Tag Archives: London

From terror to chaos? 3-9 June 2017 in London and Manchester

It’s been an emotional roller coaster of a week.

Home in London last Saturday, I was still dealing with the emotional impact of Manchester, making room for sadness and grief along with my defiance (it doesn’t make us weak or victims to mourn the dead), when the London Bridge attack happened.

It happened fifteen minutes walk from my house, where we had decided last minute not to go out for dinner, but to get pizza instead. I couldn’t quite believe that I was personally so close to another act of terrorism, so soon after Manchester. I didn’t want to believe what was happening. We spent a few hours not quite knowing the details. How many attacks? How many dead? Why was it taking so long to resolve? Were there hostages? My mind spun but emotionally I was pretty numb.

We need a new word to describe that sinking feeling when that terrible thing you knew could happen has happened, and that abstract fear of terrorism that we normally push to the back of our minds as part of a more general fear of death, comes a little closer. For me the thing that causes temporary tremors of fear is the knowledge that the scenes through which we pass everyday could so easily turn into scenes of terror. A market or a square could become a war zone. The same physically, but in reality, unrecognisable.

I tried to feel anger and defiance again, but it’s hard to be angry with something as big as terrorism. The feeling tends to shade off into a wider despair at world events, making me and my feelings seem pretty small.

So I was pretty grateful to Donald Trump the next morning. Seriously – thank you, Donald Trump, for giving me the chance to get absolutely, blazingly, personally, mad as hell. It was a great feeling and really pulled me out of that numbness. My fury against Trump called up my deep love of my city and my mayor, both of which I wanted to protect as fiercely as a mama bear against everything that threatened them.

Who knew you could love a place so fiercely? But London, and London Bridge in particular, has been my home since my early twenties. This is where I ran around with friends, throwing drunken parties that went on all night, spilling out onto the walkway outside on nice evenings; where we started our nights out singing and drinking on the bus to wherever else we were going; and where we walked by the river to clear the hangovers, all the way down to Borough market to chase away the headaches with burgers and falafel. It might have been at the market I first tried falafel, and baklava, bright green olives and ‘drunken’ cheese. Now that I’m older it’s where I buy squid or scallops or venison for special nights in. Where we drink mulled cider in the autumn and ice-cold smoothies when the sun comes out.

This general election has increased my love of my neighbourhood and neighbours. When I was out on the doorstep, listening to voters, I was able to say honestly how I just wanted everyone to be happy in our little part of London. I want us to share this space considerately and all be patient and friendly with each other. By and large we are. Despite disparity of age and income I think people are pretty tolerant, for example of young people having fun in the Borough area, people staggering home at all hours, and community parties going on till dawn!

So it was really hard to leave London on the Sunday evening and go to Manchester for another week. And it was a really hard week, being here, while wanting above anything to be back there with my community, at the vigil, and then at the election – knocking on doors and getting out the vote.

And now I wake up to a hung parliament!

There are probably many reasons to feel concerned right now: a weak government with Brexit negotiations looming, a country split north against south, young against old, cities against towns and rural areas, Tories taking votes from UKIP by going hardline racist… but right now I can’t stop smiling, and I’m going home to London.

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Missing the States

At this time when America is so much in the news I’m missing all those things that were America to us.

I miss:

  • Watching NFL in a bar on a Sunday all afternoon…
  • Wearing a baseball cap and really casual clothes…
  • Drinking American IPA in sensible sized pints

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Though London and the UK more widely are catching up to what a great game this is, because of the time difference it’s really hard to watch our favourite teams live. Unless you have Sky TV (and can stay up real late) you can only catch the early Sunday afternoon matches – at very select bars. We found out that our local does show these, from 6pm UK time, but at 7.30pm the football is relegated to the background as they have their pub quiz (or trivia as my American friends know it).

Matt Herschberger has written how American casual doesn’t really fit in large parts of London (I reacted to his article here). I’ve tried wearing my baseball caps and Nats gear, but I’ve had to give in to the increasingly hipster vibe and be a bit smarter on the weekends.

Talking of hipster culture, the UK is also really catching up on the craft brewing front. I’ll go into this in more detail soon, but my area has recently acquired a whole mile of breweries, all of which do decent IPAs. Half pints are available, and indeed are to be recommended for the really strong beers they’re brewing round here now.

But I also miss:

  • Being able to hire a car that we can both drive…
  • Getting on the road and driving for hours through the most amazing scenery…
  • Singing along to country music.

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This last one we’ve been able to replicate thanks to Youtube and Spotify, but we have acquired a reputation as having slightly strange music taste. In terms of car radio music, we have enjoyed reacquainting ourselves with British cheese, especially eighties music, and we did have quite a bit of fun finding some typical French rap when we were driving to Bordeaux back in the summer.

But the attitude to hire cars – and street car schemes – in the UK is very different to the States. It’s more expensive to hire an automatic and there are quite high extra charges for each additional driver. Back in the US I don’t think they even asked to see my licence when we hired a car – the fact that we said we were married was enough to give me driving rights with no extra charge. This was great because I only had a learner permit, and I got to practice while driving my husband around the vineyards of Southern California… The hire car place in France was also fine with my American licence and our marital status, so I got my first experience of driving the narrow country roads of the old wine country. There’s just something about being able to skip the mediocre hotel breakfast and drive down to the nearest village for pastries and espresso…

Which brings me to some other things I’m missing:

  • Being able to reliably get good coffee…
  • And good (cheap) brunch.

img_0288I was at a conference centre recently with truly awful coffee. It was cruel and unusual and should be illegal.

I took coffee and brunch for granted in the States. And while I think we probably can get some good brunch in London if we make a date for it, maybe book, and travel a bit, it’s not the same as being able to go across the road to the Diner. On the upside we’re getting good at making our own eggs and pancakes and we can now get our favourite bacon and brunch on bacon sandwiches.

Other good brunch/lunch options that have opened up in our area are a really good salt beef and pastrami place – Monty’s Deli. And, round the corner, Maltby Street Market has an interesting looking waffle stall. So there’s definitely potential.

However, there are some things we can’t replicate. Here are some of the bigger, intangible, ‘this is America’ type stuff that people weave a national identity around, and that I miss more than I thought I would:

  • Going to the baseball (I can see why this is practically a religion)
  • Celebrating 4th July, or Halloween, and Thanksgiving… and all the other holidays…

Not because I particularly liked all the holidays, but because we got to celebrate with enthusiasm in the States. There was irony – ‘Merica! – but not often, and only on the surface.

  • Freedom!

Now I’m being ironic – especially seeing as how recently we’ve taken control back from Europe (more irony).

  • DC politics…

I know it might sound strange, but there was something about being in the DC bubble, where sports bars showed the debate, and the local paper went into great detail on local, regional and national politics. Though I couldn’t vote I certainly had my own strong views on abortion rights, gun control, and statehood for DC and Puerto Rico.

So right now I’m missing lots of things about America. I’m also worried for this country that welcomed me in for a while: is it going to become more right-wing, more misogynist, racist, more disruptive to world politics?

I’ll certainly be watching the election tonight and hoping that the result is that which will preserve everything I loved about America. Good luck friends!

Homecoming

I’m back at the table I wrote my PhD on. The tree outside the window has grown in the two years we’ve been away, but otherwise things are pretty much the same with our little flat. The story is a bit different outside – an Italian restaurant and deli have closed, and a new deli has opened. Also, a tiny new café has appeared in an old potting shed. It has proven to be yet another good source of artisan bread. Further afield, we have a new Mayor of London. Unfortunately we missed the good mood my friends have reported settled on London after the election of Saddiq Khan, instead returning to London in the anxious week of the EU referendum.

But I’m not sure I can write about that debacle yet.

In many ways we returned to life as normal: the same flat, neighbourhood, gym, markets, restaurants. And I was waiting for the repatriation malaise to set in. But then there was the excitement of the referendum and its fallout – the resignations especially – and it feels like a completely different world. It certainly distracts from any feelings of homesickness for America. In fact, America hardly features in our conversations with our long-lost friends, as that topic is completely overtaken by current events.

So here I’ve tried to capture my various repatriation thoughts and emotions, in the spirit of this blog, but in the knowledge that this is hardly a representative experience…

 

Trains of thought on returning to the UK in June/July 2016

Oooh, I’d forgotten how pretty the UK countryside is…

Yum. Farmers’ markets and proper, unpasteurised cheese!

Hmmm, at least one of these farmers wants to leave the EU according to the signs on his van…

Ah, British pubs and pub gardens…

How British – a slightly awkward tea party half inside and half outside, with bunting and sparkling wine, and a toast to the queen on her birthday.

bunting

Surely we won’t leave the EU…?

Do I miss American craft beer more than I’m loving British bitter and cider, or vice versa? This will take some research…

Why can’t you get a good burger in a British pub? I miss American bars.

But at least we can hear ourselves talk… and it is nice not to have to tip at the bar.

What a crazy debate! Surely no-one could vote for Boris as Prime Minister? Hagis?!

Thank God to be back in the land of M&S – have they ever been properly recognised for how they enable modern couples to fully commit to their jobs without compromising on nutrition? Dinner is so much easier now!

But breakfast is so much harder! Was American brunch so cheap because of terrible wages and conditions? Now I feel bad for missing it.

Seven hours of campaigning in the rain – surely we’ll stay in the EU?

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What just happened?!

Favourite things about a trip to the UK

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We had to go back to the UK to collect our new visas. Our old visas ran out on the 15th October and we couldn’t get an embassy appointment until the week after. All of which meant we had to spend a nice long holiday (well, 2 and a bit weeks) in the UK!

There have been a couple of lists doing the rounds recently about the little differences between the UK and America (for example this one). So I thought I’d do my own list of 10 things I loved and had missed about the UK.

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‘Hovis’ Hill (despite the advert’s implications, it’s not really in Yorkshire at all, but in Dorset – its real name is Gold Hill) and my mum in the foreground (taken back in 1981).

1. Pubs. We had so many pub lunches while we were in the UK! Some in city pubs – Wetherspoons and Nicholsons – others in proper country pubs with roaring fires and excellent beer and cider. Which brings me on to…

2. Pints. These are bigger, and we were able to practice what is considered a party trick in the US: carrying three pints at the same time from the bar to the table. Which brings me to…

3. Self-service. Sometimes I don’t want table service. Sometimes I just want to pop into the pub for a swift half on the way back from a walk. Buying in advance from the bar means I can just up and leave when I’m ready, rather than having to get someone’s attention and wait for the ‘check’. Which brings me to…

4. Not having to tip. Things feel so much cheaper when you don’t have to add on tax and that extra 20%. We tip around 12% when we feel it’s deserved but otherwise we really don’t have to. But let’s get on to…

5. British food. I wrote myself a list before we got to the UK of all the things I wanted to eat, and proceeded to cross them off. We have enjoyed:

  • Proper Yorkshire fish and chips (in Whitby), with crisp batter, vinegary chips (for me), bread and butter and Yorkshire tea.
  • Yorkshire pudding – as part of a great pub roast (beef) and as toad in the hole (I know this is a great mystery to Americans so see recipe here).
  • Homemade apple/apple and blackberry crumble – my favourite dessert.
  • Melton Mowbray pork pie and Scotch eggs.
  • Full English breakfasts (‘fry-up’s) with proper British/Danish back bacon (it’s nothing like Canadian bacon before anyone says anything), fried mushrooms, fried bread and black pudding.
  • Bacon sandwiches – not possible with anything other than British/Danish back bacon.
  • Crisps! – the British ‘chips’ come in way more exciting and varied flavours.
  • Malt loaf – does this really not exist in America (see here for what I mean)? Because I’d forgotten how much I love it for breakfast.
  • Curry – it’s always so reliably good pretty much anywhere in the UK.
  • Lots and lots of English tea.

6. Drinking to excess. I know this sounds bad, but I rather like the fact that in the UK it’s perfectly acceptable to order a bottle of wine even if there are only two of you – and it’s lunchtime. There’s also something about getting drunk with friends or family that just bonds you together on a deeper level… or so it certainly feels at the time!

7. Borough Market. R and I used to spend so many weekends here, and when we had a couple of hours before we had to get on to our next stop we just had to pop down and go back to our favourite stalls. It felt like no time had passed at all since the last time we’d stood in the autumn sunshine eating chicken burgers followed by treats from the Cinnamon Tree bakery. But this is just part of my love for:

8. London (and its integrated transport network!).

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This city provides so many wonderful experiences, like browsing in Borough market, wandering the old streets around Mayfair, and enjoying the Thames at nightfall from one of the restaurants on the Southbank. But most of all I love the fact that I can dash around this huge city so easily using my lovely London buses and the most famous and best of underground systems – the tube. Since we were last in London the Overground had completed its extension so we had even more choices to get us to the mainline stations we were using to visit friends and family. Which brings me to:

9. Short distances. After traversing America and getting stuck in the comparatively close city of Boston, I really appreciated the way that you can travel to most parts of the UK really quickly and easily. We had so many people we wanted to visit and such a short time, that it just wouldn’t have been possible if the UK weren’t as small. In two weeks we visited people in Pickering, Sheffield, St Albans, Cambridge, Oxford, Winchester, Exeter, Chagford, and Tunbridge Wells. For many of these we used trains, but for the SW we hired a car. Which leads me to:

10. British driving. A lot of the things mentioned in the American’s list of 100 things I referenced earlier are related to this. After driving in the US we were very attuned to the differences. Apart from being confused that we’ve still not embraced automatic cars (when even parking is automated now), we mostly found this a pleasure. We were back to signage that made sense, was consistent and didn’t distract with too much text! We were back to a consistent speed limit that people pretty much followed! And when people flashed their lights, we realised, they were actually thanking us for overtaking in a considerate manner! I don’t think this is entirely an issue of national characteristics (maybe we’re more polite, but I wouldn’t generalise), but perhaps more of consistent enforcement. As that American noticed – ‘If you speed on a motorway, you get a ticket. Period. Always.

11. (Bonus!) The best thing, of course, was seeing friends and family again. Although we have made new friends in the States, there’s something about old friends. No matter how long it’s been you can just get right back to how you were, and it seems like you’ve barely been away.

Taking stock

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that my original 18 months in DC are nearly up. However, we’ve enjoyed our time in the States so much that we’re trying to get a new visa so we can stay a bit longer. I’ll attempt to write about our visa saga soon, when I might know more. Whatever happens, we’ll have a four week grace period, after the 18-month work placement, in which we can travel and say our goodbyes. But, as I was flying back to DC from a trip to California (also to be written about soon!) I started taking stock of a few things.

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Taking stock up in the clouds. I think this was the edge of the Rockies.

Back when I was in the midst of ex-pat culture shock I wrote lists of everything I hated about living in DC and about living in America (I later wrote one about the things that I liked). So, as I’m staring down the barrel of possible repatriation culture shock, I thought I’d write a few more lists: about what I would miss about America if we really have to leave soon, what I am looking forward to about possibly returning to London and the UK, and things that I’ve learnt about myself since moving to America.

Things I’d miss about America

  1. Diners. This one is linked to my second:
  2. Brunch. I’ve written before about my love of American brunch. Since our first experiences we’ve also sampled boozy brunches with friends, amazing home-made pop tarts at the DC institution that is Ted’s Bulletin, and a lot more Mexican themed brunch dishes. My waist-line will probably not miss this.
  3. Climate. I know I have complained about this on numerous occasions (for example, here), but I really like how in DC I don’t have to worry about a coat or even really a cardigan for about 7 months of the year. I’ve also just visited California, and their climate makes me wonder why we don’t all just move there.
  4. Variety of states to visit. There’s so much to see! I’ve visited I think 10 states in my 18 months here, which means there are 40 I haven’t had a chance to see yet. I can make a decent stab at improving this situation during our grace period, but I have enough places on my to-visit list to fill at least five different holidays.
  5. Attitude. I didn’t realize how British negativity can get you down, until I was freed of it. There’s just an assumption over here that people will be friendly, open and confident. And because this was expected of me, I found that after a few months I was friendly, open and confident – or at least a lot more than I used to be.
  6. Wine. Ok, I know we have this in Europe. Pretty good wine too. But I’d just been wine tasting in Sonoma, so it was on my mind.
  7. Fitness culture. People who knew me a long time ago will be surprised at this one. But I have found that it’s a lot easier to start running outside when everyone else is doing it.
  8. The ease of everything. This is always what R and I say about America: stuff is just easy. Apart from the bureaucracy of tax, health insurance etc., things like going out and enjoying yourself, in terms of booking, or putting your name on a list, or there just being room, just seem a lot easier over here.

Things I’m looking forward to about London/UK

  1. Knowing my way around. I love traversing London using the network of buses and tubes.
  2. M&S and Waitrose. I do miss their ready-meals and snacks.
  3. Cantonese food. I wrote recently about how hard it’s been finding the kind of Chinese food that I’m used to. I have cravings for prawn crackers and chicken chow mein in gravy.
  4. UK Holidays… in Yorkshire or Devon or the Lakes, or Wales. While it’s a small country the UK certainly has its own wealth of landscapes. I’ve been vicariously enjoying other ex-pats’ adventures in my home country (such as Amanda Afield’s adventures in Wales which made me very homesick!).
  5. Being close to Europe. I really didn’t take advantage of this enough while I was in the UK.
  6. Culture. DC does have theater and I do like the Kennedy Center, but I haven’t been able to work out how to get cheap tickets to reliably good things yet. I miss the English National Opera and National Theatre’s deals.
  7. Friends and family. Obviously.
  8. Humour. And British spelling.

That second list was hard, as I was trying to write it while flying over the Grand Canyon… It’s a bit difficult for the UK to compete with that.

Things I’ve learnt about myself  since moving to America

  1. I actually quite like patriotism and earnestness. In moderation.
  2. I can get along with most people – and I’ve met a lot of very different people.
  3. I love road trips. Though, as we’ve only really done one proper road trip, this might just have been the novelty. We’re planning to take a couple of weeks of our grace period and drive out West, that should be the real test.
  4. I really like motels/American hotels. This is partly because of the ease and friendliness of all my experiences so far.
  5. Traveling doesn’t have to be a big deal/stressful for me. I used to be a terrible traveler, stressing about a few hours’ train journey. Now that I’ve driven with R for days in the South and traveled on my own to conferences in cities I’d never heard of – and enjoyed these experiences – I’m a far more confident traveler. And finally…
  6. I can run! The fitness culture of DC, the easily available sports gear, and the variety of trails/courses to run have turned me into a runner (at least when it’s not too humid).