Posted in Life, Los Angeles

Where is home?

This time of year I am often asked “are you going home for Christmas?” and this brings up a good expat-worthy question – not about Christmas, but about “home”. Where is it?

Here’s the situation. I was born on the UK. I grew up mostly in the UK but as an adult I lived in Australia for more than a decade (I also spent 4 years as a child in Australia, so I’ve lived in the UK and Australia for nearly the same number of years). I am a British citizen but I’m also an Australian citizen. My husband is Australian. We got married there.

On the other hand we have lived in the US for nearly four years. We bought a house in Pasadena, CA, where we have lived and worked for nearly two years. You can see there is an array of options for ‘home’.

I’m not the first person to struggle with this question: expat articles are full of people asking the same thing. Here’s just one great example.

And it might be tempting to ask – does it matter? Well, clearly it does to me since I’m writing at 500 word post about it. It matters because, as an expat, it’s comforting to know where home is – were your base, your return point, is located. That’s the whole point of being ‘away’.

My natural reaction to “are you going home for Christmas?” is to think of Bournemouth, UK, as home – I would be going back to the house I grew up in, to my parents and extended family. This is the main contender for ‘home’.

Bournemouth - never gets old
Bournemouth – never gets old

After moving to Australia quite some years ago, I spent nearly five years getting over my homesickness for Bournemouth. But, for whatever reason (living in three different cities in twelve years, always being seen as British because of my accent), I never got deeply attached to Australia. Australia is not my home. Plus, Christmas when it’s 40C outside is just wrong.

That said, I would live in Australia over the UK any day of the week for so many reasons (not all of them having to do with the availability of Cherry Ripes). So, that’s confusing.

Mmmm cherry goodnesss.
Mmmm cherry goodness.
Brisbane circa 2006 - my favourite place in Australia
Brisbane circa 2006 – my favourite place in Australia

As it turns out, I have decided that Pasadena, right now, is home. It’s where my husband and I, as a family live. It’s strange but even though we have no plans to leave, I already miss living here. A lot.

And in some ways, treating this as home is strange – we are in immigration limbo right now, legal only for the length of the stamp in our passport (less than a year right now). And if everything went wrong with some disaster in LA, we’d be on the first plane out.

It’s also strange because by definition an expat shouldn’t really be living in the place they call home. But having thought about this regularly since we moved to the US, I have concluded that while I’m definitely still an expat (I’m not FROM here – and that’s a whole another blog post – because the answer to that question anyone’s guess), I have been away for so long that I don’t feel bound to any one place.

Can't go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.
Pasadena: I don’t think you can go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.

And this brings me to a conversation we recently had with the couple who saved us from going crazy when we first moved to the US. She is English, he is Canadian. We got to know them when we all lived in Cambridge, MA. Recently we went to their wedding in England and a few weeks ago we caught up with them in San Francisco as they passed through for a conference on the way back from their honeymoon in Argentina. (Are you following?) After contemplating the circumstances that brought us together for that weekend in San Francisco, we decided that the best way to describe expats like us is that we have “international lives” – the world is where we live and we intersect with our extended friends and family wherever we can.

The obvious place to go for dinner...
The obvious place to go for dinner…

With that in mind, we cannot predict when our international lives will take us to our next destination, so perhaps while we live almost exactly half way between Australia and Europe, a better question for next year might be, “are you coming to our home for Christmas?”

See you then?

Question – is home where you live? Are you going home for Christmas?

Posted in Life

How to get a job in the US: advice for international spouses

One recent Thursday my first task of the day was spending an hour at my local elementary school helping a first-grader with reading, and then consoling him when he burst into tears after some perceived injustice. My second task involved changing from jeans into interview-attire and walking to an office in Pasadena where I had a five minute job interview with the president of a billion dollar project. I then hurried to a sandwich shop, bought lunch and changed into my third set of clothes for the day, got the bus across town to my third task of the day – spending five hours helping to deliver Christmas presents with a driver who chose that day to tell me he is a part-time magician.

Being under-employed certainly makes life interesting but thankfully that was the last day in nearly three years that I was looking for work.  I finally have a ‘proper’ job – one with an annual salary and with benefits!

Below I describe, in my usual amount of nauseating detail, how everything work-wise turned upside down for me once we made the decision to move to the US.  I hope this post will be of help to other international spouses struggling to find work.

For those who don’t want to read my ramblings below, here’s the summary of my hard-won advice:

  1. Use your home contacts to see if they can get you a job right away
  2. Apply for your work permit as an immediately priority – it can take 3+ months to arrive
  3. Get a volunteer role or job as soon as possible – doesn’t matter what it is doing
  4. Don’t be afraid to retrain
  5. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date
  6. Meet some new people – tell everyone you are looking for work
  7. Be prepared to apply for many jobs – minimum of 20 applications

My main advice to international spouses who want to work is this:  don’t be afraid to take ANY job or volunteer position, however ‘not you’ it may seem. First of all, you’ll get out of the house (away from all that cleaning that apparently needs to be done), second you’ll meet some new people, third you’ll get a local reference (no employer wants to phone overseas to check a reference), and fourth you’ll absolutely, definitely, learn something about the US. And lastly it might actually benefit your CV.

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Almost three years ago I gave up my job in Australia so we could move to Boston. What I didn’t realize was that would be the last time I felt challenged and earned more than $10/hr (effectively) for some considerable time. And until I was long-term unemployed, I never realized how much my identity was dependent on feeling valued at work. This is a trap international spouses can fall into and one that leads to endless cleaning of the house and other ‘useful’ tasks.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve been doing since we arrived in the US. All of my volunteer, internships and jobs were part time and I’ve listed only the ‘highest paid’ job at any given time:

job_table

Let’s not forget, the cost of three work permits ($1140), and the cost of teacher training ($2500), leaving a before-tax profit of $3690.

Work permit

One thing that stopped me in my tracks when we first arrived was waiting for my work permit. Even though it “only” took two months, I didn’t feel I could even apply for jobs without it: BIG MISTAKE. I lost my momentum and didn’t get it back for a long time.

Volunteering

My plan while waiting for my work permit was to volunteer. I then planned to graduate to an internship then graduate to a real job. So, I volunteered at the Museum of Science, and I volunteered with the Harvard spouses group – happily enough, both were connected with my interests, and both kept me busy and allowed me to meet some new people.

Retraining & Internships & first US dollars

After some months of housewife/volunteer I retrained as an English teacher and was hired immediately – my first Massachusetts dollars, ten months after we arrived. After about nine months, at the end of the summer, the teaching work dried up and two internships came up at the Museum. After about six months my internships finished and I was ready to start thinking about getting a job at the Museum — but then we decided to move to California.

Relocation (again)

In Pasadena I decided not to volunteer in museums again – I felt I’d ‘done’ that. I also really didn’t want to teach English if I could help it (I wanted to get back to my actual career). I waited two months to get my new work permit (thanks to a new visa), and spent a few months buying and sorting out the house.  Later I volunteered with Reading Partners the local elementary school.

Applying for jobs

I got back on the job hunting wagon in late August.

I applied for all kinds of administrative, events and writing jobs, at all sorts of places – and in the end got offered two interviews out of sixteen applications.

I helped myself in a couple of ways: I joined LinkedIn, and I went to the International Dual Career Network interview workshop and made a few contacts. By mid-November I decided that if I hadn’t found a job by Christmas my next plan was to start seriously networking. My other big idea of getting a Christmas job at Target was vetoed.

Getting lucky

But then, as these things happen, everything came good at once. I applied for my current position just before we went to Australia over Thanksgiving. Because it’s a small world the company I applied to was related my last job in Australia, and so while I was having a great Melbourne coffee with my old boss I mentioned my application.

First California Dollars

When we landed back in LA in early December I was energized and ready for action. As I was trawling through my endless list of websites seeing what new jobs had come up, I saw the driver helper job on snagajob. For some reason it really caught my imagination, so I applied, and in less than a week I was chasing around Pasadena delivering packages: my first California dollars.

truck

Frankly, at this point I was prepared to devote my career to the first place that gave me work, and the delivery company was looking like it – but then…

Interviews

…It was on my first day with the delivery company that I got a phone call inviting me for an interview for my current job.

And this is where the Christmas job paid off – not only did it give me back a little of that confidence you have when you’re employed but it gave me something else to worry about at the interview (i.e. how much my feet hurt).

When he interviewed me, the president of the company said, “you’re doing what??” and, “they’re paying you what??”. I was later told by HR that they were pleased I was doing the delivery job because “it showed I was willing to do anything”. I wasn’t entirely sure that was a compliment (and I also thought it was a bit unfair – and here’s why).

Job offer

I was offered the job within a week and a half from the first call. There are great opportunities at this company, and it is most definitely ‘me’. I didn’t even start in the position I was hired for – I was immediately put onto something more challenging. There’s a lesson there too.

It's great to be able to say 'that's my office'.
It’s great to be able to say ‘that’s my office’.

I’m entirely convinced my hiring was due to this job being connected to my previous work and my being able to give a relevant reference. So my advice comes full circle – keep, and use, your ‘home’ contacts.

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Questions

1. International spouses – what’s your advice for getting a job?

2. Recruiters – what’s the biggest barrier to employing an international spouse?

Posted in Los Angeles

Garden update: SoCal winter edition

Winter has kind of arrived in Pasadena.  Not that it’s exactly that cold: it was 25C (77F) yesterday. There have been some changes in our garden since my last garden post in September, and this long weekend seems like the perfect time for an update.

Garden beds

Thanks to Dad, we now have beds in our yard!  After much head-scratching and grovelling around in the dirt with the tape measure we decided on two octogons, 4ft on each side.  We had to plan around the sprinkler system and the lemon tree which I planted a few months before. We got pressure treated planks from from Ganahl Lumber.

Dad pick-axed out the necessary 64 ft of rock-hard dirt to bed the planks in about 5 inches (of 10 in total).  We nailed them together (I may or may not have also hammered my finger) the watered the dirt to help it set.

Here’s the ‘before’:

Back yard - lots of space

And here’s the after:

Beds are in!

Dad went back to the UK, needing another vacation.

I then did a calculation and ordered 2.5 cubic yards of soil (not topsoil, but planting mix) from the Lincoln Avenue Nursery which duly arrived on the back of a tipper truck and was dumped in our driveway.  I had to then move this 2.5 tonnes (?) of soil the 10-20 ft to the beds. One. Shovel. At. A. Time. (And yes, I should’ve just bought a wheelbarrow, but where’s the fun in that?)

Um....

Some considerable number of days later, this was the result:

The final result.

But, then we went to Australia, then I got a job as a driver helper, then it was Christmas and I couldn’t really walk because of the aforementioned job, then I started another new job, and now somehow it’s mid-January and not much planting has occurred.  Weak, I know.

New Things

Meanwhile, here are some other things going on in the garden at the moment:

(1) Flowers on the Jade plant. I never even knew these flowered!

(2) The plant I thought was a wisteria turns out to be a powderpuff and has also flowered. These were my second favorite flowers as a kid in Australia (after the Frangipani, which I think is called something else in the US).

DSCN2706

(3) Several of these massive green things have appeared and are getting bigger by the day. Scary.

DSCN2711

(4) We got a bird bath thanks to my grandmother. I’ve even seen birds in it!  The other day I found the top on the ground – I think a cat or something tried to get in it.

DSCN2703

(5) We acquired a couple of lovely big pots which I’ve put filled with some easy-do flowers and herbs and a gardenia.

DSCN2713

(6) From the same source we also acquired a very spiky plant which came complete with corks covering the spikes.  It’s awesome but I’m not entirely sure what do with it, so I’m leaving it in it’s crumbly pot at the moment…

(7) I got a compost bin from the city.  It’s full but I haven’t dared check if we actually have compost yet.

DSCN2712
Notice how one of the other big green plants is trying to take over the Bottlebrush?

(8) Ok, this isn’t new, but the lemon tree is still hanging in there.

DSCN2704

Rain

We’ve had a lot of rain (relatively speaking) in the past month or so and the garden has transformed because of it.  I saw a couple of worms (I know, this shouldn’t be news but I was very excited) and we got a lot of weeds and seeds poking up.  Also, thanks to the Chinese Elms and the Oak, the garden is coated in leaves.

Plan

So the plan is to get the garden beds planted as soon as possible: pretty soon I’m going to plant some vegetable seeds in one of the beds and in the other I’m going to try to recreate some ideas my father-in-law’s Australian garden. Wish me luck!

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Question: any tips for planting in a garden that doesn’t really get a winter?

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Posted in Life

Making a Christmas Cake in the US

“What’s a Christmas Cake?”, ask my American friends.  Aside from the obvious (a cake eaten at Christmas), this British cake is made primarily of fruit, and brandy.  In the 10+ years I lived in Australia, and the nearly 3 years I’ve lived in the US, I’ve found that finding the ingredients to make a ‘proper’ Christmas cake can be difficult.  I still have not found anywhere I can buy a cake ‘frill’ – i.e. wrap, decoration (something like this).

The recipe I use comes from the book pictured below, and of course, it makes the best cake ever.

Best Christmas Cake recipe inside!
Best Christmas Cake recipe inside!

To help those Brit expats in the US looking for ingredients/substitutions I present here my version of this recipe – an ‘expat-proof’ US Christmas cake.  Photos are at the end of the post.

Ingredients for cake

  • 8 oz butter
  • 8 oz soft brown sugar (to soften rock hard sugar, put it in a bowl with a moist paper towel for a few hours/overnight)
  • 6 small eggs (no such thing in the US, use big eggs)
  • 9 oz self raising flour
  • 5 oz plain flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of mixed spice (no such thing in the US, use Pumpkin Pie Spice from Trader Joe’s – it’s basically the same thing)
  • 2 oz blanched almonds, chopped
  • 2 lb mixed fruit: sultanas, raisins, currants (of course, sultanas don’t appear to exist here, so just raisins and currants)
    • including 2 oz mixed peel if desired (not sure if it exists in the US – based on my other experiences, I’m going to say it doesn’t).
  • 8.5 fl oz brandy (cheap). Soak the fruit in the brandy for at least 24 hours before making the cake.
  • 4 oz glacé cherries (maraschino cherries)
  • lemon – 1/2 juice, all rind
  • 2 tablespoons black treacle (doesn’t exist, use molasses)

So the recipe is essentially as follows: cream butter and sugar, add eggs one at a time with a little sifted flour, add rest of dry ingredients, add rest of wet ingredients, add everything else.  Allow everyone in the house to stir the mixture and make a wish (very important).

Put the batter in a 9″ round or 8″ square tin. Bake in oven at 140C/285F for about 3 hours.

Ingredients for Icing

  • 1 lb marzipan (something else I couldn’t find in California – but did find in Massachusetts – so I got some from the internet which arrived JUST in time).
  • Apricot jam/preserve
  • 6 cups of icing sugar (confectioners/powdered sugar).

A few days before Christmas, smear the cake with the jam, roll out marzipan about 1/4 in thick and cover the cake, then add the first layer of icing.  The next day (at least), when the icing has hardened, add another layer.  Decorate if you can.

Voila! Merry Christmas!

Christmas Cake!
Christmas Cake!

Here are the ingredients and the recipe:

Posted in Los Angeles, Travel

Five things to do in LA

Dad recently visited LA and we had a whirlwind week racing all over town trying to get professional travel photos. Here are five things we got up to:

1. Santa Anita Races

2. Hollywood Walk of Fame

3. City views from Mulholland Drive

4. Space shuttle Endeavour

5. Downtown LA

Photos are mine (when I remembered to take them) unless watermarked.

Santa Anita Races

We went to Santa Anita races on Friday afternoon. It was $4 to park and there were plenty of spaces.  As it turned out, there weren’t many people inside! It was only $10 each to get into the posh bit. Races were every 30 minutes or so, and there was a good variety of lengths and types, and a nice shaded parade ring too.  Beers were exceptionally expensive – even for Budweiser.  The views of the mountains were spectacular from the grandstands.

Santa Anita racecourse
Santa Anita racecourse
Good view of the San Gabriel mountains.
Good view of the San Gabriel mountains.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

We drove to Hollywood to look at the Walk of Fame on Saturday afternoon.  We parked in the parking lot at the Hollywood/Highland shopping center ($2 for two hours if you get your parking validated somewhere – there’s a handy stand near the entrance/exit to one of the parking levels where you can buy an overpriced drink).  The walk of fame was hideous.  So loud, so many people dressed up in costumes hassling you.  Gross.  It was like the worst bits of Vegas all concentrated into one place.  We had a cup of tea in McDonald’s – a surprisingly calm oasis.

No pictures.

City views from Mulholland Drive

Then, that Saturday evening, as sunset approached, we drove along Cahuenga Blvd to Mulholland Drive, and drove about a mile up to the Hollywood Bowl lookout.  After getting one of only five parking spots we set up the camera for some twilight shots.  As it got darker, it started to get cold. Despite the sign saying the park closed at sunset, no one told us to go away – we were there at least 30 minutes after dark.  We weren’t the only ones with cameras.  The view was awesome, and the 101 freeway was so loud!

View of Downtown from the Hollywood Bowl lookout
View of Downtown from the Hollywood Bowl lookout
Making out like I know what I'm doing...
Making out like I know what I’m doing…

Space shuttle Endeavour

On Sunday morning we headed to the California Science Center to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour (my fourth time!).  We got street parking on South Flower St near the corner of W 37th Pl – free on Sundays (otherwise metered).  My tip: go early at the weekend – they usually let you in regardless of what time your ticket says. For an express visit, go look at the models of satellites upstairs on the right, then go to Endeavour, then go home.

Endeavour at the California Science Center
Endeavour at the California Science Center

Downtown LA

On Tuesday afternoon, armed with a Metro day ticket, we got the Gold Line into Downtown LA and then switched to the Red line to Pershing Square. Knowing nothing about Downtown, this was the handiest I could see to the middle of the city.  We found ourselves walking south along Broadway and we couldn’t believe what we saw.  The majority of the shops looked temporary. By contrast, there were homeless people set up permanently on benches.  There were no signs in English.

It wasn’t that we felt particularly unsafe, it was just so surprising.

Later as the sun was setting we raced, on foot, up to 3rd street – avoiding the tunnel – to get some city view photos.  Running against the setting sun is never a good situation to be in, however we got the shot after only a mild amount of swearing. Then, hungry and miles from anywhere, we started back to Pasadena.  Some locals told us walking through the 3rd St tunnel was safe (it was, but my word, it was loud), then good old Google found us a bus, arriving immediately, which took us to the Arts District Gold Line station where we got the train back to Pasadena.

Downtown LA - Dad's picture was much better, obviously!
Downtown LA – Dad’s picture was much better, obviously!

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Question: Downtown LA – what’s up with that? Did we miss something?

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