Blog Archives

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…


Christmas in Newcastle

This year I stayed in Newcastle over the Christmas break and didn’t have company or go to anyone’s home. I took advantage of five “Christmas in Newcastle” events in the series sponsored by the students’ unions of Northumbria and Newcastle Universities. Three of these had been on my Newcastle bucket list: the Beamish Museum, a Christmastime pantomime, and the Northumberlandia outdoor sculpture.

Christmas Dinner

A traditional English Christmas dinner is served on Christmas afternoon at a local church. We had turkey, stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding — the traditional dishes of Christmas dinner in the UK. Then we watched the Queen’s annual Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth. I sat with some Chinese students and got validation of my impression of Chinese food in Newcastle — quality costs more than it should. (IOW, the good stuff is expensive and the less expensive stuff is not good.) The Queen spoke for 15 minutes or so, mostly about good will and Christmas. I would have liked to see more personality and feeling in her delivery, but my British friends tell me that the wooden style is how the British monarchy presents itelf. Oh well.

Beamish Museum

On the Sunday after Christmas, a coach (bus) took two dozen students to the Beamish Museum, an outdoor museum that illustrates life in the North East of England in the 1820s, 1900s, and 1940s. They have a 1940s town, a 1900s pit mine village, and an 1820s manor house and church. They also have a working farm, a steam train, a couple of ice rinks, amusement-park rides, cafes, and several gift shops. The staff dress in period costume and explain to visitors how life was in that time and place. Some offer demonstrations of period techniques (see photo for candymaking). This is how I like to learn about history.

Kneading candy
Beamish Museum candymaker kneads sugar concoction while making lemon drops.

Tyneside Cinema

Although I had already seen a few films at our wonderful independent movie house, the Tyneside Cinema, I signed up for the afternoon there, with the film to be determined on the day. The selected movie turned out to be the new Star Wars episode, in 3D. The film didn’t have much of a plot (a couple of surprises near the end), but I enjoyed watching the special effects.


Dick Whittington pantomime screenOn New Year’s Eve I had my first experience of that classic British Christmas tradition, the pantomime (“panto”). I knew it wouldn’t really be my thing, but it was definitely an experience I had to have during my time in the UK. This one was Dick Whittington at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and it loosely followed the legend of Dick Whittington, whose cat is said to have driven the rats out of London and thereby made Whittington Lord Mayor. This production substituted Newcastle for London (of course), and it contained a lot of in-jokes about Geordie language and culture (some of which I got, to my pleasure). I would describe the panto as, basically, slapstick musical comedy with audience participation and displays of skill (e.g., magic and acrobatics). I enjoyed the comedy and the repartee with the audience. I’ve never gotten into slapstick or musical theater, but I found engaging the overall feeling of joy and fun. I doubt I’ll attend another panto, but I’m glad I discovered what it’s like.


Northumberlandia from the airToday a minibus took a dozen students to visit the Northumberlandia land sculpture, also called the Lady of the North. One cannot get an overview of this sculpture from the ground, but that’s what aerial photography is for. (This image is from the Northumberlandia site).

The face of NorthumberlandiaThe weather wasn’t ideal: I would have liked to see the place on a sunny day, and the ice on parts of the path prevented me from walking the whole thing and ascending to the forehead. At least it wasn’t raining, though, and I managed to get a few decent photos. The one here shows the face (left) and one breast reflected in the pond.

We also had lunch in the pub next to the park. I loved the atmosphere (family pubs are something I’ll miss terribly if I have to leave the UK), which was why I found the food disappointing. However, it’s one of the few pubs I’ve found in the North East that have Aspall cyder on draft.

And in the park I ran into some people I know!

UK Registered Traveller: my first experience

While I was in the US last month I received an email from British Airways informing me that I was now eligible to apply to be a UK Registered Traveller. Under this program, people who are citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the USA, and who have a UK visa, can use the UK/EU queue when entering the UK. It also removes the requirement for filling out a landing card1, which asks the purpose of your visit, where and how long you will be staying, and what you are bringing into the UK2. I applied right away, and the approval came through while I was gone. So when I returned to the UK, I completed my enrollment at Heathrow. After confirming my details, the border agent gave me a card and told me to write my name and RT number on the back. The whole process was pretty easy, and I was delighted that they approved me in time for me to enroll when I returned. It costs £70 to apply for one year (of which £50 is refundable if you are denied), but I don’t know whether subsequent years are £70 or £50. I hope I will find out. :-)

I was surprised to read, in my approval email, that my card would be valid only until mid-January because my visa expires at that point. (I had missed the fact that to apply you have to have a UK visa.) But I’m working on staying anyhow, so once I have either a work visa or an extension to my student visa I will update my visa details and hopefully the rest of the year will be added.

Yesterday I used my card for the first time. I had gone to Switzerland to lead a workshop at UX Lausanne, and although the queue at the UK border was no shorter for UK/EU passports than for “other passports”, I wanted to try out my new privileges and see how it worked. While standing in the queue, holding my passport and my card, I caught the attention of the queue monitor, who asked if I was Canadian. (Evidently, Canadian passports are the same color as US ones.) I moved my hand so she could see my Registered Traveller card, and she said it was fine. The border agent did ask me what brought me to the UK (I replied that I live here — I love doing that :-) and I said, as I always do, “My visa is on page 20.” On this flight it didn’t really save me any time (although it was nice not to have to fill out the landing card), but on flights from the US it undoubtedly will, as most of the passengers are American.

1I wanted to include an image of a landing card, but unfortunately I couldn’t find one that offered the right to use it. Odd that the UK government doesn’t make it available.

2Fortunately, one can bring up to 2kg of mayonnaise, so my supply of Duke’s Mayo is safe.)

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)

A refreshing week away

I’ve just spent almost a week in Torino, Italy, a city where I spent 25% of my time for 18 months, 25 years ago. I learned some things about the city that I had not known before:

  • Torino has 18 kilometers (more than 11 miles) of portici (covered sidewalks), and many of them go along what were the old city walls. Many were built when Torino became the capital of Italy, to add a common façade to a row of buildings and give the city a clean, unified look.
  • Some streets have continuous portici over the cross streets on one side but gaps across them on the other. This is because the side without the gaps was intended for the use of the nobles.
  • The city does have a medieval section (which I had never noticed before, if I had seen it at all), although it is tiny compared to those one finds in many (if not most) other Italian cities.
  • The Borgo Medievale (in the Parco del Valentino) is not only a reconstruction (which I knew), but is one that reflects what the 18th Century fantasized that the Middle Ages were like.

I’ve walked and walked and walked. On the side of the river where most of the city lies, Torino is almost completely flat, and one can walk forever without tiring (except for one’s feet). I walked eleven miles on my first day, then seven, five, six, seven, and four. I thought I wasn’t going to do much today because some friends took me to a nearby town for lunch, but I did manage to do nearly four miles after I got back. And even with all of this walking, I still managed to transcribe three interviews for my PhD research. (If you have any idea how long this takes, you’ll be impressed. :-)

I feel refreshed. And slightly lighter, perhaps. I may do this again in the spring. I certainly want to do it when the air is clear and the Alps are visible.

First GB driving lesson

I’ve just had my first driving lesson in preparation for getting my Great Britain driving licence. (I’m allowed to drive on my Maryland license for a year, and that’s coming up in less than three months now.) I had resisted the whole idea — I’ve been driving for 45 years and have been driving a manual transmission for 40 of those — but enough of my Facebook friends insisted I should take lessons that I decided to book one lesson (also figuring that I would need to practice anyhow and a two-hour lesson would be cheaper than a day’s car rental).

I think I’m going to end up doing two or three lessons. I suspect I received most of the information I needed from this one two-hour session, but some of my reflexes need practice — and again, taking a lesson is cheaper than renting a car, plus I get an experienced instructor watching what I’m doing and alerting me when I do something for which the licence examiner would mark me down.

My biggest challenges are going to be these:

  • doing things s–l–o–w–l–y (turning, parking, etc.)
  • looking in all the mirrors in the correct order when I make a maneuver
  • using only the clutch and not the accelerator when I want to go very slowly
  • engaging the handbrake when stopped (if I’m changing direction, he says)

This clutch thing will take a wee bit of work. I always understood that (a) you never, ever leave a clutch partly engaged because that will burn it out, and (b) you always depress the accelerator at least slightly whenever the clutch is engaged. Maybe UK-bound cars differ from US-bound cars in this respect, but on any of the cars I have owned, if I engaged the clutch and didn’t give the car enough gas, the engine would stall. In the instructor’s car, when I engaged the clutch with NO pressure on the accelerator, the car started moving. That’s going to be hard to get used to.

I have a second lesson scheduled for next week. This will include going out on a dual carriageway (a.k.a. a divided highway; see my language observations page) and possibly running through a practice road test.

My first tourist day out

Today I took a day trip to Leeds, the first time I have left Newcastle for purely tourist purposes. (I did go to York and London in December, but those were for a concert and a Christmas visit to friends, and I didn’t do any sightseeing — and while I was in York I met with my supervisor about the paper we were writing.) Today’s trip was a coach (long-distance bus) excursion sponsored by the university’s One Planet organization; it cost me £13 (about $20) round trip, which was probably less than it would have been for a bus ticket otherwise. And I had never been to Leeds before.

The weather made things more difficult. Both Newcastle and Leeds had had snow in the preceding days (Leeds more than Newcastle), and today was sunny and several degrees above freezing. The landscape along the way was gorgeous and very romantic, with all those English houses gleaming in the snow, but the walking in town was exceedingly slushy. Fortunately, I expected this and wore my hiking boots, but I would have been more comfortable had the streets been snow-free and I could have worn regular shoes. Oh well; I did walk more than seven miles today.

I started at Leeds Kirkgate Market, much larger than Newcastle’s Grainger Market, and with an outdoor component as well, but not nearly as charming. I then decided I wanted to see the cathedral, so I searched for it on Google Maps and found it with little trouble. Leeds Cathedral was nothing to write home about — all new inside (or newly cleaned) and rather sterile in feel. While there, I realized it was a Catholic cathedral and wondered where the Church of England one was.

Well, it turns out there isn’t one… but there is a minster. And what a minster! Let me just say that Leeds Minster is everything that Leeds Cathedral is not. The minster is inviting, warm, full of colored light from the large number of stained-glass windows, and full of old, dark, carved wood. Leeds Minster is not ancient, as these things go — having been built about 1840 — but it has a solid, substantial feel to it. I took four photos of the cathedral and have kept only one of them; I took more than 50 of the minster and will probably end up keeping at least 2/3 of them.

I walked around the center of the city for a while, wandering into and out of several shopping arcades (Leeds is known to be quite the place for shopping) and looking for other churches that might be open (I found only two, and they weren’t).

I wish we had had a little more guidance regarding the city. They were supposed to take us on a short walking tour, but unfortunately they cancelled that at the last minute because of the slush. I spent my time alone, which I guess I’m used to, but I would have liked to have found a congenial student or two with whom to explore the city. I’m close to three times the age of most of these people, though, and I can’t blame them for not being interested.

If I go to Leeds again, I’ll spend time in the artistic quarter and (assuming weather permits) see what the riverfront is like.

Something else that this day made clear to me is that I’m going to have to do something about my left foot. I’ve developed a “bunionette” (also called “tailor’s bunion”) on the outside of it, and it causes me problems in doing a lot of walking — and I am doing a great deal more walking in Newcastle than I did back in the States. I am going to look for a podiatrist (called “chiropodist” in the UK). I hope we can solve this without surgery, but if not, a surgery is likely to be simpler than what often happens for regular bunions, connected with the big toe. (I’ve got a much smaller one on my right foot, but it rarely bothers me and I am confident that wearing wider shoes will be sufficient to stave it off. The problem with wider shoes is that my heels are so narrow that I have to wear styles with uppers or straps that keep the backs of shoes from slipping off.)

P.S. I’ve created a Flickr set for my Leeds photos. I’ve uploaded only a few so far; I’ll add the rest in the next few days.