Category Archives: time

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.

Britain’s class obsession

Britain has a rather strange obsession with labeling things according to “class”. Before I moved here, I had never thought very much about the fact that I was “middle class” growing up, in that I had a certain set of white-collar parents and a suburban home. I most certainly would not have used the c-word in order to describe or define myself. It does not surprise me, however, given the local obsession with class, that there is a new BBC 3-part special about class and culture. I tried to watch the first part tonight, and gave up rather quickly but felt that it defined a certain part of the local ethos that I, as a foreigner, would never quite understand.

The bit of the program(me) that I watched was chock full of stereotypes. This class did this, while this other class did that. It was largely historical in its gaze, and was looking at classes in the past and how they had changed in the 20th century. But it was the broad-brush stereotyping that I found a bit disturbing. These people did this and those people, on the other hand, did that. A quote from the above-linked TV review might help here:

While his latest documentary is in many ways an objective piece of social history, Bragg does steer us towards a conclusion. Orwell was wrong when he said the middle class would eventually sink into the working class, he argues, because the working class has risen and risen.

Again, he doesn’t need to spell it out, but he is an example of this. After all, here he is with traces of the North still detectable in his voice, presenting a programme on the BBC. Yet when the BBC was founded in the Twenties its voice was that of the south, specifically the public school-educated south.

Bragg describes himself as a class mongrel. His parents were working class but he ended up in the House of Lords, thanks to his grammar school, which got him into Oxford, which in turn got him into what he calls “the media class”. Yet not only does Bragg bring his formidable learning to the subject of class, he is also willing to examine his own prejudices about it.

An American would not be surprised by the fact that someone managed to shift from a modest background into the higher echelons of politics, we would celebrate it as the model of upward mobility that defines America. (Not that I am saying anything positive about modern American politics, that is a different blog post.) But ideas like, “he made it big in spite of his northern accent” are more surprising, as well as the general attitude towards being “northern” which seems to be a significant barrier to progress here.

The funny thing that seems to me to be a problem in Britain right now is the constant class chatter. All of the love for Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs seems to me to be centered on a certain nostalgia for a time when class boundaries were more clear. I feel like the new BBC documentary on class is worsening the situation for the next generation, by being nostalgic about the ages in which class may (or may not) have followed broad-brush stereotypes that were easy for people to assign and digest. More than anything, I feel like the obsession with class in Britain would necessarily diminish if people would just STOP TALKING ABOUT IT SO MUCH. By continuing with the discussion, and by continuing to portray the differences in “period dramas” we are just keeping alive an idea which no longer makes any sense in terms of trying to divide up the modern people into mass stereotypes. Time for this to end, and for the British electorate to be considered as a bunch of people, not a bunch of classes.

The rise of the travel blogger

I probably have just noticed this, because I am a fully employed person who admittedly travels the world, largely for work and occasionally for fun, but there seem to be a large number of bloggers out there who are engaged full time in travel blogging. And I am finding this slightly fascinating. I am not always able to pay my credit card bills in full due to my taking adventurous work trips to interesting places where I can’t quite get my trips fully funded by my work obligations, but where I decide that it’s a good idea to travel regardless because the opportunities are immense in terms of seeing interesting things and traveling to interesting places.

Clearly, there is a sub-set of the (American, or other “western”) population who agrees with me, that travels to interesting places are a mandatory part of our lives and thus this sort of foreign travel needs to be done regardless of the details of the finances. But the people who have no formal jobs and who are virtual nomads, blogging about their adventures? How do they do this? I am not saying that I would give up my day job if offered the opportunity, but I am still fascinated by this phenomenon because there just seems to be so many people out there on this pathway.

I have never made any attempt to “monetize” my blog, nor have I been the type of person who has seeked blog funding or website revenue. But I am truly interested in the stories of those who have. Some of the travel blogs I’ve read have been sadly full of poor grammar and thus clearly not edited by anyone. It’s not like these are words that will make themselves found in future travel guides without substantial effort. Is this still the new frontier for travel writing? Are these blog posts full of grammatical mistakes going to be the edited versions found in the next Lonely Planet edition? Curious bloggers want to know. And those of us with day jobs who happen to be living abroad are remarkably curious (and perhaps slightly jealous?) about those who have made this a nomadic lifestyle.

The BBC

I live in England, and as such, I am familiar with the typical programming of the BBC. I have learned to love strange formats of television that have no US equivalent, such as the “panel show” that is “QI” which has, as far as I can tell, no point. It has a scoring rule that is completely hidden from the viewer, and which often results in negative scores for most of the three comedian guests who appear on the show (Alan Davies appears regularly and almost always loses, a result that would be difficult for the average American to understand.)

But that said, and as much as the BBC often produces quality programming, it also produces a LOT of CRAP. I have been suffering from insomnia of late, and have been watching things on the BBC iPlayer that make me want to crawl into a small hole and hide from my peers. I love Masterchef. They cook for real chefs, often in difficult circumstances. But I do not love Celebrity Mastermind. Seriously, there is a TV program(me) in which a dude asks questions of people for two minutes and that is all. They tally scores after several people try to answer questions and that is that. Really, England? This is compelling television?

I have a new thought, which is that Americans who claim to love Downton Abbey should have to sit through at least 4 hours of typical BBC programming for every hour of historical drama that they love. See how they do with a marathon of “Homes Under the Hammer” or “Only Connect” or “Countdown“.

And there is a special place in hell for those who produce “Room 101“, Britain. Just, no.

Customer Service

I thought it was so simple. I moved out of my central town flat in a pedestrianized area almost 18 months ago (!) and within a few months realized (thanks to fab fellow expat Kat–hi Kat!) that I could now get pizza delivered by my local Domino’s pizza franchise. AND I could order pizza over the internet, thus ensuring that I did not have to talk on the telephone, something which I really do not like doing, especially when ordering things is involved. I was always under the delusion that ordering things over the internet was far superior, because nothing could ever go wrong with the details as they were typed in instead of relayed by voice, with all the trouble this could bring given my foreign accent. How wrong I was.

Now, we must have a slight diversion to discuss the excellence that is the UK post code system. While the US zip codes are 5 digits long and divided between 300 million people, in the UK the post codes are 6 (or more) digits and divided between a mere 60 million people. And they involve letters in addition to numbers, which gives us even more fine division in the UK post code system compared with 5 digit numerical US zip codes. I live on a small street, with two other buildings of flats and less than a dozen semidetached houses. The fact that the post codes are so finely divided is thus quite interesting: the houses on my street have a post code that differs from mine in the last (alphanumeric) digit. This means that my 6-digit post code is only for the 12 flats in my building. Which I happen to know, because I have accidentally received mail/post in recent months for the house at number X, Our Street, whereas my address is X, Building Name, Our Street, with a different post code. So the system is not perfect in execution, but in design, it is quite good.

So when I order pizza online, as I often have in the past, and as with many UK websites, I put in my post code, and a drop-down list appears with the 12 addresses of the flats in my building, in the form X, Building Name, Our Street, and I select my house number and expect the pizza to come to my house. Most of the time, this works. A few weeks before Christmas, however, I encountered a failure of this system. I ordered pizza, and about 40 minutes later, got a mobile phone call from a Domino’s driver who claimed that he could not find my flat. (Even though, if you put my post code into Google Maps you end up in my tiny street because this post code is ONLY FOR MY BUILDING!) I gave him directions. He called back ten minutes later. I gave him directions again. My pizza eventually arrived, and it was cold. I was not happy.

This brings us to tonight. I ordered pizza, with the confirmation from the Domino’s UK website coming through at 7:43 pm. My phone was inadvertently set to vibrate, so I did not notice when someone called at 8:22 pm, and again, and again a few minutes later. At 8:38 pm, I had retrieved my phone and realized I had been getting phone calls from an unknown mobile number, so when a local number rang through I answered it. It was someone at my local Domino’s franchise, wondering why I had not answered my phone. I pointed out that it had only rung nearly 40 minutes after the pizza was ordered, at which point the pizza would have been cold, and that by now the pizza was most certainly cold. The person at Domino’s claimed that my address had not come through the system, and that they did not have my full address details, including my street name. Now this is where I get angry, because, as was pointed out earlier, my post code is for my building only, and if there were any questions about the street name, it could be obtained via Google Maps. Not to mention the fact that I only selected my address from a drop-down box on their website after entering my post code, such that the information was all clearly in their system. And oh, do the drivers not have phones with Google Maps?

This is where it gets a bit ugly, and I get into a yelling argument with my local Domino’s franchise person, who wanted me to give him directions to my house at this point, for delivery of a pizza that had now been ordered an hour ago. The pizza person insisted that the pizza would still be hot if delivered, and I suggested that without touching it, they could not be sure. I asked, in what seemed to me to be a reasonable request, that a new pizza be made for me and delivered. This required quite a lot of discussion and me raising my voice yet again. And in the end, the Domino’s guy agreed to send me a new pizza and then hung up on me. The good news is that the pizza did arrive, at 9:02 pm and thus nearly 80 minutes after being ordered. But I am not such a fan of the Domino’s UK customer service at this point. And I can’t imagine such a scenario playing out in the US, where Domino’s delivers within 30 minutes and has for years, even from before the age of Google Maps. I just cannot figure out how the local franchise made pizza delivery so difficult. If it’s your job to deliver hot food, don’t you look to see where you are going?

I’ll stop whining now. I got my pizza, and it was good. If late. And I got to experience yet another “Wow, customer service in the UK is still not what I expect” moment, which reinforces all of my American prejudices, not that I actually wanted that to happen (now that I am quite happily ensconced here in the UK and mostly adapted).

On a less rant-y note, Happy New Year and here's hoping for a 2012 that is great for us all.

Christmas carnage

Tonight was my annual Christmas party for my group/team from work. It was the fourth consecutive year that I’ve managed to do this, to invite all of my crew, and their partners, to my home for food, wine, and general festivities. The affair has grown, since its inception, from a simple wine-and-cheese party, with me providing all of the nosh, to a deluxe pot-luck. Thank goodness I’ve moved into a larger flat, because I had 14 adults, plus a baby, plus me, in my living room tonight. My crew is quite international, and it was a delight to have Thai fish cakes cooked by someone from Thailand, along with Gluhwein made by a Brit with a German girlfriend, loads of British classics like mince pies and biscuits and cheese, and my own contribution–Dutch doughnuts according to my late grandmother’s own recipe. In previous years, when I had an Italian in the group, we discovered the beauty of tiramisu packed as a filling into my Norwegian grandmother’s Krumkake. I always make a hot crab dip (not necessarily adhering to this recipe at all!) and the local Brits love it, as they don’t seem to have this sort of recipe in their standard repertoire. I’m now dealing with the kitchen carnage, which is significant, but this annual party reminds me of why I love my life in England so much.

The Thanksgiving aftermath

I was so excited about Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was the event that was going to kick off a long weekend filled with some fun adventures, not to mention starting off the holiday season proper. I am a true American, and I refuse to break out the Christmas music or decorations until Thanksgiving dinner is done. I spent Tofurkey day at work, as one does when living in a country where this is not a national holiday, and rushed out of the office and off to the dinner, organized by a mixed couple (he’s British, she’s American) who happen to be good friends of mine here. They also happen to have a little one, a bouncing baby boy who is about to turn toddler by hitting a year old this week. This might prove important in this mixed up tale.

Thanksgiving dinner was decent, it was catered by a local outfit and there were twenty-some people there, perhaps ten or so Americans and the people who tolerate them and their funny holiday traditions. The main dishes were better than the attempt at pumpkin pie, which was sweet, creamy, and served with berries and mango puree. And thus completely disgusting. The non-turkey main dish was a nut roast which was dry and uninspiring, but I decided to use my “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and assume that the gravy in boats was only onion gravy and thus would be good on my nut roast and mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes and green beans were additional accompaniments, and all was well. So we had a Thursday night success.

Friday morning I was off to central London, where I was meeting up with a number of friends for some foodie weekend events and some culture. The plan, which went well on the Friday, was for a pub lunch, shopping on Oxford Street, and dinner at a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant. (There are five Indian restaurants with one Michelin star in London, and I have now been to three, so only two more to go. Delicious every one so far.) So a Friday success as well. Now we take a turn for the worse.

Saturday morning I awoke at about 9 am and ran to the bathroom to evacuate the contents of my stomach. (I know, TMI, apologies for the mental image.) I then spent the next 6 hours unable to swallow even a sip of plain water. Mid-afternoon I managed to get my hands on a bottle of that British cure-all, Lucozade, which I think of as Pedialyte for grown-ups and I managed to get a few sips into my system. By nightfall, I had also eaten four plain biscuits. As an expat, I was musing that evening on the fact that instead of ginger ale and saltine crackers, I was on Lucozade and water crackers, but in the end as it all worked, it was as good as could be. I will never know what caused my illness, whether it was a bug contracted from the baby who functions as a germ incubator given that he spends days at nursery, or some sort of food-borne illness from the Tofurkey day dinner. What I do know is that it was not anything I ate on Friday, as my dining companion ate every single thing I did over the entire day and never showed any signs of illness. Thursday night was the culprit, for certain–three other diners from that evening ended up in the same place as me on the weekend.

Saturday was thus a complete disaster. I had to cancel all planned cultural and dining events, including something I had been looking forward to for several months– a planned expat meet up for dinner. I was, in the end, paying the princely sums associated with a hotel in central London in order to spend the day entirely indoors and miserable. The weather was appropriately grey and gloomy, but it was still extremely disappointing.

Sunday morning dawned, and I was intending to head back to my town earlier rather than later. But I managed to convince one of my friends to help me try and salvage the weekend by doing something cultural, and we headed for the British Museum. I had never managed to visit, and it was amazing. I was a bit weak, having not managed to eat much in over 36 hours, but it was quite enjoyable in the end.

So I headed back to my town after a really mixed long weekend. There were a few glimmers of greatness and a few moments of pure hell all wrapped into a few short days. On returning home, I set about putting out the fairy lights and Christmas decorations, and put the Christmas music on constant replay. The only way forward is to stop worrying about Thanksgiving and the aftermath, and to focus on the next few weeks of holiday magic. What can I say? You win some, you lose some. This was certainly a mixed weekend.

It’s time for poppies

One thing about being sick, you get the chance to get caught up on television watching. I have been binging on BBC iPlayer documentaries recently as a general principle, but being sick meant I expanded my watching into other genres such as comedy and variety. So it was in this, pathetically sick, mode that I found myself watching Johnny Depp on the Graham Norton show the other day. And Johnny came out wearing a paper poppy, and I was annoyed. As annoyed as I was a few years ago when I was in a choir that happened to be singing at a service on 11/11, and a person with a box full of poppies came around and affixed one to every member of the choir, lest the chapel dare be seen on the day without the ritual red fake flower on every chest.

Now let me be clear, before the trolls start screaming: I am a granddaughter of a veteran of WWII, a good friend of an injured Viet Nam vet, and I generally believe in the importance of respect for our veterans. I have even been known to buy a poppy from a sweet elderly man in the local shopping mall, and then put it in my bag “to affix to my lapel later”. So I give ££ to the campaign yearly, sometimes buying two poppies (I am a sucker for cute elderly people collecting money for good causes) but I do object to the compulsory nature of wearing the thing. It’s in television where I first noticed it, and thus the Johnny Depp comments. Some producer back behind the scenes of the show has a stash of poppies ready to affix to the clothes of all celebrities, because this is the time of year when you can not appear on the telly without one–just as the choir members could not sing in the chapel without one. Newscasters, political figures, all sheep-like in this display of poppy pride. Johnny Depp is not even British; this is not his traditional observation for the 11th November (which is Veterans Day in the US as well) but something forced upon visitors by the locals. When something gets to this point of cultural compulsion, it is no longer a serious piece of symbolism. It’s a decoration lacking in deep regard.

I am, of course, not the only person to feel this way, and I was reminded of this when an eloquent article on the subject found its way across my twitter feed yesterday. And yes, we are back to the second glamorous part of being sick: not only do I catch up on television, but I spend far longer than usual dinging around on the internet social networking sites. Yay me. The excitement, it’s never ending. And hey, I have time to blog as well! Too bad about the cough… but seriously… I’m sure there’s no turning back on this one, no politician or newscaster wants to become the one who refused to wear the poppy. No one wants to speak out about how perhaps we might re-consider the value of the symbol by removing its ubiquity. I will continue to carry out my own little protest, and continue to donate to a number of lovely vets in the shopping mall near my home but not wear the poppy on my lapel.

Home, sick

I posted on Facebook yesterday that I was home sick, and one of my friends–a European transplant to California–misread it as “homesick” and said that she felt the same. She figured it out, but I thought it was amusing as it is quite common to feel homesick when you are home, sick, in a foreign country and missing creature comforts associated with being sick back home. For us Americans, that’s things like the magical OTC marvel “NyQuil” for which no UK equivalent exists. Judging by the status updates of fellow sick Americans this week, this is one of those things we all bring back in our luggage. For me another is Aleve, an NSAID that doesn’t seem to be available in Europe and that works much better than ibuprofen for me, for some reason I have never been able to concretely establish (but suspect is because for a time I was on 2.4 gm of the stuff per day during a bad bout of arthritis pain, so I suspect I’ve built up some sort of immunity to the stuff!) A few years back a colleague at work tried to give me “LemSip” which as far as I can tell has a devoted following in the UK not unlike the American devotees of NyQuil, but I’m afraid it made me gag and did not make me feel better in any way, shape or form. Ditto with the remarkably thick, gooey and disgusting “chesty cough” syrup that I found here. It’s Robitussin or nothing for this girl, as it has been for pretty much all 35 of my years on this planet!

Being home, sick is not nearly as much fun as having a day off work. Although you have spare time with the internet and no constraints, you feel like crap and that sort of detracts from the freedom. I also find that it’s the only time I take naps. I could tell I was really sick when I needed a nap yesterday, as it was the first time I can remember since living in England that I have properly called in sick and then gone back to bed. I recall doing so back in Virginia, which would be more than five years ago. So I am lucky, I do not seem to get laid low all that often. The usual seasonal cold, of course, but this was much worse than that. I have a legendary tendency to avoid superfluous medical intervention, so as I am not actually dying I have not been out seeking professional help, but I suspect a mild form of bronchitis from the way that I sound like a baby seal barking unless I am constantly drinking fluids.

Which brought me to the realization that I have stopped drinking tea, except when I am sick. This is terribly un-British behavior, and in stark contrast to the many adaptations I have made to local life after 5 years living here. I used to drink tea quite regularly, back in the US before my arrival here. I was particularly fond of this magical sort:

I happened to find that I still had a few tea bags of this left in my cupboard, from some care package years back, when I was still drinking tea more frequently. In my home, sick state, my homesick self was thrilled to find Constant Comment in the cupboard and it is that which has been keeping my baby seal bark under control, as I try and half-work from my bed with my laptop. It’s never terribly productive, sick working, since the head tends to feel quite fuzzy, but you can sometimes get rather dull things done like answering 10,000 boring emails and doing website updates. I know, my life, the glamour–can’t even take a proper sick day. It’s true. With a 24-7 job, it’s tough to have such a luxury. At least I have tea.

Late Update: apparently I was home sick on a day in June. I know this because I blogged about it. I’m not the only one who goes back and reads their own blog archives and goes “OH YEAH!” right?

Through Fresh Eyes

There is a new member of my group and she happens to be an American and a she. She arrived just over a month ago, and regular meetings with her have really been amusing. See, she is going through the inevitable adjustments of being an American in England, trying to settle in and focus on her day job, while being reminded constantly of the fact that she is not from around here. Interestingly enough, this has made me realize that my blog tag-line is starting to be a little bit less true than it used to be. After more than five years in England, with permanent residency and a permanent job, I am a little bit from around here. And nothing reminds me of that as much as chatting to this new arrival.

I mentioned this to her today when we were meeting, when she was discussing the difficulties of adjusting to separate taps, life without a tumble dryer, with only mini-refrigerators under the counter, with food that seems like it should be familiar (salads and sandwiches) inevitably being different in some unexpected way. Of course, these days I’m fairly well-adjusted, and although I would very much like an American-style washer and dryer, otherwise I’ve managed to find comfortable accommodation with modern conveniences and my daily life is no longer as surprising because I’ve had five years to adjust to the local cuisine. She caught me out big time, saying I was “complaining about having nothing to complain about–how American!” and she was right. I don’t sound angry these days, and if you go back to the blog archives from the first two years, I definitely sounded angry at times. I spent a lot of energy in the early years worrying about my sense of other-ness, something that I hardly notice any more. And this is both being acclimated to being foreign and having adapted–in particular, I’ve adopted more local pronunciation and vocabulary than I care to admit, and she kept reminding me of that while we were speaking.

It sounds stupid to be wistfully sentimental for the early days of being an expat, but strangely enough that was how I felt after speaking to her this afternoon. At times in the early years, I was happy for a day when I went about my daily life without much of a reminder that I was in a foreign country. Now, the country is not so foreign, and I miss the days of remembering that! I suspect part of this is resignation to the fact that the ‘current economic situation’ is such that I am happy to have a good job and the likelihood of me making any big life changes soon is virtually nil. I can’t be the only person who craves change and craves adventure after a number of years of equilibrium! For now, I will stick with being cautious about what I wish for, and try to enjoy the feeling of fitting in.