Friday, August 29, 2014

Two years.

It's not often that I look back on my life so far with a genuine sense of awe at where I am and how far I've come. In fact, when friends and family express that they are inspired by or proud of me for what I've done and where I am in life, I feel a little bit uncomfortable. Because looking from the outside, things can look far more impressive than they are. Maybe, from the outside, it was brave of me to move to a new country so far away from friends and family, but I was just following my heart. And it's not like I didn't have someone completely worth the move on the other side. But it was pointed out to me recently how much has happened since I moved to Wales--which was two years ago today. I started and finished my MSc Ageing Studies, including my dissertation, I learned to drive stick-shift, I got married, and I'm on to my second home and second job. All in the past two years. And then I started thinking about where I was six years ago at what was, prior to my move to Wales, the start of my biggest life transition.

In August of 2008, I started studying at the University of Iowa. And I'd chosen it partly for location--it was just within my requirement of a three hour's drive from home. Yes, you read that right. As a senior in high school, looking at colleges, I didn't want to be far from home. It was one of my most important criteria in my selection of schools I applied to. I remember the night my parents moved me in. I was nearly sick with the anxiety of being left alone, but rather than expressing this, I lashed out, short-tempered with them despite my father's offers for them to take me out to dinner before they left and my mother's willingness to climb onto my lofted bed to make it up for me. Instead, that anxiety led me to push them out the door nearly as soon as we'd finished unpacking the car. I think I thought the sooner they left, the easier it would get, but it didn't. I remember, over the next few days before school started, how incredibly anxious and scared and lonely I was. I remember trying to find my way around campus, and how it took me three tries to find the English and Philosophy Building, where most of my classes would be. On the second try, it turned out, I'd found the right street and just not walked far enough. I remember calling up a friend while walking back from finally finding it, walking across the Pentacrest, trying to sound calm and chipper as I joked with her about it, but really just needing to confide in her about how scared I really was to be on my own. I remember how some of the first few friends I'd made were through simply overcoming my anxiety and breaking the simplest social boundaries--something that seemed to be acceptable in those early days when everyone seemed as lost as the next person. I overheard two girls standing outside my residence hall talking about how to get downtown, and inserted myself into the conversation so that I could "show them", but really because I desperately didn't want to eat dinner on my own. Those girls and I were only really friends for the first few months, before we each found our own direction. But I also met one of my closest college friends, in that first week, by approaching her on a bus full of "newbies" on the way to a Welcome Week activity.

I remember going home fairly often during my first year at college. Home was safe and comfortable like it always had been, whereas college challenged me in ways I hadn't expected. Taking care of myself, something that seems so simple, seemed a lot harder when there were fewer people around who would notice if I didn't. I remember the same dread and anxiety from that first day filling me when it was time to return to Iowa after spring break. I was genuinely afraid that I couldn't "do" college, that I wasn't cut out for it, that the depression and anxiety were going to win. They almost did, too--I came very close to confessing these fears and begging my parents not to go back, but then, depression comes with a lot of guilt too, and that guilt and fear of letting them down won out. My mom came to visit me as a surprise during that spring semester, just for an afternoon. I don't remember what prompted her, but I do remember thinking, "I wonder how she knew how much I needed this." It was a simple afternoon, lunch, a bit of window shopping, and some ice cream, but there is something incredibly warm and healing about being able to spend time with a person who has loved you even in your most wretched moments.

I can't pinpoint exactly how or when it happened, but somewhere between that first summer of college, spent at home and unemployed, and my second summer, in my first apartment, my first summer away from home, something changed. Part of it was finding a medication and a therapist that worked to help me get better control of my mental health, which meant my confidence and sense of independence was no longer being undermined so much by my anxieties. Part of it was also in further developing deeper friendships to tie me to Iowa City, my new home, in addition to the deep ties I had in my hometown. But from there, somehow, I grew. And six years nearly to the day from that anxiety-ridden move to a college that, at one hundred and fifty miles from Peoria, was barely within my comfort zone, I picked up and moved nearly four thousand miles. And I wasn't held back by anxiety--in fact, I was thrilled. I know a huge part of this has to do with the fact that I knew Josh would be here to support me, and that's why I don't tend to see it as "a big deal". But when I look at it all written here, when I look at the big picture--I guess it is. So every once in a while, I let myself be proud of how far I've come.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A new job and a new home

The last time I posted was just after my visit with my parents, and although that was only a little over a month ago, it feels much longer because of how much has happened since then! On July 21st I started my new job, and the next day we began the long process of moving into our new place, so the last few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind! Because we ended up having an overlap between when our new lease started and when the old one ended, we didn’t have to rush to move everything in one day, which I think was a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it made things far less stressful because we’ve had plenty of time to clean and clear out the old apartment, but on the other hand, as we all know “Work expands to fill the time allotted to it.” Anyways, on to all the juicy details!

The New House

The house we’re renting is on the outskirts of a town called Port Talbot, in an area called Margam. We chose this area because it’s roughly the halfway point between my workplace and Josh’s, so it splits our commute times pretty fairly. I have quite a scenic fifteen minute drive through Margam to where I work. Our house is on a cul-de-sac in relatively new housing development. Although it’s a big change moving from an apartment in town center to a residential area, I love the little things, like having a front door that opens straight to the outside and having an attached garage! We have a lot more space here too; in addition to a storage cupboard in the garage (our cupboard under the stairs) we now have a small second bedroom and a much bigger, open-plan living room/kitchen area. And because there are so many children living on our street, the ice cream van stops by regularly! I think it will still be quite a while before we’re fully unpacked and settled in, but we’re getting there. I’m also (slowly) becoming accustomed to the sound of our mail being forced through the front door, so that now only about fifty percent of the time when I hear this do I panic and think someone is trying to break in.

The New Job

My official title at my new job is ‘Housing Support Worker’. I work for a company that primarily provides care and housing support to individuals in their own homes. The facility I work at is an apartment complex for older adults and people with mental health problems, and it’s a really flexible scheme so that our tenants can receive as much or as little support as they need and in whatever ways that they need it. There are 40 self-contained apartments as well as quite a few communal areas, including a library, a garden, and a restaurant that serves two meals each day. The support scheme specifically is funded by a Welsh Government scheme which focuses on providing people with the resources and support they need to maintain or improve their independence and their levels of engagement with their communities.  The types of things I do include:
—Supporting tenants to manage personal budgets and apply for government assistance
—Supporting tenants to manage their health, keeping/rescheduling appointments, arranging transportation, etc.
—Providing emotional support to tenants

—Contacting local organizations to arrange events at our facility and to develop links between the tenants and the community

With so many tenants we have a wide variety of circumstances in which we’re providing support, which means that I never know what to expect when I go to work each day. I am really enjoying the job thus far and already learning quite a bit. I don’t think that I could have asked for a better job to be getting my feet wet and learning the practical ins and outs of navigating the health and social care system in the UK. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A great week with my parents

The Eiffel Tower at night
Hello world! I have had an eventful few weeks and all of my updates will probably take more than one post! Lots is changing over here, but all for the better. The cafe that I had been working at since I moved to Carmarthen closed unexpectedly a few weeks ago, so I haven't been working now for nearly a month. I was lucky to have already been in the search for a new job, and with perfect timing I actually had another job offer within a few days of the cafe closing, otherwise I would have been incredibly stressed. I am still in the process of sorting out paperwork before I can start my new job (references and background checks and such), so I'll save details of the new job for a later post. But the plus side of losing my cafe job was that I was unexpectedly free to go and meet my parents in Paris before they came to visit us in Wales, so I planned a very last-minute trip to see them! I arrived in Paris last Monday, June 30th, and that evening my parents and I ascended the Eiffel Tower. We went up just before sunset which was pretty neat as we got to see the view from up top in both daylight and darkness. When we came down the Eiffel Tower had just begun to "sparkle". I have a nearly identical photo to this one that I took last time I was in Paris, but I just think that is such an incredible view! The following day we did a lot of walking around Paris, taking in all the views of the various monuments for free, and we also did a boat tour on the Seine River. This was the first time I've travelled in a foreign country with my parents and I really enjoyed getting to explore with them!
My parents and I outside the Louvre

The following day we took a day trip to Versailles. I have to say I wasn't as impressed by the palace as I was the first time I went, but I am so glad we got to see the gardens! That was something I missed out on last time and they are incredible, if only for the vast amount of ground they cover. I also enjoyed hearing my dad's stories about his time studying in Versailles, and we took a quick detour into the town to see if we could find the house he'd lived in while there, which we did! We also went to see some gardens inside of Paris called Luxembourg Gardens, which I thought were even prettier than the Versailles gardens. I read that Luxembourg Gardens were inspired by the more "dreamy" style of English gardens, so I guess that means I prefer the English style gardens!

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris
My parents and I then flew back to Cardiff together, where Josh picked us up, and the four of us spent the weekend galavanting around Southwest Wales! The weather wasn't perfect but we were still able to take in many of the sights--sheep, Oystermouth Castle in Gower, Cenarth village and falls, the National Wool Museum, Llansteffan Beach, the National Botanical Gardens, and a private tour of Ffynone House courtesy of Amber and Greg. Plus it was great to have my parents able to see where it is that I've been living for the past two years.

Josh and I at Oystermouth Castle
My parents headed off to Cardiff yesterday and are on their flight back to the US as I write this! Josh and I have begun preparing to move out of Carmarthen in order to move closer to Swansea, where he now works, and to the place where my new job will be. I will save updates on the move and my new job for when I have more details, as we're still working them out, but it will be a busy few weeks coming up and I am looking forward to all of these changes!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A day at the Palace

As some of you may know, I've been volunteering for the British Red Cross for over a year now. I'm a volunteer as part of the 'Gofal' program, which aims to enable isolated older adults to engage with their community. As a volunteer I assess the needs of incoming clients and provide short-term support towards the goal of increasing their confidence, independence, and quality of life. I've been an active volunteer in various ways since high school, and when I moved over here I wanted to continue that tradition. I wanted to volunteer in some way with older adults, and to be honest I found the British Red Cross opportunity by accident. Like many people, the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear of the Red Cross is first aid, emergency response, and foreign aid, so I wouldn't have thought to look them up for the type of volunteering I was interested in. In fact, alongside of all of these things, they have a strong focus on supporting independence in the community to people who are isolated or people with health and mobility issues. When I saw a flyer in their shop advertising their need for volunteers to work with older people, I jumped at the chance! I am so glad that I have become involved with them, because they are a fantastic organization to volunteer with. Their motto is 'refusing to ignore people in crisis', and I love this because it focuses on the individual and the fact that anyone can have a personal crisis that leads to a need for help and support. 

On Thursday, June 12th, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of attending a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace! The British Red Cross was founded in 1864, initially as an organization to be responsible for advancing the rules laid down in the first Geneva Convention. The British Red Cross played a huge role in caring for British soldiers during both World Wars, and this royal garden party was to honor 150 years of service from the British Red Cross. As a special tribute to the role that the BRC played in World War I, there were nurses dressed in WWI-style nurses' uniforms, and one of the cakes served was an original WWI-era recipe!

All staff and volunteers were given the opportunity to apply to be selected to attend, and I applied and was chosen by ballot to attend the party along with 6,000 other volunteers and members of staff. One of the local offices arranged a bus to take everyone from the area who was attending, and there were about 30 of us going. We couldn't have had a more perfect day for it--it was 80 degrees and sunny, and I felt like a celebrity walking through the gates of Buckingham Palace. There were, of course, many tourists around the gates of the palace and looking through at it, and I'm sure they were all quite curious as to why we were being allowed to enter! The front facade that you see from outside the gates is actually just a massive gatehouse of sorts, and beyond that there's a big courtyard. After walking across the courtyard we entered the palace and got to walk through a few rooms to get out to the gardens in the back. The last room you passed through before the gardens had a line of Yeomen on either side--the Yeomen is the actual name of the Beefeaters, and the ones in the palace were all retired military men so they were wearing the uniforms you see below. They spent much of the garden party marching around in formation for no apparent reason other than, I think, our entertainment!

Prince Charles and Princess Alexandra with nurses

I'm sure you've all been waiting for me to post a picture of my selfie taken with the Queen, which I'm sorry to say did not happen. The Queen was not in attendance at our party, probably because she'd just attended a Royal Garden Party on Tuesday for Prince Philip's 90th Birthday! Our Royal Family guests were Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, who is also the honorary president of the British Red Cross, and Princess Alexandra. I actually had to look up a Royal Family Tree when I got home, and the Princess is a first cousin of the queen! I only got to see them from very far away, but it's still cool knowing I was there with royalty!

All the food served was absolutely delicious! My friend John who had attended a garden party before told me that I had to try the cucumber sandwiches, and though I was skeptical as to how cucumber sandwiches could be made to be exceptional, he was right! The trick is mint leaves. Aside from those, my favorite delicacies were these gorgeous strawberry tarts, and the iced coffee, which I'm sure had a hint of a chocolate taste to it. I had thought there might be some speeches or something during the party, but it really was three hours of wandering around the gardens and socializing, while enjoying the entertainment. There was a military band playing at each opposite corner of the garden, one was the Parachute Regiment Band and one was the Royal Marines Band.

I am so glad that I went to this event, not only because I know I will never again have the chance to go inside Buckingham Palace, but because I had the chance to meet fellow volunteers and staff of the BRC and to connect with people who share my similar values regarding helping people and working in social care. Although we were told we were forbidden from bringing cameras and from taking photographs on cell phones, the second part of that rule was not being enforced inside, and I saw SO many people taking pictures. I was tempted, but I refrained until we were on our way out, at which point I decided if the Beefeaters were going to kick me out, it would just get me out of the crowds faster (but they didn't). So here's me in all my splendor in the courtyard on my way out of Buckingham Palace!