Thursday, 29 December 2011

Salvation for the mirror blind

My early birthday present from Ben - I can now explore!
Well, soon...
I am sat in the lounge of our apartment, staring at the computer screen with a slightly dazed, slightly frustrated expression on my face that can only have been caused by immigration paperwork complications. Before anyone worries, it's not anything serious, nor anything that will jeopardise my staying here, but merely a hiccough in terms of getting the order of things right. This morning I went to the DMV to take my driving test. Because I had been working really hard for it, and winding myself up something silly, I figured it would be better to do sooner rather than later. However, after waiting in line for almost two hours (the computer system went down, as luck would have it), I was told that I wouldn't be allowed to take any part of the test until my green card came through. The I-94 (landing card, stapled into my passport along with my visa) has less than 20 days left on it, and so the DMV are unable to do anything until I have permanent residential status (i.e. a two year green card). The fact that my application for this is in process, and that I am totally within my rights to stay in the USA while this goes on - in fact, if I left, I would have trouble getting back in without an Advanced Parole document - does not alter the fact that my I-94 doesn't have enough time left on it to issue me a driver's license, were I to pass the tests.

Having studied the NC DMV handbook and signs documents at length, as well as doing practice test after practice test over the last 10 days on the I Drive Safely and Driver's Prep websites, this is obviously frustrating in terms of effort, and in terms of nerves built up at the thought of doing a driving test. Ben even got me an early birthday present of a Garmin (with lifetime maps! Very exciting if you've ever owned a sat' nav': the annual map updates can cost more than the unit itself if you're not careful), so I could explore with confidence. It is also annoying as it means I can't renew my NC ID card until the green card comes through, so it will have to have my maiden name on it until then.

Balls.

As a more direct consequence of this, I am now in need of car insurance that is explicitly aware of and designed for international drivers with full foreign licenses, driving privately owned personal vehicles in the USA. This actually does exist, but it costs a lot.

For six months' insurance. Yowser. 

So, I can do it, and it may even be a little cheaper if we go with Ben's current insurer, as long as they are able to insure people on foreign licenses (some places simply won't do it). Otherwise, I will have to get my own insurance as, although driving is not an "essential" right now per se, it's crucial to my (personal) ability to make Charlotte my home, as well as being able to apply for more wide-ranging jobs. My EAD (Employment Authorisation Document) may well arrive significantly ahead of my green card, so being able to drive will be an asset on my résumé, as and when I have permission to work.

The other complications are that I can't update my new name (as mentioned above), and address on my ID card. You're supposed to do this within 60 days of a move, which may be possible should my green card process be super-fast, but otherwise, I will have to let it lapse. I do hope this won't cause an issue, as it's really nothing I can help, and I've done all I can to make the relevant authorities aware of the situation.

Anyway, it isn't something I can do anything about by worrying any more, and there's some relief in not having to fret about the test for a few months now. We just need to sort out the insurance later today, so I know I am legally allowed to drive, and then we carry on as normal. Which I did when I got home, with milk and Hobnobs. Pip pip!

You can take the biscuits out of the UK, and you can feed them to me.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Where the love-light gleams

My wonderful family - one of my favourite photos of us.
As you might imagine, Christmas in NC, now knowing that I am going to be here for good (unlike last year, when it was the world's most exciting holiday), has caused me some mixed emotions. Right now, I am possibly less positive about it all because not only am I apart from my parents, brother, and sister-in-law, but Ben has also been working until late, meaning that I have not exactly been festive this Christmas Eve.

However, I've made a promise to myself (and Ben, as part of my vows) to always look for the good, the positive, the bright side (i.e. stop being a moaning cow as much as possible!), so with that in mind, I would like to say that I am lucky to have a family that I miss as much as I do. Which is a whole lot more than I can put into words, and it doesn't just count at Christmas. They are an incredible, supportive, zany, hilarious, loving, inspirational, warm, joyous bunch of people who deserve even more adjectives than that, but I'm afraid I'll make a paragraph out of one sentence should I continue. Mum, Dad, I love you and I miss you so very much, and I wish I didn't have to be away from you for such long periods at a time. Sam and Wren, you are the most fantastic brother and sister-in-law a girl could wish for, for so many reasons, and I really think you should move to America ASAP (and put Mum and Dad in your suitcase).

But seriously, merry Christmas. I wish I could be with you.
xxxxx

Saturday, 24 December 2011

I sing for you, though you can't hear me

As I have a few hours to kill this Christmas Eve (insert name-related joke here), I thought I would write that full update post I've been referring to for at least the last three weeks. Ben is currently at work, and won't be back until after 11PM, which is a bit rubbish for the time of year, but it can't be helped. So, dear reader, you will bear the brunt of my festive wafflings.

So... first things first: immigration status update. After the list of documents and information requirements had been fulfilled, we were able to send off the AOS (Adjustment of Status) package to the Chicago, IL USCIS drop box at the beginning of this week. We've now had its delivery and receipt confirmed by the USPS and USCIS respectively, which means that my documents are now being processed to allow me to have a 2 year green card, as well as legally be allowed to work - and leave the country should I need to!

Confirmed by the mail, and confirmed by USCIS via text AND email.

This is, of course, a great relief. I wasn't quite so manic about getting it all sent off (eventually, anyway) compared to finishing off the UK-side of the process, as there's not actually a requisite time period during which the AOS must be submitted. It's just recommended to do it sooner, rather than later, for obvious reasons - things like your medical results will be considered invalid if you don't use them within a year of obtaining them, so you would have to pay for another medical (in time and dollars). It means that, after a biometrics appointment and possible interview early next year, I will not have to do anything paperwork-wise, except for an annual renewal of my work permit, for two whole years. After 12 months of form-filling, the prospect of this is just so wonderful! After that, I can apply for a 10 year green card, followed by naturalisation (citizenship) when I have lived here for three years. This would allow me to obtain a US passport, be considered a full US citizen, and therefore I would be able to vote too - very important, especially when we have kids.

Strictly speaking, now I think of it, this is not all in order, actually, as although we had done a lot of the paperwork, we didn't send it off until after the two other big-exciting-grown-up-things. No matter. One of those I've already written about: getting a car, and being allowed to drive. I now have the privilege (and nerve-wracking pleasure) of being able to get out and about, wherever I want and whenever I want. I feel much more human, just so much more normal! Silly though it sounds, it was the one thing that paralysed me and frustrated me, far more than getting a social security number, bank account, or having my immigration papers in order. The strangest thing is that I don't even enjoy driving that much! I think it is just that I have been so used to being able to choose whether or not to go somewhere, and not to have to rely on anyone to help me out with that (willing and lovely as everyone here has been about it), that having that ability revoked was far more irritating than I could ever have predicted. I guess a decade of that being normal made it very hard to adjust to it suddenly being taken away (not to mention the total lack of knowledge of local geography!). So, it gives me great pleasure to say that I am writing this from the Starbucks in Mallard Pointe, just off Tryon, having driven here all by myself. Given my penchant for double tall skinny vanilla lattes (yes, I'm one of those douchebags), this is doubly pleasing.

Learn ALL THE SIGNS!

Of course, I can only drive on my UK license for so long. Technically speaking, I can drive for 12 months using a foreign driving license, but due to a variety of things (namely NC-specific insurance laws - grr!), I am allowed to drive a privately-owned vehicle for 30 days only, on temporary insurance, which is supposed to be the time period used to pass my NC driving test and obtain a state license. So, I am now preparing for my driving test! I have been told that it is not the horrific experience I remember as a 17 year old (and I didn't even have to do the hazard perception test then), not only because I am already a driver with 10 years' experience, but also because the US test is a bit easier, and apparently they are usually pretty kind to experienced, English-speaking, ex-pat drivers. That said, it's still a test, and I don't want to scrape through it, because it won't help my driving in the long term. So, I have been studying the NC DMV's Driver Handbook for the past few days, and learning the laws, signs, and requirements for driving around here. There are three parts to the test: a sign-recognition test (which also incorporates a sight test), a theory test, and a practical test. I'm feeling okay-ish about it all. I can learn theory without a problem, and it's a lovely thing to be able to put it into practice straight away. I currently have sign-Tourette's whilst driving, as there are two whole pages to learn, and you get asked to identify about 20 random ones before you're allowed to do the other parts of the test. Eek! I have also purchased practice tests that have review and full mock tests available - very helpful, and thus far, I haven't failed!

So far, so good. 
The second of the big-exciting-grown-up-things is something I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail about right now, as I want to wait until it all goes through, so I don't get prematurely over-the-top about it and then have to backtrack. The short version is that Ben and I put an offer in on a house in Charlotte and, after some back-and-forth bartering, it was accepted! Realty works somewhat differently here to in the UK, and we've already signed paperwork (along with the seller) that marks the offer as legally accepted. We now have until the 10th to get the house inspected (surveyed, in UK-speak), and then we and the buyers are bound in to the sale. I will divulge more then, as I won't feel so much like I might jinx things, but I am - we are - SO very excited. It's our dream house! *crosses fingers* 

That pretty much concludes the update. We've had some fantastic meet-ups with friends recently; a Ninja Santa party at our apartment, girl-dates for me, trivia fun at the diner, and a burrito and cigar night, to name a few. It's been a lovely - not to mention exciting, and ridiculously crazy-busy! - month (marriage, car, house, in a MONTH?! Madness), and I hope I have more license- and house-related good news to report in 2012. Merry Christmas to everyone, anyone, who reads this! Have a wonderful holiday.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Beep beep'm beep beep yeah

There's so much to update on since the wedding. Not only have we sent off the paperwork for the next stage of the immigration process, we've also been doing a lot of grown-up married stuff. I don't have time to go into a long post about it right now, but this post should give you a small idea of the kinds of things I mean: I have a car! And, as of today, I am allowed to drive it. Hee! So, meet Millie.

Millie!

Ender is not quite as excited as I am.

We got her last weekend, and had to wait for my insurance paperwork to go through (I am only allowed 30 days of insurance on a temporary policy to allow me to practice and take my test for an NC license). So today, I had a chance to get used to the size of the car, for one thing (I used to drive a manual Ford Ka; I am now driving an automatic Honda Accord - quite a change!); the other side of the road; the signs; the rules... and it was fantastic. I feel so happy and free! Silly though it sounds, I now feel much more like a resident here. I can take my test any time over the next month, so started studying hard yesterday, and am going to try to get it done before my birthday in January. But for now, I need to practice hard, both on the road and with the books. I foresee several photo trips in my very near future (a great excuse to develop my driving skills), and a lot of online mock tests!

Friday, 9 December 2011

I could trace your private number

Today's post is inspired by the brilliant cover of 'You Spin Me Round' by Thea Gilmore and Mike Cave, and the ridiculous amount of detail I have had to go into about myself, my background, and my current identity documents, for the next stage of immigration paper work we need to do to obtain my green card. Now, officially, we don't actually have to do this right now - we could wait a few weeks, maybe even a couple of months, to submit the Adjustment of Status (AOS) documents - but, as with everything immigration-related, a) it is better to do all submissions sooner rather than later, and b) I am a crazy person and like to get everything done, colour-coded, duplicated, and filed about a million days before it actually needs doing.

So, here we have the next stage:



I've managed to make a start on all of the forms (and pretty much finish five of them). The other two need Ben (the I-864) and possibly another US sponsor to be completed, to ensure I don't become a financial burden to the country, and the I-693 has to be filled in and signed by a civil surgeon. As I have already had my medical back in the UK, this just involves having my vaccination record checked and signed off. I have to pay for the privilege, but I am getting used to the random costs that we incur throughout this process, so it's hardly a surprise! You should shop around for an affordable surgeon to do the honours, as - due to the nature of private medical care, I am guessing - it is entirely possible that a practice will insist on their own "medical" before signing off the I-693, justified by their individual policy (which, unsurprisingly, results in more money for them - colour me cynical, but seriously?! It's SIGNING a piece of paper that has already been approved by a US Embassy verified doctor in the UK, and filling in a few boxes. I don't need another blood test/full health screen/lifestyle interview to ensure nothing has changed in the last three months due to so-called "medical ethics" that somehow add to the money pot, courtesy of yours truly's purse), that can result in incurring anything between $100 and $300 in getting it all signed off. You should be looking at $50 tops, plus any vaccinations you might need if your record is incomplete. My appointment is costing $35. 

Rant over! Once the forms are complete, and I get used to signing my new name with a more confident flourish, we can get them all sent off next week, and then sit back and wait. All being well, I should get my EAD (Employment Authorisation Document - from form I-765; item #15 on the list) and AP (Advanced Parole, to allow me to travel in the event of an emergency) in 2-3 months, so I can start doing paid work - if I can find a job - and then the biometrics and interview appointments shouldn't be too much longer after that. And then, green card! Fingers crossed... 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Our happily ever after

I am sat watching my husband - hee! - playing tug-of-war with Ender (our dog) and the toy frog that he (Ender) is very fond of, thinking how lucky and happy I am. I am also sat in my pyjamas, which have been my outfit of choice all day, due to a total systems failure after a week of wedding festivities and family frivolity. I have not been too well today, but no matter, we are now a full-blown husband-and-wife team, official both ceremonially and on paper, and are joyful even when I look like I've been dragged through a hedge backwards. That's what love is. Or part of it, anyway.

On the day itself, though, both of us were looking pretty spiffy. Ben was in his gorgeous suit, shiny new tie, and with newly man-scaped beard. I had spent the morning being thoroughly pampered by Ben's cousin's fiancé, Johnny, who made my hair look like something out of Cinderella (or A Cinderella Story, to be precise), along with making the whole thing fun and light-hearted (despite not being nervous as such, I was somewhat... highly strung?!), and sorting out all of the styles for my sisters-in-law, too. Our friend Elizabeth came along to do my nails, and Wren, my brother's wife, helped me into my dress - a fun affair resulting in me getting stuck with my arms flailing out the top at one point! I am nothing if not elegant.

Some married friends and acquaintances have told me that they don't remember their wedding day, or at least the ceremony. I think I remember quite a bit. I remember feeling manic and nervy until about 5 minutes before the ceremony. I remember we played some awesome music, and that Johnny was pleased that we had Blondie on one playlist. I remember wanting some space from all the getting ready noise in the dressing room, and hiding in the bathroom for almost ten minutes, taking my time to "clean my teeth" before returning to the main room in time to don the dress. I remember feeling uncomfortably under-dressed and a bit ridiculous in the moments before the dress made its way over my head, as I was stood in heels, underwear and wearing a tiara, fully made up with awesome hair and nails, in a room full of people. It was strange and a bit disconcerting! I remember how kind everyone was; checking in on what was needed, bringing us drinks, asking people to come to see us (I couldn't leave the room as Ben was at the venue, and we were trying to ensure we didn't see each other before the ceremony - about the only tradition we kept to!), and their general joy and sweetness. I remember how I asked for my parents to come in and see me before we went out, as we'd had no time together that morning really, and how happy it made me to share that moment with them. I remember being told it was time to go outside and get started. I remember feeling much, much happier once I was chatting with my Dad, and pleased to know that he enjoyed the music we'd chosen for the bridal party to walk to. I remember laughing and trying to walk slowly with Dad down the pathway to the gazebo and towards Ben. I was practically running, I think.

Ben and Steven, waiting for our arrival
Dad walking me down the aisle to Ben

And then I remember getting there. Dad "handed" me to Ben, asking him to take care of me, and sat down next to Mum in the front row. Then Ben and I stepped down to the bottom of the front steps to the gazebo, and turned to face where Steven (our officiant) would soon conduct the ceremony, until 'Arithmetic' came to an end. We talked, we laughed, we almost kissed (but didn't!), and I felt nothing but overwhelming happiness, looking at a man who is, was, and always will be, without doubt, the one man I truly love.

The ceremony itself was blissful. The sun shone; happiness radiated; the light was magical. I remember the feeling of warmth and a surreal but nevertheless believable sense of how utterly wonderful this day was, what it meant, for us. The ceremony was entirely of our own scripting - Ben and I wanted a secular ceremony, as we are both atheists, and we wanted something personal to us that also honoured the non-religious but nevertheless traditional aspects of the marriage ceremony - and we included two readings. The first, an excerpt from a Roland Barthes' 'A Lover's Discourse', was read by my dear friend Tim, who flew over from the UK to be with us for our wedding weekend. The second was read by my brother, and is a favourite sonnet of both me and Ben, written by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It's actually called 'I Do Not Love You', which probably sounds a little odd, but it speaks to the necessity, inevitability, and simplicity that being really in love entails.

After the readings, we declared our intentions, read our own vows (we both wrote them together, but separately), Steven blessed the rings, and then, after placing them on each other's ring fingers with the words, "With this ring, I thee wed", we were officially Mr. & Mrs. Lloyd. I'm lost for words again now - I remember feeling giddy and like it still wasn't quite all real - but I have to say, we did well with the first kiss. I think if you get heckled, you know you're doing it right.

You may now STOP kissing the bride. Whenever you're ready.

The rest of the day consisted of smiles. Everywhere. We were surrounded by gorgeous people who we love and love us; we were blessed with a warm, sunny day (in December!); we had an entire 12 hours of food, music, dancing, toasts, hugs, chats, wine; we had the most wonderful wife-and-husband photographers in Spanglish Studios; and we were also surprised by an alternative ceremony at our evening reception venue, The Wine Vault (officiated by the awesome Cassie, clad in wizard robe and hat), as well as our car and apartment having been glitter-bombed while we were out celebrating. Utter, utter joy. We are so lucky.

Photo by Spanglish Studios
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Monday, 5 December 2011

Mr. & Mrs. Lloyd

Too happy and giddy and busy right now to write properly about our wonderful wedding day, but here is a photo of us (courtesy of a wonderful friend's phone!) just after being pronounced man and wife. Eeeeee!


December 3rd, 2011.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Tomorrow...

After a wonderful few days with family, in-laws meeting, and time with friends, we are now about to be married. Tomorrow. Eeeee! 

Monday, 28 November 2011

And we invented the cat

Today, not only did I see something very American (our state bird), but I also received something very British in the post:

Genuine Cadbury chocolate from the UK!

My wonderful friend Jen sent me a care package, via a supplier in PA, containing so much proper chocolate deliciousness (i.e. from Britain - the link here also explains the title of this post) that I should be set up until January*. Add to that the Cadbury advent calendar that the gorgeous Miss Lawson sent me last week, and I am one happy camper.


* This should not deter people from sending more. One Fruit & Nut bar has already met its fate. 

An bird!

Today, while getting Ender prepared for a bath, we saw a cardinal perched in the tree, level with our balcony. This time (as I've missed the opportunity to get a good shot several times before now), I managed to snap him!




Cardinals are the NC state bird, and are year-round residents here. They also have very beautiful songs. This one appeared interested in the autofocus beeping noise my camera made! The males are obviously the very brightly coloured members of the species, while the females only have red on their crests, wings, and tails. 

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Of all the things I know for sure

I am currently sat in my pyjamas, avoiding both work (online research for the studio) and the gym, listening to our wedding ceremony music and daydreaming. I make no apologies. I am very, very happy because, in one week, I get to marry the love of my life. We are getting married in seven days; we will be married this time next week. No amount of font styling can express my excitement, and I sincerely doubt my effort with words will be any more successful, but I'll give it a go.

It feels like Christmas, but Christmas when you were a kid, and better than that, really. Wow, I am so eloquent sometimes! There's a wildly free feeling of being excited because it's new and unknown, but also a warmth and certainty because it is known and exactly what you want. A wedding is just a very small part of the whole relationship, of course, and wouldn't be happening without the fundamental bond between the two getting married. And then there's the utterly overwhelming love that underlies, accents, fills everything, and so the wedding itself is just a very small representation of that. But oh! I am so, so excited to marry Ben.

We spent yesterday evening, after a day of working on papers (Ben) and editing photos (me), sat at the Wine Vault, deciding on drinks for our evening reception, chatting over a delicious bottle of  Aussie Shiraz (a lucky pick that happened because of me finding the name funny ("Boxhead" - I'm a child), and Ben wanting a heavier red to drink that night), and just being. One of the most wonderful things about being with Ben is that just being with him is something I always look forward to. Whether we're nattering over a tasty glass of something, watching a film, walking, cooking, doing our own thing in the same room, bickering about who is right about colour coordination, laughing at the dog farting at an alarming rate, listening to music, eating dinner... It doesn't matter, and all of it is brilliant. The everyday becomes special, and not in a trite "oh my goodness, the world is all pink and rosy" pre-packaged romance kind of way, but simply because he makes me so happy, and the space we share is joyful because we get to be together.

There is no way I'll be able to do much better than that to explain or try to record how I'm feeling right now. We talked a bit last night about whether the wedding itself would make much of a difference to us. Neither of us think so, in the emotional sense at least: we already feel married. We are bonded for life, with or without the ceremony. But I know for sure that this will be a big thing for me, even if it changes nothing. Perhaps that is how a wedding should be: an added extra, something that is done to celebrate a love that doesn't need a formal, legal process to secure it or improve it, but that can have a formal process because it is so wonderful that it seems silly not to celebrate it ceremonially.

That's actually just hit the nail on the logical and emotional head for me: I've been wondering why it does seem a big deal to me, when I am already so secure and happy with Ben. It's because I am so secure and happy with Ben, filled with joy and love I didn't know (or believe) were possible, that being so lucky as to be able to celebrate that... I didn't think that would ever happen, and I am ridiculously fortunate to be able to be with - formally and informally - the one man I know I can and will love forever, and will love me back the same way.

Now I really am beyond words.



Thursday, 24 November 2011

Bang! And the reference is irrelevant

And now, for your viewing pleasure (?!), here is a video of me and Ben engaging in some post-Thanksgiving banter and G&T making. I cannot wait to marry this man. 9 days!




For those of you unfamiliar with the advertising genius that is Cillit Bang's Barry Scott, please see here for what I'm talking about. Billy Mays is apparently the US equivalent.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving


Hand turkey!
Today was my first Thanksgiving, ever, not to mention ever with Ben and his family. It was wonderful! We had such a fantastic day. It's much like Christmas in the sense that family come together to spend time with one another and appreciate a break in the go-go-go of everyday life. Having really enjoyed today and seen the celebration first-hand, it seems kind of a shame that we don't do this back in the UK, because it really does give you a pause before the mania of the Christmas season (not to mention wedding week, for us right now!).


I am so glad that these went down well! 
Ben and I spent the morning baking (everyone was bringing different things to my mother-in-law's sister's place, Ben's aunt Patti), and both of us decided to make a favourite dessert. I chose to make ginger biscuits, from an old recipe that I cooked way back when I was a youngish teenager (yes, I liked to bake; yes that, amongst other things, made me a super-cool teen), and that I hadn't made since that point in time. They turned out pretty well, considering! We bought ingredients and kitchen scales over the course of the last week (I measure in grams or ounces, not in cups, so that could have been annoying!), so we were all set to bake until it was time to leave. Ben went first, making his pumpkin bars (a pumpkin cake to start with, for all intents and purposes, and then icing is added and the cake is sliced into bars - recipe below and here!) and leaving them to cool, and then I started on the ginger biscuits. Before I go any further, I will just make it clear that "biscuits" in UK English means "cookies" in US English (a "biscuit" in the States is basically a scone, but more buttery and equally, if not more, delicious!), and these particular biscuits are more like Ginger Nuts (UK) or Ginger Snaps (US) in terms of brand. So we'll refer to them as ginger biscuits, because I am being stubbornly English (seeing as the recipe is from an old cook book of my Mum's called 'Farmhouse Kitchen', and provided by a nice lady from Yorkshire, I see no problem with my patriotism in this instance) but I essentially mean Ginger Snaps if any Americans are confused by the whole "biscuits" thing. So I mixed the ingredients up (especially pleased about finding Lyle's Golden Syrup here, as I wasn't sure I would), and got baking. It's a simple recipe, but the first batch of biscuits seemed a bit too crispy, so I made the balls of mixture a bit bigger, and reduced the cooking time to 18 minutes, and that seemed to solve it. This makes them chewy and crunchy and the same time and, according to my M.I.L., an wonderful partner for a cup of coffee!

Ben made his pumpkin bar icing - which is devilishly good - as I went for the second, third, and fourth batch of biscuits (the mixture makes between 30 and 40), and pretty soon, we were all set. After a quick shower, we were on our way over to Patti and Rex's place for food, chatter, and general chill out time with the family. It was absolutely lovely; Ben's family are very welcoming and loving, they are great fun to be with, and make an effort to make me feel part of things from the word go. On top of that, the food was amazing! The traditional meat is turkey, and then there's the veg (green bean and broccoli bakes; roasted butternut squash; potato cakes), and general deliciousness of devilled eggs and macaroni cheese. For dessert, we had a choice of pecan pie, coconut cake, chocolate cake, stewed apple, pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin bars, and ginger biscuits. So now, I hope you will excuse me while I slip into something with a more elasticated waistband...


Recipe for pumpkin bars

Recipe for ginger biscuits

Monday, 21 November 2011

Internship

Two weeks ago, I started my photography internship with the delightful Jim McGuire of Studio1212. I cannot really begin to describe the plethora of emotions that swamped me before and after the first day, as a combination of so many new things (people, place, public transport, job role) meant that I was feeling pretty hyper for that whole Tuesday, until I got home and experienced a crash of equal magnitude.

Walking to the transit centre
Suffice it to say that I am having a wonderful time: I am being challenged, having fun, doing what I love. I've met some fantastic new people, and learned a hell of a lot already. On the first day, I also decided I was going to catch the bus home, which meant walking from E. 10th Street (the studio), through uptown to the transit centre, catching the bus to University City Blvd., and then walking a mile or so back to the apartment. I did it! And I had a lovely walk too, as it was a gorgeous day. So by the time I got in, I felt like I knew the city better, and I felt more free to move around it via bus and on foot. This is also where the friendliness of people here comes in handy: I was taking a few pictures of the buildings in uptown on my way to catch the bus, and a lady walking past in the opposite direction stopped, and started up a conversation with me. She wanted to tell me where I could go to get the best photos of the cityscape at night, when it is particularly beautiful. This also gave me the opportunity to check that I was going in the right direction for the transit centre (should I have wished to), which, while I didn't need to ask that, reassured me that I can stop and ask people for help and they won't just respond, they'll often be nice about it, too.

The photography aspect of this experience, which is of course supposed to be the main element (!), has so far been fabulous. There is one other intern, Kate, at the studio and she's been there about a month longer than me, so she has been very kindly showing me the ropes. We go in Tues-Thurs each week, 10-3, and then doing our own work outside of that. Every day we're helping out with different things, be it setting up the studio, helping with lighting for head shots, going on location for a website portfolio shoot, to name a few. We also have ongoing projects, both photographic and for business, including a weekly shoot theme (so far we have done sunlight and artificial light) where we have to produce at least 10 images using a particular medium or style; research local photographers and their use of the web to promote their business; and to ensure we have our own websites to showcase our own work.

Sunlight
Sunlight 
Artificial light
Practice in the studio
Studio fun with Kate and Jim

The above shots are examples of some of the work I've been doing (including a great shot of Kate and Jim when we were messing about with strobes!). The rest can be seen on the MOL Facebook page, should you be interested in having a look.

Next week will be a quiet one, as it's Thanksgiving and are only going into the studio on Tuesday. The week after will be too, as that's the week my family arrive here and it's all systems go for our wedding weekend. Oh my goodness! I can't believe that's come around so quickly. But, in between that and Christmas, and hopefully for a good portion of January too, we will continue to work with Jim, be taught by him and learn by observation, and have the very privileged position of being able to borrow his equipment sometimes. I can hardly believe I'm spending my days (not just evenings and weekends when I can fit it in!) taking, editing, and publishing photos as my sort-of-job. I feel ridiculously lucky for that, and on top of this, the fact that this particular starting point at Studio1212 couldn't be a better one, for so many reasons. It's just marvellous.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Subtlety and Cadbury's

As I'm averaging about one post a week, I think a brief reflection on cultural shift at this point wouldn't be unwelcome. Yes, there's plenty of wedding stuff I could ramble on about but essentially a) I am not a very girly girl and b) the things I might chatter about are pretty much what you might expect from anyone about to get married to their life's love, regardless of country or emigration experiences.

Perhaps that's a bit cold, a bit casual. Maybe I am avoiding such a post because it will, yet again, render me without words due to the simple and ultimate power of my feelings for the man who is almost my husband, much as I may want to attempt it. But perhaps it's more to do with the fact that I had a conversation tonight with the aforementioned wonderful man of mine, and we decided that, after reflecting on a conversation with my best friend back home that I'd had today, this title and topic would make a far better post than more nuptial neuroses.

Today, I spent an hour or so chatting on Skype with Joy. Amongst the other things we talked about, once general catch up on life, men, work, and so on had been discussed, the inevitable question of, "What do you miss most?" came up. The answer to this is simple enough: people. I miss my family, and I miss my friends. But that is to be expected, and cannot be remedied as such, only born, so doesn't make for much of a conversation - or blog post! So what else?

That answer came easily, too: I miss English social norms, and in a way I never expected. I often find myself overwhelmed by the simplest of differences between the Brits and the Yanks: Americans talk. A lot. About everything. And are very, very friendly - but not always in a way that actually means anything.

With Brits, you have to work at getting to know people, or rather, for a person to want to open up to you. They won't tell you things about their life, work, or even their day, without a little encouragement if you don't know them that well. On top of that, the phrases used often aren't to be taken literally. "It was quite good" usually means "it wasn't very good at all", or "I've seen better", for example. Once you do know a person well enough to have a more detailed chat, you still have to be specific about wanting to know how things are going, and can expect a summary response - you won't be regaled with a novel-sized tale of their experiences since they saw you last. Not that Americans do that, exactly, and obviously when I say "Americans", I am talking about the small percentage that I have met that I don't know very well (it's less strange when your friends or family are talkative and sharing with you; I am referring to people I have only met once or twice), so it's not representative of the whole country, as far as I know.

But Brits and Yanks are significantly different when talking. In turn of phrase, in volume, in sheer amount of talking done. People also seem to talk across each other more, and use pronouns in a way that might offend an English person (who is "she", the cat's mother?!). So, the thing I am missing the most when I go out is just feeling like I fit in. While I am happy to talk, I won't shout over people, and I won't push to get my voice heard. I also don't feel the need to say things I haven't been asked about, to try to turn the topic of conversation, or just add in some random waffle because I can.

On the flip-side of this coin, I do enjoy how friendly Americans appear to be. I've often said I'm a bit too cheerful about getting to know new people for an English girl (I've been known to scare people), so in a way, I fit in here somewhat better than at home when it comes to meeting folk. However, I think I didn't realise just how ingrained my cultural norms are, so despite being frequently pleased by how seemingly welcoming and happy people are, I am also subconsciously unnerved by it. To try to summarise/explain better, the table below provides a good translation of what British people say and what they actually mean, and how it can be misinterpreted - this is what I am trying to get at with this post: we're a lot less literal, in terms of what we say, and say quite a lot less in the first place.



Oh, incidentally, I also really miss Dairy Milk. 

Monday, 14 November 2011

If it hadn't been for love

I feel the need to write a bit of a ranty (yes, it's now a word) post about how much stuff there has been to do over the past five weeks. Tomorrow at 3:30PM EST, it will have been 35 days since I arrived in NC and, while words cannot express my happiness and gratitude at finally being able to be here, for good, I have to say it isn't as easy as all that, at least in terms of how much there is still to be done.

Usually I hate to write anything negative on here - I mean, why read a blog that whines on about the negative when there's so much good in life, or one filled with the rhetoric, first-world whinging that some people feel almost duty-bound to share with the anyone who will listen? But for today, I am just going to keep a short record of one main thing, for the purposes of honesty and openness when considering a K-1 journey:

I am exhausted. 

We are exhausted. Ben and I found today, chatting on our way to get coffee after a delightful morning at the DMV on N. Tryon,  that we might have ever so slightly reached the limit as to how much we can do in the three short weeks before the wedding from now on; how much we are able to give to organising everything beyond that; and all the paperwork that comes with the next few months. We're tired. Not in a thorough way; not lacking in energy due to one big expenditure; it's just the repeated trips to do one-little-thing-at-a-time, almost every day, and it culminates in a sense of no time, no togetherness, and no control.

As well as the administrative tasks that are inevitably synonymous with a visa process, we are also blessed with so many wonderful people in our lives, and amazing opportunities, that "couple time" has been a rare phenomenon over the last month or so. In checking my Filofax, it seems we've had two, maybe three days together where Ben hasn't been working, I haven't been working, Ben hasn't had class, we haven't done anything specific for the visa/wedding, and we haven't seen other people, either - what I would class as actual "us" time. Madness! Now, I am not for a second suggesting this is something I should complain about per se; people have gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome, and to show their love for me and Ben as a couple. We have also been lucky in that, even though it's taken time to get documents processed, official visa items checked off, and wedding arrangements finalised, none of it has been more complicated than simply getting it done. We haven't - touch wood - encountered any unexpected obstacles. But, weirdly, I miss him, and I don't like seeing the impact all the drip-drip-drip process of getting everything checked off is having on him in particular.

Just to give you an indication of what we've done so far, partly to try to reassure myself that we're so much further forward than I keep thinking, and partly just to give an example of what a K-1 might entail post-move, here are some lists of what we have accomplished:

Residency
  • Social Security Card
  • Bank accounts
  • Applied for marriage license
  • State ID
  • Booked driving test
  • Preparing passport application for name change

Moving in
  • Registered with apartment administration office
  • Received and unpacked shipping
  • Been to IKEA and unpacked everything else into furniture purchased there!

Wedding
  • Visited venue and finalised details
  • Booked hairdresser
  • Arranged the rehearsal dinner
  • Chosen, bought, and put together wedding favours
  • Chosen and arranged bridal party flowers/decorations
  • Met with our officiant and started to write out ceremony order
  • Unpacked dress and arranged for it to be steamed (with great thanks to my M.I.L.!)
  • Chosen and arranged music for ceremony 
  • Dealt with wedding photographer changes!
  • Been to the reception venue to finalise details
  • Discussed in-law meeting plans pre-wedding day 
  • Started purchasing drinks for the day event

Work
  • Ben works 2-3 shifts every week, varying between 8 and 12 hours a time
  • Ben also works as an editorial assistant, which he does from home
  • Ben has class on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights, and has assignments to do in the meantime 
  • My internship has started (which is AMAZING! There will be a separate, gushing blog post for that!) and takes place between 10 and 3, Tues-Thurs inclusive
  • I have homework to do from my internship, which includes assignments for photos, online research, and developing the MOL business
  • I have learned where and how to catch the bus to uptown, and to walk from the bus depot to the studio


Social
  • Welcome drinks
  • Welcome dinner 
  • Crepe brunch
  • Trip to Waxhaw
  • Trip to Concord
  • 2 weddings
  • Seeing 'The Tempest' production, as part of Ben's studies
  • My gorgeous surprise bachelorette
  • 2 birthdays
  • Bonfire Night
  • Various trips to the diner to do trivia night most Thursdays
  • Several attempts to go to the gym

So there you have it. Admittedly a lot of that is stuff we should be (and are) happy about - the "social" list is the longest, so that is partly down to us and our choices, and the wedding faff for our big day is inevitable, too. But I hope that gives an idea of what to expect after travelling to the States on this visa, and also might explain to friends back home why I have been so uncharacteristically tardy in responding to emails. Still to come on the list of things to do, sticking just to after-wedding things now, are:
  1. Change name on SSC
  2. Change name on passport (circa £300 to do this)
  3. AOS application ($1080)
  4. Apply for car insurance ($?), study for and take NC driving test (change name on ID at the same time) 
  5. Get EAD (comes during the AOS proces) and AP, and then hopefully a green card soon after
  6. Job hunt and then actually work if I am fortunate enough to find a position. 


Easy as 1, 2, 3... 


Here is a picture of a happy duckling, for those of you who stuck with me through that list-tastic tirade.
My sincere apologies.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Wedding update

After four weeks of being in Charlotte, we have mostly figured out what we're doing, wedding-wise. Mostly. We've done wonderfully exciting things like get a marriage license; unpacked my dress and hung it up to allow creases to drop (hidden away from Ben's eyes at my soon-to-be mother-in-law's place!); and even met with our officiant to work out the finer particulars of the ceremony wording. However, there have been a few extra fun bits and bobs we've dealt with too, that I thought might make a good blog post. So, here goes...


Photographer

Anyone who has known me for more than about 24 hours will be well aware of my attachment to my camera, and my burning desire to make a career out of the passion I have for photography. This has resulted in a difficulty in prising My Other Limb out of my hands, to the point that having a wedding photographer was more of a personal choice for me than anything else about the details of the day, including the dress/shoes/other things that more girly/"normal" brides worry about! Ben is, of course, concerned about getting good photos that represent us and how we feel about both each other and photography (more of a reportage style, fewer posed shots, lots of candid fun, and so on), but I think we would both say I have more of a personal investment in not wanting to worry about the photos on our big day.

So, it came as rather a big shock to both of us that, when our UK photographer had to cancel last week (a month before the wedding), I didn't totally lose it. Part of that was, I think, due to its unavoidable nature: as our photographer was flying over to shoot the wedding, a combination of visa troubles (which we are, of course, familiar with) and insurance issues with taking photographic equipment out of Europe, prevented him from being able to travel. Add to that the fact that he is one of the nicest people you will ever have the fortune of meeting (check out our engagement shoot photos, which was the first time we met up in person), and that we were all three of us very sad to not have him come to the wedding, there seemed little point in getting more upset on top of that. Practicality shone through, and we decided to contact a wonderful woman by the name of Diane, who we'd had the fortune of talking to face-to-face when she was the photographer at a friend's wedding not a week before. I'd been following her work for some time on her blog (click on her company logo above to visit and see her stunning images), and absolutely loved the family and engagement portfolio she was building. On the off-chance that she was free and wanted to shoot the wedding, we sent an email, crossed our fingers, and went off to the gym, as though nothing this important was in the balance (I know, first world problems, eh?!). By the time we returned, Spanglish Studios had saved the day (in both senses, I guess! Geddit?), and we couldn't be happier about having Diane and her husband Marc as our photographers. We have such a great vibe from them, and I am so excited to see what will without a doubt be captivating, true, and beautiful photographs of our wedding day.


Venue


The Lakes, Kannapolis, NC, is our wedding venue, and was organised and booked by Ben during the Eve in absentia period of waiting for the visa to come through and having to get a wedding organised in the meantime. We visited last week and oh-my-goodness-it-is-beautiful (imagine this said in a breathy, over-excited voice that barely allows you to distinguish one word from another). Not only this but Deanna, who runs and organises all the weddings, is an absolute angel, organising everything from music to cakes; from flowers to weather contingency plans; from speech locations to full colour-coordination of sashes/napkins/table decorations/everything you could ever think of. For people like me and Ben, who are happy just for things to be the right colours and - provided people we love are there and there's enough food and drink for all - for our cake to be tasty, this is perfect. The minor details have never really bothered us too much, especially because of the emigration and K-1 journey coming before the wedding, so this takes almost all of the stress out of scripting the day's minutiae, leaving us to enjoy getting married. So excited!


Favours

Our favours are now all made up and ready to go! We opted for little old-fashioned sweet shop style jars, with bespoke labels detailing our names and wedding date. Inside, we debated about having personalised M&Ms (brilliant, delicious, but too pricey); chocolate-coated coffee beans (tasty but might not be to everyone's taste); or sugared almonds (very moreish, but possibly difficult for those with nut allergies). In the end, we went for the third option as we could get blue and white (our wedding colours, along with silver), afford enough to give everyone at both the wedding and reception a favour, and they are just SO unbelievably addictive that we felt people would enjoy them most - sans aforementioned allergies, of course. So, they're now all packed up in individually-wrapped little bubble packets, waiting for the big day. We have also obtained a guest book, and a pretty little "wishing well" for cards etc., which is actually an antique-style bird cage. It's all coming together. 


Guests

There is so much to be excited about, but this has to be one of the biggest things. As per the short explanation at the top right of QE, Ben and I met online via a Facebook group back in 2008. Along with us "meeting", we also had a pretty substantial group of friends that met within that particular group, and one or two other groups that we created between us all, subsequent to the one that started it all off. The long and short of this is that we have stayed in touch with those friends (and I've actually met one of them in person (four times, in fact!); a lovely lass from Canada who happened to be staying in England for a year as part of her degree course), and four of them are coming to the wedding! It will be such a pleasure to meet them all in person, together, and enjoy their company for real. Having had the pleasure of meeting several online friends in the real world (aside from Ben, which clearly worked out pretty well!), and getting on with them like a house on fire, I am thoroughly and ridiculously excited to see these people in the flesh. It will be a real treat, on top of everything else we have to look forward to that day.

That about sums up where we are right now. There are still a lot of last-minute, little things to do (pay balances, send music playlists, write vows - okay, some less little than others) but we're quite up together, which is immensely pleasing.

T minus 25 days... 

Bachelorette

As you may already know, getting people from the UK side of things over to the US for the wedding has been tricky at the best of times, and has resulted in both of my best friends being unable to come due to a variety of issues, mostly financial. I am in no way saying that this is a problem for me (although it of course makes me sad); a destination wedding always causes difficulties for those couples who cannot afford to pay for their nearest and dearest to travel to the country of choice. Were we able to - and hey, we might still win the lottery, so keep your fingers crossed! - we would love to be able to pay for everyone my friends in England to come to Charlotte for the week around our wedding day. Not only would it be a great event and such a privilege to have them there, but doing this would also allow us to show people from my side of the pond what life is like for me over here - a description that, even with Skype, Facebook, email, and good ol' snail mail, loses any sense of reality without direct experience.

However, despite those difficulties - or perhaps partly because of them - I have had a bachelorette party, here in the USA. And it was great. I am so ridiculously blessed in NC by having Ben's friends adopt me, without a moment's hesitation or doubt, as their friend, both part of Ben's life and, simultaneously but separately, part of all of theirs. As per my first full post-emigration update on QE, they have gone out of their way to take me out, show me around, make me feel like I can get to know the place, and just sharing their wonderful selves with me, never mind anything else. This was never more wonderfully obvious as when, on Friday night, our amazing "best man" Leah tricked me (in the best possible way) into thinking she and I were going on a girl-date, just the two of us.  After she showed me a couple of the prettiest spots in NoDa and uptown, suddenly strange things began to happen. More of our friends turned up. We went to dinner, and people joined us. We had drinks and dessert, with yet more friends. And then went back to her house, which she shares with her lovely husband Steven, to find both him and my gorgeous fiancé waiting there with balloons, beers, and snacks, to round off what had been a fully successful, ridiculously thoughtful, surprise bachelorette party. Below are some photos from the evening, and here's to the magical, awesome people who made it happen. Thank you so much!







Sunday, 6 November 2011

Gonna find out who we are

Eve in the Queen City

Leah took me down to NoDa for a girl-date (which turned out to be a surprise bachelorette party - post about that to follow!), and our first stop was on an old railway track that looks directly down to downtown Charlotte. So here I am, happy in the Queen City. Thank you to Leah for the photo!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

In order to form a more perfect union

So, this would be the post for my accent v-log and, for various reasons, I have chosen to read a Shakespearean sonnet (so very English, right?!), and an American political document, to illustrate my current speech patterns.

The sonnet is a favourite of mine, about the foolishness of love (or choice of lover), and I know it from The Taming of the Shrew or rather, its modern guise, 10 Things I Hate About You. The sonnet (and its contemporary counterpart) can be read on this website, or just below my video, should you wish to explore further. As for the American reading, what else would it be, other than the Preamble of the US Constitution?!

I'll be reading these again in six months and a year, to see whether anyone can detect any changes in my accent as I live Stateside for longer and longer!




Sonnet 141

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unsway'd the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.



Sonnet 141 (Derivative Version)

I hate the way you talk to me,
And the way you cut your hair.
I hate the way you drive my car.
I hate it when you stare.
I hate your big dumb combat boots,
And the way you read my mind.
I hate you so much it makes me sick.
(It even makes me rhyme.)
I hate the way you’re always right.
I hate it when you lie.
I hate it when you make me laugh—
Even worse when you make me cry.
I hate it when you’re not around, and the fact that you didn’t call.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you—not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.





P.S. I really recommend watching 10 Things... if you haven't already. 

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

Eee!

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

Finished!

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

Uptown


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.