Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Baby Shower - A Taste of Expat Life for Our Families

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The British generally don't do baby showers.  Friends do drop by with gifts and your coworkers usually pool money for a gift, but there's not the big party where you invite everyone, play games, and open gifts in front of everybody.

Americans do, though.  So, when my family found out I was going to have a baby,* they started asking my sister how they were going to be throwing a shower for me given that I live on another continent.

My sister worked really hard to think of a good way to do this, keeping everything in consideration - the general lack of a shower infrastructure in the UK (online registries and such, and people were requesting that I have a registry) and the problems of shipping costs and us having to pay taxes (VAT - 20% of the value of the item, and there are other costs too) on incoming packages.  And she did an awesome job.  After being poked to do so - I was slightly reluctant - I made a wish list on Amazon in place of a registry, and filled it with baby essentials only - the stuff we were absolutely going to need regardless of whether we bought it or someone else did.  My sister made invitations that included very specific instructions on how to avoid making us pay large VAT to receive packages and offers of help for those who were flustered by overseas websites.  She even arranged some kind of game, although there will be no time we all meet up online or anything for the full shower experience.  (That would have been pretty complicated!)

What's ended up happening is that we've completely inadvertently given our families a taste of expat life.  Despite my sister's efforts to make everything easy for everybody, virtually nothing has left the registry as relatives are flustered by exchange rates that cause sticker shock, sites that won't accept foreign credit or debit cards, banks that won't allow foreign purchases, foreign financial or product terms that they've never heard before, and time zone differences that make communication with companies difficult.  And just think if we'd still been in Germany when this happened!!  At least it's all in English, albeit British English.

So, sorry everybody.  We are so used to these things and how to get around them that we completely forgot.  I buy gifts off foreign sites all the time and work my way around the problems now as second nature. Never feel that your generous efforts are not appreciated; they are appreciated beyond what I could express. But hey, if you ever wanted to know what it's like to live abroad...that's a little sample for you. ;)

Anyone else ever try to hold an international "shower" of any kind before?  How did you manage it?

(*Yes, I am 33 weeks pregnant, after great, great, great, GREAT difficulties in this arena over the last many, MANY years. I begrudged - unwillingly, it was so automatic - many a pregnancy announcement during those hard times and if anyone is begrudging me now, I understand.)
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Music Post, 2013

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Getting around to this a bit late, but it's a short list this year.  With the downfall of music blogs and my impatience with Spotify ads, it's gotten a lot harder for me to keep up.

Two huge standouts:

James Blake "Retrograde"

Vampire Weekend "Unbelievers"
Close runner-up from that album: "Ya Hey" - but not as accessible.

The rest:

Laura Mvula "That's Alright" - bonus for being from Birmingham!
It gets weirder after this point...
Petra Glynt "Sour Paradise"

Shugo Tokumaru "Pah-Paka" - I cannot go without Shugo.

Sophie "Bipp"

That's it til next year...although I'm already keeping up very poorly this year so this might be it forever!
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Monday, April 28, 2014

Coping When Your Children Live Abroad

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Sucks, doesn't it?

You gave them life, raised them to be ambitious and successful - and then they were ambitious and successful and that took them off to a faraway locale or even over an ocean.  Then you realized what you really wanted was for them to be ambitious and successful...at something that would have them living right next door to you.  Oops.

But they're there now.  They are happy.  They love their new city/state/country. They've settled in and are enjoying the fruits of their labor in the place where they are. Would you have them compromise their happiness and success to live next door to you?

If you would, is that really love?  Or is that actually a bit cruel?  How would you feel if they did compromise and were miserable with their new life?

How to cope when your child is happy abroad and you kind of wish they weren't:

Skype/Facetime/Telephone: Old tricks, but good ones.  If you both have Skype or Facetime you can talk every single day with video - FREE.  Every single day if you want!  You can see your child's every haircut and zit and new outfit, if they have kids you can see their every new skill and school project.  But don't spend those conversations complaining about where they live or they might not want to have them as often as you do.

The Mail: Everyone loves mail.  Send packages back and forth with your kids - foods they like, news clippings from home, books you enjoyed and want to pass on, fragments of your daily life that you wish you could share with them but they don't live next door but oh wait, the mail! You CAN share them!!!  And in return you'll get exotic goodies and bits of their life back from them.  If you can't afford to ship gifts, how about letters or homemade postcards?  Have we all forgotten how fun those were?  Definitely always a good idea.  Don't spend the letters complaining about how sad you are that they don't live next door.  You can talk about that to ANYBODY except your kid, ok?

Take Cues From Them:  Wow, making your life as an adult in a brand new place is no mean feat!  Many a depressive phase has started out that way.  But somehow it seems your kids have done it in a foreign country and even found happiness that way!  Dang!  How did they manage?  Take cues, and their routes to happiness might work to help lift you out of your my-kids-are-too-far-away doldrums, too.  Did they volunteer?  Get a job they really enjoy?  Join a church?  Go to pub quiz every week?  Start a garden?  Make a point to go for long walks in the country every weekend?  Give it a shot!  You'll be too busy to care where the heck your kids live!

Visit:  I bet your kids visit you.  At least once a year, they shell out thousands of dollars for plane tickets, airport food, rental cars, and all the other horrific and sometimes anxiety-laden trappings of international travel.  In return, do you visit them?  Or do you  seek to "punish" them by refusing to visit or by complaining that their trips are not frequent or long enough?  Do you believe that since they do it every year, thousands of dollars must be nothing to them?  I bet it's not nothing.  I bet they work hard to make sure they have that money to spend on you.  They are paying their dues for living abroad in this way.  If you cannot find it in your heart or your wallet to visit them and show interest in seeing the new lives they've made, the least you can do is not lodge complaints to them about how they aren't doing enough.  You can call up your best friend for that.

You're Not Going to Make Them Move Back: If you've tried all of the above, or refuse to, just at least try to understand one thing: they've already made their move.  If moving back was just a matter of a few simple parental complaints, it's unlikely they'd have ever had the nerve to move abroad in the first place. It only makes them dread conversations with you, which is exactly what you and they don't want.  Yes, they do understand that everyone dies.  Which is why they don't want to spend their precious conversations with you talking about how you don't like their life.  Even if you think you're doing it in a "joking" or "loving" way.

Do your kids live abroad?  How do you cope?  If you live very far from your parents, how do your parents cope?
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Apologies for the junk here at the moment

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I had to re-download the blog template, and now I have to re-customize it.  I didn't think of this beforehand & leave myself enough time.  Hopefully soon. In the meanwhile I am sorry if you feel a bit bombarded by junk or spammy things.

Meanwhile, here is some nice moss from Bournville Station.


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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tales from a Job Interview

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I'm not lucky in all areas of life, but there's one area in which I certainly am: not having had very many proper job interviews.  I did have one disastrous interview with the City of Boston (underqualified) straight out of college.  I had one with a temp agency, but I don't really think of that one as a proper interview since it was mostly just a typing test and questionnaire (pulse? y/n).  Then I did have a proper interview for a job working on a research study, but it was really easy.  The woman interviewing me was impressed enough by my alma mater that the interview was only a formality. (I didn't take take the job because of the next one: )  That same week I had an interview for which I had only about an hour's notice, and I had to show up in the khakis I was already wearing, having not prepared at all. Not really a proper interview. I got that job an hour later, took it, and worked in it for five and a half years.

When I moved to Germany, I did have a meeting with the boss, but by the time I arrived in Germany he had already agreed over email to hire me and support my master's thesis, so it wasn't really much of an interview, although it was tense.  He had a tendency for long silent pauses, and at the time I didn't know that was normal for him and thought I was personally trying his patience!  I stopped working there for a while due to funding, and when they wanted me to come back there was no interview, they just called and invited me to work there again.

Since I got here, I've allowed myself so far to be picky about jobs, so I have only applied to about 10. For the temp job I'm in now, there wasn't really an interview - they knew me and I just showed up to confirm the details.  Things aren't too pretty for job-seekers at the moment, so I didn't get an interview for a non-temp job until last week.  Here's how it went.

My experience has been that the employers here have long forms to be filled in to apply - there's no cover letter and resume, you just fill in all the needed information.  There is an essay section which fulfills the same role as a cover letter would have back in my US job hunting days.  You have to make an account with the employer's site to fill in an application, so if you come back to do another application letter most of your information is already conveniently filled out, making subsequent applications much easier.

This job is in the NHS, which has notoriously slow human resources. I submitted the application in December.  D's parents were visiting at the time and while they went on one of their many visits to Cobwebs, I finished up my essay on why I'd rock the job and sent it in.  Then I didn't hear anything at all.  Meanwhile, I took up this temp admin job.

Exactly two months after the application deadline, I got an email inviting me to interview!  At first I was confused - when did I even apply for this? - because it had been so long.  I had to go to back to the NHS job website to confirm that I would attend the interview, which was set for three weeks after I got the notification.  The invitation also said I would have to give a 10-minute Power Point presentation on what the priorities of the team I would be joining should be.

The Power Point really threw me for a loop.  I hadn't had this experience before nor had I heard of it being a thing, but after asking around I found out that it's not too unusual, at least here.  What confused me was the level the Power Point topic seemed to be at compared to the level of the job description (and pay scale, ha).  According to the description & pay, the position is under someone who is in a more senior version of the exact same role, but the Power Point having me talk about priorities made it sound like the expectations of me would be higher.  How could I know what should be prioritized when I've never done this before, and they know that from my application? I must be some wild card interviewee.

Anyway, I did all my research and about three days before the interview I wrote up ten slides.  They weren't anything special.  I fretted because my interview was at 3:30pm, probably the last in the day, and my Power Point was probably going to have the same generic points in it that everyone else's would and the interviewers - a panel of three - would be totally sick of hearing the same stuff over and over.  And I had to go buy a blazer, which was annoying.  There are a lot of ugly blazers out there.  I didn't want to go for a whole suit, though, because the last one I had I wore probably 3 times before it went out of style and turned into a horrific ball of frump.

But, onward.  I found the interview location and was there ten minutes early.  Signs in the hallway pointing to "Interviews" and a "Quiet: Interviews in progress" sign on the department door made it seem like a big deal and made me feel more nervous. I wondered how many they were interviewing.

The department is in a hospital and they had me wait in a patient waiting area.  The only other people I saw were patients. I thought I'd see some other overdressed nerves-ball leaving before I was called in, but I didn't.  Someone came out, asked me if  I was me, I said I was, and suddenly I was in a tiny shoebox of a room just big enough to hold me and the three interviewers.  They had me just sit at the table to give my Power Point, because it was really awkward to be standing for it in that room.

My presentation was totally devoid of any presentation skills.  Maybe I should have practiced it. I never practice my presentations, I always wing them, and it's always gone well enough.  I had been planning on standing and wasn't as good at using my notes while sitting.  Especially those notes I always have to write to myself that say, "Slow!  Slow!  Slow!  Slow!" because I talk too fast even when not presenting, and it's worse when presenting.  The panel nodded a lot at my content.  Bored nodding that they've already seen it all today, I guess.

They said my presentation was "very good" (who knows what it means?*), then they started in with the questions.  Many of the questions felt really generic and could only be really generically answered.  So much felt like a re-hash of what I'd written in my application or what I'd mentioned in my presentation.  They would nod and continue on after I felt like I had only half-answered with some lame generic answer.  To me it seemed they'd already eliminated me on the basis of my generic presentation and were just going through the motions of asking me the required questions so they could finish up for the day.

Determined to at least not be the worst person they saw that day, when they turned the floor over to me to ask them questions, I tried to salvage the interview.  I had TONS of questions and they were not about salary and hours....they were about the nuts and bolts of their projects and procedures and methods.  Things felt better after that point.  They liked talking about everything they were doing and planned to do.  The funny thing is that I'd probably not have generated as many questions if I hadn't been so worried about the presentation.

From the behavior of the different panel members, I started to silently make guesses as to their thoughts on me.  One person kept making references to stuff remembered from my application.  "That person got me in the door today," I thought.  I identified with that person, too; they reminded me of myself in my Boston job.  There was another person who, aside from a couple of positive comments, seemed nonplussed.  "That's the one who will argue against it if the other tries to make a case for me," I guessed. "That person wants someone with a different personality."  The third person was one of those really nice people whose general amiable nature makes them really hard to figure out.  No idea about that one.  I could see they wanted a lot of different things for this role and wondered if there was going to be any tension about that in the deliberations.  At least the conversation was going better now that we were off their scripts and on mine. Still, it felt like an eternity.  At one point I looked around the table and was a little spooked at how familiar they all looked; could I possibly have known them before? No, it just felt like I had because the whole thing felt so long.

We finally finished up. They collected information from my required IDs and certificates. The one who didn't like me seemed a little sassy about it. Then they took my phone number and said they would decide within the next couple of hours, so I should keep my phone with me. I almost forgot my data stick in their laptop.  They reminded me where the exit was and I was out.

It was just before 4:30 and I didn't know what to do with myself. I had the rest of the day off but I had to stop back at my office (very nearby) to pick up some things, so I ended up just working until 5.  I didn't know whether I really wanted to stay with my phone or not.  I asked my coworkers if they thought the interviewers would call me if I didn't get the job, because that would be awkward and I didn't want to deal with that call.

At 5 I left the office and went to the train station.  Then D texted and offered to buy me a much-needed drink, so I left the train station and walked to his office (also nearby).  As I neared his door, the phone rang from a private number.  I thought maybe it was D calling from his office phone or something.  I got to his door and looked in the window and it wasn't him.

I answered. It was the interviewer who didn't like me. I stood in the hallway outside D's office and listened to her tell me that they thought I did a really great job, that they were "blown away" and "so relieved" that I "came through today" and at this point my brain has already stopped functioning because what!?

In some fuzzy haze during which I don't think I was breathing, she offered me (provisionally) the job and I (provisionally) accepted it.

I think you have to understand the mindset that creeps in when you've been out of work for a while, and add to it the mindset of the foreigner.  I wasn't depressed about my abilities or lack of job by any means - I was content (okay...secretly thrilled) with my housewifey ways.  But, living for 7 years in a country where I didn't have native fluency did start to give me a subtle feeling of general incompetence.  On top of that, because of all this being-a-foreigner stuff I have a patchy job history with mostly sideways moves and several years out of work.  I'd applied for jobs here below the grade of this job - jobs for which I was bona-fide wayyyyy overqualified - and not even made it to interview.  That wore on me, too. 

There might also be something to be said here about our own perceptions of how we are doing and how we are actually doing. Or maybe no one else even showed up to interview that day.

So really I have no idea how this happened, and am sad that for me the 9-5 is probably here to stay, but to be finally thought of as potentially competent at something complicated has been surprisingly uplifting and I am so glad someone gave me a chance.  Plus, the job looks like a really good fit for my skills and personality.  Yeah, that's straight off the app, but it's true.  I won't apply if it means I have to outright lie.

Still can't believe it.

* I just read this again for the umpteenth time, why do I STILL think it's funny?
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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How not to say what kind of job you're looking for

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What I've been up to

No luck in the job hunt over here.  I've gotten pretty used to unemployment.  In Germany I was just screwed because almost all of the sort of jobs I could have done really needed someone fluent in German to perform them.  We survived fine on one income, so, spoiled, I never felt pressured to take a job outside my field in order to keep afloat.  We've been surviving fine here so far, too, although I've been looking because I'm still telling myself I might have a chance at a job in my field here, now that I speak the language well enough.  Also, we haven't been surviving quite as well as in Germany. I don't know where the extra money is going but there have been more expenses somehow.  We are still fine but I'd like a bigger cushion.

Anyway, a friend of mine helped me get a temporary (aka casual) job as an administrative assistant where she works.  As an extra bonus, the place has lots of jobs relevant to my field, some of which I've unsuccessfully applied for.  We thought that if I just took this temporary position and met a few of the right people, they'd remember my name the next time I applied for something there and I might have a better shot.  Plus hey, income.

The temporary position is meant to a fill the gap someone left until they hire a permanent new someone to take it. I could have applied to be the permanent new someone.  The deadline for it was yesterday.  I hemmed and hawed a bit, but I didn't apply.  It's not what I'm looking for and I'm still being optimistic - I don't want to take that job and have them fully train me up, only to bail on them quickly thereafter when I find what I'm looking for.  Maybe that was an ignorant decision, I don't know, but it's too late now.

This morning as I was pouring everyone's tea, one of the other administrative staff asked me if I'd applied for the position.  I felt straight away I might be in trouble, and that the only good answer might be yes, but somehow I still managed to find the worst thing to say.

Prepare to cringe.

Fellow Staff Member: "So, did you apply for the position?"

Me: "No, I didn't."

Fellow Staff Member: "Why not?"

Me: "Well, it's not really what I'm looking for, and if I were to get the position I wouldn't want to have you guys train me and everything only to run off and leave you hanging when I found something else."

Fellow Staff Member: "Oh, all this time we've never even asked you about what you do or your hopes and dreams! What kind of job are you looking for?"

Me: "Well, I have a master's degree in epidemiology..." (Trailing off because the answer in my brain - explained below - is so long I'm not sure where to go with it next.)

Fellow Staff Member: "OH, MY GOODNESS! YOU MUST BE SO BORED SITTING DOWN HERE IN ADMIN!!  THIS MUST BE SO BORING FOR YOU!" etc and etc onward.  Followed by overhearing snarky cracks later in the day about people with degrees being too good and all that.  Now, the British will keep you from taking yourself too seriously every second, and thank goodness for that, but there are times when it crosses the line from a bit of ribbing to some genuine chip-on-shoulder action, and I felt I drove this person to go to that level with my hideously poor answer.

What my answer meant to me

"Well, let's see, I don't know what the hell I'm looking for. I am afraid that if I leave my field I'll never get back into it.  But I don't know what is possible to get in my field in this country, given that I have only a master's degree in epidemiology, on which I spent time and money. Although I could get a research job in Germany with this degree or a public health job in the US with it, here I can't figure it out. I can't find public health jobs listed at all.  All the research jobs require a PhD, which I don't have.  And if I say I'm an epidemiologist in answer to this question, people will think I'm a researcher, but I don't think I can be a researcher here, so I don't want to give them false ideas.  That's what happened when I first came and everyone thought I was going to be this awesome useful biostatistician that would come work with this guy they know who really needs one. I don't want to go into a detailed job history although I guess that would explain pretty well the kind of jobs I'd like.  Well maybe if I just say what I studied and to what level - so they won't mistake me for a PhD - someone here will know what you can do with that, like their niece or neighbour or someone has that and does something particular I could try, this is one of those countries where job possibilities are really narrow based on degree, right? Help??"

What my answer meant to her

"I have a master's degree so I am too good to work with you."

That totally didn't occur to me at the time and to make this whole thing even cringe-ier I've been using that answer ever since the early days when "I'm an epidemiologist" raised people's expectations too high.  So who knows how many people think I'm some pompous jackass trying to flash a degree around?  Because of D's work, a master's usually identifies me as a regular old person, a non-academic in a sea of PhDs.  And now it's identified me as an insufferable snob.

Argh.

What I should have said

"Something more data-y."   Any other good ideas?
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Sunday, February 09, 2014

We get a veg box now.

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In the last few years, we’ve known several people who receive veg boxes (CSA shares) in the US.  ("Veg" is a British English abbreviation for vegetable that can be singular or plural.  In the US we only used veggie(s) this way as far as I remember.)  In Germany, we never really felt the need for one.  We lived close to a really good twice-weekly market where we were able to get good quality seasonal produce whenever we wanted.  In the UK, that hasn’t been the case.  There is a monthly market in our neighbourhood, but the produce selection is very limited (and sometimes there isn’t produce at all).  We live close to a supermarket and a greengrocer, but both are a little hit-and-miss – so when we got a chance late last spring to try a one-month veg box trial from a local (ish – it’s in Leamington Spa) farm, we decided to give it a shot.  It wasn’t just about availability of good produce, but also about forcing ourselves to eat more vegetables.  I did buy and make them, but more often I would make one-dish meals like chili, mujaddarah, or basil chicken and not bother with anything else – so we weren’t eating many vegetables.  Why not challenge ourselves a bit?  The trial became a full-year membership and we’ve been now getting a veg box for about 8 months.

The box comes once a week, and I pick it up at the food co-op where I volunteer. It costs about 14 pounds a week (including membership in the farm and delivery to my neighbourhood) for a medium size, which is on the large side of what two people can get through each week. I often have to give things like potatoes away because we don’t get through them.  At one point I’d built up a stash of almost 50 potatoes!

Having to think up ideas to use up the food we have, instead of getting an idea and then shopping for the ingredients, hasn’t always been an easy shift.  In the summer, there was all this lettuce.  There just aren’t enough interesting things to do with lettuce. Then there was all this pattypan squash. I think it’s delicious, but we’d get 8-10 palm-sized pattypans a week on top of zucchini (aka courgettes) and on a given day you can only get through one or two, so if you don’t have squash every day there could be trouble.  We ate a lot of this for a while. One week the fridge went a little crazy for some reason and all the squash froze. I thought I could still use it, but because it had softened after freezing, it almost immediately all started to mold.  Then there were the cucumbers.  D doesn’t eat those.  I pickled like crazy, and even made cucumber bread/cake.  It often felt like a race against time to eat everything before it could go bad.



Things have improved with the arrival of winter, because winter vegetables keep so nicely.  There’s no panic that the beets and parsnips will go off before the end of the week.  Even cabbage lasts a really long time, and winter squashes are the best because they don’t even need to go in the fridge!  Speaking of cabbage, though, wow.  That’s been the winter version of pattypan squash. I like it, but there is a LOT of it.  We get about a cabbage a week.  It doesn’t sound like that much but one cabbage goes a really long way!

I’ve learned I like some things I didn’t think I liked – the best example being rocket (aka arugula/rucola).  I think I just got unlucky in the past and had bad experiences with it when it was a trendy restaurant ingredient and was thrown in places it maybe didn’t belong.  But, being forced to eat it because I can’t stand the thought of wasting anything, I realized I actually love it. I did know I liked Brussels sprouts, but I didn’t realize I liked them this much. I’m always so happy to see a little bag of those in the mix. 

Some things, however, haven’t gone over as well. I always thought broad (aka fava) beans were not worth all the trouble of getting at them.  And…I still think that. I have no idea how delicious they’d have to be to be worth the prep to me, but they’re not anywhere near that mark. No change on kale, either.  Kale is good and I enjoy it, but it’s not the orgasmic life-changing vegetable that Pinterest would have you believe.  Then there’s my changing attitude toward green beans - in Germany I was always wishing they were more cheaply available.  Now I don’t know why I did – I’m just not that into them. I end up throwing them into stew just to get them out of the way. 

I also learned that you can’t drown a slug.  Well, maybe you can.  But it would take a long time.  Baby slugs often come in with the greens and I leave the greens in water for a little bit in an attempt to get them all out.  I end up finding the slugs at the bottom of the bowl of water with their antennae all tucked in.  They climb up the side of the bowl and out of the water, then pop their antennae out.  Truth is, it’s cute as hell, but then I have a slug to get rid of and I often wish it had just passively drowned without me having really known.

It’s been good overall, I think.  When our year is up, though, we might downgrade from a medium to a small.   The size of the medium has had some downsides.  There are times when we really wish to make a certain dish – we haven’t made that beloved mujaddarah in months – but feel that we just can’t fit it in what with all the vegetables.  It also takes some of the fun out of going out to eat with friends or getting the occasional curry, knowing that this means there’s no way you’re going to get that bag of turnips out of the way before the next load of turnips arrives. Also, we just signed up for an allotment, so maybe we'll have a few vegetables of our own to eat this year!  (Not to be overly optimistic....)

Before my comments fill up with these common suggestions that I get whenever the topic of vegetable gluts comes up, I know that I can make broth, mash, or whatever else and stick it in my freezer.  My freezer is jam packed right now with frozen vegetable broth, frozen mashed potatoes, frozen braised cabbage, frozen pumpkin puree, and frozen stew.  There’s hardly room for a pint of ice cream now.  I give away vegetables pretty often, too.  We are not going to starve, that’s for sure!

Have you ever gotten a CSA share or veg box?  How did you  manage when there were bumper crops or large amounts of something you just aren’t that into?  What did you love or dread to see in the box?
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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!!

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Attempting to break world record for longest Christmas cracker pulling chain

Christmas Feast at canEAT in Stirchley

Preparing for Feuerzangenbowle at our house

Feuerzangenbowle at our friends' house

Wall o' cards

Christmas Feast at our house

Caroling on Christmas Eve

Flaming the Christmas pudding in our kitchen

TREE with pile we are about to tackle!
Have a wonderful holiday!
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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Last weekend we went to Germany!

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Last weekend (a week and a half ago, actually - time flies when there's so little sunlight in the day) we visited Germany for the first time since moving to the UK!  Our purpose was more to visit friends than to visit the country, but it's so full with fun stuff to eat and see that we ended up with a nice dose of Germany on the side anyway.

It hasn't been that long and only a few things about Germany really stuck out to me while we were there:

1. Actually there's some really good food.  It always frustrated me that I lived in Heidelberg for six and a half years and by the end there was still no really consistently amazing restaurant that I could call a favorite.  My favorite restaurant ended up being an Eiscafe.  (Where I did indeed get a big freaking sundae while visiting!)  There's a lot of really mediocre food all around and even the famous bakeries were full of duds as I remembered it.
One bakery I particularly remember never being all that fond of was Wiener Feinbaecker.  We made a stop there while in Heidelberg anyway, to stock up on goodies for a train ride, just due to the lack of other options.  As it turns out, if you've been starved of German flavors for a while, Wiener Feinbaecker's stuff is pretty delicious.  Especially this salty Dampfnudel....

 I miss you, salty Dampfnudel.

A hazelnut horn-shaped thing, which I never cared for one way or another in the past, was amazing. Even the Berliner-Brezel, previously dismissed by me as forever disappointing due to its inability to taste like an American sugar donut, was delicious.

2. So many trees!  So, so many trees.  And vineyards!!  How could I leave a country with so many beautiful vineyards!?!

Unreal.
3. The light to open the train door comes on a lot faster in Germany than in the UK.

4. The UK's false "sorry" is, for me, so far preferable to the German habit of just unapologetically running into you and then looking at you like it's your fault and not saying anything.  Got this one straight away at the airport train station, and then it just kept happening the whole time.  So frustrating!

5. I find it much easier to speak German when there as a tourist than I did when living there.  Even though no one is going to know whether I'm a tourist or a foreigner living there, as a tourist I put less pressure on myself to be perfect because hey!  I'm just a tourist, you can't judge me for not being fluent, why should I be?  Without the pressure, it's much easier to just blurt out a bunch of possibly wrong German and not care.

6. That tower in Duesseldorf has a bunch of lights on it that are a clock.  This was my third visit to Duesseldorf, but the first time I noticed that.  Cool.

Taken at 16:29.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Awesome Birthday Present 2013: Stuck In Customs

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One of the many reminders that you're living in a different country than your family and oldest friends is when they send you gifts and they wind up being held in a warehouse somewhere instead of on your doorstep. I'd certainly developed a (not entirely positive) relationship with the Zollamt while in Germany, but for some reason it still came as a surprise to me when the gift D ordered for me from the US came to a grinding halt in customs after crossing the ocean. Oh...that's an import? Boo.


I know what the present is (FLUEVOGS!) so I was tracking it a little obsessively when it ended up in customs. After a day and no movement I googled how long this usually takes, and the answers were given in weeks! Nooo.... but when we came home last night after a couple of days in Germany, there it was on the floor inside the door: a letter from an entity called Parcelforce.

Parcelforce pays the customs duties and taxes on your behalf, then mails you a request to pay them back plus another fee. After they receive payment, they'll deliver your package on the day of your choosing. (That's the best part!  No taking half a day to find the customs office in some remote back alley maze!) If you don't pay within 20 days, they send it back to the sender. Of course, this item is a gift and it's weird to have to pay to import something I didn't actually have any say in importing, but it turns out the tax-free limit on gift value coming in the UK is something really low like £36. Also, it can't count as a gift if it's been shipped by the company instead of an individual. Shipping is apparently included in the value, so good luck staying under that line if you're shipping from abroad!

The charges are ugly.  The import value added tax alone is 27% of the price of the shoes (remember shipping counts so it's actually a lower percentage, but why should shipping count?!), and on top of that there's a customs duty of nearly £15 and then the Parcelforce's special handling fee (a "clearance fee") of £13.50.  All in all, I could have bought a whole other pair of less-good but still pretty decent shoes with the money I have to spend on importing them.

Please note, this is not a complaint against the sending of gifts from abroad.  These shoes are a gift for which I am very, very grateful and they are going to be awesome. But I do find it a little unfair to pay so much for something someone tried to send me as a present.  What if I couldn't afford the duties and taxes? (Damn near can't, really!) Someone was just trying to do something nice for me. I know there's not really a good alternative to this system since anyone could just claim gifts for everything they send if it were so easy.  Still.  Argh.

In this case there was no way around it because there is no EU source that supplies this particular pair of shoes.  If you plan to buy for someone abroad, where possible consider buying it online from a supplier in their country of residence to avoid both high shipping costs for you and the possibility of high import fees for them. :)
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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

It's not cheap and the houses are small, but there are dryers!

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This morning I woke up to this article floating around the internet: US Expat Describes the Best and Worst Things About England.  It seemed a timely read especially considering the previous couple of days saw this other article floating around the expat community - it describes the UK as being one of the worst places in the world to be an expatriate!  (The two articles turn out to be unrelated, though.)

The best/worst article gives me, having been quite the lazy blog-writer lately, a springboard for putting in my two cents on the things she discusses!
"Just because people speak English, do not be deceived.  It is an utterly alien place from America culturally"
Man, I don't know.  Really?  I think we did this the right way by moving to Germany first and then coming to the UK, avoiding a US to UK transition. But even still, I think "utterly alien," even if used in a sort of teasing British context, is an overstatement.  Unless the differences are so massive they're actually going over my head.  Maybe it's regional. If I moved from Des Moines to London I'd probably be miserable over the change in the people around me.  Coming from Boston (open relative to Europe, but on the low end relative to the rest of the US) to Heidelberg (some say a particularly cranky section of Germany) then back to Birmingham - Birmingham is feeling pretty damn friendly.  This may depend on political persuasion, too.  While we seem like lefty freaks in much of the US we were pretty centrist in Germany and still relatively centrist here.  A US centrist or conservative may feel some extra isolation.

"One of the biggest realities is the drop in the material standard of living.  British wages are not as high as in the US and things are more expensive."
Mostly true. In my job search the biggest shock was seeing the salaries.  They are seriously low. (My first thought was "How on earth can these people afford to make the pub their second home? How?!?") I wrote off some job postings at first, sure that the low salaries they were offering meant I was overqualified given my earlier salaries.  Nope.  You just have to take a pay cut if you want to live here.  The pay cut is not matched by a comparable reduction in the cost of living.  Compared to Germany, where we also spent some time on just one full-time salary, doing so feels more difficult here.  I haven't entirely pieced together if those are just cost of living differences or if there's been a change in our behavior and expectations since moving, but in any case it's a little less comfortable now, even though D had a slight pay raise in the new position here.  However, I'm not sure about the truth of the statement that things are more expensive than in the US, since it's been so long since I lived there. I do know that there is no way in hell we could have survived for two seconds on just one salary in Boston, though...and we've made it a few months here on just one.  I guess it depends a lot on where in the US/UK you're living.  I don't think we'd be doing so hot in London.
"Houses are very expensive and you will live in a house half the size you'd expect in the US, often attached to your neighbour and with a one car garage (if you are lucky).  There are no basements, so you feel cramped and everything is cluttered -- I've never seen a walk-in closet to date.  You will cram everything into a 'wardrobe' the size of your coat closet."
 True. Houses are expensive.  Whether they're more expensive than the US depends on where you're coming from.  Our neighborhood here is pretty comparable to or cheaper than our Boston neighborhood (which was on the very low end for Boston).  Compared to rural Iowa the prices here are terrifying.  The houses are indeed small and utterly lack good storage space, and this is something that you just start to deal with.  You have fewer things.  You don't feel as much pressure to have so many things.  It doesn't bother me so much when I'm here, but I do feel a bit wistful about it when I go to Iowa and see that my dad's house has three full-sized fridges and a chest freezer and he could have even more if he wanted - there's plenty of space. I'll never be able to throw parties as awesome as his in my little British house!  But there's less to clean, the houses are adorable, and maybe it's better to have less material crap in your life.  Plus, not everyone in the US has a giant house.  It really depends on where you end up living/working, and we weren't going to have a lot of say in that anyway, revolving around the difficult academic world as we do.
I've seen houses with basements here, so it's possible to end up with one.  You do often share a wall with at least one neighbor.  I guess I don't mind high density like that. It actually makes me feel at ease, safer, to know that there are plenty of people nearby.  I do wish my neighbor's smoke would drift in a bit less often, though.
"You will eat sandwiches in your office, not go out for lunch as is done daily in the US."
False. Everyone at my workplace in the US ate in the office.  Same in Germany.  I think D's current coworkers actually eat out for lunch more than any place I've worked! Is this really a thing? Even if it is, I'd rather eat in the office, it's much cheaper and usually healthier.
"You will not have a garbage disposal"
 True. I didn't have one in Germany either.  I grew up without one, my dad still doesn't have one, so I guess I don't really expect to have one, so this hasn't bothered me.  They can be handy but I don't really think about it.
"You . . . will be expected to hang your laundry out to dry"
Not expected, but you can!  I consider the ability to hang my laundry outside in a garden to dry to be a privilege!  It's free and the most relaxing of all household chores.  This is a privilege denied a lot of Americans because of homeowners' associations that have banned the practice.  In Germany we mostly had to hang things to dry inside.  That works fine but takes up a lot of space and contributes to dampness problems indoors.  We have to do that a lot of the time here too because of the rain, but yes, I religiously watch the weather reports and look forward to the days I can hang the laundry outside! 
As for being expected to do it, I don't think so.  Of the neighbors whose gardens I can see from my house, I'd say I've only ever seen laundry hanging in about 50% of them, and most of those it's not all the time so they are also using other methods.  I imagine everyone else is using a dryer or drying things inside.  When I have to dry things indoors, to help combat the dampness I usually dry them partway in our combo washer/dryer and then let them hang dry the rest of the way.
"As I type this, our laundry is hanging in the family room, damp, and when dry must be ironed.  All Brits iron, or hire someone to do it."
 Huh? I find my clothes come out more wrinkly if they've been through the dryer than if they've hung to dry (even if hung indoors).  I don't iron any more here than I did in the US. I'll have to ask around about this one!  I actually prefer to do my laundry here.  Every time I do laundry in the US while visiting now, I remember that top-loading washers and American tumble dryers are really hard on your clothes, shrinking, fading, and aging them more quickly.
"Our groceries are ordered on the internet and delivered to our front door -- as is typical for all supermarkets."
Not sure. I haven't noticed this being more common than in the US.  I don't use it because I don't ever really buy that much at once so it hasn't seemed necessary.
"A massive advantage of living here is the National Health Service.  If an American could understand it, they would be amazed by its magnificence."
True. God, it's so easy. It's so, so easy.  Yes, we pay in taxes. That's fine. It's so easy.  I take a medication and I have to pay for it out of pocket because I don't fit any criteria for getting it free - but most people do fit.  The pharmacist is always horrified that I'm paying for it even though it's like 7 pounds for a 3-month supply.  He has no idea how much I paid out-of-pocket for health shit in the US.  How insurance companies would find ridiculous reasons to deny coverage leaving me on the phone for hours solving things that ended up being typos. Denied insurance over typos. Rage. Seven pounds being the only thing I have to pay for anything health-related at all, and having it be EASY, feels like getting away with something.  Even in Germany there were co-pays and there was a complicated system of getting new referrals in person every quarter if you saw a specialist.
"The infrastructure of the country is in a much better state...there are no derelict buildings or crumbling roads."
It's intermediate.  There are derelict buildings in Birmingham to be sure!  Far more than in western Germany.  Eastern Germany did have quite a few.  In the US there is a lot of dereliction too.  It is a little surprising when I go back because I didn't notice it that much until I moved away.  As for roads and bridges, I don't really have enough experience with them here to say. We all know the US has problems since bridges seem to crumble right under commuters now and again. German roads and bridges are amazing, of course. I doubt any country has them beat for that!
"There is a deep love and care for the countryside that makes it compelling, and you can never tire of it.  It is the work of a thousand years -- a landscape built by man, layer by layer.  A masterpiece."
It's different. The English countryside is beautiful, but so is the American one. I can't say that one is preferable to the other.  I think on my most recent US trip the one thing that hit me the most was the size of the sky, the size of the views and vistas.  It's overwhelming and amazing.  In the English countryside, I feel like part of history and humanity. In the US countryside, I feel like part of the universe.

She goes on to talk in reverent tones about big mansions in the English countryside.  This is something I'm just not into yet.  They are nice and it's definitely a thing here to go visit them on the weekends, but it's hard for me to work up a sense of wonder about them, even though I can get going about a pretty church, no problem.  Rich people had nice mansions? Surprise surprise?  I guess I'm more interested in beautiful old things that regular people had some access to.  Why, I do not know.  I'm hoping to one day have an epiphany and be able to hop on the stately-home-loving bandwagon.

As for the second article claiming the UK is one of the world's worst places to be an expat - well, that's probably something difficult to measure.  Since they had to base it on something, they based it mostly on disposable income, I think.  Well, if you're coming from some rich western country to a poorer country you're going to feel rich!  And if that's your main measure of happiness in expattery, then great - and you'll find the UK to be pretty bad due to the pay cuts and all discussed earlier.  Also, our visas have a big statement printed on them: "No recourse to public funds."  This seems a bit crazy - we pay taxes so we should be able to take out from the system, too.  That is disadvantageous to expats living in the UK. I hope with time we won't come to find that the UK is bad for expats.  So far we are happy with it.

Well, I think I've gone on long enough here - I did have some other stuff to do today.  :)  If you're a US-to-UK expat, what do you think about the differences mentioned in the article?
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Monday, October 07, 2013

The Original Shrewsbury

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The second half of July and all of August and September were a whirlwind of visitors and travel.  Right away I got behind on keeping up with all the photos I was taking and it just snowballed from there!  Hence I'm just now getting around to showing you Shrewsbury.

Shrewsbury is actually very close to Birmingham and an easy non-stop train ride from New Street.  Several people had recommended it to us but I never thought much about it.  Ever since we moved all I crave is either total urbanity or total country isolation - maybe all that time in Heidelberg made me want a bit of a hiatus from big towns, small cities, and in-between places like that.  But when a friend visited from the US and we needed some easy day trips with a good dose of Englishness, Shrewsbury was an obvious choice to top the list!

It was a pleasant surprise.  Somehow Shrewsbury's center survived the wars and mid-20th-century urban planning pretty well intact, so it's full of lots of fun stuff you don't usually see in places of its size - my favorite being the Victorian train bridges!  See the photos for those and plenty of other goodies like half-timber buildings (have I burned out on those yet? maybe a little) and impressively neat library graffiti!
Shrewsbury Jul 2013
On the downside everything in Shrewsbury closed freakishly early so when we wanted a coffee/cake break around 4:30-5p, we were stuck choosing between Starbucks and Costa because the more interesting places had all closed up shop for the day.

Still, would visit again.

 Later in her visit we also went to Lichfield. Haven't even looked at those photos yet but I hope to have them up soonish. :)
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