31 July 2008

Life Stranded on an Island, Absentee Ballots and Leftover Indian Takeout

Stranded in an Island Kingdom

I sent away my passport along with a huge stack of other documents confirming my identity and the authenticity of my marriage to an EU citizen to the Home Office nearly five months ago. 

I have missed two weddings of dear friends in Germany as a result. Matthias and I wanted to book a vacation and go somewhere warm and dry to drink cocktails with umbrellas. Not possible at the moment and the likelihood is dwindling.

I am unable to register for the universal health care provided through the NHS which has put plans of starting a family on hold.

We pay nearly 300 dollars in 'council tax' to keep the museums open and free, the libraries running and okay, waste disposal. Matthias pays an obscene amount of income tax. So why the hell are EU spousal applications at the bottom of the list? We are treated like normal citizens accept when it comes to putting a lousy sticker and stamp in our passports (which is something an untrained chimp could do, by the way).

After waiting patiently on hold to speak with someone regarding my application, I finally got ahold of someone who told me to expect a 'significant delay' beyond the six months it normally takes, as the Home Office was desperately seeking staff to process the amount of European applications. It was easier for me as a single girl to live in Germany for Pete's sake! All I had to do there was show a local bureaucrat that I had no intention of sponging off their social welfare system (i.e. provide evidence of an income, a place to live and health insurance) and I could stay in Germany as long as I wanted - a model of efficiency in comparison to this display of ineptitude.

I am seriously annoyed and wondering which action I could take to accelerate things. Shall I write to my local member of parliament? Can you sense my aggravation? I thought this country was supposed to be a member of the EU and our war-against-terrorism buddy. Where is the gift in this.....? I want off this island, if only for a weekend in Dublin! Argh!

Absentee Ballots from Snohomish County
You know what I do love about expatriate living? Yes, absentee voting. I probably spend more time reading the voter's pamphlet and choosing candidates than most joe average voters. And it fills me with pride to go to the local post office and hand this oddly sized security envelope to the post master, or here in Gatley, the post mistress. 

This year, I actually voted for a republican, a green and constitutional party members. It was great. I hope the underdog with the good ideas wins.

Leftover Indian Takeout
Shortly after posting yesterday, my DH of three years brought me one long stemmed red rose for each year we have been married. I gave him a card. We were thinking of going out for a really nice meal, but since we are expecting non-stop visitors from Germany throughout the month of August, we opted for Indian take away and a bottle of champagne I intended to drink on my 30th birthday.

Well, that bottle of bubbly is still in the fridge. Matthias and I got a combo meal (2 appies, 2 mega mains, 2 sides, rice, naan and salad) and stuffed ourselves silly. We even had enough leftover for lunch this afternoon (ha ha, no cooking and more writing time for me...). I fell asleep on his lap while he watched some marvel of engineering special on the National Geographic channel. That may not sound too romantic, I know. But the romance was in exactly this pure simplicity that makes our marriage so magnificent.

30 July 2008

Happy Third Anniversary

Somehow it just doesn't seem accurate that we are only celebrating our third wedding anniversary today when we have really been together nearly ten years. I met Matthias when I was barely 21 and fresh off the boat from the States in Germany.

In the three years we have been married, we have moved four times and two of those moves were international ones. Three countries in three years. The loss of a mother. The arrival of an amazing step-mom. Ups. Downs. Uncertainty. Change. Growth. New horizons. A new mattress. Two barbecues. Two motorcycles. Two vacations. Two new baby nieces and a nephew.

It has been amazing - every smile and every tear and I am so thankful for the man I share my life with.

29 July 2008

Expat Life: The Daily Routine

Here I thought I would be all clever and actually write a few posts in advance. But as luck would have it, I managed to post them too hastily, so I actually do have to write something today on expat life (I was hoping to cover that base with the post about the car boot sale on Sunday).

My Daily Routine

To give you a little idea of what an average day in the life of an expat freelance writer is like, I thought I would talk about what I have been doing, day in, day out, for the past four months or so (not counting the two months I allowed myself to nest).

First, I must again acknowledge just how thankful I am to have the opportunity to pursue my passions for writing and creating at this time in my life as well as a mate who completely supports me in it.

I usually wake up around 6:30 when the Big Guy gets up and crawl reluctantly out of bed at 7:15. I am totally excited about what I am doing, but that doesn't make it easier to get out of my warm, snugly bed. I make a large cup of tea and drink it from my favorite mug, the 'puppy in a sweater' mug. Matthias leaves for work after downing a bowl of muesli with yoghurt and reluctantly taking the fruit I hand him.

Drinking my black tea, I write out two or three pages longhand about whatever it is that comes to my mind. Sometimes I scribble about what happened the day before, what I have planned for the day ahead, things that bother me, my dreams, and once in a while I gain some insight and enlightenment about things that have been holding me back or standing in the way of my personal development. These are my morning pages; something I have been doing since the beginning of my writing endeavors as a result of working with The Artist's Way. 

Most mornings, I let myself get distracting in between pages by emails, but I manage somehow to finish and am out the door by 9am for my morning walk. I take a spin around the neighborhood with a one kilo weight in each hand and an Ipod loaded with inspirational, self-help podcasts. Currently Dr. Wayne Dyer is my personal favorite and before I had been listening to Oprah and Eckhart Tolle talk about A New Earth. By the time I am home and showered, it is 10am and I start with my first writing session.

I schedule my writing into blocks of time because, well, after an hour or so sitting at the same screen I loose my focus and get sucked into other computer distractions (Facebook, email, Ravelry). So, after completing a block of uninterrupted brainstorming/idea generation, research or writing (ie intellectually demanding), I am most effective when I get up and do something physically demanding. And just around 11:30, after having 90 minutes to complete my writing tasks, it is time to start lunch.

I need usually about an hour to prepare something for Matthias and me. When we were house hunting, we made it a priority to live nearby where Matthias worked since he isn't fond *at all* of commuting (no one drives as well as he does, or so he likes to think). And in the early months of being totally alone in a new country, he came home every lunch hour to be with me.

Now, it is a great way to share a meal together, I get to cook (and if you know me, you know that I am like a pig in mud while cooking) and Matthias gets to have a break from the humdrum of corporate life. It is a win-win situation all around. Today's meal was especially pleasing to the German meat monster: ground beef sauteed with onions, garlic (of course), 3 bell peppers, 2 small zucchini and a can of organic chopped tomatoes including the juice (added at the end) served on couscous (my new favorite carbohydrate!). Quite good if I do say so myself. And so easy.

By 1pm, my DH is usually gone again and I have already got most of the kitchen cleaned up and the leftovers put away (I don't cook everyday now). I use the time from 1 to 2pm as another writing-related work session. Today it was devoted to idea generation for a travel blog I have been writing for.

At 2pm, it is  'me'-time in which I watch old ER reruns and usually knit. Depending on what there is to do, I will have on eye on Dr. Luka Kovac and Nurse Abby Lockhardt and the other eye on the nearly 200 RSS feeds I read daily. For those of you who are not familiar with RSS, it stands for Real Simple Syndication, and it is an easy way to get the web content you read regularly assembled in one place for easy consumption. Brilliant. Today I split my time at County General between the ironing board (hey, someone's gotta do it) and the sock  I am knitting Le Monstre.

The hour block between 3 and 4pm I have dedicated solely to the search for new leads and job applications. I scour the web daily for ads looking for freelance writers, translators and editors.

From 4 to 6pm, I block time to continue my writing work or whatever needs to be done here. The last few days, I have devoted the afternoon hours to some writing projects and especially my blogs, which I am trying to post at on a daily basis. Today I spent one of the hours scrubbing the rings off the shower basin and bringing our en suite to its once pristine state of cleanliness. Glamourous, I know, but let me tell ya, necessary.

Now it is nearing 7pm and it is time to start thinking about our evening forage.  Matthias and I have always done dinner German style which entails eating open faced sandwiches you make as you go with the ingredients on the table. To our 'Brotzeit' or bread time, I have introduced the salad. And the carnivorous German is gladly on board.

The night is spent on the couch with my DH.  I knit and flip through books and make intermittent comments about just how crap British reality television really is. We are usually in bed by 10pm, read until half past and then lights out.

That is the extent of my average day. I now have other fun activities like 2 four-hour shifts at a nearby charity shop on Wednesday and Friday mornings and a new knit gathering I would like to go to, but requires an hour travel each way.

Now that I think about it, so much for this lovely routine I have established over the next few months. This coming month, I will be required to adapt my routine, while tending to my many guests from Germany....

28 July 2008

Finally Summer and the Beautiful British Car Boot Sale

Coming from a long tradition of yard sale and thrift store mavens, I can easily share with you fond memories of early Saturday mornings with Mom and Grandma. With a copy of the Thrifty Nickel in hand, we combed the streets of suburban Yakima looking for antiques and all sorts of other secondhand treasures. And, long before it became so ├╝berchic, I was digging through the quarter bin at The Plaid Door, the charity shop for the local Episcopal church. And it was there that I found amazing treasures; some of which I still have to this day.

Well, the British also have their own versions - and why shouldn't they? But instead of opening the garage door to display their amassed junk or spreading it across their lawns, they pack it all up and make a pilgrimage to the nearest open field, queue patiently and assume the next available spot in one of many rows of cars. They pop the trunk (the boot) and out comes the trash for cash.

There are some real pros in the lot. They bring wallpapering tables and stand alone clothing racks to display their wares. Like all good secondhand treasure hunts, break out the latex gloves and get ready to dig. But this time, I was on the other side of the fence. (Photo courtesy of Gerry Balding)

While Matthias was away this weekend at an old friend's wedding. Again, I was unable to attend due to still being without a passport. Hopefully I will be able to leave this island soon. So Tim and Henrietta, Matthias' workmate and his wife, picked me up bright and early last Sunday morning to set up and get selling.

I came with three bags of clothes and left with two. Clothing really didn't sell to well, mostly because people really don't want to rummage, but we had a rack and Tim was really good about changing things around and re-merchandising. All in all, I came away with 18 Pounds. I spent three of them on a pair of Teva sandals (which I had been looking for for nearly 10 years but never wanted to pay full price) and an antique knitting needle case that had belonged to someone's granny. It is old, smelly, and the lining is disintegrating, but I think it will make a nice fix-up project. It has some really great old brass hardware that will look stellar after a quick shine up. On the other hand, maybe I should have it appraised. The box is made of balsa wood, so I don't think it is particularly valuable, but who knows.

It was an absolutely glorious day in the English sunshine. Despite multiple applications of SPF 30 sunscreen, my pale, virgin skin burnt around my neckline and on the top of my left foot. The sun doesn't shine often, but when it does, everyone is happy, giddy and loopy. Maybe that explains why so many bought bag loads of crap. There were people there who were simply out to enjoy the weather and chat with a few people. Our neighbors bought more from us than anyone else passing by. At the end of each row, there were vans parked selling greasy gut bombs, ice cream made from vegetable oil (you know what I am talking about) and cold and hot drinks. 

Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with a tall, frosty cold one from a country pub located in the land of Manchester United player villas. There were lots of wannabes swarming around in their knock-off sunglasses and used Land Rovers. Well, we rolled up in a BMW.... albeit it crammed to the gills with the junk we hadn't managed to pilfer off at the boot sale. It was an amazing day and a required part of my British cultural education.


26 July 2008

Writing: Creative Commradry

It has been nearly six months since Matthias and I moved to Manchester and I have begun pursuing the creative life full-time. Slowly but surely, piece by piece, I have been building a portfolio and a writing routine. There is always an incredible amount of stimulus everywhere (if you look), but somehow it is a lonely road to walk if you don't actually have many interactions and the support of people who know and understand what you are about. So finally, I decided to get out there and do something to foster interaction and the universe brought me some creative companionship.

I started volunteering for an Oxfam charity shop a couple villages away from where we live. It is actually the village where Matthias works. Half the store is a book department and I spend a half-day twice a week sorting, pricing and shelving books. It is a chance to see an interesting cross section of the British public and learn about the culture (the TV just wasn't cutting it anymore and Dr. Who was only so exemplary). I have been at it two weeks now and I am enjoying it. It is an unending source of inspiration and bargain books. I'm doomed.

This week, I also finally had my first internet 'date' with a gal I met on Ravelry, the Facebook for knitters and crocheters. Stephanie is also a writer and knitter, but moonlights as an IT consultant. We got together this week and found out we have a lot in common. She is also a foreigner (Italian), but she has been in Britain for six years. She has lent me two new creativity books: The Creative Habit by Twila Tharp and The Creative License by Danny Gregory. Both books look promising, but I must admit I more drawn to Tharp's book. It was so amazing to finally speak to someone who can relate to the psychological challenges of writing as well as the practical, day-to-day challenges. Steph is working on finding an agent for her book while I am more focused on online and magazine articles. Nonetheless, we had fruitful conversations that pushed me to think about things in new ways and take action (like posting everyday...)

I am still working up the courage and polishing the ideas to make my first pitch to a print magazine. I am still writing for Webooks, a London based e-book publisher and for the Venere Travel Blog. I also applied to be a mystery shopper and was accepted into their pool. Now there is a way to get my expenses paid for while I explore places like London, eh? 

I should hear back within a couple weeks if my DIY guide to starting a charity knitting project has been accepted to an online knitting magazine. Fingers crossed, but it is a really good article, if I do say so myself. That would give me the clip I really need to maintain some credibility when pitching the glossy knit mags both here and stateside. It is a market niche with only a baker's dozen (many of which are printed only four times a year) printed in English between the two countries.

I chose to part ways with the marketing company I was writing SEO for in London due to the way the client communicated, which I later realized was just an excuse to quit doing something that was only earning me peanuts, no recognition for my work and was the lousy validation needed to quiet my ever-rioting Protestant work ethic. Everything, despite minor upsets in between, is unfolding just as it should. At least that is how I feel about it. It feels good to celebrate every victory - large or small. 

A Weekend in Wales (Biker Style)

I haven't brought you anything new in a while, but I have won new-found inspiration to post on a regular if not daily basis from my new friend, Stephanie aka Domestic Miss. She never seems to run out of things to talk and write about. She is right and I should be posting something everyday for the benefit of my writing and my lovely readers.

So, I am brainstorming a topical rhythm for this blog as well as my knitting blog. I am thinking that BrittuniaInMancunia could look something like: Monday - Writing/Creativity, Tuesday - Expat Life in Manchester, Wednesday - Knitting (did you think you would be spared?), Thursday - Food, Friday - Wild Card Day and weekends off. What do you think about that? 

The Biker Bear and His Babe Take on Wales

Yes, five weeks ago, Matthias and I became the proud parents of a black 2004 Honda Vardero. And since the days are dwindling that we are carefree, childless thirty-somethings, we had been playing with the idea of an extended (ten or twelve-day) motorcycle camping trip through  Scandinavia or Southern France. And because doing something like that on a whim is just a little too carefree and crazy, we decided to do a test run somewhere closer to home. Last weekend, we took on Wales. I have never seen so many sheep before in my life.

On Borth Beach on the Welsh Coast.

We started out on a Friday afternoon. Matthias picked me up from my volunteer shift at Oxfam in Didsbury and we hurried home to change clothes, stuff a quick lunch down the chute and load up the bike. 

We strapped our tent to a rack on the top box and crammed both side paneers with our sleeping bags, mattress pads, cooking kit (burner, gas cans, pot set, salt and pepper, can opener, tea, sugar, 2 plates, 2 mugs, 2 bowls, and cutlery), one change of clothes and basic toiletries. And that was it. Can you imagine surviving for twelve days like that? We could before we went but afterwards decided that we really would rather lie on some beach and drink margaritas.

The sky was grey and the air was heavy with humidity. I was afraid that it was going to dump all weekend, so we were also geared up for a wet ride but somehow I knew it would be okay. It did rain very briefly twice the whole weekend. It was perfect for riding. 

Most of the weekend we spent on what the British call A and B roads, which are the equivalents of two lane highways and country roads, respectively. It was pretty comfy cruising. I am not quite there to where I can handle 90 mph on the motorway. So, we just happily toodeled  down these country roads through the middle of nowhere. British bikers are not into toodling. The need speed and leather jumpsuits, which is cool, but not our intention.

We spent our first night in Caernarfon, a fortress city built in medieval times as stronghold and castle for Edward I on the Welsh coast. The old city was fascinating: several city blocks within the walls of this fortress castle.

The castle in Caernarfon by night

The campsite was ten minutes by foot from town. We set up camp and headed in to get dinner and a few pints. It was Friday night and everyone seemed to be out. People were pouring out of the pubs with their drinks, laughing and talking boisterously - in WELSH. Yes, it really is spoken. My impression was that the further west we went, the more exclusively Welsh was spoken. I

always knew there was such a thing, but I never really wrapped the old noggin around the fact that Welsh is a completely independent language and subculture. All the street signs are in Welsh first and has the English translation underneath. Everyone speaks English, though, which makes the Welsh even more fascinating to me. Imagine an entire 'nation' of people who exist completely bilingually. I think that is an interesting notion.

Matthias and I were a well-oiled camping machine. We got the tent up usually in ten minutes or less, had no problems cooking, and even managed to wake up together for a stroll to the facilities for a 4am tinkle.

We saw some incredibly breathtaking scenery, not to mention more sheep than people:

It was a great weekend and I am glad we did it. We want to do it a couple more times before there are any patters of little feet. And maybe next time we will stay in B&Bs depending on the weather and where we go. I am thinking Edinburgh or maybe a weekend in Ireland. I have uploaded some other pictures on Flickr so if you would like to see any more, feel free.

Finally, the last night we spent was on a campsite in the village of Rhayader in Mid-Wales. And wouldn't you know it: they were celebrating their carnival that weekend. Costumed drunken people speaking a language with an alarming number of consonants and guttural sounds...you would think we would be pros at that, but this time, the tables were turned and we were the foreign onlookers. At least we were in biker gear.

01 July 2008

Has It Really Been Two Weeks - Writing, Bikes, Stitches and Balls

Greetings from an almost blog slacker. I cannot believe that it has already been two weeks since I last posted or that it is already July. That means that Matthias and I have been living in Manchester for almost half a year now! God, how time flies.

I have been keeping pretty busy with 'work' over the last two weeks. It really isn't work because I love the lifestyle so much. It is a challenging one, though. There are all sorts of menacing internet diversions, especially when you read nearly 200 RSS feeds a day and maintain three blogs. But, I do love those diversions and it is all part of the fun of the profession.

I have begun to establish a regular writing routine ... including paying gigs! Yipee! My AdSense account is accruing lots of pennies thanks to all you readers who actually click the ads while checking out my oh-so-fabulous blogs. And it was actually the decision to install AdSense on my blogs that started the flood of payment. We're not talking tidal waves of payment, but there is definitely some cash flow happening. So, at least I've won back the energy I was squandering feeling guilty I wasn't producing monetary results. Now it is just a matter of selectively choosing jobs that will shape my repertoire the way I want it to be.

Shameless Plug for Self: Please visit http://brittbreu.blogspot.com
Since I am still building a portfolio, I have been applying to writing gigs all over the map, but mostly within my areas of passion and expertise. I visit a couple sites daily and try to send out at least ten applications a week for various projects.

I started doing SEO (search engine optimization) articles for a marketing company out of London. It doesn't pay much, but it is an opportunity to build a relationship with a future reference and establish myself as a quality, reliable writer. This SEO thing is also a really great imaginative exercise in that it has forced me to come up with creative ways to write about really banal subjects like shelves, document storage and natural skin care products (the latter of which I am interested in, but still). The only downer is that these articles appear anonymously on the client's site. No credit, not a portfolio builder as such, but an opportunity nonetheless.

Another project I am working on are two articles that will be appearing on Webooks.co.uk, a British DIY, guidebook style e-book publisher. I had to do the first two articles on spec (which means pro bono), and even though I was a little disappointed about the lack of pay, it got my foot in the door and it could mean a contract for a set amount of articles around the titles they publish. I will link back to that as soon as the site goes live. It is a low-paying market, but falls generally in the subject areas I am looking to expand my portfolio in.

I have also started blogging for a hotel reservation website that focuses on popular destinations with English speakers. One article pending approval that I've written for this blog is a guide to understanding German wine. I am really taking advantage of all those years of living in Germany for article ideas and I hope to be able to post a link or two to my articles on this site in the near future. This is also a low-paying market, but travel is something that I would like to establish myself since it pretty much is an essential part of my life.

Finally, I just got word of this gig and I am really excited about it and really nervous at the same time. I will probably be translating knitting and crochet patterns from German into English for one of the most well-known German pattern houses! How cool is that?! It is only slightly intimidating as is anything that requires decrypting mysterious acronyms and hard to pronounce, multi-syllabic words.

And of course, there are my blog babies. I am a little more proactive about my knitblog than with this one only because that combines the things I really like doing: writing, knitting and taking pictures.

The Biker Bear and His Stitchin' Misses:

Going from Harley to Honda
After almost eight months on the market, the Harley Sportster Low has been sold to a lovely biker chic in Vancouver. Thanks to Matthias' really amazing ex-workmate and friend, Doug, we received a banker's draft for the price of the bike in Pound Sterling. Matthias spent a couple weeks looking for this perfect bike and found one that suits him (and me) a lot better: a 2004 black Honda Varadero. Matthias is not a road hog kind of biker, nor should he ride such a machine. Matthias is (well, duh) more of a European technophile biker. We had enough money to spring for some new gear for both of us as well as a top box and some panniers. He picked up the pick last Friday and we have already been out on it twice. We are planning a longer trip in September through Scandinavia. More on that as the plan develops.

Bitchin' Stitchin'
My knitting is challenging as ever. I allowed myself to take a creative rest on the sweater I have been faithfully toiling over for several months now.  I needed something easy that didn't require so much thinking as I yelled at the soccer players on TV. So I started the Spumoni Scarf and a pair of socks for the Big Guy. Last Friday, I also went up to the Lake District to attend Woolfest 2008 with a few girls from the stitch 'n' bitch. It was a great experience and I think I am hooked (big surprise). I go into lots more detail about my fibrous escapades at BrittKnit. Check it out.

Now I Can Have My Life Back: The Germans Lose the European Soccer Championship
Someone recently asked me who I would support in a Germany vs USA soccer match. I answered Germany, but with the likes of this year's national team, even the Americans could have beaten them. It is an absolute wonder that the Germans even made it to the finals this year. There were so many other deserving teams out there who played with more technical finesse and so much more passionate drive than the Germs. But as the English know all too well, never count the Germans out.

I held on to believing that they would just get off to their usual slow start until the final game against Spain. But now, I am so disappointed that I am actually considering writing a letter to the German Football Association. I mean, it was obvious these guys could have cared less about what they were doing out there on the field. Is it so easy to forget that one is representing their home country and millions of people are looking to you? Or were they under tremendous pressure because of that very realization?

Anyway, I enjoyed the tournament, but am really thankful to finally get back to some more intellectually challenging wooly debauchery.