19:13 train (mine) would be delayed” and it took some time to put facts together and realize that the train two earlier than mine still had not left the station. I will never know the truth, but the gossip was that there was an abandoned bag issue that caused security to be shut down temporarily, and departures had been halted completely for some number of minutes. I dutifully joined the queue, as I was instructed to by a young Brit who lives in Paris and hates the French. More on that in a moment.

The queue was by this point spectacular, stretching across the entire Eurostar upper level platform, down the stairs, curling around the Gare du Nord main level, out the door, and back in again, and circling round the platform at ground level. I tried to take photos but they did not do the queue justice. After some time of standing completely still, operations eventually resumed and the queue went from a stand-still to a slow crawl. Where it continued for the better part of 2.5 hours, in my case. The only information coming to us in the queue was from a “telephone game” network of others in the queue repeating what they had heard from others. Those travelling in a party of several (myself excluded) had the luxury of sending someone up the queue to try and figure out what was going on. I relied on the kindness of strangers and Twitter. So we waited. After two hours in the queue, sensible announcements started to come over the PA, but only after a Brit in line next to me had talked to the managers while his wife/partner held the place in line and told us what was really transpiring. We would be loaded onto trains in the order we were placed in the queue, with no regard for original seat assignments, so they could get us through and to London as fast as possible.

For the most part, aside of the information gap, I was quite impressed with how they handled the problem. They clearly had a system in place. I was given a new seat assignment, and an assignment for boarding to the “white” train (as opposed to the yellow or blue one) and once I had this magical sticker, after standing in the queue for 2.5 hours, I proceeded through immigration and security faster than I recall doing at the Paris end previously. (They need to upgrade their facilities a bit to compete with the relative efficiency on the British end, where the facilities at St. Pancras are all new and quite spacious. And who thought I’d ever be complimenting British efficiency on this blog!) I ended up on a differently scheduled train from the one I was supposed to be on, but the schedule had pretty much been thrown out the window by this point and we were all just trying to get back to the UK.

And here’s where I got lucky. By being at the station in Paris at the time I arrived, and by joining the massive queue when I did, I avoided the catastrophe of the train that died outside of London and had to be rescued. That was the train directly after the one I landed on. So my 90 minute delay in arriving started to look good in comparison. I actually wonder if I saw the ‘rescue’ train depart St. Pancras, since there was a completely empty Eurostar train leaving right as we arrived at 22:something, which would be consistent with the stories that went around in the press today.

I’m not going to pretend the experience was pleasant. Being in a 2.5 hour queue was hard on the feet. Being alone meant there was no opportunity to get a drink of water or visit the conveniences. Abandoning my luggage to do so was not an option, since that was the original issue that caused the delay in the first place. At one point I did step out for 10 feet to grab a landing card for UK immigration, but only after securing the services of a friendly co-queue person to watch my bag and know my intentions. I was away for all of 30 seconds, and I can assure you that the queue did not move.

Part of my interest in this occasion was in people-watching the other passengers. Directly in front of me in the queue was a British woman who appeared to be travelling with 5 children under the age of 13, and they caused some chaos. Going up the stairs to the Eurostar platform was a particular adventure, as she maneuvered an empty stroller/pram (MacLaren, of course) while the ~2 year old child ran up and down and occasionally screamed bloody murder. At one point the ~ 8 year old kid tried to (and did) pick up the ~ 2 year old on the stairs, thus risking an early death for both of them or us should we all tumble down. The mother seemed uninterested in the cries of the ~2 year old. The eldest, a young teenager, struggled with two enormous wheeled bags on the stairs. An ~ 10 year old had another. Good Samaritans around me tried to take over, sensing the imminent disaster, but the children were determined to prevail and the mother was disinterested in assistance. I was stunned. I am not a parent, but the risk of grievous bodily harm to the many assembled children seemed higher than I would normally expect to see in this sort of situation, not to mention the potential chaos if one of these little urchins did actually fall down the stairs with the full brunt of their weight + gravity creating inertial loading for the many of us standing down the queue. It was an interesting evening.

Another interesting observation was in the constant disparaging remarks made about the French by the British people around me. I have no strong feelings in this regard. But my experience here in the UK has led me to believe that there is truly a love-hate relationship going: the Brits I meet are either enthusiastic Francophiles, speaking the language and spending every possible spare moment in France, or people who completely detest everything about France, the French, and everything related. I admit, I’m standing from the distance of an American placed in the situation I was in. I would have liked it if the Eurostar staff or the Gare du Nord staff more generally had explained what was going on–but of course, I had my iPhone and turned on Twitter and talked to people around me and that was worth more than 100 PA announcements over the loudspeaker. But I thought the French staff handled the situation quite well, with the exception of the information dissemination. And the Brits in my immediate surrounds who clearly were prejudiced to hating the French already, they were not so generous. I have not heard such bitterly nationist (I hesitate to use the word ‘racist’ in this context even though popular in Euro-speak when referring to countries, especially given the common history of the Normans) thoughts expressed in such clear and direct language in quite a while. Some Brits around me really seemed to have a problem with the French. Which begs the question of why they were there IN FRANCE trying to catch a train for Britain.

In the end, I got home. I was about 2 hours later than intended, but I figure compared with typical flight delays, it is quite worth it to travel by train. My trip back was not too unpleasant, and I’ll head to Paris on the Eurostar again. Probably soon. It’s becoming my favorite ‘Escape from England’ tactic due to the fact that I’m loving trying out my high school 3 years of French on poor unsuspecting waiters in cafes across the city. I had my new camera and thus an excuse to try and do the city justice, which I most certainly did not. But I tried. This trip, I went to the Louvre and inside Notre Dame, both of which were new to me. I loved the former, and could not believe I had waited so long to see it. The museum is worth the price of admission just for the building, even if there were no Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa. The latter, I’ll pass. Notre Dame no longer felt like a church, it was such a tourist trap and I did not enjoy it much. Although I was staying near the Eiffel Tower, I still did not manage to get up onto the highest levels of it, so I have an excuse to go back to Paris yet again, hopefully soon.

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