Year One in the UK
One year ago today I moved from my comfortable life in Cincinnati, Ohio to a suburb of London called Reading, UK. While I had no illusions that moving myself, my wife and 2 of our 3 kids to England would be easy I have been surprised to find what has been difficult. There have been many lessons learned over the past year both from a professional and personal level. I’d like to take a moment to write about some of the differences, challenges, and entertainingly fun things about England.
IT business is the same here as it is in the USA. A geek is a geek worldwide and the Star Wars action figures on guys desk is a universal symbol of geekary. In all seriousness, most businesses are trying to accomplish the same things: efficiency, growth, market dominance or niche, etc. IT serves a function to help enable said business reach their goals regardless of location.
The main differences I see in Europe vs. America are based upon employment laws and local protection of data and business laws. Employment laws differ state to state in the USA, but IT staff generally are considered specialists and therefore exempt (http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/fairpay/fs17g_salary.htm), and fairly easy to hire/fire. In most countries in Europe once you hire someone, they can be with you until they retire. Consequently, many mid-sized to enterprise sized customers in America have a much larger percentage of employees to contractors then do European companies. In Europe most companies tend to buy IT services which have full management, versus having internal staff manage b/c of the cost of employment and lack of ability to downsize without paying out huge redundancy payments. This difference in employment law tends to drive European customers into a Managed Service model rather than an Unmanaged gear or consumption model. This benefits System Integrators, Outsourcers, and Managed Providers vs. the old guard of selling Tin.
Local protection laws and data regulatory laws also affect Europe. American’s tend to think of the EU as a cohesive regulatory unit. Well…that is not true. France and Germany for example have very tight data protection laws (Safe Harbor) which do not allow lots of data to leave their border. They also have laws which allow data to cross border but must stay in the EU. Most companies are not exactly sure what data is what, so they take a very precautionary view on data and want to keep it close. Some would use the PRISM controversy to also keep American businesses out (regardless if their countries are doing the same thing). They also use these laws to prop up small local businesses competing in Cloud, Managed Services and System Integration.
Another set of issues are upcoming referendums in England, and Scotland. England has an upcoming referendum to leave the EU. Scotland has a referendum to leave the UK. If I am a business in the UK and I have considered moving my data to Datacenters or Clouds outside of the UK, I may be looking to keep them here instead. Scottish companies have the same decision. Of course other European countries are outside of the EU (Switzerland, Sweden, among others).
Many companies tailor their marketing and products to regions and countries specifically. An example would be Nestle. I had the opportunity to see how many different ways they market NESQUIK globally and it was astounding. IT tends to think of itself as a global product, but in many ways regionalization can help win market to market.
You will have to have a contract and a business entity in each country. Each company will ask you for some standard exchange rate from dollars, to Euros, to Swiss Francs, etc (hopefully adoption of P2P currency should help eventually). If you have team members in the USA, be prepared to scold them for not putting a +1 in front of their contact cards and not having a European dial in for conference calls.
Family life and adjusting:
Many expats send their kids to American or International schools. Whether good or bad, we decided “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So our kids are in English schools. Besides the obvious differences in dialect and structure, we were surprised to find enrolment as a huge issue. You cannot register for a school until you have an address. Well, you cannot evaluate whether the local schools are good or not until you move. This is completely backwards from the US where you tend to move where the good schools are and you get in…here you must hope you get in otherwise you drive your kid potentially far. The secondary school our 17 year old attends is amazingly good, we are lucky he can bike there.
Religious schools are funded by the State, so your local Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or CoE school is essentially getting vouchers (they call it locally assisted). So in this respect, England has school choice where most of the USA does not. You don’t get taxed for schools your kids don’t use and still pay tuition.
There are tons of things to do with the family. Loads of castles, historic sites, cultural things to see and do. Buy an English Heritage pass, Royal Palace pass, and a Merlin pass. The English Heritage pass gets you into Stonehenge and loads of other cool sites. Royal Palace pass gets you into the Tower of London, Hampton court, etc. The Merlin pass gets you onto the London Eye, London Dungeon, Legoland, Warwick Castle (awesome) among other attractions. Spend a lot of time in London, it’s a cool city with loads of things to do and see and much of it is free including museums and parking on Sunday.
American’s have 1 year to take a driver’s test, but can drive with the wheel on the opposite side during that year with no training. Canadians can simply turn in their license in exchange for a UK license. Guess that is the benefit of not winning 2 wars against England…
Everyone belongs to a gym, plays some kind of sport, and/or are trying to be certified for some activity or sport. They are very keen on Levels… Learn to sail. Sailing clubs are everywhere and cheap! When the sun is shining (or its not raining), go outside as you don’t know how many days you have with sun.
My family is everything. I always felt like we were close before the move, but there is nothing like adversity to bring you together as a unit. My wife and kids have been wonderful, strong individuals and have shown tremendous personal growth. I can’t thank them enough for going along with this crazy idea.
Everyday dealing with customer service:
There isn’t any! You will quickly get used to hearing the saying “It’s not possible, I’m afraid,” and “No there is no manager.” When you find good customer service here, you will essentially always go to that shop because it’s the exception. Everything has a fee attached from changing your address at the post office, to changing addresses with insurance, to parking at the grocery store.
People are friendly and inquisitive into why in the world you moved to England. They continually put down the weather even though it’s consistently moderate and fine.
Banking is possibly the worst run set of intuitions in England where no one wants to help you the minute you give them your money. The credit system is not linked in any way to the US, so you will feel like it’s your first year of college again. You have no credit, you have no age to your place of residence, and you have no history…therefore having your employers backing to get started is essential.
If you rent your house, the landlord has all the rights. You will be screwed if they want you to move and your deposit will not be returned. My previously landlord is an asshole and the management company lied to us and there is nothing we can do about it. Thank you Davis Tate for screwing us out of £800 plus the expense of 2 moves.
Wanted to hit this again as people frequently ask me how it was to switch sides of the road and sides of the car.
- I have driven a manual since I was 16, so this was a concern for me. Well, luckily the brake, accelerator and clutch are all placed the same in the States. The stick is easy to adjust to with your left hand. This took really a good week to get adjusted to. I am thankful my feet didn’t need to learn anything new.
- Driving on the left is really an adjustment that takes a good month. You mentally have to think about it a lot, but eventually it becomes normal. Although you will hit curbs for the first month b/c the site lines are different.
- The roads are typically 15 feet wide instead of 20 feet in the US. The size of the road is a bit scary.
- Motorcyclists and cyclists pass you on both sides, and weave between the cars in between lanes. If there is a wreck even if they ran into you…it’s your fault.
- I am sure roundabouts are the reason the British Empire no longer exists. Once introduced everyone decided to get out (ha). Supposedly they make traffic flow better but I think all they do is wear out your brakes, clutch and cause you to use more fuel by continually changing speeds. They are even in the highways…odd.
- If you drive into Europe, it’s really odd to have a right hand drive vehicle on a right hand drive road. Your blind spots are everywhere.
- Get ready to be taken advantage of by insurance companies. I haven’t had a wreck since I was 19, but I am still considered a risky driver b/c now that I finally have a UK driver’s license…I start over.
As a Midwesterner, I am never surprised by the cost of living outside of the Midwest. I had lived in New York on the late 90’s so I expected huge cost differences. While the cost of beef and turkey are astronomical compared to Ohio, the cost of fish, vegetables, lamb and venison is actually less expensive. I am not a prepared food eater, so I can’t comment on this.
Everyone talks about how bad the food is in England but we tend to find it’s very similar to food in the USA. There are lots of good restaurants and the pub food is typically very good.
By the way fries are chips, crisps are chips, biscuits are cookies, cookies are cake, and tea is actually some form of meal. Coffee is terrible as for some reason…instant is all that exists.
The beer in England is considerably better tasting (even luke warm), but the alcohol %age is much lower. The wine is all from continental Europe and priced wonderfully. California and South American wines are expensive…so pick one from Spain, France or Italy that would be $50 in the US, but £8 here.
Tips for you other brave fools:
- Assume your VISA will take a longer time than you expect to get through, especially if you have Step-Children.
- Negotiate that your company buys your car(s) and pays insurance. Buying insurance and getting credit is a huge pain. Most companies pay a car allowance, but if you can’t buy a car…
- Negotiate that your company buys your cell phones for the family. Again, you don’t have credit.
- If you want to have your kids in International/American school, get this done by the company too. They are expensive but easier to get into than dealing with the local authority, and the schools are a crap shoot.
- Take pictures (lots of them) of the property you are renting the day you move in.
- Pack light! Do not bring all of your stuff, the residences here are small or choppy. For some reason they like lots of rooms, vs an open floor plan, so nothing will fit. That plush couch you love will need to stay at home.
- Your electronics will fail and regional controls make them useless. Your DVD/TV etc will die and when you replace them your media is pretty much useless. Digitize and watch that way. PS3 games are fine, but Wii and XBOX are reginalized.
- Audit any electronics you bring for voltage, amps, and Hertz. You will invest in lots of convertors. You will be surprised by how many accept 120 or 240volts, just adapt the plugs.
- Buy a bike here, and start walking now. Learn to take public transport. Parking costs are everywhere.
Would I do it again, and do I want to go home
This is easy. Yes, I’d do it again. And I don’t get a choice; England kicks me out in 3 years if I don’t apply for a VISA extension and 5 years no matter what. I perhaps would move farther away from work than I did and live in a smaller village. I definitely wish I had known the area better and found a reputable rental/relocation company (Cartus was of no help at all). All in all the experience is something that will benefit the entire family long-term.
We have made good friends here, and the number of other transient non-Englanders is astounding. There are people from Ireland, India, Pakistan, Bulgaria, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, the Caribbean, Croatia, Germany, etc that live here and call it home. America calls itself a melting pot, the London area is too.
Do I miss home? Yes, I miss extended family, friends, and how much easier it was at home, but after a year it has started to feel like home. Every day we miss our son back in the States and worry about him potentially entering the military but are proud of his decision. At the end of the day, home is where my family is, and we have been here…in England exactly 1 year.