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.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

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

This is the definitive guide to surviving a long distance relationship! (Part one) 
(Part Two is here)

By long-distance, I don't mean a cross country sleeper train, that's a whole other survival guide
How can I say that?

Firstly, I did 1018 days of "method research". Mr and I were long-distance for almost three years, and while we probably did everything wrong, we also did everything right.

Second, I've scoured the web for guides to survive long distance relationships, teased out the common themes, and tested the advice against real life. This is an amalgamation of everything I read on the subject, peppered with my own insights. Maybe you already read other articles before you read this. If so, great. 

I've taken out the fluff and the guff: So many articles on going the long-distance start with how hard it is and how it's not for the faint of heart. Anyone who's about to, is, or has been involved in an LDR doesn't need to be told that. That's why I'm writing this now, and not a year ago. Also, it's not that rare. A lot of couples do the distance thing at one point in their lives, and I'm not even referring to military couples, who I believe are much, much braver.

I've taken out the condescending advice: I know you know how to use Skype, how to post a letter, and how to make a phone call. I don't need to suggest you might even want to email your loved one on a regular basis. I do recommend a smart phone, but you don't need the latest model. Text apps that work over data networks are useful, but email does the same job, and often better.

I've also taken out any advice about trust. In my experience that was never a question or an issue. If you are struggling with trust, jealousy, or commitment in a long-distance relationship, there is support available elsewhere. Most of these feelings can be covered in relation to communication and how to deal with arguments. Yes, arguments!

So I'm also a little bit realistic. Much of life ends up being about muddling through rather than creating concrete plans and schedules. Love is no exception. Like I said, we probably did it all totally wrong but we got there, it's over, and it's great.

I missed these moments the most
About Us (in case you didn't know)
We met at grad school in Glasgow, Scotland. After we handed in our dissertations we both moved back to our respective parents' homes. I headed to the East Coast of Scotland, and he went back to Pennsylvania.

Before he left we booked flights for me to visit at Christmas.

We had no plans, or so I thought (he already knew he wanted to marry me).

After he proposed at Christmas, I came back home and felt like the most ungrateful, miserable (and lonely) fiancee.

We got planning straight away: No plans on how to manage our LDR, but planning our wedding, marriage, visas, and future life together. The rest is history!

We were transatlantic, 3000 miles apart, and he was five hours behind. But we managed. So here goes…

The (definitive, kinda) guide to surviving a long distance relationship.

The Nuts and Bolts: Planning and managing expectations

This is where most guides to LDRs agree: You gotta have a plan.

For the first three months of our transatlanticism I had no expectations about where we'd end up. I'm not sure I really thought about it. And that made it worse. Mark recalls days when I refused to answer his Skype calls because I missed him too much to be able to speak to him. After we got engaged and agreed to a long engagement, we were able to plan our visits and our future lives more effectively. Skype chats could be less about missing each other and more about looking forward to being with each other.

You don't need to get engaged, but I'd recommend knowing where the two of you are going together, or otherwise.

Then: Agree a (target) end date

It's much easier to manage when you know when the distance will end, and when your milestones are. You can count back and arrange visits and chop up the time into manageable chunks. Mark and I were apart for almost three years. That's most of our relationship. But in my head it was just several blocks of 3-6 months.

For us, the target dates were intuitive:

1. Wedding day, and
2. My arrival in the USA.

The latter date was fluid but we knew it'd be a year, more or less, from our wedding date. Although our lives were in the hands of the US Government, the visa process was straightforward and predictable. We could then start to manage our expectations of our reunion, and our marriage, which was just as important as managing the expectations of our time apart.

Also: Start saving up money!

LDRs are inherently expensive, whether it's visits, calling cards, weddings or visas. Or a combination thereof. Make sure you've got a plan to finance it - together. Some of your overseas conversations may be boring, talking about the nuts and bolts. But it really helps.

Goofy Skype chat, and a picture email: "I'm at the airport!"
Communication and Skype Dates

With timezones and transatlantic communication to navigate, many articles recommend scheduling regular communication time and arranging 'dates'. Let me confess:

I am notoriously bad at keeping to pre-arranged Skype dates and schedules. I still am.

But we figured out a groove for remaining in contact. It wasn't pre-arranged, it just happened organically. An average day went like this:

Morning GMT: On the bus to work I checked my email, often a lovely 'good morning' message Mark had sent the night before with a run down of what he watched on the news chatter, so I could listen to a podcast and catch up, and read the morning news on Twitter.

Lunchtime GMT: On my lunch break, I knew Mark was getting up and ready for the day, so I'd email him the most interesting articles from my bus journey. If I wasn't too busy he'd phone just to say hi.

5-6pm GMT: I'd be on my way home, and if Mark wasn't too busy he'd give me a call to tell him about my morning, and I'd talk about my day.

8-11pm GMT: If I wasn't out, busy, or too tired, and if Mark could snatch some time early, we'd chat on Skype. Almost every day. And if we couldn't, we'd let each other know. An email: "I'm at an event tonight, so I might not be able to chat",
or "I need a bath. I smell. Later ok?", or
"did you get my Facebook message about the voicemail about the Skype message you sent when I tried to call?" or:

Him: Why aren't you answering your phone?!
Me: It's upstairs on silent. I was writing you an email.

Yeah, it wasn't perfect. Wires got crossed many times. If I wanted to watch TV with my family, we'd type to each other instead. If one of us was busy, we'd wait. I often got tempted to stay up super-late just so I could get a meaningful conversation. I sleep so much better now that I'm in the same timezone as my husband.

Dates, such as simultaneous cooking dates, or movie dates, never worked for us. I didn't want to pretend I was with my partner when I really wasn't. But there were times for planning (wedding, visas, trips and visits), times for mindless chatter, times for helping each other with job applications, times for speaking to the whole family, or watching each other open birthday presents, times for political discussions and rants. Times for arguments, which I'll cover later.

Being yourself and living your own life

And there were times for ourselves.

Articles about LDRs all agree that you need to take time to grow as an individual, to have a social life, to stop focusing on how much you miss your partner and get out living. Basically, don't be a hermit.

It's all true, but I'm going to be realistic. Yes, couples who live together have their own interests. But doing it as one half of a transatlantic couple is something else. You want to share experience with your partner, you don't want to miss out on what they're doing, you feel guilty if you're having fun and you know your partner isn't. Maybe you feel more alone when you're out with other people.

On the other hand, it's not hard to get out and about, especially when you have friends who want to see you (and whom you want to see), when getting out and doing stuff is fun. When you don't miss doing things with you partner. You miss doing nothing with your partner.

So in these cases, I think you can be picky about the things you do and don't do. Examples:

Things I did:
- Got into photography, which is a skill I could work at alone. And I could share my work with my husband.
- Visited friends for tea, dinner, drinks. Spent the weekend with them. And called Mark at intervals. Let friends say hi to him.
- Traveled for work, a lot. It kept me busy, sometimes took me out of phone signal range, let me see the country (which I still want to share with Mark one day). And it helped out the organization - I had no kids, and no husband to get back to as our relationship was already phone-based. So it worked.
- Applied for, and was accepted to the International TV Festival Network, and then did an internship with the BBC. Because I wanted to, because I could, and because I had the freedom to.
- Attended weddings and other important events.

Things I didn't do:
- Go out with single friends exclusively, or go out on nights with couples. My girlfriends were brilliant for arranging girls' nights.
- Join a club or do a random activity like ballroom dancing.
- Go on holiday without Mark.
- Watch certain movies.

I made sure to do one thing every weekend. Just one thing. Whether it was meeting a friend or taking photos of flowers. Similarly, Mark got involved with civic/political activities here and since I've moved I've joined in. He baked and did martial arts and traveled for work.

When we were busy, we'd let each other know. We'd support each other in our endeavors as best as we could.

Since we've been together we've done our rustic weekends - those little things we didn't want to do alone. Those things we said we couldn't wait to do together, but we did wait, and it didn't do any damage. Promise.

In Part Two, I cover romance, visits, fights and shifts. And the advantages of a long distance relationship!

I'll also tidy this up a bit too. I promise. Please let me know what you think, what makes sense, what doesn't, and what else do I need to cover?

Monday, 12 November 2012

This week on the Glad Blog: Reflections of an expat

Time to reflect!
It's been (shock!) five months since I packed up my five boxes and two suitcases, laptop, camera and hat. Five months since I stepped on US soil to start life anew.

Here are a few things I've done for the first time since moving to the USA:

1. Driven on the right hand side of the road.
2. Driven an automatic.
3. Crashed said automatic (I allude to this frequently, but it really wasn't bad. The garage jumped out at me, and the car came off worse).
4. Eaten: Black and White Cookies, Square burgers, Pumpkin pie, Pumpkin beer, S'mores, Okra (yes really!).
5. Smashed a pumpkin and decorated the house with corn.

There have been loads more new experiences. As I say when I do something mundane for the first time, every day is a new adventure. It really is.

However, what I'm noticing now is that I am starting to find it harder to distinguish between things that are 'American' and things that are are 'British' or universal. Just the subtle things, such as the way the drivers here take corners faster than in the UK, or the way some smalltown Main St stores look like little houses, and more I can't think of now because they are the new normal for me.

Next week is Thanksgiving, and that's going to be a whole new event for me as well. I'm very excited! But more than that, my mum is coming to celebrate with us, and it's going to be interesting to see just how Americanized I am now in comparison!

So this week I'm going to reflect on my expat life:

From doing the long-distance, to packing up, moving over, and trying to settling in.

What we did, what we didn't do, things we would've done differently… and, of course, things I still want to do! And there's a lot of things I want to do.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The day I went to the polls and didn't vote

In the USA, nobody votes for President. People vote for Electoral College delegates. It's a quirk of the US electoral system I like to point out when Americans ask why Brits don't directly elect their leaders. Technically, Americans don't directly vote for their leader either!

But I didn't vote at all. That's because I'm not a US Citizen. Green Card holders can't vote and registering to vote here would be a crime. Cue ironic jokes about taxation without representation.

I did, however, go to the polls to see how democracy works in rural America.

Voting took place in the local volunteer fire station. A large hall with fire trucks parked at one end, next to walls filled with fire hoses and firefighters' jackets. There were rows of tables piled with kids' toys and books, which the station was selling on a 'pay what you will basis'. Kids would run into the hall and make a bee-line for the toys. Parents would follow, ushering their kids away and explaining "I've got to vote first."

The two parties had pitched their signs on either side of the entrance. Democrats were on the left and Republicans were on the right. This made me smile. Party volunteers handed out leaflets with their respective ballots to guide voters. During voting lulls, they bantered with each other, across the aisle, about local planning measures, American Football, and the residual damage of the storm last week.

The voting machines were in another room. These electronic machines allowed voters to pick straight tickets or choose their candidates before pressing the satisfyingly red "VOTE HERE" button. Then the machines would beep and the lights would go out - the sound of a modern democracy. The UK still uses pencil and paper: You mark your X on the ballot and post it into a locked box which is later emptied and counted by hand.

Polling staff asked each voter, "do you have photo ID?"

Answers and attitudes were mixed. Those who refused were reminded they would need it next time. This year Pennsylvania had put through a measure to require photo ID from voters at the polls. It was challenged in court, and the court decided it would not go into force until 2013. But this lead to confusion and concern - commercials and mailers had already told voters they needed ID and a last-minute effort had to reassure them that they didn't. Would some voters without ID fail to turn up?

After the morning queues, voting remained steady. Comments from staff and volunteers indicated that turn-out seemed high.

There was some confusion about the voter ID issue though. There were reports of signs in polling stations falsely telling voters that photo ID was necessary. Voters occasionally asked if they needed ID after all.

But generally it was jovial. Kids played with the toys. Women stood in huddles and gossiped. Neighbors consoled each other over fallen trees or continuing power blackouts from the storm. People voted. Some strode in and avoided the party volunteers. Some talked about voting.

A lady, handed a Republican ballot sheet, glanced at it and exclaimed "Oh I'm not voting for Romney. I'm female."

But one older lady, who took ballot lists from both parties, was pensive and uncertain. "This is hard," She whispered. "It was hard last time, but it's hard this time. I just don't know."

Others confidently praised one party's presidential candidate but showed uncertainty over the local candidate. Some voters took the ballot sheet from one party volunteer but smiled at, or even winked at, the other.

Pennsylvania is a categorically purple state. As a state it votes for both Republicans and Democrats. Counties, neighborhoods, families vote for both. Individuals vote for both.

There is sometimes a lot of focus on the political polarization in America. Just this weekend the latest episode of the NPR show This American Life told the story of Americans who felt so passionate about their political beliefs that it affected their relationships. Families torn apart by their opposing views. People who disagreed so strongly that they could not live side by side, or speak to each other.

But that is only one side of the story. The other side was playing out here at the polls in a rural, slightly conservative, district of Pennsylvania.

Later in the afternoon a middle-aged man who'd just voted lamented that his wife might not have voted the same way as he. "She listens to too much of that NPR stuff!" He laughed before leaving.

I like to imagine he went home to watch the election results with his wife, and that today they both got up and went about their daily lives, just like the rest of America.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Remember Remember

This is an explosive time of year. Fireworks are flying.

Yesterday was Guy Fawkes' Night in the UK, often just known as Bonfire night or Fireworks night. This was the reason why Mark was unable to buy fireworks for his Scottish July 4th BBQ several years ago.

The UK celebrates this day as the time a guy (that'd be Guy Fawkes) tried, and failed, to blow up the UK Parliament. It was 1605. 171 years later the New World would find its own reason to light small, colored explosives. Did settlers to the New World celebrate November 5th until then? I have no idea. I promise I'll find out for next year.

And talking of houses of representation, all my US friends and family here will be casting their votes. Expect fireworks tonight (real and metaphorical) regardless of the outcome.

In 2011 this small Scottish town, Oban, was all over the news for its 'disastrous' fireworks display. The whole display blew up in seconds.

It was hilarious. The pyrotechnics company apologized and held a free display for the town later in the year. The display was unexpectedly popular and there were rumors they would offer this one minute display as a legitimate package.

I did wonder at the time if it was a PR stunt. I became more suspicious when a similar thing happened in San Diego this year on July 4th. They managed to outdo Oban's 'premature ignition' with a whole display in half the time.

This year Oban didn't hold a fireworks display at all. However another small Scottish town, Oxgangs Brae, did.

The BBC reports that this was an accident caused by a rogue rocket.

Another tradition I remember from my childhood in North East England is the bonfire with a burning effigy of Guy. Children in the neighborhood would cobble together a crude effigy, drag it around the street, knock on doors and chant "PENNY FOR THE GUY" before it got chucked on a bonfire. Sounds quite morbid when you think about it, but not as much as what happened to the real Guy and his accomplices.

In the UK, during week of Halloween and Guy Fawkes, you'd never know what to expect when the doorbell rang: It could be a crowd of witches asking for candy, or young guys in shell suits asking for small change for their Guy, also wearing a shell suit. Hey, it was the early 90s!

And shell suit fabric was particularly flammable. In October the local firefighters would visit schools and set bits of shell suit on fire to discourage kids from wearing them to bonfire night. TV would be replete with public service broadcasts on firework safety, something I didn't see at all here in the USA in July.

In Scotland, where Halloween is a slightly bigger deal, they have a different tradition: Guising ('disGuising').

It's not all that different from Trick or Treating: Dress up in a costume, knock on doors, receive treats. The big difference, however, is that Scottish kids are expected to earn their candy. One year my friend and I played ditties on our recorders (we probably got paid to shut up), but reading poetry, doing magic, and singing, are all acceptable. The Scots also make it harder on the kids by carving turnips to light and carry from house to house. We tried this one year instead of a pumpkin. It's bloody hard.

I prefer the concept of earning candy far more than the scenes I saw on Halloween last week here in the USA. Kids, and older kids, some of whom were not dressed up, knocking on doors and receiving candy: No question. Some kids were driven from house to house and up driveways by their parents.

Living in rural PA during Fall I've also seen many a scarecrow on the farm or adorning porches. It never fails to remind me of Guy Fawkes, though I don't think that's the point.

The cynic in me would suggest it would be timely to watch V for Vendetta, but I know that tonight we'll all be watching the political fireworks taking place in real time instead!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Happy Halloween…From the Cat

Halloween's over; I got it. But this gem is probably the most ridiculous thing I've seen since moving to the USA.  I just couldn't post until I was sure that the US Postal Service had done its job.

It's always a bit hit and miss sending greetings across the pond: Things can arrive in a week, two weeks, or not at all. When Mr and I were long-distance we'd be sure to send each other at least three Valentine's and birthday cards in the hope that at least one would arrive.

Anyway, this is a card I recently sent to my mum in Scotland. It's something I'd never seen until I moved to the USA.

I found in it Hallmark, the infamous US greeting card store. I found it in a subsection of cards entitled HALLOWEEN - FROM THE CAT.

Let me just clarify - this was not just one card. It was one of several cards. There was a whole section devoted to Halloween cards FROM THE CAT.



I only went into Hallmark to buy a plain ol' birthday card, which it turns out is impossible.
Happy Birthday from your second-cousin-in-law? Sure!
Happy Birthday to my favorite neighbor two doors down? Probably!
Happy Birthday? Just "Happy Birthday"? Nope. Nothing. Can't be done.

I didn't even know that giving people Halloween cards was a 'thing' until Hallmark told me it was.
Before I moved I already knew that kids in the USA like to give their friends Valentine's cards, which is not entirely acceptable in the UK. I've even heard of "Bosses' Day" which I get the impression Hallmark invented entirely. There was a whole aisle of Halloween cards.

Halloween cards? Really? And Halloween…FROM THE CAT? Yeah, come on in! We have a plethora of Halloween cards that your feline buddy can send to - send to who?

That's the thing. Cats don't even have opposable thumbs (yet, as this wonderfully funny UK commercial for milk suggests). They can't write a Halloween card. They can't even open an envelope should they receive one. Where are all these socially active kitties that need to send spooky greetings to their feline friends?

And yet I bought it.

I don't even have a cat. (Note: I used to, but I left them in Scotland.)

But that's why Hallmark works. Hallmark is like IKEA - it creates a useless product and convinces you that you really need it. Only in IKEA it's magazine racks for the bathroom, and in Hallmark it's Justin Bieber Halloween greetings and Halloween messages FROM THE CAT. The next thing IKEA should invent is display racks in the bathroom for all your Hallmark Halloween cards FROM YOUR CATS.

And not only that. Not only was this one card of many available in the HALLOWEEN - FROM THE CAT subsection of Hallmark, but this very card was the winning entry from a Hallmark greeting card design competition.
You can view this award winning card at the Hallmark website
I love it! I love it so much I bought it and sent it to my mum, albeit filled with a tirade of wonder at why we need our cats to send Halloween cards.

I even addressed it to the cats. I totally bought into this. Hallmark saw me coming from an imperial mile.

Maybe we need Halloween cards FROM THE CAT so we buy them and send them filled with questions about why we need Halloween cards FROM THE CAT.

Either way, Hallmark, you won. And I'm actually totally okay with that. There is no end of amusement here.

Now I need to stock up on my "Happy Thanksgiving from the rogue groundhog in the backyard" cards.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Bonus Spooky Photos

From a Halloween Zombie Zumba photograph assignment I did this week
I have to admit that we went out for dinner on Halloween. We're at that awkward age where we are too old to go to slutty Halloween parties, and (far) too young to take kids out trick or treating.

abandoned church with tree growing in the steeple, Scotland, January 2012