Immigration and the Charlie Factory

Since my engagement (really, since a few months before), my fiancé and I have been wending our way through the labyrinth of both the British and American immigrations systems. Visas are a complex business, and the route has been filled with a lot of frustration, a fair amount of surprise, and numerous other emotions. I’ve been documenting the whole process, both for my own records, and hopefully eventually to help others. Also, entertainment, because a lot of it is frankly nonsensical.

I haven’t published anything yet, and I won’t, until this full process is complete. The system is opaque and there are many uncertainties in the world today; I don’t want to find that something has been rejected because I got snarky on the internet. Rest assured, though, there’s a lot of good stories coming out of this.

I told you that in order to tell you this: as of a few days ago, my fianceé visa to visit England has been granted, which means I’m now frantically sorting through things as I pack for a trip two weeks away.  International shipping prices are astronomical, and I’m bringing a lot of my possessions in a second checked bag. If it isn’t worth moving to England, it’s getting thrown out (which my mom is thrilled with).

Clearing out childhood and adolescent papers and cards is fascinating. We think that our thoughts and ideas change so much over time, and perhaps they do. However, our manner of thinking appears to stay fairly consistent, and as evidence, I present to you the scribblings I found last night on the back of my AP Physics notes.

Transcribed:

“Willy Wonka invents a piece of gum with all the nutritional value and taste of a four-course meal. How long would you have to chew the gum? Generally, you chew gum until the flavour is completely gone and there’s no elasticity left. The flavours switched after just a few seconds in the story, but if you ate an entire four-course meal in twenty seconds, you’d be sick to your stomach- the brain processes fullness much more slowly than the stomach. Second, most meals include a lot of sodium (particularly meals with roast beef and potatoes). However, there’s no drunk included in the gum, so unless you gulped water during those twenty seconds, you’d be instantly dehydrated. The idea of eating a meal in that time simply isn’t plausible. Or, maybe it’s just that the flavour passes in twenty seconds, and you have to chew the gum for much longer to get the full nutritional value. But then, how would you know when the meal was finished? Could you unintentionally starve yourself by spitting out meals before they were done? Assuming that each of the courses flavour disappears after those 5 seconds, what would come after the blueberry pie? Would it be bland and flavourless, or retain a mishmash of a sight hint of each course? Could it be made to taste like coffee? If so, when would that final flavour disappear? What if there were tomatoes in the salad, and somebody was allergic to them? Would that cause an allergic reaction, or would it provide the chance for people to finally taste something they’ve never been able to have? Finally, would it be bad manners to blow bubbles?”

I’d like to make two closing points: First, that I did pass AP Physics with flying colours; second, the other day I got in a discussion with a friend about the feasibility of the plumbing at Hogwarts. Interests change, personalities remain.

 

 

 

public spaces

I wrote an essay, a short time into undergrad (although it ended up playing a role in both my bachelor’s and master’s theses) on the effect that the shape and structure of public spaces have on their use. In less convoluted words: how does the atmosphere of a communal space affect how we feel in it?

One of the first parts of the essay included a definition of ‘public space’- for this purpose, I narrowed it down to a communal area, funded or owned by the ‘public’ (via government), designed by the public (again via government/local authority) and which encouraged the interaction of relative strangers. And this was all fascinating to me- here’s a space, to which we feel entitled, although we likely have had very little or no personal input, and it has the power to affect the way we interact with others. It’s still kind of incredible.

And I’m thinking about it tonight, because I just got off work at my local, privately owned small business non-corporate coffee shop. A shop designed and dreamt entirely by the owner, to which nobody is entitled, and which does not necessarily encourage the interaction of strangers (beyond simple transactions). It, too, is a sort of public space. It is a space which anyone can enter during business hours (excepting that they have previously been banned), but which comes with none of the privileges of being public property. It is not a library, or a market, or a park. It is not even a church or temple, which, albeit not truly ‘public’ spaces, often aspire to the same ideas of public ownership and investment.

It’s a business. And a coffee shop, like all restaurants, like all stores, has a unique position in public space. The store is designed to lure and keep the customer, who feels entitled to enter- but not obligated to buy. All of us have gone into a clothing store, told the clerk “Just browsing, thanks”, and left without purchasing anything. Many of us have gone to a restaurant, read the menu, and left without purchasing. Fair enough. But the reason those displays are designed so enticingly? It’s to encourage you to buy. At the end of the meal, restaurants ask if you want dessert- to encourage you to spend more money. Coffee shops provide free wifi- because if you hang out, you might get another drink, or a snack. Like all public spaces, businesses design themselves to affect the way that you act- the choices that you make. And I’m fully on board with this. A church designs their public space to draw your mind to worship; a business draws your mind spend money.

The issue I have, that sprung up tonight and so many other nights, is that this fine line- of ‘public’, of entitlement, of designed interactions, is so often lost. Tonight, like many other nights, somebody came into the shop, took a seat, started working on their laptop, and didn’t order a drink. Or food. Or anything. Now, I have a standard response to this- it happens that often- after a reasonable time (say, they wanted to get settled before ordering), I go ask them what they’re waiting on, and apologise that it’s taking so long. At that point they usually get up and buy a drink.  Tonight, though, I got an unusual response. The student in question (and I’m not blaming millennials here, pensioners do it too), responded: “Oh, I haven’t gotten anything, I’m just here to study.”

I understand that we’ve got a great studying atmosphere. That is, to an extent, the idea- study, get comfy, buy more coffee. Bring your friends. Stay all night. But, I have never seen anybody walk into a restaurant, sit down, and conduct a business lunch- without buying any food. You’d be laughed out of the store. And then probably banned.Yet, it’s routinely done (or at least attempted) at coffee shops. I’ve seen it happen at Starbucks, I’ve seen it at other local joints. And it’s a concept of public space I’m still working around- precisely because it happens nowhere else. Did early modern tea shops have similar issues- men coming in, reading the paper, not buying anything? Bookstores spring to mind- come in , browse a book, leave without buying. However, if you liked the book- you usually buy it. Nobody enters a coffee shop, tests the wifi, and then asks to purchase so many bytes of browsing speed. They are not testing the product, they are utilising the space- this space, which on the surface is so similar to a public space, but is very much not.

There are no government funds for local coffee shops. There are no tax contributions to create a studying atmosphere. A small business depends on moving product. And, no, one person (who always buys a drink) and fails to once, isn’t going to sink a store. Still, people understand how to interact in a public space based in part on those around them. A store full of people on the internet with no drink, and the impression is given that this is a free space, entitled for the use of the public. Which it isn’t, and which it doesn’t want to be. That place you’re thinking of, designed for study and quiet meetings with friends, and getting work done in a thoughtfully-created and decorated space, is a library. Or a park.

I ended that conversation by explaining, briefly, that the shop is the owner’s livelihood, and that overhead costs (such as wifi) are paid for by people buying drinks. And that conversation worked for that student. How many times, though, does that conversation need to be had?

I was a local bookstore the other day, and observed that they had removed all of their large comfy armchairs.A clear change in the design- a clear desire to influence behaviour. Coffee shops are still at the point where wifi is more profitable than not- but will this change? Will the culture change first? Is there a way to encourage a purchase first, or to discourage unpaid loitering? Or, and I can feel myself turning into a politician-ranting-on-millennials, is this a symptom of a larger culture of privilege and entitlement? Do we feel, largely, as though we have the right to inhabit spaces to which we have no ownership? If so, how do we stop this behaviour- in ourselves, and later in others?

I don’t know, yet, but when I figure it out, I’ll probably get a job designing public spaces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoops.

A few days ago, someone commented on a post asking why I wasn’t writing anymore.

The answer is, not on purpose. Things just got crazy.

Define crazy?

got a job, visa paperwork went wonky, didn’t start job, moved back to the USA, got a couple jobs, got engaged, now planning two weddings in two countries while working full-time in multiple fields while trying to accurately file settlement visa paperwork and in the meantime Brexit, Trump, and all my friends/family getting married and having babies.

And, of course, all that’s an excuse. For a combination of laziness and pride that’s kept me off the blog.

Because, when I turned 25, I had just found out that I’d gotten this incredible job- curator of a small district museum, iron age Celtic through 20th century English history, and I’d get to use all my training and all my education to pursue a topic that fascinates and delights me. And a month later I was in small-town USA working as a barista.

Don’t get me wrong, I love coffee and this small business team and the owner is probably one of the best people I’ve ever known. And yet, when everything goes so quickly down a completely different path- it’s really, really hard to change both your own expectations, and to tell everyone around you to change expectations as well. In this case, the latter may even be harder for me. I can sit here, in my little coffee shop, and know that (Home Office permitting) in a year I should be married to my perfect partner, working in or searching for a job in my ideal field, living my absolute best life. And I can get through the craziness of right now, knowing that.

However, to work in food service in a small town where everyone knows your life and your parents is to open yourself up, constantly, to real or imagined criticism. Customers come in and they don’t know I have a degree from Oxford. They don’t know I’m happily engaged. They don’t know my love for rowing, and the experiences that it’s given me. They come in and they see a 25-year-old working in a dead-end job and living with her parents. That’s hard for two reasons.

The first, obvious. I’m proud. The second? Because I recognise that the reason I know what they’re thinking- or, the reason I think I know- is because I’m that judgmental myself. That’s a pretty hard realisation. I don’t want to think that I sit here judging the people I went to high school with, who still live in this small town or have moved in with their parents while they look for a job. Or that I judge people who are thirty and working in a coffee shop. Clearly, though, I have been. It’s easy to say “Oh, my best friends here are baristas but it’s different- this is a small business and so the work is really varied and complex and business management and brand marketing and development and basically it’s not like working at Starbucks or McDonalds.” What I’m really saying there is “I’m judging a group of people based on some complex and opaque ideals but don’t worry, people I know personally are different and shouldn’t be included.”

And that, that sentence right there, is also one of the biggest problems in society today. It’s applicable to racism, sexism, immigration, poverty issues, and just generally everything happening right now. We all, myself included, want to judge people whilst making exceptions.

And I can’t even be angry or upset with everyone about it, because then I’d have to judge society whilst making an exception for myself.

So, that’s why I stopped writing for a while.

I guess I’m back now!

quarter century reflections

This week (end), I’m turning 25. Which, as my grandfather would have said, is halfway to 50. And that’s halfway to 100.

I’m getting old.

So in the spirit of both getting old and having everyone around me say ‘Oh, that’s nothing! You’re so young!’, I want to think about some ideas that I’ve been avoiding thinking about for a while.

Mostly, the idea and connotations of goals.

All through school, and university, and honestly probably life, people tell you to have ‘goals’. They ask you, “What’s your goal for the next five years? ten? university? career? relationship?” And you give answers: “Oh, in the next five years, I’d like to be fully independent. I’d like to be in a managerial position. I want to go to Oxford. I want to be married with kids.” And you learn to set yourself these lofty ideal goals, with definitive achievement points, where you can say, Yes! I’ve completed that goal.

And two years ago, when I got to Oxford, and I said, Yes!- I felt a bit lost. Here was my education goal. I’d hit it. And still I was here for two years. What was I supposed to do?

Set a new goal, obviously. Do a Ph.D. Be a millionaire. Buy a big house. Marry well. Have six kids.

And once I’d achieved those, there’d be more. Publish a book. Be a billionaire. Buy a bigger house. Have a dozen kids. It just gets more and more, and more and more ridiculous.

The problem with goals, I started to learn, is that at some point, they just become meaningless markers. They’re marker points, and once they’re passed, they don’t matter. And as far as I’m concerned, if they don’t matter once they’re finished, they probably didn’t matter before.

So I think, in this next quarter century, I’m going to stop focusing on goals. Instead, I’m going to focus on experiences and achievements. I didn’t go to Oxford just to put it on my CV. I went to gain skills and experience, network and make friends, try things that I haven’t done before and put myself in a position to keep learning. So I’m going to keep learning, and make that an achievement- one that can keep being developed, and advanced, and grown, whether or not I go for a Ph.D. I’m going to aim to be a good and effective worker, who makes heritage accessible to the public, as widely as possible- regardless of my income or job title. I’m going to develop strong relationships, built on support and love and friendship and partnership, and maybe one day I’ll be a Mrs, but that’s not the important bit. I’ll learn to be a strong and caring parent, encouraging my children to be good and strong people- whether I have one kid or twelve or none at all.

A bit of it is emotional management. I never will hit all my goals- at this point, I’m never likely to do a Boat Race. But I have learned to be a persuasive and motivating coxswain, and a loyal friend and teammate. Although my goal is inaccessible, that experience and skill will always have room for development- there’s always something more I can learn and work on.

That’s the more important bit- more important than achieving goals. Re-focusing my efforts means that I will always be able to keep going. I’ll never hit a peak, a moment of being the best. I’ll never hit a block, where I feel like there’s nowhere left to go up. I’ll never have to redirect, or move sideways. So that’s my aim for the next 25 years- to learn, and grow, and experience, no matter the markers.

on coffee and kindness

First, I’m gonna start this off by saying that I really despise the ‘humble-bragging’ culture, where people on social media post photos of themselves volunteering and write long sentimental posts about how they did something good for someone else and it changed their life.

I’m going to follow that by saying that this post will probably be quite hypocritical and sound like humble-bragging, and maybe it is, but I don’t want it to be. I don’t want accolades or likes or comments; I’m just trying to process some feelings. Which is why this is on my blog and not Facebook.

So, I went for coffee today (every day), and I always go to the same little coffee place in Oxford (it’s a chain, but I’m not naming it because I don’t want them getting in trouble with HQ or anything for soon to be obvious reasons). They were training someone new, so when I walked up, the conversation behind the counter went like this:

senior staff: “This is Madeline, she gets a certain drink,  and it costs x amount.”

new staff: “I thought that drink cost y amount?”

senior staff: “Yes it does, but this is Madeline, so it costs x amount (about 70 p less than y)

me: “Wait, what? How long have you been doing that?”

senior staff: “Oh, years. You’re always so nice and kind and polite to our staff.”

me: “What.”

So, that was really nice. It was really unexpected, because I’d a) not realised that actually my drink cost more than I’ve been paying, and b) I hadn’t realised that I was being kind to the staff- I’ve just been acting the way I do to all service staff.

So I walked off with my coffee and a warm glow.

 

And then about one street later, as I was walking, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder and held up a piece of paper. I read the first line: “I am a refugee and I have no money”

and I shook my head, smiled politely, and walked away. Because there are dozens, hundreds, of homeless and destitute in Oxford, and while I help out and donate to charities as much as I can, I’m on a tight budget and I can’t help everyone; plus there are all those papers about how giving money to beggars isn’t really helpful.

And I walked on, and out of the corner of my eye, I watched this woman cross back and forth across the street, tapping each shoulder.

And I don’t really know what was in my head, but I just stopped walking. I didn’t have a plan- I had no cash, and I really am on a budget- and I don’t know about many resources, but I guess I just didn’t want to ignore her. Because, you see,

I had just found out that people thought of me as kind and nice and polite, and I hadn’t even been bothered to read her entire piece of paper.

So I turned around, and walked up to her, and I asked to see her piece of paper again. And it read: “I am a refugee, I don’t have any money, my parents could not make the trip but I have my sister and two brothers, please can you help.” And I told her I don’t have much money, but I asked if there was anything I could do to help. In very broken English (this took about five minutes for me to understand) she said that what she needed most was baby formula  for her 3 month old brother. And I was torn between saying I really can’t afford it- I had only intended to try and at least pay her attention- but that same thing in my head said, screw it. And I told her, come on, let’s go to the store. She knew exactly where the infant formula was, and I got the biggest thing that they had, which still only cost 10 quid. We talked the whole way there and through the store, about where she’d come from and where they were staying and what they were trying to do. She told me they were here illegally, but had applied for refugee papers. They’d come from Syria through Turkey and Bulgaria, but her dad had gotten stuck in Europe. Her mom hadn’t survived Syria, I think. Outside the store, we shook hands, and then she offered to pray for me; her in a threadbare hijab and me in shorts and a crop top. And I, with job interviews coming up and travels ahead, said I’d appreciate the prayers.

And you know what, maybe she was lying. Maybe it was all a story. Maybe there’s a piece I don’t know; maybe there’s a terrorist connection or something else, some other reason I shouldn’t have bought the formula.

But I figured, if I give up coffee for four days, my budget will break even. There’s a chance I just threw away ten pounds; there’s a chance I just helped a struggling infant. And for some reason, there’s a voice in my head that told me to turn around, to ignore the doubts, and to be kind, even if being kind has negative consequences. And I don’t know, yet, what that voice means. I don’t want to say that oh, the cons of being kind are worth it, because, I don’t know if they are. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe the doubts were right. I don’t know.

can’t know. So all I can do is have faith in the little voice in my head. And that’s probably going to get me in trouble one day, which is why I’m trying to reason this out. But there comes a point, I guess, where you start wondering how much reason actually matters.

May Day and presentism

A quick thought brought to you by the process of writing my dissertation.

Last month, on May 1st, I joined thousands- literally- of people celebrating May Day in Oxford. For the past 500 or so years, this has been a massive event, for town and gown alike. Students stay up all night revelling at black tie balls, before adjourning to Magdalen Tower at 6 am to hear the choir sing the Hymnus Eucharistus. That’s followed by a short homily, which I didn’t describe in the previous article because I couldn’t quite think of a politically correct way to put this.

I still can’t, so, here goes. The prayer, delivered to the crowd by a solemn, robed Anglican priest, went a bit like this: “On this May Morning, we celebrate fertility and youth, the emergence of summer and the growth of the spirit of the Earth, et cetera, et cetera (that’s a paraphrase) and for all these things we praise God and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen”.

I maintain, as someone who has extensively studied both the ancient and neo-pagan festival of Beltane, that this is hilariously ironic.

I imagined that 500 years ago, some priest had to write this prayer, and just sat there and decided, “Yeah, there’s no way to make this Christian. I’ll just stick an Amen on the end and hope no one notices.” Because, at least with Christmas (Yule) and Easter (Ostara), there’s a Christian excuse that can be, or has been, attached to the holiday.

Enter my dissertation, and a lovely fellow named Morgan-Guy, who wrote a good deal on medieval understandings of religion. To rather significantly paraphrase his arguments, I’ll say this: modern people, myself included, are inclined to see a ‘break’ in history. There was a point when everyone was pagan, and then a point when everyone was Christian. Modern religion confirms this: every priest and preacher today is quick to condemn any other religion, indeed, any belief different than their own, as wrong and sinful. And we imagine that this was always so.

But, it wasn’t.

When Christianity was introduced through Europe, it didn’t condemn the existing religion. People didn’t ‘see the error of their ways and convert’. Instead, it sought to further the understanding that already existed. Pagan beliefs were considered to be valid, but incomplete. Rituals were valid and necessary, but not yet wholly revealed or understood. Christianity was seen to be another piece in the puzzle- not a sweeping away of that puzzle.

So, to apply this back to the previous homily: The rituals and celebrations for fertility and youth and growth were still valid, and necessary, but not only in their own right: they were important because they glorified God, through new growth and success. In that sense, the homily becomes much less of an awkward join, and more of a completed statement.

Anyways, that’s my procrastination thought for the day.

brand loyalty

People often ask me what I miss the most about the States, and, excluding family and friends and puppies, the answer is always, without hesitation, Chick-fil-A. Family and friends can visit, and corgis (actually technically correct plural: corgwn) exist in England, but Chick-fil-A does not survive ten hour flights.

Today, courtesy of a one-day only, four hour long pop-up, Chick-fil-A was in London.

One of my old friends from Oak Hill managed to reserve tickets for us in the first twenty minutes; she was lucky. Somewhere over a thousand spaces were gone, just like that. I’ve been counting down to this day for a month; she hasn’t been Stateside in two years. When we arrived at the address (texted to us yesterday, along with our reservation time), the space was packed. They were serving the most basic menu- Coke, waffle fries, the classic sandwich, and a plush cow. The location was a Spanish restaurant, transformed for the day with banners and cows. The servers were British; helping them with the door, refills, and everything else, were members from the corporate team based in Atlanta.

And, to judge by accents and conversation, nearly everyone was American expat. Some, like me, had come from Oxford or further out in England; a couple had trained over from France, and one die-hard flew in from Norway. I don’t judge them; I would have done the same. And when I recounted this to my boyfriend over dinner, he stared at me. “I know you talk about it a lot, but, is the food really that good?”

The answer is, to a degree, yes, but also no. The food is excellent, but I wouldn’t fly anywhere for food. But I would cross continents for Chick-fil-A, and that has nothing to do with waffle fries. Instead, it’s the community.

Unlike most fast food chains, or even full-fledged restaurants, Chick-fil-A believes, in a value passed down from its founder, that service is more important than food. Many places sell, and many places provide, and many fulfil, but Chick-fil-A serves. A quick social media search reveals dozens of examples: restaurant owners bringing out hot food and drink to drivers stranded in snow; staff helping disabled customers cut their food, managers providing accommodating jobs to single mothers, etc, etc. But, you know, a lot of places can tell stories like this. Staff at Burger King have equally heroic moments that cause big splashes. Big splashes are visible, but they ripple away just as quickly. They’re flashy, but they don’t endure.

Chick-fil-A’s service is quieter. It’s banal, under the table, unobserved. It’s the staff member who walks around to tables, refilling drinks. It’s the person who brings the tray of food over, not just to parents with young children, and teenagers on crutches, but to homeless men escaping the rain, business partners in suits and ties, and everyone in between, and treats them all with the same smile and ‘My pleasure’. It’s the owner who provides college scholarships to its high school workers, because education is more important than profit. It’s the operator who saves a table for a college student writing a thesis, and breaks out the peppermint milkshake a week early when she finishes it.

Often, it can be hard for me to distinguish between my personal relationships, and this brand service. One of my best friends’ parents operate a Chick-fil-a; did his dad leave work to rescue me from a smashed windshield because of that friendship, or because I was a human who needed service? Or, perhaps, is it that Chick-fil-A finds people who value, and act on the idea of love and service, and then fosters that trait?  I think it’s the latter.

And, the thing about encouraging a value is, it spreads. I’ve never worked at Chick-fil-A. But I’ve spent a lot of time there (a LOT) and I think it’s affected me. Some little things- holding doors, helping people with bags, etc. But, more importantly, somewhere between high school and now, I learned to take pleasure in being of service, in being of use to people not myself. When I help someone now, I’m not doing them a favour- I’m not saying ‘you’re welcome’. I’m saying that it’s my pleasure, my honour, to help them. And whenever that trait starts to slip, I just go get myself a chicken sandwich. Even if I have to fly 4,000 miles.