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Monday, February 28, 2011

Rain rain go away, come again some other day ...

I suppose this little life experiment of mine is yet to be determined if I look back and say it was the best decision I ever made or if it turned out to be a huge mistake but one thing is for sure:  this is going to be one of the biggest learning experiences in my life and I will never see the world the same again. 

I have always said that the only way I have ever been able to grow as a person is to push my limits and see if I can grow to a greater potential by taking one step beyond what I think I can do.  I have yet to hit the point where I haven't been strong enough to figure out how to take that next step so I guess I'll just see how far I can go and make the most out of every success and misstep along the way.

I'm finally starting to find my stride in the new city.  For the most part I have figured out the transport and can get to most places with a little planning ahead of time (my version of planes, trains and automobiles - trains, tubes and buses). 

I have had a great time at happy hours with the group from work.  They are a great group of people and they are so social, they pretty much have a standing happy hour on Friday's after work at the Hogarth which is the pub across the street from the office. They have promised to do a pub crawl with me through Teddington in the coming weeks so I can see the "classier" places around the area but I can't see it getting any better then the Hogarth! And as you can see by the photo above, my bus stop to go home is right outside the front door so it is actually pretty convenient to get home after drinking.  I have to say I love the British sense of humor.  I was laughing so hard on Friday night that my stomach was literally sore the next day.  I also got an extensive lesson on service levels and tipping.  There are really no table servers in the pubs in England so if you want a drink, you go to the bar and order.  I was reprimanded on my third round of drinks for over tipping.   Apparently, tipping more doesn't mean you get a higher level of service so the expectation is a bit lower for the amount you tip here - good to know!  

This weekend was my first step in meeting new people outside of work.  I have found a few groups on to connect with people who have similar interests. Saturday was lunch with other American expats living in London.  We met at Cafe Pacifico for authentic Mexican food.  Having moved from Colorado I think I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to Mexican food but I was actually really impressed (although I have to admit my expectations were pretty low on what Mexican food would be like in London).  The chips and salsa reminded me of home and while I don't think they have really mastered the concept of "smothering" all in all it was a great meal.  The group was very diverse in people from those that had just relocated to London like myself and some that had been here for many many years.  It was interesting to hear their different perspectives on the city.  Many of the newcomers had a common gripe about the weather which has been pretty much non-stop rain since I arrived three weeks ago.  I have finally given up on staying in on the days when it rains because if I do I never get out of the flat! I have been reassured by many that this spring and summer will bring at least a few days that will have 'intervals of sunshine' - gotta love those intervals and make the most of them when they pop up I guess.   Many of the expats had lived here quite a long time and had become citizens here.  One topic that I found particularly interesting was the discussion of the 'melting pot'.  How we often talk about the States as being a cultural melting pot but how really London is a much better representation of a true melting pot then what you see in the States and I do tend to agree.  While there is some diversity in the US for the most part in the major cities many of the different cultural influences are separated into their own distinct neighborhoods which doesn't seem so much the case here.  I was walking in Convent Garden area on Saturday and I heard five different languages in walking a single city block. It's such an amazing opportunity to meet people from all over the world. 

Sunday I woke up to the sun shining and was so excited because I had planned to go back into the city to meet up with a photography group for a five mile walk along an abandoned railway line to take pictures.  I took the 45 minute train ride into the city (delays due to upgrades to the overground lines so the city can prepare for the 2012 Olympics) and a 30 minute ride on the tube (subway) and when I resurfaced at the Finsbury Park station it was pouring down rain.  I did find the group which was actually pretty large given the weather and after a quick vote, we had decided to grab a coffee and head to the Museum of London to see their street photography exhibit.   Another great group of people and although it wasn't the day I had expected it was still a great day in the city.  There are so many museums throughout the city and they are all free to the public.  There really is no lack of things to do and see - I really do love London and all it has to offer if you get out and experience it.

One of the expats in the group on Saturday recommended the Borough Market for what she claimed was the "best grilled cheese sandwich you will ever eat in your entire lifetime."  With claims like that I just cannot resist checking it out!  I do love me a good grilled cheese sandwich...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Still kicking after the first week....

So I made it through my first week in this strange land that they call England.  I'll be honest, I really stumbled through my first week, making plenty of faux paux's along the way but I'm learning so hopefully one thing will lead to another and eventually it will all fit into place.

This first week was for the most part getting the "adult" stuff taken care of so unfortunately while I thought it would be all drinking at the pub and extravagant tours around London, in reality it was more about setting up bank accounts, getting my National Insurance Number in line, getting up to speed at work, setting up the flat with the necessities, etc.  Not exactly the "sexy" part of life in another country but something we all have to do when we first move to a new place. 

It has definitely been interesting - EVERYTHING is different.  First off, I have always had a car to run errands and get me wherever I want to go at my whim.  Now, going anywhere takes some planning and timing to make sure I can take the bus, train, tube to where ever I need to be.  Anything I buy while I'm there, I have to be able to carry back to the flat on my own. Gone are the days of filling up the substantial back of my Jeep Wrangler after a day of shopping in three different cities. Just as an example, I have a client meeting to go to on Tuesday in the northern part of England and that one days worth of travel will consist of five different train lines and two lines on the underground.  Luckily my daily commute into work is just one bus that drops off basically on the doorstep of my office and that only takes about 20 minutes.  I did figure out very early that if you are going to be running around on the bus/tube system much in London you will want to get an Oyster card, which is basically an electronic card you use to pay when you get on the bus and tube.  You also get a pretty substantial discount with the card so I would say even if you were coming to London as a visitor and were planning on being here for more then a few days it would probably be worthwhile for you to pick one up while your here as well.

 Grocery shopping has been interesting as well.   Although I have found the food to be good (apparently there is the perception out there that the food is bad here as I heard it time and time again before coming over) all the brands are different.  So if you are brand loyal to any food or hygiene product, you will most likely be out of luck here.  I wouldn't say that I'm brand loyal anyway but it is a process of trial and error to find the things you like all over again but I'm working it all out. 

As far as prices, I don't know that everyday products are all that much more expensive here, just depending on where you go.  They do have a substantial taxation of about 20% on products that have been processed (so for instance an apple will not have VAT charged however if you buy apple juice because it has gone through a process the VAT will be charged) but unlike the States, the tax is already built into the price on the shelf so basically what you see is what you pay.  I do like that much better then the tax being added on at the point of sale like it is in the States.  Taxes seem to be a big part of the conversation all the time here and they do pay quite a bit more in taxes.  For instance, my company benefits are paid for by my company but I am responsible for the taxes.  There is also a "council tax" that is paid to whatever borough you live in, my bill already arrived yesterday!  They don't waste any time do they? I do get a discount for single occupancy at my residence (finally, a benefit for being SINGLE!) but the bill does come to a whopping GBP172 which at the current exchange rate is about $275 - yikes!  I guess that's what I get for living in the swanky part of town, I need to move where the poor people live so I can afford my council tax!  Overall while their taxes might be more apparent here I do tend to wonder how different it really is as many of these taxes are happening in the States as well its just built into your mortgage payment, etc but I'm not sure I ever paid a tax on a property that I rented in the States.

The people have been so nice, particularly those at the office.  I really cannot complain as they have all helped to make me feel welcome and give me advice on getting settled.  As a general rule, it just seems like they are more polite overall.  I'm still working out all the meanings of the words "cheers" as they seem to use it for several different meanings.  It can mean your welcome, thank you, goodbye, etc... I'm not sure I will ever become an adopter of the word cheers to be honest, it doesn't really roll off the tongue with my American accent and I feel like a poser more then anything else when I tried to say it but maybe over time that is one of those things that will grow on me.  If you catch me saying it when I come home, call me on it.

I did set up a bank account last week am very excited to say that I finally have a debit card to use which will make life a bit easier then carrying cash for every purchase.  I had read about it quite a bit online and it had sounded like it was going to be a bit difficult to set up an account but I made an in person appointment to meet with the bank across the street from work and really I just had to take in several pieces of paperwork to prove my identify (my passport/visa, American license, old bank statement, old utility bill, etc.) but they were friendly and helpful.  Although, I would say they smiled while I took it up the you know what because the exchange rate at the bank wasn't exactly to my benefit when I put my American dollars into my account but I guess that is all the price of the move, of which there were so many at this point I'm kind of just throwing my arms in the air and shelling out the cash.

This week I will be all over England for client visits.  I guess in the way that client business travel in my old position allowed me to see so much of the United States, work travel here will take me to locations all over the UK.  I'll be in Liverpool, Swindon and Preston this week already.  This may be a good way to get a flavour (I also have to re-learn spelling as well by the way since many words here are spelled differently) for different areas of the country I may want to go back to at a later date.  For now, I'm still busy exploring more of Southwest London in the area I'm currently living in and maybe checking out a few other areas to which I might want to live in a couple months after I've gotten settled.  I do like Hampton, it's actually a pretty upscale area only about a mile away from Hampton Court Palace.  I'm walking up to the Palace later this morning to visit and take pictures, after all, how often to I get to say that I live up the road from a Palace?  It is a great place for a single woman as it is very safe and quiet but if at any point I want to get into the more social/nightlife of London then this isn't the best spot to be.  It's not a great hub for public transport into the city and there really isn't much of a nightlife here to speak of that I can see so far.  I'd love to live in an area called Richmond but it might as well be called Rich-man because there is no way I can afford to live there but there are a few other areas of interest so I might go exploring in those other towns this weekend and see how I like the feel of the different neighborhoods.

Well I'm off to introduce myself to my neighbors at the Palace.   Cheers.  D'OH!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

First day in my new home, initial observations ...

Yesterday was my first day in my new flat.  I'm living in Hampton about one block off the River Thames.  It still doesn't quite feel real.  I did have my first pint in the local pub yesterday and walked all around the area to get a feel for the place.  It seems like a quiet area and not too far from the train station into London if I wanted to get a little more into the nightlife of the city it wouldn't be too much of a chore.

Initial observations are as follows ...

1.  No closets.  I know that I had an over abundance of closet space in my three bedroom house given that I was living alone and in that regard I was a bit of a spoiled brat.  But seriously, no closet in the bedroom, no hall closet, no linen closet...NO CLOSET!?!? There is a nice sized warbdrobe and a dresser in my bedroom and it did fit all the things I packed over in my two very large suitcases but it should be an interesting experiment in storage when the other 7 boxes I shipped over arrive.  I'll adjust, just a little shellshocked for now.

2.  Market is all local produce.  I went to the local market yesterday to pick up the neccessities to get started (dish soap, laundry soap, nutella -yummm).  It was interesting that all of the produce in the grocery here looks local - not as pretty and plump as the huge overdone produce in American chain groceries but kind of makes ya wonder what they do to our veggies and fruits to make them look so maincured. 

3.  Electrical differences.  For the most part I left all of my electronics back home knowing that the outlet and currents here were different but I did bring over some neccessities to get started.  Note to self ... make sure to flip blowdryer to 220 power BEFORE plugging in seeing as how I almost set myself on fire this morning trying to blow dry my hair.

4.  Trains, buses, subways.  The public transit here is so much better then anything we have in the states but far better then Denver in particular.  The only key is being able to decifer the lines, timelines and stops for the three different systems.  Today my homework is to jump on the bus and see if I can make it into the office by myself like a big girl.  Wish me luck because tomorrow is go time as I will start in my new job in Teddington in the morning.  I was told that I could come in at 10AM tomorrow morning so they must not have a lot of confidence that the American will be able to figure it out.

5.  Space in general is at a premium.  The entire flat is set up to be space efficient.  My washer/dryer (yes both in one unit) are under the kitchen countertop and I think it may fit one of my pairs of jeans.  I can see that I will be wearing clothing more then once before washing from here on out as that little washer will not be able to keep up with my wardrobe.   Centeral heat is almost unheard of here so most of the housing is heated through radiant heat so I will also being going out today to buy a blanket and some warm socks.  Although I don't have a dining area, I do have a table that folds out with four folding chairs underneath it.  So if anyone wants to come over for dinner, let me know in advance as I will need to rearrange and prepare for your arrival.

6.  Locals seem friendly.  I was pretty wiped out yesterday after forcing myself to stay awake in order to adjust to the 7 hour time difference but my limited exposure to some of the locals was that they were friendly and helpful when I asked for something.  I'm not sure how accepting they will be of an American woman hanging out on her own but hopefully after some time I'll stumble into my own social circle and meeting people will just kind of fall into place.  I'll give them my big brown puppy dog eyes and hopefully they will take pity on me and invite me out from time to time.

7.  My neighbors wireless internet isn't secure.  Maybe I'm being hacked as we speak but being reconnected to the world is nice, I'm not gonna lie!

I know it sounds a bit like whining at this point but I am excited by all the changes.   I'm actually looking forward to living a bit more simply and seeing how the other side of the world lives for awhile.  I'm sure I can learn a thing or two about living a better life more focused on things other then material belongings.  I'm off to catch a bus, hopefully I don't end up on the other side of London by accident :) I guess at this piont, everything is trial and error and hopefully eventually success!