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The upsides to being back in the UK

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When we were planning our return to the UK, I wrote a list of all the things that I’d missed and that I was looking forward to. Now, almost a year since we got back, I’ve crossed off most of them. This list got a bit long, so I’ve separated it into two posts – one about being back in the UK, the other about being back in London, the city that I call home.

Things to enjoy in the UK:

Bacon sandwiches. Known as something that has the power to convert vegetarians, British (more often Danish) bacon is a bit like a cross between the Canadian and American kinds. Thick cut and grilled so the fat is just browning but the meat is still juicy, and pressed between two pieces of soft white bread and butter, this is the taste of home. R enjoys his with Worcester sauce; I’m a purist.

Pubs. The pub at the end of our road got renovated when we got back, so we now have a really nice local! It’s a bit hipster – unvarnished and unmatched furniture, plenty of gin and craft beer, and food mostly provided by street food vendors on rotation – but we love it.

Beer gardens. It’s lovely to drink outside. Even if it’s a little too cold; especially when the sun shines. There aren’t that many in London, but we have spent some lovely afternoons and evenings in beer gardens in Winchester, Exeter and Oxford.

The seaside. So far we’ve just enjoyed this in Devon, but there’s nothing like a good long walk along a coastal path, boats clinking at their moorings, the smell of salt – followed by a pint of beer or cider, with a view of the sea.

British countryside and birdsong. We recently had a weekend away, camping, on the border between England and Wales. The walks in woodland, carpeted in bluebells and wild garlic were just lovely – and a great foraging opportunity – and every morning we woke (rather grey and cold and early) to the dawn chorus. Though I loved the red flashes of cardinals and the cries of blue jays in the States, I’m happy to be reunited with my native wood pigeons and blackbirds.

British Indian and Chinese food. I wrote about how different the American version of Chinese can be. Friends will be happy to know that I am now reunited with my beloved prawn crackers – which can also be picked up in most supermarkets here.

‘British’ Mexican food. Although we really enjoyed Tex-Mex in the States, in London we’ve rediscovered the chain Wahaca, where you can get really good value Baha-style Mexican.

Italian pizza. Thin and fresh, and available so many places, you can kid yourself it’s not that unhealthy. Pizza Express is great value and has nice wine – I know, pizza with wine rather than beer! – and, as I’ve mentioned, a new chain, ‘Franco Manca’ opened while we were away.

Ok, this list became a bit London-focused! I’ll leave you with these:

Scraps from DC – it’s the little differences

I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just, there it’s a little different.

You want an example?

Well, in summer you can walk into Pret a manger in DC and buy a lobster roll. And I’m not talking about a couple of pieces of crayfish, I’m talking about proper lobster.

And in bars, you can always get food. Most places you can even get good food – like a fresh salad you want to eat, or mac and cheese – Americans will eat that with anything. And hot sauce with breakfast – they drown everything in that.

And they have H&M. But it’s not a cheap shop for kids – they treat it like it’s high European fashion.

And TK Maxx? It’s pretty much the same, except in America they call it TJ Maxx.

Scraps from American travels – New Orleans

It’s chaotic, and not at all like America.

Though it resembles ramshackle bits of Spain or Italy, it’s unmistakably French.

Music everywhere! The expected brass, but also jazz, blues, even French folk.

People wandering the streets with plastic glasses of beer, drunk already at 1pm.

Parties on balconies bedecked with beads, ribbons, banners. The colours of Mardi Gras, shine for a month-long bender.

Arguments breaking out as out-of-control kids throw beer down from their balconies onto performers in the street.

The place smells of sugar: praline shops, fudge, chocolate, and powder-covered beignets.

Bars are open to the street, the air balmy and soft on this February day. Chartres Street – most of the tourist chaos left behind on Decator and Canal – has that classic, French-quarter charm you read about. The square at the end of the street is like Paris – street art and performers.

I eat crawfish cakes with hot sauce.

A middle-aged couple order tall cocktails to go.

And Yoda just walked past with a storm trooper.

Saying a long goodbye to my blog?

Just over three years ago I moved to the States. In a way it was good timing – I had just finished a PhD, there were no jobs in the offing, we were still young(ish) and many of our friends had moved out of London to start families. But it took a long time and a lot of stress to get the visa that would allow R to take up the job he had been offered. By the time we finally got it, after an entire morning at the American embassy I was rather too emotionally exhausted to feel the underlying fear very acutely.

The fear was there though. Because although we assured friends and family that it would only be 18 months, in reality I knew R would be very happy to extend it if everything went well. And I’d never been to the US before, and had no idea if I’d like it. And I had no idea if I’d get permission to work, or be able to find a job if I did. I had visions of myself drinking gin through the afternoon, waiting for R to come home, or, worse, learning to drive and then just taking off somewhere.

Happily I didn’t succumb to alcoholism. (In fact, it was a massive relief to me that in extremis my reaction is merely to eat too much, become slightly agoraphobic and then call a therapist.) And while I did learn to drive, this was towards the end of our tenure and a skill used more to take road trip vacations than to run away.

Perhaps I should have worried more about not being able to work. If nothing else my experience in America taught me how much work is central to my identity.

But mainly the things that I learnt from living in the States were positive. It confirmed that I like people, and can get on with pretty much anyone. I like travel and learning about other cultures and their histories. I like food, and drink and music, and respect these as cultures. I like the outdoors, and healthy(ish) living. And I aspire to live a balanced life.

Of course it’s been a challenge incorporating these aims into my life back home in London – I think we all aspire to a truly balanced life, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone who has achieved this. But I think I’m definitely friendlier to strangers, and more willing to travel frequently to see friends and family. We’ve also been trying to incorporate American food into our lives here. Making a big bowl of guacamole to have with the football (NFL) is essential for us now, and we’ve bought a small barbecue so we can continue to grill when it’s dry and warm(ish) out. I’m planning to write a post about eating American in London, so watch this space.

But really I’m finding it harder and harder to think about blogging. There are things I never got around to writing about – our love of baseball, our trips to New York – but it just seems like such a different world now. So my plan is to write what I can, when I can to cover off what I’ve missed, but to work to an end date.

In June this year we’re heading back to the US for a two-week road trip in the NW. It will be a year since we left to come home – we made it a year! – and that feels like a good point to end this blog. At least until the next big adventure…

Women’s Health in the States

Another post written last year in the States, before we came back to the UK. Of course this was also during the Obama care era, so things will probably change…

After about 15 months living over here I finally had to find someone to refill my birth control medication. Thanks to an understanding GP in the UK and a couple of visits home I’d managed for about nine months without having to negotiate the US health system, but after that I realized I’d have to make a start at finding a doctor.

I knew that in the States people can choose their own specialist and don’t need a referral from a GP. It’s actually not essential to have a GP – many of whom are known as internalists (specialists in internal medicine). (What’s external medicine I wonder…?) I then found out that the medical insurance we have, from the company that is sponsoring R’s visa, allows us to access either doctors who are in their network, or to go ‘out of network’ without any financial penalty. So now I almost had too much choice as to what sort of doctor/practice to go to, and no real way of knowing how to make the best choice.

I spent probably the best part of an hour scouring the list of in-network gynecologists (or OB GYNs), looking them up on the map, checking to see if there were reviews on Yelp – as if I were choosing a restaurant – and cross-checking with a good online medical service I found called ZocDoc. Weirdly there didn’t seem to be many OB GYNs in DC itself, so I found myself choosing between going to Bethesda in Maryland or North Arlington in Virginia. Based on distance from the metro, some nice Yelp reviews, and availability I chose my practitioner. It hardly seemed the best way to choose – using the same comparison site I use to find good pizza – but at least a decision had been made.

And I have been thoroughly satisfied – and not a little surprised – by my experiences. My doctor works for an outfit called the Physicians and Midwives Collaborative Practice, which I immediately liked the sound of. The office is very clean, modern and comfortable. Everyone is very friendly – more than one of them calls me ‘dear’ (though this is less affectionate and more like a conversational tic). Best of all, I’ve not been charged a co-pay on either of my visits.

The first time I went simply to get a refill of my prescription, though I knew there was a possibility I might have to get an exam (I’ve heard that this is more common in the States). They were good about getting a pretty complete history and wrote me a prescription for 3 months without an exam, on the condition that I make an appointment for a full physical. I had taken my British medication and the information leaflet with me so that the doctor could find an American equivalent, and she made an effort to find a generic version that was as close to mine as possible. As I said, I didn’t have to pay anything that visit, and while my insurance company makes me pay for my prescriptions up-front, I can claim back the full cost.

The second appointment came round and I turned up largely unconcerned – I don’t personally find these screenings at all problematic and actually have more anxiety about having my blood pressure taken (which obviously doesn’t help with the result!). But it turned out there are quite a few differences in practice between the UK and the US! Mostly in the UK the procedure has been done by a nurse, or maybe a nurse practitioner. Only the necessary clothes have had to be removed, and it’s been carried out on a normal GP bed.

Over here – in this practice at least – all clothes had to be removed and I was given a full-on hospital gown, in which I waited for my doctor. Thankfully I’d brought a book, and after about quarter of an hour she arrived. We had a conversation about my plans (or not) to have children, in which it was suggested that at my age I might want to look into getting my eggs frozen(!), and then there was the awkward getting into position on the gynecological table with stirrups that I’d seen in so many American TV shows. After some poking and prodding of various glands, the smear was reassuringly familiar, and after this I was ready to be getting up and heading home. So I was somewhat taken aback to find myself being pushed and prodded further, as she apparently examined my reproductive organs! I finally understand the joke about how gynecologists should probably buy you dinner before the exam – she now knows my uterus better than I do!

Again though, I was pleasantly surprised by not being asked to pay anything for this experience. I have read that recent changes in healthcare law have made all these sort of preventative health appointments free of any upfront charges – the entire cost being covered by the insurance company [Ed – thanks for the memories Obama!]. This must be a good thing in terms of detecting problems sooner as I can imagine that the idea of having to pay for a screening would be that extra reason not to go as regularly as you should. I’d also be genuinely interested to know whether the more invasive and thorough physical exam leads to cancers being found more quickly in the US than in the UK.

In any case, I survived my first experiences with American OB GYNs, and next time at least there should be fewer surprises!