Friday, September 21, 2007

I never much liked Monopoly

Last weekend, Andrew and I made an important purchase: a mobile phone (no one here says "cell phone"). Which is good, because I found out yesterday that we have to wait two weeks to get a landline. That means two weeks until internet and TV, too. It all goes back to BT (that's British Telecommunications), which is still run by the government, and is, thus, a monopoly. The British aren't really keen on customer service anyways, so when you add in the fact that there's no competition in an industry, there's barely any service at all. I spent a total of three hours on hold trying to get through to BT just to set up our new phone line. And this wasn't an American-style holding system with music and cheerful voices. This was three hours of hearing the phone ringing in that special British insistent double-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring, fourteen times, then "We are VERY busy right now. Stay on the line." Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. It was maddening. Oh, and this was all in a phonebooth, too, because if I called from my mobile phone, it would be like a pound per minute. No toll-free numbers here; you have to pay to waste your time. I finally got through, only to be told that the earliest they could install our line was the 3rd of October. "WHAT?!?" I couldn't keep from exclaiming. But there's nothing for it, apparently. The friendly Irishman I was talking to said that two weeks is about average. Let's all pray nothing ever goes wrong with the phone line! So he set up the appointment for me, and then at the end of it saw that that whole day had been filled up during the time it took him to take my details. So we started all over from the beginning. Joy. But I have been told that on October 4th I will have phone service. Fingers crossed. Do not breathe. Do not pass go. Certainly do not collect 200 dollars.


The week's shopping has been marked by two overwhelming emotions: the thrill of the hunt and the frustration of being an American abroad. It has been rewarding to put together a new home in, I think, record time. And, since about 95% of our new possessions came from the same place, everything looks very neat and coordinated. Finding the last few items on my list keeps me alert when I'm walking around town, which is always good. Every time I find something new, though, I have to buy it, and there's no telling what will happen.

We first heard about chip-and-PIN technology when we were traveling around the UK this summer. They have it in all their credit cards: a microchip that stores a PIN number so you have to know the right number and can't steal a credit card and forge the signature. Every credit card issued in the UK has a chip-and-PIN, and store clerks are always completely baffled that we don't have them. I've had to explain at least 50 times that we don't have that in America, and people always look at me as if I'm coming from Siberia instead of Florida. Chip-and-PIN is a fairly new technology here, but it has caught on quickly so that many stores won't take anything but chip-and-PIN. This rule is enforced differently at different stores and even by different people at the same store. At the local stationer's (like a mini-Office Depot), they pulled out a dusty credit card swiping machine with carbon paper. At a bookstore one day last week I used my credit card and just had to sign the receipt, then the very next day they sent me off to the cash machine and couldn't take my card at all. At another bookstore of the same chain, they took my card but called Wachovia to authorize it. IKEA charges 70p for a signing card; Waitrose sometimes requires photo ID; and you should see what we had to go through at the bank last week to get cash for our deposit on the flat! Thank goodness Andrew works there, or we'd be out on the streets.

But there is hope in sight. Andrew has an account through Barclays, obviously, and his Barclaycard, complete with chip-and-PIN, is in the mail. Now we just need to get me sorted out, and we'll be able to shop without a care in the world. Now, if only the chip-and-PIN came with free money...but Andrew gets paid this weekend, for the first time in four months. It's a good day!

Hunting and gathering

Oh joy of joys, we are moved in to our new flat! We got our keys last Saturday and moved all our stuff out of Tony's garage on Sunday. I've spent all week shopping, which isn't necessarily as much fun as it sounds, at least for me. On Sunday, Andrew and I took the bus down to IKEA and spent four hours looking at furniture. On Monday I went back down and bought said furniture and picked out dishes, glasses, sheets, towels, trash cans, and everything else we needed. That part was a lot of fun, but it was pretty exhausting, too. The furniture was delivered on Tuesday, and Andrew and I put everything in place over the next couple of days.

Now, IKEA specializes in flat-pack DIY furniture. The great thing about flat-pack furniture is that you put it together yourself, so it's cheap. The trouble with flat-pack furniture is that you put it together yourself, so it takes a lot of time, work, and cursing. But we got it all done, and we now have a bed, two bedside tables, a couch (that we just put the legs and cover on), a bookshelf/room divider, a clothes rack (they don't really do closets here), a side table, four chairs, and legs for a kitchen table, although we're still waiting for the top. So we're pretty much set on furniture. I still can't find lots of random bits and pieces for the flat, though. I had to go back to IKEA again yesterday for extra pillows and some things for the kitchen, and I found an ironing board, laundry basket, and mop at Woolworth's, but I still can't find a broom, for instance, and there's no Target or anything like that here. The grocery stores are small, too, so they don't carry very many non-food items. All in all, though, the flat is looking great and feeling like home. And, just so you know, we are 100% ready for guests, so buy your tickets now!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

And there again

Deep breath. Okay, here we go.

When last I wrote, we had just arrived back in Tallahassee for ten days or so. We had a lovely time at home, lots of relaxing with family and friends, the final bits of packing, even a trip to the beach where we had the whole state park to ourselves and saw no living souls but a few fish. Then we came back here. We arrived on September 2 at Heathrow Airport and had to get to the London Docklands area. It should have taken us one and a half hours. It took four. We had the maximum allowed luggage weight again, just like last time. And just like last time we had to take four different trains to get where we were going. The new twist this time was that just as we got to one of the Tube stations, we had to evacuate for an unknown security reason. The it was buses and tubes and trains from there, until we finally arrived at the hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to discover that Barclays was going to take quite good care of us. It was a really, really nice hotel. We went out and bought Andrew a couple suits for the week and then collapsed. Andrew got up sometime in the evening for a dinner cruise along the Thames, but as I wasn't invited, I slept...for about 20 hours.

The next day, Andrew and I got up and went downstairs for breakfast to discover that every other person there was dressed to the nines, and we were just in shorts and T-shirts. I don't think anyone actually stared at us, but it felt like we'd just wandered in in our underwear. The rest of the day, I felt like I'd stepped into Lost in Translation. I put on some smarter clothes, took a long bath, read the newspapers, had a light lunch at the bar, and waited for Andrew to come back from his first day of training. That evening we went to pick up his suits from the tailor, then we went out for dinner with his new friends. At first, I was really nervous, and I didn't want to talk too much because my American accent sounded so flat compared to all the lovely English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish accents around me. But soon I fell into easy conversation with several of them, and I had a really great time! I learned a lot that night and later nights in the week about the English school system, slang words, clothing styles, and politics. All the basics, right?

Here's a quick primer:
I went to uni, or university, not college. College is a level of secondary school, especially for students going on to do A-level exams.
You do A-levels if you're quite clever. Being smart is totally different; it has to do more with looking nice.
Use the word "mate" with friends or in casual conversation. This applies only to men, really.
Brilliant is fantastic, not clever.
Cheers, while it can mean please, thank you, hello, goodbye, or just about anything else, is really just an extra friendly way to say thanks.
I can't be bothered. This is my favorite. If I'm feeling lazy, I can't be bothered to get out of bed before noon. If a store clerk is rude, I say he can't be bothered to help me. They use this one a lot. I'm starting to get the hang of it, but I can't be bothered to explain it more thoroughly than that.

The week went brilliantly. My parents arrived on Tuesday because Daddy was teaching an IBM seminar nearby, so I got to spend lots of time with them. On Tuesday we went to the Tower of London to gawk at the crown jewels and caw at the ravens. I'm reading London by Edward Rutherfurd, and lots of it takes place right around the tower, so that was fun for me, too. On Wednesday, Mommy and I went to an Impressionism art exhibit at the Royal Academy, then had a proper afternoon tea at the Wolseley and took a lovely stroll through St. James's Park and Westminster. Thursday we spent in Enfield; more on that later. Friday we all explored Enfield a little more and had a really nice dinner at The Stag. I'm sure Andrew and I will go there again. Saturday, we all walked around London a bit, saw the new flat in Enfield, and went to the new Lord of the Rings musical in Covent Garden. All I can say is, Wow. I've only seen large-scale productions of Les Mis and Phantom, but this beat those hands-down for pure spectacle. It was also impressive that they were able to turn it into a three-hour musical. It worked. I mean, it's nothing to the movies, but it was a pretty awesome musical. The costumes and special effects were really cool. The creatures, especially the Balrog and Shelob, were really scary, and Gollum was amazing. What a night at the theatre! On Sunday, Mommy and Daddy had to leave early in the morning, and they made it back safely. So we've had our first visitors, and we're ready for more! Hopefully not until we get into our new flat and work out the transportation system a bit better, though. In the five days they were here, we went onten different tube lines, local and regional trains, buses, and taxis. It was exhausting!

But I promised to explain why Mommy and I had to go to Enfield -- and why we aren't in our flat yet. On Tuesday, I got no less than three emails and a phone call about our flat that we picked out and put a £200 deposit on three weeks ago. Apparently our reference check had failed and the landlord didn't want us anymore. To top it all off, it was my fault because I'm unemployed. Well, I'm sure you can imagine how I reacted to that. I got really mad, and then I went to work. It turned out that we hadn't failed our references; they had refused to check them because they were all American phone numbers. Apparently the £150 referencing couldn't cover about £5 in phone calls. So this company saw that we were American, refused to check our (pristine) references, employment, and housing history, and told the landlord we were unreliable renters. After several difficul conversations and hours of waiting for returned phone calls, I was told that we could still live there if we paid six months in advance (what we were expecting anyways) and started paying rent immediately. And we had to take the nasty furniture instead of getting it unfurnished like we were promised. And we had to move in a week later. That's when I lost it. I very politely told our estate agent that that was ridiculous and we weren't doing it. On Wednesday I made about 20 phone calls and set up a few appointments to look at other flats. I am SO glad Mommy was there to help me. We looked at a few flats together and found one that was even nicer that the first one, closer to the train station, with a nice landlord that we met, and totally in our price range. Sign me up, I said. And, fingers crossed, knock on wood and all that, we are scheduled to move in on Saturday. I had to confront the other estate agents about the other one and failed to get our deposit back, but they agreed that the landlord was crazy and had decided not to work with him anymore. So that's done, at least.

Now let me tell you about the new flat. It's a studio flat on the second floor (we would say third floor, but they count the ground floor as zero), above a news agent's shop. There are two big windows in the front room (we're calling it the bliving room) and one in the kitchen. It's all brand-new, freshly painted, with hardwood floors and crown moulding throughout (note the "u" in moulding. I'm learning...) and really nice fixtures. The kitchen is huge and has room for a narrow table along one wall. The bathroom is really nice and has a bathtub, not just a shower. The bliving room is very light and spacious. It's approximately 13 by 13 feet square, and we're not sure exactly how to divide it up, but we'll work on that soon enough. It's unfurnished, just like we wanted. We're going on a shopping spree at Ikea as soon as we move in :-) New furniture, towels, sheets, dishes, silverware, everything. Hooray!

Which brings me to this week. We had a hard time finding a place to stay in Enfield, so we're up in Stevenage, just north of town on the same train line as Enfield. Stevenage doesn't have much to offer other than a cheap hotel, but there are a Tesco (kind of like Wal Mart but less friendly), a shopping mall, and a movie theater across the street that make us feel right at home (ugh). Our restaurant choices are two "American style" restaurants, Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonald's, and Outback. I'm not even kidding. Andrew has been going in to work every day, and I've been sitting around reading, looking at job listings, etc. I'm basically just willing the time to pass until Saturday. Andrew, however, has been thoroughly enjoying himself. He loves his new job! He gets to be very important, and people listen to his ideas and want to help him succeed. I'm so proud of my husband. Now I just need to get me a job and we'll be all set. So Saturday is the big day. Next week we'll get phone/internet/TV and I'll send out contact info to everyone. We miss you all and can't wait to show off our new flat to visitors! I'll write next week to let you all know how the moving and furnishing goes. Until then, cheers!