I know there are people who go to other countries and complain about everything they find there.  And I know people who go to other countries and complain about everything they left behind.  I don’t belong to either camp but I have a little of both.  I think it’s good to have both perspectives.

I can’t really compare the UK and US in terms of good and bad, but rather more like they are different.  A couple of recent comments from colleagues have made me aware of these differences.  The first comment was: “I would never live in America.  I could never live in a country where people won’t walk or cycle to work.”  The second was: “I couldn’t live in Canada.  It’s too backwards.”  Canada is not the US, but in terms of “backwardness”, I don’t think Europeans discriminate between the two.

There’s a misconception amongst my English colleagues that there are no sidewalks in America.  That’s why it discourages people from walking.  I’d like to point out that there were plenty of sidewalks in various places I lived.  I will say that “in the sticks”, you might not find them easily, but the same can be said in the UK.

I agree most people don’t walk or cycle to work in the US, because most of us don’t or can’t live near work.  However, road access is much easier, so you can afford to live further out and still get to work.  In bigger cities, such as NYC, you see crowds walking to work or taking public transport.  I won’t deny some drive, but they would be insane to do so in such places unless they have to.

The comments certainly point to differences in one’s priorities.

I didn’t mind driving to work if I could live in a nice, quiet neighbourhood where I didn’t need to worry as much about my kid’s health and safety.  Of course, my colleague is more concerned about the environment.  I must say that people in the UK and Europe are much more aware, or much more concerned, about environmental issues that the US.  I’ve known tree-huggers in the States, but the proportion of tree-huggers to gas-guzzler owners is quite minuscule.

As for backwardness, I don’t know what to say.  My husband did point out there are certain things that the British would consider backwards in the States.  First of all, wireless.  Practically all of the UK is wired for mobile phone and internet access.  That being said, not all of the UK has high-speed access, yet.  Of course, the US is huge compared to the UK, so there’s a lot more work that needs to be done in order to reach the same level of access.  There are areas of the US that are quite remote and isolated, in terms of community and technology, and it’s questionable whether they will ever be taken forward.  But, then again, if you were to move to another country, would you choose to move into the back woods?  Probably not, since there wouldn’t be anything there in terms of work or play.

We use the internet a lot and some areas of the States were difficult with high-speed access, but we got by.  We didn’t care too much about cell phones and if we had a dropped line, we lived with it.  Most cell phone use was not emergency and I find that people tend to use it so indiscriminately, it becomes annoying.  We thought it was silly that everyone had a cell phone in the US, but it’s even worse in the UK.  I suppose it’s backwards of me to think that we can live without a mobile, especially in an age where public phone access is being phased out.

Speaking of phones, I find that many businesses in the UK don’t even have 0800 numbers.  They usually have 0845 or 0844 numbers, which is cheaper, but not free.  Most businesses in the States have toll-free 800 numbers to call when you have a question.  It really discourages people to call if they have to pay for it.  You are not allowed to use the work phone to make calls for anything outside of work.  It is fraudulent, because local calls are not free.  (That’s why everyone has a mobile.)  Recently, we had to call an airline in an urgent matter at work, and the only number, which we received through the airport, was a premium number, charged at 65p per minute.  That is the height of ridiculousness.

The person making the comment about backwardness also mentioned New Zealand as being backwards, living in the 50s, with small shops, etc.  I find it very funny, then, to hear that Canada was just as backwards.  Canada, being very similar to the US, does not conjure up images of small shops for me.  England was supposedly the nation of shop-keepers.  Though it no longer is a nation of shopkeepers, it was the quaintness of small shops in England that I found charming.  It’s perhaps not the most convenient way to shop, but to me, representative of a bygone era.

I found the US to be much more convenient than the UK in terms of living.  Towns were bigger.  You could usually live, work and play in the same town (I say “usually” because it depends where you live in the States).  Here, we live in one town, the kids go to school in another, extracurricular activities in a third, and I work in a fourth.  It’s not London, but we’re not exactly in the villages either. 

It was easier to get around by car in the US; though I don’t mind the public transport in the UK.  The only problem with public transport is relying on their schedule, which is affected by adverse weather.  I have not been too inconvenienced by it, but to hear the natives complain…well, there’s still work to be done in that department.

As I said, you can’t really say one is better than the other.  The US and the UK are different.  We’ve discussed staying vs. going back and can’t decide because it’s not about one being better.  It’s about priorities and mentality.

We hope our issues with our previous landlord are now resolved.  At least, we hope that the electric company will honour their word and not come after us for the unpaid bill, which all, except the landlord, have agreed is the landlord’s responsibility.

We have dealt with so many people throughout the course of our dispute, and each one seems to give different advice.  It was extremely confusing and every time we talked to a new person, we had to describe everything from start to finish.  “Frustrating” is an understatement.

But, in the process, we have learned a few lessons.  Lesson number one: we need to be more aggressive.  It wasn’t that we just let everyone walk all over us.  We tried not to be a pain, so we didn’t whine and complain about everything.  We reported problems when we needed to and left it up to the agents and landlord to work out what needed to be done.  Unfortunately, neither showed any inclination to fix any problems.  They blamed each other when it came down to figuring out what went wrong where.  Lesson number two: due diligence.  Don’t rely on someone else’s word for it, do it yourself.  Lesson number three: the Brits have an “I don’t want to get involved” attitude.  We get the sense that most Brits don’t want to give third party advice unless they are in alliance with you for some personal gain.  For example, we considered getting someone close to the landlord to reason with him, but felt that we would be given the cold shoulder.  Lesson number four: know who to turn to.

This last one could be tricky.  Everyone tells you to go to the CAB for advice.  We had gone to them several times during the course of our stay, but nothing useful was forthcoming.  They can be helpful in many areas, but in our case, it seemed they were at a loss.  It wasn’t until our account came up to the Live Debt department at the electric company that someone came up with a solution (though we cannot be certain that the issue is resolved yet).  They’ve decided to proceed with a power shut-off to force the landlord’s hand.  (Apparently, they wouldn’t do it if we were still living there.)  So, the higher up the ladder you move, the more ideas you can come up with.

But, in the midst of all this, we found out through the RAC Legal Aid that we should have reported our landlord to the council.  Apparently, it is not just for social housing landlords.  Had we done so, we could have had an independent appraisal of the situation, and we could have had a refund on our rent.  Perhaps, that would have also helped us to deal with the electric issue.  Lesson learned.  Hopefully, we won’t go there again.

OK, I’m not that familiar with British politics, but I didn’t expect it to be too complicated.

By now, I understand that an election must take place this year, by June, to be exact.  Mr. Gordon Brown will have to announce the date, and pessimists claim he will declare some national emergency to prevent it happening.

I also understand Gordon Brown is Prime Minister because Labour is in power and he is their leader.  I know that voters go to the poll and vote for their MP.  The candidate that gets the most votes wins the seat for that particular constituency.

But, there have been talk about the possibility that none of the parties will be able to establish a government if they don’t win a majority seat.  I never thought about that.  I just thought, whoever wins, wins. 

The UK system is not like the US system where you vote for the President/Vice-President, then your local representatives separately.  Here, the winning candidate becomes MP and takes a seat in the Commons.  The party with the majority (51%) of seats in the Commons gets to form a government.  That party’s leader becomes Prime Minister.

Since the polls seem to suggest that the two main parties (Labour and Conservatives) will get the most seats but neither will reach the majority, due to some seats going to other parties (Liberal Democrats, Greens, etc.), there will not be a majority government.  This, of course, will have many implications.  One being that the one with the most may seek to form a government coalition with other parties.  But, you can see with all the political wrangling that that might prove to be difficult.

The other thing I wonder about is what happens if the current party leaders lose their seats?  Has that ever happened before?  Party leaders going into an election and coming out losing their own seats?

My sister sent my girls American Girl dolls as Christmas gifts.  She said she sent them a while back, but due to the holidays, the strikes, etc., it only arrived at the ParcelForce warehouse just before Christmas.  After Christmas, we received a notice stating that we owed money on VAT and a clearance fee.

We were rather shocked.  Why should we have to pay taxes on gifts that have already been taxed and paid on the other end?  She spent over $200 for the dolls, $60 for mailing it, and now we have to pay almost another $50 to clear it and tax it.

After some investigation, we found out that they can tax on gifts if it is worth more than 36 GBP.  They will not charge Customs duty if it amounts to less than 7 GBP.  However, all alcohol and tobacco will be charged excise duty.

The clearance fee is a handling fee that Royal Mail and ParcelForce charge to cover their expenses: handling the postage, dealing with customs, paying import duties for you and collecting import duties from you.

I don’t know what the US charges, if anything, for similar items.  We’ve never had to go through this from the other end.

Other things to note is that VAT is charged on internet sales if bought outside the EU and amounts to more than 18 GBP.  Customs duty applies to goods valued over 120 GBP (except as above).  Exceptions apply to alcohol and tobacco in that you may still have to pay excise duty.  There are even more complicated rules for the Channel Islands.  I still don’t understand how the Channel Islands fit into the scheme of things.

This month, new rules may come into effect regarding immigrants’ rights to attain British citizenship.  While it does not pertain to myself, I do wonder if I should consider British citizenship.  At present, I do not qualify.  Another two years in this country would give me eligibility.  There are these other tests of citizenship and proof of “good citizenship” to go through, but I’m not too worried about that.

My question is, would there be a benefit?  Would it make life any easier?  I know it would give me the right to vote, but how else would it help me?  I already have an indefinite visa.

I do know the possible disadvantages.  From what I understand, if I apply for UK citizenship, I may lose US citizenship.  And if there’s any remote possibility that we return to the US, I wouldn’t want to lose that citizenship.  The key word is “might”.  A British citizen, may acquire US citizenship without losing his/her UK citizenship.  He would have dual nationality.  However, the opposite is not true.  The US government’s website states that US citizens who voluntarily apply for citizenship in another country “may” lose their US citizenship.  This “may” could be crucial.  However, if automatic citizenship is granted, that person would not lose their US citizenship.  How does one get “automatic” citizenship without “voluntarily” applying?

My children have automatic dual citizenship.  But, they only hold US passports at this stage.  They would be able to get UK passports if we apply for them without them having to go through the citizenship process.  If I could do the same thing, I’d go for it.  But I don’t think that’s possible.

No, our landlord issues have not gone away.  Our previous landlord issues remain unresolved, and we fear we may have others looming ahead.  However, that’s not something we can control and we will only be affected indirectly.  If that should amount to anything, I’ll be sure to mention it.

But, getting back to our previous landlord.  He has been an obstacle to getting the bills resolved.  And now he has conveniently gone on holiday.  But while he thinks he can escape his problems, we feel we have finally made some progress and have confidently swung the ball back in his court.

After many weeks of phone calls to the estate agents, to no avail, we put in a dispute.  I had forewarned them of it, so before they were forced to do anything, the agents sent us a partial refund of our deposit.  They’re still holding an amount equivalent to two-and-a-half times what we believe we owe on the water bill.  Despite knowing how much we used, neither they nor the landlord can figure out what we owe.  They seem to think they need to get all the bills and decide our portion.  I will be searching around the internet and make complaints on some landlord/estate agent forums.  No one should ever be put through the misery of working with any of these people. 

And the electric company finally came up with a figure that we can agree on, but it’s questionable whether the landlord will accept.  The figure given to us is just a little over what we had offered and he had turned it down.  Now, we have both the electric company and the estate agent agreeing to it, so if he won’t agree, we may have to take legal action.  We could have had this resolved sooner had the electric company agreed to look back at previous usage by the landlord as we had requested.  They finally did so, and came up with the figures.  Our portion is rather generous (all but the landlord will agree); however, we are willing to be generous just to get this resolved.

We do not have the ready cash to hire a lawyer.  We are also not the litigious type.  We have sought advice from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau several times, but they cannot give legal advice.  However, they do offer Legal Aid, a free legal service to those who are impoverished.  You have to be below a certain income level to qualify, and we do not.

We had tried the third party negotiation through the estate agent and it had not been going well.  Our next step was to go to an ombudsman.  There are several around – The Property Ombudsman (for estate agents) and the government Housing Ombudsman (for landlords).  However, they all want a protracted formal dispute process going through other channels first; i.e., through the landlord’s and agents’ in-house complaints procedures.  The ombudsman could take up to a year.

We have RAC membership and my husband knew he could get legal advice on motoring issues through the RAC.  So, he asked them about other legal services.  We were told that for an additional 15GBP per year, we could get legal advice on all other issues.  He was reluctant to join because it sounded like many of those internet services where you make an offer for advice and the advice will vary depending on how much you were willing to pay.  After exhausting all other avenues, we finally signed up for the RAC legal aid.  It sounds even better than we thought.  The advice comes from real practicing lawyers and if they take your case, they will even represent you in court.  All this is included.  They’ve given us a two-week trial and if we don’t use it, we can cancel it.

We called the lawyers first thing and they told us to start with EDF, the electric company.  It was funny because I was writing a letter to EDF while my husband had them on the line.  He repeated what the lawyers had advised us, and they denied any responsibility.  At that point, my husband called OfGem, the electric utilities ombudsman, who made a note of the complaint.  Shortly after, EDF called back and gave us a figure for what they felt we owed.  It was as if the call to the lawyers had set a string of events in motion.

If things work out well, we may not need the legal service after all and can cancel it.  However, given their usefulness, we may decide to try it out for a year.  It’s like having a lawyer on retention for only 15GBP a year.

I’ve been troubled by taxes recently.  We all grumble about high taxes and not having enough left over to live on, so I won’t go there.  But, I’m still trying to understand how and what taxes are taken out.

I suppose I’m lucky that my employer takes out the taxes for me.  It’s the same in the US when you work for a company.  And it looks relatively simple – they take out PAYE and NI.  NI, or National Insurance, is kind of like Social Security and PAYE is all the other taxes.  I don’t recall if they ever asked about my marital status.  Unlike the US, they don’t have “exemptions”, where you claim for yourself and all your dependents, and your taxes vary according to this.  However, they do allow for a certain amount of your pay to be tax-free.

I still cannot get used to being paid monthly.  Of course, it’s been only two months.  And the way they worked out the monthly pay was extremely baffling until I called them and they ran through it with me. They did admit it was a bit strange, but they felt it was the fairest way.  So, even if I work more days one month, I may get less pay.  It made it difficult to understand the taxation as well.

I had worked out my taxes using calculators on the internet and the figures there differed from each other as well as my actual taxes.  I’m not sure whether to be pleased or worried because it’s more in one and less in the other, NI and PAYE that is.

The other part of taxes that has me worried is filing.  In the US, you’re supposed to file, because sometimes you owe money and sometimes you’re due a refund, for various reasons.  Over here, it seems that most people aren’t required to file because their taxes should already be taken out correctly.  It’s only if you receive income from more than one source, if you have business-related expenses that you want to claim, or if you are self-employed that you have to file.

To make it more confusing, the deadline for filing by paper was at the beginning of October.  If you didn’t file it then, you will have to do it online and the deadline for that is the end of January.  I don’t understand why there is a 4-month discrepancy on that.  And that being the case, when is the actual tax year?  In the US, the tax year is the calendar year – January to January.  You receive your W-2s (tax statements) after January and you can file from that point until April 15th.

Then there’s the question of Child Tax Credits.  I believe I qualify for this, but do I claim for it by filing taxes?  Is this similar to “exemptions” for dependents in the US?

I may sound ignorant about the tax system, but if the Chancellor needs tax advice, then I shouldn’t feel so bad.

It’s a good thing that I haven’t worked long enough or earned enough to pay double taxes this year.  My US income tax form will be relatively blank.  It may be a different story next year, but by then, I hope to have learned enough about the UK taxes so that I won’t be cheated of my income. 

Though it was drizzling in the morning, by evening, the sky had cleared and we had a very nice day.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather.  It’s unusual, but we’ve been enjoying a long stint of Indian summer.  It was perfect for Newick Bonfire Night.

Yes, I mentioned it last year, but I thought I’d do another post about Guy Fawkes’ Night in Newick.  Bonfire Night is 5th November, but we found out through a friend that Newick always has theirs the Saturday before the actual Guy Fawkes’ Day.  I don’t know what happens if it falls on a Saturday.  I do know that all the bonfire societies of the surrounding towns join in with the parade, and the largest parade is held in Lewes (at least in our part of the country).  Lewes always has theirs on the actual night.  So, if it falls on a Saturday, there will be some competition.  But, I suppose, since they all work together to stretch out Bonfire Night to at least Bonfire Week, Newick would probably hold theirs a week early.

This time last year, it was intermittently raining and drizzling, and the weather was cold.  It felt miserable to be out, but it did not prevent the crowds.  I had expected to see a larger crowd this year because of the fine weather, but it did not seem to make a difference.  It was still a good-sized crowd.

Because it was Halloween Night, there were houses decorated for the occasion.  Though it may not be celebrated like in the US, we did see some homes that went all out for Halloween.  Our neighbourhood, surprisingly, had trick-or-treating; though not all participated.  Nevertheless, the kids enjoyed it because they missed out last year.  They dressed up and one of them kept it on for Bonfire Night, so she fit in with the paraders.

The main street through Newick was closed off for five hours, so we had to park almost in the next town.  It was very dark in some parts of the street because the overhanging trees shut out the light; otherwise, the nearly full moon did shed quite a bit of light.  With the mist coming in, the full moon, the Halloween decorations, it lent an eerie atmosphere to the occasion.  Then, when you see the torches glowing in that setting, it was rather spooky, reminding me of a superstitious event from childhood that had frightened me.  On top of that, there were intermittent Bangs! from some firecrackers that the organisers let off.  If you didn’t expect it, you’d jump because it sounds like a big explosion.  Our youngest was scared at first, but she became accustomed to them.

For those who’ve never attended a Bonfire Night, you should learn to expect some politically-motivated speech before they let off the fireworks.  Also, some places may charge admission fees, but for the most part, the parades down here are free.  However, they do go around collecting donations.  Part of their donations go to some designated charity.  This year, it looks like the Motor Neuron Disease society will be getting a cut.

In comparison to last year, I have to say that I was rather disappointed by this year’s display of fireworks.  I do not know if they had more fireworks last year, or if it was because I was not expecting as much that it appears last year’s was longer.  I do know that the weather last year prevented smoke from accumulating in the air.  Unfortunately, with the clear and calm sky, smoke from the initial fireworks gathered in mid-air and did not move away rapidly.  It even obscured our view of the moon.  Because the fireworks, once started, are set through a timing device, they could not stop the fireworks until the smoke was gone, so much of the second part of the fireworks could not be enjoyed.

The bonfire itself seemed smaller this year.  It was high, but thin, so that shortly after it was lit, the tower toppled over and the effigy fell off.  We were at least 30 ft. away, but the fire was so intense that it felt like I was sitting in front of a roaring fireplace.  Also, the ash drifted very high and dropped very far.  While we were waiting to get into the village shop, at least 100 ft. away, we had ash raining down on us.  I was not paying attention to the ash and sparks at the beginning until the foam plate I was holding started dropping holes.  Our jackets also suffered some holes.

Despite all that, it was a good night.  If we stay in the area, I think this will become an annual routine for us.

I’m only working 4 days a week and I am enjoying my Fridays.  That may change in a few months and at this time, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about that.

I would definitely miss having an extra day off, especially to take care of business that can’t be done on the weekends. Part-time working has been much more attractive than I expected.  The pay is OK.  It doesn’t leave much for extras, and that may become an issue in the future.  On the other hand, the decrease in stress is welcoming.

I finally had time to read part of a newspaper today; although the paper is from several days ago.  It appears that the government is trying to make businesses offer their full-time positions to job sharers and part-timers.  There’s been criticism that although it is good for working parents to have that flexibility, the recession is not the time to introduce such measures.  There were several points mentioned in the article that I find fault with.

The first one, which irritates me many times when it is mentioned, is the pay differential.  I’m not a true “feminist”, but I don’t think it’s right that men and women are paid differently.  I can understand if the pay appropriately reflects their skills or responsibilities, but studies have shown that is not the case.  Some might argue that women are not put into higher positions and are fighting for more women at the top.  My stance on that is “May the best man/woman win” and I don’t like affirmative action just for equality – that is not true “equal opportunity”.

The second point about the pay differential that irritates me when it is reported, is that the journalist goes for sensationalism and does not make a good comparison.  For example, was it necessary to report on the difference between a part-time working woman with a full-time working man?  Why not compare part-time woman (man) to full-time woman (man), or full-time woman to full-time man?  That would really show the difference in income between working part-time vs. full-time, or between a woman and man working equal hours.

And I will apologise for causing offence, but I do get annoyed when critics bring up the point of pay and promotion.  I don’t know the inside track on every company, but there is a broad generalisation that women are not promoted as quickly as men.  I agree that may be true.  But when critics bring up the point that part-time working women are overlooked for promotions and they want laws to protect these women from discrimination, it does make my blood boil.

If you’re looking to work part-time, isn’t it because you want fewer hours, thus less responsibility?  Perhaps, it’s because you want more family time.  Whatever the case, you’re looking for less stress.  So, why would you want to be promoted to a higher position with more pay and more responsiblity?  If you’re expecting higher payer with higher responsibilities, and you’re willing to put more time into it, then fine.  I know women who work part-time in higher positions, but they don’t work strictly 9-5.  Plus, they are on committees, which meet outside of their work hours.  They may have other occasional duties that require them to be present for a whole week at a time.  All fine and dandy.  But, if you suddenly allow someone to dictate their own hours and still expect promotion and higher pay, you are really throwing a spanner in the works.

I have never been a big fan of unions.  They began as a good idea, but it seems that the union organisations have gone out of control.  I find that employees are sometimes caught between union bosses and employers.  They are the ones who suffer in the long run.

Now, the Royal Mail strike is affecting everyone.  While blue collar workers who strike aim to cause disruption for their companies, the effects for the wider community is not immediately felt.  However, postal workers who strike cause havoc for everyone.  (Even worse than when the tube workers were striking earlier in the year – people made other arrangements for travel.)

I recall just a few weeks ago when my work contract took forever to reach me.  My job and our financial state were in terrible danger.  I remember thinking that perhaps if one of those workers were waiting for a critical document, they might reconsider the strike. 

Today, we almost missed the deadline to register our daughter for secondary school.  Granted, we should have taken care of this ASAP, but we only received the paperwork last month and we really haven’t had the time to investigate schools.  People used to this system would know what to do, but we are very new to all of this.  So, when we sat down to do the application, we found that we had to have it in by noon today.  Secondly, it was not the time of posting, but the time of reception.  Thirdly, the mail strike meant that delivery on time was  not guaranteed.  Some school districts extended the deadline, but others refused.  We managed to drive around the neighbourhood and found some internet access – just enough to get online and submit the application right as the clock struck noon.  Of course, we wonder if it will really matter in the long run, because we might move and will have to apply for special consideration at a different school later on.  It’s so much easier to apply for schools in the States.

Royal Mail have tried to counteract the impact of the strike by hiring 30,000 temporary workers to catch up, as well as to ramp up for the upcoming Christmas season.  Of course, the unions are not happy about this because it may, in effect, the negate the effects of the strike.  But, I have to agree with RM in saying that the strike is extremely irresponsible.  Why should we, the common people, have to suffer because of their disputes?  Did they expect that the public would rally behind the union and demand that RM give in so that we can resume our daily lives?  RM is already in financial trouble so the government wants to sell part of it off.  What concessions can they possibly make during this recession?  That’s what I cannot  understand.

What I fear is that this strike may force many companies to start using the internet for all communications.  UPS and FedEx will take over the delivery of parcels and all the other postal services will be handed over to other departments.  Some might think this image of the future is for the best – the “greenest option”, but I personally still enjoy getting handwritten postal messages.  And I fear problems arising with the use of email for all communication, especially legal issues.