Monday, 31 December 2012

12 Days of Gladness: July

July 2012: A shot from the local July 4th Parade.
What could be more American than a rural July 4th parade

July was a turning point for me. I emigrated in June, but it wasn't until July I learned that expatriation takes longer than I expected; that there are no hard and fast rules on how long it takes to adjust; and that expats need to just let go and go with the flow.

A few days before I flew out to the USA, I found out about the changes to the UK Immigration requirements. Honestly, it felt like a real gotcha. 

When we got engaged in 2009 we carefully considered what would be the best course of action for our transatlantic relationship. We ultimately decided that the USA would be the best move, but knew the option of moving back to the UK would always be open to us - or so we thought.

I'll admit that over the past few months there have been times when we have second-guessed our decision. I'll be sad if the UK doesn't overturn these harsh immigration rules. I think it's bad policy. 

Regardless, we're going to be here in the USA for a long while to come: In a few years I'll be able to apply for US citizenship so I'll be a dual Brit/American. Back in July I certainly celebrated Independence Day like a true American should. I'm getting into the American groove, and next year (tomorrow!) I'm going to keep discovering more about this strange and fascinating culture.  

Photo geekery:  I've read that every lens has a 'sweet spot' - the best aperture for crisp, sharp photos. For the Sigma I have, I think it's f/7.1, but I usually shoot on f/5.6.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

12 Days of Gladness: June

June 2012: A huge month for Britain, and a huge month for me! The Queen celebrated a long tenure. The Olympic torch did its tour of the country, and so did I, before I hopped over the pond for good.

This photo was taken in Edinburgh after a Jubilee weekend spent with old friends. It sums up part of my mixed identity: I was born in England, and grew up in Scotland, and now I live in the USA.

The Sigma 80-200m lens is really useful for city photography because you can zoom into rooftop details, or catch little moments far away. I probably should have used spot metering here, as the sky is very washed out (in truth Scottish sky is often totally overcast in white or grey and that poses lighting challenges). 

Here's a bonus photo of the same weekend in Edinburgh. Both Edinburgh and London have this wonderful sense of history and present occupying the same place. You can get lost in winding cobbled streets of tall buildings practically built on top of each other, squeezed in as tight as can be. But the old towns are mixed up with newer builds and shiny store fronts: Beautiful and unusual cities.

I know said I'd only do one per month, but my husband is a fan of this photo, probably because it adheres to the classic rule of thirds, making it aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

12 Days of Gladness: May

May 2012: Home and away
I didn't take very many pictures in May, but I couldn't do a series of photos on the internet without one of a cat, right? Plus it's appropriate on two levels. In May I was offered another opportunity to work for a TV show in London, the Channel 4 comedy news show 8 out of 10 Cats.

While in London I also caught up with all my grandparents, had my visa medical and the interview at the Embassy where my visa was approved. By the end of May I was back in Scotland enjoying some quiet time with my parents and my cats.

I have two cats back in Scotland. They are about 14-15 years old and there was no way I'd bring them to the USA at that age. The one in the photo is the oldest; a female with odd colored eyes. She's a mean hunter but a total cutie, even if she's getting on a bit: Looks like Bowie, acts like Queen Liz.

Photo geekery: I use a Canon 350D and usually use a Sigma 18-200 lens (blogger Daryl is currently selling a camera with this very lens). The widest aperture possible with this lens is about 3.5 so with this photo I was experimenting to see the exact depth of field in close-ups. 

You can see the stones that are in focus around the kitty, showing the depth of focus. Unfortunately the cat's eyes are not in focus, which is what you want with pictures of people and animals. If I shifted back a little bit further I could have gotten her eyes in focus, but lying on those stones was a bit oochy-ouchy.

Friday, 28 December 2012

12 Days of Gladness: April

April 2012: taken through a car window, but a realistic picture of Britain!
It was tough to choose just one photo to represent April because it was a month of contrasts. I spent the first half of it in London, running around Television Centre/Center working on a consumer news show and living the TV dream. By the time I finished my stint at the BBC I had received word on my visa interview date and could start to plan my move to the USA.

In the second half of the month, I visited friends way up in the Outer Hebrides. They drove me around the Isles of Harris and Lewis while I took snaps through the car windows. I thought this one looked quintessentially British enough to represent a month of coast to coast travel!

As I was born near London and have plenty of family there, it's a city I know very well. I feel very at home whenever I'm there. London is a huge contrast to the silent expanse of the remote Scottish islands, although both regions are steeped in history.

This is not my favorite photo from my trip, these are.

Photo geekery: Sitting in the back of a car and tumbling through the Islands of Scotland was a super fun challenge. I constantly had to adjust the camera settings and snap as quickly as possible before we turned a corner and reached another photo opp. Clouds moved in/out and changed the lighting all the time. Because I was on the move I took photos at a really high shutter speed to cut down on blur.  I upped the saturation in this photo to enhance the red and orange. I also brightened it a bit so you can see right into the abandoned house.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

12 Days of Gladness: March

March 2012: Transitions - what's approaching around the corner?
March 2012 was a crazy month! I left my job to prepare for getting my US visa and for moving abroad, but two days later found myself on a train to London to work at the BBC for a month.

By this point I'd been living and working in the East Coast of Scotland for just over two years, and I had been separated from my husband for that long too. For six years prior to that I had lived in the West End of Glasgow, where I picked up two degrees, a whole bunch of great friends, some hilarious slang, and of course, a lovely American chappy.

When I moved back to the East Coast of Scotland after graduating I often spent weekends in Glasgow, meeting up with friends and reliving carefree days in my old stomping ground. This is a picture I took of the Glasgow subway, AKA the Clockwork Orange. Glasgow is very proud of its subway system, which comprises just one small ancient circular line. It has its own pub crawl game, the Glasgow subcrawl.

I used to live a short walk from Kelvinbridge and truly miss it.

Glasgow is a fantastic city, just check out this video from the Glasgow School of Art. Glasgow is home to beautiful art deco architecture and has amazing cultural and artistic heritage. It's also brash, a little rough around the edges, and home to some truly interesting individuals.

Now my closest city is Philadelphia, which is similarly artistic yet rough around the edges. Philly also houses beautiful art deco architecture, great arts and culture, and interesting - sometimes brash - individuals! Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Photo geekery: I took a few photos of the Glasgow subway this day in March. It was a true low-light challenge without a flash, but I think I did pretty well. The highest ISO on the 350D is 1600, and even then it's very grainy. Grainy suits Glasgow quite well, but in other low-light situations grainy pictures can be frustrating.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

12 days of Gladness: February

I though it might be fun to add notes at the bottom of this feature with details of how I took certain photos - go to the bottom of each of the posts and check out the photo geekery.
February 2012: The shadow of time. We were waiting to hear about my spouse visa interview date.
February in the UK, and especially Scotland, can be cold and dark and dreary; or dreich, as Scots say. It's a short month, but with short days and winter weather weariness, it feels particularly bleak.

I did a whole day of photographing parts of my parents' house in February.

It's a largely unremarkable house, a typical three-up-three-down from the mid 20th century. It was originally built as a council house set rather unusually in the middle of nowhere rather than in a town. I think it was part of a small street development for local farm workers.  The original fireplaces remain in the living room and master bedroom. My parents used them for coal fires until recently.

When we first moved in the whole house was covered in garish chintz.  The house is now decorated in a quirky and colorful style as befits my artist mother. This room, the living room, has walls painted in pastel green, blue and purple.

Incidentally, today, 26th December, is known as Boxing Day in the UK. It's a national holiday, and it feels strange to me that it's not one here in the USA.

Photo geekery: Pretty much any photograph taken indoors in Scotland is a low-light situation, especially in February when it's dark all day! Without a flash, set ISO high, aperture wide and and shutter speed as long as possible without affecting image quality (easier when there's no moving subject like a person). 

I cheated and took this photo in color and dropped the saturation in iPhoto. I'm not very good at black and white photography because a good black and white photo relies on light/shadow, otherwise it looks flat and unimpressive.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

12 Days of Gladness: January

Merry Christmas one and all across both sides of the pond. For the next 12 days I'll post one picture for each month of 2012. It's been a very interesting year for me, so this will be a time to reflect on everything that's occurred and the photo techniques I've used. I'll be back in glad swing in January 2013.

January 2012: Experimenting with self portraits at the waterfall near my Scottish hamlet, using my new tripod!

2011 ended with a sleeper train from London to Scotland, and 2012 began with a sleepy evening in with my husband. He had flown to Scotland for Christmas, and we had visited family down in England before heading back to Scotland for a quiet New Year's Eve. When he was due to fly back to the US transportation in Edinburgh shut down due to hurricane force winds. Luckily I got an extra week with my long-distance partner, although we had to stay with friends in Edinburgh until the weather died down!  

Photo geekery: I used a tripod and long exposure to capture the flowing waterfall like in this picture, and took other short exposure pics to capture individual droplets. 

I also played around with the White Balance Shift/Bracket function, which takes three photos at once, emphasizing different colors. This photo is obviously green/blue. I have another version of the same photo which enhances the orange leaves and makes my hair look redder.

To compensate for the long exposure I had a narrow-ish aperture (okay, only about 9). I spent a while trying to guess the depth of field, but you can see I'm out of focus here. I had to stand as still as possible to cut down on blur. I also have some cool photos where I ran in and out of the frame and I look like a ghost.

I wanted to return in Spring and stand under the waterfall in a balldress but never got around to it. I think it would have created amazing pictures!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Queen's Speech Bingo 2012

It's that time of year again…

Download and print your bingo cards here!

Every year of her reign Queen Elizabeth has delivered her Christmas Message, broadcast to Brits in silly paper crowns on Christmas day.  It's our family tradition to watch the speech far more intently than most viewers, in order to clock up points for Queen's Speech Bingo.

We've been doing this for years, and a couple of years ago we started to share this tradition. We hope you'll join in the fun…

How to play

Give at least one bingo card to each player. Ensure all players are topped up with gin and dubonnet (the Queen's favorite tipple), well-stocked with chocolates, and overstuffed with a good turkey dinner. Position all players on the sofa, tune into the Queen’s speech at 3pm GMT and let the sarcasm, fun and arguments commence.

You may play however you like, but here are some tips:
- decide whether you will include words not spoken by the Queen herself.
- decide whether you will add your own wildcards (you must share these with your group before the speech).
- no spurious attempts to find out the speech beforehand (especially to those who work at/have contacts at the BBC).
- any disputes must be settled unanimously (family arguments are another Christmas tradition of course).
- choose your own prize. Our winners get nothing, but your winner could be treated like Royalty for the duration of Boxing Day, or the loser could perform a forfeit.

If you're not in the UK…

BBC World News America should be broadcasting the Queen's speech at 12.20pm EST (17.20 GMT)

Unfortunately, while the UK will get to enjoy Queenie in 3D for the first time ever, those of use over the pond will only get it in old-fashioned style telly. What a shame.

How it's done

We took the Queen's Speeches from 1982-2011, extracted 90 of her most commonly used words, and added in a few wildcards based on events from 2012 and suggestions from friends.
We then plugged these words into a simple bingo card maker.

If you like, you can also see 2011's Queen Speech Bingo page and cards here.

Feel free to share amongst all your friends, or at least to any quirky Angophiles you might know. Please let me know if you decide to play along, and how well you do!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Thriftbag Thursday

Not all thrifted items are equal. There are those that are picked up on a whim for a tasty bargain. There are those that are gifted. There are those that are diligently hunted.

And there are those that are created.

Thrifting is not just about buying cheap second-hand goods, it's also about using the resources available to you to create, do and be something magical.

My sister-in-law is a fashion student specializing in accessories, shoes and handbags. This marvelous hat was a piece of coursework that she created for me, knowing that I'd definitely use it.

She's currently entered some fabulous pieces into a shoe design competition. These babies are my favorite and I hope you'll give them five stars (it only takes a second to vote). Not only are they utterly gorgeous, but I think they would be the perfect complement to this hat. Don't you think it'd be the sweetest outfit?

And maybe if her shoes win,
I'll be able to buy a pair.

Another brilliant gift from my talented knitty friend.
She sells this pattern so you can knit your own.

Earrings:  Cookie and Buster
Yes, really!
If you think you recognize the hat, it may be because I wore it the day I arrived in the USA to start my new life. I didn't have a hat box, so I had to wear it on my journey over to keep it safe.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Does your Granny always tell you that the old songs are the best?

Fellow transatlantic expat blogger Betsy Transatlantically recently posted a run down of the worst Christmas songs ever. Reading it set off a little (sleigh) bell in my mind. Remember this chart from XKCD?

Randall Munroe of XKCD's analysis of the USA's favorite Christmas tunes

This is totally alien to me. Or it was until I spent my first Christmas in the USA, and it struck me how old-timey American Christmases are. As a Brit I know all of these songs, but it's not what I grew up listening to on the radio during the festive season.

So I had to do a little experiment. I've recreated Randall's graph with recent data for both the UK and the USA:

USA is comprised of boomers and the UK is comprised of beatnik punks?
My own analysis of the UK and USA's favorite Christmas music 2010-2012
A little word about the data: I used ASCAP's data for 2012, and PRS for Music's data for 2010 - 2012. I know this doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny, but I swear this will probably be the only time I'm recreating a graph based on work by Randall Munroe.

The point is that I was right: Christmas in the USA is very old-timey. The UK isn't all that modern either, but I find this utterly fascinating.  It says a lot to me about American and British culture.

I do think I'm reading too much into this, but at the same time I have a hunch about these countries' respective cultures. Much of modern US culture leaped into being during the 1950s, and many of the things we associate as 'American' can be attributed to this time - the food, media, habits and lifestyle.

The UK is slightly different. My husband suggested that the USA clings more to heritage because it has less history to draw from, whereas the UK is a much older country with a huge historical repertoire to cite when it comes to tradition, so perhaps it's a little more confident to go with the flow.

But that, to me, doesn't explain why the UK is stuck in the 1970s and 80s with regards to Christmas tunes. I'd love to postulate that it could be related to the way the UK responded to the economic crises of the 1970s and 80s. I'm a big fan of the art and culture (especially movies) that resulted from this period in the UK.

But to come to that conclusion I'd have to look at the popular Christmas radio songs in the UK before the 1980s, and find the tipping point for when British Christmas musical tastes really changed. And I'm not going to do that right now.

Instead I'm going to watch old Top of the Pops Christmas re-runs and dance like Shakin' Stevens for a bit while my husband looks on without comprehension.

The questions now are: What's your favorite Christmas song and when was it released? What will our kids listen to? And if I raised my kids on 1980s Christmas tunes would they turn out to be cultural misfits?

Title of this blog post is a lyric from the greatest Christmas song ever, Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody.

PS - I have a guest post over at the wonderful Grits and Moxie today, where I talk about another cute UK Christmas tradition!

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Thriftbag Thursday

Dress: Thrifted.
This cost about $4 from the crazy local thrift store.
It's not my usual style, but it's kinda fun to wear.

Necklace: Gift.
Designed by Steven Lagos. 
It's called 'Heart of Philadelphia' and
 designed with elements of Philly buildings in mind.
You'll come to learn that I LOVE Philly buildings.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Glad Notes: Christmas in a Day

Brits: If you unwrap a new camera or phone from under the tree this Christmas Day, be sure to catch some footage of your day. You could end up in a movie, and win £200 of Sainsbury's vouchers in the process.

Back in July 2010 two Oscar-winning movie directors asked thousands of people, from all over the world, to film a day in their lives. People who got up, ate breakfast, checked their phones, rode in their cars; people who took to the streets begging or cleaning shoes; people who were old, young, healthy and sick, filmed the significant and insignificant moments of their day and uploaded them to YouTube.

The movie directors, Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), stitched the footage together into the feature length movie Life in a Day. It was a surprisingly beautiful and touching celebration of the mundane.

If you haven't seen it, you can watch it for free on YouTube. I recommend that you do, because it's something quite special. And I don't just think that because I'm a film graduate, or because I'm sucker for innovative movies and user-generated content!

So when Kevin Macdonald partnered with the BBC to put out a call for Brits to film their lives on a November Saturday last year, I decided to join in. I recorded a normal conversation with my husband and appeared in the movie Britain in a Day, which was broadcast earlier this year on BBC.

Now Macdonald wants to document a British Christmas for Christmas in a Day, which will be released in 2013. On the website, Macdonald says "We want to document not just the big day itself but the process leading up to it - getting the tree, travelling to relatives, picking presents etc."

It was just over a year ago that I made that recording for Britain in a Day. Mark and I were halfway through the US visa process and over Skype we discussed our fears and hopes for when we would begin our married lives together. It's strange to think that it was just a year ago - now I have an entirely different life, with new concerns and wishes.

2012 has been a big year for Britain, and it's been a big year for me. But it was fun to be a part of the BBC project, and I hope you have fun making movies and memories for Christmas in a Day. You could end up being part of something really special.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Thriftbag Thursday

It's been a funny old week. All the snow has gone and there have been a few days of t-shirt weather. It's also been a busy, satisfyingly exhausting week. We had to run outside for just a few moments to get these snaps.

There's only really one thrifted piece in this outfit, but I think it's a great one!
Batwing Sweater: River Island (UK)  
Got this is a sale a few years ago. It's three sizes too big.
But pin it up and it's a great baggy sweater.

Brooch: Gift from my nan.
One of her old brooches. She knows I'm a brooch fan.
  Bag: A gift from a friend on the Scottish Isle of Lewis.
 I think it's from by rosie, a beautiful boutique in Stornoway.
I love her Harris Tweed bags and hoodies.

 Skirt: Thrifted!
$3 from a local thrift store. 
This store has random sales so I'm never
 quite sure what I'm going to end up paying. 

Shoes: Bourgeois Boheme (London)
Fair trade and vegan brogues.
The soles are pulling away though, as you can see.
I tried wood glue - anyone have other tips?
Here's to a productive next week…

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Glad Notes: Which Bunny Booster?

Welcome to Glad Notes, where I'll ponder cultural quirks from the New World (namely North America) and the Old World (Europe, mostly the UK). Those strange little facts that really bring no meaning to your day, but maybe you'll be glad you discovered something new.

As a Brit living with an American husband, I stumble across these things almost every day - usually in the midst of, or because of, some light-hearted marital dispute. The plus side of our cultural misunderstandings is learning useless new nuggets of information… Which I can share with you here.

Which Bunny Booster?

It's that time of year when TV commercials gain seasonal relevance. In the UK it's perfume adverts and supermarkets, and in the USA it's anything which could possibly have a vague link to Christmas - such as batteries for all those Christmas lights and annoying kids' toys.

Mark and I once watched a typical UK commercial for Duracell batteries, with pink bunny and all. Mark found it far more entertaining than anyone should find a battery advert.

Mark: Ha ha ha! Don't you get it? It's funny because they're making a play on the Energizer bunny.

Me: The what? That's the Duracell bunny. It's a thing.

Mark: No, it's the Energizer bunny, Duracell are copying them.

Me: Uh, it's always been the Duracell bunny. Energizer doesn't even have a bunny.

Mark: You're wrong.

Turns out we were both wrong. 

Energizer does have a bunny. 
But Duracell didn't copy it, Energizer did. 
And you might never see the Duracell bunny in the USA.

Duracell started the rabbit battery thing in 1973.

Energizer did a blatant tongue-firmly-in-cheek copy in 1989.

The edgy Energizer bunny gained far more traction in the USA than the cutesy Duracell one. It didn't initially work out well though. Duracell outsold Energizer as people associated "pink bunny" with "Duracell batteries". Oops.

That was until Duracell's trademark expired in the USA, and Energizer snapped up the bunny booster trademark. The Duracell bunny was chased out of North America and went into hiding in the Old World.

So this is why the phrase "Duracell bunny" is ingrained into my cultural subconscious to mean something that just keeps on going, but for Mark and other Americans it's the phrase "Energizer bunny". Mark insists the Energizer bunny is much better, but the traditional cuddly qualities of the Duracell counterpart are much more appealing to me. I detect a bit of cultural bias towards our own bunnies, as it were!

I think that demonstrates in part how pervasive cutesy commercial icons can become. We grow up with them, and they become part of our cultural identity.

Over the past few years the UK has been dominated by Russian meerkat insurance peddlers. They've become so popular that they sell plush toys, they sponsor one of the UK's highest rated prime time shows, and a Scottish aquarium proudly advertises a mob of meerkats amongst their stingray and starfish.

I thought I'd have a hard time explaining to my mother-in-law why Russian meerkats sell car insurance. But she instantly fell in love with them, proclaiming her desire for a meerkat plush.  The site doesn't operate in the USA though, which is a missed opportunity.

I realized there was no explanation needed. Then the same thing happened to me in Macy's at Thanksgiving. My mum and I saw a rather charming pyramid of plush ducks that yelled like an angry Philadelphian when squeezed. We had no clue what they were, so we bought two.

On the train back a woman asked if she could squeeze our Aflac ducks. We happily obliged and she thanked me graciously as the duck yelled AFLAAAC.

Later during the Thanksgiving parade we saw the same duck trundling above the streets of New York. A commercial followed, explaining the good work that Aflac does. Later again I saw this bizarre commercial, where the Aflac Duck raps in a battle against a pigeon.

It turns out the Aflac Duck is a seasonal thing. I didn't know. I didn't need to know. I already loved it.

We love our commercial cultural icons. It's a universal matter of forming a strange cultural identity. Just ask the Japanese, who seem to have an anthropomorphic character for everything.


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Holidays are coming…

English Bulldog Christmas cards, available here
It was only a week ago that I bemoaned that lack of a holiday limbo between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And now our house is almost fully lit and decorated.

So I guess it's okay to show you these cards! I made them myself, and if you like them you can buy them here. And yes, the Cookie and Buster glad blog discount code is valid!

Also, just in case you ever wanted to know: It's actually not easy to pose a bulldog for a photo shoot. Ours has the attention span of a sleepy goldfish.

I'll be back in the glad swing ASAP.

Meanwhile… Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Thursday, 29 November 2012

New Feature: Thriftbag Thursday

That tree fell over during Sandy
Welcome to Thriftbag Thursday.

Let me explain that this is not yer usual fashion post: I am not a fashion blogger. I am not very into fashion at all. I am not cool; I am blisteringly uncool. I also have a very capsule wardrobe since emigrating: I own one pair of jeans. I own one mascara, one lipstick, one eyeshadow. Getting my Green Card was expensive, so I'm very careful with what I spend!

A lot of what I own is thrifted or vintage or altered in some way. I'm very good at scouting out designer second hand goods on a tight budget. It's that make-do and mend mentality I learned from my East London born grandparents, my fine art graduate mother … and from spending a huge chunk of money this year on emigrating!

These are some of my favorite finds that I brought over from the UK, where vintage/thrift/charity shops are big business. Finding a bargain in a cool neighborhood in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or London is tricky, but not impossible.

Jacket: Armani from Rokit (London, UK)  
Got this online a few years ago and love it.
It wasn't cheap but I wear it to death.

Shirt: Ted Baker from Oxfam online  
Ted Baker design is fab, but the construction is sometimes less robust.

Scarf: Knitted gift from Little Theorem
One of my old girlfriends back in Scotland. She's much cooler than me.
She hand-dyes her own wool and writes her own knitting patterns.

 Skirt: Miu Miu from Oxfam online
This was in really bad shape, but I took it to an elder 
Portuguese seamstress here in PA and she fixed it right up for me.

Tights and shoes are not thrifted. 
Heaven knows where the tights come from. 
The shoes were from New Look UK about five years ago. 

I was inspired to do this after some interactions with other bloggers on BBN. Over the next few weeks I'm going to experiment with some new regular features on the blog, all loosely related to expat life and wotnot. Please do let me know what you think!

Thanks, Mark for taking shots. As usual I did the manual settings and Mark did his best ;)

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Thanksgiving/Christmas limbo

Dear Americans,

It's too soon.

I don't care that Thanksgiving is over. 

I don't care that the nights are long and the lawn is frozen come morning.

I don't care if your houses are bare of decor. I don't care if they feel dark and sullen after the autumnal glow and ombre harvest shades.

I don't care if Santa Claus arrived at the end of the parade. 

It is still November. You still have turkey remnants lingering in your fridge. You have an extra week before Advent. You do not need to decorate for Chri-

Oh, who am I kidding? Never mind.  As you were.

There is no Thanksgiving/Christmas limbo. 

America's answer to Boxing Day is to make it bigger, brasher, and more menacing. But by the end of Black Friday the pumpkins, leaves, and corn were gone from every house.

Wreathes appeared on doors, making houses look like perfect little lilliput models. Strung up lights came on as if from nowhere. Reindeers, santas and nativity scenes popped up in front yards.

And they are multiplying.

One guy in the neighborhood has multiple sheds full of giant Christmas lights and lawn decorations. Over the past week more and more has appeared in his garden display.

But it as yet unlit, unlike the rest of the locale. When this boondock display lights up it'll feel like we have our own hyperlocal Blackpool Illuminations, to use a quirky British reference.

The 24 hour Walmart is playing Christmas songs (presumably 24 hours a day?).

Finding strings of white lights in store is getting harder and harder by the day.

Pumpkin shaped candy is out and bags of confectionery adorned with trees and Santas are in.

America, I am swimming here in festivity.

Christmas in Love Park, Philadelphia, and the Comcast building
Incidentally, today was also the start of the PA deer hunting season. This morning I saw a guy walking on his property wielding a gun … pointed up and towards his own house. Hunters, please stay safe and walk with your guns aimed at the ground.

Cookie and Buster are offering 10% off for Glad Blog readers - just enter code GLADBUSTER when you go to pay!

Friday, 23 November 2012

A British Girl's Guide to Thanksgiving

For my first ever thanksgiving, I was told to just sit down and enjoy myself. Soak in the experience.

This was not hard. Not at all.

The house decor had already transitioned from Halloween pumpkins to Harvest pumpkins…

The morning started with Mimosas, Monkey Bread and the Macy's parade.

To a Brit like me, a Mimosa sounds suspiciously like a Bucks Fizz: Sparkling wine and orange juice.

Show-off fact: A Mimosa is one part wine and one part orange juice. Bucks Fizz is one part wine and two parts orange juice.

Monkey Bread is a delicious cake of sugar and cinnamon dough balls to pick at.

The Macy's parade is another sparkling display of US bravado that feels just a little cheesy to British eyes, especially compared to the pomp and ceremony of our parades!

It's also a great opportunity for companies to secure good advertising. After each relevant float, the ad break contained corresponding commercials. Smart move.

The day has the usual holiday family frenetics full with amusing one-liners, especially when heard out of context:

I thought you would stuff the breasts.

I'm going to need a probe.

Apologize to her later when you're not naked.

And then the bird comes out.

festive turkey baster

 Show-off Fact: In the 1800s a turkey would have cost about $600 in real terms. Wild turkeys had been over-hunted and became quite rare during this time, so serving it was a real show-off.

As most British folks usually have turkey for Christmas, and I always certainly did, I wondered if it would be strange to have a huge turkey meal in a different kind of festivity.

Not at all. It's an entirely different kind of meal, preceded by grace and thanks. Thanks for long and prosperous marriages, for good grades, for health, and good food.

My husband gave thanks that we were finally able to enjoy our marriage together.

My mum, who flew over earlier this week, gave thanks for Thanksgiving as a good reason to come and visit.

I gave thanks that I've always had solid ground under my feet, and a stable roof over my head.

And then we tucked in.

Show-off Fact: Thanksgiving dinners were quite common in England during the Protestant Reformation. They were partly a protest against the showy festivals of the Catholic calendar - I wonder if the irony of this was lost on those who celebrated such a thanksgiving. They became a regular affair during November harvest festivals, and also surprisingly to celebrate Guy Fawke's night.

I wonder why, then, that Thanksgiving really hit it off after the settlers arrived in the New World, but lost prominence in the UK. In the USA it gained a new significance when Natives saved the settlers from the harsh American winters (and scurvy of course, by way of pumpkin pie). But what happened in the UK?

However, if you tell Americans that Thanksgiving was an English invention, they may not take too kindly to being informed their favorite holiday comes from those quirky Europeans with stiff upper lips and bad teeth ;)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Thanksgiving Week: Old Fashioned Pumpkin Pie

This week I'll be experiencing my first ever Thanksgiving.

Last month I became engrossed in the pumpkin culture prevalent in the USA. Not only are pumpkins for carving, but they are also for picking, chucking, flavoring beer, and also for flavoring other questionable consumer products.

And, of course, they are also for pie. As I already learned several years ago it's this week of the year that Americans really need their tins of pumpkin for pie.

Since I wrote about the history of pumpkin pie and pumpkin spices, I've been fascinated knowing that the basic recipe has barely changed in hundreds of years.  I was determined to find out how to make it like the Native Americans may have made for the settlers for the first American Thanksgiving.

As I said before, they filled their pumpkins with milk and spices. Was this the first pumpkin pie, or the first pumpkin spice latte?

I wanted to find out. Lo and behold, I found this recipe from Rural Spin! It's for pie in a pumpkin, so I had to try it!

The recipe itself is fairly simple:

And the result?

Erm, it was okaaay.

The pumpkin was baked wonderfully and was a treat to eat. The spices were familiar and sweet. A spoonful of pumpkin, spice and sweetness tasted pretty good.

But my 'pie' did not rise at all, not like the one on Rural Spin. I do have to confess I used a mixture of whole milk and half and half, not cream. And after a few spoonfuls it tasted sweet and cloying. I could understand why the colonialists weren't too keen on it and ended up with scurvy.

It was super fun to try though, and I would try it again to attempt to perfect the recipe. But for my first Thanksgiving here, it'll be pie in a crust for me!

It's my first ever Thanksgiving and I'm very excited about it! Tell me some of your traditions, and stuff I should try out!

Thursday, 15 November 2012

How to survive a Long Distance Relationship, Really (Part Two)

Something got lost in translation here, which made it all the more amusing.

Welcome to Part Two of the definitive guide to surviving a long distance relationship! 


In my experience, people who are not in LDRs think that LDRs are tough but "incredibly romantic". They are not romantic. Nothing about lagging Skype chats, jet-lag, expensive flights and bureaucratic visa processing is at all romantic.

Plenty of articles on long distance relationships impart the importance of maintaining romance. Cosmo has its own unique take on this, but typical recommendations are to send each other stuff, make 'love compilations' of favorite songs, send each other surprises and make memory books/photo collages.

Interestingly, Glamour takes a different position. This article says Don’t get bogged down with stereotypical “romantic” stuff. 

I'm going to take the rather unromantic middle position: To each their own. Just do what you can. 

Tell your partner you love them, tell them as often as you can, but don't sweat about how you do that. I will give a plus to memory books/photo collages though,  because they can help with visa applications (I'm such a romantic).

Several times during our long distance stint, Mark called our wedding florist, whose shop was down the road from my office, and had them deliver roses to me at work. What a classically beautiful overblown gesture! Word even got to husbands of my colleagues, who started doing the same thing, so we all got flowers on Valentine's day.

The only trouble was, I had to carry them to the bus stop and on the bus journey home.

And I felt I couldn't compete. I did send the occasional postcard when I went somewhere for work. But for every postcard I sent I had one that I forgot to send. I sent candy once for Valentine's day and the postage cost more than the candy itself. And that's not even to mention the stuff we sent that didn't arrive, or the times I forgot how long postage takes and cards arrived late.

It was never personal. I send late cards to everyone. Once I sent my sister a birthday card about six months late. But in a long distance relationship it's the communication that counts. An email or text saying "I'm proud of you" or "I'm thinking of you" says just as much as a romantic gesture.

Take photos of the glamorous times, but savor those PJ days


And the same holds for when you actually get to see each other. As that Glamour article says, don't worry too much when you see each other. Just act like a normal couple. Normal couples lounge around in PJs and watch terrible TV and order in pizza. And I missed being able to do that way more than I missed formal dates and romantic nights out.

There were trips to NY and DC and London and Glasgow and Edinburgh too. But visits are mostly times to catch up on all the nothing you haven't been able to do. Bliss.

And a lot of other articles agree: Don't plan too much activity for your visits.

The frequency and length of a visit depends on your own circumstances (and finances) and you'll find your preferences.  The 'rule' of alternating visits only applies when you can easily work around employment, or when you don't have a visa pending (more on that here).

Mark and I were both working. That meant we could save for plane tickets, but it almost meant that we had to book time from our respective employers. My UK employer was far more generous with (paid) time off than his US employer, but we worked around that.

We went six months without seeing each other on a few occasions, but we found that intervals of three months were the easiest to cope with. Three months is only 12 weeks, which is only really 12 empty weekends to fill alone.

The last time we saw each other before I moved over to the USA was last Christmas 2011. Before that was our wedding, in May/June 2011.

We only had a short time booked with each other over the Christmas period. While the airport goodbyes never got any easier, that was by far the worst one because it just felt like we hadn't had enough time together. Luckily, Mark's visit was unexpectedly extended. Without that time I would have been a mess.


Sometimes the times you miss each other most are the times you'll fight the most. All that emotion, all that miscommunication, all that loneliness, manifesting as:

Nit-picking: "you didn't call at the exact time you said you would"
Needless antagonism: "When we are together we'll only have whole milk in the fridge and not semi-skimmed"
Pettiness: "You spelled a word wrong on Skype"
Childishness: "Don't you DARE slam your laptop screen down on me - damnit!"
Competitiveness: "I can't win this argument even though I'm right and you know I am"

Yes, they are inevitable. Distance or no distance. But with the distance working against you, it can feel like your whole world is crashing down.

It's like being a toddler and being told you're overtired. You can insist that you're right and it's because of THE ISSUES and not because you just miss each other.

It's because of frustration. It's because you miss each other. It's because you can't just hug each other and say it's ok. It's because you miss each other. It's because it's 3am and you've been emailing each other insults for five hours and you both need the last word. It's because you miss each other. It's because you really, really want that shade of dark blue that almost looks black but isn't black on your wedding invitations, and you're not going to budge. It's because you miss each other.

Once Mark phoned me just to say "can we not argue over the phone anymore?" to which I had to reply "but then where will we do our arguing?"

All he could say in response was "touché, okay, we can argue over the phone".

So here are some tips not mentioned in any other articles I read:

Warning signs for pending transatlantic arguments

You haven't seen each other in a while and you're reaching withdrawal breaking point: It's useful to book your next visit ASAP after your last one (or before it's over) so you always have something to look forward to. It doesn't solve the issue or the argument, but it's a small comfort.

One of you wants to talk but the other one is tired and grumpy: Be really mindful of timezones and bodyclocks, whether grumpiness before dinner, or tiredness before bed. Sometimes we compromised with text chats and the promise of a proper conversation at the weekend.

Skype isn't working/Phone signal is dodgy:  I hated Skype when my husband looked and sounded like a robot. I'd say "forget it" and hang up. I'd rather no communication than bad signal. General frustration can come out as anger at each other, especially when you have limited time to chat.

One of you makes all the phone calls/one of you doesn't reply: I have to confess that I was the rubbish one here. It was not deliberate, but it was unintentionally hurtful. We eventually found a habitual groove that worked for us. Mark still made all the phone calls, but I emailed him to let him know he was in my thoughts, and to let him know a good time to call.

You have a wedding coming up: Having spoken to non-long-distance couples, I think it is normal to act like two toddlers pressing each other's buttons in the lead-up to a wedding. God made wedding planning stressful just to really test your commitment (ditto visa applications).

There's a shift: By shift I mean anything, really: One of you gets a different job; one of you moves to another place; or you get engaged; or you get married; or it's getting close to the end of your long-distance stint. Anything that changes the balance of the LDR somehow.

After we got married I found the last year of our LDR easier to deal with because our relationship was cemented, and the visa process was just jumping through hoops. On the other hand, Mark found it much harder because we were married and couldn't be together. If you're experiencing things in different ways, try to be open and open-minded.

Some advantages of being long-distance 

After we got married I used to joke that being long-distance was the perfect marriage. It was just a joke, but there are advantages to be made of what is generally a rubbish situation.

Talking and planning: Without the physical contact and the ability to spend time doing nothing, and the fear of lulls in vital phone/Skype call times, it can be best just to keep on talking. About anything.

We planned our wedding and our visas. Then we talked about who would do what household chore. We talked about our dream home. We talked about fears. We talked about our preferences for whole milk or semi-skimmed milk. Anything, just to keep the conversation flowing.

I think this can give a real edge over non-long-distance couples who have to learn the hard way about household chores and milk preferences and the kind of marriage they want to have. When I arrived in the USA there was a (fresh) carton of organic 2% milk sitting in the fridge waiting for me. That was definitely worth the three years of separation (kind of).

Learning how to argue: For all that it's horrible at the time, you can learn how to debate each other and to nip an argument in the bud before it degenerates. Tip: It's not about winning.

Growing as an individual: I got a whole year of getting used to being a married woman before I spent any significant time with my husband. This is a double-edged sword, which I'll mention later one day, but it allowed me to do things and live life in a way I wanted while preparing life together with my husband. I don't recommend it, but it wasn't all bad. I swear!

Overall, just remember this

- Communication is key: Manage expectations of your LDR.
- Communicating about communicating is key. Let your other half know what you're up to and when you can talk. And then tell them you love them and you're proud of them.
- Find good communication habits/a groove.
- Communicating with friends and family is key. Don't sit and wait.
- Romance might be important, but communication is more important.
- Sitting in your Pjs for a week together is totally okay.
- Arguments are normal, but stop being a toddler, take a step back, say sorry, and start again.
- Don't bring up issues just before one of you has to go to bed. Wait until the weekend or something.

You'll get there. And trust me, the conversations that start with "remember when we were long-distance, and…" feel AMAZING.