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Category Archives: The Expat Files

Dispatches from my time in Birmingham, Michigan.

In which life becomes even more like The Five Year Engagement

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“Ann anbor wshg st” by Traveler100. Wiki Commons

When you are little and you think that life has all these big plans for you, that in some manner you are special or chosen (oh come on, everyone thinks this. Why do you think Buffy and Harry Potter were so successful?), little do you bargain for the slow, painful line-up of moments that prove this not to be the case. Educational moments, character-forming moments, ridiculously sucky moments.

Yet there have been a few times when my life has resembled a movie, for example:

  • Rock of Ages (2010) I was on holiday in New Orleans when some 80s rock god *cough – Tommy Lee –cough* kept tuning up wherever we went, I like to think he was stalking me. He did actually walk over to me at one point and I ran off squealing like a little girl – soooo mature.

These are pretty terrible films admittedly, but that’s OK. It’s when your life starts resembling an Oscar-worthy movie that you should be worried.

The world gives us so many challenges that are not celebrated despite the heroic way that we deal with them; death, serious illness, chronic illness, redundancy, bankruptcy. So many people take on these troubles with a strength that comes only from knowing that there is no other option. No wonder we crave celluloid escapism.

Over the past year, my married life has resembled a movie which in Michigan terms has proved divisive, The Five-Year Engagement. Overly long (like this post), moderately funny, and in our case so very true, the film sees an Anglo-American couple move to Michigan for career reasons only to see one partner succeed while the other flounders. I am the flounderer in our case. Just like Jason Segel, I have yet to find my career niche over here, find my homeland instantly preferable and retreat sulkily into my knitting. Home brewing is one Michigan step too far though.

To compound matters, we have just moved to the town where the movie is set, Ann Arbor. Home to the University of Michigan, a thriving restaurant and brewing scene, a liberal outlook and most importantly a successful infrastructure (no small thing after seeing the lack of it in Detroit and its suburbs)!

I think The Five-Year Engagement gives Ann Arbor a raw deal. Yes, Michigan is bleak and cold during the brutal Midwest winters, but the idea of a chef not being able to find work in AA is pretty laughable. Segel’s character eventually gets a job at Zingermann’s which is a deservedly lauded foodie empire (there is nothing at that deli which isn’t made from scratch and agonised over in terms of ingredients and food trends). As a chef, his character should be impressed.

Gone to seed stitch: some seriously bad knitting in The Five Year Engagement

Gone to seed stitch: some seriously bad knitting in The Five Year Engagement

He goes all back-woodsy, which doesn’t scream AA to me. He does start to brew which is definitely a Michigan pastime but in case you haven’t noticed it has become the American pastime too. Even in the UK, micro-brewing is taking off.  He starts knitting (without using a tailor’s dummy, or blocking, or apparently using anything but mohair). I haven’t seen any really great yarn shops in AA yet (maybe the Metro-D has AA beaten on that account) but am open to suggestions. Segel’s character uses all the distractions he can think of to avoid taking a long hard look at himself and what would make him happier.

I like to think that Mr Segel wrote the story about any town that isn’t San Francisco/New York/ LA and then taking advantage of the Michigan Film Initiative, had to slot Ann Arbor in to that generic non-cosmopolitan role. Does he sometimes lie awake at night, wondering briefly if he gave AA a bad rap before plumping his money-filled pillow and sleeping like a baby? OK, that’s harsh. My brother-in-law actually met him during filming and said he came across as very decent.

The point is, maybe I, like Jason Segel in The Five Year Engagement, need to alter my outlook. We shouldn’t rely on places or people to save us, but harness what stands out where we are, and use it to drive us forward to a self-made happily ever after. Here goes…


How to throw an America-proof Halloween Party

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photo 1

‘You’ll have to step up your game over here. Americans have pretty much seen it all at Halloween.’

This was the response I received when I put forward the idea of throwing a Halloween party to some friends over dinner.

If you have ever read Brummed Out before, you’ll know that I’m rather giddy for Halloween, and consistently disappointed at the lack of Halloween spirit in the UK. Not so in Michigan folks.  Just on my street this week, we’ve had industrial amounts of spider webbing, entire front lawn cemeteries, headless mannequins and a 10ft Wicker Man. All of which were cruelly denied their moment of gory glory by the last minute gales, rain and even a snow flurry that kept Trick or Treaters indoors on Halloween night.

Planning a Halloween party that won’t bore Americans is another beast entirely though.  BUT, we might just have done it on Saturday.  Americans love animatronics. We had no such budget. I was just one girl armed with a roll of garbage bags and a sick imagination. Here is how we threw Little Haunted House on the Prairie…

  1. The Dollar Store/ 99p Shop is your best friend.

photo 9

Ravens, skeletons on string, spider webs, spooky holographic pictures, candles, dolls. All can be purchased here and used as the basis for kick-ass Halloween displays. I wired my raven to a twig and perched it in an old lantern, Edgar Allan Poe-style, the holographs were put in normal photo frames to form a spooky picture gallery. The dolls were painted spooky white and their eyes were painted black. Cheap, cheerful, weird wonderful.

  1. Hack your LACK                                                               photo 2                                                                                   Ouija boards are freaky, fact. I used a printable one, some white acrylic paint, and THIS program to trace and paint one onto our cheap IKEA LACK coffee table. It washed off really easily the day afterwards and made people feel all dangerous/ nostalgic (in a 13 year old’s slumber party kinda way) while they were sitting around it.
  1. Copy and Paste

Food labels, apothecary labels, vintage Halloween graphics, invitations. Ideas are all over the internet. Be inspired and print out you faves to use.

4. Get your glow on

photo 8                                                                                               We had a scary unfinished basement and not enough space for the amount of people we invited. Scary basement seemed like a good overflow space but how to get the guests to venture down there?… Aha! Beer + Blacklight. We stashed the kegs downstairs and purchased a big ole 48” blacklight from Spencer’s. We hung blacklight bats from the joists, positioned scary dolls and horror books on the shelves, and used blacklight paint to write quotes from scary movies on the walls (on paper of course – your landlord will not appreciate having to re-rent a permanent murder basement), stuff like THIS and THIS. We also put some dry ice in styofoam coolers (like ‘em? They were pretty fun to make) to seep out eerily in the glow. It didn’t work that well – maybe we’ll add a fog machine next year.

  1. A tree is not just for Christmas

photo 7Black Christmas trees are brilliant. So sophisticated at Christmas, so scary at Halloween. This is decorated purely with rings, tinsel and creatures from Birmingham’s 99p Store (Yup, even the witch at the top – she cackles too!)

  1. Include Obscure Movie References
photo 5

I made these ‘devil’s nests’ from True Detective, with twigs, thread and some florist’s moss. The husband made me lock them away because they creeped him out. Mission accomplished.

                                                                                               Chances are, you’ll have one or two movie buffs at the party. They will appreciate a few well placed references, even if the majority of your guests do not. Apart from the quotes in the basement, we displayed my Evil Dead Necronomecon, and I made a sign for the basement, based on the haunted forest from The Wizard of Oz. I included a Black Candle in the bathroom ‘only to be lit by virgins at midnight’ – who didn’t love watching Scary Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus?

  1. ALWAYS do the bathrooms

photo 6                                                                                                As certain as the toilet getting clogged is the fact that your guests will root around in your bathroom cupboards. Give them what they want (no, not the Valium), make some apothecary bottles – a cheap one is sweetcorn and black tea in a jar labelled ‘Old People’s Teeth’. Fill them with different coloured water and there are lots of printable labels on t’internet. A scary holographic picture and lots of cobwebs help. Do clean the shitter though –that’s just good manners.

  1. Include one good scare

photo 3                                                                                                As I just wrote, people get nosy at house parties; they want to know how clean you are. You can exploit this by putting a fake body in the bathtub! If you draw the shower curtain straight across, they will suspect you are hiding something – and you are. The beauty of this is that some people will come out ready to tell everyone about it, and some will make a great effort not to – but the faces always give it away. Either way, you save hundreds on animatronics and you find out who’s a nosy parker!

  1. Make gross-looking food, offer it around –and be prepared to eat it yourself!
Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts - for that gooey but crunchy feel.

Split Cockroaches: dates stuffed with honey and walnuts – for that gooey but crunchy feel.

This year, I plumped for making Used Q-Tips, a Dirty Ashtray, Split Cockroaches and Jello Worms. The worms looked so real that people wouldn’t eat them so Mr D and myself downed a fair few just for the disgusting factor. It’s always good to circulate with these dishes as it makes people feel looked after – or victimised: tomato-tomato.

10. Don’t scrimp on the alcohol

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Jello-shots turn up in the weirdest places.

Halloween is the perfect time to wash a latex glove, fill it with water, freeze it, then empty it into some brightly coloured spiked punch, try to make some non-alcoholic punch for the kids too – they appreciate doing what the grown-ups do. If you’ve ever wanted to try pumpkin ale, now is the time. Jelly-shots, and Bombay Bad Bears (gummies soaked in gin) are also good adult Treats. Just be prepared for the consequences. I’ve only just finished clearing up and it’s three days later…

Oh, and the garbage bags…?

Well, apart from clearing up the debris (those jelly-shots got everywhere),  they make pretty awesome decorations – and fake corpses. Thank you Martha Stewart (yikes, can’t believe that just happened).

I’m being dumped – by Scotland

Dignity-of-Being-Dumped-photoToday finds me up in the attic room of our house, sipping on strong black coffee, listening to Carole King’s Tapestry (click here if you’d like to listen along too), and typing away pensively.

Tapestry is the ultimate break up album, by turns soulful, melancholy, angry, sassy and warm. A friend when there doesn’t seem to be one nearby. Even the cover (Carole, barefoot on her window seat, covered in cats and smiling wisely) is downright comforting. And I need her right now – because as it turns out, breaking up is very hard to do.

Don’t worry, Mr D and I are very much together, but it seems that I’m being dumped. By Scotland. I feel like the needy ex-girlfriend, who’s increasingly undignified in her efforts to make the Scottish stay. Like the child of divorce, and even if ‘mummy and daddy’ do decide to stay together for old times’ sake, there will forever be a current of resentment, mistrust and animosity running under even the simplest exchanges.

‘Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool’ (Carole King, It’s Too Late)

I’ve been noticing it for years. Not just from Scotland. My Irish grandmother’s family settled in the Northeast and even as a child, I was subject to snide remarks from grown men about how I was a ‘bloody Tory’ just because I happened to be from the Midlands (which northerners tend to classify as ‘down south’) – I was eight years old! Once, my great aunt and uncle came to tea on their way to a Cornish holiday and proceeded to shout at my father for not being a Labour supporter (he never did say who he had voted for) after they asked him.

I learned that the closer you live to London, the more you are deemed responsible for governmental policies. Having said this, I love the north of England (where I have studied) and Scotland (where I have holidayed) and have met fantastic, open-minded people from both. I don’t want to think that the media scaremongering about mutual antipathy is true.

But mostly I’m just sad and resigned to this fate. Even a vote tomorrow to sustain our union will probably result in another referendum sooner, rather than later, until Independence for Scotland is reached. I’m in dire need of chocolate.

‘So far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?’ (Carole King, So Far Away)

It doesn’t help that from 3000 miles away, I can’t ascertain the actual mood surrounding the debate. I read various British newspapers that all seem to be focusing on the alleged nastiness that has punctuated the Yes and No campaigns, and the accompanying comments that don’t seem to paint many people in the best of lights.

‘You can’t talk to a man with a shot gun in his hand’ (Carole King, Smackwater Jack)    

Can I even believe the stories of violence and intimidation that are zipping around the internet? I was disgusted by one tale of a pregnant woman being kicked in the stomach at a No rally, but have not found it reported in any paper – is it in fact a myth created by cybernats?

I have a Scottish neighbour. He plays his bagpipes loudly every Saturday afternoon, and from what I hear, has been over here for about thirty years. I almost encountered him yesterday when I got caught up in the leashes of our local friendly dog walkers, with whom he was chatting. Slightly terrified, I did what I always do if I don’t want to deal with the British thing; I put on an American accent.

 And so it transpires I have never actually talked to him, and do wonder if any exchange might contain some frostiness (I do so hope not), and if he has very strong feelings on the independence issue. But then, do either of us have a right to feel strongly about an issue neither of us can vote on, having left our shared native shores?

I have registered to vote in the UK by proxy, which in itself is an act of trust but may do more good than a tardy postal vote. I wouldn’t get a vote in the Scottish independence referendum even if I was still living in England, then again nor do any Scottish servicemen/women stationed abroad. We expats already feel slightly dubious about our ability to help decide the government of a county we chose to leave willingly.

So I’m going to sit up here, drinking my coffee, looking out on to these foreign rooftops, accept the outcome and hope we can still be friends.

 ‘There’ll be good times again for me and you
But we just can’t stay together, don’t you feel it too?
Still I’m glad for what we had’ (Carole King, It’s Too late)


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