A year in Houston

Houston sunrise skyline

Sunrise over Houston

We have a bunch of anniversaries that come one-after-another in June / July (what? It is a long time since June / July? Hush now and keep reading). Our first anniversary occurs on June 1st and marks our move to Houston and into our new (our first!) house.

Hated saying goodbye to these guys (and their brother)

Hated saying goodbye to these guys (and their brother)

I remember the move so clearly. It my friend Rachel’s 6th birthday and the day of her birthday party, and I was miserable to be missing it. I had spent the previous evening with her and her siblings, saying goodbye. On the way home I had to pull over and get out of the car to collapse in hysterical sobs – I was so sad to be leaving my friends in Birmingham behind.

All packed up and ready to go

All packed up and ready to go

I felt better the next morning. We packed up the final parts of our grotty old apartment, wrangled several plants (one of whom got lost), 2 cats, a skittish and terrified Italian Greyhound (RIP little Walter), a 70lb Bernese / Mountain dog cross and a pregnant wife with her enormous pregnancy pillow into a cramped 2-seat Ford Ranger. And off we went.

To the OB.

baby scan 18 weeks

Looking good

Yup, making the most of our health insurance (which, due to Texas state law would have a 1 month gap)  we dropped in to Sabrina Wyatt at UAB to have our ‘is everything OK with the baby?’ anatomy scan. It was early at just shy of 17 weeks, but due to ‘staying remarkably slim’ (the doctor’s words, not mine, although I used them liberally for a long time afterwards) we could get clear pictures of our little Firework. It was nerve wracking as they counted veins and arteries, organs and heart chambers. But Firework was just perfect and wriggling happily away, so off to Houston (for real) we commenced.

It took 13 hours with stops (including a few vomit stops) but we drove up and although we arrived after 1 am, somehow the house did feel like home. The majority of our belongings were arriving my truck in a few days, but pleading pregnancy discomfort, Wes had bought a mattress decent blow-up mattress which we slept on. And so (being fridge- and utensil- less) began our almost 2 week take-out binge. I can barely eat at many of the restaurants we tapped during that time.

Downtown Houston

Downtown Houston

Houston has taken some getting used to. Instantly, I liked the anonymity and diversity of Houston. There was definitely a ‘look’ for women in Alabama – think manicured nails and colored styled hair, attractive, but fairly conservative clothes (no high fashion or sports gear), and always make-up. And it was definitely noticed on and commented on (both to your face, and behind you back) if you did not conform to this. I know it sounds crazy, but I was not the only woman I knew who felt pressure to conform to the ‘made-up’ look. It was immediately refreshing to have no ‘look’ to Houston, and for there to be a distinct air of ‘as long as you are not in my business, I will not be in yours’. I initially thrived a lot more, and relaxed and felt better about myself. I felt more confident, and I felt that my friends were truly my friends. Everything was more up front, and less judgmental. I maintain that I prefer this bigger-city attitude, but when I visited Birmingham recently I missed the smiles, and friendliness, and help everyone offers you.

Ecclesia smilebooth

Photo from church

But the diversity is good – Wes and I have been able to find more of what we like. Church was a big thing – I grew up with the “staid and stuffy” [not to me – I loved it!] Catholicism-lite that is Church of England / Episcopalian; think hymns, reciting lots of rote and staid sermons followed by long prayers. Wes grew up with the evangelical passion that is Assemblies of God. I felt uncomfortable with the huge displays of emotion in Wes’ churches (think breaking down and weeping on stage); Wes was bored by reciting the same thing endlessly at mine. I felt I was sometimes watching ‘The Jesus Show’ with no spiritual participation asked of the congregation, Wes felt the robes and rituals we sometimes encountered were ridiculous and against the word of God. A difficult problem to overcome, but with a lot of prayer we did – finding our home with Ecclesia. It is a good mix of interesting but thoughtful speakers, uplifting music combined with weekly sacrament. However, they have adapted the words before collection and communion to be shorter. I feel like we really think about being a Christian, and the church has a lovely focus on charity and giving (you know… actually being Christ-like). Most impressively, their stance on abortion is “As a church, we should focus on telling people what to do [be Christ-like], not what not to do”. And Sam loves the daycare. It really works.

Daycare extrodinaire

Daycare extrodinaire

With our limited budget and different tastes (think like the church problem) Wes and I found it hard to find places to eat in Birmingham – there are many more cheaper eateries here, where I can get salads and he can get pasta or something more hearty. We’ve enjoyed very authentic dim sum and good quality sushi (with raw fish) is never far away. Houston: I approve.

Something delicious for all

Something delicious for all

And a kebab better than London!

And a kebab better than in London!

My one beef with Houston is the huge urban sprawl of it. Look, big is not a problem for me. I lived in London. In fact, I like big (stop sniggering in the back). But I do not like everything being at least a 20 minute drive away. And if you want to go to three or four shops? They are all – yup, 20 minutes drive away. And 20 minutes’ long drive away. You want to go for a walk? Drive 30-40 minutes. For real. Wes doesn’t mind it at all – it drives me up the bleeding wall. I miss the UK way of driving to a shopping center, parking, and being able to shop, eat, have coffee and visit a bar – all without going back to your car. Really not an option in Houston (except a little bit in the very downtown… which is 45 minutes drive away, or in Rice Village which is hellaciously expensive, and still amazingly unwalkable). I like that the Bayou has a running track by it and is 5 minutes from my office. But apart from that – I hate driving to, from and between everywhere.

Nice little urban walk... 45 minutes away.

Nice little urban walk… 45 minutes away.

And the urban sprawl is such that if you want something less urban, a good hike or a good bike ride – you’re looking at 45 minutes or, more likely, a 2 hour drive. I miss being able to just jump to Oak or Ruffner Mountain as I could in Birmingham. And I am having to put my fingers in ears and sing ‘lalalalalalalala’ at Rick Perry (Go Wendy Davis!).

P1000408

All in all, Houston has a lot, but has taken a lot of adjusting to. I think it was harder to adjust to arriving pregnant and then having a newborn (kinda cramps the partying style). It also didn’t help that my new school does not have many postdocs, or students / faculty my age – UAB came with a built in social life. It has – and still can be – a lonely city. I don’t know if that is a feature of the coldness and sprawl of Houston, or a reflection of where we are in life (I say ‘we’: I am lonely and miss a big social group, Wes is in his element!). Wes and I are not wedded to staying here, but not devastated that we need to make it at least another 3-5 years to make financial sense. It’s no Colorado but it is no Baton Rouge. It will be interesting to see how I find it in another year’s time.

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