Borough Market, Whitstable, a Vineyard. The question of context.

Right now I’m in transition. We don’t know exactly when I’ll head back, but it will probably be in about a month. C. will hopefully follow a few months later. With a ton of things to get done but no definitive deadlines I’m a bit at loose ends.

The visa process (for C.) is another uncertainty. The website seems to be a wonderful source of misinformation, so any time I want to get completely freaked out, I can always go there an find ten reasons why our plans will get messed up.

We’re working with someone at C.’s work though, and fortunately after a brief call to the guy today, I feel so much better. And grateful that we’re not alone in the process.

But back to the Things to Do Before Leaving the UK List. Borough Market was at the top.

I also went to a Sussex vineyard (thanks Groupon!), the Yayoi Kusama show at Tate Modern, and to a new seaside town for me—Whitstable—for a walk and to see some short plays.

St. Paul’s from Tate Modern lawn on an unseasonably warm day.

Borough Market loaf. This is bigger than my head. Sad day for the gluten-free visitor.

Nut bread? C’mon. You’re killing me here.

No kitchen should be without goose fat.

Gorgeous views as one’s walking around the markets.

Uber brownies! I would like a badge for not getting one for C. and sneaking a bite with a handful of gluten-ease pills.

Yes!

A bit wilted but still pretty.

Figs.

Still life.

Being a sort of tourist for a year and a half is starting to feel weird.  I’m not quite as excited about the amazing historical thing I’m touring or which fantastic garden or cultural site I visit. Instead I’d like to just have a normal day where I get dressed, go to work, and do something tangible, whether it’s frustrating, exhausting, or productive, and then come home to a place that feels like home. Wanting this makes me feel guilty and dull.

Sometimes there’s the sense of killing time, which can happen anywhere.

Spring in Whitstable.

Whitstable castle, built in 1700’s.

Sun!

Coast.

Last weekend, C.’s two pals and I walked around the town of Hastings after doing the vineyard thing. I expected a big site for the Battle of Hastings (1066! English language changed forever!), but I was told that there’s a town called Battle where they do reenactments, and that’s where the official marker is. Instead there were just some signs basically describing what happened in 1066, who the Normans were, etc.

What was funny was that at the tasting our guide razzed on the French for a while until this lone woman with a classic French accent said “Excuse me Monsieur, but I am French and I do not agree,” about the quality of French wine, and the rest of the afternoon went on in this manner. She was joking and so was he, sort of, but sort of not.

I can’t remember where, but I heard someone say, weeks before, that the closer you get to Hastings the more they hate the French. Well, I wonder if this French woman knew that the wine tasting she was going to was in Hastings.

One of the guide’s jokes about the French even worked the Americans in. (The American in the story was loud.)  Two for one special!

After the tasting we had a walk along the coast and then a nice meal at Pomegranate (killer risotto). Then mini-golf which was fun but freezing.  We chose “Pirate Golf” which involved various water-spirting holes.  It was after dark by the sea. I had clothes for weather about twenty degrees warmer.

“Is getting wet…avoidable?” I asked the ticket guy, in what I thought would be the least likely manner to invite a snarky remark.

“Well you can look at see where the cement is wet and then not stand there,” he replied.

Sheesh.

But back to my point about the outing. I loved being in the vineyard on such a warm sunny day and learning about how they grow their grapes. (The guide was especially interesting and is retired, having previously spent decades working in the lost luggage room at Gatwick airport. I’d say the guy deserves a few free bottles.)

So while I certainly can’t complain about the day, I started getting into a funk during mini-golf which was weird with skulls lighting up and saying pirate-ey things to us about how poor our shots were.

There was this sense of frivolity without the context of work so I kind of felt like it wasn’t deserved or appropriate or something.

Wine in the making.

I know that most people my age would kill to have so few obligations, and so in that regard, I am fortunate. But all told, I would say the hardest thing about being an expat or a trailing spouse is not knowing how long you’re staying or what you’re doing to do next. The problem of context.

Without a clear role and a sense of rootedness and community, context kind of drops out. “Fun” things can feel strange.

And of course there’s a bit too much time for rumination in the middle of a transition. I’m wondering when exploration becomes indulgent. When it is wise? How do we know which “games” are childish and which are childlike?

When is it necessary to leave behind the pursuit of exhilaration, of newness, and fully accept the quotidian, as that too brings a type of joy?  I’m guessing there’s no right answer to any of it.

Hastings coast, dusk.

First Visit to the US

Being back in the US after being gone a year and a half was intense. I was fortunate to get to do so much and see so many friends all at once, coast to coast and all points in between. The AWP conference in Chicago offered a nice meeting point for some Richmond (VA) connections.

I also had a job to do. I needed to scope out possibilities for our recently discussed move back. We’re still gathering information, but we’re headed in the NYC direction. C.’s on his way to finalizing some things on his end for his office transfer. I’ve started looking for work, albeit with a bit of wariness. Hopefully this search will be a bit less frustrating as I won’t have to learn so many new tricks as a relatively old dog.

Snowy Nova Scotia (?) from the plane on a bright sunny day

Only 18 seats taken on our flight over! The benefits of flying on a Tuesday afternoon. Everyone had a whole row to him or herself--ahhh....

We lucked out that the New York office needed C. to come in in early Feb., so I tagged along and visited possible places for us to live when we move.  In between studying train lines, doing a million Google distance searches to train stations and rejoicing in my reunion with Kombucha tea, I managed to score a free ticket to the David Letterman show.

I got in trouble for this actually. We were in line but technically inside the Ed Sullivan Theater. "No Photography!" the girl said and pointed to the sign.

It was sweeps week, so there were all sorts of antics like going to a new savory pie shop in the neighborhood. The big guest was Denzel Washington. I spent the entirety of the show (fourth row, dead center!) terrified that my loaner phone would go off. I felt like I’d turned it off but my phone in London took me forever to get used to. I sometimes thought it would be off but it wasn’t. And the loaner phone was new and unfamiliar. Thankfully nothing happened and Dave didn’t make fun of me on live television. With an unfortunate haircut. Whew.  I sat next to a woman from Wisconsin who was traveling alone in business and we clapped loudly as we were instructed to do, and avoided making the “Whoooo!” sound. (Seriously, no “Whooing!” allowed. Just enthusiastic clapping and cheering. There were about ten interns standing in front of us before the show providing examples of good clapping.)

In our New York hotel home virtually scouting out commuter towns. My dogs were barking after hours of pounding the no-so-metaphorical pavement.

The High Line, NYC. Old railway tracks now outdoor gallery, hang out zone, and architecture tour.

Great, even on a cold day in Feb.

Can't wait to go back in summertime.

C. and I want to live outside the city as he’s always done, so we’ve been researching Jersey. A friend of a friend took me on a driving tour of towns around New Brunswick, and then I took a bunch of trips out with C. and without, meeting real estate agents. (They all seem to rent through agents there, I don’t know why.)  One agent was so hyper that she flew to one appointment while I waited in the office and then the other agent had to leave. They locked me in for about 45 minutes which was not fun! Needless to say we’re not going with them. The next two agents we met were much nicer.

One apartment in a nearby Jersey town has a view of Manhattan from the living room window.

Gorgeous light in this one but a teeny kitchen, creaky floors and someone above.

Our new North Jersey main street...?

A lot of attic apartments in big Victorians. Have lived in a bunch of these over the years.

Neither C. nor I are excited about small apartment living, but we hope to be able to get a little house in Jersey after a while. I’m freaking out about the closets more than anything.  We’ve finally got the standing wardrobe situation here down to a manageable system, and most things have homes.  Going back to two tiny closets for the whole place is going to be a challenge. Plus tiny kitchen.

C. then went back to London for two weeks while I continued on my way, heading to California for a week to see my dear friend M. and her family, thanks to a crazy cheap CHI>SFO ticket.

But first I went to the Chicago ‘burbs to see my most excellent pal Chris and her crew of two kids and senior kitty, who, I’m sure, was fully sick of me by the time I left:

Gene! Love affair spanning 10+ years.

Getting to meet my friend’s 15 mo. old daughter, N., was a highlight of the trip and I already can’t wait to see her again. I’d met Chris’ son when he was 9 months old but now he’s 2 and a half and calls me “Taro.”  He’s really fun and outgoing. When I arrived I got out the little toys I’d been gathering for a few months, and we first tried out some glow sticks. These were too fun. When you bent them, they turned from clear to bright neon, and you could snap them together to make huge multi-colored hoops that we spun on our arms in the dark. We danced like maniacs to music on their porch with the new toys. I gave Gene a pink glow-stick necklace and he trudged around with it on for a while. I am the cat whisperer.

Then to my friend’s in CA.  I’d never been to Monterey Bay. Insanely gorgeous.

Point Lobos, Monterey Bay. One of those places in California that doesn't quite seem real, it's so perfectly beautiful.

When not to take a photo, that is the question.

My friend from IL, B., also happened to be in CA, so we did a little thrift shopping in Monterey. I found a killer Nikita camo jacket for four bucks. B & I used to thrift shop hard in Chicago and other spots way back in the eighties, so it was kinda funny to find ourselves rummaging around again so many years later.

C. and I met up again in Chicago and he roamed the streets while I conferenced.

Downtown Chicago. C. took this.

After another stop at Chris’ where C. got to hang with the kids (and read Dr. Seuss to them in a very stiff accent, which was hilarious), we had a week to kill since we didn’t need to scout towns in Jersey again.  We spent a few days in Galena, IL, a cool little town near the Mississippi preserved, nearly, from the 1800’s steamboat days. Off season, it was cheap and we practically had the place to ourselves.

Then off to central IL to visit relatives. Hadn’t seen some in over five years so it was great to get down there!  Got to meet my uncle’s new dog Bruiser and C. took part in one of his favorite pastimes: target shooting. I think he and my uncle will get along just fine.

So, what’s the verdict then?  All my friends had the same question for C.: Are you excited? Meaning the prospect of moving to the US and working in NY. At first his answer was uncertain, but as we traveled around he seemed to get a bit used to the idea. He’s threatening to do a BPRB version of his own called Dull Gray Long Underwear from our new New Jersey haunt.

I’ll leave you, for now, with C.’s Zoolander imitation.

Is there more to life than being really, really ridiculously good-looking?

The Old Lady of Soho

I’m always surprised that I am allowed entry in the über-trendy section of Soho where I’ve been temping. Everyone, and I mean, everyone, is under thirty, with most denizens between 22 and 26.  Of course all the kids are sporting the same 80’s fashion that I wore back in *cough* the 80’s, so I’ve been having this bizarre sense that I’m A) back in high school, B) just starting high school since everything’s so unfamiliar and new, and C) a neighborhood R.A. for adorable London kids.

They really are cute, though.  All angsty, navigating their very first jobs.  I wish I could take twenty pictures on my way to work, or when I dash into Mark & Spencer’s at lunch to wade through the labyrinthine queue.  I don’t think they’d appreciate being photographed by a random creaky lady with a probiotic smoothie and “stay full longer” M&S salad in her hands.  In the meantime, here are some things that you may recognize from the first time around that are ubiquitous in Soho right now.

#1:  New Wave asymmetrical haircuts. For girls, very androgynous.  For boys, big and moussey.

A lot of this

#2  Flats.  All colors.  Frankly I don’t understand how they walk for miles in them; they seem so flimsy.  But I guess that’s what I used to do too.

#3  Oxfords and skinny jeans.  Brown ones, for girls or for guys.  Lace-ups.  This seems to be the London uniform, the staple.  Brown lace-up oxfords with anything.   This guy (C. snapped pic from bus) sporting his own variation with striped trousers:

Am very curious about the hat, and the scarf tucked into the pants.  Not sure which part of C.’s bus route that was on, but it looks more like Piccadilly St. than Soho.

I used to have a white pair of oxfords that I loved, especially with my pants that got skinnier at the ankles.  (What were those called again?  Tapered…?)

#4:  Tights and leggings.  Oh boy.  Maybe 85-95% of females will be wearing black tights or leggings.  With brown loafers and maybe short jean shorts.  There’s that.  Or the skirty look. In any case, I feel the need to explain why I’ve wandered into their territory, as if I’m browsing in a Forever 21 store.

And it’s weird to be working at the same place as my husband, but my strategy is to kind of avoid him and now it seems fine.  The first few days we had lunch together, which felt like being at the “new kid table” in the school cafeteria.  Everyone eats their lunch at their computer, but I always want to go stretch my legs a bit after sitting still most of the morning. One of the guys that we’ve hung out with at an off-site work thing (back in the fall, spouses got to go) joked that instead of a helicopter parent, I’m a helicopter wife, making sure C. doesn’t need anything.  Which is kind of a perfect title since C. is surrounded by single twenty-something cuties all day, prancing around barefoot in breezy tunics and jeans.  Not to mention that he’s the guy who rescues their files, etc.  (Read: HERO.)

With my tendency to overthink things and then sleep on them and then run them through the mill maybe one or twelve more times, it’s actually kind of nice to be able to run things by C. about my first UK work experience.  Of course I’m self-conscious sometimes about being Too American.  At this company though (digital media), everyone’s just really young so it kind of seems like its own entity anyway.  The atmosphere is very “Hey, my parents are away this weekend–do you want to have some people over?”  The handful of over-thirties might serve a dual purpose of making sure everyone stays hydrated and no one burns anything.

I’m so glad for a bit of income, but the day is really, really long when commuting from Medway.  We get up before six, leave by 6:30, drive to C.’s mom’s to park in her drive, take the train (a mere 12 pounds instead of the whopping 32 it would cost from Medway) at about 7:45.   We get in to the London Charing Cross station at about 8:25, and walk to Soho.  Normally we’d leave work between 6 & 6:30, catch a train around 7 and get home about 8:30.  Today we got home later since  I had a Dr.’s appt. in London and took the wrong train around the District/Circle lines, backtracked, got off at another station and as a train was arriving that seemed like my train.  I’d hopped on, only to discover that was also the wrong direction.  It took me an hour to get to the Embankment stop, where I was meeting C.  Not such a nice journey.

Sometimes not easy to figure out on 3.5 hours’ sleep.

The day’s trek was starting to feel more like a pilgrimage.  I’m an insomniac and rarely fall asleep before two a.m., unless really heavily sedated.  So each night there’s the choice: do I want to feel drugged or frantic for sleep tomorrow morning?  Either way there’s rarely more than five hours when I have to get up early, and lately getting something like 3 hours of sleep is more common.

I’d been in a car, a train, and four Tube trains so far that day.  After Embankment, another train, another car trip, sunset, and then home.  Fifteen minutes of Zzzzzzzzzz on the couch and then, thinking that I was actually going to fall asleep at a decent hour, I get my second wind around 11:30.  Wide awake.  I realize that one of the guys at work has eyes just like an octopus–reclusive, deep-sea dwelling, intelligent. Plus he’s bald, so that helps the octopus look.  I wonder if he’d take it as a compliment. Probably not.

By now I’m really awake. So I might as well mention one last thing, which is that the other reason things have been feeling high schooley is that two of my friends from HS were just in town visiting their friend (who I knew then as well) N., who lives in London and works, get this, two blocks from where C. works.  Where I’m temping.  So we’re all in the same little section of the world, after all these years.  How weird is that. We got together for drinks last Friday and it was really great to go out, but strange in that I’ve been thinking about how people don’t really change very much.  How can it be that so much has happened–I’ve been through quite a few major events/life changes in the last twenty-five years–but there we were, having drinks and talking about how much we love Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns.”   (Very dark and quirky humor; you kind of have to be in the mood for it.)

So–once again, the question.  Is massive change possible, or are people’s lives fixed at a certain point?   I still feel like I have so far to go to even approach where I want to be, what I want to do.  But if people stay the same, is that realistic?  C. keeps saying that we’re not really on the same timeline as most other people, that we had other things to deal with in our twenties, and some of our thirties, and we’re sort of just now able to work on the house and home thing.

Who knows what will happen.  C. and I debate this daily, if not hourly–he thinks we can move; I say there’s no point in going through with it just to be in a *slightly* better neighborhood with less space in the actual house.  I’m a pessimist and he’s an optimist, which is supposedly a nice balance, but we do drive each other crazy with our different perspectives sometimes.  I don’t just “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”  I fantasize outrageously and imagine the apocalypse.  C. just functions and goes into hibernation mode when necessary.

The vibrancy of Soho and a cramped terraced house in what may be one of the most notorious sections of Medway.  Such different worlds.  When I’m in London I feel like a great pretender, glancing in bakery windows as if I’m just on my way home in the city.  On our block where we really live I’m usually frustrated without a clear plan to leave the house we intended to leave after six months, max.

For now we masquerade as a couple just welding our lives together, walking through Chinatown back to the Charing Cross station.

My So-Called Glamorous Life

Along with the jealousy some folks have expressed when I tell them I’ve moved overseas is this bizarre assumption that my life is automatically somehow glamorous and star-studded. I don’t really understand this. Is it because falling in love with someone from another country is a bit of the ordinary? Because of the extremity of the change? Or what?

Well, this post is just for anyone who might have pined, even momentarily, for the diamond-spiked grass that invariably grows in abundance in Kent, the Garden of England.

Here’s how a “glamorous” evening really goes. The night in question: London Zoo for C.’s work Christmas party, December 22, 2010

The first query: what to wear as plus one to semi-formal event.

The first issue: most female party-goers will be between the ages of 23 and 27, from France, devoid of a gram of fatty tissue, model-gorgeous, and fluent in ten languages. Ok, maybe just three, but still. I may as well go in a gingham tablecloth, spouting lines from Hee Haw.

Weapons of choice: an old but great little black dress, Spanx (ladies, give me a shout-out if you have a pair), vintage bag, and heels.

Problem: the London Zoo in late December right after a freak snow/ice storm. Heels and ice+darkness could = embarrassing old lady wipe-out surrounded by horrified Francophone hotties.

Solution: demand that C. find out what’s on the docket for the evening, and try to gather what the other ladies are wearing.

Problem #2: Company likes things to be a “surprise.” Awesome. Surprise trip to hospital for broken ankle? Yay! Committing major espionage, C. discovers talk of a trip to one of the indoor animal houses. Exhale. No major trek around giraffe house with flashlights, wearing l.b.d., heels, and safari hat. Could be safe.

Problem #3: Ice and snow have now melted to slush in our town, and temps have dropped precipitously, which will require very warm outfit for trek to C.’s office. The trip will take at least an hour and a half and will involve a few walks, a train, and a bus.

Solution: Wear one outfit through slush to train then through the frantic pilgrims flocking to the pre-Christmas shopping mecca of Oxford Street, and change at C.’s work bravely prepared for bathroom onslaught of 25 year-olds in spiked heels and ultra-trendy dresses sans Spanx.

Strategy: Don mask of “mature” womanhood, i.e. “I have been through it and yes, little missy, you will too.”

Problem: Cannot find vintage bag, Spanx, or overnight bag to carry semi-formal wear to C.’s office. Do not want to travel to zoo with something less appropriate, such as plastic carrier bags. Backpack is also ratty.

Solution: Go up into loft to look for bags and Spanx, which looks exactly like a pair of beige underwear (or pants, for UK readers), and could be any-fortheloveofallthingsholy-where. Driven by some sort of newlywed hormone that makes one want to appear especially appealing to new spouse for his first holiday company event, I journey to the loft, armed with a flashlight and a vague, recently-acquired knowledge of the loft light’s location. The ladder rocks as I creep up, and I flash to an image of me in crutches for the next three months. There’s barely room for the ladder, and it wobbles on the slanted floorboards and against the railing. One must perform a gymnastics sort of vault to get up at the top of the ladder, hopefully avoiding planting both hands in insulation.

Once up, I dig through every box and every suitcase. No Spanx. No vintage bag, no overnight bag. Just books, some starting to get damp, which makes me panic. Now in a Hollywood “save evening or save books quandary.” Cannot leave them up here to ruin, but bringing them down will take forever.

Added crisis: The clock’s a-tickin’! I should be getting dressed right now, but instead am performing Medevac for books, bringing down small stacks, and hoping I don’t break my neck.

Will our heroine make it to the zoo intact? Find out in the next installment of My So-Called Glamorous Life….

Wardour Street

Tonight I was coming home from an event in Soho near Wardour Street while chatting on the phone, and when I looked up I found myself in Chinatown.   I thought I was headed towards Oxford St. but had been walking in the exact opposite direction of where I was supposed to be going, something I still do often in London.  Lit up with dozens of red lanterns and a gigantic dragon perfectly backlit high on a wall, it was all I could do to not abort my Victoria Station mission and get lost in the lanterns.   I didn’t want to be stranded after the last train though, and told myself I could come back, even though it probably wouldn’t look quite the same.

Or maybe Chinatown is always that luminous.  I don’t understand the magic of London yet, but on a few occasions now, walking by myself through the city well after ten, it’s palpable.  The streets are sort of foggy and misty, it’s not cold and not too hot at all–perfect for endless walking.  The huge, antique street lamps glow under window boxes of lush green ivy and bright flowers with names unknown to me.   Pub goers mill about in doorways, holding amber-filled glasses, casting occasional, appraising glances at walkersby.   Further along, towards the Picadilly Tube station, I pass a drag queen with a pancaked face and a black, curly wig.   Twenty-something girls wobble down the sidewalk wearing impossibly short dresses and even more impossible heels.  It’s near midnight on a Tuesday, but people seem immune to sleep.

Okay.  I could fall in love with this city.

“Canadian?” someone asked tonight for the third time.  “You don’t sound like you’re from the U.S.”

I don’t know the ways that I do or don’t sound American, only that there’s more than a bit of self-consciousness about it.   I don’t come into contact with many Americans here–have only chatted with two in my interactions out and about–and haven’t found any all the way out in Kent, where I live.   Clerks in stores often stare for a second after I out myself with speech.  They seem to be trying to place me.  If they figure it out, I hope they let me in on the answer.  I’ve left the US, perhaps permanently, having married a Brit, but I still have a lot to do to settle in here.  The lanterns in Chinatown hover, but their suspension seems much more elegant and serene than my ghosty limbo.

Despite the vast opportunity to explore London, most days I miss the sun, the trees, and the birds of Virginia–my home for the last nine years– the views, miss being able to hop in my car and drive somewhere, miss friends and coworkers, but I’m slowly coming to love watching the people on the Tube, or just walking down the street.  At night when it’s not so crowded I like to try and enter the thoughts of those waiting on the platform, especially the natty business men who seem like they have never gushed about anything in their lives.

Hummingbird Bakery, Pho, Scribbler.   The cheer of whimsy in the windows.   I am probably too old to even be on this street, I quipped to my husband when we first sauntered down Wardour.   I am craving something sweet, something decadent.   Skinny men chomp down sandwiches wrapped in foil and I envy their ease.  (Finding a non-sandwich option when one has food allergies can be tough after ten.)  Londoners don’t seem to eat out as much as US folks, which may be why so many stay so thin…?  Do they go to the pub, or eat–is it one or the other?   I consider what it would be like, in my chocoholic universe, to receive rations of butter, meat, coffee. Charlie Bucket’s one precious, gold-covered chocolate bar.   A constant rumbling belly.   But then a girl walks by with a black and white mod coat and bag, two different prints at once, and I’m in Greenwich Village, pre-Gulliani.  It’s the eighties all over again, and I’ll take it.

The promise of Wardour Street is the antithesis of deprivation.  It’s a hedonistic spree of neon cupcakes, outrageous footware and fun, natural fun.   After all the stresses of relocation, it’s just this sort of fantasy that makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there are still adventures, even past thirty (or, ahem, uh, maybe a little over that), and even wild possibility still sprouting up for no reason.  For now, this is one fantasy that I’m keeping alive.

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