Category Archives: Living

Ah, Cambridge…

What can I say about Cambridge? It’s so very different from Newcastle that I don’t know where to start. Some of the things I’m listing pertain to my new and old neighborhoods specifically, but I think they’re characteristic.

Some things I notice that I like:

  • It’s full of Italians.
  • I can get to London in 45 minutes, which means I can attend Polyphony Down the Pub on occasion. (And a senior off-peak day return ticket costs only £16.40.)
  • It’s full of bicycles, and the infrastructure facilitates them. (When I’m fully back on my feet I may buy one.)
  • They recycle just about everything. Including food waste.
  • The colleges at the university are gorgeous.
  • The bus fare machines don’t spit out a useless paper ticket if you’ve used a pass.
  • There are a lot of local greengrocers and other shops with fruit/veg on display outside.
  • It’s easy to get good Chinese food without paying through the nose.
  • It’s awash in science. Science parks, science campuses, research organisations…
  • The river is puntable. Haven’t done it yet but am considering it.
  • It has a rather intellectual atmosphere, to some extent.
  • It should have more early music. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m told it’s there. Once I’ve got my impending new hip in and working well…
  • Pubs are reasonably likely to serve Aspall cyder. It is close to Suffolk, after all…
  • It doesn’t have a seriously ugly part right in the city centre. (Newcastle peeps, you know I’m referring to the eastern side of Pilgrim Street and that general area, and you know it’s true.)
  • It has a bustling outdoor market right in the city centre. Seven days a week.
  • My neighborhood is not nearly as swarming with students as my Newcastle neighborhood was (which is less now than it used to be). My next-door neighbors on both sides are very nice, and we have good conversations. Some things in common.
  • My office and officemates are nearby.

Some things I notice that I don’t like:

  • They recycle food waste. Which means we have to hang onto it for two weeks until they come around and empty the green bin.
  • It’s not very well served by public buses. Not compared with Newcastle, anyway.
  • It’s despairingly flat. People tell me it will grow on me and I must visit the fens. Stay tuned.
  • There is no castle.
  • The surrounding area has almost no ruined castles or abbeys.
  • There is no indoor market. (I quickly got spoiled by Grainger Market.)
  • Although there are some impressive churches, there is no cathedral. For that you have to go to Ely. (Which I plan to do fairly soon.)
  • There is no river gorge with several impressive bridges crossing it — the Cam River is not very wide and its banks are low. (Don’t even think of bringing up the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been to Venice. Several times.)
  • It’s swarming with bicycles. When I’m driving, this makes me just a teeny bit nervous.
  • There are a lot of modern, sterile apartment buildings.
  • The Apple Store has a long waiting list for Genius Bar appointments.
  • There aren’t any back lanes where they could put community bins or even make it easier to put out our wheelie bins. We have to drag the wheelie bins around to the front, find a place to put them amidst the squeezed-in parked cars, and then drag them back around to the back.
  • The water is rather hard. Every time I go back north, I am reminded of how much my hair likes the water there.
  • My neighborhood doesn’t have parking permits. Sometimes I have to park in the next block or even on the next street over.
  • It gets HOT here. Last September I was here for a few days when the high temperature was 34C (93F). Whew!
  • It takes a lot longer to get to a decent airport. (I don’t count as decent any airport that’s served mostly by Ryanair.)
  • It almost never snows here, they tell me, other than a light dusting.
  • It takes a bit of effort to get to the coast, and even more to get to any hills to speak of.
  • Much less active local RSA chapter.
  • And of course — it’s expensive. I’m paying roughly twice the rent I paid in Newcastle, for an unfurnished place that has slightly more room inside (and admittedly a large-ish back garden). Asking prices of houses for sale are even more out of line.

This list is probably biased by the fact that I’ve just spent a weekend in Newcastle and had a day out in Northumberland. Once I’m really settled in — substantially recovered from hip surgery and able to move reasonably well again (which includes being able to finish unpacking from my move) — I’m sure that my increased ability to explore will increase the size of my positive list. I’ll post further impressions as the mood strikes me.

More endings and beginnings

Today I had what will probably be my last face-to-face meeting with my principal supervisor. He said I’m almost ready to go (i.e., the concepts are well enough fleshed out although I still have some work to do on the content that conveys them). We talked about the draft of my Conclusions chapter (in which I summarize what I did and describe the contributions to knowledge that my research makes), and we also talked about my plans for the Discussions chapter (in which I talk about the limitations of my research and speculate about future research and the possible applicability of my findings). He thinks it’s all excellent. He had a few suggestions to make, of course, but says I’m in very good shape. I still feel overwhelmed by all the editing and pulling together and formatting and printing/copying I have to do to get the thing submittable by late April, but at least I’m not at all worried about how it will be received after I do all that.

This is also my last weekend as a resident of Newcastle. The movers (“removals firm”) are coming next Thursday to pack up most of my stuff, then returning early Friday morning to collect the bed and a few other things and we all head down to Cambridge to move me in. After three weeks of spending 2-4 nights a week in hotels, I am infinitely grateful that my current landlord offered me my pick of the furniture (he’s selling the flat and won’t need it for a new tenant) and infinitely glad I decided to take the beds. I sleep much better in this bed than anywhere else I’ve stayed recently, and it’s not just a matter of a familiar room.

It’s a Toyota!

Island Blue Metallic Toyota Yaris, photo from Hodgson Toyota Newcastle (Note: I redacted the number plate myself)I’ve just arrived home from the Toyota dealer — with a contract to buy a 2016 Yaris. (It’s a 2014 model, design-wise, but was first registered in 2016.) I had considered getting an earlier model for less money, but I looked at the emissions and the fuel efficiency and the road tax and the insurance rating and the length of warranty remaining, and I decided to go for the more recent one even though I think the front grille makes it look like Yosemite Sam. I settled on the color Toyota calls “Island Blue Metallic” (do all auto manufacturers come up with such romantic color names? My last Toyota was a dark green they called “Woodland Pearl”), chosen from similar ones because I liked the color. I had been to the bank earlier and arranged a loan (my bank was offering an interest rate even lower than Toyota’s lowest and was also willing to consider my US income), so I was all prepared.

I had been pondering whether to buy a car this weekend or next, considering that I won’t be moving house for another three weeks, and it turns out that doing it today was perfect timing. The dealer has to arrange the road tax, which they can’t do on a weekend, so I test-drove it and put down a deposit, and I’ll pick it up next Friday. I still have to arrange insurance, but the dealer offers a three-day insurance policy that gives me time to sort my own, and I’ve got a couple of quotes already that I need to pursue.

The sales guy was explaining the controls, telling me that they were all pretty much where I would expect them, from having had Toyotas previously. “Except”, I said, “that the gearshift is to my left.”

Yee-haa!

Long term, I am in you

I’m on a train, headed home after three days working in our Cambridge office, to which I’m assigned. This morning I had my end-of-probation review, in which I received the news that I will soon be receiving a letter congratulating me officially on moving from probationary to permanent staff. Just as with my visa, I wasn’t seriously worried about this hurdle from a realistic perspective, but my inner catastrophizer was as active as always, and I am immensely pleased. I really like my colleagues and the company culture, and I think it will be a great pleasure to work there for another five years or even longer.

This afternoon I gave notice to my landlord, who said he’ll be sad to see me go. It turns out that my tenancy has to end on the 8th of the month (not 30 days after my notice) because it started on the 9th, so I’ll have a couple of weeks more rent to pay than I had expected (silly me for not checking the rental contract), but I’m very pleased with the house I’ve rented in Cambridge. I wish it were a little better served by buses — I’ve been totally spoiled by Newcastle’s excellent local bus system — but it’s not in a complete bus desert. (I am going to buy a car, but I’m not going to drive into the city centre, so I care about being able to take a bus into town.) The house is a bit larger than my current flat — separate dining room, much larger kitchen, somewhat larger bathroom, a 4-foot-wide unheated but covered space running alongside the kitchen, containing some shelving and (wonder of wonders!) a chest freezer! and a large back garden with a shed and raised beds — although it has no front yard/garden at all (the house fronts right on the sidewalk/pavement) and the main bedroom is only 2/3 the size of the one I have now and probably won’t be a place I’ll want to spend time in during the day. Except for the stairs and the smaller bedroom, the house has wood or tile floors (good for my dust-mite allergy). What makes it really special is the wood-burning fireplace in the living room. It was built as a coal fireplace but the owner has been burning wood in it, and I’m salivating in anticipation of doing the same. I’m looking around for where I might acquire some peat, as I am desperately in need of a peat fire. (Cambridge, like many UK cities, has an ordinance against burning fuels that produce smoke, but this house is outside the prohibited area and I’m going to do it as soon as I can.)

I’m also discovering Chinese and Italian eateries in Cambridge. This week’s prize was a new Italian place next to the train station, where they were delighted to talk with me in Italian and I was delighted to hear one of them say I have almost no foreign accent. It’s been a few years since an Italian has said that to me, and I was afraid I had lost my touch.

Friends, I think it’s going to be a good few years.

It never gets old

I’ve lived in the UK for more than four years now. At the moment, I’m doing a fair amount of travelling for work — mostly from Newcastle to Cambridge or Macclesfield and back. As this morning’s train passed through the misty hills of County Durham, I found myself thinking, yet again, that travelling within the UK still gives me a sense of being on vacation. People often ask me why I feel more energized living in the UK, and I think this is a large part of it. I had visited the UK a couple of dozen times or so before moving here, so even when I’m working hard or spending time in a less-than-idyllic setting, life here always brings me a faint whiff of holiday. Even when I’m grousing about separate hot and cold taps or being called “Mrs” without being asked, there’s just something about the atmosphere…

Beginning to look at Cambridge housing

Yesterday I went for my first viewing of a flat in Cambridge. I’ve been looking at the possibilities since September, but so far I’ve stuck to searching on rental websites (mostly Rightmove) and hadn’t gone so far as to contact a letting agent until the last couple of weeks. Mostly that’s because the properties were available much sooner than I could move into them, but now they are coming into the right time of year and it’s time for me to start looking more seriously. As with the car, I can’t sign a contract until 1 February or later, but I don’t want to wait until then to take my search beyond the web. The web searching I’ve done, though, has given me a good idea of what kinds of places are where. I need to study the bus routes and operating hours as well, so that I can consider taking a place that’s not within about half a mile of the station.

Anyway, the location of the flat I saw yesterday is great for getting to the office and to other parts of the UK, and it’s got two bedrooms and two bathrooms (good for sharing) and an “undercroft” secure parking space, so I was all set to like it. I found it a bit disappointing, though — it was smaller than it appears in the photos, and it smelled of catbox (although no cat was to be seen and I didn’t find myself sneezing). I assume the smell can be eliminated with a thorough cleaning. The place reminded me of cookie-cutter apartments from my 20s, although its proximity to the train station and the presence of the underneath parking garage speaks of a large professional tenant community. That particular flat will probably be taken before I am satisfied with what I find, so I doubt I’ll end up there, but it was worth going to have a look.

I’ve got two more viewings scheduled for next week; both of these are terraced houses (US: townhouses, row houses) and farther from the station. Slightly lower in rent. We’ll see. Hoping to see a couple of other places as well.

One agent sent me listings for a couple of other places. When I told her why I’m not willing to consider anything in Trumpington, she hooted with laughter and said she’ll never think of that neighborhood the same way again.

Anticipatory car shopping!

This afternoon I went to a local Toyota dealer to do some— window shopping, I guess you could call it. I won’t be able to buy a car for another five weeks (and I told them this), but I learned enough today that I’ve made a tentative decision: I’m going to aim for a 2014 Yaris Icon or Icon Plus and I’m going to buy it before I move to Cambridge. I am driving a rental car right now — rented for ten days during the holidays, partly because public transport in the UK doesn’t run on Christmas or New Year’s — and in addition to a Christmas-Day jaunt that a friend and I took along the Tyne Valley and into the Pennine Hills I’m taking the opportunity to go to a few places that take a bit of work to get to on public transport. (Turns out that two buses that stop near my flat also stop in front of the dealership, so when I go back there to buy a car I’ll know without having to look it up which ones I can take.) The reason for buying it before I move is that the finance company will want to know, among other things, how long I’ve lived at my current address, which will be more than four years if I buy it before I move. And having a car will probably make it easier to do the moving.

At a friend’s suggestion, I started my online searching at autotrader.co.uk (cars for sale by individuals), but unfortunately they had very few suitable cars anywhere near Newcastle. Next I looked at online car reviews, mostly at “Which?” — kind of like Consumer Reports but for the UK, and to get access to the reviews I signed up for a trial membership. I looked at all of the Japanese automakers and a few others, and then I turned to automaker websites (this time just the Japanese ones). When I decided to visit a dealer this afternoon I chose Toyota: I’ve been very pleased with all the Toyotas I’ve ever had, and all of the basic controls (seat movements, lights, wipers, turn signals…) have always worked in more or less the same way. So when I sat in the driver’s seat, even though the last Toyota I owned was a 2000 model (a Corolla) — once I ignored the fact that the gearshift and the heater & radio were to my left — it felt like coming home. Today’s cars have more bells and whistles, of course, than any I’ve ever had — there’s a touch screen for more sophisticated control of the electronics, for example, but fortunately the steering wheel has a radio control thingie that allows you to change the channel and adjust the volume while keeping your eyes on the road. This dealership has two locations in the Newcastle/Gateshead area, and between them they have several used Yaris cars that could meet my requirements. So I’m feeling tentatively sorted with that.

I’ll also have to investigate insurance policies; I’m told that that can be quite a minefield. I wish Amica Mutual operated in the UK!

Newcastle makes an impression

I had lunch today with two Americans who, at my suggestion, stopped to spend a few hours in Newcastle on their way from London to Edinburgh. They are not regulars to the UK and had never been to Newcastle before. Walking from the train station toward the castle, one of them looked around and said, “London was wonderful and I marvelled at the architecture, but this really ramps it up a notch.” We took a quick look at the castle from the outside — they had suitcases so I didn’t suggest they go in and struggle with all those steps. We did go into St Nicholas Cathedral (which they loved), and before I left them there and headed home to do some more thesis writing I told them to ask the guide to direct them to Grey’s Monument after that. I’ll look forward to hearing what they thought of that. :-)

His comment reminded me of the time I spent in the Italian region of Le Marche a few years ago. My hosts (several families in sequence) insisted on driving me around to see the area, and every time we rounded a curve and I saw another panorama of hills with a hill town perched atop each one — looking for all the world like a Renaissance painting — I exclaimed, “Oh, che bello!” More than one of my host families told me that my reaction had given them a new appreciation of the place where they lived. After four years in Newcastle I’ve grown used to its beauty, and it felt really good to hear that from someone who was unbiased.

OK, now I’d *really* better get that visa

£30 sideboard from British Heart Foundation Furniture & Electronics StoreRotating closure for cabinet doorsI adore used-furniture stores. Whenever I go to the supermarket during the opening hours of the nearby British Heart Foundation Furniture and Electrical Store, I have a wander through, always wishing I needed furniture. Recently I’ve been gladdened to discover that there’s a good-sized one in Cambridge, although I haven’t been in it yet and I don’t know what kind of things it tends to have.

Well. Today they had a hutch whose tag said “£60, now £30”. Hmmm… At today’s exchange rate, £30 is less than $40. Hmmm…

I asked what was wrong with it. “Nothing,” they said; “it’s just been here for several months at £80 and we want to sell it.” It certainly appears to be in good shape. I don’t know how old it is, but that kind of rotating closure (see photo of detail) hasn’t been used in a good while. Plus, the piece is beautiful. So I thought about where I might put it in my Newcastle flat, and then I thought about how I’m looking forward to getting my own furniture that isn’t from IKEA… and then I thought about the prospect of putting down roots in the UK…

And then I bought it.

Only £15 for delivery, and I’ll have it on Monday. Even if it is an imitation, it’s beautiful and in good shape. Next purchase: furniture polish.

I looooooove used-furniture stores. :-)


Update: My cleaner, who used to work at an auction house, looked at it and said it’s a 1980s reproduction. He guessed £80 and agreed with me that it’s in good condition and that £45 including delivery was a good price. So I’m happy.

I’m returning to industry — in the UK

A year and a half ago I wrote a post about having decided to return to industry after my PhD instead of trying to stay in academia. I had realized, I explained, that at my age and with my experience I’d find more opportunities in industry — and it would also pay better. Well, I am delighted to announce that my efforts have borne fruit: as of today I have joined Sigma Consulting Solutions Ltd. as a Senior User Experience Consultant. I’m starting on a limited part-time basis while I finish my thesis, and after my Tier 2 General visa comes through I’ll switch to a permanent role in the company. When my three-month probationary period ends, I’ll buy a car and move to Cambridge. My permanent role will have me working three days a week, and I hope to spend the other two doing further research on my PhD topic (with the occasional extra-long-weekend excursion thrown in). I’m savoring the idea of being only an hour from London — close enough to go into the city for an evening event, and much more convenient than Newcastle for flights to (most of) the rest of the world.

This is a wonderful opportunity for me. I’m looking forward to returning “home” to UX consulting and to exploring how I can apply what I’ve learned in doing my PhD. I’m really excited about collaborating with a great group of UX folks who are interested in both my consulting experience and my PhD research. I don’t think I could have asked for better.

I’m also acutely aware that I’m going to miss the North East of England. But this will be arrivederci, not addio; I’ll be back for semi-regular visits. You’ve grown on me, Newcastle.