Friday, April 24, 2009

The Rules for Scooters & Motorcycles

Since I have already dished about driving in the United Kingdom ( so I won't repeat myself...okay, I will try not to repeat myself. But now that I am a real driver (yes, I am. True story.) I have a few more observations to make about the whole scene.

Did you know that in the UK it is perfectly acceptable to pass on the right? It sounds harmless when I say it, but imagine sitting on the right side of the car, driving on the left side of the road. In your mirror you see a car coming up alongside you, usually much faster, and it kind of throws you for a second. It was a bit scary the first time it happened. That isn't the thing about motorcycles, though. The thing about scooters and motorcycles is that they can pass in between lanes of traffic that are otherwise stopped in traffic. So imagine sitting in a traffic jam and suddenly a motorcycle comes along, weaving its way alongside the stopped cars, carefully avoiding everyone's mirrors and (for all intents and purposes) cutting in line - because that is essentially what they are doing. Like the person who drives up the shoulder in a traffic jam, the motorcycles and scooters are getting out of having to wait like the rest of us.

The first time I saw this happen, I said to John in my high-pitched, 'no way' voice, "Did they just - did I just see that motorcycle do that??" He answered, without even looking at me, "Yep. It is legal here. They don't need to be in a lane. I asked someone about it myself." To which I replied, "That is SO not fair."

It then occurred to me that I would never see that happen in America...the "cutting" being allowed for some people and not others. The first reason is because things, whether good or bad, are generally kept pretty fair in the US. I mean this in a very broad and general way. Second, I imagine that anyone ballsy enough to try to cut in line could be subject to someone's door "accidentally" opening as they approached with little or no time to stop, colliding with the open door and therefore possibly resulting in an injury to the motorcyclist, and certain damage to the car door...which would then be a lawsuit for one or both parties. The United States is pretty adept at averting situations that could result in a lawsuit of some sort. I never realized how true that is until we moved to the UK...but that's another post for another time.

By the way, while I have your attention, I would like to say that I really, really, really HATE HATE HATE scooters. They are HORRIBLY whiny and loud. Yes, they are better for the environment than a car...but what about my ears??? We live near a university campus, so I think I hear a disproportionate number of them on a daily basis. And since it is probably mostly university students, I hear these buzzing monstrosities at all hours of the day - and night.

At first I was able to laugh it off, thinking about Eddie Izzard doing his imitation of the Italians on scooters, saying "ciao!" But now the weather is wonderful for having the windows open and so I REALLY hear them. (I've said it before and I'll say it again...if you haven't seen Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill, you are REALLY missing out. So go rent it. Buy it. Just make sure you see it. Or try try this link...the stand-up part of it begins about four minutes in. It will be the best hour and fifty minutes you have spent in a long time. I promise. ) If you insist on only watching the scooter part (which would be a shame) it is at about the 26 minute mark. But you'll be missing some seriously SMART and funny stuff by only watching that part.

Okay, I KNOW I am being a crazy old lady in getting all agitated and annoyed by something as minor as scooters whizzing by my house every day at all hours. I accept that about myself and love it anyway. So there.

Now go watch Eddie Izzard. It gets funnier and funnier as it goes along. You'll thank me. And, if you go to the UK and you are stuck in a traffic jam, do not open your car door. You can't say you weren't warned.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bank on it

If you plan on doing any sort of commerce while in the UK, you better bring your card and leave your checkbook at home. I'm not talking about shopping with an American credit be honest, I never really used my American account here. We set up our accounts here right away and for anything in between, I had cash. What I'm talking about here is the system for shopping here versus shopping in the States.

In the States you can usually pay one of four ways. Cash, credit, debit, or check. Obviously not all places accept checks, but until I arrived in the UK, I never realized how antiquated the check really is. Don't get me wrong...if I don't have cash with me, I will choose writing a check over giving Visa another opportunity to charge a merchant another fee. (Yes, I am one of those anti-'big bank' people.) But after I asked a few merchants here, "Do you accept checks?" and they looked at me as if I had a bleeding third eye growing out of my forehead, I realized they don't use checks like that.

What they DO use, however, is a fraud-proof card system that really seems to be a great way to cut-down on card theft. It is called a PIN and CHIP card. The card has a teeny little chip on it that only works when inserted into card reading machines - not swiped, but inserted - and the card reading machine requires you to enter your PIN...that part is like using a debit card in the US, except that here, the PIN is required for your credit card as well. And, unlike a debit card, there's no option for the customer to process the card as a credit card with no PIN required. Only the merchant can choose that option, and that rarely happens. If you forget your PIN, you are pretty much stuck.

So when you use your card at the register at any store, you enter your PIN. If you use it at a restaurant, they bring to your table a handheld unit where you have to enter your PIN. The guy at the table next to you can be using one, too....they are on a wireless system of some sort, and so more than one transaction can be processed at once. There's no waiting, which is good. (It occurs to me right now that I should have invented the handheld unit. Damn.)

So one more thing about the cards. I'm going to save you a moment of panic when you go to the ATM, pop in your card, plug in your PIN, and read the "One moment while we deal with your request" message. (They need to "deal with" my request? Sounds like I'm annoying them.) Anyway, your card will be spit back out at you with a series of loud beeps. It is NOT because you don't have any funds in your account. A few uncomfortably long seconds later, your cash comes out. Then there is a message that says, "Thank you for your custom" and you don't have to remember to take your card, nor do you have to dispose of a receipt. So once again, it's pretty efficient.

While we are discussing banks, let me add that if you are a bank robber, don't come to England. It appears to be nearly impossible to rob a bank here, and I say that not as a person who sized up a bank to rob. Rather, it was interesting to notice how different banks are constructed here. There are small branches with little or no lobby, open from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm, with two to four windows with tellers behind security glass and with slide out drawers on the counter to exchange stuff with you. (Like in a drive-through in the US.) That's not so unusual...I'd say it is comparable to a bank in the US that's in a really bad neighborhood or something, with all the security measures protecting the teller.

But the big branches of the banks here ARE unusual to me, as an American. At the entrance you will find a handful of uniformed staff with clipboards, ready to greet you and point you toward one of the dozen ATMs built in a semi-circle-shaped wall behind them. There is not a counter nor tellers anywhere within view. The ATMs have signs above them for deposits or withdraw (but called something else that I can't think of right 'taking out' or 'putting in', seriously.) If you need to talk to a person, you have to tell the clipboard people, who take down your information on their clipboard, walk over to a little kiosk with a computer, type in your details, and ask you to take a seat and someone will be with you shortly. Then, depending on what you need, another uniformed staff person shows up and takes you to the next section back (still no where near the actual tellers at counters, which may or may not exist at these branches) or up one level to another floor. Both of these locations look like an office with a bunch of cubicles. Still no counter or tellers to be found. And definitely no safe with a giant door leading to the safe deposit boxes like you see in the States. If you have cash to deposit as part of whatever you are talking to the bank employee about, they will take it and come back with a receipt. Where it goes is anybody's guess. Or I suppose any non-bank employee's guess. There must be a teller somewhere, as there must be a safe. But it's in a difficult place to get to, and probably an even more difficult place to get out of. I'd bet that any bank robbery here would have to be the result of an inside job. Of course that is just speculation on my part...I hope to never hear about it or see it happen.

So what I am saying about banking in the UK is this: PIN and CHIP cards are a great idea. If you are a bad guy, you'll find yourself particularly challenged in the UK. There's no easy way to use stolen credit cards, you can't forge checks because no one takes checks, and you can't go barging into a bank and rob it.
And again, I say this as an OBSERVER, not as a potential perpetrator.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Driving, Part Deux

I'm a driver. I drive. I'm an INTERNATIONAL driver, in fact. So there. Add it to my resume. (Remember that movie with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus called What about Bob?? When Bob gets up the guts to sail, and he is strapped to the sailboat shouting, "I'm sailing! I sail!" Another movie that I HIGHLY recommend...the dialogue is hilarious. ( oops...another digression) Anyway, I'm a driver. I drive.

You may be asking, "How did that come to be, Renee?" Well, let me tell you. It came down to whether I wanted to spend a rainy afternoon at home with John, Jack and Ian, (all of whom were watching some soccer match on tv) or an afternoon of freedom, essentially. Freedom from the responsibilities of the house stuff. From the guilt that accompanies an afternoon of doing nothing. (I know, I know, I put that evil on myself. You don't have to tell me that.) Freedom to just stroll around the store (rabid cart wheels aside) and, if I so choose, compare every single per-unit cost of every single item I buy...or to read every single label of every single item, or to double back a few aisles because I forgot an item. HOWEVER, getting there to be the lame, strolling-about, label-reading, aisle-repeating weird lady was up to me and my ability to drive.

I wasn't great at know, taking up both lanes a few times as I tried to orient myself to just exactly where I needed to be on the road. And it was tricky in the parking lot, for sure. Turning into a parking space from the opposite side of the car AND road is challenging. Going the wrong way in the parking lot really threw me because it is such a small space with no room to "get over" if I found myself going the opposite way of everyone else. But I did pretty well. Okay, actually, I forgot A LOT while trying to park, and I got honked at. If I could hear them cursing me, I bet they would have said "stupid yank" or something along those lines. But I am exactly that...a Yankee in their country, doing stupid things as I try to get by.

You know what? In general, it was EASY. The driving was easier than the parking. Granted, I was out on a Sunday afternoon, but was much easier than I imagined it to be. Am I ready to drive in London? Hell-to-the-no. But around my neck of the woods? Yep.

Friday, April 17, 2009

No talking grocery bags here

Going grocery shopping in England? Let me prepare you for the experience, because it's not like shopping in the States. Like much of what I have described for you, it isn't's just different.

I'll begin with the cart situation. There are four things about the carts - which are called 'trolleys,' by the way - that make are different than what we have in the States. First of all, let me tell you right now that the cart you get is not broken. No matter what store you find yourself shopping, you will no doubt be thinking that you have the bad cart with the bum wheel. But all the carts are the same...and the way the wheels turn every which way is not an indication that something is wrong. The wheels are just like me on this one. You can stand there at the entrance of the store all day long and try different carts. It will be the same. (Not that I did that or anything...I mean, how foolish would that have looked???)

Before you can get your cart, though, you might have to put a coin in the handle to get it released from being locked. Don't'll get it back. Similar to the luggage carts at the airport, many of the grocery stores here require a coin to release it, and you get it back when you return it. They even sell key chains with a 'fake' coin on it that you can use to get your cart, and the stores themselves sell the key chains, so it isn't fraud or anything. I have speculated on the reasons why they require the coins at all, and the only one that makes any sense to me is so that the carts get returned. However, it doesn't seem likely that there is a missing cart problem, or at least not in any of the stores where I have encountered this, so it's just my speculation. I don't see a homeless population, nor do I see anyone using carts outside of the parking lots for other reasons. So really, I don't get it. But if you are trying to get a cart from the stall at the entrance and the cart seems stuck to the other one in front of it, don't bother going over to the next row and trying that one. Or the row after that one, either...they aren't stuck together, they are locked. Yanking on them won't help. You'll just look stupid. (Not that I did that, either...again, how foolish would that have looked, yanking on rows of carts, when all that needed to be done was depositing a coin in the handle?)

If you are looking for a cup holder, you aren't going to find that on your cart. That's a good thing, really, because once you see how willy-nilly these carts go, you'll realize that your drink would just be spilled all over the place. Seriously, the base of the wheels rotate a full 360 degrees, independent of each other, and they are NOT in need of oil...they not squeaky and they spin and rotate without ANY drag. Your cart goes sideways at the same time it is moving forward and at the same speed. There's no one-handed pushing, and I can safely say that they are actually difficult to control in comparison to an American cart. In fact, there are different handles on the carts at my favorite store, Sainsbury's. The handles raise up above the straight bar across the front. I've attached a picture to show you...the blue part is what I'm talking about. These handles help you control the cart much more than just the plain straight bar for sure.

The last thing you'll notice is a separate compartment in your cart for your bread and for flowers. True. There is a section at the front of the cart, opposite of the kiddie seat that will hold your baguettes and your flower bunches and keep them from getting squashed. Pretty clever.

Aside from the carts - I mean, trolleys - being different, there aren't many other visible differences that would make you think you aren't in your hometown grocery store in the US. There are only two other things I notice as different when I am there - I mean, as far as what I see when I look around.

The first thing is when I go to buy fruits and veggies. The produce department in every store here is the same in that the produce is in large green bins with flip-open lids that obviously come from the producer. The bin is similar in size and shape to a recycle bin in the US and I assume they use these bins instead of tons of cardboard boxes. Great idea, isn't it? I'm not saying it is straight from the ground, or sloppily thrown in the bin - it is bunched or bagged or packaged just like it is in the States - but it is contained within the bin. The produce department people just roll out a pallet with the green bins stacked, and they set the bins on a slanted display surface, flip open the attached flap lids, and the contents are displayed, ready for the shopper to just take the product out of the bin and place it in the cart. Just like a Dierberg's or an Albertson's or any other store in the US, there are sprinklers above some of the displays, and of course there are bags and ties and scales as well, but there is not a fancy display of each piece, or bunches arranged in rows. It is practical and it works.

The second thing I noticed was the absence of baggers at the checkout. I should first mention that the English are GREAT at not handing out plastic bags for every purchase. They will ask you if need a bag, there are signs reminding you to bring a bag, there are canvas bags for purchase (cheaply) everywhere, and there are no paper bags available. Along this same line of thinking, they have customers bag their own stuff while they check you out. And since this is NOT America, you are probably not buying dozens of items at one time, and if you are, they are not huge and over-sized. I think the absence of baggers can be attributed to two things (and this is just my opinion) that seem to be consistent here. The first is the thing about bags...they don't want to encourage you to use theirs. They want you to bring your own and bag your own stuff. The second is the customer service aspect that is prevalent in the United States and distinctly absent here. That customer service thing is not just my opinion, either. Several of my British friends have commented on the outstanding service they always get in the States as opposed to here. But that's another post for another time.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Grocery Shopping in the UK where I tell you the names of all the food that isn't what you think it is. Or something like that.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

93,000 square miles to protect

Sometimes in the midst of my day-to-day existence here, I am briefly stunned by the realization that this entire country is about the size of Oregon. Not that the size of the place is really relevant, but it occurs to me that the problems I have had in trying to live here seem SO much larger than the physical space it occupies. But at the same time, it also makes the need for such stringent immigration rules more apparent. What they've got going here is a pretty good thing...especially for such a compact space. They can't mess around and risk ruining it.

Then....I see something like the article I have linked to below. The reaction of the British to the US State Department brief, in my opinion, was a bit over the top. And it shines a less-than-flattering light on what the reasoning behind the rules might actually be. To me, it now feels anti-American, and thus personal, as opposed to what I formerly respected as their need for self-preservation by exclusion.

I KNOW, I isn't about me. I really do know that...but what I'm talking about here is how I feel. Some of the comments from the British just look stingy and boastful and belligerent. And that's not how I want to see them...that's not how I want to remember my time here.

Of course I speak in generalities. When I look at it specifically, I couldn't ask for a warmer welcome or better friends here than Simon and Claire, Anna and Tim, or Tara, or name a few. Again, it's more just me pouting and feeling bitter about how it all panned out with the work permit process.

Take a look at this article. It is from my hometown paper, The Oregonian. (I also found it interesting and coincidental that it involves the two places I have lived over the last 12 months.)

Maybe I can get a job at the State Department, compiling briefs that actually contain relevant information for the President. Think about love of politics combined with my love of research and writing? Aside from it making me a rip-roarin' fun gal at parties, it could actually be the perfect job for me. hmmmmmmmmmmm............

Friday, April 10, 2009

In holidays we trust

This Easter is the second major holiday I have spent in the UK.

Yes, I am calling Easter a 'major holiday' and I'll explain why. Unlike the US, there is no intentional line drawn between religion - Christianity, specifically - and the government. And no, the place is not overrun with zealots, either. Quite the contrary, in fact, as there are FAR fewer Christian extremists here than in the States and MUCH less of the division between the "types" of Christians. That fact alone says a lot to me about the nature of the religious culture in the United States...but that's not what this post is about. Or at least, not exactly. Allow me to explain.

Talking about religion isn't taboo here. Schools are required to have, among their core subjects, 'religious education' as a subject for at least the first six years of school. ( ) When I say 'schools' I mean public schools. It is part of the National Curriculum. There isn't a big deal made about no one sues the school district or anything.

Religious holidays are acknowledged for what they are as well. As I mentioned before, we are in the middle of a big one right now...Easter. Easter is celebrated with a four day weekend here. Good Friday and Easter Monday are Bank Holidays. People wish one another "Happy Easter" without reserve. Right now The Sons are in the middle of Easter Break...not spring break, but Easter Break. The entire country's school children are on Easter Break. Early this afternoon, when I went to the shops, the produce store was closing at 1:00. The bakery was closing at 2:00. The butcher shop wasn't even open. And it was all in honor of Good Friday.

I can't remember if I posted about Christmas here or not, so I'll give you a brief synopsis of what I observed. The collective holiday season here is called Christmas...not "the holidays." Unlike the US, people in public places wish each other a "happy Christmas," without reserve - and when I say public, I mean in the stores, or even on the news, and on the phone. I spoke to dozens of customer service reps during December as I set up our phone and satellite and such, and they all wished me "happy Christmas" and "merry Christmas" as we were hanging up. I can honestly say that NO ONE here wished me the innocuous "happy holidays," and the few times that I said it, I was looked at strangely. I think it would be safe to say that there isn't a need for those "Jesus is the reason for the season" bumper stickers. Jesus and His holidays are alive and well in England, and no one is offended by it, either.

Since I mentioned bumper stickers, I'll share with you something that impresses me about the way religion is handled here. (There is a segue in this...bear with me.) Now keep in mind that this is a very BROAD and sweeping generalization...nothing scientific or measurable, okay?

We have all seen the those metal outlines of a fish that people in the US mount on the rear of their car, to signify their Christianity. We've also seen the ones that are fish with legs, with "Darwin" inside of the fish body, to signify their belief in evolution. I would say that those two symbols are good examples of two opposing points of view among Christian Americans, wouldn't you?

In America, there are places where people still debate over the opposing views of Creationism (or the theory of Intelligent Design and Evolution ( Those who believe in Creationism think that Evolution is in direct opposition of what God has told us to be true, through the Bible. Those who believe in Evolution think that Creationism is a way to impose a religious view onto a scientific situation.

Again, this is a BROAD generalization here, okay?

In either case, they have chosen a "side," and for whatever reason, in the US, people are forced to take sides. Yes, I know, that is part of America, to have choices and options, to be able to take whatever side you want AND not have to fear persecution. I understand all of that and I am not being critical of it whatsoever. You won't find anyone who loves America more than me these days, trust me.

What I am saying, though, is that maybe we Americans can learn something from the British in this situation. There's no fighting about it. There are no divisions. No one has to take a side, no one sues the City Hall for nativity scenes...they don't let that kind of nonsense happen. Not Christian? Okay, no worries. Enjoy the time off of work. They just live and let live.

Remember, this is the country that gave us Charles Darwin. He could be perceived as the lightening rod for one of the major dividing points in America, couldn't he? Yet in this country of "Happy Easter" and "Merry Christmas" and religion taught in schools, there is also a tremendous reverence for Darwin. They celebrates him in a huge way. There's Darwin Day ( and the national celebration of his 200th birthday this year. Most notably, Charles Darwin is buried at Westminster Abbey. Why is this most notable? Only the best of the best in Britain are buried there... including royalty such as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Edwards I, III and VI, Henrys III, V and VII, and people such as Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and Geoffrey Chaucer. No small feat to be buried there. AND, it is considered the 'holiest' of churches here, like the mother of all cathedrals.

What is my point, you ask? (I get that a lot.) My point is that if a country as discerning as England can wish each other "Merry Christmas" and close banks for Good Friday, yet still exalt Darwin, then maybe we, as Americans, should lighten up and try to do the same. There are so many more important things to debate these days...much bigger fish to fry, so to speak.