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Entries about living abroad

You Alright?

Yes, I feel fine. Why do people keep asking me that?!?

sunny 20 °C

Walking into the office this morning, I got the usual greeting from one of my co-workers who had already made it into the office.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, good,” I reply. “You alright?”

“Yeah, ta,” she said.

I’ve gotten into the groove now, but when I first arrived in the UK, this question and its variations confused me. These variations include “Are you alright?” “alright?” or “alright, mate?”

This question is used as a greeting here, much as North Americans would use “how are you?” For a North American first getting over here to the UK though, the question “are you alright?” sounds more dire than a friendly greeting.

In North America, “are you alright?” is what you say to someone who looks like they aren’t alright. It is a question saved for those who look deathly ill with the plague or have a two-inch cooper pipe sticking out of their chest. After bouncing off the hood of a speeding car, it is the kind of thing someone says to you as you lie on the pavement, your legs bent at angles not normally possible with our god-given joints. “Dear God, are you alright?” they will say, before screaming into the crowd, “is anyone a doctor? Someone call 911!”

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The first time I was asked the question, it was a very different experience than my smooth greeting this morning. It was up in Sheffield, and one of the client staff said asked me as I first arrived at the office in the morning. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, fine. Why, don’t I look alright?” I responded. I figured if someone was asking if I was alright, then I must look sick.

The poor girl looked confused. Basically, she had said hello to me, and I was challenging why she said hello. “Umm, no, you look fine,” she mumbled. For the rest of the morning she stared intently at her computer, only occasionally glancing over my way nervously, they way one might keep an eye on the serial killer sitting next to you.

I’ve gotten used to the question now, and don’t worry that I must look sickly each time it is posed to me. That’s good, because it has just been announced that the Swine Flu cannot be contained in Birmingham where I am working now, and that the health services here are now moving into the mitigation phase of they pandemic plan. If I was still interpreting the question “are you alright?” as meaning I looked ill, I would spend all my time up here figuring that the Swine Flu had gripped me.

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Posted by GregW 02:19 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

The REAL Battle for European Supremacy (aka Part III)

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Last Thursday night I took my voter registration card to my local polling station, and cast my vote for my Member of European Parliament (MEP).

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The European Union is a 27 state trans-national political and economic union, which includes a 736 member elected parliament representing close to 500 million residents. Every five years, the 340 million plus eligible voters get to pick representatives for the EU parliament. This is the second largest pool of voters picking a democratically elected body in the world, behind only Lok-Sabha, the democratically elected lower house in India.

The EU also says that the EU Parliament is the “largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world,” though I personally can’t think of any other trans-national democratic electorates, so it’s probably a bit like me saying I am the “most read blogger posting on gregwtravels.travellerspoint.com.”

Now, some of you may be wondering why I got to vote in the EU elections, given that I am a citizen of Canada and not a citizen of an EU country. A few of my European friends, especially the French ones, were wondering the same thing, especially seeing as citizens of an EU country other than the UK who are resident in the UK can’t vote in national elections, though they can vote in EU elections.

Here in the UK, Commonwealth citizens who are legally resident in the UK have the right to vote in any elections – local, national and international. I have never passed up an opportunity to vote before, so I wasn’t going to pass up my opportunity to elect an MEP for London, despite the consternation it caused among some of my European friends. It is quite a switch from the time I spent in the US, where over a 10 year period I got to watch from the sidelines as they ran through two presidential elections, a couple more mid-term elections, and the media circus that was the 2008 presidential primaries. Unlike the Americans, who never let me play in their election games, the Brits welcomed me right into their electorate pool.

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Election posters for EU election in San Remo, Italy

Each country within the EU decides on its own method of voting, as along as it meets some basic criteria. Namely, that it is democratic and uses a “proportional representation” system of voting.

Proportional representation is the name for a system that allocates seats in the parliament based on the percentage of the vote received. The UK uses a method called the De Hondt method to allocate the seats. So in London, as an example, we get a total of 8 MEPs. When you vote, you vote for a party, not a person (as you would in the first past the post system that the USA, Canada and UK use for local and national elections).

The party that gets the most votes is awarded the first seat. Their vote total is then mathematically reduced, and the next seat is allocated to the new highest party (using the mathematically reduced total for the party with one seat). If you are interested in understanding the De Hondt method, you can check out the explanation at the end of the blog.

What is somewhat strange about the system versus a first-past-the-post system is that you aren’t voting for a person. When you go to vote in national and local elections, you have people who you are voting for, and so some of your decision is based on the experience and personality of the person you are voting for. In the EU election, I was voting purely on the policy of the party. Some may say that’s preferable to the “cult of personality” that exists in national politics, but I found myself wary of the concept. After all, what if the party I like best has on their list candidates that are very ineffective at the job of MEP? In that case, would I be better off voting for another party whose policies I don’t agree with as strongly, but who have a better list of candidates?

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EU HQ in Brussels, Belgium

Some political commentators I’ve seen on TV recently have indicated that this lack of voting for an individual is one of the reasons for the low voter turnout for EU elections. The EU elections have pretty much consistently had lower turnout than local or national elections. The 2009 election had the lowest turnout of any EU election since they started voting for the EU Parliament in 1979, with a European Union wide turnout of around 43%. In London, only 34% of eligible Londoners voted.

The commentators argued that if people don’t know their MEPs, they don’t feel a connection with them and thus don’t bother voting. Prior to voting, I couldn’t name a single MEP for London. Now, I can name a couple if I have just looked at the results, but within a few minutes I have already forgotten the names. I’ve personally never met an MEP, and unlike the MPs, London Mayor or councillors, they don’t often show up in the local or national media. MPs and local councillors, on the other hand, are well known and people have a real, personal connection with these people.

Another issue that is blamed for low EU turnout is that most people don’t understand what the EU is responsible for and what impact it has on their lives. If your streets aren’t clean or the National Health Service (NHS) is in a mess, we know that our local or national government is to blame. The international, trans-border world of trade policies and international and regional development is a lot more nebulous and hard to see. As they say, all politics is local, and if you aren’t feeling, tasting or seeing the impacts of political decisions, you are less likely to care.

Finally, the EU Parliament, unlike a national parliamentary body, doesn’t have the power to initiate laws. Instead, it only debates, refines and votes on legislation submitted by the EU Executive branch. A lot of people don’t see the point in voting for EU representation when it’s the EU bureaucrats who are setting the agenda.

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I’m glad I voted though, and I’ll keep on voting in EU elections as long as they allow me. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it is cool knowing that my vote is getting mixed and mingled with someone’s vote from Slovenia. It makes me feel very international and worldly.

Secondly, it appears to piss off people I know from France, and upsetting the French is always fun.

Thirdly, I always vote, and don’t want to break the streak. I do feel like it is both my privilege and duty as a citizen (or, in this case, vote-eligible resident) of a democracy.

Finally, and most importantly though, one of the key reasons I chose to live in the UK is so I can get British citizenship, which in turn is so I can work in the EU without requiring visas. As such, it’s important to me to keep the Euro-cynics out of power so that if I get a UK passport, I’ll still be able to use it to snag a job in Berlin or Vienna.

Most Brits don’t vote because they don’t see how it impacts them. For me, given my goal of being able to work in the EU, I can clearly see the impact that the EU’s policies and the UK’s participation has in it, so it’s important to me.

As I’ve already said, all politics is local. In this case, the locality is my pocket, where I keep my passport.

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  • * *

Appendix A: De Hondt Method Explained

In London, the top parties received the following vote totals:

  • Conservatives 479,037
  • Labour 372,590
  • Liberal Democrats 240,156
  • Green Party 190,589
  • UK Independence Party 188,440

There are 8 seats to allocate. The first seat goes to the party with the highest total - the Conservatives. Their total is reduced by dividing the original number of votes they got by the number of seats they have plus one. So 479,037 / (1 + 1) = 239,519.

With the Conservatives adjusted total, the highest vote total is for the Labour with 372,590. They are given the second seat, and their total is reduced 372,590 / (1 + 1) = 186,295.

The table below shows the rounds.

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Click here to see this image larger: larger image

Note that after the fourth seat is allocated to the Conservatives, their vote total is reduced again. This time, you divide the initial total (479,037) by the number of seats (2) plus 1. So 479,037 / (2 + 1) = 159,679.

In the end, London ended up with 3 Conservative, 2 Labour, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Green and 1 UKIP MEP seats. To assign actual people to these seats, each party had submitted a list of 8 potential MEPs. From the Conservative list, the top 3 names are chosen, from the Labour list the top two, and the top name from the Lib-Dem, Green and UKIP lists are chosen.

That’s how the De Hondt method is used to elect MEPs in the UK.

Posted by GregW 09:37 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

A Year of Building A New Life

Looking back on the last 365 days of living abroad

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One year ago, at some time just after nine in the morning British Summer Time, an immigration officer at Heathrow airport brought his stamp down upon my UK Entry Clearance. He passed me back my passport and said, “Welcome to the United Kingdom.”

I walked out of Heathrow airport with an idea of where I wanted to get to, a blueprint for my new life in London. I also had an idea of how that was going to happen, a plan for the “when” and “what” and “how” I was going to get to that new life. A lot has happened in this past year, and not much of it has gone to that plan I had in my head. I’ve lived in 3 different houses, spent 5 weeks working “abroad” in Phoenix, spent 8 months job hunting, finally found full time employment, and got to know London.

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Finding a job is probably the biggest accomplishment of the last year. When I arrived here in the UK, North America was just entering a recession but the economy still looked pretty good here in the UK. Within just a few months time however, Lehman Brothers was bust, the phrase “credit crunch” had entered the nation’s vocabulary, and the phrase “hiring freeze” became one of the most frequent phrases I heard from potential employers. Finding a job in a sputtering economy is an accomplishment I take some pride in.

More than that, however, finding a job provides a stability and permanence to my move abroad. Prior to having a job, I never really felt like I was “living” in England. I always felt a little more like a tourist, albeit an extended tourist who spent the majority of his time on Monster.com looking for work. This feeling of impermanence led to a few of my more colourful and wild swings of mood, including the night I spent sitting at home watching Wilson from Cast Away floating on the ocean and my foul-mood on visiting Lullingstone Villa.

Now that I am employed, I feel a lot more like this is home and I am actually living here. I feel like a productive member of English society, like I am giving something to my newly adopted country, and of course getting something deeper than just a tourist’s experience in return.

After failing to visit Lullingstone Villa, I wandered around and eventually my mood improved, mostly because of a change of outlook. I wrote about how that day reminded me that moving here was a fresh start, a “greenfield development.” While I cited my knowledge of the term from IT development, the term greenfield comes from the construction industry originally, to indicate a development on a fresh plot of land never built on before.

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To stretch that greenfield metaphor a little more, I now feel like I am past the planning stage. I had a blueprint in my head walking out of Heathrow, one I have had to revise them a few more times than I would have liked, but now those plans feel a lot more complete. I’ve started to implement that blueprint, slower than I might have hoped, but things are starting to progress now. I’m no longer looking out over a greenfield. We’ve started building, and I’m looking a foundation taking shape.

My blueprint is now coming to life.

Posted by GregW 09:55 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (2)

The Battle of European Supremacy Part I

Would it be true for Iceland, the night for Spain, the UK's time, Greece's night or would it be a fairytale for Norway?

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While I am still having some trouble with mastering the English language as spoken by those who invented it, I am starting to feel more "European" than I previous did. In fact, last night - a Saturday night - I stayed in and watched on TV an important night of political unity for the continent.

Imagine that it is the late 1950s, and Western Europe continues to try and rebuild from the second world war, while being rent apart due to the growing threat from the Communist bloc. You, one of the political masters of Europe, think to yourself, "what can we do to bring together this continent in peace and love?" That is where the idea was born.

That last paragraph exists solely to give some gravitas to what I am about to announce. I stayed in on the partiest night of the weekend to watch a pop-song singing contest.

Eurovision!

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Picture from the Times of the entrants from Romania, Greece and the UK

Eurovision is a national song contest that has been held every year since 1956 among the countries that are participants in the European Broadcasting Union. The 2009 contest featured a total of 42 countries. Each country presents one song and one artist to sing it. The populations of the EBU countries then get to vote which song they liked the best, though they are unable to vote for their own song. There are two semi-finals to whittle the entrants down to 25, and then they have a final, which is broadcast on TV.

This years contest was held in Moscow, Russia. The winner of the previous year's contest gets to host, and Russia had won last year with a song called "Believe." The former Soviet bloc countries have tended to do well of late, mostly blamed on "political voting blocs," where all the countries of the former Soviet empire all vote for each other. The scandal was enough to have the former UK host of the show, Terry Wogan quit in disgust and made the EBU scramble to change the voting this year to include a professionally judge component.

The contest has over the years attracted some big names, and is most famous for launching the career of a little group from Sweden called ABBA, who won the contest in 1974 with Waterloo. Less well known is the fact that Celine Dion, Canadian song bird somehow managed to win the contest in 1988, despite, you know, not being European and all.

As the countries are vying for popular votes, the songs tend to be pretty middle-of-the-road catchy pop songs, and to attract votes the presentation of the songs are usually very over the top. It is high camp, to be sure, and I found myself laughing out loud at the cheesy Euro-pop songs and singers at many points. But it is also good fun, and some of the songs are real toe-tappers.

The UK, after years of humiliating defeats pulled out the big guns this year, getting Diane Warren and Andrew Lloyd Webber to pen a song for reality TV show winner Jade Ewen. The song, called "It's My Time" was pretty standard Andrew Lloyd Webber fare, and if you are a fan of his, you probably would like the song. Personally, I thought it crap.

I was more impressed with Greece's entry from Ricky-Martin-She-Bangs-Alike Sakis Rouvas, who sung a song entitled "This is Our Night." It wasn't, though. Greece wound up in 7th. Many of the songs included statements about it being their night or our time or such. Wishful thinking for most of them.

The stage show highlights of the night came from two countries. Albania's entry from 17 year old Albania Idol winner Kejsi Tola entitled "Carry Me in Your Dreams" included dancing Oompa-Loompas on stage with giant smiles and a man dressed as a green disco mirror ball. It was truly a frightening scene. And Ukraine's Svetlana Loboda sang her song "Be My Valentine! (Anti-Crisis Girl)" with the help of Roman centurions dressed in sequins. The Ukraine song was kind of catchy, and was the only one that included a drum solo by the singer, so points for that.

The winner was Norway, with a mind-numbingly catchy song sung by a little pixie-faced boy with a fiddle named Alexander Rybak. The song, entitled "Fairytale" was the run away winner. It finished with the highest total ever - 387 points - and the highest margin of victory - 169 points ahead of its nearest competitor (the Taylor Swift like Yohanna from Iceland with "Is it True?" Yes, it's true, your country is bankrupt and you lost Eurovision! Double whammy.).

So, round one to Norway. There are still two more big contests for European Supremacy to come over the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

Posted by GregW 02:06 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

Verbally Pants

Trying to speak like a British person is harder than I thought.

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I figured coming to London would be a safe bet, language-wise. As I think I’ve stated before, all things being equal, I probably would have preferred to live in Paris over London, but the ease of getting a Visa for the United Kingdom married with the fact that I DO speak English and DON’T speak French made London seem like the logical choice.

After all, they speak the same language as me, right?

Well, kind of.

Sometimes the accents are really hard to understand, and I’ve already mentioned that Brits seem to have a tendency to clip the last sounds off words, in the words of the Polish bartender I was speaking with, “swallowing their words."

Beyond that, though, I’ve had to learn a whole new vocabulary since I’ve arrived here. In North America, I lived in an apartment with an elevator. In my parking garage was my car, with an engine under the hood and a snow scrapper in the trunk. When the trash can was full, I’d take out the trash. I used to take the subway to work.

Now, I live in a flat. Unlike my place in Toronto, it has no lift, so I have to walk up the stairs. Cars here have boots for luggage and bonnets cover the engine. When I am done with something, I bin my rubbish, before heading off to work on the tube.

Things that used to be singular in North America are plural here. Kids in North America learn math, here they learn maths. Conversely, here in London people eat five servings a day of fruit and veg, as opposed to the 5 servings of fruits and vegetables they eat in North America.

Truthfully, it felt a little weird at the beginning, calling my apartment a “flat,” my trash “rubbish,” asking people to open their trunks by calling them a “boot” and catching the “tube” instead of the subway.

After a while, though, I got used to it. Repeat something enough, and it starts to become second nature. Plus, most of my new vocabulary was just that, NEW vocabulary. They were words that had no particular relevance to the words they were replacing. The words may have had other meanings, for example in North America I used lift as a verb, now I use it as a noun as well, or flat was an adjective used to describe pancakes, now it is as used to describe the box I live in.

One switch I have really struggled with, though.

Look at this picture.

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Which one are the pants?

If you said the denims, you are probably one of my North American friends. If you pointed to the boxer shorts and said, “those are the pants,” then you are from over this side of the pond.

I have not been able to make the switch to calling my underwear my pants, and my long, leg related clothing as jeans or trousers.

This can led to some embarrassing turns of phrase from me, if I say stuff like...

“Before we go out I want to change my pants.”

“I don’t think these pants are clean, they smell funny.”

“I have a big brown mark on my pants. I think it’s from when I was rolling around in the park earlier.”

For my North American friends, the translation as the Brits would hear those phrases.

“Before we go out I want to change my underwear.”

“I don’t think this underwear is clean, it smells funny.”

“I have a big brown mark on my underwear. I think it’s from when I was rolling around in the park earlier.”

Damn you, pants!

Posted by GregW 03:03 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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