Sunday, February 12, 2012

LONDON UPDATE (February 2012)

So I’m here in Londra (Turkish), Londres (Spanish), or London, however you prefer it. Originally called Londinium during the Roman Empire, it is a huge city. Actually London proper is only actually 1 square mile. Since its founding, of course, as with most cities, it has blossomed and grown into its rural villages, surrounding hamlets, and suburbs. The actual part of London that is London is called “The City” by the people here. Outside that 1 square mile, you refer to your part of time by the borough (New York is another city with boroughs). I live in Westminster, the seat of the government. People in other countries refer to Great Britain’s government by “London” but here local papers will often call the government “Westminster.”

They’ve given me 3 months of temporary housing and put me up in a posh place (I think it’s posh). My flat rent is actual £770/week. I’ve since learned that this is only because it is short-term housing which leases at a higher rate than long-term housing. So my guess is that it’s probably between £350-450/week if it were long-term which is still expensive.

It’s a strange city and reminds me of a mix between Washington, D.C. and New York City. It’s the seat of government and full of non-profits and advocacy organizations just like D.C., and yet, it’s the largest city in the UK, the cultural capital, and the financial capital of the country. That part reminds me of New York City. New York is not the most diverse city in the U.S. when considering American minorities and the majority, but it is one of the most internationally diverse cities in the States. The same is true of London; the number of languages spoken here is ridiculous. London is big like New York; someone told me the population increases by 5 million every work day as people come into the city. London can be considered dangerous (for the UK) like New York crime. I’ve only been here a month and a third, and some youth beat up the husband of my co-worker (he has fractures on facial bones and will get surgery on Tuesday), someone stole the ipad of one of my flat neighbours right outside the front door for our flats, and I was sitting in the bank waiting to speak with a bank worker when a man ran out from the back of the bank through the open door with someone’s purse. London can be quite dirty like New York. And there is poverty. The interesting thing, though, is that there is less visible poverty here than in the States. I think this is because of government programs for the poor and homeless. In fact, there seems to be somewhat of a mixing of housing. Instead of getting poor sections of towns and rich sections of town exclusively (and there are sections like that), you can find a nice area of town with government housing mixed in more easily than you can find that in the States. It allows for greater possibility of inter-class relational living if people act upon the proximity.

I’m most amazed at the energy saving techniques and tactics which always found me considering the UK ahead of the States. My friend in the Department of Energy disagrees and thought the UK was quite wasteful. I think we both were going from our experiences. It’s possible that what I feel is only due to the places I had been before or the places that I live and work now in the UK. But I’m quite impressed. I’ve seen the switches on the outlet (take a moment and study how much energy is drawn from an appliance that stays plugged in while unused) which I use, washer-dryer machines (one machine that both acts as a washer and dryer), smaller cars, smaller roads, smaller refrigerators (my fridge is about ¼ to 1/3 the size of refrigerators) smaller freezers (I’ve seen some freezers that are a small shelf in the refrigerator; I have a tiny freezer that is ½ the size of average freezers in the States), smaller microwaves, two-choice buttons on the toilet (one button uses half the water, but if you done a really big stink, you can press the bigger flush button which will use more water to erase the memory of your sordid affair), etc. The list goes on. In fact, more common than washer-dryers are just plain washers. So, for instance, I only have a washer and must hang dry my clothes, just like in South Africa. That’s another energy saver. My shower has no ability to be hot (Dr. Oz would like this because he says you should only shower in lukewarm water to retain more of your natural oils). The hottest it gets is lukewarm (another energy saver). The washrooms are also interesting because they have these metal heating racks that stand against the wall. People hang their towels on them to dry (residences generally don’t have central heating though offices do). My bathroom is freezing (it’s on its own floor/level) so I generally close the door and hope the heating rack helps heat the entire room. In the early morning or late night, it’s hard to see because the fade-in-fade-out lights take a very long time to slowly brighten (slower than the ones I used in the States).

I’m somewhat familiar with different UK accents. Still sometimes words are said that I don’t recognise because I’m not familiar with the British pronunciation of the word. I didn’t realised they were pronounced differently. Here are a few below.

Basil – pronounced “bă’-zƏl”

Harassed – pronounced “hă’-rƏsd”

So I’m just enjoying myself in the city. I’ve seen a few sights, but my biggest priority is finding housing. I have temporary housing for 3 months and must find something by April. I found a few nice places but places in London go quite quickly so unless you’re ready to move within the next 3 weeks to immediately, you probably won’t get it. The sooner you can take the place the more negotiating power you have on the price, but if the owner must wait for you to move on, often they will charge you a higher price. The UK reminds me a bit of South Africa where an American must alter their aesthetic framework when looking for apartments. Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly places that are nice-looking and would be considered such in both countries. But there are places considered nice-looking here that would not be considered nice looking from the States. So I’m having to readjust my understanding, framework, and sensitivity once again. It’s ok to have plaid flooring leading to your door or stained glass windows on your door, for instance. ;-)

The prices here are a bit ridiculous. It’s as if someone said “I’m going to take your American salary amount, change the $ sign to a £, and then decrease the number amount. At the same time, I’m going to take rent prices, change the $ sign to a £, and then increase them. I’m also going to do the same with some food and clothing. At the very least, I’ll change the $ sign to a £ on a food item, and then leave the number amount the same. So here I spend a higher percentage of earnings on items like food or housing.

A lot of people have asked about the job, so I’ll say a few words about it. I work for a competitor to PayPal called Company. Yes, Company perks are nice. We get free food for all three meals. Luckily dinner is not served in any canteen/cafeteria in my building. So for me to eat dinner, I would have to go to a different building down the road. This is good because it encourages me to go home and cook and not work late. We can have visitors eat with us, we have a few free, but mostly subsidised massages (I heard they used to be free), free medical/health/life/dental insurance. I start with 5 weeks of vacation a year (I don’t have to build up to it; in other words, I don’t earn some of those days each month I work here), and my manager is in Switzerland. So larger team meetings mean we have to travel to meet up. My larger team works all over the world since we do outreach, so it appears we will have to do this once a quarter. We all get laptops, and people here don’t seem to write things on paper. When I do people say “Oh, Old school!” Every single part of the company thinks creatively and is into innovation. So the chefs are encouraged to be creative, HR is creative in their design of the HR tools, the facilities team is creative in all they offer. Our credit card uses is automatically tied into our expense report system so we don’t have to do anything. We just take a picture of the receipt and zappo, we’re mostly done. We have gyms, free exercise classes, free snacks and food in our numerous kitchens on various floors and corners, sleep pods, free laundry, in-house chefs, in-house massage therapists, in-house barbers, etc. The design of the place is quite crazy as well—lots of fun, nice colours, playful beanbags, indoor telephone boxes (booths), indoor parks, game rooms, music rooms, etc. It goes on and on. I was thinking if I ever open up a school in the future, I want to employ similar design techniques that Company uses. You can bring your dog to work or put your kids in daycare. And Company works on work-life balance as well. We’ll see how it is. I can see that people can easily have a tendency to value the perks over the actual day-to-day work which I think is more important (as well as for whom you work and your teammates). We’ll see how that work out for me.

I was told that people come here thinking it’s the same as the US and it’s not, so they experience culture shock. I don’t think it’s hit me at all. The UK is somewhat culturally different, but the (U.S.) American empire lives on even here. I don’t think the UK, in general, is as deep into excessive consumerism, non-stop entertainment, self-absorption, and the never-enough philosophy as in the US, but because I’m in London (the height of that culture in the UK) I get it full blast. I see all the American companies we know so well (KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, Whole Foods, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, etc.) as well as a few knockoffs (Burger Queen, TKMaxx, etc.). They struggle with terrorism and how to deal with it and react to it and whether they themselves engage in it. They deal with race issues (even though some English people will say they don’t) and youth unemployment issues. They face hardships from gangs and the same health issues (recently the silicon problem with implants has been looming large). It’s really quite similar. With socioeconomic class, they have an entire social class apart from the wealth one owns. In other words, a commoner can become rich and never been royalty, the highest social class. And a royal family member might lose all “his money,” and yet he will always be the highest class.

American TV, films, and music dominate here as around the world. In Britain, though, they have a large enough entertainment culture to balance it more so than many other countries. They have two knock-off shows that make me laugh. One is called “American Scousewives.” I thought scouse was a derogatory term, but it turns out that it just refers to an accent or a person from the area around Liverpool. The accent is so musical, lively, sing-songy, and strangely pronounced it’s hard to understand a person with a strong scouse accent. Another one is called Georgie Shore. It is cool to see shows like Idol and X-factor that were exported to the U.S. I think it’s interested how TV stations here will have times when there is no programming, dead-air. That would never happen in the U.S. It’s constant programming there. Not here. This includes big and important stations, as well. Censorship is different here. In other words, during prime time, anything goes. There is no censorship on TV at night. So if you watch a reality show, they will say what they want and you hear what they say.

Earlier I mentioned self-absorption but they are not as into their image as in the U.S. I feel like I can tell if a person is a white American or a white Brit. I’m not sure how I can tell, but the average US American seems to be more attractive for some reason than the average white Brit. I asked a friend about this, and she said it’s true. She said when she’s attracted to a white European, she finds out that the person is an Italian or Frenchman or someone from another European country, but the white Brits don’t seem to be as attractive on average. I asked her if it had to do with the fact that Americans get more plastic surgery. She said no. I asked if has to do with more cosmetic dental surgery and teeth fixing in the U.S. She admitted that it was true that that happened in the US and Brits don’t care but that it wasn’t that. The faces actually looked different. I noticed it in South Africa, too. Anyway, I could go on and on about the different observations here, but I’ll stop for now. There’s more time in the future.


PrajK said...

Nice posts! Keep it up, and keep safe. Sorry to hear about your colleague's husband. That's not cool.

HOpe all is well.

William Gilcher said...

Thanks Victor. I'm very happy to hear what's happening in your life. Especially enjoy your thoughts on comparing US and UK culture - soon you will not be able to notice things as sharply. Bill