An American in Scotland

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Things I Love

I’ve been threatening to come up with a list of some of the things I like most about my adopted country, so here goes:

The BBC

By virtue of T.V. licensing, which means it doesn’t have to cater to advertisers’ prime demographic of brain-addled 18-24 year-olds, the BBC produces the most amazing nature and historical programs I’ve ever seen. They also produce programs on controversial subjects that no self-respecting U.S. station would touch with a ten-foot pole, like the local village S&M scene…obviously, if you were one of those people who phoned in to complain when Janet bared her nipple, you probably wouldn’t find the BBC as refreshing as I do.

The NHS

The National Health System provides free healthcare (funded through taxes) to 60 million Brits every year. While every British resident is allowed unlimited access to this system, in the U.S., 46.6 million people, or about 16% of the population, have no health insurance and therefore no access to affordable healthcare. In 2005, families who had insurance paid more than $10,000 in premiums and deductibles for it annually.

If you work for a large U.S. company and get group coverage, you obviously can’t be denied insurance, but if you’re self-employed or work for a small company that doesn’t provide healthcare, not only are premiums extortionate but the insurance companies can deny you coverage for just about any reason. You can purchase private medical insurance in the U.K. as well (one of the criticisms of the NHS is long waiting periods for some surgeries, which can be circumvented through insurance) but it is usually only used as a top-up for the NHS coverage, and is much less expensive than U.S. insurance because it has to compete with free-ish healthcare.

It’s really beautiful here

In spite of the fact that over 60 million people live on an island that is a bit smaller than Oregon, there seems to be a lot more green space (forests, parks, farmland, buildingless areas, etc.) than most places I’ve visited in the U.S. I’m guessing it’s a combination of comparatively more protected areas and that Brits tend to live in smaller houses, closer together. Of course, if you asked the pensioners, they would tell you that the U.K. is much more developed than it was 20 years ago and is going downhill.

Incredibly old buildings

I love living in a city that is filled to the brim with ancient architecture. Edinburgh has a wonderful gothic feel beyond even what London has to offer – I could ramble on and on about this but I think pictures speak volumes.

The pub scene

I spent the Christmas holidays in Wales and we spent the majority of our evenings in various pubs, ending with bringing in the New Year at the Hare and Hounds in Aberthin. I think the best part about the pub scene is that it’s a comfortable, everyone’s-invited-including-the-kids-and-the-family-dog experience, not a try-to-go-home-with-someone experience (though I’m sure that happens as well). Our group sat on a worn sofa in front of a fire, drinking, sharing stories and watching the children run around.

Great bread, great cheese

I like buying an unwrapped, uncut, freshly-baked loaf of bread with lots of seeds and bits in it. U.K. grocery stores also sell American-style bread (pre-sliced, processed and packaged) but I have no idea why anyone would want to buy it (maybe single mums on benefits with a dozen kids – yes, they’re here as well). I was also amazed that most cheese here is off-white in color, until I realized that off-white is real cheese color, while the American version adds orange food coloring. British and European cheeses also have superior flavor and texture to anything that’s ever come out of Wisconsin.

Being a short distance from a number of other countries

It’s mind-boggling to be within an hour or so (by plane) from so many different countries and cultures. I love to be able to hop on a plane and visit Paris or Berlin or Milan or Andorra or Prague or Dublin, etc. for the weekend with minimal planning or expense.

Surprisingly happy Immigration workers

I recently went to get my indefinite leave to remain designation on my Visa in Glasgow. As Gareth and I stepped out of our car, a man greeted us and asked if we were looking for Immigration, then directed us to a smiling man in a hut, who checked us in and directed us to more friendly, smiling people inside the main building. After the security checks, we went to a waiting room, and afterwards, were dealt with in the same fashion. The whole experience was, well, pleasant, if you exclude the 500 pounds we paid for the privilege.

Gareth went through U.S. Immigration and said the workers were rude and seemed acutely unhappy to be there. He thinks it’s a combination of the large number of immigration hopefuls the U.S. has to process and the cost, which is much less than in the U.K. Perhaps if the U.S. charged more, the government could pay the workers better and they wouldn’t be so miserable to do their jobs.

Doctors who see you at your appointment time

The first time I went to the doctor, I waited all of five minutes before I was called in. The doctor then apologized for making me wait. Being accustomed to spending upwards to an hour and a half in doctors’ waiting rooms, I’m continually surprised at not having to do this any longer. I used to fantasize about sending U.S. doctors a bill for all the time I could have spent doing something productive. I guess, since the NHS is paid for by everyone, the expectation is that the “everyone” in question should not have to pay for having their time wasted.

The Harley-Davidson void

How blissful it is not to hear the thunderous rumble of hoards of Harleys driving down your street (or across the next county…or even the next state, that’s how loud they are). Before a British Harley owner comments that he or she managed to import one (how wonderful for you) I know there are a few here but the number is a tiny fraction to that of the U.S., and therefore, tolerable.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Death and Taxes

I came across an interesting thing a couple of days ago - actually, I'm furious about it, but I'm pretending to be nonchalant in the hopes that I'll eventually QUIT being furious...The U.S. is the only country in the world that requires its citizens to fill out a yearly tax return, even if they haven't lived or set foot there for years.

The U.K. forgets about you from a tax standpoint after about six months of living in another country (according to Gareth, who had found this out when he moved to California), which is why it never dawned on me that the U.S. would be any different, Land of the Free and all that. But apparently the I.R.S. NEVER forgets about you and expects you to tell them how much you're earning and what you're getting taxed, in case you happen to be paying less taxes than in the U.S. In which case, they'll expect you to pay them instead.

So I'm now at least two years behind on this and wondering what to do about it. I could: a) contact a CPA in the U.S. and get it sorted out or b) make sure I never go back there to live again (it seems as though the IRS waits like a tiger in the long grass until you return - then they pounce) or c) when the inevitable time comes and I DO have to return, which always happens after you swear you're not going to, go through the painful (and no doubt expensive) process of setting several years of back tax returns straight.

And there's also another little bump that I was unaware of pertaining to form TD F 90-22.1, which is an annual form that reports the money over $10,000 that you have in a foreign account. I believe I'm okay on this, but what a pain in the ass.

Monday, October 16, 2006

One Degree of Separation

Living in a city with lots going on all the time, I tend to forget how small the U.K. really is. One thing that highlights this fact is that, relative to the U.S., the artistic talent pool is small as well, so you see the same faces and hear the same names over and over again. As a result, I’ve developed a feeling of familiarity bordering on intimacy with complete strangers that I’d never experienced in the U.S.

The other night I was watching a television program - a panel show comprised of six comedians and a comedic host engaged in comedic banter about current events (a popular format here) - when I realized that I had spoken face-to-face with two of the seven people on the program. Being a token American at the stand-up shows I had attended at the Edinburgh Fringe, I had obliged Dara O’Briain and Ian Stone when they had asked the fatal question: “Are there any Americans in the audience tonight?” And now, here they were, staring at me from my T.V. screen. I bet this sort of thing happens a lot - it probably explains Brits’ laissez-faire attitude toward famous people.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Things I Miss

I’ve begun making a mental list of little conveniences that I took for granted in the U.S. and that, for one reason or another, never caught on here. This should by no means be interpreted as a latent desire to move back, however, since there are just as many things that I’ve discovered since my arrival that I’m surprised never made it to the U.S. (I think another blog entry’s called for). Anyway, here’s the current list:

Door and window screens
Every time I open a window or the balcony door and a large bug of some description flies into the flat, I puzzle over the lack of screens. You would think Brits would want to enjoy the nice breeze you get in the summer when you open the front and back door and leave the screen doors closed, without feeling like you’re inviting random strangers/thieves/stray animals to come inside. The only reason I can think of for this is that most Brits believe that the weather is always terrible (even though it isn’t) so why would they ever want to leave a door or window open to let the weather in? It will be interesting to see if screens become more popular with the warmer temperatures.

Porcelain toilet seats
This isn’t to say that the U.K. is completely devoid of porcelain and the U.S. has no plastic, but I’ve yet to come across a porcelain toilet seat here. It’s amazing how many times I’ve thought wistfully to myself how much I miss the reassuring sturdiness of porcelain under my bottom.

Garbage disposals
I think I miss garbage disposals more than anything else. I never realized how much easier it is to clean up after a meal when you can simply scrape the food remnants off the plate and into the sink, flip a switch (allowing the disposal to do its work) and then load everything into the dishwasher. Having to dispose of garbage in the waste basket is not only messier (try holding up the lid while attempting NOT to get food on the floor and sides of the basket) but also smellier, unless you empty the trash daily.

Electrical outlets in the bathroom
I understand the reasons for not having outlets in the bathroom. But if people are stupid enough to electrocute themselves with hairdryers, curling irons and other electrical devices, their demise is, though certainly unfortunate, not a good enough reason for giving me daily neck and leg aches while I kneel awkwardly in front of a mirror that I’ve propped up against the bedroom wall. Yes, I know, I could go out and spend £400 on a dressing table that goes with my furniture, but right now, my budget won’t allow it.

Mail boxes
I’m not convinced that having a rectangular cutout in the front door instead of a mailbox makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, the cutout’s size only allows for envelopes and very thin packages, which means that you either have to be home to receive bulkier mail or go through the hassle of picking it up at the post office. Second, there’s no flag to indicate that you have mail for the postman to pick up – not that they would anyway, because British postmen don’t consider retrieving mail to be in their job description.

Pleasant post offices
I really miss walking into a clean, cheerful, spacious post office that exists for the sole purpose of moving mail. I think people buy into the Royal Mail franchise like they do 7-11s in the U.S., resulting in businesses that are part post office, part card/toy shop and part convenience store. The majority are unkempt, depressing and cramped, and I always feel happier after I’ve left one.

Forced air heating
From what I understand, heating a house via series of radiators is more cost efficient than the way Americans do it, but my issue is the radiators themselves, which take up wall space that could be used for furniture placement, are impossible to paint behind, and are – lets face it – not particularly attractive.

Clothes in my size
This problem has gone from being mildly annoying to serious since I recently found a job that requires professional attire. I take a U.S. size 2 Petite in suits and a 6 in shoes, the U.K. equivalents of which are 6 or 8 Petites (depending on cut) and a small size 3 in shoes. I’ve been to multiple stores in both Edinburgh and London, and have reached the unhappy conclusion that practically no one carries my size, and if they do, it sells out immediately. Obviously, there are fewer American women who are small rather than medium or large, but there are a handful of U.S. stores that carry a decent selection of petite sizes. After a month of searching, I did find one black suit at a Debenhams department store – it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it will have to do until I either have some made or take a trip back to the U.S.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Path to Righteousness

I haven’t, up to this point, waxed political, mostly because there are a lot of other people doing it who a) talk about politics for a living and therefore (I’d like to hope) have broader and more in-depth views than my own or b) can’t find anything more interesting (or original) to write about.

But I felt the need to spend a bit of valuable blogging space on “The Path to 9/11,” ABC’s miniseries that aired this week. John Rogers attempts to explain how such a factually flawed account of one of the most tragic events in U.S. history could have been green-lighted for production, while Tom Shales of the Washington Post blasts it for its blatant inaccuracies and neo-con fictionalization. CNN also ran an article stating that former President Clinton had asked ABC to “tell the truth.”

So here’s my gripe (or rant or or protest, whichever you prefer):

First, I’m tired of being lied to (docudrama, my backside) with the expectation that I’m too stupid or uninformed to know the difference. Second – and most important – I happen to think there are plenty of Americans who are too stupid or uninformed to recognize crap when they see it (likely the same ones who bought Bush's justification for the Iraq War) and they’ll probably go to their graves believing ABC’s distorted version, which irks me to no end.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Meetup Madness

In my efforts to go from “loner” to “joiner,” I decided to become a member of several Edinburgh area meetups.

A meetup is basically a group of people with a common interest who get together to discuss or do said interest. The meetup website claims to have 2.4 million members and 16,000 meetup groups worldwide. I stumbled onto it while I was searching Gumtree for something unrelated. Although I’ve joined four so far, only the meetups that have an organizer (someone who comes up with the meeting place and activities) actually, uh, meet up.

So Sunday I’m going walking along a canal with the Walking Meetup group (to nurture my nature-loving side), and Monday I’m having a drink and a chat at a local pub with the Occult Meetup group (to nurture my spooky side). At present, no one has stepped forward to own the writers’ group or the American ex-pat group. I’ve been thinking about becoming the organizer for the ex-pats for a couple of weeks now. Before I make the leap from "joiner" to "organizer," however, I’d better do a little research to see what’s actually involved.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Farewell to the Fringe

Monday marked the end of the Edinburgh International Festival’s alter ego, the Fringe. Several newspapers suggested that the festival is suffering some sort of identity crisis and will soon be overtaken by copycat festivals springing up across the U.K. In spite of all this journalistic doom-mongering, however, the BBC reported that this year’s events drew the biggest audiences so far, with 1.5 million tickets sold for the Fringe and International Festival ticket sales approaching £2.5 million (the EIF runs for an additional week).

Last weekend, Gareth’s friend Andy flew up from Wales and we spent most of it running from one end of Edinburgh to the other, managing to catch six comedy shows before he flew back on Sunday.

Although I was amazed by the amount of energy Charles Ross expended while acting out the entire Star Wars Trilogy in an hour, I think my favorite was the Dutch Elm Conservatoire in Prison. I guess it was the opening sequence, when two of the five guys stripped down to micro-pairs of denim shorts, that won me over. Not that the Village People-esque attire was particularly attractive on their less than ideal physiques, it was simply the unexpectedness of it that grabbed my attention, while the the show’s singing, dancing and comedic banter kept me entertained until the end. I suppose I should mention that it was about a group of prisoners who plot to keep a new warden from ruining their utopian prison existence.

Other acts that deserved a mention were Jeff Innocent: Eco Worrier, Ian Stone’s Embrace the Chaos and Brendan Dempsey: England Expects.

Jeff Innocent’s show was about his attempts to incorporate all things pro-environment into his life. As a fellow tree-hugger, I appreciated the message and could relate to his worries about the planet and the future. I guess the only reason his show wasn’t my favorite was because I felt the humor level ebbed and flowed a bit. Obviously, humor is subjective, and Gareth said he enjoyed Jeff’s show the most.

I think Ian Stone stood out because he pushed the boundaries more than the other comedians I’d seen (I was particularly impressed by the Princess Diana jokes). Unfortunately, I happened to be the only American in the room, so he aimed all the anti-American jokes in my direction. I think I was just tired of mentally shouting, “Look – it’s not my fault! I didn’t vote for him, okay?”

Brendan Dempsey’s show was polished and funny – I especially liked the bit about Scots and warm weather. I guess I just needed it to be a bit more off-the-wall and unique.

As an Edinburgh resident, I’m both sad and relieved to see the festival go. But come July, I’m certain I’ll be eagerly awaiting the arrival of the program tome in my mailbox.