Category Archives: travel

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.

Advertisements

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 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.

Vacation, Interrupted

I know I have been quite quiet lately. There is, of course, a good reason. And regular readers of this blog will have been able to guess what happened.

I went to the US for my usual August holiday, to see my friends and family in Minnesota and to go to the beach for the only proper holiday I take in any given year. (And even then I typically work at least 1.5 days per week because, well, that’s the nature of my job, it never stops, not even in a European August.) I managed to completely ruin all of my Minnesota plans by losing my wallet in the Milwaukee airport en route, and thus did not have a car and completely changed where I was staying and what I was doing. This was not all bad, I might add, as it contributed to the great vacation skill acquired on this trip: I learned to knit. But that is a story for another day. What is important for this story is that I was heading to the beach for two weeks of idyllic paradise and relaxation after what had been a somewhat discombobulating Minnesota experience.

Beach day 0: Pack my beach things into my beach friends’ car and drive from the DC area down to the North Carolina Outer Banks. Arrive late morning after an ungodly early start, have a nice beach arrival lunch, pick up the beach house keys and pack in to the beach house. After unloading and settling in, head for a walk (just a mile up the beach and back) and cook dinner.

Beach day 1: Have a nice long walk on the beach (3 miles up the beach and back) and food and etc.

Beach day 2: Have a long day on the beach, swim, surf. Happen to be sitting on the beach when an earthquake happens not far away, and totally feel it. Start to become aware that in addition to the earthquake, there might be hurricane trouble coming.

Beach day 3: Obsessively read weather.com and outer banks websites, knowing that the hurricane is coming. Try to enjoy the beach regardless, have another 6 mile beach walk. Total beach miles to date: 14.

Beach day 4: Awake to an impending sense of doom with regards to the hurricane. Read weather.com obsessively over coffee. Happen to be on the local website the moment the mandatory evacuation order is posted. Change out of PJs and pack out of beach house. Arrive back in DC area in early evening to prepare for hurricane.

(non)Beach day 5: Hurricane preparedness. Buy bottled water and canned goods.

(non)Beach day 6: Hurricane. Play board games and wait out the storm.

(non)Beach day 7: post-Hurricane. Go for a long walk in the sunshine, see many downed tree branches but otherwise feel as though the whole thing had not happened.

(non)Beach day 8: Waiting day. Spend the day working and regularly refreshing the Outer Banks news to see if there would be a resumption to beach 2011. Find out at 3 pm that vacationers will be allowed back at 10 am the following morning.

Beach day 9: Groundhog day. Take beach day 0 and repeat. Pack the car, drive 300 miles, have lunch while waiting for the all-clear to re-enter the beach house, pack in and settle in for a nice evening.

Beach day 10: Back to paradise, right? Except the beaches were closed to swimming due to trees and other debris. Long walk (6 miles) and dinner.

Beach day 11: repeat of beach day 10. Still no swimming, but lots of impressive driftwood, if by driftwood you mean entire trees littered along the beach. Another 6 miles of walking and documenting.

Beach day 12: Finally, some swimming.

Beach day 13: Swimming and another 6 mile walk. BUT time to start packing, as it’s over.

Beach day 14: Pack up and move out.

Total beach miles walked: 32. Not bad given the circumstances. Number of days spent in the Atlantic surf: 3. Pathetic for a two week holiday. Books read: 2. Far below the usual standard, but that’s because I spent four days transiting between DC and North Carolina. Not to mention all of the packing.

Silver lining: I had an adventure and have a story to tell. The beach where I was, in the northern Outer Banks near the Virginia border, was virtually unscathed. We had power at the beach when friends in Baltimore and Boston had none. I worked on my new-found knitting skill, which is, as I mentioned, a story for another day.

Moral of the story: Do not vacation in the outer banks if you are averse to hurricane evacuations. That’s two years in a row for me, Earl in 2010 and Irene in 2011. Earl was better timed, in that it was at the end of my two weeks, while Irene was as inconvenient as possible. But, she says as a scientist can only do, statistically I am unlikely to be this unlucky next year, after two forced evacuations in a row. Yes, the Outer Banks are totally worth the effort, and I will continue to take my holidays there. Hurricanes are just part of the adventure.

I’m back in England now, and the paperwork battles for my visa are now in full swing. This holiday was supposed to be the stress-free vacation before the paperwork storm, and it did not end up like that. First Milwaukee, then Irene. But I’m stuck with the mantra “anything that does not kill you can only make you stronger” and so here I go into the next phase of life. Wish me luck with the paperwork and hopefully my next beach vacation will involve 14 full days of beach bliss.

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!!!

On the other side…

… of the pond. I flew to the states today for a week-long work conference thingy, which is a quite typical thing that I do for my job. What was not typical about this trip was that I had a rather late-in-the-day flight out of the UK (5 pm) which placed me in Boston around 8 pm local time, and I had to clear immigration and get my baggage and pick up my rental car and drive 30 miles to my hotel at what was essentially 2 am in the morning for me. Remind me not to do that one again. I suppose I could have stayed at an airport hotel (and maybe I should have done so) but I am on my way to Maine and it made some sense (at least on the day that I booked it) to stay in a hotel north of Bean-town and on the way to Maine, not to mention the fact that it’s a hotel I’ve stayed in previously when on the same sort of work trip in the past. It all seemed sensible at the time at which I booked it, and it all seemed like madness at the time at which I got off of my flight and had to drive whilst being a zombie. But that’s done. All is well. And the fact that it is a “suites” hotel meant that they had frozen dinners available for purchase in the lobby and a microwave in the room, so I did not have to go out in the car again once I had managed to make it to the hotel, so all good. Hooray for American convenience and Lean Cuisine. (How sad.)

I got on the internet at the hotel only to find that Amy Winehouse had died and Cadel Evans is about to win the Tour de France. I care fare more about the latter than the former, but the former was clearly of more interest to my Facebook and twitter friends than the latter. Hopefully tomorrow a few more people will be as excited as I am about the first ever Australian TdF winner-in-waiting. (I don’t want to jinx it.)

Being, as I am, rather stressed out about immigration matters, I was really dreading my arrival into the US. Two times in the last two years I’ve been harassed by the border guards at the US border about why I live abroad. When I’ve tried to explain about my (pretty awesome) job, they have in both instances tried to volunteer a (roughly) equivalent US job that I should be doing instead. Now this would not be that stressful except for the fact (warning, confession coming) that I did apply for similar jobs in the US about 9 months ago, knowing full well that such a US job would save me from having to go through the stress of the immigration process. And the fact is, no one hired me. There were various reasons for this, I’ve spoken to several people about it and I’ve been reassured that if anything I was too qualified for the jobs I’d applied for, but basically when you’ve just been turned down by US institutions for jobs and you’ve just started to deal with UK residency paperwork, this is not the time that you want to be hassled by US border authorities about why you live and work abroad.

Fortunately the nice man tonight in Boston airport’s border patrol did not bug me about it, although he did make me explain in significant detail what I was doing here (attending a conference related to my work) and that I did not live here and had not been touring around Europe. Which brings me to my point (and I do have one!) that it’s still not that common to be a US citizen who chooses to live and work abroad. And I don’t have the “married to an Englishman” excuse, which seems to me to be far more easily understood by the world compared with the “have a job in England” reality of my life.

Which brings me to my reality. I was never sure that I was moving to England for keeps when I moved there, and I am still struggling with the facts right now: I have a great job in England, I don’t have a job in the US, and I’m stressed out about the paperwork associated with staying in England beyond my 5 year work permit visa (obtained in 2006, which feels like a thousand years ago). I thought of the England experiment as a 3-5 year career move that has turned out to be a bit more complicated. I am now conflicted, as I feel neither English nor American, and my words on the subject have this week managed to piss a number of people off, as evidenced by comments made here and on twitter. I hate the British attitude towards Americanisms as defiling the (British) English language, but I am equally annoyed when overhearing conversations of visiting Americans in Heathrow airport that make me want to defend my adopted country and all of its foibles. A Brit who resides in America and has for a long time recently told me that it would be difficult for me to return to life in the US, and I wholeheartedly believe him. This is the complication that one never thinks about when it sounds glamorous and interesting to go live in Europe for a while. Once you live abroad, your thinking changes and it’s hard to ever go “home” again.

A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.