One year later

It’s been a whole year since I wrote my first post on this blog, in which I fretted about moving to South Africa while recovering from a bout of typhoid fever and an über-traumatic last week at the law firm. In the intervening year, as with most years, a lot has happened. We’ve moved from the US to South Africa to the UK. We’ve traveled to a bunch of new countries. I’ve launched a fledgling writing career. We’ve made new friends. I’ve discovered sewing and rediscovered knitting. Overall, my life is a lot better than it used to be, and I wake up most days looking forward to the day to come.

But when I stop and think about it, it actually doesn’t feel like a whole year has passed. Perhaps this is because all of the big life changes over the past year — quitting my job, moving abroad, starting a new career — happened in rapid succession, and I’ve just spent the rest of the year adjusting to a new routine. The year marker also feels a bit arbitrary, because we’re still in the midst of our big International Adventure, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to do any real retrospective thinking until I’m back in the US and can look at my time abroad with some remove.

A year in, though, here are a few things I can say that I have learned so far:

  1. I like routine. And I like feeling like I have a home. I wrote about this here and my feelings on the matter have only become more acute, because Al and I have had to pick up and move within London several times since then. We’ve been in our current apartment for less than a week and we’re moving again tomorrow. It’s a giant pain. When you move so frequently, and with such short notice, it’s not even worth unpacking your suitcases. I hate that. As much as I love seeing different parts of London, I long for a settled place in the city, somewhere I can use the drawers and closets and get into a comfortable routine. I guess there’s nothing like living like a (reasonably well-to-do) vagabond for an extended period of time that makes one appreciate the comforts of home. Also, it teaches you flexibility. And flexibility is good, right?
  2. South Africa was a mix of good and bad, and that’s okay. Just the other night, I was telling Al that there are certain things I miss about South Africa. The weather, for one. The intense, clear blue of the sky. The vivid sunsets. That wintry wood-smoke smell. Our big, roomy apartment with the little balcony and barbecue. Our car, as unreliable and beat-up as it was. The cost of living. The steak. The wine. But, I realized, it’s possible for me to miss all of that and still never want to live in Joburg again. It’s also possible to say that I disliked Joburg as a city but liked our life there. Life is tricky like that.
  3. Rejections are tough. Enough said.
  4. Having a support network is important. Duh.
  5. I miss the US, but I’m not desperate to go back. I think maybe in the spring, or even after New Year’s, I’ll feel really ready to go back to the States. But right now, I’m content to stay in London a bit longer; I really like it here. (It would just help if we could nail down the housing situation.)
  6. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but Al. The thing that no one tells you about having an international adventure is that it’s full of annoyances. Living abroad, it turns out, requires juggling an immense amount of logistics. And logistics are a pain in the ass. It helps to have a partner who you like when you’re trying to figure out how to not go bat-poop insane when you have to move for the fourth time in a month, or when your power goes out, or when you get not one but two flat tires in a foreign country, or what have you. Living abroad, even in a cushy, convenient place like London, is always a challenge. If you and your partner come out  of it still liking each other and wanting to travel together, so much the better. Being here with Al has reinforced what I already knew about him: he’s patient, adventurous, and flexible. He also listens to me when I whine about having to pack up my knitting stuff. He gets it. Getting it is important.  IMG_4334
  7. Being abroad makes me more aware of my Americanness. There are two sides to this coin, of course. Occasionally, I’ll see something that will make me feel smug and superior because I know my country has its s**t figured out on that issue. Walking on one side of the sidewalk, for instance. America has that DOWN. England? Not so much. Another example: Chinese food. England, please take notes on this. And don’t even get me started on Mexican food. But then, there are other things that make me realize how a**-backwards certain things are in my beloved country. There are the obvious examples (healthcare! education! Miley Cyrus!) but there are also subtle things. Like, in London, MOST movie theaters that I’ve been to serve booze. In DC, I can only think of one movie theater off the top of my head (The E Street Cinema) that does that. What gives, America? Also, London’s public transportation system is great, the post office is quick and efficient (which, as an American, is mind-blowing), and they have double-decker buses. Makes me think America needs to get on the ball, and fast. But then I’ll watch an episode of Hens Behaving Badly or see a drunk girl peeing in the street at ten o’clock at night and I’ll go right back to feeling smug and superior. So, it’s a mixed bag.
  8. I am officially too old to stay in hostels with shared bathrooms. There, I said it.

I’ve probably learned other things along the way but those are the big ones. So, I’m just going to continue enjoying my time abroad and figuring things out. Maybe I’ll check back in a year from now and tell you what else I’ve learned.

Hot hot heat

Guys, it is hot in London. I told my parents this the other day and they scoffed at me when I reported the temperature (high 80s Fahrenheit), and then I reminded them that, unlike in cushy America, air conditioning DOES NOT EXIST here. Which means there’s no escaping the heat. Plus, Al and I finally put our (sweating, North American) finger on another thing that makes London feel so hot: there’s NO WIND. Honestly, this is the opposite of the windy city. It’s eerily windless. A rare breeze feels like a tiny breath of heaven on my sweating brow. And today is the hottest day of the summer so far: 90 degrees Fahrenheit. (Which, according to my iPhone, is 32 degrees Celcius, for those of you who aren’t familiar with our antiquated American system for keeping track of the temperature).

This also happens to be the day that the much anticipated Royal Baby is being born, although no one in my immediate vicinity seems too fussed about the current state of Duchess Kate’s labor. Hard to tell, though, since everyone is being all quiet and British. I am currently sitting in the sweltering Kensington Central Library, by the way. I came here with the idea that, since the place has free wifi, perhaps I’d be able to work here tomorrow when writing my weekly post for Previously.TV, but, turns out, I can’t access TV shows on the public network here, so I guess I walked here with my laptop in the blistering heat for nothing. But, since I’m here, I guess I’ll make a comment about the biggest noticeable difference between a public library in London and a public library in DC: this one doesn’t smell like pee. Unlike in the US, this library does not appear to be a place for vagrants, drunks, and weirdos to hang out, and the air, while hot, is remarkably urine-scent-free. This is a lot like the difference I’ve noticed between London buses and big city American buses: people behave pretty appropriately on the buses here. I haven’t seen one person clip their nails on the bus, or spit on the floor of the bus, or loudly talk to themselves on the bus. It’s incredible. I know London must have its fair share of weirdos and scary drunks and people who think it’s appropriate to bring smelly bags of seafood onto public transportation, but I haven’t seen them yet (fingers crossed).


Back to this whole Royal Baby thing: I’m sort of hoping that when the RB is born, everyone in the library will spontaneously break into song (perhaps “Rule Brittania?”). It’ll be a little uncomfortable, sure, but I expect a minimum level of pomp, if not circumstance, from ordinary British citizens at a time like this. Spontaneous song (and/or dance) seems appropriate. Or maybe the government will shoot off canons? Fireworks? RAF flyover? They have to do something besides post a notice on the gates of Buckingham Palace — I mean, talk about anticlimactic. The thing I’m not sure about, though, is whether anyone, except for the media, old ladies, and Americans, actually cares about this birth. I mean, sure, it’s interesting, in that Britain is choosing to continue this weird, quaint system of titles and tiaras and bloodlines and castles and stuff, and we’re getting to see that happen in real time, but really, it’s just a baby. This baby has no idea how famous it is, or what its title means, or that its parents’ every moves are followed obsessively by media, or that people are pinning all sorts of weird, creepy hopes and dreams onto its tiny, bald head. I get the sense most Britons are aware of this, and yet the media is freaking the eff out and swarming the hospital where the RB is being born and speculating wildly about names and Kate’s labor and so on. I suppose it’s too much to ask for the media to just play it cool around this whole royal birth thing, huh?

Well, I’ve written a bunch of words about not a whole lot, partly to kill time to see if the RB would be born as I was typing, but no dice. Back to sweating quietly among other quietly sweating people.

My first week in London

It’s been almost a full week since I’ve arrived in London and I’ve been trying to pack each of my days to bursting. So far, so good, except that it’s really hot here (who knew that could happen?) and there’s no AC, thus no respite from the heat. Walking around sweating and getting a mild sunburn is all fine and dandy if you can dip into deliciously cool restaurants, bars, or even public transportation once in a while, but AC is not a given here, anywhere. To wit: for the first time in my life last night, I was hot in a movie theater. It was like topsy-turvy world! Movie theaters are supposed to be frozen tundras so cold that your extremities lose feeling, Britain. Get with the program. Sheesh.

Before I tell you about my adventures this week, here is a short list of things I’ve learned and/or noticed over the last few days walking around London: 1) always carry your own water, unless you want to fork over the equivalent of your hypothetical child’s first year of college for a bottle of it; 2) don’t shop at Whole Foods — just don’t even go in — the prices are too traumatic; 3) don’t shop at the cute Italian coffee place around the corner, unless you are prepared to pay the equivalent of US $20 for one sandwich’s worth of Parma ham; 4) walk if possible; bus if you can’t walk; Tube if you can’t bus; 5) wear sunscreen (this advice applies outside of London, as well, FYI); 6) Italians are annoying in every context outside of Italy (sorry, Italians — real talk); 7) Brazilians and Americans are everywhere you look (or listen), and they/we are loud. But not as loud as Italians. Again, sorry, Italians. I love your food, your wine, and your country. But going forward, you guys have got to master spatial awareness and volume control.

British Museum
British Museum

So, where have I gone this week? Oh, lots of places. On Wednesday I walked around Covent Gardens and also spent a few hours at the British Museum, where I saw mummies, Assyrian stuff, Iranian stuff, Greek stuff, European stuff, a cool walrus tusk chess set, and the Rosetta Stone (overrated). On Thursday, I made my way to the Tate Modern art museum. Camille, one of Al’s lovely cousins who we’re staying with, was kind enough to give me her Tate member card, so I got to see all of the private exhibitions, featuring art by Ellen Gallagher, Ibrahim El Salahi, Saloua Raouda Choucair, and Meschac Gaba. Kind of interesting that two out of the four exhibitions were African artists. My favorite exhibition was Ellen Gallagher AxME. Gallagher is an American artist who does a lot of really cool, whimsical collages with photos from old African-American lifestyle magazines, over which she superimposes bright yellow wigs and googly eyes and other things. Sounds kinda crazy, and it kinda is. The permanent collections at the Tate were very good, as well, but less fun to walk around in, since they were all flooded by shrieking schoolchildren. When one is trying to enjoy art by looking contemplatively (or at least quietly) at it, one does not really appreciate the sounds of other human beings shouting next to one’s ear. Or maybe that’s just me?

Cy Twombly (at the Tate Modern)
Cy Twombly (at the Tate Modern)

Actually, I noticed some interesting behaviors while I was strolling through the Ellen Gallagher exhibit, from which I am prepared to draw broad cultural conclusions, because anthropologists always make sweeping statements based on tiny bits of anecdotal evidence, right? So, after observing both British and American patrons at the museum, I noticed that British people are more likely to give each other pedantic notes on pieces of art in a stage whisper (e.g., “You see how the googly eyes are an ironic statement about the underlying dehumanization of the dominant corporatist culture of the era?”), while Americans are more likely to ask their whining three year old toddler what her opinion is of the art (“Do you see that, Madison? It’s a jellyfish. Can you say jellyfish? What do you like about this painting, Madison? Madison, please sit in your stroller correctly.”). Both behaviors are highly annoying, although to be honest, I found the show-offy whispering easier to stomach. To give more detail, there was a pregnant woman (American) pushing her squirming three year-old in a stroller through the private exhibit. This woman insisted on asking, in a loud voice, for said three year-old’s informed opinion about each and every piece of art. As a fellow American, I wondered if I could perform some sort of international citizen’s arrest on behalf of my countrymen, but instead, I just made a silent note to self never to be That Person who assumes that everyone else in the modern art gallery is as charmed as I am by my toddler’s awareness of shapes and colors. Also, that poor kid, right? What three year-old wants to be dragged to a non-interactive art museum? There are probably a million other places that lady could have brought that child that day, none of which involved rooms full of surrealist art. Just saying.

Exhibition brochures
Exhibition brochures

Anyway, I got through most of the Tate Modern but I still need to go back to the Tate Britain, which I will do perhaps next week. I haven’t decided what adventures I am going to get up to today, but the world is my oyster. There is so much to see and do in this city, I could do five different things every day and not exhaust the possibilities. Glorious!

Happy Friday to one and all.