International Life

We love Durham. It has such character and great people. This story came out a month ago, but it’s a great look at this fair city and the North East: Lost in Time in England’s Northeast. I’m excited that my wife and I will get to go back and visit this Christmas when I head back to teach an intensive module with Westminster Theological Centre.


Saw this interesting story on the English language: I imagine Harry Potter is the big reason.  It is ironic that that the article’s main expert on this phenomenon has a forthcoming book How to Not Write Bad.  I never had anyone in the US challenge me for using split infinitives, but several in the UK made me very aware of them.  When we start using squash and pants like they do, then the transformation will be complete.

I moved with my family to Houston a couple of days ago to begin the next stage in our life journey.  It is warm here, but not as bad as I was expecting–though my wife says I’ve just adjusted better because of all my years in Dallas/Arkansas (she’s from Michigan).  There are a few bits of reverse culture shock–the size of things and the lack of recycling–but as with most things you just get on with it and settle right in.  My parents, by moving in the furniture and cleaning the carpets before we arrived, were very helpful and made the transition much easier.  We didn’t realize that the house used gas so I didn’t set that up before arriving, hence we have no hot water.  But one benefit of 100 degree weather is that the water comes out lukewarm on its own. : )  There are a few more small things to get settled, but we’re almost there.

Hi everyone.  Sorry for a slow flow of posts.  Between preparing new syllabi, ISBL papers to write,  preparations for moving, and life, I’ve had a only a few moments to squeeze in watching the Tour de France.

For those of you in Durham or heading towards Durham or the UK, we’ve got a few last minute things to unload that we could have some help with.  I hope that if you’ve found this blog helpful that you’d be willing to return the favour by considering these.  I’ll shoot to get pics uploaded to FB for these tomorrow.  Just comment if you are interested or email me at b.c.blackwell [ at ]
Nokia E61

  1. Mobile Contract + Phone (£30/month).  I’ve got 6 months left of a TMobile contract at £35/month that I would like to transfer to someone (which is allowed by TMobile).  I’d be willing to pass it along with a £30 subsidy, which would make it £30/month for you.  After 6 months you’d have a phone and could get a good sim-only plan.  Here are the details:  1200 minutes, 500 texts, unlimited internet, + (free) booster (currently 150 free minutes to US/Canada). It comes with a Nokia E61, which is similar to a Blackberry.
  2. (Unisex) Mountain Bike (£40) – fits 10-16 yr old
  3. Dell Desktop Computer + 15″ Flat-screen Monitor (£50).  Specs: WinXP; Processor: Pentium 4, 2.66 GHz; RAM: 2GB; HD: 75GB; CD-RW; Office 2007; Wifi USB
  4. Computer Desk (beech) (£10). With pullout tray.  80 cm x 60 cm.
  5. 2-Drawer Filing Cabinet (beech) (£15) + file holders
  6. Washer/Dryer Combo (£15)
  7. Outdoor garden table + 4 chairs (£10)
  8. Dehumidifier (£25).  Mould in your windows over the winter?  A dehumidifier is great for clearing that up.
  9. 1.5m x 2m Navy Rug (£10)
  10. Key Safe (£5).  Great for keeping your passports, marriage certificates, etc. safe from fire.
  11. DSL Wifi Router (£5)
  12. TV stand (Free)
  13. Single Bed Mattress (Free)

We’re moving from our house this weekend, so if we could transfer any of these by then that would be great, but we’ll be here in Durham until 31 July.

Here are a few things we did this year, some of which might be a little different than we did in the US…

  • A Lessons and Carols service with a brass band sometime during advent.  I think more high church denominations in the US have lessons and carols services–readings through the nativity story (i.e., the lessons) and songs (i.e., carols), but the brass band is definitely local.  Most pit villages (coal mining villages) had their own brass band.  Most of the mines are now shut but the Pittington Brass Band is still holding on.
  • You go to church on Christmas day (as well as Christmas eve), but our services were cancelled for Boxing Day (see next).
  • The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day, and it’s as much a holiday as Christmas–kinda like the day after Thanksgiving.  If you spend Christmas with one side of the family, you are likely to spend Boxing Day with the other side.
  • For our Christmas Eve service, we always do a Christingle service, though others do it other times during advent.  It’s a craft-based and kid-focused service.  (My wife filled in as the leader of this service this year and did a smashing job.)
  • Christmas Carolling to home-bound members.  Pretty much the same, but you’d be hard stretched to have a hay ride.  Almost nobody has trucks here.  Another tricky bit is that some of the famous carols here have different tunes, a problem you also face with various other hymns as well.
  • There are two standard Christmas food items: Mince pies and Christmas Pudding.  Now this gets tricky for the uninitiated.  ‘Mince’  is typically the term here for ground meat, so minced beef, minced lamb, etc.  However, when it comes to Christmas food, mince (or mincemeat) pies don’t have meat.  They are very sweet with sultanas, raisins, and the like.  Christmas Pudding is basically a fruit cake.  The pink and green fluff that my wife makes and sweet potato casserole aren’t big hits as parts of the main meal because you are not supposed to mix sweet and savoury, so when we share our Christmas meal with our minister’s family who have adopted us for Christmas lunches, they always have to take the mick out of us about them.
  • Treats for Santa.  We left out ‘biscuits’ and milk.  Our ‘biscuits’ (cookies/crackers) weren’t typical British because they were peanut butter on ritz with melted chocolate poured over.  This is a no-no here because you aren’t supposed to mix sweet and savoury items.  We normally do traditional Christmas cookies, but didn’t get around to making them this year.  We learned this year that the traditional offering to Santa is a glass of sherry and mince pies.
  • Christmas Crackers.  These range from cheap to really spendy.  You pull them apart with a friend, and they typically have a surprise, a joke, and a paper crown.
  • At church, there is always a nativity play.  Lots of kids come in who don’t normally come just for the day and are typically slotted as extra shepherds or animals.
  • Speaking of plays, pantomimes (or pantos) are definitely popular.  They are usually (humorous) adaptations of traditional children’s stories, with things like cross-gender roles, singing, etc.
  • People are fanatics about Christmas cards.  For instance, all the kids at school give them to everyone in the class (almost like kids in the US do for Valentines).
  • Lots of key shows have a Christmas special.  For instance the big one for our family to watch is the Dr Who special.  And, let’s not forget the Queen’s speech every Christmas.  She talked about the 400 year anniversary of the KJV coming up in 2011 and the importance for sport.  Not sure the connection, but the speech is a piece of British tradition.

These are just a few things off the top of my head. Now that this is the fifth Christmas we’ve done here some things start to seem ‘normal’, but then we always learn other new things that stand out.  I suppose one of the big things that is missing is the football games to fall asleep to after eating your big meal.  The Ashes (‘the’ cricket competition between England and Australia) competition is going on right now, but that’s not anything to do with Christmas.  It’s just summer there (Australia) this time of year.  And it’s important to note that England have thrashed Australia on the first day of the 4 Test… but that’s a different blog post.

As you move to the UK, to set up phone, TV, etc., I’d recommend because you get cash back for signing up for standard stuff.  Also, check out for comparing prices.


For my American readership, I thought I would let you know that the Football (Soccer) World Cup is kicking off this weekend. World Cups in any sport only come around every 4 years, and I was vaguely aware of it just before we moved to England 4 years ago. The games were in Germany and played live in the US in the morning, so I would have to watch the replays on the Spanish channel at night. Since I’d never gotten in to soccer playing a game with no audio didn’t help much, but I figured I needed to have a taste of it before moving.  My appreciation of the sport has risen greatly after being here.

This year the games are in South Africa, so not bad for a European time zone, but I guess more people have pvr’s these days, so that’s not as much an issue. Funny enough the US is playing England for their first game.  Of course the English think they will win, but I know otherwise.

Even though the English invented rugby and cricket, there was now where near the interest that football draws. England is touted as the country with the least national pride in Europe (as a saw in a recent survey). You hardly ever see an english flag (since it is kind of associated with right-wing anti-immigration types), which is different from the British Union flag. But the flags are everywhere now.

England Flag: St. George’s Cross
England Flag

British Union Flag:
A Combination of St. George’s Cross (England), St. Andrew’s Cross (Scotland), and St. Patrick’s Cross (Ireland) Wales technically falls under St George’s flag, but their Dragon didn’t make it in.
British Union Flag

Today was the big election day.  The core of the election is the same as the US.  The different parties beat each other up and promise a better society.  Here are a few differences:

Electioneering only really goes at it for a month, once the current Prime Minister calls an election.

Elections don’t happen on a regularly scheduled time ever x number of years.  There has to be an election every 5 years, but it can be called more often if the PM wants to call one.  There are no term limits, as far as I’ve heard.

The day of election is usually on a Thursday, and the polls are open until 10pm.  Interestingly, even with this late timing, there were several places where they were waiting in a queue (a line) to vote, but they then turned away because of time in some places.  I’m sure it will be reason for court battles.

There are 3 main parties here–Tories/Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats.  The first 2 are equivalent to the Republicans and Democrats, respectively.  The Libertarians in the US are larger than all the third parties combined with about 1-2% of presidential votes in the last couple of elections, but they’re no where near as large as the Lib Dems here, which seem to get about 10% of the seats.

With 3 major contenders this has caused a stir this year because neither of the 2 big parties seem to be set to get an outright majority of 326 seats this year so that they can choose their PM.  This is termed a ‘hung parliament’.  As a result, there will be some wrangling with the Lib Dems to see whom they will form a coalition with to form an overall majority.

As a parliament, you only elect your local MP (member of parliament), and the PM is just selected from the party (or coalition) that has the majority.  (I like the US system better in that you can elect the president separately from the local representative.)

The House of Lords is not elected at all, though there is talk of reforming that.  An interesting fact is that Anglican Bishops sit ex officio in the House of Lords.

The funny/crazy thing to me is that there are 650 MPs for the House of Commons.  So, for a country with only 20% of the US population (60M vs 300M+) has a 50% greater number of representatives.  The UK deficit is bigger by percentage than the US, and much of the electioneering has been about cutting it.  It seems to me that they could cut the number of MPs by 1/3 and save lots of dosh (money, that is), and still have adequate representation.

Interestingly, this election saw the first televised debates between the top three candidates for PM.  This gave a big boost to Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems, but from exit polls it doesn’t seem to have turned out for much in this election.

The voting is by pencil and paper, so all the counting takes a while since it is by hand.  Apparently people stay up until the very early hours of the morning watching all the talking heads.  There’s only one time zone and no issue of the electoral college, so no excitement of forecasting president.  But there is plenty of forecasting as I write regarding the potential of the conservatives taking control of the parliament after 13 years of labour control.

As of midnight, only 3 of the 650 seats have been declared.  It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

I took an extra few months to finish my thesis because of my work with Wright over the past year and a half, so I had to renew my student visa.  We weren’t fingerprinted with our original visa 3+ year ago, so our process is a little longer than it should be for those that have already done this.  In all, it took right at 2 months from turning in the paper work to receiving the okay.
  • Late October-November – Went to a visa renewal seminar and got visa letter from the Department of Theology and Religion.  I’ve since learned that they aren’t using visa letters any more, but I’m not sure how the process works now.
  • ~December 20 – Sent off the paper work for a Tier 4 Student Visa.  There was no online option (as of then), so we had 4 40+ page applications plus all the relevant supporting documents.  The renewal application is the same form as the initial application.  It is interesting to note that the form was clearly wrong in the section for the proof of financial resources required for continuing (i.e., already living in the country) dependants.  It didn’t tell you to just use 2 months as the multiplier instead of 9.  The international office said to go by the rules not the form, and we had no trouble.
  • December 24 – Got a letter that they had received all our paperwork, and they bank showed that they took our £507 (£357 + £50*3)
  • ~January 13 – Got a letter saying we had 15 working days to get our biometric information taken.  There are about 8 places in the UK to get this done, and Sheffield at about 2 hrs is the closest.
  • ~January 17 – Booked appointments to go to Sheffield.  Mondays seem to be the only days that Sheffield takes appointments.  We’ll be going on Feb 1.
  • February 1 – Biometric info taken.  We were in and out of the Sheffield office in about an hour.  We got there early and they didn’t make us wait until our scheduled time, which was nice.
  • February 22 – Got a package returning all of our passports and other stuff saying that we were approved.  It said the identity cards (they no longer use a stamp in the passport) should be coming soon.
  • February 26 – Got  ID cards in the post.

Once I pass my viva, God willing, and get all the paperwork for the thesis finalised, we’ll apply for a post study work visa.

With nothing else substantive to post, I thought I’d let the world see pics of my new office.

1) My office is on the top floor–it’s the window straight up from the white sign by the road.

2) Here are the views out my window. I’ve had worse.

So most of my days (recently at least) consist of reading Wright’s stuff and looking out the window. Not a bad life.

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