Saturday, 12 December 2009

Family to foxes and contracts to car trips

With Nina back I was happy to gain control of my camera again. The first couple pictures were taken one sunny afternoon and showcase our livingroom.

A couple of weeks back I received a call from my uncle Robert. I was delighted as we had been in the UK for three months and had only received one call from mom’s cousin Mandy stating she would have us over and that was the last we heard from her. Robert told us Irene and Tony were having a get together the following weekend where we could see some of the cousins.

The following Sunday we met at Irene and Tony’s house which is about a 5 minute drive from our house. I had no memories of their home at all, but vivid memories of their back garden. The photograph of Andrew as an infant with his billowing blond hair and red overalls as he stood by a climbing frame was taken in that garden. I remembered a long greenhouse that ran down the left side to a tennis court at the bottom.

Irene was astonished at how well I remembered her garden as I had likely been no older than five when I was last there. The garden has changed as the tennis court and more than half of the greenhouse is gone having fallen down over time.

When we arrived we were greeted by Irene and Tony as well as Robert and Cathy who had driven up from Leamington Spa. Mom’s first cousins Mandy, Yvonne and Jane arrived shorty after and we spent the mid afternoon sitting around the dining room table enjoying “tea” (which would have doubled as a rather impressive lunch spread, making it seem inadequate being referred to as tea) and getting reacquainted.

Both Nina and I had a fabulous time as they were all so warm and friendly. I was a little disappointed to learn they get together infrequently as I liked the idea of having family here.

I had a nice long chat with mom last weekend and she was thrilled we had gone over to meet her cousins and had a wonderful time. She was telling me stories about the family (to fill in some of the background information) and the conversation eventually drifted to when she was young and used to visit her grandparents in Leicester. As it happens, mom's grandparents used to live on a road parallel to ours, in the same block and only one block away! The picture to the left with the grey car out front is the house they lived in first (#3) and the picture below — the house with scafolding — is the house they moved to (#9) just down the same street. Both these houses look across as an elementary school and we look across at the same school yard from the opposide side. Small world!

My classes in Derby are coming to an end which is too bad as I am enjoying them as well as the routine of going. I have already signed up for another two classes for next semester (both continuations of the writing and website classes I am taking this semester). Since it doesn’t rain that often here (although the locals will tell you a different story) I have gotten into the habit of walking at least one, if not both ways, from the train station to the university campus. Due to the time of year, I walk back to the station in the dark as it’s between 4-5pm when I leave. I cross through the downtown of Derby which is a charming town. Unlike Leicester its manufacturing days are not in the past but in the present. Both Toyota and Rolls Royce have plants in Derby and there aren’t any visible scars in the centre of the city like there are here.

Leicester has a large outdoor market whereas Derby’s is indoors. Housed within an old brick and iron building, there stalls are a little higher class than those you find in Leicester and the quality of merchandise is better as well.

With the Christmas lights strung up across the cobbled streets in a similar fashion to Amsterdam last year, there is a palpable festive cheer in the air. Prior to living in Europe I never liked Christmas. Perhaps it’s just that I don’t like the way it’s done in North America with the shopping mall culture without the other elements. I think Christmas markets in the town square balances the consumerism of Christmas with the jovial element of having fun with friends and family with food and drink.

Nina had to go to Birmingham to apply for her National Insurance number a few Saturdays back. I decided to go along as I had wanted to see Birmingham so we planned a day out of it. Little did I know the adventure would start long before we arrived.

Nina had used her car a few times in the week leading up to our Birmingham day trip. She had gone to a few appointments and had always been rushed. She arrived home on the Saturday morning from one of those appointments and jumped in the shower as she wanted to leave for Birmingham in a half hour. She asked me if I would go fill up the car with gas so we wouldn’t have to stop along the way.

I drove to the gas station up the street and there was a massive line leading out of the station and into the street. I knew there was another station up the road and so I continued on. As I approached a red light one block away from the station the car started sputtering and conked out on me. I drifted into the right hand turn lane (remember, we drive on the opposite side of the road) and came to a stop at the line. I tried to restart the engine but the tank was bone dry!

I ran the block to the gas station and bought a plastic gas can which only held five litres of fuel. I filled it up and headed back to the car. I attached the nozzle and emptied the gas into the tank. Glancing at my watch I figured I would just make it back home in time. To my horror the car wouldn’t start. I fretted for a moment that maybe I hadn’t put diesel gas in. But I had checked before I pumped the gas. I kept trying but the engine wouldn’t turn over. It finally dawned on me that the car was on a slight incline. It wasn’t much, but if the gas came out of the end of the tank that was on the “up” side of the incline, it might be enough to explain why the five litres of gas wasn’t doing anything.

I ran back to the gas station, sheepishly paid the cashier for another five litres of gas (with the portable gas can in hand) and ran back to the car. Now, finally, with ten litres in the tank, I was able to get the damn thing started. I drove to the station and filled up the tank. I paid, for the third time, and arrived back home a good 20 minutes late. Luckily, I was able to see the humour in the situation, as was Nina.

Unfortunately the temperature has dropped significantly the past couple of week and since we were running late due to running out of gas, I had forgotten to take my gloves and a sweater with me to Birmingham.

We found the building Nina needed which was right in the centre of town. We parked and I headed off to explore while she went in. I lasted about a half hour before I sought refuge in the government office to get out of the cold and waited in the warm, yet generic, National Insurance building.

In the town centre was a traditional German market. When Nina finished her appointment we went to the market to drink hot chocolate and eat roast pork buns (me) and jacket potatoes (Nina). We browsed the stalls and were both impressed with how genuine this ‘German’ market in the centre of England actually was. If it weren’t for the Midland’s accents, you could have convinced us we were in Germany.

The market traversed the downtown and culminated in a circular concourse outside the town hall. The architecture of this building was magnificent, but it was already dark and I was frozen so we headed back to the car and drove home.

Last week I had my meeting with Kevin — the guy who works at University of Derby’s corporate office who helped me with my application for my workshop — to discuss the details. He told me that six workshops had been presented for funding and only three were granted it. Of those three, two were sent back for clarification before being awarded any money and only one was granted the full funds on the spot; mine!

We worked out the details of my relationship with the university. He initially wanted to put me on their payroll, but as I have registered as my own business and will be working from home, I saw more benefit in being classified as a contractor so I can write off the expenses of running my home office. We agreed on a timeline which will have the project ready to be presented by mid February. By the time they market it, in all likelihood, it will be piloted in April.

My three month contract with Stefan runs out in another two weeks so we had a chat this week about our working relationship. He had initially warned me that there wouldn’t be enough work to warrant my services come the new year, however that changed. In the last couple of months The White Door became the exclusive recruitment company for one of our biggest clients and was told we are one of the favourite recruitment companies to deal with by another client (who widdled their list of recruitment companies they deal with from 15 down to 3).

So Stefan and I negotiated another contract for the next three months that will turn into a month-by-month contract afterwards. We are both satisfied with the terms (me more so than him) and it means I have no shortage of work to keep me busy through to my birthday.

Last Sunday we entertained in our apartment for the first time. Nina invited four of her fellow PhD students over for dinner and games. As it was our fist time entertaining in our new home and these were new friends, we might have gone a little overboard. We made loads of food, ensured we had red, rose and white wine on hand (still have 3 bottles left over) and Nina cooked a fabulous lasagne inspired by a recipe from her host family in Pantelleria. We spent the rest of the night playing Taboo and it was a real laugh. It was well worth all the time and effort and we will gladly do it again. But, now I appreciate the time, effort and expense required to host a few people and I can only imagine how it doubles and triples as the size of the party increases.

As I walked from the train station to our flat Thursday evening after class I finally had my first close encounter with one of the infamous Leicester red foxes. I had been eager waiting for the day I would get to see one up close and in enough light to properly see it. As they are nocturnal, it can be difficult. But as I walked along London road which straddles one side of Victoria park I saw one close to the edge of the grass and within the radius of the street lights. I came within 20 feet of it. They are skittish animals and I wouldn’t have been able to get any closer if I had wanted to. They are magnificent! Unlike the coyotes around Vancouver that look straggly and malnourished, the foxes look elegant with thick ginger and white fur and a bushy tail. This particular fox was looking right at me so I got a good look at his face. They are beautiful creatures.

Nina is gone again. This time she is accompanying her professor and a bunch of undergrads to Tenerife for a week. She arrives back in Leicester next Friday at 2:30am and then leaves that same evening (17 hours later) to Germany to see her friends and family. I join her in Germany the following Monday as I wanted to give her a few days of one-on-one time with her friends and family first.

So with a beautiful Saturday free, today I jumped in the car and did a little trip into the surrounding countryside. I had some errands to run on the outskirts of town and decided to keep going. Some of towns I passed through had peculiar names such as Barkby, Beeby, Hungarton, Billesdon, Gaulby, Kings Norton, and Little Stretton. I took pictures along the way and posted an album on Facebook as there were too many to post here. You can see this album (even if you are not signed up to Facebook) by clicking here.