Thursday, July 30, 2009

Life as an Expat

We’ve always dreamed of living abroad, so when the opportunity for Keenan to transfer to his company’s London office came up, there was no discussion about it – we were going! As I write this post looking out to the cloudy and rainy skies from the spare bedroom (more an office now), I still can’t believe we live in London! It is truly a blessing to start out our married life here in this amazing city.

While this blog is intended to keep our friends and family up to date about our time in London, we also want to make it useful to those who are planning to, or about to jump across the pond to the U.K. As Keenan wrote in his post “The British Raj…in England” back in November, it is true that bureaucracy permeates every aspect of life in the UK, especially for expats, where life revolves around red tape, documentations, more documentations and oh yes, ink signatures and snail mail! I cringe when I hear: “I am afraid electronic statement of your credit card or billing statement will not suffice.” Urghhhh…..

All this leads to unnecessary frustration! Allow me to elaborate with our experience with opening/adding my name to our UK bank account this morning. I’ll let Keenan share his thoughts on this one; see below under "UK Banks." But first, let me back up and share our experience with getting our visas and housing.

This part was quite easy and straightforward as this was a work transfer. Fortunately, for me it was easy as well and I applied for my spousal visa several months after Keenan moved to the U.K. We completed several forms, submitted documentations such as our marriage license, university diplomas, and passports, and a week later, the UK immigration office returned the passports with a 5 year work permit/visa. I know several expats who applied on the Tier 1 Highly Skilled Immigrant Programme, which allows them to seek employment upon arriving to the U.K. To be eligible, you have to meet a certain number of points based on your age, educational attainment, salary, etc. I have heard that the Tier 1 visa process can be a pain, so we’re very thankful that the visa process was relatively easy.

Keenan was in charge of this task; I was in Berkeley finishing up my master’s degree. Since he was assigned a relocation agent, this was also somewhat painless where he gave his requirements to his agent and subsequently, she took him to view some 30 properties over 3 days. An additional role of the agent is to negotiate the terms of your lease which must be done in every case in the UK. Rarely do tenants end up paying the asking price on rent, usually lower. Not knowing London initially, he visited a lot of different neighborhoods to get a representative sample. The quality of area and accommodations ranged from extremely upscale to downright filthy and scary. If only I can find the photos he sent me of the flats he viewed -- some were less than desirable.

Keep in mind that 90 percent of flats in London come furnished (landlords get a tax write-off for the depreciation on furniture that they lease). In fact it’s harder to find an unfurnished flat in London, and if you opt to have your own furniture, you may have to pay the landlord extra for furniture storage. We didn’t know that upon arriving to the UK and all of our furniture was on an ocean freighter across the Atlantic. We really got lucky with our 2-BR/1BA flat right off of Clapham Old Town that came unfurnished. The owners were having their first child and decided to buy a place on the south coast with a bit more space, so they wanted all of their furniture anyway. If you don’t have a relocation agent, then I suggest you register with a local letting agency in the neighborhood(s) you want to live in, and they’ll be happy to show you properties as they become available. Also, rent is quoted by the week here, so if you see an advert for 400GBP, that’s 400GBP per week x 4.3 weeks.

National Health Service (NHS):
I know President Obama is currently pushing for healthcare reform as we speak and some are skeptical of having a universal health care plan. This morning, Keenan and I went down to our local Clapham Family Practice to register with NHS which everyone who lives in the UK must do at some point. We already mentioned that expat life is mired with tons of bureaucracy, so we thought we would have to jump through hoops at the local NHS. To our surprise, I’ll say that registering with the NHS was A LOT easier than adding my name to our current bank account! We walked in, showed them our passports, marriage license, proof of address, filled out some forms, and we were able to make a “surgery” (read: doctor/health) appointment with the General Practitioner for next Monday, 3rd of August. Not bad. I know health care reform is a contentious topic, but it is really troublesome to know that some 46 million Americans are uninsured, yet healthcare cost in the US accounts for 16% of GDP, nearly twice the OECD average. Sure the NHS is not perfect, but I am comforted by the fact that if I cut my finger and need stitches, I don’t need to shell out $500+ dollars out of pocket.

UK banks (from Keenan):
This post is long overdue! I began the process of setting up my bank account before I arrived in the UK. My relocation agent recommended a particular bank (one of the major UK ones) and it was slightly easier to setup initially because I was already technically “employed” by a UK company. If I wasn’t employed, and I’ve known people in this situation, the task of setting up a UK bank would have been near impossible since foreigners have no credit history when arriving here. To start the process you will need a letter from your employer confirming employment, proof of UK residence, a valid immigration visa and a work permit. You will also need to post all original forms, with ink signatures to the bank in order to open the account. From then it’s a matter of weeks before it’s up and running.

What happens next is so arduous and painfully frustrating it actually feels unpleasant to write about it…

Your debit card doesn’t just arrive. You obtain a form that needs to be completed and mailed back to the bank requesting a debit card. A few weeks later, you obtain a debit card along with a letter stating that you need to complete an additional enclosed form to activate your card. You then need to mail this form in to obtain your pin number by mail. All in all, it should have taken me about one month to get a functioning debit card up and running, but things spun wildly out of control with all these forms flying around. To make a long story shorter, things got sent to the wrong address, needed to be reissued several times, cancelled, reissued, cancelled and finally reissued for “security” reasons. The end result was me writing an extremely strong letter of complaint with lots of strong language and threats to my relationship manager (something I strongly recommend you use if you have a UK bank). Lily and I wanted to share this letter in this post, but unfortunately I didn’t archive it in my outlook and it is now gone. Probably better that way actually.

Since this incident, service has improved dramatically, although there is still plenty of incompetence in any UK bank. For example, it was relatively easy to have Lily added to my credit card account, but incredibly painful to have her added to my bank account. I’ve checked around and talked with my friends in the UK, but all banks here seem to operate in similar ways, so there is no point in switching. It would only force me to go through these steps once more. I could write more on the password requirements, customer IDs, smartcard readers, and other irritating topics on UK banks, but I am already mentally exhausted from reflecting on my initial experiences.

We hope that this post is somewhat helpful for all you folks planning on jumping the pond. It's not all that bad, and the pros of living in this fantastic city certainly outweighs the "minor" frustrations with UK bureaucracy. We hate to end this post on a negative note. That said, we're really excited about our upcoming weekend travels: Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, and Geneva, and seeing Hamlet with Jude Law in a few weeks!

Have a great weekend!

Update 09/09/09:

I still have not received my debit card since we wrote this post. Why? "It got lost in the will be another 10 working days."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Day Trip to Bath

The last time I flew out of LHR T5 was over spring break on my way back to Berkeley in April. British Airways kindly upgraded me to business class! Yes, please -- thank you, BA! Once you travel in business class, it's hard to go back to Economy. It was very, very nice; you eat with real utensils, get unlimited "top-up" on champagne and premium wines, and of course, your very own flat-bed. Normally, I would fall asleep about two hours into the flight, but I forced myself to stay up to enjoy the experience of flying business. To keep myself entertained, I watched The Duchess starring Keira Knightley as the 18th century English aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, The Duchess of Devonshire, which I thought was very fitting as I was to call England "home" in two short months. Part of the movie was filmed on location in Bath at the gorgeous Royal Crescent and I thought to myself -- "I must make a trip to Bath this summer!"

Fast-forward three months later, Keenan received a magazine called "Americans in Britain" sent to his office in Canary Wharf. As the name implies, this magazine is for us yankees living in the UK providing tips on "how to socially integrate into British society," restaurant recommendations, and adverts for tax seminars (expat taxes = tedious). The name "Americans in Britain" also lends itself for some "good fun" office jokes from his British and New Zealander colleagues. Ha, ha -- very funny! However, in this issue, there was a wonderful article on Bath -- a little reminder that I should book my train tickets soon. Even better, the next morning I got an offer on for tickets to Bath for 9GBP each way -- how'd they know? It's time for Bath!

Saturday morning, we made our way up to Paddington to catch our outbound train to Bath. Zipping through the English countryside, 90 minutes later, we arrived in Bath. If I have one word to describe Bath, it would be: elegant. This beautiful little town is full of charm and gorgeous, and ranks on top as our favourite English towns. I highly recommend Bath if you are looking for a relaxing day trip outside of London. With its buff-coloured buildings and distinctive Georgian architecture, lush green hills that surround Bath, and the River Avon running through town, it is no surprise that Bath was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987.

But, before it was Bath, it was known as Aquae Sulis by the Romans, drawing its name from the only natural hot spring found in the U.K. Since it was healing powers of this famous hot spring that have drawn people here since prehistoric times, it is most appropriate to start our day at the Roman Baths Museum and Pump Room.

Among the many achievements of the Roman Empire was their advanced engineering skills. The Roman Baths, both a temple and an elaborate bathing complex, is one such example of brilliant Roman engineering. The Museum itself is quite extensive and I encourage you to spend at least an hour and half listening to the audio guide, which is free with your tickets. Of course, the highlight of the Museum was the Great Bath in the middle of the complex. You can even enjoy a meal in the famous Pump Room, and if you fancy, taste the vile mineral water for a small fee. Ummm, no, thank you.

Adjacent to the Roman Baths is the Bath Abbey, which was built in the same architectural style as London’s Westminster Abbey; that is Gothic Perpendicular with the fan vaults as its most notable feature. Stunning and beautiful.

After lunch at the Boston Tea Party, we sauntered along Barton Street up to the Bath Circus, where we stopped to admire the beautiful Georgian architecture designed by John Wood, Sr.

We continued our walk to the Royal Crescent built by John Wood, Jr. between 1767 to 1774. Like the Bath Circus designed by his father, the Royal Crescent comprises of 30 interconnected elegant townhouses fronted by 114 columns and built in perfect symmetry and proportion. Beautiful. Next to the Royal Crescent is the lovely Royal Victoria Park, where we could have spent the afternoon under the warm sun, but alas we continued on with our walking tour of Bath.

The next stop was Pulteney Bridge, an 18th century span over the River Avon, lined with shops and restaurants. The vantage point from the opposite of the river is equally stunning.

Bath is just own of those towns whose beauty and elegance you cannot forget. And, we look forward to another trip to Bath, perhaps next time with a visit to the Thermae Bath Spa. Of course, our partly sunny day turned rainy by the early evening, and that was our cue to go home. You have to love the English summer!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

LHR - T5

With no outbound ticket in hand, yesterday I made a trip to London Heathrow (LHR) to hang out at Terminal 5. Now, why on earth would I do that, as I hate killing time and waiting at airports? Well, it turns out that my good friends from Berkeley had a long 6-hour layover in LHR enroute to Cairo (jealous!) and I really wanted to catch up with my dear friends. I figured with my "lady of leisure" status and with the perfect excuse to procrastinate writing yet another cover letter, I should meet my friends for lunch at T5. So I schlepped it all the way out to LHR on the tube with my Ipod and The Economist and it was totally worth it! I was very happy to see my friends even if it was for a few short hours at Cafe Neros. They, of course, were a bit delirious due to the lack of sleep. Hope you guys are having a fantastic time in Egypt! Happy travels!

Later in the evening, Keenan and I had a wonderful time celebrating our Fulham-based friend's birthday, who turned the big 3-0! Happy Birthday!

Love, Lily

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Goedemorgen from Den Bosch, Netherlands

As you may know, any post of mine that begins with something along the lines of “I recently had an opportunity…” indicates that it was a work-related trip (see the different posts on Germany and France). Well, “I recently had an opportunity” to go to the Netherlands for another work trip, but spent most of my time in a small town in the middle of the country that I shouldn’t identify. I have been to Amsterdam in the past, so I didn’t miss the fact that I was skipping this great city. The week was fairly whirlwind with very little downtime whatsoever, but my colleague and I were able to make it out one evening to s’Hertegonbosch, more commonly known as Den Bosch.

The city reminded me of Brugge, but with fewer tourists to distract you from the beauty of the natural surroundings and architecture. The end of July and August is a popular time for the Dutch to take holiday, so the city was filled with Dutch on holiday, but it didn’t have a touristy feel to it. Den Bosch is on the tourist circuit for the Netherlands, but I don’t think most visitors make the one hour train journey down from Amsterdam.

The restaurants and cafes are superb and spill into the streets and onto the main square in front of the town hall. Based on my observations and my own meal, this is one of those towns where the risk of a disappointing meal seems low.

If you are in Amsterdam for a few days and are looking for something a little different, it is well worth the one hour train ride to S’Hertogenbosch. The trip was very purposeful and getting out of Amsterdam allows you to see typical Dutch life in small town settings; flat agricultural landscapes scattered with sheep and cows, windmills, and lots of people cruising upright, back straight on bicycles through the streets.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sunday Afternoon at Windsor Castle

Our couple friends from San Francisco came to visit us for a week! On their agenda included: catching up with their married friends ie) Lily and Keenan, Oasis concert at Wembley x 3 (including one evening where they were drenched in rain, beer, and “golden showers”), and visiting an English castle. When my friend said she wanted to see a castle, of course, Windsor came to mind! So I went on and booked us four return tickets from London Waterloo to Windsor Riverside for a Sunday outing to Windsor. Keenan joked that he should call his Sundays – Medieval Sundays, having visited the medieval town of Brugge the Sunday before. Maybe we’ll head out to the medieval coastal town of Rye next Sunday just for fun. =)

A bit about Windsor Castle. Together with Buckingham Palace and Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, Windsor Castle is one of three official residences of Queen Elizabeth II. Apparently, Windsor Castle is the oldest inhabitable castle in the world, and Her Majesty spends many weekends here hosting both private and official state events. The castle itself was built some 900 years ago, and was restored after the disastrous fire in 1992.

Before touring the castle, we crossed the River Thames to the town of Eton, famous for the Eton College, a prestigious boarding school which graduated some eighteen British Prime Ministers since it was established in 1440. Other than Eton College and taking a few photos on the bridge, there isn’t much to do on the northside of the river.

Across the river to the charming village of Windsor, we stopped for quick lunch on the High Street before making our way to the ticket counter, through security, and finally to the courtyard of Windsor Castle. As expected, the lawn and rose gardens were perfectly manicured and the grounds were all well maintained – indeed fit for a Queen! Once inside the castle walls, there is a pathway guiding you through the public part of the castle. The Eastern Terrace is strictly off limits as this is the Queen’s private residence.

After wondering around the grounds of Windsor Castle, we went into another queue to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, which was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyen (as in Delhi’s Lutyen) at a scale of 1:12 and towers over three feet tall. Let’s just say that if you don’t fancy dolls, you won’t fancy this dollhouse. It’s quite disgusting knowing how much the Royal Family spent building this ridiculous dollhouse, although I do appreciate the level of detail thanks to Sir Lutyen. Next, we visited the State Apartments, which is a showcase of art galleries, family portraits, armors, craving, old furniture, chandlers, the King’s Drawing Room, the Grand Reception Room, etc. I think opulent pretty much sums up the decor of the State Apartments. The tour ends at the beautiful St. George’s Chapel, the resting place of George V and Queen Mary.

We took a break at the Windsor Royal Shopping Center for coffee and tea before taking a train back to London where one of our friends continued his journey to Wembley Stadium for his third Oasis concert in four days. But lucky him, no rain forecasted, just beer and maybe some “golden showers.” It’s always a pleasure to have friends visit!

Cheers! Lily

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Enjoying the Cricket!

Over the last two weeks I have had the opportunity to go to two cricket matches in London, one at the world famous Oval with some work colleagues and the other at the “home of cricket” itself, Lord’s Cricket Ground with my Dad, an avid cricket fan.

I wish I could pretend to fully understand cricket, a game with a lot of rules and details, but as I am writing this post I continue to read the Wikipedia entry on it, so I’m not quite there yet. Each of the matches I watched was what they call a 20/20 match (20 “overs” on each side), a shortened and faster paced version of the original “test” cricket. The game itself reminds me of American baseball, but scoring in cricket is much more frequent with the number of “runs” reaching into the hundreds. For this reason, I think 20/20 cricket is a game I could get accustomed to if I can get to understand all of the rules. I have always generally enjoyed higher scoring sports like American football and basketball over slower paced sports such as baseball.

The match at The Oval was between Kent and Surrey and we were able to enjoy it in the hot sun with a brilliant English concoction, a Four Pint of Beer Crate designed for individual consumption. The match at Lord’s Cricket Ground with my Dad was The British Asian Challenge between the Middlesex Panthers and the Rajasthan Royals, the Indian Premiere League’s champion last year. Besides some initial rain, the match ended up being a lot of fun in the end.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Trappist Beer Trappings – A Belated Father’s Day in Belgium

Quick Belgian Brew Lesson:
It is important to note that a beer labeled as “Trappist” is one that is under the control of Trappist monks within a Trappist Monastery. In the world there are only seven breweries that are authorized to have the designation of Trappist (six are in Belgium and one is in the Netherlands). Furthermore, Trappist beers are sold only to financially support the operations of the Monastery and to fund other philanthropic causes. All Trappists, with the exception of the single Dutch brewery, are ales or rather top fermented. The six Belgian Trappists are Chimay, Orval, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Achel.

All other Belgian beers are high-quality commercial operations, designated as Abbaye and typically license their name from an existing or retired Abbey. An Abbaye can range in style from blonde, amber, pale, white, or stout to varieties that are more unique to Belgium such as a Lambic. End of tutorial.

When my Dad and I were discussing what to do for his trip to London, a few of the usual ideas were tossed around, but we ultimately decided on a weekend excursion to Belgium for a belated Father’s Day outing and proper Belgian beer trip. He had been to London several times before and we both wanted this trip to be something a little different. It worked out perfectly as he was able to experience two very iconic London traditions; Wimbledon and the Cricket at Lord’s Cricket Ground (see Ode to Wimbledon and Enjoying the Cricket posts) in addition to the Belgium trip.

We boarded the 6:59 am Eurostar from St. Pancras International in London bound for Brussels, arriving to Brussels-Midi station just after 10:00 am Brussels time (1 hour ahead of London and only a 2 hour journey). After hopping on the Metro and taking it four stops over to de Brouckere station just across from our hotel, the NH Atlanta on Max Adolphe Boulevard, we washed up, headed out and got straight to business. We had set out with the intention of finding a nice place for lunch and headed towards the Grand Place before noticing an eye-catching Gothic-styled archway at the opening of a narrow stone corridor which eventually led us to a very old and traditional Trappist beer bar, Au Bons Vieux Temps (“The Good Old Times”) filled only with local Belgians (both the people and the beer). Three very strong Trappist beers later (two rounds of Westmalle and one round of Westvleteren), my Dad and I had become engulfed in conversation and banter with the locals as well as the owner herself, Madame Maria Triest who insisted on buying us another round and showing us to her favorite lunch spot nearby.

Madame Triest is a very outgoing, former teacher fluent in several European languages and the widow of a former officer in the armed forces. Simply walking around the city center she was greeted by and conversed with local shopkeepers, police officers, and restaurant owners, each of whom appeared to know her very well. She took a lot of personal interest and care in showing us the sights and explaining the history behind what we saw as well as what we drank. She later joined us for a coffee where she and my father enjoyed more laughter and conversation.

Unfortunately we only knew her for a few hours that day by wandering randomly into her bar, but we know that she is one of those people in this world that we were truly lucky to have met. Cheers to you Madame Triest and thank you for your warmth and hospitality!

After sleeping off the heavy and highly alcoholic beer, we went at it again, but this time a little farther afield in a neighborhood just north of Brussels Park to a great place called Le Bier Circus. Here we took it a little easier with a light dinner of scampi and pasta with only a couple of rounds of Rochefort. Afterward we wandered the alleyways surrounding the Grand Place and Hotel de Ville before retiring for the evening and resting up for our trip to Brugges the next morning.

Brugges was a nice day excursion outside of Brussels and there isn’t much to do besides strolling around the canals and the city center (the main areas of Markt and Burg), but you can pick up some nice chocolates and taste the local Abbayes while enjoying the slow pace. The only criticism I hear of Brugge and that I can relate to is that it’s a bit over the top on the “touristy” scale, however, that should not be a deterrent to miss out on this quintessentially Flemish town.

Overall, it was a fantastic belated Father’s Day excursion with my Dad and one that I’m certain neither of us will forget. We initially went for the trappings of beer, but found much more in the end; that sometimes the best experiences in life are the little details and people that just creep up on you at times and in places you might have never expected.

More photos of Brussels & Bruges.

From Brussels & Brugges, Belgium