C17: Bonus bit of jammy creativity!

by Suw on August 6, 2017

Last year, Kevin and I cleared a parasitic vine off our concord grape, and in August ended up with more grapes than we knew what to do with. So we froze them.

Concord grapes

Having pruned our vine, this year it’s looking like a bumper crop so I thought we had better take the 2.7kg of grapes we’d frozen and do something with them. Like turn them into jam.

Well, it seems like the internet is not in agreement with regards to how to make jam, so I averaged out some recipes, included the lemon juice for acidity and the butter for reducing foam and spent the afternoon boiling jars and simmering grapes.

The result is ten (and a half) jars of the most fabulous grape jelly I think I’ve ever tasted.

It’s currently cooling, and then I’ll test for airtightness. But oh my word, it tastes amazing! I never really understood the whole making jam thing, but now I really do!

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

When I first moved to London, in the mid-90s, I hated taking buses. I didn’t know the city well, and it was far too easy to get on the wrong bus, or miss your stop. I would end up sitting by the window, looking out for street names so that I could check where I was in my pocket A-Z. I’d follow my progress in the hope that I was actually on the way to the place I thought I was on my way to, and trying to figure out when to get off to minimise the walk to my destination. That wasn’t so much because I was lazy, but because you never knew how far there would be between bus stops, and there was no way to find out.

The London Underground, you see, was and is unambiguous. You know where it stops, because there’s a diagram in every carriage, so you can track your progress very easily. Also, it stops where it stops and nowhere else. It can’t be sent on diversion. If stations are shut, you tend to be told about it well in advance. And stations don’t get temporarily moved, like bus stops can be.

London buses, they were the very height of ambiguity. Whilst major stops would be listed in the information at the bus stop, there’d often be nothing on the bus itself, or if there was it would again only be major stops. If your stop was a minor stop, you might never see it named in any of the literature. And there was no way of knowing where you were if you didn’t either a) know the area already or b) have a map with you. Bus gone on diversion? Well, now you’ll have to guess how to get to where you’re going. Bus stop closed? Tough. Now you’ll have to walk back, and it might not be a short walk.

I was on a bus today. A bus I’d never been on, through a part of London I didn’t know, to a destination I’ve never been to. In the mid-90s, it would have been hugely stressful to me, but today it was a breeze, and all because I have information.

The bus now tells you which stop is coming up, so if you know the name of your stop you won’t miss it. If you don’t know the name of your stop, you can pull up Google Maps on your phone and watch your progress. All the bus stops are marked and named on Google Maps, so you always know where you’re at, and where you’re going to next.

And sitting on my bus, listening to it call out the names of the next stop in a comforting and reassuring voice, I remembered how much anxiety travelling by bus used to cause me. And I realised how that stress has been washed away by the sensible application of technology. And I thought, how easily we forget how things really used to be back then. How easily we gloss over the sense of security that merely having information gives us, how confident we can feel just because we know where we are. How much better our lives are now, in tiny but meaningful ways like this, than they used to be. How much we take it for granted.

If libraries gave us power, information gives us confidence.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

C17: Day 128 – The bucket

by Suw on May 8, 2017

Sometimes, you’re just too tired to actually write a blog post, so you just embed a YouTube video.

(I suspect the small birds at the beginning are house finches. We have them here, and the male has that lovely raspberry chest.)

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The winter that will not die

by Suw on April 10, 2016

Technically, it is Spring. The Spring Equinox was Sunday 20 March, so there can be no doubt about it. But meteorologically, here in the Midwest, it’s definitely still winter. It snowed all day yesterday, and although the pavement (sidewalk) and road (pavement) were too warm for the snow to accumulate, the grass and the roofs and the bushes and the trees were not. It feels like November out there. It feels like Christmas is just around the corner.

I was warned. I really can’t say that I wasn’t warned. I was warned quite clearly, by a friend over dinner.

Years before Kevin and I moved here, we knew that we wanted to. Kevin had spent a long time away from his family, London housing prices were unreasonable, and city living was disagreeing with us both. We didn’t know when or where or how we would move back, but we were pretty sure that we would.

My friend had lived in the Midwest for some considerable time and, over an all too rare dinner, I broached the subject with him. Did he have any advice for me, were Kevin and I to move? Visit in the winter, he said. Makes sure you understand just how cold it gets. Because it gets really, really cold. I nodded. Probably made some sort of noise about, no really, I do understand. And, up to a point, I did.

I’ve felt cold. Not British cold, dank and bone-swelling and sullen. British cold is unpleasant. Spiteful. Niggardly. But there is worse.


I am in Boston for a business meeting, and to hang out for a while with my then boyfriend, a long-distance relationship carved out of joint nerdiness and IRC. I am spectacularly unprepared for the weather. I own only a light jacket and court shoes which, at that time of year — February or March — would have been fine in the UK, but not Boston. And not with a winter storm dumping three feet of snow on us overnight.

My then boyfriend & I stay with mutual friends, sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the lounge of a lovely Victorian house made of matchsticks and paper and spit. I don’t know what the temperature falls to, but the air in the mattress sucks all the heat out from under us. We have nothing but a sheet and a thin quilt (comforter) to keep us warm, and it is insufficient protection against the cascade of cold air tumbling down from the bay window to drive the warmth out from above. I remember getting up and piling all of the coats from the coat stand on top of us, and as many of my clothes from my suitcase as I can. It isn’t enough. Once back in bed, I don’t dare move, because the slightest shift means discovering a new bitterly cold patch, or worse, letting a frigid blast of freezing air under the quilt.

I am cold. I am so cold that I hurt. My joints ache. My muscles ache. I don’t sleep at all. I just lie there, freezing, miserable, and wondering how the hell anyone could live in a place where the cause of death might not even be “Went outside”, but “Slept on air mattress in front room”.

I think I understand cold.


Woodstock, Illinois. That’s where they filmed Groundhog Day, and that’s where Kevin and I are going to move to. We’ve been over a few times, fallen in love with the place, and decide to live there. Kev has a geographically independent job and so do I. There’s a train from Woodstock into Chicago, so good for work, and it’s very near Kev’s parents’ place. It hasn’t changed much at all since Bill Murray found himself repeatedly stepping in the same puddle. It has a timeless charm, plus a great crêpe place.

We visit around Groundhog Day, by chance. They have their own groundhog now — Woodstock Willie. He does his prognostications each year on 2 February. We miss the big day, sadly, as our flight back to London is that evening, but we find a lovely house and our estate agent (realtor) is on the Groundhog Day committee, so we go to one of the events. It is a lot of fun, and makes us even more keen to move there.

Early February in northern Illinois can get chilly. And it does. Down to -18C. My breath freezes in my nose, a tickly, crackly sensation. Breathing deeply is a mistake, frigid air brutalising my lungs. But I have better shoes and a better coat this time, and we sleep in a proper bed in a proper house made of matchsticks, paper, spit and actual insulation.

I now know a lot more about cold.


Kevin has been here in Sheboygan for a month when, in March 2014, I visit to look for a house. He’s done all the heavy lifting; I just have to pick one of the final three and give it my seal of approval. It’s easy. The house we now live in stands head and shoulders above the others.

I have ten days to look around, find something out about the place I am about to call home. It’s white and snowy, huge piles of the stuff in every carpark, walls of it along the side of every road. Kevin introduces me to the Duke of Devon pub, an English eatery run by a chap from Bideford and crammed with British memorabilia and incredibly expensive British chocolate.

We decide to drive out to Plymouth, to look at an antique shop. More of a flea market by British standards, but we don’t know that and by the time we figure it out, I don’t care. We park a bit of a ways up the high street from the shop we’re aiming for, but that’s ok because we’re not scared of walking. It’s -16C. Even with my nice thick coat and my boots, by the time we get to the shop I am ready to go inside, no matter how much tat it sells. We have a look round. Twice. Slowly. Warming. Up.

Eventually, we go back out into the bitter wind and trudge back to the car. Should have taken cousin Leonie’s advice: Go where you want to go, and then find a place to park.

The thing about cold is that you forget.


Thanksgiving, 2014. I’m living here now. We have a house. It’s made of matchsticks and paper and spit and although I know it has some insulation in the roof, there are so many gaps around the windows that they might as well have not bothered. We have had a wonderful evening with friends in Milwaukee, and we’ve got home to find the house suspiciously cold. It’s -13C outside. Our heating, which uses the infernal Fahrenheit system, is set at 72F (22C). I do not believe that the thermostat tells the truth about the temperature but that is a discussion for another day.

Whatever biases the thermostat has, it says that it’s 68F/20C. I turn it up, try to get the heating to kick in, but nothing happens. Kevin goes downstairs to check the furnace. We don’t have boilers here, we have furnaces. Great big beasts with giant flues that sounds like small jet engines when they start up. This one was silent as the grave. No small jet engines here.

It’s 11.30pm on Thanksgiving evening, and there’s no way we’re about to call someone out. It’ll be fine, I say. We have our sofabed, and a working fireplace. Kevin gets in the last of the wood. We only use the fireplace when it’s warmer than -2C, because otherwise you loose more heat up the chimney than the fire can produce. But we have no real choice. I make up the bed with two duvets, two blankets, and I make sure we have hats and wooly socks and long-johns. Kevin lights a fire. The temperature continues to drop.

The cats are unhappy. They don’t really understand why it’s so damn cold inside and try to scrunch themselves up into tiny little balls to conserve heat. Mewton discovers that it’s warmer under the duvet, and I welcome him in. Every little bit of extra heat helps. But Grabbity is a jealous goddess and, after sulking for a while at the end of the bed, she pounces on top of the Mewton-shaped mound, firing him out from under the duvet like a pea squeezed out of its pod. He is disgruntled. I am very disgruntled, as his rapid departure has allowed a gust of cold air in under the duvets and the blankets. It feels like Boston all over again. I daren’t turn over.

We wake at 2am, Kevin puts the last log on the fire. We sleep fitfully until around 6.30am. It is 48F/8C. Inside. The temperature is still falling, and will fall faster now that we have run out of wood to burn. Kevin rings an engineer as soon as he can, and we sit on the sofa, wrapped in coats and blankets and duvets and hats and scarfs until the engineer arrives at 11am. We get a temporary fix; the proper fix comes later and costs us $400. The house takes 12 hours to warm back up to something approaching sensible.

The winter of 14/15 is not as cold as the previous winter had been. That one had been legendary, even amongst the townsfolk of Sheboygan. It had been phenomenally bitter. Ridiculously cold. Brutal. Lake Michigan was solid with ice, and blue ice at that. Baby glaciers, covering 93% of the lake.

Don’t get me wrong; 14/15 is cold. Very cold, with impressive ice jetties sticking out into the lake along the North Point shoreline, but only 90% of the lake is frozen and it isn’t brutally cold. It has only gone down to -27C.


Here’s how temperature works, now, for me:

0 to -10C: This is not too bad at all. The cold here is a dry cold, so it doesn’t get into your bones the way it does in the UK. It doesn’t really feel that cold.

-10C to -15C: It’s starting to get a bit uncomfortable if you’ve got the wrong coat on, or if there’s a breeze. My knees suffer the most.

-15C to -20C: Your breath freezes in your nose, your lungs hurt if you take a deep breath, and the dryness is evil. Everything becomes static. You can’t touch the cats because you’ll zap them. Your skin starts to dry out and itch.

-20C to -27C and beyond: Dear fucking god get me out of this hellhole. When I said everything becomes static before, I didn’t really mean it. Now, everything, every single thing is static. My silk scarfs stick to the walls. I fear that if I stroke the cats they’ll float upwards and stick to the ceiling. I can’t kiss my husband without getting zapped. I can’t do anything without getting zapped. My skin is starting to fall off, and it’s only great self-restraint that stops me carving it off in chunks because it itches so fucking much. This is miserable fucking cold. Do not go out without a thick coat, scarf, hat and gloves. In fact, just do not go out in this shit. Exposed flesh will begin to freeze within 10 minutes. Do not get yourself locked out. Do not let your car break down. Do not take a walk. You will die.

When Kevin and I started talking about moving to the States, I said that I had conditions: I would not move anywhere where the cause of death might be tornado, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or ‘went outside’. I failed on that last point.

That’s not my joke, btw, I read it on the internet somewhere, though I now have no idea where. But it’s also not actually a joke.

My understanding of cold is now far deeper and broader than it has ever been before.


This winter, I work hard to try to plug up all those pesky gaps around the windows. Last winter, we frequently had sheets of ice covering the secondary glazing (storm windows), especially in the bathroom. It was quite beautiful, really. Jack Frost visited often, drawing his fern leaves in frozen water. Trouble is, that moisture is precious. I want that moisture. I want it in the air. I want it in my skin. So I cover the windows in tertiary glazing, that plastic you stick to the window frame with double-sided tape and shrink with the hairdryer. I can’t do all of the windows, but I do the most important ones. The shitty, cheap double-glazed windows in the dining room get done twice, as in two layers of film, because ice is forming on the room-side of the film.

We buy ‘caulking cord’,which turns out to be long strips of plasticine. We buy foam strips to go under the sashes, where they meet the windowsill. We buy insulating curtains, and we finally put up the red Thai silk curtains that we bought from Restoration Hardware’s outlet store at 90% off. It helps. A bit.

In the depths of winter, we have a humidifier running 24/7. The noise of it drives me crazy, but it helps. A bit. We pump litres and litres and litres of water in to the atmosphere, but this house gets so dry, you’d need two or three of the things to really make a difference, and I’m not sure my psyche could cope with the incessant drone.

This winter is, though, not as cold as last. We’ve been down to -22C once, but mostly we’ve been in the minus single digits, which isn’t bad at all for round here. Ironically, these warmer temperatures lead to more snow. More days of snow fall, and more snow actually falling. But we also enjoy more warm periods, which has meant more snow melting in between the more snow falling. It’s been a bouncy kind of a winter.


It’s mid-March, and I’m packing up to leave my parents’ house in Dorset and return back to Sheboygan.

“Oh, well,” my mum begins. “It’ll be spring by the time you get home!”

I tell my mum that it’s unlikely, and that we had snow in March last year. We did. One flurry after I got back from my apparently-now-yearly March trip home. It’ll snow again, I’m sure, I tell my Mum, and she looks doubtful, but acquiesces.

It has snowed more since I got back than it did in December. It’s April now. It snowed all day yesterday. It snowed the day before. It might snow again tomorrow. There is snow on the ground, right now, as I type. We’ve had ‘lake effect’ snow when we weren’t supposed to get any snow at all, and we’ve seen snow go north of us, and snow go south of us. We’ve been in the snow firing line, and we’ve dodged snow bullets.

I find it fascinating, the snow. It falls, and I watch it, and I have to tear myself away and get back to work, but then I glance up and there it is, mesmerising, spellbinding, hypnotising. As I gaze out of the window, the world is obscured by white static. And yet.. And yet… It’s April. I am ready for the snow to go away. The daffodils are ready for the snow to go away too. And the lilies. The grass. The trees. We’re all ready now for the snow to retreat. It’s been Winter for five months, since the temperature first fell below freezing on 7 November. It has to be time for it to be Spring now.


The cold is not what makes Midwestern winters hard.

What makes them hard is that they don’t seem to stop.


“Winter weather advisory. Snow possible at 4:30am.”

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Dear fellow lefties

by Suw on May 8, 2015

It is 2:41am as I begin this blog post, and I’ve been awake since 1am. I cannot begin to describe how I feel about this election, but I know now how American lefties must have felt when Bush got in for a second term back in 2004, and my, doesn’t that feel like a long time ago now. I look forward to this night feeling like a long time ago.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll currently be feeling a mix of despair, disgust, anger, horror, frustration, more anger, disbelief, more despair, maybe with a bit of alienation thrown in. For me, this election is weird because I no longer live in the UK, although my business is still located there, and my cultural identity is still firmly British. I’m still listening to British radio during the day and watching British TV shows in the evening. I escaped the worst of the electioneering, but I still thought hard about my vote, registered as an ex-pat voter, and arranged for a proxy vote so that I could take part in the democratic process of my native country.

And wow. What a total fuck-up. I am just utterly horrified at the results of the election, utterly distraught that we face five more years of horrific policies that will make the UK a measurably worse place to live if you aren’t rich, and an utterly terrible place if you are poor, disabled, retired, ill, or in any other way disadvantaged.

I feel despair, and for so many reasons, not limited to the fact that so many people could vote for the Nasty Party; that our first past the post system has ensured that the parties we voted for are not represented in Parliament in a way that reflects our voting patterns; and that so many people can find it in themselves to vote against their own self-interests.

We on the left will no doubt go through the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief*: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I’m already at depression and likely to stay there for some considerable time, with perhaps flashbacks to anger at regular intervals.

But what about acceptance? Well, I will never accept right-wing policies, and I will never accept that the left is lost. But what I think is very, very clear is that we need to accept that the left has gotten really fucked up over the last twenty years, and that New Labour is a massive, humungous failure. New Labour is so similar to Tory that there is really now only the Greens on the left, and whilst their vote share has increased if Twitter is to be believed, (it’s now 3am, so I’ll leave you to check that fact), their stance on science and related issues leaves so much to be desired that a rationalist, pro-science voter simply cannot support them.

The Left needs to get its house in order. The Greens need to get rid of their anti-science policies and take an evidence-based view on scientific issues. And Labour need root and branch change, they need to get rid of New Labour and return to proper, old school lefty values that are primarily focused on supporting and protecting the weak, the vulnerable, the unfortunate, the disadvantaged and, most of all, the person on the street. Labour have entirely lost their way. They need to step completely away from their craven pro-big-business attitudes, their authoritarian suveillence-state policies, and their brutal anti-immigration position (a position not backed up by the facts, btw). Miliband and his cohort must go, right now, and they must be replaced by people who are compassionate, empathic and willing to stand up to a Tory press. Tom Watson might be a good person to start such a change.

So what of us lefties, who now feel so mortified at what our country has just done? We need to get our house in order too. More tolerance of differences between the various flavours of leftyism and less stabbing our own in the back because they are not perfect (see Obama for a fantastic examples of that!). More engagement with politics, not less, although the urge to hide under the duvet for five years is strong. More compassion for people less fortunate than ourselves. More understanding of people who are different to ourselves. But not so much openmindedness that our brains fall out – let’s be evidence led, positive, supportive, but not credulous or stupid, not led by fear of technology or change. Let us embody the very best of progressive, positive politics.

And what of us lefty activists? Those of us working towards a better world for other people, working to support those around us, those of us who often work for sub-market wages because we believe we can make a difference? What of us? Well, we have to keep doing what we do, keep supporting each other, look after each other, be there for each other. We may each have a different focus but we all have a common goal: To help others. It’s going to be hard, because the Tories always make it hard for people like us. But we have to just redouble our efforts, and together we can get through this. The next five years might be bad, but let’s try to make sure it’s only another five years.

* A useful metaphor, but there’s no actual evidence that people experience this when bereaved.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The unexpected overheads of moving continents

by Suw on September 5, 2014

When Kevin and I realised in the New Year that we would indeed be moving from the UK to the US, most of my planning revolved around the run up to that moment when I would get on the plane to the US with a one-way ticket. With Kevin gone from early February, the workload in the UK fell mostly on my shoulders. Deciding how to get the cats moved, which shipping company to use to move our stuff, all the sorting and packing and recycling and throwing out so that we moved only what we wanted and not a heap of rubbish (insofar as is possible, of course), and all the admin associated with immigration and the winding up of my presence in the UK (including some long-overdue post-marriage admin). It was a lot to cope with.

That’s not to say that Kev sat around doing nothing, far from it — he had a new job to settle in to, a house to find and buy, a new car to buy, and all the admin associated with moving a family to a new country. There were also immigration admin on his end too. (Amusingly, Kevin had to fill out the affidavit of support, in which he signs a contract with the US government taking financially responsibility for me for 10 years or until I become US citizen. Us immigrants, so untrustworthy!) We knew it would be hard, and made harder by the fact we were apart for five months. Instead of sharing the weight of the tasks, we each had to shoulder them on our own. Again, this was expected and, tough as it was, we managed.

One of the unexpected overheads, though, was just how much time I had to devote to preparing to move. I knew there’d be stress, but I didn’t realise that I would get so very little work done for more than three months, from mid-March to the end of June when I finally did get on that plane. I got behind on Ada Lovelace Day work, despite the fantastic support that I’ve had from the Ri this year, and I got behind on my professional work. But, I thought, I’ll take a week off when I get there, and then I’ll be able to catch up.

Except things just haven’t panned out like that at all. I have not caught up, because what I didn’t bank on was the vast quantity of admin that I would have to do when I got here. And, worse, the various crises that have swept through our lives over the last two months and taken up masses of my time.

Things I didn’t expect included:

  • An infestation of what turned out to be chimney swift bugs has not only cost us a small fortune, it’s also taken up a lot of time as I have had to find a company to treat our house, and then deal with all those treatments. I now need to find a chimney sweep and arrange to get the final treatment to eradicate the stubborn hangers-on.
  • Our furniture and possessions have taken three months to arrive, instead of two, and I have had to chase up the shipping company (if you’re curious, it’s AngloPacific, Schumacher Logistics, AK Connect and Best Value (out of Chicago), in descending order of subcontractordom and therefore competence and levels of care). Our stuff finally arrived Tuesday and too much of our delicate, irreplaceable stuff is broken. Furniture has mostly arrived damaged. This means that I now have to start documenting issues so that I can claim on insurance.
  • My Social Security Number didn’t come when it should, so I’ve only just got it, eight weeks after I arrived, after re-applying for it at the local Social Security Office. Of course, this is after wasting time searching the web for information about what to do when it didn’t come, and then trying to get through to the national helpline that couldn’t help at all.
  • With no SSN, I have not been able to get a bank account, and thus still don’t have a mobile phone or health insurance. Figuring out the latter is a big job, and quite a scary one.
  • A court case I started in the UK pursuing an unpaid invoice has been a massive time suck because, contrary to the government’s assertion that you can manage a small claim online through their portal, you actually can’t and have to do a lot by post. Not being in the UK has made this tricky and very stressful.
  • A project to refinish the floors in our front bedroom went horribly awry when Grabbity decided to go wade through the varnish. I can laugh about this now, but it’s taken two months to re-sand the floors and get back to the point where we can re-varnish them. Again, a massive time suck, and it means that I’ve not had an office to work in which has caused me a lot of problems with my back.

Then there are the smaller stresses, the neighbour who plays loud music late and night sometimes, the other neighbour who bizarrely cuts off bits of our tree and leaves them on the lawn, the unexpected cost of a tire blow-out, the not being able to drive and thus being a little bit more stuck than I had thought I would be, the irritating transaction fee of 2.99% that Lloyds Bank charges me for the privilege of accessing my own money. And on, and on.

All of this stuff that’s going on, the big stuff and the little stuff, has taken and continues to take time away from Ada Lovelace Day and, importantly, from my own work.

I have had the challenge of rethinking my entire business to work here in the US. I came up with a good plan in February, but now we’re in September and I’m still behind on execution. I’m shifting from face-to-face consulting to online teaching, and I have been trying to finish up my first online course about how to write your own social media strategy. It’s hard going, retooling an entire business, but I’m confident it will work well. I spent a lot of time in April talking to my network about what sort of training they wanted, and have a fair bit of interest in this project and others, but it takes a lot of time to put together a good course. Time which I have simply not had enough of.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, for a few reasons, really. I’ve been having a bit of a hard time of it, over the last month especially, and just writing about it is cathartic. It makes me feel better and, right now, that’s as good a reason as any. But I also want to provide a bit of context for those of you who are either wondering why I haven’t been in touch, or to whom I owe email (I’m fed up of starting my email responses with, “I’m sorry to taking so long to reply”), or who are waiting for something from me. I am sorry for taking so long.

To be very clear, I do love it here in Sheboygan. I don’t regret moving at all. Our house is lovely, and will be lovelier when our small unwelcome guests have left, our DIY is done, and our stuff is tidied away. I love it that the cats have so much space to run around in and that they are so happy here. I love it that we’re just a five minute walk from Lake Michigan, and I love how weird it is to hear the sounds of the seashore without smelling the smells (it’s a freshwater lake, after all). I love the restaurants here and the kind, friendly people we’re meeting. I love all the great little towns nearby that we can visit, and the beautiful countryside in between them. I am fundamentally delighted that we’ve moved.

It’s just that the transition has been harder than I anticipated, and it will take me longer than I thought to settle in, because sometimes life just starts slapping you round the face with a wet haddock and doesn’t seem to want to stop. It will stop eventually, of course, I’m just not sure when.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Loving an alien, part 2

by Suw on July 2, 2014

Read Part 1. Also, please note that immigration processes vary from country to country, and in the UK they vary enormously over time as the Government thinks up new ways to torment immigrants. The below advice should not be thought of as comprehensive, nor always applicable to your personal situation, but is based on my experience of UK and US immigration processes, for whatever that’s worth. If in doubt, see an immigration lawyer.  

When I was 16, I probably would have laughed in your face if you’d said that I’d marry. And an American, to boot! You’re ‘avin’ a larf, mate. And even if I had believed you, it wouldn’t have done me any good without the advice I am about to give you.

If you have fallen in love with an alien, if an alien has fallen in love with you, if you’re even flirting with a foreigner or considering going on holiday or working abroad, then there are are a few little things you should do, right now, before they become necessary. This may seem silly, but trust me, if you ever need this information you’ll be very, very glad that you spent a little time preparing.

1. Make a list of everywhere you’ve ever lived

Literally, everywhere. Even those three month stints you spent at home in between years at university. In order to fill in some immigration forms, you need an unbroken record of everywhere you have ‘established a residence’ since you were 16, which for many people means ‘since forever’. It’s a tedious job, but start now and keep the document up to date and when you move house.

It took me hours on Google Maps and on the phone with my parents to reconstruct my residential history going back to, eventually, 1976. Luckily, I’d recently spent time on Google Maps finding the house I’d lived in back in Sydney, Australia, when I was 18, so that shaved about an hour off the process. But there was still a lot of “Do you have the address for that place with the bonkers landlord?”, though given that the majority of my landlords have been either bonkers or total assholes that didn’t narrow it down much. Remembering the walks home from the tube station helped too, but it was a tremendous stress at a time when I really didn’t need any more of that particular evil.

You’ll need the date (at least month and year) you moved in and moved out, and the full address.

2. Police certificates

Some visas require a police certificate for every country you’ve lived in for more than a year, no matter how long ago, and for any UK address you’ve lived in during the previous X years. It’s an easy process in the UK, but do not put it off once you get to that stage because it can take time, and the longer you put it off the more you delay your own visa.

If you have ever lived in another country for more than a year, start researching now how to get the appropriate document so that when the issue comes up you know what to do. The particulars of the process may change in the intervening years, but the basics won’t.

I only found out about the requirement for a police certificate for other countries late on in the visa process, and had I spent another three months in Australia, I would have had to get a certificate from them. That could have delayed my visa for months, which would really have piled on the stress.

3. Make a list of everywhere you’ve ever travelled

When Kevin had to do this, we spent a long time with his passports and calendar listing everywhere he’s been for the last ten years. That was relatively easy, if tedious, because an American travelling in Europe gets a stamp in their passport every time they enter a country, and usually when they leave too. (For some bizarre reason, the UK doesn’t do exit stamps.)

For me, it would have been a disaster if I wasn’t so zealous about putting things in my calendar, as a lot of my travel was within the EU, meaning that I don’t get any stamps in my passport at all. But with my calendar and my propensity for booking everything online and keeping electronic copies of tickets, I could draw up that list.

You’ll need the departure and return dates, plus city and country. Make a note of which flights are overnight – I tend to count duration in nights not days, which makes it easier to deal with nights spent in the air and the crossing of the date line (not that I’ve ever done that, mind!).

4. Check your vaccination record

Some countries require you to be vaccinated against specific diseases, so it’s a good idea to make sure that your medical records are up to date with your childhood jabs. You can get a print out of your vaccination history to give to the medical examiner.

You may need to get additional vaccinations in order to complete the immigration process: I had to have an MMR jab because I hadn’t had a mumps vaccination as a child (it didn’t exist then). As an adult you can get MMR free on the NHS, though I’ve heard that some GP surgeries are reluctant to give it. Don’t take no for an answer!

5. Check your medical records

Some countries require you to tell them your medical history, which sounds like a trivially easy thing right up until the point where you’re in the middle of the medical and being grilled about events that were so long ago that you’re a bit hazy on the details.

In the UK, you have the right to see your medical records and it should cost no more than £10. You are “entitled to receive a response no later than 40 days after your application is received and any relevant fee has been paid”, so start this application sooner rather than later. This is especially important if you have any history of mental illness, including depression, at all, because you could be asked quite detailed questions about what happened, when, and what medication you were given, if any. If you know exactly what is in your medical records, then you can be much more accurate in your replies to questions.

Be aware that, depending on the country’s requirements, if you have any history of mental illness, including depression, you may need to get a letter from your GP confirming that what you say is true. That can add a month or more on to the process, depending on how efficient your GP is. Again, do not delay talking to your GP if you run into this problem, as the sooner you ask them, the sooner your letter will get to the head of the queue.

At my GP’s, the process was that the GP writing the letter rang me up, asked for further information about when my brief period of depression was, read out what the records said (very, very little, as it turned out), and then wrote the letter. When it was ready I picked it up, read it through and had the opportunity to discuss it with the GP if I had wanted to, so they didn’t communicate directly with the embassy medical panel. This was a huge reassurance, because it was very stressful not knowing either what my medical record said (I didn’t check first) and not knowing what my GP would say.

6. Get your household bills in joint names, and keep them all

For Kevin’s Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK we needed to prove that we had a legitimate relationship, not a marriage of convenience, and to do that the government wanted us to produce six utility bills in both our names from the previous two years. What wasn’t in the guidance was that they were expecting those bills to be evenly spread out over those two years. Our happened to come in three clusters, which they said wasn’t good enough.

As I said in my last post about immigration, their logic is just insane. Do they really believe that a couple would move in together, get joint bills then split up for 10 months before moving in together again to get more bills, then split up, and then do it all again? Seriously? On what planet does that happen? Especially as we had at that point been married a while. It’s just mindboggling that people would think like that.

But, we dealt with that bit of jobsworthing by adhering to the next rule, and it is a rule that you should live by no matter what sort of visa you are applying for, no matter what country:

7. Over-document

When the immigration official asked for more bills, Kevin whipped out a sheaf of papers about half an inch thick, and the objection to the timing of our bills magically evaporated. We had been advised to over-document, and it was advice we were happy that we followed.

In short, document everything, and keep everything. Get as many bills and other official proofs of your relationship as possible. Every time you get a relevant email, or fill in a form online, keep a print copy. Two copies. Make photocopies of all your official documents. If you have any phone conversations (although I have not spoken to any officials on the phone for my visa), make detailed notes including date and time of call.

It’s also a good idea to log every action you take, if only for your own peace of mind. Note when you submit forms, when you send emails, when you get documents through the post. The visa process takes ages, but it feels as if it takes aeons. It is good to be able to look at your log and realise that it was only last week that you submitted that form, not last month, and so the fact that you’ve not heard anything is not a bad sign.

Non-EU immigration is very, very hard work. If you can afford a specialise immigration lawyer, then that’s certainly a help, but many people can’t. The rhetoric of the media, especially in the UK, would have most people believe that all you need to do is turn up and bingo, it’s all good. But that’s not true. There are a lot of forms to fill, a lot of money to pay over, a lot of tedious information gathering and underneath it all the lurking suspicion that immigration officials can be capricious and that your application may fail for reasons entirely opaque to you.

If you are in the process of, or about start, any immigration process, then good luck. And if you’ve been through it, what do you wish you’d known before you started?

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Loving an alien, part 1

by Suw on June 19, 2014

There were many things that occupied my mind when I was 16, but thinking about the kind of man I might marry was not one of them. Revision for my O Levels was a pretty big thing in my life about then, as was thinking about what I’d do at university, and which of my Dad’s science fiction books I’d read next. I gave no thought to who I might marry, or even whether I might marry.

By my late 20s, I had started learning Welsh and had ‘decided’ that I would probably wind up marrying a Welshman, if only to be able to move to somewhere picturesque and spend my time speaking the the Language of Heaven. I failed quite spectacularly on that front, only eventually meeting Kevin once I’d given up not just on the whole Wales thing, but the whole marriage thing as well. I was convinced that my natural state was single, and that I was going to be ok with that.

When I met Kevin, I was smitten the very moment he walked through the door to the foyer at BBC Television Centre out in White City, despite not knowing who he was, or that he was the person about to interview me for the radio. And even though it was very obvious that he Wasn’t From Around These Parts, I never for one moment considered the implications of falling in love with an alien.

I mean, you don’t, do you? You can’t. You have no way of knowing what’s in store for you, because no one ever talks about the practicalities of immigration. But as soon as you fall in love with a foreigner, immigration policy becomes a major force in your life, one that might destroy your relationship, destroy your future, if you make even just one, tiny slip.

Lots of people talk as if they know all about immigration. They have opinions, and they spout them unchallenged by reality, because no one really wants to discus the nitty gritty of immigration, they just want to throw a few soundbites around so they can ingratiate themselves with an audience who know even less.

Try falling in love with one of those dirty, rotten foreigners, one of those selfish people who come over to our country, stealing our jobs, shagging our women (or men) and spreading love and happiness in their wake… oh.

Loving an alien means putting your life in the hands of politicians. It means wading through pages and pages of barely comprehensible legalese. It means hoping that the rules don’t change whilst you’re in the process of legitimising your love’s presence in this country not of their birth. It means being given advice by people who only two years ago had a totally different experience because everything has changed in the intervening time. It’s knowing that if you hadn’t gotten lucky and applied when you did, the new rules would see your love thrown out on their ear because of an arbitrary decision made by someone with no grip on reality. It means wondering, especially in the early days of your relationships, whether your love might be tested to destruction by bureaucracy.

The worst part is the feeling of powerlessness that often comes upon an immigrant and their partner. The fact that there you are, standing in front of an immigration official in Liverpool, and they are complaining that the utility bills you have given them to prove that you’re in a legitimate relationship aren’t evenly spread out, one every three months, over the previous two years, despite the fact that nowhere in their directions do they explain that ‘requirement’ (which you suspect they’ve made up on the spot). As you wait for this anonymous stranger to make their decision as to whether your love can stay, you hear a couple at the counter next to you being told that no, his wife cannot stay because he does not earn enough money, even though this financial requirement is so new the media still think it’s just a suggestion.

I was sitting in a taxi the other day talking to the Bengali driver and explaining my current immigration situation. Whilst we were chatting, I explained how long it had taken Kevin to get his citizenship here, how torturous it was, how touch-and-go at times. He was shocked.

But, you’re married! he said.

Doesn’t count for anything here, I replied. The bureaucrats are so divorced from reality that they seriously believe that my husband and I might get married, move in together, get some bills in both our names, then move out again, then move in again a year later for another batch of bills, then move out again, faking it all the time just for him to get a visa. Seriously, anyone who believes people behave like that is capable of believing anything, and they will choose to believe the worst.

!!! he said.

Seriously, I said.

But you said he’s American, he said. I thought people like that just, well, walked in?

I laughed, a sad, frustrated laugh.

My Bengali taxi driver had internalised the media’s and politician’s lies about who immigrants are, and how easy it is for different types of immigrant to arrive and stay in the UK. His assumption was that, because we were white, we could just do what we wanted to. For him, it was an eye opener to discover that we did not, in fact, have it easy, we did not get special treatment.

Indeed, the UK government has so much shit to give that they like to spread it around as much as they possibly can. No favouritism here (except for the EU, but that’s only under protest – don’t believe they wouldn’t throw out all European immigrants if they could). My Bengali taxi driver was sympathetic, if surprised, and I felt a momentary bond with someone whose life has been and will be very, very different to mine.

But what about the times when Kevin has talked to people in America about how long it has taken to get my US visa, only to have them say something like, Why don’t you just smuggle her in illegally, ha ha ha. Or, my favourite: Those Mexicans come here illegally, so why can’t she?

Because nothing says ‘love’ so much as selling your wife’s safety to human traffickers and risking not only her physical and emotional wellbeing, but also any future you might have had together in America. But oh, it’s so funny to think of a Western, white woman being an illegal immigrant when we all know those people are nasty, brutish and brown.

These people suggesting that illegal immigration is a sensible replacement for the formal immigration process are just idiots who’ve never given a moment’s thought to how they would like to be treated if they had married a foreigner. They make the assumption that illegal immigration is easy, but they also seem to think that it’s in some way fun, that it’s a choice people make as simply and easily as you might choose to have a cup of coffee or an ice cream. They have no comprehension of the risks and danger involved, so they make weak jokes as a way to avoid having to think about immigration in human terms.

The problem is that there is no credible civil discourse on immigration, no way for people to learn about the realities of immigration: the limitations, the tedium, the risks inherent even in the official process, the fear of getting it wrong, the expense. The nonsense that the media dredges up comes from the sewers of their imagination bears no resemblance to reality.

People who haven’t been through an immigration process tend not to know the least thing about how it works. They have no idea even of what the rules are, particularly with regard to whether immigrants can claim benefits (hint: EU citizens, refugees and asylum seekers can, everyone else can’t). This means that they cannot spot the hyperbole, the lies, and the misrepresentation because they simply don’t have a reliable understanding of reality with which to compare the rubbish published by so-called news outlets.

This ignorance of the mechanisms of immigration allows prejudice and misinformation to flourish. Prejudice and misinformation causes public outrage, which then shapes the political agenda. Politicians and civil servants then use the outrage to shape public policy to meet their ideological desires, or to try to win votes from an increasingly reactionary and ill-informed electorate.

And caught up in the middle of all this are couples whose only crime has been to fall in love, and families who just want to be together.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

For those of you who know Kevin or me well, it will come as no surprise to hear that we are finally moving to the USA: Kevin yesterday started his new job as Executive Editor of the Sheboygan Press and the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, both a part of Gannett. I am still in the UK, and will follow when I have my visa, probably in May or June (though it’s anyone’s guess, really!).

There’s a lot to write about regarding this move, but I suspect that the biggest question on most of my friends’ lips will be, “But what will you do for work, Suw?” The answer to that is that I will be taking my social media consulting across the Pond, still focused on media and publishing. Sheboygan is more well known for its bratwurst than its international publishing companies, but it’s only a couple of hours drive from Chicago and just over two hours flight from New York. I’ve plenty of experience working remotely, of course, and will also be interested to see what the local market is like in towns like Milwaukee.

Although Kevin and I started my visa application in September last year, it is a drawn out process, as you can imagine. It’s impossible to know exactly how long it will take before I get the green light to move, but it’s not likely to happen much before May. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to cram in as much work in the UK as possible, so if you’ve ever thought about getting me in, email me now! I’ve just revamped my website to give more details of the strategy workshops I have developed and the bespoke social technology consulting that I do.

If you’re an American publisher interested in social media, then I’ll be at the London Book Fair in April, so get in touch and we’ll find a time to meet. I’m eager to start conversations soon for engagements during the summer.

As for Ada Lovelace Day, that will continue as normal. This year, it is hosted by the Ri, who are already doing a fantastic job of taking care of us, and our producer, Helen Arney, will continue her great work putting the event line-up together. Today I have a meeting for next year’s event, which will also be hosted in London. I will be back for both, and the centre of gravity for Ada Lovelace Day will remain in London for the next two years, not least because it gives me a good excuse to come back and visit friends and family!

I am very excited indeed about this move. I’ve visited Sheboygan, and it’s a lovely lakeside town with a proper British pub and a picturesque downtown. There are some great outdoors opportunities, and finally the chance for us to own our own house, something quite impossible in Woking. And I hope to have a bit more time to write and to make and to enjoy exploring my new country. Grabbity and Sir Izacat Mewton will of course be coming with us, and I can’t wait to see them exploring their new house and enjoying a bit more space. So, stay tuned. I’ve a lot of pent-up blogging that needs to come out!

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

2014: A year of massive change?

by Suw on January 1, 2014

I have high hopes for this year. Last year, 2013, was a weird year. After a great first half, the second half became one giant effort to just cope with everything that was going on. I had my oophorectomy, but lost four work leads because I was off recuperating. As a freelance, that’s really frustrating, because every lead is valuable. Kevin’s job evaporated into the thin air of small organisation politics and so he rejoined me in consulting whilst carrying out a job search that was longer than either of us had hoped for or anticipated.

Ada Lovelace Day ate my brain. Seriously, it was so much more work this year, not least because I decided to put together an anthology of writing about women in STEM, which I called A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention. I’m very glad that I did – I got some just gorgeous writing in and the book has been very well received indeed. I’m looking forward to starting on organising a Kickstarter project to get a physical copy printed up. So that’s something to get started on when I’m back in the office properly next week. 

But most frustratingly of all, last year started off really well on the writing front but then it just got lost in the morass of ALD organisation. By the time that was over I was so behind with actual paying work that I spent every waking moment either working or so knackered that I couldn’t do much more than crochet. 

So this year, I’m taking my writing by the jugular and shaking it up. To that end I’m setting myself some goals: 

Write morning pages every day
I wrote recently on Forbes about writing to discard, and how as writers we really need to practice in the safety of our own notebooks. Self-publishing has a nasty habit of making you feel that everything you write is and must be for publication, but that takes away our permission to be a bit shit, to experiment and to mess up. Morning pages are an idea from The Artist’s Way that allow you to write without judgement, write without your inner editor looking over your shoulder and, hopefully, free up those creative cogs. So, starting today, I shall write at least a page of whatever comes to mind every day. 

Blog at least once a week
In both 2013 and 2012, I wrote just 28 times on this blog. In 2011 it was no better with just 29 posts, and in 2010, it was 38. In 2004, I was doing more than that in one month. So, I’m going to try to up my output to, erm, 52 posts in 2014. That’s one a week. You’re going to have to hold me to it, though, because blogging is always the first against the wall when the revolution comes, or when I get busy. And this year, well, it might get busy. 

Publish fiction at least once a month
Last year started well for me as regards writing. I got Queen of the May done and published, wrote The Lacemaker, jotted down lots of ideas, got two new stories drafted, and then it all went to hell in a handcart. So this year, I’m going to promise to publish at least one thing each month. It may be a short story, a piece of flash fiction, a chapter from something longer, or even just a vignette, but something will get published. In fact, I may even join Patreon, a micro-patronage site, to provide some motivation. I’d love to know what you think of that idea – is it a good one? Or just a distraction? 

Restart my author’s notebook
A while back, I started carrying round a small notebook with me, in which I jotted down ideas. It really does help to get the ideas flowing, as the more you write them down, the more they come to you. I need to get back into doing that, and not just shoving stuff aside when I think of it “to remember later”, because I invariably forget. 

So, those are my plans. This year has some sharks lurking in the shallows, sharks that I know are there and which could easily eat my plans for lunch, but I hope to be able to make friends with them using age old shark whispering techniques so that they don’t leave more than the occasional bite mark behind. 

Wish me luck, and keep me honest on Twitter

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Final oophorectomy post

December 2, 2013

It’s been six months now since I had my left-hand ovary and fallopian tube removed, along with a shit-ton of endometriosis, and there’s one final, very short update that I wanted to do for any other women who are going through this process. Though, as usual, I must note that this is just my experience […]

Read the full article →

Eight weeks later

July 30, 2013

Eight weeks ago I had my partial oophorectomy, so I thought it was worth writing a little update. Obviously my story is just my story, it’s not medical advice or anything. I write it because there seem to be so few first person accounts of an op like this online, and it might prove reassuring […]

Read the full article →

Left at the lights

June 23, 2013

Sometimes, just when you think you’ve got everything nailed, when your plans are coming along nicely and all the pieces of the jigsaw are slotting neatly into place, something comes along and blows everything out of the water. For some years now, Kevin and I have been plotting our move to the US. A few […]

Read the full article →

Partial oophorectomy done, not quite dusted

June 10, 2013

Last Monday, at the hideous hour of 7.30am, I went into Ashford (Surrey) Hospital to have my partial oophorectomy, the removal of my left-hand ovary and the 8cm chocolate cyst that was attached to it and still growing. The staff at Ashford were lovely (once I found the right department!). I was rapidly seen by […]

Read the full article →

Bye bye ovary, ovary bye bye

April 19, 2013

As regular readers will know, I’ve had two ovarian cysts over the last year. The first one was removed August 2012 but within five months a second one had grown on the left ovary again. The cysts are endometriomas, which means that a little bit of uterine lining has made its way into my ovary and started […]

Read the full article →