Category Archives: money

Denouement

It’s been an eventful few days. I am happy to say that on Thursday my ILR (permanent residence) visa was printed and placed in my passport. As of Saturday my previous (5-year work permit) visa expired. Sunday marked the 5 year anniversary of my arrival in the UK. And Monday (yesterday) was the day on which I was reunited with my passport containing the new visa and the stress of it all finally lifted.

In retrospect, and one can always be more calm in hindsight, I really got my undies in a bundle over something that was unlikely to be as problematic as I was imagining. I can be a tad dramatic, and somehow I had convinced myself that this was going to be a big fight. People kept telling me things like “even in the worst case scenario you’re likely to be fine” and I focussed on said worst case scenario (having the original application rejected and having to appeal) instead of concentrating on getting the paperwork right the first time. I hired a specialist, in the end, and I calculate now that this process has cost me about £2500, including the fee to get my US passport renewed in expedited fashion back in June (something I should have dealt with months earlier), the costs associated with taking the Life in the UK test, the expedited visa service fee from the UKBA (so as not to have to wait weeks to months to find out the result) and the specialist who prepared all the paperwork and provided me all the information and assistance and frankly hand-holding that I needed to make it through the entire process. And the money, at the moment, does not bother me at all as the relief I felt yesterday afternoon, as I danced up and down the corridors of my office showing my visa to anyone who happened to be around, was worth every penny/pound/whatever.

I kept saying yesterday that I was the happiest girl in all of England. I’m sure it was true. I’m still pretty darned happy today. Celebrations continue tomorrow when I have dinner with another American who recently got her similar visa, although through marriage rather than through employment. I used her books to pass the Life in the UK test and am passing them on to another friend who is getting ready to gear up for her own process.

The fact that my imagination got the better of me becomes apparent when you, gentle readers, hear that at one point in late August/early September, when I was in the US on my annual beach trip experiencing earthquakes and hurricanes, I was threatening to fly back to the UK, to quit my job and pack up my belongings and move in with my sister in Baltimore while looking for a job in the US. Anyone who has had to go through a visa process in which their life as they know it depends on the thing will understand this seemingly irrational train of thoughts. Earlier in the year I had in fact applied for a bunch of jobs back in the US, some far inferior to the one I have here in England, in the hopes that I could escape from Europe before I had to deal with this. None of this is rational. I have discovered over the years that I quite love my job and my life in England EXCEPT when I am actually back in the US, and somehow the prospect of having to deal with the visa just amplified my temporary irrationality. I have, as it happens, the sort of job that many of my colleagues would probably kill for, and as of January it’s permanent. So I needed the visa, and now I have it, and I have an amazing job for life and the ability to stay in this country and work at it and all is good. But clearly you can see from the details I am now revealing that it was a near thing for a while. My good, scientific, common-sense attitude towards life completely deserted me in the last six months whilst this visa thing was hanging over my head.

So now I sit on my couch in England with a new lease on life, a really busy time at work expected for several weeks, and my entire autumn ahead of me with very few plans. I had turned down all travel opportunities for this fall on the grounds that I would not know when I would be free to travel, so now I feel like I should jaunt off to the Continent just because I can. Totally sensible for someone who just spent nearly three months’ rent on a visa, I know. In the end, this entire process was far scarier in my head than it was in real life, and for that I am eternally grateful. England, you are winning me over.

Customer Service!!!

A common refrain in the expat community here in England is the one that complains about poor British customer service and misses excellent and attentive American customer service. After today, I’m wondering if something about the poor economy of recent years is causing a major change, or if the gradual creep of the dreaded Americanism into British culture is the culprit. No matter the explanation, I experienced back-to-back brilliant customer service today, and I’m much the poorer for it as I tipped extravagantly to try and encourage the excellence.

First off, I had booked a much-needed haircut for today. I have long hair and am remarkably lazy about getting it cut regularly, which is funny because I love the hour of pampering that comes with a good haircut. It had been more than six months since I had managed to go for a trim, and my hair was really getting unruly so I booked an appointment (over the internet, of course) about two weeks ago, for today. Now I have frequented the same (admittedly upmarket) salon since I moved to England almost 5 years ago, but this was the first time I had quite purposefully booked to return to see the same person as I had had for the last haircut. (Normally since the haircut is such a rare event and yet when I finally relent and admit I need one I take what I can get.) His name is Luigi, which is awesomely memorable as he happens to be British (?) and is also perhaps the first heterosexual man to ever have cut my hair. I’ve had a long string of wonderful gay male hairdressers, and also a series of amazing and mostly rather young women, especially at Aveda salons in the US.

Luigi won his extravagant tip in a number of ways. He remembered me, even though I was last in his chair about six months ago. And no, he could not have been faking it. He remembered details. I was amazed. He must make notes. (I guess that’s a great tactic as a person in the service industry in general: if the person does come back you win by remembering them, and if not, you’ve only lost a few minutes jotting down a few thoughts.) Luigi is also clearly a professional flirt; he’s got that fantastic ability to chat you up without intent, as he drops stories about his girlfriend into the discussion. And even better from my perspective, he was willing to chat about his job. I find it fascinating to try and understand jobs that are different from my own. So from hearing about how he got into the hair business and how he stays “fresh,” I got some insight into something I find fascinating. And heard about how boring it is when there are hair trends, as when 80% of the people coming in during a given day want Victoria Beckham’s new bob. The other thing I learned about Luigi is just how seriously he takes his job–stories of going to watch live hair trends demonstrations in London, and how he watches videos of haircutting techniques when new ideas filter through the community. From my perspective, all of this makes Luigi a consummate professional and I was delighted to part with a significant number of pounds when I left. Oh and did I mention he gave me a voucher for £5 off my next haircut, delivered with a joke about how perhaps this will entice me to come back a little bit more often? Don’t worry, Luigi, I will.

It happened to be late shopping night in town (a phenomenon that must mystify Americans used to evening shopping on a regular basis) and I took advantage of being free as a bird a few hours before I normally leave the office to run some errands. I decided I was hungry, and that in the spirit of haircut-related pampering, I deserved a nice dinner. I popped over to the local branch of “Jamie’s Italian,” the Italian restaurant chain that has exploded across Britain in the last year thanks to the owner, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. I was skeptical when I heard this chain was coming to my town, but I’m now a real convert. And this is not the first time that I have dined there alone, with a flirtatious and thus extravagant tip-gaining waiter. The interesting thing about this restaurant, and I admit I’m a fan now, is that the food is surprisingly interesting but the prices are reasonable. For a while they had a pasta dish with truffles in a cream sauce, and eating the slices of truffles on the top was the first time I had really had the option to taste this delicacy. Every time I’ve been there, and it’s probably about a half-dozen times now, I’ve tried something that I had never had before. The truffles. Burrata cheese. Courgette blossoms. Always something. Tonight I had ordered a half-sized pasta portion as my main course (the half-sized portions are another reason I love this place, you can get a starter and pasta without being too full) and a plate of flash-fried greens with chili and garlic as my side dish. When the waiter came to take away my empty pasta plate, he noticed that I had only picked at the greens and asked if there was anything wrong. I admitted that they were a bit tough. He went away, and came back a few minutes later with the dessert menu and the following statement: he had tasted the greens (!) and agreed that they were both tough and had too much chili (which was true but I had not mentioned it) and so he had passed the information on to his manager and taken them off my bill.

I was gobsmacked. I dine out frequently when travelling, and I can’t actually remember the last time a waiter had noted my not finishing a dish and asked if there was a reason. I certainly can’t remember the last time something was taken off my bill when I did not vigorously complain about it. So again, I was in the position of adding a significant tip for the actions of a really good waiter who just happened to have picked out my displeasure at a restaurant, and in the environment in which I would not have normally said something as bad as to warrant action. I’ve changed, because I would normally have complained in the US, but the UK has changed, because they would not normally have noticed.

Oh the times, they are a’changing.

The moving day report

My big move today went remarkably well–from one flat to another, from a place that was offered to me to a place that I chose. The movers were professional and efficient. They showed up perfectly on time and wearing uniforms of their company. They were prepared, not just for the move, but had brought their own implements for making tea for their mid-morning break. (! Oh this is when I love you, England.) The whole thing took about 2.5 hours less than had been scheduled. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to see (unless there is an utter disaster when I go to unpack) how this could have gone any better. Which seems remarkable for a moving day. A day when Murphy’s law seems to take over. My (American) (temporary, for a year due to someone else’s maternity leave) secretary whispered to me–when I appeared in the office this afternoon before the close of business when no one expected to hear from me today–“were they British?” We had a laugh in the way expats do. We love it here, we are not slagging off the locals. They were British. But the expectation was probably not that they would be quite as efficient, and, well, as “American-like” as they were. I’ve heard horror stories from around my town. But for the record, I used a local, family run company and one that I chose solely on the basis of the fact that they responded to my request for a quote faster than anyone else, and I kind of didn’t shop around on price, as much as on response time. For me, today, this strategy paid off. They were amazing and if anyone who knows me in my area wants a recommendation for movers, I’m all there. And maybe you do get what you pay for and that is okay.

I have never had full-on professional movers before today. The closest I’d come was when I relocated to the UK, and a moving company handled the overseas shipment and delivery of my goods. But then I had packed the boxes all myself, and in fact things had been in boxes in storage because I didn’t know I was moving to England until I actually did move to England. (I thought I was taking a junior position on the East Coast of the US after travelling in Europe for two months. But I interviewed for my current position early on during that Europe trip and I ended up taking the job in the UK and shipping all my clearly marked “self-packed” boxes through customs.) But the crazy last few weeks with the whole (1) finding the flat and committing to taking it sight-unseen from the US, (2) dealing with my work commitments including trips to Newcastle (UK), Munich and Singapore and (3) preparing for my trip to the US literally tomorrow meant that I needed some professional help.

All other previous moves in my life had involved a rented truck of the U-Haul sort. (I have no idea what the British equivalent even is. I didn’t consider it.) Sometimes I even got to drive the truck, which I think more women should do 🙂 And these previous moves always featured me doing all of the packing. I can see now how this never could have worked in the current scenario; I did not have the days needed to do the packing that was accomplished by four professionals in four hours. And my wonderful sister was not here to help me! I most certainly did not have the local knowledge needed to figure out how to park a truck (lorry) in the city centre on a one-way street during daylight hours on a busy weekday. Oh yes, in England. There is that. The complications of doing something rather difficult in another country really could have been stressful, if I had not thrown caution to the wind and hired actual professional movers.

The movers cost me almost exactly an additional month’s rent. Add that to the deposit on the flat (1.5 months rent) and all the incidental one-off charges associated with the move, and it was about three months extra of rent that I’ve paid in the last few weeks in order to facilitate this move. And as I sit here in the new place, planning for my suitcase packing and departure for America tomorrow, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. I’ve hit some strange place where, after living in England almost four years, most of which were in some ways rather uncomfortable, I’m completely delighted at the fact that I ate into my savings but got me and all of my worldly possessions out to the new flat with a minimum of fuss on my part.

Even better, I tipped these guys (as far as I can tell) more than they are used to. It was totally in my nature to thank people who did a job well, fast, and orderly. (NB occasionally I tip well when a waiter flirts with me, but that’s a different story.) And there is in this case the instance where tipping is actually fun, as opposed to obligatory: when you really want to reward someone for a job well done. It’s not the same as giving a Boston cab driver more than what reads on the meter but still being berated for not tipping enough (as has happened to me in the US.) I actually wanted to thank these guys for being pleasant to work with and professional and fast. It was utterly voluntary. I was unclear of the etiquette and so played up my American card, and just asked the leader of the moving crew (when I was making out the cheque for the formal cost of the move) if it was okay to tip them. He said something like, “well, you don’t have to but it’s much appreciated” and so I did. Perhaps extravagantly. Call me American. (It took the total from just under a month’s rent to just over, and I am so very OK with that!) Notice how happy I am at how well this all went. Said moving crew leader made a sweet comment about taking the guys out to the pub tonight (especially since they were done at my place at 3 pm!) and I felt happy and at one with the world.

The deeper meaning of this move has not escaped me either. I did not incur that additional three months’ rent worth of charges to have done this temporarily. My several years in work-subsidized but not exactly comfortable housing was very economical. In the last few weeks, I have made a significant investment in my life in England. Not that I claim that I will be here forever, I still don’t have a long-term plan. But I do think now that I will have to start working on that application for permanent residency.

Permanent. Now there’s a scary word.

Back in the UK for ahem American Independence Day oops

I arrived back “home” in England today, late but in one piece. And yes, I am well aware of how ridiculously silly it was for me to fly from the US to the UK on the overnight flight July 3rd, to arrive in the UK in time to celebrate my country’s independence from the country in which I choose to live. Complicated, these allegiances. I love both my countries. Neither is perfect. Let’s move on.

The big news, especially for long-time readers of this blog (read: those who have been around long enough to have tired of me complaining about the same old things ad nauseum) is that on Wednesday I will be picking up the keys to my new flat.

!!!!!!!!!!

And get this: it has a freezer, a dishwasher, closets, a shower, a washing machine that is NOT in the kitchen, and is about twice the size of my current, very over-crowded one bedroom flat.

Now this will have consequences. Anyone who has been paying close attention will have noticed that I’ve been living the life of a vagabond. In the first half of 2010, I have been in Texas, France, Germany, Virginia, Michigan, Maryland, China, Switzerland, and Pennsylvania. For many reasons this has GOT to stop. First of all, I’m exhausted from all this travelling. But more importantly, my comfort in my new flat will come in exchange for a significant change in life-style, since my current living conditions are work-related and thus heavily subsidized, and I will be going at it solo on the private market in the new digs. So my free funds for fun travel (admittedly of which only France and China qualified from that list) will diminish, as will my funds for work travel that is not perfectly or fully subsidized (including the things that I forgot to turn in the reimbursement forms for because I was too tired from all the travelling….) I suspect this is a good thing. Because I suspect that deep down I was accepting all the speaking engagements that I was being offered on the grounds that I would be able to stay in a hotel and take showers.

So there we have it. This week I celebrate *my* independence by getting myself into some more comfortable, grown-up living conditions. It may also mark my officially putting my feet down a bit, and stopping waffling for a while about where to make my permanent home: for now, this is it.

And this is why I live in the city

I have been out in the wilderness of New England this week, experiencing what has (to me) become fondly known as “science summer camp for grown-ups” — a conference at a remote location, where a medium (100 to somewhat less than 200) people camp out in college student dormitory rooms together and spend a week immersed in a single topic of scientific inquiry. The brilliant thing about this format is that the science bits are in the morning and evening thus leaving the afternoons free for other forms of entertainment. Which sounds lovely, except that this week has been more of an adventure than I bargained for.

The science bits were great, I should start with that. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself and written more than 20 pages of A4 notes. Which is amazing in and of itself–I’m sufficiently old and jaded that I don’t often have that much to write down. One of the afternoon social events was brilliant, it was a beer tasting at a local swanky brew-pub complete with a hilarious brewmaster with a sharp wit, an English degree, and lots of audience participation. There were lots of shot-glass-sized beers to drink, and everyone left happy but not sloppy. But Tuesday we went hiking, and had a spectacular time. Except it was hard going. And I’m clearly not as young as I used to be.

Step back, the group was two of us “senior” colleagues (at all of mid-thirty-something) and two very junior (young twenties) colleagues. We older folks (ugh) were scrambling to keep up with the two youngsters. And it was not pretty. I got my foot caught in a gap in the rocks and I’m pretty sure my left pinky toe is busted (again… it’s happened many times before) and my compatriot experienced some sort of bout of food poisoning and was rushing down from the summit while I was limping. I was literally doing the bridal half-step except leading with my right foot every time I had to descend vertically, such that the pressure would not be on the left pinky toe. Fun. But the views at the top were awesome.

DSCN1039

I thought this particular hike (fun and picturesque as it was) was but a distant memory, until I woke up this morning, aware that what I thought was just a mosquito bite on my leg was actually sort of strange in shape and appearance, looking nothing like a normal mosquito bite on closer examination. Fast forward a few hours, and the thing just kept growing and growing, until it was about 3″ across by the last scientific session of the evening. At that point, I had noticed steady growth in the thing over the last few hours especially (not to mention the itching) and realized I had to do something about it. So I left the last scientific session of the evening mid-way and went to the tiny-town New England ER because I had the background to realize it might be serious, and at least worth a look by someone more qualified than me in the medical milieu. I spent a lovely hour as the only patient in the ER of a tiny town New England hospital, chatting with the lovely doctor, who happens to have a son studying for a PhD in my field. I could have predicted what the doctor would recommend (broad-spectrum antibiotics for a longer-than-usual time) which he did, but at least it was a pleasant medical experience.

I now have to get up early in the morning to get an antibiotics prescription filled in the local pharmacy before heading out to my next meetings in Boston. I have a disgusting bulls-eye rash on my right shin, and I can scare people with it. There’s a medical bill careening towards my parents’ house in Minneapolis, because that was the easiest way to handle the emergency non-resident healthcare scenario. I was happy, I was treated. I had a triage EMT, a nice nurse and a chatty MD. I got a first dose of anti-biotics and a prescription for 2 more weeks, which is a big deal when faced with this sort of skin penetrating rash. But I have no idea what it cost, and I will be eagerly anticipating the numbers. I did not need as much time as they gave me, or as much high-level effort as they gave me. I have an obvious rash with an obvious cause.

Travel tales are strange

I’m coming to the end of my Singapore experience for this year; I can say that with great confidence because I’ll be back in just over a year’s time for another key conference in my research field. This has been my second trip to Singapore and it has been a far superior experience compared with my first trip. I was based, on my first trip, at NUS (a lovely university but far off the beaten track) and this trip has been centered in the city centre. But my location on this trip has proved to be excellent.

I took a cheaper hotel in Little India, on Arab Street, rather than the hotels associated with the large conference centre. It was a short walk into town or a very short trip on the MRT (1 stop) but totally convenient and worth the 1/2 price compared with the conference hotels. I quite enjoyed the MRT and mall experience to get to the Suntec center. Or centre. I don’t recall which is correct.

Given this slightly distant location, I was isolated from the usual sorts of hotel restaurants and bars. I found that there was a place, Mietta’s, across the street from my hotel, where there was good food and good wine (a necessity when travelling). This is a chef-driven, relatively new restaurant, in the bohemian area of Arab Street, and I quite enjoyed the place on the three times that I happened (or chose!) to visit there. It has that air of a gentrifying neighborhood where things are all mixed up, and I happen to like that. I went out to Orchard Road earlier on this trip and I hated it, there was nothing that I saw to distinguish one shopping mall from another.

Tonight I went to Mietta’s after dinner hours, because they were advertising a jazz feel in the upstairs bar. When I arrived, the waitstaff seemed confused, although the website advertises an upstairs bar they seemed to not have had many requests for it. Cut to the chase, and I sat quite happily in the upstairs something (bar is not the obvious word) with live music playing just to me, from a time before they were really ready to open, they let me in for the soundcheck. I read the cookbooks of Jaime Oliver and Nobu and joked with the chef about reading his secret stash. As a foodie, I was ecstatic. As a bar/club patron, I felt bad for the singer/guitarist who was singing solely to me, both in the soundcheck and in the “performance” (indistinguishable from the soundcheck). But I’m not complaining. And I hope that if you are in Singapore you visit Mietta’s. I saw the chef each of the three times I was there, which took me back to a day and place in Minnesota when I used to frequent a chef-driven restaurant in the middle of nowhere, the Bayport Cookery (which apparently does not exist anymore). I want chef-driven restaurants to thrive, which is probably why I “happened” into Mietta’s on three occasions on this trip.

The American, the FOI Act and MPs’ Expenses

For the last eight days in Britain, it has been as though news has completely ceased to exist with one exception: the slowly trickling out details of the expenses claims that House of Commons MPs have made in recent years. Almost no high-ranking official in any party has been spared (although admittedly Labour has taken it hardest) and the claims have been eye-rolling at best, jaw-dropping at worst. It was not, however, until today that I caught wind of the mechanism by which the information had been obtained, or at least part of the story. Some of the details are in today’s Guardian, in a commentary piece written by Heather Brooke, a campaigner for transparency. Look at most stories mentioning her name this week and you will see “London-based journalist and Freedom of Information campaigner… ” and not see “born and raised in America” as part of her bio. And really, you have to dig pretty deep to find information about her at all, an ironic twist in this story.

I was only made aware of her because of an interview I saw with an Associated Press (AP) chief, who was being asked about the reaction to the MP expenses scandal in countries outside Britain, and he noted that the story was big in America because of her roots there. And also that no one in America could believe that (a) this information had been secret in the first place (held close to the Commons on the usual political grounds of “Security” and “Privacy”) and (b) it had taken so long and such extensive efforts for the details to come to light. It was only the case by Brooke, an independent journalist, fighting it all the way to the high court that started to unlock the doors to bogus claims of residency in illogical second homes, husband and wife MPs claiming different residences, evidence of “flipping” properties to avoid capital gains taxes… the list goes on and the details are not so important here. What IS important is transparency, of rules that make sense (more on that in a mo’) and of government officials who do not think that they are above the law.

The AP chief did note that while this had been an interesting story in America, and on front pages of newspapers with international interests on more than one occasion, the reaction in Britain has been (as usual for the British press) completely disproportionate. I have to agree. Seeing interview after interview with Joe-on-the-street types who want to banish all MPs gets old after a while, as does the occasional call for the Queen to disband parliament and take over. Hopefully not in my time here. What has been quite amusing, however, are the non-apologies, along the lines of “I am very sorry that the people in my constituency have been let down by my making perfectly legal expense claims that were approved fully by the fees committee. I see now that I should not have claimed for x.” The classic non-apology; I don’t apologise for what I did, but I do feel badly that you are upset by my actions (please vote for me again). The AP chief also noted that the way the information has been trickling out this week has been a masterful marketing plan on the part of the newspaper(s) (?) doing the leaking, and I have to agree. There’s another big name in the headlines every day, and heads are starting to roll.

Now I admit, I have one additional point on this subject. And yes, it is a matter of personal preference, but I don’t bother to go through the effort of claiming back every single allowable reimburse-able expense that I incur. There’s a tradeoff there for time (and paperwork) versus money that would definitely have led me to not claim some of the items that could have been claimed. (There’s a nice picture-slideshow thing here that shows some of the more silly items.) I like it when there is a sensible per diem benefit for eating in foreign locations, because if I have to turn in the receipts, I’ll probably never get around to it. I’d have to eat at home too, and the burden of paperwork definitely does not become worth my while for a bagel and coffee at Bruegger’s when in the states for a conference. But maybe that’s just me. Sensible rules help, and I’m actually with Gordon Brown (for once!) in suggesting a flat allowance for MPs and not all of this mortgage and second home funny-business.

Now that brings to the forefront a significant difference between me and the MPs, they have staff members who are the ones actually filling out the paperwork. Yes, at the end of the day it is the MPs who have to sign off on the claims (the wording of which has been floating around today) but there is an additional large group of people who have participated in this little bit of creative accounting, and about whom I have heard nothing. Do you really think Clare Short is preparing her own forms for submission to the rules office? Do you think Hazel Blears is the one sending emails to the fees committees to see whether a line item on some claim fits within the letter of the law? Sure, they sign off and thus have something akin to fiduciary responsibility. BUT where are the rest of the parties who participated in this little charade?