Feb 22, 2021

Dear Brits: It Doesn't HAVE to Be This Way

I have just submitted my online application to receive a paper application to get a provisional license which I need in order to take the theory test which will allow me to start driving so that I can eventually perhaps take the driving test. These are, of course, not currently being offered due to lockdown, but it seemed prudent to get started now.

There are, naturally, fees at every stage. There'd have to be! How else are they going to support all these necessary layers of their carefully-crafted system?

I am developing a Pavlovian twinge in my gut every time I need to interact even obliquely with British bureaucracy. There are no clever interfaces. No QR codes. No, I suspect, online databases. Of anything. Every interaction becomes A Thing. 

Every. Single. One.

I got alarmed when, after paying, I got a screen saying they needed more information from me and will be in touch by mail in about a week (and then another screen saying that, actually, all mail transactions are DDTC, Delayed Due To Covid, that glorious shrug-off-accountability phrase that is the silver lining to British Bureaucracy of this terrible pandemic and would probably need to be invented if it did not already exist). Googling around, it seems they will likely ask me to mail my original and extremely hard-won residency card to some address in Swansea, because god forbid they should share files with the Home Office or accept a scan of the document or have a local branch office I can take it for inspection. I figured I'd save time, and have already entered "follow up with the Department of Vehicle Licensing for the return of my precious residency card" into my dayplanner for three consecutive months (starting six weeks from now, because, y'know. DDTC).

British towns and cities are maddeningly higgledy-piggledy/fascinating (depending on my mood and how urgently I need to find the address I'm looking for) for quite understandable reasons: the modern city is a palimpsest built atop a physical geographic history the scope of which barely makes sense in the US mindset. But it's almost as if the British psyche has internalized this model as a prescriptive template. 

Take the driving license (say, for example). I'm sure it's been done via post for as long as it hasn't been sensible to do by parchment and village banns. The internet comes along, and, rather than re-making their system, they graft a layer onto it: input all your information online, so we can mail you an application and ask for it all again! (With, I'm anticipating with certainty, a demand for a utility bill as Proof of Residence.) Look! We're so modern!

People who talk about "disruptive technologies" or "moving fast and breaking things" are annoying twats. No two ways about that. But, dear lord, if anything was ever going to cultivate my sympathies for this kind of thinking, it's 11 months spent living in the UK.

Feb 18, 2021

The Nematode Episode

 'Round about Christmas (I never promised you a linear chronology), we were at TH's native place, as my friends in Mumbai would say. It's Up North. The time it takes a northerner to tell you they're from Up North is approximately the same as it takes a vegan to self-identify. But I digress.

The first time TH took me there, he slowed down on a residential street of forlorn ticky-tack rowhouses dominated by some cartoonishly sinister cooling towers looming over them like giant concrete mushrooms, and I thought he was being unusually sensitive to my fascination with dystopian vistas and was pausing so that I could get a picture. He wasn't. It was the street he grew up on.

TH's family home is really small. Smaller than our current rental accommodations. Small enough that we literally could not both open our suitcases at the same time in the room that we were sharing. And this house, home to TH's father -- to me, a culturally unfathomable and distant but very dignified man I have met just a handful of times -- only has one bathroom.

I don't really get it when people talk about having "a shy bladder." What's so offensive about a wee? I've peed in communal "trough" toilets in China, and, while it's not my favorite excretory anthropological adventure (that would be my first encounter with a Japanese toilet), it didn't leave lasting trauma. No, what I have is a shy sphincter. 

So it was that by the morning of the fourth day, the day we were leaving, TH was trying not to laugh watching me politely decline high-fiber cereal and take the tiniest sips of coffee that would suffice to keep caffeine withdrawal at bay. Four hours later, down some motorways in remarkably poor, bouncy repair, I barricaded myself in our bathroom. I won't, of course, go into details, but I believe the best metaphor would be childbirth.

Taking a post-flush peek (UK toilets can be underpowered, and one likes to be polite), something caught my eye. Something that should never catch one's eye under these circumstances: motion.

In the bowl was a very pink, very thin worm. It was about the length of a pencil, and -- and this is an exceptionally vivid image seared into my brain that I'm afraid will never lessen in intensity -- it was thrashing around with angry vigor by contracting its whole length and springing out, as if attempting a frog paddle. 

I ran out of the bathroom and collapsed against the wall, breaking out in a cold sweat. A few minutes later, I crept back in and took another quick look -- surely some kind of post-partum hallucination, right? Nope. I fled again. Then I took a deep breath and went and found TH. 

I sat him down and asked whether he was capable of dissociating the part of himself that is a trained medical professional from the part that is a husband. I asked whether he was willing to do something that might permanently endanger our sex life. When I finally gave him the specifics -- he was getting visibly worried -- he laughed and went into the bathroom. I heard a flush, and he ran out, looking stricken.

"Why did you flush?" I wailed. "That was evidence. We should have...I don't know, captured it somehow, or something." 

"I panicked," he admitted, "but we need to get you to a doctor anyway." We then went downstairs and pored over his medical books together, which mostly entailed his reading the books and occasionally asking me "do you think it looked like that one?" and showing me a picture I could only look at through partially-covered eyes. I had two main questions: (1) Am I going to die? and (2) How do we get these out of me?

Of course, this happened on a Saturday, and, having determined that I probably wasn't going to die, I spent a long day and a half sure I could feel worms doing that energetic frog-paddle throughout my gut and chewing through my vital organs. I was utterly terrified to use the loo.

TH placed the call for me on Monday morning, as I couldn't deal with having my first experience with a foreign medical system being my telling a dubious receptionist that I had worms. Fifteen minutes later, a very friendly and jolly-sounding woman with an accent that even I could tell was posh phoned me back. I related the story I'd spent the morning rehearsing -- light on the details leading up to the discovery -- and explained about my background living in places like Thailand and India. Could I have had worms for more than a decade, I wanted to know. She admitted that she wasn't an expert in tropical medicine, but didn't think I'd have been symptom-free for all that time.

"Did it look like an earthworm?" she asked.

"Not really," I said. "Too thin and active."

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Having lived in Mumbai, I'm a bit au fait with worms," I reassured her. I can't tell you what took place during the next five minutes of conversation, because I spent the entire time silently but viciously berating myself for actually having said "a bit au fait with worms." I think it was maybe caused by her accent?

"Can I tell you a funny story?" she asked.

"Oh god, please do," I said.

"When I was a medical student and living in grotty student housing, we had earthworms that would get into the pipes and end up in the toilet. The first time it happened, we completely freaked out and actually fished it out and sent it to the lab. Which confirmed that it was an earthworm. Do you think that something like that could have happened?"

I didn't think so. TH has lived in this house for two years and never seen a worm in the toilet. The toilet in question is on the first (that is, American second) floor, so that's a lot of pipe to travel against gravity. And that was definitely not an earthworm (I am, after all,  au fait with worms).

Fast-forward a bit: she gave me the name of a medication with a broad anti-nematode spectrum that isn't even prescription (really, TH, you couldn't have found that out in your medical books and spared me this conversation?) and said it was a pretty benign pill and I might as well take it, to be certain. She asked me a bit, with genuine apparent curiosity, about America and the Foreign Service. We commiserated a little on the indignity of my current situation. "Welcome to Bristol!" she said brightly.

I took the pills. Although I desperately wanted the worms out of me, I also very much wanted to not be aware of, or, if at all possible, present for, their departure. (Every time I closed my eyes, I envisaged something resembling an upended can of Spaghetti-O's.) This not being possible, I just screwed my courage to the, er, sticking place, and hoped for the best. I was not, as it turned out, aware of any mass egress (though I did not examine the evidence closely. Or, in fact, at all). 

I did not experience any ill effects from the pills, but neither did I notice any miraculous improvements in digestive health (always a bit dodgy, to be honest) from my de-worming. Because I'm now on the NHS, the entire cost -- not emotional, obviously, but financial -- of all of this was the price of the pills, £6. It's true, I was unable to so much as look at boiled pasta for weeks. It's also true that the entirety of my English medical records now consists of the details of that phone call (and I would almost be disappointed if the sentence "patient is, by her own insistence, au fait with worms" weren't in there), and I am going to have to deal with the horror and enormity of that at some point during an inevitable second and probably face-to-face appointment sometime in the future (hopefully not before we move, thus reducing the chances of it being this doctor, jolly though she was). 

No, the biggest lasting negative effect to all this is epistemological, the mystery that haunts us both to this day:

Either a worm that does not in any way resemble an English earthworm crawled up two stories of sewer pipe and chose to manifest itself during my most extreme constipation event in recent memory and despite no lumbricine evidence ever, anywhere in this house, in the two years prior or two months since -- a hell of a coincidence.

Or I have harbored worms (or just a worm?) since probably my last tropical posting ended, in 2007, with no apparent symptoms. 

Each of these is equally and extraordinarily unlikely.

One of them must be true.

Feb 13, 2021


1.  Semi-detached in town: sold.

We confessed to each other that we're both actually relieved about that. We both felt it was a hugely practical house that we really ought to buy, but we both secretly hated it. Certain houses just feel...tired. And it's not something new paint can fix. They're just weary in their bones.

2. Gorgeous house distressingly near the freeway: not in fact gorgeous.

Which is a little funny, 'cos it turned out you can't hear the freeway from inside the house at all. Those were extremely misleading photos, though, and while I haven't gone back over the floorplan, I'm pretty sure they lied on that as well. Why would you do that? Sure, people will come out to view, but they're going to spend the whole visit muttering, "what they hey?" Ideally, you want one good photo to draw people in, and leave the rest ambiguous and slightly concerning. I've retained the warmest feelings towards the places we've seen where I've said "this is actually much nicer than the pictures!" This house could be made gorgeous by an infusion of cash; possibly, quite a bit of it. Which we would never be able to recoup, because it's too distressingly near the freeway.

It's a shame, because it came with a paddock, and I'd looked forward to renting that out and playing with the goats every day. Still: the best outcome to a viewing is, obviously, an immediate and thunderbolt-like conviction that this is The One. The second-best outcome is an immediate and certain conviction that it isn't.

3. Cottage in the seaside village of Clevedon.

Speaking of the anguish of prospects being lodged firmly in the muddy middle. Still in the running. We'll go back for another look on Monday. However, in addition, to TH's height challenges with the staircase (for which I'll admit I'd have more sympathy if we'd ever discussed lowering the kitchen counters and shelves for my height challenges), I've learned that its listed-building historical status could make it more expensive to insure and difficult to get a mortgage. I do like this house, but the UK buying process is hellish enough without attempting the advanced level.

4. New contender: Pelican house.

Facebook friends will know it as this one:

5 of 19

Interesting thing: due to both COVID risks and general social anxiety (both of us), we often scout the position and exterior of a house before requesting a viewing. Had we done that here, we wouldn't have viewed it. I'm not saying we need to overhaul that system. I've always disliked "housing estates," and this is at the rear of one massive enough to have its own weather system. 

Still a pleasant surprise, though, to find a gorgeous house inside. As much as we mocked the photos showing unorthodox design choices before we went, I couldn't get over just how well it all subtly combined in person, despite the diversity of colors, textures, and influences. At least one member of that couple is, and I do not exaggerate, an absolute genius. I was humbled. (Some funny moments, too: he'd forgotten, when he opened the closets, that he'd lined the interiors all in leopard paper, and was embarrassed. It was adorable.)

And that's the thing of the house design: it was wonderfully playful, but in a completely livable way. Still, I kept telling myself, it would look very different with our stuff in it, even if we didn't paint a surface. I also wondered whether we could hire them to come do our place, wherever we end up buying.

In a nutshell: that house, if in one of the neighborhoods we've been favoring? Sold. (Though then we couldn't afford it.) That house, where it is, but not in an estate? Also, probably, still sold. As- and where-is? Probably not, Especially because the sellers hadn't even gone out to start looking at houses yet, and I can't bear to think how long we're going to stay in limbo. TH was seduced utterly by the design mastery of these men, and, I think, perilously close to wanting to make an offer, until I talked him down, pointing out how our grad-student-aesthetic belongings wouldn't work nearly as well in that pink-and-blue (-and pelican) kitchen.

5. New contender: Chepstow house.

Chepstow is across the river, in Wales, so in terms of fatal flaw, that's all you need to know. Kidding, sort of. But Wales really does have its own weather system, and the amount of rain in Bristol is trying enough, thanks. We're scheduled to see it on Tuesday, so more on this one then. It's not in an estate, but it also doesn't seem especially likely as of this moment.

And that's it. There are no other candidates even shimmering on the horizon; nothing else we're planning to phone up on Monday morning. Quite simply, houses are just not coming onto the market at all. Not just ones we don't like, or ones out of our price range; none. It's bizarre, and it's a mounting worry.

PS I promise to talk about other things besides real estate.

PPS I mean, I'm going to have to: THERE ARE NO MORE !#$%ING HOUSES.

Feb 11, 2021

Gimme Shelter, II

 As you might imagine, I have a running list of draft posts, all of which are carefully crafted to be wryly observant (yet chatty) about the Anglo-American divide.

But screw that: let's talk real estate!

You recall that third house from yesterday's post, that vanished like the Cheshire cat? Well, cultural lesson for me: even though it seems silly to call up the agent and ask "Did that really sell?", it isn't. Or, it might be, but, at any rate: it didn't. It was "on a marketing break," and, pick your battles, please: let's not waste column inches huffing about what the hell that means.

This house "passes the cert," as we used to say in the biz, as in: it meets size requirements (with an asterisk), and commutability (though only just), and setback from neighbors (where it's one of the best we've seen, but with another asterisk). Beyond that, it is simultaneously an excellent and a terrible choice. You know those optical illusions where it's either the face of an old crone (not mine, another crone), or the silhouette of a young woman? That's this house.

Image result for clevedon 

Let's start with: it isn't in Bristol at all. But! It's in an artsy seaside village (population around 25K) a 20-minute drive away. I don't drive, of course. It does seem, however, that that's a more mutable attribute than our not having the extra £400,000 we'd need to afford the Bristol houses we like. TH reminds me that the first time I visited Clevedon, nearly a year ago, I asked "can we live here? Is this too far?" I'm still asking that. It's compact and easily manageable on foot or by bike (though, of course, I'd have to be driving), and large enough to have decent services and shops. But small. Too small?

It's not in the frame of the picture above, however. It's on the back end of the village, on the corner of a truly dreary housing estate. (I've just gone searching for photos, and there aren't any, because why would you?) It's a block away from a major road, and alarmingly close to the freeway. (Though, as TH gently points out, it's difficult to be near the freeway for ease of commuting without also having the house be near the freeway.)

Alhough the house is in the housing estate, it's not of the housing estate.


Look! Space! Spaaaaaaace. This is not gettable anywhere remotely in Bristol for under £1 million. And, conveniently near the freeway! Also, and not that this would in any way influence me, that structure at the end of the garden is a hot tub.

On the other side of that hedge, though? A public walking path. We have a public walking path behind our rented house currently. It has been colonized by a pack of skateboarders, who are capable of amusing themselves for 26 hours a day doing something that translates into a jarring and unexpectedly deafening "roll, roll, roll CLATTER." Again. And again.

On the other side of the walking path is a primary school and its playing fields. Which should drown out any skateboarders, right? (Seriously, though: I've lived next to playing fields. For whatever reason, I haven't found this noise objectionable.)


The floorplan, you'll note, shows a series of too-small rooms, along with a too-large one, plus a too-large conservatory that will only be usable during the parts of the year that are neither too cold nor too hot. The floors are connected by an unmodifiable (listed building) staircase that's a bit like a narrow fire escape, but with seriously reduced head clearance. Not a problem for me. Bit more of an issue for the 6'2" TH.

After a house passes the cert, we apply the feng shui test: is there someplace to put the catbox? In this case, yes: in the shower stall of the downstairs loo. (Guests can shower upstairs.) We then apply the "how long does it take to figure out how we'd use the space" test. Cottage results: appalling.

It's the stupid (and, again: unmodifiable) floor plan!  Just one for instance: our large dining table? It'd go in the conservatory, obvs.


But that's a too-big conservatory that you're not going to be able (or afford) to heat up in the time between getting up and having your coffee. So we'll need a small table in the dining room, too. Though that was going to be my music room. And I guess I could stick a music stand by the window and we could have a table in there, and I could just use that tiny downstairs bedroom to store all my sheet music and have the piano. And here we've already moved away from the "one room, one function" model we both adore. That unheated and unplumbed outbuilding? Usable for something. I guess. Not music -- my recorders need central heating. Not guests -- they need bathrooms. Can we be flexible? Not historically. 

There's a final test we apply, and it's the most vague but also the most informative: the linger test. Is it hard to leave the viewing? Do you feel you want to just sit down and stay a while?

Sitting Room 

Yup. And so we're going back for another viewing on Monday. It will probably consist of TH trying various ways of going up and down that staircase. On paper, this is probably the best option we have open right now. But it's also the worst, and I worry, simultaneously and perfectly logically, that we're going to make a big mistake and miss out on a great opportunity.