Monday, 31 May 2010

It's a good thing I was a hurdler... (Pt. 1)

...because I’ve had to jump over a lot of hurdles in order to emigrate to the UK. The reason I am thinking of this right now is that I would like to put up some other blog posts that I have stockpiled, but I can’t do that until I have access to some pictures that I would like to insert. Unfortunately, I won’t have access to those pictures until my shipment of possessions arrives from the US; since it has been en route since the first week of March, I have given up expecting it any time soon. This has probably been the most frustrating and expensive travail associated with my transcontinental move, and I suppose I should consider myself lucky—after all, that means I successfully got myself into the country, which is not always an easy feat and is more than some people achieve. All the same, the process hasn’t been easy. Let’s go back to the very beginning:

14 August 2008. The morning after my first (and, really, only) date with my now-husband, I woke up after having gotten only about 3 hours of sleep I prepared for the long car ride back from Ithaca, New York, where we had gathered for the International Society of Behavioral Ecology conference, to Williamsburg, Virginia. Even in my groggy state, swooning in and out of sleep in the back seat of our Subaru Forester, I became increasingly sure that I had just met the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. The only problem was, I lived in America and was destined to do so for at least another year and a half, when I was scheduled to finish my doctorate, and he lived in the UK. Hmm.
It turns out that this is a hurdle easily jumped with modern technology. I had recently signed up to Facebook in order to share pictures with friends and family, but had not yet made full use of its social possibilities. Within 24 hours of returning home, my husband had “friended” me and we began a frequent written correspondence that, when copied and pasted into a Word document, eventually accumulated to 300 pages of text from our first to our last message (the day of my departure for the UK). Facebook was soon supplemented with Skype, a superb invention that I still cannot believe is free. With Skype, we were able to talk twice a day with real-time video and audio. We could give each other virtual tours of our apartments and talk whether we were at work or at home or, sometimes in my case, at Panera. Occasionally, one of us went somewhere that lacked wi-fi (alas!), but even this obstacle was surmountable using Skype’s dirt-cheap computer-to-phone calling rates. Really, if we’d have had a wedding ceremony, Skype would have been both our best man and maid-of-honor.

With the relationship firmly established, the next big issue was marriage—which brought along with it emigration and relocation. I’m skipping over some minor issues that occurred between beginning the relationship and cementing it legally and geographically, because there isn’t much interesting to say about them. This includes how to finance international plane tickets while living on a graduate salary (the solution: I stopped shopping for new clothes and electronics, took up every spare job that was thrown my way, sold whatever I wasn’t using on eBay, and ran up credit card debt) and how to convince my doctorate adviser that it was a good idea to do my dissertation write-up while living on another continent from him (the solution: remind him that he’s the one who introduced me to my husband in the first place, so really it’s all his fault).

October 2009. Although we’d been discussing marriage in a formal way for quite a while—after all, there is really only one way that international couples can arrange to be together ad infinitum—it wasn’t until October 2009 that my husband formally proposed and we had to start thinking seriously about the logistics of marriage:

(The "love plant" my husband brought me, in lieu of a diamond, to propose. He didn't know my dad had proposed to my mom with a plant offering, as well--weird coincidence!)
For some reason or another, this task fell to me, and I think I aged about 10 years between the day we first started planning and the day we actually got married.

When we got engaged, I was only “visiting” my husband, as far as UK Immigration was concerned, and therefore did not have a “fiancée” or “wedding” visa. One of these is necessary if you are a foreigner wishing to have a wedding in the UK; if you do not have one you can write to the officials and plead your case—and I imagine that they probably would have been lenient with me—but this takes time and requires a lawyer. Assuming you do have all the correct paperwork needed to procure a license, you then have to give a wedding announcement, otherwise known in Thomas Hardy novels and other period literature as “the banns.” That’s right, the Brits still have the archaic practice of forcing people to publicly announce their intention to wed, then making them wait at least two weeks to make sure that nobody who has any objections is going to surface and ruin their dreams of marital bliss. The name of this practice stems from an Old English word meaning “to summon,” and initially was associated with the Christian church. Why it continues to this day in a modern, secular society is beyond me—I am, after all, from a country where, thanks to places like Walmart and Las Vegas and drive-through alcohol venders, you can have whatever you want whenever you want it.

In any case, we clearly did not have the time or the legal means to get married prior to my return to the US to defend my dissertation. The next easiest thing to do, in terms of timing and laws and organization, was to get married in the US. According to the literature I found online, it is legal for a foreign citizen to get married in the US without a fiancé visa, as long as he/she does not intend to stay on American soil afterwards, and as long as his/her visit to the US was not solely for the purpose of marriage. This was handy for us, because that meant that my husband could enter the US as per usual, since the main point of his visit was to celebrate the holidays with his family, after which he would be returning to his permanent residence in the UK. This merely left us with the task of choosing where, when, and how to get married.

Luckily for me, I have never wanted a wedding. My parents got married in a courthouse and have had a long and healthy marriage, so I figured the same was good enough for me. Plus, I am too darn lazy to plan a wedding, and I got so stressed out shopping for prom dresses that I can’t even imagine the pressure of getting a wedding gown. So, there was no worrying about the logistics of the ceremony, other than determining where it would be. Actually, I had always pictured myself getting married in the same place as my parents (Athens, OH) but this was not to be. The planning necessary to get both my husband and myself to Athens during his relatively short holiday visit was to overwhelmingly stressful and complex to even consider. The next option was Virginia, the state where I was defending my dissertation and where my husband would be staying while visiting his mother. However, in Virginia, both parties needed to be present in order to obtain the license. Because of timing issues, I needed to be able to procure the license on my own before my husband arrived from the UK, so Virginia, too, was out. [Side note: I later found out that the Virginia marriage license forces you to indicate your ethnicity, and that officials may actually use this information in deciding whether to agree to marry you. I am glad that I did not get married in such a backwards-thinking place.]

Unless we wanted to take a road trip to a randomly-chosen neighboring state, this left Maryland, where we would be staying while visiting the other side of my husband’s family. Lo and behold, Maryland’s wedding laws were remarkably helpful. Only one of the wedding party needed to be present to get the license, and they required a waiting period of only two days. This meant I could swing by on my way from Ohio to Virginia to pick up the license prior to defending my dissertation, and we could get married a week later once my husband arrived in the country. I was a little worried that they would question my husband’s out-of-country address, but they didn’t; in fact, because it was too awkward to put into the computer, they just used my address, meaning that we could have fudged it from the very beginning. I was also worried about the question of witnesses. Since we didn’t have the time and resources to invite all family members, we wanted to invite none, so as to avoid any potential jealousy or hurt feelings. But this left us without anyone to agree that they had, in fact, seen us exchange vows. Yet again, Maryland came to the rescue—they provide witnesses automatically, and though you can bring along onlookers if you like, it is not mandatory.

At every step along the way, I kept feeling as though something was going to go wrong. There were two minor glitches up front, and they both revolved around the fact that, to save time, I sent our application through the mail from Ohio. This is perfectly legal, but requires that you visit your local courthouse so that someone official can say that, yes, you are who you say you are, and you do live where you say you live. In our courthouse, nobody that I talked to had ever encountered this procedure, and everyone thought someone else should do it. Finally I was told that nobody had the authority, when in fact that paperwork itself said that basically anyone could do it as long as they worked in the Ohio equivalent of Maryland’s marriage license office. Eventually, with me on the edge of tears, someone took pity on me and said, “Well, I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m going to anyway.” That is the Ohio spirit.

Unfortunately, I wasted that charity by making a minor error on the paper application. My husband has two truly bizarre middle names, and I wasn’t sure of the spelling of one of them. I left it blank with the intention of looking it up, but then forgot to fill it in before mailing it. Two days later, I got a call from the Maryland courthouse, asking about why there was a blank space. Unfortunately, this invalidated the application, necessitating my trip there to fill out the paperwork in person. Once I had the marriage license in hand, I briefly felt better, until I started stressing over the ceremony itself—what if my husband had a flight delay in coming from the UK? What if someone heard my husband’s British accent and inquired after a visa, even though we didn’t technically need one? What if there was a typo on the license that invalidated it? What if I wrote down the wrong date/time and we missed our appointment? As it turns out, the one thing that actually did happen was something I’d never have anticipated in a hundred years: Snowpocalypse:
(No picnics any time soon)

(That's my car--not exactly the stretch limo or horse-drawn carriage that some people use to get to their weddings. In any case, it obviously won't be going anywhere soon.)

Two feet (or more) of snow covered the entire east coast two days before our wedding, and despite the best efforts of the plow drivers—despite the fact that I, in my little Hyundai Accent, could easily drive to the pharmacy the night before the wedding—the county courthouse was closed when we showed up to get married. We were told by a very apologetic guard that nothing could be done, and we should call back tomorrow.

I was torn between wanting to vomit from distress and wanting to gloat to my husband that I had, in fact, been right all along that something would prevent our wedding. This was particularly troubling to me because I had wanted very much to get married on 21 December, which is not only my parents’ anniversary, but also the solstice—it seemed very auspicious to get married on the day after which there would only be increasing sunlight (for 6 months, anyway). Also, I’ve always been a bit superstitious about the number 21, which has a very “lucky” feeling about it. Oh well. It turns out that it wasn’t too hard to reschedule the ceremony for exactly one week later. I wasn’t in love with the date (28 December didn’t seem to have much pizzazz, and, even though I know it is unreasonable, I really hate even numbers). More importantly, this forced us to have the ceremony after moving our lodgings to my mother-in-law’s house in Virginia. This required us to drive all the way around DC’s outer belt during the morning rush hour, which is nationally famous for being truly awful. In my paranoia, I made us leave so ridiculously early that we avoided all traffic and showed up in time to go to Starbuck’s and sit around nervously for a half hour before heading to the courthouse. Again, we were early, and they offered to proceed with the ceremony a good 45 minutes before we had planned. Within 15 minutes (max) we were husband and wife, and I was ready to put the wedding certificate to good use: helping me procure a visa to legally reside in the UK.

(We are laughing because the ring fits snugly and it's holding up the ceremony a bit. We are also laughing because the whole situation is a little bizarre--this photo was taken by the justice of the peace as she did the officiating. Talk about multi-tasking.)

(Our first kiss as husband and wife--we made it!)

(more to come)

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Falmouth: Out on the town

Today is the first full day of the Fal River Festival, which kicked off last night with a big party in the even bigger tent that has been erected in Discovery Quay, just outside my front door. Lest you think I am being metaphorical here, let me offer some proof that I am not:

(The erection of the festivities tent, or "marquee," as they say here, as documented from our balcony--there it is, literally just outside my front door)

Living in such a bustling place is a very new experience for me. It is no secret that much of the US is built in such a way as to require a car to drive there. There are many places that still have a "main street" setup, or have had their main streets restored as citizens become increasingly anti-Walmart and pro-environment. My hometown of Athens, for instance, has always had quite a thriving main street culture, but this stems mostly from the fact that it is a college town and college towns need to be set up so that car-less undergraduates have everything they need within walking distance (with the exception of the towns around my alma maters, Haverford and Williamsburg, which are set up for rich locals driving Lexuses and for tourists, respectively, but that is a whole other matter).

Even functional and bustling American main streets are quite different from those in the UK, which I think stems predominantly from the lack of cars required here. In the UK, many areas are pedestrian-only, and those that are not are often transected only by a narrow, one-way road. Along our main street (which, incidentally, is called "High Street" in Britain), there is an automated bollard that occasionally drops to permit the passage of, mostly, taxis and delivery trucks ("lorries"). The buildings are close together, the shops are small and specialized, and in general the whole scene has a very neighborly feeling. The shopkeepers here often seem more knowledgeable about their wares, and are therefore more helpful. This is because many of them are the people who established the shops to begin with--they aren't high schoolers or college students working part-time at a nationally-established franchise, but people who actually specialize in, say, yarn or sports equipment or jewelry, etc.

Another thing about the physical setup is that it involves much more public space. There are squares, parks, quaysides, monuments, footpaths, etc., where you can wander and sit on benches and take the dog. There are even public toilets, so you don't have to furtively sneak to the back of McDonald's or 7-11 while feeling guilty about not buying anything. As I mentioned in my Germany commentary, these public spaces often involve more serious greenery than can be found in the US. I suppose this kind of setup is necessary because everything is smaller and closer here, and there isn't much room to branch out. If there weren't designated "fresh air" spots, people might get a bit claustrophobic. These areas offer a nice sort of oasis, especially if you are someone like me who prefers being in the middle of nowhere with no buildings and roads in sight.

This setup, along with the fact that public transportation is great and cars are convenient but not necessary, also encourages people to walk much more. This is one of the biggest differences that you notice when coming from the US to the UK. I recently read a statistic that the average American walks 200 m (1/8 mile) each day. Here, though, it is often easier to walk than to drive, and so you do--to buy groceries, to go to the bank and the post office, to visit friends, to go out to eat or get drinks in the bar. You do it even in windy, rainy Cornwall, even when your destination is over a half mile away. If you're a young lady going out clubbing, you even do it in high heels and scanty clothes.

At the opposite end of the people spectrum, there are also a lot of elderly people out and about--many more than in the US. At first, I was a bit saddened by this demographic because I encountered frail-looking, cane-wielding grannies ever-so-slowly making their way up High Street to run errands. It seemed to me that someone needed to help them out so they wouldn't have to exhaust themselves with the effort. But then I started seeing it from a different perspective, which was that these were people who at least had the opportunity to maintain some independence and interact with society, rather than being shut up in nursing homes and/or rendered helpless by their inability to drive themselves. I'm not sure which of these views more accurately captures the truth of the situation. You also tend to see more handicapped individuals, and it seems to me that people here accept canes and crutches and wheelchairs as being a more natural and normal part of life than people from the US do--probably because Brits are more often exposed to these sights, and from an earlier age.

The comings and goings of all such people are quite interesting to watch from my vantage point above Discovery Quay. This square alone has eight eating establishments, and six of them have an outdoor setup so that people can work on their Vitamin D production while having afternoon tea:

(The newly-painted furniture of the Stay Cafe; that's the River Fal Festival tent being erected in the background)

These outdoor facilities are quite common, both here in Britain and other places I've been in Europe. You do find them in the US, as well, but less often (at least in the places I've been; they are more common in the bigger cities, I think, and probably on the West Coast). Another difference is that here, you can actually get the wait staff to serve you, as opposed to getting takeout or a tray full of food, and then eating it outside. Many of these places provide blankets so that you can comfortably have drinks late into the cooling evening, or during the early spring and late autumn when it is chilly outside. I can't imagine eating anywhere in the US with a blanket over my lap or around my shoulders.

I think that this is the first time I have lived in a town with someplace that could actually be classified as a "town square." Williamsburg theoretically had one (called "Events Square"), but it was really only a cordoned-off road in which people occasionally gathered to hold markets or present performances of some type. Discovery Quay is, more or less, a literal square, and is a place that can be used by the townspeople as they see fit:

(A view of the Quay on a normal day; the little huts are tiny shops of people who sell jewelry, souvenirs, and tickets to local events)

This is, of course, a tradition that dates back many centuries (medieval Britons had the same setup), and is charming, useful, and sometimes annoying. For instance, imagine my irritation when I am rudely awakened from an afternoon nap by these guys:

(Drumming buskers...or busking drummers. All I know is, only some of them actually had rhythm, but all of them were making noise.)

Drummers, of course, are particularly loud, but this sort of disruption is equally obnoxious when in the form of bagpipers (my husband's nemeses) and brass bands. One day last summer, a performance troupe came and did scenes from "The Mikado" (whilst dressed in traditional Japanese garb) and occasionally there is a group of people who gather to do capoeira (or something that could theoretically pass for capoeira, anyway). We have also witnessed singing groups, parades (for instance, the strange Mardi Gras-like parade that kicked off Aberfest during Easter weekend), and artisan shows (including the man who sells animal garden sculptures made out of recycled metal--one day I will own one). Recently, there was a brief and unexplained gathering of antique cars:

(This "event" occurred with no fanfare, and broke up after just a couple hours.)

As residents of the Quay, we get discounted entry into events that happen under the big top. Thus far, I have only taken advantage of this once, when we attended the "80's vs. 90's" dance that is part of the annual Falmouth Week. Even if we don't attend the events in a physical way, we can attend them in a sensory way, since the audio is practically as loud in our front room as it is in the tent. During last night's opening festivities, we were treated to some interesting renditions of 60's R&B hits, during which I was given the privilege of listening to "Lady Marmalade" no fewer than three times. Although this makes it difficult to watch TV (or hold a conversation), it does make for spontaneous house parties:

(Guests capping off the evening after the "80's vs. 90's" dance, which we left after witnessing one drunk partygoer hit another over the head with a glass beer bottle. For the sake of my guests, I will mention that this was a "fancy dress" dance, and they are all in costume--more on that topic later.)

The Quay is also popular among families who are teaching their children to ride bicycles, skateboarders who come to practice tricks on the steps, and kids who need space to practice passing disks/footie balls/rugby balls. My favorite use of the space, though, is the one that Nature has found:

(Rainbow over the harbor ("harbour"). There is another spot where rainbows are common, and it can be seen from the opposite side of the flat--but I like this view best. Sometimes our friends sit out in the harbor and wave to us from their boat--another good view.)

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Souvenirs

You may be wondering, "What kind of souvenirs does a seasoned world traveler like Caitlin bring home from abroad?" For me, souvenirs tend to be divided into two categories: practical things and fun things. The number of fun things I buy is dependent on how much money I have been forced to spend on practical things, and the number of practical things I buy is influenced by two major factors: weather and health.

Regardless of when I travel or where, I always seem to be too cold or too hot, but mostly the former. This is not because I pack inappropriately, but because, inevitably, the weather changes while I am en route, and by the time I arrive at my destination, I find myself in the middle of a freakishly hot heat wave, or a freakishly chilly cold snap. Thus, my most common souvenir is more appropriate clothing. Once I bought a bikini and another time a tank top--good times. Most of the time, though, I find myself buying jeans, sweatshirts, or jackets. Because I was mildly prepared for our less-than-stellar weather in Bielefeld, the only article of "corrective" clothing I needed to purchase was some additional trouser socks enabling me to wear warmer shoes, rather than the flip-flops I had planned on wearing:
(Note the letters at the top, so I can tell which foot each sock should go on. These are the correct letters in both German and English, which is handy--or, should I say, toe-y?)

Luckily, my health in Bielefeld was pretty good, and I was not forced to buy copious amounts of headache or cold/allergy medication, as I have done on many previous trips (though these things cost much less outside the US, so that wouldn't have been too big a deal here). Unfortunately, I did have to go to the pharmacy for two other vital items which I accidentally left behind:
(That's right, I couldn't go 5 days without fingernail clippers and tweezers, which makes me feel very vain. I also had to buy lotion because my skin couldn't take the dryness of the hotel soap--I am such a princess.)

With these necessities purchased, I was able to focus my attention on more entertaining shopping. Actually, I was hoping to take advantage of the exchange rate, which was much better for me in Germany than in the UK. Since I had been hoping to upgrade my wardrobe a bit in preparation for my new job starting this fall, I was interested in doing some serious shopping in order to buy some sophisticated continental looks at decent prices. I also have trouble finding sizes that fit me in the UK, so I had my fingers crossed that I could find clothes in Germany that were more my proportion. Unfortunately, I do not really enjoy shopping all that much, in general, and I found that I particularly did not enjoy it in Bielefeld, despite the amazing number of shops and the very high-quality brand names (including labels such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.). In part, this is because I was less than eager to clamber over the language barrier in order to find out about practicalities: where to try things on, how many items I could take in the dressing room, which size would best fit me, etc. Another problem was that most of the clothes I liked were in the smaller boutiques, where it was impossible to browse without being stared at and harassed by the staff. It makes me feel nervous and harried to have someone watching my every move, so I just couldn't relax.

Fortunately for me, my favorite souvenir items do not require much trying-on, and I was still able to buy some accessories. Probably my most common souvenir purchase is jewelry, particularly jewelry involving birds in some way. My second favorite wearable souvenir is the scarf. I bought my first scarf ever during my first international trip (France) and have continued this habit over the years. During my trip to Bielefeld, I actually bought two scarves (well, one scarf and one pashmina, which, in the current trend, is worn like a scarf):
(That's right, it's pink, and it's got a bird. Sold!)

(This one is my favorite color and is patterned just like a favorite shirt that I grew out of long ago. This is the one that I got a 40-cent bargain on because I was temporarily short on change.)

For a while I went through a rosary-purchasing phase because I kept visiting places with giant cathedrals. My internationally-traveling friends and family contributed to my collection, which includes rosaries of all materials, sizes, and colors, from all over Europe. This practice also dates back to the France trip, which was the first time I had ever been exposed to the fascinatingly intricate world of Catholic worship, which involves many diverse and beautiful artifacts. Shortly after beginning this collection, I also started a collection of Buddhas; my first was purchased in a small hippie shop in New Orleans, of all places. Currently, Buddhas are my non-wearable souvenir of choice, and I found a nice metal one in the same shop as the pink peacock pashmina (please pardon the alliteration):

(This guy is in the Thai style, which I generally prefer because they seem so much more pensive and introspective than the merry Chinese Buddhas.)

Something else I am quite interested in is tea. Tea-associated souvenirs are fun to buy because they are both an indulgence and a practicality--although they are special because of their association with my trip, I know I will actually use them. In the past, I have purchased tea leaves and/or blends, tea cups, tea strainers, and tea holders. In Bielefeld, I bought some mint tea, which I had to ask for in German because the shopkeeper spoke no English. I was very proud of myself for remembering the correct phrase after seeing it on a menu somewhere. While I was there, I also made my trump purchase:

(A glass teapot enabling me to see hand-sewn flowering teas as they unfurl--a totally practical purchase since my other glass teapot is only for one person, whereas this is for multiple people--so, really, I'm not being materialistic so much as generous.)

While shopping, I wandered into a grocery store in order to pick up some snacks to take back to the hotel room. The most important item on my list was pretzels, which my husband loves. He does not approve of British pretzels, because he finds them too chunky. German pretzels, on the other hand, are long and skinny, and therefore have much more of the flavorful, salty outer layer than the breadier British pretzels (his analysis, not mine):

(Our dwindling supply)

For some reason, the other thing I often purchase while abroad is paper. This happens less when I am traveling for academic purposes, because I usually carry a notebook with me. But, on several non-academic trips, I have found myself needing or wanting a notebook in order to jot down important things--directions, foreign phrases, lists of things to do when I get home, etc. Because I took my netbook with me to Bielefeld, I did not anticipate also needing a notebook, but, almost inevitably, I did. Thus, I found myself perusing the local stationary/office supply store, where I not only found a small gift for someone back home, but also this lovely item:
(A packet of dove stickers. Doves are "my" symbol, and I use stickers to close envelopes when mailing. I feel I need to justify this purchase, which otherwise seems a bit juvenile.)

Alas, I did not find a notebook. Fortunately, after Sasha and I had tea in the cafe attached to the modern art museum, we wandered into the museum's souvenir shop, where I not only found a notebook, but also some nifty little bookmarks:

(Made of recycled paper--and look, decorated with birds)

(Magnetic bookmarks--handy for marking out the week's recipes in my cookbooks...and, look, shaped like birds!)

While in the cafe, we listened to some great music and I decided I needed to find out what it was so I could buy the CD. This also happened to me while I was in Spain, and since I didn't speak Spanish, I made one of my friends have a very torturous conversation with a clerk in the department store in order to find out if they sold the album (they did!). My mom did a similar thing in Italy in order to buy me the album that was playing in the internet cafe from which she was e-mailing me. In Bielefeld, I decided I was too tired to deal with language issues, so I sent my husband as my emissary. The waitress was quite helpful and provided the name of the CD (which happened to be in English). After returning to the UK, I was able to procure the compilation album, "le cafe abstrait vol. I: hi-fly for the couch culture" after a brief internet search. and are amazing.

Other than the chocolate bars and soft pretzel that I bought to help me deal with motion sickness during the airplane rides home, that is all I purchased in Germany--nothing too extravagant and nothing very unusual (for me, at least). It is amazing how similar my purchases look regardless of whether I have been to Brazil or Bielefeld, France or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Hopefully this doesn't mean that I'm boring.

Travel updates: I just booked my trip to Australia, complete with travel authorization (visa) and transit hotel reservation. I am leaving on the 13th of September and am not returning until the 3rd of October--that's three whole blog-inspiring weeks in the southern hemisphere!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part VI

This is also the case at the Museum for Nature, Mankind, and the Environment (abbreviated "namu"). For some reason, it does not occur to me until we arrive that it might be difficult to tour a museum in a non-English-speaking country, as all the labels and videos will be incomprehensible to us. Neither of the curators speaks English, and one seems a bit annoyed that we should ask (she is the only person who seems frustrated at our lack of German language skills). The other helpfully brings an English translation of the exhibit, which is somewhat useful—although, when you are a professional biologist, you can usually figure out the basics of what you are looking at in a natural history museum. It turns out that the English translator was decent, but not great, and there are some amusing problems with punctuation and wording. Still, thinking about what it would sound like if I translated something that complex from English into my second language, French, I can hardly make any judgments. The strangest part of the exhibit is a small room that focuses on moles. It contains a television playing a video in which people are clearly doing everything they can to eradicate moles, including driving over the lawn with a heavy roller in order to flatten the surface, and even planting small explosives into mole hills. At the base of the wall containing the television is a see-through tube in which are arranged a small population of crochet moles involved in a variety of very human things. This is one of the less scientific displays I have ever encountered in a science museum, and is particularly odd in a museum that ostensibly focuses on conservation, but it is cute, and I am forced to take pictures of the whole thing.

(Burying their dearly departed--probably someone bombed to death by a maniacal human gardener)

(French immigrant moles)

(Baby mole couch potatoes)

(I approve of both the pink bathroom furniture and the tiny rubber duck)

(I'll let the coffins and bathtubs slide, museum display people, but a cane? That's just silly--moles are quadrupeds)

(I'm not sure what's going on in this scene, but I do know that those moles need some fashion advice)

It turns out that you can buy copies of the crochet moles down at the front desk, and I resist the urge (I find myself always wanting cute, small stuffed animals, probably because I am desperate for a pet). Elsewhere in the museum is an exhibit on ways in which artists have portrayed nature, a subject that is near and dear to my heart. There are many pieces focusing on the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” which, my husband and I come to realize, is of German origin. There is something exciting about experiencing something “native” in its “natural” environment, particularly after a lifetime of encountering it somewhere else.

The only negative experience of the entire trip occurs on my last day exploring the town. I am accosted by a creepily over-friendly woman. At first, she speaks German and I think I will be able to escape her attentions by hiding behind the language barrier, but, unfortunately, she speaks excellent English. It turns out that I have caught her attention because I am wearing a relatively demure skirt, and she therefore believes that I am a good Christian lady. Until this encounter, I have not noticed that most women here wear either trousers of some sort (often tight ones) or quite short skirts (often so short that they just cover the swell of the butt—these are accompanied by tights, which theoretically make them look less like they have come from a prostitute’s closet). In my knee-covering dress and understated flat shoes, I must have been a sight for sore eyes for this woman, who turns out to have been born a Mennonite before being “born again” into some other Christian sect. She is dressed in an exceedingly plain, homespun-looking, ankle-length skirt and a strange turban-like hat, wears no makeup or jewelry, and has a strange unhealthy pallor that makes me uncomfortable with having to shake her hand (twice!). I am reminded of a pamphlet that my family was given once during a trip to Amish/Mennonite Country in Ohio; it extolled the virtues of women covering their hair, so as not to tempt, and wearing skirts, so as to clearly distinguish their gender. Obviously, the New World Mennonites still have much in common with their Old World counterparts. In any case, I really dislike evangelism, or even just people who feel the need to tell me about the role of God in their life and mine. She invites me to have coffee with her but it is lunchtime, and I claim that I am on my way to meet my husband, and must be off. For some reason her demeanor, though ostensibly pleasant, is so unnerving that I am disconcerted for quite a while, and keep feeling the need to look over my shoulder and check that she is not following me. This type of thing often seems to happen to me or someone in my family when we are on trips. No matter where we go, we find ourselves placed into close proximity with crazy people, religious types, or crazy religious types, forced to endure awkward, uncomfortable, and unwelcome conversations. In this case, despite my discomfort, I am intrigued enough to ponder what variety of Christian this woman is, and whether zealots like her are common in the area.

On our last evening in Bielefeld, just before bed, we are exposed to one last entertaining bit of German culture that is an amusing contrast to the religious nutter (as the Brits would say). While flipping through the television—which receives regular, run-of-the-mill cable—we encounter not one, but two stations in which topless women are fondling or licking their breasts. In one case, there is some sort of television (game?) show that involves four topless women in g-strings and high heels, who for some reason periodically grope each other’s very fake bosoms. In the other case, there is a channel with an endless string of ads for various sex-oriented phone numbers that can be called for a good time; while, in the US and the UK, that “good time” might be indicated by a sluttily-dressed young hottie posing and strutting suggestively, in Germany the hottie is sluttily undressed and is involved in masturbatory foreplay—all on public television, and it’s not even midnight yet:

(A picture of our TV; the censor bar is mine, not the Germans')

One of the many things you often hear about Germans is that, though they may be tidy and proper during the day, they can be quite deviant and naughty by night. Other than this brief example, we have not seen much evidence of this, though some of our friends at the conference did see a very provocative sex shop in the otherwise “family-friendly” airport terminal. This is certainly very unlike anything I would find in my rather repressed homeland, though I hear that it is relatively mild compared to what can be experienced in other European countries, such as Sweden. I suppose that is something I will have to discover in future travels.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part V

In all seriousness, I have found that people are extremely pleasant and helpful. Nearly everyone speaks amazingly good English—much better than I speak my second language, which I studied for 10 years and used when visiting two separate countries. As soon as they notice us conferring in English, they switch languages. When they do not speak English, they are quite patient as we struggle through German pronunciations or use hand gestures to convey ideas. While shopping at Koenig’s Teehaus, I use signs to indicate that I need a box in which to pack the teapot I am purchasing, and the owner finds me one so I can safely get the pot back home. Although she appears to prefer cash, she agrees to take my credit card, which involves a long trip to a back room where the machine is plugged in—and she does not make a single scowl or complaint. I attempt to buy a scarf at Landhäuser, a store with no credit card machine at all. When I count out my Euros, I find that I am 40 cents short. Before I can ask directions to the nearest ATM (“geldoautomat”), the store owner tells me that that is close enough, and then he refuses to take the extra money that I find hidden in a pocket a moment later. In a sense, though I wish I had a larger German vocabulary, I am glad I do not have to have too many tortured conversations in this language, because I think it would take forever: Many German words are composites of other words, and are therefore amazingly long. We jokingly decide that perhaps Germans are so efficient because they need a way to make up for the amount of time it takes to convey ideas with such exceedingly long phrases. Then again, this style of language improves your chances of successful translation, because knowledge of one bit of the word often allows you to work out the meaning of the remainder. One other funny thing about the language is the way it sounds coming out of the mouths of scolding mothers. As nearly all the Americans on the trip remark, German is a great language for scolding; the combination of the harshness of the words and the patterns of pitch and volume leave you feeling chastised even if you are only in the vicinity of someone else who is being yelled at.

While visiting Sparrenberg Castle, my husband and I are chatted up by the man who sells us drinks on the patio:
(Post-drinks picture on the patio at Sparrenberg Castle)

When my husband explains that he is British and I am American, the vendor gets very excited and says that he has been to the US—to, of all places, my home state of Ohio. It turns out that he was once in the German navy, and took a trip down the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes. What are the chances? He appeared quite excited by meeting us, and very fondly remembered seeing Niagara Falls several decades ago. It seems odd to have this encounter in the middle of a moderately-sized foreign town that I’d not even heard of just a few months ago. It seems especially odd to meet someone who not only visited my home country, but visited the one state, out of 50 possibilities, where I was born. I find myself with a strange glowing feeling for the rest of the day, knowing that someone else here has a picture of Ohio in his head. I am not sure why this should particularly matter to me—as much as I like Ohio, and the US in general, I am not all that patriotic and I don’t sit around feeling homesick; I suppose it is the general experience of finding an unexpected connection with someone, rather than the specifics of that connection.

I have another “connection” at the castle while we are taking a walk around the grounds. As I pose for a picture in front of the castle walls, we fall silent for a moment and I notice the sound of begging chicks coming from a nearby tree. A large nest box is attached to the trunk and a pair of blue tits have made the cavity their home:
Having studied cavity-nesters for 6 ½ years while getting my graduate degrees, I do have a bit of a soft spot for these birds. Additionally, this is the first summer that I am not out checking nest boxes and measuring babies, so I have a bit of a nostalgic moment, listening to the chorus of hungry voices and thinking about the little lives that are developing so close to all those tourists even though few people probably realize it.

Otherwise, the castle is not exactly all that exciting, although it is interesting to see a type of structure that you don’t encounter every day, especially not in the US. It is important to point out that this is the type of castle that served as a lookout and fortress, not a luxurious home for pampered royalty. It was originally built in the 13th century by the counts of Ravensberg, as a place to take shelter in case of an attack. In the 14th century it was given some updates so it could serve more properly as a fortress. Its current condition is the result of restorations during the 17th-19th centuries, which is why it looks a bit more romantic and movie-like than some of the other, more practical, castles I have visited from this era. Below the castle are, apparently, many catacombs and paths that can be visited for a small fee (except for one small area that is inhabited by bats), but it is a bit cold and muddy and we do not venture in. One other thing they might need to eventually dig up is the trees growing out of cracks in the walls:
(I'm no mason, but I'm guessing this is not good for the stability of the stonework.)

Parts of the castle grounds are currently being dug up, and it appears as though they are uncovering additional stone structures that had lain buried for quite a while. This is just my guess, however, since all the signs are in German. Another thing I would know, if I could read German, is that tourists can ascend the tower in order to get a good view of the town and its environs. However, the castle walls offer pretty good views, and I'm not sure how drastically different the extra 120 feet would make the perspective. From my place on the patio, at I get a good look at the tower from the outside, and watch the waving flag on top as it frequently changes position in all this chilly, swirly wind:
(Sparrenberg Tower, in a rare moment of sunshine. We never did figure out whom the statue portrays. It is not the famous "linenmaker" statue that is supposed to be one of the most important tourist attractions in Bielefeld--we never located it.)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part IV

Before I leave the topic of food, I must describe the breakfast offerings in our hotel. I can never quite tell if hotel breakfasts are designed based on what the cooks think their guests might want, or what the locals actually eat, so I hate to draw any cultural conclusions. Regardless, the fare here includes some interesting options. First of all, in addition to regular rolls and breads and cakey-type things, there are soft pretzels. I would never eat a soft pretzel for breakfast, but I do love the things and am ecstatic to find them everywhere here, after being denied them in the UK—they are one of the foods I most miss from the US. So, every morning I steal a couple and keep them to snack on later. Another interesting item is in the hot foods section. In addition to eggs and potatoes and sausages, there are meatballs—not the saucy kind, but just little balls of meat (pork, maybe?). There is also a cold meats section, with a variety of fatty-looking salami-type things and sliced cheeses; many of the German guests frequently make cold sandwiches for breakfast, I’ve noticed. In addition to these are two types of meaty substance rolled tightly into the kind of plastic packaging that pre-made cookie dough comes in, only they are about the size of a thumb. They look similar to the little canned wieners that you sometimes find as hors d’oeuvres at American parties. On the last day of our stay, one of our friends investigates these and discovers they are some sort of paté—liverwurst, perhaps? This is definitely not my idea of how to wake my stomach up in the morning, but that is just me. Instead, I would prefer one of the many varieties of yogurt that are on offer. I have always loved yogurt and am quite impressed by how much vaster the selection of “natural” and “probiotic” yogurts is in Europe than in the US. However, the Germans have some varieties that even I won’t touch, since they are actually almost solid and clump together in a very unappealing way. These are called “mature,” and maybe I will grow brave enough to try them when I can be described in the same way.

Thinking of food reminds me of my favourite “culture shock” experience of the trip, which occurred in a restaurant. On our first evening in Bielfeld, we get drinks at a brasserie prior to dinner, and just before we leave I decide to visit the toilet. When I get upstairs to the toilets, I am faced with a choice:

(My choice of toilets at the ALEX brasserie)

Do I take the “D” door on the left, or the “H” door on the right? After listening for a minute, I become certain that nobody is in either bathroom, and I could just poke my head in to see which room has the urinals, so that I could go to the opposite one. However, at the last minute, I chicken out and have to go down to ask my husband which letter I am. I am informed that I am a “D” ("damen," meaning "ladies;" the "h" stands for "herren," meaning
gentlemen"). Now I must go all the way back up the two flights of steps before I can finally pee. Several nights after this encounter, I relate the experience to some American friends also attending the conference in Bielefeld, and we have a good laugh. Almost immediately afterward, I go downstairs to the toilet and come across two new and utterly confusing choices: "Brauerei" (“brewery”) or “Lager.” I feel utterly out of my depth, because I do not drink beer and therefore have no possible idea about which metaphor most aptly describes females. Then it occurs to me that perhaps this restaurant is a microbrewery, and I have not found the toilets, but, in fact, the place where beer is made and stored. I continue around the corner and, what do you know, I am presented with the familiar “D” and “H”—only, this time, the entire words are spelled out. That would have been useful a few nights ago!

Since moving to the UK, I have heard a number of negative comments about the Germans. These are not the kind of negative comments that Brits routinely make about Australians or South Africans, which have the feel of the sort of teasing you might subject a younger sibling to (“taking the piss,” as the Brits would say). Rather, there does appear to be some genuine dislike of the Germans, which I find odd. At least some of this stems from the renowned anal-retentiveness of the Germans, or, to put it a nicer way, their amazing efficiency and organization. This is not something I would ever criticize, since I, myself, am “amazingly efficient and organized," although my husband might describe it another way. Before embarking, I told him that I was looking forward to the first evidence of German “neatness,” and it did not take long. During our first day away from the hotel, when the staff came to clean our room, they reordered all the toiletries in our bathroom and tucked them into a nice, orderly row next to the sink:

(Dear Housekeeping: I would have arranged them from tallest to shortest. In fact, I did do that to amuse myself while brushing my teeth. Who is more German here, you or me?)

(Also in our bathroom: This strange little felt decoration atop our pile of towels. The hotel was named the Tulip Inn, so I suppose this is a reference to that.)

(more to come...)

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part III

Bielefeld does not look particularly “German” to my eye, which really only means that it doesn't look like the parts of Germany I've seen featured in American movies about Oktoberfest or WWII. However, it does feel very “European,” though I am not entirely sure what characteristics motivate me to say that. The giant churches and spires are certainly European, both because of their size and their obvious age. There are many severely square building facades, which strike me as having that stereotypical eastern European communist government building kind of look. However, dispersed through these are some beautiful older facades with gold decoration, some Tudor-style buildings, and homes with very long, sharply angled, pointy roofs—something which I have not seen much of elsewhere in my travels:
(Note the gold writing on the tan buildings; don't be distracted by the fancy cars--there was a car show in the town square)

(I've never seen a facade quite like this before, with all that "extra" scrollwork jutting up into the air)

I am surprised by the number of buildings with orange tiled roofs. These look very Mediterranean to me, and remind me of the towns I visited in both France and Spain. One thing I do not see much of in Bielefeld, though I do see them during the train ride between Bielefeld and Hannover, is residential gardens, either the type directly adjacent to people’s homes, or the type occupying a plot somewhere down the road. However, there are tons of rape fields, which are the most beautiful color yellow I have ever seen. Rape is a member of the mustard family (Brassica napus, Brassica campestris) and produces the oil that, in the US, we refer to as "canola." I've always wondered what plant canola oil came from, and now I know. It turns out that they are quite attractive, and look particularly stunning when contrasted against the dark green of the grass and trees around them:
(Rape field near the University of Bielefeld)

One of the only things I did to prepare for the “culture shock” of this trip was to run off an eight-page list of German food translations. I should also have printed up some basic phrases that might have been handy for navigation, ordering, paying, and generally being congenial and courteous, but of course this slipped my mind. In any case, I did this because of the number of warnings I had gotten about German food. It was described as “heavy,” “meat-and-potatoes,” and sometimes just plain “bad.” This made me completely paranoid, because I tend to eat rather like a rabbit, and want a large portion of produce during at least one, and preferably two, meals each day. I was pretty much promised that I would not see any lettuce while I was here. As it turns out, this was ridiculous and I had nothing to worry about. At one point, I manage to order a “shrimp salad,” expecting a “fruit salad,” but it is quite tasty and is accompanied by the most amazing latke-like zucchini pancakes. Strangely, there is no salad dressing, which is something I have also encountered elsewhere in Europe (e.g., France). I am not in love with this, as I prefer to have at least a little oil and vinegar, but luckily there are some tomatoes along with the shrimp, and together they moisten up the greens enough to mollify my somewhat American desire to hide my produce under something less natural and healthy. Here, as in other parts of Europe and the UK, sparkling water is everywhere, which is wonderful—I love the stuff and hate always having American waiters look at me as though I am a self-obsessed prima donna who thinks herself too good for regular old tap water. In defense of the friends who warned me against the meat-and-potatoes nature of German food, I will say that there was one evening where I have some issues finding anything suitable on the menu. Currently, asparagus is in season, and there are many “get-it-while-it-lasts” specials involving white asparagus and a large hunk of meat. The other option is getting a large hunk of meat (including cuts you don’t often see in the US, such as ham hock) with sauerkraut and a large potato dumpling, or a giant baked potato doused with sour cream (which, by the way, is also ubiquitous here—anything that Americans would put butter on, the Germans put sour cream on instead). Unfortunately for me, I hate sauerkraut, dislike gravy, and only sometimes eat meat. When I do eat meat, it is rarely the type that once oinked, and especially not the cut that Americans call pork (vs. ham or bacon). My German ancestors are probably rolling over in their graves right now. So, to circumvent all this unfortunate cuisine, I order the “Fitnessalat,” which is what it sounds like—the “healthy” salad, involving greens and fruit and turkey, a nice poppyseed-like dressing, and some whole wheat bread. Tasty—until I dig too deep and discover some sauerkraut lying in wait at the bottom of the dish. What is with these Europeans and their pickled vegetables?! Oh well, at least I can say that I did eat sauerkraut while in Germany.

One final note on food: In order to escape the rain for a bit, we duck into the cafe at the Bielefeld modern/pop art museum (Kunsthalle). I order jasmine tea, which comes in a little one-person pot sitting atop a fondue-style burner. I have not previously encountered this method of keeping my tea warm as I drink it, and I am impressed by its ingeniousness. I also forget that it is there, and accidentally burn the dregs in the bottom of the pot once it is emptied. Oops. Anyway, accompanying the tea is, of course, sugar, and it looks like this:
(Anal-retentively organized sugar cubes. This is the first time in my life that I am surrounded by people more fanatically organized than I am.)

(more to come...)

Friday, 21 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part II

Something else you cannot help but notice as you walk down the streets is the number of smokers—and not only of cigarettes, but also of cigars (a smell that will forever remind me of my late grandfather). The prevalence of smoking in continental Europe is legendary, and many Brits who have become spoiled by smoke-free pubs come home from abroad complaining of the stench. While people definitely do still smoke in the UK, it seems to me that either fewer people smoke there, or each individual smokes less often. Either way, there is much more puffing here than I am used to. I am still amazed when I find working cigarette vending machines, as I did in one of the first restaurants we visited here. In the US, such machines were outlawed when I was a little girl. Also, I noticed an empty pack of cigarettes sitting on an ashtray and couldn’t help but observe how large the health warning was.

One of the nicest things about walking the streets of Bielefeld is the amount of green you get to experience. Here, that is partly due to the presence of the Teutoburg Forest ("Teutoburger wald"). In fact, while researching the trip before our departure, I was informed by Wikipedia that Bielefeld was originally founded to guard the valley that separates the forest into its northern and southern parts. Forest or no, I have been informed that cities in Europe quite often have this same look, with wide strips of grass and trees planted in between lanes of traffic, or along sidewalks, and preserved around houses and parking lots. These are not the puny little exotic ornamentals that you find in the US, occupying one little cement-free square in the sidewalk. These are decades-old chestnuts and maples and pines with plenty of room to spread out belowground without cracking the infrastructure:

(A view of the city from the castle)

(Another view from the castle. Looks haunted, doesn't it?)

Because of all this verdant loveliness, there are also many birds, and you can hear their singing constantly because the town is not that loud. There is car traffic, but not much—most people seem to use the tram/subway/bus systems that provide access all over town. That means you can clearly distinguish the sounds of great tits, blue tits, wrens, and, especially, blackbirds. This can also be said of life in the UK. However, even though our town, Falmouth, is considerably smaller than Bielefeld, it is less green and its bird life (other than the noisy gulls) is much less evident.

One other thing that Bielefeld has in abundance, which is not nearly as pleasant, is a whole lot of dog poo. As in the UK, it appears that practically everyone has a dog. There are many dachshunds here, including the wire-haired variety, which you do not see as often as the short-haired variety back in the US. Also as in the UK, people walk into shops with their dogs, including take-away cafes and other establishments selling food. I think this is great because I always used to hate having to tie up our dog outside if I needed to run into the post office or grocery store. You can get away with this much more in Europe for a couple of reasons. First of all, there are many more smaller dogs than bigger dogs, because people live in smaller houses and flats, and have smaller yards, if they have yards at all. In the UK, you see an infinite variety of terrier breeds; here, though there are a handful of terriers (particularly regular and toy Yorkshires), there are many more Asian lapdog breeds, including Malteses and Pekineses. More important than size, though, is being trained, and European dogs behave better than kids—and, lest you think I am exaggerating, let me state for the record that I am not. Both here and in the UK, dogs do not pay attention to anyone but their masters, they wander along right at their masters’ heels even if they are not on a leash, and they barely even investigate other dogs. It is amazing. Equally amazing is that, when they poo, most owners do not pick up after them. There is poo on sidewalks, poo on tree roots, poo next to streams, poo at the bottoms of buildings, poo in the grass…poo everywhere:

(Yes, I actually photographed poo...with a lovely side of litter)

However, my husband thinks that some city employee may come around early in the mornings or late in the evenings and clean it up, which does make things a bit better. All the same, it’s a little disturbing, especially for someone who was once a professional petsitter and avidly collected plastic baggies so as to have a perpetual supply on hand for erasing all evidence that a dog ever passed (literally and figuratively).

(more to come later...)

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part I

My first impression of Germany: It is not nearly as warm as it was supposed to be. The internet weather forecast assured me I would finally encounter appropriate springtime temperatures that had, thus far, been lacking in Cornwall. But, no, it is a windy 10 degrees and intermittently raining, and at night it is expected to get down almost to freezing. The short skirts and short-sleeved tops I packed will be a bit chilly, I think, but at least I had the foresight to put both a cardigan and an umbrella in my suitcase.

The trip from the airport to our final destination in Bielefeld is surprisingly easy, though the train ticket machine at the airport has an overwhelming number of options. However, it also appears smart enough to hold an advanced degree, and ushers us through the ticket-buying process just like a real human would have. Fancy. The trains really are as punctual as everyone says—literally punctual enough to set your watch by, which both my husband and I do after we realize that the (British) flight attendant had rounded up when telling us the local time, and therefore had set us four minutes fast. In the terminal where we switch from the train to the underground, we have a bit of a snigger over the ticket machine, the writing on which includes the word “fahrt” (it means “journey,” which is not nearly so funny in English). Later, in the city, we will also giggle over “Sparkasse” (a bank), yet another demonstration of our sophistication:

(My friend, another Caitlin, newly weighed down with Euros from the "geldautomat"--the ATM)

From the very start, the ethnic diversity of Germany surprises me. In the airport, we pass a Muslim prayer room, which I don’t remember seeing in any other airport I’ve been in (I’m sure they are there, but are simply less obvious). There are many women in headscarves and skin tones from all over the rainbow. The restaurants closest to our hotel are Italian (run by actual Italian immigrants, which is handy because my husband orders for us in Italian and bypasses the awkwardness of not speaking German), Tex-Mex (with surprisingly good guacamole), and Argentinian, and throughout the rest of the nearby square, it is easier to find “ethnic” cuisine than traditional German cuisine (unless you count candy and ice cream, which are everywhere). It takes quite a bit of time and effort to see someone with the stereotypical “Aryan” blonde-haired, blue-eyed look.

What I do see is a whole lot of people who look like me, in terms of facial structure. With my short stature, I must be a couple inches below the average female height here, and there are many women who would tower over me even without heels. In fact, there are many women here who are taller than my husband by several inches, which explains why there are so many good German high jumpers in international competitions. In any case, I do see the strong facial lines, squarish jaw, and prominent nose that have been handed down from my father’s German ancestors. The fashion here is in some ways similar to that in the UK, but also surprisingly different in key ways. For one thing, there is (mercifully) less of an emphasis on the retro 80’s trends, and more of an emphasis on more classic, sophisticated pieces (but, of course, the trends I see in Falmouth are often driven by the younger college/surf crowd). Here, as in Britain, there are boots galore, but most German women wear at least an inch-high heel, whereas British women frequently wear flat boots for everyday purposes. This discrepancy is particularly odd given the height difference between these two populations. Germans of both sexes wear glasses that I can only describe as “strong”—square or rectangular lenses with very obvious, chunky frames. This is the anti-Sarah Palin choice of optics. Many people, particularly women, choose quite bright colours for their frames, such as red and purple and lime green. In America, this is a look I might expect to find on quirky artsy or academic types, but here it is practically ubiquitous.

Short introduction

In the early spring of 2010, I moved to the United Kingdom from the United States to live with my new husband, a Brit. I had been to the UK before—once with my family, once on my own, and several times to visit my husband during our long-distance courtship:

(Me in St. Ives)

(My husband and I at the Tregothnan tea plantation)

(Me watching pub cricket somewhere in between Wales and Cornwall)

For the most part, integrating into British culture is not difficult (I say this in the present-tense because it is an ongoing process, and will be, I think, for many years). Brits—in remote, non-ethnically-diverse Cornwall where we live—generally speak the same language, wear recognizable fashions, eat similar food, practice similar religions, and have similar recreational interests as Americans. In other words, because the cultural similarities outweigh the cultural differences, moving to Cornwall is no different than being a Yankee and moving to the Deep South, or relocating from Alaska to Hawaii. Or so I thought. That may have been what it was like to visit the UK, but it is amazing how many new differences become apparent after you have fully immersed yourself in another culture—even one that has many things in common with your own.

Luckily for me, I find these differences fascinating rather than annoying (well, most of the time, anyway). After all, I was one course shy of minoring in anthropology as an undergraduate, so I can’t help but examine and ponder, compare, contrast, laugh (and occasionally grumble) at, and generally enjoy other cultures. In the entries that follow, I will be documenting, both visually and verbally, some of the many culture clashes, both mild and extreme, that I have encountered since my move to the UK. Britain’s location facilitates travels to many other countries, and although short-term trips will not yield the sort of “immersion dynamics” that I mentioned earlier, I can’t pass up the opportunity to make some more cultural observations as I roam, comparing foreign places to both my former and current country of residence. Being in another country makes you think about your own from a different perspective, so occasionally I will also write about American culture, how it varies among regions, and how it’s perceived by the people I encounter abroad. Finally, I will sometimes take a break from my own experiences and opinions to record those of others, discuss practicalities of travel and social navigation, focus on current events related to any of the aforementioned themes, and, sometimes, talk about people and places from a historical or anthropological perspective.

So, in a nutshell, this is a blog about differences and similarities and how it feels to encounter them both far from, and close to, “home.” It is not a blog about feeling superiorly American and pointing out how improperly the rest of the world does things, or a blog in which I will poke fun at anyone’s culture. However much I may laugh at something I can’t wrap my head around, I acknowledge that it only seems strange to me because I am not used to it: I don’t believe in “right” or “wrong” ways to do things, only variety, and through the examination of variety, the opportunity to come to a better understanding of myself and my own ways of doing things.