Friday, 29 February 2008

When It Rains.....

But Hubby found out yesterday that his job is going as of March. As one "friend" said, there are people more unfortunate out there. But my February has been one shithole of a month. Come on March!

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Just a Quickie

Because I don't like to throw out all my concerns and then not follow them up, here's the latest on my mother.


Hallelujah! One thing less to worry about!

Monday, 25 February 2008

Moving to England: Driving Lessons

You'd think I would have picked a better time to decide to drive on the wrong (actually it was the right) side of the road than during my British driving test. Up to that point, I'd been doing all right. Needless to say I failed.

I'd been having driving lessons for about three months with a short, mustachioed man named Barry. I have a thing about the name Barry. I once worked for a short, mustachioed managing editor named Barry. He wasn't a bad man, not on purpose. He was just ineffectual and ball-less. Anyway, driving instructor Barry and I had what you might call a failure to communicate. He thought I was a worse driver than I was and I thought I was a better driver than I was. He once told me our next lesson would be 10 to 11. I thought he meant 10 minutes to 11 so when he rang the doorbell at 10 I wasn't ready. He went off grumpily and came back later.

I'd been driving fine since a week after I'd moved here. HTB had shown me how to shift with my left rather than my right hand. I had to remind myself to look over my left shoulder and to get in on the right side. But I'd negotiated the streets of Liverpool OK, aside from one or two incidents with buses. In New York I would have screamed and shot a bird at the drivers. Here in England, though, they use two fingers and in the heat of the moment I'd forget which two fingers.

Barry, knowing better, decided I needed to learn how to drive all over again. Three-point turns, emergency stops, reverse (parallel) parking, reversing round corners. He talked to me like I was 17. I actually disliked him intensely. Still, I needed him to get me through the test, the most nerve-wracking minutes in anyone's driving history. Here I was, with about 20 years of driving under my belt, nervous as hell about this man beside me scribbling away on his notepad. I failed the first time, but a few weeks later retook it and passed, though my reverse parking was a bit dodgy.

Having had all those driving lessons, I learned that there are things they don't teach you about driving in the UK. Following are a few tips.

First of all, the British seem obsessed with checking the mirror. So before you put your key in the ignition, put on your seatbelt and check your mirror. Then, check your mirror, look over your right shoulder, check the mirror again, then signal, then pull out into traffic. Coming up to a traffic light, check your mirror in case someone is following you too closely (although what you're supposed to do about it, I don't know). Check the mirror again as you accelerate. At a roundabout, check your mirror, then watch the oncoming traffic, then check your mirrors, etc.

So, Mirror, Signal, Maneuver (I can't spell it the British way). Very important.

Here's something else to remember: Me in the Middle. If I'm not in the middle, I'm on the wrong side.

I got my license before the laws changed, making the whole process even more nerve-wracking. The biggest difference, besides being on the opposite side of the road, between the U.S. and the UK is the size of the roads. In the U.S. they tend to be wider and straighter. In the UK cars are often parked on either side, turning a two-lane into one or one-and-a-half lanes. A certain finesse is required in negotiating these roads and knowing when to give way and when not to. Who legally must give way is rarely the issue. It's who is in a bigger hurry or is more polite.

Something else to know is when to flash one's lights. You flash your lights at oncoming cars to let them know you're letting them pass. They might flash back to say thank you. You flash your lights when you're behind a slowpoke on the motorway and you want to get past them NOW. You also may flash your lights if someone has pissed you off bigtime and you want to let them know without giving them two fingers (or maybe you do that too). And sometimes you flash at cars going in the opposite direction to let them know of the speed checks up ahead. None of this is on the driving test, by the way.

You also need to know your animals. There are pelican crossings and zebra crossings. These are pedestrian crossings. The pelicans have buttons that pedestrians push to change the traffic lights (eventually). The zebras just have flashing lights. As soon as a pedestrian steps onto the road, cars are supposed to stop in theory. In reality the zebras can be very dangerous as many drivers zoom through them, oblivious to the poor people they've very nearly killed. Also, don't expect pedestrians to walk five yards to the nearest pedestrian crossing when they can take their lives in their own hands by crossing where they feel like it. And when in London look out for American tourists who are always looking the wrong way (and you can include me in that category).

Roundabouts are rather clever ways of keeping the traffic flowing. Something I've learned the hard way is to always look at the car ahead of you rather than your stupid mirror or the oncoming traffic. You might think they're seeing the break and and are moving when they're not. Then you might actually hit them and they might sue you for tens of thousands of pounds, but hopefully you're insured. Hypothetically speaking, of course. Not that this ever happened to me (well, maybe just the once).

Having grown up in Florida next to one of the great elephant burial grounds for old people (St. Petersburg) and then living in Fort Myers, another elephant burial ground, imagine my surprise to find myself living in the British version. Like the senior citizens in Florida, the OAPs (old-age pensioners) in the UK can be a menace on the road. As in Florida, the old men always seem to wear hats or flat caps. Unlike Florida, they don't drive tanks. Instead, they opt for cheaper, smaller cars that can't go very fast. But, oh, can they make them move when they want to. One time I was caught behind an old dear in a green Mini (before Minis were trendy). I tried to pass but every time I made my move, she swerved to the right, blocking my way. Another time when my children were very young, I packed us all up to go to the supermarket to buy some essentials. It was raining. I was very, very tired. I waited patiently for a woman to back out of a parent with children spot. As I was about to pull into the spot, an old dear in a (you guessed it) green Mini swerved in and took my spot. In a rage, I got out of my car and ran up to hers whereupon I hit her window with my hand. I think I nearly gave her a heart attack. "This is a parent with child spot and I've been waiting for it," I spat at her. "Well, I'm handicapped," she replied, neatly stepping out of her car. I got back in my car (other drivers were honking at this point) and drove 20 minutes to another supermarket, got the essentials, got in the line to pay, whereupon another OAP, a man this time, cut in front of me. I started laughing because what else can you do?

Something the UK has introduced in previous years that has proved wildly profitable and unpopular is the speed camera. Now, some of these work and some don't. How do you know? Either you've already received your speeding ticket in the post or you watch the other cars. Do they suddenly brake and go at a snail's pace? They probably know something so you should do the same.

In some ways driving in the UK is easier. On the motorway, for instance, you know that you will always be passed on the right. Slower cars, for the most part, go in the left lane. Anticipating other drivers is easier. When I drive in the US, I get very nervous about being passed on the left, the right, anywhere really. It takes me about a day to get used to driving U.S.-style or UK-style usually.

Now back to that driving on the wrong side of the road. You might think I am tempted to do that all the time. I am not. I have done it about three times since I've lived here, one being during my test. The last time was about four years ago. I had the kids in the car and we'd been to a pub for lunch (but I didn't have an alcoholic drink). As I was coming round a curve, for some inexplicable reason I went over to the other lane. An old dear in a green Mini (no lie) was coming toward me. I pulled over quickly onto some grass that conveniently had planted itself there to save my ass. I took a deep breath, tried to figure out why the hell I'd done that, reassured the kids, and drove very carefully home.

Am I a good British driver? Well, I don't wear a hat or drive a green Mini, so I can't be that bad. Can I?

Sunday, 24 February 2008

I Interrupt This Series To Bring You A Dose of Real Time Real Life

I decided this year that I would try not to moan so much in this blog. But events this month are such that I can't hold back anymore. Sorry.

I'll start with Jake and work backwards.

Jake: our lovely six-month-old border collie has been diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. I thought he was just reserved and grown up. Nope. He was in agony with two severely dislocated hips. He is now on painkillers, starts supplements next week, and is having hydrotherapy twice a week in the hopes of building up muscle mass in his back legs. Hopefully, in a year's time he'll be able to have an operation in which the tops of his leg bones are sawn off to create false hip sockets. But he can only have this operation if he's below 30 kilos. He weighs 17.1 kilos now. The vet initially suggested hip replacements, which costs a lot of money. Darling hubby said he'd rather put him down that pay for that. I'm putting money aside in case. And no, we don't have pet insurance because Darling hubby said it wasn't worth it.

My mother: Having told her the lump in her breast was a cyst, her doctor now wants her to have a biopsy. It's on Tuesday. I'm hoping he's just being ultra cautious. My sister has been emailing me saying our mother should go to Florida to have this done. My mother said she scared her by saying a needle biopsy can spread cancer cells. I emailed my sister that I don't think it's a good idea for my mother to go to Florida because she'll miss her husband, should be in a comfortable environment, and I suspect my sister's kids would use my mother as a baby sitter. But, I also told her, what I think and what my sister thinks are secondary to what my mother wants. She makes the decision and we work around that. My sister got defensive, and I don't think she's talking to me right now.

Skiing: As you might have suspected if you read a previous post, I lost my son's, daughter's and my passports. I wasn't being careless, or thought I wasn't. We left our luggage in a room at the hotel and went walking around the village. I thought the passports would be safest in the bag I'd worn all week long that contained my money, credit cards, and phone. Nothing had been lost. After we emerged from the Mont Blanc tunnel on the way to Geneva Airport, I checked my bag. No passports. Our taxi driver who spoke no English understood those two words. After some frantic phone calls we got good news: the passports had been found and turned in to the hotel. But I'd have to pay 150 Euros for a taxi to bring them to us. We waited about an hour in a rest stop. The taxi driver appeared, I hopped out with the money, but only two passports were there. More frantic phone calls. My husband called the British and U.S. embassies. The taxi driver called his boss who explained that we'd be best off going to the airport, crossing our fingers that the Swiss border patrol didn't stop us, and sorting it out with the airline. I held my breath as we passed through the border. As we were waved through, I exhaled. The driver just shrugged, like of course they let us through. The airline, EasyJet, actually were very nice about the whole thing. My husband had spoken to someone in Immigration at the airport we'd be landing at. EasyJet got permission to allow us to land. When we went through Immigration, I got the guy who hadn't read the memo about us (yes, there was a memo). But he went and got the LS01 form and was pretty decent (and also made the point that I probably wouldn't be treated this well in the U.S., which I had to agree with though it was someone in the U.S. Embassy who was the most helpful). Oh, and I got a whiplash-type injury and damaged knee ligaments when the pink terrorist skied into me. And I didn't have a very good time with my friend who joined us from New York, but perhaps the less said about that, the better.

The car crash: My husband and daughter were in a serious car crash on Feb. 2. That they both walked away with no noticeable injuries was a miracle in itself. A few days later my daughter complained of back pain. I phoned my GP to make an appointment. After 20 minutes of trying to get through, I finally got hold of the rudest receptionist in the world. Her attitude was that I was a neglectful parent and it wasn't her problem to sort out. She told me to take my daughter to the out-of-hours clinic because she had no more appointments and she wasn't going to treat it as an emergency. At 6:30 I phoned the out-of-hours clinic and was told that all road traffic accident victims go to the emergency room. My husband took my daughter. She saw a wonderful doctor who identified a problem in her back. She's been to see a physiotherapist since who is slowly working the problem out. As for the driver who caused the crash, she is uninsured and unlicensed. She is being taken to court.

Now for a little good news. I have been given the following awards from the following people: from Kaycie, Sparx, and Jenny I received this

From Rotten Correspondent, I received this:

Thanks, guys. Now all you other bloggers out there who deserve this award, and you know who you are, just go ahead and help yourselves.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Moving to England: Nipples at Nine and All That

When I visited the UK, keeping up with the news was not exactly top of my list. Indeed, there had been a coup somewhere, and HTB and I hadn't had a clue about it. But when I moved here, I found myself with LOTS of time on my hands. What to do with it?

Well, being a recently retired journalist, I took to reading the newspapers. And what a variety of newspapers the UK offers. Unlike the U.S., the local newspapers are either not very good or not very influential. The national dailies are the real players. For the more intellectual members of the population there are in no particular order: The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, and The Guardian. These are broadsheet newspapers, except the Times, Guardian, and, I think, Independent are now tabloid size during the week, the easier to read on the train. Each of these newspapers has a particular slant on the news, and a particular type of reader and that reader has a particular political bent usually. For example, the Daily Telegraph is also known as the Daily Torygraph because of its support of the Conservative party. The Guardian appeals to more left-wing readers who might usually be supporters of the Labour party. The Independent is an excellent newspaper, though boring at times, that appeals to Liberal Democrats and Labourites. The Times, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, is more middle of the road with middle class readers.

I was a bit taken aback by the decided non-neutrality of the news reporting and the habit of reporters putting themselves in the story. I was trained never to do that. The reporter is just that -- a reporter of events. He or she should not editorialize on the news. That belongs on the editorial page. But in the UK, the boundaries between editorializing and reporting are more blurred.

This is never more apparent than in the tabloids, or the red-tops. Red-top refers to the background colour of the name of the newspaper. Papers that fall into this category are the Sun (probably the original), the Express, and the News of the World. On Sundays, there's the Sunday Sport. Many of these feature pictures of topless women. Not all tabloids are red-tops though. Like the Daily Mail. What they all seem to have in common, though, is a reactionary bent and ability to stir things up. You'll see headlines like "Children of Working Mothers More Likely to Fail in School" in these papers. Or "Love Cheat David Beckham Caught Texting Lover." The latest celebrity scandal will feature heavily.

As much as the broad sheets may hate to admit it, these tabloids have a great deal of influence on the news that people read or want to read.

So I would read a different newspaper every day. I couldn't be pigeonholed by my reading choices because I read everything back then. I also read some of the weekly "ladies" magazines. These also have a wide range of titles, from The Lady to Bella to Chat. The Lady usually includes classifieds advertising for lady companions in the old-fashioned sense. Bella, Chat and the rest have stories about women who marry their stepsons or daughter's boyfriends, women who were married to men who beat them, etc.

I would watch TV too. Back then there were four channels: BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and Channel 4. Channel 4 had a racy reputation of producing programs that were a bit risque. The BBC then and now had the reputation of producing good costume dramas. ITV was the home of the much-loved and much-watched Coronation Street, a soap opera set in Manchester that began many moons ago. I would try to watch it, but it just wasn't to my taste.

Before I moved to the UK, I took to watching old British sitcoms on the Arts & Entertainment channel. These included the classic Fawlty Towers, something called Butterflies, To the Manor Born, Keeping Up Appearances, and Are You Being Served? Too bad they didn't have Only Fools and Horses and Rising Damp, two of the best British comedy programs ever. Anyway, I watched these thinking they would give me an insight into the British people. But just as no Americans are like the characters on Dallas, so no British are like those on Fawlty Towers.

These characters are caricatures, not real people, and it would be a mistake on both sides of the pond to assume otherwise.

Daytime TV had the usual chat shows like This Morning with Richard and Judy, a married couple who somehow defy the odds. She is Mrs. Frump personified. He is Peter Pan, and her toy boy as he is eight years younger. I was quite amused by the people who managed to make a career in TV in the UK. Many news reporters were so ugly that there's no way any U.S. network would have taken them on. That's a shame because they are some of the best TV reporters I've even seen. It was such a relief to get away from the blow-dried Barbies and Kens on U.S. news programs. The UK news had meat and issues and, most important, time. Yes, time. No ads barging in. No 21 minutes to fit all the news, sport and weather. Time to actually give a perspective on an issue.

I soon discovered an interesting phenomenon that I dubbed "Nipples at Nine." Nine p.m. is the "watershed," that is, the time after which it is deemed acceptable to show certain parts of the anatomy and use certain words. A woman named Mary Whitehouse was responsible for this, I believe. She rallied for moral standards on TV. Still, her influence must have been waning. I was amazed by the amount of nudity allowed on TV. No way would that be allowed on U.S. network TV. On the other hand, there was a refreshing lack of violence on UK TV.

When the wedding was over, I had a big slump. Nothing to look forward to. So I took to watching Oprah in the afternoons. This was before Oprah had discovered her conscience and influence. She still had people on who screamed at each other. Oh, I would cry and cry at the predicaments of these people. I should have been doing other things but I wanted and needed to hear the American accents. Over the next couple of years several U.S. imports would make their way to the UK. ER and Friends were among the first. My hazy, sleep-deprived, new mother mind would come to life during ER. I would never go out on Friday nights in case I missed Friends.

I felt like I had the best of both worlds because I got to watch Pride and Prejudice and other costume dramas as well. When our daughter was a baby our Saturday night treat was a program called Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, an inane game show that only the British could produce.

I was quite resistant to British culture at first. But slowly, ever so slowly, it was wheedling its way into my life and heart.

What should I write about next? Driving lessons? Childbirth in the UK? How and what I did to make myself feel more at home? You decide. Let me know and I will write about it.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Moving to England: My British Wedding

"So tell me, why did your marriage end?"

The elderly vicar of our local Church of England didn't beat about the bush. He wanted some answers before he was going to approve a divorcee getting married in his church.

The British love irony, and this is a very rich one. The Church of England, founded by Henry VIII so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, does not approve of divorcees getting married in their churches.

I could have lied and said my ex-husband beat me and cheated on me and spent all our money. Then he might have approved the marriage. But I told the truth -- we just weren't compatible. Not good enough. So we could have a wedding blessing, but not a marriage. That would have to be done at the town hall sometime before the blessing.

I felt bad for my fiance. This was his first marriage, after all, and he wanted it to be perfect. If we'd had the wedding in the U.S., we wouldn't have encountered this attitude. We could have gotten married anywhere. But here in the UK, we had to settle for the dingy town hall. At that time there were stricter laws about what places were licensed to hold weddings. It's changed a lot since then. I decided to treat the town hall ceremony as just legal mumbo-jumbo. The big event would be the wedding blessing. Our banns were duly published. This is another quirky British custom. The vicar of the local parish church announces the banns, the declaration of two people -- one of whom lives in the parish -- to marry. It is done three times before the wedding.

Now we needed a venue for the reception, or "wedding breakfast." As we only had four months to plan the wedding, we didn't have a lot of choice. Most of the places around here had been booked the year before. We found a village hall that would serve the purpose. It wasn't fancy. In fact I was disappointed, but decided to make the best of it. We hired a DJ on the advice of one of the aunties. We found a florist through another. And the cakemaker through another.

Ah, the cake. In America this is a confection with layers of white cake covered with
mounds of sickly sweet icing. In the UK, it is fruit cake laced with brandy covered with marzipan covered with Royal icing. It's the same recipe as for Christmas cake. I don't like fruit cake or marzipan or Royal icing. But I went along with it because that's the tradition here. And the cake lady was so nice.

The printer of the wedding invitations was one of our pub buddies. I bought a second-hand wedding dress (seemed rather appropriate since I was a second-hand bride). I bought another outfit to wear to the town hall and to change into when I got tired of wearing the wedding dress. The chef from my husband's firm agreed to do the catering but we had to hire all the equipment as the village hall wasn't equipped at all. I met with him to discuss the menu. I wanted veal. Uh oh. Veal is very scarce in the UK. Something about the way they're raised and the British don't like it (why aren't they upset about chickens? Oh, that comes a few years later). Never mind, the photographer who is also a butcher agreed to supply the meat.

I sent out invitations to all my American friends and family. Only one friend and seven members of my family could come. Well, that made it easier to put them up. Our next-door neighbours housed my friend, and my family stayed with us. My parents, who had been divorced for nearly 20 years at that point, stayed next door to one another with their respective spouses. They behaved themselves impeccably. It was like a family reunion in a way. We took them on trips throughout the UK, but I was exhausted by all the emotion and behaved badly.

My future mother-in-law was still trying to separate HTB from me whenever possible. On our wedding day, she told him to come stay with her for some chill-out time. I was incensed by her implication that my family was stressing out her son. Before I moved to the UK, I told HTB I'd need support. "Don't worry," he said optimistically. "My family will support you."

I like to think he truly believed this and wasn't lying through his teeth. Sadly, my in-laws were anything but supportive for many years. I came to see that it's in their genes. My mother-in-law's family feud over the slightest nuance, miscue, forgotten thank you. The summer we got married there were three family weddings: my husband's cousin, also marrying a divorced man, us, and another cousin. At the first wedding a bust-up started to bud. One uncle said something uncouth to the cousin about her husband. By the time of our wedding, the feud was starting to bloom like crazy. The relatives all came but stayed out of each other's way. By the next wedding, it was in full force. Sides were drawn. We tried to stay out of it, but neither side speaks to us now. Not that I care.

During our wedding blessing, apparently there was a gasp across the church. We hadn't bothered to tell any of my husband's relatives that I'd been married before. It wasn't really any of their business was my view. Some of the more faithful churchgoers, however, detected a difference in the service.

We arrived at our reception after the photos had been taken. In the rain. With an umbrella over my head. The ground was so sodden, I sank two inches. My lovely satin shoes were ruined. I was given a glass of sherry upon arrival. I put it down to stand in the reception line. When I reached for it again, it was gone. My husband's grandmother had quaffed it. I got another glass, put it down, same thing happened. I gave up on the sherry. I danced and danced and danced. One of my husband's cousins complained that I wasn't making the rounds of the guests. I retorted that I barely knew most of the guests. And so it went until it was over. Then we had to clean up and make sure all the houseguests made it back to our house. We were staying the night in a nearby hotel. After dancing all night in shoes a half size too small, my feet were feeling a bit delicate. But we had wedding presents in the car and had to pass them through the window into our room. What a sight that must have been.

Our wedding was probably my family's finest hour or hours. Both of my parents desperately wanted me to have a good day and in their way tried to make sure it happened. They did this by behaving like adults and not like the warring infants they had been over the past 20 years. My sister and brother also were troupers. It was an uncommon show of support which I appreciate to this day.

Next I shall write of the media, a very important way of familiarising oneself with a new country.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Moving to England: The Saga Continues

"I think the vacuum cleaner is broken," I sobbed into the phone.

"Is it turned on? Is it plugged in?" my husband-to-be asked.

"Of course. I'm not stupid," I replied.

"Did you turn the switch on at the wall?" he asked.

"What switch?"

"Next to the plug there's a switch. If it's on, you'll see a red band at the top."

"Oh" (sound of vacuum cleaner drowning out the rest of the conversation).

This was my very first clue that I wasn't in Kansas (or New York or Florida or any of the other states) anymore. The next few weeks and months were a giddy jumble of planning the wedding, meeting the relatives, and getting used to my new country and the people in it. I thought everyone would be so happy to have me living here, but my first weekend in England showed that this was not the case.

We stayed at my in-laws' that weekend. It was a bank holiday (three-day weekend). My future mother-in-law ceremoniously showed me my room with the single bed. Then she beckoned husband-to-be into another room and closed the door. It was quite clear that she wasn't altogether pleased with her son's selection of future wife. None of my future in-laws spoke to me much that weekend. By the second night I'd had enough and told HTB that if he was going to go off into another room with his mother and leave me on my own again, I was going to use the return part of my plane ticket and move back to New York. He took me at my word.

It was beginning to dawn on me in many ways that the UK was much more different to the U.S. than I had suspected. Take contact lenses. I had been buying an all-in-one solution to clean and store them for years at the drug stores in the U.S. I couldn't find the brand or even a similar product in the UK. I bought what I assumed was the same and used it my first morning at my in-laws. My eyes burned and watered badly as I realised it wasn't the same at all. Eventually, I found a similar product at the optician's. Years later, the same brand is now sold everywhere here.

I marvelled and puzzled over the differences between the two countries and would try to discuss them with my new neighbours and HTB's friends, relatives, and colleagues. That is when I discovered a deep-seated distrust and dislike of Americans in the UK. "Oh, we know," they would exclaim sarcastically, "everything is bigger and better in America." Well, actually, that isn't what I was saying. "Aren't all Americans rather parochial?" they would ask. Well, no more than the people around here, I would want to say.

Hey, I thought, what about the British politeness? I wasn't seeing any evidence of it. Maybe I was fitting their stereotype of an American -- loud, brash, fat (though I certainly wasn't), wearing jeans and trainers (tennis shoes).

Never mind. I had so much to learn. In my first week I decided to take a walk down by the beach, which was only a few blocks away. As I turned left onto the Promenade, a strong wind blew me back several feet. I retreated to our home. When my husband came home, I assailed him: "You didn't tell me about the wind."

I missed my cats, my friends, my job even. I missed having people to talk to and laugh with. After they'd been in total quarantine for two weeks, I was allowed to visit my cats as often as I wished. That is why and how I learned to drive in this country. I had to see my cats, who were my only link to my past life. I have subsequently met Americans who will not drive in the UK, and I feel deeply sorry for them.

I visited the cats three times a week, bringing treats each time. They were housed in a cell six feet wide by seven feet long. It had a concrete floor and a loft space where they slept, with a little walkway to the floor. The roof was made of corrugated fiberglass. There were about twenty such cells, ten on each side, for cats. At the rear were the dogs, who would bark constantly. In the six months my cats were there I saw only two other owners. In fairness, some people probably lived a great distance and found it difficult to visit. I became familiar with the other cats. Joe from Hong Kong lived across from my cats. I would roll treats into his cell, though he didn't need them. He was very fat. Next door to my cats were two Burmese, a mother and son. One day when I arrived I noticed there was only one. I asked one of the girls who worked there what happened to the other one. She had died. It was not uncommon for animals to die in quarantine. Though their physical needs were met, they didn't get a lot of attention.

One time when I was there, one of my cats decided he'd had enough and made a run for the door. He made the mistake of turning left instead of right, though. If he'd turned right, he'd have been a free man, but turning left just meant more cells. I cried many times when I was there. I would bring newspapers and magazines and sit on the cold concrete floor and hold my cats and stroke them and apologise for making them live like this. I promised them they'd never have to go on an airplane again or live like this again. Then I'd dry my tears and drive back through the worst streets of Liverpool and through the tunnel to my new home.

Sometimes I would stop off at the supermarket on the way home. Here I was met with more frustration as I tried to find products commonly sold in the U.S. Some were there but with different names. I decided I needed to learn to cook properly so read my Joy of Cooking from cover to cover but had to learn how to convert measurements. I still struggle with butter. And the sugars. In the U.S. we get two choices -- white and brown. In the UK we have caster sugar, golden caster sugar, granulated sugar, demerera sugar, light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, and molasses sugar. There might be more but that's what I recall. Caster sugar is for baking. The British use demerera sugar in coffee but never in tea and granulated sugar in tea but never in coffee. And, oh yes, it's morning coffee and afternoon tea, except for first thing in the morning. I couldn't stomach tea with milk and sugar in the morning so bought a coffee maker as soon as possible. Flour is also a more complicated matter. There's plain flour, self-raising flour, strong white flour, wholemeal flour, etc. I learned eventually through a variety of mishaps that self-raising flour is equal to the American flour.

HTB had been in the habit of going to the pub three nights a week with his neighbour and a friend. He wanted me to join him, which I eagerly did. Pub culture was a revelation to me. I was fascinated by the different characters who peopled our local. Tom, the toothless old man who used a rope instead of collar and lead on his dog. Crasher, an older gentleman who earned this sobriquet by drinking eight pints of bitter and then attempting to back his car out of of the car park. Fat Harry, the landlord, and his wife Rita, who had meat-cleaver arms. When the pub owners decided to turn it into a wine bar a few years later, we moved our business to another pub. Here were a host of new characters. Volare, so named because he would start singing this song after imbibing a certain amount of beer. The UTBs, a group of men and women who earned the name when my husband overheard one of the men tell another, "She likes it up the bum." One fellow turned up in a T-shirt no matter the weather. We saw him recently. He still wears only a T-shirt. Many of the young people who went to that pub have grown up and married and had children. Many of the young men work for the post office now.

Conversation was difficult for me. Not only could I not hear the more softly spoken British, but the accents and different colloquialisms threw me. I would have to ask HTB and others to repeat themselves many times and still not understand what they were trying to say. This still happens to me, particularly in noisy, crowded places. HTB would have to interpret for me. Even still, I didn't get many of his jokes or those of others. People would make cultural references that had no meaning to me. I understand them now but can't quite make the bridge across the cultural gap since I didn't grow up here.

Next time I will write about the wedding and the cultural divides I encountered in trying to plan it.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Dos and Don'ts of Skiing Holidays


2. If you do lose your passport, however, save your tears for the right moment, say, at the EasyJet counter when they're about to not let you on board.

3. Make sure you apologise to everyone, especially your husband.

4. Be kind to your daughter after she loses her phone with all her pictures of her dog on it. Remember, you fucked up much, much worse.

5. Do not ski in front of a pink terrorist. She will blindside you and take you out if you do.

6. Do not eat cabbage in front of your friends. They will make fart jokes all week long if you do.

7. Do not think that just because you've known someone a very long time that you actually get along or even have much in common anymore.

8. Thank your husband when you get home. You wouldn't be getting home if he hadn't called all the appropriate embassies.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Moving to England

On April 26 I celebrate an anniversary. Not a wedding anniversary, but the anniversary of my immigration to England. It will be 16 years since I packed up my life and possessions, what were left of them, to move to a Brave New World for me. I had never done anything quite so gutsy before or since.

My husband and I had a whirlwind courtship necessitated by long distance and the urgency to begin a new life together. He didn't want to move to the U.S., saying his career prospects were better in the UK. I hastily (perhaps too hastily) agreed to make the big move instead. Why? I had a solid career myself that was going places. But it was going places I wasn't sure I wanted to go to.

I had spent 11 years in journalism, worked at three newspapers in 9 different jobs. I understood the workings of newspaper journalism quite well, perhaps too well. In those 11 years I'd watched corporate thinking take over the management of newsrooms. All the news that's fit to print? Try all the news that can be crammed into the paltry amount of space left between the ads. News that was not event-led, but advertiser-led. Managers (any sort of editor) were forced to work longer and longer hours as the corporate honchos tried to cut costs by not paying the reporters overtime or letting reporters go. We editors were on a fixed salary and not eligible for overtime. In the discontented winter before I left, we were forced to take furlough days, days in which we worked but weren't paid at all.

Though the offer of becoming a publisher was dangled in my face, I decided that for once my personal life would take precedence over my professional life. I wanted to marry this Englishman, have his babies, cook his dinner. I didn't want irate readers phoning me at home over the weekend, incensed over a two-inch police report in which their (over 21) son was named. I didn't want to argue with a woman over whether it was THE Ukraine or just Ukraine. I didn't want a former colleague calling me up in tears because one of my reporters had found out he was having an affair and his wife had tried to commit suicide and please, please don't print this (of course I didn't print it and not because he was a former colleague). I didn't want to fire an incompetent reporter on my last day at work just so my successor could start with a clean slate (though that was the last thing I had to do on my last day at work).

I decided to give my employers six weeks' notice. That should give them plenty of time to find someone to take my place, I reasoned. It took them about six minutes. I should have just given them two weeks, and then the ambitious assistant city editor who took my place would have had less time to make me feel like a lame duck. But I was a responsible employee.

I needed six weeks to clear out my possessions anyway. I ran several classified ads and sold everything but my clothes and some family heirlooms. In retrospect I wish I hadn't sold quite so much, but my then-fiance assured me there was no room in his house for my bedroom furniture or my dining table and chairs. All electrical goods had to go anyway. I helped furnish one woman's holiday home. A Swiss engineer bought all my bedroom furniture, including my pillows and unwashed bedlinen (he wanted it that night).

I didn't get rid of my cats, Bubby and Otis. As the apartment became emptier, their hiding spaces became more creative. A basket. The radiator. The very top shelf in the closet. They must have sensed that their lives were about to change dramatically too, and not necessarily for the better.

There is a lot of red tape involved in moving to the UK. I made an appointment for an interview with someone at the British Consulate in NYC. He wanted to know why I wanted to move to the UK, how I met my husband-to-be, what HTB did for a living, would he be able to support me (for I wouldn't be allowed to work till after we were married and my husband had satisfied a Home Office employee that he was happy with the marriage). He told me I needed to apply for leave to remain as a fiancee. It was vital that I get this right because otherwise they would have the right to deport me if I applied in some other capacity. The form I had to fill in was peppered with questions about how I would be supported before the marriage because I would not be eligible for state benefits. Many of these questions seemed to be written for people from, say, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Hubby-to-be needed to show his passport. He sent me a copy. That wasn't good enough. He had to appear in person with the passport. So over he came a month before the Big Move. We took this opportunity to visit my family and introduce him. Fortunately, he passed muster with them (though I'd have married him anyway)

Then we needed to figure out what to do with the cats. The UK has strict laws about bringing animals in from other countries (though they've relaxed them somewhat since then for animals from EU countries). They have to go into quarantine for six months at government-approved catteries and kennels. HTB had the job of finding a decent one in our area. He found one on the other side of Liverpool, near Aintree. It would cost a fair amount of money. So would flying them over. On one of the many forms we had to fill in, we had to say what the value of the cats were. Well, they were rescue cats, so in money terms not a lot. But in emotional terms, quite a lot.

We chose to fly over with British Airways because they had a good reputation for dealing with animals. HTB had asked BA in Manchester how the cats would be put on the plane and was told we just needed to show up with them when we checked in. I thought I'd better ask the BA people in New York. It was far more complicated than that. They had to have a certain size box with a water container. We had to go to a completely different part of the airport and we had to give BA a lot of notice. Thank god I asked. We dropped them off on the day we were flying out before unloading our baggage and returning the rental car. I felt horrible about leaving the cats and tried not to think about it. As we sat in the departure lounge, our names were called. We went up to the desk, thinking it was about the cats. No, we'd just been upgraded to first class.

I settled into my seat, sipped champagne, and stared out the window searching for my kitties. I saw them being loaded on. I watched the tough New Yorker who had driven them there poke his finger into the box, obviously trying to soothe them. I turned away, tears in my eyes. They'll be all right, I told myself. The flight attendant came along and took our food order and poured more champagne. I was excited! I was sad! I was looking forward to a new life.

As I shuffled through the immigration queue at Manchester Airport, I realised that this was my Ellis Island. If only the short, grey-haired, humourless official had been more welcoming.

My next post may not be for a while as I'm leaving Friday for the skiing week. When I return I will write more about this.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Somebody Likes Me

I have some catching up to do. First, some very kind people have given me awards. Kelly and Debio have given me this award:

And -ann gave me this award:

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I shall ponder who next to bestow these on.

In the meantime let me tell you what's been happening. I had a lovely lunch and walk with Pixie yesterday. She wanted to see my beach (well, it's not "my" beach but you know what I mean). But our glorious morning turned to rain so we went to the park instead. Then, as happens so frequently in this country, it cleared up a bit so we went to a part of the beach. Sadly, though, I don't think she got to see it at its best. Next time, Pixie.

I also have been trying to deal with insurance companies. Maddening! They won't be able to take our car in for repairs till tomorrow. And they wouldn't authorise a hire car till late yesterday, which would be replaced tomorrow anyway by a courtesy car. They haven't bothered to contact the independent witness to the accident and are saying they're going to accept dual liability. I lost it on the phone and told the guy that while I'm sure this is just a routine thing for him, it has been very stressful for our family and that my husband and daughter could have been killed in that accident had my husband not been such a good driver. That shut him up.

There have been quite a few near-misses lately in my life, what with my mother's mammogram, the accident, my husband's job (which is still up in the air), my dog nearly running out into the road yesterday. Someone is trying to tell me something, I think. And I think it's about my priorities and what's important in life. I thought I had those straight in my life but maybe not.

I've been flitting around different blogs that participate in Fun Monday. It's been very interesting to read others' Bucket Lists. Many (mostly American) have said they'd like to live in another country. That ties into a post I've been working on about my immigration experience, which I will post tomorrow. Living in another country can be a daunting experience, much more difficult than you can imagine. Of course, it all depends on why and how long you plan to live there. I wouldn't say I went in with my eyes wide open. No, they were covered by my idealistic, lovelorn, rosy-coloured glasses, which got ripped off pretty damn quickly. But enough. Stay tuned to tomorrow.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Fun Monday IV: My (Kick the) Bucket List

Tiggerlane over at The Neophyte Blogger is hosting this week's Fun Monday. The assignment: Have you heard of The Bucket List? Well, that's what I want from you! Make a list of things you want to do before you die. It must be at least five items - and you can make it as long as you desire. Photos are optional. And let's hear about some of the wackiest, most bizarre to-do's on your Bucket List!

I've been thinking about this one a lot. My husband and daughter were in a car accident on Saturday that could have been so, so much worse. I could have lost two-thirds of my family. But I didn't. And there's not a scratch on them, though the car is looking much the worse for wear. So this accident has added a certain poignance to the assignment. What do I want to do before I kick the bucket?

1. Move back to the States to get reacquainted with my family. The years and the distance have made us virtual strangers. Before I die, I want to get to know them better and in a different way.

2. Hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, then go white-water rafting, then hike back up, then retire to a spa to have my sore muscles tended to.

3. Hire a boat and crew and sail around the world to different islands and countries to toast each and every sunset with a different cocktail every day.

4. Write that book that I think about all the time, but never do anything about.

5. Read the books I've always wanted to read but never seem to have the time for, including everything by Dickens, one of the best observers of human nature ever.

6. Sir Anthony Hopkins recently celebrated his 70th birthday by returning to his hometown in South Wales and having a huge party. He invited people he went to school with way back when and others from his past and present. I'd love to do the same -- go back to Tampa and get together with a load of people I grew up with, used to work with, and are friends with now. I love a good party!

7. Travel all over the world staying in the best hotels and eating exquisite food.

8. Most of all, I want to tell my husband, daughter, and son every day that I love them dearly, and life is not worth living without them.

That's my list. What's yours?

Saturday, 2 February 2008

You Know It's a Bad Night When.....

1. Frenemy is actually your best friend.
2. Your other friends are falling asleep in their soup and when they are awake can only complain about how stressful their week has been.
3. The restaurant is full of men, but not "quality" men. Rather, those that part their hair by their ears and comb it over.
4. The expected snow is actually hail.
5. One of your friends asks if you've had a hectic day because you look so tired. Actually, you've had a restful day and thought you looked pretty damn good.
6. Your big night out, which was planned a month ago and which you eagerly looked forward to, is a big pain out for everyone else but Frenemy.

Well, never again. Frenemy and I are the oldest in this group and the only ones capable of handling a night out anymore. Sadly, we feel the demise of the group coming on. Too many other friends and commitments taking over. That's a shame because it's a time in our lives when we need our friends more than ever, but that's life.