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Archive for February, 2008

I am certain that there has been snow on the ground at some point nearly every day since we arrived and, right now, it is lying thick and white and pristine over everything in the street.

I love it. I have so missed snow — snow that is not remarkable, snow that does not stop the whole world with a mere quarter-of-an-inch, snow that is just part of the season, expected and accepted. I stand at the front window and watch it come down, big wet flakes that fall at their own unhurried pace. Or I step out onto the porch and listen to the snow — that amazing still silence which is always accompanied by a slight breeze against your cheek, cold but yet so refreshing. I love going to bed at night knowing that the whole town is covered in an unbroken, unblemished white blanket. And I love waking up to see who has been in the garden in the night: big tracks and little, revealing everyone’s secret comings and goings.

Spring is round the corner and will be spectacular when it arrives, I know. But for now, I am thoroughly enjoying the splendor of my first proper winter in so very many years. I had completely forgotten how much I’d missed it.

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Yesterday was a very difficult day. I’ve had enough. I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I am ready to go home now.

We have return tickets because they won’t sell one-way flights when you use frequent flyer miles. Our return flight leaves on Thursday. We were talking last night about how we are both so tempted to just get on that flight.

None of this feels real. I do honestly believe we will be going home soon. And I want to go now.

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When you have grown up with it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal — but to someone who has always lived in a place where the most dangerous animal you’ll meet is likely to be an irritated bull while you’re out on a country walk, the myriad large and often threatening wildlife that North America has to offer must seem, at the very least, a bit daunting. No Brit ever gives a moment’s thought to the dangers of poisonous spiders, or vipers lurking in the underbrush, or shakes his boots out in case of scorpions. There are no big cats, no bears, no wolves. You can sit out most of the summer and never even get a mosquito bite. And if a little mouse should be overcome with bravado and decide to take a nip out of your big toe, even that needn’t worry you — the entire island has been rabies-free for generations.

So our first month here has been something of a wildlife adventure for M. Despite being fairly close into the city, we have seen numerous white-tailed deer in our back garden, hundreds of squirrels, a family of chipmunks, a raccoon, and a red-tailed hawk. My parents’ garden, farther out and next to a huge stretch of forest, regularly plays host to whole herds of deer, scores of wild turkey, opposums, raccoons, and the occasional black bear.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when M dragged me to the front window and told me, with nervous excitement, that something really big had been outside the house last night… and then added, Something like an ostrich! His eyes were wide as he pointed to the three-pronged tracks crossing the snow in the front garden.

And why not? Anything might be possible in this land filled with exotic creatures. To a newly landed foreigner, an ostrich in a Pennsylvanian garden sounds no more absurd than a wild boar or a copperhead or a bear.

I so hated letting him down when I had to explain that the footprints in question weren’t from one big foot attached to some big animal, but were the combined prints of the front and back paws of… a rabbit, as it hopped — probably not even menacingly — across the newly-fallen snow.

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Everyone is so old! You leave the country for a few years and, when you come back, everyone has aged so much. David Letterman, Brooke Shields, Vanna White, Dan Rather, Jay Leno… I haven’t seen any of these people in 15 years and the change is remarkable!

When did everyone get so old?!?!?

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I am struggling with the whole food thing here in the US. Again, it’s something that I assumed would be natural to me — having grown up in America, I thought I’d be familiar with American supermarkets — but it’s got me all perplexed and, given that food is major component of day-to-day life, it’s having a noticeable impact.

The first thing that has thrown me for a loop is how darned long it’s taking us to do our shopping, and how hard we’re finding it to buy the stuff we expect to buy. We go into our local supermarket, expecting to do the shopping mostly on auto-pilot — just grabbing things like everyone does — but when you’re an newly-arrived expat (or repat), you simply can’t do that. Nothing is where you expect it to be, nothing is packaged the way you’re used to, the brand-names are completely unfamiliar, the ingredients aren’t quite what you were expecting. You suddenly realise you have to turn off the auto-pilot and think your way through the shop, from one end to the other. You have to read every label, you have to compare brands and prices, you have to check how many sheets on are the toilet rolls… It’s like you’ve never been shopping before. Everything is new and unfamiliar. It takes forever and it’s exhausting.

I expected this to a certain extent — I vaguely remember it happening when I moved to the UK — but it seems somehow worse this time. We’ve been here four weeks, and each trip to the supermarket seems nearly as much of venture into the unknown as it did on our second day here, when I actually had to walk out of the shop to get away from the sensory overload. And I think I’ve begun to realise why: when you live in a different country, you don’t just shop differently, you cook differently — you think differently. I am walking around American supermarkets trying to find ingredients for dishes that I am used to making in Britain — but the ingredients just aren’t there, because Americans eat differently. And while I am staring at the meat counter and getting frustrated because I can’t find the kind of sausages that I am used to buying for bangers-and-mash, I am missing the gorgeous brats just one row over. While I am looking in vain for double cream or lemon curd, I am missing a plethora of ingredients that would fit beautifully into something TexMex. There are great ingredients there — I’m just walking past them because my mindset is not yet attuned to my new surroundings. Moving countries is difficult — everyone knows that — but it’s surprising how those difficulties penetrate even the littlest and most mundane details of life.  And how much time and mental energy they take to overcome.

But there’s another reason I am reading the label on every single item that goes in my shopping trolley: it takes an eagle-eye to avoid what appears to be America’s number ingredient — high-fructose corn syrup. I cannot believe how many foods it sneaks into! I expect it in junk foods and fizzy drinks, but I do not expect it such straightforward (and healthy) foods as applesauce, peanutbutter, tinned tomatoes, and chopped garlic. You read that right — I had to read through the ingredients of no less than five brands of tinned tomatoes before I found one that didn’t sneak in some unnecessary (and unwanted) artificial sweetness. And why can’t garlic just taste of… garlic? Why should my bread need high-fructose corn syrup in the first five ingredients? Why is it the second ingredient in Stove Top Stuffing? Don’t these people know that stuffing is a savory dish, not a sweet one? I have given up sweets for Lent, but I’ve found that our pretzel sticks — surely a salty-savory food if ever there was one — are glazed in such a sugary coating that they actually satisfy my after-dinner dessert cravings. That’s not right. This is a nation which is battling with its collective weight problem and is fighting to keep diabetes from becoming a national epidemic — we, as consumers, and they, as manufacturers, need to wake up and realise that high-fructose corn syrup simply does not belong in the majority of the foods to which it’s being added!

Dear readers, read your labels and when you find high-fructose corn syrup high on the list of ingredients — which you surely will — ask yourself: why?  And then, come, join me in the slow lane of your local supermarket as we wander along, picking up every can and every box and scouring the list of ingredients.  Your spouse won’t thank you for spending four hours to do the weekly shopping, but your waistline — and your tastebuds — certainly will.

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At one point during my recent Adventures in Extreme Breast Pain, whilst we were trying — and failing — to find a breast specialist who could see me without months of waiting, I said to to my mother, in fear and frustration, that I wished I was back in Britain where at least I understood the system and would know what to do. She snapped back, “Yeah, and where you’d be left to suffer for weeks and weeks before you saw a doctor!”

She’s made that kind generalised assumption many times before when I’ve said something about Britain’s NHS (National Health Service). To be fair, sometimes her comments are accurate, but just as often they are misguided, and the truth is that she doesn’t actually know either way — she’s just speaking from stereotypes she holds in her mind.

Under the circumstances, her snappiness was the last thing I needed and I was tempted to counter like with like, but I kept my cool and made two points to her instead:

The first was that what she described was exactly the situation we were finding ourselves in here in the US thus far, except that we were having to make all the phone calls ourselves to find a specialist instead of it being done for us. We’d rung five so far with no luck at all. In other words, I was being left to wait weeks and weeks to see a doctor, despite my excruciating and debilitating pain.

And the second point was that although I’ve heard generalisations like hers many times from Americans about the UK healthcare system, they are no more accurate than the very widespread belief in Britain that if you are injured in the US, the ambulance will drive off and leave you dying in the ditch if you can’t produce either an insurance card or cold hard cash on the spot. I’ve heard these wild generalisations over and over again on both sides of the Atlantic, and they are always held up as completely true and accurate portraits of the other country’s healthcare system.

But scandal and scare stories are what sell papers, so it’s easy to see why we get a skewed view of reality when we watch or read the news. It’s hard to find calm and accurate explanations of how — and how well — the world’s various health systems work. So it was heartening when I recently came across this article called Mythbusting Canadian Health Care, which attempts to more accurately describe the health system in Canada.

Healthcare is one of the pivotal issues of the US’s upcoming presidential election, and it has the potential to make a huge change to the nation’s standard of living and to its finances. It’s vitally important that Americans seek out facts in order make their decisions on this issue based on good solid information, and not on inaccurate generalisations and scare-mongering — from either side.

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With many thanks to Erin at Prairie Road for bringing the article to my attention.

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Yesterday was a fabulous day. I got the girls up myself, I made E2’s food from scratch the way I always do, the girls and I danced to jazz on the radio, we watched the squirrels in the snow, and we sorted laundry… well, I sorted laundry and they made the job take twice as long. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt fantastic. It felt normal.

It was also the first day in five weeks that I haven’t seen my mother. It’s been necessary to see her every day — first while she helped us with taking care of the kids and with the move, and now she is my only source of transport while M has the car all day — and I am grateful for the help she’s given us, but that hasn’t make it easy. I am used to being a capable, independent woman — a mama-in-charge. Now I find myself out of my element, totally dependent, and being second-guessed in nearly every parenting decision I make. I know she is trying hard and doing her best, but her mothering-style is so completely different from mine that half of what I do seems instinctively wrong to her (and vice-versa) and so she questions everything I do and I am constantly having to ask her to do things differently. I feel like I am suddenly parenting-by-committee and she feels like I am constantly criticising her. It has been… stressful.

But not yesterday. Yesterday, it was just the girls and me again — just us — and it was heavenly. For the first time in weeks, I remembered who we three are. No matter that we are completely uprooted and in unfamiliar surroundings — where-ever we are, we are us, and it felt good to realise that.

Mum came round again today. Having her here was helpful, necessary, and… ah, yes, there’s that tension in the air again… Never mind. Just for now, we will all have to weather this, until M gets his driver’s license and a company van, and I can have the car. And then, things will settle down again. We will find normal again — here, on the other side of the world.

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