Archive for the 'cultural' Category

Firsts

I alluded to it in my previous posts, and it’s true. These past few weeks I have done many a new thing. A lot of them were small, mundane things. Some, a little bigger. I’ll just go ahead and make a list of the ones that made an impact, shall I?

Sea Lions! Picture by me, from our trip to find whales.

– Checks. Before coming to the United States I’d never so much as touched a check before.  I received (and cashed) my first one a few months ago, but now I’ve even progressed to writing them (albeit with a fair bit of anxiety). It did take Beloved a good fifteen minutes of exasperated explaining that – yes, yes, emphatically yes – it is totally safe to send checks in the mail. I still think it’s weird and uncanny, but with 10 dollars in wire fees (those things are free where I’m from) I guess I better get used to carrying my check book.

– Writing under my own name on the internet. Funny that that’s such a big deal to me, somehow. I mean, I’ve made my print debut a few years ago (which a lot of people find a much bigger deal, I think). But to me, these recent little articles with my own, actual  name on them have a much bigger (possible) audience. Perhaps all the ‘media literacy’  training has worked a little too well, to have me be so awed and impressed by  a few bytes on some anonymous webserver.

– Self-branding. Not the one with hot irons. but the one with business cards and a domain name and a portfolio. Under my real name. With links to the aforementioned blog posts. It’s an interesting change from always worrying about remaining anonymous, to suddenly worry about being ‘known’. To really present myself as a professional. Someone you hire to come and consult on your language matters. And I know, I know. At some point someone will find the nickname – real name connection and then my personal musings will be tied into my professional persona. It is likely inevitable, but then again, maybe it won’t be a bad thing. In line with the branding thing, I may have to have some portraits taken. People have been requesting pictures of me to put next to things and I don’t have any. Eek! This whole ‘self employed’ thing is going pretty well.

– Ocean. I talked about it in my previous post, and somehow it was just such a powerful thing to go and see the Pacific. I’ve always lived relatively close to sea and I’ve been in the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the very edge of the Atlantic, but the Pacific is just a wholly different critter. I need to go and hang out with her more – she’s good for the soul.

– Whales. I went and saw whales! I went on a boat onto the Pacific Ocean and I saw grey whales and even a hump back, as well as a whole pod of dolphins with their babies (for real, I saw baby dolphins and I still have a hard time believing that I did). Also: sea otters, sea lions and sea elephants. In a single 24 hour period I think I saw more wild life than I’d seen in the 30 years before. I brought a camera, but was too enchanted to really take pictures. It was such a wondrous thing. Also: it was great to be out of suburbia, even if only for 24 hours. The best part about this country is its nature, I swear.

– American Christmas. And wow, it’s quite the event. Beloved and I kicked off the holiday season with an invitation to go to the opening night of A Christmas Carol in a fancy theatre with plush purple (!) chairs. Our host then took us to the opening night after party which had an open bar full of Scotch (and Scotch is my Favourite Booze).  On Christmas Day, my in-laws (whom we visited) let me watch The Christmas Story as part of my introduction to Proper American Christmas.  I also got around to eating a Real American Turkey Dinner With Stuffing and All the Trimmings  (y’all, how could I have gone without stuffing for so long, It is the food of the gods). Last, but not least, people sure do know how to string up lights around these parts. Can I just say that lit up palm trees are a special shade of ridiculous, though?

– Halloween. Okay, I admit, its an oldie 🙂 All other items on this list date from the last few weeks and October is long since past. But for realsies – I carved a pumpkin! Carving pumpkins is fun! I had no idea! And we decorated the front door (a little) and bought candy (waaaayyyy too much) and gave it to (surprisingly few) kids. We also invited over our very first New Friends and played Cards Against Humanity with them.

– Pendleton blanket. Not something I _did_, so much as something we were given. But ever since first sleeping under a Pendleton blanket I determined that this was an item I really, really hoped to have for our new home. It was my one big New Country  & New Home Wish. And so when the in-laws asked for a suggestion for a big present to give to us, we told them about the blanket. And so they picked one and now we own one and it is a glorious thing. In keeping with the rest of our *ahem*  “Interior Design Philosophy”, we asked for a bright and multicoloured one. The one our in-laws picked for us features a Native American motif. They didn’t know, but the same motif  is currently spray painted on many of the streets in our town as well, in what I think is a reminder by the present Native community that – hey, you know – , it’s their land we live on. I’ve not been able to find a definitive source on the intent behind the medicine wheels on the sidewalks, but that’s what it reminds me of whenever I see one. A little heads-up: Hey! History present under asphalt!

Receiving that blanket and seeing the symbol lead me deep down the rabbit hole of pondering cultural appropriation of designs and Pendleton’s relationship with Native communities and the tradition of blankets as significant gifts to mark special occasions, and… Well. I think it’s fair to say that the blanket and its design teach me another valuable lesson about being a newcomer in America: this place has a history fraught with tension and horrible events and you – newbe – are out of your depth and likely to mess up. Proceed with caution. Probably not at all in line with the original significance, but perhaps also not the worst message to take away from the entire matter.  I look forward to many more decades spent with its warm and comforting presence as a symbol of the founding of a new household.

This is what I’ve been up to. More than six months in and things here still manage to blow my mind at least once a week. It’s a special country, for sure 🙂

Living in earthquake country

Or: how I satisfy my inner doomsday prepper

Well, there ‘s been an earthquake here. It happened in the middle of the night. We both slept through it, though and I only heard about it when I met up with some people the next day. Oh well 🙂

Still, even though you can sleep through many of them, people here really do stress the importance of being prepared for an earthquake. The Great California Shake Out is a good example. And when we moved into our apartment we were given a packet of informational leaflets including a Red Cross pamphlet about being prepared. All this is music to my ears.

You see, back when I lived alone people who accidentally glimpsed my stashed supplies liked to joke about how I could easily survive a decent nuclear winter in my apartment. I’m a hamster when it comes to usable things such as dry goods, canned food and toilet paper. Beloved thinks I take it way too far (he’s likely right – I think that I used to store over four times the recommended amounts of supplies), but even he agreed that moving to California probably warranted some dedicated preparation.  And so, I embarked on Project Bug-Out Bag, aimed  at keeping two people safe and comfortable outdoors for 72 hours.

Here are most of our accumulated supplies:

Picture by me.

4 gallons of water

tablets for water purification

a sterno stove

candles

a first aid kit

asthma medication (that’s the little purple box with Russian / Greek / something (?) script)

dust masks

trash bags (for waterproofing and because we have no tarp)

ziploc bags (for keeping small things safe from water)

some small tiewraps (no single pre-built kit names these, but I figure they’re useful)

some twine

some stronger rope

a box cutter

solar powered flashlights with a back-up battery and a head lamp with a normal battery

a small radio with batteries

Not pictured, but still included: lighters, sleeping bags, sterno for the stove, smaller water bottles for accessibility

Still needed: food, multitool / an actual knife, a pot for cooking food (depending on food choice), clothes, copies of passports, some cash.

 

Picture by me. This is the BOB (Bug-Out Bag)

At this moment most of the supplies from the first picture are packed up in the bag in picture two. The thing is uncomfortably heavy, but considering that it is a very standard size back pack, I was quite pleased with how much fit in. I could not pack all of the water (there are two gallons in there, though) and I packed enough candles for 120 hours of burn time (60 if you burn two at the same time), keeping the other ones tucked away elsewhere.

I plan on finding another bag (secondhand, ideally, I’m cheap like that) for dividing the weight and increasing carrying capacity. That’s when I can look out for some freeze dried meals / granola bars or other lightweight food choices as well. I’m thinking of using some of the rope to just tie the sleeping bags to the backpacks as well.

Once the rest of the kit is also securely packed, I can just stash the bags out of sight, knowing that if the Big One hits, we have a decent chance of not succumbing to exposure or thirst before help comes in. That idea really helps me sleep through the ‘little ones’  at night 🙂

Oh bread, where art thou?

A comment that gets made relatively often when uninformed acquaintances hear that I’ve been to (or was planning to go to, or have gone to) the US, is ” but the food is terrible!”. I never really understood where this came from and I disagree.

I still disagree. I disagreed the first time someone handed me a pulled pork sandwich, the first time I ate a buttermilk biscuit and the first time I ate chili, philly cheesesteak , grits, a veggie burrito.. I’ll probably keep defending American cuisine ’til the day I die (although I reserve the right to condemn certain things such as kimchi burritos, which sound absolutely terrifying). At the same time, while I am a fan of much American food, I have to concede one point to critics of American cooking and eating:

There is a fair amount of stuff for sale here that you can eat, but that isn’t actually food. This applies in particular to bread.

So far I’ve visited Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Lucky several times and have opted to obtain something resembling bread every time. And every time I end up sad. It has a two-month shelf life, even though not freeze-dried or even sealed. When you eat it, you taste salt and / or sugar. It doesn’t get stale. It doesn’t mold. It has bubbles like a sponge. It doesn’t have crumb. It has a crust, but it has no crunch. It’s supposed to look sort of bread-like, but based on the ingredients it is mostly added-back-vitamins, HFCS, vegetable oil, sugar, salt and preservatives.

So, off to a fancy bakery we went. We paid four dollars for something slightly larger than a paperback. Which was blackened on top and was covered in coarse, brown flour. This bread  had no crunch and a level of chewyness that to me, indicates that the bread is very stale. While I tasted no sugar or salt (yay!), I didn’t taste much else either. Then, elsewhere, we paid another two-and-a-half dollars for a’ baguette’. No crunch, no soft, doughy inside. Just chewy, poorly leavened bread, covered in anise seeds (so I can’t comment on the taste, because ANISE, ANISE EVERYWHERE).

The plan is to buy a bread making machine for making bona fide fresh bread. Simple tastes-of-dough bread with crunchy crust and soft insides. Once I get it, hit me up if you want a sandwich, because I found some lovely avocado and tasty tomatoes (and turkey breast so cheap the the guv’ment  must be subsidizing it).

Cultural differences

On our way back from some governmental office, having just dealt with our red tape, Beloved and I decided to stop by a Starbucks to get coffee.

As I walked into the place, I stuck my hand down my shoulder bag to confirm the location of my wallet. Seeing as that I’d need it just a minute later, I kept my hand down my bag while walking up to the register. I ordered our drinks, pulled out my wallet, paid, stuck the wallet back, grabbed the two cups of caffeinated yumminess and walked back outside.

Beloved: “Hey.. don’t do that when we’re in America.”

Me: “Wut? Do not do what?”

Beloved: ” Walking into a store with your hand in your bag – don’t do that..”

Me: “Eh?”

Me (thinking): Of course! Like this, people can see where my wallet is and they may try to steal it..

Beloved: “..because it looks like you have a gun and may try to rob them.”

Me: “.. oh..”

In Style

Dragonfly radiator in our living room. Creation and picture both fully copyrighted by Winold from winold.com

Our house has been for sale for 10 weeks or so. And, as perhaps to be expected in this market, interest has been virtually non-existent. Beloved and I had hoped that a competitive price would bring in people who would put some love into this house, but the one potential buyer that has come to look at the house so far, only expressed disappointment about how they felt the house was not move-in ready.

Eh. The house is well over a century old. It is structurally sound and has been updated to contain modern amenities,such as central heating, running water on all stories and a full bathroom with jacuzzi alongside the standard ‘three-quarter bath’ that houses of this sort typically have. It is currently inhabited by book-loving minimalists who, while maintaining the house well, do have a penchant for painting walls bright green or deep purple and for commissioning things such as a four-feet-high dragon fly-shaped radiator to stick on the wall of the living room. Yes, they also brought in an artist friend to outfit one bedroom in such a way that it resembles a hobbit house more than a 21st century human dwelling. Yes, they have a collection of 1200 books (or so) that need shelving by language, by subject or genre and by name of the author.

This is supposedly an objection when you want to sell a house. Apparently one sells a house by making it look like an Ikea catalogue. Our realtor cautioned us about this, recommended we priced the house competitively (we did) and, when things stayed quiet and no potential buyers came to view the house, she recommended we hire a stylist in order to have new pictures taken. So, we did that too.

The stylist showed up, cracked a few (ha? haha? ehhh..) jokes about minimalists, then started pointing out things to paint, things that needed removing or replacing, things that needed suches or so-es or.. well.. Things to turn our home into a catalogue-esque dwelling. Hence, these last few weeks, when not been picking up dog poop or hosing down kennels, I’ve been painting woodwork and walls (white, mind you), taking down Russian propaganda posters, and boxing up books. 200 books have been donated to charity. Another 300 have been sent to live in someone’s attic. The remaining ones have been crammed into fewer bookshelves. I even bought a plant. Which died. And got replaced. And replaced again. Three plants in three weeks. There were certain recommendations of this stylist that I did not have the time or willpower to follow up on, but I’ve only felt moderately guilty about not obeying all orders. Go me.

After all that, the stylist came back and brought in an intern and six boxes full of.. things. Thank (deity of choice) that she brought plastic plants, because all this rotting/drying/otherwise disintegrating vegetation was getting on my nerves. Without exaggeration, our house now contains the following additional materials:

one white, fluffy carpet (.. because.. you know.. it really ties the room together);

three white, fluffy throw rugs;

one white fluffy bathmat plus additional decorative white fluffy towel;

ten (!!) white, fluffy throw pillows (to complement the six other-coloured ones we already had);

four large pots with a total of 8 plastic plants;

ten additional plastic plants (green and white only), strewn around in a whimsical fashion (have I ever talked about my deep, seething hatred for the word ‘whimsical’? No? Try planning a wedding.. You’ll see what I mean);

two large glass vases, to be used empty;

four small glass containers, to be used empty or with candles;

one small serving tray.

It also contains a very disgruntled Beloved and me. Have you ever tried sitting (let alone snuggling or comfortably gaming) on a couch that has nine throw pillows on it, half of which are only rented and need to be returned in pristine condition? No? Go try. You’d be disgruntled too.

I know this post needs before and after needs pictures. I don’t have any ‘afters’, right now, but I happen to have two photo’s that our artist friend took when he first built the awesomeness into our house.

Our bedroom. Creation and picture fully copyrighted by Winold from winold.com

.. with mayonaise, please.

US universities are funny. At least, US university naming is funny from a European standpoint. Or well. I think it’s funny. Think of that what you will.

Much of the conversation over the last few days has been directed at grad school programs. What programs are connected to which organizations, which career paths are easily attainable with certain degrees, which specialization would be most valuable and would allow most access.

I did some reading and burst out laughing when I pulled up a sub-site for Carnegie Mellon University. Apparently it is possible to study at Heinz College. Later on, I looked at for iSchools. I am confused. Seeing as that the Heinz College does not, in fact, offer a Master’s degree in advanced tomato assessment or PhDs on the sociocultural implications of preferring chunky sauces over organic unsweetened ones and that the iSchools teach more than professional degrees in aluminum block-cutting and Comparative Steve-Job-ism, the naming of said schools obviously does not reflect the content of the programs.

Why name a school after someone who does not exemplify the intellectual values of the school? Bluntly said, a main reason is university financing. The relationship between American universities and their alumni and sponsors is radically different thank what the old world is used to. Let’s generalize my experience a bit. I do not feel gratitude to the university I studied at. I would not refer to it as my Alma Mater, because it does not feel like I was nurtured at anyone’s loving bosom while I was there. If anything, my education was an indifferent wolf’s teat that I suckled at while risking claw and teeth marks due to the bureaucratic inclinations and lacking communication skills of the academic wolf pack.

Since this distinct lack of emotional connection exists at many (state sponsored!) universities in my part of Europe, universities do not generally receive spectacular financial donations from their alumni. Hence, no naming stuff after wealthy benefactors (to ensure more donations) either. Universities remain free (or are limited to, if that’s how you’d like to see it) naming their buildings after old thinkers.

I’m curious to see if university naming policy in Europe will shape itself after the American model over time. We’ve already adopted the Ba-Ma system over the German one. Will we see extreme quality differences as more progressive universities start working their alumni harder for financial gain? Britain already does. Universities ignoring the track-based education system in preference of individualized admission barriers? I’m sure we have them somewhere. Perhaps soon we’ll have the Benz-campus and the Shell-schools teaching us philosophy and medicine.

Maybe we can have a McUniversity drive-through M.Ed. program somewhere, too.

A lonely start to the new year

since Beloved left on a three week work trip a few hours ago.

I have the cat, but still. Maybe I can spend time thinking about the plans for the year. That’ll come in handy.

Based on the plans so far, 2012 will be the Year of the Red Tape. There are many administrative hurdles I foresee, with the only consolation that whatever we do, we never have to do again. With the exception of taxes. We’ll always have to file taxes.

2012 will also be the year of my more formal “Americanization”. Of course I learned much implicitly, simply by having an American companion, lover, husband (ooh, right, husband, hehe), but I’ll need to do more. I plan to document the process of learning about American culture here. I’ll not mention everything, of course (I could write angry rants about how the “relationships advice” section of a large American-based aggregator site that rhymes with “he said it” is full of outdated sexist tripe, for instance, but why bother) but the more interesting things I hope to at least mention.

I need to talk about Oprah. Or at least learn more about Oprah. Because I’ve never seen a full episode of whatever it is she does, simply because I filed it away as “day time television with guru-type advice persona”. Based on a recent article in The Atlantic, though, she’s much more. And I may not like Oprah, or think that her shows are anything for me, once I find out more about her, I don’t think I can dismiss her outright when it comes to the Americanness of what she has offered.

I will probably need to learn a lot about uh.. minority cultures. Because I don’t even have the vocabulary to start thinking about them right now. I can “check my privilege”  until I’m blue in the face, if I can’t get at least a halfway decent factual base and historical perspective on why things are the way they are, I’m going to screw up and hurt people’s feelings.

Example: I had just finished reading two books that I found on an reading list for an MIT course on “the American novel”. The books were Beloved, by Toni Morrison* and The Known World by Edward P Jones. For those unfamiliar with these books, they deal with the difficulties of recently free and/or still enslaved coloured people. Without going into the actual content (which is heartbreaking): the protagonists are people of colour. They speak to many other people of colour. And the English they used was something that I picked up on. Wishing to discuss these books with the Beloved, I tried to find a word that would describe how the language felt. The word I used? Ebonics.

Cue a troubled silence from the Beloved who was at a loss about how to explain to me the complications of using that word. Heh. I still haven’t done enough reading and studying to find more appropriate terms. Which is why I’m not writing more about it (although I would recommend both novels – they’re magnificent).

One book that is on my reading list for this year is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I hope it’ll help me find  more understanding and more sources for further reading.

There are many more parts of American culture that deserve my attention that I haven’t gotten around to. Cooking, for instance and their relationship with (public and private) space, nature and travel.

* me using the term Beloved to refer to my husband is not in any way related to or inspired by Toni Morrison’s intensely impressive novel. I took my inspiration from a more escapist series of novels, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy. Also worth a read, by the way, if you love well-written fantasy and intrigue.