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Our biggest (and littlest) American adventure yet…

Family Farrar

Two and a half weeks ago we embarked on probably what is our biggest adventure yet: our beautiful baby boy, Alfie James Mortimer Farrar was born.  He is our real American adventure because being born in the US to British parents automatically gives him dual nationality.  Perhaps one day Alfie Farrar could be President of the USA!

When we told friends and family we were expecting and our due date of 5 July we all thought it would be brilliant if he was born today, 4 July – Independence Day. As it turns out, Alfie simply couldn’t wait to meet us. Instead of fireworks celebrating his arrival, Alfie is celebrating Independence Day with us. And what better day to officially ‘blog announce’ the birth of our little British/American boy than such an important day in US history and their declaration of independence from Great Britain.

NB:  This is why there have been fewer blogs from me recently and why I intend on taking some brief blogging time off while I concentrate on learning to be a mum and enjoying time with my new little family. 

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Guest Blog: Why I care about sun safety

Back in May, I blogged about sun safety and skin cancer awareness month.  I had been asked by a fellow Portland blogger, A Well Crafted Party, to write a piece for her blog about why I care about sun safety. Jenni recently found out that she has a Basal Cell Carcinoma that needed to be removed with minor surgery. A frightening diagnosis for anyone, it made her think about skin cancer and raising awareness of skin cancer and of course, this is something that I can relate to.

Today, her blog about why people care about sun safety, which I was very pleased to contribute to went live.  You can read it here.

Jenni Bost blogs on A Well Crafted Party and is also CEO & Owner of PDX Bloggers.

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Baking with jam

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As predicted, there was indeed baking in my future because of the monstrous Kilner jar of strawberry jam that I have in the fridge.  Nick suggested the English classic, the jam tart.  But I’m not a huge fan.  Then I remembered these ‘Jammer’ biscuits that I had seen (but never tried) in a Pacific NorthWest chain of bakeries, Grand Central Bakery.  We used to live opposite a Grand Central Bakery so I had seen them quite a lot.  I don’t know why I had never tried them but they looked a bit like a rough scone with jam erupting from the centre like a volcano.  Quite appealing,

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Anyway, I thought that these might be a good way to use up a significant quantity of jam. So I went to the internet to find out if Jammers were a common American baked good or whether they were Grand Central Bakery specific.  Success!  The first link on Google Search took me right to another blog who had used Grand Central Bakery’s Recipe Book to make the original Jammer.

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It turns out the Jammer is essentially an American-style biscuit filled with jam before it is baked.

Here I will clarify the American biscuit. Biscuits are not like English biscuits, something crisp and crunchy.  The English biscuit is referred to in the US as a cookie.  The American biscuit is probably more like an English scone.  The biscuit is essentially a bread product. It is often eaten here in the Pacific Northwest with a breakfast but they are synonymous with Southern American food; biscuits and gravy, biscuits and fried chicken.

I haven’t made biscuits before, and although it has been some time since I have made scones, I was intrigued to see what differences there were.  In taste, I think that biscuits are a little lighter than scones and not quite as sweet.

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I’m not going to write the recipe out in full.  I used this great blog post for the recipe.  The biscuit  base for the recipe uses buttermilk, which I know my mum has tried using for some successful scones that she has made.

Overall, i was pleased with how the Jammers turned out. To me, they tasted more like a scone than a biscuit, but maybe that’s because you get the jam hit without having to smear it on? Maybe I should make some more to really perfect them?

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Yes I can!

Hood Strawberries

Last year, I spent much of the summer in the UK so was disappointed to miss out on summer berry season here in Oregon.  It is a big deal.  And the biggest deal of all in Portland?  The Hood Strawberry. Boy, when that one is ripe and ready for eating, people go crazy for it. But I would say that it is worth the hype.  A little different to the classic British strawberry it is quite sweet but bursting with flavor.

As I’m currently not in a position to be picking for an hour in a field, I cheated a little and bought myself a tray of them at the farmers market.  My intention? Jam.  We don’t eat a great deal of jam in the Farrar household but we do enjoy it and it reminds me of the allotment days – and both my mum and dad making it annually.

Here in America making jam – or any other pickling, chutneying, putting things in jars, is called canning.  For some time I have been intrigued to know how and what makes the canning process different to jam jar-ing, if at all.  I had some ‘cans’ in, so set to my research and got on with my jam making.

It turns out that the difference between canning jam and the UK style of jam making, is that to can something, once you have filled your jar or can, you boil the entire jar and its contents to prevent spoiling and therefore preserve it.  Not something I have ever done before, relying on the old fashioned wax topper and a tightened jar lid!

However, cans is what I had so canning is what I did.  First you have to submerge your glass jars in water and sterilize them by heating them on the hob. As I don’t have a water canner I used a pasta pan because you don’t want your jars to be in direct contact with the base of the pan. Some people also recommend using a trivet or even a dishcloth on the base of the pan.  I prepared these first and just left them on the hob while I did the rest of my jam making so that they would be thoroughly sterilized. In the UK, my preferred method of sterilizing jars was always to put them in the oven for 20 minutes or so.

Canning

Onto the jam making.  Prepare the strawberries, then mash them up!

Mashed strawberries

There seems to be no such thing as jam sugar here (perhaps because jam is referred to as jelly?) so I had to use regular granulated sugar and liquid pectin. After mashing the strawberries, I added the juice of two lemons and stirred in the pectin while bringing the fruit to a rolling boil. Once boiling, I added in the mountain of sugar required, always a sobering sight. Then you just have to stir it in until you get to the rapid boil stage (being careful not to reach the jam volcano stage of two years ago, as told on Farrars Field).  Let the jam boil vigorously for a minute or so.

Adding a bit of sugar

During this time, I pulled the jars/cans out of the boiling water and set them to the side, so that they would cool very slightly before I put the jam in them.  At this point, I realized that my six small jars were not going to hold the vat of jam I had just made.  I quickly threw an enormous kilner jar in the oven to sterilize.

I filled the jars with jam, using the jam funnel that I love, and added the rings and lids to the cans, closing them so that they were ‘finger-tight’ as per the canning instructions.  Then, the filled jars go back into the boiling water bath.  They have to be totally submerged and then have to be boiled for ten minutes.  I had to do this in two batches due to the small width of the pasta pan.  But this gave me time to sort out the leftover jam and kilner jar situation.  I knew that this wouldn’t be properly canned, but thought we could eat this as more of a ‘refrigerator jam’ (which really means quickly and in larger quantities). It will keep fine in the fridge for a few weeks (due to the significant amount of sugar) without the boiling process but would not keep outside of the fridge without spoiling.

Kilner Jar of jam

After 10 minutes of boiling, I carefully removed the cans from the boiling water and must now hope for the best!  The bad thing about the refrigerator jam is that it means we have to put off the actual testing of the canned jam for some time.  The jam in the fridge has turned out really well and I couldn’t be more pleased with it.  However, I am concerned that the canned jam will be too runny (submerging finger-tight lids in water?) or too thick (I mean technically it’s been boiled for a lot longer).  I’ll have to let you know how that one goes.  And until then, it’s lots of toast and jam, jam sandwiches (PBJ’s if we’re feeling particularly American) and probably some jam-based baked products in our future.

So, how was the canning experience overall?  I felt that I would have done much better with the proper equipment: a good sized canning pan, or at least a wider based pan that I could have fitted a trivet in the bottom of, and a pair of can tongs suitable for lifting hot glass jars out of boiling water.  I also felt like the process took an awful lot longer than the jamming I had done previously. I was genuinely exhausted – and very hot from standing over pans of boiling jam and boiling water – by the end of the experience.  However, I am pleased with the jam that I have tasted (and my family will account for last year’s very poor product made from Robinson’s Ranch produce) and I do feel confident that the jam will keep for the full year it should do without spoiling.

It turns out that yes, I can and yes, I probably can do again.  Bring on the rest of the berries Oregon!

Canned Jam

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We moved!

The new house

We are living the American Dream!  After just under a year of renting in Portland last month we bought a house! In suburbia. When we moved out here, we didn’t have intentions to buy a house, we figured we would just rent.  However, the cost of renting here really surprised us and when we looked into it, buying just seemed to make better financial sense to us.

So we started looking for a house and looking into how you go about buying a house here in America.  It is a pretty different process.  We started looking around online at properties and realized that first we needed to find out what kind of a mortgage we could get.  Off we went to the bank, just like you might in the UK.  However, here you get a pre-approval letter so that you can get looking for a home straight away and use your pre-approval letter to put an offer in immediately.

The next step is to employ a Realtor.  This is one part that is very different to the process in England.  We met with our realtor and discussed what we were looking for and where we were looking for it.  Then, she went ahead and sent us very regular updates on the houses that came up based on our preferences.  Anything that we saw and liked, she arranged for us to view and she took us around, guiding us through specific things that we were looking for or should be looking for. It was really nice to have someone else there to bounce ideas off.  She also knew areas a lot better than we did and could give us information about what the local schools were like, and which pockets of which neighborhoods were good and perhaps not so good.

The major difference about viewing properties here is that you have to move fast.  You can’t arrange on a Monday to go and see a house at the weekend.  You have to go that evening, and ideally, that afternoon if you can.  The reason for this?  The market moves fast.  It is very tight indeed in Portland and you just can’t hang around. So you see a house you like, you view it, and you have to put an offer in that day.  The realtor will advise you about what kind of offers would be appropriate – a bit like Kirsty and Phil might on Location, Location, Location – and will also have details about any other offers that may have been made on the property.  We were lucky in that we were the first to view the house and there were no other offers, but due to the market, we didn’t haggle on amounts, we offered the asking price; the sellers had clearly priced to sell.

Should the offer be accepted, you do have a 10 day period following the acceptance during which you can withdraw your offer.  However, during this time, you have to get your Inspection, or Survey, done. Depending on how that goes, you may change your offer, withdraw your offer or request that the seller makes the necessary changes before you complete the sale.

We were lucky, our offer was accepted and the inspection didn’t turn up anything major or anything that the seller’s weren’t happy to fix.  So then it’s a case of getting the mortgage officially arranged and having an appraisal done too. The completion date is set for 30 days later.  Yes, that’s right, it only takes a month!  If all goes to plan, there is no back and forth between solicitors, vendors and buyers, as long as everything is in place to start with.

We did do things a little differently to most Americans, we ended up getting the keys at the start of May and as we knew that we would have to pay rent for the entirety of May anyway, we used the full month to make the changes on the house that we wanted to (decorating throughout and new carpets) before moving in at the end of May.  When one of you is 7 1/2 months pregnant,  and the other spends a week working abroad during this time, having a month overlap is a major benefit to the whole cleaning-DIYing-packing-moving-cleaning-unpacking process.

Technically, we’re still on that last stage of the process, two weeks post moving day, but it will all be sorted soon and ready for public viewing and a full house tour (we hope).

And we love the house.  We love having a space that we can change to be what we want it to be and we are so excited to be able to start our new family life here.  It’s like yet another new stage to our American adventure. (Just one that is perhaps not quite as adventurous and a little more settled and suburban!)

In the meantime and until we feel ready to give you a full house tour, here are a few sneaky peeks…

Kitchen

Kitchen Table

Nursery

Dining Room

Lounge

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Family Room

 

 

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Working Stateside

I really missed working – something that I knew that I would do and most feared – when we moved to Portland last year. Although I felt like it took a long time to find a job and I felt like I had been out of work forever, I now realize that I was fairly lucky: it took me just five months of serious job hunting to get a position.  When I first took this role, through an agency, it was due to last maybe 2-4 weeks.  I’m still here four months later! However, the project that I was brought into support is almost completed and it’s time for me to take some maternity leave, so this is my last week in post.

I thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of the key differences that I have found between working in America and working in the UK. My position here is a little different to roles I have previously done, and the type of business is quite different to ones I have worked in before so I can’t say that all of these differences are definitely cultural.  Perhaps some of them would have been different anyway.  Perhaps someone else can enlighten me!

I guess the biggest difference I have found is in the relaxed nature of the working style here.  (This, I think is quite a west-coast/ Portland thing.) It is probably also the thing that I have found it most hard to adapt to.  I work in a pretty formal way. I like the boundaries that working formally can provide and I find it easier to be organized as a result.  Here, it has taken me a while to be more relaxed around colleagues, take a more casual approach to time schedules and deadlines and even get used to wearing casual working attire.

I have really tried to adapt to this style and have enjoyed being free of set meeting time limitations, taking a more stand-up meeting, ad-hoc briefing and as-needed approach to catch ups. However, behind the scenes of this I have still employed some key organizational techniques to make sure that I have stayed on track. I have still written my weekly to-do lists, have used a multitude of spreadsheets to keep up with project changes, have produced project and communication strategies and written a couple of very useful flow charts.  I do feel that in this way, I have been able to keep my personal working style quite formal but then felt confident enough to act in a relaxed working way with my colleagues.

The second difference. Cube working is a reality! We really all do work in a little cube here.  They have windows between them but you’d have to be super tall to talk through them without standing up. It’s good to have space for all your work and not feel like you get in the way of other colleagues personal space, but it does limit the social interaction that I have always enjoyed about office working.

There is a real lack of vacation time, vacation- taking and having time off.  I knew this would be the case when we moved out here, but it feels very different in practice.  Of course, it hasn’t really been a problem for me – I already had time booked off before I started the job (for my mum’s visit) – so it hasn’t felt like a long slog without a break. Plus, I have only been working for a few months. Yet I think that I am the only one in this office to actually have had any holiday in the time that I have worked here. (Classic UK slacker!)

Talking to Americans about this is interesting.  Not only do few people take time off, they also feel like they shouldn’t take time off.  There seems to be a reluctance to do so.  To me, I think vacation or holiday time is massively important.  It refreshes you and relaxes you and I believe, makes you work better and at your full potential.  The lack of statutory holiday days here just doesn’t seem to quite mix with the relaxed nature of the workplace and what I see as a generally good attitude to work/life balance.  (Weekends are incredibly important to Americans and from what I can tell they really do make the most of them.)

Working in communications, there are some verbal and written things I have found it harder to adapt to.  Spelling and Americanisms….. Using a z instead of an s – organise, realise etc. Not using as many vowels in a word – color instead of colour, labor instead of labour. Missing out words – ‘a couple of weeks’ becomes ‘a couple weeks’. There’s also some very commonly used terms that I have found myself using – and hating myself a little bit for using – “I’m just reaching out to you for…”, “I’m just checking in to see where you’re up to”, “If you could keep me in the loop”.  In fairness, I think I’ve got away quite lightly with this in my employment. Nick can come out with some absolute crackers. For instance, “We’re just peanut buttering here.” (What on earth does that even mean?)

In all honesty, I think that I have become so used to some of these Americanisms that I no longer recognise them all.  A friend recently called me out for referring to a buggy as a stroller during conversation.  But this is how you become part of a culture.  I’d never find things I need if I didn’t use the appropriate terms here. If I asked to see a shop’s range of buggies I’m sure I wouldn’t be shown a stroller.  I also think that it’s so rude to move to a different country and not embrace that different culture  At home and in private, of course you should continue to be who you are and who you were brought up to be, but you have to adapt too.

The working differences have been interesting and I think have really helped me to grow as an employee and a colleague.  I’ve had to learn new skills as well as new words and terms, and that can only be a good thing.

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Sun Safety

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It is exactly one year ago today that my dad was taken into hospital for the first time to be treated for malignant melanoma. Wow, how time flies. How apt – or maybe ironic – that May is actually Skin Cancer Awareness month.

I’ve been thinking about skin cancer and sun safety quite a lot recently, as I follow a few skin cancer related charities and blogs so knew that this was their big awareness-raising month. Also, it’s starting to warm up here in Portland and I’m beginning to replace my daily body moisturizer with a few applications of SPF 30. I have also just been invited to contribute my thoughts on sun safety to a blog that a fellow Portland blogger is compiling – more on that later this month I hope.

When we first arrived in Portland last year, it was really warm and sunny and as I wasn’t working I was able to spend a lot of time outdoors. One of the first things I needed to do was buy sun cream. I don’t know whether you just get used to specific brands, but I really found it hard to find a reasonable selection of sun cream here. So much so that when I returned from my visit to the UK in the summer, I brought back 4 bottles of Ambre Solaire. (Some people bring Cadbury chocolate, some people bring Heinz Beans…..) I have since found a high factor sun cream here that I like – a Neutrogena one – but it is not a large tube, so I can go through it in no time, and it is pretty expensive too.

The thing about the sun here, is that it gets stronger as the day wears on. The mornings are usually sunny but there’s a freshness about them. Once lunchtime has passed, and certainly by the time that I’m finishing work, the sun’s heat is pretty darn hot. And it stays. The evenings can be just as warm as lunchtime. So the whole idea of staying out of the heat during the hottest time of the day (11am-3pm I’ve always heard) doesn’t seem to work as well in Oregon! I certainly got more wear out of my sun hat last year than I ever had before.

Yet despite what I think is warmer sun for a longer portion of the day than you might expect in the UK, and what I seem to think might be less sun cream choice, I see much fewer red-skinned bodies walking round. You see people sunbathing in parks and lots of people enjoying outdoor seating at coffeeshops, restaurants and bars, as well as plenty of outdoor activities. So I wonder why there seem to be so few people getting burned here. Do we have genetically different skin types?  Are people better at understanding how much time to spend out in the sun? Are they keeping all the sun cream out of the way of tourists and hogging it for themselves?

Now of course, just because you don’t burn, doesn’t mean that you can’t get skin cancer, and the US has just as many cases of skin cancer as the UK (relatively speaking). So even if you’re not burning, it is no reason not to practice sun safety – whether you’re English or American. But I’d love to know what the reasons are for this American phenomenon and if, indeed, my observations are correct.

This year, more than ever, I’ll be practicing sun safety, particularly as this will be my first complete summer here: I don’t want to stand out as being the English person with the pink glow. I won’t just be wearing sun cream and a hat, I’ll be far more cautious about the amount of time I spend out of the shade (I’m not going to give up my outdoors time totally) and I’ll try and help to raise awareness of the dangers of skin cancer and the importance of being safe in the sun. Whether you are in England or America, I think that practicing sun safety this year is something that everyone should do.

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Hawthorne Bridge

The commute. Portland-style.

Last week was the first opportunity I had to drive to work, rather than use public transport and Shanks’ pony.  I have to admit, it was quite a treat (thanks to earlier than usual starts and a daytime parking pass provided by my employer).  However, there were some elements of my usual commute that I missed, making me realize how important it is to take time to appreciate the smaller things in life.

I missed my hour of ‘free time’ to read.  I have been flying through my reading this year and I have no doubt that it is because I can sit on a bus for 25-30 minutes and get stuck in to a good book.

I missed the extra outdoors time I get walking to, from and between bus stops. I also missed the opportunity to easily incorporate 20-40 minutes of exercise into my day, simply by walking across the Hawthorne Bridge. (Although I must admit the frequency of this happening is reducing as the weeks go by and I get increasingly heavier and the weather gets increasingly warmer!)

I missed the Portland people-watching opportunities.

I missed my regular city-sights.  The impressively-sized Portlandia, the high rise buildings of downtown, the intricate detailing of the Hawthorne Bridge, the Elk Fountain, the tree-lined streets, peering through the window at the cool hipsters in Coava Coffee, the mannequins posing on top of the Portland Store Fixtures store, the currents (and most recently river traffic) on the Williamette, intriguing activities from County Sheriff vehicles outside City Hall and watching the runners and cyclists along Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

Portlandia

Hawthorne Bridge

 

elk fountain

tree-lined street

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In just 5 months of this same commute, I have seen the seasons change and the city become more colourful and vibrant.  The ease and speed of commuting by car is certainly not something to be sniffed at but the slower pace of a public transport commute has really given me the space and time to enjoy the city and relish in my own interests and pursuits. It seems I’m getting into the swing of the relaxed west-coast attitude.