Friday, August 31, 2012


Kerry here! Jeff has been nagging me to write a blog post, and we've been here for one month now so I figured it was time.  We've decided Jeff will write about our trips and I will write about daily life here in the UK. This being because Jeff is a much better, funnier, more creative writer than I am and is able to spin our weekend trips into clever little stories. But his daily life is nowhere near as exciting as mine, as you will soon learn.

The move to England has meant some big changes for me, mainly no job and no car.  I get asked about this new lifestyle frequently, so here's a short list of Q&A.

1.  What do you do all day?
  • I walk. A lot.  Sometimes it's out of boredom, sometimes it's functional. I've spent more time outside in the past month than I did all of summer in Indiana.  I go for a walk first thing in the morning just to get myself up and moving. It's been a great way to get to know the area and I see something new every day. 
Fair food is different.
Mark Eaton Park.  Across from our hotel

England has palm trees?!

Since I am a housewife now, I am responsible for all the errand running. This is, of course, done on foot.   I actually enjoy this and will spend several hours walking around the mall, shops, and grocery stores looking at all the different things. This is how you learn that eggs are not refridgerated, they are next to the bread. And if you wanted to buy hats and mittens in August, you could. I could also tell you where to buy zebra print leggings, greeting cards with gratuitous nudity, or a large whippy with flake.

Not worth the carbs.  Where's the elephant ears?

Added bonus: My grip strength is going to be phenomenal from all the grocery carrying.

  • Laundry. Laundry is a daily chore here in England. We currently have a tiny washer/dryer combo unit in our temporary housing. It holds about half of what a washing machine in the states would hold. I'm pretty sure all it does it get everything wet and wrinkly while sounding like it's a space shuttle about to lift off. Anything larger than a sock comes out after being washed and goes on to one of the three provided drying racks. The rest stays in the "dryer" for 2 hours and still comes out damp and wrinkled. Our permanent house (fingers crossed, still waiting on paperwork to be signed) has a separate washer and dryer but I am not optimistic because there is also a clothes line in the backyard.  (Really? A clothesline? In rainy England?)
Shouldn't this be where the dishwasher goes?

  • Travel planning.  This may sound fun, but it is not. It's work. I spend hours staring at my computer screen reading reviews and recommendations, translating languages, and converting currencies. I know I shouldn't complain about having to spend my free time planning vacations, but seriously, it's not fun. If I have learned one thing from trying to plan our weekend trips, it's that I will never, ever have a desk job.

2. Besides friends and family, what do you miss the most?
Target and everything under its roof. Normal bathroom faucets. Stores staying open past 8pm. Wrinkle Release spray.

Would you like burning hot or freezing cold water to wash your face with?


3. Do you miss driving?
Not really. I can get pretty much anywhere I need to on foot or by public transportation. I have a hard enough time remembering which to way to look when crossing the street and which side of the car to get into, so I'm keeping the streets safe by not driving. Straight roads and street signs are rare, multiple lane roundabouts are common.

Too many intersections happening here.

Our hotel is 18.2 miles from our CrossFit gym. According to Google Maps, there are 17 directional steps to follow. That's a lot of turns. I'm car sick by the time we get there. To put that into perspective, I could drive 150 miles from my house in Indy to my parents house in Valpo in only 12 steps. Or I could drive 1,610 miles from my house in Indy to Flagstaff, AZ in 23 steps.  

One month down, eleven to go!  We have a lot to look forward to-moving, travel, visitors. There's still a lot to see and a lot to learn.

Stanly has adjusted well.








Monday, August 27, 2012

London Trip #1: Embracing the inner tourist

I call this post London #1 because I am confident that we'll be returning for more weekends and/or day trips here, so I might as well start out organized. For our first trip over the bank holiday 3-day weekend, we decided to leave super early Saturday morning, stay the night, and return Sunday evening. The bank holiday is today (Monday Aug 27). While it would have been great to spend a 2nd night in London and a 3rd day of exploration before returning to Derby, we decided to use this day for recovery. As it turns out, if you're not careful, a London weekend is not only pricey, but exhausting.
I had no idea what I was looking at

A few side notes before I get started.
1. Bank holiday. I found out about this with about 2 weeks notice after I started work. The banks take holidays on certain days of the year besides the ususal Christmas and Easter. So now they're the national holidays similar to the MLKJr\Memorial\Labor\Veterans days in the US. By the time we got around to planning something, all the southern UK beach towns were booked solid (or required a 3 night min stay). Bummer, I'll have to use my PTO. 

2. Planning trips is hard. I'm not talking about the fun stuff like sightseeing, restaurants, etc. Its the pain-in-the-ass wallet-draining logistics. The conversation goes like this.
Me: OK! Hotel is booked, got a great deal! We can check in after 3 pm.
Kerry: Hm, well, since we wanted the least expensive roundtrip train, we leave at 6 am and get there at 8.
Me: Alright so it says here we can check our luggage for a 5 pound fee, we'll do that first thing, after we buy Oyster cards.  Oh and the bus to the train station doesn't run early enough so we have to park at the station over the weekend, that's 12 pounds.
Kerry: And after we check out the next morning, we'll have to store our luggage at the train station for another 8 pounds.
Me: Well there goes all my pint money.
3.  Oyster cards are great.  They're a 5 pound deposit (refundable) pay-as-you-go London travel ticket. The daily fee is capped at the cost for a single-day unlimited travel ticket, and it works on the underground trains and buses.   We went nutz with these, thanks to google maps on the iphone telling us where the underground stations were, what buses to take, and when to "alight".

4.  Walk walk walk!  From casual observation, I notice that incredible amounts of bread and sweets are eaten here (from my perspective, which is relatively low in flour consumption).  But I don't see the levels of obesity that is common in the States; in fact most of the young guys look straight-up emaciated in their jeggings.  I think this is because everyone is out walking.  Even if taking public transportation, there's quite a bit of walking and stairs involved.  Also, I notice way more smoking here than in the States, and I lived in a city that only put a public ban out last year (for reference some CA cities had smoking bans over 10 years ago).  I think that suppresses appetites.  I know I was ravenous after all the walking we did.

5.  We forgot to charge the camera battery, so half the photos are from an iphone.

Walker and tourist friendly

So the only thing we planned to do in London was go to the Tower of London.  Probably the most touristy thing to do in London besides the Eye ferris wheel, with the admission price to match.  It was worth it once though, and we spent a good 3 hrs looking at everything.  Its really a few museums inside a very very old castle, and there are 20 towers, fyi.

We had a nice cafe-style lunch, and it started raining.  So we stuck around the cafe and ordered some more drinks.  Once it cleared, the plan was to check out more old and famous buildings, but more rain came and sightseeing turned into a stressful search for public toilets.  We were prepared with our rain coats and umbrellas, but a lesson was learned about the consequences of ordering extra drinks at lunch.

Managing the tourist crowds like a boss
On our way to see the crown bling

Ended up at Harrods which is a wonderful madhouse filled with ostensibly rich Arabs.  I don't think any of the shoppers spoke English.  We found ourselves in the chocolates room, so I offered to buy Kerry something.   The selection was so overwhelming that her decision making ability shut down.  I randomly picked a few out of the nearest display case at 1.50 pounds each (yikes) - but they were top notch.  I also saw "American" dry aged ribeyes going for 15 pounds per 100 grams, which is nearly $120/lb.  Confusing I know - going from grams per pound (money) to pounds (weight) per dollar.

After checking in at EasyHotel, a low cost hybrid hostel/hotel room that got design ideas from cruise ships, we changed and headed out for dinner.  I made reservations at a mid-priced French restaurant that had good reviews.  The house wine was better than expected at a decent price.  Kerry had the grilled mussels, a perfectly cooked ribeye with Bearnaise sauce, and a lemon tart.  I had a goose rillette, a classic beef bourguignon, and a tarte tatin.  I successfully pronounced my entire order wrong, but the server was kind enough.  I am a bit worried to order when we get around to visiting France...

Bare bones, but at least we had a window
Across the street we found the London cocktail club that turned out to have some serious mixology skillz with an undergound bar feel.  They also played all 80's/90's music, including MC Hammer.  The server said he doesn't get a lot of tourists, so we felt pretty cool there.  Would have been better to have some friends with us, because by this time we were running out of things to talk about.

The next day, even getting up and out the door before 9, by the time we got the bag checked back at the station, it was already approaching 11.  Today was the start of the Notting Hill Carinval, a celebration and parade of Carribean culture, but I really think it's an excuse for the ladies to shake their booties behind trucks rigged up with huge sound systems as they crawled around the Chelsea neighborhood.  The crowd was crazy, and there was no shortage of police.  I can only imagine how crazy it got that night; at noon I was walking past guys that were halfway through their bottles of Courvoisier, and the shops had all preemptively boarded up their windows.  After we found some jerk chicken for lunch, we decided to get out of the crowd to give our ears a break and come down off our secondhand highs.

Booty Wurk by paint splatter dance crew

Hyde Park was a perfect option - wide, open, quiet, and sunny.  We made our way to the Serpentine lake and I rented a rowboat.  How very touristy of me, and I know Kerry thought it was very romantic.  It was quite pleasant as we watched the Muslim children feed bread to the ducks and pigeons.

And the swans weren't too shy either

Our last stop was a quick walk around Leicester square, Trafalgar square, and the Covent Gardens markets to watch the Sunday crowds and street performers.  I FINALLY grabbed a pint of London Pride, then it was off to the station to pick up our bag and head back to Derby.  We really did a lot  in a very short amount of time; and the next trip will likely be a day trip only, with only 1 destination - I'm thinking a rainy day at the National Gallery.  We'll see.

In the meantime it's back to work to make more money for traveling.  Today I had to buy normal stuff that I didn't pack which is boring and irritating (since I own this stuff in the States already).  But the goal is to keep that to a minimum and will hopefully be sufficiently used or worn-out before we return.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Daytrippin' in York

While I hit the ground running with work, everything else is moving slowly.  Our housing pick (as discussed in the last post) fell through, so it's back to the drawing board and we're still living in the hotel.  On the plus side we got a UK mobile phone plan set up, so now Kerry is not wondering where I am each evening.  

We've booked weekend trips to London and Barcelona coming up, and while we look forward to that, we are looking to fill the other weekends up with shorter day trips.  So, I gave up half my paycheck to fill the Peugeot with 60L of diesel petrol, and Saturday morning we hit the road.

In the ancient walled city of York, the red brick jungle where dreams are made of, for £9 you can drop the car off and explore all day.  
Very old, old and new intermixed into a see of red bricks.

There's something about stepping inside 800 year old buildings in England that make my 1956 split level home back in Indy feel brand new.  Hey, at least the walls are plumb.  

The York Minster is breathtaking twice. Once when you emerge from an alley for the first glance at its spires;
As we approached the Minster, a man was playing the harp.

And again when you first step inside the massive cathedral.

Our necks started to hurt.

There's so much intricacy and attention to detail to the design that I could hardly appreciate.  My mind was so saturated by the greatness it went numb.   I tried to imagine what this place must have been like in the Gothic days with archbishops, kings, wizards, and hobbits having important meetings, but then I realized my history knowledge is very poor indeed.

The tickets are good for a year, so we can go back in the spring when they open the crypt (currently being restored).   I think this will feature even more ancient Roman ruins that the minster was built upon.

We also went up the narrow staircase to get some views of the city.

Then I ate 3 pasties.  I only meant to eat two but I ended up eating Kerry's because she hated it.

We walked down small crowded streets and really enjoyed the people-watching.   We're finding the clothing fashion to be highly entertaining; York is a quirky town and used to heavy tourism.  We walked to many different attractions, and managed to be content with what we could do for free.  A short play was put on by local actors in the middle of the park.  I can't say I understood any of it, but I admired their confidence.  The weather was perfect, and the one thing that is different here is the lack of bugs.  We could lay on the grass and nothing would crawl on you or buzz around your ears.

It was Saturday, and the partyers were just gearing up.  It was too bad we weren't really prepared to for the nightlife, because I had the parking spot until 8 am the next day, and who knows where the night may have taken us.
Stonegate was the opposite of the Minster.

Instead we had leisurely dinner and made our way back home.

I imagine a similar sign would be in the US if the Civil War had a different outcome.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Housefinding trip

As I mentioned before, the company covers housing during my secondment in the UK.  The housing package you get depends on how long you stay.  Kerry and I are here for 1 year, so we are entitled to a furnished place with a cap on the monthly rent.  

When we arrived, we moved into an extended stay hotel, and a relocation agent met us and we went on a homefinding trip.  Since we had cats, our options were limited to 3 places available and met our requirements.  Turns out most British landlords are not keen on renting furnished flats to cat owners.  Fine, they seem to have no problem with the renters cooking strong curries every night and letting the odors get absorbed into the carpets and upholstery.   

Rental properties move fast here, and one of our 3 options had just become available.  It was a ways out from the Derby city center, so it meant more of a commute for me to get to work, but we checked it out anyway, keeping an open mind.

In summary, we were totally impressed for what we could get with our rental allowance, and we took some photos to document the experience, and to help us compare to make a decision.  We were so wowed that we forgot to take a lot of pictures, but I'm sharing our favorites here.  The competition was crazy, and our viewing was triple booked with others looking at this rental, so many pictures have others in the frame.

The curb appeal was stunning.  Unfortunately yard maintenance was not included in rent, and while I'm not afraid of a bit of weekend mowing, The yards here were daunting.

Nonetheless, near the back of the property, the trees were stunning.

As it turned out, this rental had quite a history, dating back to the 1600's.  The Duke of Devonshire really poured a lot of capital into it, and it really payed off.  The furnished house had many original furniture pieces and artwork, which was a nice plus.  I really connected with the owner's design style, with paintings of nude women everywhere.

I was a fan of the dining room, but since the kitchen crockery (pots and pans) was not included, that kind of ruined it for me.

The bedroom linens were a bit dated, but the curtains would do a great job at blocking out extraneous light that disturb a good night's sleep. 

The guestroom was more our style, so we thought about just giving the master to any guests that would stop by.

The most distinctive characteristic of this house was the statue room.  Quite striking figures with the natural light and stone walls.

In the end, we decided against this property unfortunately, opting for something a bit more modest.  Only afterwards did we find out that the relocation company accidentally showed us this rental, as it was in fact well outside of our budget, it turned out that the monthly rent was all written in millions of pounds.  Anyway, we hope to have the paperwork sorted soon so we can move in, then we'll let show some pictures of our actual UK residence!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Quick Intro

We flew to Great Britain on August 1, 2012.  That's 6 days ago.

Way back in January I was asked if I'd like to spend a year working for my employer, Rolls-Royce at its main engineering campus in Derby, UK.  My wife (Kerry - she'll be adding her words here as well) quit her job to join me, on the condition that our two cats Lucy (7) and Stan (3) would also join us.  So, lots of paperwork, money, and stress later, we had our visas, renters for our house, and plane tickets.

Packed for a year.  Two checked bags, two carry ons, and one cat each.

We're unlikely expats.  I say that because the only thing about our lifestyles that indicate we'd be good candidates for such an adventure was that we have no children yet.  We were pretty well settled in Indy and enjoying our lives.  We have an awesome network of friends and family near,we'd just renovated our kitchen, looking forward to continuing with other parts of the old house, and we were really enjoying our routine of work, CrossFit, make dinner, sleep, and repeat.  Of course, plenty of fun activities together and with friends thrown in between.

 So far it has been a roller coaster ride of emotions dealing with all the differences.  Here are my negatives first:  my US credit and debit cards don't work at the grocery store, my mobile phone doesn't work,  I have no address, and my only pan is a thin aluminum nonstick that has teflon flaking off and my only spatula is metal.  Here are Kerry's:  not having a car, no unlimited texting to the US, and being 5 hours ahead of close friends and family.  Together we miss our CrossFit clan at Indy North and all the creature comforts of home like reasonably priced toiletries and popcorn (the unpopped kernels so I can pop it myself in coconut oil). 

Here are my positives:  free rent for a year, free car for a year (well, I pay for fuel), the best tasting pastured poultry and eggs ("barn eggs"), an extra "allowance' to my salary, and experiencing the land that inspired the likes of J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Guy Ritchie, and Ricky Gervais.  Here are Kerry's:  opportunities to travel, no work, and plenty of time to perfect her homemaking CrossFit skills.

We arrived in the morning of Aug 2, had a chauffeur pick us up with our overweight bags, then we headed to cargo to get our cats.  A quick stop at the petstore for some litter, a box, and some catfood later, we were at our hotel apartment where we crashed for a 3 hour nap.  My immediate goal was to find a GPS (SatNav) before doing anything else.  But this meant I had to drive to a store (the rental car was dropped off at our building).  So I mustered up as much courage as I had, got in the car, and headed toward the Westfield Mall, which is the beacon of Derby, visible from most roads.  About 7 wrong turns later, and 2 7-point turns through dumpster alleys, we managed to find the carpark.  While there must have been 7 stores for mobile phones, no SatNavs to be found.  Per the advice from other Secondees (US citizens temporarily working at R-R), at the mall we paid the dubious fellow at the phone kiosk who could unlock Kerry's AT&T iphone 4s so she could use it here without paying a small fortune per month.  Well, that's relative because it costs a small fortune to unlock it and it costs another one to cancel the ATT contract.  So this is clearly a lose-lose venture.  But life without a mobile phone is not worth living, I guess. 
Busy shopping day

Anyway, I did practice driving here on a business trip 4 months ago, and as we left the mall, without realizing it, I was driving past another shopping area!  This time there were big box stores.  CostCo!  Boots (aka Walgreens)! Sainsburys (aka Kroger)!  and Curry's (aka Best Buy)!  Well, not sure I got the best buy, but they did accept my credit card, so I got my my SatNav.   I'm now totally confident as I drive, as long as no one interrupts me.

The bigger car wins, luckly I drive a Peugeot 508

With my newfound confidence we decided to take a road trip to the Peaks District the Sunday before I started work.  It was only a 40 mile drive, but it took nearly 2 hours and I think I made roughly 50 turns.  It was a fun drive, and we ended up in a nice little village called Castleton that still looked like it was from the 1700's.  We hiked 6 miles along sheep pastures, up a large hill with excellent views, along the ridge of the hills, and back down through some woods, and more pastures, dodging the sheep poo as we followed the old stone fences.  At the end we found our way to the Nag's Head.  It just so happened we saw that before the Bull's Head so I can't say how they compare.  But I got my first real pint and Kerry got herself a cider and we got some decent pub fare.  My previous pub food experiences had been less than pleasant, but this was an upscale pub in the town so I was quite happy with my bangers.

Quaint cottages
Sheep fear her

First Pub
Pervil Castle

A nice farmhouse with what appears to be 300 year old stone walls and all new windows and doors

 So we're still figuring our routine and we do have to move into a more permanent rental for the year, but we've managed to get to Crossfit Nottingham twice for some real doozy workouts.  Stay tuned.