A Hedgehog at Dusk

Last summer, we ran in to one of Britain’s indigenous snakes. This evening, we returned from the local park at dusk and waiting at the end of our front garden path, overlooking the drop of the curb, was a hedgehog. This was the first live hedgehog we’d seen since arriving 18 months ago, and the kids were ecstatic. Using a shovel, we airlifted him from the danger of the road (throughout the year, we’d seen pieces of a few less fortunate hedgehogs on the roadside) to the safety of our back garden whereupon it sat for 10 minutes before scurrying off in to the garden shed. A brief argument ensued about what our new found friend should be christened. ‘Annabelle’ was the choice of our younger daughter, after one of her favourite literary characters, while the elder sibling opted, perhaps wisely, for the gender-neutral ‘Hedgie’.

Later, we pulled out the nature books and took the opportunity to learn a little more about hedgehogs.

Hedgehog

I sat the theory driving test recently.  I meant to go through the entire thing last year, but so many things kept coming up, so it was put off and put off.  When I heard about the new “case studies”, I wanted to sit the exam before they were introduced.  When that didn’t happen, I tried to download the updates from the practice software we had from previously.  The updates didn’t install properly, so we were forced to buy the latest software.

What a joke!  It was such a waste of time and money to get the new software.  Maybe the case studies were meant to give young drivers something more to think about than just rote memorisation of facts, but in the end, the questions were no different.  You didn’t even need to read the case studies to answer them.  I only read them for my own amusement.  I thought the makers of the practice exams probably got it wrong since they might not know what the case studies were about. But when I got into that exam room and saw the case study at the end, I nearly burst out laughing.

The other point I found amusing was that they allowed people to take the exam in other languages.  Now, how is that supposed to make the roads safer?  We’ve seen drivers out there blatantly disregarding road signs and signals and we wondered if they were “foreigners” who didn’t understand.  Of course, they could have been natives who blatantly disregard road etiquette, but it does make you wonder.  Furthermore, we saw a story recently about people who make the stupidest excuses to avoid paying fines and some try to pretend they don’t understand the language.  Well, if they made it a requirement that people can only get a UK driving license if they do it in English, maybe they can remove that poor excuse.

There seems to be a common misconception among many Americans that when it comes to shopping and eating, there is far greater variety on the western side of the Atlantic as opposed to in Europe. While in some quarters of the market this may be the case, in the area that currently makes up 95% of our shopping, namely food, we have found far more variety in supermarkets this side of the Atlantic.

Our shopping basket frequently holds lush black and red seedless grapes from South Africa, Italian Kiwi fruit, New Zealand lamb, Dragonfruit (Pitaya) from Vietnam, salmon from the remote lochs of Western Scotland, Fuji apples from Japan and China, broccoli tips from Kenya, French and Italian cheeses, Spanish tomatoes, baby potatoes from Israel, and on. It has become a fun – and educational – game with the kids to note the country of origin of the food we buy.

If you know where to go, I’m sure these are all freely available in the US but we never noticed them on the shelves of our local larger supermarkets (Wal-Mart, Giant Eagle etc.) Here, these items and more all seem to be carried as standard.

Much of the variety in the UK may derive from the way in which the country gets its food. Comparatively little of the food consumed in the UK now comes from truly local sources. In contrast, the US provides much of its own food. This domestic production leads to greater availability; however, it seems to offer less choice for the consumer who chooses to shop beneath one roof.

The variety extends beyond the supermarket shelf. Large scale immigration into the UK in recent years has led to a huge variety in high street restaurants. For instance, in one block of a neighbouring town we can choose between traditional British fish ‘n’ chips, Thai, India, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Chinese foods – all within 100 metres; if we include the adjacent block the variety extends even further, including Iranian and Hungarian cuisine.

Anyhow, it’s time for me to have a cup of tea – from Kaisugu, Kenya.

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?

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. 

They recently published data showing that new homes in Britain were smaller than those in France, Australia and the US.  Now, it’s not difficult to imagine that houses would be much larger in Australia and the US (room dimensions almost equal), but I was surprised to find that the British homes were smaller than the French ones as well.

I know that immigration and the populaton explosion has led to a housing shortage, so they have to put up a lot of homes quickly and squeeze them all in.  But, it’s a disservice to people when they have such cramped spaces.  And, they do away with unnecessary space.  A typical home has a lounge (sometimes referred to as the living room or the front room), kitchen, bathroom, and the bedrooms.  It’s no wonder they have that phrase “two up, two down”.

Not all homes are that cramped, I’m just referring to a lot of new builds.  Some may be lucky enough to have a dining room, and if they’re really lucky, they might have another cloakroom (toilet).  Most homes we’ve looked at have a small space in the kitchen for a dining table, or if the lounge is big enough, they will put the table there.  That’s what we’ve had to do for the past year, even though there’s barely enough room.  It’s also one reason why we’ve adopted the minimalist look.  We only have the ripped up sofa that was left behind, the piano and the dining table in that room.

We live in a bungalow but it feels like a flat (apartment).  It’s as big as the apartments we’ve lived in.  Our houses had living rooms, dining rooms, and most also had a family room.  Not only that, they all had basements.  Not all US homes have basements (some areas are just not good enough for a basement because of drainage issues).  However, for the most part, it’s taken for granted that they do.

Here, you will only find basements in older homes and there are not too many of those around.  Many of them have been converted, so that a mansion is split into four apartments, with the basement being one of them.  I remember reading an article some months ago about rich people renovating their homes rather than buying or building a new one.  Because of the lack of space, these people were moving downwards, building multiple underground levels.  So, why don’t they do that for new builds?  It would make sense that if you don’t have the space above ground, you would try to use the space underground.  And I don’t mean for them to use the basement to put the necessary rooms, just as additional space for whatever they might like.

It appears that there are loads of storage facilities that have cropped up.  These people must be making a killing because people lack space to store their stuff.  There are no attics and no basements.  Very few homes even have closets of any kind.  You have to buy wardrobes and cabinets.