Category Archives: Expatriation

Epilogue to a Wedding, Prelude to Autumn

Part of my hesitation to write, I have to admit, has been because my trip back to the “rebel” country hasn’t been as rosy as expected. To begin with, I woke up with a sore throat the day after arriving, which progressed to probably full-blown bronchitis and is still lingering. That’s a diagnosis brought to you by Dr. WebMD; even though I have some sort of international health care card, I don’t think an actual doctor could have done anything for me.

I got well enough in time for the wedding, and got through the day with smiles and a hefty dose of cold pills. Any way I phrase this will sound terrible, but I have to be honest: there’s a lot of pressure for the big day to be this wonderful, magical event. Months of over-planning and over-scrutinizing are supposed to lead to a carefree, effortlessly elegant day where it hits you that you’re a Mrs. now, and have a Mr. for life, and you celebrate that with your nearest and dearest.

Don’t get me wrong– it was a wonderful day. And it feels fantastic to be married to my favorite person. But from a rushed morning to a delayed ceremony start, to worrying that no one could hear us from that picturesque gazebo on the top of that hill in Chickies Rock Park, to accidentally leaving in that bit about gay marriage that might piss off some relatives, to feeling rushed while setting up the food for hungry guests and not having any idea where to put all of the stuff, to spilling barbecue sauce on my dress on three separate occasions and making the mistake of using a burgundy-colored napkin to blot it out (not my smartest decision), to…just knowing that we didn’t really devote more than 2 minutes to anyone in particular, it just wasn’t all that Martha and David (that’s Stewart and the Bridal mogul to the uninitiated) promised.

I expected that, to some degree. But I still wish I could have done it perfectly, because that’s how I am. On my wedding night, we stayed at John’s mom’s house, and the groom eventually passed out around midnight while I was up until 4 or 5 because I couldn’t stop my brain from flashing images of the day (greeting guests, blotting stains, searching for extra guacamole and tin foil) in front of my eyes.

The icing on the cake (possibly the only item of which there was no leftovers) was that throughout the day, and even a week later, people are still telling me what a great time they had and how relaxed and happy I looked. The pictures will show that, too. So that’s how I will choose to remember it. Still, I felt the need to give you a sneak peek of the “man behind the curtain,” to reinforce that– appropriately, like a marriage itself– things are never perfect. They’re messy and a little chaotic and the key to happiness is learning to embrace all of it.

And then there’s the aftermath. Now that a week has gone by, I can laugh about taking all of the tupperware into the back yard, along with a sponge and a gallon of dish soap, and hosing everything down. And pawning off bags of roasted garlic baguettes, pickled red onions and tortellini salad onto anyone who entered the house. These tasks kept my mind occupied, which I needed. My amazing, genuine and brilliant (to borrow the British slang) mother-in-law isn’t doing well, and I just don’t know how to deal with illness and…well, hopelessness, on my part. I want to make things better, and when I can’t, I either shut down or find a way to distract myself.

One of the distractions, of course, has been sugar. They call it emotional eating for a reason. I suppose there could be worse coping mechanisms, so I’ll give myself a break, but I do look forward to getting back on my bike and off the addictive white substance back in Oxford.

And yet, I’ll really miss it here. I loved spending time with my family (and new family!) I’m leaving just as my favorite season hits. The fine line between summer and fall. The few days where the air has a crisp edge to it, but the leaves haven’t lost their summer luster. The days where we introduce scarves and layers to our wardrobe. Not to mention the pumpkin spice everything.

I’ll miss you, Pennsylvania. But it’s time to go home, and start the next chapter of my life: experiencing my first autumn in Oxford. Oh, and learning how to be a nagging wife to my darling “hubby.”*

*I promise to never use this term seriously.

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Last weekend, I got pulled over, twice.

By two different “cops.” For two different bicycle violations. Apparently, you’re not supposed to go through red lights, even when the coast is clear for miles. Who knew? I pulled my best “I’m from Philly, we don’t have rules,” and the officer (who took his job far too seriously, I might add) told me, “I appreciate where you’re from, but blah blah normally a £30 fine.” Cue the smiling, nodding, and apologizing. Then he told me, “If I see you again…” and I had to try really hard not to laugh. But I guess Oxford is a pretty small town, and unfortunately, he probably will see me again at some point. At least next time, I’ll know there’s nothing more urgent for the police to attend to around here, and I should probably stop at a red light.

The second offense was for riding through a “pedestrianized” zone (10 am – 6 pm). But I was just following that guy! (pointing to the biker who, by now, is at least a block away). And the second “cop” was the same one who helped me register my bike earlier that day (in case of theft, probably the only crime in Oxford worth worrying about).

In other news, it’s been a month since we went to Germany, and I already feel like I need another vacation. It’ll be time to go home soon for the wedding, but I want to sneak in a long weekend somewhere before then– to anywhere, really. But train prices are ridiculous, and flights…well, those countless hours spent getting to Stansted and waiting around make the train prices a little easier to swallow. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on where we go next.

Hmm, what else. You want wedding updates? Sorry, won’t do it. Before we embarked upon this whole thing (from picking an official date, and onward), John and I outlined our vision of a low-key, low-stress, more like a party than an actual wedding, small guest list, don’t-even-know-if-I’ll-wear-a-white-dress event. There were no complaints at that time, and I thought we might actually get away with it. Of course, now the time is approaching, and everyone has something to say. Something critical.

I landed on that word because it has various definitions, and in this case, several apply:

“Having a decisive or crucial importance in the success or failure of something.”

“Expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgments.”

Thanks for offering advice, but detail X is simply not critical at this moment (or in the future, if I’m being honest). Also, the concept of “advice” itself is often nothing more than thinly-veiled criticism.

I do appreciate offers of support, but what I want more than anything else is just for people to show up and have a good time. I’m a detail-oriented person, and I’ve got plenty of nerdy spreadsheets to help me throughout this process. Because it is a process, no matter how “low-key” it ends up. The difference is, I know which details are important and which are not.

In the end, it’s one day, one party. Things never go as we plan, so why stress? It’s more about enjoying the beginning of something new. Becoming husband and wife and all of that sentimental crap. So please, no advice, unless it entails procuring sedatives.

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Getting out of the office

“Train to London Paddington, Next Call: Reading.”

Yes, I’m on my way to Reading. I wonder how it compares to the one in PA. But I won’t stop there long enough to find out, as it’s my transfer point to Maidenhead. I woke up an hour earlier than usual today, surprised that the sun was up already and that I actually felt awake, to venture out to our client’s office for some webinar recording. If all goes well, the videos, narrated by my “soothing” voice (well, that was a co-worker’s compliment– I’d describe it more as a manly, monotonous lisp) will be broadcast on the big scary internet. There’s even an app for the site, and I cringe to think of being watched on a phone or tablet.

Well, half-cringe. The other half of me is flattered to take on the task and happy to get out of a typical day in the office. Not that I mind the cubicle lifestyle too much, but it’s great to get a change of pace once in a while. I’m looking out the window at the rolling green countryside: sheep, houses, trees, a bright blue sky. It never stops feeling like I’m dreaming here, really. Except when it rains. And even then…

Switching gears (something I’m still having trouble with on my front derailleur– it might be time to cough up some money for a proper tune-up), the other day I made the mistake of looking at my wedding planning checklist and immediately got overwhelmed. Lists, and big projects, are like that: one task after another, and it all seems to scream at you to get it done. Logically, I know that I have no problem completing a project at a natural yet efficient pace, under the deadline, wondering why I ever worried in the first place. But I have a hard time remembering that when facing something new..

A wedding is pretty new. I decided from the beginning I’d abandon pointless place cards and seating arrangements, “favors” that are never as favorable as intended (Hershey’s Kisses with the couple’s name? Sorry, you just wasted 5 hours putting a sticker on what covers a mediocre piece of chocolate and will inevitably be thrown away), bachelorette/bridal shower plans, matching outfits, etc. And yet, the list looms.

Have I decided where to get folding chairs for the ceremony yet? Exactly how much food do people eat at an appetizer/dessert reception, and how did I decide it’d be a cinch to self-cater a picnic style reception? When will I find shoes and a dress?

Then I get a hold of myself, and remember (like my friend Erika says) that’s it’s more of a “wedding theme party.” No one is going to remember or care about the little details. And like all projects, this will be doable if I stick to a schedule, and don’t peek ahead at what needs to happen 2-3 months from now.

So, aside from some minor wedding stuff, this weekend I’m making it my mission to finally put some more pictures online to entice our friends and family to move here. After all, I can only say “Oxford is awesome, and I never want to leave” so many times before it becomes annoying. Photographs say all of that, and more, in a much classier, more convincing way.

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Words that amuse me

This post is going to be a short one. I have something extremely important to do (catching up on Mad Men). I did have something deep and insightful in mind– something that probably would have turned into a long-winded rant, about “the business of blogging” and creating/losing identity. But that will have to wait.

Instead, you get my official list of hilarious Britishisms (and confirmation that I have an 8-year-old’s sense of humor).

  • Nappies. “Soiled” nappies, in particular, just cracks me up. (That’s American for “makes me laugh.” I hope it doesn’t translate to something inappropriate, like this next one…)
  • Helmet. My neighbor was shocked when John told me I could borrow his helmet to ride my bike (I have one of my own now). Apparently helmet means something quite different here. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
  • Wind. As in, a strong gust of wind. John’s colleague said the other day that one downside to dogs is that they can be rather…windy! The pharmacy sells medicine to combat “wind” as well. Ever since we learned about this one, John and I can’t stop laughing at our own snide remarks about hurricanes and drafts in the house.
  • Brilliant. Everything is brilliant. “Brill,” for short. Seriously? Maybe it just means “good” here. Or “okay.” 
  • Clever. That person is not smart, they’re clever. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear “clever,” I picture someone being up to no good. Devious. Sneaky!
  • “Getting on.” How are you getting on with that? What do you mean, climbing on top of some unsurmountable obstacle? Or Let’s Get it On? The day I start using this one will be the day I officially relinquish my semi-American identity.

What’s that? Sorry, Mad Men’s calling.

9 miles, uphill, both ways

I know– it’s been a while. I could say I’ve been waiting until I had an expertly drafted, nail-biting, page-turning blog post before hitting “publish” again, but that’d be a lie. Still, better to get something out there before another week goes by, and so forth.

If I let that happen, I’d find myself here two years later (in the same position, curled up on the couch in my Carrier-branded fleece jacket and cat hair-covered fleece blanket, watching another thrilling episode of Ice Road Truckers). And I’d wonder, what happened to the past 24 months?

It’s one reason I decided to blog again, aside from the obvious “living abroad is exciting” thing. Too often, I find myself missing complete chunks of time. I can’t remember how old I was when I learned how to ride a bike, or what my favorite TV show was in 12th grade, or what I learned in my college French classes, or what it was like living in my first apartment in Philadelphia. Without stopping to write things down, my brain doesn’t have that motivation to go, “Hmm, we might want to remember this one day.” And then I feel boring. Complacent. It’s not that I need my life to be filled with constant excitement– on the contrary. I’m kind of a homebody, happier on the couch with John and the cats (with or without Ice Truckers) than…anywhere else, really. But If I don’t stop to notice and appreciate (and remember) these nice, relaxing days and nights, they’ll just turn into more “missing chunks.”

To summarize that tangent into one sentence: Writing and sharing is good for the soul, so here I am.

In attempt to remember what the hell happened this week, before it goes into black hole territory:

1. I started my new job! Oh, maybe I didn’t even mention I had a new job. Or an interview. I’m superstitious like that; it wasn’t a sure thing. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted the position, so I was pretty relaxed about the whole interview process. Somehow, that translated to confidence. And the most surprising thing is that I really like it so far. The people and work environment are wonderful, and I’m finding more and more support to what might be the closest I ever get to a life epiphany:

It’s more important to find a supportive, engaging and enjoyable environment rather than to  land the ideal (planned-for, studied-for, ultra-specific) job.

Maybe it’s just the honeymoon phase, but I don’t think so. Speaking of honeymoons, though…

2. That thing in September is my wedding. This might be awkward, but obviously we have guest list limits (and there’s that whole dislike of large crowds thing). We’re keeping it to mostly family, because, well, John and I are becoming our own family through this whole “marriage” thing. We’d like our individual families to see that, be part of it, support it. It’s kind of a private event, if you think about it. We can always party with our friends later, right? (Please don’t hate me, non-invitees!)

One promise I plan to keep, before that bigger “I do” promise: this blog will not turn into a melodramatic, wedding planning bridezilla frenzy disaster. I couldn’t care less if my “bridal party” (our siblings) wear matching ensembles that they’ll never wear again. I frown upon chair sashes. Pomanders and place cards? Shudder. It’s one day, people. It’ll be a fun party, and I’ll get to wear a pretty dress, and then I’ll be married. It doesn’t have to be an overly-constructed, over-priced ordeal. And instead of getting into wedding bikini shape or whatever pre-wives do to torture themselves, I’ll keep nursing my Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food (half price at The Co-op today! In all my excitement, I ate, um, most of it).

3. My name is Clea, and I have a problem: lists must be comprised of at least 3 items.

Oh, biking. That was going to be the subject of my original post. See what happens? Anyway, I have a 9ish mile round-trip commute to work. There’s one way to go that’s maybe .2 miles shorter than the second route, but it involves the grueling Headington Hill, that murderous quad-builder that starts at my front door. So I take the more scenic route through Cowley and Rose Hill (“the ghetto” of Oxford, apparently, though it seems pretty idyllic and just like everywhere else in this city). The slightly-more-flat route. I’m getting dusted by everyone from middle-aged ladies on cruisers to teenage boys riding with look ma, no hands!

It seems like everyone and their grandma “cycles” all across town, so I should be getting in pretty good cardiovascular condition in a few weeks here. And catch up to my fellow commuters. Maybe leave a few of them in the dust.

Fine, and maybe negate some of that Ben & Jerry’s, because I’m not above vanity after all.

Curse of the Middle Class

So, I left you with that nail-biting cliffhanger, an unfinished list of cultural differences between the U.S. and U.K. You can stop holding your breath now, because here’s Part 2. However, you may want to stock up on caffeine, because what I intended to write in a sentence or two has (again) become a 800+ word essay. And I think each observation will take the same tangential spin into disjointed rambling. Or, we could say that each point is worthy of its own post, worthy of attention and feedback and discourse. However you see it, let’s launch into Observation #2: Stay Class(y), UK.

(Observation #1: Clothes, and Cleanliness)

It’s Friday, and the city is bustling– a word that annoys me, but is fitting in this case– with tourists and Oxfordians alike. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, eating slices of roast beef and strawberries with my hands. Ladylike, I know.

John and I just killed a few hours in his warm office, where we chatted with his officemate about all sorts of things. Well, he and John did most of the chatting; I just interjected occasionally. His officemate made some interesting points about the class system:

  • Rich people are not necessarily upper-class.
  • Royalty are usually considered upper-class.
  • The more upper-class you are, the less you are likely to act polite or appear well-groomed, because you don’t give a $#*! what others think of you.
  • Middle-class people will use “fancier” words, dress neatly, and otherwise do their best to impress everyone around them.

This led into a conversation about “u” (upper-class) and “not-u” words. Wikipedia dates it to the 1950s, but apparently people still follow the concepts.

So, middle-class folks will use “not-u” words because they want to give a good impression. Upper-class people don’t really need to rise any higher in social status, so they can get away with slang, commoner-speak, and looking like a filthy hippie.

This raises so many questions and points out so many parallels against the social class structure in the U.S. I’m not a sociologist, obviously, so take this with a grain of salt.

  • The U.S. places less emphasis on royalty on the social totem pole, but more emphasis on money (and therefore, power). People who go to fancy restaurants and don’t think twice about $300 bills are upper class. In the UK, they’d be considered middle-class. You’re middle-class, I’m middle-class, Bill Gates is middle-class, Bill Clinton is middle-class.
  • It’s tough to compare the U.S. middle-class to that of the UK. I feel like we have so many levels of middle-class. Lower, middle, upper –middle classes exist and separate us neatly into economic tiers. It seems more blended here.
  • In my experience, it’s more likely that a middle-class person will speak using informal language and… maybe not be as uptight about maintaining a pristine physical appearance (guilty). Upper-class Americans will pay more attention to how they sound, look, act, because slipping down the social ladder hurts them more. Politicians, celebrities, sports stars: all eyes are on them, waiting for the slightest misstep to feed the gossip machine, or to open a spot for the next-in-line (not by heredity, but by the size of your wallet) player to enter the game.

I could make more casual observations and point out differences, but what actually stuck with me is a similarity between the middle and upper –class, that I don’t think quite exists here in the UK. It’s not that American middle-class people don’t care about impressing others—on the contrary, I think it’s something all social classes have in common. We are constantly trying to out-Jones the Joneses, buy more shiny things, and beat ourselves into a pulp at gyms that rank your stats against those of your fellow cardio rats (sorry, Dad and Carol; I’m still not a fan of the concept).

Apparently, John and I are exempt from all of this as outsiders. Which is a good thing, because we were starting to sound awfully upper-class, with John’s penchant for four-letter words and my slovenly uniform of oversized sweatpants and sneakers. More than anything, though, I just feel this deep sadness for the UK middle-classers, because it just seems like you’re set up for a life of desperation for approval—the desire to be liked, which is different from the desire to be respected. You will always be part of the self-conscious middle-class, even if you get Bill Gates-rich.

I’ve been there. I’ve spent too much time caring about what others think of me, for the wrong reasons; I’ve spent too much time being ashamed for being “different.” Listening to John’s officemate describe all of this, I realized that I’ve finally managed to stop that and embrace who I am, with all of my quirks and oddities (or, most of them—it’s a work in progress). So it’s nice to be “exempt” from these silly cultural expectations. I don’t know where I fit in, and it doesn’t really matter in the end, as long as I’m myself and surrounded by people I love.

Cue the sappy music.

Speaking of people I love, there are developments ahead. In September, to be exact. September 8th, to be precise. And no, I’m not pregnant. More on the next post! 

Don’t make this about the rain

That’s not really a title inasmuch as a little note to myself to not whine about the rain. That’d make me the typical American tourist, right? So, I will not write about biking 4 miles uphill (both ways) through the cold wind to get to a job interview that I was late for and riding home, slaughtered by an angry rain that left me with water pouring out of my shoes. Nope, won’t do it.

I will write about my second attempt at pizza, because it went better than the first, even though once again the dough lacked sugar for the yeast to gobble up. But this time the recipe came from an expert in all things dough, Jim Lahey, and his no-knead crust truly is worth the hype. It’s hard to improve upon genius, but here are some tips that work for me, including two new ones:

1. Bring your dough to room temp. at least an hour before go-time. You’ll want to makesure it’s not sticky, so get your hands dirty (with flour). And if you can avoid turning your kitchen into a floury mess within the next five minutes, tell me your secret.

2. Handle the dough gently (to avoid hurting its feelings). Meaning, don’t roll it into oblivion with a bowling pin, just gently lift and stretch from the corners. I don’t have a pizza stone, so I baked on parchment+a baking sheer.

3. Throw pan with dough in oven as it preheats, maybe 3-4 minutes or so. Watch it carefully. You just want it to get a little firm, not bake. This helps avoid a soggy crust, as does this next tip:

4. Top partially-baked crust with thin layer of olive oil, then your sauce and toppings. A random Internet commenter argues that this prevents the sauce from soaking into the base, preserving that crispy crust. It sounds plausible.

5. Never trust bake times. Since it’s baked in a hot-as-possible oven, pizza can go from underdone to burnt fairly quickly. Just watch it like a hawk, which you’ll be doing anyway, because there’s something magical about seeing your creation spring to life in the oven.

If anyone makes this and wants to wax poetic about pizza, please report back! No, seriously. It can’t be just me.

I wasn’t planning to ramble about pizza, though. I was going to offer a lighter topic than the last post, heavy in statistics and journal citations, so here’s an enlightening list of some cultural differences that are on my mind this week. Now I am being that obnoxious American tourist. But my aim is to admit the wrong of my ways, because the differences I’ve noticed are all positive.

1. People don’t wear a lot of clothes here. Wait, that sounded wrong. I’ll explain by giving you a glimpse into our home: a washing machine that looks like it belongs in a dollhouse, and already too many drying racks. We have to be picky about what to wash (do we want to wear it again soon?), when (things take a while to dry– when do we need this sweater or towel or pair of jeans?), and how often (one load needs to finish drying so the next one can be hung up). I think this type of setup is common in these little houses/apartments, and Europeans (gross generalization, I know) just don’t have extensive wardrobes.

kitchen storage and washer
teeny-tiny washing machine

Basically, I should have packed 1/6 the amount of clothes that I did, because that’s how much I actually wear. When something is dry, I’ll most likely wear it again, rather than dig for that other shirt or pair of socks.

Okay, I have a cat on my lap, telling me to put down the laptop and put up my feet. Because it’s Friday. And all I want to do is watch Homeland, and eventually pass out at an embarrassingly early bedtime. You’ll have to wait for the continuation of this list ’til tomorrow. Or Monday. My blogging habits are sporadic at best, and I’m not going to apologize for it.

Have a nice weekend!