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.
What 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 down 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.
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
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).
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!!!
Dryer– 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.