Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Becoming socially secure

The queue on arrival
Today was the day of the first of many administrative tasks ahead of us: applying for my social security number (SSN). This involved getting up early to arrive about an hour before the office opened (as per the advice on the K-1 process flow chart), queuing in the already-formed, reasonably-sized line, and then getting a ticket number and waiting for an officer to call you. It was very much like the visa interview process up until this point, just without the security screening.

Initially, we were all in a single line, until a lovely, friendly lady started to open up the office, and organised us all into three separate lines: those with appointments; those who needed replacement cards; and AOB (disability allowance, retirement etc.). Obviously this reassured my agitated inner Brit, who was subconsciously checking for any "pushers in", with the ever-increasing threat of a passive-aggressive glare spontaneously emerging on my face. It was fine, though, as the lines were very easily sorted and separated, and we ended up being the first in our category, too. Once that was done, the doors were opened properly, and we all shuffled in, in our respective lines, after having been asked whether or not we had any weapons on our person (they're not allowed), told that we cannot take phone calls in the waiting room, and asked not to eat or drink anything while waiting for our appointments.

Our ticket number
The lady of aforementioned queue organising success was the same person who checked us into the waiting room and gave us a ticket number. It was then a case of sitting and waiting for our number to be called - Argos for visas all over again. The interesting thing for me, as an English girl used to English office routines, was seeing the office open about 40 minutes early in order to organise the people waiting in time for business to start at 9AM, the time the office officially starts processing social security documents. It's not unheard of in Britain to have an office do this, I guess, but it's hardly usual. If the opening hours are 9-3, you won't get anyone helping you before 9, or after 3. So, all in all, I was pleasantly surprised! We'd hardly sat down for five minutes after getting our ticket number when we were called to a booth around the corner from the waiting room. It took about fifteen minutes for the official to type in my details from the SS-5 form I had filled in the day before (you can get them online and print them off at home, which is helpful), check my passport, visa and I-94, and ask me a few questions about my previous trips to the US, whether I had a bank account (which was a bit weird, because you can't get a US bank account without an SSN, to my knowledge), and whether I was currently employed. I then had to affirm all the answers I had given were true to my knowledge, and we were issued a receipt, told it would take 7-10 days to receive my card in the post, and shown on our way. We were out by 9:15!

The perfect SSN application celebration
So, the obvious thing to do next was refuel, with coffee and bagels, which we did very successfully - the perfect reward for the early start and successful trip. Not to mention the fact that it's the only part of the whole administration process of making me a permanent alien that's entirely free! It was a gorgeous, sunny autumn morning, so we grabbed some Starbucks coffee (I am slightly addicted to skinny, extra-strong vanilla lattes) and spinach and cheese omelette bagels from Bruegger's, and sat in the sun, contemplating my imminent social security, and the fact that we are now almost at stage 17 on the flow chart: applying for a marriage license. Woohoo!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The first fortnight

Ender is adjusting to my presence 
I have re-written the start of this post three or four times now, each one amended to account for the fact that I have kept putting off writing it in full. Not on purpose, you understand, but because I get busy/become distracted/see something shiny, and inevitably my computer gets abandoned. It has been six eight thirteen fourteen days since I arrived in NC, and I am pretty much as settled as I can be right now. The past couple of weeks have flown by in a whirlwind of happiness, spending all the time I can with Ben, joyful reunions with old friends, meeting new friends, catching up with my lovely family here, exploring the local area, preparing for Halloween, reassuring the dog that I'm a normal feature of the apartment now, and buying things to make this place our place.

Rather than go through all the minutiae and ending up sounding like a 6-year-old's diary ("...and then we did this, then this, then this!"), I thought I would do what is pretty much the photograph equivalent. I'll explain in more or less detail, depending on the photo's requirements, with some background on what's been happening since I've been living in the Queen City.

The above picture is of my wonderful man, pouring Champagne, after we got back from our first proper date out together on the day of my arrival. Mama Ricotta's was the first place we ever had dinner together, so it seemed fitting to go back there on my first day in NC. The Champagne was also one of two bottles Ben had bought at Birmingham airport on the day he left England, so it was all a rather lovely circle of happiness coming together at last. 

Above you you see our first breakfast, courtesy of Ben. Cream cheese bagels with bacon, OJ and fresh coffee. Wonderful stuff. The second photo is of the gorgeous flowers I received as a surprise welcome from Ben's (soon to be my!) family, sent to the apartment. They have an American flag in them as a decoration and are based on a theme of red, white and blue - of course!

Outside the Wine Vault 
My fortune cookie: not too tough...  
Seeing my wonderful Sully again for the first time since June

The delightful Cassie, and fantastic Brad (the latter of whom I only met that night!)

Lady love at the Wine Vault!

All of the photos above are from our second day together, in the evening, when Ben and I went for a Chinese takeaway and then went to the Wine Vault to eat it and then meet friends for drinks. It was such a wonderful, joyful evening: seeing friends I'd met in December again for the first time, seeing Leah again after her adventures in the UK with us in June, and meeting new friends who, before then, I had not spoken to except for on Facebook. I am so lucky to have been welcomed into Ben's "family by choice" like this, and I have no doubt that part of the reason I feel as settled as I do here already is down to them: their friendliness, generosity, sense of fun, openness, and love.

Sunrise from our balcony

View of our building

Obligatory flat-pack run

Bedroom furniture in the "before" stages

The finished bedroom, with new wardrobe and chest of drawers

Here we see the inevitable IKEA trip evidence: a peaceful morning broken only by the promise of sore thumbs, injured limbs, and potentially life-threatening assembly rage. As you can see, though, it all worked out rather beautifully. After we woke up and had some coffee and breakfast, we made runs to Target and IKEA, returned home, charged up on humous, pita chips, and Stella Artois, and got building (Ben) and unpacking the remaining shipping boxes (me). My shipping actually arrived the day after I did, which was a wonderfully pleasant surprise. There were only a couple of breakages, too: one wine glass and one picture frame, which hadn't affected the drawing inside. Lovely job! So, by Friday evening of the first week, our apartment really looked like home.

Leah and a GIANT burrito, on our first girl-date

Me and Ben at the diner 

The lovely Brad: Ice cream!

My dramatic husband

Dramatic Cas, too. It was one of those nights.

Hmm, it seems I may have got my days mixed around... we went to IKEA on the Friday of the first week, and the photos above are from the trivia night at the diner in Concord that happens every Thursday night. Oh well, never mind. I've moved countries; a little confusion is to be expected! Thursday night is trivia night, so we toddled over to Concord after Ben's class to partake in what is essentially a pub quiz. Before that, though, I had the wonderful treat of a girl-date with our best "man" Leah. She took me to Zapata's for Mexican food and delicious margaritas, and a much-needed catch up. We had a fabulous time, chattering away for slightly too long and getting back late to meet Ben (sorry, baby!).

Now, when I say the trivia night at the diner is "essentially" a pub quiz, I mean that only in the sense that there are teams, questions asked by a quiz master, and then you are scored against the other teams. It is by no means the same in any other way. There are three rounds, each with ten questions plus a bonus question. If you win a round - any round, it doesn't matter if you've already won a previous one - each member of your team can have a free beer, or a free dessert. Seriously. And if you win the whole quiz, you get a $25 gift certificate to spend at the diner, so you can pretty much cover your pastry and beer needs, have a great night, and not spend much at all! Add to that the fact that there are extra points if you get your answer sheet in to the quiz master faster than the other teams after the bonus question, and the happy coincidence that my husband-to-be is just a teensy bit competitive, and you have yourself a brilliant evening involving legging it across a small bar area to slam a piece of paper on a nearby table. I love it.

Time it for the perfect coffee
Best Prosecco glass ever?

My gorgeous man, being cheeky at the expense of Christine!

Me and one of Melanie's five beautiful kittens


The first Saturday was spent doing something that had been planned for about three months with our friends Christine and Ryan: a pancake (crêpe) brunch at the Crepe Cellar in NoDa. Leah and Steven came along too, and we all had a very tasty selection of pancake-y goodness, chips (fries), and beverages. Their wine glasses are designed without stems, which actually looks very classy - and allows for more wine, it seems! Fine by me. It was brilliant to be doing something that we'd all arranged at a time when we'd felt like it was ages until I would be here, and now I finally was.

In the afternoon, we went to Melanie's house in Waxhaw, obviously to catch up with Melanie, but also to see her kittens. Ben is a big, big fan of cats (and that is an understatement), so he was slightly excited at being able to play with FIVE kittens at the same time, plus several other adult cats, including Slinky, the biggest cat in the universe. We had an absolutely lovely day, ending with a re-visit of Target to get me some more coat hangers (seriously, I brought a lot of clothes - and I thought I'd been discerning!) and a quick dinner at home before bed. The only downside was that, possibly due to my body's inexperience of NC insects, coupled with my usual and well-known propensity to be to the liking of any biting bugs in my vicinity, I got bitten six times. By itself, it doesn't sound quite so horrific, but the problem was that anywhere I'd been bitten swelled up to at least twice its usual size (so have two on one arm, at opposite sides of the same wrist, was really fun), would itch like crazy, turned bright red, and felt like a new bruise all at the same time, so I was really quite put out by the next day when these symptoms had really set in. It's a perfume of OFF! for me, from now on!

Loving dinners at home

We did this - really!

During cheese-making fun


Our home-made mozzarella in a fresh Caprese salad

The next few days were spent mainly keeping house, getting used to being together, and still not quite establishing a routine. To be honest, I had given myself two weeks to be decadent, relaxed, and unhurried about getting anything sorted, so I wasn't too concerned about not having much of a plan. We did have a chance to make the home-made mozzarella using the kit from Harris Teeter, which was mentioned in my pre-emigration v-log and transcript. It turned out rather well, and was great fun to do - I highly recommend it!

Linda and Steve

Me and Ben in Matthews

The wonderful cake that Steve and Linda got for our dessert

Wednesday saw us making our way over to Matthews to have dinner with Linda and Steve, my soon-to-be-parents-in-law. This was the first time I had seen them since my arrival as they had been away at a high school reunion until then. It was so lovely! They are such a warm and welcoming family, and I feel very lucky to have been so wholly accepted and supported by them. We had great Mexican food from a local restaurant called Pure (their guacamole is to die for) and then, when we got back home to their place for some coffee, they surprised me with a delicious cake with 'Welcome Eve' written in the icing. Ah! Such a great evening.

L-R: Ben, me, Cas, Brad , Brett & Elizabeth

The second Thursday saw us at the diner again, and winning at trivia! We drank many a beverage, I ate some deep fried okra for the first time, and also got to see Elizabeth and Brett, in the flesh, for the first time as well. They then ordered more deep fried okra, which I was lucky enough to partake in. All in all, a brilliant evening.

I really like deep fried okra.

Handsome husband at Fuel, Plaza Midwood

I love pizza by the slice. By the GIANT slice.

A walk around Freedom Park

Shadow love
Looking at the new surroundings


Despite the great evening the second Thursday brought, I had not had a particularly good day. It was the first, and (so far) only, day that I felt isolated and a little agitated by the impotent situation I now - periodically - find myself in. Before I sound like a spoiled brat, I am well aware that a) I wanted to be here, and understood what it entailed, and b) I made it happen, so it was entirely my choice and mainly my actions that led me here. That said, I really had no desire to do much at all except for hide. I think - I hope - that this was a blip for now, realising that I am unable to do things like drive (as far as we currently know), register for a bank account (until I have an SSN), or find my way around. Living in suburbia somewhat limits my ability to explore on foot, which is something I love to be able to do. So, I felt a little trapped, and not a little frustrated. However, the evening with friends soon cheered me up, and Ben was - as ever - wonderful on Friday, when he had a full day off, and took me on a day out. We had pizza in Plaza Midwood, talked about where we might want to live next year, walked around a beautiful park in Charlotte, had some coffee, and then drove to uptown Charlotte to see all the gorgeous tall buildings there (like nothing you've seen in England, I don't think - at the very least, not with this sunshine in October!). The day was finished off perfectly with an Indian meal at Maharani, with Ben's brother Scott and his partner Kryztina, followed by coffee at their house and some play time with their kitties.

Cassie, enchanted by the cats at Kitty City

Halloween costume?

Proper beer!

Saturday sunset

Ben was working 8-4 on Saturday, so the wonder-wizard that is Cassie dropped by to pick me up around 12 for lady shenanigans in Concord, her home town. We had an absolutely brilliant day! It started out with us having lunch at the Havana Carolina Café, a tiny but absolutely delicious foodery right by where we parked up. I tried pulled beef for the first time, and it was magical. I can't recommend it highly enough, and I very much hope I can learn to cook it myself. We then took a mooch down one of the streets, to the "hippy" shop, which was - I was very happy to find out - essentially my home town, Stroud, squished into a small shop in Concord, NC. Wonderful! After getting my fill of essential oils, colourful scarves, healing crystals, and incense sticks, we pootled along to Kitty City, the cat rescue centre just along from the hippy shop. We spent some time in there playing with the kittens and cats up for adoption, and I asked about volunteering there. As I won't be able to do any paid work until I get my EAD, it makes sense to do volunteer work. While I can do photography internship stuff - which I very much hope will keep me busy - I also feel like I can and should get involved with something a little more benevolent, and community-focused, to get me more involved with local issues. We'll see how it works out, but I intend on following it up after the wedding.

Cassie and I had some fun trying on various dress-up glasses (I was doing the trying on, she was taking photos of me doing the trying on) at the Halloween/Christmas shop, before heading to Li'l Robert's Place for beers. As any Englishman who checks out their website will see, they have real beer, which was another lovely surprise. I had two pints of Highlander, while Cassie had the seasonal pumpkin ale that they had on draught.

The last hours of the day were eked out by meeting Brad and then Ben, and heading for some dinner. We had pizza (again! I'm addicted) at Amici's, along with witnessing the varying reactions of people watching a local (American) football game, and testing the capacity of our ear drums while the evening's entertainment, a live band, warmed up as loudly as they could. Seriously though, it was a great end to the day, and so lovely to have the four of us out together.

A bird!

The only other news (?!) is that, during my first-week-here trips to Target et al., we also purchased a bird feeder, which we finally put up this week. And it works! (I'm not sure why I'm surprised by that.) So, we now have the magical sight of lots of little Carolina chickadees every morning and early evening, feeding and singing and bickering away. It's really lovely, and something I have missed from home - my Mum in particular loves to put out bird feeders for our varied avian neighbours, and both my parents enjoy watching their antics around the garden. There's just something wonderful about it.

In home-home news, Mum and Dad seem to be getting along well with trips to various coastal areas of the UK, seeing friends, and going to our favourite haunts back in the Cotswolds. Sam and Wren are settling back in Geneva for the next year or so, and seem very happy indeed (Wren has started French lessons now, and made her own way to IKEA this past week - this is a trip that involves trams and a whole host of francophone obstacles, so it's a bigger deal than it initially sounds!), with fondue nights, new friends, and generally being the lovely couple that they are. It's both of their birthdays coming up this week, too, so muchos celebrating is called for! As regards friends back home, they have been as awesome as ever with keeping in touch, and I've heard from a lot of people almost daily (via Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, or email) to check I'm okay, and to see what we've been up to, as well as sharing their news. Probably my favourite thing to have received so far was the photo below, which is Hayley, Liz, Cath, Steve, Lindsey (who now teaches in my former post), and Holly, all wonderful friends of mine at the pub on a sunny Friday after work, toasting their glasses "at" me. It made me grin immensely.

My work friends at our local, doing my standard 'Wineface' pose. Love these people.

So, I suppose we now face the next few challenges and the festive fun of the coming weeks (we have so much going on over the next two months, so it's going to be a little crazy!). Our admin tasks this week include getting my Social Security Number (SSN), buying the last bits for our wedding favours, and finalising the arrangements for my internship. Hopefully we will be able to work out if/when I can legally drive our car, too. As for social stuff, our lovely friends Amy and Quinton are getting married this Friday (THIS Friday, guys!), and then it's Halloween weekend. We're spending Saturday with Ben's sister, Erin, and then Monday evening with Ben's brother Scott and his partner Kryztina who, as they live on what I would term a "real" street, have very kindly asked us over so that I can see how full-on Halloween is in America.

Over the next eight weeks or so, we have birthdays, Thanksgiving, weddings, our respective US bachelor/bachelorette parties (Leah, in a fit of ridiculous kindness and generosity, appears to be organising both of these, as she has offered to stand in as maid of honour for me, because my bridesmaids from home sadly can't make the wedding - love that lady!), our wedding, more birthdays, family visiting, Christmas, and a few more birthdays, so if it is a little quiet on the blogging front, here is my in-advance apology. For now, though, it's good to be back.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

I'll wear pajamas and give up pyjamas

The natural thing, I think, for a Brit (or indeed anyone!) to notice in their first few weeks of moving to a new country is the differences in social behaviours, currency, daily routines, and how to get around in their new home. As a Brit in America, however, I also have the pleasure of the comparison of language as, although both I and the US population mainly speak English, we're separated by a huge ocean, which seems to have resulted in some striking differences in word usage and spelling in particular.

Before I left the UK, I mentioned in my v-log - in response to a question from my friend Ben - that I suspected I would adopt some kind of Brit/Yank accent combination given enough time here. What I didn't expect to happen - and happen within the first week of my arrival - was the vocabulary replacement. I am already saying things like "shopping cart" (trolley), "parking lot" (car park), and "store" (shop), involuntarily. I guess it's a combination of being surrounded by these words, plus the fact that I am learning that people who don't know me so well (or at all, in the case of shop assistants etc.) just look at me, puzzled, and say, "What?" when I use more British terminology. So it's just easier to use the American nouns. The ones I've come across so far (most of which I have now used unconsciously, much to my shock and surprise!) are listed below:

  • (Shopping) trolley - (shopping) cart
  • Car park - parking lot
  • Shop - store
  • Plaster - band aid
  • Hoover - vacuum 
  • Coriander - cilantro ("coriander" in America refers to the seed only, not the leaf)
  • Multi-plug - power strip 
  • Hob - range
  • Cutlery - flatware 
  • Courgette - zucchini 
  • Pavement - sidewalk 
  • Bins - trash
  • Post - mail 
  • Rocket (the leaf used in salads) - arugula
  • Burger - patty 
  • Grill - broil 
  • Mobile (phone) - cell (phone)
  • Germs - cooties 
  • Icing - frosting 
  • Petrol - gas 
  • Tights - pantyhose
  • Cling film - plastic wrap or Saran wrap
  • Toilet/Loo/Bathroom - restroom 
  • Sellotape - Scotch tape
  • Mashed potato - whipped potato
  • Fizzy drink - soda
  • Postcode - ZIP code

Some of these do make sense (so let's not call the whole thing off): the ZIP in ZIP code, for example, stands for Zone Improvement Plan. Potatoes here are whipped, not mashed; power strips are just that; and "cell" is short for "cellular", referring to repeated use of frequencies in the same area to allow many people to access radio bandwidth at once - i.e. how a mobile phone network functions. All the same, I find myself confused by "cilantro", "sidewalk", and "soda" (isn't that just fizzy water?) more often than not, so I think it must be the more intuitive vocabulary that sticks, while the slightly misaligned keeps causing me communication hiccups. 

After some chats with my folks before I moved here, I decided that I would do a "before" and "after" v-log of me reading the same passage or verse; the "before" video to be recorded just after I arrived, and the "after" video of the same piece to be done 6-12 months into my residence in the States (or maybe both). So, before I lose any more of my UK yap, I had better get choosing a piece and do the "before" reading, so that changes can be tracked!

In the mean time, to illustrate other differences, here are two fun, stereotype-promoting joke maps from 'The Ultimate Bigot's Calendar of Europe' by Alphadesigner

Europe according to the UK 
Europe according to the USA