Thursday, January 8, 2009

I'll take Potpourri for £200, Alex

Some random observations that have been rattling around in my empty head the last few days:

The credit card conundrum: There are lots of things you can "top-up" here in the UK. Your Oyster card, for example. The Oyster card is the transit pass and uses RIF, similar to a credit card that you swipe in front of a gas pump or cash register to pay. You press your pass against the receiver on the turnstile when you enter and exit the Tube or get on a bus.

Another example is your mobile phone. If you don't have a bank account in Britain (which you can't obtain on a visitor's visa), then your only option to get a mobile phone is apparently a pay-as-you-go plan, or as Vodafone calls it, "Pay as you talk" (PAYT). Evidently, there are some exceptions to the rule, but you need dispensation from the Queen or Prince Charles for the override (at least I think this is what the Vodafone salesperson told me). But PAYT works just fine for what we need.

All these top-up systems work well, and you can maintain your accounts on-line. But there's one hitch. For all these systems, you need to set up your on-line account using a British postal address. But your credit card, which you can use for automatic top-up when you balance gets low, has to be entered with the billing address. You got it: if the postal address you enter does not match the credit card billing address, no go. So you can't use auto top-up, which means you have to watch your balance and manually top it up (not on-line) when it gets low. Not a major issue, but a minor inconvenience, and one in this day and age you would think could be overcome.

Address numbers: Unlike most of the U.S., the address numbers on streets, at least in our neighborhood, are not necessarily divided between odd and even sides of the street. Trying to find a Ryman stationer by its address number with the girls this afternoon, I think we crossed Upper Street five times.

Been a long, been a long, been a long day: Our girls are going to have a lot of adjustments to make to their new schedule (as will their parents). The school day is longer, and as mentioned earlier they have a 30-45 walking-and-Tube commute each way; the time depends upon how the trains are running and whether we stop for a snack on the way home. Throw in some errands on the way home, and they're away from home from 7:45 to after 5:00, as compared to about 7:30 to 3:30 (Rosie) or 8:15 to 3:05 (Lena) in State College. In addition, they're doing a lot more walking than they do at home, where our faux-suburban life involves little walking on a daily basis. They were both exhausted and starved by the time they got home from school the last couple of days, but I think we'll all adjust to the schedule.

The great Sainsbury's dash: Today Anne and I made our first pilgrimage to the Islington Sainsbury's, which is a major supermarket chain. The store probably wasn't any bigger than a supermarket at home, but we had that challenge of being in it for the first time and having no clue where anything was. In addition, the supermarket layout scheme in Britain appears to be quite different from the U.S., so that items you would expect to be near each other are not necessarily placed that way. In addition, the place was packed, at least when we first walked in -- there must have been a queue 20 people long at the self checkout. But by the time we found our way through the whole market, and filled up our little-old-lady-in-the-city wheeled cart we brought from home (I'm not kidding -- we were the only ones under the age of 65 with one of these things), the queues were not nearly as bad. We surmised that the lines were at least in part due to the fact that the market is closing in a couple of days for a week, in order to bring us a new and improved Sainsbury's.


  1. Don, Great Blog. Good to see you made it over safe-and-sound, even after various adventures with Customs. (Been there -- in the last year or so I've been to Chile, Peru, Taiwan, and Utah -- each foreign country with its anomalies for entry/exit.)

    If you have time for leisure reading I would suggest "Changing Places" by David Lodge. It's about an American and British professor who "change places" for a year. Hopefully some of your adventures will be a bit more tame. (Or not. To each his own.)

    I look forward to reading more...Will you be spelling in English or British? :)

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Christian. There's a Waterstone's right near us so I'll have to check it out.

    And I suspect I'll probably be using a mix of spellings.

  3. And I suspect I'll probably be using a mix of spellings.

    [Insert bad joke about Don leading up a British Spellings Commission here.]


  4. And I suggest reading Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island" if you haven't already. The book is all about Bill's experience as an American acclimating to his new life in Britain. HE IS HYSTERICAL! Your girls and Anne would probably enjoy reading this one as well. I read the book during my first few weeks in England, and I found myself agreeing with almost everything he said...the similarity in experiences is shocking!

    Then, when you can get back to State College, you can read the follow - up book, "Notes from a Big Country" which explores Bill's re-acclimation to the American lifestyle after living abroad in England. This, too, is a laugh a minute and strikes too close to home!

  5. You historians are all alike -- I think Christian recommended the same Bill Bryson book to me.

  6. My bad -- it was a different book Christian had recommended. Thanks to both of you.