When we moved to the UK, there was a lot to learn quickly. The insane tax system, with its mysterious income tax (you don't get the breakdown on your paycheck to know what money goes where), council tax (like a property tax, even though we only rent), the TV tax (which was significantly more if you dared have a color television), and the 17% VAT tax (that's a sales tax), was the first labyrinth we navigated.
The next obstacle was driving. It turns out that you can drive on a US license in the UK for 12 months, at which point you need to obtain a UK license. And there's no shortcut - you have to get the permit ('provisional license'), take the written theory exam, a 'hazard perception test' where you identify potential hazards in a series of 30-second video clips of driving, and the practical exam.
This wouldn't have seemed so daunting if not for a few things: my (admittedly minor) car accident one-hour into driving in the UK, a truly disastrous driving hour with an instructor recommended by a colleague at work (he picked apart everything I did - when I shifted, when I depressed the clutch, where my hands were on the wheel - to the point where I was literally afraid to do ANYTHING and doubted whether I had been fit to drive for the previous 9 years; it may not have helped that he had an inpenetrable Scouse accent and I had been in the country for about 4 days at that point), and the awful stories from everyone I met when I brought up the driving exam. I am not kidding - literally every person I told shuddered at the memory of their exams, told me they didn't think they could pass now, that they'd only gotten harder since. I met two people (2!) who told me they had passed their first time - everyone else told me it had taken them three, four, even seven times to pass the exam. A colleague who had grown up in the UK and travelled to the US to work for my company and had to get a US license called to tell me how much more difficult it was to pass the UK exam.
All this basically resulted in me relying on my favorite fallback option: procrastination. I elected to NOT think about it for as long as I could.
Each month, my boss would worriedly call me into my office and ask me about my progress. I would promise, each time, that I would make a more concerted effort to do something and then push the idea as far from my mind as I could.
I should add here that at this point, I had bought my own car with great difficulty - I have no UK credit, so obtaining financing was awful. I was denied seven times at a number of dealerships, until work was able to find a Ford dealership who offered me 18 percent financing over a term that lasted as long as my contract, no more. With the restrictions placed by work on the minimum model I could buy (a Ford Focus or larger, diesel, 2 liter engine), and what they had in stock, I was looking at my choice of 2 £6,500 cars. They were both 2005 models, which meant that I would be spending as much on my car here (without including financing) as I spent on my BRAND NEW 2005 Hyundai when I graduated college. But I'd be paying over 3x more per month for it, and it would have over 50,000 miles when I started. For those of you doing the quick math, that was over £300/month, or almost $500 USD/month I'd be paying for my used Ford Focus.
And that doesn't even BEGIN to address the difficulty I had obtaining car insurance. People literally laughed at me when I called for quotes, and when I could get a number from them it was generally between £5,000 and £6,000/year, or even higher. I eventually found a bare-bones plan from the Post Office that would take into account my US license, and my 3 years evidence of having made no claims on my policies, and offered me a quote of £2300/year. For those of you doing the conversion in your head, that meant I was paying over $3600 USD per year for my insurance. The last policy I'd paid for in the US was from Progressive, fully comprehensive, and cost me $400 USD.
But what could I do? I needed to drive for work, so I sucked it up as best I could and paid. All the while my boss harangued me about getting my UK license, he kept telling me how much cheaper it would be to insure myself. And that made sense, given my experience trying to get insurance on my US license, right?
Let's fast-forward. After passing my written exam and hazard perception test, I did a driving hour with someone recommended by a fellow dog-owner from the park. This experience was markedly different from my last, as he told me I was great and just needed to make the appointment and we'd practice some of the manouvers.
I made the appointment, but the soonest I could get was two months away, the day after we would be returning from the US for a friend's wedding. I was nervous, but before I left did a few more hours and I could feel my confidence improving.
I showed up for the exam and it was fine. It took almost 45 minutes from start to finish, but I answered the instructor's questions and made myself relax as we drove around town, parallel parking (they call it 'reverse parking' here) three-point turning, pulling over and doing my best to obey speed limits. I was pretty relieved I didn't have to reverse around a corner or backing into a parking place (though I had practiced them to death and was pretty sure I'd have been ok). When we returned to the test center, my instructor turned to me and smiled - she said it had been flawless, no marks, and I had passed the test. (Sidenote: you're allowed 15 minor infractions, like not checking your mirrors enough, doing things in an incorrect order, crossing your hands on the wheel, etc; but if you didn't check your mirror and there had been a car there, or you hit the curb, or continued with a manouver and there was a pedestrian anywhere nearby, etc, you would immediately fail)
I did a little dance in the parking lot, proudly showed my instructor and brought my test sheet into the office to show off. All day, I felt great, like a giant weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I got home, took the dog for a walk and gloated to all our dog walking friends about my success. They all encouraged me to call my insurance company when I got home, and that's just what I did.
That's where, if this were a movie, you'd hear the soundtrack stop and with stunning clarity you would hear the voice on the phone telling me that with my updated information, the computer model saw only that I was a brand new UK driver, without taking into account my years experience driving in the US, but apparently still taking into account my age and no claims (3 years, remember) from the US. And now my annual premium was £5036, which meant that the outstanding balance I had (to cover my insurance from January 26 to March 26) was £411.
I'm not going to lie, there were tears. I spoke to their manager, and their manager above them. I was informed that I could cancel the policy, but then I would be uninsured - and it was already 8pm, too late to call many companies to get a quote for a new policy. Additionally, by not finishing my year with a single company, I would lose any ability to claim the last year I was in the UK as a one year UK no claims bonus. I had a business trip the next morning, and didn't know what to do. I called my boss in Dubai and woke him up (it was midnight there) but he had no better ideas.
I was shocked, left without a choice, and subsequently made £411 poorer.
I'm still trying to figure out what to do next...
On a lighter note, Miller is sporting some new head gear. We picked him up from the farm in Wales after travelling back from the US. As usual, he smelled awful but was bounding around as if he owned the place. We took him home, gave him a bath, and settled in.
A few nights later, we noticed he was scratching and biting a spot on his back where we'd noticed a bump before. The vet at the time had thought it was an ingrown hair and would go away, but now as we felt it we could feel it was raised much more and could feel other bumps nearby.
I took him to the vet Friday afternoon and she shaved off some fur to get a better look. The poor pup had so many bug bites! She suspected that it was an insect/flea from the farm, and said our monthly Frontline treatments might not deter all the different fleas. So Miller got a steroid shot, a fancy skin soothing shampoo, and a cone of shame.
The vet said he would get better about walking around it in, but as far as the furniture, stairs, and the backs of our legs are concerned, we haven't seen any improvement.