Sunday, October 12, 2014

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

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.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Music Post, 2013

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!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Coping When Your Children Live Abroad

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 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?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Apologies for the junk here at the moment

1 comment
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.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tales from a Job Interview

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?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

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


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.


What I should have said

"Something more data-y."   Any other good ideas?

Sunday, February 09, 2014

We get a veg box now.

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?