Monthly Archives: October 2007

Resolved to stay and fight?

The expat life has ups and downs. There are challenges and frustrations and of course occasional crushing homesickness. I try to write humorously about my frustrations with things here, and find that in general the whole “getting it off my chest” thing is quite effective. However, I had a pretty blunt-to-the-point-of-nasty comment on this blog the other day, that ended with the words “go home”. I also heard this from someone in the office last week–a phrase approximating “if the young and international employees don’t like it here they should leave; we don’t want unhappy people here and we don’t want this to turn to a workplace of moaners.” Now this was a particularly amusing line in some ways, since as Kate Fox notes in my favorite bible to understanding the English, no one is better at moaning than the locals here.

I suspect the real problem with the young and disenfranchised at my job is that we are NOT just moaning but looking for ways to fix what’s broken and improve it. This is where we run into clear trouble. Culturally it seems like the spirit of innovation that causes American institutions to evolve quickly is not here in the UK, and instead we are left with an over-reverence for tradition that does not allow for change. I suspect the best case scenario would really be somewhere in between–some hybrid of the old-world and the new-world ways. However, that’s tough to sort out in either place, as the resistance to being too much like the other place is a strong factor in keeping the status quo. We young and frustrated and work thus continue to be frustrated but less young than we were the day before. We face rigid constraints that make us feel that our jobs are more difficult than they have to be, and we do not see the benefits that the constraining factors bring to make up for this.

Some days I really do wonder why I am here and why I am subjecting myself to the pains of the expat life. I embarked on this as an adventure, with a spirit of “why not?” and with a lot of hope for the future. Now after a year here I can see the real structural problems and I’ve lost the dream-like state associated with the early move. It’s clear that some days are better than others in terms of both the real circumstances and my own mood. There are several things that keep me here, at least for now, even when faced with my darkest of days. First of all, even if went on the job market and took a job back in America, I’d be likely going to a different city and state than I have lived in previously. Having finally started to build a solid network of friends here, I find daunting the prospect of moving to an unfamiliar place where I am completely alone yet again. The pains of moving are always greatest in the first year, and that must certainly be the case with the current circumstances. There’s a certain element of the familiar about the problems I have here: both at work and outside of work, at least I know what I’m up against and can try to problem solve my way through it. Any new job would come with an unfamiliar set of circumstances. At the end of the day, I don’t really want to move back to the US but I am more open to the idea than I thought I would be at this point. If someone made me the right offer I’d have a tough decision on my hands. In the meantime, I’m not going to stop talking about the life here or living the life here. I’m going to continue to try to find the good in frustrating and often difficult circumstances. I’m not going to give up easily or without substantial thought.

It is true, though, the old adage. The English and the Americans are clearly divided by a common language. And basic cultural differences that are far deeper than I had realized. A friend of mine is another midwestern expat living in Germany and we discussed the fact that it’s actually useful for her to have the language barrier to remind her that she’s “not in Kansas any more”. I don’t get enough of that with the altered accent and vocabulary but I certainly feel the cultural differences increasingly deeply. And in the end that might well be enough to send me home.

A smile for frequent fliers

The airport really sucks.  No, SUX.  The article entitled “After fight, airport embraces SUX code” brought a smile to my face.  Not only is the airport, the Sioux Gateway Airport, going to accept the code, they are going to embrace it with their new slogan “”.  Of course, there were alternatives, one of which was GAY (must be some truncation of Gateway, I guess!)  People, come on, this is Iowa.  We’d much rather SUX than be GAY in the rural midwest.

“Once” is the best movie I’ve seen in ages

I’m a hopeless romantic but my rants about Hollywood rom-coms are vitriolic. For the most part I’ve been avoiding the genre altogether lately. But a few weeks ago I saw a decent subtitled French film (“Quand j’etais chanteur”, aka the Singer, with Gerard Depardieu playing a middle aged lounge singer with charm and aplomb) and during the pre-movie build-up the trailer for “Once” played. I thought it looked great, although my favorite movie-going companion noted that it looked like exactly the sort of mushy thing that gives me away as hopelessly romantic and not nearly as tough as I try to appear. This weekend “Once” opened and I dragged he-of-the-mushy-comment back to the theatre to see the film. Not only was it charming and romantic without being mushy, but the music was amazing. It sounds slightly cheesy to say, but it was as though the songs themselves were the stars of the film.

The lead “actors” are both actually musicians, not actors at all, and most of the film involves playing music. This sounds off-putting at first, perhaps, although those of us who actually like the musical genre may not find it as problematic as those who object to the “man with hands on hips and legs spread two feet apart stands at edge of stage belting out a semi-operatic ode to his unrequited love” scene. The female lead, played by Marketa Irglova, has a voice and singing style that is reminiscent of Leigh Nash. The male lead, played by Glen Hansard, is more difficult to place in terms of his vocal style, it’s so heartfelt and raw. Perhaps a little hint of Damien Rice. See the duo perform for yourself here and here.

The “how the movie got made” story is the stuff of legend, echoing the story of the Brothers McMullen in terms of the shoestring budget and resulting financial success. Not to mention the whole “Irish” angle, which was, as my movie friend noted, nearly enough to make us run to Stansted and hop a Ryanair flight to Dublin. The film’s reviews have been glowing. And of course, as with any good romantic story, the lead actors are now involved off-screen and making beautiful music together in real life.

Update: See the trailer here, conveniently with Czech subtitles!

The Barclaycard Bastards

My expat friend was right and my local banker was wrong. My credit card application was rejected again. (For background, see previous post on the British banking debacle.) A year in the UK, a substantial income and nearly no living expenses (work-subsidized housing) was still not enough to grant me even a baby credit card with a £300 limit. This caused me to write a very angry letter, which will probably do no good whatsoever but boy did I feel better after writing it! I was complaining about this to anyone who would listen this week and one of my colleagues suggested that the only way forward (and he knew others who had had this problem in the past) was to apply for one of the credit cards specifically for people with bad credit or no credit, the ones with an APR that’s off the scales. I probably will do so; he said that what you really need to get a proper, normal APR card like a Barclaycard was not just a year in the country but a year with any sort of credit history, and this was the only way to do it. Now I’m furious for having believed my local banker that a year in the country would suffice, because of course I could have applied for a “no credit history” credit card ages ago. So at least I have a plan to move forward but I’m MAD AS HELL.

But it doesn’t change the fact that this is completely ridiculous. In a global economy, “highly skilled migrant” programmes will always result in some movement of grown-ups with graduate degrees and substantial incomes. How is it that we cannot take a credit record from one country to another? It’s so 1880s “we only communicate by telegraph” to pretend that such things would not be possible. I know that I probably stuck a nail in the coffin of catching a high-powered exec that my institution here was trying to recruit from America–when I answered truthfully that my enthusiasm over my move to the UK was diminished substantially by this “you have no UK credit record” issue. He was stunned, had never thought about it, and I feel bad that I mentioned it but at the same time, oh how I wish someone had warned me!

Some days I wonder if this is worth it. I could probably get a good job back in the US. Ironically enough the thing that is currently keeping me here is my strong network of expat compatriates, and a sense of not letting the bastards get me down. But some days it’s not enough and I’m ready to pack up and go back to the US. Life’s too short to spend so much time and energy fighting a system that is broken beyond repair.

Oh the rugby, such pain

Seeing as I am not a fan of the English rugby team, I am in great pain.  I had another rough night with the rugby last night, given my current feelings of “please anyone but England” to win the world cup.   Again, making it two weeks in a row, England advances in the world cup because of Jonny Wilkinson’s boot.   I swear, he had done absolutely nothing in the four years since he sunk Australia in the last world cup final, and now in two consecutive matches he has been the x-factor in eliminating both Australia in the quarterfinals and the French hosts in the semis.

The amusing part of last night’s game was how completely deserted the streets of town were while the game was going on; I went to the grocery store and it was the most empty I have ever seen it.  There were many lanes open and no lines in any of them.  That was an utter delight.  From my apartment, I could actually hear out the window when something interesting would happen in the match, just due to the noise of the fans in the pub around the corner.  That was an added bonus for me: I did not actually have to watch it but I could just refresh my BBC “as it happens” feed to find out the precise nature of the noise-causing event each time I heard a ruckus erupt outside.

Minnesota shout-out

From my homesick self (albeit finally a homesick self with a UK Visa Debit card! It arrived yesterday and even works!) …

Here’s a great little commentary on relationships, courtesy of my new favorite band The Dresden Dolls, as noted previously, and containing quite the Minnesota shout out:

Shores of California Lyrics
Artist: The Dresden Dolls

he’s been trying with limited success
to get this girl let him get into her dress
but every time he thinks he’s getting close
she threatens death before he gets a chance

and that’s the way it is in Minnesota
that’s the way it is in Oklahoma
that’s the way it’s been since protozoa
first climbed onto the shores of California

she’s been trying with limited success
to get him to turn out the lights and dance
cause like any girl all she really wants
is that fickle little bitch romance
that fickle little bitch romance

and that is why a girl is called a tease
and that is why a guy is called a sleaze
and that’s why god made escort services
one life to live and mace and GHB

and that’s the way it is in Minnesota
that’s the way it is in Oklahoma homa
that’s the way since the animals and Noah
first climbed onto shores of California

must not be too kind
stop thinking love is blind
clench your fists, yeah write
“she’s just not my type”

why all these conflicting specifications
maybe to prevent overpopulation
all I know is that all around the nation
the girls are cryin’ the boys are masturbatin’
the girls are cryin’ the boys are masturbatin’

and that’s the way it is in Minnesota
that’s the way it is in Oklahoma homa
that’s the way since Aristophanes and Homer
wrote the iliad and lysistrata

that’s the way it is in Minnesota
that’s the way it is in Oklahoma homa
that’s the way since the ancient protozoa
first climbed onto the shores of California

Yeah it’s cynical but funny, especially the part about preventing overpopulation via the usual conflicts between the sexes. Love it, love it, love it. Video is here.  I particularly love the way Amanda Palmer successfully points to MN on the US map, just proving how awesome she is (and how unlike so many east coast types or foreigners who don’t know where it is!)

The British banking debacle

As noted yesterday, I visited my local banker on the anniversary of my arrival in the UK to try and get some help in the grown-up banking situation. Apparently I am now officially qualified for a proper (normal!) Visa debit card for my checking account. This is good: up to now I have been functioning on a mostly cash basis because all they would give me is a “Visa Electron” card. Wikipedia notes regarding this card, “In the United Kingdom, the card is not as widely accepted as the sister Visa Debit card, but is often issued by banks as a debit card for children’s accounts (although Barclays appears to have gone back on this, and started issuing full Visa Debit cards to customers under the age of 18)”. Right. I can verify that the thing is not accepted very many places, including ticket machines at rail stations. I am annoyed to hear that Barclays are giving normal Visa Debit cards to children under 18 but Visa Electron cards to adults with graduate degrees and substantial income. THIS IS COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS! For more on the Visa Electron saga see this BBC article. It’s discrimination, pure and simple. And while perhaps the banks can justify it on the basis of the young and poor for business reasons, they have absolutely no reason to discriminate against foreign nationals whose income is clearly stated on their work permit. This is just flat-out xenophobic behavior and should not be condoned in the UK.

So the good news is that the Visa Debit card is on the way. The bad news is that the UK is currently having a series of postal strikes so this arrival could be delayed by a substantial period of time.

I had been feeling quite optimistic that with this transition done, and the second phase of my one-two punch was an attempt to get a UK credit card. Again, I had been told that after a year in the country, I should have some sort of UK credit record established and be able to get a credit card, even one with a miniscule limit. I have applied and am now waiting for the result. I had been rejected on my first attempt, immediately after my arrival. I had been feeling quite confident that this would work this time, until I chatted with another expat who was rejected a second time after his year anniversary. So now we wait.

Again, this is completely ridiculous. Why one could not get a credit card with even a few hundred pounds limit — I would put cash to secure it — or based on a transcript of an American credit record is inconceivable. And yes it matters. My (now very well-used) American Visa is not “Chip and Pin” so it is not accepted everywhere in the UK. I cannot do any online shopping. I have to continually transfer funds back to the US, to my checking account there, to pay my US credit card. This is perhaps where the banks have us: they are earning a great deal of “fees income” from my wire transfers. So why on earth would they want me to get a local card? They’ll lose money on it!

I hate to act all American about it but some times it is tempting to think about a lawyer in cases like this.

Update: see an interesting banker perspective here (many thanks for the link and I hope someone does manage to think of a creative way around this problem in this increasingly global economy!)

Happy anniversary to me

Well it’s official: today marks one year since I arrived in the UK from America, with my two large suitcases  full of things, my heart full of optimism and my hallmark child-like enthusiasm. Oh what a year it has been!  I only started writing in this medium at the half-year mark, so the blog is not yet marking its own birthday.

A year is a long time, in some very important ways.  I am certainly not the person I was when I moved here.  I’ve been through a lot on the job, and that’s a continuing adventure.  I’ve also changed a lot more in my personality than I would have guessed.  Some of the change is good–I hesitate to use the words “personal growth” although they are probably appropriate here–while some of the change has definitely been less positive.  I think that mostly reflects what has been a bit of a lack of equilibrium after such a large change.  My highs are highs but my lows are extreme, and overall it makes me seem more moody and changeable than I ever was back in the US.  I have been on a positive swing the last few weeks and am cautiously optimistic that stabilization of my moods is not only possible but probable.

On other fronts, today being my anniversary, I have a bright-and-early appointment at a bank which shall remain nameless to try and upgrade my account to one more appropriate to my position and income.  Supposedly a year in the UK should have given me some degree of credit record; I’m not holding my breath but will certainly report back on how that goes.  Unfortunately I have to attend a rather sad gathering this evening, a memorial service for someone who died way too young.  It does not make for a particularly celebratory end to this very special day, but sometimes life is just like that.  It’s a bit like a birthday: even though it’s a special day to ME, the world does not actually stop spinning to mark the occasion.

Overseas babies

I was just at the local Boots store looking for an empty spray bottle to water my new acquisition (spanish moss, a gift from the director of the local botanical garden which I visited on Friday). In the store during my reasonably random meanderings (sometimes it’s very difficult to tell where an item would be located) I saw a young Asian couple standing in front of, and debating the merits of, pregnancy tests. This was striking on several fronts. First of all, my female friends who have had babies have mostly tended to surprise their partners with the news (in one particularly interesting case, a friend of mine flung the positive test at her spouse while he was still in bed and said “Now look what you’ve done!”) such that they would not have been shopping for test kits together. Secondly, you stop and realize that this would most likely be a British baby, perhaps even a BBC (too bad my sis was not here to eavesdrop and identify which east Asian language was being spoken).

I think I had been here for more than half a year before this realization had dawned on me, that a child born to me here in England would technically be English and I would have to apply additionally for an American passport to match my own. In my line of work, it is quite common to have mixed up families and multiple passports so it’s not something I find terribly surprising overall, but it was funny how slowly I actually realized that this applied now to me as well. Moving countries has so many extra dimensions that simply do not occur to you quickly or simply.

An insufficient reason to pond hop

I moved to the UK from the US for a job. That was an okay reason to make the move, although in some ways this eye-opening experience has made me question my sanity. But today a news story had the worst possible reason for moving here–also related to a job, but a bit less grounded than mine:

Europeans don’t care about sex. Whether it’s lusty adultery, underage sex, overage sex, sex by the beach — they just don’t seem to care.

And that comes as joyous news to Tom Kapinos, creator of “Californication,” the brashly risque new David Duchovny series on Showtime.

Duchovny’s character Hank Moody is struggling through a midlife crisis that manifests itself in oodles of explicit sexual encounters. And that explains why it’s on pay cable stateside. But in Europe and some other big TV markets, Hank’s hanky-panky has become fair game for free over-the-air broadcasters who are airing the series without cuts.

Kapinos admits to being a little taken aback by the fact that the Irish and British are airing the series without restrictions. He says he is so delighted that nobody seems to care in the least about the grunting and grinding that he’d definitely think about moving across the pond to work. “It never occurred to me before. But wouldn’t it be great to have all that freedom open up. It sounds tremendous,” he says.

Seriously, the lack of American squeamishness towards sex really does not strike me as sufficient to make up for the more negative aspects of expat life. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to do it all over again I would have made the same choice, but I think this is a lot tougher than it looks. I did not grasp that when I made the decision, and now I am appalled at the idea of someone taking his as lightly as I took it. It is so easy to say “Something pisses me off, I’ll just move to England” and not grasp the logistics of it all. Double taxation and work permit visas and lacking credit records, etc. make your life more complicated than you realize. It is true that they show outrageous stuff on television here, including graphic sex and nudity and plastic surgery. But I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Maybe I’d feel differently had I seen this new tv show.