Archive for category expat

Big Ben and its 334 steps

Big Ben from the London Eye

Back in November, Shelly and I got a private tour of the inside of the Clock Tower aka Big Ben. You won’t find this free tour in any guidebook. You need to be a UK resident and arrange the tour through your MP. So, we took advantage of our temporary resident status and our Richmond address, and lined up a tour.

It’s a 90-minute tour that starts across the street from Parliament and the Clock Tower, once you pass through security and get your picture taken. After crossing the street in a tunnel below, you get to the Clock Tower door and you hear the lecture: To get to the top, it’s 334 steps up and 334 steps down. The tour guides are serious: If you don’t think you’re in shape to walk up, then you shouldn’t. Bad knees or hearts should look at it from below.

Sure, 334 steps, no big deal if you’re in shape, but taking them on small, worn down steps, set in a tight spiral, without windows to look out of, makes for a dizzying and heart-thumping climb.

If you must know details, the Parliament website has a good amount of info including animation, sound, and a video. And the clock strikes 12. (Upon listening to this clip I can’t help but think of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells.) We were there when it hit 12 and had to wear ear plugs. The view from the belfry is spectacular and open air, which means no windows to protect you and just a lot of cold air blowing through.

The cool thing is once you’ve climbed up, listened to and seen the icon from inside, looking at it from the outside or in pictures, takes on a different dimension. One of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Not coincidently, the chime is the same as Shelly’s grandparents’ clock that had the place of honor on our mantle in Oakland for years. Because it too rings on the hour, that cool little clock got unplugged a lot.


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A year in London

Thames River path

Exactly one year ago this past week, I landed in London. Shelly followed with the pups just over a week later. A lot has happened in those 365 days. In fact, more stuff than I can remember. A whirlwind. I like lists, so I made one.

What I’ve done in the past year:
Packed up the house in Oakland, CA and moved to London, England.
Moved two dogs.
Been to an English wedding. Congrats again, Ben and Mandy.
Stayed in Brooklyn, NY for two weeks to wait for visas. In a hotel.
Traveled to Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast.
Traveled to Berlin.
To Barcelona.
Bath, UK.
Derby, UK.
Drove to Stonehenge and the Cotswalds.
Returned to the Bay Area twice.
Sat on my glasses.
Visited a UK optometrist.
Purchased new glasses.
Got my teeth cleaned by a UK dentist and told I need to whiten my teeth. Oh please.
Learned to understand and appreciate wellies.
Drove a car three times, four if you include the time I drove my truck around the block in Oakland.
Swam in four pools.
Sweat through my clothes on a morning commute. Thank you tfl.
Walked to work in the snow.
Changed jobs.
Seen foxes.
Lost one umbrella on the tube and another to the wind.
Grown to like chutney or pickles.
Taken to having a cup of tea in the afternoon.
Lived in a flat that’s lost power and hot water, gotten infested by flying ants (think curtains covered), had a broken washer/dryer, tub flood, and a bedroom floor that has buckled three times and been replaced twice.
Enjoyed some really good pints of beer.
Learned the difference between Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose.
Learned the difference between the underground, overground, Nationalrail, and Eurostar.
Entertained several guests: Mother in law, Kirk, Deanne and Paul, parents, sister-in-law Laurie.
Lost my dog.
Learned to appreciate (and curse at) Skype.
Learned how to dial the US and Europe from the UK.
Learned to really appreciate pub dinners. Especially on Friday nights.
Had juice splashed on me by Imelda Staunton or rather her character in a play.
Witnessed Royal Wedding hysteria.
Survived setting up bank and phone accounts in the UK. Horrible.
Walked along the Thames many times.

And the list goes on.

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Expat a go go

We are now five months into our overseas adventure. For those just catching up, I’ve been lucky enough to grab an assignment working out of Blurb’s London office for 18 months. Or longer. Very exciting times. In fact, time is moving so quickly that my aim to blog about this experience has been waylaid by lack of time. So, here I begin.

This kick-off post answers some of the more common questions we’ve gotten.

How did this come about?
I approached Blurb’s COO (my boss) and CEO nearly two years ago and pretty much volunteered to help with our European office. In Europe. Shelly was in the process of closing down her business after 20 years, so the restrictions of that world were about to be removed. I already had a small team I was managing from abroad, so that, coupled with my tenure at the company, paved the way. They took me up on this offer just over a year later. I will never forget that invitation and the giddiness that resulted over the next 48 hours.

How long did it take to make the move?
From start to finish, nearly six months. We were lucky to have this much time to plan because with dogs and a house that we’ve lived in for 11 years, we’re talking a lot of details. We decided from the onset that Shelly would be master facilitator, so she quit her job about three months before we left. Thank god.

How did you pack up your house and get your stuff in order?
You really mean, how did Shelly pack up the house? Over the past decade I have tried absolutely everything to help Shelly downsize her collections of stuff. Nothing worked until I told her I would take her to the UK with me. Clutter problem nearly solved.

We shared a Google docs spreadsheet of details with dates and ownership. Month by month, we whittled down the list. In a nutshell highlights were: purging [garage sale, craigslist, recycling, shredding, Salvation Army (many many trips)], getting a property manager for our house, painting, canceling credit cards, changing addresses …. these were just some of the pain points.

Where’s all of your stuff?
Most of our stuff is in a POD. Our “lean-to, cannot park a car in it” garage is full of odd pieces of furniture and Shelly’s random store fixtures. We left a few items in the kitchen and basement for the new tenants. One of our friends is babysitting our TV, couch, KitchenAid mixer, and other interesting things. Hey Jenne! Remaining stuff, clothes, shoes, dog paraphernalia, some framed photos and kitchen stuff – about 28 boxes worth, is with us in England.

Where’s your mail?
Everywhere, actually. For mailings that we didn’t cancel, we’ve rerouted. To my parent’s house. They are now receiving our junk mail. And bills that refuse to go electronic.

What did you do with your cars?
This was a tough call. We’re talking 13- and 14-year old cars. Do we pay to store our cars, while they lose resale value, knowing that stored cars that are not driven do not age so well? Stored cars still need insurance and registration. Do we lend the cars to trusty friends, which still requires us to pay insurance? Do we sell the cars knowing that when we come back, we will not be able to afford new or possibly even used cars? Like I said, a tough decision.

We settled on a little of everything. Shelly sold her car to a friend. Hey Sheila! I “sold” my car to my cousin and her husband. Hey Jenny and Cliff! They have taken over the insurance and are doing nice things for it like taking it to the snow. When I return, I will “buy” back my car. So, we’re not paying insurance on it and someone is getting good use of it. Including the wiseass that already stole the radio. OK, enough about Oakland.

How did you get a Visa?

Um, yeah, the Visa. What can I say? The process is over. It involved wrong applications; copied, original, faxed, pulled-out-of-parent’s safe, and FedExed paperwork; Skype calls; passport photos; a UK lawyer; Blurb’s HR Director; sponsorship; signatures; thousands of dollars of fees; Border Patrol secret passwords; reams of paperwork; going into the UK without a visa; leaving our dogs in the UK with strangers to go to New York to pick up our Visas; biometrics; calls to embassies; calls to third-parties to help us expedite things; a Visa expeditor; two weeks living out of a hotel in Brooklyn; a Intra-company, Tier Two Visa for me and Tier Two Partner Visa for Shelly; and finally success. Quite a stressful process for a certificate that allows us to live in the UK for just 18 months. We definitely learned a lot.

Coming soon: My “Getting a UK visa” blog post

How did you move all of your stuff?
Mostly via FedEx. Twenty six boxes left from Blurb HQ, a couple from Oakland, and boxes of dog stuff from Millbrae. One box was lost and delivered one week late partially full. Four suitcases via plane. Two crates: one large, one small each with a dog inside.

What about the dogs? Didn’t you have to quarantine them?

Yes, quarantining is needed, but not to the extent that it used to be. If you have the luxury of time you no longer need to fly your animals to the UK and quarantine them at the airport for six months. You just quarantine them stateside. So, as soon as we thought the UK move was a strong possibility, basically within a week of getting asked, we started the process. Or again, Shelly started the process. The best thing we did was pay way too much money to a company that specializes in moving animals to other countries. A huge relief. Let’s put it this way: using the wrong color pen on the applications or not getting the correct signature on one page can mean disaster.Still, the process involved several vet visits, FedExed blood samples to a Kansas City lab, paperwork, official certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, emails, phone calls, crate purchases (and repurchases), faxes, a very stressful plane flight for Shelly with the dogs onboard (below with the checked baggage), worm and flea treatments, and a three-hour wait time at Heathrow before they were released. The dogs were ecstatic to see us at the other end and not traumatized at all. Dogs are amazing.

Coming soon: My “Moving dogs to the UK blog post”

How did you find a place to stay?

We thought we could live somewhere temporarily while Shelly looked for a long-term place on the ground, but we didn’t want to arrive in London without a place to live or live out of a hotel. Shelly started the search months before we left and quickly found out that finding a furnished place that allows dogs was nearly impossible. She persevered and found us a one-bedroom flat in Hammersmith for the first month. We could tell stories about this place. It worked out fine in the end because it was a 10-minute walk from Ravenscourt Park, where the dogs got their first taste of London park life and the smell of foxes, the commute was decent, and it was a roof over our head. The bad parts included it being advertised with a washer/dryer and it having only a washer (I withheld the balance of the rent until the landlord rectified this discrepancy); the upstairs neighbors (the landlord) coming home at all times of the night (thank goodness for earplugs); and how grimy it was. We kept telling ourselves that we were in London and that this flat was only temporary. It worked.

For our long-term rental, Shelly convinced someone who had a holiday rental to let us rent it for our entire stay. She worked on this setup from the states and we signed the paperwork just a week or two before we moved in. Ironically the owner had been transferred to the U.S. for pretty much the same time we had been transferred. Where we ended up, in Richmond, is great … lots of parks, not as busy as other parts of the city, and it’s steps from the underground, overground, and South West trains, though my commute to the Shoreditch area of London can be a bit long. The flat itself is ground floor with French doors into our own yard, it’s furnished, and the kitchen sink is the size of one you’d find on a camper and the fridge is the size of one you’d find in a hotel room. We do have a separate freezer (larger than the fridge) and a wine fridge that we use for a couple of bottles of beer and fizzy water.

What’s your commute like?
My commute is interesting. My commute on Bart from Oakland door to door including driving to Bart and then walking to the office was about 50 minutes. My London commute involves one overground train and two underground trains and a lot of walking up and down stairs and escalators or in some cases, a travelator, pushing your way through crowds, and it takes on average a solid hour. I rarely get to sit, it’s usually a tad warm and humid inside the cars, and when the train is crowded you can smell people’s clothes, if they have bathed or played football recently, and if lucky, what they had for their last meal. London’s transportation is quite simply awesome, but when it transports millions of people a day, you have to build up a real fortitude.

Are you having trouble finding vegetarian food?

Not at all because we mostly eat at home.

Actually this question should be “Are you having trouble finding decent food that doesn’t cost a lot?” And that answer is yes. While we have a good number of cuisine choices including Indian, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Belgian, etc. the food can be mediocre at best. What would cost us around $30 – $40 in the Bay Area runs closer to $50 or $60 in Richmond. But no matter what, I can always find something without meat in it. Albeit, the salad might have salad cream on it and the veg sides include chips.

Doesn’t the UK’s health care system suck?
We have used it and so far so good. Let’s put it this way – you don’t pay for a visit to the doctor and you can see someone pretty quickly. Oh, and we can walk to our doctor’s office in less than ten minutes.

And what about the weather?
I gotta be honest here. The weather has not bothered me one bit since we’ve moved to the UK. We’ve had a snow, rain, cold, fog, and all that wintry stuff. We’re good with layers, we have long underwear, the dogs have rain jackets, umbrellas are always within reach. So far so good. Check back with me in six months.

What does your blog’s tagline mean?
Don’t worry about it. It’s one of my favorite phrases. I picked it up while in Peace Corps Thailand. The Thai use it for everything even when they really are worrying about it.

And … ?
OK, enough about me. More expat posts to come. Hopefully more often than one every five months.

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