30 January 2010

Wherein I whine about how difficult everything is...

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. 

03 January 2010


While Mark and I have made a few trips to Wales and Ireland, there was one remaining corner of the United Kingdom we had yet to visit – Scotland. And since both our offices were shutting down between Christmas and New Years, we had the perfect opportunity.
Mark was drawn right away to the Western coast of Scotland, which had been recommended by a colleague at work. There’s also a fairly well known whiskey distillery there… Coincidence? I somehow find that difficult to believe.
We were able to find a great ‘Twixmas’ deal at a lochside inn that accepted dogs, so the family packed into the car on Tuesday after Christmas and we headed north. As the drive was going to be quite long, we decided to stop along the way at Hadrian’s Wall. This barrier was erected around 125 AD, either to demarcate the boundary of the Roman Empire, or to serve as fortification from the unconquered wilds of the north (apparently people still argue about this sort of thing). As an interesting factoid, Mark claims it was also the first spot/time that passports were used for entry into and exit from the Roman Empire.
We delayed lunch to visit the site, and proceeded to drive in seemingly endless circles around snow covered farmlands until literally stumbling over a parking lot adjacent to one of the Roman garrisons along the wall.

Miller checks out what all the fuss has been about.

The wall

The wall was… Underwhelming. And it probably didn’t help that Mark had been getting me excited for a Hadrian’s Hamburger Hut that he hypothesized would be right next door… In reality, there was just a whole lot of ice and a Roman fort that was closed to the public for the season.
Not to harp on Mark’s unfortunate way of tantilizing me with dreams of food, but he then assured me that there was a McDonalds in the train station adjacent to the motorway where we had gotten off, so we then headed in that direction. I say unfortunate because it was only after getting lost in the one-way maze of Carlisle and its random traffic congestion in the middle of Christmas break that Mark admitted that he had never seen the train station before, and he didn’t think there was a McDonalds anywhere nearby.
Basically, all these delays meant that we didn’t reach our final destination until hours after dark. We had been in the car for nearly 8 hours, the last two of which were meandering A roads (imagine: Rte 123 in Norwell, or Rte 151 in Falmouth/Mashpee) covered in snow/ice/slush, poorly lit, with alternately majestic and menacing mountains at every turn.

The view's not half-bad, huh?!

This is Mark's new favorite face to make when I take pictures. He thinks it makes him look like a certain celebrity...

But we did arrive, which was the important part. While the inn wasn’t quite as nice as the website had led us to believe, it was warm and Miller settled right in. We glanced outside at the loch, with a snow covered mountain in the distance, and collapsed into bed.

The next day, we had a lazy morning reading by the space heater (that sounds so sad, but if you closed your eyes you could almost imagine it was a little fireplace) before getting back in the car. We headed another 20 miles north, to the town of Oban, for lunch and a tour of its distillery.
OK, so there’s definitely an alcohol/distilling/brewing theme to many of our trips, but I have to say that this was the coolest tour thus far. The Oban Distillery was founded in 1794, and the process and equipment has literally remained almost unchanged, with the exception of repairs and replacements to the stills and pipes. They employ only 7 people, one of whom gave us the tour; they work 24 hours a day, 5 days a week (2 people to an 8 hour shift), and shut down for 4 weeks a year (in order to make repairs). We were visiting during the shutdown, so we didn’t get to see the distilling in-process, but were able to see all the equipment and learn about each step in greater detail than anywhere else we’ve visited thus far. We were able to taste the whiskey at various stages in its development, including a 68% alcohol sample that had been aged 13 years in a cask; this final product is watered down and bottled after 14 years.

Oban Distillery

The gift shop; we weren't allowed to take photos in the distillery.
I really can’t recommend the tour enough, and we spent a pretty penny in the gift shop after savoring our ‘drams,’ including another scotch whiskey, Talisker, which I was informed ‘was not for girls,’ though I kind of liked the rollercoaster flavors. It’s a bit smokey, like the Oban, but there’s also a fiery pepper taste as you swallow before it mellows again to honey. Definitely worth a taste, though I think you could only have a bit at a time.
The village of Oban itself was nice, but the cold weather meant that we preferred ducking into cafes and the warmth of the car, rather than exploring much further. In fact, that was probably the only bad part of our trip – the wintry weather made the scenery all the more breathtaking (and Christmas-like) but it also meant we were confined to indoors for most of the time.

It's tough to see in the photo, but there's a pretty awesome mountain in the background...

The town of Oban.
We had another quiet night in the hotel before heading home the following day. Again, it was a long trip (with a shorter stop, this time in the town of Inverary, where Miller was welcomed into the guest shop and flirted with the lady behind the counter) but we made it fun with a bit of silliness and a stop to play in a brief snowstorm that hit at lunch time. Well, at least Mark and I were able to entertain eachother… I think Miller was a little sick of us.

01 January 2010


One of the things that concerned both Kathleen and I was spending another Christmas away from our families. We both enjoy our families so much that is was hard to think of missing out on all the fun for a second year in a row. I know for Kathleen this includes an amazing seafood dinner at her Mom’s, some complicated game usually involving cards (that I suck at) with her brothers, and Christmas morning itself at her Dad’s. For me Christmas is a chance to just laugh a lot with my family. When the three of us are together, my brothers and I always tend to behave like idiots. However when you add in some holiday cheer (aka copious amounts of alcohol), it really is pretty perfect. However Kathleen and I resolved ourselves to Christmas over here in late summer and although there was a valiant (and very very touching) attempt to get us back there last minute, we had already put plans in place.
The tree was purchased and went up the first weekend in December. Although this was a bit early for me historically, it definitely got things kicked into gear quickly. That same weekend we bought Christmas Vacation and White Christmas on DVD and watched Elf for the first time. We also listened to the Elf soundtrack a good dozen or so times which insured that I had Christmas carols thoroughly stuck in my head for the next 4 weeks (who knew that I happen to run to the exact tempo of every carol every written?). Anyhow, this first weekend was when we also started to lay out the menus for our first Christmas as a family. We figured since it was just the three of us, we were free to experiment as much as we wanted with the food.

I was to be in charge of Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas breakfast. Kathleen took on the task of planning and executing the main event’s evening meal. Although it seemed like she had the tougher of the tasks, I did not know about the ace that was still up her sleeve. You see Kathleen had to travel back to the US for the entire week before Christmas. The morning of her departure (at least that is what it seemed like) she handed me a two page list of groceries to purchase while she was away. When I asked why we had to get everything so early she proceeded to tell me how chaos prevails during Christmas at the grocery store and the shelves will emptied like there was nuclear war imminent. I consoled myself by deciding that this surely meant I could add whatever things I wanted to the list including two bottles of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, sour cream and onion Pringles, frozen mini-pizza apps, and a package of Millionaires Flapjacks that the British creepily describe as ‘naughty’ but are ridiculously good tasting and awful for you. (Oh and for the record, despite going to do the main shopping 10 days early, we returned to the grocer three more times and it was never really that crowded nor bare of food).
The weekend she did get home, we received our first flurries of the year. Snow is just so stupidly exciting for me; I was automatically in an amazing mood. That Sunday we had also planned to go see the Messiah. I have seen it performed numerous times with my parents in the US, and when I lived in Japan I saw it done by a Japanese Catholic choir. Kathleen and I also saw it performed in Montreal at an old cathedral one winter and it was amazing. I also have fond memories of listening to this with my dad as he enjoys a glass of scotch and explains why everyone stands during the Hallelujah chorus. So this is a holiday must for me and we were looking forward to it in the modern Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool. To summarize, it was long, cold, acoustically poor, and the champagne spritzer served at Intermission was undrinkable... We made it until the end of the Hallelujah chorus and then jetted out the back door. Sure the head priest gave us a dirty look, but come on the man was wrapped in a heavy blanket like robe while the rest his flock was freezing! Ahh… the holidays!
Kathleen had to work on Christmas Eve despite her numerous attempts to change her bosses mind (as well as some direct email pleas/commands to him by yours truly). Miller and I woke up, ran, and then settled in to a three hour extended edition of Aliens while we waited for her to get home. I can say that watching this particular movie with my dog was pure bliss and relaxation. That evening I cooked a red Thai curry with shrimp. Despite our lack of religious beliefs, Kathleen wanted to stick with the seafood tradition, and we had fun drinking Irish whiskey and de-veining shrimp. The curry turned out pretty amazing. After opening one gift each, we settled in to yet another viewing of Elf.
We woke up around 9am on Christmas day which was actually the latest I think I have every gotten up. First thing was to take Miller out to Sefton Park and make sure he got some exercise. It had actually snowed a few inches the night of the 23rd and that dog loves chasing snowballs. The night of the 24th was super cold and the park was like a skating rink which made the whole walk even more amusing. He is just not too good on his feet (takes after his Mom I suppose). When we got back to the house we did the presents thing and we definitely made out like bandits. I guess everyone felt bad we were all alone?? After the carnage, I proceed to make Kathleen stuffed French toast. This was one of her favorite breakfasts we used to get at Blue Star in Winooksi. I did not do it justice, but stuffed hers with a ton of banana, and added fresh nutmeg and real Vermont Maple Syrup to add to the deliciousness.

Christmas dinner is where Kathleen took over, rightfully so. She had bought a pork loin from a local butcher and found an amazing recipe involving lots of spices and honey. She had it cooking in the oven most of the day and it definitely turned out delicious. In addition to the pork loin she cooked a sweet potato spinach gratin that we somehow convinced ourselves covered off the ‘vegetable’ part of the meal. To finish it all off she had baked a Waiting for Wilma pecan pie made with melted dark chocolate and dulce de leche. It was so sweet that we could only eat it slivers at a time, but was pretty amazing.

We capped off our celebration with a few beers watching the Johnny Cash Christmas Special from 1979. This was amazing in so many ways. It is too much to describe but I say watch it and get ready for the softer side of the Man in Black.

All in all it was a pretty great holiday. We definitely missed our families and spent a lot of time, calling, texting, and ‘web-camming.’ However it also pretty rad for the three of us to hide out over here and enjoy each other’s company. This whole year has just been amazing for us to be able to spend so much time together and I am not quite sure if we will ever have another opportunity to do so. I think it is a pretty good sign that we are not sick of each other yet as well.
Having thoroughly done the holiday, we started to pack our bags for Scotland!