Archive | Expat Living

Five Reasons Standing In Line Can Be Fun

Well, I’m back from my staycation. I wasn’t sure how I’d get on running around London with both kids for seven days straight while my husband was out-of-town on a business trip. But we had a great time.

We visited Buckingham Palace (or as my daughter calls it “Bucklingham Palace.”) We took a tour of the Houses of Parliament.  We made a special trip up to the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire to see the place where this great author did his magic. And we spent a day at the seaside out in East Anglia.

Each of those trips was a lot of fun. But in some ways, the most fun of all was the day we spent…standing in line. Yes, you heard that correctly. We spent the better part of one day just waiting in a long queue with nothing to do but wait.

The occasion was the opening of a new art store in my neighborhood. As a promotional offer, the store was giving out 50 pounds worth of free art supplies to the first 1,000 people who visited last Saturday. And all you had to do was spend 10 pounds at the store to collect the prize.

The doors opened at 10 am and we arrived at 9:50, fresh on the heels of a full English breakfast at our favorite cafe. By that time, the line to get into the store was already snaking around two full city blocks but I figured – meh – the kids don’t have a haircut until 11:00 a.m…what have we got to lose by just hanging out here for an hour and killing some time?

Four hours later, I had good reason to rethink that logic. But the truth is, we *did* have a good time. Here’s what I learned about why standing in lines – even long ones – can be fun:

1. You feel part of a community. One of the nicest parts of standing in a queue all day long in the middle of Hampstead Village was realizing just how many people I know in my neighborhood. I saw friends…neighbors…teachers…merchants. Those of us who formed part of the line saluted one another in solidarity. Those who were just passing by came up to say “hi.” It was such a lovely – an unexpected – reminder of the many different ways we all connect to our respective communities and how broad and diverse those communities are. (Hidden bonus? I have now confirmed my long-held suspicion that should I ever decide to run for mayor of this village, I’ve got it in the bag…)

2. You meet new people. Even more fun than running into old friends and acquaintances was the chance to meet new people. I stood next to a mother from an adjoining neighborhood and an administrator from her daughter’s school and chatted to them for the better part of four hours. By the end, we were already fast friends and had moved on from chit-chat about schools to lengthy discussions about our respective blogs (confirming my suspicion that everyone’s a blogger) and the perils of cell phones for your brain. When I had to say good-bye to them, I actually felt sad!

3. You rethink your surroundings. I’ve long been of the opinion that Brits just don’t get customer service. You have to chase down your waiter when you want your bill. Phone calls to customer service teams go unanswered. Brits also don’t get the whole concept of promotions – a sale here means something like 10% off on a rack of last year’s clothing. So to witness a store actually doing a proper giveaway – where you get something valuable (and four hours or not, the art supplies in that bag were truly something!) – is unheard of. And I’d never seen a line that long anywhere in London – even on the day the iPhone 4 was released! Friends tell me that there were still people there after 6 pm when the store closed. All of which made me realize that things really are changing around here.

4. You grasp group psychology. By the time we were well into the third hour of our wait, I’d forgotten what we were even waiting for. I’m sure I’m not alone. If you stand in front of a door long enough, after a while all you focus on is getting through that door. They could have handed me a toothpick by the time I made it to the front of the queue and I would have been delighted. I’m sure there’s some handy theorem in behavioral economics that can explain the psychology behind this. But there’s no question that the longer I waited, the less I cared about the loot that awaited us. I just wanted to get in.

5. You let go of schedules. This was perhaps the most valuable lesson of all. As a parent, I often have an irrational fear of down-time. I think that I need to schedule in every moment of the day lest…well, I don’t know what “lest.” I’m just driven to fill up their days, especially when my husband is out of town. But my stint standing in line that day taught me that sometimes just hanging out and doing nothing is just as much fun as tackling some major cultural outing. Which is another way of saying that sometimes you just need to throw away the outline.

Everyone who saw me in line that day keeps asking me: Was it worth it?

To which I’d have to say: yes.

Image: The line went around the block! by scary cow via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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How The Target Boycott Made Me Rethink My Patriotism

When you live abroad for a long time, you tend to identify certain cultural objects that can readily anchor you with a sense of home. They are the things which – for better or for worse – come to signify “America.”

It might be a diner that serves all-day brunch. Or the blissful simplicity of a tumble dryer. Or – depending on your politics – the meteoric rise of a Mama Grizzly politician or a musician for whom the public is Gaga.

For me, that cultural touchstone has always been Target, that iconic superstore of highways and strip malls across America where you can buy everything from toothpaste to DVD players. Whenever we go back to the States, my husband and I devote an entire day to shopping at Target. We even have a running “Target list” on our computer to which we add items regularly throughout the year.

Read the rest of this article at www.PoliticsDaily.com


Image: Target Cart by joannabethpdot via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Death Of The Library

I walked into my local public library in London the other day and got a rude shock. All of my favorite librarians were gone. They’d been replaced by machines. Where the circulation desk once stood — manned by a friendly soul with whom I’d chat about politics or the weather or the latest London Review of Books — I now swiped my library card and pushed a button that said “borrow” or “return.”

They’d also done some remodeling. This particular branch sits in an elegant 1930s building located in the garden of the house where the poet John Keats wrote his “Ode to a Nightingale.” The main room — once cluttered with books that literally spilled onto the floor — now is a shadow of its former self. Rather than books, the main thing on display would appear to be tables — artfully dotted around the room as if this were a café or the premier-class lounge for an airline. (“It’s so bright even druggies wouldn’t inject here,” quipped a cynical online reviewer.)

And it’s not just in the United Kingdom where libraries are morphing into something else . . . if not dying out completely. I’ve seen numerous articles about the demise of them in the United States, whether it’s the closure of branches in Boston, reduced hours in Los Angeles, or the architectural makeovers that render library books merely decorative, as in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read the rest of this article at www.PoliticsDaily.com…

Image: NYC-Midtown: New York Public Library Main Building via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Volunteerism, Fundraising And The New Politics Of The PTA

While reading the New York Times Motherlode blog the other day, I was struck by a piece about current trends in American education. Apparently, many public school districts in the United States are increasingly turning to parents in order to cover budgetary shortfalls.

In some cases, it’s the parent-teacher associations that are spearheading the movement to make up for things like teacher’s salaries and supplies when school boards can’t. In other cases, schools are making direct appeals to parents for monetary contributions, sometimes making them mandatory.

There’s a lot to say about this trend toward parent-funded public education in the United States: Is it appropriate? Is it enough? And — as many commenters on the Times post wondered aloud — what do you do in school districts where parents can’t afford or don’t have time for this sort of fundraising?

But as an American parent who’s lived abroad for nearly four years with two school-age children, what most caught my eye about this story is how utterly inconceivable it would be in the U.K., where I reside. I’ve done a ton of fundraising for my daughter’s school over the past four years. And it’s been an incredible eye-opener for me about the depths of cross-cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. on this front.
Read the rest of this story at www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: 207/365 by ladybugbkt via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Living With Mess: Radical Acceptance

Christina Katz has a great post over on her Prosperous Writer E-zine this week about what she calls “clarity.” She defines clarity as “lucidity…exactness…simplicity.”

It’s about figuring out what you need and what you want as a writer and paring down your obligations and responsibilities so that you can really zero in on what’s important. (Note: you must subscribe to her free e-zine to read this post, which I heartily recommend.)

This is great advice for both writing and life, and something I continually have to remind myself to do when I start feeling overwhelmed. “Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity,” as the man said.

The problem is that isn’t always that…well…simple. Sometimes you can’t achieve clarity because there are too many loose ends in your life and you have to accept that some of these just aren’t going to get tied up in short order.

Which is where I’m at right now with – oh – just about everything in my life. You see, I’ve just moved house. So everywhere I look I see unopened boxes.

There are the real boxes, those last stubborn few that simply refuse to empty themselves because – if you cared to tackle them – they’d require you to scratch your head and say: Now where does that plug go? Which cannister is that the top to? And why, again, did we decide to save that yarmulke from that bar mitzvah five years ago?

Then there are the metaphorical boxes:  The stack of New Yorkers that lie unread. The emails that began to pile up the day of the move and some of which sit still – unopened – in the dark recesses of my inbox. Those last few changes of address that haven’t yet happened because it turns out that you actually need to call the pension fund in the U.S. where you still have some pocket of retirement savings during (its) business hours because they can’t process an overseas address on-line.

And then there are all those technological boxes that can’t be opened because this is the U.K. where the customer comes last. So the internet provider lost track of your account and now you have to wait another 10 days for them to come to your neighborhood to set it up. Or the bank forgot to update your address so your credit card keeps getting rejected. Or – my personal favorite – the satellite dish for the TV can’t be installed because you live on the third floor and their ladders don’t go that high. (Um…no offense, but isn’t this what you do for a living?)

It drives me insane, all this mess. Because I hate things that are un-finished. I’m the lady who sometimes adds things to my to-do list *after* I’ve done them just to feel the satisfaction of crossing them off, remember?

So I’ve been feeling really unsettled lately. (It didn’t help that for the first five days of my move the U.K. didn’t have a government. I was like “C’mon, guys! Just make up your minds, would ya?“)

And then, something weird happened. Yesterday night was my monthly book group meeting. And, on top of everything, I hadn’t finished the book. This has never happened to me before. I’m one of those hard-core, unsympathetic book group types who *always* finishes the book. But this time, I just couldn’t.

But because I love my book club, I went anyway. Even though I hadn’t finished and felt wretched about that. (It helps that we were reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s marvelous Half of A Yellow Sun about the Biafran War. Speaking of learning how to live with mess…)

And you know what? It felt OK to be there, even half-read. Because it was the best I could do.

My life coach has a great phrase for moments like this. She calls it “radical acceptance.” It’s for situations where things are exactly how you’d like them *not* to be  – where you can’t, yet, achieve “clarity.”

So you force yourself to extend the parameters of what you’d normally find acceptable. And you decide to  just roll with it. Because you know that you are on the road to clarity.

And that’s O.K.

Radical Acceptance.

Image: Unopened Boxes by CDaisyM via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Saying Goodbye to My Mews House: A Poem

I’ve long been of the mind that right before you give something up – a car…a neighborhood…definitely a relationship – you allow yourself to be annoyed by that thing.

It’s not that the thing itself has changed in any fundamental way. It’s just that whereas you once focused on the upsides (he’s cute…he’s funny…my mother likes him), you now allow the negatives to creep in (I hate that shirt…please stop chewing like that…kissing you is so boring.) It’s just normal. It’s how we begin to separate before we say goodbye.

In that vein, as I pack up the last bits and bobs around our current house before leaving it permanently on Thursday, I find myself doing precisely that:  allowing myself to hate all the things about this house that I’ve managed to put up with over the past four years.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like about this house, which I’ve often described as an exceedingly well-located closet. I wrote a novel here. I started my blog here. And – most important of all – it’s the place that we first moved into when we decided to throw caution to the wind and move our family overseas four years ago. For that reason alone, it will always be special.

And yet, as we stagger towards the finish line, I’m allowing all the negative things I’ve suppressed about the house to come to the fore.

I’m not much of a poet. I usually leave that to the fabulous Communicatrix and her Poetry Thursday series. But as I take my last walk around this house and pick up the errant sock or felt tip (magic marker) cap or MatchAttax card that mysteriously appears – years later – in the obscure corners of our storage space, I find myself moved to wax poetic.

So here it is – my Ode to a Mews House – inspired by that childhood classic, Good Night, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I’m calling it Goodnight, Mews:

Goodnight Mews

In the tiny, cobble-stoned street

without a sign

there was a house

and for four years, it was mine.

And though I’ll be sad to see it gone

Here are some things for which I won’t long:


Goodnight kitchen tiles, that never quite fit

and were meant for the wall – not the floor – but tough sh*#.

Good night shower curtain, which hangs by a thread

And the sweaters I was forced to keep under my bed.

Good night builders, who knew nothing of plumbing

and Good night, next-door neighbors who hated my son.

Good night, storage closet that eventually hits earth

and was home to the rats who made our house their berth.

Good night, Toilet Seat from which I would fall

And the miniature fridge that stands two feet tall.

Good night shower that always floods when it rains

And goodnight darling landlord, you were really a pain.

Goodnight stars, Goodnight air

Good night Mewses everywhere.

*****

For those who are interested, head on over to PoliticsDaily.com to see why I think Gordon Brown will lose this election on Thursday.

Image: Pink Mews by tubb via Flickr under a Creative Commons License


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'Grown Up Telly': Whither The BBC?

I’ve written before on this blog about my fondness for public radio, middle-aged though it may be.

And living as I have in the U.K. for three and a half years, I’ve grown particularly fond of BBC Radio and BBC Television – both of which I think of as gems of adulthood, not to be missed. (As a friend puts it, it’s where you go to watch “proper grown-up telly.” Amen.)

But, like everything, publicly funded broadcasting in the U.K. must adapt to both the forces of the market and to the digital age.

Today, I’m over on PoliticsDaily.com talking about a recent, much-publicized Strategy Review of the BBC here in the UK and the philosophical debates it has opened up over the meaning and viability of public service broadcasting going forward.

Have a look…

Image: BBC Radio Leeds by TGIGreeny via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Why Don't Europeans Like Kids?

So I opened my Facebook account early this morning and came across this gem.

A friend of mine had linked to an essay at the BBC by a woman named Joanna Robertson. It was about  a new ordinance in Berlin making it legal for children to make noise between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 pm. That’s right. The Germans had to pass a law in order for children to be…well, children.

When you read the author’s very funny account of what it’s like to raise a child in Germany, you may be a bit taken aback. As she reports, “‘Excessive child noise’ warranted a police call-out to our building for the crying of a newborn baby and, one Saturday afternoon, a group of cheerful 12-year-olds playing a game of Monopoly.”

And it’s not just in Berlin where things are rough for kids. Robertson also describes the rigorous and hyper-centralized French educational system her daughter was forced to endure, as well as the prohibition on getting your kids’ clothes dirty in Italy.

My friend on Facebook added this comment to her link: “Interesting comparison – wish they’d included London!”

Funny she should ask. One of the very first essays I published after moving to London a few years back was tellingly entitled “Where Have All the Playgrounds Gone?” It ran in the International Herald Tribune and it was an account – based on my then-newbie American eyes – of just how eye-poppingly different British expectations of childhood were from those I’d experienced in America.

As I wrote at the time: “Drama classes don’t advertise creativity; they talk about self-confidence, public-speaking and diction. Swimming lessons are not about making kids more comfortable in the water. They’re about learning the backstroke, dammit!

(Of course, Americans are also annoying in their own right. Robertson notes the advice she got from one American parenting coach about how her family should all just “sleep together on cushions on the floor and switch to unpasteurized milk.”)

So today – to let the world know that it’s not just Germany and France – but all of Europe that seems to want children to grow up really quickly, I’m going to link to that early pre-blog essay I wrote on parenting culture in the U.K. and my own reactions therein.

Enjoy.

Image: Pondering At The Playground by christopherdale via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

*****

Speaking of kids, I am off to the hospital for the last of my son’s in-hospital allergy tests. The score so far: Peanuts: win. Milk: loss. Let’s hope that sesame is more than a draw…

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons You Should Watch The BBC

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Awhile back, I posted on five reasons you should listen to BBC Radio. Today I’d like to complement that post with some thoughts on why you should also watch BBC television:

1. It has the most amazing mini-series. Back when my husband and I first met, I knew that we were well-suited to one another when we both dove in with two feet to watch the six part BBC mini-series Reckless, about a young man who falls for an older (married) woman. A few years later, we watched State of Play, a contemporary thriller about a political-media scandal (later re-made into a less satisfactory feature film set in America.) Just this past weekend, we finished the trilogy House of Cards, a political drama about Westminster intrigue set in post-Thatcher England. All three series combine superb acting, fine writing and a willingness to explore the messy interface between love and power. Fabulous.

2. It has the most amazing documentaries. I’ve got a 9-year-old son, which means that prying him away from violent computer games is no mean feat. But I can’t tell you how many spellbinding afternoons we’ve spent this year watching the most compelling documentaries about science and nature on the BBC I-player. I’m particularly taken with the series How Earth Made Us. Watch this one entitled Deep Earth to learn why civilizations sprung up along fault lines. Incredible.

3. The presenters look like us. Despite charges of ageism and sexism, the vast majority of the people presenting and reporting the news on the BBC just aren’t all that attractive, at least by American broadcast standards. Rather, they look like – gasp – normal people. At first, I found this shocking and vaguely disconcerting. (What’s up with that guy’s teeth? How can she possibly go on air in that top?) But now that I’ve gotten used to it, I find it quite refreshing. The people who report the news look a lot like the people they’re reporting on. How…appropriate.

4. It Employs Jonathan Ross. At least for now. If you’re *so* over the late night television wars in the United States, I’d urge you to tune in to this weekend staple over here in the UK: Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Yeah, he looks a bit like Leno and – at first glance – acts a bit like him, with his bumptious grin and easy way with the ladies. But make no mistake. Ross is clever and funny and seems to really enjoy what he’s doing. (Even if he occasionally steps over the line.) I’ve never watched late night TV with any regularity in my life until now. I will sorely miss him when he goes.

5. It created The Office. Many Americans don’t realize this, but NBC’s hit comedy, The Office, is actually based on a BBC television show by the same name. (As Ricky Gervais – its star and co-creator – was quick to remind us at The Golden Globes recently. Read here for a terrific comparison of the two.) I love the American version of The Office. But there’s nothing quite like the mixture of humor, pathos and off-beat romance that defined the original series – it’s almost unbearable to watch at times. And Thank Goodness.

*****

For those who are interested, I’m over on PoliticsDaily.com today talking about efforts to improve the enfranchisement of overseas American voters.

Image: Empire Awards 2008 by Claire_h via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons We All Need A Wife

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

You know when you read something and it really doesn’t resonate right at the moment. But then – I don’t know – an hour later…maybe a day…maybe even a week later you think: “Ah yes! Precisely!”

I had one of those experiences the other day after reading Sandra Tsing Loh’s hilarious and spot-on reaction in the New York Times to the recent Pew Study about marriage, education and income.

Read about it here on PoliticsDaily.com

Image: Sasspony’s Pretty Bra by Hysterical Bertha via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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