Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Getting Excited for Christmas

We fly out to London tomorrow -- Hooray!

I've just finished my Christmas shopping and am now starting to feel really Christmassy -- carols on the radio, frost on the ground, Christmas decorations up and the prospect of going home. I've also started the packing and all the presents are wrapped and ready to take. Emily and Lauren are almost bouncing off the walls with excitement. I don't know how we're going to get them to sleep on the plane (essential if Christmas is to not be a total washout).

Generally speaking, in the UK, there aren't a huge number of Christmas lights adorning people's homes. However, this US tradition is becoming more widespread. In Mark's parents' neighbourhood a number of people (including one whole street) have clubbed together to extensively decorate their homes with outdoor lights (not quite to the extent depicted in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation). They collect donations for charity from those who go to view their lights. Over recent years, a tradition has developed in Mark's family that every Christmas Eve night we go and look at the Christmas lights.

This year, we won't be at Mark's family's for Christmas Eve, so I don't know if we'll get a chance to take a tour of the lights (although hopefully we will). We thought we'd take a video of our local lights here in our neighbourhood to show them.

Our itinerary is:

  • My family for the 23rd to the 25th
  • Mark's family from lunchtime on the 25th to the 28th
  • Birmingham friends from the 28th to the 29th
  • Mark's Grandad on the 29th
  • Back to my family from the 29th to the 1st of January, with what is bound to be an excellent party on the 31st. If there's anything any of my brothers and sisters can do, it's throw a party.
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

How to Cope without British TV and Radio

Today you have a special treat -- a guest entry from Mark:

When we first arrived in America, I decided that I would not cling to all things English. I was expecting to miss The Guardian, Radio 4, FiveLive, BBC1, BBC2 and Channel 4, the politics, the football, the cricket, but I thought I’d be able to cope. We were coming to live in America, and I wanted to enjoy America for America, to learn to live with and to love the best of its media and its culture. I did not expect that to be difficult because I have always so enjoyed visiting the USA in the past. When I hire a car, I want to get American radio on. When in a hotel room, I am keen to get American television on. Viola and I have always enjoyed the best of American film and TV too, so we were looking forward to catching all the best films as they came out, and seeing the new television months before it comes out in Britain.

For the first three weeks or so, I found it pretty easy to cope. We’d put American TV on each morning in our hotel room, we listened to American radio in the car and there was too much to think about to miss all things English (and you don’t miss good tea, black pudding, toast and marmalade so much when you’re learning to love root beer, jerky and hush puppies). But as the weeks went on, I surprised myself by just how much I began to miss home, and I have had to learn the secret of how to survive as an English person in America. Just in case there are others out there in the same predicament, or others considering the move, here’s how I have managed.

I had never realized how fond of Radio 4 I was until I hadn’t got it any more. Waking up in the morning means the Today programme. Friday evening means Any Questions? Saturday mornings mean The Week at Westminster. Sunday night means The Westminster Hour. When do you laugh as much as when you listen to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue? I am not a gardener, but I always listen to Gardeners’ Question Time. It rarely speaks to my situation, but Money Box is a staple. If you leave the UK and you’re a Radio 4 devotee, you will really miss it. But the good news here is that it is perhaps the easiest problem to solve. Everything is available on-line, not only to listen live, but also archived.

Of course, you’ll need a computer for this, but then you probably have one of those if you are reading this. Ideally you need some decent speakers too, and ideally a good broadband wireless connection and a laptop. With the laptop, you can take the radio around with you. If your laptop is like mine, you can close the lid and carry on listening. And if it seems like a right business going to the web and finding the link each time, just add a button bookmark for Radio 4 and Radio 4 live at the top of your Firefox browser.

I do the same for Five Live and of course one could do it for any other channels one listens to regularly. One problem with Five Live, however, is that many of its sporting events, including all the football, are unavailable on-line. And, alas, the thing I have really missed recently is Test Match Special. The BBC did not have the rights to broadcast the recent England v. Pakistan series abroad. I am hoping that that will change in the summer.

Si-Link FM Transmitter
Si-Link FM Transmitter
Speaking of Five Live, the audio feed tends to be that bit weaker than for Radio 4, and this raises the general issue of listening on the laptop: sometimes it’s just not loud enough. But a couple of weeks ago I found a great little gizmo for $15 (reduced from $30) which you can plug into the ear-phone socket of your laptop and it broadcasts a local signal for you to pick up on your radio. This was a revelation. You have to place the laptop pretty near to your radio, and you have to do a little tweaking, but once you are used to it, it is a great way of getting the radio feed from your laptop loud and clear. It’s called a Si-Link FM Transmitter and is a great investment.

Television, though, is a bigger problem. When my brother Jonathan came over to see us a couple of weeks ago, he brought with him a video of some of the highlights of British TV since September, and it was fabulous. It’s strange how even the sound of the links between programmes can make you just a little homesick. Outside of treats like that, though, what does one do? There are several things worth mentioning. The first is BBC America, which comes in most cheap cable and satellite packages. (We have Time Warner Cable, but will be changing in due course to Dish Network – see below). I had my hopes a bit too high when we first got this, imagining that it would give one the best of current BBC television. What it actually gives is endless repeats of Monty Python and Benny Hill, and a few other bits and bobs of interest, but stuff that is usually already some months old. We enjoyed catching Viva Blackpool, which we had missed when it was on in the UK; and it featured new Dr Who David Tenant. But you won’t get the latest series of Little Britain, at least not for some months, or Newsnight.

There is some TV that you can catch on the internet for free, albeit via a shaky realvideo link. The two that I watch, usually on the archive rather than live, are Question Time and the new Andrew Marr programme Sunday AM. I learned of the latter, which started after we had left the UK, because of a pastiche it has in its opening credits of the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner. I dare say that there are other BBC programmes one could watch on-line, but I don’t know of a list anywhere, and those are the only two I have found so far.

So it’s straightforward to get your fill of British politics, and you can top that up, of course, by reading The Guardian Unlimited. But what about sport? I’ve already mentioned Five Live, but there is good news on the TV front. If you are a football fan, there’s a whole channel devoted to it even on the basic cable packages. It’s called Fox Soccer Channel and broadcasts a lot of live premiership football. One of my staples has become the 5 pm GMT (12 pm ET here) live match every Saturday. In fact, I am now watching more premiership football on American TV than I was on UK TV, because you have to subscribe specially to Sky TV for the live Premiership stuff in the UK. Fox Soccer Channel gives you the Sky commentary, but overlays it with an American introduction, which always refers to the “EPL” (English Premier League), “soccer” and “game” (never “match”), e.g. they have a “player of the game”.

Cricket is initially more of a problem, but I think I’ve found the solution. It seems that Dish Network has the rights to the UK test matches for the next four years or so, and the good news is that Dish is much cheaper than Time Warner Cable. It’s around $30 a month. You have to pay a premium, something like $70-$90 for the cricket for the season, but since that is now also the case in the UK too, with Sky taking the home test matches, it’s not so much of a big deal. So at some point soon we are going to be making the switch. It’s a fantastic thought that I will still be able to watch cricket in the summer. I could hardly hope for more.

Don’t get me wrong. I am enjoying building on our love of some American TV series and films by learning more of American politics and sport. I went to my first Duke basketball match on Sunday and loved it, especially the atmosphere (but where were the cheerleaders?) and NPR radio is a staple when I’m driving, and sometimes in the house too. But it’s much easier to enjoy all that America has to offer when one has access to a lot of what one misses from the UK too.

April 25, 2006

You can find an update to the parts of this post that are pertinent to football at:
How to cope without British TV and Radio: Football Supplement

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Hidden Cost of Living

Before moving to the US, almost everyone we met told us how much we'd be financially better off because everything in America is cheaper. Now that we are here, we realise that although some things are cheaper here in the US, many things are more expensive than they are in the UK.

Everyday Living

In England, higher end food shopping is done at Waitrose or M&S; middle range are Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda; and the low end is Kwik Save, Lidl and Aldi.

When we first moved to the US, we went shopping for basic supplies in the first supermaket we found. The prices were in orbit and we were surprised that the fruit and veg. were not all gold plated or studded with diamonds. This place was Harris Teeter and we have since found out that there are cheaper places to shop (Kroger, Food Lion, Walmart, Target). In addition, prices are greatly reduced with the use of loyalty cards (these provide on-the-spot reductions rather than points for spending later).

However, even in these "cheaper" places, the prices are, at best, the same as UK prices and are often more expensive. For example, the cheapest loaf of bread we've managed to find was $1.50 + tax; the cheapest 2 quarts of milk (I think that this equates to about 2 pints, but I'm not really sure) was about $2.30 + tax.

Utilities (landline phones, mobile phones, gas, electricity, water, TV, internet) are all more expensive here than they are in the UK. Clothes can be cheaper if bought from a lower-end shop like Walmart. However, bought from a Mall (unless in a sale), they are about the same or more expensive.

"But, some things must be cheaper, otherwise how is this myth propagated?" I hear you ask.

You're quite right. Some things are cheaper. Electrical items and petrol are a lot cheaper here than they are in the UK. Staying in hotels and eating out are also a lot cheaper. Houses are also cheaper in that one gets a lot more for one's money. For a similar price as our ex-council house in Birmingham, we've got a 0.46 acre plot with a fairly large house. However, it must be said that many houses in Britain have stood the test of time better than any I have yet seen in the US (some that were built back in the 15th century are still functional). The values of houses, at least in this part of America, depreciate with age. Buying a house here is not the investment that it is in the current UK climate.

I think that the myth propagates because visitors to the US stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and see the big US houses; and go home thinking that everything in America is cheaper. Conversely, US visitors to the UK stay in and eat at the more expensive Brisish hotels and restaurants; and they visit British people in their small British homes. Then they carry home with them the report that the UK is expensive.


The other thing to consider is that in the UK the VAT is 17.5%. Generally speaking, in the UK, the price you're quoted is the price you pay.

Here the taxes added onto purchases add up to only 7% (this varies from state to state). What still takes me off guard is that all the prices quoted are without tax, so when you go into McDonalds and order an item from the dollar menu, it costs $1.07.

A good example of hidden costs was our Time Warner Cable bill. We expected the advertised cost to be the cost we'd pay, but when our first bill arrived it had added expenses for equipment hire (normally included at no extra cost in the UK) and 7% tax (normally included in the quoted cost in the UK). We have since found several services that are cheaper than Time Warner Cable, but the hidden costs still exist.


I have already talked a little about tipping in the US. This can be considered another hidden cost.

So, what's the moral of this story?

If you're planning to make the big leap across the big pond, you can probably expect the standard of living to be higher than you've been used to (after all, you're probably moving because you've been offered more money than you're currently on), but don't expect the overall cost of living to be lower.

The other thing is that if you're selling your UK home and buying a house in the US, you might want to keep some money aside to facilitate your re-entry onto the UK property ladder if/when you need it.

(By the way, you might like to read Michael's blog entry about exchange rates.)

March 28, 2006

It seems that according to ECA International, the US had a higher cost of living than the UK. At least they did six years ago. Here's the article:

UK Continues to Hold Its Own As One of the World's Most Costly Locations

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Lament

This morning, I awoke to news that the State of California had executed Stanley Williams by lethal injection at San Quentin prison. The Romans, an ancient superpower, had crucifixion. The USA has lethal injection.

I don't know if you're familiar with Corrie ten Boom. Her book, The Hiding Place, is about her experiences during WW2 -- how she and her family hid Jews in a secret room in their home in Holland. They were all caught and arrested. The blurb on the back of the book recounts an incident that occurred while she was in a Nazi concentration camp.

Corrie Ten Boom stood naked with her older sister Betsie, watching a concentration camp matron beating a prisoner."Oh, the poor woman," Corrie cried."Yes. May God forgive her," Betsie replied. And, once again, Corrie realized that it was for the souls of the brutal Nazi guards that her sister prayed.

In the same way, my lament is not for Mr Williams, but for a Nation that leads the world in many different ways, but still is capable of such barbarism.

Here's the Campaign to End the Death Penalty website's links page.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Doe Deer!

There are a lot of deer where we live, but I hadn't seen any apart from one on the side of the highway that had been hit by a car -- a sad sight. That is until today. We were driving along the interstate when we saw a deer dashing out across the road. It basically just ran and hoped for the best. (I must admit that I think that closing one's eyes and running for it is probably the only way to cross eight lanes of fast moving traffic.) It didn't stop on the central verge, but just continued its mad dash and was narrowly missed by more than one car. At one stage, its hooves skidded on the tarmac (pavement to Americans) and I thought it was done for. However, it got back up and continued its dash. We all breathed huge sighs of relief as it made it to the other side.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


The film Pleasantville is about two teenagers who leave their sitting room and enter the 1950s sitcom on their television. If you're thinking of moving from the UK to the US, be prepared to step out of real-life, through your TV screen, into the world of film and television. There are the post boxes with the little red flags outside each house; the sort of fire hydrants that dogs relieve themselves against; people who say "Y'all"; and the long, straight roads with double yellow lines down the middle where you can bang your car into cruise control and sit back and enjoy the ride.

Our Street
Our Street
We have taken this step and entered a world that looks not so much like a 1950s sitcom, but more like Wisteria Lane. I'm talking about the look of the place. I don't yet know the inhabitants well enough to know whether the neighbourhood contains a Gabrielle, a Lynette, a Susan or any other Desperate Houswives equivalents. For evidence, compare the picture of Wisteria Lane with our street.

There is also an element of Stepford about it. I don't mean that all the wives on the estate are perfect and I suspect that they're really robots. But, we have moved into an area with an H.O.A. (Home Owner's Association).

There are similar areas in the UK (e.g. Bournville Village Trust in Birmingham), but I think that they are less common in the UK than they are here. This is the first time we've lived in such an area. One pays monthly fees that go towards general upkeep of the common areas and common facilities (our common facility is a swimming pool). They also have regular meetings and various committees that one can be on. There are also lots of rules and politics which I caught glimpses of when I attended a meeting.

The H.O.A. obviously also has some sort of Lawn Patrol Special Forces to police the upkeep of lawns because last week we received a letter giving us 14 days to aerate and seed our lawn. I'm not sure what would happen if we were not to do this.

In our defence, because Mark has had to hit the ground running with his job, the unpacking of boxes has been more of an uphill struggle than it otherwise might have been. We have been so concerned with the inside of the house -- finding places for things, buying and assembling furniture, trying to get ready for Christmas etc.; that we had neglected the exterior. (Bear in mind, also, that the house had been empty for a while before we moved in and that we have had a drought and local water restrictions.) As a result, the front lawn has become rather brown and covered in autumn leaves.

We have had lawns in every house we've ever lived in and we've never had to re-seed or aerate a lawn. Normally, grass just grows and we just mow it, but I suppose that England is not as hot and dry as here. Although it needs doing and it's good to have the slight push, I'm more used to our lawns being our business rather than someone else's.

However, I don't want to be too hard on the H.O.A. Perhaps the slight draconian edge is needed to keep the area looking nice (and possibly thus keeping property values higher than they might otherwise be) and to provide a sense of community.

So, if you're thinking of moving to the US, be prepared to leave the real world behind and step into TV-land.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Doctor Who

Many Americans reading this may not know what I'm on about, but put your hand up if you're looking forward to the Dr Who Christmas Invasion, due to air on Christmas Day on BBC1. Every time she thinks about it, Lauren gets so excited that she goes round the house singing the theme tune. When it was still online, she watched the Children in Need prequel over and over again.

I grew up with Tom Baker as The Doctor, Mark's Doctor was John Pertwee. Before the new series started (the Christopher Eccleston series), we primed our children. When it started, we sat them down and watched it with them -- after all, Dr Who is part of our English heritage. It is as British as cricket, tea and scones, or Marmite; and they needed to be educated.

We were on tenterhooks because we weren't sure that Russell Davies could pull it off. We dreaded a travesty, like that awful film starring Paul McGann. Our fears were unfounded. The children loved it and so did the adults. Let's hope that David Tennant is as good.

The good news is that we're going to be in the UK on Christmas Day, so can watch The Christmas Invasion. Unfortunately, though, we will have to wait until the second series makes it's way onto DVD or BBC America before we can watch it.

The other thing is, who would have thought that Billie Piper would come to something? Hats off to her.

If you're feeling nostalgic for Dr Whos of yesteryear, try perusing the TV ARK Dr Who pages.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag ...

One interesting thing about life in the US, is how many US flags one sees. I think that we British are just as patriotic, but are quite content to be quietly patriotic. The flags only come out for special occasions. In fact, recently, the World Cup clashed with the Queen's Golden Jubilee. I think that there were probably more England flags around Birmingham than there were Union Jacks. Does this mean that we are more patriotic/passionate about our football than we are about our Royal family?

Our children's school has a big flagpole with a US flag on it. The children are taught about how the flag should be treated (shouldn't touch the floor, should be folded in a particular way, shouldn't be burnt etc.). Each class also has a flag in their classroom. Every day at school, they stand facing the flag, put their right hands on their hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The status quo was rocked the other week when a boy who had only recently moved to the US refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. (I must say before I continue that this account is as told by my children, so if I discover that there are any inaccuracies, I'd be happy to correct them.) I dare say that his allegiance was probably to the flag of his home country. After some deliberation, the school decided that all American children must stand and recite the Pledge, but that non-Americans, although they should stand with the rest of the class, need not put their hand on their heart or recite the Pledge.

America is built on immigration. Non-Americans move to America and become Americans. They become Irish-Americans, Greek-Americans, Mexican-Americans (you can continue this list with prefixes that cover pretty much any country you may choose). As a non-resident alien, my allegiance is currently firmly to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, the US is currently our host country and, if we live here for a number of years, my children are likely to grow up becoming just as much American as they are British (Anglo-American?).

I told my daughter (whose class this entire affair concerns) that she can choose what she wants to do. If she wants to say the Pledge of Allegiance, I don't mind; but I also don't mind if she doesn't want to.

The Union Jack

It has occurred to me that some people might not have an understanding of the difference between the England flag and the Union Jack.

The Union Jack is made up of:
St. George's Cross for England (Source): St. George's Cross
St Andrew's Saltire for Scotland (Source): St. Andrew's saltaire
St. Patrick's Cross for Ireland (Source): St. Patrick's Cross

These three flags are superimposed to form the Union Jack. The Union Jack represents the whole of the United Kingdom, so would be flown in such events as the celebration of the Queen's Golden Jubilee. St. George's Cross, however, is the flag of England, so would be flown to show support for the England team in the World Cup.

I don't want to leave out the Welsh, so here's St. David's Cross (even though it doesn't feature in the Union Jack) (Source):
St. David's Cross