Sunday, March 21, 2010

Gettin' froggy with it

It must be spring. It tipped down with rain yesterday, and it's sunny today.

Also, the circle of life continues.

But this guy here, and his fat friend? They'd better not be eating my frog spawn.

Because there are some things I simply will not stand for.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

What exactly you DO here

So, the job.

I work in London, in the eighth-floor (I know -- there's a lift and everything) offices of an American firm that provides real-time data, news and analysis for various financial sectors. Earnings reports, corporate announcements, that sort of thing.

I'm a copy editor, which means I have responsibility for fact-checking and copy-editing articles in my particular areas, which are European banks/financial services firms/insurance companies and international (Europe/Asia) real estate. In other words, things I don't necessarily know all that much about -- though I know more than I did last week.

The demands are pretty high -- there's a highly automated system of error-checking and a built-in rating system that has me both being rated and providing ratings, the latter mostly for the extensive numbers of writers on which the company relies in India and Pakistan.

It's a good office to be in -- I'm the only copy editor, and a good number of the people in there (who number 15-20) are sales guys. There's a handful of Americans, a handful of Brits and a handful of folks from various other places. The guy who sits next to me is Dutch, and the guy who sits across from me is French. (They're also both younger than I am, as are a lot of the rest.)

My boss and the rest of the copy editors all work in the U.S., mostly in Charlottesville, Va. (where there is, incidentally, an outside chance I'll be sent for a quarterly new-employees meet-and-greet type thing. I asked jokingly if I could go and was told it's entirely possible. So ... yeah, that's kinda neat.) That means for the first five or so hours of my day, I'm pretty much on my own with copy editing.

The offices are in London, and that does mean a couple of hours on the train each morning and a couple of hours each evening. So far I use the morning to read the entirety of a newspaper and the evening to read one of the free evening papers that you can't walk five feet without someone trying to hand you. I need to be slightly more productive with the evening time, but I'm finding I get to work in the mornings feeling pretty awake. My colleagues all think I'm nuts, but for now at least, it's the best thing. Cheaper than rent, and I actually know people here.

So far it's just been training, but as of tomorrow I'm expected to be able to jump in the deep end and swim, as it were.

It's definitely a good opportunity, though, and one that seems to have been worth the wait. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to wait for a good job to come along. Given that the clientele is mostly American, however, it does render all that practi(s)e I did on writing in British kind of ... well, useless.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Well, that took longer than expected

But I finally have a job!

I won't go into any details just yet, because there's a contract to sign, so I don't want to hex anything. If you want to know, I'll happily tell you. Or you can just ask my mother.

Who, by the way, still possesses the gift of British understatement. On being told I'd gotten a job, in the same week that my first niece -- and her first grandchild -- was born (to my stepsister, lest anyone be confused), she responded 'this is becoming quite a good week'.

I told her it had been a good week BEFORE I got a job.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Making Atlanta's coping skills look positively Wisconsin-ite

This wasn't in the brochure.

Geographically speaking, England -- even southern England, -- lies to the north of virtually the entirety of the United States. And yet when it comes to winter, it has all the coping skills of the average Floridian.

In fairness, snow and other harsh winter weather are relatively uncommon, for a variety of geographic reasons that I won't bore you with, mostly because I can't explain them all.

But nevertheless, you would think that 4, 6, 8 inches of snow wouldn't cause quite the incredible anguish that it does. Just now, I'm being reminded by the BBC news that hundreds of people were stranded on the A3 road, just a few miles from here, where it's been snowing -- off and on and relatively lightly -- since yesterday. Such was the chaos that the MILITARY had to be called out.

That is one weak solar effort.

For me, meanwhile, this is turning into a disturbing pattern. Nearly three years ago, I moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, where I was assured that winters weren't that severe. And the first winter I lived there, sure enough, was 'much worse than usual, no really, we promise.'

Now this.

I'd move back to Florida, but it's boooooooorrrrrrrring. This is much more entertaining. And, well, I don't have anywhere to go, which enhances the entertainment factor.

You just stay right there, Red.

(Oh, and now there's some reporter who lives in Yorkshire bragging about how wonderfully they cope up there. She's gonna have people throwing things at their TVs at this rate.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Because the regular kind of surfing makes no sense in Scotland

A while back, a few friends of mine discovered a Web site called CouchSurfing. Essentially, it's a worldwide network of people offering up crash space to strangers, free of charge and quid pro quo. Because what could possibly go wrong there, right?

Actually, very little, because it's well-organised and remarkably safe. And even though it sounds strange -- let strangers stay on your couch? really? -- I can think of no better way to actually discover the true fibre of a place.

Case in point, without CouchSurfing, Kat and I would likely never have done any of the following during our whirlwind visit to Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland:

-- Spent a day visiting Edinburgh Castle with a native German speaker, then spent the afternoon wandering around the city with both her and her boyfriend, confusing them to death by teaching them idiomatic English. (It gave me flashbacks of teaching my French exchange student the words from the theme to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air -- it was the only rap song I knew the words too -- and then attempting to explain what 'chillin' out, maxin', relaxin' all cool' meant.)

-- Gone Ceilidh dancing in the upstairs section of an Edinburgh bar -- with aforementioned exchange student wearing a kilt -- and discovering that once you get the beat, it starts to make sense.

-- Subsequently stayed out until 3 in the morning with four other, non-CouchSurfing-related complete strangers, reveling in the idea of making the world a smaller place.

-- Found ourselves standing in a kitchen in Dublin as two of seven people of seven different nationalities. (English, American, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Basque, if you're keeping score at home.) And, of course, found ourselves realising that it's quite sad that we don't speak any other languages.

-- Eaten an Italian meal prepared by an actual Italian -- and an ex-professional water polo playing Italian at that.

-- Gotten arguably the most honest tour of Belfast's troubled areas that one can get -- from someone who recognises the folly on both sides. And paid nothing for it, one might add.

-- Gone to 'Soul and Funk' night at a pub in Belfast, complete with a handful of guys with full-on 70s sideburns and hair. (How they get away with that in day-to-day life one can only wonder.) With, naturally, another batch of people from about six different countries. (France, Italy, Australia ... and a few others, I think.)

In summary, if you didn't catch that, CouchSurfing=good. I recommend it to anyone.

And the cities themselves? It really was a bit of a blur, but Edinburgh -- fit like a glove. Felt comfortable there even on the airport bus, and that feeling never faded. Dublin -- too expensive for my tastes, and somehow a little less friendly. More of a big-city feel. Belfast -- still a very conflicted place, even as the tensions of the past begin to fade somewhat. Stuck in a weird place between wanting to move beyond its history and knowing that it's what draws most people who come to visit (other than Dubliners looking to take advantage of the exchange rate, that is.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009


So my friend Kat is visiting from Florida. It's incredibly exciting, and we're going gallivanting about Scotland and Ireland starting Tuesday.

That is, of course, if I don't die of residual embarrassment first, courtesy of an ill-timed trip to a train toilet.

In the interest of full disclosure -- or just the opportunity for people to make fun of me just a little bit more -- I should say that several months ago I used a train toilet, but neglected to push the lock button, something I realised at exactly the moment someone else pushed the open button from outside.

Pushing the open button causes the door to slide open very, very slowly. It's like being on a game show, except the prize reveal -- well, let's just say it would be difficult to underbid the value.

We decided to go to London on Saturday, despite the weather being awful even by English standards -- wind, rain, etc. And as you do, I needed to go to the toilet.

Making my way to the nearest one, I found it occupied, so I proceeded to the next carriage, where I saw that the ring of lights around the open button was on and concluded it was empty. And though the door didn't open the first time I pushed the button, I assumed that was a mere technical error and tried again.

It was that exact moment that one of the gentlemen sitting near the bathroom decided to say, 'hey, there's someone in there.' And there was. A young lady of about 25, looking rather flustered and appearing as though she wished the floor would open up and drop her onto the tracks. Understandable. I know how she feels.

Making a hasty retreat, I decided I really didn't have to go that badly and returned to my seat, sharing only the briefest of details with Kat and figuring that would be the end of it.

It wasn't, though. It never is, is it?

A few minutes later, the doors to our carriage opened, and who should walk through but that same young lady. I turned immediately to the window, hoping that if I did my best to avoid being seen, she wouldn't even notice me, a strategy that was remarkably effective.

Far. Too. Remarkably. Effective.

Why? Because she sat down in the seat opposite us. And started telling the story to a friend on the phone. I stared out the window, now myself wishing the floor would open and drop me onto the tracks. Kat and I exchanged occasional furtive glances, smirking all the while.

She noticed that, of course, and apologised after she got off the phone, then started retelling the story. I tried to subtly identify myself, but to no avail, so eventually I just had to tell her. Several more phone calls followed, in which her level of bemused embarrassment had understandably risen, and the remainder of the train journey took, oh, I don't know, 47 hours. (Actually, she was rather nice, and we chatted for several minutes.)

Finally, we got to London, she fleeing for the door, an awaiting cab and a stiff drink.

But a story with only one Billy Mays moment just isn't good enough. Oh no.

For when we got up, I was most surprised to hear someone say my name. Maybe because I know so few people here, relatively speaking, or maybe because I was just willing it to be for someone else, I tried to ignore it. But it continued. Of course.

Sitting directly opposite us, for most of the journey, had been a longtime friend of my father's and his wife, people I have met before. And yes, they'd heard just about everything.

I think I stopped blushing a little while ago. I hate train bathrooms.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sure, the free drugs are nice, but I really wanted to face off with a death panel

When I showed this to my dear, dear friend Kat, she assured me I was 'not that boring.'

I know, I know. Worst blogger ever. I guess I feel like blog posts should be all whiz-bang, yeehaw exciting, rather than ... whatever it is I could actually be posting about.

Life on this strange little island, though, continues pretty much as before. The job search remains tedious. (There used to be a neat little metaphor about a lighthouse of optimism here. Then someone shot the bulb out.) Still going to a few football matches a week -- though you all bore of that easily, apparently! And I still occasionally prove useful on quiz nights. (Need to know which is the largest state by population? I'm your guy. Need to know trivia about long-running BBC children's show Blue Peter? Erm, does anyone else need a beer?)

But. But! I have now had my first few sips at the fountain of life that is socialised medicine. (Yes, I spelled it with an 's'. If I ever DO get a job, I figure the practice will be helpful.) As such, I now feel utterly qualified to pronounce truths on the long-running debate of the relative merits of public and private health care.

Or, you know, just to relate what actually happened.

I rang up my local GP back in August, because I needed some new prescriptions. Was given an appointment for a few weeks later, though I think the timeline was more because there was no urgency to my particular situation. If I'd needed to get in sooner, I probably could have.

Once I had my prescriptions, I went over and got one filled. Because I'm unemployed, it was free. Huzzah, I thought ... but this could be annoying if I ever find work, since prescriptions for the working are £7.20 apiece, and I was going to need quite a few of them filled.

But, a little bit of Google sleuthing later, I learned that diabetics also receive free prescriptions! And not just for diabetic supplies -- for everything. (So I got THAT going for me, which is nice.) They're also free for cancer patients, anyone over 60 or under 16 (18 if you're still in school), pregnant or a new mom (er, mum),

That first visit produced nothing more than prescriptions. But I was sent a letter with an appointment for a diabetic check, which was Tuesday. And I was able to surreptitiously work out how the office works; they hand you a placard with your GP or nurse's name on it, and there's a board with all their names and lights. When yours lights up, you go back. Sounds simple ... but it's not as though they explain it. (Then again, how many people come in at 28 having never visited a GP before? Exactly.)

Before the diabetic check, I had to have blood drawn, which meant visiting a separate phlebotomy clinic. Unsure of how it actually worked, I wandered in looking, I'm sure, like a deer caught in headlights and taking a couple minutes to realise that I was supposed to take a numbered ticket and sit down.

My ticket number was 34. They were on 24. I figured I'd be there for at least an hour.

And 20 minutes later, I was back out the door. Portrait of efficiency, that place was. Three ladies drawing blood with the surgical precision of a vampire. (And not one of those 'shiny' ones, either.)

So then the actual appointment was Tuesday. Most of it was with Nurse Caryl, who did all the basic things, height, weight, etc., and gave me a flu shot and pneumonia shot (also free because I'm diabetic ... there is a theme here). My GP checked my eyes, feet, etc. Both of them were very nice, if slightly baffled by exactly WHY I happen to be in this country. (Most commonly asked question so far: 'So how long are you staying for?')

I also was instructed to contact one of the area diabetes clinics for yet more follow-up; I expect this may be where there's actual discussion of my management, as Tuesday's visit seemed to be more about possible complications, etc.) And I'm also supposed to get some sort of retinal photography done. All very fancy.

So all in all, I'm pretty pleased with the whole thing. Certainly the most disorienting aspect is that when you're done with the GP (or blood-taking lady), you just walk out. You don't have to stop by the desk ... because you don't have to pay.

Negatives? Yeah, maybe a couple. The prescription system's a bit tricky ... especially when you don't understand it. Essentially, I have to take my repeat order form into the GP's office, then come back a couple days later to pick up an actual prescription, which I then get filled. That's made slightly more annoying by the fact that the GP didn't prescribe all that much of any one thing. (Indeed, when I said I tested my blood sugar 6-8 times a day, he recoiled in horror and said it should be more like 2-3. But that's an argument he's going to lose, and so far I don't see there's much he can do to stop me.)

And there is a slight sense of being bounced around a little, but then it's not as though one doesn't visit specialists in the U.S. either.

As for the death panels, I'm sure they're back there somewhere. I'll keep looking.