Birds · British "stuff" · British Birds · Fitting In · Garden · Home · Life · Musings · Nature · UK · Uncategorized

The Bird Watching Diary

They are coming more often now to the backyard. My part in that being dotting more food stations and water around, and replenishing them more often.  They also seem to be moving more in pairs, showing off in a dance sashaying their wings, and singing in unintended chorus that make mornings so much more beautiful.  I will miss this when I go back soon.  But not to worry, hubby is putting cameras inside the bird houses (we have 2) and I will be able to see how they are growing their families. If I often gripe about how Technology has alienated people from one another, I marvel at how close it has brought us to our animal friends. :)  Note:  Magpies, I learn now, are not just black and white.  They have that electric blue stripe from the edge of  wings to tail.  As if they could get prettier.

“The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”  ~ Willie Nelson

"Britishisms" · Accent · Books · British "stuff" · British Television · British Traits · Entertainment · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Lost In Translation · People · UK

Quiz Love

I love British TV and one of my favorite genres is the quiz-themed.  For me, it is relaxing, and at the same, ironically, provides a chance for me get hyped shouting answers at the telly– cathartic when you’re in a country where you have no friends, family or work colleagues to talk to just any time.  My favorites (in order) are:  University Challenge (BBC), Mastermind (BBC), The Chase (ITV) and Eggheads (BBC).

I began to follow a full season of University Challenge (meaning, start to finish) last year. When I was in the US, I would catch it on delayed run on YouTube. I have also introduced a few American friends to it, and they love it.  Which makes me wonder why Quiz shows are not as big or common on American TV, but anyway.  I digress.  University Challenge got a spike (not just in viewership but in social media buzz) largely because of Canadian Eric Monkman and his team mates Justin Yang (also Canadian), Ben Chaudri (who has made “Nominate Chaudri” a popular byline when you need help with answers) and Paul Cosgrove (he of the bemused smile and closing-bracket sitting position) from Wolfson College, Cambridge.  And also the team from Emmanuel College Cambridge led by Bobby Seagull and his baby-faced teammates.  Monkman’s tight-browed intensity and booming voice is a stark contrast to Seagull’s smiley enthusiasm, but they seem to share an endearing lack of arrogance or self consciousness.  And altho neither team won the Championship — that honor went to Oxford’s Balliol College (led by Joey Goldman) — they came out with their own cult following.  The bromance also produced radio stints and a book  (which I must admit I have yet to get a copy, but I will).

So far this year, the show is at the quarter finals level.  My favorite team is Ulster University — if only because, or maybe precisely because, they are so out-of-the-mold of the teams or winners:

  1.  They are from Northern Ireland (largely under represented in UC)
  2.  Their average age is 50 which makes them often more than twice the average age of their opponents (“You’re never too old!”)
  3.  They are a very good, solid, cohesive and fast team
  4.  They are NOT Oxbridge (to point out the obvious)
  5.  Their spirited, excitable and animated expressions when they get a question right or wrong.

They have that underdog quality that makes you just want to root for them, because they represent the quiet and deadly potential, nay power, of the unexpected.  I really hope they win (they lost to St. John’s Cambridge, but still have another shot) or at least go through to the semis.  Go Ulster!

Books · British "stuff" · British Birds · Chicago · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Gadgets · Garden · Gifts · Life · Nature · Photography · UK · Uncategorized

Bird Watching

When I tell friends in the US about the “British things” I like or do when in the UK, I get reactions like eyes widening (or rolling) or raised eyebrows.  Drives home the reality that my lives on either side of the pond are VERY different, and this oftentimes makes my interests on one side of the pond sound quite incredulous to people on the other.  But I always say “vive de difference” as it is always difference, diversity, even incongruence, in life that makes things inviting and fun.  The latest thing I have developed is (get ready for this) BIRDWATCHING.  In Chicago, I don’t get the chance to see the variety of birds that i can when in our little village in the UK.  I can tell you though that at any one time when I look up the sky in the Windy City, I can see at least 3 planes flying northwestward over Lake Michigan, en route to Ohare International.  Mechanized flying things that roar, not quite as graceful as birds and their songs.  And so I started noticing these feathered friends from those daily look-outs from the window by the kitchen sink here in England, and hearing their tweets and calls.  What a refreshing treat.  Not long after my father-in-law gave us a colored poster of common birds (pull out from a Sunday paper) which piqued my curiosity even more. Add on a day at Caernarfon Castle with the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds) selling (and me buying) lapel pins of a host of bird species to raise funds, and the serendipitous £1 find I got from a charity shop (RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds by Simon Harrap) the very next day, and there we have the perfect storm of the birth of a new hobby.

Over Christmas, Hubby bought me a pair of binoculars, specifically, a NIKON PROSTAFF 7s 10×42.  They are not the typical small little things that birdwatchers can thrust into the pockets.  More the type you hang on your neck while you move around. They feel “substantial” — which I like, because they have more the feel that you’re holding a piece of equipment rather than a toy.  The best part of it is that it is lightweight, for all the power it packs in.  IMG_3358

I keep on the window sill the RSPB pocket guide, and a more expansive “Birds of Britain and Europe” by Rob Hume. I like that both books either describe the bird voice/sounds or illustrate their flight pattern.  Both books also provide a cross reference to confusion species or similar species.  I also have a small notebook where I have begun to note down the birds I have seen and where.  For now, I think the most special one I have on the list is the Great-Spotted Woodpecker which honored us with its presence when it came for the bird-feed pellets we have just put out.                                                                                                                            With his bold black wings decorated with little white dots, and a bright red crown and under tail — what a beauty.  We now have 3 feeders in the backyard, and we like to think it has become Blue Tits Central in this little neighborhood.  They fly together, and oftentimes we have finches, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins, starlings, chubby wood pigeons and even the odd pheasants joining in there party.  I am so looking forward to more of these glorious feathered creatures, in number and types, coming over in the spring and summer.

“…I keep looking for one more teacher, only to find that fish learn from the water and birds learn from the sky.” ~ Mark Nepo (author, in “Facing The Lion, Being The Lion, Finding Inner Courage Where It Lives”)

Accent · British Traits · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Life · Life On The Road · Lost In Translation · Shopping · UK

Snippet on Adjusting to Life in the UK

I realize that I haven’t posted in a while; and I am a little half-hearted about jump-starting it with a grumble.  In particular, it will be about (the virtually non-existent) customer service in the UK…. again.  It’s the one thing about  UK life I can’t quite get my head around, just because it’s a puzzle that in a country where everything is about civility, politeness and niceties, very few stores (or “shops”) seem to be able to get it right.

Today I headed into town to run a few errands at the bank and the post office.  Too early for the return train — and yes, I DO have to rush back home as I have a conference call to Chicago by 9:30 Central Time — I decided to go to Debenhams to use up an expiring gift card.  The gift card had a 24-month lifetime, and we got it as a wedding gift 2 years ago.  Hence the urgency to use it before its expiration.  I got a few small things at the home section, and headed up to pay.   Here goes the convo at the till:

Cashier :  Hi, you alright?

Me :  Hi, yes, I’m good how are you (waited for her to scan the 2 items, tell me the total, and then I handed over the gift card)

Cashier :  (peering from the top of her bifocals for some time and swiping it) — Do you know how much money you have on the card?

Me : (slightly surprised why it was up to me to tell her how much was left on the card — she could swipe to find out couldn’t she? — and trying to remember how much I had left on the card).  Hmmmmm…. I’m not too sure.   I think I might have around £120-something on it….

Cashier : (looking back at me)  So, in other words, — you do not know…..

Yup, those were her words  — “so in other words, you do not know….”

I am only slightly amused, but  mostly annoyed at myself, for being thrown off by comments like these, especially when they come with an accent and a nose in the air (literally, as it tried to hold up her bifocals).  I am not too sure whether to react the “American way” of always being right as customer; or to tread the polite line of putting sales staff softly in their place by a slight change in my intonation, the right choice of words, or the just-enough raise of my right eyebrow.  It really is tricky to make that split-second decision to either dare to be yourself and risk awkward attention; or to live as the Romans when in Rome and tone everything way way down.  I just know that each time I come over to the UK, I do not stay long enough to get out of the mode of being the visitor or the outsider, and to know how to deal with situations the way locals do.  But because that is my choice and this is my life, for now all I can do is sigh.  Until I get it right, if they don’t.

Fitting In · Life · love · Uncategorized · Weather

Don’t Try This At Home

An overcast day in a beautiful semi-rural village on the outskirts of Manchester (England).

Outside, the leaves begin to fall, with a big chunk of burnt orange and yellows defiantly clinging to the branches, — thanks to a lingering Indian summer.

Inside, the house is too quiet and still.  And here I am by myself in the study looking out as Geoff*, (*that’s how what sounds like “Jeff” usually turns out to be spelt here), the English farmer, and his German Sherpherd do their routine back-and-forth walk on the field beyond our fence. 

In the background, iTunes randomly and perhaps coincidentally plays the perfect setback:  Elgar’s “Nimrod”.  And, being that time, It hit me.  I felt It creep in softly.  That which I knew would surreptitiously and very treacherously come one day.  I just did not think it would be today.  — “What the frick am I doing here in this part of the world, by myself, forcing myself into a very particular jigsaw puzzle shape to fit in?”  “What wind possessed me to marry in my 40s, to move away, and to exchange the familiar for constant second-guessing?”

Luckily, there was a  faithful box of tissues beside.  And between sobs I nagged myself to stop this silliness.  And you have an appeal due for filing in Cali on Tuesday.  Stop now and starting working.  Thankfully the clouds — I mean the ones hovering inside my head — did not tarry.  I blew my nose, took a deep breath, exhaled, and fired up the laptop. 

Moments later the hubby walks in, clueless to that bit of internal struggle, and I say:  “I really would like to have blueberries with my coffee.”

“Did they have it in the Co-Op?”

“Yes, they did.  2.89 for an itty-bitty pack.  But I want some.”

“Let’s go get you some then.”


“You go get dressed.  I’ll wait in the car.”

And so it came to pass.  I have my two little boxes of blueberries.  And no more tears.  And I think to myself, “THIS boy — who always put priority to what makes you happy — is why you are here.” 

In a different life, this morning could’ve continued with me blueberry-less and still questions-ful.  In a different life, I could be sad, for real and not just because of the weather’s sleight-of-hand, or Sir Edward’s tendency to the melodramatic.  And so again, I exhaled.

Take it from me.  Stay away from Elgar, and the Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” on gloomy, lonely, quiet, autumn mornings.

Saved the day
Saved the day


"The View"
"The View"


Outside the British Consulate in Chicago.
Outside the British Consulate in Chicago.

 Postscript :  In any case, Carried Bradshaw, too, married in her 40s.  All in the name of love, and closet space.

"Britishisms" · British "stuff" · Fitting In · Life On The Road · Lost In Translation · Road Signs · UK

Legalese In The Loo

“Separated by a common language” — how often have we heard that screech used to describe the divide between good ol’ Jolly Olde, versus the Colony across the pond.  You know the proverbial usuals —

“MIND THE GAP” instead of “watch your step”;

“TO LET” instead of “For Rent”;

… “TOILET” instead of “rest rooms”

and the list goes on.   I’ve seen a road sign that said —

“BEWARE : These Roads May Tend To Flood During Rain”,

and pointed out to C how “CAUTION – ROADS MAY FLOOD” would’ve made a much smaller signboard.

The uber-nice hotel we stayed in Canterbury brags of “Easy and Quick!” (note exclamation point) access to the Internet. But where’s all that quick-and-easiness that when the textually-challenged guide/instructions tell you this?   —


Yeah! — “24 hours from 12 to 12 unlimited usage”. (or 11 to 11, 10 to 10…. so on :)). Ok, let’s go through the instructions. Step 1, check. Step 2, check. Now, Step 3 — serious stall. “Select ARGUMENT”? — Hmmm, I had to consult the hubby on that one. Might we even draw swords at some point if the argument gets too heated? [Note: To be fair, the hubby confirmed that he, too, was “a bit confused” by the use of the word “argument” here, and that the usage is somewhat questionable.]

And then just last week, at the women’s restrooms at the lobby of the hotel in Falkirk, Scotland, that we stayed in, THIS sign —


“Whilst” is still happily used in everyday conversation. “Licensed Premises”? — ok. “Within sight of an accompanying adult at all times” — yes. Just dig it. This is all “PLEASE KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR KIDS” in legalese. or in English. :)
"Britishisms" · British "stuff" · Fitting In · Lost In Translation · UK

Lost In Translation

Over the weekend, C and I had dinner with Charles and Elizabeth at our favorite local Chinese buffet place, creatively named “The Chinese Buffet”.  Charles was C’s classmate from way-back when they were yay high in primary school, and Elizabeth is Charles’s wife.  I first met the couple when C’s friends threw a “welcome and post-wedding congratulations party” for us in late June.  This dinner was our turn to introduce them to one of our eating haunts before they show us theirs next.

As expected, dinner conversation (and bantering) centered on C and Charles’s childhood and growing up antics, their college escapades, and exaggerated stories about their good friends and worst enemies — the usual and expected he-men legends men try to concoct to impress their wives (hmmm….).  They also traded updates on their other passions (read:  sports) :  C’s motorsports, and Charles’s target shooting.  And so it went, until out of the blue, or what seemed to me like out the blue, the conversation went this lane:

Charles (to C):  So, are you now into property?  (the usual silent “r”– thus pronounced “propeh-tee“)

Me (thinking to myself):  Oh, is Charles selling us real estate?

But as the convo progressed, I found myself losing my way — one of those many moments of panic, now becoming common with me, where I hear English words, I know its English, yet somehow can’t really make sense of any word.  It was only when Elizabeth mentioned “silver needle” and its “exceptional, smooth taste” that I suddenly realized that Charles had asked about “proper tea” (since he observed that C and I were drinking Chinese tea), and not “property” as I mistakenly thought.  I found myself silently amused, feeling slightly silly, and made a mental note to tell Craig about how my ears have (again) played tricks on me with the sleight of a British accent (one of many).

So earlier today, I mentioned this to C.  And this is how the conversation continued:

C  :  What?  “Property”?  No, of course not.  I knew very clearly that he was talking about “proper tea”, you know — “real tea”.

Me:  Yeah, But I thought he was talking about “property”, you know — “realty”.

As they say:  “separated by a common language”.

My favorite window at St. Giles in Edinburgh.  All women, representing from upper left:  Spes (Hope), Fides (Faith), Caritas (Charity), then lower left to right, Veritas (Truth), Justitia (Justice) and Misericordia (Mercy).  Thank God for Latin in all that law school.
SHOW AND TELL AGAIN: My favorite window at St. Giles in Edinburgh. All women, representing from upper left: Spes (Hope), Fides (Faith), Caritas (Charity), then lower left to right, Veritas (Truth), Justitia (Justice) and Misericordia (Mercy). Thank God for Latin in all that law school.
British "stuff" · Fitting In · Life

You say “potato”, I say “how’s that again?”

Married 5 months.  Been here in the UK a total of almost half that time.  Although I try to get pass it, I have to admit still being at that stage where I feel like the outsider looking in most of the time.  Not a big deal though.  I was born an expat.   Which means being the one who looks strikingly different from the majority is not an attribute that I am unfamiliar with.  Which also means that noting these differences, and managing to swim along with them, is almost second nature.  After all, I’ve had a lifetime of training.  Here is a sampling of 12 basic variances, I immediately noticed between the UK and that big “colony” across the Atlantic.
1.  Of course, we all know the obvious.  Drive on the right. Fast lane is on the right. Exits are on the left.  American drivers, be careful how you turn, and where you turn onto.  American pedestrians, be careful how you cross.  Just keep that head swinging and busy, and never keep your sight off anything with wheels moving in your direction.
Note: Drivers seem to respect pedestrians less here.  I often wonder if I am the target object of some giant Nintendo game in the sky, — hit the pedestrian and earn 100 bonus points!  Driver tolerance for spaces between vehicles in the UK is higher than in the US.  Tiny cars have no qualms stopping “thisutterclosebehind” huge monster trucks — heaven help me.
2.  You’ll scald your hand if you turned on the right-side tap.  Yup, that too works the other way.

3.  Escalators that go up are on the left.

4.  Upright suitcases have their zippers open on the right side of the case.  Irritating when you realize you’ve unzipped your bag facing the other way.

5.  You pull doors IN to get OUT of a store.  In case of emergency, bulldoze everyone behind you backwards so you can pry the dang door open…..

6.  When a customer comes IN, the owner looks the other way.  Yeah, you get treatment that is the polar opposite of hardsell.

7.  The very same hands that receive and handle your paper money and coins (“Look ma, bare hands, no gloves!”), and punches the cash machine, are the very same ones that will handle your fries or your ice cream and hand them over to you.  This gives a whole new meaning to personalized service. :)  And anyway, where are the germs if you don’t see them anyway?

8.  When someone steps on your foot, YOU say sorry.

9.  The sales people or store attendants will talk, complain, or snicker and laugh about the customer who just left the store (that very one who was in front of you in the line/queue — your fellow customer, yes).  So you can only hope you behaved as blandly as possible so they don’t do the same to YOU when you leave.

10.  While the store attendants are chatting away about their daily lives (or gossiping), you, the customer, must wait quietly until they are done and turn their head to you to acknowledge your presence before you ask your question.  They will not stop their chatter for a customer.  And if you  really must interrupt their chatter, be extremely polite and apologetic.  That’s just the decent way to do things.

11.  Get used to veiled expressions and very restrained reactions/emotions. It’s not that they don’t like you. It’s all part of the “reserve” ( — which they’ve been reserving for centuries. I don’t know for what or who).  And yes you can tell they are mentally sizing you up  — wondering where you’re from, … where you learned to speak English — once they get past the surprise that you speak English at all.  But they cannot be so presumptuous as to ask.

12.  Birthday card designs for a hubby would inevitably involve a picture/drawing of an overflowing beer mug, a champagne bottle, a socceer ball, or a car.   So guess how romantic a card’s message can get with designs like that.  Well, it’s, again, part of the “reserve”).

Amusing. Confusing.  Sometimes frustrating.  But not to be fazed, they too DO thaw somewhat after a pint or two.

In closing, here are a few photos only tangentially related to the topic, but let me try to seam them together —  It IS a beautiful country, lushly packed with history and culture.  I just have to try to fit in, however loosely.  :)
cheshire 1chesire 2cheshire 3cheshire 4cheshire 5 All photos taken of Cheshire, UK.  Serious visual treat.
Fitting In · Uncategorized

As If I Knew Anything About Building Cars

This is from a note I wrote on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago, when I was down in Silverstone with the hubby for a long weekend (Wednesday night to Sunday).  Hubby was Head Judge in one of the events (Presentation — which is the part where the students presented the business viability of the car — manufacturing and investment proposals, etc.)  at  Formula Student UK (Click here for a hornbook overview of what it’s all about).  The Event is HUGE — or “colossal” — as the Brits are wont to say.  I was impressed with the quality of the work product as well as the determination of the students, the intensity of the competition, and the dedication, commitment and passion on the judges and organizers.  Although I wouldn’t even know the difference between a monkey wrench and an electric drill (ok, so I exaggerate), here I was — the one God overlooked when He was giving out Technical Skills — joining in the hustle and bustle of a racecar building and designing event.  I must say that wasn’t too difficult really.   I had fun, met quite a few interesting people, and even got to sit in a few Presentation Judging sessions.  Also, as part of my role (read: “efforts”) as the new kid on the block, or perhaps the proverbial stranger who moves in to stir the town, — I helped out with some of the Judges doing legwork.  Believe me, VERY “leg” kind of work.  From picking up sweets for a hungry one, to helping to source a “calipher“,  to running down to Central Post to have exchange one of their radios for running out of batteries.  Yeah,  I guess when you have to fit in, you will do (close to) anything to fit in.  Sometimes I remind myself why I have to do this; smile, and press on, even with a different accent.

So here is my little journal entry, — and note the little connection to Charles Dickens tucked in.  :)

Last night was the last of 4 in Silverstone. I’m all “motor’d out” with the event (Formula Student). Imagine almost 24 hours of motor-talk all the time. Dinners the past few nights have been with MotorSport engineering gurus. It’s challenge enough to catch the accent. It’s worse that I could not understand the topic they talk about. But I am learning, and I can’t wait to get away and stop talking engineering and cars.

So this morning we checked out of The Saracens Head, our nice little hotel in Towcester (pronounced “Toaster”). It thrills me lightly that this hotel figures in Charles Dicken’s “The Pickwick Papers”. It’s a nice place, huge bedrooms and comfortable beds, and best of all, the service had been awesome.  Really, the  customer service in this hotel is to “US levels” — which I mean in a good way. Everything is more “can do” and “let me get it done for you as quickly as possible” with no complaints and no frowning in front of the customer — instead of the usual “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t help you”. This is quite a welcome surprise.