Category Archives: Living abroad

Settled In

I am now fully settled into my house-cat-chicken sitting and remote-work gig.  I guess I’m what is now called a digital nomad.

I have crossed some hurdles that I dreaded.

How would I ever figure out the trash and recycling system?  Just look at the “helpful” aids!

I did it, but the hardest part was getting it through my head that the green bin is for trash, not recycling.  All my life, green has equaled recycling.

I like how the A to Zed wheel suggests composting tissues.  I use a lot of tissues.  My nose starts running as soon as winter comes and drips continuously through May.  But I will not be composting my tissues.

Laundry.  I made the mistake of putting in a load of sheets and choosing the Cotton setting.  Four and a half hours later, they were done.  From now on I’ll use the Super Speed setting for every load, which on this Samsung machine still takes an hour.

I am a good foot shorter than the home owners, so I have had to stand on a footstool to hang laundry in the spare room that’s set up for that.  I couldn’t find the light switch for the cocktail lounge, and finally messaged one of the owners about it.  It’s located just above my head so I couldn’t see it.

Small challenges overcome, small mysteries solved.

A bigger psychological and financial hurdle was joining a gym.  I finally settled on FeelFit, which seemed to be the cheapest and closest.  It still cost $80 for one month. On the website it claimed to have state of the art equipment. Yep, state of the art for 1987.  The treadmills have dot matrix displays!  The weight machines take me back—I feel like I’m in a museum of weight lifting equipment.

The gym is in a mall in a very chav (low rent) district.  Lots of teen mothers hanging around smoking.  Lots of young men with tattoos on their necks and faces and wearing all black.  Many very obese people buying packets of crisps (potato chips) and biscuits (cookies) and giant bottles of Coke.  If I walk home, the neighborhood is also run down and it’s depressing.

I figured out how to take the bus so I can bypass the run-down people and houses and get in and out quickly.  The bus is expensive, about $5 for a one-mile round trip.  So on top of $80 I’ll spend $40 to get to and from the place twice a week.

I’m just going there to lift weights, and I’m thinking of it as a trip down nostalgia lane.  I’m actually enjoying it because it’s hilarious and hey, the old machines do the trick.  Weight is weight.

I have committed to two yoga classes per week.  One is a new format called Tara Yoga that is new to me and quite a workout.  It’s taught by different soft-talking people each week.  On Fridays I do Iyenegar, my favored type of yoga, with a guy named Toby.  He kind of yells at us, “No, Penelope, no, no, no!  Pull your bum back and tuck in your tum!”  I would pay just to watch him yell at people.  I brought Toby a half carton of eggs last week and that seemed to mellow him out a bit, at least towards me.

I’ve run into a few finance snags.  Toby wants to be paid by standing order, which means an auto deducted payment on the first of each month from a current (checking) account.  This would require me to have a British checking account, which ain’t gonna happen.  I tried to hand him cash and he recoiled, “I certainly don’t take cash!” Not sure what that was about.  We compromised with PayPal.

I’ve been unable to deposit a check using the fabulous Zelle mobile app because it doesn’t work outside the US.  Foiled!  I had to mail it to my US bank, hoping it doesn’t get lost between Royal Mail and the USPS.

And now, some food photos.

The obligatory fish and chips.

It’s easy to be vegan in Oxford.

You could eat cock instead of chicken

But burgers with onion rings and chips (fries) are better.

Back in the Shire

Oxfordshire, that is.

I’ve put off writing because I didn’t know which angle to take.  Should I document all the things I’ve seen and done in the last 10 days?  Should I write about odd happenings, like me falling on an escalator and attracting the attention of dozens of shoppers and shop keepers, all asking solicitously, “are you all right?”  (I was embarrassed and bruised, but otherwise all right.).  I could contract American and British things. I could write about the history of Oxford and its famous university, or chronicle my inner journey of relocating to another country.

All this was a good excuse to procrastinate, but to be fair to myself, I’ve been putting in a lot of work hours and keeping busy gadding about town.

I’ll start with my base, the house where I am house sitting, which affords me a sanctuary from which I emerge and explore.  I will share some photos eventually, but I want to be careful about not creeping out the homeowners.

It’s a terraced house, a typical type of housing in the UK.  Probably dates to the Edwardian era, named for King Edward VII who reigned from 1901-1910.  There are windows and doors front and back and neighbors on either side.

I haven’t heard much of or even seen the neighbors.  I heard water whooshing on the other side of a wall one day, a door slamming once.  Last night around 3am I smelled toast.

On the ground floor, which in America we call the first floor, there’s a living room, which they call the lounge.  There’s a dining room, kitchen, and sunroom, which my homeowner calls The Cocktail Lounge. Up a steep set of narrow stairs is what they call the first floor and Americans call the second floor.  Here there are two bedrooms and a bathroom.  In this house, the owners have very cleverly opened up the rafters to build a loft office.  Getting up there involves climbing an even steeper set of stairs.

There’s a back garden, which in America we call the back yard.  With terraced housing back gardens are very long, narrow spaces.  In my case, the back garden has been bisected by a fence.  The front half is for people and the back half is for chickens.

Yes, I am tending four hens who my homeowners rescued from a laying factory.  They make adorable noises like “bwaaaaaaa, buh buh buh” and the usual clucking.  Every morning I go out to collect one to three eggs.  I let the hens out to free range and top up their food and water.  Once a week I clean out their little house and hose down the sidewalk that has become mucky with chicken poo (Americans say poop—why?).

One of the hens is hen pecked by the others.  She has hardly any feathers except on her head, which makes her look like a little pot-bellied naked person wearing a chicken-head costume.

There are also three cats, one of whom rarely makes an appearance.  They poo outside so I don’t have to deal with a litter box.  They have a smart cat door which reads their microchips and won’t open to neighborhood cats.

My seven housemates are low maintenance.  Caring for them gives me a little routine to ground myself each day.

I live in Cowley, the vibrant, diverse neighborhood east of Oxford city center where real people live.

I live a half hour walk from Oxford city center.  Since my arrival I’ve walked at least an hour a day just to get around.  I could take a bus, but why, if I am able to walk?

There is so much going on here, and it’s cheap or free if you look.  The highlight so far was a free concert at Christchurch Cathedral.

The program was Chopin, and the pianist played the funeral march from Sonata Number 2.

This piece has become almost a joke, but if you listen to the whole thing you will hear it is not only a beautiful piece of music but a celebration of life with all its ups and downs and frustrations and joys.

Which pretty much sums up my life so far.

Good-Bye, Minnesota

Has it really been a month since I’ve written a post?  Writing about Japan took a ton of time and energy.  I needed a break.

I returned determined to cook and eat Japanese-ish.  I bought tiny dishes at the Salvation Army to add to the Siroton dishes I bought at the airport, then tried my hand at making pickled vegetables, tofu, and eggplant with dengaku, the super oishi (delicious) sauce.  I arranged everything beautifully on a bamboo tray and ate with chopsticks.

It was okay.  I did this for a few weeks, then reverted to my usual habit of making crock pot and hot-dish-type meals.

I will turn 60 in a few weeks.  I’ll be in the UK, so I threw an early party for myself.  I made big pans of vegetarian lasagna and moussaka.  My cousin Molly made two cakes—chocolate torte and cardamom lingonberry.

Vince brought a charcuterie board with so much cheese I sent friends home with baggies full.

It was a fun night.  I requested no presents, and most everyone took me at my word.

In a few hours I’ll board a plane to London.  My subletter will roll in this evening.  I’ve been cleaning and packing and doing laundry and taking care of business at a nice steady pace for a couple weeks.  I didn’t need any more stuff to make decisions on, thus the “no gifts” request.

I don’t need anything except warm clothes and books, and I have plenty of both.

I was super happy to see, when I checked in, rows of empty seats.  If it’s really true, I may actually be able to lie down across four seats and sleep a couple hours.  Shhhh…don’t tell anyone, but a certain family member is slipping me a couple Restless Legs prescription pills for the flight.

I’ll arrive in London at 7:30am, catch the bus to Oxford, and stay in a guest house for a couple nights before I move in to the house where I’ll be a cat and chicken carer for three months.

I’ll also be very busy working on proposals for my former employer, the torture rehabilitation NGO.

Believe it or not, I will miss working at the YMCA.  Child care is on the opposite end of the spectrum from my proposal work as far as pay, benefits, and prestige.  But I love little kids, it got me out of the house, and I took full advantage of the free Y membership that was the one perc of the job.

I will have to work to find things to do to pry myself away from the house in Oxford.  One thing that will help is that it’s already spring there—daffodils are blooming!  I will not miss the snow and cold of Minnesota.  I’ve shoveled the walks nine times thus far this year, and it’s now snowing again.  Blech.

I’ve gone through my usual phases of preparing myself emotionally and mentally for this sojourn.  The initial excitement.  The panic of organizing it all.  The last-minute thoughts of, “I don’t want to go!” and finally the readiness.

I feel guilty about leaving my mother.  She and her husband have so many health problems and she has depended on me to take her shopping, etc.  But it’s my youngest brother’s turn to play this role.  And my mother and her hubby have both told me, “Go!  Go while you can still do it.”

I will miss my friends and Vince and his wife and (I admit) most of all my new granddaughters.  I spent New Year’s Eve babysitting them, and it was a blast.  We went to a confetti drop at the zoo, gazed awe struck at manta rays and baby giraffes, waked through the St. Paul Cathedral and looked up at the stained glass windows, did art projects, went to the library, and (they) played with blue slime, a product that produces farting noises and is impossible to remove from sheets, pillows, hair, and clothes.

Please, try not to be jealous of my whoop-dee-doo NYE.

I didn’t want to write a post, but I did, and I’ll keep doing so once I’m on the other side.

Happy New Year!

Thanksgiving and Housecleaning

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you who eat turkey today.  Or tofurky.

Today I am grateful for my freedom.  Of course I’m grateful for freedom of speech and other basic freedoms, but what I really mean is I’m grateful that I have choices.

I spent my first decades feeling trapped because I was broke and had no financial cushion.  If I planned a little weekend road trip, then learned my car needed new brakes, the trip would have to be cancelled.  I didn’t have an extra $250 or whatever those choices cost back then.  I couldn’t get my brakes fixed and take a break.

Often, it wasn’t even a choice between a necessity and a “nice to have,” like a trip.  I had to choose between paying my electric bill or my student loan installment.  Or between buying a full tank of gas or five pounds of hamburger, which was cheaper per pound than buying one.  If I chose the gas, then ramen would have to do.

It was especially hard during the long years it took for me to pay off my credit card debt.  I had a chart on the wall on which I marked the amount I paid and the declining total.  I had to have something visual in front of me or I wouldn’t have been able to stick to it.  Things didn’t get any easier after the card was paid off, because now I had to buy things with real money, which was limited.  But what a feeling of freedom.

Somewhere around the time I turned 35, I finally paid off the student loan I’d taken out when I was 20.  That thing had been like an anvil I’d been carrying on my back.

Then, when I turned 40, I got my first job where I paid my bills and to my surprise, had a few hundred dollars left over.  Wow!  I’d like to say I socked it away in savings but I blew it all on clothes.

It’s been good ever since, with a few tight patches.  As I’ve written before, I’ve mostly lived below my means and this has given me a lot of freedom and choices.  And I’ve said it before but I am super grateful that I found a duplex where my rent, including internet, heat, and electric, totals $1,005.

I am aware and grateful that I was born in a time and place—and of a class and race—which made it possible for me to pull myself up by the bootstraps.

I’ve been working on “financial hygiene” projects to get ready for my UK sojourn this winter.  I’m not in the practice of recommending particular companies, but I just moved my checking and savings accounts to Capital One from my local community bank.  I never thought I would leave my local bank for a global mega bank, but I didn’t want to pay foreign transaction fees or ATM fees and I was only earning about .002% interest on my savings.  I don’t have a lot of money, so I strive to avoid fees and earn as much interest as possible.

It took me a year of procrastinating, but I switched from ATT to Total Wireless.  My bill will be $27 a month instead of $53.  I did the research and ordered a UK sim card, giffgaff, that’ll cost $13 a month.

I set up new and stronger passwords on my accounts and tested paying my rent using Zelle.  I faced opening my car’s owner’s manual to figure out what the indicator lights on my dashboard meant—I needed new brakes!

A friend gave me a Chromecast device when he upgraded to something else and I figured out how to set it up—he’s a computer scientist and he was impressed!  I will take it to the UK and use it there too.

I am going through 22 photo albums, scrap books, year books, and boxes of ephemera and mercilessly tossing out all the photos of landscapes that could be anywhere and ticket stubs for unremarkable performances.  I hope to consolidate down to five albums.

I hate all these chores, but grateful I have the first-world freedom to tackle them.

Next Steps

As we were leaving our last museum of the day, the kindly volunteer gestured to a shelf with books for sale and invited us to take a work of origami made by her and other volunteers, gratis.  I realize they didn’t have many visitors this time of year and so they have time on their hands, but still—these works were really impressive.

For some reason I would have felt guilty taking, literally, a whole boatload, so I selected a deer, the symbol of Nara.  Here it is, in my curio cabinet, where it will remain the only item until I sell this behemoth.

The volunteer waved us back over to her desk, where she informed us of an approaching typhoon.  It turned out to be nothing, but it’s weird that I’m writing about it now, when there was actually a typhoon in Tokyo and the surrounding areas just last week that killed 60 people.

Back at the hotel, Lynn and I decided we would be too embarrassed to partake in the All You Can Drink menu for a third night.  So we ordered room service and had doughy, crustless cucumber sandwiches again, with corn nuts and vending machine beers.

The next day, I would journey on to Koyasan and Lynn would return to Tokyo, where she would spend a night and then fly back to Scotland the following day.

Since we met in 2006, Lynn and I have visited Prague, Italy, Berlin, Colombia, New Orleans, Spain, New York, Minnesota, many places in the UK, and now Japan.  As is our habit on our last night, we packed and talked travel.

Where were we going next?  What were the top three destinations on our travel wish lists?  Where should we try to meet up next?

I already had a round trip ticket to Panama for December. Lynn said she and Richard might have a holiday in Crete in spring 2020.  We talked about going to Vietnam.  It’s something we’ve discussed for a few years but between our work schedules and Vietnam’s rainy season, it hasn’t panned out so far.

We had the news on.  At the G20 Summit in nearby Osaka, Trump was insulting his host and our US ally, Japan.

“I know I talk about moving to another country all the time,” I said, wincing at the news.  “But this shit really, really makes me want to flee.”

“Well now you’re self-employed, you can work anywhere,” Lynn responded.

True.  But not so easy, with my mother declining and my son’s family growing.

There’s all my stuff. And my US friends

And inertia.

We went round and round about the bill for the hotel.  I had been tracking our shared expenses in an Excel spreadsheet, at which Lynn rolled her eyes.  In the end I snuck up to the front desk and paid the whole thing, and she wired me a few hundred quid once she was home.

Today is October 20 and here is an update before I wind up my Japan narrative.

I cancelled my trip to Panama.  It’s the first time in my life I’ve done this, but I didn’t have enough financial certainty to feel comfortable paying for two weeks there.  But also, the Rough Guide was full of statements like, “Avoid the scar slum,” and “The museum costs $2 and isn’t worth it,” and “This cathedral has been closed for renovation since 2010.”  So I wasn’t feelin’ it anyway.

As soon as I cancelled, I learned that my main contract would renew next year.

That’s good news, because I’ll be housesitting in Oxford for three months this winter and won’t be able to work in a job job.    I’ll be chicken and cat sitting, and working remotely on contract.  I’ve found a sub-letter for my duplex, so I won’t be losing money.

Then, I will traverse Europe by train and boat—an experiment to see if I can produce zero carbon emissions by not flying.  I’ll meet Lynn and Richard in Crete, where they will be with some other friends.

In the meantime, I’ll be working all the hours I can get at the YMCA, and substitute para-teaching, to save, save, save.

Curio Schmurio

I spent a night at my son’s before I left for Japan, so he could easily give me a ride to the airport the next morning and use my car while I was gone.

There are so many logistics involved in a one-month trip, and the more stuff you have, the more thinking and planning it takes.  My car—much as I need it and love driving—falls under the category of stuff.  I couldn’t leave it parked outside my house; it might have been reported as an abandoned vehicle and towed.  My first plan was to leave it in my brother’s driveway, but that would have made getting to the airport challenging because he was already transporting my sister-in-law and two nephews and their baggage in his small car.  I could have taken an Uber or a taxi from there, but Vince said he’d be happy to use my car, which gets better mileage than his minivan.

I know I’m not alone in struggling between liking my stuff and wanting to heave it all out the window and run away forever.

Yesterday I acquired the ultimate piece of stuff, an antique curio cabinet that has stood in successive generations of my family’s homes, most recently my aunt’s.

Why, oh why, did I take it?  It’s a lovely but useless piece; the worst combination of both fragile and heavy.  But there’s a strong tug of nostalgic value.  I have childhood memories of gingerly opening the glass front and taking out the trinkets my grandmother kept inside.  Once a year or so we would do the same at my aunt’s, and she would tell stories about the origins of the cut-glass pickle boat or the bisque Christmas ornament of a roly-poly little man we called Happy Fat.

Molly, my cousin, said she always felt the curio cabinet was a ball and chain.  “We could never run around the house without mom yelling, ‘Be careful of the curio cabinet!’”

It’s a symbol to me, this curio cabinet.  A symbol of my ties to ancestry and place, but also of being stuck in Minnesota and never being able to escape its gravitational pull.  So I’ll try to sell it.  Some nice gay couple may want it for their Lalique collection.

I struggled the day before I left.  Why was I leaving?  It was summer, which is so fleeting and precious in Minnesota!  Summer is our reward for getting through the long winters.  Why wouldn’t I stay, and spend time with my son’s girls?

Of course I went, and here they are examining the Japanese food items I brought home a month later.

People aren’t stuff.  But, like belongings, they make it difficult to run away from home, temporarily or permanently.

I came across this quote from Henry David Thoreau:

There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself….

I’m not sure what it means, or what it means for me, but I do know I’ve got Post-Trip Depression Syndrome (PTDS) and maybe Thoreau—the ultimate case of someone who chucked it all and went to live in the woods—can help.

My travel to Tokyo was completely smooth until I exited Hamamatsucho Station with my suitcase and attempted to find my hotel.  I had chosen not to pay for a portable hotspot or data, so I was going off printed directions, which said the hotel was a 10-minute walk from the station.  How hard could it be?

An hour later I was trudging down the same tiny alley for the third time, squinting to scry English anywhere but mainly to hold back tears of frustration and anxiety.

I was also hoping a stranger would feel sorry for me and help me find the hotel without me having to ask for help.

Finally I walked a half block farther than the city blocks I’d circled four times.  I saw something that looked like a hotel and … it was my hotel.  Whew.

Here’s another quote I totally get, from the travel guru Rick Steves.

Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.

Exchanges

Thanks to Craig’s List, I found someone to sublet my duplex while I’m in Japan.  This will cover my bills back home, which will help me to not dig myself too deep into a financial pit.

The sub-letter is a Chinese guy who is earning a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Zhang came by in February to look at the place and give me the deposit check.  Yesterday he came again to get an orientation to the house.

He brought a friend with him, Winnie, probably not her real name. Also Chinese, she graduated from the program in Counseling Psychology last year and is working two jobs, one in a group home for severely mentally ill adults and one in some other kind of home for handicapped children, I think.

So the US will still grant work visas for people who are willing to do that kind of physically and emotionally demanding work.  She probably makes minimum wage and gets no benefits.

It’s surprising, once you start thinking it through, how many things about a 900-square-foot duplex need explaining.  I’ve been foiled many a time by Italian washing machines overseas, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

Zhang is renting the place for his parents, who are coming to visit for a month.

I didn’t want to talk down to him but I didn’t want to assume he knew things.  “Your parents aren’t farmers from the Autonomous Mongolian Region, right?” I joked.  I had a renter years ago whose family fit that description.  She had not known what a waste basket was for.  I suppose, on a farm, they just burned their trash out back like we used to do in St. Paul in the 70s.

Zhang laughed and said his parents lived in a big city, but not far from that region. They had just retired from their factory jobs and this would be their first vacation.

“You mean their first vacation since retiring?”

“No, their first vacation, ever.”

Zhang seemed a bit taken aback by the gas stove.  “It’s a flame,” he remarked when I demonstrated.  I assume his parents would know all about stoves.  Maybe he never cooked until he had to fend for himself as a college student, and then maybe he ate in student dining or had a Bunsen burner in his dorm.

My compost bin also seemed a puzzle.  “Why is this woman showing me a can full of garbage, and why does she keep it in her house?” I imagined him thinking.  Winnie said, helpfully, “So the animals can eat this when you discard it outside?”

I said yes.  Why not.  I wasn’t going to try to explain how I am trying to save the planet by creating organic compost that I never use.  And the animals do eat it.

Zhang’s parents have never been on a vacation, never been outside of China or on a plane.  I’m not going to worry about them composting their food scraps.

I asked Zhang if he was done with school for the year.  He has finished his coursework and is now starting his thesis.  “I hope to finish in six years,” he said.  I wondered what his goal was—to teach?  Research?

You hear about the Chinese ability to think in terms of 50 or 100 years, unlike us Americans who are focused on where to buy our next bag of Cheetos.  Would Zhang return to China to help inform his government’s plan to make America its servant? Does that sound parnoid?  Well, I am just as vulnerable to my culture’s propaganda as any Chinese person is to his.

I felt I had to explain why I was going to Japan and not China.  “My sister-in-law is Japanese, and she and my nephews are going, so that’s why I’m going.”  I didn’t mention my daydreams if eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I don’t know how my sister-in-law feels about me going,” I added.

“Inscrutable.  That’s the word westerners use about Asians,” replied Zhang.  I was glad he said it, not me.  And I was impressed.  I don’t think I knew the word “inscrutable” until I was 50.