But No Cigar

Yesterday I wrote about things in my life which worked out exactly as I had planned.  MR is a person who seems to always land on his feet, and he says this is not because he’s especially lucky, he just knows how to seize opportunities.  I think I’ve done the same at certain points.  Sometimes, though, with all the will in the world, things don’t work out exactly as I planned, and that is certainly true for settling into my marriage.

Everything began perfectly.  I’ve detailed the story often enough here, but it still amazes me, because when I hit 30 and had been on exactly 3 dates in 8 years, I thought one of my life dreams, having a family, was never going to happen.  As 30 clicked over to 31, and then 32, I started to really panic.  Time was running out.  I had to kiss a few frogs before I found the One, didn’t I?  And I wasn’t even catching frogs.  Then if I did find a guy, we’d probably date for a couple of years before getting married, and then want to be married a couple of years…basically my logic turned into panic along these lines:

Then my friend introduced me to MR and we were exchanging emails before we met as though we were already a couple.  When we met in person several months later in August, it was already a fait accompli.  Then he went about some serious day seizing and surprised both himself and me by proposing at Christmas.

Suddenly my life was falling into place.  Perhaps that’s one of the ways he’s the right person for me, because he goes after the things he wants in the same way.  We started planning a wedding, a big wedding with a 14th century Guild Hall as a venue and a phalanx of bridesmaids and a Big White Dress.

Then things started to crumble a little bit.  MR’s family, especially his mother, is an efficient person, and this is no fault.  Also, this was the first wedding of her 3 children so naturally she wanted to be involved.  However, I as the bride was across the Atlantic, so the efficient planning meant sometimes cutting out the bride, and that was just the beginning of transatlantic difficulties.  I thought when we decided to get married in England that I would have a small cluster of guests.  Not a lot, because a trip to England isn’t cheap, but I thought a handful of people would turn up.  My bridesmaids did, and I was so grateful to them for making that happen even when they didn’t have tons of available funds.  And I did have two friends make the effort to come.  But none of my extended family could come, friends who I had counted on because they said they would.  In the lead up to the wedding this made me feel a bit lonely, particularly because of the immigration circumstances.

By far the most difficult thing was trying to sort out immigration. We were getting married in England because we wanted to live in New York, but the US Department of Immigration had other ideas.  If we wanted to get married in England, MR would have to wait 9 months for his paperwork to be processed before he could even enter the US.  If he tried before then, even to visit, the border guards could send him home because they could say he wasn’t trying to visit but sneak in.  We could give up our big wedding in favor of a quickie courthouse wedding, but even that would require paperwork and months of waiting if we did everything on the up and up.

I thought when we got engaged that I would have everything–a job I loved in a home city that was a part of me,  and newly, a man I loved who I was going to start a life with.  Immigration law quickly squashed that have it all feeling, and I had some decisions to make.  So I decided–I had been a romantic my whole life, and I wasn’t about to give up on that ideal.  I waited so long for MR, I wasn’t going to wait anymore.

I miss NYC terribly.  It’s still my home.  I miss my friends, and I miss my job.  I worked for a stint at a British school, and part of the reason it didn’t go so well was because it wasn’t the job I had loved for so long.  I’m only just now starting to branch out and make friends, a year and a half after arriving here.

But I don’t just have a husband, I have a family.  If I had agreed to wait those 9 months, I wouldn’t have my daughter next to me as I type this.  We would still be waiting to start a family.  And sometimes I wonder–teaching was always the backup career.  It turned out so wonderful that I really started to devote myself to it, but I had wanted to be a writer since I was 12 years old.  I mentioned yesterday I was afraid that writing wouldn’t work out, and the story above is why.  But then I think–even though this isn’t the ideal I set out for myself, it’s still a pretty great life.  And while I may miss home, that doesn’t mean I regret going for this life.  So maybe it’s time to grab a little courage and give my final dream a try.  Carpe diem…carpe horas.

Rolling Stone

The phrase ‘rolling stone’ calls to mind a couple of things:

First, the adage “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” which people tend to take as a positive thing–no baggage!  Life of freedom!

But I tend to agree with Bob Dylan’s take: “How does it feel/ To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone?”

It’s a pretty bleak picture, leading a nomadic life.  I’ve made the move to a completely new place four times in my life, and each time there was a long settling in period where I was finding new friends, getting used to the place (for every place is different from New York City), and trying to carve out a new life that would in some way match up to home.  This is a tall order.

Each move I’ve made has been worth it for one reason or another.  I went to college in upstate New York and found that the rest of the country, and especially the rest of New York state, does not view the City with any kind of awe or reverence–more fear and distrust.  I saw what life was like in a quiet-ish college town where the only thing open past 2am was Wal-Mart.  I learned that life outside a throbbing metropolis is very different to life in one.  Along the way, I also made some decisions that would influence the trajectory of my life–making a couple of really important friends, finding my first boyfriend, choosing French as a major, discovering that after all, I did love to teach and wanted to make that my career.

My junior year abroad in Paris was the fulfillment of a dream.  I saw Paris for two days my freshman year of college and fell in love.  I have never loved a city the way I love Paris.  The grace and beauty among the grit, the centuries of beautiful architecture clashing with the odd extremely modern building, the food, the people, the vistas everywhere I looked–it was all amazing.  In a year, I went from quasi-conversation to highly proficient in French, which I consider an achievement.  I traveled around Europe for the first time. I found the fun in being a penniless student.  I made friends in a strange land.  I loved it, but I also grew fatigued from thinking and working in another language constantly.  In retrospect, I would look at the relationship I clung to as a weight holding me down, holding me back.  But I came back from that year wiser and more confident in almost every way.

I went to Durham, North Carolina on a mission for love.  There I found a love of sweet tea, barbecue, and fried chicken, but also saw that I am definitely not a Southerner, and that urban sprawl is not really my cup of tea.  I also went thinking myself a romantic heroine and came back shattered and disillusioned–I had given so much up for love, a chance to live in France again, a chance to return home to my friends and family in New York, and it all ended up in nothing.  I thought then that I was a fool, and the bitterness stayed with me until I found a man who I really loved, and who really loved me, and then I realized that year beyond the Mason-Dixon line was only a year of preparation.

Now I’m in England for almost exactly a year, and in a way all the other moves have prepared me for this one, and yet not prepared me at all.  I know what it is to be homesick, and how to deal with it.  I know that eventually, I will make friends, even if I’m a slow mover.  I know how to navigate all the cultural differences, because in their own ways, Oneonta and Durham have the same amount of culture shock as Coventry when you come from NYC.  But of course nothing in these moves could prepare me for the other shake-ups–immigration, marriage, buying a house, having a baby.  Those are what make this journey its own.

I don’t regret any of these moves, and I value the struggles I went through to settle in new places.  But they are struggles.  I need roots.  I need to belong.  I need a home.   I cannot call myself a free spirit in that regard.  Sometimes a little weight holding you down to a place is a good thing.  It’s good to have a home.

Review of The Great, Wide World Part 1

The prompt: Write a review of your life as if it were a movie or a book.

The Great, Wide World: Part 1 is, at heart, an existential story of self definition.  The protagonist is not as iconic as Holden Caulfield, but then she is not as petulant either.  What makes her tale unique is that unlike many journeymen protagonists, she has a clear mission from the start–live life as a story.

She is half successful and half not.  Her misadventures consist of years of passivity and an acceptance of the status quo which can only be described as irritating.  When she makes a career decision to teach in her early twenties, she spends several years floundering in admin assistant jobs.  When one of those jobs shows her gallingly disrespected, our heroine doesn’t stand up for herself, she lies down and takes it–until she gets fired.  Everyone wanted to see a scene where she stands up for herself, but instead she lets things continue on other people’s terms, and that is where she fails as a heroine.  Heroes are meant to be in control of their decisions, if nothing else, no matter how misguided those decisions may be.  Romeo may declare himself ‘Fortune’s fool’ but he’s the one who draws the sword on Tybalt.  The protagonist often leaves her weapons of defense and attack safely sheathed, leaving the audience hungry for more conflict and less whinging. Continue reading

Radio silence

So I just looked at this blog and realized (realised?) that I haven’t posted since January 3rd.  That’s rather a long time.  But I have some reasons for that.  Okay, I have two reasons for that.

The first is that I was busy fulfilling one of my New Year’s resolutions and finding work.  I had a scary moment at the beginning of the year where I realized I had blown through almost all of my monthly allowance in the matter of a week.  By allowance here, I mean disposable income.  MR and I are very socialist redistribution of wealth types and split our disposable income equally between two separate bank accounts.  Being on one salary meant that said disposable income was rather small, and we had a very serious talk about how I needed to work.  I am then proud to say I went at it full guns blazing and applied for every teaching job I thought I could do, including Head of English positions.  I even had a spreadsheet, and made it a full time employment, practically. Continue reading

It was a very good year

Now it’s New Year’s Eve.  Like most of the New Year’s Eves of my life, I’m not really doing anything special.  Except that everything is different.

I’m sitting here on a sofa in England–not my friend’s sofa, but my husband’s (and now mine).  I knew this would be a big year at the start of it, but I didn’t know just how big.  Last December 31st I was newly engaged, but also in a long distance relationship and preparing to say goodbye to my husband the very next day.  We were vaguely beginning to plan a wedding in England and a life in New York.  The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men go aft agley.

So without any further ado, here’s what actually happened in 2012.

1) The world didn’t end.

I’ll admit–the Mayans had me scared.  It all goes back to this Nostradamus special I watched when I was 14 that scared the bejeezus out of me.  Quite literally–I had the scariest dream involving a floating crucifix after that special.  Then leading up to 2012 all this scary stuff started happening, like cities being leveled (hurricane Katrina), and I remembered something about a seven year war with the third antichrist (OMG Bin Laden!).  Of course I should have seen the flaw in this when they called the first antichrist Napoleon on that special, because Napoleon was certainly a megalomaniac but certainly not an antichrist.  Anyway, 2012 seemed like this far off Jetsons-era date and yet we were closing in on it–surely the world would end.

I knew in my head that was pure silliness, but I couldn’t shake the fear.  Apocalyptic movies like 2012 troubled me to the point where I couldn’t watch them, even if they were hilariously bad.  Last year for Christmas as a joke gift I got an end of the world scenario page a day calendar from MR.

Then, slowly but inexorably, Dec 21st came creeping up.  In June it was still a little worrying, but in December, when it was a week away, and then two days away, I would think “The end of the world is the day after tomorrow?  That can’t be right.”  It wasn’t some mystical far-off future, but a date I could see on the calendar.  It didn’t feel like the world could end.  And of course, it didn’t, dispelling all the apocalyptic fears I’ve had since childhood.

Well played, Mayans.

2) My world did change.

According to the Mayan prophecy interpretation I have gleaned from news reports, 2012 isn’t the end of the world but the end of an era, the start of a new one.  Now that was certainly true.  Everything changed for me in 2012.  But I have to say that not only was I due a change, the changes were pretty fabulous.

I’m living abroad.  Not studying abroad and doing it for awhile, actually living in another country.  I have a semi-permanent visa which can be renewed ad infinitum.  In just a few weeks, I will own a house in this other country.  I didn’t even dream of owning a house in NYC (that makes sense considering the real estate prices).

I thought my visa days were over, and when my passport with my student visa expired I remember being sad because those days would never come again, and I wouldn’t have a visa in another passport.  How silly of me.  How very, very silly.  Now I am an actual immigrant, with all the pains that come with it.  Although admittedly I forget sometimes to look around at how far I’ve come.  It’s easy for life to go on as life–I need to appreciate this adventure for what it is.  Originally we wanted to live in NYC, but American immigration rules being what they are, doing so meant at the very least a nine month separation after we were married.  Considering all the time we’ve had together since September, I know I made the right decision.  Back when I was deciding people were telling me nine months was a drop in the bucket of life, but after spending these months together and not with the ache of being apart, I know that’s not true.  We met each other so late, we have to seize all the time we can.  So I moved to another country to be with him because he was prohibited from doing the same for me.  But I have to remember that on a certain level, this move was for me too.

Speaking of that…

3) I got married!!!

Boy, did I think that was never going to happen.  I was the most hopeless singleton you could ever meet, someone who lived in fear of the opposite sex yet hope desperately that one of those creatures would deign to recognize her…while she was still in her house.  Against all odds, this happened.  At the beginning of this year I knew I would be married, because MR proposed on Boxing Day 2011, surprising the hell out of me.  But now I actually am.  I have to change my name on stuff.  I’m officially Mrs MR (or Mrs GeekErgoSum if you follow his blog).

I got all the fun of being a bride, of having the people I loved around me while I said my vows, of saying those vows, of having my first dance in a 14th Century Guild Hall (see: reasons to get married in England).  I got the big dress and the honeymoon in the Maldives, and it was all so utterly fabulous that I’m really sad to see 2012 go.  It was certainly one of the biggest years, and one of the best.  I definitely did not come out of this year the same as I went into it.  I was a fiancee and now I’m a wife.  At the start of 2012 the biggest thing ahead of me was my wedding, now it’s the rest of my life.

4) My career has taken some interesting turns

I was a teacher for eight years.  I suppose I still am, though can you call yourself a teacher if you don’t have a classroom?  I absolutely love teaching, but the thing about it is it’s always going to be kind of the same.  Always pretty awesome, but nothing really changes.  And, thankfully, huge amounts of job stability.  I happened to be teaching at my alma mater, which was so fun.  I am a freak who loved high school, because rather than the experience so many have of feeling like a misfit, I felt like I belonged there, in this world of nerds and geeks where getting a high SAT score and playing in the band made you cool.  I got to return to that as a teacher and live out my Dead Poet’s Society fantasies.  This year I left all that to come to the other side of the pond (see above), and I experienced a period of government imposed unemployment–the longest in my working life, I might add.  I’m still not sure how I feel about not working.  On the one hand the rest is nice.  On the other I miss the challenges.  It’s nice to have so much time to do things I want and work on my writing and for once, be somewhat neat in my home, but it’s also a bit isolating.

2013 will most likely be back to teaching, but having some time to myself has been interesting to ruminate on.

5) Oh, you’ve heard of Les Mis?  It’s only everywhere

And my most favorite musical *of all time.*  As a geek, I relished in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings mania.  I certainly loved when the Chronicles of Narnia came out, but it never got to be that huge.  But nothing compares to the awesomeness of hearing everyone gush about the musical that I have been gushing about since I was fourteen.  The musical I made my then eight year old cousin listen to and memorize when I cast him as Gavroche in our family singalongs.  The musical my sister had to reference in her maid of honor toast.  I’ve read the book, memorized the lyrics in French, and the entire libretto in English, and until now, only a few people would even remotely understand.  I had met less than ten who understood my fervor when discussing the merits of Peter Lockyer as Marius and the finer points of the various cast recordings, or who could sympathize when I was gutted that they cut out Combeferre’s lines after Javert is exposed as a spy.

But now I understand fully what all the LOTR fans who had Frodo Lives! bumper stickers felt when the movie came out 12 (!) years ago.  Validation.  Sweet, sweet validation, that I liked something that was intrinsically cool all along.  It only needed Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway to show the world.

A downside to living in England, though–the movie has not come out here yet!  I am dying.  But at least that’s something to look forward to in 2013.  I need something, because it will be really hard to top 2012.

5) Bucket list item–accomplished

I went to the Olympics.  It was an early football/ soccer match of Belarus versus…someone I cant remember.  I was with a friend who is a die hard football fan, and he said it was not exactly thrilling play.  It was in Coventry the day before the opening ceremonies.  BUT IT WAS STILL THE OLYMPICS, DAMMIT.  I have always, always wanted to go to the Olympics, and now I have.  The Ricoh arena was covered with the London 2012 purple.  The Olympic rings stood proudly on roundabouts and banners lined the A45.  My ticket, which I of course saved, has the official Olympic rings on it.  I still want to go again, and be there for the opening ceremony live, but I went.  And the rest I watched on BBC, which was as good as being there because they don’t package anything and there are no commercial breaks.  We can at least give the BBC the Olympics, despite their humiliating failures elsewhere.

 

I remember thinking 1992 was an amazing year.  In retrospect, it’s hard to pinpoint why–I got chicken pox and my family lost our house thanks to a pre-Clinton recession.  Nevertheless, the movies, the music, the *Olympics*–it was the first year I felt alive, part of the world instead of a kid living in my own bubble. 1992 was amazing.  I remember the Queen saying she was very glad to see the end of 1992.  I remember there was a fire in Windsor Castle and Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated so fair play to her–not a great year for her Majesty.  Still, though, when that statement was publicized, I remember feeling personally affronted that this year that I loved living in was just a waste of time to others.  There have been some “Phew, thank goodness 2012 is over!” posts on Facebook, and while I get that not everyone had a banner year, I still feel that same sting when the world is happy to put 2012 behind them as though it never happened, because it was monumental for me.  Perhaps that is a bit narcissistic, but I can’t help the sting even so.  I hope you out there, whoever you are, are both as sad to see 2012 go as I am and yet also looking forward to big things in 2013.

Goodbye 2012.  You weren’t the end of all things, but now you’re ending, and I shall miss you.  You changed everything.

2013, take notice.  You have a lot to live up to.

The finish line

I am not by nature a finisher.

This is a trait of mine that has always annoyed me.  I’m not really troubled by my procrastination, because I’m always able to get my work done, even if it means an all nighter on occasion, and my grades or job has never suffered for it.  On reflection though, it’s probably part of the same thing.

There’s something in me that hates finishing a project.  I’ll start almost anything with gusto, but those last little bits of a project irritate me, and I leave them unfinished.  I have a thousand examples of this, most notably my undergraduate English thesis.  It was a 75 page opus comparing depictions of childhood in the writings of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.  My thesis advisor kept suggesting ideas to add, and I dutifully added all of them.  I read critical article after critical article, and read through Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer.  I structured a thoughtful comparative analysis and drew conclusions about the American spirit of adventure and stuff.  And then I never proofread the essay.  It’s sitting there in the library of Hartwick College with (citation needed) in some places, instead of the actual article I was talking about, and probably more than a few typos.

This is me all over.  I’ll undertake these huge, complicated projects, and never complete them.  I really enjoy handicrafts, including counted cross stitch.  In my lifetime I’ve undertaken several tapestry-like cross stitch projects only to abandon them, uncompleted.

I recently experienced something of a victory though.  I decided I was going to make Christmas presents this year for my sister and sister-in-law.  For my sister I did a table runner in lace crochet and edged napkins to match, and for my sister-in-law I embroidered a cushion.  I was frantically sewing the cushion on Christmas eve, but all were completed and well received.

This has left me with a flush of pride.  I finished something, and it went over really well.  My sister is emphatic that I need to start an Etsy store, and I started daydreaming about it.  It makes perfect sense–I do this stuff anyway, and MR is not one for superfluous decoration, so the stuff I make wouldn’t find a home in our house.  (Sidenote: I realize I could battle him on this one and force him to have some doilies, but we’ve been doing pretty well making our decorative tastes meet when it comes to our new house, so I see no need to rock the boat.  Besides, there are really only so many doilies a person can have lying around.)  I could do something I do for fun and get paid for it.  Boxing Day morning I lay in bed daydreaming of taking orders and finishing them off, and charging tidy sums for said projects because so much work goes into them, which would be very nice as we could certainly use the money.

When MR woke up, I told him of my plan, he frowned and grew thoughtful.  Then he told me I shouldn’t do it.  I was surprised, because a common theme among us lately is how without me working, we could really use a little more money.  Not a lot, just  a bit more to make us more comfortable.  He said he worried how I would handle multiple orders–which is a good point.  But more than that, he said he noticed that working on those Christmas presents had really taken me away from my writing, and that he doesn’t want to see that become a pipe dream.

There is a lot of truth to this.  I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I certainly have a lot of projects begun, but I have very few finished ones. Very few indeed–I have one complete novel draft, a handful of short stories (all written for assignments), and a few fan fictions.  There’s a novel I had an idea for when I was 15 that is as yet incomplete.  I did National Novel Writing Month one year and got the aforementioned novel draft, which is frankly terrible and needs a major overhaul.  I did it again and wrote 50,000 words, but didn’t come close to finishing the story.  I did it this year and I didn’t finish.

But I finished those napkins, and that table runner, and that pillow.  And the fact remains that while crocheting and embroidery take some skill and time, they don’t require a lot of brain power.  I can sit there stitching and watching endless hours of junk tv.  Writing is a much, much harder creative task, and maybe there’s some truth in the fact that I’m avoiding it.  Because I think I won’t finish.  Because I’m scared that if I do finish, I’ll fail.  So it’s easier to imagine myself an Etsy queen than to face the beast of fear and wrestle with my creativity.  The fact remains, however, that for years I have called myself a writer.  I have shaped my schooling around being a writer.  As a kid I never said I wanted to crochet for a living.  I wanted to write.

I’m lucky that my husband takes me seriously when I say I want to write.  I used to think that a lot of people didn’t believe how serious I was about writing.  I don’t really blame them–there are a lot of people out there who say they’re writers, but never seem to produce any writing.  I could all too easily be classed as one of them.  But at a critical moment when I’m thinking of hiding he says no, I need to go for my dream.  He helps me make plans for how to market myself when my book is done.  Part of his Christmas present to me is a website for my writing, in all its forms.

It’s easy to get sidetracked from your dreams, and I think that’s really what leads to them never happening.  Fear that it’s too hard or that we’re not good enough plague us at every turn, and it’s all too easy to find an excuse to turn away, say we’re too busy, say that something else came up, misquote John Lennon and say “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”  That’s true–life surprises us.  But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make plans.  Dreams take more than ideas.  Just because you envision yourself as something doesn’t mean you are that–it takes work to get there.  Lots of hard work, and lots of little details to see to before crossing the finish line.  That’s what makes any creative endeavor a marathon.  If I get my act in gear, then maybe I can be as prolific as the writers I analyzed.

 

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I meant to get this post out before Christmas, but then Christmas happened quite suddenly.  Nevertheless…

I’m pretty proud of myself this year.  I not only managed to make a few presents, which I’m happy to see were well received, but I also sent out Christmas cards and mailed Christmas boxes home and to friends.

This may not seem like a feat worth being proud of.  After all, people send Christmas cards all the time.  It’s the done thing.  But this has always been my trouble–I’m often one for thoughtful ideas, but I never carry them out.  I do think of all those little social niceties, but I rarely go so far as to carry them out.  I have a friend, who I greatly admire for being a pro at this.  She is the queen of finding inexpensive but awesome presents, of getting you something just because she thought of you.  When I dog sat for her once, as a thank you she included a gift certificate for a manicure and pedicure at a place we liked to go to together.

I love little gestures like this–they go a long way to making people feel special.  That’s the thing about Christmas cards too–it shows you were thinking of this person enough to hand write a message, however brief, and what’s really special in this day and age, pay for a stamp.  My husband’s family is very big on cards.  They are extremely important parts of birthdays and Christmas, and at Christmas the standard boxed cards won’t do.  They get each other the personalized ones that say “To my brother and his wife” or “To my son and daughter-in-law.”  My family is not so big on cards–in fact, I don’t think my parents have ever gotten me one and it’s never so much as crossed my mind, let alone bothered me.  On reflection, though, I think it’s part of the same thing–people like that little effort because it makes them feel special.  And that’s what makes the little gestures so important.

I’ve always recognized this, and I’ve always wanted to be the person who does those little gestures.  I get little brainstorms all the time for things I could do, but then I always fail in the execution.  My thoughtful friend has produced fantastic Christmas and birthday gifts (the coolest post it note set ever inside a box inlaid with mother-of-pearl from her trip to Syria, for example, or a handmade star from a German market are examples that leap to mine).  I know her taste exactly, partly because our tastes can be very similar, but somehow I never remember to get things in time for birthdays or Christmas.  And I always *want* to.  It just never happens.  The same is true with my husband.  I’ll be thinking I’m thirsty and yet am too lazy to get up and get something to drink and then all at once he brings me a glass of water.  I make him plenty of tea, but I never think to do it randomly, and I never do it without asking if he wants it.

I’m not entirely sure why this is.  Sometimes I know it’s a confidence thing.  I don’t want to be pushy, or ‘creepy’ as my mother-in-law uses it, meaning someone who seems to be currying favor instead of making an honest gesture.  I also hate the thought of doing something nice and having the gesture received with bemusement or contempt.  Which is crazy of course, because I well know how lovely those little gestures are.

Another part, it has to be said, is that impulse which prevents me from finishing things.  It’s laziness, but also something else, something that keeps me from going all the way through with a project.  And then there’s the fact that I tend to have very grand ideas which can’t be accomplished in time.  I used to think that each Christmas card had to have a long and thoughtful note with it.  That means each card can take as much as 15 minutes, and who has the willpower to sit there and write cards for over 8 hours?

This year, something changed.  When I was in Edinburgh, I saw something that was perfect for my friend.  Instead of looking at it and thinking how I should get it and subsequently walking away, I bought it.  I did miss sending it for her November birthday, but I got myself together enough to buy presents for her and her husband and their two small kids.  Not only did I buy them, I went to the post office and *sent* them.  I cannot stress the fact that somewhere along the way in previous years, something would have collapsed with this plan.  I would have been missing one present, or never made it to the post office.  The same is true for the Christmas cards I sent out.  I ordered little business cards with our new address for next year, and sat one afternoon and wrote out a stack of cards and then made my husband sign them.  And then they went to the post office.  Again–a Christmas miracle.  I can’t help but wonder how this happened so suddenly.

I think it’s the being away from home.  When I first got here, people would often ask me if I was homesick yet.  At the time I was gearing up for my wedding, and full of the knowledge that a good group of people who were very dear to me were on their way shortly.  I was also dazzled by the idea that I didn’t have to say goodbye to MR.  We had been so used to counting down and saying goodbye, and back in July, I was stunned that that period was over forever.

But the wedding passed, everyone came and went.  I still love seeing MR every day, but it’s not brand new and shiny–he’s becoming part of my every day life.  That’s very good, but it means I’m starting to think more about all that I left behind.  The first day of school where I taught caused me a pang.  I would kill to go out for dinner and drinks with my high school friends.  And this is only the second Christmas in my entire life that I’ve spent away from home.

So the Christmas cards went out, the presents got made, the boxes packed and sent because I needed to feel connected with the life I left behind.  I know I made the right decision, but after the first flush I’m realizing that moving across an ocean is no easy thing.  And that I don’t want to say goodbye forever to the people I left behind.  They still mean something to me, and I can’t show them by simple conversation or everyday activities anymore.  All I can do is send a card and write on facebook.  But it’s getting me over my laziness and shyness, because I want all those people to know I’m thinking of them.   I would quote the song in the title of this post, but that may be just a bit too cheesy and sentimental, and I don’t want to hear about it from MR, as he inevitably will read this and tease me for being a sentimental American.

 

A Very British Thanksgiving

British people are slightly afraid of pumpkins.

This is the weirdest lesson I’ve learned this Thanksgiving, but there are many others.

Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday if you live far from relatives.  It’s a big day that lots of people celebrate, and the day before Thanksgiving is often known as the biggest travel day of the year.  It comes inconveniently on a Thursday and not everyone has the Friday off.  More to the point, I live across an ocean, and if I’m going to come back I feel like I should choose my week wisely.  Thanksgiving is big and small at the same time–a big feast and a short amount of time.

Although I knew I was going to spend this Thanksgiving in England, I couldn’t not celebrate it.  My family is an eating family, and every year there is a vast spread, from Italian antipasti consisting of pickled vegetables to cheeses to coldcuts, then of course the turkey dinner, to fruit and nuts and four kinds of pie for dessert–and my father always buys a ton of Lindt chocolates.  It’s insane, but I couldn’t go without doing anything, so I set about making plans to host a Thanksgiving dinner.  MR and I have bought a house, but we’re still waiting for the paperwork to process, and at the moment we only live in a tiny apartment which can in a pinch, squeeze four people.  So my mother in law volunteered her kitchen, very generously.

Then it came time to procure the ingredients.  Most of it wasn’t too hard, because the British still often do a roast dinner on Sundays, and many of the components are the same: meat, gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables, etc.  The only thing was that I had to stand my ground regarding a turkey.  MR suggested we just get a turkey crown, which consists of the breasts only.  I was horrified–you can’t skimp on the *turkey.*  That’s the *point* of Thanksgiving!  After explaining this to him, we charged his mother with getting a turkey from the butcher in town.  As soon as she heard the mission, she asked “But wouldn’t you rather have a turkey crown?”

But that’s the thing about the British.  They don’t do excess, especially not with food, and yet Thanksgiving is all about excess.  As I described our meal, I noticed that everyone looked apprehensive at the idea of four kinds of pie and two kinds of stuffing and both mashed and sweet potatoes.  Meanwhile I was thinking that I wasn’t even cooking green bean casserole, or cornbread, because that’s just not what my family do.

This is something I’m learning about the British.  They are not a food culture.  I always kind of knew this, and of course there are tired stereotypes about British food being horrible.  When I traveled to England, before I knew any British people, I was surprised that the food was actually very good.  Not very fancy, but then my father’s family was German, and the Germans do the same kind of simple, hearty, tasty food.  Except they are much more enthusiastic about it.

In her book Watching the English, anthropologist Kate Fox devotes an entire chapter to the nation’s attitude towards food.  To sum it up, it’s basically this: if an English person cares too much about food, they are affected and snooty.  That seems to be a crime among the everyday English (which is worth a whole other post when I finally half figure out what the attitudes toward class are in this country.  It is very complex.).  So they adopt a very laissez-faire attitude towards food.  The easiest, cheapest way is the best, and anyone who goes to lengths to source ingredients or pays extra to get the nicer oils or vinegars, is regarded with a bit of suspicion.  I found this hard to believe.  I come from a rather gastronomic city, and in New York there are not only tons of world class restaurants, even the street food is quality.  People will argue for hours where to get the best bagels, and the best pizza.  When people find the ideal neighborhood place, they will travel to it for said pizzas or bagels, even if that means sitting in traffic on the BQE.   I know both an Italian and a German bakery in Queens (Joe’s Sicilian and Stork’s respecitvely) that both get lines around the block around any holiday–and deservedly so.  I will happily pay $15 for a plate of cookies from Stork’s because they are fabulous.  I have seen my father drop more than $100 in delis on a regular basis.

Which is the other thing–not only do I come from a food city, I come from a food family.  Culturally, both my ethnic backgrounds have a strong food backbone.  Italians are famous for being a food culture, and Germans have a healthy love for food themselves, especially when it comes to pastry.  And meat.  At least the Germans I’ve met, anyway.  My mother trained me to bake and cook from when I was small, and bake and cook in volume.  My father is actually obsessed with food, and spends hours driving to farm stands on the end of Long Island, or German butchers half an hour away just to get the meat he wants.  He spends an ungodly amount on food–in a week, he’ll easily spend what my husband and I have budgeted for food for a month.  Nevertheless, some of this has seeped into me.  I know that butcher meat is better than supermarket meat.  I know good food is sometimes worth the trouble and expense.  My friends get really excited about food even if they can’t cook.  When one of my friends was first starting out in her early twenties, she called me one night to ask how she should cook a can of corn (though to her credit, she has figured out how to cook in the intervening years).  But this same friend would talk enthusiastically about pizza, or remind me of pancakes my father made when she slept over in high school.  Another friend, a Texas transplant, will eat a bowl of microwaved vegetables for dinner when her husband is out of town, but ask her about getting Tex-Mex food in New York City, and she will report to you on the sad state of that cuisine in the northeast.  She will, however, tell you that it is possible to get real barbecue at Hill Country Barbecue, although she herself makes a mean brisket.  But she doesn’t like to cook.

That to me was being laissez fair about food–enjoying it still, but not being bothered for its preparation.  However, if good stuff was available, everyone I knew thought it worth the money.

Not so with the English. The first time MR and I had a real disagreement, it was over wedding cake.  I had thought my sister might make the wedding cake, being a baker, but she was also maid of honor and, more importantly, had no access to any of the tools she would need.  So I was telling this to him, and he turned very stubborn and vociferous.  “We are not spending hundreds of pounds on a wedding cake.  It’s a waste of money.  Nobody even eats it.”

“They will eat it, if it’s good.  I want people to remember our wedding cake as being delicious.”

“There’s no point!  We could just get a wedding cake from Marks & Spencer.”

A supermarket wedding cake?!  I was aghast.  Thus we started debating, and the debate was only solved by my mother stepping in and declaring “You have to have a real wedding cake.  I’ll pay for it.”

When it came to Thanksgiving and debates over turkey crowns and and suspicions about whether four kinds of pie was really necessary, I remembered the cake discussion.  I wasn’t surprised, but it was an attitude which still flummoxed me.  Why not have regular coffee instead of instant, for example?  Why be so blase about food?

The answer comes from World War II, I think.  There was rationing in the US, indeed all over, but the Brits took it to an extreme, and the rationing lasted for a long time after the war–due to post war recovery, strikes, and bad weather, rationing didn’t stop completely until 1954–nearly ten years after the end of the war.  During that time, the Brits did what they do best–make do and mend, soldier on.  Between governmental campaigns and the tenacity for survival that the British have in abundance, food stopped being a luxury and became something you ate to live.  As we’re only a handful of generations after that time, it’s not to hard to see why indulging in food is still seen as needless waste.

But I was hosting Thanksgiving, and the very definition of the holiday was about bounty, loading the table with as many goods of the harvest as are in reach.  Before the Hunger Games ironically used the cornucopia, the horn of plenty was a symbol of Thanksgiving, the idea of having an overabundance of food.  I seemed to be at a cultural impasse.

There was nothing for it but to soldier on and prepare the dinner as I would have done in the States, in the American way–be American no matter what, whether it fits in or not.  So on Thursday I sat down with my in-laws at an American Thanksgiving table, and explained about the pilgrims and Squanto, and we all dug in.  Everyone gamefully loaded their plates and stuffed themselves to the point of complaining about feeling sick afterwards.  There was a bit of family bickering and people trying to help but just getting in the way.

In short, it was a proper Thanksgiving.

Nine months was nothing, they said

I’ve just learned that the NYC Dept of Education, in all their wisdom, decided to cut February break short this year in order to make up for lost instruction time due to Hurricane Sandy.

My first thought is that this is abysmally stupid.  Firstly, in high schools, it just throws things off.  High schools run on semesters, and teachers plan accordingly.  Getting days in February will not help cover material needed for the January regents.  In my own classroom, this would have given the kids three more days on Things Fall Apart, but we still would have lost major time in the heroes unit that I do in November as a prequel to the Odyssey.  Also, I’m sure those days could have been found elsewhere.  Plus, I’ve missed at least two days out of the schoolyear several times before, and no one’s had to make up the days.  I’m mad on behalf of all my fellow teachers and all my students that they’re being punished for something they couldn’t control.

I’m mad because I know if it had been me, I would have been gutted.  I almost always used that February break to visit friends in England.  Over this past year, I used it to visit my fiance.

This takes me back to the time when I was embroiled in trying to make the decision of what to do.  When MR and I got engaged, we blithely assumed that it would be no problem to live together in either country, so long as we were married.  Arguably, it’s one of the reasons we moved so fast, although we can never know what might have happened if I was an English girl.  It turns out that we were only half right.  The UK would let us stay together, but the US was much more complicated.  If we wanted to live there together, we had to get married there.  To get married there, we needed to apply for a fiance visa, which would be given at an indeterminate date, taking up to seven months to process.  Once issued, we would have had to get married within 90 days.  Try planning a big wedding under those parameters.  It’s impossible.

Several people suggested the City Hall option, but that wasn’t an option for me.  I know a couple who were in our position–he’s Irish, she’s American, and that’s what they did.  She described her sudden City Hall wedding as an adventure, and I can absolutely see the appeal.  But it wasn’t for me.  I was one of those girls who had planned her wedding from when she was small, and I wasn’t about to give up on that once I had finally found the guy.  Plus, by the time we found this out we had already paid deposits and started planning our wedding in England.  I already had the big white dress with a train that was begging for a church aisle.  And I’m admittedly religious.  Not crazy evangelical or anything, but having a church wedding was really important to me.  And to MR–although he’s not religious, the pomp and circumstance appealed to him, much moreso than a clandestine city hall celebration.

We went to a lawyer, and she told us that if we got married in the UK, he would have to apply from there for entry, and that process could take nine months.  Nine months.  First, it would take four to five months to approve our marriage and decide that we actually did want to be together, and then it would take an additional four to five months to get his green card.  To add to that, during that time he might not be able to visit me.  UK visitors enter the US on a visa waiver program, but of course MR would be trying to waive his need for a visa while simultaneously applying for a visa.  In a post 9/11 world, such information comes up on the border control’s computers, and depending on which border guard he got and what mood they were in (95% chance of surly bordering on scary–nobody ever smiles at me at US customs), he could either be let through or put on the next flight back to the UK.

When we found this out we tried every possible permutation of how to get around this.  We asked every question.  People were constantly suggesting things to me–what if he got a student visa? (No, you can’t have dual intent with a student visa.)  What if he came in through Canada?  All of these were complex and none of them were really helpful. I myself tried to get a leave from the Department of Education for a semester to shorten the length of time we were apart and was given a resounding no.  Thanks, Dept. of Ed.  I can see you appreciate my years of loyal service.

After a couple of months of hemming and hawing, it became apparent that we had only two choices: either I give up my job, my car (I had a gorgeous BMW which I got by luck and some very nice friends), my apartment, my life, and move to England, or we spend the first nine months of our marriage apart, that I get married and go on honeymoon, and then fly back alone.

People were shocked that I might even consider the second option.  While the school secretaries were very kindly helping me with paperwork and scheduling meetings, I remember them saying “You have to think about this, honey.  Nine months is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to a lifetime.  You don’t want to give up a good job.”

It was true.  My job was pretty fabulous–I was teaching some of the brightest, nicest, funniest kids in the city.  I had great colleagues.  I even advised a program called TDF Open Doors which took kids to Broadway shows for free, because according to playwright Wendy Wasserstein, theater is every New Yorker’s birthright.  As the advisor, I got to go along.  For free.  To see Broadway shows which I would have shelled out hundreds for, and happily.  I was teaching creative writing, which was enormously fulfilling.

But we had already done eight months apart and it felt like an eternity.  Yes, I loved my job, but it didn’t compensate for how much I missed him.  That was a pang that was with me daily.  People said to me at least I had Skype, but I knew that.  We were already using every app available to us–Skype, email, What’sApp, gchat.  I will tell you this–nothing electronic can ever compensate for being with someone.  I didn’t know how much longer I could carry on.  Nine months didn’t seem like nothing.  In fact, the time frame seemed particularly significant when it came to being with my husband.  In nine months, I could gestate a baby.  And that started me thinking–I’m in my 30’s and just getting married.  What about having kids?  I knew I wanted them.  Three in an ideal world.  Would those nine months be crucial to the planning of my family?  Then I thought of getting pregnant during one of the few chances we’d have to see each other and doing it all on my own.  Not having anyone there for the baby’s first kick.  Not having anyone there to put together a crib or choose a carseat.  Not having anyone, and yet knowing there was someone who should be there, who would be, were it not for some really stupid immigration laws.

Well.  If you’ve been reading this blog, you know what we decided.  I’m sitting on a couch in Birmingham, typing away.  I won’t pretend it’s been an easy decision.  I miss New York a lot.  I miss my family.  I really want to go out for dinner and drinks with my friends.  I miss my students–the kids I saw enter as freshmen when I started teaching at THHS are graduating this year, and I would give anything to be there.

But when I see this news, that one of my few chances to see my husband would have been snatched from me, I feel the echo of the helpless ache I would have if I had stayed.  When even the thought of something that’s never going to happen causes me that much pain, I know I made the right choice.  Marius Pontmercy, indeed all of Victor Hugo’s characters, taught me well.  I have always been prepared to make big sacrifices for love.  I was so ready that when I was younger I left a world behind to go and live in North Carolina.  When that relationship failed, I thought it meant that I had been stupid to do that.  Indeed, when I got into this relationship at first, I vowed I wouldn’t move for him, that he would have to move for me.  My friend said, “It doesn’t work like that.  You have to be willing to do for him what he would do for you,” and I realized he was right.

Now I see that failed relationship wasn’t proof of my idiocy.  It was training wheels, to show me what such a sacrifice meant.  And it’s made this leap a lot easier.  This time, I have a real partnership, someone who loves me as much as I love him, and we are happy.  I miss home, but I’m building a new life here and making another home.  Now I know this for certain: I miss New York terribly, but not half as much as I would miss him if I were still there.

Tis the season

The holidays are fast approaching, and I am getting very excited.  Many people are not, as evidenced by these tv ads:

Basically the gist is, Christmas is a pain in the ass, but in the end you get the warm fuzzies.

My husband got upset at the Asda ad (the first one) because the tagline is “Behind every great Christmas, there’s Mum.”  He tends to get up and arms very quickly when he gets a whiff of reverse sexism (something that doesn’t exist so much).  Here, though, I have to agree with him–good holidays should be a team effort from both partners, and he’s definitely going to be the one putting kids’ bikes together, and we’ll do the dinner together…

Holy crap.  I just realized I have a date for all holidays for the rest of my life.  I also have a reason to host holidays.  I think this is a watershed moment, where I realize that I’m actually an adult.  Before this, I was always at my parents’ for holidays, helping out perhaps, but never in charge.  Now I realize that things could start to be very different.

They already are.  This year I’m hosting Thanksgiving, because I can’t just not celebrate it.  I love Thanksgiving!  I love all holidays, but I’m getting to that.  Obviously British people don’t celebrate Thanksgiving at all, but for me it is a lovely meal, the start of the holiday season.  It’s about fall colors and turkeys, and, in my family, a meal that goes on for literally six hours with lots of wine.  I can’t just let it pass by and shove a Tesco curry in the oven.

So I’m cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my in laws.  This will be a massive undertaking, since obviously I have to do it exactly like my parents do.  That means ordering pumpkin pie filling from Amazon.  But cherry pie filling can’t be obtained, and cans of jellied cranberry sauce (you know, with the rings permanently impressed into the semi-solid state of the cranberry sauce) is exhorbitantly priced.  Stuffing is also weird here, with smaller bits.  I’m used to the big cruton style stuffing.  But there will be three kinds of pie at least (apple, pumpkin, and mince), and my father’s sausage stuffing, and the turkey of course, and my mother’s orange yams, and mashed potatoes…as you can see, it’s quite the undertaking.  And yet I can’t wait.  I sit and plan in my head what I’m going to need and what I have to buy.

The same is true for Christmas.  Those ads make decorating and shopping seem a chore, but the truth is I love that stuff.  All of it.  I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for presents, because to me they’re very significant.  Someone goes out with you in mind and brings something back for you because they think you’ll like it–this is such a generous and thoughtful thing to do.  I realize that not all gifts are so personal, but I’d like to think they are.  I certainly take pride in carefully selecting presents for the people on my list, because I truly want them to get enjoyment out of these things.  When I see them doing so, it makes me happier than I can express.

But it’s not just the buying.  It’s the wrapping too.  When one of my friends moved to Germany, she gave me a wrapping station that holds all the tubes of wrapping paper, plus ribbon, plus scissors.  It was one of the best things I ever got in my life.  I couldn’t take it with me, and I was sad, but at least I know it found a good home with my sister.  Clearly I shall have to build a new wrapping empire here in England, and affordable and ubiquitous wrapping paper will make that a cinch.  The weird thing though is that the English don’t do present boxes.  Any American is familiar with the scramble to secure wrapping boxes, and the resulting stack of postcard perfect presents in perfectly square shapes.  I asked my husband about this and he was astonished to find that Americans use boxes.  He muttered about it for a good while, mostly along the lines of “Well, that just seems a bit of a waste of time.”  Nevertheless, I shall persevere and still have gorgeously wrapped presents.

I love it all, from the tree trimming to the baking to the Christmas carols in church.  Holidays fill me with cheer, and I love the idea of not only being happy myself, but also spreading that happiness to others.  What would otherwise be a very dark and cold part of the year is alight and warm with a festive spirit.  What’s not to love?

My husband, however, is not a particularly festive person when it comes to Christmas.  Gift giving to him is much more of a chore.  This year we’re treating each other to a weekend in London–he’ll get to see Professor Brian Cox and I’ll get to see Les Mis.  I’m not complaining about this arrangement in the slightest, as I get to see Les Mis and London, two things I especially enjoy.  But presents mean very little to him, and he professes to being ‘holiday-ed out’ at a certain point.  I, on the other hand, can sit for marathon sessions with my family on holidays.  It helps that as my father gets older, he gets slightly less crazy.

So now that I’m a grownup, and in charge of my holidays, I have to work on getting him more into the holiday spirit.  This is not so much for his sake as for our future children’s.  I want them to think of holidays fondly, as a good time for my family.  This is even more possible since I’m married to a man who does not tend towards semi schizophrenic rages.  But still, he does need some get up and go when it comes to holidays to make it something truly merry.  The question is, how do you get someone into the holiday spirit when they’ve never really had it?  That is the real puzzle.  Meanwhile, I will be happily purchasing Christmas bows to coordinate my wrapping paper.