Dec 262015

“Crackers” are little tubes of cardboard with small trinkets inside. Usually there is a paper crown and then the sort of items you would get in a cereal box. If you pull firmly on the two sides, a tiny charge of black powder goes off, making a CRACK sound.

Seasonal Stories

For those not familiar with the tradition, Boxing Day is a British holiday celebrated on the day after Christmas. Origin stories vary, but the most commonly told one involves upper class families giving out gift boxes to their workmen on this day each year. Whatever the case, it is both a holiday and a big day for retail, apparently.  Just like in the US, After Christmas sales start today at most of the big retailers- but, we have discovered that a lot of the smaller shops are still closed for the holiday.

More Medical Observations

Unfortunately, I have had occasion report a bit more on the British Medical System.  Christmas eve I got up as usual and set about getting my Festive going.  I started making bread for our evening meal, played with the puppy, finished last minute wrapping, etc.  Then, I sat down in the the workroom for a break annnnnnddd…. started to faint.  Knowing that I might be able to salvage it if I got my head lower than my knees, I went for the floor.  David caught me as I crashed.  The same thing had happened a couple nights before- at the time I thought maybe I was having some sort of ear issues, but nothing really evolved.  There had been a couple other little symptoms that might have been nothing, but might have been something.  So, this time we decided I really couldn’t pretend I was fine without checking in with a doctor.  David called our GP and after I was able to stand, we walked the 1/2 mile to the clinic….. in the rain.  At least it wasn’t snowing!

My poor loaf of bread was about to be left rising on its own for far too long.

The doctor saw me right away.  Took my info, consulted with her boss and decided I should probably go to the ER.  It was perfectly possible that nothing scary was going on, but there were enough scary possibles that she didn’t want to wait getting me set up for all the tests she thought I would need, and the ER would be able to handle them quicker.  Before we left, she offered my a “flu jab”, which I accepted.  Of all the pokes and prods that were coming up, that is the one that hurts the most today!

(Side Note: ER is the US term, here they call it “Accident and Emergency” or “A&E”)

A & E


After a day on his own with DS, Galahad may have been feeling a bit ornery.

So, back out we went, this time to catch a bus to the hospital.  But, in all the hubub I had managed to leave my bus pass at home.  You cannot pay with cash, nor can anyone else double-swipe their card to let you in.  But, you *can* use a Contactless Credit Card.  Basically, most cards here have a feature where you can just hold them up to a scanner and pay up to 30 pounds without typing in a pin or signing anything.  It feels very weird to me, but in this case it came in handy.

The hospital is big and it took us a while to find the right place to be.  First you check in, then they do an Assessment, then you get whatever first tests they need (blood, urine, etc), then you see the doctor.

While I was waiting for my assessment, I just about passed out again.  This time I laid down with my feet over the rail of the chair and my head in David’s lap.  Mo went and told the attendant, but no one came to check or help me, which I thought was odd.  I sort of expected them to put me on a gurney or something at that point, but nope.

Soon after I recovered, I was called in to the assessment.  Christine (from Ghana) took my info and ordered a blood test, urine test and an IV access.  Then we were told to wait in a different area.

This zone was fascinating.  Industrial grey metal backed-benches were lined with people waiting their turn and their family and friends.  An old man with a bandage on his scalp complained at a passing nurse “I have been here over two hours!” he said.  “No one has been here two hours,” she replied peevishly, “Now go sit back down!”  A man absorbed in his smart phone didn’t bother looking up, but raised his hand and called out “I have!”  Several of us stifled chuckles.

An enormous old black woman with swollen ankles sitting in a wheelchair started praying out loud and talking directly to Lord Jesus who seemed to be standing in front of her.
“Lord Jesus, No one has been waiting that long, they say!  Hmph!  Me here, an old lady in pain, just wanting to know what is happening!  I pray for relief for all these people!  Heaven on High, hear my prayer!”  She went on for a minute or two, then sat back, seemingly satisfied.  An orderly passed by and she grabbed him- “Young man, will you please do me a favor, I need hot water in this mug.  There is coffee at the bottom, but it is cold, so just add some hot water!”  The young man promised, and returned quickly.  As we sat, several of the staff stopped by to greet her by name.  Beatrice is apparently a regular.

The man sitting next to her had wrapped fingers.  “Oh, did you hurt your fingers, honey?”  He nodded sheepishly.  But, a few minutes later a doctor came from him, and I could tell his injuries were far worse.  He held his side like it was cut open.  The man with the cell phone went with him.

A woman with a gorgeous African dress and intricate head-dress came in with a man who was clearly acting as her guide.  An older couple sat across from us- their son arrived shortly after and set out to get them food from the cafe.  They spilled coffee on the floor, but seemed pleasant enough.  The lady had a series of tests and was sporting an IV and several other holes.  Another family came in, the Uncle was ill, but everyone was done up in the Christmas Eve best.  The whole place was what my dad would call “a great people watching trip”.

Blood Letting

After some time (not 2 hours), I was called into a little room to have my blood taken.  This was an unnecessarily chaotic event.  My phlebotomist told me that she and her colleague had been called over because it was so busy.  Indeed, as I sat there, people raced in and out demanding things from the tray where she sat.  But, I seemed to be the only patient in the room. David, very wisely, asked whether it was necessary to give me the IV Catheter.  He explained that my veins are not good because of the chemo, so we would like to avoid pokes whenever possible.  She promised to look, and then ask.  She pretty much instantly saw the problem.  It took her two sticks and an inordinate amount of talking to get the blood draw.  “Oh, you DO have small veins don’t you.  Hmm… this one doesn’t want to bleed.  Is this what usually happens?  Hmm, let me try this one over here…..  Move it like this… No, don’t move!” etc.  Eventually she got it, I did not faint, and she got permission NOT to put the catheter in.  I owe David big time, for that one!

The Doctor


There are an impressive variety of these EKG tabs on the market…. I have had at least 4 different kinds in the last year!

After the blood draw, I was sent back to sit in the grey benchairs.  Eventually, a young doctor called me back.  He took my history and then set about to rule out any number of issues.  He did a lot of nerve checks, EKG, looked at my blood results, listened to my heart, looked at the back of my eyes, tested my reflexes, looked in my ears.  Everything checked out fine.  But, in this case, it wasn’t entirely good news.  Without an obvious cause of my symptoms, they had to think of possible nastier causes.  The only way to rule those out was with a CT scan.  We had already missed lunch and it was looking like we well might miss dinner, too.  But, the doctor had a trick up his sleeve.  He left to talk with the person in charge of the CT.  And within a couple minutes he was back, guiding us up to the scanner!  “I may have fudged a few things to get you in so quickly, but I think it is important that we have a look” he said.  Within 10 minutes the scan was complete.  I have never had any major test go that zippily before!

We were ushered back downstairs to the A&E and within just a few minutes the doctor called us back again.  He showed us the inside of my head (spongy!) and said it all looked perfect.  I had not been having strokes, nor did I have any tumors from metastasized cancer, which were the two biggest concerns (after they ruled out heart).  The bad news, he said, was that I definitely have something going on and he doesn’t know what.  Right now his best guess is that it is inner ear-related, so the next step is to see the Ear, Nose and Throat specialists.  He prescribed an anti-vertigo medication, told me where I could fill it, then wished us well.

And, finally we could get back onto our Holiday Celebrations!

slug bread

This is what happens when you leave a batard rising all. day. long.  Big, flat, slug.  I reshaped it, let it rise again and baked it up.  Not perfect, but passable nonetheless.

The Holidays!

Christmas Eve

Christmas in England is a 3 day event.  Christmas Eve (when everyone scurries about trying to finish up last minute shopping, and folks visit and share special meals); Christmas Day (when Father Christmas has left items in stockings, just like in the US, and families get together and exchange presents); and Boxing Day, when you recover from the festivities of the other two days- and maybe go shopping.

Non traditional Christmas FonduFor Christmas Eve, we usually have a special meal.  I will often make turkey or a roast or something Fancy.  But, this year with all the hustle and bustle of things that we have been dealing with, we opted for something a little more streamlined: Fondue!  After our trip to the A&E, we stopped at the corner market and picked up some crusty loafs of bread and a nice Comte cheese, added those to the Emmental cheese and apples and nice Chardonnay we already had, and made ourselves a more than serviceable merry meal :-)

Next, we opened out traditional Christmas Eve 1 gift.  I got a lovely Dough Mat from my son.  That was an excellent gift, indeed!  Soon I was off making cinnamon rolls for the following morning’s traditional meal.  Then, finally, it was time to completely collapse after one of the longest holiday days I have had in a very long time!

Christmas Day

After that doozy of a Christmas Eve, we all opted to keep things relatively quiet on Christmas, which turns out to have fit in well with everything else we saw.  Even the wild toddler next door was quiet for most of the day…. it is possible she may have been off visiting Grandparents.

Honestly, it was a lovely day.  We exchanged presents, sipped cocoa, ate stocking chocolates, and got our new items set up and functional.  I got my first Smart Phone, which should be very useful for navigating around town.  DD got a TV for gaming.  DS got some starter electronics supplies, David got some Badminton rackets, and everyone got nice games and fun bits and pieces for their hobbies.  Here are a few photos, just for the sake of sharing:

Happy Elf All the presents Scottish Pancakes Limbo

















We also decided to try out one of several local traditional Christmas Desserts.  Yule Logs are a chocolate cake spread with filling the rolled up and coated with chocolate.  I got ours at a fancy retailer, so I had high hopes.  But, turns out it was just SWEET.  very, very SWEET.  Might be good with ice cream.  But, next time I make my own and make it with more flavor!

Log Slice

Slice of Yule Log Cake

Yule Log

Yule Log Cake

I did not opt to buy any of the various Christmas puddings that are available, but, they ARE available everywhere.  Little fruit filled cakes, often meant to be soaked with booze and set alight.  And mince pies.  Those are all over the place, too.  Actually, mince pies seem to be readily available no matter what time of year, but for the holidays they take on special importance.  They come in both sweet and savory varieties and I suppose I will have to check them out at some point… though, frankly, they scare me a little!

Boxing Day

After Germany, we are grateful for any store that is open either on a holiday or a Sunday.  So, we were thrilled to find out that many stores would be celebrating today with a sale.  Not that we wanted to be out shopping, but, Galahad had developed a dislike for one of his puppy foods- the one we had left, of course- and we were out of Pee Pads.  So, we really needed a Puppy Supply Run!

We caught an over-full bus into town and tackled the full, but not crazy, mall.  95% of the shops were open- but not the pet store.  Oof.  Next, we tried a food store we knew had a good supply of dog stuff.  But, no love there… 1/2 a mile walk afforded us a view of their empty parking lot.  So, back into town to the more mundane supermarket- and a score!  They had some serviceable puppy food and over-priced pee mats, but we were desperate enough to take it!  Finally, back home on a much mellower bus.  And then, dear readers, here to report to you!

Next Up, Visa Warriors

So, now that all of that has been dealt with, it is time to finish up with our last super-pressing issue of the move: Getting Morgaine’s Visa.  After 3 months of daily struggle, we are finally ready to make the final push.  She and I will be traveling to the US for a whirlwind Paperwork Event.
The plan goes like this:

  1. Fly to the US
  2. File the formal application online as soon as we are out of the country, and set up our appointment at the processing center
  3. Go to the bank and request the paperwork that they have thus far failed to provide.  We are really, really, hoping going in person will help us with this.
  4. Pay to have the process expedited
  5. Attend her appointment and turn in forms and support documents
  6. Pray
  7. Receive the completed and authorized visa
  8. Return triumphant to the sound of trumpets and the song of Victory ringing in our ears
  9. In time for her to start school on the 7th.

Wish us luck, please!!!

In the mean time, I plan to eat donuts and drink iced-tea and do nothing else in particular for a few days while we await our verdict.  Knock wood.

Dec 162015
Close Up
Bromley Nativity

Bromley Town Nativity in a Box

What We Have Been Learning and Doing

Alright, we have been here almost 2 months.  Long enough to get a feel for the place.  But far far from feeling like we know what we are doing!  If you are looking in terms of Big Strokes, living in SE London is very similar to life in the US.  You live in a house, go to work, go to school, have doctors and markets and all that sort of thing, and of course, everyone speaks English! But, there are enough changes to make the culture shock here, perhaps even more acute than it was when we moved to Germany. It’s the little differences…. alllll together.  Plus, the fact that we speak the language means we catch more of the subtle things that we might be missing….  Those sub-textual, cultural-literacy items that we knew we didn’t know in Germany are suddenly an issue here- because we still don’t know them, but other people expect us to!

For instance, my doctor’s office called.  The lady asked me if I could get there in 10 minutes because they had a cancellation.  I replied, honestly, that we live 15 minutes away, so the soonest I could get there would be 15 minutes.  I expected her to tell me that either that was close enough, or wouldn’t work.  Instead, she repeated pointedly “Can you get here in 10 minutes?  I am offering you an appointment because we had a cancellation”.  I had the feeling that she might be trying to tell me that I should say “yes”, but I wasn’t sure, so I clarified that I needed 15 minutes to get there.  She told me to call back tomorrow, with the tone of someone who was thinking “well, I tried”.  I hung up wondering if I was expected to lie, run, or something else.  Things like that happen all the time.

Here are a few experiences we have had over the last few weeks that remind us that we are in a new place.

Pets- David and I are both committed to pet adoption through shelters or rescue agencies.  So, when we got here, we started looking for a dog we could adopt.  Our requirements were pretty simple.  We wanted a dog in the 1-3 year old range to maximize the time it would be in our family, who was medium to small in size (our yard isn’t huge), and who wasn’t “too poodley” (David was bitten by a poodle as a kid).    That was pretty much it… beyond that we were flexible on everything.

Close UpWhat we discovered, though, is that England doesn’t really have the same sort of stray issues that the US has.  In fact, there are so many people wanting to adopt, that they import strays from other countries.  The biggest shelter in the area actually charges admission for people to visit it!  And the rescue agencies can afford to be extremely picky.  They tend to have a very limited supply of dogs, and they won’t hand them over easily. “Tell us what your daily schedule would be like with Barksley”, “Tell us how you would maintain his training schedule”, “Check here to accept that representatives from the shelter may check up on you at any time after the adoption”.  And, all of that is *after* the home check.  We tried to adopt a couple of dogs, but failed to be chosen.  Finally, we decided that perhaps there wasn’t such a pressing need for adoption here.  So, we went through a private breeder and got Galahad.  He is a 10 week old Pomeranian x Jack Russell Terrier and, aside from arriving with a nasty case of roundworms, he is pretty much puppy-perfect.  Adorable, too-energetic, very smart, snuggly, and did I mention adorable?

Paramedics- So, we have narrow, steep stairs.  Really narrow, steep stairs.  I am a clutz.  I fell ambulancedown them once a few weeks ago and wounded my pride.  Saturday I fell down most of them and wounded my ever-lovin-bum!  OWIE!  Unfortuantely, ever since the chemo, I seem to faint really easily.  After I fell, I popped up to show everyone I was fine, and wound up collapsing in a faint in David’s arms.  I then did this 3 more times in a row.  Even with his Stephanie Experience, David decided it was time to call in the experts, and Morgaine successfully summoned an ambulance with paramedics.  *4* paramedics.  Who stuck around for 2 hours!  They checked my neck, took my blood pressure every few minutes, checked my blood sugar, temp, and even ran an EKG.  (Hours later I discovered two electrodes still attached under my socks)

The team consisted of a very young man who was apparently their driver.  The lead seemed to be a woman in her mid-30s, and there was a younger woman in her mid-20s who we guessed was finishing up her training.  Then there was a bearded man around 30, who seemed to be of middle-eastern origin.  At the end, they went out to the truck to “consult and finish their paperwork” but warned me they would come back with their recommendations in 15 minutes.  I took the opportunity to change my clothes and drink some water.  By the time they got back they were comfortable having me check in with my GP on Monday.  But they told me to alternate Ibuprofen and “Paracetamol” (acetaminophen) every two hours to keep the pain and swelling down.

The Bromley Labour Party Headquarters and Social Club, at the HG Wells Centre

The Bromley Labour Party Headquarters and Social Club, at the HG Wells Centre

Politics-  You know how in the US they don’t even want some citizens to vote?  Here, our local councilman came around to check and see if our “fly tipping” (trash dumping) neighborhood problem was better.  We told him we were new, from America, and that we hadn’t ever seen anyone dump trash.  He thought this was great and encouraged us to get signed up for the next local elections.  What?  Yeah, that is right, once you are here 3 months, you get to vote in local and regional elections.  Still not in the Federal ones, but dang!   We later found out this was also the case in Germany, but since our language skills were so poor, we never realized it.  Go Europe with the Democracy thing!

Taxes– The English tax withholdings come at 3 rates.  0% on your first 10,000 pounds, 20% on income up to £31,865, and then 40%  on everything more than that.  Quick and easy.  That’s it.  There are a couple other little twiddles.  Spouses can give 10% of their 10k allowance to their SO, if the SO doesn’t make over a certain amount.  But, really, things stay pretty straight-forward, at least on the front end withholdings.

Christmas Holidays–  I will write about this more later.  But, for now, I will say that things

Tell me you can look at this tree and not hear Vince Guaraldi's

Tell me you can look at this tree and not hear Vince Guaraldi’s music playing

here are a bit more like the US than Germany, so far.  There are a few little booths and rides around the Mall for the season (Mulled Wine, Donuts, wreaths, etc).  But, not really a Christmas Market.  I am told there is more in Central London, but still not quite as much as in Germany and France, for instance.  The decorations went up smartly as soon as Remembrance Day was done in early November.  Stockings are readily available, as are trees and wreaths and decorations and lights of all kinds.  We got another Charlie Brown Christmas Tree and have put up some of our other ornaments, but it does feel rather low-key.

Medical– So, how does English Medical measure up?  Well, I can say that compared to German medical, so far, Germany wins.  Compared to the US, I need more time to think.
So far, I will say that the English system seems a bit stodgy, but functional.  Everyone is covered, and you can expect your basic needs to be met free of charge once you are enrolled in the National Health Service.  The ambulance assured us that transport to the hospital would not cost us anything if I wanted to go.  I haven’t been charged for any medical visits I have been to at all.  There is a charge for prescriptions, but apparently there are programs to defray the cost on some of those, so we are still learning.  David may get his diabetes meds at a reduced cost, for instance, which could really help.

There is quite a learning curve on getting incorporated into the system and figuring out how to work it.  My first experience trying to get my Zoladex injection is a good illustration of that.  First I tried my local medical center, they told me I needed to see the nurse, she told me she was too busy and I should go to the hospital, the hospital told me they had No One Who Could Give An Injection (Whah?) and tried to send me to a sexual health clinic 45 minutes away!  Called our doctor back and he agreed to give the injection, but was clearly put out by it, and didn’t really know what he was doing.  So, we switched clinics.

Next place was easy peasy.  Doctor understood exactly what needed to be done, the nurse gives this sort of injection “often” and knew right what to do.  No problems at all.  Lesson learned- when you don’t like your service, change providers.

What To Do When You Don’t Know– Here is a response that we have discovered is endemic to England.  Ask someone professional a question that they *don’t* know the answer to.  In Germany, the person might look sheepish and explain they don’t know, probably offering to help you find out.  In the US, you might get someone who is defensive, but probably they will get suggestions on how to find the answer, or the person will call around trying to help you find it.  In England?  Well, you might luck out and get someone who will give you some suggestions.  But more than likely the conversation will go like this:

Me: I would like the Chicken Donburi, Please.

Clerk: We don’t have Chicken Donburi, we have Chicken Teriyaki.

Me: I am sorry?  It is on the menu…  It is a chicken and rice bowl?

Clerk: No, we don’t.

Morgaine: (showing him the menu in question) Here, Donburi- it is a whole section.

Clerk: (annoyed) Oh, well Donburi just means chicken with rice.  It could have been chicken curry or Spicy chicken, then!

Me: I would like the Teriyaki Chicken Donburi, please.

Clerk: (rolls his eyes, shouts that there is a take-out order and disappears never to be seen again).

[another store]

Me: Hi, I am hoping maybe you can help me.  I am trying to find Lactase.

Pharmacy Clerk: (blank stare)  What?

Me: Lactase, or in Germany its called “Laktrasse”?  It is the enzyme that helps you digest milk.  For people who are lactose intolerant.

Pharmacy Clerk: (starting to look uncomfortable) I don’t think we have that.

Me: Can you think where I might find it?  It is in different places in each country, but it is usually available.

Pharmacy Clerk: (starting to get annoyed) I am not sure, I will have to ask my pharmacist.  (busies herself with other work, saying nothing about when her pharmacist is expected or anything else).

Me: (waiting politely)

Another pharmacy clerk arrives.

Second Clerk: Can I help you?

Pharmacy Clerk: (sighing) Eh, yeah, have you ever heard of something called Lactasomething?

Me: Lactase, or in the US it goes by the brand name Lactaid?

(Clerks exchange an annoyed look)

Second Clerk:  Well, I don’t think we have it here.

Me: Any ideas where I could look?

Second Clerk: It sounds like a digestive aid.  Go to a Health Shop.

(both clerks stare at me…. time to leave)

The same sort of thing happened with my first doctor.  He didn’t know how to handle a cancer patient from Germany, so he got evasive, defensive, and annoyed.  When we were calling around to schools trying to get information about DD’s visa, 2/3 of the clerks and schools we talked with simply shut us down.  No help, just “I don’t know, how dare you ask, go away”.  Non-British friends report this sort of dynamic happens to them constantly, as well.  It isn’t that there aren’t very helpful people here.  But, there seem to be a remarkable number of folks who are very uncomfortable when faced with unusual or unexpected situations.

There are also a large number of bureaucratic gatekeepers who seem to exist just to prevent you from accomplishing your goals in a reasonable fashion.  Every country has them, in my experience.  But, this country has so many more- and they are so well trained!  Even the French cannot compete with the Brits on officious intractability.

Visas– Nowhere have we experienced this bureaucratic maze and defensive attitude more than in dealing with trying to get our Visas.  For most of us, this was a few weeks of headaches.  For poor DD, it has extended for months. By the beginning of this month we thought we were completely on track, finally!  We had found her a school that would both sponsor her visa and get her into Universities next year.  Then, David took some time off work to go down and get the final info we needed…. only to run into exactly this sort of gatekeeper, who suddenly decided that DD could *not* actually attend their school, or get a visa, and she should just go back to the US!  David, I am told, remained remarkably calm through this conversation, all things considered, but managed to walk himself up the food chain until he was dealing with the woman actually in charge of the whole department.  Today I went down to talk with her, and as far as the school is concerned, we are now, knock wood, On Target.  YAY!!!! HUGE relief.


Now DD has to jump through the same governmental hoops the rest of us had to do- actually more, because she has to show financial statements in a particular format, prove who her parents are, and several other things the rest of us didn’t have to do.  And, of course, she is not allowed to do this from within England.  Because that would be way way too easy.  Her current visitor’s visa cannot be transformed into a Student visa until she leaves the country.  The school wants her up and running by the start of next semester.  So, we have 3 weeks over The Holidays to get this done.  GO!!!

CIMG2601Dryer–  How are dryers different?  Well, most places are not set up to have vents.  So, condenser dryers are The Thing.  Basically, the machine gathers all the water from your clothes into a tank that you empty after each wash.  David and I gave each other this lovely black dryer for our romantic holiday gifting this year.  Yes, we are that sick of having damp laundry.

Buses– Oddly, the London buses don’t allow you to pay in cash.  You must purchase what they call an “Oyster Card” and use that to pay for your fares.

ATMs— All the banks in the UK have an agreement to share ATMs.  No one charges “foreign atm fees” here.

Word of the Week- Joint
In the US a joint might be a marijuana cigarette or the dive bar down the street, or perhaps the place where two things/bones join together.  Here a “joint” is a roast.  Technically, according to Cambridge it is “a large piece of meat cooked as one piece”.  Oddly, it does not necessarily have any joints in it, nor must it even have a bone.