When I made a business call to Chicago a few hours ago, I was told that the man I was trying to reach wasn't in the office.
"He couldn't get in because of the snow," the receptionist explained.
"Oh, I know, it's awful, isn't it?" I replied sympthatetically. My sympathy wasn't for the Chicagoans, but for my fellow residents in Britain. Yet it was real all the same.
Yes, Chicago, we in Nottingham are experiencing your fate. We've had less snow than you, perhaps (well, OK, much less, at least up here in the East Midlands), but as you've lived through your own travel and school closure nightmare, so have we.
Great Britain is in the grip of one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent history. Check out this photo and article here.
School holidays ostensibly ended a few days ago but most children (and lucky teachers, such as my new British fiance) are getting an extended vacation. Even in Nottinghamshire where we've only had a few inches, head teachers are calling snow day after snow day because the English roads just aren't fit for driving. This is a land without round-the-clock streets and sanitation workers, without many snowplows, and with rapidly dwindling supplies of grit (the English equivalent of salt for gritting down roads and paths).
Simply put, England just isn't used to handling real winter. And, to make matters worse, most Brits have little experience driving in snow. It's not their fault but, as one exasperated American friend living in London put it, "Snow in England seems to be the cue to drive stupid." I do feel the need to point out that many Americans drive stupidly in snow, as well, but they certainly get very little practice here at stopping on ice and driving cautiously down a snowy highway.
I'm not blaming the British government for the way the transportation system has ground to a halt, thereby affecting schools and businesses. It doesn't make sense to invest in heavy winter infrastructure for the occasional tough winter. But it does make winter seem like much more of an imposition, rather than just another season to live through. It's still another reminder that, as much as we humans like to be in control, sometimes we simply aren't.
I haven't posted on this blog in two weeks, and when I realized this fact the other day I groaned aloud. Posting, you see, is work, especially when one is usually posting about one's own life.
Pausing on my way across a railroad bridge in Edinburgh
It'd be easy enough for me to post a few comments and links about the fascinating political revolution that's going on here as newspapers publish quite shocking details about expense claim abuse by elected members of parliament (the Speaker of the House was forced to step down for the first time in 300 years...longer than our Constitution has been in existence).
Or I could post solely about the amusing cultural differences between America and Britain, some of which still have the power to shock me and others. A recent example is when a male American visitor found a piece of litter on the floor and offered to "toss it," thereby sending all listeners into gales of laughter--except for me, who was thoroughly confused until a friend explained under her breath that, over here, that statement does not necessarily mean throwing the litter in the trash can. (Sorry, can't write the slang translation here, so look it up).
However, the last two weeks have been especially intense for me because of a few frightening family illnesses back home in Arizona (which I can only follow from afar and with anxious phone calls and prayers) and also because I've had to make difficult decisions about the future.
I'm happy to announce that both family health situations seem to be resolving in a hopeful manner for both my grandmother and my as-yet-unborn baby niece. I can also now announce that I've made a major decision for my future--I intend to settle in England for the next several years. I actually made this decision quite awhile ago, but have been waiting for several matters to resolve so that I am able to do this in a way that fits my visa and economic needs. I'll post more about that decision in the future (trust me, it wasn't easy....leaving one's home is never easy, no matter how much one feels called to a new home), but I hope it explains why posting light, frothy comments on this blog that was supposed to follow my one year abroad in England has become increasingly tricky.
Yes, life has been an adventure since I came here in September 2007, but adventures always come at a price, as I'm sure most people who've had them will admit. However, I can solidly testify that, despite all of the pain, frustration and homesickness, this adventure has been absolutely worth it.
Speaking of driving, today I had a fascinating conversation with a friendly taxi cab driver.
I was on my way to a presentation for work and, as yesterday's post made abundantly clear, I am not yet able to drive myself there (and I freely admit this is a good thing, too!). I was laden with expensive video equipment, so I enjoyed the luxury of a cab ride instead of a string of buses or my bicycle. En route to my destination, the chatty cab driver asked what part of America I was from. When I told him I'd lived most recently in Chicago, we got into the usual conversation about the weather.
"You get lots of snow there from the lake effect, don't you?" he said knowledgeably.
I was amazed.
"How did you know about lake effect?" I asked. The usual reaction to Chicago is generally along the lines of, "Isn't that somewhere in the middle?" or "Yes, I've seen it on ER."
"I actually spent six months in America a few years back," said the driver.
"Really?" I asked. "Where did you go?"
"Everywhere," he said modestly. "I drove to each state."
"That's really cool," I said. "No wonder you took six months."
"I also drove to each state in alphabetical order, even Alaska. I had to do some flying for Hawaii, though. " he continued. I think at this point my jaw literally dropped.
"Alphabetically?" I asked. "That's absolutely incredible. Are you serious?"
The driver, whose name, by the way, is Harry Keeling, was serious. The year he turned 55 he decided to make his year, doing exactly what he wanted, and the goal he set for himself was driving to the state capital of all 50 states--in alphabetical order, of course. That meant going from Alabama to Alaska, from Nevada to New Hampshire.
I happened to meet an older woman in Nottingham's Market Square last Saturday, and as soon as she heard me speak she asked the inevitable question:
"Whereabouts in America are you from?"
I smiled and answered, "From Chicago, most recently."
"Ah," she said, and gazed piercingly at me. Not sure what to say next, I responded politely.
"Do you know it?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. There was another pause and she said, "My husband and I used to travel to America quite frequently. But we haven't been in the last eight years."
"Oh, really? Why is that?" I asked.
The woman gave me an incredulous look for not immediately knowing the answer.
"Because of Bush, of course," she sniffed.
"Ah, right," I smiled. "Well, that will all change after Tuesday."
"That's right," she said. "Maybe I'll go back after all."
This is a true story, albeit a dramatic one. As I've reported herebefore, all of the English and other Europeans I know (and, for that matter, Canadians, Australians and South Africans) are elated by Obama's election. My Austrian friend Robin pulled me aside last week to show me his electronic planner.
"Look, Steph!" he exclaimed. "I've got it booked in. I'm going home early from work to watch it"
Sure enough, the time from 1 pm onwards was blocked off by the words "Obama."
I myself made lunch plans for tomorrow, but now that I've realized they cut into the inauguration (it's at 2 pm here in England) I'm sure my lunch mate will be amenable to finishing early. I know she's interested in the inauguration, as well.
However, politicos and analysts on this side of the pond are being cautious about Obama's impending presidency, just as they are at home. I found this Daily Telegraph editorial today by Janet Daley who, from the stories she tells, must also be an expat American. The Daily Telegraph is a conservative paper. I found a slightly different take on Obama on the Web site of the Guardian, a liberal paper. Although both appear to have been written by Americans, I find it interesting that one paper highlights the similarities between Bush's policies and Obama's apparent policies, whereas the other highlights the differences.
Of course there's plenty of bad stuff going on in these times--just as there in in all times--but it's a good era to be an American living overseas. I find myself amazed, from time to time, just how simple it is for me to live in England, and I've just had another moment of extreme gratitude for the technology of our age.
Not only can I bank online with the same account I had in Chicago, share photos online, order Christmas presents that are conveniently shipped to family back home online, conduct business through an online (voice over Internet protocol) telephone number, and even read favorite books online that were simply too heavy to carry overseas ... I can see my family online!
For my birthday my parents sent me a Webcam (well, they went online and ordered one from an English Web site that they then had shipped to me). I was initially excited before realizing that it was more a present to them than to me--after all, I pointed out, they'd be able to see me during free online video conversations, but I wouldn't be able to see them. Good point, they agreed, so as an early Christmas present my parents went out and bought a Webcam not only for themselves, but also for my brother and sister-in-law. Yesterday we all installed our Webcams and downloaded Skype and, before I knew it, I was talking to my parents in their Mesa, Arizona home! Or that's how it felt, anyway.
I could see the very familiar house and ask about why the table behind them, for example, was covered with rocks (for one of my mother's art teacher projects). I was able to see the new family puppy, and even hold up my English family's two cats so the three pets could meet (all three quickly wriggled out of our respective arms and ran away for far more interesting pursuits). My grandparents came over to my parents' house during this conversation, so they sat in front of the computer along with my parents and we all chatted. In fact, at one point my scientist grandpa wandered over to the table of rocks and began examining them (he is an amateur geologist) and I was able to interrupt the conversation with the witty observation, "Hey, I see Grandpa is being true to form and looking at rocks." It was almost like being there, to see what was going on behind the conversation. They, in turn, got to meet my "English mum" and "English dad", who joined me in our Nottingham kitchen to chat for a few minutes.
This afternoon I was working away on a newspaper article when all of a sudden my computer started ringing! I clicked on the tab to answer and it was my sister-in-law, who was sitting in front of her computer holding my 16-month-old nephew! It was so fun to catch up with her and also talk to her son, who was very interested in that person on the screen who knew his name. He kept squealing and pointing to me, even waving and showing me (on his mama's cues) his teeth, nose, ears and other intriguing body parts that he's recently learned to identify.
My nephew trots happily from the living room, toys in hand. (What's the point of having a blog if you can't post annoyingly cute kid photos from time to time?)
The little guy got very excited when I held the cats up again (who are beginning to run away from me with more and more alacrity each time I reach for them whilst sitting in front of my computer) and even told me what he'd had for breakfast ("nanana" and "ereal"). He then started bringing his new toys in from the living room to show them to me. After he got bored, my sister-and-law and I enjoyed some girl talk, and while I was telling her about the dress I hoped to wear for an upcoming Christmas party, she said, "Hey, you could try it on right now and show me!" So I ran upstairs, got the dress and wriggled into it, then turned and spun in front of my computer for her opinion. I even took her on a tour of my English house, holding my laptop in one hand and Webcam in the other as I walked around all of the rooms and pointed out favorite features, including my "shrine" to my nephew (really a bedroom windowsill covered with his photos).
This is very fun. Technology like this bridges the thousands of miles between my family and me in a wonderful way. I'll say it again. It's a great time to be alive.
1. President-elect Barack Obama. I've already received a few notes from British friends who stayed up all night to watch the elections, and I anticipate many excited comments throughout the day. I must admit I am longing to be in Chicago during this historic time...but it'll be fun to see the delight of my British and international community. I'll be happy with them--but I will also continue to promote the character and good name of John McCain, whom I also greatly respect and admire, as McCain receives little press over here. He's generally seen as a wan inheritor to the Bush legacy, which I feel is very unjust.
2. It is Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night, when Brits celebrate the just-in-time discovery 400 years ago of piles of gunpowder piled under Parliament. Guy Fawkes, a minor conspirator in the Catholic plot to blow up Protestant Parliament and the Royal Family, was guarding the stockpile, hence the creation of a day of remembrance that was once used to fuel anti-Catholic prejudices. These days, however, Guy Fawkes Day has increasingly become a time to party with backyard bonfire parties and citywide fireworks displays.
3. And speaking of change, I can't let this day go by without mentioning that it is also my 30th birthday. I'll be celebrating with a giant bonfire birthday party here in Nottingham (complete with garden fireworks) and I feel rather astounded to be entering a new decade in my life at the very same time that America enters its next significant chapter.
Congratulations, President-Elect Obama. And well done, Senator McCain.
Thanks to the wonder of absentee ballots, I received mine several weeks ago. I carried it around proudly, showing it to many English friends who all lamented, "I want to vote in the American election!" After much careful thought and deliberation, I filled it in and mailed it back to Chicago.
Today I've been hearing all sorts of comments like:
"I can't wait to find out who wins!"
"I'm going to stay up all night to watch the returns."
"Your elections are so much more interesting than ours."
"You Americans better vote! I'd vote if I could."
Four years ago today I attended the election night party of newly elected Senator Obama. I was hosting a visiting English journalist friend and we decided the Obama party was the place where she'd experience the most quintessentially American election party. We called ahead to see if we could get in with our press credentials, but the woman who answered said, "Everybody's welcome! Just come on down." (A bit of a contrast to tonight's high-security election party in Grant Park, where some tickets are going on Craig's List for $1,000).
So we made our way to the ballroom of a Chicago hotel and wandered in. The place was packed with a buzzing, delighted multi-racial crowd. Women we'd never met gave us hugs exclaiming, "Isn't this wonderful!" and everyone else smiled happily (except when the giant television screens showed Bush climbing in the presidential election count...at that the Democratic crowd booed). We milled around for a few hours as the crowd got bigger and happier, especially as it realized Obama had clinched the race. The ice sculptures melted, the snacks set out on buffet tables disappeared and finally Barack Obama came onstage to declare victory. He was accompanied by Michelle and his older daughter Malia, and he was holding his younger daughter Sasha, who was curled up on his shoulder, half-asleep, as he thanked the crowd.
After that Obama circulated among the ballroom, shaking hands and giving hugs to his supporters. He shook my hand, in fact, and I marveled at his charisma, which I can only compare to that I noticed when meeting former President Clinton in 1996. In fact, I went home that night and wrote on a Web site blog, "I think I may have just shaken the hand of the future president of the united States."
When I wrote that offhand comment, I expected Obama would run for President in 16 to 20 years, not 4, and my comment sparked a lively debate on the Web site about his experience and readiness for a national role. After tonight, I'll know just how prescient my comment was...or wasn't.